Tag Archives | Conscious Use of Self

Mystery, Horses, Curiosity, and Being Open


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I recently had a profound experience with a group of fellow coaches and the human, equine and canine members of the team at The Flag Foundation for Horse/Human Partnership. (You can read about it here. Go ahead, we’ll wait.)

A central part of that experience was just being present, being totally there, being willing to let go and wonder, What will happen if I do this? Paying attention. Being open. Not worrying if I got muddy or wet or covered with dog spit. That openness made it easier to improvise. To let things happen. What’s going to happen next? And being there for it. Our whole group did that, and our human leaders did that in response to what transpired and what we needed.

* * *

A friend recently called me to talk through a situation with an organization with which she’s been working. We got curious about what she was experiencing, about why she was reacting the way she was, and about her options.

I’ve been in situations like hers, and they call for being curious about the people around us, for seeing what’s happening and yet suspending judgment, for being present in the situation, and for letting go of our egos. For being willing to get muddy and covered with dog spit. To be in a situation where getting stepped on is a possibility, and taking precautions while still being open.

* * *

Which reminds me of  a class I recently taught on strategic management for a group of leaders and managers. One of the things we dove into was why strategies fail. A key factor is the existence of competing objectives, goals that aren’t talked about openly. These can’t be uncovered if we view the situation with judgment; we must explore the situation with curiosity instead. (My objective of connecting with the horses was made difficult to achieve by my secondary goal of not getting sunburned – I slathered myself with stinky sunscreen. Ah. Next time I’ll skip the sunscreen and wear long sleeves.)

* * *

After my experience with the horses someone told me I was brave. No, I said, I was just present. I stayed present with an open heart. It occurred to me later that the root of the word “courage” is the French “coeur,” or “heart.” To have courage is to have heart. (“Ya gotta have heart… all we really need is heart…”) To be courageous is to be… hearteous.

I know, that’s not a word. You know what I mean.

To be courageous, brave, is to show up with an open heart. To be curious. And to act.

Are you willing to show up and be open, to ask, What happens next?

To suspend judgment and really experience What’s happening now?

To dive into the mystery with an open heart?

Would you like to try?

Shoot me an email: susan at susantblake dot com. And enjoy this:


This video was apparently shot when the power went out during a Tommy Emmanuel concert, and he continued – with just two luminarias on stage and someone holding a flashlight in the balcony. In it, he tells the story behind one of my favorite pieces of music.


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Image: bk images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Spiders, Obsessions and Life Lessons


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I got up this morning, put on my glasses, and went to the kitchen. Just like I do every morning.

I stumbled around, put water on to boil, ran my fingers through my hair, got out the cat food, looked down…

… and saw what looked like a black spider crumpled on the floor. Kind of squished, but not completely.

It was too early to think about anything but Coffee and Feeding the Cats. So I fed the cats while the water heated up.

I came back to the kitchen and, yes, it was definitely a spider. Mostly squished, but not completely.

O my god, I thought, had I stepped on it in my bare feet? Aaaaack.

Oh my GOD, was it in my hair? Did it fall out when I finger-combed my hair? Oh MY GOD, had it been on my pillow? Had I rolled over on it? Eeeeeeeew! OHMYGOD, was it in the clothes I took off the hook and put on when I got up? EEEEEEEEK!

Have I mentioned that I don’t like spiders?

At this point I could quite easily have dissolved into hysteria and spent the rest of the day in the kitchen, screaming.

Instead, I realized that none of that really mattered as long as it hadn’t bitten me, which it hadn’t. (Wait, what’s that itchy spot on my leg?)

So I got a kleenex, picked it up (Eeew, did it move?), didn’t see any red marks on its belly, and threw it in the trash. Eew. (Or should I say, “Threeeew it in the trash”?)

Once I had my coffee, I thought about how easily I could have driven myself to hysteria by thinking about all the things that might have happened. But they didn’t. And I didn’t.

Why didn’t I?

It’s really tempting to think about all of the things that might have happened, or should have happened, or that I should have done, or that someone else should have done. But unless I’m willing to take a lesson and move on, that kind of obsession only serves one purpose: It’s a great distraction.

I realized many years ago, when I was driving to work while seething at my husband for something, obsessing over him and what he had done, that when I obsess like that it’s usually because it is a great distraction from what’s really going on with me: What feelings am I avoiding? What part did I play in the situation? What action am I trying to avoid taking?

