Gallery 80 at the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., is not much of a room at all. There are no windows to penetrate the whitewashed walls; the wooden floors are nondescript except for the subtle groans under the feet of passersby. Gallery 80, in fact, would be an altogether forgettable place if not for the silent two-dimensional residents who line the walls and, with a sort of otherworldly strength, elevate the space to another plane. In some museums, the architecture attempts to prop up the art. Here, the art itself provides windows with a view as high as the heavens and as wide as the expanses of eternity.
As an architect, I can say that Gallery 80 has its priorities straight. There are few places in D.C. I would rather go; indeed, there are few places in the world I would rather go. To commune with these works and have my heart speak with the hearts of these masters is like fresh water for my soul. Here in Gallery 80, I find Monet and Van Gogh. Here I find Rouen Cathedral, the Bridge at Waterloo, Green Wheat Fields at Auvers, Woman with a Parasol and Van Gogh’s self portrait from 1889. Each of these works is a touchstone for me. Each matters to me. It’s not academic; it’s personal.
My intent in citing these artists and their work is not to discuss the technical value of these priceless works of art; I’ll leave that to better-credentialed critics. My only hope here, is to explain something of myself, of my own struggle with my humanness and my art. My hope in all things is that there resonates something in my children (or other readers) as they read that will shine a light on the absurd notion of earthly perfection, the nobility of the quest for it, and some recognition that being fragile, broken and human is not only honorable but that there is wonder and beauty within their every effort.
My endeavor here is to explain a portion of the internal flame that burns deep within me and finds expression through exploration, creativity and art. When I see Monet paint the Bridge at Waterloo, multiple times, over a series of years, I see beauty but I do not see perfection. I see a man searching for his best self. I see a journey documented through simple postcards from stops along the way. In the repetition, I sense an artist beguiled by the talent he can feel but he can’t quite hold long enough to perfect. I see a fellow seeker. I see a man who loathes those things that come too easy because they have no intrinsic worth, a man who dives deep because he can.
Monet’s late work is all atmosphere and environment. His work is capturing everything that isn’t anything. He sees and tries to capture all the world that we feel and sense around us. Perfection, then, might only be achieved if his viewers actually smelled the smoke, felt the chill in the air and walked away from the painting with the sniffles from the dampness of the morning. The dive, indeed, is far too deep. The quest is impossible! The effort to duplicate what God has made is worthy. To know, in some small measure, while still a man, what it means to create as God: That is the resting place he seeks. Monet was in his seventies, suffering from cataracts and still painting daily, seeking to duplicate the natural affects of light and atmosphere in the world around him. Imperfect man will always seek, but this chimerical haven will remain a distant creative oasis, never to be attained.
I have always seen art, in all forms, as a way to order my world. Drawing, painting and writing help me push back the personal doubts that gnaw at my mind. These doubts are always ready to strike at the foundations of my own self-worth, but over the years I’ve negotiated a delicate peace with them. Art helps me maintain this peace. Without it, my mind is a constant territorial dispute around internal battle lines that were drawn when I was very young. In art I take shelter from the siege of doubt and, for a while, simply struggle with my own talents and and drive.
In this cocoon I fret and fidget with the interplay of light and dark, the gentle fall of a fabric and rendering its various folds, or perfecting a cornice detail. There are so many things to break down, to study, to criticize. For a moment at least, my mind relents in its study of the self and focuses on the work. Often this work, though satisfying, is less I hoped to achieve: Thus gently sown, the seed of self-doubt germinates anew. Yet, I cannot deny the feeling of renewed strength that comes from the time spent “away” from my daily mind. The snarling teeth of madness have no reach into the creative process itself.
Alas! As I consider my work, I feel a sting of remorse: Look at all that I’ve lost between vision and execution! Beautiful ideas and emotions spring from my core only to travel the cluttered neurons of my brain, through the fatty sinews and musculature of my body and finally fall limply onto the page. There they dance for all the world to see as deformed children of my creation, without the glory that I intended for them. Flat forms, muddy colors, created by an untrained artist. Yet, there are corners and moments within each sketch where the intent shines through and I can see a small part of what I intended to say. The essence of the artist somehow remains and there is beauty. Through this yin and yang I continuously feed both sides of a lifelong internal war.
Vincent Van Gogh is known and celebrated for different parts of his work and life. I think I feel a kinship with him based upon a common Dutch heritage and an empathy with his personal struggles. I love the expressiveness of his work, his ability to capture feeling and emotion and freeze it on a canvas. Still, when I look upon his face (as he saw it) I know there is a longing within him to be more than he thought he was being. A longing to squeeze more from himself, to be more, fail less; and, perhaps, to even struggle less with his own demons. Even the fashion he turns his face away from his own self-portrait to hide the ear he severed off his own head (in a fit of madness) demonstrates his efforts to show himself as more complete than he really was.
Van Gogh was prolific and astounding in his talent. But I don’t believe talent was his daily personal concern. I believe his personal fight with his demons, his struggle within was the true daily challenge. Van Gogh’s talent was a simple manifestation of that struggle; his prolific artistic production was a sign of the level of his fight and the all consuming nature of his desire to perfect and order what he felt and saw in his heart.
Gallery 80 is a room with a view. It is a room of reflection and introspection. Clearly, the earliest and most rudimentary work of these two masters far surpasses any of my own; however, my comparisons and conclusions are not intended to be about the end product. The affinity I feel for the work is driven by a sense of who these two men were and what was happening within them as they worked. This is the lesson. The two men were contemporaries and traveled in some of the same circles, although Van Gogh was an unknown and Monet was considered far more successful during his lifetime. Each man had his own crosses to bear. One of these men never knew he was a success because he was unable to win the internal war with his own demons and his life was cut short by a revolver fired by his own hand. It was the struggle for a fullness of expression—or perhaps sanity—that drove their excellence.
Sadly, we do not choose all of the circumstances in our lives. Each of us will be forced to reckon with moments, limitations and losses that we would not desire. But dire circumstances can lead to some of our greatest work. Van Gogh himself, produced some of his most enduring art from within the walls of an asylum.
A question floats to my ears from somewhere within the temperature-controlled banality of Gallery 80. It is little more than a whisper: “Who will you be?” I peer quizzically at the elderly couple seated to my left: They are engrossed in the audio tour; the question didn’t come from them. Far across the room to my right, a jacketed docent docent stands next to a large Degas painting: He didn’t ask the question either.
The question comes again: ”Who will you be?”
This time the voice is faintly familiar—a mixture of all of the the voices of me. A chorus of friend and foe alike. Although some of them sound different without the sneer of accusation and doubt, they are undoubtedly my own.
The question hangs before me like a cloud of summer gnats, unable to be ignored and insistent. I look out the window and contemplate a response.
I have heard it said that growing old is nothing more than the slow decay of abandon giving way to expediency. The thought of losing passion and abandon makes me cringe at the prospect of an expedient existence where life is spent in the thick of thin things. My fear of expediency—my fear of an existence bleached of the passion, whimsy and wildness of youth—leads me back to a relationship with my own madness and doubt. The self-loathing is a companion of the creativity, and they never visit alone. For this reason I give myself willingly to the madness. In my mind, I leave the door slightly ajar and set him a place at the table. I do this willingly. I choose the suffering and the self-doubt. It is a choice I have forgotten how to unmake.
This is not a place without hope. I can prepare, as can any other, who deal with self-imposed expectations and perfectionism. In my personal journey, the mental madness has but one standard when it pertains to my art and it goes something like this:
To be able to express fully and completely what is within us, wholly and without error. For just the briefest of moments to be one with God through line, space, shade, shadow and paint. Using those abilities and talents bestowed upon us by the creator to replicate this world. His world. Our world. We replicate emotion and atmosphere and excite in others feelings they feel when they experience God’s creation. This is the only perfect art and the only expression worthy of pursuit.
I will fail. I can only fail when any effort is held up to the standard of the madness. Still I can prepare. I can accept that I am on a journey and that, while imperfect, there exist moments of perfection in my postcards from the journey. There is worth in the pursuit of perfection in anything that we do, even if the final result is far short of the goal. It is a fool’s errand to require perfection in this life as a precursor to happiness, worse yet to stake our self-worth on our ability to achieve it in any one thing. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, it lies in us…” We should set reasonable goals for ourselves, be more gentle and kind with ourselves in our humanness and fragility. There is a beauty that lies within each and every human being that we may or may not realize in our lifetimes. We should not snuff it out in ourselves simply because it doesn’t arrive on our timetable.
When I think of the subject matter chosen for these great paintings that I love I can’t help but think that each subject is so ordinary. They are just normal objects or people that have been animated by the touch of a master. I hope we find more time to celebrate the normal in our lives. There is so much of it, and there will come a time when the madness will make us wish for its return. I am reminded of a poem by Mary Jean Irion called “Normal Day”
Normal day, let me be aware
of the treasure that you are.
Let me learn from you, love you,
bless you before we depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest
of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may,
for it may not be always so. One day
I shall dig my nails into the earth,
or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut,
or raise my hands
to the sky and want, more
than all the world, your return.
Gallery 80 is indeed a room with a view. This is a place I hope to return and report throughout my life. How am I doing? Is the madness at bay? Have I remained fair and kind with myself? Am I working on my art and remaining true to my mission? Is my art expressive and emotive? There is so much to be seen within these simple four walls. There is an old bridge in London, an old church in France, a field of wheat, a woman and her son dancing in the sunlight, and the self-portrait of a man long since dead by his own hand (in the aforementioned field of wheat no less). Most importantly within that room there is me, and there is possibility.
