Category Archives: Leadership

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Together: An Essay of Tough Mudder, the Eclipse and a Tragedy

Image credit: Obstacleracingmedia.com

It started, quite honestly, with an off-the-wall idea, not the first one I’ve had with this longtime friend.

“We should do a Tough Mudder.”

Neither of us was in peak, or even great, physical shape, but one of us had done a few similar events, and the other had completed a half triathalon.

We both decided the Tough Mudder was a little bit scary, which, true to form, made it more appealing. We opted for the five-mile version, which seemed reasonable and still challenging.

Six months later, after countless runs, workouts, and videos watched, we joined thousands of others at a sprawling racetrack in central New Hampshire to test ourselves.

Neither of us knew what to expect.

I, certainly, never expected how much it would affect me.

TOUGH MUDDER

What transpired over the next several hours left a mark. Not only on my body, but on my outlook toward life and the challenges I face.

Some disclosure first.

It needs to be said upfront that Tough Mudder isn’t some benign social movement but, rather, a business and a marketing success story. It’s a physical manifestation of countless approaches to self-care that drive home the point that we have wildly untapped power within us.

I think it’s also fair to say it’s an escapist event for those with the privilege to indulge in it. The entry and assorted fees are not insignificant, more than a full day of work if you make minimum wage, and it’s well worth noting that within living memory, there was a time when something like it could not happen in our society. Countless people suffered—truly suffered, not the kind of suffering we experienced on the course—to allow all of us the privilege to participate together as one group. I don’t intend to make it seem, and it should not be implied, that the event is some social panacea, an afternoon of sweat that undoes everything else around us in this day and age. It isn’t.

And while Tough Mudder doesn’t particularly play up this particular angle, many other similar runs do focus on the military nature of their obstacles, implying subtly that it’s like going through the rigors of a warrior’s life. It isn’t that, either.

What it is, though, is truly amazing.

I cannot think of another lived experience that featured so much communal work and reward, with so many different types of people. Rarely in my daily life have I experienced so many slices of society as in the mud. It wasn’t a representative cross section of America by any means, but the Mudders I saw were a pretty eclectic group: young, old, all body types and abilities, and I presume a wide range of backgrounds, religions, political views and ideologies, working together toward a common goal of taking another step forward on the course, then another, to completion.

I expected pride in finishing. I didn’t expect pride in simply being there. The Mudder Oath, which we all took as a group, was a touchstone for a life well-lived: Help those who need it. Put others’ needs before your own. Don’t whine. Tackle the things you believe you can’t. Life is not a race toward the end, but a challenge to overcome your fears. Those fears will appear daunting and insurmountable and, often, when you have nothing left in you. No one can do it alone.

In the mud, like in life, little else matters but these ideas.

The course was painful, like life itself. Over obstacles higher than we thought we could scale, in disgusting muddy water up to our necks, with legs, lungs, hearts and muscle straining, we pulled each other through. No one asked who you voted for before lending a hand. No one pondered if the person next to them was worth their trouble; they were. No one forced or shamed us to help each other. Arms, legs, shoulders, bodies and words were freely offered to each other for support. My proudest moments were not when I overcame an obstacle—and I overcame every one with the group’s help—but when I helped others do the same.

It was a fantasy world, for sure. When we finished, we got our finisher t-shirt, headband, and beer, deservedly patted each other on the back, took some pictures, made some social posts, then got in our cars and drove back into our realities.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s one I’d happily live in. It’s one I’m extremely proud to have finished. It’s one I will certainly indulge again. It’s one of the few moments in my adult life when I looked across a diverse crowd and felt…together.

In this vulgar, contentious day and age, it felt charmingly right.

A TRAGEDY

After a celebratory lunch outside of Boston, we returned to the parking lot where I’d left my car that morning, said goodbye, and made our respective ways home.

As I got on the highway, traffic stalled and then stopped almost immediately. A wall of lights flashed ahead. For a generally impatient person, traffic is frustrating. Add in mud, soreness and a long drive, and it’s over the top. I thought back to the Mudder Oath, and its “I will not whine. Kids whine.” provision.

