Kicking the habit

I’m in a bit of a slump. When I first started running, I quickly got hooked on it. I liked the feeling it gave me, loved the endorphin rush, and relished the physical results. I ran more and more often, longer and longer distances, for all the right reasons. It became part of my routine. Somewhere along the way, the routine began to overshadow the original motivation, and running settled into habit status. Now it is not coming easily, and I’m struggling to maintain my routine.

I have a choice to make. One option is to approach this purely as an exercise of “getting back into the habit” and power through the slump by sheer force of will. Another option, one I find more intriguing, is to take the opposite approach: I can get OUT of the habit.

What?! Stop running? No way. Running has been great for both my health and my psyche, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. In fact, that’s precisely why I want it to lose its habit status.

I think a habit is nothing more than mindless conformity to a particular behavior. Instead of fighting my way back into the pattern, I want to get excited again. I want to revisit the reasons for my earlier exuberance and let them draw me back to the magic. If those reasons no longer hold sway for me, then I need to look for new ones. 

Certainly there are good reasons for routine, not the least of which is self-discipline. In fact, it’s an essential element for any training regimen. It just can’t be the only element. Self-discipline has to be driven by an underlying excitement, a passion, which is a much stronger motivator than routine. Without it, routine becomes habit and often ends up as drudgery. Running may be the activity that sparked this thought process for me, but somehow I think there’s a larger lesson here.

Retirement is not an option

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of staying engaged with the world around you. If you don’t, your cultural reference points will fade and you run the risk of becoming stuck in time. That might be a comfortable place to be for a little while, but eventually you’ll find yourself more and more isolated from the world at large.

One person who refused to become isolated was my grandmother.

When she was in her seventies, she bought a computer. She read the entire manual to learn how to use it. I’ve never read an entire instruction manual, let alone one about a computer! She took a class about it, too. In the last years of her life, my grandmother learned how to exchange email, surf the internet, and organize her life electronically. She even played a game or two. That was over ten years ago.

This story demonstrates success on so many levels. The computer kept my grandmother engaged in current cultural references. It allowed her to interact with the world around her when her mobility was impaired. It gave her grandchildren and great-grandchildren something to do when they visited while the adults talked, and it made her seem cool to them. And, like so many other things about her, it made me admire her.

My grandmother’s intellectual curiosity and spark inspired me then and they inspire me now. Her computer story wasn’t an isolated event; her life has an event like this in every chapter. I don’t believe this is a story about never being too late to learn. It’s about not stopping in the first place.

Pulling a Johnny Bench

One of the meetings I most enjoyed organizing took place a few years ago when my company was embracing a game-changing business strategy. The theme of the meeting was “It’s a Whole New Ballgame,” and as the highlight of the event, I arranged for Johnny Bench to give a motivational speech. Everyone at the meeting received an autographed baseball card and a Louisville Slugger to commemorate the event.

A couple of years later I found some leftover autographed cards in the recesses of my desk. Feeling generous, I offered the cards to a couple of my employees. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, guys. Do you like baseball?

Them: Sure/I guess so/As much as anyone.

Me: Would you like an autographed baseball card from Johnny Bench?

Them (in unison): Who’s Johnny Bench?

Stunned, I couldn’t believe that this major league icon had faded from social consciousness. This was the guy who revolutionized catching! Regardless of when he played, who wouldn’t know this linchpin of the Big Red Machine? Sigh.

In addition to the instant reality check on my age, that day I also confronted the notion that cultural references are not static. They are ever-changing, evolving, adapting to the social consciousness of the population. A reference that enjoys collective understanding today may garner impassive looks tomorrow. To remain relevant, I must be continually engaged with and aware of the world around me. I have to read, talk, observe, interact. There are no laurels to rest upon.

For the record, I still think everyone should know Johnny Bench.

Dress for success

A few years ago, I did some work with a business unit (BU) that was evolving its business. It was transforming itself from a single-product producer to a complete system supplier. It had really stepped up the way it conducted business and its prospects were exciting.