Deep breath. Time to stand up and go. Floor groans. The windows close and the white walls return; but the mind, once expanded, does not retract so easily. I take one more look around, wipe my eyes and make for the door. As I pass, the docent gives a knowing wink. I look back to where I sat just moments ago and I swear I can make out a plump bearded man in a beret fidgeting over two or three canvases. Unbeknownst to him a gaunt, red-bearded man sits with his back to the canvases; his attention consumed by a charcoal sketch he is working on held just 12″ from his nose. I smile broadly and step from Gallery 80 eager to continue my journey.
I have come to the non-revolutionary conclusion that life is hard. Furthermore, life has difficulty, disappointments and, oftentimes, despair. Undeniably, life also has fantastic high points and moments of unequivocal joy and satisfaction. Still, it seems that the disappointment and discouragements of life often send us careening off course and to make rash decisions.
I had one such occasion with my wife the other day. In spite of what you may see from the outside, my life is not without disappointments, discouragements and, sometimes, despair. As my wife and I discussed a particular disappointment she sat quietly for a moment and then said “Perhaps we are not supposed to be here.” I, quizzically, asked “where” she meant, to which she replied “perhaps we are not supposed to be here in Las Vegas.” I can’t say that is a surprising statement, I have thought it before and heard it from many acquaintances and friends. Still, I was concerned for my wife’s reaction to this disappointment and how the doubt was turning to discouragement which would eventually lead to despair.
Like any half-decent husband, I am slowly learning (after over 15 years) that it is a fruitless and vain exercise to ever believe that you can lecture your wife. A husband may talk, may have good ideas, but a lecture is never well received. Not that my vanity doesn’t still get the better of me and I try, vainly, to solve and examine problems for her; I am just learning that this is not the best way. So, in hopes that one day when the pains of disappointment have subsided and the loneliness of fear has ebbed, that she might read this; I thought I would post some thoughts on how I intend to cope with disappointment, my discouragement and ultimately on how I keep my fears, and the snarling teeth of despair at bay.
I am sure that I am not alone. We all deal with disappointments and doubt. I am sure that those few readers who stop here to read are dealing with recent or current disappointments. Hopefully, some of these thoughts will also help you along your way.
Life is full of global calamity and reasons for despair. Politics, war, energy, kidnappings, shootings and a myriad of current societal ills would be enough to ruin any happy day. These global issues remind me of a statement made by WC Fields, who said “smile first thing in the morning and just get it over with!” I have felt this way, but, today, I am not talking about discouragement and despair caused by these issues. I wish to address the fears that might make you wonder about your place in life and the value of your contribution, if any, and make you wonder where you are going and if you are ever going to get there.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement. Discouragement has a germ of its own; as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint.” We each have troubles, but the “germ” of discouragement is not in the trouble — it is in us. This germ, while small, can become a habit; a way of living and thinking, and there the greatest damage is done. It will take an increasingly severe toll on our character and our souls. It will erode our basic character and finest traits of faith, hope and charity. We begin to look inward and downward and these greatest virtues are damaged or at the very least impaired. We become unhappy and, soon, we make others unhappy; and before long, we are no longer ourselves and our progression is halted.
So, what to do and how to avoid this downward cycle? Dante wrote “the arrow seen before cometh less rudely.” John F Kennedy said “the time to prepare the roof is when the sun is shining.” My Eagle Scout training taught me the simple maxim “Be Prepared.” There is a common verse in my religion that reads “If you are prepared, ye shall not fear” this is more than fine words and must be put into practice to be understood. Preparation and prevention is the greatest weapon against discouragement and self-defeat.
Oftentimes, our discouragements are related to financial issues (my current ones, thankfully, are not) but almost all of us are worried about financial issues at some point. Studies have shown that financial issues outnumber all other marital issues combined by a nearly 3 to 1 ratio. So, if you discouragement’s are financial, take heart, you are not alone! I have been there often and certainly will find myself there again. Still, some of these discouragements can be rectified through simple preparation and planning with a budget. “The arrow seen before cometh less rudely.” I do not wish to imply that budgeting is easy or without sacrifice; in fact, almost always a budget will reveal that we must decide between things we want and things that we need. Plan, prepare, budget, work, save, sacrifice and spend on things that matter. Although you may find yourself in almost desperate financial straits, there is a way! These times may be burdensome and the sacrifices may be hard; but these times need not lead to doubt, discouragement and despair. In the words of Henry David Thoreau:
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. [Walden (1854), 1, “Economy”]
Love your life, poor as it is. . . . The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode. [Walden (1854), 18, “Conclusion”]
The trouble need not lead to discouragement, we can find happiness and peace in any circumstance. “Love your life, poor as it is.” “If God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30).
Work can also be difficult and lead to discouragement. Details, deadlines, and impossible work loads seem to be the order of the day in the architecture business. This lifestyle is often punctuated with moments of supreme dread about where the next project will come from and how will we ever get back to the “good life” of details, deadlines and impossible work loads. Any employ will have its difficulties and challenges. These discouragements can also lead to despair and self-defeat, but it need not be so! A little preparation goes a long way!
As an architect, I find that if I work conscientiously at the early part of a project then I can work much more cheerfully at the end. I have spent many overnights at my desk in my office working to finish deadlines that I had known about months in advance. This not produce excellent work, although it does produce strained relationships at home and poor decision making. Often times those brief hours of extremely hard work lead me to be discouraged and disappointed in myself as I watch the sun rise over the mountains in Las Vegas. I think of missed goodnight kisses with my kids, or perhaps a moment where I could have been a listening ear for my wife at the end of a long day. I feel utter disappointment that my failure as an architect has lead to a failure as a husband and father. I discouraged me. I disappointed myself. “remember, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, it is in ourselves” (Shakespeare) This is the worst kind of despair: the kind of self-despising that eats at our image and crushes our hopes. It isn’t the client, it isn’t the company and it isn’t the project; it never is, I should have done it better. I could have worked better early. I could have prepared for the deadline that I knew was looming.
“The point is the same with school as with money or marriage or profession or any hope and dream. Prepare. Plan. Work. Sacrifice. Rework. Spend cheerfully on matters of worth. Carry the calm, and wear the assurance of having done the best you could with what you had. If you work hard and prepare earnestly, it will be very difficult for you to give in or give up or wear down. If you labor with faith in God and in yourself and in your future, you will have built upon a rock. Then, when the winds blow and the rains come—as surely they will—you shall not fall.” –Jeffrey R Holland
Of course, as with our most recent disappointment, some things are not under your control. Some disappointments come regardless of your effort and preparation, for God wishes us to be strong as well as good. I have muttered this to myself throughout the day today as I try to cope and understand that there is a larger plan than the plan I see or comprehend right now. So, I repeat “Love your life, poor as it is.” Drive even these experiences into the corner, painful though they may be, and learn from them. In this, too, you have friends through the ages in whom you can take comfort and with whom you can form timeless bonds.
Thomas Edison devoted ten years and all of his money to developing the nickel-alkaline storage battery at a time when he was almost penniless. Through that period of time, his record and film production was supporting the storage battery effort. Then one night the terrifying cry of fire echoed through the film plant. Spontaneous combustion had ignited some chemicals. Within moments all of the packing compounds, celluloid for records, film, and other flammable goods had gone up with a roar. Fire companies from eight towns arrived, but the fire and heat were so intense and the water pressure so low that the fire hoses had no effect. Edison was sixty-seven years old—no age to begin anew. His son Charles was frantic, wondering if he were safe, if his spirits were broken, and how he would handle a crisis such as this at his age. Charles saw his father running toward him. He spoke first.
He said, “Where’s your mother? Go get her. Tell her to get her friends. They’ll never see another fire like this as long as they live!”
At 5:30 the next morning, with the fire barely under control, he called his employees together and announced, “We’re rebuilding.” One man was told to lease all the machine shops in the area, another to obtain a wrecking crane from the Erie Railroad Company. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Oh, by the way. Anybody know where we can get some money?” (Paraphrased from Charles Edison, “My Most Unforgettable Character,” Reader’s Digest, December 1961, pp. 175–77.)
Virtually everything you now recognize as a Thomas Edison contribution to your life came after that disaster. Remember, “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement— discouragement has a germ of its own.”
No matter our concerns: I’m not popular, I am inadequate, I am too poor, too rich, too fat, too thin, too poorly spoken, I talk too much, there is, in fact, nothing that we can not overcome though perseverance and preparation. I do not wish to be Pollyannish about the daunting nature of discouragement, doubt and despair. The effects are real, the fear can be very debilitating; but I know in my heart that we are not hear to succumb to these emotions.
Looking back on my life I cannot separate my discouragements from my triumphs when I try to decide which events in my life made me who I am today. I have had many days on both sides of that fence; but I would not trade the man I have become for any past day to be a little brighter. Can we separate our lives to say that we are who we are in spite of the problems? I believe that the truth is more likely found in the statement that it is because OF our discouragements.
To feel untalented, incapable and inferior is a common sentiment that were we able to poll those around us, in honesty, we would find that most feel the same. Remember that the world has been lead and changed by those who felt untalented, incapable and inferior at some point in their lives.
Today I have been greatly touched by a hymn that even many non-Mormon friends will know because of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take;
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we’ll have this tale to tell—
All is well! All is well!
[“Come, Come, Ye Saints, LDS Hymns, 1985, no. 30]
The trouble in my life and the opportunity for discouragement still exists, but I choose to keep my fears and despair at bay by seeing the long-term and keeping my hopes in things larger than the temporary discouragement.
I hope to return to this long string of consciousness that I have shared here at times when discouragement may be getting the better of me and it is difficult to avoid despair. I may be the only person ever to read this from beginning to end. I hope that one day my wife stumbles upon it and finds encouragement beyond any concern that weighs upon her mind. I also hope that my children, should they be far from me (geographically or emotionally) will find solace and healing words to bind the wounds caused by disappointments and discouragements that will be part of their lives.
Today I choose to “Love my life, as poor as it is” with the knowledge that I will never be forsaken. I choose hope.
