Category Archives: How do you define success?

The parable of the shovels

Two men stood on opposite sides of a field. An Overseer said, “Dig.”

shovelThe first man said “Okay! I can handle that. I’ve been preparing all my life to dig.” He selected his best shovel from five shovels leaning against a large storage shed, and he set to work. He had no trouble digging; his parents had paid for digging lessons when he was a child, and he had a college degree in shoveling. He was so good at digging that sometimes this man wished he had more shovels. The families of some of his friends had so many shovels they needed more than one storage shed. They had more than they could ever use, and this man knew his life would be better too, if he amassed a larger supply.

The second man across the field heard the “Dig” instruction and set to work. He had no shovel, so he dug using his bare hands. He had never had a shovel, so he wouldn’t have known what to do with one if he had it. He believed that shovels were something only other people had, and they were a dream he would never attain. He was a little afraid of shovels, truth be told. And the people who had shovels didn’t treat him nicely at all, so he didn’t want to become like them. Because he didn’t have a shovel, he had to dig longer and work harder than the other man, and he still didn’t get as much done. But he kept working. One day he fell ill, but he dug anyway. There are no such things a sick days for people with no shovels.

The first man didn’t pay much attention to what was happening on the far away side of the field, but one day he decided to take a well-deserved afternoon off and go for a walk. When he came to the side of the field where the second man was working through his lunch hour, he saw how little progress the man had made.

“Look at that,” he said. “He’s hardly done anything. He’s waiting for me to pick up the slack.”

He shook his head and walked away. “He’s just lazy and riding on my coattails.” He didn’t notice that the man had no tools to work with. It didn’t occur to him to share any of the shovels he wasn’t using.

The Overseer came back to check on progress. He visited the man digging with his bare hands, and he complimented him on his progress. “You have done well,” he said. The digger knew he had worked hard. He felt proud of the results of his hard work, even though he knew it wouldn’t look like much to others.

hand-tool

The Overseer went to visit the man with many shovels. That digger said, “Look at what I’ve done.” He waved an arm to show off the large area of ground he had worked. “I’ve done so much more than that guy over there.” He pointed to the small patch the other digger had worked on the opposite corner of the field.

“You have done well,” the Overseer said, “But do you think you might have a shovel to spare?”

Startled, the first digger replied, “Why, sure, I guess.” He’d never thought of that before. He looked down at the shovel in his hand. It had a sturdy handle, and it was just the right length. He really loved it. He didn’t want to give that one away, so he kept his favourite shovel. He gave the Overseer one he’d forgotten he even had out of the back of the shed.

The Overseer returned to the far side of the field and placed the shovel into the dirty and calloused hands of the second digger. The man held it out from his body, overwhelmed at first. He had never handled shovels, so it felt awkward. He didn’t think he deserved such a thing.

“Use it. It will help you,” the Overseer said.

Eventually the second digger gained confidence and became quite comfortable with the new tool. It worked so well for him, he even enjoyed some time off every once in a while.

  • There will always be people with more or fewer tools.
  • Don’t judge people who don’t have tools.
  • Don’t be afraid of tools; master them and they will help.
  • Everyone is worthy of tools.
  • Consider the needs of others and get them some tools, if you can.
  • Sometimes we don’t even realize that we have more tools than we really need.
  • It’s okay to keep your favourite tool.

Facing fear: Cost or benefit?

Last week I wrote about a meeting with a group of people who have to make a difficult decision. The facilitator asked everyone to consider the costs and benefits of saying “YES” and the costs and benefits of saying “NO.”

The group considered financial repercussions, the effect on personal relationships and the overall societal implications—the usual stuff. When listing the benefits of saying “NO” one group spoke up with: “If we say no, we won’t have to face our fears.”

People nodded. True. So true. The status quo—the comfort zone—is very appealing. The people in the room agreed that saying “NO” would, in many ways, make life a little easier.

But it only took a second or two before there was a reflective pause and a murmur. “Wait a minute,” the murmur said. “Not facing fears would also be a cost.”

