Mastery requires time. Where are you spending yours? And what are you mastering?


“Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.”
― John GardnerThe Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

I recently found this quote in a  book I’ve had on my bookshelf since the 5th grade. I underlined it sometime in the past ten or fifteen years, but it resonated in a new way.

We gather mastery over time, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by default.

We gather habits, reactions to conflict, ways of thinking, and behaviors along our way. In certain moments, we feel the satisfaction of getting good at something. Maybe it’s the thing people seek you out for, a talent you share, a way of listening. In other situations we wonder “why do I find myself here again?”

Either way, the gathering power is strong.

Gardner’s quote made me think differently this week. Where do I spend my time? What kind of mastery am I developing with my time?

It’s a great question when thinking about conflict. After all, conflict can be random, but there’s usually a storm behind the thunderbolt. It’s often brewing and gathering on the horizon and we can feel it coming. What are we doing along the way to manage it? Resorting to our usual, well-practiced reactions? Or can we try something different?

It helps to break the storm down and see if we can identify a point or two where we can practice a new technique.

  • If your style is to avoid conflict, it could be intentionally asking the person you’re avoiding a question.
  • If you hate answering phone calls and the weight of the “to-do” is robbing you of your peace of mind during the day, maybe you can answer them first thing in the morning.
  • If you’re hiding from a particular trouble, maybe you can find someone to air your anxieties with and brainstorm next steps.
  • Maybe it’s as simple as making a few minutes a day for an overwhelming and unmanageable (seeming) project?

It can be small because that’s the way mastery begins, as Gardner emphasizes.

I’m curious what kind of changes you’ve made in your approach in dealing with conflict. Were they small or storm-sized?


Tear Down the Argument to Build Agreement



We had a department store in our town that is being converted into a new movie theater and shops. I drove by today and all that was left of the old store were piles of debris and the metal structure sticking out in the 90* heat.  I could still imagine where the door had been, the shoes, the connection to the rest of the mall, but it looked so different that I could also imagine big theater screens, new seating, and openings to restaurants where there had been blank walls.

I love this stage of renovation, when you’re freed up from what you used to know about a space or a place, and your mind begins to see the possibilities.

In the middle of an argument or conflict, it can feel like you’re dealing with a lot of “knowns” but, if you can get down to the structure of the situation, there are usually more possibilities than we first see.

The metal framework is the essential area for discussion. The bricks, doors, windows, wires, tiles – they’re all extra. They shape the final form and function of the space, turning a two-story box into a department store, a theater, or something else altogether.

Usually, when we walk into a negotiation of any sort, we come with our building. We know what we want from the interaction and how the agreement should look when we come out.

What’s difficult is to engage with an open mind about what the other person sees, to work with them to tear down their building (and yours!), and construct something together that works for everyone.

At the heart of this approach is listening to understand. Since we’re not mind readers, we have to ask questions. Lots of questions.

I deal with a lot of situations that appear to be black-and-white at first. “We can’t do that, can’t approve that, it has to be like this, that’s impossible, can’t be done, this is the only way….etc.” These are position statements.

Usually, there’s a very good purpose behind the initial statement. Finding out what they’re concerned about (safety? cost? management? precedent?) and sharing your interest (and don’t slip a position in here – be genuine about what’s important to you) gives you an opportunity to ask my favorite question: “Is there a way for us to meet both our needs here?”

This approach takes time and a willingness to remain calm, keep asking and digging, and listening for the interests and concerns behind the words.

“How do we both win?” It’s the golden question that, when coupled with really hearing what the other person needs are, can help move us into constructing a shared solution.

Tug ‘o War

When was the last time someone handed you a rope and said “hey, how about you pull really hard on your end, and I’ll pull really hard on my end, and when one of us falls flat on our face, it’s settled. Okay?”

Eighth grade P.E. class, maybe?

For me, it was last weekend. Except it wasn’t a rope, it was an argument. The same stupid argument we have over and over. And nobody ever wins this particular one. we just pick up our ends of the rope, dig in, and start heaving our weight around. There’s a lot of mud involved and the emotional equivalent of strained muscles.

In the middle of all the pulling and tugging I wondered “Why do we keep tugging? Why not let go of the rope?”

Arguments can go wrong in so many ways when the emotions are high. We say things we don’t intend, we drag up battles of years past, we resurrect old hurts, previous slights, and the reasons to continue arguing pile up. But most of us don’t relish tug ‘o war and the repair cost can be high.

Some graceful ways to let go and buy yourself a little time to cool down without dropping your opponent (or co-worker, or family member) on their derriere.:

Take responsibility for your emotional state:

  • I’m getting (angry/frustrated etc.) and I need a few moments to calm down.
  • I want to come back to this discussion but I’m not thinking clearly right now, can we take a ten-minute break?

Own your role in what’s going wrong:

  • I’m starting to say things I don’t mean because I’m angry/frustrated/sad. Let’s take a break to calm down.
  • I think I’m being unfair because I’m feelilng (fill it in….). Can we take a break?
  • I know this is important to you and I want to listen carefully. I’m not able to do that right now.

For work-place situations:

  • I think you’ve made some good points and I need some time to think them over. Let’s schedule a follow-up conversation.
  • I’m going to need some time to consider this information. When can we get back together?
  • I can see this is important to you and I don’t have time right now to give it my full attention. Can we come back to it?

It’s very (very!) tempting to tell the other person all the things they’re doing wrong and enumerate all the reasons you can’t possibly have a productive conversation with them, but these kinds of statements probably won’t help:

  • You’re so unreasonable/irrational/mean/wrong that I just can’t talk to you.
  • You never/always …………(anything).
  • You don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • You should feel…..(any emotion)
  • Oh yeah? Well remember the time you did (this other thing that’s not related to the topic at hand but I’ve been dying to bring this up….)

