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Beware the barrenness of a busy life.


A “bucket list” is an inventory of places to see/ things to do/people to meet before you die? Usually this list is written down and posted somewhere. People are supposed to check off experiences as they go. Search Flickr or Twitter for “bucket list” and you’ll get an idea of the overwhelming popularity of the trend.

Today an entrepreneur I follow tweeted out “help me with my bucket list” and a link to his blog post. In blue, he highlighted his accomplished tasks, in black were the tasks yet to be done. His list was typical of a socially-conscious innovator, e.g., donate a million dollars to charity (he said he was 1/3rd of the way there), launch successful kids, golf at the Masters, etc. I perused it, curious to see if I could help him with anything. It was a typical “see this, do that” list, so really, the tasks are up to him. So why did he ask other tweeters for help? Was it an exercise in the modern skill of humble bragging? Sure, he listed his charity goals but essentially, his entire agenda was about him and how admirable his goals are.

Why do we construct these things? If we’re honest, wouldn’t we classify a bucket list as another (albeit fancier) “TO DO” list? Or do we publish our dream vacations and lofty goals to put forth an image of ourselves as International Adventurers of Mystery? Surely, we Bucket Listers don’t collect “spread peace, love, and happiness” posters on our Pinterest boards.

It’s as if we need certain notches on our belt in order to feel complete. Bucket lists are exercises in that esteem-building task of “complete-ness,” but this task isn’t risk-free. There’s a secret danger to the bucket list: Inspiration boards and daydreams take their toll. In one of Life’s great ironies, every bit of inspiration you collect on your Bucket List is a bit you take away from your energetic movement toward that goal.

Brain research shows that “mirror” neurons can simulate an observed experience so well that we ourselves feel like we had the experience. These neurons can fool us into thinking we’re great golfers like Tiger Woods or we’ve been shot down in helicopters in a battle in the Middle East. Bucket lists fool us into thinking we’ve already traveled miles when in reality we have yet to take our first step. Some experts warn against too much “visualization” for this reason: The very act of picturing ourselves at the finish may mean we never start the race.

I realize this is the opposite of the Supreme Motivational Canon that the happiness movement has been feeding us since the ’60s. But think about it: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Trade-offs hide under every surface, and this mirror neuron phenomenon, embedded in a feverish “Get it done” culture, is why we go to and from work in the same routine day after day, on the path of least resistance through the barrenness of a busy life.

The fact is, a hoarding of experiences is not much better than a hoarding of material goods. Feeling “complete” or worthy doesn’t come from base jumping the Eiffel Tower or roaring through Grand Canyon rapids. If only it were that easy! So much money spent on self-help books, therapy, illegal drugs even, could be saved up for one all-healing Himalayan climb.

Don’t believe the hype. Plastering your cubicle of photos of Fiji will only get you farther away from that paradise. Instead, do what Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps did every day of his life: picture the process. Phelps didn’t picture himself on the winner’s stand. In fact, he didn’t even picture the end of the race. Michael had a mental “videotape” of swimming his best race, down to the tiniest detail like how he held his fingers or flexed his toes, and he played that tape in his head like a movie, every day over and over. Before every race, his coach would tell him to “roll the tape” to get his whole body ready to go through the motions. These motions eventually broke world records and led to 8 gold medals.

Forget the Bucket List. If you want to get to Fiji, picture yourself at the bank, making deposits in your “Escape” fund. If you want successful children, imagine yourself being calm and collected during their next major mess-up. Focus on the journey, and its end will surprise and delight you.


Photo credit: Flickr user torbakhopper. Edited by me, Christine Cavalier

Also posted on LinkedIn.


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Lie to Yourself Like a Boss

pinocchio with a cigar

“Perhaps the strangest thing about [an] illusion of control is not that it happens but that it seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control. In fact, the one group of people who seem generally immune to this illusion are the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situations.”
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

In Lars Van Trier’s disturbing movie Melancholia, Justine is a bride with a history of mental illness. As the planet Melancholia threatens to crash into and destroy Earth, Justine is the steady force for her young nephew as pure panic takes over the others, including her usually happy and fortunate sister Claire.

Psychology researchers have noticed this phenomenon. A depressed person’s ability to absorb bad news is stronger than healthier people’s, e.g., Justine’s depression primed her to expect catastrophe which allowed her to function in spite of it, where the others broke down as they struggled and raged against the shock.

