Living in an Air Castle I

Living in an air-castle is about as profitable as owning a half-interest in a rainbow. It is no more nourishing than a dinner of twelve courses—eaten in a dream. Air-castles are built of golden moments of time, and their only value is in the raw material thus rendered valueless.

The atmosphere of air-castles is heavy and stupefying with the incense of vague hopes and phantom ideals. In the man lulls himself into dreaming inactivity with the songs of the mighty deeds he is going to do, the great influence he some day will have, the vast wealth that will be his, sometime, somehow, somewhere, in the rosy, sunlit days of the future. The architectural error about air-castles is that the owner builds them downward from their gilded turrets in the clouds, instead of upward from a solid, firm foundation of purpose and energy. This diet of mental lotus-leaves is a mental narcotic, not a stimulant.

Ambition, when wedded to tireless energy is a great thing and a good thing, but in itself it amounts to little. Man cannot raise himself to higher things by what he would like to accomplish but only by what he endeavors to accomplish. To be of value, ambition must ever be made manifest in zeal, in determination, in energy consecrated to an ideal. If it be thus reinforced, thus combined, the thin airy castle melts into nothingness, and the individual stands on a new strong foundation of solid rock, whereon, day by day and stone by stone, he can rear a mighty material structure of life-work to last through time and eternity. The air-castle ever represents the work of an architect without a builder; it means plans never put into execution. They tell us that man is the architect of his own fortunes. But if he be merely architect he will make only an air-castle of his life; he should be architect and builder too.” ~ William George Jordan

My company concluded its annual sales representative conference the other day and I was left with number of impressions, particularly in relation to those reps just starting their sales careers with us. For starters, I realized more clearly that working as an independent contractor and therefore as a small business owner provides a number of specific advantages. You are your own boss. You determine your level of success and the scope of your employment. You set your own hours. You have what many long for: independence.

On the other side of the coin, of course, you find that you are also responsible for your business 24/7. You cannot leave your business to another on nights and weekends. You tend to be much more invested in your work – physically, financially, emotionally – and the fate of your company, “You, Inc.,” rests squarely in you. You cannot hide behind a boss, a co-worker and you typically don’t have much of a cushion, especially early on, to absorb your inattention to the fundamentals. The privileges you gain, in short, come with a corresponding responsibility.

One of our senior reps noted that one of his most painful (and subsequently freeing) realizations was that there were no shortcuts to success. He recognized that he could not outsmart the system, skip over the fundamentals and build his business as Jordan described: “downward from [his] gilded turrets in the clouds.” Such an approach may give the appearance of working, particularly early in life if school comes easy, if there is natural talent in sports, music or the arts, but such endowments are rarely sufficient to fund the start-up of a new business, let alone the expansion of an existing one.

Our V.P. of Sales reminded the participants over and over again that you must do the work if you expect to succeed. You must pay attention to the fundamentals your entire career, in fact, there is no point at which the fundamentals lose their value in the present and influence over the future.

According to the science of tree physiology, there are four phases of tree growth: 1) newly germinated seedling, 2) young seedling/primary growth, 3) year-old seedling/secondary growth and 4) two year-old seedling/bark and wood development. An interesting website on the subject notes that:

As trees and other plants mature over time, new structures appear. Developments may be obvious, as when flowers or other reproductive structures first appear, or more subtle, like the maturing of the xylem or phloem.

BUT – this does not necessarily mean that earlier structures disappear. Instead, they often spread up and out with the branches or down further into the ground with the roots…The structures that appear when the tree is a tiny seedling are still present in a huge tree – at the very tips of the branches and roots.

So it is in business development, except that you, not the forces of nature beyond you, are the builder of your dreams. As you parlay the time and energy you might typically expend articulating what you would “like to accomplish” into specific action steps, where attention to the fundamentals is paid each and every day that you work, you begin the building process. You begin your journey of personal and professional development, an adventure that leads consistently onward, upward and outward.

By Bread Alone

Analysis kills spontaneity. The grain once ground into flour springs and germinates no more.” ~ Henri Frederic Amiel

Life is a mix of predictable cycles punctuated on occasion by the unexpected. The most obvious rhythms we experience are those caused by the machinations of the universe. Our planet turns on its axis, its revolutions give us a 24 hour day. Our orbital path around the sun provides us with a year, which is roughly 365.24 days. And the inclination of the earth on its axis – despite the occasional shift due to large earthquakes and the like – bring a regular pulsation of seasons: winter, spring, summer and autumn.

Life is predictable on the whole, yet full of surprises. It is for this reason that the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” For example, fashion week in Paris saw unseasonable warm temperatures this year, rendering the autumn wardrobes packed by many of the attendees unwearable. On a less serious note, in 1971 a Soviet oil drilling rig accidentally punched a hole in a massive underground natural gas cavern, causing the ground to collapse and the entire drilling rig to fall in. Poisonous gas began leaking from the hole so the Soviets, in a effort to divert a larger problem, set the hole aflame. The hole has been burning ever since.

