Monday, September 3, 2012

A House Grows In Brooklyn

I think of the decision to prioritize the environment in which we live as similar to creating a sculpture that celebrates our own life. Living in an “intentional space” reinforces the message that we are in charge, that we are powerful. If we are particularly thoughtful and we “design” our personal space keeping our other values and goals in mind, then this space can become an extension of our entire value system, helping us to more effectively live our dreams and reach our goals.

Earlier in the year, I set a fairly large goal for myself: to purchase a home. After some consideration, we settled on Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. “BedStuy” is a transitional neighborhood that, at least since 1936, when a subway-line connecting Harlem and “Bedford” was established, has been predominantly African-American. At some point, due to racism, marginalization and poverty, the neighborhood fell on hard times and many of the once glorious, turn-of-the-century brownstone homes fell into disrepair. Over the past few years the trend has started to reverse and “new blood” is now moving into the neighborhood; folks that are looking to put down roots in NYC but can’t or won’t afford “The City.”

That’s where we come in.

We spent about 3 months looking at (and learning how to think about) real estate. We talked to everyone about everything. We pried. We asked intensely personal questions of friends and strangers alike. And I am sure that we dominated more then our fair share of conversations at dinner parties, explaining to anyone who would listen, what our goals were and how we hoped to achieve them.

We also had some epic fights. House hunting is not for the feint of heart. There seemed no limit to the type and depth of feelings that each of us experienced: angry, pressured, trapped, resentful, jealous, greedy, juvenile, unthought-about, guilty, hopeful, excited, and, of course, deeply in love. In fact, the project was so all consuming, and often times so completely overwhelming, that many of my other projects came to a screeching halt. I even stopped writing during the duration of the project and did not start up again until the day we closed.

But close we did. On Tuesday, August 21, 2012 we became the proud new owners of a very old (125 years) 3-story, 2-family, Brick-and-Brownstone house...  a home, really... a Home.

From the Zone…


An Inspirational Love Letter (circa 2036)…

Reporting back... from 2036

Dearest Ian,

Its been a quarter of a century since you began this project. I suppose I should start with a thank you. Thanks for sticking in there. Thanks for the thoughtful diligence and loving care. For the commitment and the tenacity. It (You!) was absolutely worth it. And you made possible everything that came afterward. You have, as you and E. used to joke, made a huge dent in my universe.

The world has changed… dramatically. In almost every imaginable way!

Technology has helped us to ensure that we can feed the population of the entire world – we have these massive vertical farms; crops with exposed roots systems. Food is pesticide free and mostly organic (if you ignore the artificial light sources, spray-on nutrients, and complete lack of soil.) Yes, there is an “Earth Grown” movement that insists on traditional methods for agriculture and livestock. I tend to agree with them on the issue of livestock, “grown meat” not really being my thing, but the vegetables we order online are as good as anything that has come out of the ground – better, since they have been engineered for taste and texture and not resistance to adverse environmental conditions.
Doctors now routinely use nano-technology and organ-cloning to replace failing organs (which because they are grown from the patient’s own stem cells are genetically identical to the host and are not rejected.) We think folks are going to be able to live for hundreds of years.  

We are reversing global climate change; adopting a perspective of ourselves as stewards of a healthier earth; and replacing industrial-revolution-era factories and methods with new, clean tech and renewable energy. Resources are plentiful. Capitalism has evolved, softened. Individuals are encouraged to contribute based on their skills, education, creativity and are compensated accordingly (if not always equally.) It’s rare to see folks starving or dying in the streets.

You’ll be pleased to know that racism and sexism are mostly things of the past. People are encouraged to feel their feelings but act on their thinking and greater numbers of children are raised free from abuse and neglect. Gay oppression is non-existent.

Speaking of which, your wedding... Well, what can I say? You guys were something. And of course, what’s a wedding without a family. Two awesome children. W., now 20, loving college and teaching his professors almost more than he is being taught. Thank God he is as charming as he is funny. Anyway, he hasn't gotten himself expelled yet. S. is a senior in high school. She is brilliant and gracious and beautiful and has me completely wrapped around her finger. And really, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am not sure how I am going to cope with her going off to college next year. I guess I’ll just have to focus on my knitting and periodically sob into E.’s shoulder. By the way, E. is doing great. You have nothing to worry about. Just keep loving him and encouraging him to have big goals and to stay at it.  

