Of Death and Football

The only thing I remember from my Introduction to Psychology class in college is the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” It’s that tension that exists when the mind tries to hang on to two contradictory thoughts simultanously. I’m convinced we humans, especially those of us who are people of faith, live in that state more or less constantly.

One scholarly example from decades ago: the Beatles sang, “I don’t care too much for money — money can’t buy me love.” They also sang, “Give me money — that’s what I want.” How can both of those be true?

On a deeper, more profound note, we people of faith say, “Trust in God.” We also say “Make your plans.” Which is it? We read that our citizenship is in heaven, yet our journey is earthbound. So is our attention celestial or terrestrial? It has to be both. These seemingly contradictory thoughts exist in the tension called cognitive dissonance.

This morning as I write, a friend of ours lies very close to death, at the end of a year-long battle with cancer. This terrible invasion slowly robbed her of her faculties and her mobility and soon will take her life. How can one not be preoccupied with the impending loss of someone close? The thought overwhelms the mind, and we feel somehow as if it should drive out every other thought. Yet at the same time, my hometown of Seattle is today obsessed with the Super Bowl-bound Seahawks. I watched half an hour of local news this morning at the gym and the newscast was at least 90% devoted to the game, the fans, the preparation, the speculation. The city is awash in Seahawk blue and green. 12th Man flags are everywhere. How can one not be preoccupied by an event that has gripped an entire region?

The thought of impending death seems so profound — the thought of an impending football game seems (by contrast) so trivial. Behind the first thought lurks the notion that the world is a terrible place where people die too young. Beneath the glitz of the second thought is the idea that the world is a happy place where strangers hug each other when their team wins.  Dwell too much on the sad realities of life and we become paralyzed, depressed, nihilistic, unable to function. Focus entirely on the party aspects of life and we grow shallow, self-indulgent, never attaining maturity. Mourning and celebration have to find a way to coexist. We live with the tension called cognitive dissonance.

Are death and football polar opposites? I don’t know. I guess what occurs to me this morning is how glad I am that God somehow gave us the ability to compartmentalize. We weep for a friend, and we cheer for the team, and we realize the remarkable way God weaves the threads of darkness and light, sadness and joy, into the tapestries of our lives and creates something truly beautiful.

Someday I’ll Stop Procrastinating

“I was going to stop procrastinating,” the old line goes, “but I kept putting it off.”

True Confession Time: lately I feel as though I’ve been plagued with a mild bout of procrastination. I’m not sure why, but for the past few weeks I’ve been more aware of it every time I review my To Do’s. That pesky phone call doesn’t get made. That proposal sits half-written. Those appointments are stuck on the “To Be Scheduled” list. I wonder why that is — why do I make lists and then put off the execution phase? Why do I procrastinate?

Since reflection is a great aid to procrastination (self-absorption takes time, after all), I’ve been reflecting on this situation and have come up with at least three reasons why I put things off.

The first procrastination trigger is Fear. You’d think after many years in sales and fundraising that call reluctance would be a thing of the past, but it still rears its head from time to time. Fear is grounded in self-doubt. Will I say the right thing? Will I ask the right questions? Will the prospect be in a good mood? Will I get the donation, the order, the appointment, the commitment? The fear is completely irrational, of course, but too often it’s there, lurking just beneath the veneer of confidence and self-assurance.

Complacency is probably the second reason why I procrastinate. Fundraising always has a sense of urgency — make the ask, make the month, make the quarter, plan the event — so maybe with that much background noise the tendency is to tune it out once in a while and allow myself to settle into a warm fog of complacency. So what if it doesn’t get done today? Well…it might not matter that much, unless those delayed tasks start piling up, which they inevitably tend to do. The effects of procrastination tend to be cumulative, after all!

Then there’s Distraction. Being a relational person, working around people I enjoy, I can sometimes be drawn away from the Important Task into something that’s frankly more fun! As much as I appreciate being a random “people guy,” I do admire those sequential types who successfully maintain a single-minded focus on the task at hand — they seem to be immune to the kinds of distractions that draw my attention away from what I should be doing. (Maybe I should ask my brother in law to stop sending me those YouTube links…)

Are you one of those admirably focused types? Or do Fear, Complacency or Distraction cause you to procrastinate? As for me, one of these days I plan to put a stop to it! Meanwhile, there’s a fresh pot of coffee across the hall…I’ll get back to you.

Optimists and Pessimists and Realists

I’m an unapologetic Optimist. I once took one of those personality tests at work and practically scored off the chart for optimism. The fact that my boss at the time didn’t share my affinity for the Best Possible Scenario did eventually hamper our reporting relationship…but nevertheless I remained (and remain) firmly in the Polyanna camp.