Which sister would you rather be? Justine or Claire? I used to think like Justine, the unflinching realist: Better to be prepared as much as possible for oncoming doom than suffer the devastating shock that comes with it. Now I think I’d side with Claire: Why worry? Sure, doom may be coming but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s have tea.

This choice comes down to more than the typical optimist/pessimist argument many motivational mavens churn out. The formation of your world view is a much more complex and changeable process. But the most influential factor on that world view is your ability to “lie” to yourself.

Self-deception, illusion, delusion, etc., whatever you want to call it, how well you can reposition a situation to fit within comfortable parameters is the most unrecognized skill in highly effective leaders. Being able to take emphasis from internal and put it onto external factors is what separates the middle guys from the big guns. If Claire the CEO didn’t make her third quarter targets? “The bad weather really hampered sales. We still did better than last year’s 3rd quarter. And maybe the targets are too high!” Claire would then kick back and have a beer, energized for the 4th quarter sales. “Realistic” middle manager Justine would speak to – or perhaps scream at – the sales team, pore over the books to see what went wrong, and squeeze out more hours from already overused resources. She’d go home deflated and worried.

Here’s the thing: Justine may be able to eke out a tiny increase in profit for the next quarter, but Claire will be the one who continues to get promoted. Let’s look at two powerful techniques Claire has in her arsenal to keep a rosy outlook (barring another planet colliding with ours, of course).

  • Reframing: If the scene you have seems overwhelming, increase the setting.Don’t just look at the third quarter numbers, look at the last 5, 10, 15 years’ 3rd quarter and year-end totals. Look at how you did compared to competitors’ 3rd quarters. Keep looking for more data until this quarter’s abysmal performance doesn’t seem so bad.
  • Shifting Locus of Control: No man is an island, except when he is. External factors, not personal ones, are more responsible for downturns than you are. Personal talents are more responsible for upturns than luck. The bad weather may have impacted sales but it was the great motivational speech you gave to the sales managers that brought those numbers back up at year-end.

When applied appropriately and positively, these techniques can help anyone cope with stress at work. They can ease your worries and save your self-esteem. A Machiavellian application of denial (reframing) and blame (shifting locus of control) will have us fantasizing about a bulk order of nooses for the c-suite.

These coping styles, especially when peppered with humor, can help get you through your kid’s teen years or your neighbor’s noisy divorce. This isn’t a happy-joy, Up-with-People mind trick. We don’t have to pop pep pills and plaster cheerleader grins on our faces to deal with reality. Remember: reality has multiple aspects. Choose to concentrate on the ones that will lessen your load, and let the Earth shatter another day.


Photo Credit: Know Your Meme, Like A Boss

Also on LinkedIn


So you want to be a thought leader?

You probably want to win the lottery, too.

sticking out

But what if I told you that you’ve already won a lottery, yet the prize wasn’t money? Instead, you’ve won a trust fund of experience and insight. Let’s call this secret wealth The Fund. Its wealth in expertise is unsurpassed and you can dispense it at any time while its coffers will only increase.

Look inside yourself for a minute. Deep inside you, an armory of information exists about a certain subject. Where is this hidden cache? You probably know where it is. You probably know the subject. The problem is, you probably don’t want to share it.

The Fund is tricky. Despite our desperate hopes, The Fund isn’t filled with Buffet bits or Branson blessings. It isn’t overflowing with four-hour financial fireworks or roaring ROI regalia. What The Fund has is your core self, the culmination of years of not only work experience but of life experience. It is everything that makes you, YOU. This essential self isn’t so easy to share. Putting yourself out there isn’t for everyone. It takes a special kind of “strong” that most people simply aren’t.

When I work with business pros who seek my help with their thought leadership content, many of them are surprised by my questions. You see, I’m a Psychologist by training, a systems administrator by profession, and a writer by soul. I know how to dig down deep in a person and how to morph that knowledge into shareable content. I also know the same old motivational drivel these managers want to share online is not from their Funds.

Leaders contact me to help them to become Internet (or just LinkedIn!) famous for a typical surface area like quality assurance, supply chain, or hiring. The problem: this kind of crap is already piled up high. It’s amazing these savvy biz mavens would try to enter a market that is already so saturated. Some of these requests I have to turn away because the wannabe thought leader isn’t willing to break open their Fund to share something truly unique yet universal to all humans. To become a true thought leader, one must accept the responsibility and more gravely, the vulnerability that comes with it. It sounds crass, but I’m doing these people a favor when I turn them down. They aren’t ready. Maybe they never will be, and that’s OK.

