Get A Life

What would happen to our world if we said to each child: You are precious to us; you will always have our love and support; you are here to be who you are; try never to hurt another, but never stop trying to become yourself as fully as you can; when you fall and fail, you are still loved by us and welcomed to us, but you are also here to leave us, and to go onward toward your own destiny without having to worry about pleasing us.

James Hollis in Find Meaning in the Second Half of Life


From How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims:

Catharine Jacobsen, a Seattle parent and senior college counselor at Lakeside School, got an important reality check when as a young mother she called her own mother to complain about being cold, wet, and muddy on the sideline at her kid’s soccer game. Catharine’s mother was not especially sympathetic. “I have no idea why you’re standing out there,” she said. “You aren’t showing your kids anything. If you want to show them that athletics are important, you should be going on a run yourself. Or if you want to show them what is valuable to you, go home and read a book, or get together with some of your own friends, or go to a play and then come home and talk about it. Why don’t you do some stuff of your own? That’s you getting a life. Your kids will observe that and think, ‘Okay, that’s how you get a life.’ And they’ll want to go get one. But the way it is, they’re going to get to be twenty-five and think, ‘I never saw grown-ups living a life. I only saw them doing stuff for me, driving around, standing somewhere on a Saturday morning.'”

It is hard to balance our needs for personal freedom and personal kindness with the needs of others—especially for parents with young children. But everyone in a family—child, parents and nowadays grandparents who are often deeply involved with the lives of their children and grandchildren–must carve out an authentic life of their own hopefully supported by all family members–or suffer the consequences of a soul denied.

I grew up in a parent-centered family where my mom and dad set the agenda for themselves and for the family. Along the engaged-detached continuum, they were less emotionally engaged and more detached from their children. That gave me and my brothers and sister lots of freedom to “get a life” of our own. When we couldn’t handle our freedom, dad who believed in “fair but firm,” handled us without drama or violence.

Mom and dad had lives of their own. They did things together and with their friends and unlike the child-centered families of today, the children were not included. I don’t recall ever feeling excluded as I happily went outside to play with friends. I had a life of my own.

I complained of my parent’s flaws as a young adult. My complaints were mostly self-serving. As I aged, matured and saw my own shortcomings, I better understood the context of their lives and forgave them their imperfections. What can we be but compassionate toward our parents when all lives are flawed—even our own? Now they are long gone, and I realize how good they were and I love them and respect them deeply.

As a parent, I tried to model the values my parents taught me—especially accountability and responsibility. I believed my job was to raise children who could leave our home and live a life of their own. If we do enough things right with children as they grow up, they will have the grit and wherewithal to set out on their own and find their own way in life.

Melanie and I have six kids between us. They live close to our hearts every day. We talk about them and the grandchildren all the time. We love to see them and wish we had more time with them and our grandchildren. We miss them but do not cling to them. We forgive them for the suffering they cause us and hope they forgive us our mistakes. We struggle with the delicate balance of how engaged and how detached we will be and where our children want us to be on that continuum.

We take care to not intrude in their lives (we sure want to sometimes) or to obligate them to be responsible for us in any way. We support them and often hold our breaths as we wait to see how things work out for them in the day-to-day ups and downs of their lives. We remain available to cry or cheer with them or provide a bed if they need it. But they remain responsible for their lives as we are for ours. Often we muddle along unsure of how to be parents and grandparents. We do our best and reflect and adapt as we go. Melanie and I have a full life together and each of us has a life all our own. We support each others journey in life and hope we are good role models for our children and grandchildren.

Our job was to raise our fledglings to leave the nest and fly on their own; our responsibility as parents of grown children is, I believe, to model for them a full life lived after the kids are gone.

And, as Catharine Jacobsen learned from her mother: It is always our job to “get a life.”

Isn’t it Obvious?

That life not be governed by fear. James Hollis in What Really Matters.

Everyone has fears. Some about the present; others about the future. Some of us live our lives by rigid black and white rules of right and wrong, either/or, and good and bad. That’s not how life is. I think those folks live frozen by fear of a gray and unpredictable world of change and complexity.

We can confront our fears and step into a time of renewal for ourselves and America. Or, we can deny our fears and push them into the dark shadows. There, frozen by fear, we resist change and greater maturity.

Some of our neighbors want to heal our planet. Others want to devour her in an addictive frenzy. Consuming our biomass is not sustainable.

