The Trip to Nowhere

3929858184_b3a88c1a21_z (1)There are many good reasons to get on a plane or pack up the car. But travel writer Pico Iyer makes an ironic case for not. His The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is a tiny book I read in one sitting this weekend, and it gave me pause. Quite literally. It has cured me from an insidious malaise and a first-world problem I’ve been guilty of—vacation envy.

Iyer’s point is that we can all build stillness and pauses into our lives right where we are, and these small retreats can perhaps fuel us, stimulate us, and satisfy us even more than travel. If you find it hard to meditate or to sit alone for a long while and just think, maybe a trip isn’t going to clear your mind the way you hope it will.

I’ve noticed that sometimes what comes under the guise of an adventure or vacation, is more about running away from life—from the stress, the busyness, the seemingly unsolvable problems—than seeing the destination. No matter how far you go or how often you take these trips, you always come back. To you. And your crazy life.

In our culture of achievement, too, travel can be a compulsion of more. It becomes a hunger to just go, go, go: I’ve never been to fill-in-the-blank. We need to use up our frequent flyer miles before they expire. Time to check off some places on the bucket list. There’s that cruise that’s such a great deal.

A number of years ago I got worked into a frenzy, thinking my husband and I were running out of time to show our kids the world. I plotted out the trips we needed to take and how we could fit them in, between work (parents’ and kids’), school and budget. Then I realized there would never be enough time to show them everything I wanted to. There could always be regret that we didn’t do that trip. Or that one. So, a few well-chosen journeys would have to do. Take a breath. Enjoy the days at home. Help them explore their inner worlds. That, I hope, will serve them at least as well as a European grand tour or a Disney cruise.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with travel, and I’m sure Mr. Iyer would agree. But I was glad to be reminded by him that the journey within is where the real adventure begins. If only we take the time to stop going places and sit still.

Photo: Flickr/Marius Waldal

Conflict Resolution: What I Did Not Find

734124559_563ecd801d_zI’m taking a short time-out from business travel today to write about two books I read recently and found particularly insightful, with much overlap. Both promise to help with conflict resolution and problem-solving. Sign me up.

I dislike conflict, but I’m pretty determined not to avoid it just because it’s uncomfortable. So, how to handle conflict in a productive way—that’s the tricky thing. And I confess to picking up these books with a secret hope for a magic formula. I began by skimming, in search of this bulleted or numbered short list of solve-all advice. Not to happen. So, I dug deeper and began again to read from the beginning. Sigh.

The 3rd Alternative by Stephen Covey is simply brilliant. We all became devotees of Covey’s work in the ‘80s with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s well-earned its status as an enduring classic for big-picture productivity. Yet Covey considered The 3rd Alternative his most important, life-changing work.

The principle is simple: Problems are solved best when the two parties put their positions aside (not the same as compromise) so that a third, previously undiscovered solution can be developed together. This can be applied to conflicts within families/marriages, schools, companies and the world.

But the implementation is not simple.

I particularly loved Covey’s prompt for how to start such a discussion: Are you willing to go for a solution that is better than any of us have come up with yet? Try that line when facing your next conflict! I did, with great enthusiasm I might add, and I can’t say it was the magic bullet I’d hoped for. Eventually, we got there, but I can see that this process takes practice. And time. Yet, I am encouraged and inspired to make “a 3rd alternative, the cornerstone of my own conflict-resolution efforts.

I also very much liked Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. I didn’t find a neat formula here either, but the principles are right on target, and I find the many “difficult conversations books” (it’s a genre!) helpful just in that they exist. They give support to the intention: Just having the conversations that are too-often avoided, is perhaps progress enough. Don’t get hung up on doing it perfectly. But some pointers, like those in this book, are always welcome and boost confidence.

The authors’ idea I found most helpful was this: Begin a conversation as if you’re a neutral third party. If a mediator or a counselor were to present the situation, what would they say? That way your own judgments will not trigger the emotions (especially defenses) of the other person right at the start. Present the difference, but without judgment. In light of this, I can see where I went wrong with one conversation this year, and I’m determined to do better now with this knowledge in my toolbox.

I promise I’m not holding out on you: There were not any magic formulas for successful conflict resolution in these books. But if this is a topic of interest to you, I’d highly recommend a thoughtful read to move you forward.

(Photo: Flickr/Kristin Wall)

The Day I Woke Up in the Echo Chamber

8696717750_43a5323677_zI just finished reading an excellent book: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I’d highly recommend it. But a curious thing happened as I was reading. I found myself saying Yes! a lot to myself. And I began to notice that all the source books and articles the author quoted, I’d already read. Hmmm.

