Donald Trump and Meryl Streep locked horns last week — turns out we can learn a lot from that whole kerfuffle about leadership and criticism...

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That's Meryl getting a big-swish award; which she then used the opportunity to have 'erself a fair crack. Then Trump went berko on twitter. In the aftermath, it turns out Trump and I actually agree on something! We obviously both weren’t fans of Bridges Over Madison County. But beyond that, I'd suggest his handling of Streep's criticism is worth putting under the microscope...shall we?

 

I get around on the tweeting space in rather a sporadic fashion. But one tweet in particular sent the whole 140-character brigade into meltdown last week.

Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood…

That was part of a tweet put out by the US President-elect Donald Trump. Very soon to be (as in a matter of hours) the most powerful man in the world. Wow.

I made mention in my newsletter from last week that this invites a very interesting discussion…so let's dive in.

Now I should caveat that in writing this newsletter, it is my intention to explore something eminently more useful than a political debate. I want to explore the role of a leader when criticism comes your way.*

So let’s use Trump’s remarkably thin-skinned** twitter retort to Streep’s politically-charged, strident acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes as a useful catalyst to explore an important set of questions:

As a leader, what should we do when faced with criticism from others?

Should we react? Should we remain quiet?

How do we determine which approach might work best?

That’s a conversation worth having, don’t you think?

 

It’s like the tide; you won’t stop it

Look, let’s face it; once you step into a role as a leader, especially an appointed position, you’ll face criticism. Without any doubt whatsoever, it’ll happen. You know it, don’t you?

Despite your best intentions and most devout effort, people will say and write things about you that at best are professionally challenging and at worst are deeply personal in the worst way. You’ll lose sleep over some of that criticism; you can bank on it. Now this newsletter could explore the reasons why others feel the need to react in such ways; but that’s probably a whole other piece for another time. A veritable Pandora’s box that we’ll leave shut…for now. Rather than discuss the antecedents for their behaviour, let’s focus on your reactions as a leader instead, shall we? Great.

This whole dealing with criticism thing, well, it’s a terribly complex problem to explore —largely due to the emotions at play— so let’s introduce a simple critique hierarchy for you to filter criticism through.

That hierarchy? Ignore. Interpret. Investigate.

 

Ignore - this doesn’t/shouldn’t matter to me

Put simply, if the criticism comes from someone outside your circle of influence, e.g. they have no direct relationship with you, nor are they a peer or mentor of yours; my strongest advice would be to ignore it. You’re a leader and it’s not your role to win a popularity contest. Capisci?

Just delete it immediately from your inbox. Politely but firmly hang up the phone. Block them on social media. Turn off the chatter and don’t buy into it.***

Now some might suggest that such immediate deletion from your consciousness could be running away from an issue, but they’d be wrong. I’d argue it’s simply setting up important boundaries. Dr Brene Brown (who I believe is truly a voice of our times) suggests that some of the most compelling data she’s uncovered about vulnerability and shame in leaders led her to an irrefutable conclusion: the most compassionate and trust-engendering leaders are the ones who establish clear boundaries. In basic terms, they determine what’s OK and what’s not OK and hold themselves and others to it.

By not setting these type of boundaries —who to listen to and who to ignore— we effectively let the world set our boundaries for us.

So, stuff ‘em. Turn them off and in doing so, turn off the noise in your head. (Even better if you have the most incredible Executive Assistant in the whole world, Tracy, to do it for you :)

 

Interpret - to dig a little deeper (and then choose your action)

There are going to be times when simply ignoring criticism isn't going to work for you; in fact, it’ll actually do the situation more harm.

But rather than move directly into action (based on the criticism) you need a middle step, otherwise you can find yourself just reacting to anything and everything— sometimes you’ll need to interpret the criticism to see what underlying drivers are at play.

The truth is not many people are skilled in giving good critique. In fact, most suck at it. Just awful. As a consequence, the data they are trying to provide you may be well-intended but it’s often skewed or inaccurate.

To interpret criticism well, a crucial first step is to ask a question. Sounds ridiculously simple, right? And it is, but far too many people tend to engage by heading down a process of justification and explanation; and that’s a mistake.

As a leader, your job isn’t to constantly justify your decisions or choices, but rather, have people understand them better while leaving a window available for change if you have indeed, stuffed up. By refraining from justification — which is just continuing a narrative that isn’t working — and asking a question, we get a chance to understand where any confusion or miscommunication might have taken place.

Typically, the times you’ll decide to choose interpret rather than ignore will be when there is an existing relationshipthat needs to continue in some way, shape or form. You’ll need to see and work with this person again, or require their services or custom. It could be an internal stakeholder or a customer, perhaps a peer at work in another department.

Dig a little deeper — by asking good questions — to gain an understanding of whether you either choose to take action based on the criticism or move on from it. Got it? Awesome.

So, our last option is to react to criticism, but possibly not in the way you might think.

 

Investigate - make a change or enter the conversation

Our third stage in the hierarchy of processing criticism is when someone close to you; be they a trusted colleague or mentor, a long-term customer, one of your direct reports, or your boss; gives you criticism. What do we do in this situation? Good question; I’d suggest you investigate.

