Purple Revolution

I think they call it creative constraints. 48 hours was all we had to write, rehearse, perform, and edit a music video to deliver a message.

Amy Thiessen came up with the seed of an idea to write a song for Nenshi’s mayoral campaign. So I throw up a studio in her living room while Amy is busily rehearsing the song she just wrote, record a few takes, then I’m off running around the street with Rahim, the guy that connected Amy and me. Add in a bit of overnight editing and voila, we ended up with a small masterpiece that made it on to the CBC evening news.

And to boot, Naheed Nenshi won the mayoral race.

I’m a beginner videographer and she was new to the music video. In the end, it tapped into the spirit of an extraordinary campaign. I think the lesson for me is, if it moves you, do something that is just a bit outside of your capability.

The “I can’t focus” Syndrome

One of the most common challenges raised by business owners and other people pursuing a venture is the “I can’t focus or do things consistently” challenge. This is another variation on the classic problem of not being able to get to the gym often enough.

The common solution? Discipline. This word is often linked with the ability to focus or to do things consistently to reach a goal. It’s not a bad definition. It just doesn’t tell us what discipline is for or the many ways discipline goes wrong. In addition, we carry childhood baggage associating discipline with a form of punishment. It’s why going to the gym, writing on a blog regularly, or doing your marketing can feel like a form of punishment.

Discipline has a higher and far more powerful meaning. Consider the discipline of medicine or the discipline of masonry. In this case, we are referring to the accumulated knowledge and skills obtained over generations of inquisitive scientists or stone craftsmen.

Seen in this light, we can find some clues as to how and why people focus. On the radio, I was listening to an interview with internationally renowned chocolatier Bernard Callebaut. It turns out that he is continuously evolving his recipe, trying different cocoa beans, different formulations, adding or removing ingredients. He does so because it is his craft. He does so to create better chocolates and (I would assume) to elevate his skill. Focusing is a by-product of the desire to do better.

Although the disciplines of chocolate-making, medicine, and masonry are all very different in its output, the learning process is much the same: develop understanding, practice well, learn from others past and present, experiment and test, take on progressively more difficult challenges. Discipline is, at its core then, a continuous process for figuring out what is helpful and what isn’t.

How the boundaries of “helpful” is defined makes a big difference. Let’s say that you had difficulty getting to the gym. The reasons you give might be, “I don’t have time.” or “I can’t get up in the morning.” However, the underlying cause could be a lack of a good reason for exercising in the first place. Perhaps you don’t know how to exercise. It could be that you haven’t had a lot of practice doing things without being told to do.

The problem is most people (including me) don’t understand how they develop good habits or disciplines. We’re use to someone telling us what to do. So when someone comes to me and says, “I can’t focus”, what I really hear is “I don’t know what the discipline of discipline-making is.”

Medicine didn’t sprout from one person’s head in a moment of inspiration. It took a long time to figure out how disease is transmitted or that vitamin deficiency is a different form of illness. Likewise, it takes time to figure out how we work and what keeps us focused or not. Maybe you need to sleep earlier, or you need a partner to train with, or you need a compelling reason, but that is up to you to figure out.

Try this exploratory question. What if you viewed the work of “making yourself” as a craft? What if you are in the process of shaping and molding your own thoughts and feelings? Then, like Mr. Callebaut, you would be patient, be focused, and be endlessly curious in the pursuit of a better self.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Distinguishing between truth-tellers and pundits

Last time, I introduced the roles of prophets, critics, and truth-tellers in enriching the ecology of leadership. I failed to mention however that there is an implied assumption that those truth-tellers and prophets are adaptive.

This is, of course, not the case.

Pundits, deniers, and “false” prophets that disguise themselves as truth-tellers are plentiful. There are still so-called scientists who push the notion that AIDS is caused by poverty. And every few years, we discover one group or another who foretell the end of the world.

What about global warming or intelligent design or the oil sands? How is the leader to distinguish between one polished voice from another?

Here are a few immediate, but conventional answers that come to mind:

  • It feels right.
  • It comes from an expert.
  • It serves my purpose.

See the problem? While each of those responses might very well be adaptive (avoiding dark alleyways because it feels dangerous or trusting your accountant to do your taxes), it doesn’t allow us to determine whether those responses are valid in new situations.

For instance, once I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi white-knuckled in Barbados. The driver was driving on the wrong side of the road! Fortunately, it turns out that my gut was wrong because being an ex-British colony, they drive on the left side of the road.

The key to distinguishing one voice from another is in a phrase: understand its provenance.

