Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Review: Triggers -- simple tools for life-long change

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts -- Becoming the Person You want to be; Marshall Goldsmith, Crown Business (2015)

What is the most difficult thing for adults to accomplish? According to the author, it is making behavioral change. In his research, he asks the question, “What’s the biggest behavioral change you’ve ever made?” That’s a great question. How would we answer that? Indeed, have we ever made any significant behavioral change as an adult? This engaging book tackles this topic and the business-trendy issue of employee engagement.

When it comes to change, Goldsmith argues we face two problems: ignorance of our own need and ignorance of the power of our environment. He spends the majority of the book on the latter. We can utilize tools such as 360 reviews to address the former.

The value of this book comes in the tools that he provides, mostly in the form of engaging questions which are triggers to combat the hostile environment. As he defines them,”a behavioral trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior.” They are not inherently good or bad, they produce a response and that is critical.

Goldsmith suggests that when it comes to engagement we tend to fall into passivity, allowing ourselves to play victim. For example, at work we fill in engagement surveys and expect management to address the lower scores by changing our environment. Instead, Goldsmith urges us to become active, owners of our own engagement. Instead of focusing on what we accomplish each day, which can be thwarted by things outside of our control. Rather, he encourages us to ask ourselves if we did our best. He offers us to tool of daily questions. The primary six he outlines as:

1) Did I do my best to set clear goals?
2) Did I do my best to make progress towards my goals today?
3) Did I do my best to find meaning today?
4) Did I do my best to be happy today?
5) Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
6) Did I do my best to be fully engaged today?

These questions focus on how well we tried, not on how well we finished. We control our attitude and our focus. The key is asking the questions consistently and grading ourselves honestly. Goldsmith uses a 1-10 scale and tracks answers on a spreadsheet. Moreover, he suggests having someone else ask you the questions at the end of the day to ensure this happens. This can be done without judgment on the part of the questioner, since he (or she) is not vested in the answers. But an objective helper can also help spot trends and perhaps ask challenging questions related to those trends. Finally, Goldsmith suggests we tailor the questions, adding those that are needed. We must focus on where we need help, where we need to change and make progress, not on areas where we are doing fine.

Another tool he gives us are the hourly questions. A natural extension to the daily questions, these focus on the short game not the long game. Here, we focus on our engagement in he coming hour. If we are entering a meeting that is unpleasant or expected to be boring. If we enter with the knowledge that we will ask ourselves a set of tailored questions at the end, setting ourselves a test in other words, we will be better engaged and likely to leave the hour having learned something.

I tried the hourly questions recently when I went to church. I had been a little disengaged recently and so went in knowing I would ask myself two or three questions about my worship engagement. To my surprise, I found myself happier and more worshipful throughout the service. I did it in a work meeting, too, and found the same result. The beauty here, is that you can set whatever questions make sense for that hour, those that will keep you in the moment. And if you write them well, knowing what your triggers are, you will likely try harder to be able to answer them better. It’s not perfect, but it is better than doing nothing and letting entropy and inertia take over.

Goldsmith gives us three of other useful tools here. The first is a set of four “magic moves.” These comprise the quadrumvirate of apologizing, asking for help, having optimism, and asking active questions. Each of these builds positive goodwill with those around us and makes the environment that much safer and easier. The second is an acronym: AIWATT. This stands for “Am I Willing At This Time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” It blesses us with a simple cost-effective benefit analysis tool to answer the question of if this battle is worth fighting. If it is not, we put the decision behind us and walk away.

Finally, he recounted a Buddhist parable: that of the empty boat. I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to capture the moral: “there’s never anyone in the other boat. We are always screaming at an empty vessel. An empty boat isn’t targeting us. And neither are all the people creating the sour notes in the soundtrack of our day.” I have started using this (when I can overcome my impatience) and found it to help me lead a less stressed life. My driving has become a little more relaxed.

This book came recommended highly by Bob Nelson, the author of “Motivating Today’s Employees.” I have enjoyed his books and trusted his judgment. He was not wrong. This is not a panacea. There are no quick fixes. But the tools have proved effective, even in my limited use. Behavioral change is tough.  But only by sticking it out, with the help of tools like these, will we make long-lasting change. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Predestination -- can we change?