Make no mistake, this is your problem. If it’s someone in your inner-circle giving you this critique, you’ve undoubtedly played a role in the environment to this point and you need to change the dynamic in some way.

I should clarify this though; you need to change the approach, not necessarily the decision.

If the source of the critique is close to you and there’s a deep relationship that exists that needs to continue, you need to shift the focus off them (as we would in interpret) and in the early instance put the focus squarely on ourselves. What could I have done differently? How could I have managed this message better? How can I explain context from a different angle to help them understand? You’re 100% responsible for your own actions. Sure, they are also 100% responsible for their actions too, but again, if they’re close to you, you need to take ownership of what you have complete control over: your own actions.

The problem is if you don’t show discernible effort to either make a change in your own behaviour, explain things another way (which is a change of behaviour) or enter the conversation deeper, then you’ll be seen— by the closest people around you —  as a leader who is closed and indifferent. Not a good platform for future engagement.

So, how do these three steps look in real, understandable terms?

Ignore: I don’t look at it. Delete it from your space.

Interpret: I ask questions to then make a decision to act (or not)

Investigate. Where could I do it better? (and in doing so strengthen the relationship)

Hope this helps you as you lead your teams in 2017.

 

Alf veeter sayin

Darren

 

*Look, I could easily write thousands upon thousands of words on why Trump is a disaster on so many levels but I guess time will tell just how big a catastrophe we’ll see unfold. We could also list Meryl Streep’s list of awards and achievements providing a compelling case that she is in fact, not overrated, but arguably the finest actor of her generation, male or female. But I’ll settle for this little footnote to give you a pretty good idea where my thoughts on this lie.

** I can’t imagine Mandela, Gandhi, MLK, Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama (or any other great leader) getting into a slanging match on Twitter can you? It just seems so reactionary for someone in such a position of authority. What if Trumpy had tweeted “Congrats to Meryl on her award at the Golden Globes. Perhaps we could meet to discuss how we can both make the US a better place for all. My door is open to someone of such influence.” That sounds like a leader worth following doesn’t it? BTW I know he would’ve had to split that over two tweets —140 characters ’n all.

***I’m the first person to put my hand up to say I’ve engaged in good slanging matches on Twitter, Facey and the like. It’s one of my best/worst skills and I enjoy the sparring…but if I’m in a leadership capacity, then the vast majority of the time I realise to best to stay above it. No matter how much you see it as ‘sport’. (I’m also writing this as a reminder to myself).)

º BTW, if you’re a person that just loses their mind over someone suggesting Trump pulled the wrong move with the whole Twitter thingo, or you wanna rant about left or right, or that Streep is an elitist blah blah…rather than have an intelligent conversation about leadership, then please save both you and me a bunch of time by not writing a vitriolic email to me. Actually, I guess you can if you really want, it’s just I won’t read it. I promise you I’ll follow the themes of this piece and just ignore it. Seriously. I’m like greased lightning on the delete key these days. Ninja-like even. Granted, a Ninja that ate way too much Christmas cake and beer, but still pretty damn fast. So, if you’re a bit worked up, best to just go shout loudly at a brick wall. You’ll get a better response. And unsubscribing is always a good option if none of this sits well with you. Again, probably best for both of us, and I wish you a genuine and heartfelt farewell and good luck in all life has to offer you and those close to you. Big love. 

If on the other hand you loved what I’ve mused on, then feel free to put it up on your fave social media channel or send it onto a mate. Sharing is caring, y’all.

Let's explore why some people make massive changes while others stay the same...

So we've been inundated via email, text and PM's on social media with the response to last week's newsletter. Actually, inundated is probably not entirely accurate. Inundated would be Meryl Streep's inbox. Or Trump's twitter feed after his response.

Cue Daz thinking: hmmm, actually, I might muse on that next week. Topic: how to take criticism as a leader.

Anyways it's not like we had to hire an assistant to sort through bags of fan mail or security guards to walk me too my car or anything like that. But there were a few dozen comments, hat tips and general compliments; my Mum even said she liked it if that counts for anything...

So it did seem to hit a nerve or strike the right cord for plenty of people —sharing my lament of the long-term (longish) disappearance of my relationship with words. It was a rally cry to step back into the space in 2017 — and I'm happy to report the writing has been pouring outta my fingers. Go me.

Now as typically happens, when our filter changes, or confirmation bias kicks in, or perhaps even it's ole fashioned luck, there are often signals to confirm our pathway. That was there in spades for me at the fillums on Sunday.

If you, like me are undertaking a creative renaissance in 2017, bloody hell, do yourself a favour and get along to the flicks to watch La La Land. This one is perfect fuel for the bashed, battered and bruised creative soul that is summoning up the fight for another tilt; the creative taking the chance to again, dare greatly. Oh, and it has Emma Stone in it.* 'Nuff said.

