Compassion, a mark of a substance

Recently, I participated in a ritual of the American Public Education System known as Parent Teacher Conferences. In this ritual, parents who have had to take off from work meet for a brief few minutes with a teacher who is anxiously waiting for the time to expire so they can go home. Most of the time, the parents participating in the ritual are only doing so because their child (my youngest son, in this case) are struggling in school.

For the most part, this ritual went fairly well for us. My wife and I met with all of our sons teachers. All of them said roughly the same things: smart kid, quiet, participates when asked, stares off and easily distracted, just needs to make up missing work and all will be well.

All of them, that is, save one. That one said similar things, but not the same. He complimented us on the work that we were obviously doing to help our son, complimented us on being at the conference. He did acknowledge that making up the missing work could help his grade, but rather than talk about how we could all work to help our son see the value of the process, he spoke without compassion, defending his position of punishing our sons poor performance in his class.

As I said, all the teachers acknowledge (as did we) that our son is having problems with school right now. We didn’t justify those, nor did we ask any of the teachers to make special arrangements to allow our son to answer to a different set of rules. My wife and I have both been educators, and we know how challenging it is. We know our son is not making things easier.

But all the other teachers spoke with compassion for our son, and for our predicament.

Compassion is characterized by a sympathetic demeanor for the challenges of others. Most of the teachers that have been watching our son struggled had compassion for our situation, and they also manifested compassion for our sons. They acknowledged that the classes are difficult, that not every child does well, that many are struggling, and that this time of transition is a challenge for even the best and brightest students. They acknowledged that the diversity of information being covered, the breadth and depth, can feel overwhelming. And they acknowledged that, because of high stakes testing, it is unfortunate that some students get steamrolled in the need to cover information for the majority.

They had compassion for us and for our son.

In turn, we had compassion for those good teachers, trying to help open our sons awareness to the fact that he can accomplish more than he knows if he will just apply himself. We had compassion for them in the fact that our son is just one of many students that are likely having similar struggles and that not all parents are as involved in trying to help their child figure things out and master the process.

All but this one teacher.

To be fair, perhaps he has been burned by trying to act with compassion in the past.

Perhaps he is just tired of feeling like he needs to be the one to adapt.

Perhaps he feels like every time he acts with compassion he is taken advantage of, or the lesson is not learned, or some other negative outcome is foisted upon both the student and society as a result.

Perhaps.

I’m trying very hard to not hold against him his inability to show compassion for my child. (I couldn’t care less whether he has compassion for me or my wife). And I am also trying to learn the lesson of compassion anew in this situation.

As a man of substance, compassion should be part of my stock in trade, a primary tool in my conceptual EDC.

In my experience, most people who act in a contrary manner toward us do so because they feel they have been wronged, poorly treated, or in some other way minimized by others. When someone feels wronged, that individual has two options open to them: Be sad (which is often interpreted as weakness) or be mad (which is a show of artificial strength). Because mad (screaming, yelling, throwing things, tantrums) is not often acceptable in civilized society, a more subtle form of scorn and disdain takes its place. And when an individual is acting with scorn and disdain for others, there is no room left for change and growth.

Hence, my need for compassion.

Compassion defuses anger, in all of its forms. Compassion opens the door to change and growth. And since men of style and substance are champions of change and growth, compassion should always be found in the way we act toward others.

I am working to show this teacher compassion.

I hope he will be open to change and growth as a result, and perhaps be open to showing compassion to others in the future.

Sadly, I think it may be too late for my son.

For him, we will have to try other solutions.

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Three thoughts on getting in better shape, the style and substance way!

Many people use the New Year as a time to make changes and set goals. Often those

