Yes, Your Mind Can Grow

I want to invite you to take on a new project in your life. It’s challenging, but has big payoffs. It’s weird, but will help you get along with a wider range of people with less stress. It takes effort, but will resolve many problems you are submerged in today.

The project? Grow your mind.

I’m going to wager that growing your mind doesn’t appear on any action lists, on your calendar, or even in your life design (if you have one). In fact, I’m going to double down and bet that this is one of the first times you’ve been invited to grow your mind. Unless, of course, you read this teaser.

There’s a reason why this is a foreign concept. Until recently, people believed that growing up ends at adulthood. As soon as you hit your full height, you might get slimmer, and you might get fatter, but otherwise you are done. The way you are at age 20 is essentially the way you’ll be at 40 and 80.


Or so the theory goes.

And, if you think about it, the theory works really well for people who aren’t open to developing. If you don’t like how I lead my team, the way I communicate, or how I handle conflict, tough luck. That’s how I roll.  ENTJ, thank you very much. Sure, I may change a few behaviors, but on the inside, what you see is what you get. I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam. Popeye said it in 1929, and many of us believe it today.

Sadly, the theory that growing up ends at adulthood doesn’t work well for the rest of us. Want to develop yourself in a way that resolves many issues that confound you today? According to this theory, you are screwed. The next time you will fundamentally change is when you die—and by the time that happens, you won’t be around to celebrate.

The good news is that this theory has been thoroughly rebuked. Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology tell us that adults can and do change. We may not all choose to change, and our life situations may reduce the odds, but the potential is within us.

The evidence comes in two forms. The first, neuroscience research, studies our exterior selves, the dimensions of human beings that can be studied with the five senses and their extensions (microscopes, X-Rays, MRIs, etc.)—in this case, our brains. The second evidence, adult developmental psychology, studies our interior selves, the parts of ourselves that cannot be seen by X-Rays or MRIs but only interpreted through conversation. That’s why this psychological research is based on what is on people’s minds (as understood through interviews and survey instruments) rather than what is happening in their physical brains.

If this sounds confusing, let me make things simple. The important point is that two branches of scientific research that study very different things through very different means have come to the same conclusion: adult human beings can and do grow. Witness:

  • Neuroscientists teach us that the adult mind is plastic. Our neurons (brain cells) can rewire themselves. When they do, we can gain the capacity to respond differently to life’s events. We can become more resilient, expand our repertoire, and behave skillfully in situations in which we used to struggle and or feel enormous stress. The scientific term for this human capacity is neuroplasticity. The short phrase to remember is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” For more on this, check out the work of Sharon Begley or Daniel Siegel. For applications to leadership and organizations, good resources are David Rock and my colleague, Janet Crawford.
  • Adult development researchers, specifically in the field of constructivist developmental psychology, teach us that the adult mind can pass through anywhere from three to ten stages of development. Each of these stages is as distinct from the prior one as the teenage mind is from the mind of a 9-year-old. Yes, that big! For example, Harvard educator, Robert Kegan, makes a distinction between the Socialized Mind and the Self-Authoring Mind. Once we are in our early 20s, most of us have developed the Socialized Mind. How we view the world, what we think, and how we act, is heavily influenced by the values, expectations, and messages of others. The catch is that we aren’t aware that this is happening. It’s just how we are. Our assumptions about what to do and how to behave hold us, rather than us holding them. As Kegan writes, we are “subject” to our experience. We are in it, but we cannot see that we are in it. In contrast, over a period of years or decades, we can grow our minds into the Self-Authoring Mind. Here, we become aware of all the ways our views are influenced by others. We may still do what others want us to do, but it’s a conscious choice, rather than reflexive. Instead of our assumptions having us, we have our assumptions. If you’ve experienced this—even a little—you know how freeing it can feel. To repeat, growing from the Socialized Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind is as big a leap in complexity as growing from the 9-year-old mind to the teenage mind. For more on the research, look at the work of Bob Kegan or Susanne Cook-Greuter. For its applications to leadership and the workplace, check out the writings of Jennifer Garvey-Berger, Bill Torbert, or Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs.

Bottom line: adult human beings can and do grow.

Regaining Center After The Bull Strikes

He came after me like a bull charging a matador.

“What’s your success rate? I need numbers. What percentage of your clients get promotions?”

These were fair questions for a prospective client interview, and I’d heard them before. But this man, an up-and-coming executive, delivered them with an intensity and ferocity that was surprising. He was testing not only my experience, but also my fortitude.

