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Friday, October 12, 2012

The Gift of Humility

I make a deep bow to life today. Although this year has been more hectic for me that I had anticipated, I am grateful that I could be hectic, because things could have gone a different way. I could have had a stroke, heart attack, or accident that would have robbed me from my mental or physical abilities, disabling me from doing what I would like to do. But I’ve been spared in that regard. And although I regularly contribute my share of grumbling to the thick book of human lamentations, I am aware of this: it is good to have a full agenda, because it keeps me out of idleness, which is still the devil’s playground.

I make a deep bow to humanity today. Although I’m often embarrassed of our collective derailment and atrocities toward the less fortunate; our negligence to those who dwell and labor far from our bed; our disdain towards those we label as "less"; and our discrimination, physical and mental abuse of others as well as ourselves, I prefer to focus on the other side today. Human beings are smart and intelligent, and jointly we make giant steps to greater awareness. Thanks to our ever-expanding global social contact, we increasingly become aware of the many others on earth, and we rapidly learn to accept and acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters.

I make a deep bow to the earth today. Despite the fact that some people are convinced that our journey on earth is actually hell, I will not submit to that mindset today. Instead, I prefer to think that we all help create our own destiny. We make choices even though we may not be able to predict the final results. Nonetheless, they are our choices. The Earth has little to do with it: it only accommodates the direction we determine. If, therefore, we choose to follow the path of doom and gloom, it paves our way toward that. Yet, if we choose the path of compassion and servitude, it does the same. The earth facilitates and accommodates, in the broadest sense of the word. It is fertile and rich, and serves us without resentment. If we want to over-exploit and deplete it, it will wither and become impoverished: but that, too, is a facilitation of our actions.

I make a deep bow to myself today. Although I've made an equal number of smart and stupid decisions, I have managed to keep myself afloat in the sea of human existence. I believe that indicates that I must be strong and resilient. I could have easily gone mad from my setbacks, or embittered from my disappointments; arrogant because of my victories, or mean-spirited due to my human blindness, but I did not do so. I have chosen a fairly respectable existence: one of servitude. And even though I regularly get frustrated by the shortsightedness that both others as myself regularly display, I prefer to focus on the constructive side today. I’m alive, and today I decide to see that as a blessing. Tomorrow I may be annoyed again and nit-pick on everything that is wrong, but not today.

I make a deep bow to you, my blog reader today. You could have decided to ignore this piece and read something else, but that you did not. You decided to read up to here and I think that is a great honor. Thank you for that. It is a tremendous reward to my effort. Now I hope that you also want to make some deep bows. To whom or what? I gladly leave that up to you!


Friday, September 21, 2012

The gift of deciding what matters to us


I just finished reading a book that I had picked up at a recent conference. It is titled "I moved your cheese" and is written as a critical parody on the 1998 bestseller: "Who moved my cheese." Over the years, I have frequently mentioned that old bestseller in my presentations, lectures, and writings, because the message it provides is -in itself- strong enough: two mice and two little people who live in a maze and daily meet each other in cheese station C, where they obtain their cheese. On a bad day, however, the cheese has disappeared, and everybody is in disarray. Yet, the two mice don’t waste too much time: they quickly put on their running shoes, and set off into the maze in order to find new cheese.

The two little people do what most people do: for a few weeks they grumble about the injustice done to them, but in the end one of them suggests that they follow the example of the mice and also start looking for a new cheese source. The other doesn’t want to hear about this, because he feels that his rights have been violated, so he prefers to sit and wait until the cheese supply in station C is restored.

The little person that takes off to look for new cheese learns many lessons on his way to the uncertain future, but eventually discovers a new, bigger cheese station, where, lo and behold, he gets reunited with the two mice, who have settled in, but nevertheless keep their running shoes hanging around their necks in case of a new crisis.

Moral of the story: changes are continuous and unpredictable, and flexibility is the best way to respond to it.

