Seems like we shouldn’t…

“The word “should” is the most damning and damndable word in the English language.”

–     A mentor of mine, quoting a mentor of his

Yes, every life has a story, if we’ll only read it.  How we read it matters, too.  How we listen to the stories of every life in our circle matters, a lot.

It’s been said that poor listening is due to figuring out what we’re going to say next instead of understanding what the speaker is saying.  It’s not just a Steven Covey thing, seeking first to understand is a key ingredient to being a difference maker.

Will Rogers said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up,” and a great time to shut up is when we’re reading the story of someone else’s life.  And advice is something we ought not to offer unless asked, and even rarely when asked.  Unless we’ve invested a tremendous amount of time in understanding someone’s story, our advice, our “shoulds” are likely to do as much damage as they are good.

“You should try meditation…”

“You should worry less…”

“You should get over it…”

“You should apologize…”

“You should…”

The problem with “shoulds” is they have a tendency to originate from the perspective of stuff that’s already happened, and we know, as difference makers, all that matter is what we do, next.

Rephrasing for emphasis, here’s the deal:  we really have no idea what someone else should or should not do, and that might be true even if we know their story intimately.  I can’t speak for you, but I’m not always sure what I should and shouldn’t do, unless I am really in tune with the situation, all the biases I bring to the situation and as many of the variables as possible, and even then, it’s a crap shoot.

No matter how good our intentions are, our “shoulds” should be very, very rare indeed.

Reading to understand is different than reading to rebut or to dispute or to debate or to advise.  Reading to understand is about empathy, caring, curiosity and wonderment.


Seems like if we’d just ask…and listen…

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

          –     Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), German-born theoretical physicist

Yes, every life has a story, if we’ll only read it. And just as a book must be opened to get to the story, so must a conversation that brings connection between us and those we lead, love or rely upon.

Lawyers, HR and other influences have made it more complicated to really connect at work, to know the total person, not just the worker or the job, but it’s no less important.  Buckingham and Clifton, two decades ago, identified and quantified the connection between “having a best friend at work” and engagement, fulfillment, performance and retention.  Arguably, really connecting, no matter how complicated it has become is more important than ever in a society where “connecting” means something very different than a “like” or retweet on social media.

A mentor of mine had an interesting (and candidly sometimes really annoying) way of illustrating the point.  Long before social media, when he’d meet someone in the hallway, he’d say (as we all do), “Hi, Steve, how are you doing?”  Steve would say, “I’m doing well, thanks.”  Roger would sometimes stop and say, “No.  I mean REALLY.  HOW ARE YOU DOING?  WHAT’S NEW?  WHAT’S HAPPENING IN YOUR LIFE?”

Unless we really want to know, a) we shouldn’t ask and b) we have no reason to expect others to want to connect with us.

Einstein was passionately curious.  I feel like I’m pretty passionately curious.  The challenge is to decide what we’ll be curious about, and choosing to be curious about others and their stories.

Going back to our list of the people most critical to a scenario in our lives right now — work, family, school, sports, whatever it might be — are we passionately curious about what their story is?  Do we genuinely want to know how they’re thinking, feeling and seeing things?  Do we want them to say, “Things are well, thanks,” or do we want them to say, “Hey, let’s grab a cup and talk.  I’ve got some things on my mind…”?

That CFO that doesn’t understand what’s going on in the market?  Maybe she’s scared of what it means for her pension or her kids’ college plans.  That sales pro that has no patience?  Maybe he’s one deal from winning the Chairman’s Club trip, or maybe he’s one deal away from losing his home?  Maybe either or both of them are facing an illness, their own or someone they love.  Maybe, maybe, maybe….if only we’d ask, and then really listen, we’d be able to read their story, and understand how it might color their position on the matter at hand.

Tomorrow, how we respond matters, too…

Seems like us…

“No matter how fast I run, I can never seem to get away from me…”

–     Lyric from “Bright Baby Blues” by Jackson Browne

Seems like no matter where we go, there we are.  (Thanks for that one, Dad…)

Since every life has a story if our intent is to connect and get deeper, our role is to make a genuine effort to read each story, and the best place to start is with our own.

Knowing the filters we apply and the experiences that color our responses gives us insight to our stories.  As difference makers, if our aim is to really know the stories of others, the best place to start is to know our own, as best we can.

It also helps to have a small, trusted, inner circle of friends and family who will “keep us real.”  One of my closest confidants, a family member and de facto “brother,” told me for years that it was good that I stood on principle so much, but that it might help me to consider whether principles were in play in some scenarios.  He was right in 2005 when he first brought that to my attention, and if I’d have listened to him sooner, I’d have made fewer mistakes.  Knowing our own story is a combination of first person and close, trusted outside perspectives.

This week the Diff focuses on connecting, via stories — our own, others’ and the understanding that every life has a story — and it may be very different than we could ever imagine.