resolutions for change and goals center around health and fitness. Typically these range from, “I will eat better,” to “I’m going to improve my PR in my next marathon by 20 minutes.” My personal experiences are not significantly different as I have made resolutions and set goals around my health and fitness as well. Mine are built around being more aware of the steps I take to foster health (eating better, drinking more water, moving more, etc) and setting a particular goal (a mileage goal for cycling).
What does being a man of style and substance mean when it comes to fitness? Does it mean having the best clothes? Does it mean attending the premier events and being ushered into the VIP tent, being showered with gifts and SWAG? Does it mean being the most fit man in the neighborhood, with the lowest body fat percentage and the most defined six pack? Does it mean being the one in the neighborhood that can be counted on to work out every day, without fail, regardless of the rain, snow, sleet, hail, temperature, natural disasters and anything else that might get in the way of ordinary humans?
I don’t think so. I think being a man of style and substance means that I remain thoughtful and intentional in my choices, and that applies just as easily to the world of fitness as it does to anything else. It is about cultivating a sense of continuity and confidence in the way that I approach every day.
When it comes to fitness, I’ve used the ideals of style and substance to help me in specific ways. I offer these thoughts in the hopes that they might help you too.
Buy apparel and gear thoughtfully. Style gurus are often involved in making us aware of the latest and greatest options available to us. Every designer is always releasing new material, new collections and new items. Ostensibly, as this applies to fitness clothing, these new items, materials and collections reflect a deepening awareness of how to get the most value from the exercise we do. In reality, new items and collections are released to drive sales increases. After all, once you have a pair of compression shorts, you don’t need to buy new ones until a) the old ones wear out or b) there is an advance in the technology that improves the workout.
When I started running a decade ago, I spent almost a year buying gear. Shoes, shirts, shorts, socks, if it was running focused I probably bought it. I bought running nutrition belts, gloves with key pockets built into the palm, jackets with removable sleeves, hats with ultra wicking headbands and cooling mesh. Some of these purchases made my running more comfortable and effective. And some of them were just purchases made because it reinforced my fascination with running.
And then, I found that I had too much stuff. I had purchased one too many sweatshirts, and I started giving things away. I had purchased one too many pairs of running tights, and two of them sit in my drawer, doing nothing. I entered races and got so many technical shirts that the ones I was wearing to run in started overwhelming my living space.
Long story short, I have made a decision to buy thoughtfully when it comes to something I need to work out in. Sweatpants may not be the most flattering, but they sure are nice to run in on cold mornings. A new sweatshirt may be nice, but if my current one isn’t worn out, could I put that money toward better socks or shoes? I’m not advocating against purchasing, I’m advocating for purposeful purchasing. When I need something, I buy it. When I see something cool, I store that information away for later, when a replacement of my current equipment is called for. And when I just want to upgrade equipment, I make a trip to the local charity donation center or to another runner beginning the fitness journey.
Share the journey, share the fun! Exercise is a dirty word. But play, now that’s supposed to be fun, right!? Well, I have tried to replace the idea of Exercise in my mindset with the word play. Running is a type of play. Cycling is play. And when I play, everything is better. But playing alone is not nearly as much fun as playing with a friend, or with family.
Currently, my wife and children do not share the same playful interests and intensities that I do, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to play together. For instance, every morning, we use an app called FitDeck to guide us through a short work out. It is not so aggressive that it will make us Olympic ready, but it gets the blood moving, and we do it together.
Finding ways to play together makes everyone better, contributing to our sense of substance. And the way we do it, with fun and panache, contributes to our sense of style!
Progress, not perfection. This one is the hardest for me to remember. I started the current phase of my exercise journey 17 years ago, when I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. I had to change everything about my view of what it meant to be active. Golfing included walking, not using a cart. Weight workouts needed to become consistent, not sporadic. Little adjustments, including some around diet, became the rule as I found ways to make progress a little at a time.
In the first little while, the progress was visible and quite dramatic. Then it slowed, and measures of progress became harder to find. But, with a little time and a supportive network of friends and family, I have been able to reframe my view of activity and healthy.
However, I must still remain vigilant against the unrealistic perfection that always hovers nearby. My body fat % is better, but I don’t look like the comic book idols of my youth. I run, bike hike, but I don’t compare myself to the videos that I see on YouTube. I am seeking progress, little by little, consistent and constant. And that allows me to always have more goals to hit and confidence that I can hit them.
I hope these three ideas have been helpful.
Go Forth and Conquer!

Accountability: Being a mentor

My last post dealt with my feelings about accountability to a mentor, to my mentor, and how I think things might be different if I were to try creating ways to be more accountable to this wise, kind man of style and substance. I spoke about the power of urgency, and the interesting relationship between urgency, accountability and performance. In this post, I want to continue discussing this theme, but this time I want to approach it from a slightly different angle. I want to talk about the role of being a mentor.

During my life and career, I have been a type of mentor to a great many people, men and women, young and old, mostly in informal situation, but occasionally in formal ones as well. I have been humbled by the nature of the relationship. There are few relationships that bring with them such complete and total trust than a genuine mentoring relationship. At times it seemed that the person who was looking at me as a mentor would do anything that I told them to do, regardless of whether it seemed rational or not.

I have also seen the absolute chaos that emerges when the mentoring relationship is treated lightly by either member of the relationship. I have watched as people have tanked careers, giving poorly thought out advice or counsel. I have also watched as advice was thoughtfully given, but not received with an open mind and a trusting attitude. I have watched people hold back from truly engaging the relationship, thereby cutting themselves off from the value of the relationship. I have also watched as chosen mentors tried to run from the relationship, being unwilling to take on the responsibilities inherent in the role. Watching all of this, and being part of some of it, has brought home to me the reality of this statement: Mentors can make or break careers faster than anything else.