Oh, and make sure you check out the links at the bottom of this newsletter. Some cool stuff coming up including Ali running a Think Club at University of Queensland. It's a cracker. We'll be exploring  the biases that are holding back our pursuit for gender equality at work. Big topic, big crowd. It's free and we'll have 200+ of the smartest peeps in Brisvegas at it. Get on it.

Now on with this weeks newsletter...'bout the year we're entering.

 

New Year, New You

Twenty-seventeen. So good.

A new year always brings a sense of anticipation, change and expectation, doesn’t it? Well, let’s face it, the excitement generally comes after the New Year’s hangover, of course. Unless you have young kids. Then, like Alison and I, you’ll have been in bed by 10.30pm, giving yourself a mental high-five that you made it that far into the evening. But I digress.

New year, new spirit of change and all that. It’s cool, right?

Not really. For too many people, in too many years, all that early anticipation amounts to little action and nary a change to be seen from the year previous. But a rare few, the new year brings a new experience and it’s wonderful.

So, it begs us to consider a big, beautiful and bold question;

Why do some people genuinely change the game for themselves in a new year when others stay the same?

 

Times they are-a-changin’

Before we delve deeper into that question of why people have stunning years of reinvention and yet their mate —right alongside them— fails to change, not one iota, let’s actually explore some facts.

The 100% inescapable truth is everyone, at the material level, is a different human being each and every year.

We all reinvent ourselves quite regularly. The vast majority —and we’re talking >95%— of the molecules in our bodies — all those clusters of atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen — are not the same as the year before. We produce a small intestine lining every four days, such is the rapid regeneration and turnover of cells. Our skin cells last about two weeks or thereabouts, whereas our red blood cells stick it out for nearly four months the stubborn little blighters.

Make no mistake, we are different. Every year. Without fail. And yet, at another level, everything is the same.

The quantum mechanics and cellular memory within our DNA arranges our system to follow certain rules; we arrange our cells in such a way that even though we’re in constant regeneration, we essentially keep producing the same result. Those new molecules and atoms absorbed through food and our external environment align themselves according to certain patterns, and largely that’s a good thing.

As Homo Sapiens we produce two legs —with this new bone and tissue material every year— and yet we don’t randomly produce a third leg. Thank gawd, because that would need a pretty considerable re-work of the wardrobe wouldn’t it?

Umm, don't suppose you'd have a pair of those Nudie jeans out the back in an extra leg would you? Damn!

Our body’s cells arrange themselves time and again; whether it’s our beating heart, or our ability to see, hear, or smell. We keep our opposable thumbs and for far too many of us, a love for the Kardashians. That last point, I guess, shows we can see that the system as almost-perfect as it is, is also still deeply flawed.

So, whilst basically everything is new every year —at a material level— the organising principles and smart intelligence that exists at a cellular level often stays the same. Producing largely the same results.

And therein lies a potential answer to our big question of why some people change and others don’t in a new year.

Because everyone changes. But the ones who achieve the elusive ermahgawd change, well could they have possibly changed the deeper mechanics that drive their material plans?

In 2017 I guarantee you’ll see some people undertake impressive physical and environmental transformations. They’ll lose weight, get fit, take up new hobbies, dedicate themselves to new pursuits, change jobs, start businesses, form new and fulfilling relationships — if you open your eyes to it, you’ll be astonished by the transformation that some people will undertake this year.

And yet others will have their very own groundhog-day type year. It’ll look and feel almost exactly the same. Same life, same house, same body, same routines, same crap boss, same shitty job; while they might have a new cellular experience — remember almost every single atom in their body will have changed by this time next year— the organising principle that shaped the constant rebuild remained the same, so the result is the same.

A confronting reality is that the biggest impact you can achieve to change things in your life is to work on the deeper mechanics that in turn, create the plans that organise you as your system continues to constantly regenerate itself.

Having said that, I doubt you’ll change those opposable thumbs of yours anytime soon. Which is good news for all those glove-makers out there.

 

Change the blueprint

The mechanics I speak of — that arguably are the biggest driver for change in our daily behaviours — are our core beliefs. Challenging our perceptions, filters, mindsets, world views, values — all these belief systems — are how we can truly achieve meaningful change.

If you want a new work experience, change your core beliefs about what work can be. If you hate your job, try finding something to love about it and to be grateful for. I’m one hundred percent aware that this sounds condescendingly simple. If you want to lose weight or get fit, change the relationship and perceptions you have with food and exercise. If you want to achieve a level of financial freedom, then start by viewing your belief systems around money. If you want to overcome your clicky knees, lower back pain or your sore thoracic area then look at how you believe you’ve contributed to your current situation. These are hard mirrors for any of us to stare into. And for many, myself included, we’ll often choose to look away.

I should point out that this isn’t simply positive thinking or god forbid, manifesting your destiny. Cue vomit-in-mouth in three, two, one… This is not more clap-trap-speak like the godawful written-diarrhoea that pervades the world in the form of The Secret or The Power of Positive Thinking.** If you want my honest opinion of this literary garbage, best to read Mark Manson’s roast of 'The Secret'. It’s sensational reading that better encapsulates my views than I could possibly write.