Predestination - Poster

Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2014 (R)
“What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life. If I could guarantee that you'd get away with it, would you kill him?” The film opens with a voice-over and then shifts into a prolog in which a figure is trying to find a bomb and stop it from exploding. The theme seems to be revenge, right? Well, not exactly.
Predestination is a sci-fi, time-travel paradox of a movie that is based on a Robert Heinlein short-story, “All You Zombies.” It’s first act, after the prolog, seems to be long and lifeless, but is crucial to the narrative. Hang in there and the payoff is phenomenal.
The main players are not named here, they are simply referenced by their character. Ethan Hawke’s character is simply known as “The Barkeep.” In reality, he is a time traveling agent, a cop of sorts. He is sent back in time to stop crime before it happens. Sounds a lot like Minority Report, and that’s probably because both films are based on Heinlein stories. But this film is more cerebral and less violent. It takes more thought.
Ethan Hawke once more turns in a superb performance. He often flies beneath the radar. Yet, he has been nominated for Oscars four times for outstanding work. He got Best Supporting Actor nominations for last year’s Boyhood (he lost, but Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and for Training Day (he lost, but Denzel Washington won Best Actor). He also was nominated for screenplay honors for Before Midnight and Before Sunset, two of the three movies in Richard Linklater’s fabulous trilogy of films. And, of course, he was in the earlier sci-fi flick, Gattaca.
When we first meet Hawke he has escaped a terrible fire that has burned his body and he is scarred and bares a new visage. As he says looking into the mirror, “I doubt my own mother would recognize me,” a subtle reference to the plot paradox. When his rehabilitation is complete, he is sent on his final mission. But he is plagued by his one failure: to stop the Fizzle Bomber, person who detonated a bomb in New York City in the 70s and killed 11,000 people. 
Back in the 60s, Hawke is working as the Barkeep and meets a person at the bar known only as “The Unmarried Mother”. It is here, in act one, where she tells him an unbelievable story. As he sits and listens to her, the film goes into flashback more to tell her story. When it is done, Barkeep repeats the lines from the opening, and takes her on a time jump back into her past. In doing so, he introduces her to his job and her future.
In the second half of the film, we follow these two characters and slowly the plot narratives weave together until Barkeep faces the Bomber and a tough choice befalls him. And the climax reveals a secret that left me astounded and wanting to see this movie again.
Revenge may have been posited as theme at the start but it is not even primary. We may mull over the question, thinking on those that have wounded or even ruined us. But sometimes harming them damages us. So, revenge can hurt us even when we think it is freeing us. The Bible command us to leave revenge in the hands of a knowing God (Rom. 12:19).
The culture of the film, however, is cynical throughout. As Unmarried Mother points out, “You know, sometimes I think this world deserves the s*** storm that it gets.” And the Barkeep underscores, “It's easier to hate than to love, right? It's easier to destroy something. Kill somebody.” And then she puts her finger on it: “Let's face it. Nobody's innocent. Everybody just uses everybody else to get what they want.” In her ruined eyes, we are all users, not caring about others. Love is a fiction to her.
In a sense, she is right. The apostle Paul painted a savage indictment of humanity in chapter 3 of his epistle to the Romans. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). But there is love to be found, in the all-knowing and all-loving God. And this love is enough to counteract our cynicism and depravity and bring us freedom.
But can we choose to break free of life’s paths? The movie’s title lays down the second theme: predestination. Are we trapped in a groove, like the records of the past? In the Barkeep’s career, he has tried to stop the Fizzle Bomber without success. Is it predestined that this event will happen? Can it ever be stopped? In our lives, do we have any say in the matter?
One character says to Barkeep, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” She implies we always have the potential to change ourselves and our future. Later, the Barkeep himself says,”You'll have to make tough choices. You'll influence the past. Can we change our futures?” Here is the crux, the crucial question. He doesn’t answer it.
Predestination is a much debated theme in Christian theology. Can there be free will, free choice for humans, if God is all-knowing. If he is sovereign, as is stated throughout Scripture (2 Sam. 7:22, Psa. 68:20, Acts 4:24), how can we do anything other than his will? But the Bible is also clear that we are held accountable for our choices which implies freedom to choose. We cannot be moral agents if we have no free choice. 
There is tension in this apparent paradox. We can change. We do change. We can impact our futures. We can move closer to God in Jesus and change for the better. We can move away from him and change for the worse. But we are responsible for the choices we make. We are responsible for understanding who we are, where we have come from and to determine where we want to go.
At the end, Barkeep says, “The snake that eats it's own tail, forever and ever. I know where I come from. Where do all you zombies come, from?“ Apart from this reference to the Heinlein story, he has come to grips with his past and present. Have we?
Copyright ©2015, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review: Beyond Willpower -- beyond my commitment level

