Sunday, January 31, 2010

Slowing down

"Be conscious of your breath, follow its journey into your body as you breathe in the air through the nostrils, down the throat into the lungs and deep into your belly. Your belly rises with each inhale and falls with each exhale. Ride the waves of your breath."

I coached the ladies laying on their yoga mats to be aware of their breath. Some women were in their late forties like me, many trying yoga for the first time. Two sisters, young women in their late teens, had brought their mother to the workshop with them "because she needs to relax" they said. The poster advertising this free Sunday morning workshop entitled "Yoga for Busy Women", showed a picture of a frazzled woman multi-tasking aspiring to be a calmer woman sitting quietly and meditating. The workshop description read as follows:

If you have always wanted to try yoga but didn’t know where to start, this class is for you. Join us for a beginner yoga class that celebrates diversity: all ages and fitness levels. Learn basic postures and breathing exercises that will help you regain balance and a sense of calm in your busy life.

When I pitched the idea to Chris, the Fitness Coordinator at a local Recreational Activity Centre way back in August, he was intrigued with my approach.

I said "I know many women who would like to try yoga but don't sign up for a class because they believe that if you don't look like Lady Gaga in spandex and can't contort your body into a pretzel shape like Rodney Yee, you are not meant to do yoga. Plus, there is the guilt factor that prevents these women from coming to class. They don't get around to signing up for classes because they put everybody else in their family first and find it difficult justifying taking an hour or two away from home for themselves. And it is a real shame because they are the type of women that would benefit most from yoga."

(Can you tell that I am pretty passionate about this? As the saying goes, "you teach what you need to learn". I am definitely a Type A personality, a woman who runs around multi-tasking with a perpetual "To Do" list. I did not know the meaning of slowing down until a few years ago when my body just gave up and forced me take a long hard look at myself. I had to stop and take stock of the impact that my life choices were having on my health: physical, mental and spiritual. I decided to change my ways, slowly but surely. I still have lots to learn though...)

"So if they haven't been coming to our yoga classes so far, how are we going to recruit them now?" Chris asked.

"What if instead of putting the emphasis on fitness by teaching a long list of challenging postures, we put the emphasis on how to apply what yoga teaches us in our every day life? I could teach participants easy basic postures they can do while sitting at their desk at the office, or while standing in the kitchen in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of home life or just before bed as a way to decompress. The emphasis would be on the breath and on the body awareness - our core and our centres of energy. The class could be part yoga practice and part support group. We could build on women's need to be part of a community by opening up each class with a cup of green tea and a casual dialogue. We could create a safe place for women to chat and learn from each other. They could share their tips and tricks and not feel so alone when dealing with all the craziness around them."

"That might just work you know" said Chris. "I am game to try it out if you are. Let's start with a free class as a pilot to gauge interest and we'll take it from there."

"If you build it, they will come" Kevin Costner's character said in the movie "Field of Dreams". That is what we did. We chose a date, put up the posters, and made the offer. "Busy women, give yourself some "me" time to get acquainted with your body and learn ways to take care of yourself."

And the women came. We had a full class and they loved it. After class, they marched to the Customer Service Desk and asked that this class be part of the regular offering of classes at the centre. I do hope that management will head to their requests. Busy women need a time and place where they can just "be" with themselves in the here and now.

Wouldn't it be cool if we started a bit of a new trend in fitness centres...classes for the body, mind and spirit of participants.

What do you do to recharge your batteries?

Do you permit yourself to pause and listen to your body.

Do you practice staying still long enough to quieten the constant babbling of your mind?

Do you check in with your spirit from time to time to become conscious of your state of being? Are you happy and content? Or are you sad and uneasy?

What does your soul have to say? What is your purpose and are you aligned to it?

What are ways that you can slow down the frenzied pace of your life this week?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

You gotta think INSIDE the box

I had so much fun yesterday co-leading a workshop with my friend Rob Nickerson, “Mr. Improv Extraordinaire” for a group of corporate folks in Montreal. “You gotta think inside the box” Rob Nickerson said to the crowd. “Huh? That is not how it goes. I always thought it was the other way around, you gotta think outside the box”

Not so, according to Rob Nickerson. After 26 years as an improviser, actor, writer & director, Rob brings a unique perspective and skill set to the corporate world.

