When Will You Begin Your Second Life?

It’s unexpectedly 87° in London. I’m sitting under a gnarly tree straight out of an Arthurian legend. There is barely the hint of a breeze; the sun is glazing everything with a shimmer.

I was taken back to a moment last December to a moment in Mexico. I was sharing a cab with a fellow traveler I had just met at the airport who, like me, was headed to the small beach towns on the Oaxacan coastline.

The cab had stopped on the asphalt road for about half an hour because of a blockade. I remember us asking the driver to turn on the air-conditioning, and he said there would be an extra charge for that. I can’t remember what we decided, but that moment with the windows rolled down, felt precisely like this moment in London.

I had been in cooler Mexico City; she was escaping for a short vacation from the wintry U.S. So, we both sat there, absorbing the heat, reveling in the awareness that it was not going to give way to chilly winds or snow. We listened to the birds chirping in the shimmering thickets, and in between shared our stories, two strangers in resonance, anticipating the week ahead.

I got dropped off first. We stayed in touch, exchanging notes on our adventures, comparing the vibes of the different beach towns strung along the coastline. After a week she returned to the pressures of her work in the U.S .and wrote:

“…back to “real life” and reminiscing fondly on the days of travel.”

A thought crossed my mind, so I replied:

“What if the days of travel and the energy and everything they encompass are the “real life”? The other life is our scripted, sometimes dictated life. Bringing the two together I feel is the key.”

Back to this summer moment in London. I’ve recently lost a dear friend, who passed well before his time. George was a gifted musician who brought a standard of excellence to his work, and love, laughter and zest for life to everything. He had been living the “real life” I spoke of in my text — little was scripted and dictated, and he was doing what he loved most.

George won awards for his musical direction and touched so many people along the way. While his life and plans were cut short (there was so much more that he wanted to do) he transitioned in peace. I know that he looked back at his accomplishment with tremendous pride.

His death reminded me of the urgency of living the life we choose, not the one chosen for us. For many, what we call “real life” is the latter, our scripted life. It’s the life birthed by the dictates of society, our upbringing, and limiting beliefs we have not questioned. It’s the manifestation of thoughts had, beliefs held, and decisions or choices made.

If this life is not the one you want to be living, don’t give it more solidity or sanction than it deserves. Know that the life you really want, the life that energizes you, the life that lies sleeping, dormant, waiting for the kiss of awakening that only you can bestow.

One way to begin this is to accept that your unlived life is waiting in the wings. Imagine it, flirt with it, and allow it to start dancing with your scripted life. Live, if you can, in the space between the two lives, moving back-and-forth, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes aligning serendipitously. Barbara De Angelis expresses it beautifully:

“The moment in between what you once were, and who you are now becoming, is where the dance of life really takes place.”

Look for and welcome this dance of life. Let this unlived life lift you into the air, spin you around for a dizzying moment, so you feel its aliveness, being OK with what is and anticipating what is to come.

In time, this more resonant unlived life will begin to feel more real to you. Look for an opening., and then slip through unnoticed by the scripted life with its ever-vigilant judge and jury.

Begin to fill in its details. Watch for the moments when this other life seems to move through you with more ease and grace. Notice its pull, even in the most mundane moments like sitting in a cab on a hot, cloudless day on a road in Mexico.

There is a natural rhythm that surfaces when you assert your birthright of belonging to this world, as natural as the melodies that magically emerged when my friend George would put his fingers to the piano.

Silence the haranguing or deceptive voices of the world and allow your inner voice to speak to you of this unlived life, the one truer to who you are. Do your inner work until you’re no longer willing to be led or resigned to playing second fiddle, forever waiting in the wings for your turn.

At first, your scripted life will resist the dance and insist it lead. But when you invite your unlived life to dance, its steps will become more practiced. It may trip up here and there, but it does not seek perfection, for it does not dance for a judge.

It dances because it dances.

Infants learning to walk do not have a destination; they walk for the joy of walking. If they fall, they do not judge themselves for doing it poorly. They get up and keeps going. Be like that.

Choose to let your unlived life lead the dance. You have that power and once you realize it was always yours, gracefully or in a sudden deft move, decide to wrest the lead.

The scripted life fully exposed now in its fears and fixations, that only ever knew one set of moves, falls away. Leave it behind. Don’t give it any more energy. It doesn’t need to be maligned or regretted because it’s done its work to get you to where you are. It has no new moves to show. Don’t worry, you’ll take what you need and come up with new steps.

Brazilian modernist, Mario de Andrade wrote a poem called My Soul Has a Hat, about crossing the threshold into having less time to live than one has lived. The closing line is profound in its paradox:

“We have two lives and the second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

One day, you will awaken fully in your new life. It will feel different, yet true and familiar, whether sensed in the pulsing of your heart, or the grounding energy of your gut. It will feed you plenty and infuse you with all the power you need. It will throw challenges your way so you can draw upon your creativity and strengths to meet them.