Changing your core beliefs isn’t via thinking happy thoughts and skipping through the tulips. It’s hard, gritty and sometimes immensely painful. It requires asking huge questions of yourself and demanding we often let go of the things that have served us well.

If you are, perchance, a victim of something horrific —including physical or psychological distress of the worst kind— the accepted way that you’ll change the behaviours associated with victimhood is to change the belief you hold around the circumstance. Until that point, the perpetrator still exhibits control over your life. Most credible psychological support strategies in this type of instance are pointed towards re-shaping identities and beliefs.

So too with the most debilitating of physical disorders. The growing evidence base that supports lifestyle-based treatments having profound effects upon various forms of cancers is far too weighty to ignore. While extreme proponents — usually commercially driven — might think that bone broth will cure your arthritis, mastitis and any other ‘itis you can think of (modern day snake oil anyone?) the majority of the argument, that we can prevent and in some cases even heal ourselves through healthy lifestyle choices becomes more salient with every year that passes. The cornerstone of this whole approach is that many forms of cancer (and it’s continued presence in your body), in some cases might not be done to you but be because of you, well that’s some heavy consideration. Especially for most of us who’ve had our closest family members battle and ultimately lose the fight against this insidious group of diseases #fuckcancer #ihateit

Think of it this way: if you have the notion that the raw materials to build say, a house; that they had to be put together a certain way and you couldn’t envisage any another way, it makes perfect sense that you’d keep getting the same building over and over. But just like bricks, wood and tiles can be shaped to form many different types of houses, there’s a huge evidence base around placebos to suggest the molecules in your body —the composition of building blocks of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen— can be re-shaped through our thinking rather than at the environment’s behest.

So back to our latest trip around the sun. This year that is going to be 2017.

 

Let’s all dig a little deeper, shall we?

Be forewarned this post is much more than a warning shot across the bow. It’s just the first volley in a full-scale assault as I explore personally (and take you with me) on a very cool quest this year. My longer-term goal is to explore the deeper beliefs that drive behaviour in the workplace and team cultures along with individual behaviour too. You’ll find this stream constantly through my work this year largely driven because of my word for 2017, Pentimento.

Yep, like a growing number of people I tend not to get too caught up in resolutions or too fixated on yearly goals, but I do like to place a ‘filter’ on the year in the form of a word. I first heard of the concept over 7 or 8 years ago from my mate Rowdy and also through Matt and Jason. Wonderful words such as ‘Pirate’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Magnet’ and even ‘the year of NO’. A word for the year has now become quite the fashion, with notable bloggers such as Mia Freedman in this post and others now jumping on board in recent years.

Alison is one of the best` at this game. Her words are always killer. In years gone past she’s picked ‘Unleash’, ‘Warrior’ (not worrier) and a year of ‘Flirt’. Curiously, I was a big fan of that year. This year she’s gone with ‘Aperture’. Alison’s intention is about how much exposure, light and control she wants over the picture that is her life. Way cool, right?

So as stated earlier, my word for 2017 is Pentimento. Penti-WTF?

Pentimento is a term used to describe a painting that has aged to the point where the surface artwork has faded or cracked; then revealed underneath is an underlying work from the artist that was painted over. So cool right? In effect, over time the painting reveals other layers of itself.

My word for the year is my filter to explore the hidden or deeper meaning on the canvas that is our life and work experience. What are the beliefs and hidden drivers that are in turn represented in the behaviour we see?

It’s going to be fascinating, revealing, confronting, and in some cases I truly believe it’ll verge on being terrifying.

But what started me to thinking about exploring this deeper, oft-hidden space, was a conversation about potential. A dear friend of mine Michael Henderson shared one of his wife Shar’s quotes that stopped me in my tracks.

To be twice the person you want to be, you’ll need to leave half of yourself behind.

The smart question is which part do you choose to leave behind? Where can we choose to change the blueprint and in turn, change the results?

That’s why I’ve chosen Pentimento. I want to be a better version of myself and I want my family, friends and clients to do the same. To do this, I’ll need to challenge the belief systems that drive all that behaviour.

It’s a game I’m up for, and I hope you are too.

Just remember, it is materially impossible to be the same person in 2017 as you were in 2016. How you choose to reinvent yourself is in a large part, up to you.

 

Terry marka see

Darren

*And some other joker by the name of Gosling. Alison thought he was OK.

** You’ll note I haven’t put in a hyperlink to that rubbish. And if you wanted one, give yourself a stern talking to. You’re better than that.

Melancholy Meandering

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Photo above: Good ole Daz back in his happy place...but not before wandering aimlessly for many months...randomly shouting at people like Brick Tamlin^ Read on for the whole story...

I’ve always had a way with words. Or perhaps, more accurately;

I’ve had my way with words.

And I choose these words —about words— not to be clever, but rather, descriptive. Because sometimes it felt almost adulterous. Intoxicating. Secretive. Obsessed. I mean, we’re talking completely fixated, ensconced; just prosing away. Reveling in the magnificence that seeps from words well put together.

Thankfully, most of the time my relationship with words was more like a long, happy marriage. Hard work, sure, but the deep sense of appreciation and gratitude that comes only through time leaves any discomfort or challenge faced along the way cowed and beaten under the power of love. The love for vocab.