“If you truly want to be creative, you need to work within the restrictions of your corporate environment.” You need to succeed by finding creative ways of working within the limitations such as the pursuit of profitability, conflicting priorities, rules and regulations, and deadlines to name just a few.

“How many of you have seen the movie Apollo 13?” Rob asked the crowd? Half the hands go up. “Do you remember the scene where the crew is in danger because they have been up there too long and there are creating too much carbon dioxide in the capsule? They need to find a way to filter the carbon dioxide to stay alive. Back on earth, a group of scientists are assembled around a table. A guy comes in with a big cardboard box filled with hoses, computer parts, tape, etc. and he dumps the contents of the box onto the table. He says to the scientists “These are materials that are available in the capsule. We need to come up with a way to solve this problem with what is on this table.” They needed to find a solution within the “box”.

What is the link with improvisation you might say. Improvisers excel at solving problems with limited, restrictive resources. Improvisers are creative thinkers. They are nimble, and quick on their feet. They collaborate with their teammates to take advantage of the combined brain power to find novel solutions. They listen differently, with their whole being, to have access to new knowledge. Improvisers can see the big picture. They see how things that at first appear unrelated, actually can be re-assembled to yield new possibilities.

One of the critical skills of an improviser is the ability to do “whole listening.” Rob describes “whole listening” as a “heightened state of awareness that allows you to recognize and process as much information as possible in the moment so that you may make the best decision for this moment at this moment.” During a storytelling exercise where small groups of people are asked to co-create a story by each taking a turn to say just one word, Rob kept reminding folks to lean in towards each other and make eye contact. “Listen with your whole body. Use all of your senses. Get your ego out of the way. You are too worried about what others might think about you and that prevents you from truly connecting with your teammates on the task at hand.”

Another crucial quality of improvisers is their willingness to “take care of their partner”.It is all about trust really. When I develop and nurture strong relationships with my partners, I can let go of my fears and trust that we will carry each other when the time comes. We have each other’s “back”. One person’s strength compensates for another’s weakness and vice versa. As a team, we have access to more ideas, more experience, more courage than if we were just by ourselves.

One participant said “At first, I was sitting back, feeling uncomfortable. I was worried about doing this “right”. I was feeling awkward. But then I just decided to let go and have a bit of fun. That made a huge difference in the way I experienced the exercise. I got out of my own way and my teammates gained a more enthusiastic and motivated partner."

If you need just one good reason to hone your improvisational skills, I would say it is to enhance your capacity to deal with change. Rather than fighting change, you dance with it. As an improviser, we become more nimble and adaptable to what life throws our way because we know that ultimately, the solution is within us. Change is just another opportunity to get our creative juices flowing. As Rob says, “creativity is just a matter of getting our mind out of the way so that our brain can do what it is meant to do, generate brilliant ideas!”

In summary, Rob Nickerson teaches us that there improvisers have a set of basic skills that can help us be more successful in life. They are:

  • Taking care of your partner
  • Thinking on your feet
  • Leveraging change
  • Whole listening
  • Working inside the box
  • The power of collaboration

What do you think? Would you like to sign up for a workshop on improvisation?

In which area of your life would improvisation be the most useful right now? At work? At home? At play?

Which improv skill are you the most comfortable with? And which improv skill would you like to develop further?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What makes you happy?

I was driving back home after spending a couple of hours at my in-laws doing groceries, making them lunch and doing a bit of cleaning up. My mother-in-law had her chemo treatment number four on Friday (just two more to go) and she is not feeling very well. The radio was on and the Nickelback song If Today Was Your Last Day was playing. Usually, I'd think "this is a pretty sappy song" but today, for some reason, I paid attention to the lyrics and I had an unexpected reaction. Here is the refrain.

If today was your last day
And tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday?
Would you live each moment like your last?
Leave old pictures in the past
Donate every dime you have?
If today was your last day...