In "I Moved Your Cheese" the author firmly criticizes the above story. While he agrees that life is full of surprises and that we must be flexible, he also feels that we shouldn’t take everything as a given, but should think critically about our situation and the changes we face. He comments that the first book fails to address the issue of who has actually moved the cheese.  Thus, he feels that the figures in that story promote a victimized mentality: someone took the cheese out of our mouth, and now we just look for other cheese -- no questions asked. The writer underscores that if we think this way, we will always remain the victims of "others".

In “I moved your cheese” the author introduces three mice, Max, Zed and Big, each of whom is exceptional in his own way. Max is incurably inquisitive and wants to know the "how" and "why" of everything. This is how he ultimately discovers that there is a world outside the maze, where people decide where the cheese gets moved to, so they can study the reactions of the mice. Once aware of this, Max begins to manipulate the logbooks of the people when they are asleep, and realizes that he now has the power to determine where the cheese will be placed on a daily basis.

Zed lives in the maze like all the other mice, but doesn’t care much about cheese. He eats just enough to stay afloat, and doesn’t allow his happiness to depend on abundance or scarcity of cheese. The other mice don’t understand him, because he is so stoic and detached in a way. When Max tells Zed about the world outside the maze and all the manipulations that go on with the cheese, Zed wisely responds: "the problem is not that the mouse in the maze, but that the maze in the mouse is: we all determine for ourselves what our shortcomings are".

Big, finally, becomes disturbed by the growing masses of mice around him and actively starts looking for a way out. Strong and athletic as he is, he begins to test the walls of the maze. One day he gathers all his physical and mental strength and runs straight through the thinnest wall, leaving a big hole in the maze for whoever wants to follow him, but determined for himself to never return to that restrictive maze.

Of course it depends on each of us to decide who we want to identify with: the mice of the second book, the mice and little people of the first book, or our own unique self, flexible and quick, but at the same time creative and critically thinking about what, in this life, is most important for us.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The gift of seeing things in perspective


Culture is a more influential phenomenon than we often think, and I don’t just mean the culture of a country, but every prevailing behavioral pattern in large and smaller communities. The other day I read in an article about an employee of a Brazilian beer company who was granted $25,000.00 after suing his employer for unreasonable and unethical demands. The man accused his employer of forcing him to participate in parties with prostitutes and watching pornographic movies. The judge handling this case asserted that the plaintiff, who is married and a devoted member of a Christian Church, had frequently been humiliated and ridiculed by his coworkers.

Disturbing situation, especially if we consider that it happens far more often than we read about it. Workforce members often find that they can only safeguard their jobs if they stretch their ethical boundaries. One can say, of course, that everyone is free to move on if they feel that their job brings unreasonable demands, but that's easier said than done, because we all know that jobs are not readily available, and that one cannot simply exit if one has monthly expenses and a family to uphold.

So, it might be worthwhile to examine why working people are placed before these types of moral challenges. First off, I would like to clarify that I, personally, have nothing against commercial sex workers. I think they suffice a need and probably even help lower the number of rape crimes in their communities. What disgusts me is the fact that business executives consider it necessary to entertain their affluent clients with distasteful activities that place their employees before ethical dilemmas.

And this is not a problem limited to certain parts of the world: it’s a global pestilence. In America plenty of scandals have been published over the years, especially about financial giants on Wall Street, where the millions roll as if they were peppermints. By default, women have had a hard time staying afloat in such an environment, not only because they often got harassed or bullied by their male coworkers, but also because they felt awkward taking clients to strip clubs. As a result women in this sector remain unmarried or exchange their high-paying but unreasonable jobs less prestigious but more ethically sound ones. The male employees generally seem to have fewer problems with this culture, even though there are some who abhor this part of their obligations, such as the above-mentioned Brazilian beer company employee.

