Quick coherence technique

A friend recently mentioned she had a panic attack on an airplane and was looking for something to help. I’ve personally experienced anxiety attacks and I was taught a technique that works well – it was developed by the HeartMath Institute and allows you to get your heart rate under control very, very quickly, which is the first step toward controlling your emotional state. It’s an easy three steps:

  1. Move your attention to the center of your chest. It really helps to put your hand over your heart. This helps remove you from the swirling thoughts in your head and starts to center you. Keep your focus centered there, and if it drifts, gently and kindly bring it back.
  2. Breathe rhythmically. This is key to the technique and I recommend practicing this from time to time when you’re relaxed and able to concentrate so that you’ll be able to do this on command. For example, try five seconds of inhalation, followed by about a second of a pause, then a five second exhale. For me this felt pretty slow, so in order to get enough air to be comfortable I found myself breathing more deeply than normal, which is likely also helpful.
  3. Experience a positive emotion. It helps to prepare ahead of time – have an image ready in your mind that you can jump to that will remind you of a happy time. Even better, try to feel appreciation for something or someone in your life. You might not think it’s possible to change your emotional state just like that, but, surprisingly enough, it is. Steps 1 and 2 ease the way into it by getting your heart rate into a more coherent state.

Practice helps! Practice doing this when you’re not under stress so that when you experience an anxiety or panic attack, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Then consider doing this on a regular basis. Coherence is a helpful book by Dr. Alan Watkins for building emotional regulation and resilience. Watkins teaches the same technique, but he calls it BREATHE (which is an acronym for Breathe Rhythmically, Evenly, and Through The Heart Everyday), and it’s especially important for those of us who sit behind a screen all day to avoid screen apnea.

Magic words

“I don’t know how to do this. Will you help me?”

These are words as magical as Open Sesame, I believe. Humbling yourself in front of another and asking for help. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

I arrived on an autumn day at JFK for a Pluralsight board meeting at Insight’s headquarters in Manhattan. I’ve never flown into JFK before – on my earlier trips to NYC I’d fly into one of the outlying airports and cab it into the city. Generally I prefer riding the subway and being with the locals instead of hiding away in the cabs. So I took the opportunity to do just this. Only it wasn’t at all clear to me how to even get started once I was in the terminal at JFK.

So when the idea presented itself, I looked up and the first person I saw, I walked over to. He didn’t appear that approachable, but I was testing a theory and I was determined not to cherry pick who I asked for help. So I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to ride the train to Manhattan but I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure how to get started.” Then the unexpected happened. His face brightened and he immediately sprang into action. It was almost as if he grabbed me by the elbow and personally escorted me to the proper train stop, along the way telling me everything I needed to know in order to get to the subway station. It turns out he was taking a different train, and as he boarded it, he shouted to me, “Not this one! The next one, to Jamaica station!”

His instructions were spot on, and I made it to the subway station without any trouble. But when I arrived there, I was faced with another hurdle – the ticket kiosks. It was quite busy and each kiosk had a queue of five or six people. Once again, I felt fear stirring in my gut. I wasn’t sure what train or stop I needed, but even worse, I had no idea how to use the kiosk. I watched over someone’s shoulder and quickly learned that the kiosk was designed for regular users, not newbs like me. I almost turned around and hailed a cab. But I stuck to my guns and got in line behind a well-dressed businessman. Once he had purchased his ticket and turned around to leave, I stopped him. “I’m trying to get to Manhattan, but I’ve never done this before. Will you help me?”

This time I didn’t get such a helpful response. I watched as his face turned from rushed, to annoyed, to incredulous, “I don’t have time to help you. I am a busy man, can’t you see that?” Shaking his head in disbelief, he walked away. As I watched him leave, I started to doubt the theory I was testing about people who help. But about ten seconds after that interaction, once the annoyed businessman had walked out of earshot, the denizens of the underground descended upon me from both sides. I couldn’t believe it. “What a jerk!” I heard from one side. “He should have helped you,” from the other. People were literally competing with one another to help me out. They must have remembered what it was like when they were in my shoes. Suffice it to say that I got the help I needed without having to ask a second time.

