Moving day

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This blog, An Integrated Life, will soon be moving to The Wisdom Letters.

I’ve been running both blogs simultaneously for some time as something of a marketing experiment, and for whatever reason, far more people have responded to The Wisdom Letters title than this one.

I appreciate my readers here, and so, if you have gotten something worthwhile from An Integrated Life, I invited you to begin following The Wisdom Letters for more essays on life, work, and faith.

Be well, Travel Wisely,

Tom

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The Integrated Life, part 2 of 4

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Last week I began to write a bit about the integrated life. It has taken me a long time to get to where I am, but I have come the conclusion that having an integrated life – a place where our truest selves and out truest giftings (and we all have gifts, don’t you DARE think otherwise.), get to play out in every life role we have. Too often we have our work selves and our family selves and our creative selves, and…. You get the idea.

Living this way is common. We’ve been told that we “can’t” do that at work or “can’t” bring that part of ourselves to our families, and so we compartmentalize who we are in different roles.

The problem with this is two-fold.

First, stuffing essential parts of who we are, takes work. It robs us of energy, and energy we could be using to do and be our best selves is instead spent trying to fit in, We find ourselves too tired to be all we want to be. But if we can live in a place where we feel safe to be who we are, we find that we don’t burn out. We thrive. We may even find ourselves putting more time and energy into the things we love, yet are energized by it, not drained.

Second, living in a life where we are so focused on what we “can’t” be in this role or that puts us in a place where we always feel something is wrong with who and what we are. But that’s not the case at all. It may be that we aren’t the best fit, but it’s better to accept that and look for the opportunities to do what we were made to do, than to live in a culture and place where there is no room for who we actually are. When we begin to shift our life to be focused less on roles and more on who we are, there’s a healthy level of self-acceptance that goes on.

Third, living in places where we can’t safely be who we are, doesn’t work. One of two things happen. Either we are crushed by all the world and people around us who are full of what we “can’t” or what we “should” be. Or that stuff we are suppressing explodes and generally, that’s pretty messy for ourselves and those who’s lives we touch. Or, we leave. (with all the loss that leaving entails.).

I’ve seen it happen to people dear to me. And I’ve lived it. And I’ve heard enough stories – as a friend, in business, in my coaching work, and as a pastor, to see that pattern repeat itself again and again. None of the outcomes are good. All of them, even if we survive the compartmentalizing, drain us.

Why then do we keep doing it? Here are some thoughts, gleaned from my own life and from a lot of life stories I have heard over years and years.

The reason, I believe, is fear.

We are afraid that there are parts of us that make us unworthy, “not good enough”. That we’re not practical. Stupid. Idealistic. Dumb. Too __________ (Fill in your own word. You know you can.). So we hide those parts of us. We are afraid of the reproaches, that they might be right.

We are afraid that we are being selfish. So many of us who stuff essential parts of ourselves in this role or that, are pleasers. We are helpers. We care for the people around us. And there is a false thinking is that everyone else has to come first or somehow we are selfish. It does not matter if the people around us are selfish, or takers, we cling to this belief because we have had it beaten into us somehow that we are less important than….. EVERYONE else. I often counter that with the verse in the bible where Jesus tells us that the whole of the scripture is summed up in two sentences – that we love God with all our heart and all our souls and all our minds; and that we are to love others as ourselves. Not MORE than ourselves. AS ourselves. We are important too. But somehow we cling to the idea that we are selfish if we want what to be fully who we are.

We are afraid of the change. Compartmentalized living is a killing thing for most of us. But it is a slow death. That death comes slowly, and in that slow process, it becomes normal. Normal is comfortable. It may be painful, but it feels safe. Change….. well we know about change. Once you unleash it, you are never quite sure where it might lead. And that is a scary thing. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.

But, and this is how I will end today…. my experience, both in my own life, and in the lives of people who had the courage to step into the change and move slowly (that word is important, so I will say again: Slowly.) begin the path to a more integrated life, have never been sorry. Oh, it was messy and fearful for a while. I can’t lie about that. But a year or two out, no one I know who has made the transition would want to go back.

There is a process involved.  It is very intentional, and there are proven paths to get there. You probably need a partner, or some help on the journey. I’ll talk some about partners and process in the next article.

