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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Taking Down the Christmas Tree

Each year our family puts up a Christmas tree. My principal role in this annual ritual is to serve as unskilled labor. I drive my wife to the local United Methodist church, which sells the trees as a fundraiser. I hold the candidate trees with my leather work gloves while she methodically compares and chooses; lash her selection into the trunk, and wrestle it into the tree stand in our living room. After that, I’m not allowed to do anything else associated with the process.
That’s when my wife, serving as skilled labor, takes over. With delicate care she unwraps hundreds of ornaments she’s collected over our nearly 37 years of marriage. She then selects the precise branch on which to display each. Slowly she creates a mosaic of bright-colored wood carvings, ceramics, hand-sewn fabric figures, multifaceted crystals, and tiny white lights from top to bottom. This glittering mélange gets joined together by a two-inch wide, finely textured gold silk ribbon that winds around the tree from its base to the gold-silk, tree-top bow. And while I admire the annual tree in the aggregate, I never understood it until one time (in January) when my wife asked me to help take down the decorations.
For once, I wasn’t in a rush to just get it done. I actually looked at the decorations.

“Hey, didn’t your mother make this one?”
“No, that’s the one Mrs. Maupin made. She’s in a nursing home now.”
“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a delicate tin star with fine-hammered designed impressions covering its surface.
“From Santa Fe,” she said, referring to a family trip to New Mexico in 2001.
Then my wife held up an ornament that said, “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” one from my days as an FBI agent.
“Here’s one from Julie when she first started painting,” she said, holding up a glass ball hand painted by a woman whose first art gallery showing we’d attended a year ago.
Then more ornaments came down: the walnuts my wife had painted red and topped with green felt leaves to look like strawberries—hand-crafted to save money when we were young and broke; the carved miniature figures like the old, bearded Alpine skier, which we picked up traveling and camping in Europe when my wife was pregnant with our first child, now 34; the silver claddagh, an Irish symbol of love, friendship and loyalty, given to us, like a number of other ornaments, from close friends we’d made over the years as we moved around the country; the raft of gaily colored felt ornaments of whimsical characters that my mother-in-law and her friends—many now gone or infirmed—had sewn by hand in their church basement; the University of Virginia ornament, representing the place where I also used to work; and the rudimentary ornaments our now-adult children made when they were very small.
Two ornaments in particular caught my attention. One was a tiny colored-glass encrusted frame with a picture of my wife and her father, “Pop,” who died several years ago. The photo was taken at his 90th birthday party—one of the last large clan gatherings he was able to attend. His health declined over the next year and, after hospitals, hospice and heartaches, he died—leaving a gaping hole in our holidays, not to mention our family.
The other special ornament I noticed was a grey cat in a basket. Originally, this particular decoration had represented “Mellie,” my wife’s cat from many years ago. After Pop’s death when my widowed mother-in-law was feeling lonely, she decided, with some urging from my wife, to get a cat. We all went to the animal shelter and found “Smokey,” a beautiful grey cat who has become a loving member of the family. My wife picked up these two special ornaments and inspected them before wrapping them with deliberate care and putting them away with the others in the large box marked “Christmas Ornaments” to be stored away for next year’s tree.
Participating in the careful undoing of our tree has given me a new appreciation for this old custom. Christmas trees are much more than holiday accessories that provide a wide base for mounds of gifts—they are bright tapestries of memories and living histories of our lives. Every decoration on our tree symbolizes a story about someone who’s crossed our family’s path, and every year the tree gives us a way of honoring those people and our relationship with them. It’s a way of retelling our family history so we don’t forget. And when our children have their own families, their own trees, their own rituals, I hope they’ll have an ornament or two to remember us by. *
*This story originally appeared in the Washington Post in 2008 -- the title the editor's used was The Undoing of Christmas Becomes a Joyous Surprise.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Who was with you today in the shower? Mindlessness in a frantic world.

When I was showering this morning, it got pretty crowded!