As for the forced viewing of porn films I do have some reservations, because I feel that one doesn't have to look at something one doesn’t want to see. Of greater concern to me is the fact that some may think justice has been done now that the Brazilian beer company employee has been awarded $ 25,000.00 for having to endure this culture. But when we consider that the company has an annual turnover of more than half a billion, it quickly becomes clear that this sum is an absurd pittance for this mammoth company. Consequently, I would be very surprised if this fine would change anything about this corporation’s culture. After all, if you can sway a client into a collaboration that will guarantee several millions of dollars annually, and in return you might be fined the meager sum of $25,000.00 every ten years, would you stop if you had no moral conscience? Of course not!

Therefore, I believe that this entire damage compensation issue is a farce, intended to derail the masses, while the wicked corporate culture gets prolonged uninterruptedly. But then again, there’s nothing new under the sun.

The gift of focus


Life is a sequence of experiences, gentle and hard
This is a reality from which none of us is barred
But there are different ways
Of perceiving our living days
And to do so, we don’t have to be unusually smart.

We should always consider – before we raise our voices
That what we experience is the result of our own choices
We may not have known before
What our chosen path had in store
But reflection is always better than making twitchy noises.

Yet, even more important for us is the understanding
That we alienate others by complaining and demanding
If we grumble and gripe all the time
Our life’s value won’t be worth a dime
And worst of all: we’ll feel as if our misery is expanding!

For, while we cannot see in our future when we choose
We can decide to sing a happy life-tune or wail the blues
You see, our focus actually determines
The content of our personal sermons
It triggers the difference between sensing if we win or lose.

In our lives we have many things to be overjoyed about
But also things that can cause us to moan, cry, or shout
Some of us see our glass as half full
Others nag that it’s a half-empty pool
Forgetting that overcoming trials is what it’s all about.

So, if you wish, take this as a well-intended invitation
To reflect on your life and engage in contemplation
Is it really all terrible and bad?
Or are there things that make you glad?
If so, let’s gratefully celebrate our life’s jubilation!

joan marques



Thursday, August 30, 2012

The gift of our past

The other day I was browsing through one of the well-known online newspapers, and came across a piece titled: "If you could erase something from your past, would you?"* I decided to first philosophize about the question, and then consider reading the article. If someone would have asked me this question ten or fifteen years ago, I would have probably admitted and even pointed out which parts of my past I would like to erase. Yet, today I look at it entirely differently. This may be one of the benefits of maturing: Today I see my life as an interesting book. One of which each page is valuable, because it contributes to a fascinating, illuminating whole. And the nicest thing to all of this is that the book is not complete yet, because there are new paragraphs written every day, leading to new pages and, ultimately, chapters.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to me. Everyone is writing his or her own book all the time. The difference may be that we're not all equally interested in creating new chapters. Wim Sonneveld, a popular Dutch comedian from the past, recorded a conference of an old man in a nursing home who reminisces about his wife. In a whining tone he compares her to a beautiful book, but one that he has already finished. This may sound funny, but if you think about it, it may also indicate one of the following facts: 1) his wife was deceased (which I believe was the case here), 2) his wife was alive but had ceased to add new meaning to her life, so there was no surprise element anymore in their relationship, or 3) he lost interest in his wife, as happens in so many long-term relationships, and was thus no longer interested in possible new dimensions she had to offer.

Of course we cannot prevent others from losing interest in us, but we can nourish interest in our own lives. Colleagues, partners, friends, and even family members come and go in our lives, but there’s no escaping ourselves, at least not while we have all our marbles.

And so we continue writing our book, but we do so in our own preferred way: we can fill page after page  with a monotonous pattern of recurring predictabilities, or we can spice up our story with self-development, new experiences, fun and gratifying activities and meaningful work. We can also determine our attitude to previous chapters: we can consider them as failed and regret them, wishing we could forget them as soon as possible, or we can accept them for what they really are: the building blocks that have contributed to the person who we are today, and the person we will be in the future. Ultimately, it’s not the glorious moments that bring us our insights, but the less pleasant experiences of which we may feel less proud or perhaps even detect a small remnant sorrow or shame. Those are the moments that molded us into understanding and compassionate beings and that form the foundation for the insights that we now share with younger generations. I became aware of that once again last week in the first workshop this semester: I told the participants about a major challenge that I faced some twenty or more years ago, and the fact that I did not understand what it would all be good for, but now today, I can tap from that enormous wealth of beautiful and less striking, robust and fragile, clear and fuzzy, sunny and dark experiences, and use them as illustrations in broadening the horizons of those who value it.  So expunge? I don’t think so…
----------------------------
* The Huffington Post

