Monthly Archives: September 2009

Look for Passion, Passion, Passion

Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion. Passion is the supreme elixir and renews all things. No one can grow exhausted when passion is born. Don’t sigh heavily your brow bleak with boredom. Look for passion, passion, passion. — Rumi

Our grandfather played eleven different instruments and wrote his high school’s fight song. Yet, somehow musical prowess got wiped from my mother’s offspring. A source of amusement is singing “Happy Birthday” to unsuspecting visitors at family gatherings. Come visit; it’s worth a giggle if you can stand our butchering!

Meanwhile, if you dropped by any of my maternal cousins’ homes it was a different story. All those ancestral musical talents migrated well into their fingers and voices as they each spent hours composing, singing and playing instruments. They created garage bands and followed the Grateful Dead around the Northwest. Two of my cousins from different branches of our family tree actually created a touring duo called “Gene Pool” — was that just to rub it in that they scooped up all the artistic goodies? My cousin Charlie had a tenor voice that could make me cry.

Growing up, I loved to follow them all around and beg these boys to perform. Why? It’s not only because they all played well (i.e. recurring blog theme), but also it was their enduring joy and passion brought to this art form. Their love of music energized not only them, but also me. Passion is contagious.

On Monday, I asked fifteen college freshman honors students the attributes of their best high school teachers. I heard about instructors who were happy to spend hours after class discussing how to improve a paper and about others who welcomed any question, no matter how off base, as a creative opening for conversation. They all described teachers who were passionate about their jobs and curious where their work it might take them. Thomas Friedman wrote in The World is Flat that “CQ + PQ > IQ.” In other words, your curiosity quotient plus your passion quotient will take you farther than a strong intelligence quotient.

Even though I included Benjamin Zander earlier this year, I must add his Ted talk here once more as a reminder how joy can open doors and hearts in unfathomable ways. I can’t help it, Zander’s passion magnetizes me every time:

What makes you come alive?

Where are you contagious…in a good way?

How can you share what you love?

Keeping it Real

I smiled listening to Michael Jordan honor his beloved sister and brothers as some of his valuable opponents when composing last week’s post. I get it; when I wrote The Way of Conflict, I began the introduction by telling the story of how I grew up fighting with my three sisters.

These are three of the dearest people in my life. They are also my walking truth serum. I know within days of exposure, I’ll be required to fess up to what’s working me internally. Over the years, I’ve come to trust their uncanny abilities to make me come clean and have a healthy respect for this power. I love to be with each of them, but know that seeing them always brings some level of reckoning.

For some, old friends might provide a similar experience. They’ve known you too long and you have too much in common to be able to pretend your insecurities or struggles don’t exist. We can tuck them away for most of the world, but there are those souls that keep us honest.

Reading about indigenous cultures I notice that community members are sometimes assigned this truth serum role as a specific job. In the Dagara tribe in Africa you are chosen by the year of your birth to be a community jester or a “nature person.” Nature people are expected to tease you or to give you grief if you are putting on airs. When a nature person shows up at your door, know that you are going to get a work out…it’s their job.

Some Native American traditions explain that this role provides “coyote energy,” seeing this animal as the trickster whose role it is to keep us real. In other traditions it is the ritual clown who makes fun of those trying to pretend that there are above all the messiness of life. Their universal role is to humble us.

Humility means to be “of the earth.” Not less than another, and definitely not higher, but instead that we are all essentially the same. Important souls around the world remind us that as much as we’d like to ignore it, we are human just like everyone else in our community. We all make mistakes, fear death and have physical urges that can control us. We are imperfect and yet valuable in our own right.

I notice that within my sisterhood, we seem to call out behavior that is outside of our best and brightest. My siblings give me grief about eating ice cream out of the container (I know it’s gross), but also none will put up with self-depreciating talk. It’s in that fact that I trust; they see my potential and can get quite peeved when I miss the mark.

Historically we are told this was the role of the court jester. I know how easy it is to delude myself into thinking that my actions make sense and thus appreciate the idea that wise royalty knew that you must have someone checking your work. Too much pride or bravado needs loving critics.

Last weekend I had the rare opportunity to spend time with all three sisters and mom in Yosemite. On Saturday, twice driving back to a cabin we were renting, we saw a cute young coyote cross the road. Rare to see a coyote in Montana in broad daylight, I was impressed to see him in California hanging near the road hours apart. It took until one sister said, “I love each of you, but being all together isn’t always easy,” for me to giggle at the irony. Adding the citings, she was right; there was lots of “coyote energy.” Yet, like after working with a great personal trainer or coach, this week I now have a better sense of who I am, where I stand and what I need to work on. From the nudging and prodding I hope to be better, brighter and more real…and curtail double dipping in the Haagen Daz container.

Thanking Your Opponents

The 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony occurred last Friday. That’s a point to which I wouldn’t have paid much attention — if you ever saw me try to play basketball you’d understand why — except that this year Michael Jordan showed up to model how to play well, this time off the court.