Let’s try this:  Write down the four most important relationships in our careers or jobs right now.  Today.  Let’s ask ourselves how much we know about their stories, and consider how much ours are affecting the way they perceive us.

Tomorrow, we’ll touch on a tool that can help us read others’ stories more frequently and more deeply.  Until then…


Seems like…

“Most things in life are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.  Most things just are.”

–     Dr. Tom Graf

About 3:30 this morning, the wind started screaming.  That means the wind chills are going to be dangerously low in the Midwest for the next few days.  The winds will make it seem like it’s 50 or more degrees below zero, even though the actual temperature may be much warmer.  That said, wind chill is one of the few “seems like” scenarios that carry real meaning.  If it’s 20-degrees with a 45-mile-per-hour wind, it is, in fact, more dangerous than if it were 20-degrees and calm.

Most other “seems like” scenarios aren’t necessarily as they seem.

If it seems like someone is mad at us, it may just mean they’re hungry or tired, or that something unrelated has affected their mood.

If the boss seems like she’s being a real hard case, it may just mean that someone close to her is ill.

If a co-worker seems like he’s become distant, maybe he’s in the midst of a breakup.

If the deal seems like it’s gone quiet, maybe the buyer’s son or daughter has come home early from the military and they’re celebrating the reunion.

The list of illustrations is probably endless, yet the point is the same.  Things aren’t always (or often) as they seem.  They key for difference makers is to get ourselves close enough to know the cause behind the symptom, the reality behind the behavior.

There is a series of videos (one of them is linked here) produced by the owner of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain, called “Every Life Has A Story.”  The tag at the end of the video is the theme of this week’s Daily Difference.  Every life has a story…if we read it.

Persevere and Excel

“Don’t focus on excelling at the expense of persevering.”

–     A paraphrase of Dr. Andy Hamilton, President, NYU in his welcome address to the Spring admit Class of 2022 last night in New York

New York University’s motto is the Latin for “To persevere and to excel.”

As we run The Eldest of The Three through the move-in / orientation process — it was a lesson that registered for her, and also for me, and the other business-type dads in the room.

In science, we fail often and with some degree of regularity.  In research, the hypothesis we’re trying to prove must first face unrelenting efforts to disprove it.  And, in business, if all we’re doing is focusing on excelling at what we do — we may not get the opportunity to persevere should a competitor shift the market or a regulator affect the  business model.

Perseverance is the stuff of Difference Makers, largely because there is rarely and end to the work we do.  We may excel at a project, but still need to persevere through the bigger work effort.  We may excel at a presentation, but still need to persevere through the negotiations.  We may excel at saving a client, but still need to persevere to change the process or root cause of what made the client consider leaving.

Our schools, our sports media, our pundits focus on excelling (not excellence, in my opinion — they choose instead to glorify the test over the learning, the game over the season or the highlight over the game and the legislation over the problem it was seeking to solve.

Perseverance is about the longer haul, and when we’re measuring our progress, keeping a laser focus on the longer, bigger, broader goal, perseverance will win out over excellence, and it will do so even faster when we get the excellence right more frequently along the way.

Beware Busyness

“The busyness of things obscures our concentration…”

–     Oswald Chambers (1874 – 1917), Scottish evangelist and teacher, author of all-time best-selling daily devotional, My Utmost for His Highest

Oswald is referring to our concentration on God, yet the business implication here is great for those who prefer to not blur the lines.

A “Top 3” admonishments in the Daily Difference over the past 14 years, is that we ought to be very hesitant to wear our busyness as a badge of honor.  We’re all busy.  Everyone is, to a certain degree.  But our busyness simply can’t become an excuse for not focusing on the important at the expense of the urgent.

If we carry the Faith-based angle forward, Satan’s primary weapon is to get us focused where we’re weak, and our busyness is a key weapon that he’ll deploy.  If we stick to the straight-and-narrow, business-only interpretation, one of our greatest weaknesses is things that seem important, but really are only temporarily urgent.

In business, where no one typically loses a limb or has their life in danger, the ability to keep crystal-clear focus on the things that are really important, and to not be distracted by the “emergency of the moment” is what separates the difference-makers from the excuse-makers.

And, since I’ve gone there (and perhaps too often do choose to “blur the lines,” if not obliterate them), a great place to start is to not separate the Faith angle from the business angle.  If our first focus in on the Thing that is most important, keeping the other important things in focus becomes much simpler.  Not easier, mind you, but simpler.

Make a difference today!

Measuring Progress

“I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”

–     Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967), American poet, writer and editor

The Diff was off Monday, out of respect for an American hero, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And, reflecting on the day, I got to wondering, “Are we making progress?”  As a middle-aged, white male, it’s not for me to posit on progress in the area of civil rights.  I have friends of color who would say both that we’ve come a long way and that we have a long, long way to go.  As we assess progress on this critical social matter, there’s a business corollary, too.

