Attention reveals the “urge to action”

One common experience that comes from practicing attention is that we can notice the urge to action. We are used to living in patterns. Because we’ve been watching where our attention goes, we may become increasingly aware of the urges to action that activate those patterns. When I sit down to write, I usually feel the urge to snack, run errands, make phone calls, and empty the dishwasher. When I’m with clients, I am familiar with an urge to speak up and give them “better” vocabulary for the experience they’re describing. We could ask “why?” But a better question is “what?”

We could get to know this existence by asking, What is this urge that I notice? When we ask “why?” we may understand. We look to familiar sources and past experiences. That can put the question to rest: “Oh, yeah. That’s why.” But we find that we don’t behave differently.  The more I write, the more I find the Goldfish crackers disappearing from the pantry. So, what is this experience? Note that the question is not, What should I do to change this?

We can look into facets of experience using this attention we’re developing. When I feel compelled to tell clients that they should do X or Y, or I feel the urge to teach something, I try to turn attention to body, emotion, and thinking. I do the same thing when I notice my attention is elsewhere in practice. I try to open up to the experience, the what.

Want to learn more about how to practice attention and how to observe the urge to action? I’d love to talk with you.

How are you doing?

As the end of the year approaches, we may ask ourselves how this year went. On balance, did I do what I intended? Am I, are we headed where we want to go? After all, things change. What’s pressing in on this life of mine and what can I do about it?

How would this reflection be different if you set aside – or just plain rejected – the standards that others might apply? 

I thought I was a pretty accepting person, but I have a knee-jerk suspicion that those who don’t work hard and make a living have something wrong with them. Now that I see this, I wonder: When did conventional success become a not just benchmark but a moral value to me?

I was talking with my father-in-law today. We reflected on a recent trip with a somewhat distant relative. He is fascinating, irascible, charming, often disheveled, and always underemployed. From one perspective, he makes little contribution to society. From another, he’s more thoughtful, more knowledgeable, and better company than me. By someone’s measure, he falls short. By others, he’s awesome. 

So, when you stop to ask how you’re doing, stop to wonder whose standards you are applying to this self-evaluation. Or at least, consider that the measures you’ve used so far may be outdated for the present job, family, community situation.

You could even ask, What standard have I held that I can drop, and what could take its place that comes from within?

How many times have I done this?

How many times have you done this?

Think about your job. How many times have you tried to get something done and had a similar experience of getting there? The obstacles were familiar. The questions you needed to answer? Similar. The allies and opponents. Some of them were in familiar camps, too. Or if the process was easier and you learned to bring people on board, did you feel that you’d compromised some values along the way? Did some of the satisfaction drain out of you because the cost of achievement felt higher than you’d imagined?

What if the way we go about getting what we want is an entrenched pattern? 

Is what I want what-I-want?

“I’m struggling with feeling grateful,” a friend said when the spotlight turned on her at the Thanksgiving table. “I am grateful, but I don’t feel grateful.” And I was very happy she was there. It’s not easy to be honest with ourselves. 

We want to be, well, something else. Think about one of your recurring daydreams. You’re doing something well. You’re thrilled by the people you’re with. You’re completely uninhibited. You’re sitting still in a boat on a glassy lake. Your daydream here.

If you can bear it, stop for a moment. What do you want and know that you want? 

When you take the goal away, what is the feeling that’s left? Here’s an example. You want to have a job where you’re consistently respected and regularly acknowledged for that remarkable thing you do that no one does as well as you. Let’s say this is one of my daydreams. When I put myself in that scenario, I feel a simple dignity and a sense of belonging. Together, they produce a feeling of security. 

The object of wanting isn’t (only) what we want. It is how we envision pursuing what we want. In my example, the job is a means. It’s the vision I have of what I really want. But the object, the “what-I-want” is a sense of belonging and a simple dignity.

We confuse means with ends. We confuse the setting in which we want to achieve our objectives with what we want.

As this year winds down, reflect on whether what-you-want is underneath what you believe you want. See if you can explore what-I-want so that you have the chance of pursuing it in places and new ways rather than the habitual ways you tend to go looking for it.

