For years, researchers have been discussing the negative health outcomes correlated with ACEs -- Adverse Childhood Experiences. The ACEs study opened up a whole new way to look at the long-term impacts of childhood challenges. However, the Science of the Positive directs us to look for the hope that always exists alongside risk, danger, and concern. I am pleased to announce the release of a report on the evidence for HOPE (Health Outcomes of Positive Experience); HOPE may be the most significant application of the Science of the Positive in research and action to date. The goal of HOPE is to measure how positive experiences might correlate with strengths, protections, resilience and health. The data in the just-released report – including data collected by The Montana Institute on behalf of Prevent Child Abuse America – reinforce the need to promote positive experiences for children and families that foster healthy childhood development. Put in the context of the Science of the Positive Cycle of Transformation, these data:
- Establish a spirit of hope and optimism that balances the concern of ACEs;
- Demonstrate, through science, the powerful contribution of positive relationships and experiences to the development of healthy children and adults;
- Describe actions related to social norms regarding positive parenting practices;.
- Reflect upon the positive returns we as a society can expect to see if we support positive childhood environments.
HOPE is a terrific example of how the Science of the Positive can be applied to research and policy planning – and I look forward to sharing the next steps in its development with all of you. You can read the entire article online or join us at the Montana Summer Institute where my friend, fellow scientist, and lead author Dr. Bob Sege will present on this important work.
This is the view from my temporary office. This week I kicked off a 21-day tour of the ten new Minnesota communities that have joined the statewide effort to reduce underage drinking using the Science of the Positive and Positive Community Norms. Together with Phyllis Bengtson and Al Frederickson of the Minnesota Department of Human Services – Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, we are meeting with coalition members, educators, law enforcement officers, and community movers and shakers who want to learn more about this effort and how to become a part of it. This is truly one of my favorite parts of this work: introducing people to a new spirit and science of prevention, and watching in awe as they dive in and take action to transform their communities for the better.
A guest post by Lilly Irvin-Vitela
…For Personal and Professional Discovery
I first read Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope: Seven Principles of Inspiration for the Courageous Leader in 2012, when Jeff Linkenbach and his team came to Wisconsin to hold an Institute on the Science of the Positive by Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Trust Fund. During the event, participants were given an opportunity to dive into the book, reflect, and discuss the Seven Core Principles of the Science of the Positive.
At the time, I was involved in efforts to improve the quality of early care and education. The truth and positivity I found in Dr. Linkenbach’s book was a dose of medicine to my spirit. People I worked with closely were suffering from the fear, negativity, and mistrust that can accompany change that comes by way of legislative mandate. I knew I needed to share Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope with them, too.
Since then, I’ve been weaving the book into my work building community and supporting leaders. Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope has become a staple in staff meetings, the foundation for a book club, a driver for values-centered strategic planning, a core feature of leadership development efforts, and a go-to gift for social-justice leaders who are dealing with challenges and need a boost.
…As a Staff Meeting Staple
When I was the Executive Director of a statewide early childhood organization in Wisconsin, I started the practice of opening each all-staff meeting with Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope. I chose a different principle as the focal point for each meeting.
Each staff member was given their own copy of the (very affordable) book. They were encouraged to read the chapter on the selected principle beforehand and to respond to the prompts at the end of each chapter. We even included reminders on agendas.
Aware that the staff was working at – and sometimes beyond – capacity, we made it clear that it was okay to read it the chapter with the staff during the meeting and jot down responses then. There was no wrong way to participate. Staff shared their favorite quotes and described why particular statements resonated with them. We then reflected on how each principle related to our individual and collective work, and how these principles were showing up in our efforts to achieve our mission.
When I decided that I was ready to leave the organization, the book became a touchstone during six months of transition planning. I believe the process was greatly improved because we were so intentionally connecting around shared values. Seeds of Fire created space for us to intentionally connect around shared values and choose a positive approach during a time of significant change.
