Thursday, June 28, 2012

Testing the Yes

Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.  Malcolm Gladwell, über-successful author of books like Blink
            Once we discovering our yeses—where internal passion meets external need—we then must try them out, testing it to see if they work.
            But first, we must first take a look at how we make decisions.
            One my mentors, the late psychologist and Princeton Seminary professor, James Loder, was thinker whose interests spanned Jean Piaget to John Calvin, Niels Bohr to Søren Kierkegaard. He was both one of the most brilliant men I’ve met, who would also shed tears as he spoke about “transforming moments” with the Spirit.
A Stunning Book
            In the book he co-wrote with physicist Jim Neidhardt on the integration of theology and science, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of the Spirit in Theology and Science, Loder and Neidhardt described a five-step process of discovery or discernment (pages 230-2):
1.     Incoherence (where things don’t quite add up)
2.     Search for resolution
3.     Construction of new meaning (the resolution begins)
4.     Release of energy with the discovery of the resolution (Think here of Archimedes running naked from the Greek bath house shouting “Eureka” because he had discovered the theory of the displacement of water.)
5.     Verification (I’ll return to that in a moment.)
In Loder’s understanding of these “transforming moments, “ in this fifth step we interpret or verify our insight, particularly integrating with past and projecting its implications into the future.
            I’d like to reflect on these.
            First of all, conflict or incoherence can be good. Sometimes we notice—and it can hurt when we observe this fact—that there’s a conflict between what we believe and our life in God’s calling, or we want to refine it. Loder helped me to see conflict as a necessary part of human development.
            Second, I believe our intuition or imagination is powerful here and often begins the process. Our intuition often grasps the right answer before we have the specific steps to prove it. Our intuition is not exact. And that’s why testing is key. Loder analyzes Albert Einstein’s great intuitive leaps that lead him toward his Theories of Special and General Relativity. Loder and Neidhardt describes Einstein’s use of imagination (Knight’s Move, 177ff.): “a jump of imaginative insight: a bold leap, an informed, speculative attempt to understand, a ‘groping’ constructive attempt to understand.” Einstein talked about the how his intuition guided the process and provoked to ask more questions. We take that great imaginative insight, that “bisociation”—where we bring two ideas that seemed incompatible together—and we work to interpret our lives accordingly.
            Third, discovering almost always includes continuity with the past. New insights have a connection with our past. They create a narrative that makes sense. It’s the story God is writing in our lives. If it doesn’t have continuity, then it’s not a real solution. If we’ve heard God direct us in the past, the future will make sense with what has gone before. Or to quote business author (and friend) Candice Carpenter Olson from her book on human change, Chapters: each chapter builds on the chapter beforehand. It’s a new chapter, but the story has continuity.
            Finally, verification or testing is essential. And this is the key concept for this section of my book. As James Loder writes of science, 
many beautiful physical theories are simply wrong. The steady-state theory of the universe was indeed aesthetically very pleasing to the human mind but it could not account for such key astronomical observations as the background (black-body) radiation” (The Knight’s Move, 232). 
We have to test our great insights and see how they work. Big bang cosmology, which could account for cosmic background radiation as the echo of the initial creation of our universe, made better sense.
            So now it’s up to you to test your specific yeses, to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 3:11). (By the way, it’s clear that this is not working for our salvation because the passage continues with “God is at work among you.”) “Working out” our salvation means that we work out the implications of your salvation. We’ve already declared our big Yes to God and now we work out what that means for us particularly.
            How we do that is the next chapter of testing. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Yes of Service