Take another look at struggle

It can feel like we spend a lot of time trying to make things happen. At work, most of the forces already in motion will mobilize against that. 

People don’t resist doing what we want them to do because they’re opposed to us. It’s not about me. At least not unless there’s some history. No, there is the momentum of what’s familiar, what I know how to do, the established process. I’m feeling productive. I’m working on the goals set out for me.

So we can spend a lot of our time pushing a rope. We’ll pay for it in stress, a lot of effort for little return, and often having an impact on others that creates that history and distrust that I mentioned. We also become convinced that people who cooperate with me are allies. Everyone else is an opponent. More history.

One way to cut down on struggling is to ask questions. This takes us out of a fascinating hobby: attributing motives to people based on our assessment of what we see and what it means to me. It brings us back into now. It brings us back to a more objective, and shared, understanding of the stituation.

We could spend time with the people who need to be engaged in our thing – the project, the implementation, the change, the new initiative. Really get to know what they do, the constraints they experience day by day, and the cost of change for them.

Beware of your own temptation to ask questions that box people into making a commitment. That’s cross-examination, not inquiry. 

Watch how the urge to push others to change comes up from inside you. What might be driving that?

You could even ask, “If you were trying to achieve this objective, starting from your function, what would you recommend?” Oh, and then listen. But you knew that.

Three ways to lead with thought and action today

Inside out, outside in

One of the great frustrations of people with vision, energy, and insight – the way we like to see ourselves – is why others don’t see the world as we do. Once we notice this, and all of its obvious obstacles, we take a step.

The easiest step to take is to infer that others are against us for some very poor reasons. They’re not very smart or have no imagination. They’re afraid of change. They just don’t get it. They’re invested in the status quo. It’s personal.

Even if there’s some truth in those conclusions, rehearsing the ways others are opposed to us builds a wall. It gets stronger as we hang onto the notion that “the old guard are protecting their bonuses,” for example. That wall will be there when we look for it. We can count on it. That’s not real, not a fact, not “reality.” But it becomes more real to us the more we rehearse it. It becomes a part of us.

We can take the wall apart by by what we do and what we think. But if we do not take it apart, we will experience work as a maze of walls and alleys.

Instead of drawing taking the very human step that reinforce]s us vs, them, we can take a step into the Learning Leader Lab. Here are three ideas to help you move from certain to curious.

Open up “data collection”

Whatever you infer about others, you’re selecting a small set of data. It’s probably skewed toward what you believe. That’s a human habit; no harm, no foul.

Pay attention to other inputs, information, contributions people are making to the issue you think they oppose. If this feels a bit like being a Pollyanna when you suspect other intentions, keep it up. You’re on the right track. That suspiciousness is also a common human habit.

Try thought experiments

What other legitimate interests might this person be attempting to serve? What’s the good thing, principle, or value they’re trying to bring about?

Stretch yourself. You may find it hard to see the good interests of others if you’ve already decided they’re set against yours.


Ask for more information about others’ perspectives and conclusions. Like you, they’re synthesizing a collection of values, assumptions, experience, and popping out with “what we should do.” You may find common ground in the things that haven’t been said yet.

Watch your questioning, though. With practice, we learn to tell when closed-end questions are set as traps, when leading questions are really statements, and when even open-ended questions are designed to make us look smart rather than to learn something new.

How did you learn to let in other points of view this week?

Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

If you hate what you do, get out now!

Get out now!

Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist at Cornell University who’s spent years interviewing thousands of people age 65 and over about, well, about all sorts of things. On the topic of work, Pillemer’s senior sages were clear: If you hate what you do, get out now.

“Spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake,” Pillemer writes in his book 30 Lessons for Living. “There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful.”

From Wired by Dan Pink

 What led you to say, “I’m out,” rather that suffer through a job that others may have envied?

Three ways simple gratitude can change your leadership

Here comes that gift again

Gratitude isn’t easy for me. I can’t help but notice how similar the word is to “platitude.” I have thought of it as thin, perfunctory, forced. I am changing my mind. And that’s changing the way I lead. It can change the way you lead, too.