One day, there will only be this one life, the one that you belong to.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –Dedicated to the memory of my beloved friend, George Fulginiti-Shakar

The Coach I Never Met

Fall sunset in Joshua Tree National Park

Sometimes, people we’ve never met can have a profound impact on our lives and learning. Let me tell you about one such person, Nancy Duncan. Nancy was my mentor coach during my CTI coaching certification program last year. I had interviewed nine potential mentor coaches. Then, a fellow student recommended her coach, Nancy.

“Well, one more interview can’t hurt,” I said, and so, I called her. After our session, I knew immediately that Nancy was the right fit. She loved coaching students in CTI certification, and it showed. She also had special certification rates that only one of the other coaches I spoke to offered.

I started my certification in the spring of 2018, and Nancy and I worked together into late fall. Mentor coaches guide you through your training and also coach you on what’s going on in your own life. Yes, coaches need coaches too!

By late summer in DC, I was truly itching to get out of town and embark on an adventure out west that had been a dream for a while. However, I had taken on a consulting assignment that had morphed into something far bigger than I signed up for. It would have been challenging to manage from the road, especially as I planned to explore the southwest US on this trip; you can drive through canyons and desert for miles on end without a rest point or wi-fi signal. And besides, I had quit my job a few years earlier so I could have this kind of freedom. The assignment was turning into another job, and I did not want to be tethered to a laptop.

With Nancy’s coaching holding me firmly accountable to my vision, I ended my consulting agreement. This was not easy to do as I like to complete what I have started, but, it gave me the bandwidth to focus on something that had become far more important to me–my coaching certification and clients. It was saying goodbye to the old world I had wanted to leave behind and step into the new one.

I continued my certification and coaching from the road. My last call with Nancy in early October was from Hilo. We had one more call scheduled after that. She felt that I was ready for my exam and did not need it. She also said she was going to take a break from coaching effective immediately. I have a hard time with parting, and so she agreed to schedule one more session in November.

When I reached LA in early November, I realized that she was right–I did not need another session to prepare for my exams. We had practiced enough and gone through drills. I had also sensed something was up when I last spoke to Nancy, that she was taking a break because something else had interrupted her life. And so, when I wrote to her to cancel the last session, I also said:

“I do want to thank you for your coaching—the work we did has really helped me become a better coach, and I am well prepared for my certification. Thank you for your commitment to my growth.”

She replied on November 3: “It has been my honor and delight to work with you. Let me know once you have your CPCC [certification].”

It was a succinct reply, that I knew was heartfelt and true to how she showed up as a coach.

After LA, I headed to Palm Springs to catch up with a friend. Then, after a few days in Joshua Tree National Park, I headed east to Phoenix where Nancy lived, and from where I would fly back to DC. I had always hoped we would have a chance to meet and even have our last session in person. But we had completed our relationship, and knowing she was taking a break, that was no longer on the agenda.

I sent her a message on December 23 from DC as soon as I got word that I had passed my exam: “It feels good to be certified! I just wanted to thank you for all your coaching and diligence in making sure I was ready for this. You really are committed to your clients, and I know while you’re taking a break from coaching, there are many more out there who would benefit from your dedication and commitment as I have. Thank you again, and wishing you good transformations in the year ahead…”

I never heard back.

Almost a year passed. A few days ago, on November 9, 2019, she popped into my head. I searched online and came across her obituary. She had passed away from cancer on November 12, 2018. Her last message to me had been written in her last week of life as she was dying, and still being able to say: “it has been my honor and delight to work with you.”

I can’t think of anything that could better epitomize the service and giving that true coaches are committed to. This last lesson, coming from her heart, could not have been captured in any session. It was not something she did, it was in her beingness.

One thing I’m relearning from this experience is the power of appreciating and acknowledging someone, not only for what they may have given, or how they helped, but for whom they’re being in the expression their gifts.

Acknowledgment comes from the heart, not the intellect. A “thank you” may precede it, but it is not thanks nor praise nor flattery. It doesn’t seek anything in return. Something gets created in an acknowledgment–it is generative.

Be generous in your acknowledgment of others. Don’t hold back—true acknowledgment is authentic, and it asks us to be vulnerable. Look the person in the eye as you acknowledge them. If you’re on the phone or writing an email to a person you have never met, don’t worry, it will be received and felt as powerfully. And don’t wait.

I’m very saddened by Nancy’s death. She was a joy to work with, comforting, concerned, optimistic, and ultimately, someone who held me accountable to move forward on my new path despite my fears. While she would not have read my last acknowledgment, I know she got it–both in our prior communications and the unseen intimacy we can choose to have with another person.