I hate that.

That kind of revelation is very humbling. And very useful.

Having learned that about myself has saved me a LOT of wasted energy over the years, and prevented a lot of escalated misunderstandings.

Now I notice

It has taken a lot of practice, but it’s much easier now to notice when I start to escalate and pull the plug on it, asking myself, “What’s really going on?”

(Although I admit I get a perverse thrill of fear from taking out the idea of rolling over on a spider and finding it in my hair and waving that scenario in front of myself several times so far today. Shivers.)

This type of obsessive distraction can cause a lot of problems, both in personal relationships and at work. Learning how to unplug it can improve both personal relationships and work situationsby improving my self-knowledge.

Do you ever find yourself obsessing over something? What do you use those tangents to distract yourself from? More importantly, how do you pull the plug on it?

Hm, what’s that itch on my foot?

Image: Pixomar / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Gardens, Birds, Businesses, and Strategic Planning


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My garden, such as it is, is currently carpeted with fallen leaves from the great Valley Oak that stands at its edge. This rust-colored carpet shines with the night’s rain and calls to me, reminding me of chores to be done. Although part of me sees a comforting blanket that protects my sleeping garden from what cold we experience here, another part of me sees the stalwart heads of a few hardy plants that peek out from beneath their covers and hears them calling, “Don’t forget about us!”

My favorite activity of a Sunday morning is to take my cup of coffee to the rocking chair next to the patio doors in my office and sit and drink my coffee and look at my garden while listening to the Acoustic Sunrise on a local radio station (you can stream it online at KFOG.com). After I finish my coffee I will often move on to a mimosa, my Sunday Morning Indulgence.

I love to sit here and watch morning come to my garden and the neighborhood around it, painting the neighborhood trees and the surrounding hills with gold. Eventually the sun peeks through and over the privacy fence around my secret garden and walks across it like the sun through the peepholes at Stonehenge.

Unless, of course, it is a grey day like today, and clouds paint the hills and kiss the trees.

I sit and observe, and contemplate. I watch the birds – house finches and Anna’s hummingbirds are regular visitors, joined by a circus train whose troupes change with the seasons. Right now we have chickadees and white crowned sparrows, but at other times we will have tufted titmice, goldfinches (they always make me smile), and the occasional ruby crowned kinglet, who does not like seeing his reflection in the mirror hanging on the fence. He puffs up his ruby crown and struts back and forth along the back of the bench before the mirror, trying to impress his rival.

I make notes – the bird feeder needs to be cleaned and refilled, the basket of nesting materials can come down, I need to make more hummingbird nectar.

I sit, and rest, and contemplate, and wonder…and plan.

I sit, and rest, and contemplate, and wonder. And consider, and plan. What task shall I tackle first? Is it time to prune roses and cut back the grasses yet? I must remember to make cuttings from the rose geranium. Should I pull out the skeleton of my beloved hardenbergia that mysteriously dropped its leaves this fall (it is normally evergreen, with glorious purple flower clusters in January, but this January it is bare), or should I wait until Spring and see if it comes back with some fertilizer and pruning? What if it doesn’t come back? With what should I fill the gap it leaves? And so on, with variations with the seasons.

I go through a similar process each week around my business when I prepare my new to-do list for the week. As with any garden, I know I can never get to everything that needs to be done, so I must prioritize. What must be done? What will wither and die if neglected too long? What do I do just for the joy of it, and what do I do because I must? Do I put the Joy items on the to-do list, validating the Joy, or steal time for them?

I think some businesses (and jobs) are like low-maintenance yards, requiring only weekly mowing and semi-annual fertilization and hedge-trimming. Maybe some weed pulling. Others are like gardens with plants that come in and out of season, crops that are planted, harvested and replaced, and projects like container plantings that are freestanding and portable. The workshop I am planning – it will initially be a potted plant, but if it thrives I will be able to propagate it and perhaps move it to a permanent spot in the garden. The e-book is like strawberries that will need the right setup and fertilization and attention to get started but will be ever bearing and low-maintenance once established.

There is a difference between making a to-do list and strategic planning.