It seems natural for us to seek what we want. That’s happiness. But I think we often get the seeking all wrong. 
            I remember hearing the well-known evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson offer this question at a conference (and I paraphrase), 
You put two groups on a desert island. One is completely self-centered. The other has learned to work as a team, to cooperate, sometimes taking so that others will survive. Which of the two groups is going to survive—the self-seeking or the altruistic?
            Obviously, it’s those who cooperate. They will have bonded together against various foes. So, if we are altruistic in the sense that David Sloan Wilson describes, it’s good commonsense: we are more likely to survive.
            It even seems natural for us to seek the betterment of our own—to care for our family, those close to us. In my ongoing passion for science and theology, I try to keep up with what’s current scientifically, and evolutionary psychology tells us that we are designed to even act altruistically toward those who share our genes. We’d like to see those genes carried on beyond our life. So altruism is selfish in that view.
             “But, wait,” writes one of the most influential scientists of our day, the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. “What about those people who give themselves to a cause beyond their own genes? What about Oskar Schindler? Why did this Nazi-party German save Jews at his own peril?” (I’m paraphrasing, but you can find this in Collins’s book The Language of God.)
            Evidently, we can go beyond mere evolutionary survival. We have been implanted with the power to care for those beyond our kin.
            Apparently, Jesus thought so too. He described his own life—as very God in flesh—this way in the record of his life: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:45). Actually, he even declared that we should do the same, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44). He said this in response to his own followers’ clamoring to get to the head of the line.
            Jesus even described this in terms of seeking our best—“to gain our life” is the phrase he employs: 
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35 TNIV)
            Here’s what that means for me: I grew up in the secular happiness haven of Menlo Park, California. Most people know that location today as the headquarters of Facebook, nestled in the heart of the Silicon Valley, a place of joyously unrelenting spring, oodles of wealth and beautifully tanned and exercised people. Or something like that… at least, it’s a place to be happy on your own terms. And to seek life for yourself.
            But Jesus taught me that we find our happiness not in self-seeking, but in serving others… even those beyond our kin group: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40).
            So I have to have others around me—and here’s the importance of relationships, the theme of “love” in this book—they will help me serve. They will even serve with me. It’s fun. So I’ve discovered I need to surround myself with those who look out for others, who know the yes of service.
            I’ve learned to team with my wife Laura to donate to nonprofits (and she’s taught me a lot about what that means). I’ve pounded nails with teams of college students in Baja, California, to build basic two-room houses for those who make $10/day. I’ve partnered with friends to serve meals at our local homeless shelter, the Jesus Center. And maybe even thrown in a little of the Boy Scout promise of doing something kind for someone else each day.
            Otherwise, I’ll just sit around and do things to “keep my life”… which in the end, simply helps me lose it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Becoming Quiet Enough to Hear

One more entry on the way to a book, now called The Time for Yes.

"God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer."
Mother Teresa

Can God get our attention?
In Say Yes to No, I offered some guidelines for the practice of finding a groove, but here I’d like to go further. Much of this process has to do with detaching from our techie toys—our cell phones, iPads, laptops, that kind of thing. When we tune out, we can tune in and hear God's deep yeses for us. 

I will take each of these ten steps and update them for finding our yeses in life.

1.     Realize that technology can obscure the view of the stars. By this I meant, alongside the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, that we lose track of what’s around us in the natural world. When we have too much to distract us, we easily lose track of the awe and wonder of the natural world, where we are often ready to hear the Author and Creator of nature.

2.     Recognize that ours is an age of distraction. Since Say Yes to No came out, there have been numerous studies that indicate if we are wired to respond to immediate stimulus—it even gives us an extra shot of that hormone of happiness, dopamine. The problem is that, if we’re checking our email while we’re on the phone with our sister and we’re texting and we’re watching a DVD, we’re conditioning our brains never to concentrate on any one thing for very long. But to hear that deeper Voice, we need to be able to concentrate and not seek distraction.

3.     Use the Power of No to restrict technology’s reach. This one builds on the last. It’s ok to say no to those devices that distract us.

4.     Turn off the TV most of the time. Our TVs are on too much and suck away our time. As Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his insightful book, Flow; watching TV rarely puts us in “optimal experience.” And my contention and experience is that it’s in optimal experience that we hear the yeses for us.

5.     Do things you love to do. And so we come to the point to say yes to what we love to do. Is that scrapbooking? Is it playing the violin? Those are the places where we “come to ourselves” and there we become quiet.

6.     Center on the center. When we do what we love, we find ourselves at a deep Center where we can encounter God in our lives. At the Center, we hear a tailor-made yes. I know no better description than Psalm 63: “You, God, are my God,/ earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,/  my whole being longs for you,/ 
in a dry and parched land/ where there is no water.”

7.     Open the gift of solitude. It’s going to be hard to listen to God’s voice if there’re always other voices around us. Not that those are bad, but I’m afraid that we haven’t learned to take in the way that being alone can be entirely renewing.