Beyond Willpower: From stress to success in 40 days, Alexander Loyd, Harmony Books (2015) 
I really wanted to like “Beyond Willpower”. It got a lot of praise and a lot of hype. And I thought it would be good for me. But I came away disappointed. Maybe it’s me, not willing to put the exercises into practice. Maybe it’s how the book tries to marry Christianity and New Age thought together into one syncretistic whole. It just didn’t resonate entirely well with me.
Much of what author Alexander Loyd says sounds good, from the statistic that 97% of self-help books fail due to the fact that every problem stems from the fear that underlies it. Even his definition of success rings true, “True happiness and success mean living in love internally and externally in the present moment, regardless of your current circumstance.” But he hedges his bets in the definition of love and points to God/other, leaving it to the reader to fill in their personal preference.
He does give three main tools, the energy medicine tool, the reprogramming statements, and the heart screen tool. But they seem quirky to use. Moreover, when I was ready to try the basic diagnostic tool that is apparently on-line, I got to a page that asked me to sign up for free newsletters and access, and none of it materialized. At that point, I gave up.
Maybe this will work for you if you have more persistence than I do. It won’t be a matter of willpower, as Loyd makes it clear throughout that willpower works against the subconscious. It will be dedication and commitment, and I didn’t have that at this present moment. Maybe I will come back to this later. And then again, maybe not.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: Performing Under Pressure -- Short and long-term tools for handling pressure

Performing Under Pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most, Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry, Crown Business (2015)  

All of us face stress and pressure daily. How do we handle these? Do we actually know the difference between the two? Authors Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry have written an outstanding book that not only describes the nature of pressure, but gives us ways to handle it so we can perform under pressure.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part offers an understanding of the nature and science of pressure. This is not only useful as background, it is helpful to delineate stress from pressure. “Pressure moments or situations might feel like stress in our bodies and in our thinking, but they are different because, in a pressure moment, your success or your survival is truly on the line. Stressful moments … do not matter nearly as much as pressure moments to your success or survival.” (p.34)

I found it very helpful to have this clarification. Also, the authors deal with choking. We often refer to an athlete or performer choking, but the authors helped me to understand when a choke is not really a choke at all. Finally, in the opening section, the authors present recent science describing what pressure does to our brains.

The second part of the book offers 22 short-terms solutions to pressure situations. Some short, some longer, these may seem obvious, mere common sense, but there will be several that are new to any ready. And they are worth the price of the book itself. From visualization to breathing, befriending the moment to reframing the opportunity, these will help you face your pressure moment whether it is at work or at home, on the field or on the stage. I took copious notes on these, and plan to use them when I face pressure (or even stress).

The final part of the book outlines a four-fold strategy to long-term coping with pressure. Under the acronym COTE of Armor, the authors encourage us to build Confidence, walk with Optimism, work with Tenacity, and approach life with Enthusiasm. This section is a little long and belabored and not as “user-friendly” as the middle section, but still has nuggets that can be applied instantly.

The book ends with a 4-step approach to maintain your COTE of armor: 1) Affirm your self, 2) Be positive every day, 3) Commit to your best, and 4) Celebrate. This may seem a little pollyanaish, but in context of the book (and especially the final section) makes sense and offers a way to summarize and apply their teachings. I intend to polish my COTE of Armor.

I recommend this book. It is well worth reading. For more information, check out the publisher’s link.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.