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Brutal honesty is not enough.

In my last blog I emphasized the importance and benefits of creating an open, honest, authentic and courageous communication environment in teams and in life. In this blog I want to dig a little deeper.

Living with a courageous and relentless commitment to openness and honesty is a powerful and, in my view, noble virtue. I am not merely saying this because I have personally adopted this commitment in my own life. I am saying it because I have seen the power of openness and honesty triumph over resignation, despair and challenge, as well as nurture opportunity many times. BUT, I have also seen openness, honesty and bluntness deeply hurt and deflate people.

People often think that “having no filter”, “calling it as they see it” and “putting it all out there” are virtues and an asset to their group or relationship. In fact, some cultures – the Dutch for example – pride themselves on their bluntness. When brutal honesty is delivered in a productive manner, it can definitely be a huge asset. But brutal honesty can also be a disaster and an impediment. It can hurt people deeply and leave casualties.

A sales manager at a global telecom company shared with me a story that I have heard in other places before: his boss asked him to represent his country in the weekly regional sales forecast call with the upper level managers. The economic times were challenging and deals were hard to come by, so everyone on the call was somewhat tense and apprehensive, especially his boss’s boss, who was under tremendous pressure from his superiors to perform. When it was time for the sales manager to present he didn’t have good news to share, so not before long he found himself being questioned, grilled and criticized by those who attended the meeting. Needless to say, he left the call feeling devastated and publically attacked, humiliated and demeaned. His boss’s boss had a different depiction of the incident. His take was: “The sales manager came to the call unprepared so I gave him some feedback and tried to help him steer his presentation the right way”.

If openness, honesty and bluntness don’t make a difference and empower people, they are not worth the dignity they stand for and represent.

I have also heard many people equate open, honest and authentic communication to “getting it all off their chest”. In fact, in a recent coaching conversation an executive expressed pride in the fact that he finally mustered the courage to tell his team-mate how he really felt about him, after a long period in which he accumulated pent up frustrations and resentments about his colleague. I empathized with his initial feeling of personal triumph. But when I asked him if the conversation made a difference to address, resolve or change things he wasn’t sure at all. In fact, upon reflection he admitted that the trust and partnership with his colleague didn’t get stronger, and they didn’t come out of that conversation with any tangible productive actions or directions. He left the conversation feeling relief, but his colleague seemed quite upset and disheartened.

Putting it all out there, or getting if all off your chest is the wrong focus. Making a difference should always be the purpose and focus of any communication. It should guide the approach, angle, style and intensity of all our conversations. If making a difference requires being completely open, honest and blunt, then so be it. But, if being completely open, honest and blunt would hurt, insult, demean or deflate the other person, it may be better not to say anything at all.

A friend of mine, who is teaching at a post graduate university, shared with me recently that her new boss adopted the “blunt, no filter” approach, which was less than successful in their environment. Her boss, who came from the finance world, did not take into account the less brutal and more “diplomatic” academic world she was now immersed in. My friend confessed to feeling wary and cautious about bringing issues to the front because of her boss’s unorthodox style.

There are always appropriate, effective and productive ways to communicate, give feedback and express criticism and dissatisfaction – no matter how severe – which elevate and empower people.

What good is it for anyone if people around them are torn down and/or afraid to speak their minds?

Fifty-five is a notable age.

This week I turned 55. I don’t know how 55 should feel or look. But, I don’t feel 55 and people tell me that I don’t look or behave it.

I am sure we’ve all heard the saying “the fifties is the new thirties.” Statistics support this view too. In fact, I recently saw a statistic that in modern countries such as the USA and Canada, the average expectancy of a man has increased in the 20th century from 46 to 74 and women from 48 to 80.

But statistics is one thing and how we feel, look and behave is another. Fifty-five is a notable age. It’s the middle of my life, or as my wife says: “at 50 we have earned the right to stop worrying about what other people think about us or what we should do, and only care about what we feel is right for us to be and do.”

So, 55 is a great opportunity to take stock of where I am in my life journey – what I feel great about, what I don’t, and most important what I want the next 10 years and rest of my life to look like.

I will always have ambitions, aspirations and goals. There are more things I still want to accomplish and get done, more wealth to build and more difference to make. Having said that, my biggest wish is to get up every day for the rest of my life feeling fully satisfied, blessed and validated by who I am and what I have accomplished thus far. I want to feel that I am pursuing my aspirations and goals as an expression of success and abundance, rather than scarcity and deficit.

Many years ago a friend caught me by surprise when he asked me the question: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” And that question has stayed with me ever since.

