Angry at My Baby or How Kindness Overcomes Futility

Most recipes ask that you raise a liquid to a boil and then allow it to simmer. But at two months old, my baby boy did the opposite. Calmly playing with the Tree Top Gang or having tummy time, suddenly Benton would roll over, look me in the eyes, spit out his pacifier and scream like a pre-teen in a haunted house. Calmly, I would lift him off the ground and begin going through the sequence. First “the elevator” – my right hand under his butt and my left supporting his neck as I quickly go up and then slowly down. Then the “yellow submarine” – a series of shooshes and bounces. Then finally the “kukukaroo.” Don’t ask.

After 10 minutes the scream remains. His voice is getting louder. My voice gets louder. Shhhh. Shhhhhhhhh. SHHHHHHHH!

My grip gets tighter. First on his leg, and then on his back, and then against my body like a running back protecting the ball as he races through the line of scrimmage.

The swinging gets faster. Left and right. Up and down. Faster. Faster.

My wife walks in the room.

I stop. I notice that I am warm. And sweating. I feel angry. But how could I direct anger at a pillow size mammal that just days before was cozy and warm sitting in a small, dark, whirlpool? How could I get mad at someone who has no control of his bowels and gets swaddled like a mad man?

Am I actually angry at my child? If given a moment, my rational mind can identify that I am not angry at my chrome-homey. But it is not my rational mind that responds in those moments. It is my elephant (as Jonathan Haidt describes it), my unconscious intuitive mind responding to something much deeper than the decibels of my child’s scream.

Psychologist Melanie Klein, who is most famous for her love of the breast, helped me understand my response to Benton’s tantrums. Klein (agreeing with Freud) believes that as we attach to a “good object” (such as the “breast” or more personally a sense of control, an important relationship, or self-made wealth) its loss can result in deep feelings of futility. Futility feels a lot like a cocktail of anger and exhaustion. It’s when you have done all that you can do but do not receive the results you want.

Feelings of futility are a normal psychological response to loss of anything that we love. But then what? According to Klein it’s a lot like that 5’2” guy driving the lifted, diesel truck with the muffler removed (who we assume is lacking under his hood). Our feelings of futility cause us to react with a “sense of omnipotence.” Instead of taking appropriate action to address the problems at hand when something changes (people are sad, logistics get difficult, you have increased anxiety) we respond by needing to prove our superiority. We respond with aggressiveness rather than tenderness.

Unfortunately, this is what happened as I tried to calm my son. I had lost my feeling of control (not to mention my sleep) and when I felt like I had nothing to solve his problem, futility took over, and aggression arrived.

You can think about this on the personal level (my aggression toward my son, the increase in conflict with your wife when you get a $5,000 tax bill you didn’t expect, or your 70 hour work week that you are committed to after your last business failed), the societal level (think about the U.S. response to the September 11th attacks), and the organizational level (CEOs and Senior Executives who defend “the way its always been”, random firings during seasons of poor performance). Regardless we cannot control for the loss of all things good. Didn’t we learn this when our first goldfish died? And we cannot expect to appropriately manage our emotions at all times (medication won’t do the trick, either). But we can work to make sure that our feelings of futility do not turn into violence and misguided attempts to overcome and defeat. We can work to ensure that our anxiety does not lead to irrational self-protectionist behavior.


For me it started when my wife read my journal. My floury notebook has a lock and key. Not really, it’s a word doc. And because we share a computer she often logs on and sees my most recent entry. In this case, she read about my feelings of futility, my confusion about why I could not calm my son, my frustration with myself, and my and my desire to get better at it.

After reading my words she said, “you are a great Father. Your honesty will be a gift to your son as he grows up.”

The futility and shame that I felt disappeared faster than then my baby’s screams arrived. Naming my feelings of futility and sharing them with someone else eased my desire to overcome or defeat my futility and opened me up to my tender fears of fatherhood. Rather than responding to my futility with aggression, I could now allow myself to feel that I was not an all powerful know it all and extend kindness to myself. And kindness to yourself and others seems to be the cure for most everything.