Be well. Travel Wisely.

Tom

Part one of this series is here. 

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The Integrated Life, part one of four.

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I think I first noticed it about fifteen years ago.  I was in my home office, on the phone. My daughter, who was maybe all of six years old, walked in the door and stopped dead in her tracks until my call was done. As soon as I was done, she came the rest of the way in and climbed on my lap.

“I was very good, wasn’t I, Daddy?” she said. “You had your work voice on and I waited.”

“My work voice?” I asked.

She went on to explain that I had a work voice, and a voice when I was doing church things and a voice for friends and a voice when I was talking arty things. “They’re all different.” She said.

I hadn’t realized how different they were, and that episode moved me to look at my larger life. Like most of us, I have a lot of roles. My work alone has several aspects to it – technical consulting, marketing strategy, writing, coaching, teaching. It’s the same in the other parts of my life, be it family or creative or spiritual.

We have a tendency to live these parts of our lives as separate things, moving one to the other with each of them being almost separate lives. That’s the way humans are wired, to categorize things. You can see that even with small kids as they separate toys by color, or type, or how they never let the mashed potatoes touch the peas. And we carry that tendency into our grownup lives.

So we live differently, or at best with a bit of overlap in our faith and life and work.

It works well enough, but what if, I wondered, what if we did a better job integrating all the aspects of our lives?

I know it works in marketing.  In my work in marketing I preach the principle of Integrated Marketing. It is one of the basics of marketing. Real Marketing 101 stuff. The idea is that everything you do as a marketer works together, each thing builds one on the other. This intentional working together requires a bit more thought and purposefulness, but the effect of doing it well is that when you do, each thing you do builds on the other things. They magnify the other things you do, making everything more effective.

Teaching a company to think in terms of truly integrating marketing always (let me repeat this), ALWAYS pays big dividends, often without much extra effort or cost, other than changing their thinking and purposefulness.

What if, I wondered, we could do the same in our lives?

Well, we can.

It’s been slow going for me, but I have seen it work in my own life. And I have slowly seen it work in the lives of others.

Let me share with you what I have seen…

  • When we better integrate all our roles in life, we reduce the stress of moving from role to role. Life and work become easier, more joyful, less of a struggle. We simply don’t understand how much work and energy goes into building a life of silos.
  • When we better integrate our lives, there tends to be better balanced. This is because we really aren’t balancing anything. We are simply living a life of principles that don’t require balancing.
  • When we better integrate our lives, we become more effective in everything we do. Because everything builds on everything else, in every aspect of what we do, not just in one role or the other.

For me, the big reasons had to do with building a less stressful life, and being more effective in the things I do. Often, those two things seem to be diametrically opposed. But they aren’t. Not really. We’ve just built artificial walls in our lives.

I have spent much of my work over the past years in the broadcast systems integration business, helping clients build broadcast and network television facilities.  The challenge in that business is helping chose and engineer a dizzying array of equipment and software into a comprehensive whole that works together as one. When we do it well, it’s a wonderful thing.

Each project is a totally custom project that melds the corporate culture, the technical needs and the images clients carry in their heads of what they want to be and how they want to do their work.

The same is true of developing an integrated life, where our truest selves shows itself in the things we do and the life we lead.  It’s where we look for the commonalities of all our roles in life, and build on them, slowly cutting out the things that are less true, that we have come to do because it was part of the role. It’s where we change our lives to let our roles, all of them, better match who we are.

When we do it, our goals, principles, values and behavior fall into line, across all of our roles in life.

Why don’t we live more integrated lives? Why do we live lives where there is some bleed over into the other, but where we keep so much of ourselves hidden away, not living this part of ourselves in a work role and that part of ourselves in a private role, and some other part of ourselves in a faith role?

I will leave you with that question until the next article. But let me assure you, because I have seen it in my own life, and in the lives of many of my clients, when we integrate our lives better, everything works better. We are happier, less stressed, more effective.

Be well. Travel Wisely

Tom

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During October….

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The John Maxwell Team, an international group of coaches, consultants, speakers and trainers that I am a part of, has gone all in for Breast Cancer. In addition to donations from the larger John Maxwell Team, here at Quarry House we will be donating 10% of income from Maxwell programs booked or completed during the month of October towards the cure for cancer.