The last time I posted here (it has been longer than it should have been) I spoke about the Importance of Compliments. I still think that compliments are under-utilized in the modern world and I further believe that our lives are the poorer for their absence. Today I want to focus on a little different area, the area of giving thanks.
Thanks is often a topic discussed with some regularity around the later months of the year (November and December). During these months we are brought to a realization of all that we have been blessed with, given, offered and achieved throughout the year. Compounded by the holiday season, we often dwell on being thankful at those times. I was reminded of the importance of sincere thanks during the past weekend as my family gathered in the living room to watch the Academy Awards.
Anybody who has ever watched an awards program on television knows the eye-rolling that is often induced by celebrity acceptance speeches. We are so calloused towards these often insincere offerings of gratitude that we relish watching these celebrities getting “played off” the stage before they have completed their remarks. A similar phenomenon occurred in our house on Sunday night. As various celebrities that we didn’t know came across the stage to accept awards; unbeknownst to them, they would be greeted by a muttered “hurry up!” or “enough already.”
I don’t blame the reactions to these speeches that came from my family. If you consider the shotgun approach to gratitude that is employed at these events, it is difficult to place true value on the statements and sentiments offered. As humans I think we have a pretty consistent gratitude radar. That is, we know honest thanks when we see it.
With this in mind, I was recently reminded of one of my favorite acceptance speeches from a celebrity. It was offered in 1997 by Fred Rogers (1928-2003). You may remember Mr. Rogers and his sweater changing ways from your youth. I spent many hours with Mr Rogers, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely, and King Friday XIII. Mr Rogers received his award at the Daytime Emmy’s, you can catch the whole speech and presentation here thanks to the wonders of YouTube.
I was living in France at the time of this awards ceremony (not that I would have likely been watching anyway) but I remember a friend of mine brought up an article from Esquire that described the acceptance speech in beautiful prose. This was written by Tom Junod:
“Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”
And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.”
There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked.
And so they did.
One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier.
And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly “May God be with you,” to all his … children”
I loved that the Mr Rogers I knew from my childhood mornings was the real Fred Rogers that loved his wife, appreciated his friends and after all that life had offered him, remained thankful. So, today, I ask those who happen to read my little blog to think about gratitude. Consider those to whom you should be thankful. There are so many in each of our lives who have “loved us into being.” I am thankful to so many friends, mentors, and family members. Although I may not have the ability to thank them all here, rest assured, thanks to them my heart is full today.
One of the great points that I got out of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was the need for daily affirmation that we each have. I think the giving and receiving of compliments is terribly misunderstood and missing from our world. There are many times throughout the day when I find myself impressed. Sometimes it is with co-workers, sometimes with family and sometimes it is even directly related to a stranger at the grocery store! Honestly, I have even been impressed and felt the need to compliment and umpire from a baseball game I was coaching.
The reason I think compliments are so important today, is that there is such an availability of negativism and hyper-critical attitudes that permeate our daily lives. We marinate in negative each and every day. I think it would be a blessing to “throw out a life preserver” of compliments to those around us. We might even find that we are personally happier from the practice.
Brett and Kate McKay put together a fantastic, informative article on this very subject. I have placed the bulk of it here for your review and thought. I hope that you find it to be a subject that interests you; a habit that inspires you and a future practice that helps you find the joy in the journey of life. I, for one, hope to find you in the future and to “catch you doing something good!”
Idle words are characterless and die upon utterance. Evil words rankle for a while, make contentions, and then die. But the hopeful, kind, cheering word sinks into a man’s heart and goes on bearing fruit forever. How many beautiful written words—words in book and song and story—are still inspiring men and making the world fragrant with their beauty! It is just so with the words you write, not on paper, but on the hearts of men. I wish there were room to mention here the testimonies of great men to the power of some hopeful, encouraging word they had spoken to them in youth and in the days of struggle. But every autobiography records this thing. Booker T. Washington tells how the encouragement of General Armstrong saved the future for him. I know a young man who is to-day filling a large and useful place in the world, who was kept to his high purpose in a time of discouragement by just an encouraging word from a man he greatly admired. That man’s word will live and grow in the increasing influence of the younger man. This world is full of men bearing in their minds deathless words of inspiration heard in youth from lips now still forever. Speak hopeful words every chance you get. Always send your young friends from you bearing a word that they will take into the years and fulfill for you.
— The Enlargement of Life (1903) By Frederick Henry Lynch
As I detailed in this seminal post about the importance of hustling, when I started playing football in high school I was slow and fat and generally terrible. But I worked as hard as I could for three years and eventually became a starter my senior year. At the end of my last season, one of the coaches pulled me aside in the hallway, put his hands on my shoulders and said, “McKay, there are plenty of other guys on the team that have way more natural athletic ability than you. You’re not a naturally athletic guy, but what you lacked in talent, you made up for with hustle and heart.”
That conversation impacted the rest of my life. It crystallized something I had hoped was true into something I began to really believe about my character. Since then, when I’ve faced challenges where I don’t feel as up to the task as others, I can hear my coach telling me that I have heart, and it helps me to push on.
Such is the power of compliments.
Unfortunately, even though compliments are a powerful force for positive good for both the giver and receiver, most people are pretty stingy with them. Let’s change that and start lifting each other up more often with encouraging words. Here’s why you should offer more compliments, and how to do it.
Why We Should Compliment More
Compliments encourage others who are struggling. Studies have shown that when it comes to helping someone reach their goal, positive feedback is most effective for novices. Experts are primarily concerned about evaluating their rate of progress, and negative feedback helps motivate them to want to go further and faster. Beginners, on the other hand, are most concerned with simply evaluating their commitment (can I do this?) and they interpret compliments as signs that they’re on the right track and will be able to stick with it.
A compliment can truly be all that stands between someone being successful and giving up. Stand in that gap and offer an encouraging word.
Compliments help children learn new tasks. Given the point above, this makes sense; after all, kids are novices at everything. Researchers argue that positive feedback is also more effective than the negative variety in teaching kids new tasks and behaviors, because it’s simpler than negative feedback; the latter involves the more complex task of learning from mistakes.
For this reason, “Catch ‘em doing something good” is one of my parenting mottos.
Compliments strengthen (and soften) relationships. Compliments convey respect. Relationships are built on respect. Simple.
Compliments can also serve to melt the ice between you and an antagonist. As we’ll discuss below, offering a compliment requires a bit of humility, and it also tells the receiver that even if you don’t like anything else about them, you can at least admit to admiring that one quality. That tiny opening can often thaw the freeze into, if not bosom-buddy-hood, then at least a working relationship.
Compliments charm others and increase our circle of influence. People like surrounding themselves with those who make them feel good, and nothing makes a person feel better about themselves than a thoughtful compliment. If you want to make new friends or increase your influence among co-workers and colleagues, make an effort to “catch them doing something good” (it works for everybody!) and then complimenting them on it.
Compliments help you be less cynical. In the wise words of
William George Jordan, “We pay too much tribute to a few human insects when we let their wrong-doing paralyze our faith in humanity. It is a lie of the cynics that says ‘all men are ungrateful,’ a companion lie to ‘all men have their price.’ We must trust humanity if we would get good from humanity. He who thinks all mankind is vile is a pessimist who mistakes his introspection for observation; he looks into his own heart and thinks he sees the world.”
For reasons we’ll discuss in just a moment, humans have a tendency to concentrate on the negative. When you start looking for reasons to offer compliments, you increase the sensitivity of your antennae for picking up on good stuff – the positive, admirable things that people do every day. Don’t look now stony heart, a tear was just squeezed from you.
Reasons You Don’t Compliment More Often
Our brains are designed to focus on the negative. The human mind is designed with a negativity bias — we pay more attention and give more weight to negative experiences as opposed to positive ones. There’s a perfectly good evolutionary reason for this. An increased sensitivity to negative experiences kept our caveman ancestors safe from life-threatening risks. “Okay, so sabertooth tigers don’t think it’s funny when you pull their tails.”
Unfortunately, the very bias that helps keep us safe from risks, often prevents us from noticing the good and praiseworthy things that folks around us do. We’ll notice and say something when our waiter messes up our order, but when he provides impeccable service, it hardly registers, and if it does, we rarely mention it to him.
The first step to becoming a better complimenter is to simply be aware of your negativity bias. Understand that your brain is always hunting for something to gripe about, so make a conscious effort to overcome that bias by searching for the good – it’s often right in front of your nose.
You’re self-absorbed. No matter how selfless we may think we are, all of us are self-centered to varying degrees. We’re typically more concerned about our own performance or behavior, and not the performance or behavior of others. Our natural egotism explains why we think everyone notices how nervous we’re feeling when giving a big speech. Because we’re paying so much attention to how we’re feeling, we assume others are too. They’re not – they’re as caught up in their own thoughts and behavior as you are in yours!
Our natural self-centeredness can cause us to not truly pay attention and listen to others – which makes us miss opportunities to offer a compliment. Don’t get so wrapped up in yourself that you overlook the good things others around you are doing.
You see everything as a competition. Complimenting is a way to show your respect or admiration for someone. For many men, offering a compliment seems like an admission that they’re inferior and the person receiving the compliment is better. These folks see everything in life as a competition and don’t want to give someone any more “points” with a compliment.
However, if someone happens to excel you in some aspect of life, withholding your compliment isn’t going to even the score. In fact, the other person probably doesn’t even know there is a score. Success isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s plenty of it to go around — so quit the petty scorekeeping.
In truth, it’s the superior man who is able to respect other men for their excellence, and who seeks to identify and articulate areas where he’d like to improve. Observing and taking notes on the things that others are doing that you want to do too, is an excellent way of facilitating this improvement. And offering the adroit man a compliment can lead to the very best way to improve – finding a mentor. “I really enjoyed your presentation today. How did you get so comfortable with public speaking?”
