What do you do?

“So, what do you do?”
Whenever someone asks me that ice-breaker question, my instinct is to give a smartalecky response.
“Let’s see… I eat. I play. I laugh. I write. I wash dishes. I sh…”
But I resist. I know what they’re after.
“So, what’s your profession. What’s your job?”
I’ve been thinking about that seemingly benign question of late.
And not only do I think it’s passé, but I also believe it’s harmful.
Have you ever really thought about it?
It begs for a static, passionless answer.
“Oh, I’m a lawyer. I make bread. I own a gym. I’m a teacher.”
It’s a malignant question, which needs to be cut out of our discourse and replaced by a different one.
“So, what are you trying to change?”
We need to remind each other that the laws of impermanence rule the marketplace.
Just like they rule the Universe.
If we are not working hard to change things, we will be made irrelevant by someone who is.
There’s an old saying by G. K. Chesterton that hangs on my wall.
It reminds me to keep changing things.
“If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change.
If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post.
If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again.
That is, you must be always having a revolution.”
Without intervention, without progressive change, without revolution, everything in our work and our lives gets worse.
We see it happening to organizations big and small, but most of us still don’t get it.
And I think it’s because we’re hypnotized.
Have you heard the term “functional stupidity?”
It’s a new management theory (great name, huh?).
It says that the absence of critical thinking in organizations creates unity.
And this consensus mindset helps improve productivity.
Instead of questioning things, people focus intently on the task at hand.
We are a nation overflowing with “functionally stupid” organizations.
We’re on autopilot.
We enthusiatically believe in the actions we take every day.
Whether or not they’re improving people’s lives and adding distinctive value.
It’s a delusion. A happy trance.
And we need to be knocked out of it.
By each other.
So, what is it exactly that you’re trying to change?

Our stories steer our lives.

I recently read a fascinating study where researchers gave participants the ability to fly using virtual reality.
Some were passengers in a helicopter.
Others flew under their own power with arms extended.
The people who flew like “Superman” were later more likely to provide help to others in the real world.
The theory is that their inner experiences inspired them to embody the role of superhero.
Without them having the slightest clue.
It sounds crazy, but I believe it.
I know, first hand, the power of stories.
I wrote my first book more than a decade ago.
I got the idea while sitting unemployed and downhearted at my breakfast table.
As I stared blankly into my coffee cup, I caught a glimpse of my youngest daughter playing with her spoon.
She was gazing into it with a puzzled look on her face.
Then she flipped it around and raised her eyebrows.
“Honey, what are you doing?” I asked.
“Daddy? How come this way, I’m upside down? But when I turn it around, I’m right side up?!”
She waited anxiously for a response.
I sat speechless.
I knew the words “convex” and “concave,” but I had no idea why her spoon reflection was flipping (I still don’t).
However, that simple question set my mind in motion.
I imagined a story about business.
About how people knew a lot of fancy concepts, but not much about the real lives of the people they serve.
Then I conjured up another story, with me as the protagonist who exposes the Emperor’s nakedness.
And then another, with me writing a book and standing on stage speaking to large groups of people.
My self-deceptive mind was on one heck of a roll.
And, thankfully, it’s been rolling along ever since.
But most of us forget.
There was a time when our minds were always on a roll.
We used boxes and sticks to become astronauts and artists.
We created fantasy characters and outrageous worlds.
We drew whimsical pictures and cooked up wild ideas.
We were complete originals.
And some of us, the ones with the most vivid stories, became today’s inventors, poets, actors, and musicians.
Stories are powerful.
Because we all become the stories we tell ourselves.