Give it a rest, he said

I’m a fan of transparency … of saying what I think and not just what sounds nice or what others want to hear. So here’s my daily dose of transparency: I’m swamped, and I need a break from this blog.

I love writing it. I’m thankful for the folks who read it. But the truth is, it doesn’t contribute much to the bottom line of my business. I don’t write it so that I can become famous or wealthy. I write it for two reasons: One, it’s good practice. Two, it’s an outlet for expressing ideas that somewhere deep in my heart I believe can add value to the lives of people who read it.

I don’t know how much value it actually provides to others, but for me the main value is this: It allows me to do something I love for no other reason than because I love it. That’s huge. But when I get stressed over my self-imposed deadlines and my commitment to write a blog every week, then I lose some of the joy that comes from writing it. I need a balance. I need the accountability that drives me to write but without the pressure that steals the joy from it.

For nearly a year, I’ve been praying about how to re-shape this website — growlikejesus.com — into something more useful to the world around me. I’ve thought of turning it into a portal site that provides resources for discipleship, which would open it up to more contributors and reduce the need for me to write as much. But God hasn’t opened the doors to make that happen. And I’ve thought of making it more of a home base for my writing business. For now, I’m leaving it as it is, but I’m cutting back on my blogging. I’m going to shoot for two a month, but it might be one. Really, I’m going to attempt to write as time allows and the Spirit commands. We shall see how often turns out to be.

In the meantime, I will leave you with this quote that I hope expresses how I feel about those who regularly read this blog: “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Don’t Quote Me, Part II

This is the second of a two-part series on quotes. Today we look at a few leadership quotes that aren’t as great as they might first appear.

I’ve read Mere Christianity at least three times, and, yes, I’m a fan of almost all things C.S. Lewis. I’m also a habitual collector of quotes. That’s why it was disappointing to discover I had been misquoting the famous author.

The quote in question – “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less” – is actually by Rick Warren, and I’ve read the book in which he wrote that line (The Purpose Drive Life, Page 339, although it’s worded slightly different). Yet, somewhere along the way I saw it attributed to Mere Christianity, and I began repeating the error. Such is the danger of sourcing quotes in a Google-driven world (see last week’s blog for more on this).

Accurately sourcing quotes is just one of the challenges we face in a world full of oft-repeated quotes. What’s even more important is whether the quotes offer wisdom, regardless of their source. I’ve found that not all quotes are created equal, especially quotes on leadership. Some quotes, like Warren’s line about humility, are rock-solid, foundational axioms upon which you can build your life and leadership. (Exhibit B: “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright) Others, however, are dangerous because they are sort of true, which, of course, makes them sort of false. And you don’t want to build your life or your leadership around something that’s the slightest bit false.

So, with that in mind, here are five common sayings regarding leadership that need a critical eye before you fully adopt them.

  1. It’s all relative.

This is one of those convenient sayings that’s not really attributed to anyone in particular but that comes up frequently when people want to get out of an argument without admitting defeat. It contains just enough truth to get us through because, in fact, some things are relative.

Noted genius Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about relativity, explained it this way: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

But just because some things are relative doesn’t mean that all things are relative. Strong leaders know that compromise is essential, but compromising on truth is fatal. They know that relativity never trumps truth.

Abraham Lincoln made this point nicely with this short quiz: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four – calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

  1. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

This is another great saying that you probably first heard from dear old mom or dad when you applied lackluster effort to some simple chore around the house. It makes great sense and it gives you a worthy goal of doing great work. But progress often comes by trying and failing. If you only do things you can do well, you end up avoiding a great many things that would make you better. So, the best leaders push themselves and their teams toward perfection, but offer grace – to themselves, as well as to others – when failure gets in the way.

Steven Sample, the former president of the University of Southern California, explained it like this in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing poorly. It may be worth more if it’s done well, but it’s worth something if it’s done poorly.”

  1. There are no stupid questions.

Seriously? Of course there are.

But it’s unlikely that you are stupid or that you work with stupid people. More likely, you (or them) are underinformed. If that’s the case, get to the root of the issue. Why are people asking poor questions? There’s probably a problem with your culture, your systems or your processes – or all three.