Bull attacking

“I’m not sure,” I stammered, suddenly feeling like a six-year-old boy facing the class bully in a far corner of the playground. “I, um, haven’t tracked that too closely.”

Six-year-olds don’t make good matadors. This bull tasted blood.

“Then what are you going to do for me? What…are…you…going…to…do…for…me?”

My body collapsed, and my heart sank. Compared to my brain, oatmeal was solid as steel. I couldn’t remember a single accomplishment in my life. Not one. Everything faded from view amidst this onslaught.

I felt the gash in my side. This interview was over. There was no chance he was going to hire me as his executive coach. As that young guy in the movie Aliens says, “Game over, man! Game over!”

Sure enough, he hired a different coach.

And it took me a week to recover my bearings.

Losing Your Center

Here’s the thing about losing your center. Once you are off balance, any slight push can knock you over.

That’s what happened to me seven years ago with this strong-willed leader. I lost my center.

The context is important. This wasn’t the best period of my life. In fact, it was one of the worst. Several months earlier, my wife and I had lost our baby daughter. She was born a few weeks early. Lungs not ready for the world. After two hours of life, she had died in my arms as I lay next to my wife in a hospital bed.

This tragedy happened at a time that was already challenging. I was rebuilding my business in a new city. When we arrived in Portland, I knew only two people. Despite quickly building a network, it was mostly one of loose ties, and in a city where people hire people they’ve known for years. So I was struggling to attract clients and questioning the decision to leave a place where I was known (San Francisco) for one where I was essentially a stranger.

Our daughter’s death, and the traumatic way it occurred (which is a story for another day), left me feeling a loss of trust in myself and the universe. It wasn’t rock bottom—I never gave up, never stopped trying—but it was as close as I’d been as an adult.

This was the world I lived in when I entered the room with that leader. My entire being was already off center. He could sense it, and because of the type of person he was, saw in my vulnerability an opportunity to attack.

What do you do when you’re off center? What can you do to regain center?

Five Tips for Regaining Center

  1. Know what knocks you off center. For me, it was someone ferociously questioning my competence. I knew this was a vulnerability for me but didn’t have it in mind when I walked into the room. What’s the case for you? If you can see this situation from a bit of distance (before you are in the thick of it) you can prepare for it—or at least be less surprised.
  2. Identify the early indicators. Our bodies and emotions respond to perceived threat—or anything that throws us off center—faster than our minds. Do you tighten your stomach? Furrow your eyebrows? Tighten your jaw? Start to sweat down your neck? Shoulders and chest collapse? Get a headache? The sooner you recognize the early indicators, the better chance you have of making an appropriate response.
  3. Ground yourself physically. Are your feet flat on the ground? If not, move them. Notice what it feels like to contact the surface beneath them. Some of my clients like to wiggle their toes to further ground themselves. If you are seated, feel your bottom and back as they contact the chair.
  4. Do the 5:5 Breath. When you’re in fight-or-flight, it’s time to calm down the bodily systems that are in overdrive. Your heart rate and blood pressure, for example, and the stress hormones that ramp them up. Nothing works better for this than deep belly breathing. Slow breaths stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. In the words of stress researcher Esther Sternberg, “Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake.” To use this break, breathe in to a count of 5, and breathe out to a count of 5. Call it the 5:5 Breath.
  5. Use words to buy time. It helps to have a few default phrases or questions to toss into the conversation to buy time. Why? To give yourself time to ground and do a few iterations of the 5:5 Breath. Nowadays, if I sense myself off center because someone is questioning my competence, I might say, “I’d be happy to answer that. But first, help me understand, what makes that important to you?” You may prefer to say “That’s a really good question” or “Sure, let me give you my take on that” or “Please say more about that” before responding. Having a few default phrases is the equivalent of having a fire extinguisher—it help you contain the flames until the big red truck with the heavy hoses arrives.

When the bull strikes and you’re feeling off center—if not bludgeoned—these five steps can help you regain center and respond more skillfully. Of course, it never hurts to have good physical energy hygiene—sleeping 8 hours a night, taking breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work, engaging in strength training, yoga, or other physical activity, drinking a lot of water, and staying off the sugar treadmill.

Make it a deliberate practice. And start today.

ASAP Is A Four-Letter Word

Want to get things done more smoothly and reduce the number of crossed wires in your life?

Then stop saying “As Soon As Possible” (ASAP). Today.