…As the Focus of a Book Club
Later, while I served as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Head Start Association, members expressed interest in staying connected, learning together, and supporting each other outside of our regular meetings. They were hungry for more frequent opportunities to connect in meaningful ways about shared work. We decided to start a statewide book club, and the first book we chose was Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope. It’s honest, strength-based approach and readability made it a great fit for local leaders who were working hard to deliver family and child development services to vulnerable families. Parents, staff, and directors from Head Start and Early Head Start agencies took part. Participants routinely commented about how valuable they found the book and the conversations it started. Many regularly reminded each other of the lessons they learned from the book in their daily work outside of book club. One person even asked if I could share the Seven Core Principles with their entire staff during a difficult time when funding and service delivery were in question. Knowing from my own experiences how powerful the messages in Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope are during challenging times, I readily volunteered to share the principles in strategic conversations with the staff in the besieged organization. I received overwhelmingly positive about the value of focusing on the positive during hard times.
…As a Leadership Development Tool
I had the pleasure of being the lead trainer and co-mentor for two years for an intensive year-long leadership and community development program. Parent leaders were recruited from diverse local early childhood organizations to build their leadership skills and work on a local community development effort of their choosing. Each leadership institute I organized included time to dive into Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope. Parent leaders engaged in powerful personal and professional leadership work as we reflected together on the Seven Core Principles. There was laughter, tears, and even prayers during our powerful conversations about how to be ethical, impactful leaders. Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope became an invitation for each of us to be the best version of ourselves at our leadership institutes, within our own families, and during our community work.
…As a gift that Inspires
Seeds of Fire, Roots of Hope sparks meaningful conversations about the hard and joyful work of transforming communities and ourselves – and can be the catalyst for inspired action. I always have a few extra copies on hand to give to other social justice leaders working when they are feeling stuck or down. It taught me to think differently about the challenges I face in my work, and I know it can do the same for you.
Lilly Irvin-Vitela was born and raised in New Mexico and is the owner and principal consultant at Common Worth, LLC. Her work gives her the honor and joy of working with people who are committed to accomplishing social justice goals in a relationship-based way.
This just in! The Minnesota Department of Human Services has released a report on its 10 year implementation of the Positive Community Norms Framework in 25 school districts around the state. Their conclusion? The title says it all: Youth Alcohol Prevention That Works.
The data shows that the "Positive Community Norms framework, combined with the larget prevention planning and implementation grant programs and community engagement, is making a real, positive impact in the rates of alcohol use."
Kudos to the foresight and passion of the leaders at the Minnesota Department of Human Services Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, and to the incredible work of community coordinators, teachers, and parents around the state who championed this powerful, positive approach. Read the full report here.
Today’s post comes from friend, colleague, and Positive Community Norms expert Heather Schjenken in Deer River, Minnesota: “Teens today have many reasons why they choose not to drink alcohol. Our youth group decided to highlight them with a “Reasons Why” campaign. The group came up with 81 reasons why they choose not to drink – and shared them with the entire school. What a wonderful way to celebrate positive youth voices!"
Ten years ago the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) first invited me to present on The Science of the Positive process and the Positive Community Norms (PCN) framework. Since then, I have had the honor of serving the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention as a think-tank member, trainer, author, and consultant supporting their emerging work with social norms. Our aim has been to expand use of the normative strategies to reduce violence and prevent child abuse.
The CDC’s new resource on social norms and violence prevention builds on this momentum and promotes norms change as a key strategy for cultivating healthier, safer communities. Here at The Montana Institute we are currently working on projects related to child abuse prevention and the reduction of sexual assault and dating violence on college campuses, and will continue to innovate ways of using the PCN Framework and the PCN Communications Strategy to prevent violence and reduce harm.
The children’s riddle, “Why are fish so smart? Because they swim in schools!” may prove true for improving driving safety.
We have been applying the Science of the Positive to impact traffic safety culture and norms for over two decades. Now, in addition to focusing on reducing impaired driving, increasing seatbelt use, and engaging bystanders to intervene – maybe we need to go fishing!