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Avoiding the Stall

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I have been stalled the past few weeks.

Oh, I have managed to get my commitments done. I have met with clients and done the work. I have paid the bills and each Sunday, I have had a shiny new sermon ready to go. The house is, well maybe not Better Homes and Gardens clean and straight, but it’s far from the place where I need a bulldozer to clean. So the basics are in place. But the other side of my life, the creative, the stuff that fuels me, has languished.

I know the reasons. I am making changes to my work. I have recently added to my ministry responsibilities. My 17-year-old son’s moving to Vermont has disrupted my quiet time, my down time. It’s not that he’s around all the time, but he’s constantly in and out of my life and work. Because I process slowly, the constant interruptions always set me back to where I was as I was thinking and feeling my way, and so I rarely get to the inspired place that lets me do my best work. It’s crazy frustrating and I have felt very out of sorts the past few weeks.

I don’t begrudge him the time. Not in the least. I love his energy. He’s contagiously positive most of the time. And quality time is one of his love languages. Add to that the fact that he’s made a big move choosing to move from Virginia, where he has lived the first seventeen years of his life and so right now, it’s particularly important that I be here for him, and there are tons of reasons for me not to mind.

Still, I have a hermit side to me. I process feelings and ideas slowly. Unlike the way I think, which often resembles a madcap ping-pong ball in the middle of a tornado, I struggle to deal with feelings. I could go into all the psych stuff that three plus years of counseling taught be about the whys, but they are unimportant to anyone except me and two or three people who are very close to me. The point is, I can either bottle those feelings up, or I can sit with them for longish stretches, and let them seep out via writing (mostly poetry) or art or photography, all of which allow me to say things that I sometimes have trouble getting out in other ways.

I was brought up in a generation, and in a household (read: My father) who diminished feelings. I was taught that when things get tough, you just bull your way through them. Maybe taught is too weak a word. Let’s say it was beaten into me. EVERYTHING was more important than feelings. It was a constant battle between my dad and I. Back then, I didn’t realize where the struggle came from. I just knew we were always at loggerheads, that he and I were always like two bulls facing off, ready to charge into each other.

Getting away from home, and going to college, was a revelation to me. People actually cared about feelings “out there.” I began to let them out again, tentatively at first, then wildly, exuberantly. Maybe I put too much emphasis on them, but it was glorious in its way.

Years later, though, “real life” kicked in (Don’t you just hate that phrase?). Jobs. Marriage. Kids. Church. Responsibilities. The normal crisises of normal life. I was good, very good in fact, at juggling, adding thing after thing to my circus act of living. But eventually, even the best juggler hits their limit. Something had to go. And what else other than taking the time to process feelings? And giving them outlets? In the struggle to hold things together, my childhood training kicked in and I began to do to myself what my father had never been able to completely do to me – I slowly stopped creating.

Yeah, yeah, Big fat hairy deal, I told myself. It’s not that important. All these other things are more important.

Boy, did I ever have that wrong.

What happened was a long, slow erosion. By the end, I was in a serious depression place. And it got worse before it got better. There were a couple of years where I barely functioned on any level. I became so not myself that I eventually put myself into counseling and began the long, slow, painful journey back.

One of the things I learned (and there a lot of others) is that I needed that time to ruminate, to sit with things, to talk them out, either with some very patient person, or within myself. And I needed those creative outlets to get things out. And despite my father’s voice in the back of my head, putting the feelings side of me in a closet was a deadly idea. I could not afford to do that again.

And so I began, years ago, to schedule thinking time and writing time into my life, just as firmly as I schedule time with my clients. And it’s worked out well. I am way, way healthier and happier now that I was a decade ago. And my work, be it poetry, fiction or art, is far better (that whole practice thing).

Yes, I am a slow learner, but I got this one.

So here I am, in the midst of another major set of changes in my life. My wonderful, active son in the house. Changes in my work. A new ministry. A beautiful new relationship. So much to do, to sort out. Practically and emotionally.