In the course of that process, I attended the industry’s largest annual trade show. My BU had expanded its display and had made some fairly significant changes to it. We even had a great floor location. All our people were excited to show me.

When I arrived, I’m sorry to say I was underwhelmed. Our booth was lost in a sea of hundreds of others; it didn’t stand out. The booth itself wasn’t bad, but it lacked one crucial element: lights. A few well-placed spots and floods would have (literally) lit up the display. One by one, I took the BU decision-makers to the exhibit hall’s entrance to show them what I saw–or didn’t see. One by one, each one made the same observation.

It was such a simple solution, so why didn’t our booth have lights? Someone was worried about the (small) percentage of cost it would incur to add them. Unfortunately, no one weighed that cost against its potential benefit. We had been trying to make the leap to become a first-tier supplier, but first-tier suppliers stand out. We faded into the background, and no one noticed. With one simple change, we could have been one of the big dogs at that show. We would have drawn people to us and the benefit would have completely justified the cost. 

What did I say to the decision-makers when they gazed over the show hall and were disappointed with the impact of our display? You have to dress like the company you want to become. If you wait till you get there, you never will. I really believe that.

One more thing: customers don’t measure you by how far you’ve come. They measure you by where you need to be. Proceed accordingly.

You’re not wearing any socks!

When I’m traveling abroad and suspect a person is an American, I always look at his shoes. More often than not, I can confirm or reject my suspicion based on his footwear. Don’t ask me how; it’s just something I know.

I had successfully employed this technique many times when my friend Michelle told me a story from the year we studied in Germany together. She had been ambling around the student village in her very German Birkenstocks when a young child eyed her suspiciously. Suddenly he pointed to her and said accusingly, “You are an American!” Stunned, she asked him how he knew. With a self-satisfied tone he announced, “You have no socks on!”

Besides the fact that it supports my shoe theory, I particularly love this story. It shows that even when we think we’ve got the local language mastered (Birkenstocks), it’s easy to overlook the subtleties (socks). That begs the question: how can someone identify you? Think about what makes you stand out, and whether you want to be noticed for it. If you want to fit in, you might need to put on some socks.

P.S. If you know Michelle, ask her to tell you the story in person. Nothing beats the real thing. And for the record, she fits in better than anyone I know.

What I learned in Paris

For me, an important part of any experience is taking stock of what I’ve learned. Even if I don’t necessarily know how to apply this knowledge immediately, identifying these moments of clarity helps me recognize them later when I may need them. Sometimes the lessons are sweeping and esoteric, but more often they are small and practical. Most of all, through them I learn more about myself and the color of my own glasses. In no particular order:

  • Europe is not homogenous. Okay, I admit that seems self-evident, but visiting France for the first time shook me out of my Germanic reverie and reminded me that Europe is a continent, not a country. It is filled with different cultures, traditions, mindsets, opinions. Please permit me one self-directed DUH.
  • In other countries, I find that people are often more willing to make allowances for what I call human-ness. In the US, if you drop your fork in a restaurant, it’s considered proper to leave it on the floor to be picked up by the waiter after you leave. Elsewhere, if you drop your fork, you pick it up. If someone bumps into you on the subway, it’s just life.
  • As a rule, Americans don’t like to be touched; we tend to keep a safety zone around ourselves. If someone enters that zone, even unintentionally, we feel violated. If you don’t believe me, think about the last time you shared an arm rest with a stranger on an airplane.
  • We Americans ascribe euphemistic names to our toilets–bathroom, restroom, powder room, ladies’ room, etc.–but we don’t tend to hide what happens in there. In other countries I’ve visited, the aforementioned rooms are called toilets. However, people sometimes try to cover the necessary events by flushing first to mask the associated sounds. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s an interesting dichotomy.

I find it fascinating to observe and reflect on differences in culture. Identifying these things helps me understand where I might stumble and how I can build bridges. It doesn’t matter if the culture is related to a country, a company, or a companion; the exercise is the same.