What does this mean?

It means that we must understand where that voice comes from and how it was constructed and tested.

If you want to know whether tobacco is harmful to your health, you don’t just look at the “two sides” of the research and weigh them. You also look at how the researchers tested their theories, how their research was funded, and what their priorities were. If you also understand history, then you would also understand why you would look at corporate-backed research with suspicion.

If you want to know whether your intuition is right, you act on it, but also check it with reality. You make sure that the intuition you have developed is appropriate for the circumstances.

The challenge for leaders is that they don’t have the time to re-assess everything the organization does. However, the leader does need to investigate more deeply the most critical areas in their organization.

Back to the original question. How is a leader to distinguish between one voice and another? Here would be my tips for the leader:

  • Cultivate a broader range of experiences and knowledge so that your intuition will more likely lead you in the right direction.
  • Conscientiously find authorities or resources whose provenance you do trust and remember that no one source tells the entire story.
  • Make sure that you are developing a broader sense of purpose so that you serve the purpose of people and life.

In an age of much relativism, sometimes it’s easy to say that I have my opinion and you have your opinion and that is that.

Unfortunately, opinions have consequences. In the words of my old English teacher Mr. McCrae, “There may be many right answers, but there are definitely wrong answers.”

So as leaders, let’s continuously strive to hear those right voices.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Get Your Black Belt… Then Let It Go

After eleven years of study and training, my wife finally received her first degree blackbelt in karate called a shodan in Renbukai karate. It was a proud achievement, but in the oriental tradition, the shodan merely indicates that she is now ready to be a serious student of the art.

My wife's Renbukai karate belts including her first black belt.

In this respect, I notice a big difference in learning approach between Western and Oriental culture. In general, the Western Culture exults achievement while Oriental culture tends to exult the process.

In practice, this means that getting the black belt from a Western standpoint is the destination or the end of the journey whereas from the Oriental standpoint it is a milestone in a life-long process. I often thought that the multi-coloured belts were designed to give Western students a sense of accomplishment as they proceeded up the ranks. In Japan, for instance, judo students either have a white belt or a black belt. In many cases, a Judokan with a white belt might have ten years of serious experience. Woe to the Canadian blue belt who underestimates his or her white belt opponent.

Both viewpoints provide important philosophical lessons. Yes, set goals and take pride in getting to the next level, but when you get to the next level, it is also time to let it go. The goal has served its purpose in motivating you to reach that level. Now it’s time to reach for higher levels.

It takes a wise person to find the balance between the process and the outcome. Having reffed many a minor league soccer games, I can tell that some coaches care only about winning and hence verbally abuse their team. Then there are the coaches that understand it’s more important for their kids to learn about fair play, teamwork, and emotional control.

The Canadian Olympic Team exemplified another aspect of why we shouldn’t measure all performance by outcome. Did you notice that we won less medals than we anticipated, but also won more gold medals than any country has ever won in the Winter Olympics? Why?

I think it’s because when athletes go for gold, they are pushing themselves that little bit harder. In an event like skiing, that extra push may send them careening off the course or alternatively, that little push might just be a new world record. I respect those champions who would rather go for a new personal record than play it safe and win a medal.

So consider, where in your life are you trying to get to a destination, but not focusing on life-long process of learning? Are you taking on progressively more difficult challenges in key areas of your life? It may not be possible to be Olympians in all areas of our lives, but we can try in some.

Chris Hsiung
Better Life… Better Business

Breathing in Combat

Last week I held a very basic self-defense workshop for the City of Calgary Waterworks division. Now some of you might be wondering why a leadership coach / consultant would teach a self-defense course. First of all, it’s fun, but second of all as the Olympics show us, intense physical challenges teach us something deeply important about the human spirit.

Although self-defense is not a sport, think of what it takes to manage fear in a crisis situation. When faced with a life-threatening situation, people experience not only a flight or fight response, but also a third more deadly “freeze” response. Higher level brain functions shutdown and primal instincts take over.

In leading ourselves, we may not face life and death situations all the time, but we often experience situations that overwhelm us. You know it when you feel panic or extreme anger or any loss of emotional control. In other words, your higher brain functions shutdown.

How do we bring our emotions back under control? In combat, soldiers are taught “combat breathing”. Breathe in deeply, hold it for three seconds, then breathe out and hold for three seconds. By slowing down their heart rate, they can regain control of their thinking ability.

Believe it or not, this works for controlling our emotions as well. Give it shot! Next time you feel the stress, the anger, the panic… breathe.