So many times we need help but are afraid to ask for it. How many paths have we chosen not to walk down because of fear? I have seen it confirmed time and time again that if you humble yourself and ask for help, people will come to your aid. And it’s a gift you are giving them, because people like to feel helpful, and it brings joy to someone’s life to care for another in need.

I don’t ask for help unless I’m really stuck, but I’m much more bold about doing it now than ever before. And I’m convinced that it’s a critical component for maturity.

The impetus to try this experiment in New York came after I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. When you start taking responsibility for your life, following your dreams, putting yourself out there, and acknowledging your weaknesses, magic starts to happen. For one thing, helpers appear to assist you.

George Lucas wrote the screenplay for Star Wars based on Campbell’s work. Think about how many times Luke needed help along his path, and the unlikely places he found it. An old man, a little green dude with more hair sticking out of his pointy ears than on his head, a self-centered rogue with an unlikely looking starship, even a princess!

This is just one small part of what you’ll discover when you study Campbell’s work. Ask yourself, where am I on the journey? If you’re interested in learning more, a great place to start is the movie, Finding Joe. Joe’s work has given me the courage and determination to seek a fulfilling life for myself doing something that makes a real difference in the world.

Utility vs. Aesthetics?

It’s fascinating and powerful to reflect on your life. I remember years ago—seems like a lifetime ago, I was such a different person then—I used to have a little saying. “Utility over aesthetics” in the sense of “having regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty, ornamentation, etc.

Whenever my wife and I would talk about arrangements in the house, I would often hear myself saying this. Basically what I was saying is, as long as it gets the job done, I don’t care what it looks like. When faced with a choice, I’d always choose utility over beauty.

It’s interesting to think about utility. It’s a bit like potential: this lever will help me move a big rock (sometime in the future when I need to move said rock). And yea, it’s not a pretty lever, but who cares? All I need to do is move this damned rock. It’s a bit like the bait that most organized religions use, convincing the flock to suffer today for a promised paradise in the future. This lever might be ugly, a pain to use, but it’s going to get the job done. So I may suffer a little bit looking and working with the ugly thing, but in the end I’ll be happy because I’ll get the result I was after.

As I learn to be more present in my life, I see the imbalance of such a viewpoint. What’s the point in living if everything around me is ugly? I remember getting a sense of what I was missing when I played a video game called World of Goo.  Why? Because of the aesthetics of the game. Everything from the soundtrack to the personality of the “goo” just drew me in. And I began to notice this in other little games I’d play. It was the little touches: the animations on the characters’ faces, attention paid to the smallest details in the environment, etc. It was just fun to be in these environments! It didn’t matter if you were winning or losing, just spending time there was a delight.

And it’s not just in the virtual world. I remember being fascinated when I’d travel to Europe at how it seemed as though they had my saying reversed. Often times things would be cute or even beautiful but sometimes might not work very well. Can anyone say Ikea?

Why am I writing this today? Because it occurs to me that in life we must strike all sorts of balances, and this is one that I really missed in my early years. Anyone who worked at Pluralsight and endured the ugly (but useful) internal dashboards that I created for our growing staff in the early years might resonate with this 🙂

Why retire?

Why do we have the notion of retirement? I asked this question recently and my grandpa Michael pointed out that during the heyday of the industrial revolution, people laboring in factories had very hard jobs, and their bodies would eventually break. The company needed a way to bring in fresh blood, so ‘retirement’ was born.

As we shift into more of a knowledge economy, many of these backbreaking jobs are being automated. But people still desire retirement. I was one of them – that’s why I ended up voting to bring in venture capital to a company that I helped build, because eventually as owners we’d need an ‘exit’ so that we could ‘retire’. But I’ll save that story for another day. Suffice it to say, I fell into the same belief trap, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Imagine working for a company where there were no hierarchy, no departments, no barriers to your contributing where your passions lie. Imagine that you were paid enough so you didn’t have to be worried about money all the time. Imagine that the company provided not only for the physical health of you and your family, but for your development as a whole human being – physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Imagine that the company’s ethics were based on caring, and the environment was one that nurtured the development of all of the staff. In such a workplace, coworkers would spend more time helping each other and less time blaming and shaming each other. There would be no question of ‘work / life balance’ because you’d not stop living when you walked into the workplace, and you’d have plenty of time to spend at home with your family. And if your passion turned toward something other than work that the company could provide, the company would help you start your own business and this model would thus replicate.