With that in mind, and with the awareness that some who are reading this blog may find themselves soon in the role of mentor, either in a formal or an informal situation, I offer the following guidelines that have served me well.

It is about the person being mentored, not about you. Occasionally you will hear someone say, “I had such big dreams for them! They could really have gone far!” Often this is used to express our helplessness as we watch someone settle for less than their potential. But when it comes to mentoring, I have found it wise to remember that it is all about what the mentee wants. Do they want to grow in particular directions, develop particular skills? When I have questioned the critical nature of those skills, I have tried asked questions and shared perspective. However, I have also done everything in my power to help the person pursue what he or she wanted, not what I thought should be wanted.

As a mentor, the primary responsibility is looking out for the interests of the person being mentored. Yes, that means we need to take seriously the responsibility of advising the mentee regarding blind-spots in thinking so as to not miss opportunities for growth and improvement, but the choice of direction and the final decision for milestones, direction changes and goals for completion rests with the person being mentored.

You don’t need to know it all. Sometimes when working with people in a mentoring relationship, I have found myself squirming in my seat when I have been asked a question that I didn’t know the correct or complete answer. Anyone who has been in that situation can relate to the feeling of utter helplessness and complete vulnerability that comes with it. In such a situation, the temptation to theorize an answer or indicate knowledge when none is known can be almost irresistable.

But in this situation, a man of substance and style must remember guideline number 1.

If everything in the relationship is about the person being mentored, then giving anything but the very best counsel and advice is a betrayal of that relationship. Honesty and truth are paramount, and as scary as it might be to admit a lack of knowledge or an incompleteness of knowledge, it is far preferable to the damage that can be done by giving bad information.

I remember one time I found myself in this situation. My charge looked at me and asked a question, a question about which I had some information but which I felt my knowledge was incomplete. I took a moment, looked my mentee in the eyes and said, “I don’t know how to advise you on this. Let’s gain some information on this topic together. Here’s what I know as a beginning point.” The person thanked me for my candor and honesty, and we made a plan for gathering information and coming back together to talk about what we found. And while it is absolutely true that the person I was advising was disappointed that I couldn’t streamline the situation more completely, it was far preferable to the alternative.

Another alternative that I could have taken in that situation would have been to say, “I’m not sure I have the depth of knowledge that you need for this particular situation. Let’s find someone to connect you with that does.” Again, perhaps the individual being mentored would prefer to get information from me because of a pre-existing relationship of trust, but the best way that I can protect that relationship is being honest and using all my wisdom and resources (including my known network of professionals and other mentors) to help in the best way possible.

The reality is that, in many situations, there won’t be much change in the action taken and advised whether we know tremendous amounts about the situation or not. And that brings us to guideline number 3

Don’t do anything for your mentee that they can do for themselves. The mentoring relationship works best when the mentee does most of the work.

I love Star Wars! (Tangent coming, but trust me, this one will relate.) Growing up, I idolized Luke Skywalker. I wanted nothing less than to be a Jedi Knight, and not just because of the lightsaber. The Jedi were an ideal to be lived up to. Luke had two mentors that guided him, Yoda and Obi-Wan. Both Yoda and Obi Wan did amazing things, but most of the time when it came to doing things for Luke’s growth, they asked questions, responded with appropriate answers, encouragement and challenges and allowed Luke to do the necessary work himself. Remember the tree? and the X-Wing, and the jungle training?

There were things that Luke needed to know, but the biggest thing that he needed to know was that he, Luke, flawed and imperfect as he was, could do what was required of him.

And that is really what mentors do for us. They help us learn how to do what is required of us. They point us in directions, challenge our assumptions, encourage us to do more and celebrate our accomplishments with us.

That is a short list of the guidelines that I use for being a mentor. I hope that helps you in your quest for Substance and Style, and i hope it helps you help others.

Go forth and Conquer!