8.     Begin each day by listening. That’s key to this chapter. If we start each day, going away from the insistence demands of the day toward the deepest values we hold dear, that will make a difference. “The moment you wake up each morning,” writes the brilliant writer, C. S. Lewis, “all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life coming flowing in.”

9.     Learn to “let it be.” So much of finding the yes is not creating a yes, but letting God lead what we’re doing. We are created to respond to a Yes that comes from beyond us, and yet resonates within. When we lay down our desire to control and micromanage our lives, in that place, we can be begin to listen.

10.  Groove with the spirituality of samba. I contend that the samba, that mesmerizing Brazilian rhythm, is the perfect symbol of what it means to groove with the right rhythms. It’s not all notes (yeses), it’s not all spaces (no), nor can it truly be programmed through a computer. It’s a human rhythm of yeses and nos.

Is there one or two of these you need to start practicing right now? Create a table with one column marked “One Step to Hearing Yes” and a second “How I Will Take this Step.” (For example, “I will begin each day by quieting myself in my living room for 10 minutes.”) Commit yourself to this practice. Practice it for 40 days. (That’s biblical and remarkably close to what scientists have learned is the time we need to form a habit.) Say yes to it. And be sure you tell someone who will ask you in a week or two about whether you’re doing it. Get ready to hear God's yeses.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Yes of Teamwork: Our Service, Our Advantage

(One more post on the way to a book on "when to say yes.")
Two prized possessions are my vacation time and my discretionary income. I figure I work really hard, and time away from work offers me the opportunity to refresh and renew. I can’t imagine giving that up. Secondly, I like having a little extra cash for that occasional bottle of Champagne or maybe a nice weekend away with my wife.
            That’s why it was all the more surprising when I finally grasped what my parents did for me when I competed as a kid in junior tennis. Over several years, they spent loads of dollars on lessons and their free time—including my dad’s vacation days—to drive me (and my brother, Marcus) all around Northern California to compete.
            Paradoxically, I learned from one of the most individual sports imaginable, tennis, about the yes of teamwork. In this case it was their service, my advantage. But teamwork can also be our service, our advantage.
            From my reading in business literature, I’ve discerned a trend in the last ten to twenty year: there’s a focus, not individual achievement, but success by a team of individuals. I figured I check out my hunch, and so I asked Tim, a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology who now consults businesses, about the trend toward teams. “What’s it about?” Tim replied, “A lot of people talk about being a team, but most don’t really understand it.”
            I realized Tim’s right, and the problem is right here: in order to be a good team, we need to put aside what personally benefits us. Bu, in our culture, the dominant slogan seems to be: “It’s all about me.” And thus I want the credit.
            The key to a good team is when you’re ok with someone else getting the credit. And this makes sense. Not only because I believe what goes around, comes around—so if you help others, they are more likely to help you when you need it—but also because you and your organization will do better when teams work best.
            The Bible is fairly repetitive about the importance of teamwork. Psalm 133 shouts it out loud: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes unity of purpose and heart—almost to the point of “Ya, I get it already.” (But I suppose we don’t. And the early Christians didn’t either. That’s why it’s there in the Scripture so often.) Consider what the early Christian leader, Paul, wrote to the first Christian church in Europe, the Philippians,
If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1-3, The Message).
Unity has to do with laying down what we think is most important—about my getting ahead—and seeing others succeed. Even taking joy in it.
            That’s what Tom and Ruth Cootsona demonstrated for me. Although tennis is an individual sport, I needed a support team. After school, my mom would toss me tennis balls, hundreds of them (this was before ball machines) to perfect my stroke. My dad would take those precious vacation days, and they would drive me and my brother in our Ford Monterey to various spots in California, like Monterey, Clovis, and Carmichael. They both invested family funds to pay for lessons, dollars I know they could have spent on themselves. (And maybe even bought a little more Champagne.)
            A business writer who makes incredible sense to me, Stephen M.R. Covey, has recently focused on the importance of trust for any organization and that particularly holds true for one of the smallest organizational units, the team. He talks about the “speed of trust.” In fact, that’s the name of the book. His subtitle is somewhat bombastic: “The One Thing That Changes Everything.”
            Simply put, embedded in any good team is trust. We trust in two ways: we trust others' competence—they can get the work done well. We trust their character—they will follow through with their promises. Covey has taught me that the more we trust one another, the lower the friction and the greater the achievement. We can move fast when we trust each other in a team.
            In my case, the trust level in my junior tennis days was so deep that I didn’t even think about it. I just knew that my parents were there to support me. Their sacrifice was absolutely invisible. But as I reflect now, I realize that the team support I took for granted was necessary and as a result I’ve had to bring that concept to the surface in the teams I direct.
            I’m thankful I learned the lesson early in life: sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. Because when I later in life started leading teams, it made my work a whole lot more enjoyable and effective. And there’s an added benefit: When the team succeeds, so do all the individuals.
            That’s a whole bunch of yeses.