I am not allowing myself to fall in the same trap I did before. I don’t let life just happen anymore.  I refuse to surrender to “that’s just the way it is.” Instead, I have become proactive in carving out time for my heart to catch up with my brain. For instance, while I used to spend entire days (when I wasn’t traveling to see clients) at my desk writing, I now often slip out to the local diner/coffee shop and sit for a few hours of uninterrupted time to think and write (I am there now as I write this in fact.). I moved some furniture around so I have a place upstairs next to my bedroom to retreat to now and then when I need to get way from the TV or You Tube.  My son, bless his heart, understands my need for this time, and he’s worked with me as we both adjust and reset our lives.

He does this because we talked about it. And will continue to talk about it. We have a vested interest in each other’s sanity after all.

The point of all this, which began as a journal entry, is this: We deny who we are at our own risk. We can tell ourselves that we’re being thoughtful and caring when we sacrifice who we are at our deepest level for other people, but we pay a price for putting aside our basic and true needs. The cost, eventually, will be terrible. And not just to ourselves, but to the very people we are sacrificing for.

It’s not an either or thing. There’s plenty of ways to carve out the life we want, the things we NEED, without harming the others in our life.

When we get on an airplane and the attendants take us through the safety instructions, one of the things they tell us is that when the air mask falls, put your own on first, THEN help the others. Because without air, you will not be help to anyone. The same is true with our hearts.

Be well. Travel Wisely.

Tom

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A Step Forward

Some time ago I mentioned that I was joining the John C. Maxwell teach of certified life coaches, trainers and speakers. John C. Maxwell, of course, is the world’s foremost expert on leadership and personal growth, with over 70 books written on the subject, many of them best sellers.

It is an intensive curriculum, and one that continues. However, I am now official and they have added my site to their John Maxwell Group site. This is not a new job as much as it is a moving what I do to a higher level. You can learn more by clicking on the image below.

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Mindfulness Sucks, but….

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I just got back from the doctors. The news was good.

About six weeks ago, I was diagnosed with Diabetes. Everyone was surprised. I don’t have the normal lifestyle of a diabetic. Yes, I am almost 60, but I’ve maintained my weight pretty well, live a fairly active life. and all in all, I’ve had a pretty healthy life. And now I had this thing that, if I didn’t take care of it, has pretty dire consequences. There was already worry about my kidneys (bad numbers there) and eyes and a host of other things. Uncontrolled Diabetes, for those of you who don’t have it, seems to affect all sorts of other things. But it’s a sneaky disease. There are few symptoms of Diabetes per se, so it’s easy to ignore. But you do so at your own peril.

Most of my family has had a good old age. So good in fact, that I probably have a warped sense of what old age is. My vision of it is not that different than how I am now. Greyer hair but pretty vital, pretty alert, involved in life and the world, always growing right up to the end. And this diagnosis threatened that vision.

So I did the stuff I was supposed to do. Cut out sugar, most of my carbs, ramped up my activity, cut back on the caffeine.

It sucks.

What sucked worse was admitting, as I had to do when I thought about it is that for most of my adult life I have eaten the perfect “let’s get Diabetes” diet. I didn’t just eat a cookie, I ate the box. I didn’t have a few chips. I ate the bag. Portion control was non-existent. I just never thought about it. I mean, why bother? I ate what I wanted. My blood pressure was fine. My weight was fine. I felt good. All was well.

Until of course, it wasn’t.

SO I had to become mindful of what I ate.

I have a built-in resistance to being mindful. I’ve run much of my life on auto pilot. Good genes, a decent agile brain and good luck let me get away with it. But the last decade has forced me to slowly become more aware, more mindful. I took up meditation as part of my therapy as depression set and had screwed up my thinking. But I fought it kicking and screaming. I wanted nothing to do with that that Eastern voodoo stuff! Not me! I was a self sufficient old style American Christian type.

But I did it anyway. And it has transformed my life.

And that whole therapy thing? I was raised to think that therapy was for weaklings. If I was struggling I just had to man up and deal with it. Only, there are times in our life that overcome us. Or there are ways of thinking embedded in our heads that sabotage us from being who and what we want to be. We all need people – pastors, honest friends, counselors, coaches, to help us become our best. Doing it alone, and running our life on autopilot may get us SOMEWHERE, but it doesn’t get us to our best place. To get to our best place takes work and mindfulness, an awareness of what is going on inside us, and why, and the discipline to act, not react.

Discipline. I hate it.