According to TechCrunch, "Honda is looking to nature to improve the safety of driving, using bio-mimicry of the behavior of a school of fish to inform a new technical concept it’s unveiling at CES called Safe Swarm....Safe Swarm essentially means that cues picked up by one vehicle equipped with connective communication tech can pass along information to others in proximity, far before a driver would be aware of anything. Cars can shuttle their collected knowledge down the line, propagating info about a pile-up potentially miles ahead in near real-time to help make it easier for human drivers to take action to avoid problems before they happen."
This fascinating new technology may require us to rewrite one of the touchstones of the Science of the Positive to say, "The Solutions are in the Community...of Fish!"
Read more at techcrunch.com.
Reflection is one of the key skills and habits of a transformational leader. The Transformational Cycle of the Science of the Positive tells us to focus on Spirit first, followed by Science, then Action, and, finally, on the Returns we have achieved. Before you start planning resolutions and the Spirit with which you want to start the New Year, you might benefit by spending some time reflecting on the Returns of the past year. Below are some reflections based on the Seven Core Principles to help you look back before you plan ahead.
We have a choice in how we reflect on our past – and we can choose to be positive. When we reflect on the past with a positive outlook, we grow, learn, and gain energy for the future. “Failures” are simply experiments with outcomes we did not expect. Try to think back over the past year with a positive spirit. Are there positive lessons to be learned from even your most negative experiences?
The lessons of our past can become meaningful in the present. We do not want relive the past, but to look at it from the distance of where we are today. By staying present and mindful, we can separate ourselves from our past and see more objectively. Think back over the past year. Did you spend time looking backward or rushing ahead? How can you spend more time in the present moment?
If can be helpful to examine our past with the scrutiny of an objective investigator. We could choose ask the questions we have not asked -- or are afraid to. There is much we can learn from our experiences, if we choose to look. What wisdom have you gained over the past year that could be helpful in the future?
The purpose of reflection is to learn for present and future action. Reflection can help us refine our purpose, and work towards it with renewed determination. If we start from a place of compassion, we can use reflection to understand and grow. What happens when you think about your past year with an attitude of compassion? How can you use these insights to refine your purpose for next year?
We reflect on our past with a sense of humility to become more effective in serving others, our families, and our friends. Although we will never reach perfection, we can always learn from what we’ve done in the past, and let us guide us in the future. Keeping that same attitude of compassion, ask yourself where you could have devoted more energy to being perfected over the last year. In what areas did you improve?
Reflection is proactive work that takes time and energy, but it is worth the investment. It is through this proactive allocation of our most precious resources (focus, time, and energy) that we can learn and grow. Did you take time for reflection over the past year? How could you be more proactive about building time for reflection into your life?
Living from our deepest passions can help us cherish our successes and laugh at our mistakes. If we celebrate the goodness that we experience, this energy can sustain us. We must dare to be inspired by growth. What passions sustained you over the past year? What passions have you lost connection with that you could rekindle?
Scare tactics, arguably one of the most popular and widely-utilized approaches in prevention history, have been employed for decades to raise awareness about dangerous activities. This strategy ignores the fact that healthy, protective choices are most often the norm.
As a society, it is like we have cultural cataracts: our vision has been distorted by the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” focus on the problems and harm caused by the behavior of a small percentage of people (Linkenbach, 2001). Our media obsessively focuses on problems, risk, and danger, fueling ever more exaggerated perceptions of their prevalence. Ironically, this strategy can create the opposite result from the one we seek. A negative focus creates feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, emotions that are unlikely to ever create positive change.
Fear-based messages are designed to “scare the health” into people by emphasizing the terrible things that might happen (such as death or overdose) if they do not do what the message recommends (such as abstain from drugs and alcohol). The assumption behind fear-based approaches is that awareness of the negative consequences of our actions will result in positive behavior change. Awareness of problems and their risks is critical, but research shows that awareness alone is insufficient to create lasting transformation.