Some of our neighbors want a robust middle class. Others want a few to get most of the America’s resources. Such inequality is not sustainable.

Some of our neighbors want to treat immigrants with dignity. Others want to build walls and put people in jail. A monoculture is not sustainable.

Some of our neighbors want to evolve rights for women, workers, animals and minorities. Others want to roll back justice for all but themselves. Such regression is unacceptable.

Some of our neighbors want to educate all children. Others don’t seem to care. Uneducated masses do not make for a sustainable democracy.

Some of our neighbors want government to help and protect citizens. Others want everyone to be out for themselves. Such separation is not sustainable. Life requires cooperative relationships.

Some of our neighbors want peace so we can renew America. Others want the distractions of perpetual war in far-away lands. Chronic war is not sustainable.

Some of our neighbors imagine a diverse, creative, cooperative and engaged citizenry. Others have a vision of a paternalistic and wealthy white oligarchy in control. With compliant masses, we regress to a more primitive time. Such an attack on Democracy is not acceptable.

Some of our neighbors live the promise of America’s future. Others model the dark side of America’s past. Allowing darkness to lead us is not sustainable.

Some of our neighbors are willing to change how they live to evolve life. Others are not. Without massive change by all, America will not sustain herself.

Which vision enlarges America; which makes America smaller?

Many of us suffer from a failure of nerve and a distorted perspective of how life works.

Fear should not control our nation and determine her future

Isn’t where we should go obvious?

Will We Live Large?

We are not here to fit in. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange. James Hollis in What Matters Most.

Feeling alive came natural as a kid—a time when we live a life of learning, adventure and imagination as we explore and master our worlds. We venture out bravely, don’t know the rules, adapt as we go, and have fun living out our fantasies of being courageous heroes and heroines who do good for others. Childhood may be our last time of authenticity for a long time—maybe forever.

Somewhere along the way conformity and compliance become the rules–about the time we go to school, I imagine. Peers, parents and teachers mold us to be clones of one another. From then on most of us sacrifice our courage and authenticity as we try to fit in to be accepted by others in order to “succeed.”

When we begin our young adult lives—perhaps smart but unwise, inexperienced and full of ourselves–we think ourselves free and in charge. But the pressures to conform continue, often below the surface of our awareness. The unwritten rules of corporations and institutions replace our parents as the paternalistic voices in our lives and demand obedience and submission as the price of a job. Their message is, “Don’t think, do what we tell you and don’t rock the boat.”

And we don’t.

Gradually we often suffer a loss of nerve and live small lives. We seek to please others and forget to please ourselves. We feel obligated to be responsible for others but are not responsible for ourselves. One by one we make decisions that diminish us. Choice by choice we lose ourselves and sleepwalk through life. We cannot answer the questions, “Why am I here? What do I want?”

Around the middle of our lives, something might cause us to wake up. We realize that our lives are half over and that we only have one life and it is running out of time fast. We give ourselves permission and ask some important questions: Who am I apart from my roles? What do I want for my life? What does life ask of me? Can I live a larger life? We ask, “Do my choices enlarge me or make me smaller?” James Hollis wrote, “…we all have to grow up, become wholly responsible for our lives, relinquish the search for the good parent in others and stop whining.”

When we take responsibility for our lives, we can, if we want, live the larger, more authentic lives that were always meant for us.

Will we?

Leadership & Training Costs: A Huge Waste?

$70 billion a year for corporate training in the U.S. (Forbes)?

Much of that obscene amount is spent on leadership development and mostly failed efforts to transform corporations.

I had nine promotions over 16 years at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN. When I left the company the CEO of Cowles Media said my leadership had changed the company forever.

In each job I led groups of people from mediocrity to excellence in value-driven ways. In eight of those positions, I didn’t have consultants or training programs to help me. I simply did what made sense to me and acted according to my values.

Each time I left a group, it regressed to previous levels of mediocrity or worse. This pattern cuts across all levels of leadership in all industries.

I left the Star Tribune and completed a Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Change. I wanted to help leaders develop the talents needed to lead organizations through transformational change. In 13 years of consulting, I met two leaders I thought were great. One was fired (guess what happened to the company he led) and the other was promoted.

