An Open Heart And A Curious Mind

Last week I had the absolute privilege to be back among friends in Ohio for the 42nd annual State HR Conference. I really felt I needed to be there. Why? Apart from the powerful draw of being with friends and the drive to continue to fulfil my conversation with Dad, I felt I owed Ohio. Two years ago I was hugely fortunate to be at the conference for my first time and I had a terrible journey over. Long story short, my flight plans fell apart and I arrived just before I was due to talk having not slept for over 34 hours. People were very kind to me and I got a lot of support but when you look and feel like this:

Doug Red Eye

Red Eye Doug

It’s hard to give your best, and my best is what I expect of myself.

So – 2014 rolls around and I get another shot. This time I facilitated a workshop and talk on Art for Work’s Sake, and gave two talks with some opportunities for interaction, on collaboration. I approached each session with my usual mix of nerves and excitement, and something else besides. I couldn’t put my finger on it in the moment, and whatever it was, it took us on a more adventurous path than I had anticipated. Conversations flowed, experiments were carried out, people talked and people laughed. I’m a big fan of making a conference session as adaptable, as flowing as possible but even so, the nature of this work seemed to push on that edge more than usual.

I’m my own worst critic but a lot of people spoke with me after the sessions and said they were enjoyable because I’d helped them think a little differently. As each year passes, I become more convinced that most good things in life and work are the result of little, incremental differences – so I appreciate feedback like this. I also had a chat with my friend Erin and when I acknowledged that I beat up on myself, she asked ‘Do you care what other people think about you?’ I thought and answered, ‘Yes, I guess so’. Erin replied, ‘What other people think of you is none of your damned business! You do the best you can, and if that makes a difference, even to just one person, that should be enough.’ That observation rattled around in my head as I returned back to the UK.

On my return home, I wrote an edition of my occasional newsletter. In it I observed the importance of people looking up and offering to be of use to one another – little incremental differences. When I write these newsletters, I often get a couple of replies. This time I got a few more than usual, and with the permission of the writers, I’d like to share a couple.

Leah Sprenger wrote back to me:

Hello Doug!

I sat in both of your seminars at the Ohio HR Conference last week! It was wonderful to hear you talk and I love the idea of looking at things with a more creative mind…that is something I definitely wanted to bring back to Crown Battery (in Fremont, Ohio) so I decided to purchase the book of cards “Stop Doing Dumb Things” and have them on my desk. When an employee (we have about 500) comes in & asks about them – I ask them to draw a card, and what they do with it from there is up to them. 

I wanted to share with you one of the results. It’s something this employee sat in my office for about 5 minutes doing – It seems like a long time – but during that time we had good conversation and some laughs. It got him to be creative in his own way – trying to make a face with a limited amount of lines. I enjoyed the fact that he played along – and I actually think he enjoyed the change of pace. After he left my office – he stopped right back in because he forgot to do what he actually came in to do the first time! SUCCESS!

I just want to say THANK YOU for taking time out of your busy schedule to come to Ohio and share your knowledge!

What a lovely note to write. Thanks Leah – I love your approach and I’m grateful to you for sharing. I also heard from Jackie Lewis:

Good Morning Doug,

I must tell you that I am so very pleased to hear from you. I attended your classes and I don’t know if you remember, but I am the girl who you dubbed as being in “Tea Land” after you had us do our sketching session. I still chuckle about that when I think about it.

I want to tell you that my heart was touched deeply when you spoke of your father. I wanted to get up and go give you a hug, when you spoke about your dad’s passing. (I lost my dad unexpected last year as well)….so I understand your deep emotions and the ache it leaves inside. It was an honor that you shared that with all of us in the class, and many were so moved by your story.

As you went on with your presentation, I was really pulled in by your outlook on life, by your perspectives on things, and just your overall kind, caring, genuine and down to earth character.