I thought, “if today was my last day I would be content.” I did some of my very favourite things today. I started my day off with a one hour class of yoga, then went out for some green tea and had a heart to heart talk with one of my good friends. I got a call from my husband who is at an “away” this weekend at a Ringette tournament with my youngest daughter to tell me that she had scored her first goal of the season and her team was advancing to the finals. My daughter loves Ringette and my husband anything to do with ice rinks, strategic plays and friendly competition (whether its Ringette or, his favourite, hockey). I knew they were both happy right now. My eldest daughter is dating a new boyfriend and she is floating on air these days. She actually said “I love you back” when I said I loved her.

And I did a good deed. My mother-in-law was so appreciative that I came over to help her out for a few hours. I left their house feeling really good.That is when I heard the song... If Today Was Your Last Day. I felt like all was right in my little world.

What a great feeling! I don’t have that feeling very often because I tend to look at what is missing rather than what is right. That is just my personality. Over the last two years I have been working hard at changing my attitude. Today’s “eureka” moment was a proof that my efforts are paying off. I would just not have experienced that feeling of contentment a few years ago.

Have you seen the movie Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere? In a nutshell, Julia Roberts' character Maggie, loves to be engaged but gets cold feet the day of the wedding. She has ran away from the alter four times. Richard Gere's character, Ike, is a reporter who is intrigued by this Runaway Bride and decides to write a story about her. He spends time in the little town where she lives, gets to know her and her "exes". Eventually they fall in love, get engaged, and yes, at the last minute, she runs away...again. There is a scene in the movie that struck me. Ike tells Maggie that with every one of her ex-fiancés, she morphed into a different person to please them. One fiancé tells Ike that Maggie likes her eggs over-easy. He remembers that about her because that is how he likes them. The second fiancé says that Maggie prefers her eggs poached, the third says she likes Eggs Benedict and the fourth say she likes her eggs scrambled. Ike`s point is that Maggie does not even know what she likes. After her broken engagement with Ike, Maggie spends time figuring out who she is. There is a scene where she tastes all the eggs dishes. She discovers that she likes Eggs Benedict but not any other kind.

So why am I telling you this story you wonder? In order to change my attitude towards life, I had to start with the basics. I was a lot like Maggie in the Runaway Bride movie. I was a master chameleon trying to please everyone. I could easily rime off a whole list of things that made my mother happy, my sisters happy, my husband happy, my kids happy and my boss happy...but I did not really know what made me happy. I had forgotten along the way. Realizing this, I decided one day to make a list of the things that made me happy. It took me a while, but I managed to identify quite a few things that brought joy to my life. That day, I made a decision to start choosing to include these joyful things more often in my life. What makes me happy are small things like a vase of fresh flowers or a walk in nature. Over time, as I built up my happiness muscles, I started to dream a bit bigger. I signed up for acting classes and did community theatre. I got trained as a yoga instructor. And, more recently, I left my government job to start my own consulting business.

Consciously choosing to include in your life things that make you happy is an act of self-love. The trick is to have a healthy balance of self-love with love for others. Maybe that is why I would be content if today was my last day. Today I had a healthy balance of things that made me happy and things that made others happy (and by the way, sometimes they are one and the same...)

My challenge to you this week is to write your own list of what makes you happy. I have a second challenge as well if you are up for it: choose to do at least one thing that makes you happy every day.

Let me know how that goes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lessons Learned

Do you write New Year's resolutions? Do you find that your resolutions are similar from year to year? I think that "losing weight" has been on my list for the last 25 years! I keep gaining and losing the same ten pounds every year...

A few years ago I decided to try something different. Instead of writing my resolutions for the year, I reflected back on the year that had passed and wrote down the lessons I had learned. I found that exercise to be very revealing.

Here are the top five lessons I have learned in the course of the year:

1. Inter-generational communication enriches the workplace and our communities.

Our population is aging. The baby boomers are retiring in record numbers. As they leave, we lose their corporate knowledge.

The Generation X and Y are joining the workforce. They have an innate ability to use technology to connect and to learn and teach.

The older generation and the younger generation have something to learn from each other if only they took the time to listen with an open mind and open heart.