I met many executives who claimed they wanted to transform the cultures of their organizations as one way to improve the bottom line. None had the insight they needed to change how they thought about leadership and organizations and undergo a personal transformation as or before they led their organizations through transformation. All resisted doing the difficult personal work to grow as leaders. All proved to lack the skills, talents, courage, and commitment to lead difficult change. They wanted cosmetic quick-fixes: fast, easy, cheap and painless and from the outside with no demands for them to learn new things or manage difficult conflict. They didn’t want to lead people; they wanted to fix machines.

Quick fixes endure because they ask so little of us.

I interviewed a front-line supervisor in the power industry. He was upset.

He said, “A consultant sat with me every minute for two weeks and told me how to do my job. I thought I was going crazy. I had to go to a psychiatrist.”

I asked, “What happened after the consultant left?” He smiled and said, “Everything went back to the way it had been.”

That outcome happens in a high percentage of training and change efforts that try to mechanically fix organizations from the top utilizing outside experts who get a significant percentage of the $70 billion spent on “corporate training.”

James Hollis, Ph.D. wrote in “What Really Matters”:

Further, I have come to consider most of what passes for “self-help” literature today as obscene because it ignores the complexities of life, glosses over the ardor and commitment required for change, and promises panaceas not likely to happen.

I could say the same about leaders, academics and consultants. Our enterprises have a dearth of quality leaders. Too many leaders, consultants and authors of books about life in organizations ignore or deny the dark side of life in organizations. Real leaders in organizations often get marginalized. People try to transform organizations from a world view that guarantees a reinvention of what already exists. Too many lie about how hard change can be. Billions of dollars are, I believe, wasted year after year.

Those few genuinely talented and value-driven senior leaders in our organizations should save much of the money spent on corporate training, identify the gifted leaders in their companies (at all levels) who get marginalized because their abilities frighten others, and elevate them to positions of power in their enterprises. Then involve them and engage them with you to create vision, values and purpose and send them out to engage and involve employees and make the vision real.

These leaders will do the rest including making decisions on the books they will read, consultants they will hire and training programs they will use.

A Good Person

I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be good human beings. The Dali Lama

Timothy James Hollis in What Really Matters by James Hollis:


I have always believed in a strong work ethic
but the definition of which is widely different:
I didn’t do well in school;
I have gone job to job,
but what I worked on most,
the only thing I care about,
is being the best human being I can be.

This is in conflict with number crunchers,
those who still believe in a ladder to success.
I failed miserably in all those respects
and have a genuine friend from each of those experiences.

The definitions put forth in this culture, and many others,
work well for those like minded:
for those of us who are centered elsewhere,
it often ends poorly.

I know the routines very well and have performed,
but when I see an antlered buck on the side of the road
or a rock that sparks fascination,
or a grocer who is especially kind,
I feel alive.

Of course we need bridge builders and planners
and those with heart-mind of creating community,
and I think I am not an aberration
but a necessary part.

I do not advocate anyone follow my path:
there is a place, though,
for the mystical, the artists, poets and the like
to stop, for a second, the serious minded
and say, “look.”

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote that to save our world we must create the “good person.” He defined the good person as:

The self-evolving person,

The fully human person,

The self-actualizing person….

To become a good person is the work of a life time.

What Really Matters

Having a more interesting life, a life that disturbs complacency, a life that pulls us out of the comfortable and thereby demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned or that feels comfortable is what matters most. James Hollis in What Matters Most

In his recent column, Building Better Secularists, New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote that secular writers…”are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it.”

Brook’s list of tasks a secularist would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Religious people inherit their creeds; secularists have to come up with their own convictions,
• Religious people inherit a community with rituals and practices that bind people together; secular people have to create their own communities and come up with their own practices to give them meaning,
• Religious people are directed to drop worldly concerns one day a week or for specified periods of time; Secular people have to create their own times of solitude to reflect on their spirituality, and
• Religious people are motivated by the love of God and their desire to please him; Secularists have to find their own motivation that will bring forth sacrifice and service.

Brooks concluded that secularists place unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves and risk drift and a loss of meaning in their own lives.

Paternalism is a belief system that requires that wisdom, knowledge and creativity come to people from others with greater power and authority. Most people grow up in paternalistic families surrounded by paternalistic clergy, bosses, coaches and teachers whose dictates they conform to. “Don’t think, just do what I tell you to do” is the spoken and unspoken command.

