Monthly Archives: February 2016

How do you work: team or solo

I recently read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, which tells the story of the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team who won the 1936 Berlin Olympics against great odds. I connected with this book because (1) I grew up in the State of Washington and the places were familiar, and (2) I am reading my parents courtship letters from 1936 – 1939 while my Dad was attending Oregon State University. The synchronicities were surprising and enlightening.

For me, the core message was about teamwork — a kind of teamwork that is above and beyond my experience.

Pocock {the boat builder} told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. When a man rowed like that, he said, he was bound to attack the water rather than to work with it.

He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined. That’s the way it is with rowing. What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them.

The crew had to row as one entity, not as eight individuals. Egos had to be set aside; trust of the other team members must reign supreme. Not an easy thing to do.  Yet they did — eventually. The crew became a winning team when the individuals set their egos, their fears, their anxieties, and their ambitions aside in deference to trusting the other crew members enough to be one with them. The whole team wins or the whole team loses.  There can’t be one winner and seven losers.

In my adult years, both professionally and privately, I’ve been on many teams and committees — groups that had leaders and followers, chairmen and members. Some people took charge, some just went along for the ride. Some sought attention and credit, others preferred to stay in the shadows.  Some assumed responsibility, some shunned it. Some spoke up, some saved their ideas for the parking lot discussion later. But I’ve never been in a situation similar to the teamwork of the rowing crew.

Ideally, marriage is a team, though it’s difficult to accomplish in many cases. Individual wants, desires, wishes, and dreams often have to be tweaked to create what is best for the marriage, to arrive at a relationship where “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Aristotle)

I wasn’t so good at marriage. I was afraid of being swallowed up into oblivion. I became a staunch individualist.

However, all of life is not about being a team member.  Some of our work must be done alone. For me, writing, music, painting, photography, pondering, meditating, and exercise are all things I do alone. In fact, input can often derail creative endeavors, dilute our vision and energy, and put us in a mode of pleasing other people rather than continuing our quest. I’m very selective about when and from whom I seek input along the way.

Being a team member and working alone are both important. We need to understand when to be team and when to be solo.

The questions of the day are:

  • How have you experienced teamwork in your life?
  • How have you experience solo work?
  • When are you at your best:  team or solo?

Until next Tuesday . . .





Corn Dogs and Whales

Last week generated two disappointments for me.

First, I had a Saturday craving for corn dogs. Not knowing exactly where to find corn dogs in this city, I searched online and found an establishment that had been voted “best corn dogs” for several years. I checked the menu — not only did they have corn dogs, they also had onion rings. No reason to skimp on junk food. Off I went, expecting an awesome lunch. The corn dogs looked great, but they were more white mystery dough than dog. The onion rings were large and impressive, but not hot from the fryer. The lunch was much less than I’d hoped for.

Second, I spent several days reading Moby Dick. Why? Because occasionally I  choose to read a classic that I missed during my school years. Of its 135 chapters a few were interesting; many were a yawn for me. In addition to the stilted language and unfamiliar multi-syllabic words, the text bogged down with mythological and biblical references, prolonged discourses on whale types, and their anatomical structures and functions. I kept reading because (1) I’m not a quitter, and (2) I wanted to know if they ever found the white whale. Only in the final chapters did I find what I had been hoping for since the beginning: an encounter with the white whale on the high seas.

These two examples are about my expectations and the resulting experiences that didn’t measure up. Had I not read that the corn dogs at this particular location were the best in the city, I would have simply looked at my lunch as an adventure — it might be good, it might not — but that’s a chance I was willing to take. In the case of Moby Dick, I expected the dramatic tale I’d always heard about: men searching for the great white whale in the global seas. I was disappointed with so many non-adventure chapters.

The freer we are of expectations, the freer we are to enjoy our experiences. Once things get built up, either in our mind or by another’s description, the event (moment, book, food, vacation) often falls short of our anticipation. And there’s the matter of personal tastes and preferences: just because I love a book doesn’t mean you’ll like it. That’s why I seldom recommend a book or movie or restaurant or hotel or vacation spot to friends.

The learnings of the week:

  • Disappointments are directly connected to our expectations.
  • Freeing ourselves from expectations reduces our disappointments.

But, you say, “It’s impossible not to have expectations.”

And I say, “You are right. But we can work to keep our expectations realistic and reasonable. If we can do that, we will have fewer disappointments.”

All I needed to know was where to get corn dogs on Saturday. Had they not promised me the best, I would have been o.k. I still wouldn’t have liked them, but the hype made the experience worse than it needed to be.

Until next Tuesday . . .


Unexpected Wisdom

I’ve enjoyed Chinese restaurants since I was a child.  My early memories are of sweet and sour pork, egg foo young, fried rice, and egg rolls. At the end of the meal each of us would crack our fortune cookie open, pull out the message, and read it to the family.

DSC00392I still look forward to the fortune cookie after a Chinese meal.  Recently the message read:

What you will do matters. 

All you need is to do it.

