Ever notice how the thing that turns losers into heroes is the knowledge that they CAN do something they were sure they couldn’t do?

Who can forget the Jedi-style arse-whoopin’ Luke took when Yoda showed him that with proper resolve and concentration, an X-Wing Fighter CAN in fact be levitated out of a swamp on Dagobah?

Luke’s defense? “I can’t believe it,” to which Yoda responded, “That is why you fail.”

Or, do you remember how through a combination of time-travel and renewed confidence, Harry Potter was able to defeat a cattle-rush of dementors? Once again, our loser-turned-hero reveals the secret of his success: “You were right, Hermione! It wasn’t my dad I saw earlier! It was me! I saw myself conjuring the patronus before!  I knew I could do it this time, because well, I’d already done it! Does that make sense?”

And then there are the superheroes. Spiderman (think Tobey Maguire struggling with his moral commitment to the Spidey suit), Batman (particularly Chris Nolan’s first where Bruce Wayne has to find “the courage to do what is necessary”), even the cult-classic Supergirl film where the words “You can” literally free her from the hands of a monster (see the 2:15 mark in the YouTube clip below)—all highlight the essential fact that belief predicates action. We can do something because we believe we can do it.

To do heroic things, to change our lives or the lives of others in seismic ways, we have to believe we can do it. Such belief requires total and absolute resolve. Likewise, to make huge changes in our own lives, to look and feel better no matter what’s happening to us at work, we’ll have to be resolved—purely, totally, and absolutely.

I can hear the objections already:

  • “Whoa there, tiger!  I have a job. I have kids.  What do you want me to do?  Drop in the middle of a meeting and do 20 pushups?”

  • “You’re nuts! There are expectations. I can’t start eating bird seed while everyone else is chowing down on a steak at Morton’s during a business dinner.”

  • “My company’s caving in around me and you want me to starve myself and run around the block a couple of times? I have things to do!”

No one’s talking about starving but yeah, the steak is out (for reasons well beyond cholesterol and the other usual suspects; I’ll explore these in subsequent entries). The point is that compromise and negotiation may be the tools of the trade when you’re structuring a strategic partnership or working a product through development but they don’t cut it when it comes to improving your health.

You either make the rules and do it full monte or you don’t.

The objectors break in again:

“No, no no, Mike. You don’t get it. You’re such an extremist. With you it’s always black and white. Listen, you can do little things. A little bit of exercise here, a little bit of dieting there—it worked for me before, it’ll work again.”

Oh, yeah? It worked for you before, huh? That means, at some point it stopped working which is why you’re considering doing something again. So, ultimately it…uh…wait for it… FAILED.

The cabbage soup diet is about as healthful and lifetime-sustainable as a BP oil line. Bon appetit! (Image via Wikimedia; Credit: Sloveniagirl)

If it worked for some time and then didn’t work anymore for whatever reason (your job changed, your life changed, the weather changed, whatever), it failed. Assuming the diet wasn’t some crackpot liquid or cabbage-type fiasco (which would fail for a host of reasons)but was a healthful intervention (such as Weight Watchers), why did it stop working? What changed? That’s right: RESOLVE. When we’re on a roll and doing well on a diet and fitness program, our resolve is strong but yes, things can get in the way. When that happens, we cease to believe in the importance or priority of the program anymore. We stop believing in the all-importance of our health.

One important footnote to this is that the diet companies themselves bear a great deal of responsibility for our decaying resolve (I’ll explore this in my next post) but regardless of who is to blame, it is we who stop believing in our own efforts to look and feel better.

So, Tip #12 is as follows:

  • Resolve to get healthy. Resolve completely, totally, and absolutely to do what it takes to look and feel better.
  • In our resolutions, we should focus on improving our health, not on weight loss. We all know that being overweight is a bad thing but it is not THE thing. If we do the things we need to do to make our bodies work better, then weight loss will go hand-in-hand with our improved health.
  • Resolve that we have no choice. Health insurance may or may not be optional depending on how political forces play out but good health itself should NEVER be optional.
  • We should make our commitment to good health part of our life, part of the way in which we identify ourselves. Far from being ashamed of it, we should wear it proudly.
  • Above all, believe. Believe that we can do it, and do it.