Our work has proven that inflating people’s fears can actually create a backlash against the goal of health promotion by supporting and exaggerating misperceptions of negative community norms (Linkenbach, 2001). Using fear to motivate people to action can cause just the reverse: people can become paralyzed by a lack of hope. On an individual level, lack of hope can lead to diminished energy, loss of commitment, and overall poor performance. At the organizational or community level, a lack of hope can lead to despair and reduced engagement.
Fear-based approaches can also foster stigmas that divide the community into different groups. Negative behaviors (or negative health outcomes) are strongly linked to the people portrayed as the wrongdoers. We then begin to view these people as dangerous or bad. This stigmatization leads to poor communication, shaming, and a breakdown of community. Fear-based approaches are also hard to maintain. In order to engage our audience, we must create messages that stand out against the onslaught of media messages we receive each day. At a certain point, negative messages get tuned out because they are too, well, negative! We have seen campaigns that were so graphic that people rejected the messages by literally changing the channel. A core assumption of the Science of the Positive is that the solutions are in the community -- that in every community there is positive, undeniable good that we can discover and amplify. By searching for health -- as opposed to its opposite -- we increase this positive energy and direct it towards that which we want to grow.
It has been demonstrated that messages that portray health as the normative, expected behavior result in increased health protections and lowered risk (Perkins, Haines & Rice, 2005). Using The Science of the Positive as its guide, Positive Community Norms focuses on the positive, healthy normative attitudes and behaviors we want to grow, transforming our messaging from one of fear to one of hope. There are examples of health and goodness in every community, if we take the time to look for them. We may have to ask different questions and measure healthy behaviors in new ways to uncover these strengths, but they are always there.
We have some great training opportunities coming up in the new year. Our next Positive Community Norms Online Implementation Course starts in January -- a fantastic way to get a project up and running with long term support and coaching. And it is never too early to register for the Montana Summer Institute. Bring your family, and plan for intense learning and incredible fun in Big Sky this July!
SPIRIT First! Then SCIENCE, to drive ACTION for the best RETURN. When leaders use the Spirit-Science-Action-Return Cycle of the Science of the Positive to organize agendas, they create meetings with a natural organizational flow that encourages engagement, fosters collaboration, and maximizes effectiveness.
Most meeting agendas only contain Science and Action items; that is, they focus only on what needs to get done and who is going to do it. Organizing meetings with the Spirit-Science-Action-Return Cycle creates opportunities for leaders to begin by aligning the group around a common goal and to close with meaningful discussion and reflection that builds energy and purpose for next steps.
Remember that order matters in the Science of the Positive Cycle of Transformation: SPIRIT – SCIENCE – ACTION – RETURN.
SPIRIT elements should be introduced first to establish the why behind meeting. Leaders model the tone that they want to set for the meeting, such as: being engaged, being willing to work across organizations and systems, being energized by the work and positive about its potential outcomes. Spirit agenda items include:
- Ice-breaker discussions or activities
- Goal or mission statement sharing or development
- Articulating shared purpose of meeting
- Current events in the community that are concerning or hopeful
- Discussing the 7 Core Principles for your group or organization
SCIENCE elements come next. These focus on what we know and what we need to find out. Science agenda items include:
- New information or data from the field
- Information, brainstorming, and idea gathering from the group
- Identifying information gaps and needs
- Research reports or findings
- Evaluation reporting
Necessary ACTION elements become clearer after spirit and science are established. Action items cover what we are doing and what we are planning. It is where we make sure we are being effective (as opposed to just busy) by implementing best practices or evidence-based actions. Action agenda items include:
- Committee reports and task assignments
- Communication, program, or other planning work
- Strategic planning
- Items in need of approval
- Training opportunities
RETURN allows the group time to reflect and evaluate, focusing on questions such as what have we accomplished and how did we do? Leaders will take time towards the end of the meeting to share a common laugh (as intentional team building), a story, or to reflect on what energized the group most, and how this energy could be harnessed going forward. Return agenda items include:
- Structured reflection activity
- Feedback from clients, others in the field, the media or the community at large
- Report on accomplishments since previous meeting
- Setting agenda items for next meeting
- Scheduling upcoming meeting dates
The words spirit, science, action, and return do not, of course, have to appear in the agenda itself but may serve in the background as a structural framework that maximizes engagement and effectiveness. Give it a try, and leave a comment below to let us know how it works for you.