One the one hand we can apply this to the little things we do every day: talking to friends, washing the dishes, cruising the internet, driving to work, washing clothes, reading a book, time with our family.  We don’t often focus on the mundane, the ordinary, but how and why we do these things makes a difference to you and to the people around you. How often have you heard an adult speak of childhood moments — his mother’s perfume, the stories at the dinner table, the way Uncle John held him on his lap, sanding wood in Dad’s workshop — moments the adults never thought about, moments seemingly less important than the significant events they provided for their children.  Everything matters.  The accumulation of the ordinary builds a life.

On the other hand we can apply the fortune cookie message to what we call our work. By work I mean what we are about.  It may be the work we are paid to do.  But perhaps not.  Our work may be the other parts of our life; our job merely provides a means of support. My work has changed over the years.  At one time it was raising two children to adulthood.  Later it was giving my aging mother something to look forward to. In the last few years I’ve been creating a life independent of my children.  Intertwined with all of this is other work — life-giving work — which, for me, is engagement in creative activity.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I write, I read, I practice piano and I swim.  While swimming does not appear to be creative, I do mental music practice and ponder blog ideas during the repetitive laps.

Yes, what we do matters.

But there’s a second and equally important part of the message:  All you need is to do it.

We are at the dilemma of wishful thinking vs. actual doing.

For many years I said writing was important to me.  But a question nagged at my consciousness:  If writing is important to me, why am I not writing?  I had my excuses, but the truth was I was seldom writing.

The same is true for many of us.  We often say what we want to accomplish but for whatever reason we take few or no steps in that direction.  Why?  Only you can answer that question — and it takes some soul searching to discover our truth. I didn’t write because I was afraid I didn’t have any words, afraid it would sound too childish, afraid to write my truths, I didn’t know how to start, and it didn’t fit with how other people saw me.  There were more reasons, but that’s enough for you to get the idea.  There are reasons we don’t do even what we say is important to us.

Our doing — and our not doing — matter.  You life hangs in the choices you make.

Show up. Do the work. Claim your life.

Until next Tuesday . . .


Winning and Losing

I love to play games, especially card games and board games.  Five Crowns, Scrabble, Canasta, and Sequence are my current favorites. I’m very competitive and always play to win.  And I’ve learned over the years to be a gracious loser. But the fact remains, I like to win.

A few weeks ago I played cards with friends. After our regular Canasta games, the other two women decided to teach us a new game. Actually, they taught us two new games.  I don’t remember the name of either game, but game names aren’t relevant to this discussion.

The first game involved a deck of cards, betting, trick-taking, drawing and discarding — concepts I’ve know most of my life.  While the score-keeper understood all the nuances, the point system was unclear to me, despite multiple explanations. Just when I thought I understood, I was told about another little rule.  Taking too many or too few tricks could mean either a positive or negative score depending on the momentary situation. Then sometimes I got a bonus for taking too many because it meant the opponents didn’t make their bid. And sometimes it seemed I just got a positive or negative score for no apparent reason.

To sum it up, the rules were not clear to me. As a result I didn’t know how to play my cards to get the result I wanted.

The second game was played with three cards and three coins each.  The goal was to have the best hand with the highest points in the same suit, I think.  Again there were exceptions, but it was easier than the previous game.  At the end of each round coins moved from some people to other people, accompanied by explanations of why and how. And just because you didn’t have any coins didn’t mean you weren’t winning.  When all was said and done, I won the game with no coins in front of me — and because I won, all the coins then came to me.

I was confused about both games for one basic reason:  I didn’t know all the rules at the beginning and the rules I did know had exceptions, after the fact.  I never understood why and how I lost or won.

My experience with game playing is that you win and lose by two basic facts:  (1) by chance or (2) by skill — or a combination of the two.

Because I didn’t understand the rules, I didn’t know how to play my cards. As a result, I couldn’t have a strategy and I played my cards randomly for the most part. When I thought I was winning, I was actually losing.  And when I was convinced I had lost, I actually won.

I’ve thought a lot about those games in the weeks since we played. Our understanding of the rules (how people function, how society works, the needs and passions of family members, the policies and procedures in our work place, family dynamics) determine how we behave.  Not that everything in life is predictable, but much of it is.  The rules, if you will, are the structure of our existence.  And this structure gives us a framework for dealing with the uncertainties and the unexpecteds that have a way of showing up.

An auto accident, for example, is always an unexpected event and certainly an inconvenience.  But I know the process:  contact the insurance company, procure a damage assessment, schedule a repair shop.  The process is generally the same — fairly predictable.  Vehicles are either fixed or replaced.

To go one step further, perhaps it’s simply a matter of keeping our expectations and behaviors consistent with the realities (rules) of life.

  • It’s unlikely I’ll win the lottery to fix my financial woes.
  • It’s unlikely a magic pill will erase the effects of years of overeating.
  • If I exercise consistently, my physical strength and endurance will probably improve.
  • If I practice piano daily, my playing will get better.
  • If I stop blaming others for my circumstances and focus on creating my own healthy behaviors, my life may become more whole.

When expectations are realistic, when we understand how things (people, institutions, society, families, bodies) function, we can adjust our behavior to move toward the results we want.

Will things always work out?  Absolutely not!

But with realistic expectations and knowledge of our situation (knowing the rules), we can direct our efforts (play our cards) toward our goal — and adjust as necessary.

We don’t always win, but we become more skillful at playing the cards we are dealt.

Until next Tuesday . . .