You’re shy. If saying a simple “hello” to someone gives you a shiver of anxiety, offering a compliment likely induces a full-on panic attack. Okay, maybe not a panic attack, but some awfully sweaty palms. If shyness is a problem for you, compliments are a low-risk, high-return way to overcome your social anxiety. Most people love to hear how awesome they are and will almost never respond with a cold shoulder to a simple and sincere compliment. It is also a great way to kick-off small talk, if that’s something that troubles you. “This table you made is amazing. How did you get into woodworking?”
You don’t want to appear like a brown-noser/kiss-ass/suck-up. Nobody wants to be a suck-up. But don’t withhold compliments because of your fear of being labeled as one. To avoid the brown-noser label, you simply need to follow a few guidelines when offering compliments to folks, especially your superiors. First, be sincere (more on that later). Second, be judicious with your compliments. Don’t go overboard with showering praise on your boss/teacher. Third, offer the compliments or praise when others aren’t around. If sociological studies are correct, your boss probably enjoys hearing your effusive praise and compliments; it’s your colleagues who likely disdain it – as they perceive it as an attempt to elevate your status and diminish theirs. Compliment your superiors in private.
You assume they already know. Another reason we sometimes hold back with the compliments is that we figure people already know what we think about them, or that they’ve probably been complimented on that quality before. Well, if they have, once more won’t hurt. But more likely than not, your compliment will be greeted with, “Really? No one’s ever told me that before.” Remember, most people are pretty stingy with the compliments, so yours have a high likelihood of coming as a most welcome and heartening surprise.
Also, even if they do know what you think of them, putting those thoughts into words is a very powerful thing. It makes something nebulous become concrete and real.
You don’t know what to say. If you avoid giving compliments because you simply don’t know what to say, then you’re in luck! We’re going to tell you exactly how to give an effective compliment in the next section. No more using that excuse!
How to Give a Compliment
Start paying attention. The first step of becoming a master complimenter is recognizing opportunities to offer praise. To overcome our negative and egocentric biases, we need to harness our inner Sherlock Holmes by observing more frequently and more keenly. Be fully present when interacting with others and you’ll easily find lots of things to compliment them on.
Compliment the small stuff. You don’t need to wait around for some big accomplishment to offer a compliment to somebody. If it’s something really obvious, they’ve probably been complimented on it plenty of times before. So offer your admiration for the small stuff. What may seem trivial to you might mean a lot to somebody else. Like somebody’s jacket? Let them know! Impressed with someone’s handwriting? Tell them.
While small things make excellent fodder for compliments, make sure they’re connected to a worthwhile trait or talent. Complimenting someone’s jacket makes them feel good, because it says they have good taste. Taking note of someone’s handwriting is really complimenting them on their discipline and practice. For this reason, “I like the way you eat peas,” or, “You pet your cat real nice,” will win you puzzled looks rather than smiles.
Be specific. The more specific you can get the better. Specificity conveys sincerity. When you’re specific with your compliment, it shows that you’re really paying attention to the person.
Moreover, if your goal is to encourage positive change in an individual, the more specific you get with your compliment, the more likely the recipient will be to continue the positive behavior. Specificity helps them identify what they’re doing right. For this reason, children who grew up with parents who gave them a lot of general praise, “You’re so smart!” or, “You’re so special!” tend to feel lost in adulthood, as they haven’t learned to hone in on their talents and abilities.
Be sincere. Compliments that are clearly insincere won’t win you any points; in fact, they’ll have the opposite effect. If a person knows you’re lying, that will erode their trust in you and de-value your future compliments.
You may compliment someone because you’re trying to win them over or sell them something, but if those are the only reasons you’re giving the compliment, the person will see right through you, and be repulsed rather than charmed. That might be part of your motivation, but you have to really, truly admire the thing you call out for praise for it to come off sincerely.
An emphasis on sincerity will also prevent you from offering compliments too often – another practice that makes your praise seem phony.
Finally, compliments that aren’t connected to true merit breed “learned helplessness” and passivity. When someone is rewarded and praised no matter what he does, he comes to see that positive attention is outside of his control and not contingent on good behavior or success. This saps his motivation to try and to challenge himself. This is especially important to keep in mind when you’re complimenting your kids.
Avoid the backhanded compliment. The backhanded compliment isn’t even a compliment, but rather an insult disguised as one. It can be a tool of the passive aggressive person to express disdain without completely owning up to it. We’ve all been subject to backhanded compliments one time or another.
“Your painting is surprisingly good.”
“You’re smarter than you look.”
“I’m really impressed you’ve held a job for more than 6 months.”
“You look pretty good considering your age.”
The best way to avoid backhanded compliments is to resist the urge to add any modifiers to the original compliment. If someone did a good job during a speech, just say, “Great job on that speech!” and nothing more. If the person is not deserving of the praise, then simply say nothing at all.
Explain how the person’s great qualities affect you. If you’re having trouble coming up with something to say when complimenting somebody, simply share how that person’s great qualities make a difference, however small, in your life – combine a compliment with appreciation. “Your smile really brightens up my day!” “Your attention to detail really makes my job a whole lot easier. Thanks!” And so on.
Vocalize your thoughts. I think part of the reason we’re often stingy with the compliments is not that we don’t think nice thoughts or notice things we admire in others, but that we don’t make the leap to putting those thoughts into words. We let the thought slip away unspoken. This often happens in long-term relationships – you get so comfortable you stop vocalizing your affections. If your lady gets all gussied up for a night out, let her know how nice she looks, instead of making her ask, “Well, how do I look?”
Compliment someone in front of others. A public compliment has extra weight because it shows the recipient that you’re proud to be associated with them and you’re not afraid to reveal your admiration to others.
Relay “second-hand compliments.” One of my favorite types of compliments to receive are what I call “second-hand compliments.” These are compliments that happen outside of the praised person’s earshot, but that you relay back to them later. For example, “Hey James, I was talking to Andy the other day about your new partnership and he went on and on about how he’s never enjoyed working with someone as much as he does with you, and how much he appreciates the new ideas you’re bringing to the project.”
Non-present compliments are also those you yourself offer about someone else when they’re not around. For example, I was recently talking to my brother about running and working on the blog and I mentioned how I really admire Kate’s tenacity and grit to finish an article on a tight deadline, even if it means staying up all night to do it. When I got home, I told her about that conversation, and she said it really meant a lot.
Second-hand compliments are extra special because they tell the receiver that you think so highly of their worthy quality that you were even talking to other people about it.
Don’t delay! If you notice something to compliment someone about, do it as soon as you can. If you wait too long, you’ll likely forget. Happens to me all the time. For example, last Sunday at church, a young man gave a really impressive talk. He was articulate, engaging, and insightful. I thought to myself, “I need to tell that kid I enjoyed his talk,” but when the meeting was over, I got busy conversing with someone else, and I didn’t get a chance to offer my compliment.
The Compliment Challenge
For the next week, challenge yourself to compliment five different people every day:
A loved one or friend. Compliments are an easy way to strengthen the bonds between you and your loved ones.
A co-worker. Be a morale booster at your office by seeking opportunities to compliment your fellow employees.
A business you frequent. Most businesses just hear complaints all day. Very few people take the time to compliment them on good service or creating a quality product.
A young person. Young people need nurturing and one of the best ways to do that is through a thoughtful compliment from an older person. You have no idea how much it will mean to that kid.
A stranger. Make a random stranger’s day by offering a sincere compliment. It doesn’t have to be anything big. A simple, “I like your hat,” will do.
Of course, the other half of compliments is knowing how to receive them. We’ll talk about that sometime too.
Until then, work on becoming a man who’s got a warm heart and never hesitates to offer an encouraging word to everyone he meets.
In the business world, managers spend a lot of time juggling resource allocation. Every company has a finite amount of resources — whether it be financial capital or human capital — to use and spend in order to achieve the company’s strategic goals. Effective allocation generates growth and success, while ineffective allocation results in loss and failure.
This delegation can become overwhelmingly complex and difficult because there are often several departments within an organization competing for a limited pool of resources. Without careful attention and planning by managers and analysts, resources can be appropriated in a way that actually hinders the business’ overall goals.
Stock market analysts often look to a company’s resource allocation to determine the health and direction of that business. It’s usually a better indicator than listening to what the company says are their long-term goals. Businessman Andy Grove put it this way: “To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they will do.”
How Do You Allocate Your Resources as a Man?
In his book How Will You Measure Your Life?, Harvard business professor Clay Christensen argues that individuals face the same challenges as businesses when it comes to wisely allocating resources. For us, our most precious resources are typically time and money. Each of us has several competing “departments” in our life (family, work, school, church, friends, etc.) vying for a slice of this limited pie.
Moreover, Christensen posits that a good way to evaluate what’s really important in our lives is to simply look at how we allocate our resources — just like a stock investor might look at a company’s financial data to determine whether it’s on sure footing. Follow the time and money trail and you’ll find what a man truly values, rather than simply what he says he values.
Imagine that an independent analyst opened the ledger book of your life and looked over reports detailing the way you spend your time and money. You tell the analyst that what you value most is your education, fitness, and spending time with your girlfriend. But what the analyst sees in your ledger book is this:
Time Spent in Given Week:
• Surfing the internet: 22 hours
• Work: 20 hours
• Playing video games: 8 hours
• Hanging out with your friends: 7 hours
• Spending time with girlfriend: 6 hours
• Studying for class: 3 hours
• Working out: 3 hours
• Reading for pleasure: 0 hours
What conclusion would an analyst draw about your core values or where you’re going with your life from this report? Would it show a man who makes his girlfriend, fitness, and education his top priorities? Or would it reveal a man who values video games, Doritos Locos, and Reddit memes the most?
