Messages from a Friend

Last week I put my iPhone, my iPad, my Mac Book Air into a white plastic screening bin at the airport.  There we go, I thought, three thousand dollars of stuff!  Then, an even more sobering idea smacked me on the back of my head: each of these devices is the great-great-great-great-grandmother of other, even more expensive clunky devices.  Take my laptop, for instance, a Mac Book Air – well it’s at least the 15th generation of larger and heavier predecessor “portable” computers.  The founding member of my portable computer family was a brick of a thing called the Osborne One, more a suitcase sized 25 pound device (lug-able) with green lettering on a five inch glowing CRT screen, with a battery life of about an hour.  Those were the days?  Then I remembered the time, not so long ago, there also weren’t any portable phones.  My first “cell phone” was a walkie-talkie like brick called a Motorola Dynatec in 1981… I was a very early adopter.  Before that time, if you wanted to make a call while away from your desk or home, you tracked down a pay phone, which could be found in, queue superman music, a phone booth! 










I have a friend, Rick, who recently walked the 500 mile pilgrimage trail across Northern Spain known as El Camino De Santiago, all at one go.  Rick lives in Silicon Valley, and is a user of electronics too. He’s a consultant, a great guy, a deep thinker, a little older than I am, and in celebration of being at a certain stage in his life, and in order to enliven it as well, he decided to make this amazing walking journey.  In communion with the spirit of pilgrimage, (36 days of walking from village to village, hostel to hostel across Spain) he intentionally left his electronics at home. 

So, off he flew to Europe in mid September.  For the next month and a half we (his friends) received only a couple of messages from him as relayed by his wife.  She quite reasonably stayed home, mentioning something about communal sleeping with 50 snoring pilgrims each night and 500 miles of walking not coinciding with her idea of fun or a vacation.  But in the spirit of friendship and love for her husband, she relayed his messages sent by voice – phone card, or internet cafe, from the wilds of Northern Spain.

One message was:

Clichés are all that matter …  this is all about Love, life, family, friends, health, caring for one another, those are all that matter.   Clichés are clichés because we say them and think them over and over ad nauseam.  But we think them and say them over and over because they are so damn true!   As he walked 6 – 12 hour days along the pilgrimage trail, this thought about all that matters, came back to him, again and again, as the rest of the world fell away (metaphysically speaking).

Another message:

This one was actually the first one we received, just ten or so days into his walk: “The more disconnected I am, the more I want to be disconnected.”  He was of course referring to all the tech-junk I put in the bin at the airport.  On the trail, he was free from all that stuff, the electronics, those “labor saving” devices that have hooked us up 24/7 365.  He was experiencing what it was like to be free, literally and figuratively not hooked up, for a month and a half.

After you swallow the panic while imagining what it’s like to be disconnected for a month and a half, imagine, if you will, that if you are older than 40, you may have lived like this for a part of your life.  In the scheme of world timelines, cell phones are pretty new, email is newer, and “personal” computers are about 40 years old.  You may have actually lived a small part of the same experience he found to be so restorative and, in his words “peaceful, surreal and way more human”.  Remember?

Some of you can.  I have facilitated many CEO workshops where we shut the electronic world off for a period (a day or more), then investigated the experience together as part of our retreat.  Even if you aren’t a practitioner of “off switch” therapy, you can guess what happens.  Not unlike addicts going through withdrawal, at first there is an uptick of anxiety, and heightened discomfort, static noise as the nerve endings start protesting all over your body, a spike of “what the hell” ,some get angry at me… “Dumb idea, dumb facilitator, I must stay in touch with my office”.  Then as autonomy levels surge from already elevated levels spiking into the stratosphere, you remember how important you are!  Then…well it depends. 

You know that psychology experiment where four year old children are left alone in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them?  The child is told that the experimenter will return in 15 minutes.  If the child has not eaten the marshmallow he/she will receive another marshmallow and can eat both of them.  If they do eat the marshmallow before the experimenter returns they will not get a second marshmallow.  Obviously, there are clear benefits to not eating the marshmallow, but well, many of us self-directing types don’t do so well with deferred pleasure… or deferred anything for that matter. 

In my workshops, peer pressure tends to hold many of the CEOs in the room during our experiment but still, it’s a struggle.  For sure, one or two execs are bound to say “what the hell” and because we agree on the rules in advance, they have to leave the room to check email or use their phone….  But what happens for those who can refrain from eating the marshmallow?  After a couple of hours, we check in on the results of “off switch therapy” and surprise, surprise… a pattern appears as most of the execs report feeling calmer.  Many report experiencing a sense of expansiveness, an openness that, well, feels pretty good.   What they discover is a sense of “freedom” that does not come from “doing something” but comes from “not doing something”, in this case – eating the marshmallow.  What becomes apparent to the execs who can resist the temptation to “check in” is a freer way of thinking, an uncluttered space where they are able to pay attention to themselves (as in being present) and to others, without distraction.  The “without distraction” part is like having a super power; it boosts capacity a lot.  Rick had his capacity boosted a bunch for many days on the Camino.

