Mar 14

My Personal Theme Song

I have a theme song:  “Birdland,” by Joe Zawinul.  The composition honored a famous jazz club, also called Birdland, as well as the great jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker.  The version I know best is by the late jazz trumpeter, Maynard Ferguson, and I either listen to it or play it in my head, before most presentations or other situations where I want to kick up my energy level.

Now, there is no connection between this song and me, except that I love its aggressively energetic power, and my own name is Bird.  I enjoy most types of music, and that is one of the blessings in my life.  Both music and art bring me enormous pleasure, and I am completely mystified by the talents of people who create original works.  My mother is an artist, and I’m proud of the work she created, not to mention how hard she worked at it.  Unfortunately, that gene missed me.

On the other hand, I did have a year or so of piano lessons, when I was maybe seven or eight, and later I played drums in the school marching and concert bands.  I think the drumbeats we played as the band marched were about the limit of my potential.  In fact, I never tried to play a full drum set, because even the notion that each hand and foot might be doing different things at the same time struck me as utterly impossible, at least for my body.

I know I most enjoy music that I would call fun and “aggressive,” but I don’t mean overly loud or hostile.  I enjoy jazz, blues, old rock and roll, and contemporary country rock.  So, maybe you can get my personal meaning of aggressive.  Could be there is a technical term that is more appropriate, but I have no idea.

I also realize that I may be saying something less than impressive, when I acknowledge how much I enjoy van Gogh, but I’m also a fan of Peter Paul Rubins, for reasons that have to do with the time my parents lived in Antwerp.  I’m grateful that I lack a refined taste for wine; that I can enjoy a symphony performance by a “Grade C orchestra,” as described by a friend; that the art that speaks to me is the art to which I’ve been most exposed.

I may not have a subtle mind, but I do pay attention, and I can connect dots that others miss.  And I have a theme song.

Mar 07

A Restless, Intentional Soul

In my own mind, I am “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”  Unfortunately, those words were used to describe Lord Byron, who seems to have been much more dangerous than I.  Here I am, exploring the encore stage, after a career as a professor and university administrator.  Like Walter Mitty, perhaps, I sometimes live in an imaginary world.  But, just as I wasn’t really Davy Crockett, when at age five or six I put on a faux coonskin cap, I am not the slightly mad character I sometimes envision.

On the other hand, a colleague once described me as a “restless soul.”  Now, because that description came from someone else, I grabbed onto it, and I continue to believe that it describes me.  I’m not sure how to rationalize being “the most intentional person I know,” as one friend described me, with being the restless soul someone else perceived, but maybe that’s just part of the complexity of being human.

I’m glad there still is a boy alive somewhere in my head.  It is entertaining to watch both my father and my son, recognizing that we share so many quirks.  Without any influence, other than modeling, maybe, we all enjoy making up nicknames for other people.  My dad and I, at least, tried to create nicknames for ourselves, although only a few people ever used them.

(Just an observation:  Giving yourself a nickname may not work especially well, but feel free to call me “Mondo,” if we’ve met and had some fun together.)

I do think I am something of a restless soul.  Sameness bores me quickly, and that has led me to live a life that is perhaps more broad than deep.  An older friend once said that the most basic choice we make is whether to see how high we can climb on the mountain or to experience life more broadly, without reaching quite so high.  Frankly, landing on a branch/regional campus, even at Ohio State, pretty much assured that I would only get so high on the mountain, but that also is why I am grateful that it happened that way.

So, today I will run, take a walk on the beach, read, write, perhaps imagine that some famous talk show host is interviewing me about my latest book (I’ve never written a book.), and eat some great seafood at Robbi’s Reef with a friend.  In between, I’ll talk to family and other friends, and if I feel like it, I’ll take a nap.  So it goes with this restless, intentional soul.

Feb 20

Personal Thoughts on International Opportunities

Back in 1998 I had an opportunity to spend a few weeks in Russia, some of it in Moscow, but mostly in Orenburg.  The city of Lancaster, Ohio, where I was serving as dean of the Ohio University campus, had a sister city relationship with Orenburg, and that had led to interesting contacts with Orenburg State University.