My answer is: I am young enough to fully express myself every day in everything I do, to fully love the people that are dearest to me with all my heart, to pursue my wildest dreams without doubt or compromise, and to live every day of my life with the optimism, hope and excitement that “the best is yet to come.” It is scary at times to live full out, but I can’t imagine any other way to do it.

How old would YOU be if you didn’t know how old YOU are?     

Be Careful What You Wish For

Being a leader in business and life means adopting a certain point of view about people, circumstances, opportunities and challenges. It means being oriented around conversations that generate and empower new possibilities and action, rather than cynicism, resignation and excuses about all circumstances. It means always being the champions for “what’s possible” and “how can we make it work” rather than “why we can’t” and “why it won’t work”.

Every point of view or paradigm is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Have you ever noticed that when we have a point of view that something isn’t possible we always gather evidence and proof in our circumstances and environment to support and prove that point of view? And, if we happen to change our mind, even 180 degrees, and adopt a different point of view, we instantly can find new evidence and proof in the exact same environment and circumstances for our new point of view?

We often say “I can’t believe what I see”. But, in fact we don’t believe or disbelieve what we see. We see what we believe or disbelieve. We don’t really see with our eyes, we see with our paradigm or point of view. That’s why two people can participate in the same “physical” circumstance or situation and experience it drastically differently, often contradicting.

In our work and life we are always invested in proving right one point of view or another. Sometime we do it consciously, but more often we do it unconsciously. It’s the nature of being human.

I often interact with people who have a negative or cynical point of view about areas that are important to them in their work or personal life.  They seem to strongly believe that “they can’t have it all” or “they will never fully get what they want” or “things won’t simply workout smoothly and great for them.” And, unintentionally they constantly prove that point of view right. I can see it in their attitude and hear it in their conversations: every time things don’t work out great for them they say or imply “you see, I knew it.” or “you see I told you so.” And, every time something great does happen to them they view it as a “one off” and they are “cautiously optimistic” at best about their fortune.

Most people, including very successful and accomplished people, tend to be more skeptical and even cynical about “having it all.” They often explain their point of view as “being realistic”.

However, there are people who stand for a drastically different point of view. Their genuine life view is that “I can have it all,” “I can have my work and life be extraordinary with no compromise.” And, their life is about validating and proving that point of view right. Every time something significant or insignificant happens to them that is consistent with their point of view they “high five” it and think or say “See, life works.” And every time they don’t get what they want they view it as “temporary” or a “one off,” and they try to learn something worthwhile from it to strengthen their point of view.

One of my clients is the recently appointed CEO of a known brokerage company. He took on a significant change initiative to elevate his company from seventh to one of the top four companies in his market place. In a recent bid for a mega deal his team lost the bid after making it to the final short list of two contestants out of eight. While many of his team members seemed discouraged by the loss, he felt extremely proud and encouraged by the fact that his team made it that far. For him the fact that his team made it to the top two only signified proof that they were in fact on track to achieve their goal.

If you accept the premise that we are constantly proving right our points of view, and therefore our points of view are always self fulfilling prophecies, you have a choice about what point of view you will prove right in your work and life. Contrary to what many people may think there are no “right,” “true,” or “correct” points of view. There are only “empowering” or “disempowering” ones; points of view or paradigms that enable more possibilities, ideas and dreams, and ones that shut down possibilities, ideas and dreams, and explain and justify why these can’t and won’t come true.

I stand for the point of view that everyone deserves and can build a life that reflects the point of view of “having it all” and “fulfilling all our most precious commitments and dreams.”  So, my own professional and personal life is about proving that point of view right.

What point of view are YOU proving right in YOUR life? 

Photo by: John Liu

Courageous Living: When Ignorance Is Not Bliss

This is the final blog in my three-week series on blissful ignorance and awareness. Over the last two weeks, I have discussed the ways in which ignorance of certain information can be both empowering and disempowering (Is Ignorance Bliss? & Blissfully Ignorant or Blissfully Aware?). This week, I will discuss the areas of our life in which we definitely want to be aware—and how to ensure we stay awake and aware in these important areas.

While there’s a lot we don’t need to know in order to be happy, even information that we are better off not knowing, there are a few areas of our lives in which awareness always trumps ignorance. These are the fundamental aspects of our lives—the people and things that are most important to us and that can either make or break our bliss. For many of us, these may include, but are not limited to, our:

  • Health
  • Finances
  • Career
  • Marriage
  • Family

There may be other areas of our life that also belong on the list—perhaps our close friends, a philanthropic cause, or some other endeavor that gives our life purpose and that is included in our vision of a happy, successful life.