I find that most Optimists don’t mind being called “Optimists.” Not so with most Pessimists — and you know who you are. You, it seems, seem to prefer to be called “Realists.” But we Optimists know better and tend to think you so-called Realists are actually Pessimists in disguise. Oh, you’ll listen to the starry-eyed predictions of us Optimists, then shake your head in a patronizing way…and, after you’ve given us your Eeyore-like assessment explaining why our idea can’t possibly work, you’ll say, “I’m just being realistic.” I suspect many people who call themselves Realists are really Pessimists who simply refuse to own the label.

On the other hand, most of you Pessimists-in-Realists’-Clothing are no doubt convinced that we Optimists live in a dream world, conveniently divorced from reality. We orbit the ground in our Cloud of Positive Outcomes while pretending that the inexorable force of gravity that will soon bring our illusions crashing to earth doesn’t really exist. Sadly, I have to admit that you’re frequently correct. Optimism can indeed be a force to be reckoned with, but sooner or later that so-called irresistible force might crash against the immoveable object of inconvenient truth, and when that happens truth typically wins.

News flash: your workplace, your team, your family is made up of individuals all along the Good News/Bad News Optimism/Pessimism spectrum. So how can we work together to maximum advantage? First, a word to you Optimists: listen carefully to the Pessimists/Realists in your life. Are they speaking truth to you? If so, it might be time to lay aside our knee-jerk reaction and make a sober assessment of the situation. I call this the Grounded Optimist, and it’s what I strive to be. Keep the energy of the Optimist but don’t ignore the facts on the ground!

And you Pessimists? Maybe it’s time for you to experience some of the energy and enthusiasm of the Optimists in your life. Before grabbing the bucket to pour cold water on the flickering flame of an idea, see if there’s something there you can support. Will there be time later to inject a note of cautionary reason into the conversation? Probably — so be patient. Meanwhile don’t be quite so quick to roll your eyes and dismiss the “unrealistic” new idea. I suppose we could call this person the Tempered Pessimist — the person with a healthy sense of the obstacles, tempered by the belief that this new idea just possibly could work.

Optimist, Pessimist, or Realist — where are you? Our workplace, team or family needs everybody, no matter where on the spectrum you place yourself!

While You Wait

Waiting. We all have to do it. Most of us don’t like it — after all, we’re an impatient species by nature. (I once read an article that showed using hidden cameras how people waiting for an elevator become physically agitated after about 20 seconds of delay. Sounds embarrassingly familiar: “Maybe if I just hit the ‘Up’ button a few more dozen times the #$&@* thing will get here today sometime!”)

Fundraisers and salespeople are particularly bad at waiting — but since it’s a fact of our professional lives, the question comes up, “What should we be doing while we wait?” Today I learned a great answer from an unlikely source: the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.

Short version: Nehemiah was one of the captive Jews living in the city of Susa in what’s now Iran, back in the 5th century BC. Years earlier, some of the captives had been permitted to return to Jerusalem, which had been sacked by invading armies, and these Jews had sent word back to Nehemiah that the place was a wreck — especially the walls and the gates, which had been torn down and burned. Nehemiah was desolate at the news that his beloved city was in such disastrous and vulnerable shape, and he vowed to ask King Artaxerxes if he could go to Jerusalem (an 800 mile journey) to do something about it. Old Nehemiah was cupbearer to the King, which gave him personal access — but still, asking a favor like that was extremely risky. The timing had to be right — tick off the King and your life would be really short.

So Nehemiah did two things. First, he prayed for favor with the King. Second, while he waited he made plans. It took four long months before he finally got to ask Artaxerxes for permission — and amazingly, the King sounded favorably disposed. “How long will you be gone?” he asked. Nehemiah’s reply, recorded in Nehemiah 2:6, was simple: “I gave him a definite time.” He didn’t hem and haw — he knew precisely what he would say when the time came.

You see, while he waited four long months, Nehemiah had made his plans. He had figured out how long the project would take. The chapter goes on to show that he had even thought of the materials he would need and the special permits that would be required to get them. He didn’t wait passively — he waited expectantly. While he waited, Nehemiah worked.

The lesson for me is simple. What should I be doing while I wait? I should be planning and preparing so that, when the light finally does turn green, I’m ready to go with no delay. That way “waiting time” is productive time. A “timely” reminder from an ancient source!

Two Thumbs Up for “David and Goliath”

The other day I picked up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath at the library. For a few days it sat on the floor next to the bed while I finished something else I was reading. This weekend I finally started reading it and — wow. I see what all the buzz is about.

