Dec 082009

To my friends at Operation Snowball…

I have been reflecting on the experience of last Thursday evening. For those who were unable to join us, the Teen Directors presented a fascinating and enlightening experiential exercise. We were divided into two discussion groups. The first group—the one to which I was assigned—shared memories of positive life experiences. The second shared those less pleasant…experiences we would often rather not recall. The TDs noted the differing atmospheres that emerged in the separate rooms. As you can imagine, those differences—everything from tone of voice and human interaction, to body language and emotions—were often dramatic.

As we debriefed the experience, we noted how much more energizing it was to be with the group sharing the positive aspects of life. We generally agreed that we prefer to spend our lives with people who are positive and enthusiastic rather than those who wish to dwell in the midst of life’s challenges and crises. It was a wonderful exercise and I congratulate the TDs for revealing life in such an honest way.

If I have a concern, it is how each of us unfolds the lessons into our lives. Many of those in the group that dealt with pain and sadness expressed a desire to escape that experience, preferring to be with those who dealt with joy and happiness. As much as happiness, pleasure, and times of joy are wonderful places to find ourselves, life is false and unreal when we try to wring sadness from its midst. And yet, we live in a culture that increasingly wishes to flee sadness. There is an ever-growing arsenal of pills and medications offering ways to annihilate sadness. Please don’t misunderstand; having spent 1500 hours answering a suicide hotline, I know that for many, medication can turn a life that is unbearably difficult, into one that is contributory and fulfilling. The medications available to us can truly be life saving.

But let us be careful not to confuse deep depression—for which medication is often vital—with life’s tragedies and sadnesses. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, while we love being together in joyous ways, anyone who has been on a Snowball weekend knows of the extraordinary connections we make when we share the vulnerability that comes with the moments of deep pain and anguish. When I recall some of the thousand joyous moments during the 55 years I shared with my father, you learn something of who I am. But when I reveal the tremendous pain and heartache…the deep sense of loss…I experienced when he died, we become connected in a much deeper way. Even I learned something new and deeply profound about myself having lived through the experience of his death—the raw and harsh way life often needs to be lived through us. It is in those moments when you allow me to see what drops you to your knees in agony that you reveal something about who you are that cannot be revealed in any other way. Then, and only then, can I look into your eyes and say “I know you. I understand what you love about life and what you value.”

While moments of joy and happiness are irresistible, when we show up in the vulnerability of pain, sadness and agony, we show up more authentic and more capable of love. And, when we are able to be with others in their most intimate, painful moments—without the need to fix them or wrest the pain from their lives—in those moments we most powerfully show up with love for one another.

Your thoughts?

Dec 032009

If I am open to ways in which every aspect of life intertwines with, and informs the other—I am often gifted with insights that cause me to rethink deeply-held assumptions. It is as if life hands me lessons one day I will surely need the next.

One recent Sunday, Judi and I were in Chicago and wandered into a bookstore—my idea of nirvana! Since I had only a few pages remaining in the work I was enjoying, I wanted another to accompany me on the train home that afternoon.The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, showed up prominently after its publication in 2007, and while tempted—I perused it many times—I always resisted adding it to my library. That morning, however, it ruffled its feathers on the shelf of “staff recommendations” and I gave up. “You win” I said in resignation and followed it to the cashier.

As with any good and reliable friend, this one put its arm gently around my shoulder, pointed out at the world and asked “If you look from this perspective, doesn’t much of life appear surprisingly different?”The author’s ideas so destabilized the earth beneath me that I began to see almost everything in a new light.

Taleb’s key message, as I read his work, is that we are misled when taught that Gaussian distributions—the normal or bell curve—capture the majority of life’s randomness. The normal distribution of human height and weight gets translated into financial tools such as beta—the risk assigned to an individual stock—or the theory of random walks, which purportedly explains the movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. We are trained to see these derivative statistical tools as primary descriptors of variation.

How then to categorize, understand or learn from the market crash of October 19, 1987…S&L crisis during the 1980s and 90s… dot-com collapse that began in March, 2000…Wall Street turmoil after 9/11…or current global economic crisis we may or may not have overcome? When we use Gaussian tools to describe the world, we are forced to call these unexpected events “outliers” and dismiss them as unimportant, improbable flukes. And yet, they account for a large portion of the variability my portfolio has confronted since the day I inserted the first dollar into my retirement account.

What Taleb asks me to consider is that black swans—those highly improbable, impactful events—impose the majority of randomness in our lives, and we pass them off as minimally important “outliers” at great peril.

I was reminded of Taleb’s ideas during a recent conversation. A friend, who found himself destitute in this virulent economy, described a successful business venture early in life. “I made a great deal of money, but it was just such a fluke!” It may have been an improbable, unpredictable series of events, but to this day it remains an important chapter in his life—one that enabled much of the rest.

How many of us, when recounting our journey from birth to this very moment, are forced to recount multiple improbable, unpredictable events—chance encounters or overheard conversations—that reveal the truth of our story?

When tempted to think otherwise, I recall a morning in 1979 after I arrived in Boston to begin my MBA. As I entered the MIT post office, I held the door for a young woman. Later, after she became Judi Breisch, she admitted she thought the gesture was sweet. That seemingly unimportant moment—and that young woman—made this moment, and most in between, possible.

If life is inherently unpredictable—if I cannot count on life’s momentary stability to help me see the road ahead—how do I move into the very next moment? I would suggest that perhaps life will gift me with such insight—but that would be just such a fluke. But stay tuned!