Let me also share, because I know that it is important to you, you have had a career. A good one. In fact, it is likely time to start thinking about what is next. (Not retirement in the traditional sense but rather a new set of projects; a new plan.)  You have gotten to work in a way that has required you to use all of your skills and has pushed you to increase your abilities in ways that you have not yet even begun to dream.

For example, you can speak several languages without even using automatic translation software. This allows you not only to communicate but to have broader perspectives brought about by the way language changes the way we think and process information.

You have managed huge projects based on your ability to form relationships with others. People at all levels seek you out for counsel. Every year you get more requests then you can grant from people who want to work with you and from stakeholders who want you involved on their projects. You have put together a fantastic team of creative, thoughtful, intelligent folks who have moved beyond co-workers and have become part of your extended family. You sit on boards of organizations and companies that are interesting to you and you are known for your ability to ask challenging questions and provide thoughtful input. You have mastered the process of thinking strategically and then implementing that strategy through effective tactical and operational methodologies.

You are regularly asked to speak, teach and lead workshops and you get to travel to interesting and exotic locations as part of the package. You are widely sought out for your ability to help people and groups understand how to access their intelligence, define their values, and set and achieve goals.

You have written and published both non-fiction and fiction. Your periodic readings and annual story-performances are a joy to watch. Of course, it’s just as fun to hang out with you when you pull out your guitar or sit at the piano and everyone starts to sing (25 years turns out to be enough time to become a competent musician.)

Similarly to the gains made in the world, resources are not an issue in your life. We have enough money, time, energy to do what we want. In part this stems from the fact that what we want is based on thoughtful and intelligent decisions that allow us to live within our means but, given that our lives are larger than we ever could have imagined that they would be 25 years ago, we have no complaints.

We live in a space that we are happy with and comfortable in, which reflects and celebrates our successes. You guys have created this awesome living environment. It is comfortable and simultaneously spacious and intimate (no, not like the TARDIS – we have not yet upended the laws of the physical universe.) Beauty and order comes easily and naturally into our physical lives. We have friends and neighbors whom we love, respect and are close to.

At 68 you continue to be healthy and fit. I would be lying if I told you that you did not still have a soft-spot for sweets, but you are surprisingly moderate in your diet and maintain an impressive schedule of biking, swimming and core strengthening activities.

Things are immensely hopeful.  

So… what can I tell you? What single point of wisdom can I depart to help fortify you? What hand can I offer? How about… You’re absolutely doing it right. Keep coming. And bring as many people along with you as you can. Everyone of them. Open your heart full-out and bring them all along.

We’ll be waiting for you when you get here.



Monday, March 19, 2012

Bucket Lists, Policy, and Functions - Part 3 (of 3)

Functions vs Lists

When I first started thinking about goal-setting, intentional living, and creating a life based on values, I made long lists of everything I wanted to do and accomplish. Some of the items on my list were descriptions of big projects with many sets of sub-lists. Others were simple straight-forward tasks. For my first 10-year plan, I worked on a values statement, and then tried to model out what I wanted my life to look like and how I planned to get there. This required a lot of work trying to visualize, as specifically as I could, what I wanted from the outcomes.

To-do lists are fine for daily time management. They can guide us through the steps of a project; they help us to remember what needs to be done; they provide a framework for prioritizing one’s day; they provide positive reinforcement every time we complete a task and cross something off of our list. This is all great. On the other hand, trying to create a to-do list that will get you through the next 25 years, is arguably absurd. Unless, like Mozart with his symphonies, you are able see your life unfold moment by moment, in advance, it’s likely to be a Sisyphean task.

For my 25-year plan, I have decided to take a different approach...

Creating a Function

A function, in algebra or computer programming, is a set of pre-determined modifiers (operators) that convert an input into an output. In other words, a value (in this case, patterned or rigid responses to a situation) enters the function, is modified by the modifiers (in this case, perspectives or decisions or goals) and then comes out as a “new and improved” value (in this case, a more flexible response. One that is in keeping in line with how I am choosing to live my life.)

A function is normally defined as f (name of function) followed by a new line for each modifier/operator, usually enclosed in { }.

