Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Some Things Need Repeated Attention

"I don't know why it is. Why the next generation can't learn
from the one before until they get knocked in the head by experience.
I'll tell you one thing for sure. The only things worth learning are
the things you learn after you know it all.
Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States
(p. 153, Plain Speaking by Merle Miller)

Before we get started I need to say that this month's article is not about the physical act of breathing, though breathing is a good metaphor to use as we begin. Remember this as we transition about half way through.

In the mid-1970's Miyamoto Musashi and his Book of Five Rings caught the attention of American businesses; a significant feat for someone born in 1584. One of Japan's most revered samurai, Musashi was considered invincible as a swordsman. By the time he was 30 he had defeated more than 60 opponents, all contests to the death. His philosophy focused on practice as the Way for those who want to learn strategy.

Martial art masters remind students that mindful practice and deep breath are foundational for performance and progress. For Musashi these two were embodied realities. He advised others to daily attend to them, especially under the calmest of conditions when no conflict was at hand. In this way, these ideals would become second nature, available and useful at a moment's notice, without having to think about them. With this approach these principles were generally useful for everyday living, and particularly useful during stressful conditions when death was imminent.

We are always practicing something. But most people are practicing things without awareness of their practice or the consequences. They repeat thoughts and actions that become their practices. They don't realize this or where it's taking them. If they did, they might change course. Some practices are healthy. Others, lead an individual into destructive and unsustainable territory.

Normal quiet breathing is both active (inspiration - in breath) and passive (expiration - out breath). In deeper or more rapid breathing the out breath may also be active. Deep breathing can become an object of practice. Through this practice one can develop an ability to bring the body into states of relaxation and awareness, and increase a capacity for flexible action (quick or deliberate) under intense conditions. When faced with surprise, stress, tension, conflict and fear the body automatically moves into rapid states of breathing. With practice, the ability to deeply breath can become second nature, sustaining a person through periods of stress, attack and fear. Establishing a breathing practice is something you can begin and work with on an average day, under any condition, and for as long as you want.

We live within certain boundaries. Breathing is something that you cannot escape. Like gravity, you are subject to and bounded by it. You can't negotiate with it. You can't permanently quit it and remain conscious or alive. You have to do it, or you will pass out or die.

But within boundaries you can learn actions that create many, perhaps infinite, options. Play with deep breathing and you might notice certain positive things occurring for your awareness, sensitivity, attitude and your capacity for effective action under increasing levels of pressure. Surprisingly (or not), you may find your practice creates options and actions, also constructive, for those around you.

This can sound simplistic or foreign. Some may say, "This is way too esoteric." My response: (1) In a courtroom, all other things being equal, an attorney who practices breath control has the advantage over an attorney who hasn't. (2) In an airplane, a pilot who has practiced breath control and who is now facing an emergency, will have an advantage over a pilot who hasn't. (3) A salesman who practices breath control has an advantage over one who doesn't. (4) A soldier who has embodied a controlled breathing practice, shoots more accurately than one who doesn't. The stuff about breathing isn't theory. It's not esoteric or New Age. Lower the voice of your expectations and preconceived notions. - expectations and preconceived notions that become addictions and practiced ways of living in a society used to quick-fixes, instant results, fast food, throw away relationships, drugs for every ailment, ready cash at the ATM, the lottery, and TV reality shows.

Try this. Give breath control, as a practice, an honest daily effort for two weeks. Consciously extend the depth and rhythm of your breath as often as possible throughout each and every day. Set up reminders to keep yourself on track. Notice what begins to happen for you. Pay attention to those you come into contact with, because you might see something constructive happening with them as well. What have you got to lose? Try it. Check the results for yourself.

This month's article is not about physical act of breathing, though breathing is a good metaphor to use as we move forward.

We're always practicing something. Repeated thoughts and actions become practices. Practices that are not constructive and sustainable move groups, organizations and nations into dangerous, destructive and unsustainable territory.

Two hundred ninety-two years after Musashi walked his path, Napoleon Hill's book, Think and Grow Rich, was published. The year was 1937. It, too, caught the attention of American businesses. Today, Think and Grow Rich is one of the most read books of all time.

Hill, a reporter, was sent on an assignment in 1907, to interview Andrew Carnegie. Originally set for two hours, the interview evolved into a twenty-year research project. Carnegie captivated Hill's imagination and suggested he embark on having one-on-one discussions with the world's five hundred most successful people. The interviews were conducted around the globe, during prosperous times and hard times, during World War I and during the Roaring 20's, and ended around 1927. The results proposed some amazing discoveries and possibilities. But Hill's work was not immediately accepted by publishers. Why? It sounded too esoteric.

