Archive for October, 2010

>Three lessons from my father

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I have just had that gut-wrenching experience of putting my dear father in a nursing home, for permanent high-level care. A bloke who, in his prime, could turn his hand to anything from the dark art of cost accounting to the greasing and oil-changing of a 1937 Dodge.

Probably from having been a teenager in the sixties, I can see now that I spent a lot of time devising lessons about what not to do in life, based on an opposition to some of what he did, which from here looks pretty self-righteous on my part.

Now, as he sits in his favourite chair, diminished, I see glimpses of the younger, resourceful, capable dad. I have started to collect the positive lessons from my father. Here are three strong and memorable ones for me:

Keep your left hand behind the cutting edge

When you are holding the chisel in one hand, and the piece of wood in the other, you don’t want to be in the position where, if the chisel jumps, you end up chiselling yourself. Keeping your left hand behind the cutting edge was just a piece of dad’s common sense imparted to young, enthusiastic but impetuous carpenters who went down the shed to “make something”. When I look back, it was also about risk management. You can take some simple enough steps to prevent damage, without really compromising the ability to achieve the outcome. Apply a bit of care to the way you set something up, and then execute it. Think about it while you are doing it. Keep your form.

On another level it’s about what is worth what. Seemingly keeping that bit of wood a bit steadier with your hand in front of the chisel, and risking a deep gash and some stitches – or taking it a bit slower, even clamping the wood to the bench instead. Sometimes the bit of extra time saved, or the effort, isn’t really worth it.

You can have a go at really big things

My dad was, by training, experience and inclination, an accountant. That didn’t stop him from tackling some really big projects. We had a block of land down the south coast. With four kids at school, the only way there was going to be a holiday house, in dad’s view, was if he built it himself. There was room down the back, in the chook pen, to build a set of dummy foundations. At his workplace, the temporary office premises where he had been overseeing a factory start-up, were being pulled down. He bought the discarded timber beams for a song, each one of them 12 inches x 2 inches (that’s 250 mms x 50 mm), and a giant saw-bench that the builders had been using. He ripped the big beams into 4x2s and 3x2s for the frame of the new holiday house.

He built the roof first, sitting it on the dummy brick piers. It was a hip roof, not an easy-way-out gable roof. That meant a whole lot of compound mitre cuts, blending two different angles, for all those rafters as they met the hip coming down from the ridge. I wish I had watched all that, and got dad to show me how to use that thing with all the dials and numbers called a “rafter-graph”. I have tried to cut compound mitre joints since and I know how hard they are to pull off. He must have cut 25 or 30 of them. He assembled the roof with the double-headed nails they use for concrete formwork; numbered all the beams; then pulled it apart easily because of those clever nails. Then he built the wall frames. Left them intact, hired a bloke with a truck and had it all carted down the coast. We all had a hand in putting it back together, dad and my brothers and I. It’s still there 40 years later. And everyone still loves going there.

Building a house isn’t something your average accountant does. Dad did, because he was prepared to have a go at it – at something really big.

Bricolage

There’s a current trend called “decluttering”, throwing out anything that you don’t need for the present or the immediate future. There is, however, a competing theory known as “bricolage”: taking whatever you might have at hand, and using it to address whatever need you currently have – even if it means having stuff around, just in case you might need it to address such a need. Dad always had a fair amount of stuff down the back. It is arguable that he had too much of it. (Actually, it’s undoubtable). But his first response to doing a job was to assess what he already had, rather than writing out a shopping list and then going out to buy it. A wedge to keep a door open. A bookshelf. A set of swinging boards to hold scores of tools in a confined space. That idea of thinking about how some issue, some challenge, can be dealt with by using what you already have, has been a wonderfully helpful, life-long example to me. Even though it means I have to find somewhere to keep that supply of assorted lengths of timber, empty containers, a variety of fasteners and a wide array of seldom used tools – just in case.

I reckon bricolage applies just as importantly to people. I have twice started new jobs, each time with advice from the HR director that “you really need to get rid of so-and-so out of your department – we thought we would wait till you started so you could do it.” Each of those two so-and-sos were not “got rid of” – they knew a whole lot more than me about the company and the job I was supposed to be doing, and they were already at hand. Each of them re-invented themselves to be consecutively the two best, most loyal team members I ever had. So often, it’s all about what is already in the kitbag.

What I find sad now is that I can’t tell dad about the importance of those three lessons to me. His cognitive ability has slipped just beyond the capacity to take it in. I tried a little while ago to remind him, on his Father’s Day card, of “keep your left hand behind the cutting edge”, and he just gave me a friendly smile. So I learned one more lesson out of the whole process: acknowledge the lesson to the teacher while they can still appreciate the acknowledgement. But dad: thanks anyway.

>E+R=O

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This is a great insight from my mate Liam Forde.

The first thing that comes into your head when something happens is often not the best thing. Something or someone may have pushed one of your buttons. I’ve been particularly prone to that if something looks like injustice, or if someone else is taking credit for something I’ve done. Your first reaction is probably not your intuition speaking. It’s more likely to be patterned behaviour, or be fuelled by adrenalin in a ‘flight or fight’ response. What you don’t get then is an opportunity to work out what the best response, as opposed to the first response, may be. When the event happens, the response, whatever it may be, will determine the outcome. Event plus response equals outcome – E+R=O.