  1. There are no leadership experts, only experts on their own leadership.

The first time I heard this, I loved it. It felt so counterintuitively on target.

Then I slept. Morning brought clarity.

Yes, leadership experts write and speak and consult from their own experiences. They have biases. But that’s true of all of life. You don’t have to lead with a certain style, however, to become an expert on how that style works. In fact, you’ll benefit if you become an expert on as many leadership styles as possible.

A friend and I wrote a book about grit, which we defined as passionate perseverance toward a goal. We’re experts on our own grit (and lack thereof), but we also did research to become more informed about what grit looks like in anyone. We leaned heavily on another researcher’s work. That researcher is an expert on grit – and not just her grit. And she helped us elevate our understanding.

What’s important is that we each become experts when it comes to our personal leadership style. We can learn from all the experts to help us figure out how we can best lead, and then we can own that style. If we get really good at it, we can write our own book.

  1. We learn more from our failures than our successes.

There are plenty of variations on this.

Actress/activist Jane Fonda said, “You don’t learn from successes; you don’t learn from awards; you don’t learn from celebrity; you only learn from wounds and scars and mistakes and failures. And that’s the truth.”

In its review of The Wisdom of Failure by Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, businessinsider.com used this headline: “You Can Learn More From Failure Than Success.”

Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author, said, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.”

Or go with economist Kenneth Boulding: “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”

There’s no doubting the value of learning from our failures; indeed, they have very little value if we don’t learn from them. The fault lies in making the statement absolute with words like “more from” or “only.”

The truth is, we can learn just as much from our successes as our failures. We often learn more from our failures simply because we spend more time analyzing them, while we only celebrate our successes. If we spent as much time thinking about what we did to succeed, we’d likely learn a great deal.

Don’t Quote Me

This is the first of a two-part series on quotes. Today we look at the dark side of collecting quotes.

There’s no empirical evidence to support this claim, but some believe that a guy named Adam holds the distinction of being the first human to start a collection of things.

Adam, as the story goes, lived in the way-back times – like “in the beginning.” And as a side benefit to being the first man on the planet, he got to name all the animals. So, he collected and named them.

“Fuzzy little critter with a fluffy tail eating a nut? I’ll call you a squirrel. Next …”

Since that time, people have been obsessed with collecting things – big things like land or even countries, small things like stamps, rare things like old coins, expensive things like fine art, and weird things like Christmas villages.

Me, I collect quotes.

I know what you’re thinking – “You can’t sell those on eBay.” And you’re right. Quotes don’t bring much on the open market. You aren’t going to retire off what you make from the shoebox full of them in your parents’ attic (although there was one fella who wrote a book based on just such a shoebox).

Still, I like quotes – quotes from movies and books and speeches and articles and historical texts – so I collect them. I keep most of them in Word documents arranged in folders on my computer. I have an entire document, for instance, just for quotes by comedian Steven Wright. (I suspect you’re suddenly thinking that collecting Christmas villages isn’t so strange.)

I’m not the world’s only quote-aholic, however – far from it. There are plenty of us out there, as evidenced by all the places to find quotes on any topic online. Dozens of sites are devoted to it. You can buy books of quotes. There’s no shortage of them in framed photos with eagles and mountains in the background. And you can flip open almost any nonfiction book (and some fiction books) and find quotes at the start of each chapter. Or go to any presentation by a speaker or corporate trainer, and you’ll no doubt see quotes scattered throughout their mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations.

Quotes on leadership – and most quotes relate somehow to leadership – are particularly popular.

In short, if you’re gonna collect something, quotes are a low-budget option with a high utilitarian value.

Ah, but quotes have their dark side. Yes, they do.

For starters, we’ve become overly dependent upon them, especially in business. We live in a world where original ideas are scarce, so we lean on the quotes of others to express our ideas for us. Rather than push ourselves toward a little creativity, we hit the easy button: Google me up a quote!

Another problem with quotes is that they can make fibbers of us because, news flash, Google isn’t perfect. The liars and the lazy roam the Internet like gnats, and they mix with the incompetent to infect the entire system with a truth-killing virus that spreads like a plague.

