No one bats 1.000 (or at least I don’t)

Maggie Mason thankfully called me out on it: “you are so totally a perfectionist.” For whatever reason up until this summer I never stared this reality down but my meditation retreat raised some of these traits and their implications. An area which surprised me, but felt very real, was discovering how this was impacting my sense of self-worth.

At the most basic (and petty) level, I was stressing out about “coffee meetings” with friends and new acquaintances – was I as helpful, smart, funny as I could have been? Did I make good use of their time? On the surface these would not be bad goals (I love to help and pay forward the help I’ve gotten from others) but I was applying them to an extreme. For example, if someone asked me to grab a drink to chat about their startup, my self-imposed expectation was that in our 30 min. together I would uniquely and insightfully solve any problem they raised. And then anything less would leave me questioning my own abilities and feeling apologetic to my friend. What a mindfuck! With this knowledge I came at the problem from both inside out and outside in.

First I amped up the pre-meeting “hygiene,” in advance gathering any prep materials and a clear definition of the other person’s goals. With this information I would convey pre-meeting whether I thought it was likely going to be a good use of their time or not. Sometimes we could resolve it over e-mail or I connected them to somebody with greater expertise. These plus a few other meeting hacks were logical approaches aimed at minimizing the number of ‘bad meetings’ but in the end I also needed to turn inward and examine my own mindset.

So what did I do? It was easy. Decided I don’t need to bat 1.000. That is, sometimes in the moment I might not totally get your idea. Or don’t know how to solve your problem about customer acquisition. Maybe if there’s mutual interest we can work together over the course of several discussions. Or perhaps I just thank you for the coffee and offer to stay in touch. Either way I celebrate the interactions that didn’t produce magic as much as the ones which do. And (#humblebrag alert) since I’m fairly confident I’m hitting somewhere north of .500, I think I still have a shot at the Hall of Fame 😉

[struggled a bit as to whether I should write this post (too personal? too boring?) but with some of this meditation stuff I’m going to err on the side of sharing]

"Focus on questions, not answers"

It has been over a month since I came out of the woods and several of the learnings from my meditation retreat have stuck with me. One was the response from my teacher upon asking how I should approach finding clarity on several personal issues I was bringing to the retreat (although the retreat itself was silent, we could write notes to the instructors and leave them on a bulletin board for them to respond to us in note form as well).

“Focus on questions, not answers” was his response. After a few minutes of exasperated head scratching, I understood what he was going for in his guidance. The retreat’s purpose was not to enter with a list full of problems you wanted solved but rather to step back and clear your mind. Sort of a systems approach as opposed to individual work items. This would allow for exposure of attachments between you and emotions or issues which could have been previously known or hidden. And when encountered, to observe these feelings and notice how they sat with you rather than immediately turn into a 10 point plan for solving or an additional item for the “to do” list.

This guidance also feels applicable to our workplace. How often do we prematurely switch to “answer mode” when we should really be spending more time validating and refining the question? Too many managers and teams mark progress by the number of answers they’ve generated rather than honing the questions they are putting forth. Let’s start giving gold stars for “best question” in addition to “best answer.”

Seven Days of Silence

“Well if I hate it there’s probably an In-N-Out 10 minutes away.” That was my last thought before entering a seven-day silent meditation retreat in June. Then they parked another student’s car in front of mine which meant there’d be no late night burger runs for me, no matter how desperate. I had not done much meditation before but was always interested in the science and spirituality of the practice so I drove up to Spirit Rock in Marin for a jump into the deep end. While trying to keep my expectations to a minimum, I did hope for significant breakthroughs in terms of understanding myself and how I relate to the world around me. Quickly though I realized this practice is more about being present and awake. Instead of looking for answers I’d be looking for questions.

Turns out the silence wasn’t difficult for me but trying to free my mind of the thoughts which arose in that silence, well, that’s much tougher. I will post more about my particular experience – there were some things specific to my personality and other thoughts about the connection between Buddhism and product management – but enough people seem to be interested in the general idea of meditation retreats so here’s a brief FAQ. Feel free to ask questions if there’s something I haven’t covered.

Would you recommend meditation retreats to others?
Yes definitely. New experiences help expand your notion of what’s possible and often lead to serendipitous ideas and connections you might not have otherwise imagined. The chance to step out of your normal day-to-day is something I had not experienced before and I found this option preferable to hanging out by myself at a cabin somewhere. I went for week but 3 to 5 days is a good duration also. I would suggest that anything less than that is more like a seminar than a retreat where you don’t get the benefit of building a routine over the course of several days.

Do you have to be a meditation “expert” to attend?
Although I was clearly the most inexperienced I still found value in attending. I think it might help to practice meditation for about a month prior to your retreat. That way you are familiar with the act of sitting and how you react to it, both physically and mentally. But by no means do you need to have reached some enlightened state before going on a retreat.

Silent? so you really didn’t talk for the whole week?
No talking. No reading. No e-mail. The goal is really is to just be with yourself. I did do some journaling, both to capture thoughts I wanted to pursue later and to just record emotions and feelings. we read a  short poem to close each night. There is some instruction each morning and a dharma lecture each night so you do hear other voices from time to time, but otherwise noble silence.

What did you do on the retreat?
Each day’s schedule was basically the same. Alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation along with eating meditation for meals. There was also a working meditation during which you would take on a task meant to help support the upkeep of the community – making meals, doing laundry, cleaning up. There was a nightly lecture and  ritual such as a closing poem. I also have my own rituals such as getting a cup of tea and sitting outside after the last meditation session but before bedtime.

Were you by yourself?
There were 25 people in my retreat ( about two thirds women) and two guides but I didn’t attend with anybody I knew. There were a few people who came as couples and I can see how it might be an interesting experience to go through together.

What was Spirit Rock like?
Really a special place. A stillness and simplicity combined with strong instructors and sufficient amenities. Deftly recommended.

okay, more to come in future posts.