Mastering Your Craft...

In a world that is so obsessed with social and economic status, it often feels difficult to be comfortable with what you have and where you are. At every turn there are messages telling us to have more and be more. For many of us, these messages are the basis for diseases that form within our minds and hearts, informing the ways in which we view ourselves and our significance in the world. Each and every person has a unique purpose and while a few of us may be led to fame and fortune as a result of pursuing our special assignments in life, most of us will take our final breaths and leave behind a life and legacy that are only celebrated and remembered by a few people who knew us well and loved us for who we were and hopefully despite who we were not.

So if fame and fortune aren't what we're all driving toward we may pause to ask ourselves what is it that ties us all together in our journey toward fulfilling our purpose and finding some level of significance. I am learning and believing that what we should be striving toward is mastering our craft, whatever it may be.

Living a life of joy and fulfillment involves doing your very best and that doesn't necessarily mean doing your best in a particular space, or doing your best with a particular task, but rather striving to do your very best wherever you are.

I spent some time last week listening to speeches and sermons by the great Dr. Martin Luther King and found myself scratching my head when King shared a story of a man who shined his shoes. In his story, Dr. King spoke in detail about this man, another Black man, who was masterful in shoes shining.

Dr. King, talked about the man's focus and the level of thought he seemed to be putting into his work and as I listened I could feel something within me wrestling with an emerging paradox.

What struck me was a tension I felt somewhere in my mind where an image of one of our nation's greatest advocates for equality was passionately praising the work of a service provider in a role that would garner little or no respect whatsoever in our tremendously hierarchical society shaped and informed by social, cultural, educational and economic elitist sentiments.

In my mind, there was something odd about King's excitement over this man's shoe shining skills, a man who likely faced great obstacles in the segregated south and had very limited opportunities to take advantage of the privileges afforded to his white brethren at the time because of the overt systemic racism that ruled this nation.

As I continued listening though, I began to understand the point of Dr. King's message. His reflection wasn't an assessment of the man's worth but rather an observation of this man's focus, intent, drive, passion and brilliance all utilized in his efforts to be his absolute best. The man's title and role may not have had value to those who took advantage of his service, but he was not concerned about status.

His only goal was to determine, for himself, the value and quality of his position by doing what he was called to do as best as he could possibly do it and the truth of his mastery, made me think about the significance we all possess despite what structures we operate in that are determined and sustained by external forces.

Dr. King struck something in me that pulled back the lenses through which I view the world and adjusted my vision in a way that allowed me to think about the potential we all have to simply do our best with whatever the assignment is that we have been given.

Our craft, no matter how big or small, does not determine who we are but it is through mastering our craft that we reveal to ourselves and the world who we are and what we're made of.

No matter what it is that you are positioned to do, don't just do it, but do it as best as you can!

Letting the Small be Small

When I attended church two Sundays ago I was disappointed to find that the executive pastor was out of town. While I have not been impressed by every sermon I've heard him deliver, I have at times appreciated his style and cannot say that I have ever left his church without receiving a meaningful lesson. In his absence, a student from the Princeton Theological Seminary read a sermon from an iPad that was less than moving. Though tired, I remained true to my belief that listeners have just as much responsibility as speakers and as a member of the audience I needed to have faith that if I listened carefully to what the minister was saying and what she was not saying, I would hear something powerful. Fortunately, I was right.

Toward the end of her address, the guest pastor that day made one statement that put everything into perspective for me. In her calm and even tone she simply asserted that although "we are always busy we are seldom productive."

I'm a writer. If you leave me in a room with nothing more than paper and pen or a laptop, I will be at home. Writing however is one small part of my life when in reality, as I believe it's directly aligned to my purpose, it should be the biggest part of my life. The truth is, like many people artistic or not, I am very busy. I’m busy with emails, meetings, and phone calls. I’m busy designing projects and executing tasks I'm given regardless of how important I think they are because I am afraid that my fragile reputation might be tarnished if I turn out to be a terrible employee.

For nearly 25 years, my identity has been wrapped up in creating a story of success built on what can be said about my education, my intelligence, my network, my work, talents and career goals. What I'm seeing more and more is that all of these things are forms of external validation that are often misaligned with my internal purpose and self-perception. In many ways, I've been spending countless hours of my life investing in work and conversations I have been made to believe matter when actually their significance is miniscule.

Sometime last week, this reality hit me and I had to ask myself what would happen if I suddenly neglected to accomplish every item on my excessively long list of tasks and the gut reaction response was sad: probably nothing.

Does this mean I'm going to suddenly give up on the life I've established, quit my job and go out west to a secluded cabin where I can live under an alias and publish books? It’s tempting, but unlikely. What I am going to do though is make the big bigger and let the small things be small for the sake of my own emotional and spiritual health.

I'm going to zoom out more often to see the larger picture and pause before I go above and beyond to assess the potential impact of where I place my energy. I deserve, as we all do, to be my fullest and most joyful self and if I don't let the small things be small they'll continue to overshadow all of the glory that's within me.

3 Ways To Own Your Email

I don't know about you, but the overwhelming email culture in both the non-profit and business sector (so I hear from friends) is out of control. Three weeks ago, I became ill and spent two days away from my email prior to returning to work after a weekend. Though I knew for sure that I would have some unread email to filter through, I did not expect my total unread emails to reach what I considered a depressing 387 on a Monday morning. Granted some of these messages were from the previous week, but too much damage had been done in my short absence for my own comfort. After spending more than half of my day responding to these messages I did something I've never done before. I courageously declared email bankruptcy.  Highlighting all of the messages in my inbox that had not yet been filed I calmly and cautiously pressed delete and held my breath for a few seconds waiting for a helicopter to suddenly appear outside of the window and a tactical team to sweep into the office and detain me for violating some complicated unknown law regarding national security. It never happened... To my surprise my world did not suddenly come crashing down and I exhaled releasing one of the heaviest work related burdens I carry, email overload.

Feeling good I then took my war against excessive  email one step further. I posted a permanent automatic email response  message with three fundamentally radical ideas that I hope will spread like wildfire among my colleagues.

Do you find yourself sometimes being owned by your email? Well you don't have to suffer anymore. Turn the tables around and begin your personal journey toward owning your email with three suggestions for all of those dear friends and colleagues who just can't seem to avoid reaching out to you.

1) Abandon the body and use the subject line. Suggest that task related messages focus solely on the task. Tell your colleagues to skip the inquiries into the quality of your weekend and get straight to the point by simply stating what they want from you in the subject line of the email. They don't need to write anything in the body of the email itself. When possible suggest they be as short as possible and simply state "Send updated project plan."

2) Phone a friend. Unless you're a part of that microscopic segment of our nation's population who don't believe in modern technology and suspect cell phones are just another way for the government to keep tabs on us (which they are by the way), you have a phone and that phone allows you to have quick conversations that avoid the back and forth steps one usually has to take to facilitate a conversation over email.  Ask that when feasible your colleagues simply pick up the damn phone and give you a ring.

3) The 200 Character Challenge. Twitter gives us 140 characters. Be nice and throw in an extra 60 characters. When the message can't be summed up in a subject line, ask your colleagues to be as short as possible and send you "tweet like" emails. To accomplish this they may need to cut out some words and write incomplete/improper sentence (Ex: need to analyze data for upcoming meeting. would like your assistance. send times of availability.) Come on! This is our chance as adults to keep it simple and stick it to that mean, rigid English teacher we had in high school.

These steps are easy and while they may not cure the problems you see with your own email culture, I can assure you that my own experience tells me that they're a step in the right direction. Best of luck!