There was the VP of Human Relations I’d be speaking to later this morning; the couple I would be having lunch to talk about their new business; and my PT therapist who will be working on my sore

Simply put, when a challenge confronts us—an important meeting or a tough conversation with a relative—the oldest part of our brain (the limbic brain), and especially an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala registers threat. That sends the brain on a kind of wild-goose chase, mostly in search of safety and certainty. Remember at this instinctive level, the brain doesn’t know that it’s reacting to reality or fiction at this point. Adrenalin and cortisol get pumped into our body based on the mind not knowing the difference between a movie or someone cutting us off on the highway.

Thousands of years ago when our ancestors were hunters in the wild, they would get stimulated by hunting for food. But after the hunt, they would sit around, eat, rest and digest. During those rest periods they recovered before the next round of survival challenges. The problem today: We direct and play in many fictional movie “hunts” within our own brains. We’ve become good movie producers—creating movies (or narratives) in our own minds. Thus, in today’s hyperactive world, we get sent on repeated mental hunting expeditions. Unfortunately, we get little rest and recovery between “hunts,” which in time mentally wears us out. We start to work even harder to solve our problems, real and imagined. Eventually, we sacrifice more and more of our time trying to catch up with everything going on in our real-and-imagined world: We have to impress our boss, have to attend every sports game kids will ever play, have to keep up the house, have to stay in shape…. The list of tasks—real and imagined—gets overwhelming. That’s how you end up with a crowd in your shower as you attempt to multi-task—an impossible activity. Neuroscientists have proven that we don’t multitask; rather, we do what’s called task switching—which actually degrades our performance on both activities. Finally, according to Professor Richard Boyatzis and his team at Case Western Reserve University, we keep giving more and more of ourselves to solve all the problems around us—he calls this The Sacrifice Syndrome. But eventually we slip into a state of exhaustion, frustration, and anger called “dissonance.” We become out of tune with others around us. And the best test to diagnose if we’re in the state of dissonance is if everyone around us looks like a jerk—When actually, we’re the jerk! And the bad news is that, because of our overprotective amygdala, dissonance is the default.

Question: So, what’s the antidote to dissonance? Answer: Mindfulness, the antithesis of mindlessness. Instead of engaging in multitasking, mindfulness puts us in the present state, right here, right now—attending to only one activity at a time. So, eating mindfully is a much slower process involving savoring, chewing, swallowing and pausing to enjoy the taste—not gulping down a sandwich on the way to a meeting. The good news about becoming more mindful is that it’s triggered by something we do unconsciously all the time: Breathing. Mindful breathing requires some discipline and practice, but not much to get started. However, it does take an investment over time if you want to get good at it.

To get started, try this. Sit in a chair—more toward the front of it, not leaning or slouching into the back of the chair. Sit upright in an alert but comfortable position. Put both feet on the ground and your hands on your lap. Now, just breathe. There’s no single best way. Just breathe in and out slowly. This is mindful breathing—especially when you concentrate on it by thinking in your mind, I’m breathing in and now I ‘m breathing out. Such deep, concentrated breathing begins to relax your mind and switch your body from the fight-flight mode to the rest-and-recovery mode. Don’t worry if your mind wanders, daydreams, or raises thoughts about the past or future. That’s normal. Just treat those thoughts as clouds passing by and refocus on your breathing. Eventually, you’ll get good as you practice more. It’s like weightlifting for your brain—without all the sweat!

If you begin to practice this state of mindful breathing, eventually your reaction to the stimuli around you, real and imagined, starts to slow way down. You’re less likely to get anxious, upset or angry because mindful breathing becomes part of your adaptation reflex. Literally, in time, you’ll start to take a deep breath or two or three before responding and reacting to whatever’s going on. That powerful pause gets learned by practice. Start by practicing mindful breathing for just 2 minutes a day and tie it into to your daily routine—after breakfast, before you start your car, when you arrive at the office. Remember that regularity and habit are more important than duration or episodic events.

And when you take a “mindful shower” with just you and the warm water, you’ll know you’re making progress.

tendon later today. These unlikely shower mates were all characters in an adventure movie playing in my mind. However, neuroscientists would be quick to point out that our bodies don’t know what’s real or what’s fiction. When we slip into a monkey-brain, mindless state, our bodies react as if the movie were real. Notice how you can watch a James Bond chase scene and how your body reacts—you feel it in your stomach, you grip the arm rests of your seat. When you’re in the shower, driving to work, or sitting at lunch, you have a choice: To be either mindless or mindful. And while it’s always a choice, for most of us mindlessness and dissonance are the default. This has both a biological and evolutionary basis.

