Never Pray for Patience–And Don’t Get Hit

Never pray for patience. When you pray for patience bad things happen. Bad things do not happen because you are praying for patience, they happen because if you want patience you need to practice patience. You can only practice patience when things are happening that require you to practice patience. Usually difficult things. Things you do not want to happen.

It’s called hyperfocusing. I learned this lesson studying Japanese sword. Every time I practiced, I’d slice my foot or get bashed across the hand with a wooden bokken. I’d end up with hands that looked grotesque. I earned a couple of nice scars.

Girl with SwordI resolved that I’d work harder, practice harder, study harder.  I would no longer get hit in the hand. And then, BASH, it’d happen again. Still, I studied. I considered every nuance of every angle possible. Every eventuality, every possibility. I made a plan. A plan that didn’t include me getting bashed. Ironic for someone who can’t plot a mere two moves ahead in chess.

Except when someone’s swinging a wooden stick at you really fast, it’s a different sense of urgency then when you move a bunch of two-inch wooden guys on a board for fun. Planning ahead was more than just winning a game–it was self-preservation.

Still, I kept getting hit. A lot.

If I wasn’t getting hit, I was being thrown. I got thrown farther than anyone else I knew. Probably because I don’t weigh enough, but also because I’m not very good. You’d have thought it was opening week of spring training and I was the ball or that there was a casting call for bad guys in a Jackie Chan movie–who can play dead the best? Oh, me!

I kept studying the art of avoiding getting hit, looking for the secret to dodge the blows. I meditated. I contemplated. Should I be faster? Develop better timing? Learn mind reading? I’d try anything…

Finally, Michael, my instructor, told me the secret. “Listen. As long as you think about not getting hit, you’re going to get hit. You have to think of what you’re going to do.” 

Sure enough, he was right. One day, I was exhausted. My mind was empty. It was clear. I was not making a plan. And a magical thing happened–a reaction. I didn’t get hit.

This is true for Japanese sword, but it’s also true for life, work, patience, and problems. Ducking and covering isn’t a very effective strategy. We spend a lot of time planning for the worst. And then what happens? The worst. A result of hyperfocusing. Planning for the bad puts it in our minds. It puts the energy in the exact place we didn’t want it to go.  Energy doesn’t know whether it’s good bad or indifferent. It just goes where the focus is. It’s our job to take that negative focus away and just do. And let the energy go where it’s supposed to go, to creating magic.


What is Your Superpower?

“Don’t you ever sleep?” I asked my friend, Heather. She is always awake. Pretty much every minute. I can verify this because I wake up at about 4AM to write for a couple hours. She is there. I see her posts after I go to sleep at my somewhat religious 10PM. It’s amazing to me. Waking up as early as I do, I’d probably go to bed an hour earlier, myself, but I seem to have The Boy Who Doesn’t Sleep which makes it difficult. Maybe he belongs to Heather and a mistake was made in the nursery. I’ll have to check her whereabouts for that day. It’s worth spitting onto a paper and sending it in to a geneticist to check.

"Superhero Me"

“Superhero Me”

“I don’t need to sleep,” she replied. “It’s my superpower.”

“Wow,” I said. “A superpower.”

I wonder if we all have a superpower, and if so does it mean we’ve taken powers from other areas and concentrated them? Or that we’re just endowed with extra talent and the world can’t touch us?

Now I’m wondering. Do I have a superpower? What could it be? Let me check the superpower checklist:

Able to leap small buildings? No, but I once ran around the entire track jumping the 400 hurdles and only fell on my face once, toward the end.  After testing me on the high jump just in case, Coach said I had to stay on the ground.  I’m not really fast, agile, and can’t teleport either, and I haven’t been running much lately. Maybe leaping and transportation are not my thing.

Super healing powers and ability to regenerate? I wish I could cure cancer and other serious diseases. I’d use this to help a lot of people. I can’t, though. However, every time I slice myself cooking, I seem to be able to manufacture the correct amount of butterfly stitches to avoid the hospital–all one-handed while bleeding. That’s pretty cool. But my wound doesn’t heal spontaneously, so perhaps that’s not a superpower after all.