Friday, August 17, 2012

Gifts We Overlook: The gift of Good Karma

Gifts We Overlook: The gift of Good Karma: A good friend of mine - I call him my "brother" - has recently started a new project: "Project Good Karma." The first time he mentioned ...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The gift of Good Karma

A good friend of mine - I call him my "brother" - has recently started a new project: "Project Good Karma." The first time he mentioned it to me I was a bit skeptical. Logical actually, if you reside in a heavily commercially grafted country as America and someone tells you that he plans to persuade affluent individuals to give 1% of their property to a charitable cause, preferably in their own area, so that they can instantly see the result of their good deed. Noble idea, for sure! But how many people would really seriously think about this? Well, as I gave it some deeper thought, I became increasingly convinced, just like my brother, that there are indeed plenty of people living on spaceship earth, who would like to do something good, but simply lack confidence in the many ads they see on television about sending donations to poor children in remote areas. It is, after all, equally well-known that from all these donations only a tiny part really benefit these needy children. The lion share of the donations is spent on salaries, travel and hotel costs and other expenses of the organization members: albeit for the purpose, yet not the way it was intended by the donors. Good Karma Project appeals to me because of its all-volunteer based structure, and its local focus. So, no support for remote projects of which you cannot find out whether they really materialize.

Karma is, in itself, not an unknown concept, but for those still wondering: it stems from Hinduism and Buddhism, and is literally translated as 'act', 'action' or 'deed'. It means that a good deed results in good consequences, and a bad deed in bad consequences. According to the Buddhist teachings greed, hatred and ignorance are the three main causes of evil deeds, while the opposite of these three phenomena, generosity, loving-kindness, and understanding, are the foundation for good deeds. According to this principle, one’s actions are more important than his or her faith. In other words, if you engage in good deeds, it does not matter what you believe. You can probably recall that warm feeling inside when you performed a good deed to someone who did not expect it. It is very much in line with the old adage: "A bit of fragrance sticks to the hand that gives flowers."

 So how does Project Good Karma work? Well, the basic goal is to get people interested in it by elevating their awareness. We all grumble about the inequality in the world and the unjust suffering of so many, but we often think it will carry too far to actually do something about it. That is actually just a smart way to appease our conscience, because we can perform good deeds all around us. The Good Karma Project is looking for volunteers who are interested to become Good Karma Ambassadors in their area. There is little time and no money required for this commitment: only good will and decisiveness. Good Karma Ambassadors will encourage others in their area who might also want to engage in this noble purpose. The Good Karma group in a particular neighborhood, city, or district, then determines who or what is in their environment needs help, brings this in the larger group, and together we look at how we can make a difference.No hidden agendas and nothing else to be gained than the realization that we’re doing something good for our fellow beings.
Participating in the Good Karma Project also means that you help other people around you aware of needs that they can help alleviate. And the more we mitigate needs, the more confidence we gain in our own abilities. If we can create small groups that work on raising awareness and improving local situations in different places on earth, we can extensively and collaboratively do something about the suffering of others. The Good Karma project is not tied to any organization, but consists entirely of volunteers. If you are on Facebook, you can read more about it in the group "Project Good Karma (PGK)." I think it's a wonderful idea and am certainly participating.How about you?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The gift of authenticity

“If you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember anything”

~Mark Twain

Mark Twain hit the nail on the head with many of his sayings, but he hit it extra right when he referred to always telling the truth. It is so simple to just be honest, and yet, so difficult. Why? I have been wondering about this over the years, and I came to the conclusion that the way we have been programmed from crib till adolescence lies at the foundation of this behavior. Being authentic – which also entails telling the truth – has almost become an extinct trait, because many of us have become too busy following trends that dictate us what to wear, say, drive, do, or eat, and –even more flagrantly- how to do it. We have landed in an era where it takes the greatest effort to remain ourselves, and forego all the temptations and challenges placed on our path. The biggest problem of being authentic is, namely, that you can get chastised. As Annie Leonard puts it in “The Story of Stuff”: we have become so over-programmed in thinking that everything about us is wrong, and that the only way we can correct this is to shop till we drop, that we actually believe it!