The helicopter swooped down onto the blocked highway so quickly that it took a moment for the brain to process what was happening just yards ahead. This clearly wasn’t just a minor accident—the highway was now closed, in both directions. Car engines were turned off, windows rolled down, and slowly people opened their doors and got out onto the pavement.

We had nothing in common other than being stuck here, in a random spot on a random highway in a random town. Some left. A junky sedan and a luxury SUV were the first I saw to hit the grass and try to backtrack against stopped traffic to reach the previous exit. Perhaps someone was in labor. Perhaps someone just didn’t want to wait.

The rest of us talked and watched and, if they’re like me, pondered the costs of having one more bite at lunch, or one fewer joke with a friend, and being that person loaded onto the helicopter instead of a spectator, just by a sheer luck of timing.

The driver to my right railed on about aggressive drivers and did everything short of blaming the accident victim for society’s ills. To my left, a guy whom I learned worked in Manhattan talked weather with a young person with a Red Sox shirt and a neck tattoo. We marveled at how polite most people were…clearly those before us had let many emergency vehicles through, and there were now dirty looks given to the cars who set off on their own. Mostly, we looked on in awe at the fast and fluid motions of brave life-savers as they went about their business. The chopper loaded up, lifted off and soared over our heads. The conversations stopped, everyone returned to their cars, and we all set out on our myriad ways, rolling by a tangled heap of metal that had inadvertently and tragically brought together strangers.

THE ECLIPSE

If the Tough Mudder was togetherness by choice, and the tragedy was togetherness by random happenstance, the 2017 eclipse was togetherness in the context of our insignificance.

Astronomy is a humbling hobby. The vastness of the cosmos exceeds our tiny brains’ ability to ponder it. However, it can sometimes seem so removed from our life as to be disconnected. A supernova, for instance, one of the most powerful forces in nature, is merely a new and temporary dot in the sky. We can’t even see black holes. For most people, most of the time, astronomy is just something scientists study, nothing easily accessible to them in any dramatic fashion.

What I loved about the eclipse was that it was a stark reminder of the forces so much larger than ourselves or our species. We are, to quote Sagan, a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. A small moon momentarily moved in front of a small star, and the most powerful nation that’s ever existed was darkened, humbled and awestruck.

Together, we looked up at forces that we couldn’t control if we tried.

Together, we saw our source of life blotted out.

Together, we shared our experiences and our awe.

And, if we chose to think about it, together we could see with very little effort how completely fleeting and meaningless our existence is, and incongruently, how important our choices are in the brief journey of life.

THE CHOICE

My point to these three stories is that, ultimately, we all have choices every time we act. We choose to be helpful, divisive or inward-focused. We choose our tribe, our actions and our fates. We can choose to acknowledge differences, brought about by our respective lived experiences that no one else can understand, or we can imagine others are governed purely by irrational thought. We can choose to be humbled by life, or not.

We all have different frameworks around our choices, those frameworks limit our choices, we don’t have an equal set of choices or frameworks, and sometimes there are no good choices. But there’s always a choice. Always.

You can choose to help or you can walk by. You can choose to wait for others or you can believe you are more important. You can choose to understand your own cosmic insignificance or you can think you are bigger than it all. You can choose to tackle your obstacles or you can not.

And we can choose to be together, with all the good and bad it brings. Or not.

In the lexicon of Tough Mudder, there are “No Excuses.” That day on the course, every step, every hurdle, I had to examine the excuses that popped into my mind and mentally move beyond them.

I’ve since been struck by how often I think about my excuses elsewhere, at work, in life, as I go about my day. Excuses are easy. They can easily drive my choices if I let them.

What are yours? And why?

And what’s our role together?