When young adults leave home, the organization often replaces the parent as the paternalistic force in their lives. Conformity is the first rule of organizations and institutions. Sometime around the middle of their lives, they may begin to rebel against such paternalism and enter the scary domain of thinking for themselves where they begin to doubt, question and challenge all those authority figures as they begin the process of becoming a mature person. Such a journey into a life of authenticity is difficult: a courageous and emotional odyssey of exploration to find who we really are—not who someone else tells us to be.

Religion and secularism aside, Brook’s burdens are everyone’s responsibility to ponder in life.

I do not want to mindlessly and without question follow creeds created by other imperfect men long ago; I want my life to be my own learning laboratory. I want to discover and articulate my own purpose for my life and the values I will live true to.

I don’t want to be put into a community by others and inherit its rituals and practices—rules and practices I must follow to be accepted; I need people but I want to choose my own community and seek counsel and fellowship from those who ring true to me.

I don’t want to act spiritual one day a week; I want to live my spirit daily, however imperfectly.

To be motivated by love and the desire to do good works is noble but so many seem to be motivated by fear, guilt, obligation and public appearances. I am motivated by the deep personal engagement I’ve had with myself over four decades pondering these and many other issues and questions of life (I’ve only scratched the surface). The higher emotions that motivate me, the passion that drives me and the aliveness I feel flow from that work as I seek the moral life.

I believe Brook’s burdens are among the lifetime work of an authentic life.

James Hollis: “…to have taken one’s journey through this dark, bigger, luminous, wondrous universe, to have risked being who we really are, is, finally what matters most.”

Feeling Alive

I survived without purpose, identity or community for a time in my life.  A dark cloud enveloped me. Imprisoned in a dark Plato’s Cave, I was lost and could not find my way. Alcohol had made me feel good. Now it no longer worked but I couldn’t stop. Such a betrayal. It was a time of despair; I felt dead.

Then the patients and counselors at a tough alcohol treatment program unshackled my chains, confronted my defenses and taught me how to feel alive without chemicals or the other addictions so prevalent in our world. They turned me from facing a wall of darkness to seeing the light from the entrance to a potential-filled world of spirit and possibility. Their love and acceptance of the worst of me gave me hope and a community with the drug addicts and alcoholics of St. Mary’s Hospital.

Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth that more than seeking meaning for our lives, we seek the experience of being alive. We feel alive when our life experiences align with our own inner worlds. I set out to live a life of spiritual, emotional and intellectual adventures; to live true to my values of courage, authenticity and excellence and my vision for the future I felt called to.

I felt alive leading renewal and change in many positions at the Star Tribune newspaper over 18 years, especially my last leadership experience that engaged the hearts and minds of people and opened my eyes to a new world view. I never felt more alive (I also felt a deep loss when this creative work of art was mindlessly destroyed after I left).

I left the corporate world and felt alive in a Ph.D. program that I completed at age 52. I began to write. With each piece I wrote, I felt energized inside. I  lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months  where I grieved the deaths of my mother, marriage, and mentor and wrestled with the big questions of life and the difficult emotions within me. I then fell in love when in Fargo, ND. Those were times of emotional expansion and exploration.

Feeling alive isn’t just the big experiences in our lives that excite and fulfill us. I feel alive when I sit down on a cold winter day with our dogs at my feet, a blanket over my legs and read a book by a favorite author. I feel alive when I take my daily five-mile walk with Melanie and when I venture into nature to photograph wild life and beautiful scenes. An introvert, lots of people tire me. But an authentic conversation with another adventurer enriches me.

We are not entitled to feel good all the time. Feeling alive means we experience and ponder all of our human emotions authentically: fear, guilt, grief, anger and anxiety as well as love, passion, gratitude and high energy.

Feeling alive requires us to renew ourselves over and over again by learning new things. We get comfortable feeling uncomfortable much of the time. Our journeys are messy, inefficient and we make mistakes. We feel alive more of the time as we get better at learning how to live.

Finding who we really are  is not so easy in an often anti-human world that treats people as  machines without values, spirit and emotion. We will suffer from others and from ourselves on our unique journeys that expand our souls.

James Hollis wrote in What Really Matters that a more interesting life, a life that demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned on, to have engaged the big questions, been defeated by ever-larger things and to take one’s journey through this universe and to have risked being who we really are is what matters most.