We realized that not facing fears is an ingredient in recipes for stagnation, disappointment, dissatisfaction, guilt, depression, anger and lots of other unpleasant aspects of life.

It’s not the easy choice. It’s not the comfortable choice. But sometimes it’s a whole lot of fun, and it’s better than getting stuck between the cracks of life.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, April 16, 1991

Up close and personal with the other side of the story

Yesterday I took part in a meeting with a group of people who have to make a difficult decision. It is the kind of decision that touches people in a deep place, so we know that no matter what the result will create some uneasiness.

The facilitator for the group asked us to consider this: If we say “YES,” what are the benefits of that decision? If we say “YES,” what are the costs of that decision?

I have an opinion on the matter, so I knew that listing the benefits would be a breeze. Easy-peasy. No problem. But I thought I would struggle with pointing out the costs. I was wrong. I was surprised by how readily I was able to come up with both costs and benefits.

We were also asked to look at the situation from the “NO” side. If we say “NO,” what are the benefits of that decision? If we say “NO,” what are the costs of that decision?

the-two-oneAgain, both costs and benefits came easily to mind. I didn’t have to dig around in the recesses of my mind to find them. I didn’t have to struggle with them or make something up. Both sides of the issue were ready for plucking off the surface of my brain once I chose to look for them.

I was surprised by how up close and personal my relationship with the other side of the issue was. 

I realized that I had already, subconsciously or unconsciously, weighed the costs and benefits. I had arrived at an opinion having considered the costs but seeing the benefits as more important, on balance.

It made me wonder, how many people hold strong opinions on a matter without any awareness of how up close and personal they are, or have been, with the other side of the issue?

 

 

You can’t skip Day Two: Where the magic happens

Day two, or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you’re ‘in the dark’—the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.” —Brené Brown in Rising Strong

Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong, leads and participates in three-day workshops that encourage people to dare greatly and accept vulnerability. On Day One, people arrive bright with curiosity and anticipation. Day One is easy. But not Day Two. Day Two is hard. That is when participants really need to delve into the “unavoidable uncertainty, vulnerability, and discomfort of the creative process.”

No matter where people come from, or how much money they make, or what level of experience they have, everyone finds Day Two of the workshops challenging. Everyone experiences the doubt and discomfort that make up the middle space. Sometimes people want to give up and flee. They want to skip all the difficulties but yet, somehow, miraculously arrive at a happy ending.

But you can’t skip Day Two.

“The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens.”

Daring greatly to fill the empty pages on Day Two

Daring greatly to fill the empty pages on Day Two

Day Two takes many metaphorical forms. It’s the time of not knowing in between times of knowing. It can be the journey between the bright curiosity and anticipation at the outset of a project and the satisfaction of its completion, as in Brown’s workshops. It can also be the painful struggle between tragedy and triumph.

Day Two lives in the space after death or divorce and before life re-created in a new way. We find Day Two in the scorching pain of labour, after the first twing of contraction and before the birth of a child. Writers know Day Two well. Our Day Two is the long, doubt-filled period between Idea and Book.

There is a big Day Two coming up this weekend for those who celebrate Easter. Those who don’t celebrate Easter can look to it as an example too.

The Saturday that follows Good Friday, might look like an empty day, but it’s an important day to contemplate, because it’s the part of the story that we most often need to bring to mind. It represents all the difficult times we face when we don’t yet know about the joy to come. In Jesus’ time, on the Saturday following his death people only knew grief. They thought he’d be lost to history forever. They couldn’t have imagined that thousands of years later we’d still be talking about the guy.

During our times in between when we can’t see the happy ending—whether those times come after a divorce, or while working on a school project, or while waiting to hear if we got a job—Day Two reminds us that wonderful things beyond our wildest imaginings could be around the corner.

The time in between is a messy time of grief, or doubt, or confusion, or anger. On Day Two we do all the work without knowing where it’s going. It’s not fun, but you can’t skip it either. It’s where the magic happens.