The three weeks or so that I spent in Russia were fascinating, educational, and personally transforming.  I’ve had a number of opportunities to travel internationally, both professionally and on vacation, but this trip may have been the most significant, to me.  I enjoyed opportunities to meet with the psychology faculty at Orenburg State; I spent a lot of time with teachers and students of English, who constantly peppered me with questions about language; and I even rode on a Russian military helicopter to visit a branch campus of the University.

During my visit, I spoke before a number of groups, which were unfailingly friendly and eager to hear from a visiting American.  Through all of this, I was hosted and supported by one of the most remarkable people I’ve known.  Larisa was an English professor, but was serving as provost of the University, at the time.  We continued to be friends after the visit, and Larisa spent some time at Ohio University after I became vice president.

I mention this trip, in the context of gratitude.  I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel internationally and for people like Larisa who came into my life and broadened my understanding.  I could never have imagined those opportunities, and I certainly didn’t realize the difference between traveling on vacation and traveling on business.  Frankly, business travel has been especially valuable because of the way one interacts with hosts and experiences the culture.  I enjoyed it even more than vacation trips.

As a close second to the trip to Russia, I most appreciate the six or seven trips I made to Hong Kong, where we had a center that reported up to me.  Side trips in Japan and Thailand added to the opportunities to learn and enjoy.  However, I’ve also been to Mexico, Canada, England, The Netherlands, and Germany, on business.

On top of all that, I’ve had family who lived abroad for a few years, which yielded outstanding vacation opportunities for me.  Putting that on top of trips my wife and I have made, not to mention places I’ve visited in the U.S., on business or vacation, and I am truly fortunate.  I’m not sure why I’ve put all this in the blog, except to reflect on a particular area for which I am especially grateful.  As I wrote a few posts ago, I’m going to get a little more personal, for a while.

Feb 07

Gratitude and the Positivity Ratio

Gratitude is a personal experience, although it can be shared.  In my last post, I wrote about my appreciation for the “semi-structured” way I am able to live, placing it in the context of my transition to the so-called encore stage of life.  However, I want to emphasize that our lives can be full of big and small experiences that contribute to flourishing.

Of course, we can be the beneficiaries of simple good luck, and I’ve always considered myself to be lucky in the things that matter most in life.  I’m not a gambler, and where my achievements place me on the mountain depends on the benchmark you choose.  Nevertheless, all of us are wise to take time to recognize and savor both the small blessings of a particular day, as well as the accomplishment of significant goals, regardless of the source of the good experience.

I try to stay aware of the many blessings in my life.  My wife and I have terrific sons and daughters-in-law, from whom we have four grandchildren, and they all live about 90 minutes of our home in Athens, Ohio.  For that matter, living in Athens is a plus, just an hour-and-a-half from where I was born, and about the same from the Columbus airport.  Athens lacks some amenities we might enjoy, but on the other hand, the Athens “rush minute” barely slows us down, when we want to get somewhere.  Spending about a third of my time at my condo-near-the-beach makes it all the sweeter.

I appreciate the range of friends I have, both from professional experiences and “regular life.”  It doesn’t take great effort to touch base with friends, whether in person, over the phone, or even on Facebook or through a text.  Friends connect us to the good experiences we’ve shared, and therein we find still more for which to be grateful.

On the professional side, I’m grateful that I found my way to the branch campus world, and its mission to provide access and opportunity.  Education always has the potential to transform lives, but the dramatic effect on students made possible by “outreach” education is profound.

At the same time, my work at Ohio University gave me extraordinary international opportunities that a boy growing up in 1960’s West Virginia couldn’t have imagined.  (And I’d add that I’m grateful to be a West Virginian, for reasons most West Virginians will understand.)

You know it can go on and on.  The point isn’t the specific experiences in any one person’s life.  It is taking time to acknowledge, feel, savor, and express the good things.  I’ve written about Barbara Fredrickson’s positivity ratio:  People begin to thrive when they experience at least three positives for every negative.  The incredible thing is that we can often create a strong ratio, simply by paying attention and choosing to emphasize the positive.