Practicing the Art of Discernment

Close up from an oil painting I made

“It’s not working.” 

“I don’t know what I’m doing…” 

“I’ve messed it all up.” 

“I’m not happy with it!”

These are some of the things fellow students say in my art class. Its comprised of adults, many well past their 50s, several quite talented and serious painters. They don’t depend on art for their income, and many are retired.

And yet when the instructor comes around to help, these are the kind of comments I overhear a lot. I used to complain about my inadequate artistic skills in the same way. After training as a co-active coach, I learned to bring a lens of curiosity, rather than judgment, to the lives of my clients. For, example, when a client reports that they have not done what they said they would do between sessions, they’re not being a “bad” client. That judgment does not serve them. Instead, they present an opportunity to ask what became more important than doing the assignment or exploring the fear that held them back.

This approach is kinder and more effective at getting to the root of why we don’t do what we say we will. Looking at things with curiosity is a bit like turning over a rock in the garden to see the bugs and worms squirming underneath but not judging them because they live under a rock.

Curiosity is also a handy lens to bring to painting. As in coaching, it creates a space for discernment.

“If judging is a process of labeling, discernment is a process of learning,” says Amy Whitaker in her insightful book, Art Thinking.

So, now I catch myself out too. I stop myself from saying things like “I’m unhappy with my painting” to being curious instead about why it’s not working. 

Now, what constitutes “working” when it comes to art is a lifelong study, and entire tomes have been written on the subject. We won’t go into that, other than to say that the instructor and artist can together determine how well a painting works, without it having to be a judgment of the artist. 

As Whitaker also notes, art students are asked to stand back from their work to see what is going on. You cannot discern with your face up in the canvas and a brush in your hand. Sometimes I will take my painting to the hallway and stand 20 feet away from it. How does it look from this distance? Next, I will turn the canvas upside down to figure out how form holds in space. And when you look at a painting in the mirror, a technique handed down from da Vinci himself, it miraculously becomes a different beast altogether. The parts of the painting that need attention almost seem to pop out while those that work well seem to take on even more resonance. 

All these tactics engender a shift in perspective through distance or an unexpected reversal. It challenges any preconceived mental images we have in our minds of what the completed painting “should” look like, and instead focus on what’s actually here. 

These tactics help to separate our creation from ourselves. Once we stop looking to some paint that we slapped on a canvas as a measure of our inherent worth as creative human beings, we are liberated to discern what needs improving. It is working on this edge of our present ability, of struggling, reaching and falling short, that takes us into the sweet spot of “deliberate practice” extolled by Daniel Coyle in his revelatory book, The Talent Code

The vase in this painting epitomized this struggle because I just couldn’t get it to work with the rest of the painting, neither the shape nor capturing its curvature. It also did not sit and hold its place as revealed by da Vinci’s mirror technique. I returned to it at each session never quite satisfied, trying not to blame the vase for being of a somewhat odd shape and color to begin with, nor myself for not being able to render it as I saw it. In the third and last session, it finally came together.

Making mistakes is inherent in this process. If anything, the painting usually gets worse before it gets better. I used to be much more attached to the outcome when I first started oil painting. Under the cryptic Zen-like guidance of one of my instructors, I learned to let go. 

Invariably, in class, at some point, someone will knock a painting off an easel by accident, and everyone will gasp with horror. I’ve learned to laugh when this happens to my painting and joke that the now smeared canvas looks better.

Gradually, as I became more detached from the imagined masterwork I would create, I found the process to be the primary source of enrichment. 

This metaphor of creating a painting is one that we can apply to our own lives. When we navigate our lives with discernment (via curiosity) rather than judgment, we allow a space for deliberate practice to begin.

We have deemed ourselves as inherently worthy and can now focus on the challenges of getting better at our craft, whether it is raising children, building a business, or making a quilt. 

We will know that it is at the edge of our ability where we need to stretch—and struggle—a bit. If we do this consistently, we will grow and astonish ourselves and others. We are essentially nurturing the crucial skill-building myelin sheaths of new neural pathways rather than merely traversing the old worn ones that lead to judgment and dead ends. 

All of my fellow artists are committed to creating better art. Many are painting several times a week, and we’re often in a collective flow state in which the three-hour session evaporates in what seems like minutes. But when we switch into judgment, we’re headed down a slippery slope where our self-worth becomes entangled with the work we are creating.

At any stage in the process of art and life, we can pause and take a step back. We can disentangle, turn things upside down and take a good hard look in the mirror. We can drop judgment in favor of curiosity. We can be kinder. Only then, can we better discern where we need to go or what to do next.

What is your lighthouse question?

A lighthouse question can be the beacon that guides us through unknown territory especially when we are creating something new in our lives. 