This also applies to children (even adult age children) and their parents, grandchildren and their grandparents. I will keep fond memories from are a few road trips I took with my parents and my daughters this year where I learned some fascinating facts about my family history. My children taught a few things to their grandparents too for example they were surprised to find out that talking on the phone is passé because with MSN you can chat with half a dozen friends all at the same time while listening to music and doing homework.

2. Everyone has a story to tell and a lesson to teach.

I have met some fascinating people this year.

I recall a conversation I had with an older gentleman in a hotel in Fredericton (New Brunswick) who shared with me his career path in the public service and taught me a few things about perseverance and standing for what you believe in.

I remember a privileged moment I spent with a makeup artist at a drug store. She shared her story about her husband’s mental illness and her bout with breast cancer. She told me to stay strong and believe things would be OK. There we were, two strangers crying and hugging each other in the middle of a busy store connecting with each other’s pain.

I had an encounter with a salesperson in a store just last week. I don’t know why but somehow our polite conversation about the New Year turned into an emotional realization that life is precious. She had been in a very serious car accident just after Christmas. The car was totalled but she walked away without a scratch. The emergency personnel told her that she could have easily died in that type of accident. I asked her “Why do you think you were spared?” She admitted that that question had been haunting her ever since and that she felt it was time that she made big changes in her life. We exchanged business cards. I will reconnect with her. She has something to teach me.

3. “Emotion” is still a bad word in the workplace but without it, the humanity is missing...

A Director General approached me this week after we discussed some delicate situations in his work team and said “You are emotional when you talk about injustice in the workplace.” I did not know how to take his comment. I think he meant it as a constructive feedback, a warning maybe. If you show emotions, you won’t be taken as seriously. Let’s put this into perspective. I did not scream or elevate my voice. I did not use any inappropriate words. I did not cry or squirm. I did speak with conviction and dare I say it... passion.

I don’t know how to not show emotion when we talk about something that causes people pain and suffering in the workplace. Honestly, I don’t think I even want to learn how to be less emotional.

People say that my face is an open book. They can tell what I think and feel all the time (I guess that is why I am told I am a good actress – the feelings show through my body language)

I can’t hide what is in my heart. It is just not me. And I don’t see the need to hide my emotions unless I wanted to become a good poker player maybe...

4. When you ask for help, people are gracious.

As I was starting off my new consulting business last year, I met with some colleagues who had been operating their own business for years. They graciously shared with me what they have learned along the way. The things they wish they had done differently. The things that helped them become successful. The things they still want to achieve.

Even though we are all competitors for the same clients and contracts, my friends and colleagues took the time to teach me the ropes and give me pointers to help me succeed as well. They did it to be kind and supportive. They did because they cared about me. If you look at the world as a place of abundance rather than a place of scarcity, you believe that there is more than enough to go around so there is no reason not to share what you have with others. In fact, I believe that what you give away will come back to you at some point.

Thank you Tony, Paul, Susan, Guy, Julie, Daniel and John for your help and guidance.

5. If you are aligned with your purpose, things come to you easily

When I made up my mind to leave my government job to start my own business last September, I felt so at peace even though the circumstances were less than ideal.

The economic crisis was making headlines. I still had two kids in school and in braces. I had no contracts lined up. Colleagues thought I was nuts to leave such a good paying job and a golden pension plan to jump into the unknown. Maybe I was. I just had dreams and a lot of resolve. Somehow, starting my business felt like the right thing to do. I said to my husband and close friends that I could not, not do it. Not doing it would be like denying part of who I am.

Magically, everything fell into place. I surpassed my own hopeful goals. The phone started ringing the first day and never stopped ringing since.

Everyone who knows me will tell you that I am the anxious type. I have a vivid imagination and unfortunately this means that I am also good at “awfullizing” the future. I can easily come up with at least a dozen scenarios of how things can go wrong but oddly enough, I never went into that dark head space with regards to this new business venture. The storm can storm but I stay centered. I have this profound sense of calm because I know that I am doing exactly what I am meant to do.

As they say, “do what you love and the rest will follow.” In my case, that is certainly true. I am happy and content. Great way to start a new decade wouldn’t you say?

What are the lessons you learned in the last year?

How will that have an impact on the choices you make in 2010?