Jan 31

A Personal Take on Gratitude and the Encore Stage

A friend describes me as “the most intentional person she knows.”  I don’t exactly experience my life in that way, but I do know that I was intentional about working the transition from my former life to the life I live now.  I walked my talk, I suppose, by developing a life portfolio and using it to design six-month maps.  Things have not always gone according to plan, but they have gone well.

As I moved into my encore, the opportunity to reflect and re-balance my use of time was incredibly important.  In particular, there are some family things that would have been much more stressful in my old life, and I enjoy having better options for exercise.  “Bottom lining,” I enjoy what I call my “semi-structured” life.

By semi-structured, I mean that most days include some appointments or plans that bring organization to the day.  I start most days by reading higher education newsletters and other messages, over coffee; the easy, non-rushed beginning is very nice.  Most days, I’ll take one or two hours for exercise, although the time at which I work out depends on mood and other activities.  Beyond that, the mix of reading, writing, talking with friends, attending Ohio University athletic events, running errands, visiting family, etc., unfold comfortably and with a sense of flow.  I still feel goal oriented, but I do not feel stressed or over-burdened.

Work still provides important meaning in my life.  Consulting projects are great, for several reasons:  I get to travel, meet interesting people, and apply my experience to help institutions improve their competitiveness.  Often, my work relates to improving branch campus opportunities by adjusting revenue sharing models and rethinking marketing or student support practices.

Coaching is the most satisfying work.  Years and years ago I concluded that meaningful change happens one person at a time.  I have coached people approaching their own encore career, people taking on new roles/jobs, and people trying to grow as leaders.  The coaching process is remarkable, and serving as a “thought partner” allows me to be helpful without controlling, although I do hold people accountable for following through on commitments.

Beyond the coaching and consulting work, I enjoy my blogs, and I am trying to become a better writer (another intentional behavior).  I sure would like to have a few more opportunities to deliver keynotes or other presentations, but the ones I do are yet another opening to travel and meet people in interesting circumstances.

I think adopting a design approach to my life, as distinct from a planning approach, worked well.  I am deeply grateful and very aware of how fortunate I am.  However, I do not think I am at all unique.  Encore dreams are possible for many, many people.  I’m pleased with my own encore, at least so far, and I’m glad that I can help some other individuals design theirs, as well.

Jan 17

Gratitude and Well-Being

Gratitude is a powerful contributor to well-being.  Seligman, in his book Flourish, joins others in describing the many benefits of experiencing and expressing gratitude.

I especially like Seligman’s description of a “gratitude visit.” He recommends writing a letter to someone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude, but feel that you’ve never adequately acknowledged your feelings.  Then, you deliver the letter in person and read it aloud.

The gratitude visit seems like a great idea, although I’ve never done one.  However, having sent and received notes of appreciation or thanks, as well as spent quiet time, more or less revisiting the feelings around special people and experiences, I recognize the power of gratitude.

We absolutely can be intentional about appreciating the blessings in our lives and expressing gratitude for those good things.  You might try either keeping a gratitude journal—a running record of blessings and positive events or people in your life—or follow the practice of writing down three things for which you are grateful every evening or morning.  The point is that we improve our sense of well-being, when we are conscious and specific about the people and experiences that create positive emotion.

Although I’d like to think that I’ve always been grateful for the good things in my life, I do believe that studying positive psychology and being more intentional about recognizing the many blessings in my life have enriched the past few years.  For me, deepening spirituality and, frankly, getting away from some negative people and situations in my life were powerful changes.

To be sure, there are friends and family members for whom I would “march into Hell,” but that is at least partly because of the wonderfully positive place they hold in my life.  I also feel a responsibility to give back for my own blessings.  The point isn’t to avoid tough times or unpleasant experiences, but to seek that positivity ratio (at least 3:1) that Fredrickson wrote about in Positivity.