You may not, probably will not, control the event. What you can control is the response, and you can therefore influence, or even drive, the outcome. There’s just one thing you need to do that: Stop! Before you speak, before you act – stop, examine what you are about to do or say, maybe take a breath. The Buddhists call it “the sacred pause”. Then decide what your response will be, rather than let your adrenaline, or your hot buttons, or even your prejudices, decide it for you. It happened to me a while ago, when my wife claimed credit for an idea that I reckoned I had, and I jumped right in and said ‘”No, that was my idea”. And it didn’t actually matter a damn whose idea it was, and a great response would have been to say nothing. Or even better, to have said “Great idea darling.”

This, of course, does not apply to emergency or life-threatening situations, where you may have to act immediately and by reflex. But generally, you have a choice. As my old boss Russ Hewitt said, “Shit happens, suffering is optional”. When an event happens, your response dictates or strongly influences the outcome. E+R=O. Your choice.

>What if you don’t really need the money?

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My father had what I would have called the great good fortune to be retrenched at 57. After nearly 40 years with the one company. The retrenchment was due to the closure of a joint venture plant which had reached the end of its economic life. So there was no shame in it, and I don’t think he felt any. His long service with the company made the retrenchment financially advantageous to him.

But over the next few years I watched my dad’s internal clock slowly wind down, and twenty years later it hardly ticks at all. Dad had a bit of a part-time job for a while, but it seemed to fizzle out. As best I could work out, he didn’t really need the money at the time, and there didn’t appear to be anything left to fire him up, or keep him busy beyond counting the collection plates after church on Sunday mornings.

I find myself in a similar kind of position of “not really needing the money.” My life joint venture partner might well respond “what’s need got to do with it?” But I have caught myself once or twice, recently, thinking that it’s pretty relaxing spending an hour to read the paper thoroughly in the morning, then put in a solid couple of hours in the garden before having a coffee in the village.

During one of those recent thorough newspaper readings, I came across a reference to Oscar Niemeyer, the famous architect, “still busy at work at 102.” That, and a few other nudges from different directions, have set me thinking about what is the spark which must keep glowing, to make “semi-retirement” the vibrant, valuable, worthwhile stage it ought to be? A very relevant question at 56, with plenty of “lifestyle options” available to keep me fully, though not perhaps meaningfully, entertained.

The drivers which I am about to share are of course very personal ones, and unavoidability tinted with the colours of a later-in-life spiritual journey of which work is just a part. But here they are, for the record if nothing else.

Mortality

I have been to funerals over the past few years of good people who have left this earth in their 40s, 50s and early 60’s. There are no guarantees. While the statistics say I have 21.9 years left here, in coming to an average there are always low scores to offset the big numbers. I still feel the pressure of things in my head, in my history, which I think are worth extracting, crystallising, applying in new circumstances, and passing on to others. Lessons which I may have learned at someone else’s expenses, and are thereby tinged with a karmic obligation. Hard-earned insights which might save someone else pain and suffering if shared. What if the 21.9 years are 10, or 5, or 6 months, or tomorrow? Things often feel like they are queuing up inside me for dissemination, and I have to get as many of them out, and shared, and applied, as fast as possible. Just in case.

Service

It seems to be more common these days that people in their middle years have a view about “giving something back”. To me there are a couple of supervening reasons to keep going in service of meaningful goals. The first one is gratitude. I’ve received plenty of lucky breaks in life and garnered lots of advantages. To undertake worthwhile things helps balance the celestial ledger. The second one is something that the Buddhists call “right livelihood”, which asks us to love our world through our work. Aligning “love for the world” with our jobs when we are full tilt at our careers isn’t always a simple process. I have found that there is inevitably greater scope for this kind of work/world love alignment once the imperatives of career advancement and family support diminish – like, it’s never too late. Kahlil Gibran said: “All work is empty save when there is love, for work is love made visible.”

The dividend from this alignment is the well known outcome that when you give something back and help others, you can’t avoid helping yourself.

Purpose

I’ve been very fortunate over the past 7 or 8 years to have had mentors who have shown me the power of having a considered, articulated, explicit purpose in life, and who have helped me to discover my own purpose. At a vocational level, that purpose is to help people and organisations find clarity and direction. Just to be pursuing those “lifestyle options” will not be enough to help deliver on my purpose. Purpose stands as a measure against which both the big issues, and the small stuff, can be compared.

Renewal

Being involved in real work means I spend time with smart young people. Their talent, their energy, their ideas, spark me up and put the kind of charge in my batteries that I can’t find in books, blogs or discussions with my peers. I’m working with one young star at the moment in a context she calls “thought partnering”. That is a generous description in my view because she’s actually showing me how to do something outside my current skill set. Hopefully I am adding something back in the thought partnering process. Another renewal effect comes from working as part of a team, instead of just running a solo operation, and feeling the rewards of shared endeavour.

Doing it anyway

There is a piece of wisdom called “The Paradoxical Commandments”. They were mistakenly attributed, for a long time, to Mother Teresa. It doesn’t matter what the source is; it’s the wisdom that counts. They have been helpful to me in showing that good and important things might as well be done whether or not they are to stand the test of time, whether or not they set up some kind of legacy. They also help me to be conscious of not wanting to accumulate good deeds in service of my own legend. Some of the commandments which most connected with me were:

  • “What you spend years building, someone may destroy overnight. Build anyway”
  • “The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.”
  • “Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.”

Self-esteem

It’s not very altruistic, I suppose, but I just feel better about myself when I am doing things that matter, and aren’t focused only on me. That same caveat, of being careful not just to be acting in service of my own legend, is important in this context: pride is very close to self-esteem on the merit continuum.

This all started out with my dad. It looks like an exercise based on what I learnt not to do from him, but I am grateful for the positive lesson drawn from his example. What I do know is that I had two big advantages which my dad didn’t – I had him for a father and my mum for a mother. Those are other stories yet to be told.



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