What is the one thing you could do differently this year that would make a significant contribution to your sense of well-being and happiness in the next month?

What is the first step you can take to make it happen?

When will you start?

Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

All we really want is to belong...

We had a very quiet New Year's Eve this year. My eldest daughter had her first New Year's Eve party away from the family and was thrilled to spend this momentous occasion surrounded by her friends.

My husband was busy watching Team Canada playing against the US on the TV in the basement (Some of us non-hockey fans resent having to compete with big sports events for the attention of our loved ones on New Year's Eve ... why do they schedule those games then?)

Since I was going to spend the evening at home with my thirteen year old daughter, I picked up the first two discs of the TV show Glee. I had heard all sorts of rave reviews about the show and was intrigued that the first two CD's they released were selling out at music stores.

I relate to shows about artsy geeks because I was a geek in high school (and still am ...). My daughter also relates to the characters on Glee. I don't think she ever got a Slushee thrown at her face but close ... Like those TV show characters, she stuck out like a sore thumb at her old school. Some "friends" (and I use the term loosely) only saw her off hours off school property because it would have been bad for their image to hang out with her at school. She was miserable.

My daughter has always struggled with friendships at school. When she moved on to high school, things got even worse. She spent all her lunch periods eating alone or with her nose stuck in a book at the library escaping reality through fantasy stories about vampires, werewolves and ordinary kids with super powers. My daughter was bullied everyday. She had banana peels thrown at her face, gum stuck to her hair, and yogurt smeared on her locker door. Her lock was broken into several times. She endured constant snickering behind her back and swarming. She came home one day with bloody scratches on her wrist inflicted by a girl in her class who disagreed with her ideas on how to decorate the class for Halloween. Some days I felt like I was sending her to a war zone when I dropped her off at school in the morning. My heart ached. I felt so helpless.

One night in early September last year, my daughter called her father and I into her bedroom. She was crying and pleaded with us to let her go to the art school downtown. She didn't think that she could put up with another year of bullying and desperately wanted to start a new chapter in her life. She wanted to go somewhere where no one knew her so she could re-write her story.

Even though the school year had already started my daughter was accepted at the art school (her uncle who is a teacher there put in a good word for her). My daughter loves her new school. They have put her in the gifted program. (For many years I had tried to convince the school administration to include her in the gifted program. Because she scored 5 points less on the Otis Lenon IQ Test than the mark off point for gifted individuals, they would not allow it even though some of her teachers and special education teachers observed that she had the classic behavioural markers of a gifted child. By the way, did you know that being gifted is a risk factor for dropping out of school? Gifted kids do not need to work as hard to succeed so they often rush through tasks without giving it their full attention. They understand quickly so they get bored easily. Many feel like they do not fit in because they do not share the same interests as their peers.)

Many of the kids that attend my daughter's new art school were outliers in the regular school system because of their love for arts or their cultural background. My daughter, who is also an outlier, attends school with a bunch of outliers and for the first time since she has started school, she finally feels like she belongs. In this art school, kids have a safe place to express their individuality. No one blinks an eye if a kid reads poetry in the hallway or plucks at his guitar. Girls wearing huge bows in their hair or guys wearing cowboy hats are accepted and maybe even admired for their unique sense of style. No one is shy to declare their sexual preference. It is widely known who is straight, gay or bisexual. It is no big deal. Being different is "normal" in that school.

At a parent-teacher night the week before Christmas holidays, I was flabbergasted when teacher after teacher told me that my daughter had integrated well with the rest of the students and had great social skills. Since prekindergarten, teachers had told us that our daughter lacked social skills and was not a team player. She was a loner and did not know how to make friends.

But all that changed this year thankfully. All our daughter needed was to be reminded that she was intelligent and had something positive to contribute to the world. She needed a school environment that was inclusive no matter what kids wore, how they talked, or how they scored on tests. A school that does not evaluate a kid's intelligence solely on their ability to solve math problems or spell correctly. A school where other types of intelligence are valued and nurtured. A school that embraced diversity and celebrated differences.

Howard Gardner theorized that there are seven types of intelligence. He viewed intelligence as 'the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting' (Gardner & Hatch, 1989).