Incidentally, my brother, Marcus Cootsona, just wrote a great book about tennis, Occam's Racquet

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Hearing God’s Voice through learning God’s mission

What does it look like when that website of our mission slowly comes into view?
In case you missed it, this is OMPT's logo
       I’ve had the experience of seeing this happen with a good friend, Matt York, as he, launched a non-profit company named One Media Player Per Teacher (OMPT). Matt had significant success with his media company, Videomaker, becoming a local success story. He’s the kind of entrepreneur that turns up on national TV to discuss the revolution that video has brought to everyday life. But recently, he was led in a new direction: he dreamed of a way to help the billion poorest people on this planet, those who live on less than a dollar a day. And one of the clear elements of the Hebrew Bible and into the New Testament—in fact, that resonates in most enduring religions—is that we are to care for the poor. Jesus proclaimed it clearly in his inaugural “mission statement” message,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
   Because he has anointed me 
   To bring good news [or “the gospel”] to the poor. (Luke 4:18)
I figure if it’s top priority for Jesus’s mission, it needs to guide our mission. And certainly Matt’s on the same page.
            As he learned more about what the poor needed, Matt discovered that education and training were fundamental to their challenges, because it’s education that draws people out of endless cycles of poverty. When you know how to do something, you can be hired for a job. Agriculture training dramatically increases crop yields for sustenance farmers, while health care training decreases incidence of disease and infant mortality. And that dramatically changes lives.
            The next step was Matt realized that these poorest of the poor were often geographically isolated such that they had no access to adequate teaching and training. But what if we could use his media experience to bring some of the best education to the poor of this world? Here’s where the media experience played in. (God, as it were, doesn’t waste our experience.) Through fairly simple technology—inexpensive media players (like iPods, but much cheaper), he could partner with NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) serving in these isolated places to increase the quality of education. Matt’s organization empowers the regional NGO to produce short video lessons featuring the most skilled teachers in the region. These videos are then disseminated in hard-to-reach areas with small battery powered video projectors (a new technology called “pico projectors”). But they needed to be economical, easy-to-use, and not power hogs. I remember a night at Matt’s house after dinner where he showed me a table containing a half dozen different media players, all of which had been diligently created from him or culled by him from hundreds of similar devices manufactured in various factories oversees. “You see this one has a hand crank. So it’s very energy efficient.” “He’s one that’s only $8, but can store half a year’s worth of lectures.” “These speakers are good, but they’re not sufficient loud for a classroom of thirty elementary-age students.”
            As of the writing of this chapter, Matt is still working on the delivery system for these media players to the right countries. He’s visited some of the most remote places on earth including Sudan, rural India, and Guatemala, and he’s on the road, but the bigger point for this book is two-fold: his hearing the call emerged over time. It was something that he heard gradually. Secondly, he found incredibly joy and energy as he’s pursuing this deep passion as it met what God’s mission is in the world. He has frankly told me that he’s never enjoyed his work, or his life, this much. And that’s what makes hearing the Yes so worthwhile.
            To repeat Frederick Buechner’s quote: 
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
What I need to add to Buechner is that this calling from God is about all of life, not just our work (and for Christians, certainly not just what we do for the church). In the U.S. we are too focused on what we do in our jobs. Besides that sometimes the best a job can do is provide for our, and perhaps our family’s, financial needs. And that’s a worthy goal. It is not, however, yet vocation. So, as I will develop in this book, I’m affirming that finding your yeses are about the three important facets of our life, that triangle I presented in Say Yes to No: personal life, work, and relationships or “life, work, and love.”
            All this requires that we become quiet enough to hear the voice of God, or what Naomi Wolf more broadly calls that 
an inward voice one recognizes as wiser than one’s own and transcribes without fear.
When we hear it, a person “transcribes without fear” and that leads us to excellence.