Strategic planning is like that. But there is a difference between making a to-do list and strategic planning. I can put “pull weeds” and “transplant begonias” on the to-do list, but if I never stop to look at the big picture of how things fit together and whether these little tasks are helping me achieve my larger goals, then I will just have a pleasant mishmash. What do I want my garden to look like? It’s about having a vision, and then making a plan to make it so, and then monitoring to make sure the tasks on my to-do list – and their results – are in alignment with that plan. Strategic planning requires that I pause to observe, listen and take stock, with a realistic appraisal of resources, and with frequent reassessments. Otherwise all I can see are the trees, not the forest.

Each of us can – must – assess where we are and what we are doing.

It doesn’t matter whether you are even a manager or a business owner: Each of us can – must – assess where we are and what we are doing. There are things we can control, even if we cannot control the weather or the seasons.

Strategic planning is that simple, but it can be bewildering if you’re new to it or feeling stuck. Don’t worry – even the best gardeners consult with someone else at times.

Have a thought on the subject? Please leave a comment!

Need help? Email me at susan@susanTblake.com. I can help.

Compassion Is a Pain in the Ass – or – Stop Making Sense, Part Duh


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Compassion has recently been a recurring theme for me. I noticed this after I published a blog post titled Stop Making Sense on the ridiculously stupid decisions that pass for logic sometimes, especially in a bureaucracy. In that post, I told two (true) stories that made me shake my head for years. I had started the post some time ago, but I couldn’t finish it for a long time. Why? Because I couldn’t get past it being a rant. I was left with a big “So What?” by my own post.

I hate it when that happens.

Scene Change

I discovered Pema Chodron several years ago (thanks to Bill Moyers’ PBS series “On Faith and Reason”), and one of the things that appealed to me about her, and about Buddhism in general, was her focus on compassion, or “loving kindness.” Especially toward ourselves. But it wasn’t until recently when I went through a process of coming to terms with a vocal condition that makes it difficult for me to speak, admitting how I truly hated my voice and choosing instead to be compassionate with myself and my voice, that the concept of compassion went from being a “Yeah, that’s nice,” abstract concept to something real.

In other words, it wasn’t until I stopped kicking myself in the shins every time a word wouldn’t come out or I struggled to make myself understood, that it started to get easier to not want to kick other people in the shins.

Case in Point:

That blog post. I couldn’t finish it for the longest time because I still wanted to shake the silly bureaucrats who make decisions like the ones I described. And I didn’t know how to get past that – until it occurred to me that they were (possibly) trying to do a good job – but maybe they were hampered by a variety of unexamined beliefs that led them to their conclusions. (I confess I am still tempted to say, “a variety of mistaken beliefs that led them to their ridiculously stupid and counter-productive conclusions.” I still have work to do.)

Which reminded me of an essay I read a while back, written by Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico. In her essay, “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” she wrote about how she learned from her father to “assume positive intent.”

That’s when I was able to finish the blog post.

And I was actually pretty proud of that post. I thought it was well written, it had a catchy title, and it wasn’t a rant. It offered something practical about getting past being stuck when dealing with those ridiculously stupid and counter-productive conclusions.

But it got no comments. None. Zero. A big goose-egg. “Waah!” I thought, “I stink as a blogger!” But my posts on “What Spiders Teach Us About Building a Great Team” and “Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking” got comments. So what happened?

Maybe compassion just isn’t catchy. Maybe I didn’t make it catchy. Maybe I should have admitted how HARD it was for me to get to that point – a little confession might have been catchier. Humility can be very funny, sometimes.

So, I’ll put on a big red clown nose and admit that being a change agent is HARD. (Actually, just being a decent person is hard.) And it’s hard because in order to be any kind of effective, I have to be compassionate, not superior. (That’s one difference between being a Consultant and being an “Insultant.”) I have to be aware of my own stuff and be able to meet people where they are, not where I think they are.

There is a big difference between compassion and pity, between being compassionate with myself and indulging in self-pity, and between having compassion for others and being patronizing. Compassion does not allow us to collude with bureaucracy and mistaken beliefs, nor does it allow us to judge those with whom we disagree. Compassion is a pain in the ass, actually, because it strips away our ability to simply react and take the easy way.

But compassion is also what makes it possible for us to consciously use ourselves, and it gives us room to learn from the differences between us, to ask for the sound and current data that is needed to replace unfounded beliefs, and to play infinite win/win games instead of win/lose power games.

In other words, compassion is one of the things that makes curiosity possible.