Jordan used many of the playing well techniques of which I have written here throughout his speech, but I have included just the last nine minutes below to highlight the skill of appreciating your enemies.

Jordan began his address by describing how others thankfully threw wood on his internal competitive fire with the challenges they presented. One of his first examples was the high school coach that cut him from the varsity team. He said, “I wanted to make sure you understood: You made a mistake, dude.”

Jordan was clear, it was his adversaries that made him great. He reminds me of the martial artist who in her opening bow when stepping on the mat affirms, “Thank you for being my opponent. I know you have the capacity to hurt or destroy me. Teach me what I need to learn.” I appreciate that with both humor and humanness “MJ” presented that his opponents weren’t usually initially welcomed by him, but over the long haul he understood that they each were essential in his development.

Again, Jordan displays how the game might be played; this time it’s the larger game. He is setting a standard on expressing sincere gratitude and how we might confront our opposition, be it in the form of a loss, an illness, an uncomfortable situation or a difficult person. May we each see our challenges as just good kindling for our internal flames.

fun + purpose = playing well at work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. – Aristotle

Meaning is a form of strength. It has the power to transform experience, to open the most difficult of work to the dimension of joy and even gratitude. Meaning is the language of the soul. – Rachel Naomi Remen

A Montana State University Honors Instructor Lori Lawson and I took 16 college students to the Dominican Republic last May. These young adults had spent a semester considering the characteristics of dire poverty and how it might be solved. They had read about micro finance, volunteerism, and government aid and had formulated opinions on how we might alleviate suffering. Full of ideas, we undertook a two-week service learning trip visiting impoverished communities and NGOs. Although a class on global poverty, my journey became an exploration on how we can “be of use”.

The students observed a meeting where 15 community members had collectively taken out small loans with Esperanza, a DR based micro finance and literacy organization. When it came time to repay part of the loan to Esperanza’s representative, our group realized that two of the members were not present with their payment. By their contract, the remaining 13 were then responsible for the missing members’ payment. Over the next ten minutes there was heightened anxiety and conversation on who might pay extra or go find the missing borrowers. Meanwhile, the students watched. As one young woman Danielle later observed, “That was one of the most uncomfortable parts of our trip. I had the twenty bucks they needed in my pocket, which I could have easily given. I would have been like instant government aid, but would that have been a good idea?” The students wrestled with how when to give as a country, an NGO or as an individual is not necessarily an easy formula.

Later, we painted a row of shacks in another neighborhood for a couple of hours. As we began, the owners’ children all picked up paintbrushes to help. Before long, some of the grown up residents took up paint cans and joined in. Other residents grabbed brooms and machetes to sweep dirt floors and pull down overgrown brush. The street was strikingly different after just two hours as we progressed from dirty shacks to bright yellow, blue, green and rose colored homes absent of trash. Did we make great changes that day? I’m not sure, but it was fun being creative and to see the painted-covered joy on the faces of the little children.

Our students also spent an afternoon working in a small public library tutoring children who, in a country of high illiteracy, may not be able to find help at home. For some, this was their most favorite volunteer activity. I however noticed that I was more interested in fostering the young adult experience than working directly with the local children. To be of use, I was better suited to mentoring the young adults than sitting with the younger set.

We were supposed to spend a day pouring concrete floors for new homes in a batey or sugar plantation community. We were to work with Haitan immigrants who are typically discriminated against and the country’s most destitute. Everyone had packed diligently for this day bringing construction clothes and gloves for the task and were busy that morning discussing the best sun cover and insect repellent. A few administrative errors later it became clear that we would not be able to volunteer in this way. Many of us were extremely disappointed. I was hoping to learn about life in the batey and Haitan culture. Others were looking forward to problem solving and still others to the hard physical activity. One young woman complained that this day was the purpose for her journey. Although we would have to donate time and $1000 to spend a day straining our backs, the lack of this activity was a loss and I noticed how much potential joy could be wrapped up in giving.

I came out of that trip realizing that we gave best when there was a combination of both joy and sense of purpose. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien often says, “Look for what has heart and meaning.” I felt most fulfilled when I was both having fun and being useful to others.

Play expert Dr. Stuart Brown noted that after interviewing Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin and polio researcher Jonas Salk that they were simply playing every day in their laboratories. Brown described Guillemin’s joy “as pure as that of a kid showing off a beautiful shell picked up at the seashore.” Meanwhile, their discoveries have saved countless lives and alleviated suffering. Financial guru Warren Buffett calls the resulting spirit of combining purpose with joy, “tap dancing to work.”

A core principle of the Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, speaks of serving others, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.” Paradoxically, we are then told in the Gita that not only should you work tirelessly, but also not care about the outcome. Hmmm, work really, really hard, but don’t worry about what it yields? Feels like an impossible riddle until I combine service with enjoying the task I am completing.