Ideally, we wouldn’t get into these heated situations in the first place, but once it happens, putting down the rope until you’ve both had a chance to cool down and think things through can save a lot of struggle.

I’m sure there are many other great ways to stop fighting out there. What’s worked for you?


“Dreams are Just Dreams Without Action”

This quote, cut out from a fitness magazine, is stapled to the cork board in the back hall of our YMCA where I try to work out four days a week with my husband.

It’s pretty small, stuck there between the pseudo-army-crawl exercise and an article showing various power-snacks.  Small, but powerful.  I suppose the world is always sending you what you need, but sometimes you’re actually ready to see it.  Take this other quote I ran across a couple of days ago: “believing in yourself does not mean passively waiting for the universe to deliver what you long for.”

There is power in action.

Between a …. well, you know


It’s pretty easy to see lots of my day’s interactions like this.  Whatever you call it, problem-solving or beating the proverbial head against the proverbial wall, it’s not fun.

Today, one of our best public speakers said he goes into presentations knowing he’s giving it his best – he’s prepared, he’s thought about why he’s there and what he has to share – but when things go sideways, he’s okay with that.  He doesn’t need his recommendation to be the only answer.

He’s right.  When you find that skinny space and slip out of the picture, it’s like having someone lift a load off your shoulders – or at least a few rocks.

Rube’s Moment

Meetings sometimes go like this:


I enjoy the back and forth – the exchange of ideas and building something together.  That’s part of the joy of what I do for a living.  But sometimes, in the middle of the glowy creation phase, you get a flash of perspective and wonder “What exactly are we creating here?”  But you press on, because building something together is messy.

Sometimes along the way, there’s a pivot point in the process when everything changes.  You’re in the flow, everyone’s jamming along, the problems are cropping up and you’re following them down the chute, up the ramp, around the tunnel and then, suddenly, someone pulls that innocent looking lever on the wall and “wham!” the entire contraption changes course and you think “woah now!  Didn’t see that one coming….!”

Rube Goldberg got it.

Life is a crazy, unpredictable mess, but we do our best, draw up good plans, knock our heads together and sometimes the whole thing works in beautiful, wonderful ways.

And sometimes it falls apart and we pick up the pieces and start over again.

Live Your Dreams – a check-in

streetscape doodle

I came across an article in the May issue of Yoga Journal (How Yoga Can Help You Love Your Job) that was probably one of the best work-related pieces I’ve read in a while.  It was a response to the “What if I don’t love my job” angst that seemed not only to fit the magazine’s readers who might be looking for a strong connection between meaning and their daily activities but it also fits one of the recurring themes seems so pervasive it’s hard to notice any more.  Live Your Dreams.

As the article points out, it would be nice if we could all rely on the universe to provide once we’d embraced our true destiny, but I’ve got these bills sitting on my desk in a messy pile next to my computer and these kids who need things like clothing, food, and the occasional weird rubber bracelets or “awesome” socks.  So what to do?

I love my work, I’m not in a soul-sucking-situation where I can feel time smothering me like molasses (I’ve been there, I’d recognize it for sure) but there are moments when we all look up and think “This is it?  Is this what I’m meant to do?”  I think people are wired to search for the big picture – some sort of meaning beyond themselves.  At least most of us.

The article had one of the most elegant responses – the meaning is in the doing.  Think about that for a moment.  You bring your core self to the task, doing it in a way that is consistent with your values and your larger self.  The implication?  You let go of the results.

Whiplash anyone?

I think of doing good work as getting to the “end.”  You know, A+, success, smiles, check that one off the list.

I had to think about that one for a few minutes.  I had to think hard.

My work is not predictable – even if I do my best in the execution, the end result is usually up for grabs.  Letting go of the notion that a “failure” is still the result of good work does not come naturally.  I’m still trying this one on – tentatively – and thinking that if I can’t just pick up and live my dreams a la Hollywood, maybe I can give it a shot at the micro-level.

We’ll see how it goes.

The Busy Badge


Earlier this week I heard a co-worker say something surprising.

“In my old department, we used to have a scheduled time once a week when the entire department shut down, we were all in our offices, and we caught up on our professional reading, did some training, or something to improve our skills.  No email, no phone calls, just learning time.”

Confession – the first image that popped into my mind was a Mad Men scene – you know, someone (probably a partner) stretched out on a fabulous mod sofa, thoughtfully swirling some amber liquid (not diet coke) in a short glass.  Close the department?  For two whole hours?  To learn? Can you imagine your co-workers’ reactions?

Of course, it’s really not that absurd, when you think about it.  I don’t know about you, but I do most of my learning in micro-bits.  Teeny-tiny-tweets, email digests (and yes, I usually only read the half of the summary that shows up on my smart phone), scans of articles and news while I eat my lunch.  It’s not real learning.  And yet the idea of shutting down for two hours sounds, well, decadent if not downright drinking-at-work unacceptable!

I think part of that reaction is a sort of peer-pressure.  We’re all so “busy”.  I’d be willing to bet if you work in an office you can’t make it through a day (or even an hour) without engaging in the “I’m so busy!!”  conversation, right?  Busy is a badge of honor.  It’s a symbol of power, importance, desirability. Busy is the new norm.  But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  We have so much information at our fingertips – literally – and yet we have a hard time finding time to make good use of it.

I’m not sure I can yet imagine how we could all reclaim that dedicated time to think, learn, get better at what we do, but maybe it starts with small steps.  Like carving out a few more minutes to finish that article or read that whole email digest.  Trade a little busy for better?