It is likely that you’ve tried to get the girl, land the perfect job, or raise the perfect child. It likely that you have simultaneously sought career advancement, spiritual formation, and marital bliss. My hunch is that you soon felt futile. That in spite of all of your efforts, you realized you were not as in control as you wished. You may respond with violence (or forfeiture)…that’s ok. You’re normal.  We’re not mad at our children, your spouse, your boss, or even our politicians. We are mad that the world isn’t right. We are mad that bad things happen that we cannot stop. We are mad that we cannot will the goodness we desire.

I have learned that when I feel this way, I need grace (or someone to give me the “kukukaroo”). And grace tastes like a glass of wine and sounds like the judgment free words of my wife.  May we all have the courage to admit (or be caught in) our futility and may we all be safe places for shame and futility to be shared.

Urban and Lonely? Thoughts on Courageous Love and Breast Feeding

A friend of mine describes San Francisco as a town where you have brunch every Saturday with someone you will only see twice a year. This resonates with me. Multiple mornings each week I scarf scones and single origin espressos while catching up with friends whose company I greatly enjoy. The problem is that I see these individuals less than I see my dentist and as a result we spend our 60 minutes just playing catch up.

[8:10a] Hey! How was Christmas? You went home for, like, a week right? Parents! I know, right! And how was your 80’s themed New Years fete? Madonna! I know, right! Rad.

[8:22a] So what’s new with you? You dated a dud? Started a cooking blog? Are planning a camping trip?

[8:47] Last time we got together you had a job interview? How did that go? Oh. You didn’t get it. You’ve applied for three more since then? Oh. You didn’t get those? Oh.

The banter is getting good but time has disappeared as quickly as the cappuccino.

As we get up from our seats, the time together always ends with the same words: “We should do this more.”

But we won’t.

And I think my son and his mother are teaching me why.

To a new father breast feeding is fascinating. That makes it sound like I stare. I don’t stare. Recently, my wife was feeding our six-month-old son and I caught her with a tear on her cheek. Breast feeding + crying = VERY fascinating. I asked her what was wrong. She began to describe the difficulty in watching our son evolve. After his arrival, her upper body was all that he wanted. But in a very short period of time he has grown to love solids and gets his daily supply of breast milk from bottles. He is growing up. For my wife it is difficult to love her son as his needs for her change. But her task remains the same, love him as he is.

Philosopher Simon Weil describes the love of a mother to her child as “attentive love.” Weil describes it as love in relation to the slow and progressive life of a child, only revealed to the “patient eye.” In other words the love of a mother should be steady and evolving with each cry, developmental milestone, and hue of poop. However, many mothers (company founders, church planters, and artists) cling to their children in specific stages. For example, it would be quite easy for a mother to idealize and cling to moments of self-sacrifice (such as breast feeding or carrying the child before they were mobile). Or for a company founder to elevate her back-of-the-napkin vision for the company as the truest form of her company’s mission. It is easier to love a fixed object or a characteristic of an object than it is to love the mystery of something or someone. It is difficult to love a child, company, or idea as it evolves.

Which returns me to my coffee dates. If we spend all of our time catching up than I hold onto a static image. You are a person with a job interview and a travel blog. You are a list of hobbies and events. I know about your Saturday night plans but I know nothing of your soul. I know nothing about the smoldering below the surface anxiety regarding your job interview. I can only guess about your entrepreneurial enthusiasm. I have no idea how to love you as your hopes and fears evolve daily because I don’t know what they are. But I believe that you and I, even after we stop defecating in our britches, still desire to receive and want to give this “patient eye” of attentive love.

So why do we settle for something less?

I don’t believe it’s for lack of desire, but for lack of courage.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann – giving advice to CEOs, husbands, mothers, and friends – puts it this way…

“Part of love is friendship, which knows how to combine affection with respect for the other person’s liberty. That means respect for the mystery of the other, and his or her still latent and unrealized potentialities. If love stops, we make a fixed image of each other. We judge and pin each other down. That is death. But love liberates us from these images and keeps the future open for the other person. We have hope for each other, so we will wait with one another for the realization of that hope.”

Moltmann points out three things that I believe are action items for relational courage…

1)    Respect Difference: Unfortunately my pithy tweets and blog posts have not convinced the world (or my wife) to agree with me on everything. Diversity in opinion, life style, political position, and religion are here to stay. In our world of difference it is a courageous act to offer dignity. A common problem in today’s relationships (especially marriage) is less that people don’t come together, but that people do not retain their individuality and respect for one another’s difference. It is easy to take someone’s dignity away but hard work to give it. It takes great courage to humbly listen and even invite difference – rather than judging it as wrong and eliminating it.