What is it? Gratitude is acknowledging that something has been given.

Even before you go on reading, what do you notice when you read that sentence? This is not a rhetorical question. Keep the question fresh in mind and notice: what’s given?

Let’s assume for a moment that some things are given: they just happen. That’s no reason to be grateful in itself. Some of those things are problems, tragedies, or idiotic annoyances.

Whatever the causes, things that just happen are happening uniquely to you. When something happens to me, everything that went before contributes. That’s why it may feel familiar.Here comes that gift again

Yet, the sheer complexity of things means that no two moments are the same. Right now, we’re handed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. You could say that complexity conspires to give it to us. I didn’t make it happen. I can be grateful for that. It wasn’t a sure thing. But here it is.

Every one of these moments carries an opportunity to do something with it. It’s fresh and different from the one before. Sure, that’s subtle. But here comes another. And if I don’t act now, I can still act. Now. Or even now.

The three ways

Practicing gratitude turns our attention to opportunities. It helps us become more aware. “Here’s a moment that I can do something with, right now.” As a leader, I have choices.

It helps is develop faith in opportunity even if we feel have few or no options. We do have options. In this moment, or the next one. As a leader, I stay hopeful. Circumstances aren’t conspiring against me. They’re just circumstances.

Gratitude can also help us be a little more forgiving when we or others let a crucial moment pass. There’s another moment coming with its opportunity inside. So as leaders, we use that awareness of opportunity to encourage folks to act now. Or now. As a leader, I build up people to ensure they use their opportunities well.

I’m learning to worry less about leading skillfully. This moment is unfolding an opportunity. Developing awareness helps me recognize the slight differences that create them. It’s not just about what I should do, and not at all about what I can do perfectly. It is a new habit – or practice – that involves recognizing that a moment is unfolding an opportunity, which is the chance to take an action that will fit it.

And if I don’t get it just right, here comes another one for me to open.

“I don’t want to be a leader”

No thanks

Good. There are probably too many people who want to be in charge, tell people what to do, control events, and bend circumstances to their way of thinking. But that’s not leadership. That’s authority. That’s the exercise of power. It has a bad reputation and it’s well-deserved.

Maybe you haven’t always been a leader, but you’ve met people who were. Did you do your part, play your role eagerly? Did you notice that being the person that everyone looked to sometimes got in the way of good judgment? Or maybe you saw that acclaim for those in charge also bent them to do questionable things as that tried to manage their reputation.

Still, after developing our own expertise, we come to recognize that we want to make a difference. We want to be recognized for it, too. Especially early on, we need the encouragement and feedback, which is sometimes critical. That impulse to matter and be recognized for it is a growing plant fed on good intentions, hopefulness, willingness to learn, and some ego, both healthy and otherwise.

You don’t need lead a big corporation. Just stick with the impulse to make a contribution. Keep working to do that today. You don’t have to do anything else. But as a thought experiment, extend that same impulse to your team or your church or club. What might making a contribution full of good intentions look like? Move beyond that to the next circle. Maybe people who see what you’ve accomplished invite to give similar help in another sphere. What could you contribute? Or maybe your commitment to a good goal keeps leading you into organizations where you can make your contribution. No thanks

You may find yourself leading. You don’t have to. But you might. Don’t throw the idea aside because you haven’t seen good examples of it up close. No matter what the scope or scale, you could be the person notice by another discouraged expert, inspiring them to do what you do. That might lead him to change his mind. It might inspire her to resolve to make her own contribution.

On the one hand, leading is nothing special. On the other, in the complex, dynamic world of work of this decade, it’s not natural. But you don’t need to be every kind of great leader at once. You simply need to follow the impulse to make a contribution. You’ll need to answer new challenges. You’ll learn a lot about your ego. But the cumulative effect is that you become one of the people whose impact is as nearly as good as their intentions.

I don’t feel strongly about what you call it. But for all our sakes, do it.