To be effective in living you must be well-prepared for the predictable and adroit in handling the unexpected. If you become prejudiced against surprise, where your first flush of feeling in relation to unforeseen events is “I hate surprises,” then you will likely confuse a blessing for a curse. If, on the other hand, you develop the ability to handle everything that happens within your scope of responsibility with equanimity and poise, then you can turn even the most shocking and unfortunate surprises into stepping stones for victory.

This sounds good, but how is it done? For starters, you have to make room in your consciousness for the unexpected to happen. Rather than steeling yourself against the capriciousness of life by trying to make everything routine through schedules, habits and inflexible opinions, keep it light by cultivating a lust for the adventure of life. Moreover, be spontaneous on occasion. Spontaneity – the exhibiting of actions, impulses, or behavior that are stimulated by internal processes – is your opportunity to infuse life with the creative impulses that come to focus in you.

One of my favorite poems on spontaneity speaks of a time not too long ago, where wells ran dry in the autumn. This was a predictable side-effect of the rhythmic pulsations of of the seasons, yet the children exercised their spontaneity in relation to an event that could have disheartened an otherwise happy person because of the inconvenience.

Going for Water by Robert Frost

The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;

Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.

We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.

But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.

Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.

A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

Enjoy this lovely autumn day!

The Confidence to Let Go

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” ~ Dr. Seuss

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Release your inner Bitter Betty, I’d like to share my thoughts on another key to living an uncommon life. How you handle the end of a day, project or chapter in your life is almost as important as how you began it.

We considered the fact that many new and fresh opportunities are spoiled by a simple unwillingness to meet them with open arms as they appear on the horizon. Failure, for those who develop this bad habit, comes early. It’s just as easy, yet twice as tragic when failure comes as a result of refusing to give thanks for that which has come and gone. Instead of appreciating and moving on, some develop the bad habit of refusing to let go of that which is no longer relevant to the present time.

This tendency manifests in many ways. The tattered baby blanket jealously guarded by a ten year old. The closet filled with formerly useful goods. The post-breakup stalker. Trying to recreate the “good ol’ days” in an entirely new set of circumstances.

If you do the best that you can, if you meet every new thing that comes your way with gusto and in the current of victory, if you follow it all the way through and if you give thanks and let it go when the time is right, you will enjoy a measure of fulfillment, regardless of the outcome. These “ifs” reside in every circumstance and improving your ability to handle them with aplomb and artistry is the key to gaining the confidence necessary to let go of that which has culminated in your life and move on to the next adventure.

What matters more than your talents.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, recently gave a graduation address at his alma mater, Princeton University. He made the case that our character is defined not by the gifts we’re born with, but by the choices we make as we move through life.

Each of us is endowed with a unique combination of natural gifts and talents. We are likewise each born with the capacity of choice. The question is, how will you use those gifts? What you have or have not done up until now is unimportant. What matters is what you will do with the rest of your life.

Bezos asked a number of important questions about the life you author:

1.  How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

2. Will inertia be your guide or will you follow your passions?

3. Will you follow dogma or will you be original?

4. Will you choose a life of ease or a life of service and adventure?

5. Will you wilt under criticism or will you follow your convictions?

6. Will you bluff it out when you are wrong or will you apologize?

7. Will you guard your heart against rejection or will you act when you fall in love?

8. Will you play it safe or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

9. When it’s tough, will you give up or will you be relentless?

10. Will you be a cynic or will you be a builder?

11. Will you be clever at the expense of others or will you be kind?

Life will present you with countless opportunities to make choices in the days to come. Will you choose life? Will you challenge yourself? Will you magnify the gifts given to you and to others through your choices?

Time will tell, but forewarned is forearmed.

Have an absolutely fantastic week!

The Spirit of Adventure

An old friend of mine mentioned that she is moving in a couple of weeks and that a friend of hers was going to accompany her in true “Thelma and Louise” style. I don’t remember much about the 1991 movie starring Susan Sarandon  (Louise Sawyer) and Geena Davis (Thelma), apart from a poignant quote by the character Louise Sawyer that stuck with me through the years:

You get what you settle for.

While life is better lived through giving than getting, the point is well made. You will ultimately end up with what you settle for. Benjamin Franklin, a man who refused to settle all the years of his life, made the astute observation that “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Die when you die, not before.

Settling requires acquiescence to lethargy. In settling you say “thus far and no further.” To avoid settling, you must maintain a sense of adventure. Adventure, venturing forth, is the stuff of life. Every chapter of the book of your life can be filled with tales of adventure, excitement, challenge and growth. To be sure, one man’s adventure is another man’s picnic, adventure is adventure!

To be adventurous you must not fear mistakes. While you can be certain that you will make mistakes and you will taste failure on occasion, it is important to develop the strength of character that allows you to pick up the pieces and move on.

Kennedy was right, for the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Relinquish fear and you release the most common impediment to wisdom. A simple formula for a powerful experience.

Take care not to collapse in a heap of futility when you are faced with the prospect of a new adventure. Instead, embrace it. Enjoy it. Approach it with confidence, creativity and curiosity.

And never forget: you get what you settle for.