I know it might seem a little clinical to look at every aspect of your life, even your personal relationships, in a purely data-driven, budgetary light. But I think examining your own methods of “resource allocation” is a useful way to measure whether you’re actually walking the walk when it comes to your core values or accomplishing your goals. It keeps you honest about the man you say you want to be, and the man you are. And it’s particularly useful in gauging your progress on goals that don’t offer immediate or concrete feedback, such as improving your relationship with your spouse or becoming a better leader.
Become the Boss of Your Life: How to Effectively Manage Your Personal Resources
So how do you start allocating your precious, limited resources to the departments in your life you most want to support and build? The following steps will put you in the corner office of life.
Step 1: Conduct an Audit of How You’re Currently Spending Your Resources
The first step in becoming a wise manager of your time and money is to open the ledger book of your life and do an audit of how you’re spending these valuable resources. Many companies go under because of sloppy or non-existent bookkeeping – the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.
Likewise, many men only have the faintest notion of how they’re really spending their money and time – and they may avoid taking a closer look at these numbers because ignorance shields them from a reality that might stir them to make difficult changes. But if you want to be the boss of your life, you need to be completely aware of how things are running in every department – which areas are blowing through the time and money you give with nothing to show for it, and where to transfer those funds to get the stock of your personal progress surging.
To gain this honest awareness, utilize the following tools to mine and record valuable data on how you’re spending your resources. Gather and record this data for two weeks.
Mint. Mint’s free online service takes all the hassle out of tracking your spending. When you sign up for Mint, you’ll be asked to connect all your financial accounts (checking, credit cards, loans, etc.) into their system. Once you have your financial accounts connected to Mint, just use your debit card as you normally would. Mint automatically tracks and categorizes your spending for you and every month it spits out a report showing how you’re spending your money. In one glance, you can see if you’re literally putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to your values and goals.
RescueTime. Most of us spend a good chunk of our time on our computers and the internet. Does the way we spend our time online reflect what we say our core values are? Find out with RescueTime. It is a paid service that allows you track how much time you spend on certain websites and even how long you use certain apps on your computer. You simply create an account, install the program on your computer, and RescueTime takes care of the rest. At the end of each week, you will receive an email report that gives you a breakdown of how and where you spent your time on your computer.
Time Tracker. Time Tracker is a free browser extension for both Firefox and Chrome browsers that measures how much time you spend on certain websites. Pretty simple.
• Download Time Tracker for Chrome
Eternity Time Log. Tracking your time online is pretty easy and seamless thanks to the myriad of apps and browser extensions out there on the market. But what about the rest of your time? How do you easily track the number of minutes spent playing video games or hanging out with your kids or exercising? Enter Eternity Time Log. It’s an app for your iPhone or iPad that allows you to quickly and easily track your time. Just start the timer whenever you begin a new activity, give it a tag, and let the app do the rest. At the end of the day or week, you can view a report of how you spent your time. Time Tracker for Android works similarly.
Pocket Notebook and Pen. A classic standby. Keep a pocket notebook and pen in your back pocket and write down any money you spend during the day and how much time you devote to all your activities. Sure, it’s not as seamless as the digital life trackers, but it gets the job done.
Step 2: Create Goals for How You Want to Better Utilize Your Resources
Once you’ve taken an inventory of how you use your time and money, look over the results. Ask yourself what a stranger who examined the data would conclude about what things you value most.
Just like a business, we need to be intentional with how we distribute our limited resources. If we’re not, we risk slipping into “default mode” which usually is the path of least resistance – a weed-ridden, overgrown path that leads to minimal personal growth and stagnation. That’s why it’s so important to purposely allocate our resources so that they line up with our values and long-term goals. If your current spending (money and time) doesn’t reflect your ideal, start making concrete, intentional goals so that reality better matches your desires.
First, make a list of the things that are most important to you. Keep it short! As business professor and bestselling author Jim Collins puts it, “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” You can, however, come up with three top priorities for your work life, and three for your personal life.
Once you’ve written down your top priorities, decide how much of your time or money you want to allocate to each. With budgeting your money, this is pretty straightforward. When it comes to budgeting your time, however, there are a few different ways to go about it. For example, you can set an hours-per-day goal, or an hours-per-week goal. So if working on a side hustle is important to you, make a goal to spend five hours on it every week. If cultivating your spirituality is a top priority, make it a goal to spend 20 minutes a day studying your scriptures.
You can also decide to track your time spent on different activities as a percentage of your overall time. Earlier in his life, Collins made it a goal to spend 50 percent of his workdays on creative pursuits like research and writing books, 30 percent on teaching-related activities, and 20 percent on all the other things he has to do. Ever since then, he has kept a running tally of how closely his work life has followed these percentage goals.
Step 3: Diligently Keep Track of How You’re Allocating Your Resources
As you set these new goals to recommit your time and money to what you truly value in life, understand that allocating your resources isn’t a one-time deal. Without diligent tracking, you’ll head right back into the default position, and once again find yourself meandering down the path of least resistance.
Keep on using the tools we laid out in the audit section to regularly track your progress and how close or far you are from the goals you set for yourself. Collins keeps a stopwatch with three different timers in his pocket and carries it with him wherever he goes. Once he begins a work-related activity, he starts the timer that corresponds to the category the task falls into (creative/teaching/other). When he switches to a task in a different category, he stops the timer that’s been running, and starts the one that corresponds with the work he’s now doing. From time to time, he logs this data into a spreadsheet in order to update his running totals on how successful he’s been in dividing up his workday according to his goals.
You obviously don’t have to be this exacting, but do figure out some tracking system that will keep you headed where you want to go.
Step 4: Say NO to Things That Will Sap Your Resources
Beyond diligent tracking of your progress, the biggest thing that will help you stick with your resource allocation goals is learning to say no, and keeping your life as simple as possible. In the business world, this means running a lean, nimble, operation with minimal overhead. In your personal life, it means separating the good from the best, and refusing to take on responsibilities that aren’t in line with your values and goals, even when saying no makes you feel guilty. And it means jettisoning the material possessions that require upkeep and maintenance – the “stuff” in your life that drains your resources away from the departments in your life that mean much more.
A New York Times profile of Mr. Collins revealed how his ability to say no is one of the lynchpins in his intensely successful skills in time management:
“Mr. Collins also is quite practiced at saying “no.” Requests pour in every week for him to give speeches to corporations and trade associations. It could be a bustling sideline, given that he commands a top-tier fee of $65,000 to dispense his wisdom. But he will give only 18 speeches this year, and about a third of them will be pro bono for nonprofit groups.
Companies also ask him to consult. But he mostly declines, agreeing only if the company intrigues him and if its executives come to Boulder to meet him…
Book tours? No. Splurging with the millions he’s earned from his books? No, too.
He and his wife still live in the 2,500-square-foot Craftsman-style house they bought when they moved back from California 14 years ago to Boulder, their hometown. He keeps his overhead low, with a staff of five people, and adds students for research work as needed.
This orientation — a willingness to say no and focus on what not to do as much as what to do — stems from a conversation that Mr. Collins had with one of his mentors, the late Peter F. Drucker, the pioneer in social and management theories.
“Do you want to build ideas first and foremost?” he recalls Mr. Drucker asking him, trying to capture his mentor’s Austrian accent. “Zen you must not build a big organization, because zen you will end up managing zat organization.”
Therefore, in Jim Collins’s world, small is beautiful.”
In your world, small is beautiful too. When it comes to keeping your life simple and getting rid of your crap, “downsizing” is a truly positive thing. Hand your money and time wasters the pink slip, in order to create a truly blue chip life.
Note from the boss:
I really enjoy these posts from Art of Manliness and the thought he puts into living a good life. I don’t know the author personally, but he puts together a great blog with great information. I encourage you to subscribe on his website!
Today, we’re going to talk about removing another kind of filler from your speech (and your writing as well): empty words. Just like empty calories have the form of food but offer no nourishment to the eater, empty words take the form of verbiage, but offer no substance to the listener – leaving them hungry for meaning and details.
While “uh’s” and “um’s” can be eliminated altogether, empty words need to be replaced with heartier fare. Stocking your cupboard with such means building a large and varied vocabulary.
It seems like the only people who think about building their vocabulary are young adults who are preparing for standardized tests. Which is a shame, as expanding our vocabularies should be a lifelong pursuit. Why so? Because a command of words can benefit your life in many ways.
The Benefits of Building Your Vocabulary
Gives you the ability to say what you mean. Is your speech filled more with emotion than meaning? Is everything either “stupid” or “awesome?”
The overuse of a word to describe a wide range of seemingly unrelated things saps it of any meaning. If a corn dog, a YouTube video, a job promotion, and the Great Wall of China are all “awesome,” then awesome ceases to have any meaning at all. Think of your vocabulary like the dial on an amp – if it’s always turned up to 11, you don’t have anywhere to go when trying to describe something truly impressive. Your only resort is to add empty intensifiers: “But seriously, it was really awesome.” The less you use what should be a meaningful word, the more potent it becomes (this goes for swear words too, by the way).
Conversely, a nimble working vocabulary gives you the ability to make finer and finer distinctions between things so that you can say exactly what you mean, and be explicit instead of vague when sharing your ideas and opinions or simply making conversation. This increases your chances of having other people understand what you wish to express, and at the same time it…
Helps you understand other people. Building your vocabulary involves more than just memorizing lists of the kinds of words you had to know for the SAT. Just as learning a second language can help you understand people from other countries, increasing your working vocabulary allows you to understand those who may share your mother tongue but also have a special “dialect” of their own. People’s fields of work and interests often come with special terminology that isn’t as commonly known. The more of these “special” words you learn, the greater the variety of people you can connect with.
Not only does a diverse vocabulary allow you to build rapport with a wide range of people, but knowing some medical, legal, and other technical/professional lingo can prevent you from being taken advantage of, and allow you to be proactive in your approach to dealing with doctors, lawyers, mechanics, customer service, and so on.