Finally, gratitude may play an important role in a person’s transition to the encore stage.  Reflecting on the people and situations that were important to one’s past success can and should lead to a sense of gratitude for opportunities, relationships, and even difficult circumstances that were overcome.  If gratitude contributes to well-being, then it follows that experiencing gratitude for past and present experiences is time well spent.  Even more importantly, when we think about the people and experiences for which we are grateful, we probably also are getting strong clues about what we want to do next.

Jan 08

A Personal Anniversary and Reflection

Welcome, 2013!  This year marks a big anniversary for me:  Ten years ago, today, I had surgery for colon cancer.  I was fortunate, because the cancer was caught early, and there was no follow-up chemotherapy or radiation treatment.  Nevertheless, I will never feel invulnerable or believe that bad things can’t happen to me; those thoughts are ten years gone.  On the other hand, although I won’t say that I am glad I had cancer, I do know that the experience had a net positive effect on my life.

The years have flown by, and they have been good.  At the time of my surgery, I had one granddaughter, who was young enough that she’d never have remembered me.  Now, I have four grandchildren, and three of them are old enough not to forget Grandpa.  I finished my first career with a great sense of satisfaction and launched my encore.  I accomplished a top item on my bucket list, by spending part of each year living near the beach.  I traveled, worked with extremely talented people, and managed to stay physically fit.

To borrow a line I read somewhere, I am so grateful to have lived.  It is no small thing to experience life, to work hard on things that matter, to explore, to learn, to be disappointed, and to survive.  It is a remarkable thing to share deep emotion, to appreciate family and friends, and to sit quietly by the shore.

Since September, my posts here have tied to thoughts on the encore stage of life.  That will continue, but I intend to write somewhat more personally and less frequently, at least for a while.  This blog is nothing so much as my own self-indulgence and a way to get things off my mind, by writing them down.

As the New Year begins, I want to express appreciation for my family, friends, and the many people I’ve met over the past four or five years, as I made my transition.  My life is so much richer for knowing you, learning from you, and laughing with you. I wish everyone challenging adventures, playful friends, and a deep sense of purpose.

Dec 17

More on Introverts and Extraverts: Opportunities in the Encore Stage

I want to follow up on my last post, about introverts and extraverts.  One of my coaching clients is an introvert who functions well in our extraverted world.  She told me that reading Susan Cain’s Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking resonated with her more than anything she’d read in a long time.

In particular, she recognized herself in the description of how introverts often develop the social skills required to succeed in an extraverted world, learning how to play the role of an extravert, but at considerable cost, in energy and time for herself to think and to be at her best.  It seems to me that this is a terribly important point.

In fact, my client is exploring new career directions, feeling that she is ready for something different.  As we’ve explored her strengths and the type of future roles that might be appealing, she realized that it is time to reconnect to parts of her personality that have been neglected.  Some of this is a question of rebalancing her life portfolio, to allow more time to recharge—to read, to take long walks, and so on.  However, I think there also are implications for the types of work that are appealing to her.

As an extravert in the encore stage, my own challenge is to maintain enough social connection, rather than to find more time alone.  Nevertheless, as I’ve described before, I think in terms of two sides of my personality, what I call the “artist” and the “engineer,” after my parents personalities.  Twenty-five years in academic administration left me ready to move away from organizational structure, personnel issues, and institutional politics, to expand the expression of my creative side

Anytime we are in a particular type of role for a long period of time, it is likely that we have emphasized some parts of our personalities more than others.  The encore stage is an opportunity to revisit past pleasures, forgotten passions, and neglected strengths.  In my case, I call it a return to “professor mode,” in which my life is only semi-structured.  I have appointments and deadlines, but nothing like I had as an administrator.  I love the fact that family and friends tell me that they can’t keep up with all the things I am doing!  It is exactly what the life portfolio I constructed suggested should be the case.

If you are approaching the encore stage, or if you already moved into it, I urge you to reflect on those times in the past when you thrived, with special attention to experiences that may have gotten left behind over the years.  This is a time for reinvention and rediscovery, as much as a time to try things you’ve never experienced, at all.

Dec 12

Fresh Thoughts About Introverts and Extraverts

Recently, I read a book that has me rethinking some things.  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, explores the differences between introverts and extraverts, with the emphasis on how introverts are often undervalued in organizations that celebrate the out-there energy of extraverts.  I’ve also read parts of another positively reviewed book, The Introvert Advantage:  How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, by Marti Olsen Laney, which comes from a similar point of view.