And then there’s the other times. Well, they just feel like I’m downright whoring my way through the English language. And not high-class escorting either. Nope. I use it, drop it, abandon it and abuse it through pure selfishness. I treat it dirty and it treats me with contempt in return, but daren’t say so. It’s at my whim. I don’t respect it and it is there to serve me. I’ve left my cash on the bedside chest of drawers and often more than a few dollars short for the services rendered.

Oh yes, dear friends, I’ve had my way with words.

 

My melancholy meandering

About 18 months prior, me and them wordy-words…well, we had-it-goin’-on. I mean it was ON. Full throttle. I was voraciously reading; it was nothing for me to have anywhere between 3-5 books on the go, reading upwards of 100 books a year. My backpack would have a cluster of books within; perchance any spare time on a flight or airport lounge —even just 15 short minutes— it would immediately be taken advantage of. I’d ravenously devour the pages like a savoury feast that might be taken away at a moment’s notice. Oh, and I was writing furiously. Determinedly. Doggedly. I’m not sure if it was just discipline or working at my craft, but heck, I was cracking on.

And then it stopped. Dunno when, or exactly how, but it did.

I fell out of love, lust and longing with words. My-oh-my, this was much more than some internal disquiet. I stopped my practice of writing. The weekly newsletter I pounded out, nary missing a week over almost 7 years…just stopped.

And reading. Argghh. This is the one that really stings. It just ground to a halt. There’s a little part of me that feels deep shame when I admit this, but I think I only read five or six books for the whole of twenty-sixteen. Jeez. That hurts to write —and even more to sit here re-reading those words. I didn’t read. Wow.

Reading.

Writing.

Gone.

I kept waiting for the love to come back. Yet it didn’t. Granted, I didn’t exactly engineer a spiritual awakening at an ashram; nor did I try for an epiphany while overlooking some impressive vista like you see on a million godawful iStock pics. There was no lightbulb moment or sign for me to re-embrace words.

The love had gone. And it wasn’t coming back anytime soon.

The love of words.

And I wondered if it ever would return.

The love of words.

And it made me sad. Emoticon-sad-face-in-my-heart-sad.

This wasn’t just a couple of gloomy days. It lingered longer. There was a deep sense of loss that my primary creative outlet (and inspiration) had just up-and-gone. There were countless futile attempts of opening my laptop with the express intention to write; I’d buy a book with the inspiration to read…but still, nothin’.

Perhaps it was the way I’d abused it over the years. Maybe I hadn’t respected it enough. Should I have been gratitude journaling each day and professing my undying love for writing and reading? Perhaps I needed to set the mood, a few candles, and mebbe a bottle of wine? But rather than use the bottle of wine as a conduit to rekindling my romance for words, I just drank it.

And even when the hangover subsided, still the words didn’t come to be written, and nor were they read.

 

Sit and stand, these hours at hand

knowing there’s more in me

than what I show.

Wanting to be taken, captured and enraptured

by the words that never came

instead, just a melancholy meandering  

It left me, wrought and racked in the most terrible of doubt

of ability. of desire. of worth.

my feckless heart; ruined by the words that never came

 

It really messed with my head. And strangely, this was in spite of all the other cool happening that were going on.

Here I was (with Ali and a team of superstars) building a rocketship of a business, Pragmatic Thinking. 2016 was a year of unparalleled growth, progress and #winning. PT is a business that will find its way onto BRW’s Fast 100 list in 2017. Of that I’m certain. It’s grand, scary, alluring, and meaningful. I can’t accurately tell you just how many personal values this wonderful business and thepeople working within it fulfil for me —it’s too many to list.

So here we were delivering some absolute belter leadership programs for clients, achieving substantial results*, and yet…amongst all this activity —this meaningful work— my verve for words just up and left. Gone.

For so long, the word game —the cornerstone of my thought leadership— was broken and cracked.

And at the deepest level, it scared the shit out of me.

 

Progress can be a poultice

All the while colleagues, mates and family sat in wonder of what we were achieving.

‘You guys are killing it!’

‘You’ve grown so fast since we last spoke…

‘Hang on, are you just employing more peeps ‘cos you’re lonely?

The chorus of people cheering us on grew alongside an increasing head count of superstars at Pragmatic Thinking. I look back on the past 18 months with immense personal satisfaction with what we’ve achieved professionally. Thanks in part to Alison, I also did my best to not give in to excessive hubris.**

In fact, as we continued to exceed our targets and do great work, there was a distinct lack of lavish celebration…in fact we were borderline neglectful in recognising success. But in retrospect there was a deeper reason to not smell our own flowers.

Deep down all this progress we were making in PT at a personal level was just a medicinal masquerade. It provided distraction from a deeper pain I felt. But this progress; ah, it was good stuff! It gave me purpose in each day. It made me work, not mope around too much, because there was always stuff to do. Progress got me out of bed, to speak on stage, to work with clients and do many good things.