That may surprise people who know me professionally. I have always been disciplined, very disciplined, in my work. Whether it is my broadcast work, my role as a manager, my coaching/consulting work, my pastoral work – I manage myself, my people, my time, really well. I an efficient and generally get a lot more done than most people in way less time. But it is not a natural thing for me. I have to work at it. That dang discipline stuff again.

What I WANT is tons of time to just think, navel gaze, let things sink in, bat ideas around. That too is part of why I am good at the things I do. But the natural tendency is that when we allow those static things in our lives free reign, instead of being disciplined and balanced with them, then they seem to take over. “Things fall apart.” says the poet William Butler Yeats. And they do, without work. Without admitting that they fall apart and being mindful. And mindfulness is a discipline, a special kind of discipline that involves awareness, honesty and discipline.

All things my nature resists. I like to go with the flow. I like to ignore problems (a throwback to a family dynamic that was full of world class professionals in ignoring problems.). I like being undisciplined, dang it.

A lot of people are like me. All that problem facing, self honesty, discipline stuff is hard work. But sooner or later not doing it catches up with us. Like my Diabetes. Like waking up at 50 or worse, at 75 and realizing you are not who you wanted to be. Like….. oh yes, it’s a long list. A really long list.

This, the Diabetes, I could not ignore. So I have been a good boy. No sugary desserts (even though desserts were such a part of my life that we had a dessert table to hold them all.), There’s a whole Doritos factory that has probably closed down since I stopped eating them. Hardly any bread (They miss me at the bakery, I am sure.), On and on. It’s not habit yet. I still actively miss all the stuff I’ve cut out of my diet, but mostly, I realize, what I miss is not having to think about it.

Still, it has paid off. My glucose numbers have dropped by more than half, without insulin. The other numbers indicate that my kidneys and eyes are hunky dory with the changes and there was no permanent damage to anything. If I am a good boy for the next twenty years or so (Bleah), barring something unexpected, I have a good shot at that version of old age I envision for myself.

See that’s the thing I have learned, not just here, but in virtually every aspect of my life. I may hate the idea of mindfulness. I may always have resistance to it. But every time I have made myself apply it, and I mean EVERY time, the dividends have been huge. I have improved my health, my work, my faith, my relationships, my art, my…. yeah, pretty much everything. I have learned what we all know intrinsically, that if we are more aware, more mindful, more purposeful, then we have the chance to become our best.

The big surprise, for me, was that becoming more mindful was work, but only for the first month or so. In every case where I have applied it, if I was diligent for a month or so, that mindfulness became a habit, like brushing my teeth in the morning. I no longer had to think hard about it. It just happened.

But it begins with some self honesty. That I was in a bad place and needed therapy, that I had diabetes, that my faith needed an overhaul, that my art had withered. That my relationships were not what I wanted them to be. None of these were pleasant to admit. None of them. That in fact, is where I think the real resistance is, admitting that things about me didn’t match my self image, and that I had to do something if I wanted to become the best me. Diabetes was just the latest jolt.

Each time I get a jolt, it seems to be easier. This whole Diabetes thing sucks. But it has been easier making the changes and becoming mindful this go around than when I first began making life changes a a decade ago. Maybe, at nearly 60 (I turn sixty later this week), I am finally growing up. It’s probably a good thing that I’ve helped my chances at a quality old age with this latest round of changes. This way I can actually enjoy being an adult for a few years.

What I have I learned in all this? Mindfulness is good. It’s work but only for a time. The dividends are beyond our imagining. And, perhaps most important, it’s never too late to become better, to become the person we want to be. Good lessons, all.

Be well. Travel Wisely.

Tom

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There Are No Shortcuts

There Are No Shortcuts

Tea room

Earlier this week my son and I traveled down to see my daughter. The three of us traveled to Newport, Rhode Island to see the mansions there, a collection of “summer cottages” of the rich and famous from The Guilded Age.

And guilded they were, incredibly extravagant, more like little palaces rich in marble, Louis the 14th furniture, gold gilt and crystal chandeliers everywhere, each house a  jewel box, each one trying to outdo the other. Time after time our jaws hung open as we rounded into the next room, sure that nothing could outdo the room we were in, until we moved to the next room.