Sound like utopia? I believe that it can be done. But first you need to ask yourself, are you living your passion? Joseph Campbell spoke of following your bliss, and Sir Ken Robinson called it finding your elementIf you are waiting to retire to be able to do what you really want to be doing, maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy!

I’m starting to think of this as ‘organic business’, much like Robinson uses the term when he talks about what schools could be.

The ABCs of motivation

I’ve been reading a lot lately about motivation, and I’ve come to believe that it isn’t like a liquid that you can pour into someone. People don’t have different “levels” of motivation. But there are different kinds of motivation, and some are more effective than others for producing long-term outcomes.

When we threaten punishment and/or offer a reward for compliance, we are supplying an extrinsic motivator. I’ve heard this referred to as “activation”, and I like this term because that’s exactly what the effect is. If you hold a gun to my head, threatening my well being unless I hand over my wallet, you’ll get my wallet, no questions asked. Offer me ten thousand dollars to lose 10 pounds? You can bet I’d accomplish that goal. But what would be the long-term outcome? Would I keep the weight off? The research says no – threats and bribes are very effective at getting one thing: temporary compliance.

Traditional parenting and schooling uses a lot of extrinsic motivators. Most of us punished our kids in some way when they didn’t comply with our wishes. “Natural consequences” are not exempt from the label of punishment, either. Even more of us offered rewards to our kids in an effort to motivate them. Sometimes this is done enough that kids start to internalize these things, which leads to a condition that Alfie Kohn has dubbed, “internal motivation”. The kids know that we have certain expectations, and they will eventually start to follow them to avoid the punishments and capture our attention and love (because that is the ultimate reward, when we show love to our kids conditionally).

One big problem with both extrinsic and internal motivation is that it’s focused on the wrong thing. We’re entirely focused on behaviors – we want our kids to behave in a certain fashion. Be quiet in the movie theater. Sit still in class. Take out the trash. The more we focus on controlling behavior through coercive means, the more we’re sending a lesson of power – powerful people control those weaker than them through coercion. Another problem is that we tend to make people just a little more self-centered each time we use coercive techniques to gain compliance, and this includes verbal rewards such as, “Good job sharing!” This says to the child, “if you want my love and approval, you’ll share with your friends,” and over time, the child starts thinking about how his sharing will impact himself, instead of sharing simply because it would make others happy. What will I get if I do this? Or what will happen to me if I don’t? The culture in the USA today is very self-centered, and I believe this is a big contributor to that problem.

The third type of motivation is intrinsic. If you’ve ever found yourself doing something just because it seems like the right thing to do, that’s intrinsic motivation. If you’ve ever looked up at the clock and seen that a few hours have flown by while you were doing something that you really enjoy, that’s intrinsic motivation. While behaviors coerced via extrinsic means tend to disappear once those extrinsic motivators are gone, you’ll continue to do things that you’re intrinsically motivated to do. Intrinsic motivation leads to long-term outcomes.

There are three pillars of intrinsic motivation, and they are as easy to remember as your ABC’s: autonomy, belonging, and competence. If I feel competent at something (even just a little), I’m more likely to participate. If I am in an environment where I feel connected to the others around me, and unconditionally supported by them, I’ll feel safer taking risks to try something a little bit out of my comfort zone. And if you’ll give me the choice instead of coercing me into doing it, I’ll have the space to discover for myself whether this new thing is worth doing.

I used to nag my boy to take out the trash. Originally the idea for having him do this chore was to learn responsibility, caring for the family, and remembering regular tasks of daily life. However, the more he forgot to do his chore, the less I thought about my long-term aims for him and instead I found myself getting angry that he wasn’t doing what he was asked. Over the years I found that punishments and rewards didn’t change anything in the long run, and as I started learning about human motivation, I was challenged to remember my original aims for the task. So I had a talk with my son. We talked about why taking out the trash is important, hearkening back to the days before sanitation was deemed important. He started seeing that what he was doing was actually a very critical function for the family. Eventually I stopped nagging him altogether, and now I feel like I have his back – when he forgets, I am happy to help pick up the slack. He rarely forgets. And why should I hold him to a higher standard than I would myself or any other adult? We all forget stuff sometimes. It’s natural. Even though he now knows that I’ll do it for him if he forgets, and that I don’t nag him, threaten him, or bribe him, he’s even more determined to do it and he almost always remembers. We’re both quite a bit happier with the new arrangement, and our relationship is stronger.