Today's post comes to us from Tim Schellhammer, the Principal of Sibley East Senior High School in Arlington, Minnesota. He started at East Sibley when the school was halfway through a five-year Positive Community Norms project focused on reducing underage alcohol use. Below, he shares his reflections on the transformation that occurred in his community through the PCN process.
There is nothing like coalition work. It is exhausting, frustrating, rewarding, and effective. It forges bonds and changes communities. The culture of our community has transformed over the past few years – as have I.
I remember driving to my interview at Sibley East Senior High School and passing billboards that said, “3 out of 4 students do not use alcohol in a typical month.” My initial response was: “What are they doing about the 25% of students who do use alcohol?” Little did I know that the billboard itself was the answer to my question. In the Positive Community Norms process, accurate information is used to correct people’s misperceptions, their corrected perceptions influence their decision-making, and the result is increased positive attitudes and behaviors in our communities.
I field questions about the campaign quite often in my role as senior high principal. I hear conversations about how “this is the way it has always been” and “we did it when we were kids.” The best part about PCN, Science of the Positive, and the professional development I’ve received in just two years is I can fearlessly engage in these conversations, knowing there are so many talking points to share. Not to fiercely debate and defeat someone else in a drawn-out argument, but to engage them with some really compelling information.
I ask them, “Do you realize how many students choose not to do this? Do you realize how many households choose not to allow this? Do you realize how less likely you are to use substances 2, 3, or 4 if you never use the first one? Do you realize how less likely your student is to use substances if they know you strongly disagree with it?” I explain that every time we get a student or household to make a good decision, we move from the 75% non-use statistic I saw on my first drive to this community to 80%, then to the 82% we measured at our last survey, and so on. We’re growing the positive!
This was one of the most significant discoveries of my career.
Fifteen years ago, I decided to embark on a rigorous evaluation of and reflection on the previous two decades of my work as a research scientist and practitioner of community health education.
I was actually expanding upon an assignment I’d had back in graduate school. That project had been to develop a 10-page paper on my philosophy as a therapist. Ten pages sounded like ample space, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t nearly enough. It was the most challenging writing project of my life – so why on Earth did I want to recreate it?
The answer is simple. By engaging in a disciplined process of structured reflection, evaluation, and research I was hoping to emerge with a crystalline vision of who I was in the world, and how I could best answer my calling to make the world a more positive place for all of us. It was an agonizing, years-long process until – slowly, and then all at once – it happened.
I had spent years developing my own framework and theory about human behavior. After reviewing countless manuscripts, lecture notes, and presentation slides, I distilled everything down to a single nagging question – one that, if answered, could be the tipping point in my life and work. I asked myself, “What is the CORE ASSUMPTION the Science of The Positive?”
“The Positive is real.” That’s was it! So simple, yet so profound. A core value emerged with this idea: If, indeed, The Positive is real, then there is value in growing it. THE POSITIVE IS REAL, AND WORTH GROWING.
This statement became the “Core Assumption” of the Science of The Positive, and the basis of all its other assumptions, research, and practices. My understanding that THE POSITIVE IS REAL AND WORTH GROWING sparked the development of the Seven Core Principles, clarified the Montana Model for Positive Community Norms Communications, and provided the foundation for all other elements of my work. Once this core assumption was established, everything else clicked into place.
Today, after training and teaching thousands of people, this core assumption is so clear to me that I wonder at the time it took for me to come to it. But I am grateful for the hard work in the dark hours of the morning that allowed me to bring this work out into the light where it can have a positive impact on the world.