Despite this, the melancholy was still there at a deep level and the behaviour of my interaction with words —or lack of it— still existed. No writing and no reading.

So here I was in this progress-fuelled paradoxical pickle. 2016 was my most successful professional year. Easily. It was hardly a year of regret or waste. By almost every measure I was freakin’ braining it.

But still.

Meh.

And then I realised something big. What I was doing was the perfect antidote to being in a funk.

A funk is a space most of us reach often and in cycles. It’s a very natural sensation for smart people to get them feels that we’re doing OK but we’re not exactly flying. And so here I was exposing myself to the same treatment I’d used successfully countless times in the past. Get busy. Be smart. Work hard. You’ll bust outta this funk. Just trust the work.

But the activity didn’t heal what was a deeper problem; this malevolent malaise that I finally came to realise would grow ever more cancerous without the right treatment. This was something that would continue to eat away at the best parts of me unless I dared to face it.

I needed to have my way with words, all over again.***

Y’see while progress is so important to our mental health, our motivation and our productivity, it also can become a noble misdiagnosis, ignoring the beating heart of a bigger problem.

Alison talks at length about the balance of purpose and progress. That your purpose doesn’t have to be esoterically aligned; y’now, not mahlife’s purpose. Rather, seeking purpose in the activity you’re doing is a bloody good place to start. She’s smart. It makes sense. It’s right.

Jason writes beautifully on the quest for meaningful progress. That progress can be a distractor. And he’s spot on. He also talks wonderfully about krakens of doom, showing your honour, whisky and other weird and wonderful things. But the progress piece…that’s his jam. So good.****

Heck, I even wrote a piece for AFR/BRW a while back on the high octane fuel that is progress. Why we should be careful with the heady mix of neuropeptides and transmitters that can drive crazy, unsustainable behaviour.

And so there’s two very smart cookies (and me) who advise to treat progress carefully. That it is something to embrace but be discerning of. That the pursuit and intent of making progress each day is a good thing. And we should all aspire to it. It’s an itch we should scratch.

But what if it’s deeper than said scratch? What if you’re trying to treat a bigger problem with the noble, yet misdiagnosed prescription of progress?

After all, you can’t put a band-aid on cancer.

 

Unleash your creative heart.

What I’ve come to is the following conclusion;

Deep at the heart of any malaise —and we’re not talking a funk, but rather, a deep and ugly restlessness— is a creative yearning yet to be met.

If you’re listless, beating yourself up with all that you have (job, pay check, good health, etc) yet still don’t seem to be fulfilled…well, it might just be something other than you being an ungrateful prick/prickette. Sure, people around you and that internal narrative of yours might call it as a first-world problem, but in my view, it’s a problem for sure. And you shouldn’t feel shame because of it.

That melancholy; well my friend, that is a craving for creativity.

This shouldn’t be confused with psychological or safety needs being unmet. That typically manifests as anxiety. Those fight or flight chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol course our synapses because we live in fear of scarcity. Tens of thousands of years ago, knowing where our next meal might come from, or where we might spend the night safely; well they were real worries where the consequences were huge. It was life and death.

But when these life-or-death things disappear —and they have disappeared for the vast majority of the population according to vast reams of data, then what is it we’re feeling? If it isn’t the neural response of anxiety, when business is thriving, family is in good health and relationships are great, then WTF is going on? What are we really experiencing?

Well firstly, that experience of yours —of mine— I’m convinced for many of us that it’s a problem. It’s real. It’s serious. Or at least it is if you want a fulfilled life.

That problem? It’s creativity not met.

And I’m quite aware this is hardly earth shattering news. There’s no eureka moment here. But if you’re in a dispirited state and have been for a while, then this might just be a nudge or gentle reminder; for me however, it was the slap in the face I’d been waiting for. I know I needed it.

If fulfilment is what you’re after, then we need to express ourselves beyond being productive and making progress. We need to tap into our inner desires to create and play. To be curious and dare to think thoughts beyond the rational and obvious. And this is what words do for me.

While I don’t need words like I need oxygen, water, or coffee; say a bushranger† from here or a sneaky piccolo or latte from here. There without doubt necessities required to sustain life. I do need words as a part of my life to find those satisfying moments of fulfilment. Even just sitting and poring my thoughts through the keys of my Macbook Pro right now lifts my spirits and makes my heart a little lighter.

 

And if you don’t think you need creativity for a fulfilled life, then I’d ask you to be curious about the way the world reacted to the artists we lost in 2016. Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Michael. Depending on your genre or taste, there was true mourning. People spoke from the heart about the loss they felt. And why? It’s not simply because these geniuses were creative. It’s because they gave us a chance to feel creativity. They let it run through us.

So, I’ve realised through making extraordinary progress in the lead up to —and within 2016— I became efficient, productive and successful, yet I stopped honouring my deeper creative drive. The more disconnected I became from my creative channels, the more I numbed. Either work or escapism, I was walking away from the very cure of my discontent. Instead of reading, I binge-watched. Instead of writing, I surfed social. Neither of these things were food for my soul.