Gladwell wrote Tipping Point among other best sellers, and he seems to have a knack for explaining counterintuitive truth. I’m only halfway through David and Goliath but the premise is simple: most of what we in our society presume to be true about the benefits of size and strength and talent may in fact be false. Gladwell starts with the Biblical account of the legendary battle between the Philistine giant Goliath — the odds-on favorite in the confrontation — and the young shepherd boy David, who refused to wear the king’s armor and instead went onto the field with nothing but a stick and a sling. We tend to think of this story as the classic account of the victory of the underdog, so much so that just about every struggle in the business world between a plucky upstart and a big, entrenched competitor is described as “a real David-and-Goliath story.”

But was David really the underdog? Gladwell says no. Goliath the giant was armed (and armored) for lumbering, close-quarters battle with his dreaded spear and his vicious sword. But David was all about mobility. The sling he carried was a weapon in common use in the day, employed by well-trained, nimble soldiers who could hit a big, stationary target like Goliath with deadly precision at a range of hundreds of yards. The outcome of the confrontation between David and Goliath was probably a foregone conclusion, but not in the way we typically think.

Considering the fight from a Biblical point of view (see 1 Samuel 17) it’s important to note that God’s purposes were clearly served by the outcome. But in the world of business there are some highly pertinent lessons to be taken from the David vs. Goliath battle along with other examples Gladwell includes in his book. I’m planning to buy myself a copy (since the library frowns on patrons filling their books with yellow highlighter) and I urge you to do the same. David and Goliath has already begun to change the way I think about my job as a fundraiser — starting with the renewed conviction that, in spite of prevailing wisdom, “smaller” really can mean “better.”

I’ll share more later. Meanwhile, if you’ve read David and Goliath, I welcome your thoughts.

A Belated Thanks (and an Apology) to the Boss

A note to all my past bosses, supervisors and managers: thank you. And, um, sorry about that.

I was reflecting the other day on the string of jobs I’ve had and the remarkable variety of men and women I’ve reported to. It all began with Dick at the Thriftway. Then there was Harry at the gas station. Then the Navy with five commanding officers, three executive officers and a passel of department heads. Then there was Greg, and then Bill, and Dana and Edie and Mac and Susan and Bob and Dick and Paul and Rick and Stan and Joe and Jim and Tim and Bob and Jane and Mark and Dave. Whew! I probably left somebody out, but you get the idea.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I considered this list. First, each one of these men and women really wanted to do a good job. Whether or not I happened (in my vast wisdom) to agree at the time with their approach and their philosphy of leadership doesn’t matter: without exception these were good people who worked hard, took a lot of stress home with them at night, and tried to fight the good fight. Not a bum in the bunch. So consider this a collective “Thank you” to bosses past and present.

The second thought is more convicting. Honest self-appraisal time: how often when I worked for these folks was I part of the problem and not part of the solution? Did I grouse more than I should have, even occasionally? Did I ever fuel the fires of complaint, negativity, or mistrust? Did I leave one job or another prematurely, forcing my then-boss to deal with the frustration of employee turnover? (Edie and Mac and Susan, I’m thinking about you here…) I’m not saying I would go back and change things even if I could — I’m simply wondering if I could have made my boss’s life easier by doing my work better and complaining less. So consider this a collective “My bad” for the times I made the boss’s life more difficult than I might have.

He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor says Proverbs 21:21. Translation: my agenda isn’t Priority One. Behaving in a way that’s honorable, loving and diligent — that’s the goal…whether the boss notices it or not! So if this applies, take it to heart. And next time you get the chance, say thanks to the boss. He/she will appreciate it — I guarantee it.

“I Almost Got Him to a ‘Maybe.'”

Some years ago a friend of mine was sales manager for a radio station back east. One day one of his newer sales reps came back to the office all excited.

“How did the call go?” my friend asked.

“Great! Just great!” replied the young rep enthusiastically. “I made the presentation and played the spec tape and he really liked it.”

“Well,” said my friend, “did you ask for the order?”

“Yep,” replied the sales rep, beaming proudly. “And I almost got him to a ‘Maybe.'”

Having been in both sales and fundraising I can understand the young man’s excitement. To the untrained ear, “maybe” sounds so much better than “no.” And since he was a rookie sales rep his naivete can be forgiven. However (and I’m saying this to myself) one of the characteristics of a strong salesperson or a strong fundraiser is thick-skinned self-appraisal coupled with clear-eyed realism. If you ask for the order, or for the donation, and the best you can say is “I almost got him to a ‘Maybe,'” I’m afraid you’re farther from success with that prospect than you think!

My friend the sales manager gently but firmly informed his eager young protege that an “almost maybe” is a long, long way from “yes.” And I’m sure the sales rep’s enthusiasm dimmed somewhat. But he learned what all of us in sales and fundraising have had to learn: that while “yes” is best, a clear-cut “no” is typically preferable to a wishy-washy “maybe.” After all, when the prospect is completely non-committal, what’s the next step? You don’t have one.