My favorite room. The one in the picture above. It’s called the Japanese Tea House, a small replica of a temple built on the edge of the grounds of one of the mansions. One room. So simple. So peaceful after the magnificent assault of my senses in the mansions themselves.

That kind of simplicity calms our soul, calms our spirit.

There has been a movement towards simplicity in our society that largely back to Apple’s creation of the I-Pod. Music had once been something that, if you wanted good music, was built from a rack of gear with dozens of knobs and meters. And Apple reduced it to a little thing you stuck in your pocket, taking your music collection with you. Anyone could use it. It was reduced to only the essential controls.

From that, point, simplicity, which has been something only a few old hippies who had spent too much time on the commune talked about, became mainstream. Design became more minimalist. We began to simplify business practices and procedures, reaping loyal customers and higher profits. And we began to crave it in our personal lives, even our spiritual.

We began to discover, as a culture, the values of simplicity.

We also discovered simplicity is not easy. It is not merely removing things from our lives. That is easy. But removing things doesn’t always create simplicity.

No, simplicity involves an understanding of what is vital, what is important, and what is not. It involves a close and honest look at ourselves, or our customers, or the people who work with us, or in our own lives, and realizing there is a trade off for everything.

And that means a constant look at our priorities.

And THAT is hard work.

I learned this the hard way. Nearly a decade ago, when I separated from my now ex-wife, I moved to a small apartment. I took a few things with me, but left behind the vast majority of what I had spent nearly 25 years accumulating with her. And I found I liked life simple. I had forgotten. I had a simple life before. And I had a simple life again. Life since them has been focused on keeping that simplicity, and not letting life, and stuff, overrun the peace of a conscious choice of simplicity.

Once I learned it in my personal life, I found that applying it to my professional life had serious payoffs.

I began to hire differently. I took more to making sure I understood what was essential in the people I brought into my work teams. No longer was I dazzled by a golden resume. I came to understand that the best people were defined more by character than skills and experience. You can teach skills. You can’t teach character.

I began to design differently. I discovered that often my clients were happier with facilities that did a little less, but did the important things amazingly well. And so I had happier clients.

I began to apply the same principle to my faith life and my creative life, finding the essences that gave them both life, and not allowing them to be cluttered with stuff that didn’t matter.

But it’s not easy. In fact, it may be harder than complexity. Complexity happens easily and on its own. The house fills. The closet fills. Designs get crazy complicated because we can. Business processes become messy and fragmented all too easily. Faith becomes church and committee meetings, not connection. Our art and passions get lost in the cacophony of everything else.

But simplicity. Oh my! It’s hard work and diligence. It takes sifting through priorities, making choices, saying no. It involved an honesty about what is important, and courage to live it. There are no shortcuts, and there is no end to the work of maintaining it.

It’s hard, but it’s worth it. Here are some things I’ve discovered about the value of simplicity.

  • It reduces stress. Whether it’s is in our lives or in our work, simplicity reduce stress, making what, how we experience work and the things we do  we do a joy.
  • It makes us more efficient. I used to believe that if I had systems and stuff around me that I was ready for anything. And theoretically I was. But it also means that I didn’t do the 95% of things I did nearly as well because I was always thinking about all the less important. Science has proved that simplicity is more efficient whether it’s in life, running a business or running a TV studio.
  • It leaves room for the new. Often we claim we can’t take on the new, can’t pursue that passion, can’t add a new division to our company, can’t take on a new project because life is too full. But what is it full of? Simplicity creates space in our lives and work to expand.

There’s lots of other values to simplicity. But maybe the biggest one I have learned is that people and companies that value and do the work of creating simpler lives and workflows, always seem to be happier. You can’t measure that, but I find it to be universally true.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. It takes work. It takes mindfulness. No more auto pilot. No more “that’s how I’ve always done it.”  There’s a process. Follow it, and you reap the rewards. Don’t follow it, and you don’t.

I’ve tried shortcuts, and so have some of my more impatient, insistent clients. Shortcuts don’t work. The process works.   With all its hard work and self-honesty and courage to let go.

So today, whether I am working on a poem, designing a control room, managing a project, or coaching an individual or company to claim their own simplicity, I don’t allow shortcuts.

Life’s pretty simple. Trust the process. Do the work. Good stuff happens. No matter what you are doing or what you want.