It goes like this…

f (my life)  {

        {Do not eat sugar before lunchtime};

        {Approach every person thoughtfully with care and compassion};

        {Minimize negative impacts of the environment};

        {Model the attitudes of Hope, Confidence and Enthusiasm};


This is my attempt to set direction to my life without creating a list for each interaction. To try to naturally direct energy and outflow without having to note each step along the way. To try to get my mind around what I want my life to look like and to create a closer connection between my core intention and my operating reality.

For example, I did not create a list that say’s: eat brocoli, say “good morning”, recycle, smile. Instead, I am telling myself to process information about my life and the world around me each moment in a way unique to that moment, and, as I encounter a situation, any situation, respond to it in accordance with these “core commitments”

Lists are rigid. Functions are flexible. I have no way of knowing what is going to happen later on today, let alone in 25 years. Having a function in place helps me to provide shape to my life without having to try to predict the destination of the universe.

From the Zone...


Friday, March 16, 2012

Bucket Lists, Policy, and Functions Part 2 (of 3)

Policies vs The Unadulterated Expression of the Eternal Self

Policies, while good and necessary, are an intermediate step. We need things like mission statements and policies, not because the statements or policies are, in and of themselves, an end point, but because, in our current condition, without specific guidelines, we cannot always trust ourselves to know how to behave, or know how to treat one another (or the world). I believe that there is an inherent human moral code, a goodness, something that is hardwired into our DNA, and that, as our intelligence grows to fill up and master the universe, we will be more and more able to express this goodness and act from it. Unfortunately, at this stage of the process, because of addictions, confusions, fears, greed, compulsions, misinformation, a lack of information, it is hard for us, in the moment, to make “clean” decisions. As a result, we need policies. These policies work best when they are designed in an environment free from our pulls and distresses. In other words, at a time when we are able to think outside of our struggles. Then, when we find ourselves in a tight situation, we can refer to the policy to determine the best course of action. A diet is a good example. No one ever planned a smart diet while standing in front of the bulk candy bin at Wegmans. But having a policy in place prior to walking into the store might lead you to not go down that aisle in the first place or, if you must, to avoid sampling the chocolate-malt-balls (ahem).

I would like to get to a place where I-- based on that DNA-coded expression of my unique goodness-- would know just what to do in any situation, and always do so with the intention of the greatest good. If I could guarantee that, then I might not need goals at all. Energy, creativity, would just flow out of me, in a way that maximized potential

Is this even possible...?

I have no idea. I think it might be. Certainly on a small scale. In a relationship that is important. Or on a task in which you are accomplished. It might be possible to simply open up the conduit of intelligence, creativity, and love, and pour forth perfection. Think of the master chef who can whip up delicious meal without referring to a recipe. Or a mother soothing her sick child. These people need no plan. No shopping list. No moment to review what is known about the needs of the other. They just know and they do.

Of course, how many architects would build a house without carefully drawing it out on paper? Would a caterer plan a large party without listing out the menu? Does a writer simply scribble out a story, perfectly told, with no need to edit? Generally not.

Ok. Maybe Mozart. Whom, I understand, could hear, in his head, every note of a symphony he was getting ready to compose, before he even jotted down a single measure. But for the rest of us?

It seems to me that creative output (the poem, the drawing, the song) crafts itself in the process. Yes, he initial idea might well be inspired by the divine spark, but everything that follows: the creation of something palatable, enjoyable, interesting, is very much derived during the process.

Susan Sontag once said that she wrote to more fully understand herself. By putting sustained focus on a project, by setting, working toward, and ultimately achieving a goal, our brain actually forms new connections. Comes up with new ideas. Understands things more fully.

From the Zone...


Monday, March 12, 2012

Bucket Lists, Policy, and Functions - Part 1 (of 3)

Creating a 25-year plan is no easy task. For starters, it’s a long period of time. With more variables than I could possibly track or account for. Further, if past experience holds, my priorities and interests will change, not just once or twice, but many times; as I get new information, as the world evolves, as new options become available, as I grow older.

What will likely not change, or, if it does, will shift at only a geologic pace, are my values, my core beliefs, the essence of who I am as a person.

This was not always the case. When I was younger, I went through radical shifts and explored many extremes as I learned about the world and tried to understand who I was in relationship to it. I think this is normal. I was still in the process of creating the image of who I wanted to be. What my values were. What I believed was important. These are very core questions. And, when we are trying to figure out the answers, to test our options, to decide if we want to do it the way our parents did it, we often find ourselves pushed up against the limits of our relationships, trying to test what is possible, what is reasonable, what we can manage. During these early stages, adjustments to our self-image have an amplifying effect and result in large changes to the way this image is expressed.