Helps you understand what you read. Vocabulary not only aids you in understanding other people, it’s also essential in comprehending the books and articles you read. Words you’re unfamiliar with become little holes in the text, preventing you from reaching a complete understanding of what you’re reading.
Assists you in becoming a more informed and involved citizen. Related to the two points above, the more you increase your vocabulary in general, and also specifically in areas like politics, geography, the military, and so on, the better able you become to understand news and currents events, and the more widely varied the conversations, discussions, and debates you can jump into. And when you do take part in a debate, you’ll be able to use – gasp! – facts, instead of heated bloviations.
Bolsters your ability to grasp ideas and think more logically and incisively. While we often think of our thoughts as shaping our words, it works the other way around as well. Think of words like a set of tools – a small vocabulary is like trying to carve a sculpture with only a chainsaw, versus using a whole set of different instruments that can make both broad and fine cuts. The greater the number of words at your disposal, the more instruments you have with which to hone your own ideas, and dissect and examine those of others.
Allows you to communicate effectively. A masterful command of words, and the ability to select just the right ones to express a specific idea, for a particular audience (more on this below), is essential in crafting powerful and engaging speech and writing. The repetition of the same words over and over again quickly bores people, while the skilled use of a wide array of them enables you to draw people in and paint a rich picture. This is why an expansive vocabulary is one of the keys for great leaders – words allow you to grab the interest, and then allegiance, of others.
And a robust vocabulary is just as important when you’re operating off the cuff as when your remarks are pre-planned – instead of hemming and hawing, searching for the right words to say, you can express yourself forcefully and with confidence.
Boosts your powers of persuasion. It’s hard to get people interested in an idea – whether a tangible product, a business pitch, or a piece of philosophy — and convince them of it unless you 1) understand it inside and out yourself, and 2) can describe it to others in an engaging way (see the two points above). Repeating the same word over and over again (“I’ve got this cool idea. See, it’s got this cool wheel here and then this really cool axle stick outs…”) is going to have the eyes of your audience quickly glazing over. It certainly won’t help you sell them on something, or on yourself — issuing banalities in a job interview (“I’m a hard worker and a people person!”) won’t do anything to set you apart from the myriad of other hard working, people-pleasing candidates.
Helps you make a good impression on others. How articulate you are constitutes a big part of the impression you make on others. Based on the vocabulary you use, people will make judgments about your socioeconomic background, education, occupation, and the stimulation and demands of your everyday life (a stay-at-home mom sometimes starts using baby language when talking with adults, while a professor may drop very academic terms into casual conversation).
It’s not a particularly unfair judgment to make. Your schooling, circle of friends, job, and reading habits do have a direct and considerable effect on your vocabulary. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re a construction worker or don’t have many years of schooling, that a sizable vocabulary is out of reach. Building your vocabulary is a very egalitarian pursuit: anybody can do it, and can start anytime.
Malcolm X serves as a great example of this, and many of the above points as well. His formal education ended in junior high, and as a young man he fell into a life of crime and was eventually arrested and put in prison for burglary.
As he recalled in his autobiography, behind bars X (then named Malcolm Little), came under the mentorship of a fellow prisoner, whose self-education Little envied, and who motivated him to get some “homemade education” for himself.
Little was particularly frustrated that he was unable “to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote…In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there — I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.” Little was also vexed by his difficulty in reading: “Every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said.”
He was motivated to turn this around for himself, and so requested some tablets, pencils, and a dictionary from the prison. After rifling through the dictionary’s countless pages, amazed at the number of words he didn’t know and confused about which he needed to learn, Little turned to the first page of entries and started slowly and painstakingly copying each and every one of them by hand, “down to the punctuation marks.” It took him a whole day to inscribe one page, after which he read the words back to himself over and over again.
Malcolm woke up the next morning “thinking about those words — immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember.”
He repeated the same process over and over again, going page by page through the dictionary copying every single word, until finally he had copied the entire tome. This exercise did not take long to bear the prisoner rich fruits:
“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened.”
Little became a voracious reader, devouring every book the prison library had to offer. Once he had served out his sentence, his vocabulary studies transformed him into an articulate speaker, known for his incisive rhetoric. Even those who didn’t agree with what he had to say were impressed with how he said it. As he himself recalled, “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.”
The good news here is not only that anyone who has the discipline and motivation to build their vocabulary can succeed, but there’s a much easier way of doing it than copying down the entire dictionary!
The 5 Easy Steps to Building Your Vocabulary
There are a lot of good strategies for building your vocabulary — learning the meaning of suffixes, prefixes, and roots of words, going through word lists and making flash cards for the words you don’t know, and signing up for a daily “Word of the Day” email from a website like Merriam-Webster.com, to name a few.
But since I personally find it hard to motivate myself to study etymology, considered my flash card days over when I left law school, and know I wouldn’t open my Word of the Day email consistently (despite a pang of guilt each time), let me share my favorite vocabulary-building method. It’s a simple and classic one that helps you build your vocabulary gradually and naturally – without too much extra exertion. While it’s been around a long time, I first discovered it through one of those old cheesy, but wise, instructional films that I love:
Here’s how it works:
The slow but earnest Mr. Willis tries to advocate for the building of a park, but has trouble expressing himself. In fact, the lady on the left was heard to mutter, “Whatcha talkin’ about Willis?”
1. Read. Reading is the single biggest thing you can do to increase your vocabulary (and of course it offers a whole host of other benefits as well). Without specifically trying to study vocabulary, you encounter tons of new words, the meaning of which you can often glean from the context in which the word is situated (although you shouldn’t rely exclusively on context – see below). Reading offers not just an awareness of words, but a real feel for them.
Mr. Willis takes up reading to boost his vocabulary — checking out books on everything from home decorating to his printing business.
The broader and more challenging your reading selections, the beefier your working vocabulary will become. Strive to read both nonfiction and fiction. Instead of only browsing content-aggregator sites, read entire articles in high-caliber newspaper like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and magazines like The Atlantic. Also dip into periodicals on different kinds of subjects like The Smithsonian or Scientific American.
2. Listen. You can also pick up new words from the people you talk with and listen to. This is, after all, exactly how you learned words back when you were a toddler. Our son Gus is always picking up new words from things we say, trying to figure out the context, and then trying them out himself (it’s excellent motivation to curb your cursing!). Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he gets it wrong – often to comedic effect.
Of course, the effectiveness of this listen-to-learn method depends on who you surround yourself with. Challenge yourself by associating with well-educated people, watching interesting lectures, and taking the harder classes in school, even if doing so makes you uncomfortable. Iron sharpens iron, and the vocabulary of those with keens minds will rub off on you.
Mr. Willis begins to jot down words he hears and reads that he doesn’t know the meaning of.
3. Write down words you read and hear that you don’t know. Reading and listening are the ways you expose yourself to new words. Once someone uses a word you’re unfamiliar with, or you come across a new word while reading, write it down in a pocket notebook (or your smartphone).
Mr. Willis transfers his new word list to a special vocabulary notebook.
4. Look up the word in a dictionary and write down its meaning in a vocabulary notebook. Whenever you hear or read a new word, you should always stop and try to figure out its meaning from the context in which it is given. But a word can have multiple meanings and shades of meaning, the author or speaker could possibly have used the word incorrectly, and even if you do guess the right meaning, you may quickly forget it. So don’t stop there. Once you get a chance, look up the new word you wrote down in your pocket notebook in a dictionary (new dictionary apps make doing this possible on the go), and then write it and its definition in a larger notebook dedicated to learning new vocabulary. Keep the definition short and put it in your own words – you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it yourself.
You can customize yours with some cool stickers.
It’s also important to jot down the pronunciation of the word – not with fancy symbols, but phonetically in a way you will understand. For example, for the word “oblique,” you could write its pronunciation as “oh-bleek.” What’s great about the advent of online dictionaries is that they often have a button to click to hear the word being spoken aloud. Knowing how to correctly pronounce a word is crucial – dropping big words into conversation, but saying them incorrectly is worse than not saying the words at all. Once you’ve written down the proper pronunciation, say the word aloud several times.
You might also write down some of the word’s synonyms, and even draw a picture that can help you remember its meaning.
5. Use the new word several times in conversation as soon as you can. This will really help sear the word into your mind.
Mr. Willis redoes his presentation, this time dropping in words like “vacillate” and “ultimatum” and the crowd goes wild. Way to go Mr. Willis!
Catering Your Vocabulary to Your Crowd
Once you start building your vocabulary, you may be tempted to throw out the big words you’ve learned every chance you get.
But just as important as expanding your vocabulary, is learning to use it appropriately. A large vocabulary is not accumulated for showing off; it’s a tool that allows you to communicate more effectively. Using the wrong vocabulary at the wrong time negates this function.
If you use big, uncommon words with your friends while watching a football game, they might not understand you, and definitely will think you’re putting on airs. Ditto for when you’re first getting to know someone — a purposeful display of your large vocabulary will make people think you’re smug and pretentious. At the same time, you don’t want to fill your speech with slang words when you’re being considered by a panel of faculty for a professorship. And while you do want to use technical terms when discussing your invention with fellow scientists, you don’t when trying to sell your idea to a layman venture capitalist.
You get the idea. Cater your vocabulary to the circumstances and pick words that will allow you both to express yourself and make yourself understood, while being engaging and setting your listener at ease. Never assume a shared vocabulary and know your audience!
Finally, always remember Mark Twain’s famous admonition to not “use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” And occasionally, even using a nickel piece is fine; if “awesome” or “epic” really is the best word to describe how you feel about something, then go for it – pompous vocab police be damned.
Many thanks to the Art of Manliness for this great post and subject matter.
I have often taken time in my blog to speak of happiness and its roots. The last few years have left me to reflect on the value structure of my life. Many of my past posts have dealt with ‘the important things of my life.’ I have tried to discuss the great moments, the little moments and even some of my not-so-great moments. I don’t think my life is much different than many of your lives, we have many ‘moments’ on our life that contribute to our search for happiness.