Logical/Mathematical: probably the closest to the traditional idea of intelligence, manifested by a facility for science, puzzles, and math, estimating and planning.

Linguistic: manifested by the ability to acquire language and fluency in discussion, people with high linguistic intelligence enjoy lively debate, writing letters, books, poetry and verse, and filling out forms.

Spatial: the ability to mentally map or picture the environment, a process, or a concept, spatially intelligent people can easily visualize and manipulate shapes, are highly observant, have a good sense of direction, can easily follow diagrams and assemble furniture or other do-it-yourself projects.

Musical: musically intelligent people not only have the facility for creating, remembering or replaying tunes or the playing an instrument, but can associate those tunes with other facts as a learning or memorization tool.

Body-kinesthetic: those with high kinesthetic intelligence are well-coordinated, work well with their hands, and are high-energy on-the-go people who learn through example and hands-on experience (trial and error); physically imitation. Associated professions would be as diverse as athletes, typists, carpenters, craftspersons, and dancers.

Interpersonal: the facility for understanding and cooperating other people, to notice and appreciate what affects others; sensitivity. They are good listeners and group leaders and participants; social butterflies; nurturers. Highly interpersonally intelligent people make excellent teachers, nurses, salespersons, politicians, and diplomats.

Intrapersonal: the facility for looking within oneself, of understanding one's own emotions and motivations. Highly intrapersonally intelligent people do not make quick, rash decisions and often enjoy solitary pursuits and hobbies. They often keep a journal and diary.

The Eighth Intelligence: Intuitive: Many people now believe that para-psychological abilities including intuition, clairvoyance, or feeling matters beyond our physical experience should constitute a separate form of intelligence, but such matters are certainly subject to significant debate.

In the regular school system, it is only those of us with photographic memory, an innate ability to solve logical puzzles or to regurgitate the teacher's notes word for word in a test that succeed brilliantly. The others just plod along hanging on to B's or C's, maybe even scoring an "A" here and there in subjects that tap into their particular interests and skills. The types of intelligence that are measured in a traditional school system are the logistical /mathematical and linguistic intelligences. How do we validate and reward the kids who have spatial or inter-personal intelligence in our school system? How do we encourage the kids who have spatial or intra-personal intelligence within the existing school curriculum?

Some of those kids are lucky enough to meet a special teacher who help them uncover their unique types of intelligence. For example, the teacher who noticed that Mary had a talent for sketching and encouraged her to present her portfolio to the local art school. Or the home room teacher who noticed that kids often confided in Paul because he was a good listener and encouraged him to become a peer counsellor. Or the English class teacher that allowed Josh to present his poem in the form of a rap song because he has a great sense of musicality and rhythm.

As for my daughter, teachers complained last year that she doodled during lessons. It was a way for her to deal with her anxiety. Doodling kept her hands busy and helped channel some of her nervous energy. She argued that she actually can listen better to the teacher when she doodles. I believed her. I do the same thing.

This year, her doodling has evolved into drawing Manga characters from Japanese comics. She filled up at least one drawing pad per week with her drawings. She went on Youtube and learned from other Manga artists by watching them sketch and explain their technique. At first, she copied other Manga drawings that she printed off the Internet. Then she started inventing her own characters. As time went by, she was able to render more emotion in the faces she drew. That gave her the courage to try something different. She tried her hand at drawing human faces. Her Christmas presents to her grand-parents, aunts and uncles this year were framed pencil drawings of their heroes: Leonardo da Vinci for my dad, Elvis Presley for my mother-in-law, and Bruce Lee for her godfather (who is also the phys ed teacher at her new school). She has found a place and a way to use her talent for drawing to express herself and create imaginary worlds that she hopes will entertain other teenagers when she publishes her first book ... one day.

You may have your own story about a special teacher or a coach who saw something in you that others did not see. Maybe that teacher saw something in you that you did not even see in yourself? What did he or she do to encourage you to develop that talent. What would be different today if you had not had that teacher believe in you? If you ran into that teacher today what would you say to him or her? How have they changed your life?

Have you been such a teacher in someone else's life? Is there someone in your family or circle of friends right now that is just needing to be noticed and encouraged?