It took Hill another ten years to find a receptive publisher. During these ten years he and the rest of the world lived through the Great Depression. Hill's text suggested the existence of an important universal secret. This secret, he said, was woven like thread throughout the entire book. He offered that the secret could be revealed on every page, if one diligently looked for it - in other words made a practice of seeking the secret. Today, Think and Grow Rich is arguably the foundation for a widely marketed video, The Secret, and its accompanying book by the same title, which put forth an old and respected idea, The Law of Attraction, placed inside an up-to-date cover. Alas, I doubt that Hill has received, or will receive, proper credit for the influence he had on this most recent iteration.

"[B]efore you begin the first chapter," wrote Hill in his introduction, "may I offer one brief suggestion which may provide a clue by which the Carnegie secret may be recognized? It is this - all achievement, all earned riches, have their beginning in an idea!" Then he continued, "If you are ready for the secret, you already possess one half of it; therefore, you will readily recognize the other half the moment it reaches your mind."

Like the martial arts, the business arts have foundational principles, too. Practice is one of them. And as with martial artists, artisans of business or career must attend to and have the courage to uncover the true intentions of what their practices are. In business, money is blood, blood that must flow freely throughout the entire business body, and blood that must be enriched and refreshed by some kind of breath.

What is the breath of a business, without which - or if shortened, or not attended to, or left unstudied, or reduced to slogan status - the blood becomes stale? And without which a business - no matter how well structured - will shrivel or die? Perhaps this breath is SERVICE.

The world is full of smart people, and with every increase in technology we think we're getting smarter. Many people behave as though our technologies and smarts are more important than principles. Some suggest that principles don't matter in a postmodern world. Yet, today's news suggests that corner cutting and sloppiness may be the norm when it comes to the fundamental attitudes of being a SERVANT.

Enron, what brought it down in 2001? Why? (Interesting, the word "why" was once Enron's trademark question.)

Arrogance. Intolerance. Greed. Somewhere along the line that company's pivotal organizational interrogatives became: "Who is our target? What can we get? How fast can we get it? When can we dump the target once we've used it/them up? Where can we hide the truth of our actions?" These questions drowned out a series of more wholesome and principled interrogatives: "What can we honorably provide? Who can we provide it to? On what time schedules can we realistically provide it? Where and how can we do this in sustainable ways such that good occurs for all involved? How can we ensure that trust is built - trust that will carry us and others through tough times when they inevitably come?" And so, a corporate consciousness went adrift without a compass, without a rudder, without conscience, without common sense. It may not have started that way, but over time s-t happens. Lost or less heard were: Whom do I serve? What do I offer? What am I doing? Why am I really serving people and making these offers? Where are we going, honestly? If we keep doing this, where will it lead? What are the long-term consequences of our attitudes and actions?

This month's article is not about Enron, though Enron is a grounding point to use as we move forward.

Most of the people who worked at Enron were good and well intentioned. Enron didn't invent greed. Enron reflected and turned up the volume on it. Enron wasn't a disease. Enron was a symptom of something to be recognize and learned from. But did we learn? Once the ills were exposed, a barrage of bandages, words, slogans, structures, promises and proposed statues treated the issues that Enron revealed. And then what? The hearings were conducted, the committees spoke, the laws were passed, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. We had our morning caffe' latte', our afternoon martini or beer, went bass fishing, attended the symphony or rock concert, kicked the can down the street --- and we quietly got back to the same attitudes and embodied actions that had become habits created by misguided long-term practices. But, we had relief: new jargon, new structures, new systems, new promises and new laws. Whew! We wiped our collective brow and the problem was solved. Yes? No.

The man who for eight years was one of my mentors (1975 - 1983) authored a book. In it he quoted Napoleon Hill, "It would be no great overstatement of the truth if we said that mental attitude is EVERYTHING." Like Hill, he believed in the Law of Attraction. In meetings, in classrooms, in private talks this mentor hammered on the topic of SERVICE as being the foundation upon which Hill's philosophy was based. His opinion was that SERVICE was a major part of the secret. He surmised that those who fail to attend to people and to their needs and to the quality of service rendered, will eventually undermine their own best conceived plans. No one is immune from the ups and downs of business and market cycles. During the period I worked for him we had good and bad days, months, and years. We went through a miserable recession. But, regardless of the ups and downs of our times, we were instructed repeatedly to pay attention: (1) to people, (2) to what they needed and (3) what we were thinking about all of that.