Because when we stop believing, that is why we fail.

(In my next entry, I’ll look carefully at why a diet such as Weight Watchers is a terrific diet—perhaps the best–but MUST ALWAYS fail unless we change the way we think about and deploy it).

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Would somebody please get Charlie Sheen some help? If even half the things people are saying about him are true, the guy has got big problems: surely, one of his friends (to the extent that he has any real ones) or members of his family (to the extent that they’re capable) need to do something for him. I mean, we’d all do the same for our own loved ones, right?

Charlie Sheen (Image via Wikimedia, Credit: Angela George)

Well, maybe.

The guy did bring a lot of this on himself. No one forced him to do coke, hookers, and everything in between.  He’s had a hit film run, has a hit TV sitcom—what IS his excuse exactly?

But then there are the other pieces. We don’t know how he was raised, or how he wasn’t. When he felt like grabbing another kid’s ball on the playground, was his mother/nanny/generic,-easily-and-frequently-replaced-caregiver giving him a nod and a wink to say, “It’s okay, hon. I don’t give a crap.”

We don’t know what his mental and physiological predispositions are, whether he’s genetically prone to depression and addiction, for example. We don’t know how many good doctors turned him away, how many bad ones are in his pocket, enabling him.

We don’t really know what it’s like to be on a Hollywood set, what the expectations are, how he’s expected to behave, and what the consequences are for failure to comply.

There are just a lot of moving parts here and while it may be easy to blame him for his own mess, should we, really? Sheen has made a lot of bad choices but per my earlier post, were they all really his to make or were some of them made for him, constructed for him by where he came from and how? As entrenched in his own history, choices, and consequences as he is, can he even see the way out?

I don’t have a clue. I don’t know anything about Charlie Sheen but I do know something about me and, perhaps, people who behave like me.

What I do know is that we can all get ourselves into some pretty big messes of our own as we sacrifice our physical and mental health for satisfaction and perceived security at the office. Like an addiction, life at the office can absolutely consume us, landing us in a mess that could probably look something like Charlie’s (though without the drugs, non-prescription, anyway).

And I know we can’t even begin to see our way out of those messes until we understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and find alternatives. Only by holding ourselves accountable for our messes, can we crawl out from underneath them.

When business is good, we’re almost happy to kill ourselves for the sake of our work. We eat and caffeinate ourselves to keep ourselves humming like a tuning fork because God knows, louder than even the sound and fury of all that work is the deafening vibrato of silence.

We stop for nothing—as long as we remain seated. We get up and move around only to find something with which to steel ourselves for the big meeting or a protracted date with Excel.  Coffee and donuts work but donuts certainly aren’t hip so we find other things, less obviously unhealthy things that are still sugar-, fat-, and calorie-rich, nonetheless.

KFC's Double Down: Death by bunless fried chicken (Image via Wikimedia, Credit: Michael Saechang)

When we worry, REALLY worry about whether we will succeed in all the fine and noble things we do behind a laptop, at a meeting, or while we’re on our way to a client site, we don’t have to worry for long: Vending machines, gas station convenience stores, and of course, airport concessions are there with new and powerful intoxicants such as KFC’s Double Down and anything with the word holiday next to it at Starbucks. Thousands of fat and sugar calories later, even a piss-poor Powerpoint deck can start looking snazzy.

When business is bad, well we know the drill there. A post or so ago, I ran through a scenario in which employees increasingly become lost in multiple business reorganizations and shifting quarterly goals. Some find surer footing, some don’t, but the point is that through it all, they can very likely lose themselves. When we don’t know where we’ll be working from quarter to quarter, or whether we’ll be working at all, is it any wonder that we eat, drink, and yes, be merry to make ourselves feel better?

But there is a way out for us (still not sure about Charlie).