Art and business interlocutor, Amy Whitaker introduced the lighthouse question in her groundbreaking book, Art Thinking. A lighthouse question comes into play when what we want can’t easily be reduced to SMART targets or goals. That ‘something’ may be too daring, abstract or simply has never been done before. SMART targets have their place, but as Whitaker writes, they also reflect a belief system that the future responds to specific, knowable plans.” 

More usefully, Whitaker likens the lighthouse question to the major dramatic question underlying a screenplay. There is the plot line (what will happen, and who will do or say what when) but underneath the plot flows the “current” of a more expansive and meaningful question.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

For example, the major dramatic questions underlying the movie Green Book might be: can two men from different classes and ethnicities be friends in a segregated America of the 1960s and can a black man be seen and respected as an equal human being in white America? (The second question is one we are, woefully, still struggling with.) In a way, it’s like asking, what’s really the big possibility at stake here?

 As a co-active coach, I am also asking clients: what’s really at stake here? I help clients claim a vision for their life that is more authentic, meaningful and fulfilling—to them. Many come to me with their plot lines all worked out such as “I just need help getting a job that pays a little bit more and where I won’t have to work late.” And then they’re off to the races, applying to every job posted online that they are equipped for, whether it’s a good fit or not. They don’t take time to stand back to ask the more profound lighthouse questions beneath, such as:  

-Earning more money is one factor, but what else is essential to have? 

-What opportunities have I not looked at because I believe they won’t pay enough? 

-What kind of work would really engage me and get me up in the morning?  

These are the questions that as a coach I am more interested in shining a light on because they permit clients to explore bigger-hearted and more generous possibilities of whom we can be. 

Most people live a ‘second-hand’ life, one handed to them, based on what parents, social network, culture, or society tell them they should be and do. And yet, many of us experience moments when our inner voice comes through loud and clear and when we are inspired from the heart. But in the cold light of day we are often too scared to move towards what we want, or just don’t know how. This is where a lighthouse question can help. 

As an example, Whitaker gives a gripping account of Roger Bannister who was the first man to break the four-minute mile, something that apparently it was believed could not be done without the risk of death. This was not something that could be set up as SMART goals, as there was no precedent for it. It required imagination. While the plotline of this exciting story might focus on teamwork and tactics that Bannister used to get around the track faster, the major dramatic question she writes was “can a man run that fast?” Or even bolder than that: “is the frontier of human capability bigger than we know?” 

People who are willing to make a break from the trajectory of their predictable past and create something new in their lives are the ones who have most to gain by articulating their lighthouse question. Whitaker notes, “you move forward not by winning a game but by creating the game itself. You’re not going from a known A to a known B, you’re inventing B….”

Lighthouse questions illuminate a way forward towards B; but they do not provide binary answers, and they are certainly not a step-by-step road map. They are a beacon that can elicit new ways being, stir dormant qualities within you, deepen your sense of your purpose or vision, and light your way forward. 

Let me use an example from my own life. In a blog post a few years back I wrote:

A month after I turned 50, I quit my job. I said goodbye to a decent salary…with a future untold… I was almost nine years into my monogamous relationship with my job, and I’d been in the game long enough to know that I run on something akin to a seven to nine-year itch in my professional life. And each time the push to renew, to find new shores, is different. I decided it was time to go against the grain, take a break — a sabbatical if you will — stretch my toes out and enjoy life a little more. It was time to know what I wanted the rest of my working years to feel like. What was to be the texture of my remaining time? What was, to paraphrase Oliver, to be my “place in the family of things”?

Suffice it to say this was not an easy decision. What if my money runs out? What will I actually do with my life? Friends asked: won’t you have a hard time getting another job after 50, and what about retirement? These are all valid questions to ask, as there is a part of us that wants to make sure we don’t end up under a bridge. But as I look back on that period, I realize that the major dramatic questions for this story for were: 

1. Can someone in their 50s reinvent themselves to do something totally different, more fulfilling and fun? (the texture of my remaining time)

2. What does it mean to find your place “in the family of things”?

These are the perennial question that many people later stage of life are willing to explore. Now, my life is not a Netflix miniseries (at least not yet) and I’m curious to see how this story will unfold. After giving it further thought, and going deeper, I’ve realized that my lighthouse questions are these:

1. Can I create a life of belonging, entirely on my terms, that brings me fulfillment and joy? 

2. If I trust myself, will I know how to live? (This takes a favorite quote from Goethe and turns it into question.)

These are not time-bound questions. I also get to invent point B, which is what fulfillment and joy look like—for me. These are the lighthouse questions I have been living into for the past three years. I only ‘saw’ these when I stood back a bit and applied Whitaker’s frame to my recent life journey. In time, the question may shift or change as I test new propositions, arriving each time at a deeper knowing. This approach is infinitely scalable over any period of our lives. 