A total sensory experience

Pereta, Italy 2009

My current trip to Europe calls to mind memories of past visits, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I reminisce. A couple of years ago I went on a bicycle tour of Tuscany. My group stayed in rural farm inns, agriturismos, and operated in a radius of somewhere around 20 miles each day. Although we pedaled hard, it was really a languorous vacation existence. That in itself was something of an accomplishment for my hard-charging wanderlust.

What I didn’t expect was the total sensory experience I would gain from exploring the area on a bicycle. I vividly remember one particular ride when I slowly became aware of a clink-clink-clink sound. I looked up into the hills toward the direction of the sound and saw the form of a house, mostly hidden by trees. The sound itself came from workmen’s hammers making some improvement I couldn’t see.

I would have missed that there was a house nearby had I not heard the faraway clinking of hammers–something I would have completely forgone if I had been inside an automobile. Fascinated, I started paying more attention to other things around me. I smelled ripe figs before I saw the tree. I noticed tomatoes lying in fields, dropped after the plants had been harvested. I tasted salt in the air as I neared the sea. I was overwhelmed by the fragrances of anise, rosemary, and oregano as I cycled past wild growths of each. I saw with my own eyes that when untended, rosemary grows into bushes. I broke open a cone from a pignoli tree to discover the origin of pine nuts.

In little more than a couple of hours, I easily could have covered the same distance in a car that it took us a week to cover on bicycles, but I would have missed it all. That trip underscored for me that much of life is a total sensory experience. How much more do I learn and remember when I use all of my senses to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste the things around me? How can I apply this lesson to more than just vacation?

To my readers: I would love it if you would share your own examples in the comments here. Tell me what you have learned through your senses and how it has made a difference to you.

Be open to the moment

West side of the Berlin Wall, at the Newseum, Washington DC, 2011

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and I missed it. I was studying in Tübingen, (West) Germany, at the time so you’d think I would have been well positioned on November 9 when Günter Schabowski from the East German politburo announced that the border was open. So what do you think I did when I heard my landlord shout from the living room that his wife and I should come quickly to the TV, that history was being made? I ignored him. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to him, and what I did hear, I didn’t really believe would last. His wife and I continued our conversation in an adjacent room and the wall came down without us.

Of course, over the days following, I realized that the events of November 9 were real and would likely have lasting effect. I quickly caught up to and immersed myself in the occurrences of those weeks and months. Soon thereafter, I went to Berlin, where I crossed the border several times myself with only perfunctory checks by the nonplussed guards. I smuggled out East German marks and brought home my own piece of the wall.

I heard a saying recently that fits this situation perfectly: be open to the moment. That night in Tübingen, I had closed myself off from possibility and let history slide by. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I understood that my lack of participation that night could teach me a greater lesson. I can’t let myself get so wrapped up in my plans or my current activity that I miss an opportunity of greater value. These opportunities can be big or small. They can be at work or at home. The important thing is that I remember to look around once in a while and be open to the moment.

Travel rules for eating

I’ve acquired a bit of a reputation among my colleagues for being persnickety when we’re on business trips. No, I’m not a spoiled traveler who has to have the comforts of home. On the contrary, I actually DON’T want to experience the familiar. One of the benefits of traveling is that I can experience different things and see the world–including different corners of my own country–through different eyes. In that vein, part of understanding the local culture includes learning it through its food.

Over time, I’ve developed what I call my Travel Rules for Eating. Though they are often the subject of friendly teasing, I think they are quite reasonable. Whether I’m on the road for business or pleasure, I try to follow these rules:

  1. Don’t go to any restaurant where I can go at home.
  2. No chains! (With the possible exception of local ones)
  3. Don’t go to the same place twice on the same trip.
  4. When deciding what to order, give preference to what is indigenous to the area. Don’t order seafood in Tulsa, for example; save it for a coastal visit.
  5. Breakfast doesn’t count. Many people have a particular regimen they consistently follow for breakfast: yogurt, fruit, coffee, whatever. Don’t sweat it; just get your breakfast and move on.

A person can learn a lot about an area through its food. The ritual of eating is so entwined with culture, I view it as an important part of putting on the glasses of that area or learning the accent (click to see related posts). Besides that, it’s fun.