For each of these areas, there are certain questions we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis:

  1. According to my definition of success and happiness, what is my vision for how this area of my life would look if it was working perfectly for me?In other words, what’s my desired end state? In order to know if we’re on track to achieve our vision of a blissful life, we need to know what we are working toward—an end state with which to compare the actual state of things. If our marriage was working exactly as we wanted it, what would that look like? If we had exactly the career we wanted, what would we be doing right now or working toward? How would we be feeling every day at work? If our finances were completely on track with our vision for our family’s future, what would our financial situation look like?
  2. Am I blissfully aware in this area of my life? Or am I blissfully ignorant, thinking if there doesn’t seem to be a problem, then everything is OK?Awareness is an active state of mind where we gather and consider all the necessary information so that we know what is working well and what isn’t. So when it comes to our health, we are having regular checkups and taking preventative measures against potential health problems based on our age, personal history, and family history. We are having regular conversations with our accountant or money manager so that we have all the facts about our financial well-being. We are paying attention to our spouse and having conversations about the state of our relationship, rather than just assuming he/she is happy because we are not arguing or fighting. The same goes for our children. Just because they’re not complaining doesn’t mean they feel an intimate connection with us. If we are blissfully aware, we are actively seeking out areas of our life in which we may be ignorant. This is never about perfection, and we can never be sure to have the ultimate awareness in every area. But, when we take the life commitment to be aware, stay aware, and even grow our awareness in all the areas that are most important to us, the commitment itself and the living of it is very empowering. For many it becomes life changing.
  3. What’s the current shape of this area of my life?If we are truly aware, rather than unintentionally ignorant, we have the information we need to accurately evaluate each area of our life and how it compares to our vision, or ideal, we want to achieve. Once we know what is and isn’t working well, we can start to take action. What could be improved? What could I do differently? What steps should I be taking in order to be happy and on track for achieving my vision?

Most people don’t think this way. They don’t have this kind of orientation or these kinds of practices. Instead, they just react to things in life. They don’t regularly ask themselves these questions, often because they don’t want to know. It’s easier to just go with the flow than to have tough conversations with our spouses and our children, or to be honest with ourselves about the challenging steps we need to take in order to have the careers we want.

Being aware ultimately leads to the happy lives we envision for ourselves, but it doesn’t always feel so blissful in the moment. It takes courageous thinking to be honest with ourselves about what we really want. It takes courage to own up to the way it’s going. And it takes courageous living to make it happen.

Blissfully Ignorant or Blissfully Aware?

Is ignorance really the key to bliss? Is it awareness? Or is it, perhaps, a combination of the two?

In last week’s blog, we discussed the benefits and drawbacks of being aware or ignorant about certain information and why it’s important to deliberately manage a balance between the two. But how do you know when knowledge is power and when it can be disempowering?

Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding whether you really want to know more:

Is this information true?

Benjamin Franklin once said,

“Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.”

Most of the information we use to make decisions is not based on fact. It is based on our interpretations and opinions about what we observe and what others tell us about their own observations. In today’s tech-driven, social-media-connected society, very little of what we hear (or read) is factual. In fact, much of it is actually based on incorrect facts. Yet, a frightening number of people believe not only everything they hear on the news but everything they read on Facebook as well.

“Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” Most of the information we use to make decisions is not based on fact. It is based on our interpretations and opinions about what we observe and what others tell us about their own observations. In today’s tech-driven, social-media-connected society, very little of what we hear (or read) is factual. In fact, much of it is actually based on incorrect facts. Yet, a frightening number of people believe not only everything they hear on the news but everything they read on Facebook as well.

Before taking action on information, think about it for yourself. Do some research. Gather more information before forming your own opinion. It may not always be possible to be certain whether a piece of information is true, but an equally important question is whether or not it is true to you—to what you think, who you are, and what you’re about.

Is this information empowering?

Some information simply has little to no positive value in our lives. Some knowledge can be depressing (often because there’s simply nothing we can do to change it), disempowering, and even dangerous. For instance, consider the images we see of models and celebrities, with their perfect bodies and faces. We start to wonder why we don’t look like that. The truth is that they don’t look like that either. Without strategic lighting and Photoshop, most of them look more like us than their pictures. And so we have this culture where people starve themselves to lose weight, teenagers get breast implants, and people literally get addicted to plastic surgery—all in pursuit of an unattainable standard of beauty.

Remaining ignorant of these undermining, disempowering conversations and similar information could certainly be blissful—and even beneficial. When we’re not inundated with other people’s ideas, standards, and values, we can start thinking more clearly for ourselves. We can take a stand for who we are and what we value.