On the surface, ASAP is useful in conveying urgency. It says I’m in a hurry, so do this fast. It also rolls off the lips easily. The two syllables convey that you are serious and need results now.

ASAP sign

Unfortunately, as my first boss taught me twenty years ago, ASAP is one of the greatest sources of organizational conflict and suffering. Every time you say it, you triple the odds of misunderstanding, dropped balls, and disappointment. The reason is simple: ASAP means different things to different people—not sometimes, but all of the time. For example:

  • An important work project you are managing takes a surprising twist. You have a decision to make quickly. So you text the project co-lead, “I need your help. Please meet me in my office ASAP.” Three hours later, she shows up. It’s too late. You already made the decision. Why didn’t she get here sooner, you think? Meanwhile, she skipped a meeting to come over. Why did I rush over here when he doesn’t need me?
  • Your boss asks you to quickly prepare a set of slides for a presentation he is giving soon. “When do you need it?” you ask. “ASAP” he replies. You interpret this to mean two hours from now. So you drop another important project to work on the slides. Two hours later, you send them to him. His admin writes back, “Tim left for the day. He asked me to block out time next Tuesday to review these.” WTF, you think to yourself? I just busted my butt to get this done today, and he doesn’t need it until Tuesday? You carry this resentment with you for the next six weeks.

ASAP creates a lot of messes. Some people like messes, but not you. So what’s an alternative?

Make clearer requests and ensure agreement. This involves the following five steps:

  1. Identify your desired completion time. When exactly do you need this finished? Be specific about the day and time. “By Friday” is too vague. “By Friday at 3pm” is specific.
  2. Include the timeframe in your request. Don’t fall into the trap of holding uncommunicated expectations. Instead, say, “I need those tweets scheduled by Friday at 3pm.”
  3. Describe why. When appropriate, explain why this specific time matters to you. “That will allow us to enter the weekend knowing we’re set for the next week.” Or, “This will give me time to finish the newsletter by Monday morning.”
  4. Ask for agreement. It takes two to make a promise, so this step is crucial. The question can be simple: “Would you be willing to do that?” or “Can you do that for me?”
  5. Listen and, if needed, negotiate. Listen to the other person’s response. If they say “yes” and seem sincere about it, great. If they say “no,” shrug their shoulders, or nod their head unconvincingly, consider negotiating. Ask about their concerns. If they seem willing but won’t commit to your proposed timeframe, find out what time would work for them—or propose one yourself. Negotiate until you reach agreement or it becomes clear that no agreement is possible.

Clear requests coupled with explicit agreement produces genuine commitment. This may take a bit longer than saying ASAP, it produces dramatically better results: more reliable handoffs, fewer crossed wires, and greater mutual trust.

Stop saying ASAP.

And start producing reliable commitments.

My Interview on Hispanic MPR

Hispanic MPR has posted an interview they did with me about my book, Practice Greatness.

This is my second interview about the book, and I am pleased by how well it went. Although I stumbled a bit early on, after about five minutes, I picked up my stride. We dug into some meaty questions, and I think he interviewer, Elena del Valle, did a really nice job.

To listen online or download the iTunes podcast, go to this web page

And please tell me what you think!

What Do You Do When There’s Nothing to Do?

Note: I wrote this in early August

The woman at the registration table thinks I’m going to kidnap someone else’s child. If she knew how hard it is for me to get my own kids to follow me, she wouldn’t be suspicious. However, her job isn’t to read my mind. It’s to protect the kids at summer camp from people doing strange things or, as in my case, asking unusual questions.

Curiosity can get you into trouble.

Bird up high

Denied entry

It all started two days ago. After finishing my work day, I drove to camp to pick up my older son. The man at the registration table looked down at a sheet of paper and said, “Sorry, you’re not on the approved list.” Many parents would get frustrated or angry to hear such news. I was excited. It meant that this camp was strict about the security rules—my kind of camp.

“No problem,” I said. “I’m listed as an emergency contact. Let me show you my driver’s license.” I pulled it out of my wallet and placed it on the table.

“Sorry, we can’t do that. You’re still not on the approved list.”

“No problem,” I said, trying to hide my excitement. Wow, this place is rock solid about security. “So,” I continued, “Where does that leave us?”

“Well, you are indeed listed as an emergency contact. So let me call that number. If you answer, then I’ll know that you are you.”

Huh? I thought to myself. Why is holding the right phone better proof than a driver’s license with the correct name and photograph?  