2)    Accept our unknown futures: Friendships (especially romantic ones) often form because of shared passions and behaviors. But according to Moltmann we must remain open to those things changing and love that possibility? Oof. I think the point for me is that love is a commitment to the core of someone, not their behaviors. The same could be said for leading a team or organization. As a leader, you have no real idea what people will collaborate to make. Can you love them all the same and stay committed regardless of whether it looks like what you thought it would/should? And also, we are foolish if we think we know what our future selves will want. We don’t. We will change too. Thus standing with each other in the thrill and ambivalence of life’s unknowns takes courage.

3)    Exercise patience: “…so we will wait with each other,” Moltmann says. It is counter cultural to stay in relationship. We are transient, busy people. We hop from church to church, job to job, and city to city. But attentive loving requires maintaining relationship even when it’s difficult. Practically this means managing our time well and maintaining the often monotonous rhythms of relationship.

“We should do this more” but it’s hard and exhausting. It requires open doors to our homes. It requires committing to people even if they are in a different life stage. It requires clearing out evenings in our iCal. It requires making peace where there is conflict. It requires attentiveness to other’s needs. It requires moving ourselves out of the center and placing another there.

We should do this more.

Never Trust the Wrinkles or Why Sincerity No Longer Matters

Just minutes into my son’s life, I owed him an apology. Glancing at his face confirmed an unfortunate reality. In the chromosomal battle for complexion, my DNA had won. He had my wrinkles.

My forehead is stacked with lines. But they aren’t noble like Clooney’s. They are more like a doctor’s signature than they are signs of maturity. Recently my face attempted some kind of Pangea and the wrinkles have come together to form a permanent sneer. So much so that I have to tell new colleagues and friends that I am not mad, just thinking.

Imagine my terror then when I realized that my son and I’s wrinkles are going to forever impact our trustworthiness.

The University College London and Dartmouth College carried out a series of experiments to see if people made decisions to trust others based on their faces. They found people are more likely to invest money in someone whose face is generally perceived as sincere, even when they are given negative information about this person’s reputation.

People make potentially costly (financial and otherwise) decisions based on a quick, instinctual sense of sincerity. This study shows that even if we are given negative information about a person, we still rely on our gut impulse (in this case based on dark eyes, soft facial features, etc) about someone’s trustworthiness. Our need to find trusted allies and our instinctual judgment about such matters is deeply human. But what do you do if everyone looks sincere?

Everyone is doing good these days and looking quite sincere about it. Commercials tell us that Pepsi refreshed some things, BP Oil invested $100m in some stuff, and AIG gave some money to people that needed it. Facebook tells us that every friend we have signed up to stop texting while driving, gave school supplies to foster kids, and enrolled in some kind of local co-op csa organic produce program. So what do we do when everyone is working so hard to look sincerely good?

Maybe you have some skepticism about BP and AIG’s sincerity, but what about Bono? You know the guy with the glasses that loves Africa? He’s a sincere, do gooding, trustworthy individual, right? While in Ireland in October he addressed questions about the success of the ONE Campaign’s goal to alleviate extreme poverty. He replied by saying, “it’s been extremely humbling.” He then explained that a campaign driven by celebrity charisma, advertisements, and consumerism had not really changed the world. In fact, the RED Campaign had a net profit of $18m (or 1/10 of the net profit brought in by U2’s last tour). The sincerity of Bono, the GAP and the consumers who purchased the products should not be questioned. They sincerely wanted to do good. But in a world where everyone is doing good, sincerity is no longer enough.

Sincerity is in desperate need of a partner. And I think if worked with virtues sincerity’s perfect match would be wisdom. Sincerity without wisdom is a Hallmark card. It’s a thoughtless attempt at showing desire rather than an active attempt at bringing that desire to life.