But those early stages are over. In The CEO Zone we continue to explore and understand what our values are. But the shifts, generally, are less radical. This stage is not so much about creating a self-image as it is about shaping our lives in the image that we have already developed. Of course, this is more art than science and none of it is set in stone. Human beings are fluid creatures and we have the flexibility to change ourselves, even in fundamental or core ways, should we so choose.

The Problem with Buckets

Successfully negotiating life in The CEO Zone is NOT about making a Bucket List – that long list of everything we want to do before we “kick the bucket”.  Its not that a Bucket List is a bad thing, its just too externally focused for my tastes. It is very focused on highly specific outcomes without necessarily much regard or aware connection to underlying values. More to the point, it is a very long to-do list, which, if you’re ambitious about it, becomes the central organizing theme of your life. And, I suppose, if your successful, as you near death, you can prove to yourself and others that, having checked off some number of those items, you have had a good life, a fulfilled existence.

I do not want a to-do list to serve as the central organizing point of my life. I do not mind using a to-do list to organize my day. That’s just basic time management. Especially if the items on my list reflect my values and over-arching goals; the immediate things I want to accomplish which will aggregate, kaizen-like, into larger projects. But I am not sure it scales.

I think one of the most exiting things about The CEO Zone is not that it provides a to-do list but rather that it is an ongoing exploration of my values; a rudder designed to steer my life in the direction of what is truly important to me, helping me to live intentionally by allowing me to understand what these important things are and to prioritize actions that bring me closer to having the life that most reflects who I am/want to become.

From the Zone...


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Importance of Goals

I was planning to organize my goals into a list... I just never got around to it...

Why is goal setting important


  • Create a framework within which we can organize our lives.
  • Create a context in which we can understand how events in our lives relate to one another.
  • Allow us to harness our personal energy (and the energy of the universe) to reach a desired end (not by chance but intentionally).
  • Move us from the random to the intentional.
  • Help us to choose between conflicting options and to apply resources selectively, pragmatically.
  • Allow us to chart our progress and work toward closing the gap.
  • Allow us to have a clearer picture of ourselves and of our successes, and help us to take a stand against the rigid (and incorrect) messages of powerlessness that some of us carry by helping us to see how far we have come.
  • Give our lives purpose and direction.
  • Organize energy; and energy (like water) flows along the path of least resistance. Establishing goals is like creating a pathway through which energy or intention can flow.
  • The process of setting goals helps us to actually define what we want and the direction in which we want to head. It moves us from the passive to the active. From audience to actor.
  • Goals motivate us.
Does everyone need goals?

At its most basic, a goal is a stated need or want. Every human baby is born with an innate, hard-wired ability to awarely track and communicate their desires. When a baby experiences hunger, for example, she or he cries.  In this instance, the goal of crying is to communicate to mommy or daddy that the little one is hungry and needs to be fed. That is certainly not the only reason a baby might cry, but it is a fairly common one. The baby does not need to be taught what hunger is, nor does he ever need to be told “when you feel hungry cry so that mommy knows to feed you.” Baby does this instinctively. Of course, Baby is an extraordinarily quick learner, so if she does this once or twice and it works out, then she will have verified her instinct. If things don’t go so well, she will learn other lessons and over time develop alternative strategies.

As we learn and grow and experience more of life, our needs and desires become more nuanced, more complex, more specific. (“I am hungry... for pizza not spinach.”) But the mechanism that leads us to instinctively want to communicate and have our needs met remains. At some point, as we learn to take mastery over ourselves, our lives, the environment in which we live, we begin to take gratification at meeting our own needs or the needs of those around us (i.e. our own children.) Ultimately, we are able to derive great pleasure in using our intelligence to reshape the universe around us according to our personal vision.

When we are children, we are predisposed to have big dreams. In part, we have not yet fully learned the concept of “practical realities.” But, more importantly, we haven’t internalized limitations on our personal power. Of course, surviving in an imperfect world requires a certain amount of reality checking. Most children learn over time to manage the bulk of their feelings, and to communicate their “acceptable” needs in ways that maximize the chances of their being successfully fulfilled. Unfortunately, by the time we reach maturity, most of us have learned these lessons a little too well.