So like we said a few posts ago, always close for something — even if the answer is “no.”

Get the Horse Ready!

In fundraising, in sales — in pretty much all of life, for that matter — we who consider ourselves people of faith frequently wrestle with the question, “How much is up to God and how much is up to me?” Am I the master of my destiny or am I completely under the control of my Creator? Sure, I can make my plans, but at the end of the day am I 100% responsible for the outcome — or is it closer to zero?

There’s a “passivist believer” attitude that essentially says, “If God is in control then nothing is really up to me. I can get by with the bare minimum.” God is going to do what He’s going to do anyway, so why make the effort? Seems to me it’s too easy to use this level of so-called “trust” as an excuse for detachment and disengagement. I don’t think God calls us to passivity.

At the opposite end of the God/me spectrum is the “activist believer” attitude that essentially says, “It’s really up to me, and I don’t truly expect God to step in at all.” Oh, we might go through the motions of praying about decisions, mostly for appearance’s sake, but when it comes to trusting God the “activist believer” sometimes behaves like what someone has labelled a functional atheist. Our so-called trust is all form and no substance.

One of my favorite proverbs sheds light on this God/me question. It’s Proverbs 21:31 which in the NIV says, The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord. You Bible scholars out there may tell me I’m using a faulty exigesis here, and you may be right, but to me this verse helps clarify things. It says, yes, I do trust God fully and absolutely for the outcome of anything I undertake. But I have a big responsibility: I’m supposed to get the horse ready. That means I think, I plan, I work. The end result is fully in God’s hands but preparation is my responsibility.

Are you making plans for your day, your week, your year, your life? I’m doing the same…and I’m gradually learning how to trust God and to get busy. So excuse me…I’ve got to go get the horse ready.

A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With…

Complete this sentence: “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with…”

With what? A prayer? A To Do list? A spreadsheet? The usual answer is “a single step,” and that’s probably true in a way. But for me the real sentence should read, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the decision to begin.”

Starting can be the hardest part. I can often find plenty of reasons not to begin the journey. I’m not really ready. I’m not sure that’s really where I want to go. I’m not sure what that fateful first step should look like. I’m not packed yet. And what if I try that first step only to trip at the starting line? (That’s one reason why I don’t golf, by the way — I hate teeing off in front of so many amused strangers.)

When it comes to beginning the journeys of life, two related quotes come to mind. The first is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and it was on the bulletin board at the first radio station I ever worked at. The quote intimidated me at the time — I think it was really posted there by the Sales Manager to encourage me to make more cold calls — but after having spent three and a half decades in sales and fundraising I see the wisdom of it more clearly, and it still pops into my head from time to time. You’ve probably heard it: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

In other words, there is power in simply beginning. Some people say that God can’t steer a parked car. I say He can, but He simply chooses not to. You need to be moving!

The second quote comes from that wise sage, Dr. Phil. I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but basically Dr. Phil says, You’ll never really make significant adjustments in your life until the pain of same outweighs the pain of change. I really like that. Sometimes the courage to begin the arduous and uncertain journey starts with the sheer discomfort of the status quo.

So what’s holding you back? Is it not knowing that first step? Or is it simply that you haven’t truly decided to begin? Maybe it’s time.

The Unqualified Compliment

Admit it — doesn’t it feel good to receive a word of encouragement? I’m thinking particularly of the workplace here. I don’t know about you but I derive quite a bit of personal satisfaction, not to mention a sense of job security (maybe too much, come to think of it) when I receive a compliment or an encouraging word from the boss. Conversely, when the boss never says anything encouraging, I find myself plagued with self-doubt. Am I not measuring up? Does he or she not like me anymore? Neurotic? Maybe…but I strongly suspect I’m not the only one. You know who you are!

Somewhere between the sound of silence from the boss and the pleasant and encouraging word of affirmation lies what I call the Qualified Compliment. I had a boss once who was the master of the Qualified Compliment — he simply couldn’t bring himself to say something encouraging without adding a stinger at the end. Examples:

  • “Nice month in January! Way to go! Of course, the rest of the quarter doesn’t look so hot…”
  • “Good work on the McDonald’s buy — nice piece of business! Why didn’t we get on Fred Meyer?”
  • “Looks like Bill is really coming around — you’re doing a good job with him! But Anne is really slipping…what’s going wrong there?”

Just once, I used to think, can’t you say something encouraging and then leave it there? I guess he feared I would get complacent…but actually his backhanded criticism sowed seeds of self-doubt. Not healthy.

Managers, here’s a thought: try giving one of your team members a compliment without qualification: an Unqualified Compliment! Then see what happens. I think you have some subordinates who will REALLY appreciate it!