Accountability to a Mentor

Years ago, I happened upon a powerful relationship. It was somewhat accidental, yet it has also been one of the most powerful relationships that I have experienced in my life. In some ways, it has been a more powerful relationship for me than my relationship with my wife, but in other ways the relationship with my wife might not have been possible without this preceding relationship. It is a relationship marked by sometimes casual, often infrequent contact, but a commitment to each other that has been more powerful than any other friendship. I am writing about the relationship that I have, and have had, with my first Mentor.
The word mentor means experienced teacher and adviser. It has its roots in Homer’s Odyssey, referring to the teacher of Telemachus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan war, he knew that he would.lilely not return until at least some of his son’s education would.need to be handled, so he entrusted Mentor with that responsibility. In our day, the name has come to take on a much more dynamic title, fitting with the breadth of education that Mentor passed on to young Telemachus.
My own mentor has advised me on a variety of things, from handling difficulties with my parents, teachers and friends during my growing up years to discussions of politics, finance, professional and Civic responsibilities and duties to home and family. I have relied on his friendship and his wisdom to carry me through many challenges. However, I have not done a very good job of being accountable to him.
Why would I choose to be accountable to a mentor, especially in a non work setting? Well, think about what happens when we are accountable, when we choose to give an accounting of what we have done and the results. At those times, there is no ambiguity. Clarity is the name of the game; we are clear on our actions and the outcomes. The impending clarity also brings with it an urgency and an intentionality in those actions.
Perhaps if he, my mentor, and I could find ways to create authentic accountability I could see even greater gains in my progress in all facets of my life. How might we go about this? I’m not sure of the specifics, but I’m sure it really only requires two things. The first is time. Time spent together, communicating, sharing what is going on, what is going well, what is going poorly, and what improvements I wish to see. Remember, it is the mentors job to provide counsel, but my job to select and guide the process in the directions I wish to go.
The second ingredient is honesty. It will do bo good to be in a mentoring relationship and be anything less than transparent. If I am willing tomeet my mentorat that level, there is a chance that the power of accountability can start to be unleashed in my life.
It’s certainly something to think about.

If you have a mentor in your life, consider unleashing the power of accountability in your relationship. If you don’t yet have a mentor, consider finding one and taking advantage of that powerful relationship to aid you in your quest to become a man of style and substance.

Go forth and conquer!

Simplicity: The Soul of Substance and Style

Years ago, while attending a course on career development, one of the attendees glibly mentioned that they had heard the phrase, “If you can’t put your idea on a business card, you don’t have a clear idea!”  I remember thinking to myself, “That is both profound and improbable!”  Some ideas are really complex, and sometimes a business card is a little too small.  Could something of any real value be communicated on the back of a business card?

I’ve wondered that many times in my life.  Beyond a website address, a phone number (for texting of course) and an address (for use with google maps for directions) the back of a business card seems pretty insufficient.

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the statement, and about the size of a business card.  For a while, my solution was to get a bigger business card, specifically having 3×5 cards printed with my name and relevant contact information.  I thought that, with this, I could give myself a larger amount of space on which to write my ideas.

However, as time has progressed, I have come to think differently on this statement.  I have come to see this statement as an invitation to simplicity.  

Life is funny.  It starts simple, becomes complex and, I’m told, becomes simple again.  It’s simple when we are developing the fundamental skills of being a person, of learning to exist with our fellow human beings; simplicity is a hallmark of innocence and childhood.  As we grow, we learn about complexity and compromise.  We learn that maintaining simplicity is challenging at best.  But if we are very, very fortunate, we can hold on to some simple things throughout our lives.

My livelihood has been built around taking complex ideas and finding ways to simplify them so that others can absorb them more easily and quickly.  Complexity enters quickly enough, but when the simplicity can be remembered, problems and challenges can be seen in a different light.  They become more solvable, more approachable.  Like knowledge and wisdom, complexity and simplicity are two sides of the same coin.

Back to the statement of putting an idea on the back of a business card, I have learned that there are a good many clear ideas that need more space than that allows.  But simplicity, even if it takes more space, is desirable.  Simplicity, in both Style and Substance is something that can be pursued, found and embraced.  In Substance, it might be epitomized by a quote, a saying, or a poem.  In Style, it might be found in a perfection of form and function.  Hence, my frequent searches on Pinterest, Google and through seemingly endless magazines.  I’m searching for examples of simplicity.  I’ve found many, and each time I find one that speaks to me it gets added to a list.  Some of them have survived for a very long time.  Others come and go.  But all of them help me appreciate the search for the next expression of Style and Substance in their simplest forms.

If this has been useful for you, consider sharing it.  Better yet, consider how you might summarize it on the back of a business card.  Either way, make it a magnificent day!

Go forth and conquer.

Thoughts at a funeral

I’ve been attending a lot more funerals lately.  Iguess it’s just part of growing older.  As I age, so do my compatriots, and the inevitability of death and the accompanying funerals becomes a reality.  But I’ve been surprised at something about the process;  I am really starting to like funerals!