We owe it to ourselves to know how we’ll measure progress, day-to-day, week-to-week toward even our biggest, most hairy and most audacious goals.

So, unlike Sandurg, we’re called to know where we’re going (have a plan / targets / etc.), and to decide how we’ll measure our progress.

First, we need objective measurements.  Did we sell more?  Did we spend less?  Did we add to our pipeline?  Did we win business from a competitor?  Did we create a new client from a new, untapped market?  These questions have concrete, yes-or-no answers, and we can attach real numbers to the yes or the no.

We also need to use subjective measurements.  Does it feel right?  Are we playing, winning and / or losing the “right way?”  Are our families proud of the work we do?  Are our shareholders pleased with not only the return, but the reputation we’re earning?  Are our best people staying with us and growing in their roles?  Are we attracting the kind of talent we want to, and are we building a “great place to work?”

Either list could be almost limitless.  The key is for us to know what we’re going to measure, how we’re going to measure it and how often, so that “on our way” actually means progress.


Ideas As Currency II

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when you only have one idea.”

–     Emile-Auguste Chartier (1868 – 1951), French philosopher, author and pacifist

Yes, I just quoted a self-described pacifist….I know, weird, right?  Still, if we’re going to be difference makers, where ideas are our preferred currency, his point is worth taking very seriously.

I’d argue that if you only have one idea, it’s probably more about desperation than ideation.

It doesn’t have to be a “the heavens opened up” moment, either.  Having more ideas can / should be done very intentionally.  How?

Ask until there are more ideas.  Change the context until there are more ideas.  Don’t engage in any “How?” discussions until there are more options to consider.  “Huh?” you might be saying…

“What if it was illegal or immoral to pursue this idea?” we can ask.  “What would we do then?”

“What are the top three reasons this idea might fail?” we can ask.  “What would our response be in each of those three cases?”

It’s less about the answers to those questions than the conversations that take place in addressing them.  Ideation is about throwing a lot of paint on the canvas until we have a picture we can justify hanging on the wall.  Ideation is about taking on change with no ramifications, no consequences, no downside, because all we’re doing is spit-balling a rigorous game of “What if?”

If we only have one idea to consider, we ought not to consider it.  Our currency is devalued in that case.  Putting more ideas in play removes the bias, reduces the danger, and increases the commitment to the new idea we ultimately choose.

Editor’s Note:  It also has a side benefit.  It creates contingencies, even if we don’t realize it at the time.

Make it a great weekend!

Ideas as Currency

“There are few minds in a century that can look upon a new idea without terror.  Fortunately for the rest of us, there are very few new ideas.”

–     W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965), British writer, philosopher

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.  I’m frightened of the old ones.”

–     John Cage (1912 – 1992), American composer and music theorist

Ideas are the currency of Difference Makers.

And new ideas are scarier than heck!

While these two quotes may seem to be in conflict, like Cage’s musical creations, there’s tons of harmony here.

New ideas are few, therefore they’re extraordinarily valuable.  New ideas are new, therefore, human nature is to fear them, resist them.

In a compressing market?  What got you here won’t keep you viable.  In an evolving market?  Those who challenge the status quo will evolve more quickly than competitors.

Dealing in the currency of ideas requires two commitments:

  1. We’d better make it safe to fail.
  2. We’d better be willing to fail quickly and redirect as needed.

These two commitments require two disciplines:

  1. When considering new ideas, we can’t limit ourselves to one.  The key is to consider multiple concepts and blend, combine or eliminate based on the broader view.  We layer too much risk into an already scary space (change), if we fall in love with an idea before we consider alternatives.  (More on this tomorrow, by the way…)
  2. Failing quickly still requires taking time to learn from the errors.  If we fail quickly without gleaning knowledge and experience, we’ve wasted the opportunity.

Ideas are the currency of Difference Makers.  Entering the scary space where new ideas can take root increases the value of our currency.



Ask & Listen

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

–     George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), Irish playwright and influencer of Western culture

“I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

–     Classic tee shirt from my youth, loosely attributed to Robert McCloskey (1914 – 2003), American writer and illustrator

So, how do we correct the illusion that communication has taken place? How do we makes sure, absolutely, positively sure that what you heard is what I meant?

We ask.  And we listen, intently and actively.

“Did you / does that mean…?”

“Why is that / isn’t that the case…?”  “What caused that / prevented that…?”

“How did that feel (for you, for your team, for your boss, for your customers…)…?” (This is a big one!)  

“Can you help me understand…?”  “What would have to change in order for us to ______?”  “Are we on the right track together?”

“What one thing would you / wouldn’t you change…?”  “If we only accomplish one thing together, what would you want it to be?”

Regardless of our role we should be asking these and other questions.

The point is, we ask to go deeper, “seeking first to understand.” We ask, because unless we do, the illusion wins out, and the ambiguity grows. Reality and clarity are our friends, while illusion and ambiguity are not.