So, I’m making a declaration. It’s already happened internally, but public accountability carries more weight when it comes to permanent shifts of behaviour. I’m going to write my arse off in 2017. There's been small changes such as changing my writing font preference to serif font styles to embrace block readability and a hat tip to the past. From a tools-of-the-trade POV I’ve already changed the game by buying one of these to carry one of these and I’m also buying a five minute journal to start the day in the right fashion. And loving it.

 

And reading. Oh lordy, it’s back on! I’ve read Pay Off, and am part of the way through reading Homo Deus (gawd it’s good!). And this one in prep for a mid-year trip to France, and this one to explore what it is that makes the successful tick. And I’m excited to have this one next in the line.

So, it’s game on. This isn’t rhetoric, it’s happening.

But be forewarned. This personal realisation of mine —the overdue awakening of my creative side (and subsequent declaration of writing more) means things for you too. You’ll have a choice to make. You can read my musings (that’d be super) or the increased frequency of my writing might mean you don’t want to read it or even hit the delete key, so you may want to unsubscribe. That’s cool. Loaded inboxes and all that jazz. I geddit.

I guess if there’s value in this post, it’s this: if you’re entering 2017 with that deeper feeling of unease; if you hear yourself in the melancholy I’ve described, then find your creative space.

Capture. Paint. Sing. Build. Craft. Sculpt. Speak. Shape. Colour. Read. Write.

I’ll be doing a heck of a lot more of the last two. You can bank on it.

 

Alf veeter sayin’

Darren

*One we’re especially proud of is the work we achieved with the top 200 leaders in Siemens ANZ in 2016. We’re even in the final 3 of some big award hoo-ha in Germany in February. Go us.

**Whenever my ego tries to run its own course too much, I’m reminded of one of my all-time favourite quotes Rohan Dredge shared with me years ago. ‘Give a man a humble badge and if he wears it, take it off him’. BTW, there’s a delicious irony that always rattles around my brain that to talk in any first-person form of personal humility is in fact not being all that humble…lols. 

*** I spent some time working with Mykel Dixon last year trying to find some creativity. It was the first sign of me awakening to my creative need. I’ve little doubt MD could see what was clouded for me; to help me find this realisation. I also knew I knew it. Somewhere, deep down, but just hadn’t fully crystallised it. Much magic ahead for us still Myke. Big love mate.

 

**** I’m such a card-carrying fan of Jason and Kim (aka dangerlam). The congruence they show in dedicating themselves to the art of creating art is flat-out f*cking inspiring. If you don’t have a copy of the cleverness biannual, what are you thinking? I cried when I saw it for the first time. Truly, I did. It’s #neklevel

† FYI, A bushranger is our local term for a long black with splash of pure pouring cream. It's Delish. Like, the cream separates because the heat and you get these globules of coffee-infused fat swimming on top...mmmm, coffee fat. ahghlrhglhhlgh

^Fans of Anchorman would've got that reference

Pleasure and Pain

Do you like chilli? Yep? Turns out you and 2 billion other people also like the sensation of something burning your mouth. And in that lies something to help us at work when the going gets tough…but first, let’s talk effort.

 

Let’s face it. Work is often hard work. Y’know what I mean?

 

Sure, there’s the enjoyable work we do where a combination of autonomy, challenge and the pursuit for a worthy goal leaves us wrecked after a day, but happy. Content, even. 

 

But it’s important to define that we’re talking good-wrecked, not bad-wrecked here. It’s that feeling of exhaustion mixed with fulfilment. A wonderfully satisfying feeling, one I refer to as the ‘kelpie-dog-smile’ effect.*

 

But what of that time when hard work is just plain hard? No fulfilment, just exhaustion. Is there a way to navigate this or change it to gain a greater sense-of-worth that simply energy drain?

 

Turns out there is some recent research coming out of the University of Pennsylvania that gives us an interesting new way to look at hard work. Paul Rozin and his team have been studying reverse hedonism, or more specifically, benign masochism; a delightful term where people derive enjoyment from things that are actually painful. Eating chilli, hard exercise, even a deep tissue massage are all activities we can engage in that are inherently painful, but we can derive pleasure from. Incidentally, I’ll be talking about this very thing at The Future of Leadership in Melbourne in three weeks time on the 6th of September. You should come. If you’re in Melbs, then it’s a no brainer. If you’re interstate and not been to Brissy or Sydney, then heck! What’re you doing? Get on it. A plane. Get your tickets here.

 

So now you’re signed up to to the Future of Leadership, back to our discussion at hand. Can we apply these benign masochism principles to work? Can a painful work task actually become pleasurable? Quite possibly. Let’s look at a few factors.

 

It has to contain a sense of safety

Rozin and his team found a key factor in achieving a reversal of hedonism (something going from pain to pleasure) was establishing a sense of safety. Whilst that vindaloo curry is crazy-hot, the moment you realise it won’t kill you, it starts to be come more enjoyable. Your first run in training for a marathon, you literally think you will die — but a few weeks in, you now can start to enjoy the runs. We also need to ensure this principle is followed at work. It can’t be life and death. As a leader you have a key role to remind people in busy times that the game of work is best played as such — a game.