To be fair, I don’t mean that in any kind of a macabre manner.  What I mean is, funerals have gone from being permeated by a sense of loss to being infused with a sense of joy.  Joy for the life lived, for the memories shared, and for the richness in my life that I enjoy because of the relationship shared.

To be sure, some are more difficult than others.  A dear friend who passed away suddenly while still fairly young was harder than the funeral for a mentor and hero who lived to his nineties.  And when there is pain and illness that preceded the passing, we can take solace in the alleviation if the suffering even while.dealing with the grief.

It is also worth noting that the funeral is only one day, one moment in the grieving process.  There are still lots of days of sorrow and loss that follow.  But the funeral itself, that has become more sweet than bitter.

The most recent funeral I attended was for a long time hero and inspiration for me.  Much of this srvice was centered around how this man lived his life, the legacy of love and service that he lived and left for us to remember and follow.  It brought to mind an exercise that I did last year while.working with a group of young professionals.  We spoke of identifying values to live life by, and as part of the exercise we asked them to consider the question, “What type of legacy do you wish to be remembered for?”

Some of the attendees expressed concern about whether or not they could.makr this legacy materialize.  They were so concerned with the vagaries and possibilities if life getting in the way and distracting them that they had little confidence in their chosen direction becoming a reality.

I have come to feel that a legacy is not something to be pursued as much as it is something to be allowed to develop.  It will develop from the daily, regular choices made throughout life.  Said another way, as we strive to live a life of substance, the legacy will take care of itself.

Stop. Breathe. Smile. Act

We’ve all feel it. The pace of our modern world is oppressive. We drive and are driven from place to place, from task to task, and frequently at breakneck speeds. It is not uncommon today to see job postings that announce a fast paced work environment and that the ideal candidate must be able to handle rapid and frequent change. During gatherings we may hear friends and acquaintances describing the long hours and aggressive travel schedules that have had them too busy to enjoy life.

There are two ways to look at this situation.

One is with resistance, wishing for things to slow down, to harken back to a time when communities were smaller, when people spoke to each other more, when busyness wasn’t a badge of honor. I’m not sure when that was. Perhaps 50 years ago, perhaps a hundred, perhaps more. Perhaps before the invention of the television, or talking movies, or automobiles. And if we are being honest with ourselves, this is not a promising option.

The other option is to look at the situation with a mindset of adaptation, figuring out how to work within the parameters of the system to become its master, rather than being mastered by it. This is the one that I strive to take, and I recommend it to every man of style and substance.

I’m busy. I have a full time job, am very committed to my church, I perform frequently with local theater groups, I have regularly taught at the local college or university, I have a thriving and active family including teenagers, I participate as a panelist on a podcast for which I am always reading. Oh, and I write a blog!

Yup, I’m busy. And yet I find time to get things done, to be useful and responsible to all of these different areas and their expectations.

I have learned to adapt.

Allow me to share part of my strategy for adapting to the press of busyness. It’s really a simple four step process, and it works particularly well when I find myself on the verge of feeling overwhelmed.

Step 1 – Stop! I allow myself to stop for a moment. I assess what is happening. I try to listen to the messages that are being sent by my body. Am I feeling hurried, rushed, anxious? I listen to the feelings for a moment, resisting the urge to brush them away. Just feel them, for a moment.

Step 2 – Breathe. While I am feeling all of the feelings that come with the busyness of your life, I take in a breath. I hold it for just a moment, and relish in the feeling of absolute control. I control how long I hold my breath! That is wonderful. It is me, being in complete control of one aspect of my life, complete control for that one moment in time. Then I breathe out, recognizing and thinking on the fact that being busy is a gift. It means that my contribution is valued, that I am making a difference in the lives of others. I sometimes take in a second and even a third breath, holding it for just a moment, and as I release each breath I take time to think of all the things in my life for which I am grateful, like a family, friends, employment.

Step 3 – Smile! I have found in my life that there are few things that make me feel positive as quickly as intentionally smiling. Smile is a simple act of muscle control. Again, it is me being in complete control of an aspect of my life. I can exert complete control over my facial expression. And I can choose to make that expression a confident, inviting one! Confident for my place in the world, inviting of others and their positive influence in my life.

Step 4 – ACT! Once I have regained my center, I am ready to take action again, ready to meet the challenges of a busy day, a busy week, a busy life head on!

This little series of steps is something that I perform, intentionally, several times a day, more frequently when I am feeling anxious or inadequate. It is a chance for me to re-affirm that I can control one thing. And if I can control one, I can influence others. And that, after all, is what being a man of style and substance is all about.

What do you think of this little plan? Let me know in the comments below.

Go Forth and Conquer!