And the next time I go to the Newport Mansions? I’m visiting the tea room again.

Be well, Travel wisely,

Tom
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Emotional Safety

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This past week I moved my 17 year old son from Virginia to live with me in Vermont.

I would love to be vain enough to think that he loved dear old dad so much that he would leave behind the life he’s always known, the friends he has had since elementary school, and all the activities that have brought him such joy to move here. But that is not the case. He moved here because living there was not an emotionally safe place for him to be, and Vermont is. My daughter made the same choice when she was sixteen.

Despite the pain of the leaving, It worked out well for her. She recovered her emotional balance, moved forward, finished high school, finished her Girl Scout Gold award (like Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts), went on and graduated from college in a field she loved. I loved having her here, no matter how or why she came. And I am praying that my son finds his peace and moves forward just as well.

The past few years have been like one giant lesson to me about emotional safety. It is one of those things that we all sort of know, but we don’t talk about. At least we don’t give it the importance I believe it deserves.

I am part of a creative group that was started years ago by Jon Katz, the bestselling author. He’s a neighbor and over the years has become a friend. He had this thought of a group of creative people who were simply supportive of each other. He calls it “The Ministry of Encouragement.” There are writers, artists, fabric artists, photographers, all sorts of creative endeavors. Most had held back on their creative side for their entire lives, almost keeping their creativity in the closet. Jon’s creative group gave them a place to share their work, their experiments, their failure and their wonderful successes. A few years on since it’s beginning, we have seen these people grow, seen their art grow, seen books published, art displayed and sold, seen courage flourish, and seen people expand far beyond what they thought possible.

Because they felt safe there. They had a safe place to grow.

I have seen the same thing in the professional world. A fair part of my career has been spent as a manager. I have to confess to not loving being a manger. Not nearly as much as the other parts of my work. But I dearly loved hiring and growing employees. I had a habit of hiring people not really qualified for their jobs, and then nurturing them to a place where they excelled. Watching them grow, giving them a place where they felt safe growing and seeing how that that safe place allowed their confidence and courage to move forward is without a doubt, the greatest reward of what has been a wonderful career.

I have seen the same thing in my faith life. When a church or other religious faith family is a place of nurturing instead of condemnation, there is a healthy spirituality there that is joyful, that infuses the people with strength and comfort, that allows them to project that joy and strength to others, and draw them into the family. When a church or faith family is a place of fear and condemnation, that joy that God wants for us withers. There is bitterness and fear instead of joy and acceptance.

And I have seen it in marriages and relationships. When a couple feels safe with each other, there is the kind of intimacy that holds them together. When they no longer feel safe, the relationship slowly dies.

Many things in my life are in a constant flux. In the past 10 years I have gone from married to divorced. I have been single, a single parent again when my daughter moved in, to single again when she went to college, to, as of this week, a single parent again. My work has shifted. My art has shifted. I moved from Virginia where I have lived all my life, to Vermont. I have taken on the duties of pastor, something I have always fled, feeling not worthy and temperamentally not suited. My parents have died.

But this need for safety, I have noticed, remains the same. It seems to be built into us.

I used to laugh at the idea that we are all children inside. But I don’t any more. I have seen it play out consistently for decades, particularly the last decade. And I have learned something. When we do not feel safe, be it in our work, our relationships, our faith or our art, one of three things happens:

  • We shut down and close ourselves off to protect ourselves.
  • We become crushed.
  • Or we leave.

THAT is how important safety is to us. So important that when it is not there, it can only destroy. Nothing good comes of an unsafe place. Ever. But when people are in a safe place, this is what happens:

  • We open ourselves, and our life and circle expands.
  • We flourish and grow.
  • We stay, joyfully.

I don’t have many universal laws in my life. I run my life and faith with a few basic principles. But the need for emotional safety, and the desire to provide that for people in my life is one. I have not, and don’t always succeed in creating safe place for the people around me, but it is something I work hard at. Because that’s what I want for myself. And because I have seen how it affects others. The desire to provide a safe place for my family, for the people who work with me, for the people I am in relationship with comes from my own need for emotional safety.

It’s hard to make our own safe place. We can isolate ourselves to create that place, and that is a path many of us take. But there’s little joy in it. And expansion is slow.