 

Chunk it down

Pretty simple really. If a task has enormity, you’ll likely panic, which brings back the whole ‘holy-crap-i-might-just-die!’ reaction. The work then becomes painful. But when we break it into manageable chunks, then it opens up the progress principle and assists in the motivation of even the most mind-numbing of tasks. This is where taking on a giant pile of data entry or waging war on your inbox can be liberating rather than debilitating. 

 

Disassociate yourself

Some call it the ‘helicopter view’ others call it taking a step back. I call it ‘get some f*#ing perspective!’ Hmmm, mebbe others have a better use of this english-stuff than I do? It all means the same thing though. That task that you’re driving yourself crazy about…the thing that is causing untold pain…well, it’s really not that big a deal is it? In the grand scheme of things, you sucking it up and grinding out 2 hours worth of data entry isn’t going to rate on a world scale of heartbreak or hardship. Take a break and gain some perspective…the easiest, cheapest way to do this is physically remove yourself from the environment and engage in a little bit of mindfulness. Take your time over lunch. Enjoy that coffee rather than gulping it down. 

 

Part of work is hard work. That’s not in dispute. But what is up for negotiation is how you frame and approach the less-than-enjoyable work. Simply readjusting your focus can result on turning pleasure into pain.

 

*Y’know when you have a working dog (like a kelpie) and they seem at their most content after a hard days work? That’s the kelpie-dog-smile. Doing something they were bred to do. However, put that same working dog in a small confined space for 8 hours and they positively have evil in their eyes…

Expensive coffee can take your breath away

The simplest definition of a leader; 

the person who breathes deepest in a crisis.

Several years back, my dear friend Michael Grinder explained this to me in his usual uncomplicated fashion. At the time I thought wow, that’s a killer soundbite/tweet but it took a few more years for this to truly sink in; as such is Michael’s teaching — it tends to surface months, sometimes years after the fact. I guess when you’ve been studying the science of education and non-verbals for over four decades, as he has, you’ve got a few Jedi-learning tricks in your kit bag.

Well this week I was reminded of this wisdom, over a house-made organic almond-milk latte at a cafe in Byron Bay. That cup of coffee cost me —outrageously— eight dollars and fifty cents. 

Yep, that’s not a typo. Eight-freakin’-buck-fitty! 

But it turns out the value was immeasurable. But more on the cost of Byron Bay coffee later…

Y’see even after being exposed to Michael’s well-thought beliefs on leadership, I genuinely still believed the leader was the smartest person in the room. Not IQ smart, but more streetsmart; a combination of emotional and social intelligence. That’s a leader for sure.

Oh, and a leader needed to have hustle. And lots of it. Bustling their way through a day with a voracious energy that swept everything (and everyone) with them. That’s powerful stuff.

And don’t forget certainty. Having an unshakeable belief around ‘the why’. A fiercely held mindset around the purpose of our work and its impact upon the world. How could people not follow someone like that?

Streetsmarts, hustle, certainty. They’re all really important qualities. Heck, you’re probably thinking gawd, I’d like my boss to show me a bit more of them stuffs from time to time!

And I’m still convinced I’m right. But I’m here to tell you, Michael Grinder is more right. Righterer, I suppose. This deep breathing breathing business. It’s the real deal.

And y’know why it’s so damn powerful? It’s not the fact you are breathing deeply; it’s the process you went through to find the calmness to allow you to breathe deeply. That’s the key leadership skill.

Great leaders need much more than streetsmarts, hustle and certainty. They need a healthy sense of detachment; this shouldn’t be confused with not caring —but more being able to objectively reason that things are never as good or as bad as the seem. Thing just are.

Whether it’s labelled Stoicism, Enlightenment or even Mindfulness, the leader who can rationally see any given situation (and importantly the emotions that come with it) as simply being ‘just is’ — well, that’s the magic trick that precedes breathing deep.

Now back to Byron Bay and that coffee. Eight dollars for a f*cking coffee! Can you believe it?

The truth is any outrage I experience is simply mine to own. 

The price the cafe sets on their coffee is what it is. It’s written on the recycled artisan paper menu. I can pay it or not. And the coffee doesn’t care less either. It too, just is.

It’s simply the voice in my own head I need to observe be curious about and ultimately, quiet.

Want to find the calm one in your office when everything is an absolute sh*tstorm? That’ll be the one practicing that detachment from the incessant conversation rattling inside their heads. Make no mistake, it’ll still be happening, but they won’t let it drive their decisions and actions. 

I hope you’ve seen the message in this post. If you’re frustrated, cheesed off, flummoxed or exasperated by the actions of someone at work…well, that’s all you, not them. Perhaps your place of work is going through a major transformation or restructure (who isn’t?) and tension and uncertainty are high. But the stress you might feel, the anxiety that lives in your gut; well that’s yours to own too.

So if you find yourself busy blaming a particular someone or even the whole world for your ails, then you’ve forgotten that all that stress —it comes from you, not them. And you’re certainly not much of a chance at this deep breathing caper that great leaders demonstrate as a regular practice.