I like lighthouse questions. They elevate us above the fray of life. They don’t deliver us to the doorway of dull and mundane answers. They rise above the commerce of reason into the realm of creativity, of ‘why not?’ They enable us to test new paths where there have been none before. Perhaps, most ennobling as Whitaker writes, the “lighthouse question is a touchstone of how your authenticity manifests in the world.” 

Five questions to answer before getting a life coach

Co-active coaching can transform your life. It creates fertile ground for new insights that lead to action, action that moves you to where you want to go. Coaching does not take you down paths where you think you should go, or others have told you to go, but where you want to go.

Whatever aspect of your life is not quite right, whatever is missing, whether in your work, career, leadership, vocation, finances, health and fitness, personal relationships, family, social life, creative endeavors or contribution, coaching can get you unstuck. It is difficult to explain coaching—it has to be experienced. It’s like trying to describe chocolate ice cream in words to someone who has never had it before rather than just having them taste it. This article is intended for those who want to give coaching a try. Coaching will not work for everyone, but if you’re able to answer “yes” to all these questions, there is a very high likelihood that it will work for you.

#1 Are you willing to take full responsibility for your life?

Full responsibility means a hundred percent. It means dropping the blame game and to stop being a victim of circumstance and making others responsible for your happiness. I understand that events and what others do affect you. For example, if you’ve been fired from work because your boss had a personal grudge against you, that may be unfair, and you certainly get to blame your boss, but you alone remain fully responsible for finding another job. Borrowing from Buddhist wisdom, Werner Erhard said: “Responsibility begins with the willingness to be cause in the matter of one’s life.” But then he adds: “Being responsible starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from the view of life that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are.”

#2 Are you willing to connect with and trust your innate wisdom?

Let’s keep this simple. There is the egoic self which is concerned about survival. This is the part of you that cautions you to look both ways before crossing the road, and do the laundry, but also has you playing safe—and small. It’s that part of you that doesn’t like change or shaking things up. If anything, it is a creature of habit and familiarity. “Let’s keep doing things the way we’ve always done,” it says, “we are doing OK…let’s not rock the boat.”

Then there is that larger, deeper true part of you that knows when things aren’t quite right, when the relationship is not working, when the job—while it pays well—is not fulfilling, when what you have or do doesn’t give you that rich inner satisfaction. This is the voice of your higher self, true self, inner leader, soul, call it what you will. It is the voice that keeps you aligned with your “true north,” that most authentic and innately wise part of you that is always calling you forward to be your best and most authentic self. In coaching, you learn to reconnect with this inner wisdom and to heed its intuitive guidance wherever it takes you. Are you ready for this? Are you prepared to live by your truth, your deepest values, and your life purpose, not someone else’s? Which takes us to the next question.

#3 Are you willing to take action even in the face of fear?

If you’ve said yes to #2, you’d better buckle your seatbelt. It’s going to get uncomfortable depending on how far and for how long you’ve strayed from your true path. The goal of coaching is not to create a painful experience but to support you through challenging passages as something new and bright, and that rings true emerges. If we use swimming as an analogy, some jump straight into the cold water while others take forever beginning by dipping their toes in. However, you do it is fine; your coach is there alongside to support you. But you need to get into the water and swim.

When things get uncomfortable in coaching, when your limiting beliefs and saboteurs show up, and when change is scary you still have to be willing to take action. Georgia O’Keeffe who seems like one of the most formidable women I’d love to have met said: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” Wow! And what she was able to do was to become one of the most influential artists of modern times and create works that continue to fascinate us. None of that would have happened if she refused to act in the face of fear.

If you remember from #1, you first have to take responsibility for yourself before you can take action. Information and insights that come up in coaching are fine and dandy, but without translating those into action, without that neuron firing, absolutely nothing will change in your life. Zero. Zilch. You can repeatedly say that you want to change, but talk, in this case, is truly expensive (because you are paying for it) and worthless (because you won’t be getting value out of it without action). The trajectory of coaching is to move you forward. The quote below is probably the most helpful and direct that I can offer in this regard. I share it with my clients. It sums it all up.

“It is important that you get clear for yourself that your only access to impacting life is action. The world does not care what you intend, how committed you are, how you feel or what you think, and certainly, it has no interest in what you want and don’t want. Take a look at life as it is lived and see for yourself that the world only moves for you when you act.” | Werner Erhard

The coaching relationship creates a crucible that provides safety—your coach will support you in moving beyond your comfort zone to act. Actions may be big, they may be small, but they will be different from what you’ve always done which is the whole point. That’s also when it gets challenging because the ego and its chorus of sabotaging voices will pipe up. But in coaching you will learn how to drown out those voices long enough, so you can hear and follow your own. You will discover that you are in good hands—your own.