If we examine ourselves and our behaviors, really try to understand why we just hit the office vending machine for a Twix, or treated ourselves to a peanut butter shake at Cold Stone Creamery just before a client presentation, or thought that General Tso was a mandatory invitee on order-in Fridays—if we dissected all the things we know we shouldn’t be doing, we’d be well on our way to putting a stop to them.

So, Corporate Survival Tip #34:

Look at everything you put in your body and everything you do to your body, and ask why. If you know it’s a bad thing to do, ask yourself why you need to do it. If the answer is that you can’t imagine life without these things, that’s fine for now. If the answer is that you just haven’t had time to think about these things, that’s fine for now, too. As long as the answer you come up with sounds right to you, as long as you’re truthful with yourself about it, then it’s a start. Over time as you continue to think about these choices, you’ll either end up validating them as good ones or rejecting them as bad ones. When you’re ready, and ONLY when you’re ready, make any changes you think follow from your self-examination.

Accountability is the key.  Once we understand what we’re doing to ourselves and why, we can find the motivation and strength to make changes.

Ironically Charlie Sheen himself underscores this very point in his classic cameo in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Your problem is you,” he said to Jennifer Grey’s character.

(Take a look at the minute mark in this video)

Your problem is you. Our problem is us. It isn’t the easiest thing to accept; in fact, Jennifer Grey ended up threatening to cut off one of Charlie’s balls.

But if we can get past the guilt, ire, and self-incrimination, we might just get the help we need.

–          Mike Raven

The Matrix series, yes the WHOLE series, is probably my favorite trilogy but I never understood one of the Oracle’s key lines until I began thinking about my own health and surviving the workplace. For those of you who don’t know, the Oracle is an Obi-Wan-like character who helps the protagonist, Neo, understand how to save the remaining humans on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Turning to Neo, she says, “You didn’t come here to make a choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” Take a look at roughly the 2-minute mark of the following Youtube video:

I thought of this line when I read the following quotation from a hot-off-the-presses academic article that’s sweeping the news wires today:

“I am 45. I have always made sure my daughters go to the doctor but didn’t make time to get a doctor for myself. I’ve been too busy working and providing for my family. I wasn’t feeling well for a couple of months and finally let my daughter take me to the emergency room. They prescribed medication for hypertension, diabetes, and cholesterol but didn’t get me an appointment to follow up with a doctor. Mrs. Byrd did. She got me my own doctor within a week. I feel that I was treated well and will work with the doctor and do what it takes to get my blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol under control. I want to be there for my children for a very long time.” (Victor et al., 2010, eFigure 3. Role Model Story)

No, I’m not the guy who said all that but I could have been. Despite the fact that I’m 40, white, and don’t hit a barber shop in Dallas County, Texas every 3-4 weeks, I could well have had much in common with the man whose story became one of 84 such “model stories.”

A barber cutting hair: potential health intervention? (Image: Wikimedia)

Trained by researchers as part of an experiment, barbers told these stories to black men as the barbers gave them not only a haircut but checked their blood pressure and other vitals (Victor et al., 2010). As the men returned to the shops every couple of weeks, the barbers monitored them, encouraged them to see their doctors (and even paired them up with doctors if they didn’t know whom to turn to), and continued to tell them stories about successful interventions.

Guess what happened?

Yep, these men got the help they needed and their blood pressure came down. In fact, even men who received only pamphlets rather than story-telling and more direct barber-intervention (though the men still received blood pressure testing and monitoring when they went for their haircuts), saw improvement.

So, what worked? Was it the regularity of the intervention? Was it the fact that the barbers literally held their hands in some cases? Was it the haircut?

I began this post by noting that I am probably more like than unlike the experiment’s participants. I have often buried myself in my work, cited family sacrifices as a plausible waiver of all rights to health, and comforted myself (sometimes semi-consciously) that if anything really went wrong with my health, I could always get the help I needed.  There have been times when I got help but didn’t follow up, figuring again, work work work, got to work.

And there were even times when I resolved to do something about my health. Of course, I didn’t follow up on those either, letting my strongest of attempts to get myself in shape die on the vine. But that was okay, too. After all, got to work, work, work because God knows, the work is most important and the company will certainly take care of all of us. (Do I have to use some sort of icon to illustrate the sarcasm?)