Our sincere desires are beautiful. At the start of the year we make lists of the things we desire. For example, this year I want to pray more. Sincerely. But without the thoughtful, hard, work of learning (and unlearning) how to better incorporate prayer into my life, my sincerity means nothing. Do you sincerely want to have a good marriage? There are books, groups, and therapists the can help. Do you sincerely want to start a business? There are free classes all over the city that can get you started. Do you sincerely want to be a good friend? Ask your friend how you can do that, and then do it. Do you sincerely want to have a stronger faith? Commit to a community, practice rituals, and study the teachings of your tradition’s saints. Pair your sincere desire with the humbling and difficult work of learning and watch out…success is before you.

Biologically and psychologically we make snap judgments about someone’s trustworthiness, but in time we will see that someone’s trustworthiness is founded less on their face shape or sincerity of heart and more on their willingness to try, fail, learn, and try again – the hard work that brings wisdom.

The sneery wrinkles and slightly downward turned lips of my son ensure that he will rarely be received as sincere. And although I sincerely want a wrinkle cream that can get rid of these face canyons, I hope to be a man and a father that works hard to pair sincerity with thoughtfulness. And maybe he and I can learn together how to do just that.

Avoidance is Costly or How Parking Tickets Are Teaching Me Humility

I sat down with a calculator and logged into my bank account. It was time for a 2012 Shappell Family Fiscal Review. The findings showed that we spent too much money on fancy meats (The Fatted Calf) and clothing (Steven Alan) and could have given more to our church.  But the scariest of all numbers was the amount paid to the SFMTA. We paid almost $1,000 in parking tickets. My wife’s face was redder than a Radio Flyer and my charming response was “Oh babe. Chill out. It is what it is.”

When things go wrong this is the sentiment of our day. Come out to a parking ticket? Couldn’t have helped it. It is what it is. Supervisor is upset with your recent performance at work? I’m not doing anything differently. It is what it is. Relationships always end traumatically? It is what it is. Congress doesn’t really solve the pending fiscal disaster? It is what it is. It truly does not matter the magnitude of the drama, we often respond with this lazy linguistic cop out. In our society that lacks the time and tools for reflection and seems prone to avoidance “it is what it is” might as well be our billboard. Rather than ask how we got here, we pop a Xanax and sleep it off.

What is missed in that sentiment towards life’s tragedies is that “it is what it is” often because “it is what it was.”

Sitting in a red, buttery, leather chair I stared across the desk at a man twice my age and whose salary had twice as many zeros. We were on the 30th  and top floor of his office and I was politely letting him know that the consulting group I was working with had assigned me to be his coach.

“Have you ever even heard of the Beatles?” he said to shame and intimidate me.

After a sudden reorganization, Steve, who had worked with this software company for 18 years, was now reporting to Tom, the newly hired COO. While the majority of the company really enjoyed Tom and his managerial style, Steve was unhappy. I was coaching Steve because he had recently kicked a hallway recycling can over after yelling toward the CEO’s office that the organization was “headed to the dump.” For being so old and wise, he is obviously ignorant to how recycling works. GOT YOU OLD MAN!

Our first week together Steve explained his most recent 1-on-1 meeting with Tom. He said, “I sat down to tell Tom that we were not going to have the software updates ready to launch according to the timeline we had agreed to. Tom’s response was ‘its ok, we have a bigger product launch coming up, so how about you not worry about this miss and focus on what’s coming up?’ Can you believe that? I can’t stand the guy!”

I listened to these stories for five weeks. COO Tom sounded like an optimistic, future oriented, encouraging manager. Either I was a naïve young consultant who should not be coaching this Beatles loving can kicker, or both Steve and I had yet to discover why Tom bothered him so much. I chose to tell him that I was confused. I find confusion is best when shared.

On our sixth time together I said, “Steve, I am going to keep it short. I have no idea why you don’t like Tom. But I imagine that it doesn’t have to do with Tom. Instead of meeting today, why don’t you take time to think about who Tom reminds you of.” For the first time in our short relationship, he agreed with me without arguing and I left for the day.

The weekend came and I was enjoying brunch with my wife when my phone rang. It was Steve.

“Steve. How are you?”

“Tom is my ex-wife,” he said.

I wish he would have told me this before now! You would think that HR would have picked up on that!

“Tom’s endless optimism and smoke blowing reminds me of my wife.”