Not being authentic comes in numerous forms, but it mainly expresses itself in unnatural behavior. I can get so disheartened when I see people following trends without wondering if they are even remotely happy doing so, or if these trends are even good for them. The simplest example I can think of at the moment is fashion. I often see young women walking in shorts and jeans that may have looked sexy on the model promoting them, but look absolutely unattractive on them, because these outfits display their physical weaknesses in the most blatant ways. The saddest part of the story is that these women may have paid a lot of money for their mindless behavior, while they could have chosen something that would fit their posture much better, and maybe even set a new trend! But the fashion industry cannot be blamed – and neither can any other industry, media outlet, or social trend - because the choices are ultimately ours.  

Another reason why authenticity has become such an outlandish trait is because of the demands of our workplaces. Since transparency is not customary in our professional world, we are not allowed to be fully open to our co-workers, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. We may, after all, run the risk of sharing too much information, thus jeopardizing our job.

And then there is this factor of getting ahead. People who are still in stages where they depend on others to be helped to the next level have to be extra cautious with what they say and how they say it. They find themselves forced to be politically correct and consider what they say to whom, in order to avoid ruining their career advancement.

The above is just the tip of the authenticity-iceberg, but as you may already see, it makes for a pretty hypocrite human society. The truth of the matter is, that it becomes easier to be authentic when you are either independently wealthy, uncaring about others' feelings, fearless about your career progress, rebellious, or more mature, hence, more progressed in life.
One positive endnote that may reduce any sense of hopelessness within the reader of this piece: there are various ways in which you can be authentic without endangering your relationships or progress. In other words, you can focus on the negative and tell the truth in a hurtful way, or you can focus on the positive and find a tactful manner to present it. For example, if your teacher’s lectures are boring, you can either tell him that he bores you to tears, or come up with some positive suggestions to “make the class more interesting.”

In sum, being authentic is not always easy, but it can make life much more pleasant and rewarding. Authenticity requires courage and awareness of your own value as a person. You don’t have to be part of every fashion trend to matter. You don’t have to participate in every social habit that is “cool” at the moment. And if you have to live beyond your means to be accepted by your friends, it’s time to release them. Authenticity can be a tremendous emancipation – if you let it.
Joan Marques

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The gift of respect

About half a year ago a man made a comment that stunned me. It was right after the orals for my second doctorate - in the Netherlands. This professor from Belgium was a member of my examination Committee, and he said, "It's great to enlarge your consciousness about the whereabouts of all living creatures, but at the same time it must be very frustrating, because you become aware of so much suffering."

He hit the nail on the head: it ís a painful experience. I have shared my perspectives rather frequently with my reading audience in the last few years. I remember writing about my visit to Chicago,  a wonderful city, where tourists love to take a sightseeing ride in a beautifully painted carriage, towed by some horses. Unfortunately, there are few who are concerned about the suffering of these animals that are now forced to participate in the heavy downtown traffic with thousands of cars and motorcycles around them, and have to inhale poisonous exhaust fumes from close-by, minute after minute. Consequence: tears in Chicago for me. I also recall a visit to the LA zoo, where I realized, again in tears, that I would never again enter a zoo, particularly after seeing the miserable elephant in the hot sun and the gorilla that, in sheer misery, was pulling grass in his cage with his back towards the public. Watching television can be traumatic as well, because horses are abused in many Westerns without any concern for their wellbeing. And then there are the scenes of bears, tigers, or other wild animals, who have to suffer from training for many months before they are ready for the film shots, and then get trashed afterwards or, if they are lucky, land at the Wildlife Way Station, an ailing non-governmental organization, that tries heroically to offer a home to those who are now unfit for wildlife.