#4 Are you willing to invest in yourself and do the work of transformation?

There’s much inner and outer work to be done to make the shift, to loosen the ties that have held you back for so long, to transition—or transform—to have the life you want. It is worth it. Are you ready to be coachable and do things differently as your coach will have you do, or will you argue “that’s not who I am?” Because I would argue that who we are is an unfolding narrative not a fixed set of traits. In coaching, a different version of yourself will emerge, perhaps even a life unlived. As Mel Robbins says, “every phase of your life requires a different you.”

Coaching is an intimate and very personalized experience, demanding full presence and attention from your coach. Are you willing to invest financially in coaching? Before answering this, please take note of two things. First, be honest about what it is costing you to stay where you are, to remain stuck, or to live someone else’s plan for your life. Second, take note that any investment you make in coaching is an investment in yourself. Yes, you are paying your coach, but you are paying for your transformation, not your coaches’.

#5 Are you willing to have the life you want now, instead of someday?

If you’ve made it through the four questions above with a yes, bravo! But this last one is where your ego, saboteurs and reasoning mind will rise in their final crescendo to keep you where you are. Some of the things you might say or hear are “I’m not ready yet,” “this is not a good time,” “I’ve got too much going on,” “I don’t have the money,” or “I’ll get to this someday.” Well, guess what? Someday never comes. All we have is now – it’s all anyone has. But we don’t live like that—we’re good at coming up with excuses and reasons to put off things that are important, even life-changing. Emerson observed astutely, “we are always getting ready to live but never living.”

Whether at work, home or at play, you can be more self-expressed and fulfilled. Whatever roles you play, whether as a parent, spouse, sibling, boss, team member, leader or entrepreneur you can bring your best self to the game, to empower yourself and those around you. You can live with greater authenticity and integrity and then see how your world shifts when you show up differently. You can begin to have the life you want now. The question is, are you ready?

Is Jargon Stopping Your Work From Standing Out?

As I reviewed my ABCDs of Better Communication, I realized that “D,” which stands for differentiation, had quietly made its way over from marketing and infiltrated communications. What gives?

I worked with a branding expert some years ago who extolled the virtues of branding in providing strategic clarity to organizations. The light bulb went off; I saw how I could tear some sheets from the branding playbook to bring clarity to my communications and remain on purpose. So, ever since, I’ve been operating from the fertile ground where branding and communications mingle.

Differentiation is a cornerstone of branding. It relies on the primitive parts of our brains. Way back when large hairy creatures roamed the earth, our ancestors had to be able to determine whether something or someone was friend or foe. And we had to do this really fast in an “eat or be eaten” world. So, apparently, we became highly attuned to differentiating one thing from one another. Makes sense to me.

With many of the life and death threats faced by our ancestors assuaged by electricity, polyester and the internet, we can now use this very evolutionary wiring to become better communicators.

“What makes you different from the others in your field? What are you or your organization/company doing that no one else is?, ” I wrote in my post. “Hone in on this. If you don’t differentiate yourself from the competition, you won’t get noticed.”

So let’s hone. Of course, we’re not over in the marketing departments, so we’re spared having to write copy to sell widgets on the TV shopping networks. But as Daniel Pink says in his book “To Sell is Human,” we are all in one way or another, in the business of selling things. So let’s accept this gracefully and get to it.

So how do we differentiate ourselves from the competition without a sales pitch? Here’s one approach worth its brevity and boldness:

Don’t use buzzwords. 

It’s that simple. Aren’t all great expressions boilable down to just three words? “He left me.” “I love you,” “You did what?” Wait, is boilable even a word? In the service of wit, I solemnly declare that it is.

One working definition of buzzwords that I like from marketingterms.com is: “a trendy word or phrase that is used more to impress than explain.”

Wait, it gets even better. They write:  “A buzzword spends only a fraction of its life being used; the rest of the time it is being abused. The result is a phenomenon known as buzzword backlash, whereby the tide turns against a buzzword and it starts to fade from usage.”

Let’s take an example. I made this one up so don’t go searching for it online: “Our brain surgeons are uniquely qualified to perform neurosurgery through innovative protocols conducted at state-of-the art facilities.” 

Have you spotted the buzzwords? How many of you are impressed? Not even a little bit? Point made.

First, everyone or every organization is unique in their own, um, unique way, so if you are uniquely qualified then tell us how so or why. Maybe all your brain surgeons are “ranked in the top 10% by the “American Society of Brain Surgeons.” Or “they all know the Sesame Street characters and jingles by heart.” Whatever your differentiating factor, if it’s credible and meaningful to your audience then use it; don’t mask it with a buzzword. The truth is always much more engaging than your buzzword version of it.