He would go on to explain that as he and his ex-wife began parenting teenagers she was relentlessly optimistic. For his wife each low grade was room for improvement, each speeding ticket was a reminder that actions have consequences, and every missed curfew was “at their own risk.” For Steve, a man who had been lauded for his financial accuracy and empirical decision making this positivity did not lead to better behavior only mischief and a directionless family.

Steve and I discovered the timeless truth: that our past influences the present.  That truth is why Dee Hock, founder of Visa, says that we must all take time to see how things were and how things are. He says that without doing this reflection we are unaware of how we see the world and risk catastrophe. Which makes sense because how can we heal what we do not know is wounded?

In my consulting work we refer to this as decoding. We must become familiar with our reptilian, natural reactions to things. We must ask: do you tend to over commit yourself? Why is that? Do you avoid conflict? Why is that? Do you get really excited when people talk about their feelings? Why is that? Do you hate it when the ice cube tray is left empty? That doesn’t need decoded. Everyone hates that.

But people don’t like this work. When I suggest to my friends that they enter therapy (a very helpful crucible for decoding) they do not hug me or mail me a gift card. In this day and age we avoid priests, therapists, social workers, and coaches like their advice comes laced with some kind of scurvy.

Further evidence that when given the choice we naturally choose steady, chronic pain over the temporarily acute pain that is the gateway to our freedom, wellness, and true peace.

After Steve and I discovered that Tom was his ex-wife we spent weeks talking about their relationship, how it went sour, and how he misses her greatly. We were able to uncover that both his ex-wife and Tom were not trying to blow smoke and ignore facts, but desire the same betterness that he desires for his children and organization. This difficult, emotional, and time consuming work is not natural for a corporate environment. Honestly this work is not natural anywhere. But Steve did this temporarily painful work and was able to walk into meetings with a different perspective. He and Tom, while never becoming best friends, created functional work rapport that served their company well.

This morning in my twitter feed I saw two helpful articles – one saying that everyone should be in therapy (written by a wonderful pastor from our church) and another from Forbes about the pitfalls of typical leadership development. Both are relevant to what I am saying here. There is an urgent need for us to admit that our habits, addictions, strengths, and relationships have a tremendous impact on the outcomes of our lives and that we are responsible for confronting how those things have contributed positively and negatively.

We are not victims. It is what it is because we are how we are.  I received all of those parking tickets because I believe that I am craftier and faster than those go-cart driving parking Nazis. My pride cost me almost $1,000. Hubris is expensive. Avoidance is more so.

May we all have the courage (and the grace) to confront our role in the outcomes of this life.

Finger Snaps or My Difficulty in Fulfilling a Resolution

The yellow text on the wall reads “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression.” Beside the quote are posters of César Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, and Che Guevara. It is dark.  There are more dreadlocks than there are designer jeans. The snaps are almost annoying, like a small child enjoying a sheet of bubble wrap. It is the Berkeley Poetry Slam.

I don’t make it to Berkeley often but when I do it is exclusively for a book reading, a kombucha brewing class, an armpit hair weaving tutorial, or a poetry slam. But truth be told, I didn’t choose to cross the Bay Bridge this night. My brother brought me with him, for tonight he was going to keep his word. We hoped.

My brother Jordan moved to San Francisco (en route to Los Angeles) knowing that it would be short lived. Because of this he immediately created an SF bucket list. One of the things on that list was to perform at the world famous Berkeley Poetry Slam.

In order to perform at the Wednesday night slam, you must enter your name into the lottery by 8pm and hope that the emcee, Toaster, draws it at 9:30pm when the show begins. This night Berkeley’s crystal gods rewarded Jordan’s commitment and his name was drawn. Slotted between a lesbian who was concerned that she was turning her new dog gay and a young man who really despised growing up in the South, Jordan performed. He followed through on his plan. He did exactly what he said he would do. He achieved his goal.

I make goals and resolutions too. We all do, ya? Last January I made resolutions in categories – physical, spiritual, relational, and professional. A summary –

Physical – Don’t gain any baby weight and stay under 185lbs.
Status: Unlike my breastfeeding wife who seems to be burning 1000 calories a feeding, I have been watching what I eat and going to the gym. Unless its pizza. I always eat too much of that. Good news though – 181lbs.

Spiritual – Commit to a church.
Status: We committed to City Church SF very early in the year. We go almost every week and like it sometimes.