The people who assume leadership is about money and fame tend to make poor leaders. Leadership is service. Being a CEO is a paying job, but being a leader is a volunteer position. Money and fame might be a by-product of thought leadership, but it can never be the motivation for tapping into The Fund. A sincere desire to help must be the base of thought leadership. My best clients are the ones I have to convince to break open their Funds. These pillars of success know the gravity of what I’m proposing. They feel the responsibility to others that all great leaders feel.

So you want to be a thought leader? Are you ready? Here is a sample of questions I may ask you when we meet:

-What was the biggest lesson you took away from your youth? College?

-List some of your volunteer positions

-Tell me a story of when one of your little kid assumptions was shockingly crushed by real world facts (SPOILER WARNING: e.g., Santa Claus or income tax on your first paycheck.)

-If you could do your last job over again, what mistake would you avoid? What would have been the bad and good outcomes?

-You’re hosting a party. Someone starts up a conversation about a subject that makes your jaw clench in anger or annoyance. What is that subject and why? What do you do at the party?

After we get through some of the personality profile questions, we’d dive down deep and knock on the door of your Fund. Will you open it? Are you ready to recognize what is stored up in there? Are you ready to share the – at times embarrassing – parts of yourself that could help a person become a better employer, a better parent, a better friend or a better anything? Only you can answer these questions. It’s your trust Fund. No-one can spend it but you.


This post was also published on LinkedIn

Photo Credit: “New Guy” by Pascal on Flickr.

black/white mannequins

black/white mannequins

We’ve all know the rules of what constitutes proper work chatter and what doesn’t. We constantly break these rules, though, because coworkers are like family due to the amount of time we spend with them.

When big national events happen, we want to chat with our coworkers about how we feel. The most important common sense rule is to keep the conversation respectful. Otherwise we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut. Sometimes, though, silence is the least respectful option. Sometimes your coworkers need to know you realize they are hurting or upset. Staying silent (when you don’t know what to say) can cause rifts in team cohesion. At the same time, heated arguments don’t help morale or efficiency either.

When it comes to chatting about the Ferguson case of police officer Darren Wilson killing 18-year-old Mike Brown, we need to stay aware of our coworkers’ varying experiences.

This is the hardest part. Seeing and validating a separate experience from our own is easier when the other person comes from another country and culture. For example, we automatically assume a Chinese national has grown up differently and has a very dissimilar perspective to ours. But when it comes to minority cultures within one’s own country, it’s much more difficult to assume the wide variance in life experience. The truth is there are many different cultural groups within one country and those groups’ members share their own common experience. Non-members are usually ignorant of that shared awareness.

Race relations overwhelm the Ferguson case, and that makes the discussion even more challenging. My suggestion is this: don’t shy away from the conversation. Here are some “scripts” (conversation phrases) you may want to use:

  • “Tell me how you feel about this Ferguson case.”
  • “I am ashamed to say I don’t know many of the details. What have you heard about it?”
  • “Grand juries almost never indict police officers. Is it time we re-examined why this is?”
  • “Here is what the Washington Post said is next for the case. What are your hopes about it?”
  • “Did you grow up in a diverse cultural situation or no? What was that like?”

For the sake of simplicity, here are some ground rules. First, remember: In general, for those in the majority, this case is to be viewed individually. For those in the minority, this case must be viewed in a greater historical context AND individually. Here are some things to think about before you jump in:

black/white dog


  • Assume your black co-workers know about the case and they are upset
  • Don’t expect them to bring the case up with you
  • Don’t expect them to chat about it or act as representatives
  • Ask questions, and apologize for not following the case or knowing details
  • Let them know you are at least a little bit aware of the unfairness they face every day
  • If you are feeling comfortable, ask them to share some of these unfair experiences


  • Assume most white people have very little idea about the details of the case
  • Expect coworkers may want to talk about it with you but don’t know how
  • It’s OK to say, “I appreciate you bringing it up, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”
  • Share some stories from growing up. Childhood life is relatable and can break the experience gap sometimes.
  • Assume (as you already do probably) white people think we all stand on common ground
  • Expect extreme views on the liberal/conservative spectrum. The majority culture is dominated by these outlying influences lately.

IF YOU’RE IN A GRAY AREA (like most of us):

  • Assume human nature is to categorize and will want to “pin you down” and place you in a group, even just for the sake of one conversation
  • Get used to saying something like, “Well, there’s always a gray area”
  • Expect discomfort when you express a non-committal opinion
  • Make “I” statements. Don’t start sentences with “You.” e.g. “I feel…”
  • Encourage sharing of stories that hold common experiences. Look to generational touchstones, like “children of the 80s will remember…” etc.
  • Perhaps be the summer-upper. Paraphrase the sides of the conversation for clarity. This can be helpful and will serve to keep the focus off you.