The same goes for words like “state-of-the-art” or “innovative.” You may have to dig a bit to find the “hidden justification” behind these terms. In the above example, you could explain what makes your facilities “state-of-the art.” For example, maybe you’re using one of the new robotic surgical machines. Did you say, robots? Now, ears are perking up. If you’re worried that your audience might be suspicious of robots that operate on their brain, then you have a chance to discuss this new technology and how it benefits them. Either way, you now have a conversation starter for social media. Communications is now all about conversations, not throwing jargon or buzzwords at your audience. So have one.

I once wrote about a “state of the art” machine that could analyze seed samples for their mineral content (or something to that effect) without requiring a team of technicians in white lab coats hovering about and holding chromatograms up to the light. There were many technical differentiating factors I could have droned on about, but these would be of little interest to the non-scientific audience we were trying to reach.

Instead, I wrote about how this new technology could get us from point A to B, painting a picture of why B was so worthwhile a target. I also noted that the machine took up no more space than a “desktop photocopier.” This visual conveyed the ease with which it could be shipped and nicely deployed in the corner of a lab to work its magic wherever it was needed. It also captured the wow factor of getting all that technology into a small package in a way everyone could relate to without going into the specs that only excite scientists. I took something abstract and made it concrete.

In another instance, I broke down “innovation” by talking about how another new technology reduced the time it took to get from point A to B “from several weeks to a matter of days, ” and again, why it mattered.

When you use this approach, you’re treating your audience as intelligent beings, not as cave people of eons ago. You are showing that you care enough about their time and attention to explain things in ways that make sense to them. What makes these two last two examples resonate? One technology saves space, and the other saves time–everyone from a scientist to a homemaker can relate to that.

Review your work and look to see if buzzwords have taken root. Then, see how you could have avoided those terms and engaged your audience by unmasking the truth behind the buzzwords. As you become more vigilant, you’ll be able to spot a buzzword a mile away. You will see how to meaningfully differentiate your company or organization and its work from most of your competitors. Your overall communications and (and marketing) will begin to hit home. Both you and your audience will come out ahead. When you connect with your audience, you can have a conversation. It’s a win-win. Mea culpa.

One caveat: not all buzzwords have reached the stage of being abused and there may be times they work as shortcuts, often in daily transactional conversations, eg. “She’s out of pocket.” So this is not a blanket ruling against them. However, in nine out of ten instances they are being abused and statistics tell us where we likely fall. So when you’re communicating professionally, I suggest avoiding them as much as possible.

On a side note, in my last job, I banned the use of the word “innovation.” I scrutinized everything that came across my desk with an eagle eye to expunge this offensive word. I had fun coming up with new creative ways to get the point across. Now, if that’s not being innovative, then I don’t know what is.

Let the buzzword backlash begin!

How to Destroy a Brand in Two Minutes

By now the video of a distraught paid customer being violently dragged from his seat on an overbooked United Airlines plane has gone viral sparking widespread outrage. Furthermore, the response by United Airlines CEOOscar Munoz who found this abuse to be simply “upsetting” was also skewered and an example, according to CNN, of “how to make a PR crisis a total disaster.”

Ironically, PRWeek recently named Munoz Communicator of the year for 2017. Oops. Munoz, the magazine writes, “has shown himself to be a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications….”

Except in the case of this crisis. Crisis communicators will tell you that the tepid obfuscating statement that Munoz made was not the way to do it and the media has brought in experts in to weigh in on this.

What is not yet fully apparent is the extent of brand damage that this one incident will bring, further compounded by the CEO’s statement and ensuing silence.

So let’s talk about brands and branding. First, let’s see what United says. In its essence, United’s brand is: “Connecting People. Uniting the World.’’ It’s short, memorable and inspirational.

They then gush on: “Every day, we help unite the world by connecting people to the moments that matter most.” We’re veering in to greeting card territory here, but OK, all brands need emotion to get them going.

Munoz even weighs in: “I see our people going the extra mile for our customers and for one another…I see them strive to go beyond expectations and deliver a better experience for our customers with each flight.”

In its brand center, the airline also states: “The United brand vision is more than just words on paper. It is shaped by every aspect of our customer and co-worker experience.” (These kind of statements, by the way, are becoming rote and cringe-worthy. Its boilerplate language that everyone throws in. Eyes glaze over.)

United even makes a specific commitment to “treat passengers fairly and consistently in the case of oversales.”

Unfortunately, situations like this is when brands and branding (the signals sent to convey the brand), must come through loud and clear. And United failed completely. In one fell swoop, the brand has been undone. We’ve seen this with BP and more recently Wells Fargo. Will this be United’s undoing? I don’t know but I can say that in under 2 minutes they reduced their brand to words on paper and nothing more.