But then I started realizing something—what I call the Quantum Paradox of Health and Longevity.

Like the study’s participants, I began to see the possibility of something better—i.e., by attending to my health, I could be there for my family. I had to admit I have a choice: I can be better.

BUT—and this is a big one—I DON’T have a choice. What’s the trajectory of bad behavior? Where does it end?  An ER would probably be a best-case scenario given some of the possibilities. Do I want to end up unable to take care of my family?

"Hey, did you hear what happened to Mike? Okay, on to the next topic..." (Image: Wikimedia)

If I keel over from a heart attack, will the company I work for say, “Well, he worked really hard for us. It’s up to us to jump right in there and make sure we provide for his wife and kids?” At best, I’d be a 3-minute highlight of a team meeting, “Hey, did you hear what happened to Mike?” after which, my colleagues would review their agenda and lament how difficult it is to fill out the new self-assessment form.

So, it’s a paradox. I can eat, couch, and work myself to death, failing my family and ultimately myself, or do something about it. Is there really a choice?

So, here’s why I think this study worked—and please, let me know what YOU think. This study worked because for the first time, participants came face-to-face with the reality of the paradox. They couldn’t hide behind the delusions. They couldn’t pretend that they had no choice and they couldn’t pretend that they did. They had to find a way to get better because the alternatives were unthinkable.

In short, they had to reject the very notion of a choice, at the same time making a very deliberate one: they had to choose to do the only thing that would save their families and themselves.

Put another way, they’d already made their choice; they just had to understand WHY they’d made it.

What choices have you never already made? How did you come to understand them?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

-Mike Raven

 

 

References

Victor, R.G., Ravenell, J.E., Freeman, A., Leonard, D., Bhat, D.G., et al. (2010). Effectivess of a barber-based intervention for improving hypertension control in black men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(18), doi: 10.1001

Two stories.

The first occurred yesterday. I walked into a meeting with our head of operational marketing. He’d been asked to lead what I thought was a critical initiative aimed at understanding and segmenting the needs of the largest portion of our installed customer base.  The last reorg had shifted my responsibilities elsewhere so even though I’d had a great deal of experience with this sort of customer segmentation, I couldn’t be anything more than his armchair-general at best.

When I heard how few resources he’d been assigned, how little background research had been done, and how ambiguous his objectives were, I made an impassioned pitch for a reboot of the project plan. “You’re set up to fail, Pete,” I told him. “You’re going to need…” and I laid out everything in excruciating detail.

Running Out the Clock

Running Out the Clock (Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

He shut the door, looked me in the eye and said, “Mike, this is a run-out-the-clock situation.”

He continued, “By the time they realize this thing’s a loser, IF they ever do, we’ll be two or three reorgs in the future, and I’ll probably be working for someone else. This thing was dead on arrival.“

A ‘reorg’ or company reorganization, for those who haven’t had the first-hand pleasure of experiencing one, is where a company decides to move some people around and some people out. While each is certainly oodles of fun on its own, they’re tons more of a hoot when a few of them are strung together 2-3 months apart.  My fellow geeks out there will appreciate the following analogy: If you’ve ever seen that episode of Battlestar Galactica where a ship keeps jumping through space and the colonial president, Laura Roslin, is forced into a trance during each jump, it’s a little like that. The only real difference is that during a reorg, pretty much everyone including management is thrown into a fog.

Though I couldn’t find a clip of the BSG scene I referenced in this post, I did find one of the best jumps of the series. Take a look…

The fact is that Pete was spot-on.  Not only couldn’t I argue with him but I had to admit that I’d been playing the same game for longer than most. And while you might think it’s liberating to be able to zip fluidly from one puck to another, always changing the game just before you’re about to lose any one particular volley, think again: any game you’re not committed to winning is one depressing waste of time.

Second story.