Monday, December 7, 2015

An Essay: Finding Your Larry Bird

Finding Your Larry Bird
By Steve Gladis
We all need a touchstone—someone who makes us the best person we can be. I’m not talking about superstition, like rubbing the bald guy’s head before you place a bet at the race track or throwing salt over your shoulder for good luck. No, I’m talking about finding the person who makes you the best you possible— your Larry Bird.

Who is Larry Bird?  If you don’t know pro basketball, Larry played his entire career with the Boston Celtics. He’s arguably one of the very best to ever play the game. He’s been on 3 NBA championship teams, been the MVP several times, was on the Olympic Dream Team, coached the Indiana Pacers and now is their president and guiding light. In Boston and Indiana, Larry Bird is an immortal.
Larry’s coach, the famed and storied Red Auerbach, regarded Bird as one of the most coachable players ever. As legend has it, Auerbach had a rule that no matter who scored, Bird had to touch the ball at least once on offense, because 99% of the time Bird would make the best decision about whether to pass or shoot. Larry Bird was the natural touchstone for the Boston Celtics. In fact, one quote attributed to Bird affirms this legendary practice of having Bird touch the ball:  "It doesn't matter who scores the points, it's who can get the ball to the scorer.”  
Like basketball, business has had its share of great leaders with their own Larry Birds. Steve Jobs (the marketing genius) had Steve Wozniak (the technical genius) to pass to at Apple. At Microsoft, Bill Gates had Paul Allen. Warren Buffet has Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway. Michael Eisner had his own Larry Bird at Disney, now deceased Frank Wells. And, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin have each other at Google.
Some people are lucky enough to find their touchstone. I married mine! My wife, Donna, has always been my Larry Bird. She has the uncanny ability to always stay calm, untangle emotion and facts, and either “pass or shoot the ball” at exactly the right time.  In short, she gets the ball to the scorer. There are many examples in my life. I remember when I was set to leave the FBI where I had been an agent for years. I was being recruited by a large firm. In fact, they had made me a very nice offer, which I was close to accepting. However, I brought home an advertisement for a job on the faculty of the University of Virginia that a friend had given me. Donna saw it and thought it might be worth my consideration. When I mentioned how financially good the firm’s offer was, she said, “You’ve never been about money.” She was right, and I ended up at the University where I was very happy.
The two keys to finding your own Larry Bird are simple: Look and listen.
Look at what people do. The Romans had a saying, “facta, non veba,” which means “deeds, not words.”  People say, even promise, all sorts of things but often don’t actually deliver. For example, an executive might give speeches about integrity and honesty and then do shady things to maximize corporate profits and look good to Wall Street. A father might talk about healthy eating to his children and then constantly stuff his face with junk food. Sure, we all disconnect from our words from time to time—but the Larry Birds of the world have a better track record at staying close to what they say. In my world, Donna’s as consistent a person as I’ve ever met. Her say-do consistency is remarkable. So, keep your eyes wide open for people who consistently do what they say.
Listen to what they say. While I don’t have a lot of empirical data to support this, my personal and professional experience with thoughtful advisors has been heavily weighted on the side of introverts. And there is data on them. In the world, there are roughly 3 times as many talkers (extroverts), as there are listeners (introverts). This means that there’s a lot of chatter or noise going on. However, when extroverts talk, it’s like brainstorming. It’s often unrehearsed and free form. Don’t listen too much to extroverts, at least not to their early “rough drafts.” If you let them talk long enough, you may get to what they really mean.  However when an introvert speaks, listen up. Introverts don’t “publish” words or advice unless they’ve thought about it a lot and are strongly committed to what they’re saying. Donna is the kind of person who talks softly and a lot less frequently, certainly less than me. Something we extroverts need to learn is to shut up and listen. Often the wisdom of an introvert can get muted by the barrage of words from extraverts. Be careful to avoid suppressing introverts and listen.
In short, it might take you some time to find your Larry Bird. But if you find a person with a sense of say-do integrity who speaks softly but profoundly, you might just have found yours. Run your critical ideas by them before you shoot or pass the ball—you’ll be glad you did.

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