Living in a place of faith helps, if our faith sees God as a loving God who wants the best for us and loves us no matter what. If we see the universe as benevolent.

But the biggest factor, I have learned, is the people we surround ourselves with. Negativity kills. It stifles. It smothers. It builds fear. Positiveness builds safety, allows us to reach out, experiment, fail with grace. It reaps what it sows – joy. The more I have surrounded myself with positiveness, the more I have grown and flourished. And I have seen the same in literally every other person I know.

I am in a good place in life. No, things are not perfect. Far from it. There are demons to fight, mountains to climb and things are very foggy ahead. Sometimes I feel my whole life is one big science experiment. But I am a place where my heart is safe. The people who love me are kind and forgiving. My God is kind and forgiving. My readers are kind and forgiving. The people closest to me, even when they have a concern or a conflict, are unfailingly kind and loving and gentle, and never let me forget how much they value me.

Seriously, I can ask for no more.

If you are not in a safe place in your own life, I wish you safety. Seek out friends who love you in a supportive way. Surround yourself with them. They are all over, just as the negative people are all over. We have a choice. That’s what we forget sometimes. We have a choice of who and what to surround ourselves with.

That’s right. We have a choice. That’s what my kids discovered. That’s what I discovered. I wish the same for you.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

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On Being Important

dandelion 1

I have been at school for the past two weeks.

At my age, you rarely get the opportunity to disconnect from the world and focus on learning new things for that long. Life is full. We have responsibilities, work, clients, family, to-do lists. There’s stuff to do. People need us. We’re IMPORTANT, dag nab it!

My world did not fall apart without me. I still have my clients. My family is OK. The to-do list is still there. Things that had to get done got done without me. The ones that were left I’ll get done this week now that I am home.

I am transitioning some of my work and life. It’s been a slow progression over the last year or so, and a conscious one. Every few years I stop and rethink. What do I like about my life? What would I like to do better? Where can I make the difference I want to make. Sometimes when I do this, there are few changes. Other times, the changes are largish. This round is largish, and to get where I want to go means more than just making some changes. It means a lot of education.

Part of me has been a little scared of the education portion. I love to learn, and always have. But the last decade or two, I’ve done it at my own pace. Most of my learning has been self-directed. No grades. No judgment. But this last round, and what’s to come will be done at someone else’s pace. Classes and events past two weeks have started at 7:30ish and run till 10ish. I sort of expected my brain to be mush at the end. I’m almost 60. My last formal education came when I was in my forties and I did my Doctorate.

I needn’t have worried. We tend to rise to expectations when things are important to us. That’s why it’s important to constantly challenge ourselves…. so we can rise. I am exhausted, but I got through it all fine. I haven’t gotten my grades yet, but I can say with confidence that I did fine on the final.

And, as I said, my world did not fall apart.

So often, we choose not to take care of ourselves. We choose not to do the work, take the time apart, take the leap to grow. because it’s hard. We’re important.

And we are, but maybe not in the way we fool ourselves into thinking.

The day to day stuff we use as an excuse to not do, to not give ourselves the time and space to do in our lives, is not where we are really important. Oh, we think it is. I’ve made that mistake often in my life. And I was wrong ever time. Because when we give ourselves the space and the time to feed our souls and minds, we become something, someone….. better. Better able to love and care for the people around us. Better able to do our work. Our minds and hearts become softer, in a good way, better able and better willing to see and grasp and put new ideas to work.

And that is important.

That has proven itself to me over and over again in life. When I have not given myself that time and space, I have dried up. I got the work done, but not with the love and the passion and the power I could have done it with. When I give myself the time and space, I am better for everything and everyone that is important to me.

Every part of my life will benefit from my being away these past two weeks. Not just the part of my life and work I was going to school for. Yes, the grass is extraordinarily high. Yes, I have a backlog of work. But I have been renewed, challenged, grown. I have been energized, infused with passion, fired with creative ideas.

Friends, find the time. Get away. It might be classes. It might be a retreat. Or travel. Or a week at the beach (or two weeks at the beach). WHAT we do depends on what fuels our hearts and souls and minds.

Your world won’t fall apart. And you’ll discover you are important in ways you never thought of before.

Be well. Travel Wisely.

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