While I have a slightly different view on the root of true happiness and from whence it springs because if my religious beliefs; the Greeks have often presented stories that help is shed some light on our current situation. One of those stories is the tale of Croesus and the wise old sage – Solon.
Herodotus tells it, Croesus, the ancient king of Lydia, was once visited at his palace by Solon, a wise sage and Athenian lawgiver. The king was delighted to have the itinerant philosopher in residence, and welcomed him with warm hospitality. For several days, Croesus instructed his servants to show off the full measure of the king’s enormous power and wealth.
Once he felt Solon had been sufficiently awed by his riches, Croesus said to him:
“Well, my Athenian friend, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom, and how widely you have travelled in the pursuit of knowledge. I cannot resist my desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen?”
King Croesus was already certain that he was in fact the happiest man in the world, but wanted to enjoy the satisfaction of hearing his name parroted back to him from such a venerated sage.
But Solon, who was not one for flattery, answered: “Tellus the Athenian.”
The king was quite taken aback and demanded to know how such a common man might be considered the happiest of all.
Tellus, Solon replied, had lived in a city with a government that allowed him to prosper and born fine sons, who had in turn given him many grandchildren who all survived into youth. After enjoying a contented life, he fought with his countrymen, bravely died on the battlefield while routing the enemy, and was given the honor of a public funeral by his fellow Athenians.
Croesus was perplexed by this explanation but pushed on to inquire as to who the next happiest man was, sure that if he wasn’t first, he had to be second.
But again Solon answered not with the king’s name, but with a pair of strapping young Argives: Cleobis and Biton.
Known for their devotion to family and athletic prowess, when their mother needed to be conveyed to the temple of Hera to celebrate the goddess’ festival, but did not have any oxen to pull her there, these brothers harnessed themselves to the incredibly heavy ox cart and dragged it over six miles with their mother aboard. When they arrived at the temple, an assembled crowd congratulated the young men on their astounding feat of strength, and complimented their mother on raising such fine sons. In gratitude for bestowing such honor upon her, the mother of these dutiful lads prayed to Hera to bestow upon them “the greatest blessing that can befall mortal men.” After the sacrifices and feasting, the young brothers laid down in the temple for a nap, and Hera granted their mother’s prayer by allowing them to die in their sleep. “The Argives,” Solon finished the tale, “considering them to be the best of men, had statues made of them, which they sent to Delphi.”
Now King Croesus was livid. Three relative nobodies, three dead men were happier than he was with his magnificent palace and an entire kingdom of his own to rule over? Surely the old sage had lost his marbles. Croesus snapped at Solon:
“That’s all very well, my Athenian friend; but what of my own happiness? Is it so utterly contemptible that you won’t even compare me with mere common folk like those you have mentioned?”
Solon explained that while the rich did have two advantages over the poor – “the means to bear calamity and satisfy their appetites” – they had no monopoly on the things that were truly valuable in life: civic service, raising healthy children, being self-sufficient, having a sound body, and honoring the gods and one’s family. Plus, riches tend to create more issues for their bearers – more money, more problems.
More importantly, Solon continued, if you live to be 70 years old, by the ancient calendar you will experience 26,250 days of mortal life, “and not a single one of them is like the next in what it brings.” In other words, just because things are going swimmingly today, doesn’t mean you won’t be hit with a calamity tomorrow. Thus a man who experiences good fortune can be called lucky, Solon explained, but the label of happy must be held in reserve until it is seen whether or not his good fortune lasts until his death.
“This is why,” Solon finally concludes to Croesus, “I cannot answer the question you asked me until I know the manner of your death. Count no man happy until the end is known.”
Croesus was now sure Solon was a fool, “for what could be more stupid” he thought, than being told he must “look to the ‘end’ of everything, without regard for present prosperity?” And so he dismissed the philosopher from his court.
While the king quickly put Solon’s admonitions out of his mind, the truth of it would soon be revealed to him in the most personal and painful way.
First, Croesus’ beloved son died in a hunting accident. Then, blinded by hubris (excessive pride), he misinterpreted the counsel of the oracles at Delphi and began an ill-advised attempt to conquer King Cyrus’ Persian Empire. As a result, the Persians laid siege to his home city of Sardis, captured the humbled ruler, and placed him in chains on top of a giant funeral pyre. As the flames began to lick at his feet, Croesus cried out, “Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Count no man happy until the end is known!”
Count No Man Happy Until the End Is Known
What did Solon mean by his seemingly cryptic statement?
Can a fulfilled life truly only be measured after all is said and done? This seems to fly in the face of modern Western thought. We see happiness as a subjective mood, a feeling that can fluctuate from day to day and be boosted by a pill or a bottle or a romp in the hay. For the ancient Greeks, however, happiness was encapsulated by the concept of eudaimonia, a word we do not have a modern equivalent for, but best translates as human flourishing. Happiness was not seen as an emotional state, but rather an assessment as to whether a man had attained virtue and excellence, achieved his aims, and truly made the most of his life. A man’s life might start well, and continue in prosperity through middle age, but if it ended poorly? His eudaimonia was not complete.
Thus, Solon was not arguing that men like Tellus and Biton were happier in death than in life; he was not referring to the afterlife. Rather, he argues that a man’s happiness can only be measured by a full accounting of it from start to finish, a measurement that cannot be taken until after he draws his last breath.
“Whoever has the greatest number of the good things I have mentioned [family, health, sufficiency, honor], and keeps them to the end, and dies a peaceful death,” that man, Solon argues, “deserves to be called happy.” Simply living a long life or attaining fine things does not make one happy; happiness is a label solely reserved for he who “dies as he has lived.”
The truth of this observation was not only lived out by Croesus (although his “end” upon the pyre was ultimately postponed by the mercy of Cyrus who decided to spare his life, and by the god Apollo who put out the flames), but in the lives of more modern men as well.
Ulysses S. Grant achieved one of the greatest degrees of success a man can possibly hope for: winning a war and then the White House. But after the presidency, he invested almost all of his assets in a banking firm his son had founded with a partner. The partner turned out to be a swindler, the firm went belly up, and Grant was left destitute, forcing him to sell his Civil War mementos to repay his loans. That same year, Grant, who had long had a habit of chain-smoking cigars, was diagnosed with throat cancer. In an attempt to pay off his debts, he worked on writing his memoirs until his death at age 63, only one year later.
William C. Durant became incredibly wealthy as he moved from lumberyard worker, to door-to-door cigar salesman, to founder of both General Motors and Chevrolet. Durant became a mover and shaker on Wall Street during the 1920s, and in the aftermath of the crash of ’29, though his friends advised against it, he joined with Rockefeller and others in buying large quantities of stock to shore up public confidence in the market. Durant subsequently lost his shirt and became bankrupt at age 75. A stroke in 1942 weakened his physical and cognitive abilities, and he lived out his days managing a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan until his death five years later.
Most recently, Joe Paterno could not more clearly embody Solon’s admonition to count no man happy until the end is known. For decades Paterno was revered as not just a football coach, but as an upstanding mentor who emphasized the importance of character to his players. Students bought shirts with his name emblazoned upon them and a statue of his energetic likeness was erected on the Penn State campus. But a luminous half-century long career ended not with adulation and fanfare, but a dismissal for his role in the Sandusky sex abuse scandal. He died two months later of cancer. A posthumous investigation heightened the blame for his role in the scandal, erased his record of achievements, crippled his beloved football program, and resulted in the removal of his statue. Truly, a tragedy of Greek proportions.
Four Lessons from the Tale of Solon & Croesus
Solon’s counsel may sound rather bleak – no one wants to think about the fact that each day could bring disaster and ruin our happiness – but Croesus’ cry of “Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon!” has come to me quite often since hearing Herodotus’ tale, and has served to remind me of several important truths:
Don’t take things for granted. Solon’s forecast for life may be gloomy, but it’s realistic. Nobody knows if the things they enjoy today might be taken from them tomorrow. It’s important to be grateful for what you have each day – soak it in, make the most of it, don’t leave things unsaid and undone.
Focus on what matters most. Unfortunately, some of the wealthy concentrate on their riches to the exclusion of everything else. And yet, money can be so fleeting and contributes so little to “the good life”; if it disappears, they are left with nothing else from which to draw satisfaction. Solon argues that the man who dies with the most “things” that truly matter — self-sufficiency, health, virtue, family, piety, honor — is happiest. Concentrate on the things which last – that which remains after all else passes way.
Stay vigilant and beware of pride. Some calamities come to us by chance – disease and accidents can cause unforeseen reversals in our fortunes. We can only prepare for them by living providentially in our finances and cultivating the virtues of resiliency and calmness. But oftentimes, a man’s downfall could have been prevented through vigilance and humility. When men like Tiger Woods and John Edwards reflected on their downfall post-scandal, both said they had gotten to the point where they no longer believed the ordinary rules applied to them. When men become successful, they often get sloppy in their decision-making, less circumspect about with whom they associate, and indulge in vices that lead to ruin. A man who seeks eudaimonia can never afford to let down his guard.
Endure to the end. As soon as you think you’ve “made it,” you’ve already begun to decline. It’s easier, and a great deal more fun, to find success…much harder to maintain it over the long haul. But there’s no coasting in life – you’re either moving forward or backward. To attain happiness, a man must follow Solon’s counsel to look to the end, while also having the discipline to do the dull, unglamorous day-to-day tasks required to reach that end
Our lives and worlds are full of cautionary tales of men and women who burn so bright with the lights of riches and fame, only to fall to earth in a dazzling display of failure and shame. Truly, a long term perspective of where we have been and to where we are headed is a daily requisite for anyone who wishes to be considered truly happy.