Can I control nature? No, but I can watch The Weather Channel and predict when a storm is coming. I can even I shovel snow, putting nature where I want it, and making shapes out of it like snowmen and angels. I can bend the will of nature–I helped train my dog.  And I heed the call of nature when necessary.

Mind control? I want mind control. I needed it yesterday teaching my seniors–the last class of the day. I’d like to control their minds directly–make them pay attention even though it’s period seven and they are five months from graduation. If I can’t have their minds, I’d like a chip for their phones that annoys them till they focus. Someone build me that app. Without mind control, I try to stare them down. They don’t think I’m planning an evil consequence, because I never look evil–I missed evil class in teacher school. Evil consequences are not planned by superheroes, anyway. They are planned by arch-villains.

One time, I did use telekinesis to explode an Orange Crush. That’s a superpower.

“Put that away,” I said, “before I unleash the chi.” The student laughed.

Never…doubt…the chi….” I said, circling my hands sending energy toward the soda.

The Orange Crush exploded instantaneously, spraying sunlike stickiness all over the doubting student and three others nearby.  The chi became my superpower, even though in my heart of hearts I know it was a combination of a shaken soda and incredible coincidence. But the story is passed down to this day, and somewhere in a corner of the internet I’m not supposed to know about, there is a Facebook page touting my skills as a ninja.

Maybe that’s my superpower. The story. The legend. The lore.  Maybe that’s what most superpowers are. That image of that larger than life person you won’t mess with because they just might explode your soda. Or the picture of that person saving the world that makes you want to save the world, because if we all do our little bit, the world indeed gets saved.

That is my superpower. The art of the story with a touch of humor, maybe even the ability to see possibilities in students others can’t. Most would argue, that’s not really a superpower, it’s someone who needs a good shrink. But I’ll take what I can get, because superheroes don’t get to choose their powers, they just try to do the best they can to save the world while avoiding all the kryptonite.


[Credits: A special note on the image credit. I borrowed it from Living in High Definition, a beautiful blog about a family facing heartbreaking medical challenges with grace. I am grateful to this image for leading me to their story. If I had superpowers, I would help them first.]

I Will Not Buy Cereal That Makes You Smash Your Head into Walls

Declan is a sophisticated five-year old. He’s evolved from Nick and Disney Jr to regular Nick and Disney Channels.  This is a milestone in our lives. One I don’t love. There are some shows I avoid on the Big Kid stations. I stand firm on censorship with some, like a modern-day Tipper Gore, but I guess superheroes aren’t so bad. I’ll allow some. “They’re good, Mommy. They save the world.” We all need a superhero from time to time.
What I hate are the commercials. Ruthlessness. Once you get sucked into these big kid stations, the pretense of commercial-free learning is gone. This is very, very bad.
Sugar cerealI wouldn’t mind so much if the commercials were for compost bins, natural foods, or world peace, but they’re incessant pleas to bother me for things that have no value–sugar cereal, fast-food restaurants, action figures that support the shows on the station, and things that beget the need for other things.
Here are a few I marketing campaigns that stand out: 

Monopoly electronic debit card version: Who can argue with Monopoly? I love that game. Consolidating resources made this nation great. This new version takes out some of the rustic charm out of beating friends into poverty and submission, I think, starting with the credit card. One good thing is they don’t have to print the one-dollar bills that are so devalued in today’s society that even the slumlord on Baltic won’t take them. And everyone just steals the 100’s from the bank anyway. Maybe the credit card keeps them honest. But it also makes it so kids can’t count back change. The good news is that the debt card allows children to be indoctrinated to the great American past time, getting into debt.  There is, I hear, a National Deficit version of Monopoly where instead of “going directly to jail,” you go directly to Beijing to negotiate a forbearance for the deficit.