Day Two sustains us and reminds us to keep a flicker of hope alive.

wishing-for-wind

 

 

So THAT’S what happens: Being at peace with life

A few little things went wrong in my life this weekend. Nothing major. Just petty little annoyances.

It was gorgeous and sunny in Ottawa, but I felt yucky and didn’t want to move from the couch. Our friend’s dog that we were looking after for the weekend caught a nail on our heating grate, hurt his paw and bled all over our kitchen floor. (You can imagine how awful we felt about that.) And the curling team that I was pulling for at the Tim Horton’s Brier didn’t win. (Brad Gushue, you were so close.) 

Little things added up until I collapsed on the couch and said, “You know what? I’ve had better days.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to be at peace with minor inconveniences. It’s an even greater challenge to accept major upsets that come along. Sometimes it’s even a challenge to allow ourselves to savour fun events or people that crop up on our life paths.

We spend so much time evaluating whether something is “good” or “bad” we never arrive at accepting what is. And appearances can be deceiving. Events that appear catastrophic at first glance often lead to unforeseen good fortune. Other events that strike us as lucky turn out to be anything but.

All of us would love to have 100 per cent control over what happens in our lives, but we don’t. Even as we lay track toward our goals, unexpected events blindside us and derail our plans.

When that happens I try to remember to rise above all the things going on around me and survey them as if I were an impartial observer. I try view whatever comes—no matter what it is—as a big, welcome surprise. “So THAT’s what happens!”

This attitude makes it easier to be at peace with life. Stuck in the slow line at the grocery store? So THAT’S what happens! A winning goal for your hockey team in overtime? So THAT’S what happens! You’re fired? So THAT’S what happens!”

It’s easier to be at peace with life if all the petty disagreements, unforeseen twists of fate, illnesses, riches, journeys, friends, deaths or births become big, welcome surprises.

So THAT’s what happens! Surprise! I wonder what happens next?

 

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Wakey, wakey: Constant total amazement

Are you awake? Are you sure?

In the movie Joe Versus the Volcano, a man (played by Tom Hanks) who believes he is dying of an incurable disease agrees to travel to a South Pacific island and throw himself into a volcano to satisfy the beliefs of superstitious natives. As he travels there, he . . . wakes up.

“Almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to . . . only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.” —from Joe Versus the Volcano by John Patrick Shanley

In my experience, total amazement is easy.

Last week I skied with my family at Mont-Sainte-Anne, QC. Several times we stopped at the top of the mountain. We gazed at the sunlit treed Canadian landscape and the spectacular St. Lawrence River and said, “Wow!” Total amazement.

sainte-anne-view

The view from Mont-Sainte-Anne, QC, Canada

Constant total amazement is more challenging.

Usually, we need jarring events to awaken us to appreciation for the little things. Power outages jolt us into amazement at the wonders of electric lights—the ones we usually flick on without a thought. A broken limb—or even something as simple as a cut on a finger—painfully reminds us how we really should live every moment in constant total amazement at the freedoms healthy bodies allow us. How about the device you’re reading this on? Isn’t the technology of it totally amazing?

Alas, it seems we need to fall asleep to the amazement, so we can function. After all, somebody has to do the dishes. If we lived in constant total amazement, we might get no farther than our bedroom doors every morning, or the park bench on a sunny afternoon. Constant total amazement seems to stop us in our tracks.

Perhaps John Patrick Shanley was right when he wrote those words for Joe Versus the Volcano. Maybe almost the whole world is asleep, just so we can get the dishes done and the lawn mowed. But maybe, if we think about that, it will prompt us to wake up at least some of the time, maybe a little more often than we usually do. Maybe we can practise total amazement periodically, if not constantly.

It’s a start.

Maple Taffy in the snow at Mont-Sainte-Anne, QC. Totally amazing.

Maple Taffy in the snow at Mont-Sainte-Anne, QC. Totally amazing.

 

 

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