Relational – Connect with my Dad
Status: We went to London and shared a room (and lots of beer). Check.

Professional – Write, edit, and share a 10k word writing project.
Status: I bet you think I am going to attach a .pdf to the bottom of this post where you can download this project. You are wrong. I have written 17k words but I doubt that anyone will ever see them.

I did pretty well in ¾ of my resolutions. However, the one that I have yet to complete has me bewildered. If I have over 10k words written, why not just spend a few days editing and slap that baby on the internet? My friend Blaine calls it landing planes. Others call it sealing the deal or gettin’ ‘er done. Whatever you call it, it’s the hard work of finishing what you set out to do. And the primary hurdle for me seems to be fear.

There are the traditional hurdles to achieving our resolutions – over zealous goal setting, a lack of tactical planning, laziness, and not having the support you need to see something through. These are not my problems. My problem is a fear of succeeding. Nelson Mandela says that “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.This resonates with me. Maybe with you too. We set lower goals, risk less, and dream fewer dreams because if we were to reveal our “power beyond measure” we will have brought our naked, ambitious, full selves. And that can be frightening.

Prior to my brother taking the stage in front of 100+ people, five of whom had white boards and would be scoring him with candor, I asked him an unhelpful question. “So what do you think your score will be?” I don’t recall his answer, because I asked the question out of my own discomfort – often intertwined with a fear of being seen is an obsession with results. As a child I was told that “Shappells never quit.” That small seed has grown into an insatiable desire for success. I don’t want to do anything that does not yield desired results.

So it seems I have a fear of succeeding but want desperately to succeed. Problematic.

Harsh but helpful words came to me from Thomas Merton:

“Do not depend on the hope of results.  You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”

That sounds miserable. Work hard and don’t care how it turns out? Write a paper and have no concern for the grade? Merton is saying something that takes lifetimes to learn. Liberated from results we find the gifts of patience and grace. We find the rich value of the work itself.

Can you have a BIG resolution and see it through regardless of whether you are successful? Can you enjoy the complexities of parenting without having read 12 books about it and consulting your army of Facebook mothers? Can you confidently make a presentation at work without every tiny financial detail lined up? Can you be content that your work might make a difference in the world? Can I post the 17k words that I have written although they are not quite ready for others to read them? Can I free myself from “the results” and find value in simply posting the work? Me? Nuh uh.

But my brother! He can. He stood in front of the room and performed the hell out of his piece. He shared his heart via an unfinished, never performed poem in front of a room full of critics. He got the only 10 of the night. Did it matter how he scored? Nope. He took the stage. He leapt over logistical hurdles, overcome the mountain of fear, and crossed the bridge because he believed that there was truth and joy and light to be found in the work itself.

In 2013, what if we let go of our need for results? What if we believed in our God given power and focused on the value of our work? Who would we be? What would we make? How would our world change? One guess: more finger snaps.

Your Tools Won’t Save You or #thepopeisdope

While approaching a dimly lit, graffiti covered, warehouse I called my friend. “What’s the code to get in?” I asked.  He answered, “Hashtag, 4-5-2-1.” Here in San Francisco, in the tech bubble bath (lots of bubbles), this mark – # – is no longer the “pound sign” or a “number symbol.” It is the symbol used on Twitter and other microblogging sites to easily create and track “tending topics.” Right now Twitter says these hashtags are trending:


Odd then that the same online community that is trending #igotdrunkand now welcomes Pope Benedict XVI (@pontifex). The Vatican released a statement that said “The pope’s presence on Twitter can be seen as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is the church’s presence in the world of new media.” Spokesperson Burke went on to say while Twitter is a tool that can be used to reach all of 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, they are specifically looking to engage with young Catholics. This is not a new phenomenon.  Religious leaders from nearly all traditions have a strong presence on Twitter. Their content is often among the most favorited and retweeted on the internet. But like so many before me have pondered, I wonder if the tool of Twitter will help them with the outcome they desire.

Twitter is a tool. And as my friend Robin wisely stated, for “any tool, its impact is determined by the vision of those who use it. Great architecture isn’t created by hammers. It’s created by architects and carpenters with highly developed vision.” My perception of most tools is that they do not change the influence of the user. Rather, the character and vision of that user is more evident as they use the tool. Consider Twitter again. Comedians use Twitter to be make crass quippy jokes and mock the popular. Pastors use it to encourage their communities, to invite people to church, and to argue with other pastors. Restaurant chefs use it for promotions, menu updates, and holiday closures. Tools are an extension of their user.