I realize seeing race, controversy, cultural divides, etc. spoken of so plainly in a web article can be jarring. We so often respect an unwritten ban on uncomfortable topics. Also, overgeneralizing about black or white people’s experience isn’t the best option for me, but I thought I’d take the risk. I’ve run into so many people online and off who want to speak about these issues more openly but are fearful of doing so. Perhaps with a few scripts or an article to link to, we can begin to open up and find a better way for all of us.


Also published on LinkedIn

Photo Credit: Header: DryHundred Fear on Flickr

Photo Credit: Black/white dogs: Rakib Hasan Suman on Flickr

Check out my other popular posts here on LinkedIn:

The 1st time I was called a racist at work

The 1 thing “diversity” can’t mean in IT

just a guy with glasses and a mustache making a grimace face

just a guy with glasses and a mustache making a grimace face

My co-workers and I called it the “Not Really Game.” Anytime one of us suggested anything, work-related or not, our team member Todd* would quickly negate it. We started offering up a con-statement one day and a pro-statement the next, just to see what Todd would come up with.

Here’s a a real-life (I kid you not) example:


Me: “Wow, Hannah is running a marathon this weekend. That must be really hard.”

Todd: “Not really. [blah blah blah -fill in some bull here about training, etc. -]”


Me: “You know, I think if anyone trained, they could run a marathon.”

Todd: “Not really, because [blah blah blah].”

Todd’s contrary opinions were as dependable as death and taxes. In meetings, Todd prided himself as being “devil’s advocate,” but in reality he was just a run-of-the-mill troll. It didn’t matter the subject; He’d automatically disagree and spew  reasons why. It was not only annoying; it was seriously hindering. Projects with Todd took twice as long (giving new meaning to the term “project creep”). If Todd didn’t agree with an action, he simply wouldn’t do it. He’d procrastinate or come up with some lame excuse why the task couldn’t be completed. 

The easy solution would be to fire Todd, but we all know how difficult it is to move people on. Plus, like many trolls of his ilk, Todd “managed up” well. To managers, Todd painted himself as the savior of the group due to his infinite wisdom and foresight. To everyone else, Todd blocked, demeaned and frustrated.

The Not Really Game other team members and I constructed was a back-handed way to help save our sanity. It wasn’t the kindest or wisest solution, though. Here are 3 constructive ways to deal with the troll in your office. 


Establish communication boundaries on individuals and groups. Make rules of engagement inherent in office culture. E.g., in meetings, we asked for 1 “con” per person. In other words, we didn’t entertain a litany of dumps from one person on why a project wouldn’t fly. Challenges like staffing, hardware, or physical space limitations were acceptable subjects. Complaints like “I’ll have to change my lunch hour from 11:30 to 12:00″ were shut down. Eventually Todd learned to keep those knee-jerk negative responses to himself. Hint: Be prepared to restate the rules every. single. meeting.


Trolls don’t work like the rest of us. They lack empathy, they don’t tire of arguing, and they have a deep-seated need to feel superior, even in the tiniest of endeavors. If we called out Todd on his inconsistency, he’d simply say we misunderstood him the first time, or worse – he’d insist that he was right in both cases! Winning an argument with him just wasn’t possible. We learned to let Todd spew. At times we’d ignore his response and keep discussing or we’d drop the subject entirely, stopping all conversation. Hint: grow accustomed to awkward silences.


Some days the only thing that keeps you going is the promise of a better life. Working with negative people is draining and is unsurprisingly one of the top-listed causes of employee attrition. Actively work on your career. Don’t let your résumé gather dust. Document every win and every lesson learned at work. Manage up, too. When you’re surrounded by negativity, it’s essential to have hope in eventual escape. Do whatever you have to do to keep that faith. Motivational books? Cat posters? Do it. Do it all. Hint: Find like-minded, positive people & groups online to help you along.


Do you have any dealing-with-a-jerk advice beyond the hard and fast Internet rule of “Don’t feed the trolls?” Any stories to share or any relevant groups? Let us know in the comments.


Also posted on Linnkedin. 

Todd’s name was changed, as was Hannah’s, to protect the not-so-innocent.

Photo Credit: Daniela Vladimirova on Flickr. That’s not Todd. That’s just some nice dude who is Movembering.


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