Light

A joy of working in marketing is the chance to be creative, and I’m exceptionally proud of a series of new commercials that a talented team of professionals put together. It’s incredible to watch this process unfold, moving from child-like sketches of concepts to 30 seconds of “Hollywood” at the end. I think there’s a fascination of this among the general public; the ‘making of’ features bundled with movies give testament to it. It’s as if we want to see how the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat. I never feel diminished joy in seeing the artistry behind video production, though. Rather, I feel a sense of awe.

This year’s commercials were shot by our trusted advertising agency, GO, with a crew that we’ve used before, so there was a certain degree of comfort involved. However, the day of shooting is always a draining process, starting before dawn and going until it’s done. Stuff goes wrong, you get in each other’s personal space a lot, the varnish comes off a bit, and because of the time and money involved, you all give everything for every second of film to count. There’s mumbled swearing, hopefully not much breakage, and a lot of coordinated and uncoordinated movement.

One of the professionals we hired was the lighting director, Chris.

Some analogies with light are easy. You light your own darkness in life. Sunshine makes the best disinfectant. Those are all true, but the beauty in light to me isn’t the power, but the subtlety. You can see it in Chris’s work and all around us.

I’m a morning person. I love to get up before dawn, make some coffee and watch the sun rise. My son and I recently camped, which I always appreciate but my sleep doesn’t. I’m dirty and uncomfortable and restless all night and almost always awake long before the sunrise. On this particular morning, I watched the eastern sky gradually change from dark blue to hues of red to a truly spectacular orange, pink and red mosaic. Photographers call this the golden hour, when the sun is low, soft and filtered through a thick layer of atmosphere.

Then, in the span of just a few seconds, the show is over and the sky bright from our star 93 million miles away.  The earth turns some more and the sun is risen, beating down with brilliance.

Chris’s work had that mix of brute force and subtlety. The brute force is the easy part. We shot the commercial’s last scene after sunset, in a glass-walled lobby, but we needed the room to be lit as if it were day. You throw enough wattage on something and you’ll re-create daytime. But the artistry and handiwork came in the tweaking; his constant adjustments to ensure the light was balanced, the right temperature, the right diffusion, coming from the right direction, with just the right amount of power.

He’d walk into a room that would appear to be your average space, make a few adjustments, pull out a few bulbs, add a few of his own, and the scene was transformed. Over the last few years, I’ve seen him in the pouring rain, balancing a giant light coming into the windows 15 feet off the ground to recreate full sun, or up on a table, removing a hanging light fixture altogether. In between adjustments, he’d hover over the monitor that showed the camera’s view, coordinating with the rest of the team and critically eying light in a way that seemed to be from the perspective of another dimension. It was awesome to witness, in the same way that it’s awesome to watch a craftsman make something out of wood, metal or material.

His professional world is fake and real at the same time. He manipulates the power that surrounds us, warms us, allows us to live, and reveals beauty, and he is also very much a person who gets his hands dirty, a trait I admire from my time outdoors and my own work experiences. At one point, as the crew tried to resolve a technical issue with the digital equipment, someone asked if he had any suggestions. He shrugged, said, “I don’t know. I deal in light, mud, rocks and rain,” pulled up his hood, and went back outside to check on rain-drenched gear.

In the end, the team made the magic. The camera operator, producer, director, actors, and technicians pulled off fourteen hours of work, grabbing twelve scenes at seven locations in two towns, which was all sent off to post-production, where another set of professionals worked on it for weeks. Thousands of minutes of work turns into fewer than two that the public actually sees. Chris and the team moved on to the next job. Maybe a huge rock concert, as was the case last year. Maybe an infomercial. Everyone needs light.

There were multiple lessons in that exhausting day. There’s craftsmanship all around us when we look. There’s beauty in natural light. There are countless subtle changes we can make to improve what we see in any situation. Brute power reveals—but experience adjusts the revelation of—the good and bad in everything.

And, sometimes, just like in camping, we should understand that great things can be seen through the lens of some sweat, light, mud, rocks and discomfort.

On Daring, Winning, and Losing

Originally posted on LinkedIn (February 5, 2015).