Now that makes sense.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.

Freedom to Believe – and Freedom from Beliefs


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Martin Amis said something interesting about writers in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. When describing a friend who is a writer, he stated that he felt this writer’s gift had really blossomed when he stopped defending Marxism. His point was not about Marxism, it was about writing from a standpoint of ideology: “Writing is freedom. If you’ve got some Commissar staring over your shoulder, you’re not free. If you have some consensus that you’re loyal to, you’re not free.”

I think he makes an interesting point: One may have extraordinary gifts, but if one looks at the world through a specific lens, then everything one writes is going to be unconsciously edited to support or promote that viewpoint. If, however, one can achieve a perspective of being open to many perspectives, then one can be free to consider many viewpoints, many possible outcomes, and one can authentically create various characters.

This requires an ability to perceive and accept different shades of gray. It does not allow for black-and-white thinking.

I think this applies not only to writing, but to many things: To leadership, to management, to relationships, to creativity; to the choices we make, to the paths we follow, to the way we encourage ourselves to succeed or prevent ourselves from succeeding.

The lens through which we look at the world consists of the beliefs we hold – beliefs we often take for granted. And those beliefs may or may not be grounded in sound and current data.

True freedom begins with identifying our beliefs. It then requires that we examine those beliefs and ask ourselves where they came from and whether they are valid.

Identifying one’s beliefs is harder than it sounds. This is because beliefs are like a layer cake, or like the layers of the earth. There are conscious beliefs that are easy to identify. But there are other, deeper beliefs that we can only reach by digging. How do we do that? By asking questions, especially “Why?”

If one is willing to pay attention to one’s statements and actions and ask, “Why?” – “Why did I do that?” or “Why do I think that?” and “How do I know that?” – then one can begin to peel back layers and open curtains. Only then can we examine our beliefs – by first identifying them  – and decide whether they are valid.

I am reminded of a story I once heard, and I will paraphrase it here. There once was a woman who was teaching her daughter how to prepare a pot roast. “First, you must cut the ends off,” she said. “Why?” her daughter asked. “Because they’re no good,” the mother replied. “But they look fine,” the daughter said. “Well, that’s how my mother taught me,” the mother said in exasperation. Curious, the daughter later asked her grandmother about this. The grandmother burst out laughing and said, “I only had a small roasting pan, and the roasts wouldn’t fit in it if I didn’t trim them!”

The process of questioning our beliefs requires curiosity. And curiosity requires being open to chaos – or at least being at the edge of chaos – where things change our knowledge and our perceptions of the world shift. And that requires groundedness, a belief (ironic, isn’t it?) that change is not death, that I will go on and be OK even if I change, if I change my mind, if the world around me changes. I don’t have to control everything in order to go on.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that we go through life without beliefs. What I am suggesting is that we examine those beliefs so that we can consciously decide whether they are serving us or we are serving them.

As I said in my ebook, beliefs can be the seatbelt that keeps us from going through the windshield when life slams into us. They can be guideposts that help us choose what road to take. If we hold on to them too tightly, they can become a platform that we feel we must defend and even evangelize. If they are mistaken, they can send us down the wrong path. They can become unnecessary obstacles.

Here is an example from my own life: I believed that my gravelly, strangled-sounding voice prevented me from having an effective career presenting workshops and webinars, coaching, and facilitating meetings. Why? Because I believed people wouldn’t want to listen to me, and that they would not respect me because of how I sounded. Why? Because I hated listening to myself. Did I have any sound and current data about this? No. In fact, people were giving me unsolicited praise about my skills. I also created a double bind for myself: Because I had not done enough research and my voice had not been successfully diagnosed, I believed that there was no treatment for my voice. More specifically, the only treatment I knew of was unappealing. So therefore I had “real” obstacles to doing work I wanted to do. Once I did get more information, however, I found there were possibilities for improving my voice. So my beliefs on both counts were mistaken and created unnecessary obstacles.

If you had asked me if I believed these things, I probably would have said No – at least initially. Reflexively. It wasn’t until I examined the situation and the difference between my words and my actions that my beliefs became clearer. Often our words and our beliefs are consistent, but they may still be unfounded.

I am not going to ask you what you believe, at least not right now. But I will ask you this: How do you know what you believe? Are your actions consistent with what you say you believe? Have you ever let go of a belief? Are you willing to wonder?

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