"Service," he used to say, " means - find a need and fill it."
Never did he say, "Service means - create a need and fill it."

There is a big difference between finding and creating when it comes to the needs of human beings.

It is one thing to uncover a need through honorable investigation, reveal this need to someone such that his or her life benefits, and then take action to assist the person so that his or her life benefits. It's quite a different thing to concoct a story (system, scam, ideology, method) in an effort to convince a person (or group) he has a need (manufactured, but in reality nonexistent) and then go about getting that person to buy into the invented story such that the storyteller benefits while the person to be served loses. Sadly, I'm not the only one who has been in a boardroom or backroom and heard a manager or boss or executive or teammate demand: "Our job is to make sure we get as much money as possible out of these people. Promise them whatever, but leave nothing on the table. Our function is to get the cash, understand? Now, how much money do you think we can get out of these people?"

Where's the common sense for the long haul?

One who spends time creating and filling needs, may gain in the short run, only to eventually lose over the rhythms of a lifetime. People can be mistreated and fooled for a while, but they are not stupid. The human brain (everyone has one) is a growing, evolving, life-sustaining thing. Eventually most people wake up and wise up. Over the long haul, a focus of creating needs, leads to unhealthy scheming, and enhances a capacity for developing dead-end relationships. Such a practice builds: (1) a short-term, self-absorbed, me-focused perspectives, and (2) long-term reputations of disgust and distrust.

One who spends time in the practice of finding and filling needs, places him or herself in accord with other people. Such a person understands that all things have rhythms; they rise and fall. There are no guarantees of success. They know that there are great forces that can stop a business that has even the best intent at heart, and takes all the best action. But over the long haul, one whose focus is on finding needs, builds a capacity for respect for self and for others, and a capacity to return on a new day, even after defeat, no matter how bad things get. This practice of finding and filling need, builds: (1) an observant other-focused mind, and (2) healthy sustainable reputations. Those involved with an honorable SERVANT, experience him or her as refreshing, attractive and valuable, particularly during times of stress. Like breathing, finding and filling needs can be practiced anytime, all the time, anywhere, and for as little or as much as one asks in return, or pro-bono. All that it takes is attitude and a willingness to look.

To paraphrase my old mentor and Napoleon Hill, it would be no great overstatement of the truth that SERVICE (find a need and fill it) is everything.

Service ought be practiced as though it is an art form. It should be daily studied when times were good. Not as a six-hour management course at a company's annual meeting or as a part time undertaking, but with recurring commitment and mindfulness. It's easy and painless to do. Service should be studied and practiced when times are bad. Not out of necessity, or to patch up a mistake, or for the sake of a slogan or slick corporate mission statement. Rather, because it's the healthy thing to do. Generally speaking, people are looking for others that they can trust. Service breeds trust. During good times those with needs can get lazy, become short sighted, and they can tolerate untrustworthy folks and shoddy attitudes. In bad times, however, untrustworthiness breeds contempt; and contempt can be dangerous, if not catastrophic.

It is most important to take time every day to practice the art of SERVING other people, and sometimes just for the sake of sustaining a keen ability to SERVE. I'm not saying that SERVICE by itself will dig us out of the mess we're in. But without SERVICE becoming and remaining a core issue, we'll just keep on kicking the can down the street.

In 1645, Miyamoto Musashi wrote:
"There is timing in everything. Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice. Timing is important in dancing and pipe or string music, for they are in rhythm only if timing is good. Timing and rhythm are also involved in the military arts, shooting bows and guns, and riding horses. In all skills and abilities there is timing. There is also timing in the Void. This is the Way for (those) who want to learn my strategy:

· Do not think dishonestly.
· The Way is in training.
· Become acquainted with ever art.
· Know the Ways of all professions.
· Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
· Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything
· Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
· Pay attention even to trifles.
· Do nothing which is of no use."

Musashi penned this in his Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), a few weeks before he died. These words apply to service in the business arts just as they do to good swordsmanship and breathing in the martial arts. His purpose in writing this had nothing to do with making a momentary heap of cash at the expense of someone else. He wrote in SERVICE to others who would walk their path long after he was gone. He wrote so that they could thrive and survive even the worst of times.

©Lance Giroux, 2009

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