I did not know of Henry Worsley before last week, but it’s been difficult to get him out of my mind since. He died on January 24, just 30 miles short of his goal but after traversing more than 900 miles of Antarctica on foot, seeking to honor his inspiration, famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley was much more than an explorer, it turns out. He was a philanthropist, raising money for wounded soldiers. He was also himself a combat-decorated warrior, rising to the elite of the British special forces and spending a career on the knife’s edge.

Days after his passing, NASA observed a day of remembrance for their own explorers, the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo launchpad fire and on shuttles Columbia and Challenger. As someone who has always looked up, I was moved and impacted by the memories. I was there when Challenger launched on an earlier mission in 1983, carrying another explorer, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

A few weeks before Worsley’s passing, musician, actor and artist David Bowie left us.  It’s hard to define where my love of space—and my love of words—ends and where Bowie’s music begins. It’s equally hard to imagine that in a lifetime of writing, I’ll ever be able to create something that sums up living as well as the final verse of my favorite Bowie song:

And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night /
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves /
This is our last dance. This is ourselves. Under pressure.

There is not much logically tying Worsley, the astronauts and Bowie together. There is no peer comparison to them, and I’m not trying to equate a rock star, astronauts and a warrior. They each can stand on their own merits. We are poorer for the loss of all.

However, while there’s not an equality between them, I think there actually is a connection of sorts, and it’s from the motto of Worsley’s unit, the Special Air Service.

Qui audet adipiscitur. Latin for “Who Dares Wins.”

I first heard the expression in college, coming out of a shell, finding myself. I thought it was fascinating and true. It fit where I was in my life, and over the decades, not a week goes by when I don’t think it. I’ve passed it along to friends who have asked me for advice on everything from coming out to dating to careers to life decisions. Some of them have passed it on to others. I have tried to apply it to my professional life wherever possible.  I’ve been blessed to work in environments that encouraged daring.

Life—actual experiences, not the day-to-day drudgery that makes days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades while you blink—is about daring, isn’t it? Daring to cross that mountain, sail beyond the horizon, try something new when other things have failed, take that leap. Life is dangerous, scary. It’s easier to rest, take it easy, copy others, be part of the crowd, and we all have to do some of that some of the time. Daring is hard work. No one can do it ceaselessly or should do it thoughtlessly.

The astronauts dared, volunteering to place themselves in danger to launch into the heavens above, taking humanity’s dreams with them.

David Bowie dared, never taking the safe route in his art, always being just a little different, willing to reinvent himself, not often taking the easy path his fame and wealth could have allowed.

Clearly, Worsley dared. His whole life was “leaning forward,” running to the sound of the guns, sacrificing all for others.

Who dares wins.

Except, of course, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, the daring causes you to be blind, short-sighted, stupid, and arrogant (or is it the other way around?). Sometimes you make that leap you shouldn’t. And people—at the very least, you—get hurt by your actions. Or worse.

Defining “wins” in terms of “accomplishing what you set out to do,” actually, you quite often don’t win. You quite often lose. But that isn’t the point, nor does it mean that you stop daring. It means you reevaluate your actions and goals, what you did, what drove it, how you can fix the harm done, and how or if you can move ahead. You are in debt to the experience and everything that got you to where you were and are, and thankful that you can even have those thoughts. You win through the learning, if you choose to.

And you move on. One ski ahead of the other, because the alternative sounds much worse.

You dare yourself. As Bowie said, you are then, in turn, dared to care about everything.

This is our last dance. Who dares wins.

 

Check Your Sources – Remembering John Breen

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Courtesy of the Journal Inquirer)

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Credit: Journal Inquirer)

An icon of my life died this week.

Professor John Breen of the UConn Journalism Department left us far too early but also left a trail of students honoring him in their thoughts and posts.

More than anyone I’ve ever encountered, he taught me to love words. No matter my title or place in life, I will always be a writer deep in my soul. I have struggled to find ways to honor the man. Besides the obvious (there is a scholarship established in his name at the UConn Foundation), I have decided that the natural and right way to do so is through writing.