No one at the United desk at O’Hare last Sunday went the “extra mile.” Not one customer on that flight including the man dragged from his seat got delivered “a better experience.” The booted passenger was not treated fairly. United did not connect people “to the moments that matter most.” Instead, it disconnected them; it violated basic respect for human well-being by resorting to coercion and then violence.

Consumers are generally not happy with U.S carriers these days and they make it clear on social media. Overbooked flights, airline consolidation and cost cutting, not to mention throwing people off flights for “flying while Muslim” have left consumers unhappy a lot of the time. And they express this unabashedly on social media. I suspect that this has led to fatigue and hopelessness among the airline employees who deal daily with irate passengers and who have to bear the brunt of poor corporate policy made by higher-ups in their C-suites. I’m not making excuses for what happened but there are a lot of frayed nerves on the ground. And now, we live in a society where there is increasing disrespect for human lives and basic rights. What happened to simply treating people respectfully and kindly?

I don’t know what went wrong at the United desk at O’Hare on Sunday but there was a disconnect there from the United brand, and, subsequently, at the highest level of the company. The brand was not transmitted in the arena that mattered most. Everything that United says it stands for was destroyed in those two minutes when a customer was dragged off their plane. This satirical video on the incident using one of United’s own video ads verbatim goes to show just how hollow the brand now rings.

Whatever United says is irrelevant. It’s what they did and will now do that matters. And this is true for any company, non-profit, foundation or mom and pop business. The beauty of brands is that they live in the minds of the consumer. So make sure you always put your customers first and don’t violate your brand promise. If you do, admit your failure and do what it takes to make good.

It was likely a long journey to build the United brand. It will be an even longer one to rebuild it, to get the branding back on track, and to make sure every employee from top to bottom is infused with the brand promise and empowered in transmitting it correctly. Simply turning up the volume on Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, probably the most stirring American musical composition of the 20th Century, is not going to cut it.

Let us take heed from this sorry example.

The ABCDs of Being a Better Communicator

All communicators have to revisit the building blocks of communication now and then. So, whether you are starting out or experienced, here are my four ABCDs (literally) that will help you be a better communicator:

A is for access. There's no point communicating something if your target audience doesn't get it. For much of my career, I've worked with public sector/non-profit scientists who are improving the lives of poor people throughout the world. These dedicated experts have made amazing breakthroughs but often fall short when it's time to broadcast their findings beyond an inner circle of scientists.

In my last job we promoted the benefits of vitamin A in people's diets. So, for example, instead of always being scientifically accurate and saying people get their provitamin A carotenoids from consuming sweet potatoes we would simply using the term "vitamin A." So much simpler; everyone gets it and it's not going to eat up your tweet. My mantra when it comes to communicating with non-scientific audiences is always "accessibility over accuracy."

B is for brevity. This goes hand in hand with building block A. Consider using as few words as possible to say what you need to say and use shorter words whenever you can. One way is to use words with Germanic/Anglo-Saxon roots rather than Latinate ones. I first learned this from Rita Mae Brown's writing manual, Starting from Scratch. She notes that upper-class characters tend to use Latinate words while lower-class characters prefer Anglo-Saxon ones. Class distinctions apart, Anglo-Saxon words are more direct so if you're telling a story, or have an ask, be sure to use them. There is also an immediacy to Anglo-Saxon words that supports building block A.  Building off the example in first paragraph, subjects in scientific studies may consume sweet potatoes, but in everyday life we don't consume sweet potatoes for dinner, we eat them.  So the latter is the more understandable, and shorter, word to use. (Ok, so "consume" comes from French but "eat" is definitely Anglo-Saxon.) Are you ready to renounce Latinate words? Or simply give them up?

C is for creativity. So much communications coming out of science and research organizations is dull and repetitive. Wake up writers! Work in human interest angles and inspiring quotes. Look at TED talks. Sing songs or better yet get professionals to sing them. Take for example this music video from Rwanda that educates people on the health benefits of eating beans. Beans, you say? Watch the video and you too will be on singing for your supper.

D is for differentiation. What makes you different from the others in your field? What are you or your organization/company doing that no one else is? Hone in on this. If you don't differentiate yourself from the competition, you won't get noticed. But the other rule here is don't exaggerate or spin. You want to stand out, but you don't want to find yourself standing alone. If you're really not a game-changer or leader in your field, other than asking yourselves why, go to building block C above to differentiate your organization in how you communicate. I recently read of a headphone manufacturer who offered free expensive headsets to anyone who tattooed their company's name on their body.   OK, so this won't work for everyone, but you get the idea.

So those are my ABCDs. Nothing earth-shattering but the best things in life never are. " C" can easily stand for "clarity" and does. We're not restricted in how we tag to our mnemonics! What are your ABCDs of good communications? Share them in the comments below, and if you have a better word than mnemonic which still trips me up every time I say it.