Jenga Boom:  What genius infuses a domino stacking game with mini-simulated IEDs these days? A domino game that blows up? Hmmmm….Perhaps I’m misunderstanding. In this zero-tolerance day and age where you can’t say “Man, I’m gonna beat you,” in jest without getting slapped with charges for attempted murder, it’s permissible to train kids play games that explode? Might as well give them Nerf or Red Ryder BB guns. This game would be better suited for a fraternity party, I think.
Stompees–Slippers that have ears and eyeballs that pop out? Genius. These are cute, but the air inflatable body parts that cause eyeballs to protrude and ears to rise when the child stomps, filling the little character with air—-my dog would eat them, or The Boy would trip.
Sugar Cereal. These commercials are relentless. One commercial has a bird bouncing off things hitting his head off of walls. Do you really want a cereal that makes you smash your head into walls? Or one whose flakes, loops, or chunks can’t readily be found in nature without two graphic artists altering them?
Can’t we watch PBS? The only thing they sell is pledge week–give them some cash and they will leave you alone, or even better yet, send you Pete Seeger’s collection or a lifetime subscription to the digital version of Antique’s Roadshow. That’s much better than sugar cereal. I think.
I really want to go back to little kid TV.  Or better yet, no TV at all.
[Image: ]

Birds Don’t Go to Meetings

Flocking BirdsDriving down the road, I see a flock of birds in the sky. A flock of about 150 birds. So many birds, it’s like a giant cloud, except there is so much more grace and beauty.  They sail on the wind–all flying together.

Changing directions, zigzagging. In general, it should be a mess. Yet they all change direction together. With precisely the exact same angle, at the exact same time. It’s amazing. They don’t ask each other, they don’t have a meeting or a conference…they just…do. They fly together, not one bird left behind. They arrive at the same destination.

How does a person become the kind of leader who can coordinate that?  The kind of leader whose flock flies in the same direction, at the exact same time. The type that inspires people not to sit in meetings or conferences, asking each other, waiting for permission. That just…does.

How does a person become the kind of leader that inspires success, that rallies the troops, that lets their people soar above the clouds? Even in the face of the most remarkable odds, and the most impossible situations?

Study the birds.

Study nature.

And fly…

[Photo: Jeremy Seagraves–]


Excerpt from a conversation with a friend: 

You’re right–how much more we’ll do for anyone else but not ourselves. That is the essence of the truth.

Have you identified your demons? Really called them out by name? I know mine. I still have to fight them, but I know them by name, sight, trigger… like old friends. They come back and say hello–sometimes, like this time, disguised.  Sometimes, like this time, they take me completely off guard and I look up from what I’m doing and see that they’ve made themselves at home in my living room, tossing some wrappers and dishes around, taking the best place on the couch, and in general just making themselves at home.

And I say to them, “Oh, hello. Welcome back. It’s been a while.”

“Yes, it has, we just thought we’d pop in.” They crack open a beer and throw the cap into the corner by the wood stove.

And we converse about how well things have been going, my new directions, the truths I’ve discovered about life–I show them how the boy has grown, and the new accomplishments in my life, and I ask them, “So, how long are you planning on staying this time?”

I’m trying to plan out for my guests–how much cleaning up I’ll have to do when they’ve gone. Will my house be mildly messy or completely destroyed? Or even burned completely to the ground.  I have to know. I have to schedule it in.

And they shrug, open up another bag of chips, toss some wrappers on the floor, and settle down in my space on the couch.

Which is where they seem to be right now.

Crumpled Paper Airplanes. On Taking My Own Advice

photoWe are making paper airplanes, Declan and I.

Listen to the sound of crumpling and fits.


“Sure you can. Let me show you….you just crease it right here…” Two seconds of effort. Crumple. Toss, Yell.


“Listen, buddy, be patient. It’s new. You’ve got to try new things.”

“Some people aren’t ready for new things!” he grumbled.

“You’re always ready. You try, and you get better and better. Trust me on that.” That was my advice.

I stopped.

Froze, actually. Took a picture in my own mind…I looked as I consoled this five year old crumpling paper airplanes. Airplanes that didn’t look the way he wanted, airplanes with improper creases. Airplanes that crashed to the ground instead of soaring straight or flying in circles. Airplanes that he deemed deficient enough to say “I CAN’T EVEN TRY!”