Both authors relate their definitions back to Carl Jung, as well as to the so-called big five personality traits.  A critical point is that the qualities of extraverts, whose energy is so visible and correlates with perceptions of leadership, tend to be presented as how everyone should be.  Indeed, the majority of people are extraverts, with estimates of their prevalence running as high as 70%.

The essential distinction between introverts and extraverts lies in where they find their energy.  Quoting from Cain:  “Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities…Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.”  (Note:  Both “extrovert” and “extravert” are common spellings.  I tend to use the latter, because that spelling is more common in academic circles.)

I’m not sure I realized the extent to which introverts are made to feel as if something is wrong with them or that they should change and be more outgoing.  Cain makes the point that many introverts have perfectly fine social skills, and they adapt to expectations, but the problem lies in how much energy it takes from them to behave “as if” they were extraverted.  Imagine an introvert, exhausted from coping with a day full of meetings and other interactions, being asked to go out for drinks after work.  The very idea of a crowded, noisy bar is the opposite of what this person needs.

I do take issue with some of what Cain writes about brainstorming, linking it too strongly to groupthink.  It is an oversimplification of the research to argue that individuals are consistently better than groups at developing innovative solutions. On the other hand, she does have me rethinking how design processes might best flow.  I also appreciate the point that introverts and extraverts may take more or less time before jumping into a group discussion.

If you are an introvert, check out either of these books.  I think they will make you feel better about how you respond to certain situations.  If you are an extravert, these books offer a helpful balance to your own view of the world, and when you are in a leadership role, you might increase the effectiveness of your team by better appreciating the introverts and extraverts with whom you work.

Dec 06

Entrepreneurship in the Encore Stage

Entrepreneurship is one of the major themes that appear in articles on encore careers.  It makes sense.  If one is ready to leave past employment, but wants to continue generating income, the time may be ideal to start a small business.  The experience, relationships, and passion to make a difference that people in the encore stage bring to a new initiative are a competitive advantage.

In some cases, the emerging entrepreneur may want to do the same type of work as before, but without the complications or supervision that came in the past.  People may want to experiment with their own way of doing things, perhaps testing ideas or approaches that previous employers wouldn’t accommodate.  Or, it could be that some individuals have modest income needs and want a simpler, more flexible schedule and workload than before.

Still others may want to create a small business that ties to a hobby or to a suppressed passion that has been neglected for too long.  Thus, we see some people moving into fine arts or crafting, but in a business-like way, while others become more engaged in, say, buying or selling tied to the development of collections.

I am intrigued by the fact that the so-called “entrepreneurial push” often has come from some professional disappointment.  Commonly, entrepreneurs of any age go off on their own after being denied a promotion, downsized, or held back financially.  In that context, making a move in the encore stage is consistent with what we already knew.  Confidence often is supported by a desire to avoid regret or an absence of better options:  “What do I have to lose?”  “If not now, when?”

The trend that excites me the most, however, is toward social entrepreneurship.  The theme of “purpose, passion and a paycheck” seems to be right in line with the entrepreneurial trend.  Google “social entrepreneurship” and “sustainable business,” and you will find lots of good reading.  Fundamentally, however, it is the desire to bring good business principles to address a social need, and then measure success not only financially, but also through social impact.

Some colleges and universities are recognizing this entrepreneurial trend.  It is likely that many budding entrepreneurs can benefit from learning more about good business practices, financial management, or other practical matters.  Certificates in entrepreneurship (credit or non-credit) could do well, for example.  I predict that fine arts courses that target now-serious Boomers in transition will do well, as will programs that specifically address social concerns for businesses.

We know where the employment opportunities are greatest:  Health care, education, and business.  (In this case, I’d emphasize small business and sustainable business.)  There are many reasons to be optimistic about good things emerging from the encore stage, but a big one is the likelihood that talented Boomers, seeking continued purpose and following their passions, will find new ways of contributing.

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