The Seven Core Principles of the Science of the Positive provide a concrete process that helps us frame, execute, and evaluate our work in a way that increases our effectiveness in our organizations and our communities.
Through a series of structured activities, I engage community leaders in their own personal reflections and support them in developing shared principles for their leadership teams and coalitions. By engaging with their personalized core principles, organizations and coalitions can create a positive, strength-based frame for their work; identify and connect with the true spirit and purpose of what they do; build greater leadership capacity; ask the right questions and collect the most salient data; find effective, authentic ways to engage with their communities; and create the conditions most favorable to lasting cultural transformation. These principles become an invaluable tool to help them navigate times of complexity and ambiguity.
Steph Johnson, Coordinator of the Fairmont Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition in Fairmont, Minnesota, incorporates the Seven Core Principles into every coalition meeting. Before each meeting begins, the coalition members review their principles to, as Steph puts it, “get everyone into the spirit of our work. This way we start things off on the right note and set the tone for a purposeful meeting.”
Before getting pulled into the mire of busy –- of deadlines, to-dos, and deliverables -- effective leaders start with spirit first, and make sure their efforts are aligned with their guiding goals and principles. Keep up the great work in Fairmont, Steph!
I've talked about the importance of moving from Busy to Effective, but how can you get there? Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Take time to examine your typical workday. Don’t do anything except observe and notice differences between being busy versus being effective.
- Ask yourself: How do you define busy? How do you define effective?
- In a typical week, are you busy more than you are effective?
- Disrupt your “normal” conversational response pattern with this experiment. Instead of greeting someone with your old patter of busyness, experiment with a new pattern.
- The next time someone asks, “How are you doing?” think about how you want to reply. Tell yourself, “I choose to perceive effectiveness rather than busyness," and answer, "Great, I’m being really effective.” Observe their reaction, and yours.
- For today: List how you can be more effective today without doing more. Instead of listing external tasks that need to be accomplished, list internal states of being, like feeling calm amidst hurried people, feeling satisfied at the end of the day, or enjoying the ordinary moments like driving to work or taking kids to school.
- A word of caution: If you perceive effectiveness as being busy, you will believe that being effective means merely accomplishing external tasks. This is the very misperception that you must correct in order to experience more joy and meaning in your life. It is the difference between obsessing over quantity—which is about doing more (and is the focus of most time management seminars)—and a focus on the quality of being.
I'd love to hear the results of your experiments in the comments.
Are you too busy? If you are like most people, your answer to this question is a resounding “yes!” Of course your life is busy—your challenge is shift your perspective from being BUSY to being EFFECTIVE.
We are surrounded by cultural influences that reward us more as human doings than as human beings. Many of us even wear our busyness like badges of honor. Without thinking about it, we are telling ourselves that the busier we are, the better we are doing in life.
I believe that the tyranny of busyness is one of the most common dysfunctions in our culture. By staying busy, your mind is constantly focused on the future, racing ahead to what you need to accomplish next. But busyness is only effective at one thing: killing “The Now.” When you focus on your busyness you are shutting out the only moment you actually have—the present—and the only place that that your spirit resides—in the NOW.
Our busyness is often rewarded by others through social exchange. It has become a form of social capital—we exchange “busy” greetings as a form of belonging and acceptance. Conversations typically go something like this:
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Great, but crazy busy. You?”
“Me too, with (fill in blank here: work, school, kids’ activities…)”
“I can relate!”
The good news is that you do not have to engage these transactions. Every time you do, you are passively withdrawing power from your life. Decide to detach from this kind of public conversation, and you will find new room to notice spirit working in your life.
Today, your challenge is to try and shift your focus from what keeps you busy to what makes you effective and creates meaning in your life. Remember that every meeting, e-mail, and phone call, every casual catch-up with a friend, is an opportunity for you to move away from the busyness trap and focus on creating more meaning and effectiveness in your life.