Yes, that description is a bit heavy, but I didn’t edit it out of this blog because, well, I really liked it. Feel free to quote me on it. But remember this: when “sourcing” a quote, a quick Google search is a sure way to bad attribution. So, make sure I’m the one who really said it.

Next week, Part II: Why the best advice on leadership sometimes isn’t so good after all.

The Sins of My Writing

Spellcheck says everything’s good. But I’ve learned not to fully trust spellcheck. So, I read over it – one … last … time …

Yep, all looks good. I hit send or print or whatever pushes my writings into public view. In this particular case, it’s a blog post.

I’m never sure how many folks will read my blog, but I hope it’s well received by all who invest five minutes of their lives. I put my heart and soul into it and, frankly, I believe the content and writing is some of my better work. Perhaps it will have a positive impact. That’s always the goal – to get people to think and act in ways that help them grow like Jesus.

So off goes the post into the cyber world, released and free. And I move on to other things.

Then comes that email from a loving friend who gently points out the typo. Not just a random typo, but a typo in the lead (or, if you prefer, the lede). Sure, it’s the second paragraph, but it’s still part of the lead. First word of the first sentence in the second paragraph – standing out like a zit on the forehead of a teenager on prom night. Image should be imagine. Spellcheck won’t catch that, by the way.

I sigh. I thank my friend. I update the post on my website, although by now I suspect that everyone who will read it already has, and I’m certain that each of them snickered at the whiff. Another shot across the bow of my credibility. My insecure self whispers: See, I told you. You’re a hack. This is why you’ll never really make it as a writer.

Little things have always risen up to bite my writing in big ways, and especially spelling. I misspelled water in an elementary school spelling bee, and a high school teacher told me I’d never be a good writer because I was such a poor speller. As a cub reporter for a newspaper, one of my egregious spelling errors resulted in an editor getting chewed out. And I once misspelled a billionaire’s name in a magazine article.

But image instead of imagine wasn’t really a spelling error. I know how to spell imagine without looking it up. It was more of an oversight. It’s one of those words that this writer’s eyes – those eyes that have become all too comfortable with the content – are prone to see as correct, even when it is not. Reading it one more time seldom matters. I look at image and see imagine.

Unless you, too, write professionally or have some other form of OCD, you might think this is much ado about nothing. You’d say that chances are, very few people noticed, and those who did probably didn’t care. Maybe. But I care. And I suspect there’s something in your life – in everyone’s life – that you care deeply about doing well but that you fail at from time to time.

What then? Grace. Forgiveness. Growth.

In my experience, it’s all but impossible to grow like Jesus when I’m wallowing in self-pity that’s swimming in self-doubt. I have to remind myself that Christ died for my sins, that I am forgiven, and that I can walk and live in that forgiveness.

When Jesus encountered and confronted sinners, He never condoned their sins. He offered forgiveness and commanded them to stop their sinful behaviors. (See John 5:14 or John 8:11) So even with something as seemingly trivial as a mental error/typo/misspelling, I am compelled to admit my mistake, embrace forgiveness and try to avoid repeating that mistake.

How? I’ll be more aware of that word, but I’m also investing in a copy editor. Every writer needs one. I’ve avoided it because, well, it’s an expense – either I’m paying someone money or I’m imposing on a friendship. But I work with clients all the time who want to avoid this expense, and I always tell them that doing so is a huge mistake. Every writer needs an editor, usually more than one. It’s time to heed my own advice.

We all need others to help us walk through this broken world – someone who helps us edit our lives. That was a key point of the image/imagine post. And while we’ll never get it totally right, that type of discipleship helps us walk more comfortably in the peace and joy that come from grace and forgiveness.

(Note: My good friend and super wordsmith James Gilzow edited this piece, and I assure you it’s better now than it was when I sent it to him!)


Click to buy Grow Like Jesus 

Grit: A weapon against enemies of the good

There’s an old saying that we should never let great become the enemy of the good. You’ll see it written in different forms, but they all pretty much draw on the idea expressed by Voltaire: “The best is the enemy of the good.”