By the way, in the marshmallow experiment, approximately two out of three of the children eat the marshmallow… see this link, and watch what psychologists learned from the experiment – and  have a good laugh too.

I have been thinking about you, wondering what to write as we launch into another calendar year.  We’ve talked about so many business things in the last year, I admit to being just a tad frustrated (with myself).  So to vent this frustration and to close out 2013 and open a new year together I have decided to cut to the chase with Rick’s help. 

I want to just say, in an unembellished way, something that I know to be the absolutely most important thing I can ever say or (in my opinion) that you will ever hear about business.  Ready?


Many of us segregate our thinking (and our lives) between business thoughts, observations, and lessons as separate or apart from personal thoughts and lessons and observations.  In a way we are attempting to protect ourselves by isolating the business part by saying… “Oh, it is just business.”

In truth, there is no such thing as “just business”… it’s all personal.  

All business is personal… Doing business is all about living, and working in the human dimension.  Every time we try to escape or look away from the glare of the personal challenge, we make our lives ten times harder, and usually introduce dysfunction for those around us. 

This is why the best books on leadership talk about authenticity as the central engine for good leadership.  This authenticity isn’t some sort of temporary mask we put on or a trick we learn.  These authors are really talking about plumbing our own selves, finding out and coming to grips with our own capabilities, foibles, strangeness, hopes and fears.  And then resolutely being that person, leading as that person, growing as that person.

To do this delving, to learn more about ourselves, to really figure out where we want to go and how we intend to get there, we need to turn off the noise, start with ourselves and work through where we are, who we’re with, and where the whole community is going in relation to where we’re going.  So yes, we must think strategically, and as we so often do, we have to do “strategic planning” but as I tell my clients, only do strategic planning after you’ve figured out: where you’re going; where your families are going; how your health is going; where your hearts want to go; and then you’re ready to do the business planning.  Never before.

Why?  Well there is nothing more disturbing than taking a business someplace you really don’t want to go or some place you can’t go because your child needs special attention and you can’t be traveling all the time, or your relationship with a partner is in tatters and you have to work with him/her, or you have a serious health issue and you need to be working on to become healthier.  It is not about business… it is about life.  That’s all there is to business, it’s just another part of life and it is all personal. Use this simple model: take care of yourself and you’ll take care of your business (or job or career) – IN THAT ORDER.

As my friend Rick walked his pilgrimage, he was visited by these and many other truths.  He was able to experience this because he disconnected, because he challenged himself to be with himself as a human being and not as a world renowned consultant and counselor (which he is).  He lived with himself, and had a six week long conversation with himself in order to “get it right”.

His messages give us the full measure of how to approach our own journeys.  First start with ourselves.  Disconnect from the outside to connect with the inside.  And yes, the clichés are all that really matter… clichés because we say them and hear them over and over.  We’ve done so for literally thousands of years… Mind, Spirit, Heart, Body… we are these things, and we go on adventures but most of all, we all live lives – some of which include business.  Start and end there.  If you can.  If you do this now, 2014 will be a great year as will the years that hopefully follow.  Rick, for example, discovered that there is a lot of important stuff left for him to do and experience – he’s 72 years old.

Use whatever process you want… But start with yourself, and work outward.  And when you feel you have a pretty good handle on yourself, strengths and weaknesses, do an inventory of your life: body, spirit, heart, and mind.  After you assess these areas of your life, then you can think about the business stuff.  And when you do plan for the business, never compromise your own body, heart, mind, or spirit…. Challenge them, develop them, but don’t compromise them.  

As I read Rick’s messages from Spain, I mulled these thoughts about myself and you too.   Out there on the trail, sleeping with the fifty snoring pilgrims each night, nursing blisters, experiencing the heat of the Spanish September sun that warmed and made sweat, Rick was reporting back to us, his friends.  He was a messenger telling us about his visit to another planet.  The planet Rick, the planet that is Rick’s life, one in which we all share a part, our humanness, one fellow’s life is like our life.   For my own part I’ve  been urging executives to take an annual personal retreat to do this work.  I know of no better way to check in with yourself.  Although I didn’t go to Spain this year for my retreat, I took Rick’s messages with me for two days.  All I could say to myself was “Rick nailed it”.   

Of course you don’t need to walk Spain’s Camino for a month and a half to do this work.   Rick tells anyone who will listen that their life will be inexplicably changed for the better if they take a great journey … but whether you go for six weeks or just a couple of days, give yourself this biggest gift of the year, in the first month of the year!  Give yourself the gift of your better self!

Happy 2014 to all of us.

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2 Responses to Messages from a Friend

  1. Bill Fisher says:

    Dang fine piece of writing, old and sagacious friend. I have recently met a surprising number of people who have walked the Camino and felt their lives change beneath their feet. I have also had reason to look at the remaining embers of the fire and find that the passion still lives there. And what exactly to do with the light of life in my final (say, 20? 25?) years is a question that gives me pause frequently. Make more music, write more poetry and essays, embrace friends and family, and learn how little I know, even after all the experiences have surprised and polished me.
    Blessings to you, Walter G. I have missed you greatly and would love the chance to put an end to the missing at some point…and talk, lengthily and lustily. –Bill

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