I turned the mirror around. Pointed it back at myself.  I stepped out of my own body and watched myself say the same thing. I CAN’T DO IT! Nobody listens, the risks are too great, the system gets me down, I’m just one person. It…can’t…be…done…

I watched.

I watched myself crumple my own paper airplanes.

“Only Savants Have the Right Answer All the Time” (Chess: Part Two)

Chess Story Two: Chess and Improv

A student of mine, Karim, called to tell me some things about his acting career. Karim is not a student, technically. He’s three years away from 30. If he were still a student, he’d be in deep trouble. He called to tell me he had just conversed with a famous actor from my generation.

“I called you because you know who that is,” he said. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. “Know who that is” because I know tons of stuff, or because I’m ancient, just like this legend.

Either way, I’m honored. When students include me on their short list for communicating major life events, I’ve succeeded in my job as a mentor. When someone makes me Call Numero Uno, that’s more than a metric–it’s beyond compare. I never take it for granted.

It's lonely up thereKarim told me about his improv class.  I’d tried my hand at acting. I was terrible. I couldn’t project or transform. At least I’m spontaneous. It’s a gift in teaching.  In fact, the reason I wanted Karim to be a famous actor to begin with, advice I have given exactly once in my teaching career, was because he always had that spontaneous wit. I wondered why he’d need an improv class.

“Let me ask you this. You always have wit. Creativity. Something to say. Do you need improv class? Is it helpful, or a situation where you’ve either got the ideas or you don’t?”

I recorded his reply in my book of life’s lessons. This is what he said:  “Studying improv helps me to develop two or three scenarios for everything. It’s kind of like this–in life you have to have the moves ready before anyone else,” he explained.

“So, it’s like chess? Where if you don’t have the moves for every situation well in advance, you get slaughtered.” Chess has been coming up a lot lately.

“That’s exactly what it is. That’s the only perfect analogy,” he said. “I always think ten times faster than everyone, but this class helped me think twenty times faster than that. By the time you have something in mind, I’ve already planned what I’m going to say to that. Then when you actually say your piece, I have two or three more things on top of that. The first response I created is already old. I’ve already moved on.”

He took it one step further, making the connection to life–that’s what good teaching does. “Everyone should take an improv class. It helps you. It helps you plan strategy. It helps you think. It helps you have something to say. Let’s say a client throws you a curveball. Your mind is ready for it. You’ve got an answer,” he said.

“The answer doesn’t have to be right. You’d have to be some kind of savant genius to always have an answer that’s right. But you have to have an answer. If you’re able to have some sort of retort, you’re good. Then you throw the ball back at them and they have to say something back to you. It buys you time.  And by the time they answer, you got three more things to say. That’s what the improv class does for you. It helps in business. It helps in marketing. It helps in life. It would help you in the classroom.”

Plan three things ahead. The answer doesn’t have to be right. Be spontaneous. These are the things that help in business. In marketing. In life. 

I got off the phone inspired. Ready to go find an improv class so I, too, could be perfect in life. I might even apologize to the kid who was the lead in the play I wrecked in high school  because I was a sucky actor. Either way, I’m thinking deeply about those things that make learning real. Karim is right.

And that is why I teach. To have my lessons paid back in spades.

Carnegie Hall--the most coveted stage in the world

Carnegie Hall–the most coveted stage in the world

Incidentally, a school field trip to the theatre ignited the fire in Karim. The type that is being cut all over America in a tragic turn of testing over talent, where we’re losing our ability to recognize that the answer doesn’t always have to be right–that the ability to be flexible, spontaneous, focused, and apply what we’ve learned is the key to success.

Karim said he wouldn’t have attended the theatre without that school trip. “Seeing the lights, the stage, the people creating themselves into something else. It’s what we all try to do in life…in our little realms, our jobs, our identities, we’re all trying to create something of ourselves. This stage is just more formal.” For him, just as real.
[Here’s Karim Léon’s website. Any readers who are in The Biz? You should hire him.]