But first, I need a drink, and so a toast to him—a glass of Irish whiskey—sits beside me.

That I feel the need for a little alcohol-induced ease of mind tells the first part of the story about why John Breen mattered.

He was uncompromising. In the days before Microsoft Word marked all of your errors in red or, even worse, auto-corrected them, John Breen accepted nothing but quality. In one of his classes, he established a rule for assignments: for every typo, you lost a letter grade. Not a circle on your paper. Not a “fix this.” No silver star for “nice try.” He assumed you cared enough about your readers that you wouldn’t insult them. I feared the man and feared my grade. The lesson I carried with me was simple: quality matters. The small things matter. Detail matters.

I partly need the calming drink next to me to even comprehend the act of writing something about John Breen, for I know that this would probably end up with a ‘C’ if he graded it. That a grown man, a professional in matters of writing, can still feel this way should tell you something.

He taught me to be cynical. That’s usually a perjorative word, but I don’t mean it in that sense. Having bombed out of the engineering program, a 19-year-old me found myself in Professor Breen’s Journalism 101 class. On the first day, he told us that to be a reporter, you had to question assumptions.

“If your mother tells you that she loves you, check your sources.”

He said that. He really said that. It’s a remarkably cynical statement, but it is also remarkably true. I don’t think he literally meant that you can’t trust your mother, but the lesson I carried from it is held deeply today.

Question assumptions.

Assume nothing.

Inquire.

Dig deep.

Check your sources.

I know it is the trend today to talk about the decline of a liberal arts education; STEM education will rule the future. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But can there be a better lesson for life, or a better education (in the philosophical sense of the word), than “check your sources?” With more information available to us than ever, can there be a better requirement for critical thought than “question assumptions?”

Lastly, John Breen taught me the beauty and grace of words. He taught me that my writing will touch people and that there is an awesome responsibility in the act of writing about them. This doesn’t mean that, as a reporter, you should go easy on your subjects. It means you should be fair.

He was a man who seemed to me to be out of place in the modern world, even in 1990. He smoked at his desk. He used a manual typewriter. If he could have worn a fedora with a small piece of paper on the band that read “Press,” he would have. He was more or less straight out of central casting for “All the President’s Men.” With stacks of newspaper everywhere, his office space always seemed to be one poorly thrown cigarette butt from a towering inferno.

I loved that.

The world is worse without John Breen in it. Today’s journalism students—while bright, smart and so capable—are poorer than I was. He last taught me more than two decades ago, but I feel him around me every time I write something.

And although I haven’t spoken to him since the year I graduated UConn, I suddenly miss him.

Leadership in the Snow

Spent the snowy weekend in the woods, working with young people on their leadership skills or, more precisely, watching them learn those skills themselves.  The formal curriculum was the Boy Scouts of America’s Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops, but the lessons were learned as the groups worked together for the non-formal parts of the day.

And isn’t that exactly right?  Because there are a lot of “leaders” out there who sit through an awful lot of trainings like that (not to mention offer those trainings)!  And there are a lot of MBAs churned out annually. How many are truly leaders, in the sense of being able to work in a team, inspire others, and put the group above self?  Not many.  Not a huge percentage.

But what I saw in this group of 12- to 16-years olds was largely leadership. Like cooking dinner on a propane stove for their small groups, when it was snowing and their hands were cold and the wind was blowing.  Or making sure that the group assumed responsibility for cleaning the site and leaving it better than we found it. How many politicians or CEOs would do that?  Would they even call it leadership?  Would they recognize it?

And why not?  And if we answer that question, have we identified what is wrong with so many of our major societal institutions today?

It didn’t all go well. Some meals were barely meals. Some food was ruined. Some stoves took a long time. Not everyone pulled their weight. Tempers were frayed. Relationships strained.  Part of the lesson.  But, overall, I walked away impressed at what we show when we don’t know what we’re supposed to.  Leadership and integrity come when no one is looking, or when you don’t know enough to care whether someone’s looking.

Just a thought.