I was sailing up the steps at work when from the top of the flight of stairs, I heard, “Whoo-hooo!” It was Nancy, one of our senior leaders from HR, who was also giving me two thumbs up.  When I reached the top, she clarified, “I haven’t seen YOU in a while. You look GREAT!”

Nancy?

This could easily be Nancy. Really. (Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A bit embarrassed and more than a little hesitant to have any body-focused conversation with someone from HR, I chirped a weak, “Thanks.”

Then came the stump question: “What’s your secret?”

“Uh, uh…” Secret? “Well, it’s not exactly a…”

She cut in, “Last time I saw you was when? About a year and a half ago? You were looking better back then but you’re looking fabulous now. You must be doing SOMETHING right. What is it?”

I couldn’t answer that question. All that kept racing through my mind was that there wasn’t A single secret and that those things weren’t really secrets at all. I was doing a whole bunch of things, hundreds of which had been percolating in my head for years, and all of which could be grasped and used by anyone wanting to get healthier.

But though I couldn’t throw down a top-10 list a la Letterman, I knew that all these tips, insights, ideas, and reflections amounted to my own 50-pound weight loss, a much healthier body, a happier calmer mind, and continuous, sustained improvement over the last two years in a wildly volatile corporate environment at a Fortune 500.

And that is where the stories mesh. While I can’t seem to find my game let alone succeed at it in a company that lost its mojo and market at about the same time we skidded into a recession, I have found something else—a different game, a different passion, if you will.  Despite the multiple rounds of layoffs, the reorgs, the job shifts, the ever-expanding vacuum in which I and dozens of others like me float every day as we search for purpose within the chaos—despite all these things, I am still here surviving and with a passion for, of all things, myself.

Poet, Walt Whitman, 1872

Certainly, Walt Whitman knew a thing or two about the self. Check out his poem, 'Song of Myself.'

It was that realization that ultimately prompted this blog. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about taking care of myself, about staying healthy in spite of all the very unhealthy things going on around me.  Yes, it’s hard to watch your colleagues drop like flies in waves of downsizing scarcely understood even by those who wield the axes. But what’s harder is the anxiety—anxiety triggered not merely by the recurring realization that you may be the next contestant thrown off the island but by the realization that you may NOT be, that you’ll have to continue to fool yourself into thinking that what you’re doing matters (or ever mattered).

So, what matters? You. I. Our selves. If we’re going to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous [corporate] fortune, we’re going to have to take care of ourselves. Yes, that may sound a little trite but triteness doesn’t make it any more obvious or achievable.

I’ve tucked away a ton of thoughts, reflections, and insights that have helped me get and stay fit both physically and mentally. My plan is to share them here so we can all consider and discuss them in terms that are the most meaningful to all of us.

Some caveats: I don’t have a degree in anything related to physical or mental health.  I’m not a doctor or a dietitian. If you like some of the tips in this blog and want to try to make use of them in your own life, please do so in full consideration of your own personal life conditions and medical circumstances. I’m also not an expert in exercise, nutrition, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or organizational psychology so please evaluate everything you read here rigorously and intellectually. I don’t KNOW anything, really.

BUT, neither do a lot of so-called experts.  The science around nutrition and exercise is evolving and so a voice from 25 years of well-reasoned, highly reflective personal experience may not be such a bad thing. Moreover, the fact that I know I know nothing, may be our greatest asset in the struggle to stay healthy: the more questions we ask, the better.

Finally, though I’m not a doctor, I’m not a slacker either. I’ve got an MBA from Dartmouth (Tuck School), a Master’s in English from Stanford, and a 10+-year record of doing high-level strategy work for Fortune 500s. So, while none of this qualifies me to tell anyone what will work for them, it does qualify me to tell you what has worked for me.

In that spirit, I’ll be blogging to share the stuff that has worked for me, that has helped me lose weight, keep it off, feel better, and find some peace, despite the odds.

I would very much welcome and appreciate any and all comments from any and all readers, the hope being that the more we learn from each other, the better.

Talk to you all soon,

Mike Raven

Image Credits:

‘This could easily be Nancy” (Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

“Running Out the Clock” (Image: Salvatore Vuono/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net)