From Self Control, Its Kingship and Majesty, 1905
By William George Jordan
Calmness is the rarest quality in human life. It is the poise of a great nature, in harmony with itself and its ideals. It is the moral atmosphere of a life self-reliant and self-controlled. Calmness is singleness of purpose, absolute confidence, and conscious power—ready to be focused in an instant to meet any crisis.The Sphinx is not a true type of calmness—petrifaction is not calmness; it is death, the silencing of all the energies; while no one lives his life more fully, more intensely and more consciously than the man who is calm.
The Fatalist is not calm. He is the coward slave of his environment, hopelessly surrendering to his present condition, recklessly indifferent to his future. He accepts his life as a rudderless ship, drifting on the ocean of time. He has no compass, no chart, no known port to which he is sailing. His self-confessed inferiority to all nature is shown in his existence of constant surrender. It is not—calmness.
The man who is calm has his course in life clearly marked on his chart. His hand is ever on the helm. Storm, fog, night, tempest, danger, hidden reefs— he is ever prepared and ready for them. He is made calm and serene by the realization that in these crises of his voyage he needs a clear mind and a cool head; that he has naught to do but to do each day the best he can by the light he has; that he will never flinch nor falter for a moment; that, though he may have to tack and leave his course for a time, he will never drift, he will get back into the true channel, he will keep ever headed toward his harbor. When he will reach it, how he will reach it matters not to him. He rests in calmness, knowing he has done his best. If his best seem to be overthrown or over-ruled, then he must still bow his head—in calmness. To no man is permitted to know the future of his life, the finality. God commits to man ever only new beginnings, new wisdom, and new days to use to the best of his knowledge.
Calmness comes ever from within. It is the peace and restfulness of the depths of our nature. The fury of storm and of wind agitate only the surface of the sea; they can penetrate only two or three hundred feet—below that is the calm, unruffled deep. To be ready for the great crises of life we must learn serenity in our daily living. Calmness is the crown of self-control.
When the worries and cares of the day fret you, and begin to wear upon you, and you chafe under the friction—be calm. Stop, rest for a moment, and let calmness and peace assert themselves. If you let these irritating outside influences get the better of you, you are confessing your inferiority to them, by permitting them to dominate you. Study the disturbing elements, each by itself, bring all the will-power of your nature to bear upon them, and you will find that they will, one by one, melt into nothingness, like vapors fading before the sun. The glow of calmness that will then pervade your mind, the tingling sensation of an inflow of new strength, may be to you the beginning of the revelation of the supreme calmness that is possible for you. Then, in some great hour of your life, when you stand face to face with some awful trial, when the structure of your ambition and life-work crumbles in a moment, you will be brave. You can then fold your arms calmly, look out undismayed and undaunted upon the ashes of your hope, upon the wreck of what you have faithfully built, and with brave heart and unfaltering voice you may say: “So let it be—I will build again.”
When the tongue of malice and slander, the persecution of inferiority, tempts you for just a moment to retaliate, when for an instant you forget yourself so far as to hunger for revenge—be calm. When the grey heron is pursued by its enemy, the eagle, it does not run to escape; it remains calm, takes a dignified stand, and waits quietly, facing the enemy unmoved. With the terrific force with which the eagle makes its attack, the boasted king of birds is often impaled and run through on the quiet, lance-like bill of the heron. The means that man takes to kill another’s character becomes suicide of his own
When man has developed the spirit of Calmness until it becomes so absolutely part of him that his very presence radiates it, he has made great progress in life. Calmness cannot be acquired of itself and by itself; it must come as the culmination of a series of virtues. What the world needs and what individuals need is a higher standard of living, a great realizing sense of the privilege and dignity of life, a higher and nobler conception of individuality.
With this great sense of calmness permeating an individual, man becomes able to retire more into himself, away from the noise, the confusion and strife of the world, which come to his ears only as faint, far-off rumblings, or as the tumult of the life of a city heard only as a buzzing hum by the man in a balloon.
The man who is calm does not selfishly isolate himself from the world, for he is intensely interested in all that concerns the welfare of humanity. His calmness is but a Holy of Holies into which he can retire from the world to get strength to live in the world. He realizes that the full glory of individuality, the crowning of his self-control is—the majesty of calmness
Whether you’re a manager, a frontline worker, or an independent contractor, at one time or another you’ve surely had to influence, or even improve, the performance of people who don’t formally report to you. Experience in all three roles has taught me some basic principles about leading without authority. These principles work even in roles where you might assume authority is a given — I’ve used them in my work as a teacher.
1. Let your enthusiasm for the work be contagious. Every job, project, and activity has unique fundamentals that, when respected, naturally enhance the endeavor. Engineers who truly revere math and physics, for example, tend not only to build better things but also to motivate other people (whom they often don’t manage) with their love of the discipline. That doesn’t mean you need to be a purist, ignoring all external motivators, to succeed in leading people you don’t formally manage. But if what really drives you is the core of the challenge itself — and you let other people see that — most of them will be drawn toward your goal organically. Even in the classroom, where I am explicitly the one in charge, my passion for the subject moves students much more than any directive I give.
2. Demonstrate excellence without being cocky or solicitous of approval. Bearing the burden of someone else’s ego is always a turn-off, whether the ego is already big or in need of puffing up. When an ego-driven person is your direct manager, you just hold your nose and do your best to perform in spite of the stench. But, let’s face it, you’re not going to waste your time following someone like that if she doesn’t have real authority over you. Demanding egos have a way of hogging center stage and masking the inherent excellence of the performance. If people sense that a leader is seeking validation, the best she can hope for is muted applause. Needy leaders are rarely inspiring.
3. Don’t be overinvested in outcomes. Leaders who don’t have formal authority come under suspicion when they act more like a team captain than a curious scientist. Both know that outcomes matter, but the scientist subordinates the importance of outcomes as she leads quietly, whereas the captain — even one who isn’t driven by ego — tends to foreground them. In essence, the effective informal leader is inquisitive rather than watchful. The distinction is subtle, and the scientist approach is not one you should try to fake. But those who truly embody it make better unofficial leaders — and better teachers, too.
What are your techniques for leading when you don’t have formal authority or, when you do, for leading quietly despite your explicit role?
A special thanks to Steven Demaio for this blog
It can be tough to help new college graduates adjust to the real world. Joey, a 22-year-old, Ivy League graduate who joined one of my consulting teams, was a great example. He was bright, hardworking, and motivated. But he had bad habits that were hard to break. Joey would become so focused on the perfect answer to a problem, he wouldn’t consider implementation. He feared failure so much that he would hide his mistakes until they grew worse. He was only interested in getting his own work right — rarely helping the rest of the team proactively. And he saw the world in terms of hierarchy: I was his “boss,” and no one else’s opinion really mattered.
Joey isn’t real — more of a composite of many young people I’ve worked with. But his flaws are undeniable. The traits above are ones I’ve seen time and again out of many recent graduates ill-prepared to handle true leadership in an organization.
There is an ongoing debate about whether leadership can be taught, and whether business schools, in particular, are teaching it. There are fair arguments on both sides, but I would broaden the discussion. Our entire education system, from elementary school to graduate school, is poorly constructed to teach young people leadership. Schools do many things well, but they often cultivate habits that can be detrimental to future leaders. Given that most of us spend 13-20 years in educational institutions, those habits can be hard to break.
Consider first the emphasis schools have on authority. Schools are hierarchical: The teacher is the authority in the classroom. Principals or deans preside over teachers and professors. Seniors “rank” higher than juniors, and so on. In our years in the educational system, many of us become obsessed with hierarchy. We think we’re leaders if we’re the “boss,” and if we’re not the boss, we should simply do as we’re told. In reality, even the most senior people in organizations can’t rely solely on hierarchy, particularly given the much needed talents, experiences, and intelligence of the others who surround them. Leadership is an activity, not a position, a distinction explored deeply by Ron Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers. Many great leaders like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have led others, despite having little to no formal authority, and writers are now exploring methods for leading without formal authority. While some hierarchy may be needed, leaders who learn to lean too hard on formal authority often find themselves and their organizations frustrated, stunted, and stagnant.
Schools also teach us to deal with information as if it is certain and unchanging, when there’s rarely a stable “right answer.” In my first job, I was constantly frustrated by the lack of guidance I received. If you gave me a textbook, I could learn almost anything. But in the workplace, there were no textbooks. Real world problems are complex. They evolve. They’re organizational and analytical. And success is often driven as much (or more) by successful and rapid implementation as by developing the “correct” approach. Understanding that there’s rarely one right answer can make a person more adaptive, agile, and open to the thoughts of their peers. But that understanding is rarely cultivated through textbooks and multiple choice tests.
Given this dependency on the “right” answer, we’re also ingrained to have a misconception about making mistakes. Students most fear the dreaded “F,” but for most leaders, failure is an essential precursor to success. Steve Jobs found that being fired from Apple in the 1980s freed him to be more imaginative. He once said,
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.
Critically, these failures teach us to reflect and to ask questions — of ourselves and of others — so that we can learn and grow (one of life’s worst failures can be wasting a failure). And failure itself indicates that we are taking on challenging tasks and stretching the limits of our current capabilities.
Finally, while many schools tell us to serve others, they are rarely structured to actively show us that leadership is serving others. In most educational environments, our primary goal is to serve ourselves — to improve our individual grades, to compete for individual positions, and to maximize our own employment, college, or grad school placements. But as Bill George once said in a panel discussion on next generation leadership, “We are not heroes of our own journey.” People follow leaders who care for them, who share their vision, and who are dedicated to serving a cause greater than one’s self.
A lot of people are raising questions about the way business schools and corporations teach leadership, but we need to dramatically broaden the scope of that question. In a world that’s growing ever flatter and more complex, we need societies full of capable leaders. But the only way to raise those leaders properly is to structure our educational system — from elementary school through graduate school — to train them.
Thanks to John Coleman of the Harvard Business Review for this great post and insight!