All of us are busy—get over it. Start being...effective!
The Science of the Positive is the study of the ways in which positive factors impact culture and experience. It is based on the core assumption that the positive is real and is worth growing, and its aim is to systematize the identification, measurement and growth of the positive—in ourselves, our families, our workplaces, and our communities.
But looking for the positive does not mean to see the world through rose-colored glasses. The Science of the Positive is about accurately perceiving the world around us, and that includes understanding that the the things that make our lives good and difficult, joyful and full of struggle, also characterize the lives of others. Research continues to demonstrate the importance of feeling this kind of connectedness. It is critical for healthy child development, marriages, partnerships, suicide prevention, and basic civility. It is part of what a new study calls “common humanity,” which is the perception that your feelings and experiences are part of the larger human experience, rather than something unique only to you. Seeing ourselves as a part of a larger whole helps us to treat ourselves with more compassion, since we know that difficulties, insecurities, and setbacks we experience are also experienced by those around us – no matter how great their lives may look on Facebook.
This understanding of our common humanity doesn’t just make us kinder to ourselves; it is also correlated with happiness. So work to BE PERCEPTIVE of all the ways you are connected to others, good and bad, and know that you are an important piece of a larger puzzle.
Read more about this new research here.
Core Principle #2 of The Science of the Positive is to BE PRESENT. The benefits of being present are many. One of those is to remind you of what really matters in life. Another is that you find more huckleberries.
I was away for work for most of June and the beginning of July, and my schedule showed no signs of slowing down. But I was determined to get out for a backpack with my teenage son, a tradition we've had since he was just six. So I blocked off two days I couldn’t really spare, and Christopher and I headed out for a trail not too far from home.
The next day, as we bushwhacked a short route back to the trailhead, my mind was already on the projects and clients waiting for my attention. Until Christopher brought me back to the moment with one word: “Huckleberries!”
Suddenly everything I was hurrying back for felt like it could wait. We dropped our packs, sat down in the shade, and talked quietly as we picked and ate. My leadership lesson? That sometimes there is nothing more important in the world for me to do than to sit in the woods with my teenage son, being totally present.
Back when I was a ski instructor in Colorado, I learned an amazing technique for helping me to perceive things differently. I call it Spilling Milk, and I still use it in many areas of my life.
About ten of us instructors were taking a clinic to improve our own skiing and teaching from a master instructor named Milt. We were all expert skiers, but Milt took us away from our favorite double black diamonds and brought us to a long, flat beginners run. “Pretend that you are holding a pail filled with milk,” he directed. “Visualize swinging this pail of milk over your head so that you don’t spill a drop. This is what you all do when you ski fast.”
“Now slow down your swinging motion until the milk starts to fall out of the pail at the top of your swing,” he instructed. “You'll see that the forces you generate with speed can no longer cover up errors. This is what I want you to do with your skiing—go slow and discover what happens.”
We all began to ski in slow motion. What happened next was truly amazing: some of us lost our balance and fell over, others overcorrected trying catch themselves. If you’d been watching us from the chairlift that day—ten skiers in red and blue instructors’ uniforms, flailing like beginners down a very easy slope—you would have probably thought, “I think I’ll take lessons somewhere else.”
Just as the centrifugal forces generated by swinging a pail of milk can mask the natural law of gravity, skiing fast generates forces that easily masked errors in our stance, foundation, and turns. When we slowed down, subtle errors became glaringly obvious. We discovered that when our feet were too close together we would lose balance and tip over at certain points in the turn. When our shoulders initiated a movement instead of our feet we would compensate with another error. We learned that we had to ski slow in order to get better at skiing fast.
Intentionally slowing down in the areas of your life where you are typically proficient can help you to find the weak spots that you usually cover up with speed. Slowing down creates the humble condition in which you see the world through the eyes of a beginner, or a child. This is the prerequisite for growth. It is how we begin to see things as they really are.
Slow way down today and see what happens. Spill some milk.