Again, this is understandable. Our parents and teachers, while well-meaning in most cases, had limited resources and were not able to always provide for our every desire. We learned to manage what must have been crushing disappointment the first couple of times we did not get what we wanted by teaching ourselves to want less, to have smaller horizons. But the full expression of one’s humanness requires a large horizon. It demands that we dream big and then strive to fulfill these dreams.

Goals help us to imbue our lives with a sense of purpose and direction. 2,400 years ago, Aristotle wrote something along the lines of: the definition of happiness is having the chance to pursue a set of goals of one’s own choosing.

It occurs to me that Aristotle might have been talking more about fulfillment than happiness. But it would be hard to argue that happiness and fulfillment were not intimately linked.

From the Zone...


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

CEO...? Really?

Some of you have asked why I decided to name the blog: The CEO Zone. You wondered whether it was because I wanted to become the CEO of a company? Or, perhaps, because I wanted to target folks who wanted to be CEO’s?

Sure… but not entirely.

When I started to think about the phases through which my life had evolved, I began with the obvious ones: Infant, Child, Teen, Young Adult, etc. Then there were other stages: Student, Intern, Senior Team Member, Subject Matter Expert, perhaps one day even Tribal Elder. But none of these seemed quite right.

When I talked about it with my friends I would say “you know, solidly adult.” I would turn my palms to face each other and then slice downward in parallel for emphasis, “Solidly Adult… Grown up!”

But this was confusing.

I was not referring to age or legal status. Also, most of us consider ourselves adults as soon as we are no longer children. Rather, I was referring to a particular sense of self. The feeling one has when one has become competent in the area of one’s intended interests. When one is ready to begin to fully apply his education, her skill set, and take action in the world. To step beyond the protective shadow of our parents, mentors, managers, and to follow our own intelligence.

Doing so requires that we begin to think of ourselves as leaders and to set expectations of and for ourselves accordingly. We will want to lead from the authority that stems from our experience and subject matter expertise (experiential) as well as from the authority that is bestowed onto us from the strength of our relationships (relational). (This is different from what we normally observe: people leading based on their positional power -- power that arises from the arbitrary (and often temporary) role they play in the hierarchy.) To, in effect, be the boss of one’s own self, the CEO of one’s own life.

This is not to say that mastery of the skills necessary to successfully take this on won’t also help one to achieve positional leadership if that is the goal. Having a vision for our lives and figuring out how to implement that vision turns out to be a highly transferable skill and will reverberate across all of the facets of our lives.

To occupy the position of CEO, and to be effective, requires a shift in the way many of us have been taught to live. Most people reading this blog are “tactically successful.” At the very least, you have access to a computer with an Internet connection. And you have carved out some “leisure time” for surfing the web and reading. It is probably safe to assume that you are not starving to death. You have learned how to take actions to successfully ensure your survival, and even more than that, to have a basically good life. If your life were a company, you would be the successful VP of Operations, possibly doing some side duty as the Senior Director of HR.

The CEO serves a different purpose. Her/His role is strategic. It requires holding out a vision of where to take the company. Of course, simply having a vision is not enough. The CEO must have an objective picture of where we are right now. What our strengths and weaknesses are. What are the opportunities. What are the threats. And then the CEO must develop a plan, a pragmatic approach, for getting from point A to point B. It is while managing and implementing this strategy that the CEO cuts his teeth.

The hardest part about this is the choosing from among an infinite set of options. It means that you need to know yourself well enough to know what you want. What you’ll be willing to fight for over the long-term. It also means that you will have to sometimes make sacrifices as you prioritize those tasks that will take you closest to your goals, occasionally forgoing other things that “look fun” in the short term. I am not suggesting that we need to have drab and gray existences, or lives made up of all work and no fun. In fact, because I use a system of Value-identification to help determine what is important to me, making these tough decisions is often far more fulfilling and leads to far greater and longer lasting joy than the instant gratification that tends to present itself in opposition to our triumphs.

To use a personal example, forgoing the Ben & Jerry’s and going to the gym might be a required decision. As to whether or not there will ever be an appropriate moment to choose the ice cream... well... that’s up to the CEO.

From the Zone…