Is this information useful?

It’s important to be aware of information that is useful to you—not just what makes you feel good but what you need to know in order to achieve your vision for your career, life, or even your family.

When my oldest daughter (who is now twenty-four) was preparing to enter high school, my wife and I started to think about what we believed was best for her. We had conversations among our social networks (mostly upper-middle-class people like us). Like many parents, we wanted a certain kind of success for our daughter. So we convinced ourselves and her that she should go to this highly-academic private school, where they raved about their statistics for how many students ended up in the more prestigious, high-earning professions like medicine and law.

My daughter suffered the whole year. It wasn’t the right place for her. Regretfully, it took us a few months to wake up and realize we were totally hypnotized by standards that had nothing to do with what was best for her. We, like many people, were in this rat race of standards and keeping up with the Joneses. And we hadn’t realized that before. We just thought we were looking out for her best interests. So we took her out of the school and placed her in a local school where she blossomed and did very well. I still see many people in our social circles that are still caught up in the same predicament.

Success, achievement, and happiness are concepts we should define for ourselves—based on our values, our visions of our lives, and what we truly want. It takes awareness to get off the bandwagon of keeping up with the Joneses. It also takes courage—to stand up for what you believe and to think for yourself. It’s much easier to just go with the flow. But when it comes to important, life-defining decisions, ignorance is not bliss. It’s a curse.

In next week’s blog, I’ll discuss the areas of our life and work where we definitely want to be aware—and the questions to ask ourselves to ensure we aren’t operating in unintentional ignorance.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

The phrase “ignorance is bliss” is often used in sarcastic, critical, and judgmental ways—as if it means burying your head in the ground like an ostrich to avoid dealing with the real challenges of the real world. But is that really true? Is staying ignorant and protected from certain information or conversations a blessing, or a curse?

On the one hand, the older I get, the more I understand the validity of the idea that knowledge, or information, is power. The more facts you have in an area that is important to you, the more empowered you are to make informed and effective choices. When we lack information, we are more likely to make rush decisions based on emotions.

For example, people can act emotionally about their finances when they don’t have accurate information about the status of their affairs, market trends, or the performance of certain types of investments. Someone once told me that when people don’t understand the stock market so they just listen to their stockbroker and do what he/she tells them, it is like “parking and praying.” You park your money and pray that it will be OK.

This is true for most people (with the exception of people like Warren Buffett, for whom investing is more of a science than an art). Most of us read a little bit, but we don’t have a lot of information. So we just have to hope our financial agents know enough to make it work and that the companies we’re putting money into are in good shape.

Usually when people are blissfully ignorant, they are hopeful. But hope is not a strategy—especially when it comes to important areas like our finances. Wealth is another important one. We’ve all heard stories of people who were cured of life-threatening diseases because they detected and addressed the issue early on. Unfortunately, we’ve also heard stories of people who never did their checkups and found out about their fatal illnesses too late.

While I certainly believe that knowledge can be powerful, I’ve also come to understand and appreciate the power of staying ignorant and naive about certain things. For example, consider the media today. Advertisers bombard us with different life standards—their ideals about how we’re supposed to look, how much money we’re supposed to make, or how much we need to achieve in order to be successful. These ideals are designed to make people feel inadequate, to create dissatisfaction so we’ll buy their products. No wonder we have more anorexic teenagers than ever before, and no wonder most of our society is in debt, trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Add to that the fact that news media organizations tend to only report the sensational, gloom-and-doom stories—sound bites about the economy, government, murders, rapes, child abuse, war, and other unpleasant topics. Because media is all about selling ratings, they look for the most shocking stories, which are usually the most depressing. Even though they’re often reporting on people’s opinions and interpretations, rather than actual facts, people eat it up like it’s the gospel. We stop thinking for ourselves and allow the media frenzy to make us reactive, afraid, cynical, resigned, unhappy, and even obsessive.

I am not suggesting anyone stop watching and reading the news. It’s important to know what’s going on in the world. But I am very selective about what I read, what news channels I watch, and how much I read about different things that happen, because certain conversations don’t make any difference. In fact, some information (or at least “expert interpretations” of that information) can have a negative impact.

The opposite of ignorance is awareness—and both can be blissful. The key is to deliberately manage a balance. Over the next two weeks, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic—including how to know when it’s better to be ignorant and when it’s better to be aware. I’ll also discuss how this concept applies to different areas of our life—including our finances, career, health, marriage, and family. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to share your thoughts on the matter.