There’s no question that bribes and threats are often easier to employ in the moment, especially with children (because an adult is so much more powerful than a child). But if you’re interested in raising moral children who care about others, it’s worth studying ways of “working with” them instead of the more traditional, “doing to” methods of punishments and rewards. Check out Unconditional Parenting for a guide. But don’t think that this only applies to little ones! Much of the wisdom in this book applies to working with adults as well. If you’re a manager, create an ABC style environment for your team and start working with them. It’ll probably take awhile to garner their trust if you’ve used coercive techniques in the past, but once that trust starts to build, you’ll be amazed at the results you’ll see.

Competition in games and work

In the west, we are raised from a very early age to be competitive. We are graded and stack ranked in the classroom, either by teachers or by standardized “normed” tests. We are taught by adults to play games where only one person (or team) wins, and the others must lose. By the time we are adults, we’ve learned to take joy in defeating others.

The popular sports we see on TV are competitive. Football, baseball, tennis, golf, these are all set up so that success is artificially scarce. Competition surrounds us. And yet, not all sports are competitive. One reason skateboarding is so popular is because it is a cooperative sport: when you’re at the skatepark, everyone is rooting for you to succeed! Sure there are the big televised competitions, but that’s not the spirit of the sport, as you’ll find if you ask anyone who actually does it (including Tony Hawk).

Many people have become so used to seeing competition that they feel as though it is necessary in order to achieve greatness. But that’s crazy if you think about it. Consider how many goals would be scored if hockey teams decided to cooperate in a game instead of compete!

Competition in games is an artificial pitting of one person (or team) against another. A healthy way to look at it is that your opposition offers a resistance for you to push against. Arm wrestling is an obvious example of this, but chess is another example, where you and your opponent explore the game together. Few great chess players would be truly happy after investing an hour in a game only to have their opponent make a truly sloppy move that allows an easy win. Much of the joy of chess is in the exploration of the strategy and tactics. Your opponent cooperates in your study of the game when she plays the best move she can find!

Many people don’t ever discover this healthy viewpoint and victory becomes the end goal. They aren’t happy unless they are triumphing over someone else.

In the west, it’s common to find competition in the workplace. Sales people compete for incentive pay and often prizes. People compete to climb the corporate ladder. Employees compete for “employee of the month” awards. All of this leads me to ask the question, why do we need to introduce artificial opposition, or resistance, in the workplace? Aren’t there already enough hurdles in the way of a business being successful? Why add more?

At a recent conference emphasizing cooperation over competition, I overheard a salesman complain to his colleagues when challenged to consider a salary as opposed to a commission, “what, are we just supposed to stop keeping score?” Winning can easily become an obsession, especially for people with low self-worth.

When you’re not focused on victory over other people, you can use all of your energy to lean in to whatever project you’re working on. Winning is an end – when you’re not focused on winning you tend to enjoy the journey more, and thus live a happier life. Excellence is orthogonal to competition – it can exist with or without it.

For further reading: No Contest, by Alfie Kohn

Knowledge is power

Knowledge is power. When you share knowledge with someone, you’re sharing power. If instead, you choose to hoard knowledge, that’s a way to accumulate power for yourself. Indeed the earliest reference to this phrase that I found was from the Arabic,

Knowledge is power and it can command obedience. A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death. Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.

— Imam Ali, Nahj Al-Balagha, Saying 146

Micromanagers like to hoard knowledge. How often have you been given a list of things to do with no idea of why any of them need to be done? A micromanager will often give very detailed methods and you will be expected never to deviate from those methods, even if you spot an obvious improvement. It’s tough to know how to improve under a micromanager, because if you don’t know the aim, you won’t know what change in outcome would constitute an improvement.

This is one of the primary ways that a management hierarchy can become dysfunctional. At some point the aim becomes to maintain power and authority (by maintaining position and title). This type of selfishness contributes to the destruction of the system. Hierarchies that operate this way promote a culture of fear, which is the antithesis of what is needed for learning.