My excitement had shifted into concern. Maybe this camp isn’t so smart about security after all. Clearly, it was time for me to put these people to the test.

“Look,” I said. “Why don’t you ask my son to pick out his father. I’ll turn my head in the other direction so he has to search hard. If he picks me, then you’ll know you’ve got the right guy.”

No answer. The guy was walking away, presumably in search of a phone. Hard to know if he even heard me.

I picked up my cell and clicked on the ringer. Waited for his call. A minute passed. Nothing. Maybe he realized my identity test is more valid than his. Then he appeared across the room, walking over to my son. As promised, I turned around and looked in the opposite direction. Since I was wearing my signature Fedora, I figured it would be seconds before my son recognized me and shouted with delight, “Dadda!”

A minute passed. No “Dadda!” Finally, the guy showed up with my son in hand. “Here he is!”

I stood for a moment, puzzled. He’s just going to let me walk away with the boy?

Most parents would think nothing of this. But not me. As I drove my son home, I started thinking of ways I could further test the robustness of the camp’s security.

Inside, but suspect

Thanks to my wife, my name is now on the list of approved pickup people. Phew. Unfortunately, my son isn’t interested in leaving. Just because I made it in doesn’t mean he wants to make it out. He’s in a circle with three other kids and a camp counselor playing a game. He’s entranced. No matter what I do, I can’t get his attention. Even when I send his little brother over to hug him, he doesn’t look up.

What do you do when you have nothing else to do? I walk up to people and ask questions.

The woman at the registration table doesn’t seem busy. “Excuse me,” I say, “Can I ask you a question.”

She’s one of those smiley happy people that you want your kid to be around at summer camp. “Absolutely!”

“This may sound like a strange question, but I was just wondering. The other day I had trouble getting in here because my name wasn’t on the list. My wife added it, so today we’re good. But I was wondering: how do you guys know that when I walk out of here, the kid I’m walking out with is my son? I didn’t see anybody check two days ago. What would keep me from walking out with someone else?”

“We watch,” she replies.

Nobody was watching two days ago, I think to myself. And didn’t she hear me just say this?

“So you’re watching closely to see that people are with someone who looks like their kid. How many kids come to this camp every day? A hundred?”

“We get three hundred kids every day.”

“That’s a lot of people to watch. Have you ever considered making sure that kids leave with the right person? It’s not just about being the right person walking in.”

From the look on her face, it’s clear that I’ve crossed a line. Although I think I’m asking helpful hypothetical questions, she is started to get creeped out.

And confused.

“We can’t let you in without making sure you’re on the list. We just can’t do that.”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t been very clear. I’m totally for checking people in. How about checking them out? It’s just like Google two-step verification.”

I feel so proud of myself for offering an analogy that will clear things up. Instead, it only makes her more confused—and suspicious.

She pulls over a coworker and whispers something in her ear. The coworker looks at me with that look—you know, the one you give someone who is hiding something from you. It’s not a look of admiration.

Great. I think to myself. First I couldn’t get in the door. Now I’m inside and I’m a suspect.

I finally shut my mouth. Good call. I do need to get out of here and make dinner for my sons.

Three lessons for leadership

  1. Pay attention to what you do when there is nothing to do. Do you ask strange questions to people you don’t know? Probably not. That’s my weirdness. Yours may be different. Do you obsessively check email on your smart phone? If so, what’s behind that? Do you impatiently push people to move ahead? That’s a popular one. Do you think about all the things you just screwed up—or the stupid actions of others? That fills the time. Do you relax because finally you have a moment to yourself away from all of those irritating people? Or do you feel so uncomfortable with standing still that you reach out to someone—anyone—to connect with? Do you pick up a book? Or look for something to eat?
  2. Notice the impact of these actions on others. If there are people around, you are having an impact on them. What’s the impact? Are you creating more trust, joy, and freedom in the world? Or, like me with the registration table woman, are you creating less?
  3. Expand your repertoire. The people I know who are both successful and mature have the same bad habits they’ve always had. Just like the rest of us. What’s different is that these behaviors are less habitual and less common. That’s because they’ve developed a broad repertoire of responses to the same situation. While waiting for their child to leave summer camp, they don’t always ask bizarre questions to the person at the registration table. Sometimes they play games with their other child. Other times they quietly watch what’s happening in the room. Still other times they strike up a friendly conversation with a camp counselor. Same situation, but five or ten different possible responses.

What will you do the next time there’s nothing to do?