So I almost didn’t write a blog this week because I felt certain I couldn’t give it my best. I had several ideas for things to write about, but I was slammed by a variety of projects. I didn’t want to give them less than my best, but I wanted to keep my personal commitment to write a weekly blog. It’s an exercise that helps me grow as a writer and as a person, and that hopefully helps a few readers along the way.

So what to do?

I started by reflecting on Voltaire, and then I made the simple decision to act by writing something. Anything. And this is what I produced.front-cover

Frankly, I don’t know that this blog reflects my best, but then again, I seldom finish anything I write without thinking I somehow could have done better.

In Forging Grit, the short book Mike Thompson and I authored that was published last year, we tell the story of a business leader who survives a plane crash in Nepal and finds himself in a seemingly hopeless situation. He learns about grit from the women in a village and he develops the grit he needs to survive. We define grit as a passion for getting something done and the fortitude to see it through even when obstacles seem overwhelming.

There were no overwhelming obstacles preventing me from writing something this week, but there was one significant obstacle: My initiative. So I needed some personal grit to put down these words. Hopefully they weren’t a waste of your time. They weren’t a waste of mine.

As Helen Keller said, “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do.”

Are you feeling a bit stuck? Is the best becoming the enemy of your good?  Take Helen’s advice. Show some grit and do the something that you can do.

 

 

3 Keys to Life-changing Headlines!

Because “how-to” blogs are really popular and because I like to deviate from time to time from my norm, today I shall provide advice on how to write a great headline for blogs and online articles. Even if you don’t write blogs or online articles, you’ll no doubt find this information entertaining, if not life-changing. So read it and share it with a million of your friends.

As with my more faith-oriented blogs, I don’t claim to always practice what I preach. But when it comes to headlines, I do have some credibility. As a newspaper journalist in a former life, I sometimes wrote headlines for the print edition of the Arkansas Democrat. And, in fact, I even won an award for one.

That probably prompts at least three questions. 1.) “What’s a print edition?” 2.) “Do they really give awards for writing headlines?” And 2.) “OK, then, Mr. Smarty Pants, what won you the award?”

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1987 Wimbledon Champion Pat Cash

So a print edition is like what you read online only it comes printed on paper. Some publications still provide this option, but more frequently they’re found only in museums. The answer to No. 2. Is, “Yes.” Well, I assume they still do. But I know they once did, because I’ve got a certificate in a box somewhere to prove it. And as for my award-winning headline, it described an Associated Press story about the 1987 men’s tennis championship at Wimbledon. You no doubt recall that Pat Cash upset Ivan Lendl, the Czechoslovakian who was ranked No. 1 in the world at the time. So the headline read: “Cash better than Czech at Wimbledon.”

This leads perfectly into the first of my tips for blog/article headline writing, which, to be clear, is different from writing headlines for print editions of a newspaper.

  1. Make it clever. If that were easy, of course, we’d all do it more often, and not just in headlines. As it is, some of us try and most of us fail. But keep trying even if you keep failing. Filter your attempts through a lame-o-meter. My personal lame-o-meter isn’t very accurate, so I usually ask for a second opinion from my wife. Most headlines don’t survive a good lame-o-meter, which is why so few headlines are clever.
  2. Make a practical promise. For the most part, this involves creating a list in your blog or article and then selling that list at the start of the headline. Fast Company is great at this. I get regular emails from Fast Company that woo me into their content. One such email included headlines that promised, among other things, “Two items that …,” “Four steps to …,” “9 methods of …,” and “Three easy steps for …” But there are other ways do to this. That same Fast Company email also had headlines that included “a surprisingly simple trick for…” and the ever-popular “How to …” and “When to …”
  3. Make an aspirational promise. It’s great to promise practical advice, but it needs to take readers someplace they want to go. It has to meet their so-called “felt needs.” Again, I turn to the masters, Fast Company, for my examples. Their articles/blogs promised to help me be more productive, be happier, have more breakthrough ideas, lead more effective meetings, be a better listener, avoided a wasted day, boost my productivity, embrace uncertainty, and choose my career path. And that was just from one email!

If you can somehow combine a practical promise, an aspirational promise, and just the right dash of cleverness, well, then you have yourself a winner. It will lead to “opens” and “visits” and “clicks” for all the content you “curate.” And it will change your life!