I was so impressed by the way you used your God given talents of being an artist and a musician, and interwove those in to your teachings in the classes. Because of that, I learned so much from you. I was hoping to win one of your pieces of artwork, I liked the simplicity in the ones you showed us, and I thought that was such a great gift that you gave to those participating, by handing them one of your pieces. Just so unique and memorable.

I just want you to know I think you were a top notch speaker and I am so pleased I got to meet you and attend your classes. You made an impact in my life.

Thank you

Wow! Thank you Jackie. She and I have since exchanged further notes and Jackie’s feedback and  generosity is heartwarming. And here I am now, reflecting on these wonderful recent times, which also include some fantastic work here in London with a lovely, increasingly curious team of people, who are exploring ways to work better together. In that work, just as in Ohio, I’m becoming conscious of the need to balance a solid, well researched approach with that nebulous sense that doing the right thing for the right reason is….right. Coincidentally, Neil Morrison shared this lovely talk by Nicholas Christakis on Facebook yesterday, which compellingly blends the importance of data and social, ‘facts’ and feelings. Maybe this stuff has just always been there, hiding in plain sight?

So why am I sharing these thoughts and feedback with you? Well – I think it’s because after a bazillion years, it is finally dawning on me that the best I can do, for others and myself is offer an open heart and a curious mind. And perhaps I’ve been approaching my work like this for some time and just not felt comfortable to say so? I don’t know. This combination feels risky, and it often hurts, but when it is mixed with a ton of preparation, and it coincides with other open hearts and curious minds – it is rather wonderful.

I hope you will forgive the indulgence of including Leah and Jackie’s notes in this post, and I hope that you too will be the beneficiary of a little, incremental difference today. And if you are, I’ll wager it’s because you’ve already given something little, incremental and worthwhile.

Look Up

For all you TLDR freaks, this post is about the importance of lifting your eyes from your immediate work in order to scan wider, and see how you might be of greater use to those around you.

I took part in my first and only timed running race last week in Ohio at the annual State HR Conference. The race started at 7am and I woke at 6am to head out on a mission to get some shorts to run in. I drove to the Sandusky Walmart and in I went. My first time in a Walmart – this place is huge! The clock is ticking – I need to find shorts and all I can see is fruit, vegetables, hair dryers and kid’s toys. I’m all lost in the supermarket. Luckily – my lost look attracts a member of staff and in no time I’m shown to where the shirts are, I grab a pair, thank the man and leave. In case you are interested, I ran the race in 27 minutes, 22 seconds, and I also found a few moments to stop and take this photo of the sun coming up over Sandusky.

Sunrise over Sandusky

In Cleveland Airport the following day I’m wandering about looking for a place to sit down and work. A policeman comes up to me, ‘Excuse me sir, you look lost. Anything I can help with?’ He shows me the way to a quiet place where I get some work done.

Two busy people, yet both are present in their own situations, noticing what’s going on around them, and then there’s me, the fortunate beneficiary. It’s hard to be present. Busyness can be all encompassing, and yet I benefitted from two small interventions – two nudges that helped me get back on track. I hope you get the chance to look up from your work and offer to be of use to someone today.

A version of this post went out in my newsletter a few days ago, and the responses to it have been plentiful and generous – much more so than usual. Thanks to Niall Gavin for the excellent title suggestion for this post. And thanks also go to Angel Rivas, who I met in Ohio. He got in touch to say this:

Hello Doug,

It was a pleasure meeting you and taking in your session on collaboration at the Ohio SHRM conference. I contributed to the conversation and you presented me with Roy Lichtenstein’s Sunrise artwork and I just wanted to thank you for that.

After taking in your session I started to think about your experience in Wal-Mart and wanted to share something that has helped me in my professional career. To start I will give you a little background on myself, I am prior service and served as a Psychological Operations Specialist in Iraq. When I am not in uniform I am a recruiter and have worked across the spectrum on what I have recruited for, mainly high level security clearance candidates that are only allowed to have vague resumes and talk in code. With that said, one thing that has helped me is advice given to me when I first started recruiting for a government contract agency.