Of course the awareness reaches beyond just animals. About human suffering there’s so much to say that I don't even know where to start: the millions of undernourished, uneducated children, and their powerless mothers, while there are mammoth companies nearby, with stinking rich managers, insensitive to the gross inequalities that they deliberately maintain? Or senior citizens who, after a life of hard work for their families, land in senior homes where they are snubbed, and where their children and grandchildren sporadically pay a visit, because granny can't do much for them anymore? Or miserly doctors who have converted their vocation into pure business and only want to "serve" where they can rummage a lot of money? Many of these supposed medical caregivers are no longer interested in the cause of a problem, because it takes too much time and energy and it brings in relatively little money. Instead, they prefer to write out recipes for expensive drugs that smother the symptoms, and preferably cause side-effects, upon which they can write out some more recipes, thus maintaining their patients’ dependency.

Last week a dear family friend became the victim of such neglect: a prominent specialist neglected her problem, so now her young children are preparing for their first mother's day without a mother.

Having respect for all beings hurts and is often difficult too. After all, how do you respect those who have no respect for the well-being of others? That’s hard. It’s tragic too.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The gift of positive thinking

There is a story of two shoe factory representatives, George and Jake, who had to do market research in a remote African village. Georges report was succinct: "There is no potential in this village. Nobody has shoes!" Jake's report was also succinct:" There is enormous potential in this village. Nobody has shoes! "This story shows how two people can look at the same situation and draw totally different conclusions. The world has an abundance of Georges and a shortage of Jakes. And this is where I would like to start my real point.

I believe you can provoke major changes by starting small: with one person at a time. The way I try to contribute to a positive change is through education and writing. I share my ideas with small and sometimes larger groups in hopes that at least some members of these groups will actually be touched. Some people are natural Jakes, so they need little encouragement to create positive change to work. Most, however, are Georges: they see a problem in every opportunity, and refuse to change the current situation regardless how much they suffer from it! It takes a lot of courage - and often work - to bring about positive change. Oftentimes, you will find yourself chastised if you even dare to suggest something different!

Yet, it all starts with changing yourself, because the best example is set by your own life, right? George Bernard Shaw, a famous Irish writer, once said: "The best reformers our world has ever known are those which commence themselves." There's a funny note about Gandhi that proofs this: a woman asked Gandhi to tell her son not to eat sweets anymore. Gandhi suggested the woman come back in two weeks. When she returned Gandhi said to her son: "Boy, you should not eat sweets. It is not healthy." The woman asked Gandhi why they had to wait two weeks to hear this and Gandhi said:" Because I was eating sweets myself two weeks ago!"

Now, to continue about change: if you are bold enough to try for a change you should be prepared to get vilified. Think of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and many others now widely honored, but all of which were murdered. Today the ideologies of these history-transformers have many followers.

Unfortunately, the bulk of these followers make exactly the same mistake as the murderers of their role models: they refuse to hear about anything else! Why? Because the world has more Georges than Jakes! I notice it every day in my work. As a management professor, I am convinced that I teach the most important thing, because management is not just about our work: it pertains to our entire life! Yet, as in almost anything else, there is also apathy in management. Think of your own work: You probably have a supervisor (or are one yourself), and a department head, followed by a vice president and a CEO. This construct was built on a system that thrived over 100 years ago when people were mainly engaging in assembly-line work, which required constant supervision to ensure that everything happened as effectively as possible.

Today, we have machines to do the repetitive work, while human beings engage more in the intellectual tasks. The problems workers face today are quite different from those of a century ago: instead of recurring issues we now solve ambiguous problems. The logical result should be that the way we lead others should shift from controlling to motivating. However, applying this change takes courage, so I keep talking, writing, and acting, hoping to help awaken the Jakes, so they can say, "Nobody has shoes? What an opportunity! What an opportunity!"