The Blog

Ever heard of a pre-mortem? My consultant friends tell me they’re increasingly popular in the land of startups. You get together and think of all the possible ways a business might fail…before it starts. Then (you guessed it) you fix those problems before they appear.

Is there a better life hack in all the world?

The older you get, the more you might find yourself -- as I have -- contemplating your eventual demise. It isn’t as morbid as it sounds. It’s one of the most life-affirming things you can do. Our time isn’t infinite, after all.

What will you regret not having done? Start there.

I think some pretty cool gifts are wrapped in pain.

When the life I used to have many years ago began to unravel, I didn’t see that at first. I looked at it as a gift, all right. The kind you open and mutter, “You shouldn’t have.”

There was no map to show me a way through the pain, and eventually I quit fighting it. I let myself hurt for seven months. For seven months I had the luxury of doing almost nothing but grieve, and I learned the only way to feel better sometimes is let yourself feel even worse.

Any four-year-old knows this. Trying telling a toddler to stop crying, that he has no right to be this upset about that thing. Suddenly you have a different problem.

The opposite is magic. If you tell the four-year-old, “That sucks. That really sucks” -- as you scoop him up in your arms to comfort him for as long as he needs it -- watch how quickly the sun comes out. The bad feelings are washing away, corny as what you’re telling him sounds, and making room for the good ones. Maybe that’s why they call it having a good cry.

Whatever. It works.

And did you notice I used a little boy in this scenario? Wouldn’t it be great if we stopped telling boys to suck it up? We might change the world!

What can you mirror?
April 11, 2019

Public WordsWhen Darrell and Katie and I visited Dr. Nick Morgan a couple of years ago he wrapped up the day of coaching with a little present for Kate. He told her one way to shine in job interviews, by mirroring the posture of the people across the desk. Nothing too obvious, of course, or sudden. But it’s a great way to endear yourself. Imitation is indeed a sincere form of flattery.

I’ve found that true in electronic communication. I’m careful to only send three paragraphs to people who sometimes respond with more than one paragraph themselves. Those who send text-length eMails get text-length replies.

On the show or over the phone, the same. I make a point to do less than my fair share of the talking.

In person? I sometimes gush a little. More than my share. I remind myself of little-kid Katie, who silenced an entire hair salon when she had this announcement for the stylist: “I love you.” I don’t walk around telling people (or very many people) I love them. They know it, though. They see my eyes light up as I tell them how much I appreciate them, have learned from them, whatever.

And it’s one reason I take comfort in what the poet Wystan Hugh Auden is quoted as saying: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”

Once upon a time at a big gathering someone suggested three-year-old Katie sit next to a certain four-year-old. Katie knew the four-year-old. She’d made Kate’s life hell for years.

Katie declined the offer and said instead, “I hate her.”

The room fell silent. Everyone looked at Darrell and me, waiting -- we were sure -- for us to admonish Katie.

We did not. We let the comment stand. We didn’t even pull Katie aside later to suggest she find a smoother way of declining an invitation like this next time.

She found plenty, of course, but she did it on her own time and in her own way. Which makes Katie’s grownup sweetness all the sweeter. It was her idea.

Sometimes I think the best words of advice for parents would go something like, “Back off.” Trust a child to know what’s right -- and who’s right -- for her. If there’s a downside, you’ll have to let me know.

Are you forever biting your tongue to keep from biting someone’s head off?

Here’s an idea. When you feel that blood starting to boil, channel your energy into thinking of something nice -- really nice -- you can tell that person and (here’s the rub) mean it.

Come on. You can do it. Now do it. Watch the person’s eyes light up and his shoulders relax. Watch him lean back and bask. Have your moment.

Then have another moment, by yourself, where you congratulate yourself on what just happened.

You’re not at the mercy of your emotions, and no one is only terrible.

Ever noticed that when things go to hell you’re ruing all the decisions you ever made? But when things turn around again, back into the win column they go!

I find those whiplash-inducing episodes oddly reassuring.

No sense living a boring story.

“Pick a number between one and ten,” eight-year-old Katie would ask a pal.

If the pal said “two,” that’s the book Kate chose to take home from the library. Not sure how that related to the Dewey Decimal System, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Katie knew she had a problem. Whenever she went to the library she wanted all the books.

Katie was only in the third grade when she realized that as much as she loved to read, being overwhelmed by the choices was spoiling some of the fun. So she turned the stressfest upside down and made it a game.

When I was that age I was overwhelmed by a lot, too -- but it didn’t occur to me to do something about it.

“Adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up,” the comedian Paula Poundstone once said, “because we’re looking for ideas.”

I want to be more like a little kid. Especially the one I just mentioned!

“Mention ‘power takeoff accident’ to anyone who’s been around a farm very long and the first thing they probably think of is death. At least dismemberment, but probably death. A slow, painful, bone-crushing death.”

Staying the CourseThat’s how one chapter begins in Staying the Course, the memoir I wrote for former marathon champion turned farm accident survivor Dick Beardsley.

So far, so good.

But a bit later in the chapter, as the tension was building -- you know something bad’s going to happen but you don’t know when -- I mention “power takeoff” again. “You have to tell people what that is,” Darrell said when I showed him the first draft. “I can’t,” I countered. “I can’t take a break from the action for a definition.” He looked at me. “You have to,” he said.

This was unusual. Darrell’s suggestions are almost always wrapped in, “But, hey. It’s your call.” Not this time. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Suddenly I realized what I meant when I said, “I can’t.” I meant, “I don’t know how.”

Darrell wasn’t only a journalist and one of my editors. He grew up on a farm. I couldn’t dismiss his suggestion. The fix was relatively easy once I accepted the situation, and I learned something important in the process. If you can shorten the time between realizing “I can’t” means “I don’t know how,” you’ll free up brain space to work the problem.

Pretending there isn’t a problem? That never works.