I was having a hard time trying to find candidates for a certain opening and it was showing, my attitude changed, my posture, my overall presence was just poor. Similar to your experience in Wal-mart and the airport, a colleague noticed the change and spoke to me about everything that was going on and what my issues were. Once he heard me ramble on he looked at me and said “Angel, you just need to get a win today”. As he went on he explained that my problems are there because I let them beat me and told me that if I look at life and find a “win” then that will be enough to say I contributed to moving forward in my life. So since then I have woke up every day with the intention of getting a “win” sometimes it is small, like getting a free cookie at lunch, other times it is like winning the Super Bowl… Or World Cup (to keep it worldly). I know you are busy and wish you safe travels, I just wanted to share my story on how playing for a win, even a small win can help change a persons day.

Safe Travels

In writing this today I am conscious of two shortcomings that happened yesterday. In the morning I walked straight past someone struggling with a heavy bag on a flight of stairs. The person behind me stopped and offered assistance. I didn’t look up, the person behind me did. In the evening I nearly bowled a friend over on London Bridge as I walked speedily, with my head down in a rush to catch a train. I didn’t see him, but he saw me and got in my way so we could stop, look up and briefly talk. I still made the train easily.

It’s hard to be present, busyness can be all encompassing. I hope you get the chance to look up from your work and offer to be of use to someone today.

New York City Rhythm

A bit like how pieces of music have tempo, so does this post. I find it’s best read allegro, with a moderato finish.

Leaving behind a sunny London – coming into a rainy New York City.

Plane people disembarking, border control scanning, stamping and waving, luggage carouseling, trolley wheel wobbling, taxi driver smiling. A phone call home from the back of the cab is just perfect.

Sitting in Starbucks on the corner of 87th and 3rd, waiting for an unknown person and some apartment keys. The key master is late, the banter with the staff and the cappuccino is warm, and the people come and go. I believe the keys will come and I’m slightly twitchy after the long flight and I want to get downtown. Places to go, people to see. Exchanging texts with apartment owner and friend downtown.

Keys in hand, tiny apartment entered, bag dropped. Subway. Hot, humid and busy. Struggling to get my bearings it takes time to realise I am on the local (slow) train platform. Down another level – onto the express. Deeper down, hotter, sweatier. Change at Union Square – tiny statues all over the station bringing memories flooding back, familiar ground. I turn a corner and there’s the guy on the drum kit again, bashing out train rhythms as people come and go. He was here the last time I was here two years ago, familiarity levels rising, confidence returning, pace quickening. Click clack, paradiddle, click clack paradiddle. Hot.

Spat out at 8th street into a warm, wet night. Find the White Horse….where’s the White Horse? Looking for Hudson Street, misty rain, plenty of people moving with purpose, and me. I ask where – they don’t know. I keep going and with a couple of nudges via text, I find the White Horse. More importantly I find Katie. Friends in London, a chance meeting thousands of miles from home. We talk work, life, travels, politics, music. We drink a beer, Katie tells me the White Horse is where Dylan Thomas ended it all in a sea of alcohol. She heads off to a concert, I order a grilled cheese sandwich, watch college football and have another beer. The sandwich and the beer went down a treat. I can’t write poetry like Dylan Thomas but I’m confident I’m getting out of here alive.

The rain stops, I walk back up Hudson Street avoiding puddles and taking in the atmosphere. Tempted to just throw myself into West Village nightlife, and tired enough to know that wouldn’t be a good idea. It’s almost 10 pm by my watch, and 3 am by my body clock. A quieter, slightly less steamy tube ride syncs wonderfully into place. Sliding doors and all that. Nearly home, I spy a Barnes and Noble bookshop, still open. I go in and wander about, watching staff restack and restock books. I think I am the only customer, except I’m not buying anything so a little awkwardly, I sneak out. Maybe I’m just tired, but there’s something uplifting about finding a book shop open, doing its thing at 10.15 on a saturday night.

And so to bed. I love it here.