I had a similar experience earlier in the week while reading blogs on my RSS reader. I probably skim headlines on twenty or thirty websites daily, and each little patch on my reader (I use Netvibes), feels like the “home” of a particular writer. This week I noticed that a lot of these bloggers know each other. Admire each other. Interview each other.

Somehow, I’d gone into an echo chamber of a neighborhood where all the writers of a certain kind of philosophy lived. And this happened without my being aware of it.

Gathering input is a snap when you read digitally. An author references another author? Click, I just added the feed to my reader. An author mentions a book that sounds interesting. Click. I’ve just downloaded it to my Kindle or put it on hold at the library. For me, these clicks added up, and I’d created a reading echo chamber on themes that already resonated for me.

I don’t like to operate like that—too comfortable. I want to digest writing I would not otherwise be drawn to. A thoughtful essay on Libertarianism. A pondering of the value of knitting. A book titled, “Productivity is Bull S##t.” I want to find myself saying No! sometimes when I’m reading.

Today I am leaving my echo chamber. I’m sure I’ll be back from time to time. But there’s a lot of interesting noise out there that I’d like to sift through.

[Thank you for your patience, as I veered off-subject here.]

Photo: Flickr/mack reed

Changing the World, One Speech at a Time


“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.”*

I so believe this.

Earlier this year I joined Toastmasters and have loved the challenge of learning the art of effective public speaking. The meetings are a highlight of my week—like a challenging sport for the mind. With that in the backdrop, I recently happened to hear Nick Morgan interviewed on a podcast, and he had my full attention. Morgan is a highly regarded speech coach and author. I picked up his book Give Your Speech, Change the World and found it extremely useful. Much of it doesn’t just apply to speeches, but also to everyday communication.

His best tip comes through loud and clear:

The single most important thing you can do to prepare a speech is to rehearse.

I love it when advice is unequivocal! Even better, he presents several different ways to rehearse. For example, you can do a run-through where you just rehearse the bones of the speech. Or you can rehearse the beginning and endings separately. Or you can rehearse while saying jibberish (but thinking the speech in your head) to focus on movement. Every speech should be rehearsed top-to-bottom at least three times, including a dress rehearsal.

I’m a writer at heart, so inherently believe in communication and self-expression. Speeches are writing delivered for the ear and eye. A speech may come in a giant or tiny package, from a PowerPoint presentation for an audience of hundreds to the start of a difficult conversation with a loved one. I believe every conversation is a speech of sorts, and I don’t want to waste those. Communicating effectively, even in these small moments– maybe especially in these small moments–can change the world.

*The quote is oft-used by speech coaches and sometimes attributed to John F. Kennedy.

Photo: Flickr/sparetomato

Nature’s Crucible and the Quest

Hiker on Pacific Crest Trail south of Cutthroat Pass

Hiker on Pacific Crest Trail south of Cutthroat Pass

Quests are in fashion. Tough Mudders. Ironmans. Mt. Everest. The Appalachian Trail. Running a marathon in every state. It seems more and more of us are using our travel and leisure time to test our limits–our physical and mental toughness–with outdoor quests. Perhaps the more comfortable our physical lives are, the more we crave that challenge.

This week I picked up the 2012 bestseller Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, and found myself unable to put it down. In the memoir, she describes her 1,000+-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I have a backpacking trip in Yosemite’s high country coming up so was curious about her experience. But it turns out her personal journey was about much more than backpacking. She used nature as a crucible to test her in every way possible and ultimately to find and heal herself.

It made me think about why we turn to nature for this. Why, for example, are our everyday frustrations and tests—and travel is full of them—just irritating? But when we face down nature or our bodies, it feels pure and deep. The crucible tells us what we’re made of. I suppose everyday tests, like traffic jams and delayed flights, are too tame. We need the intensity of real pain to burn out whatever we’re looking for from the crucible. But it also feels less like a test when there’s someone, a real person, to blame the pain on, like that bad driver or the airline. Mother Nature, she’s a tough one to blame.

I’m not really looking for any kind of personal transformation in Yosemite, just a happy vacation with exercise, companionship and scenery. The quest that intrigues me more right now is the crucible of finding beauty and truth in the everyday irritations. I have a big work trip coming up, so I guess the hike through customs will be my crucible.

(Photo credit: Flickr/Miguel Vieira)