It’s not just Twitter. We have tool-obsessed organizations too. For example, one of the clients I work with, after five years of shrinking revenue, has a new strategy to increase the sales of their product. Their discussion is all about the tools that they will use to drive sales. TV marketing, online search optimization, and edits to their brand’s design are all ideas on the table. The over reliance on these tools has drawn their attention away from what may be the main issue for the lack of sales – the quality of their product. It is easier to believe that a tool is a solution to their problem than to overhaul the product.

Two thoughts that may pertain to us…

We are more than our tools. I often see my work or “vocation” in terms of the specific tools that I use – consulting, speaking, teaching, writing, coaching – as opposed to seeing my vocation as a more universal way of being.  So you may be an actor but you are also a maker of things with a passion for storytelling and the ability to connect deeply with others. You are a stay at home mother but it is not just your cooking and crafts, it is your hospitality, tenderness, and creativity that add so much value. You are a priest that teaches, but it is more than your front of room leadership – it is the way that you see the world and kindly provoke others to evaluate themselves that creates change. Could it be that we have a narrow view of our work because we are enmeshed with the tools we use to do the work?

Tools won’t save you. I am not sure that the Vatican believes Twitter will be the magic bullet that connects the Catholic church with youngin’s, but I am also not sure they don’t. I believe we rely too heavily on tools. Another personal example – I have a four-month-old son who doesn’t really enjoy the sleeping at the night time. In search of a solution we have tried five different methods (or tools). Resonating with the logic of most of these methods, we would obey their directions perfectly. The problem with relying on tools as we did is that we missed opportunities to see the unique needs of our son. We believed that a tool would help us more than being present, observant, patient parents who happen to use some tools now and again. There will always be new tools but the fanciest, shiniest, technoest tools will not save you from needing to be a great user – your present and authentic self.



The Urgency of the Truth or The Banana Bind

My son was lying on his back in nothing but a diaper. His mother was nervously pacing and biting her nails and all I was thinking was “wow, he really did get my puffy nipples.” We were in a cubicle-sized room at the doctor’s office and our son was about to get shots during his four-month check up. I know many moms who cannot stand to be in the room when the series of shots get thrust into their child’s pillowy baby thigh, but both my wife and I stay to witness the horror. They were over quickly, went fine, and after corking Benton up with a pacifier we were ready to leave.

As we were heading for the door our doctor, putting a bandaid on Benton’s leg, explained that our son does not need to come in for another visit until he is six months old. Then he began to share that just weeks before his six month appointment we should begin to feed him solid food. He suggested that we start with rice milk and then if that goes well, he will talk things over with us during the six month check up and will give us clearance to start feeding him smashed fruit like apples, pears, and even bananas. That was great news because we had already been feeding him banana for a week or more.

Behind our doctor’s back Taryn’s eyes grew wide and her neck stretched like a turtle. Then she did a slight shake of her head as if to say “no need to tell him anything. Its our little secret. We wouldn’t want Benton to get in trouble.” He finished the bandaid and his recommendations, then handed us a pamphlet with information on solid foods. We bundled up our son and were on our way.

Once in the car Taryn began to read the pamphlet. It more or less explained that if you give you children solid foods before six months of age their intestines will stop forming, they will be allergic to everything, and their throat will close, they will likely choke and require the Heimlich maneuver each feeding.  Taryn then began to Google frantically and also texted other moms.

What struck me was not the frantic search for validation and message board support (this is standard for a modern parent), but that Taryn and I did not speak up at the appropriate time. Had we confessed to our doctor that our son is basically a 14-pound monkey who loves bananas, we would likely have had a conversation that eliminated our need for validation and calmed any anxiety we had about our decision. But instead we took our thoughts, pocketed them, and walked right out the door.

In my work as a consultant I am learning the same lesson. Real time data is essential.  The shorter the timeline between leader’s actions and their learning about how these actions were received, the more immediate changes can be made and impact increased. I believe this same lessons applies to parents, educators, coaches, pastors, and any warm-blooded creature in a relationship. The more real time that feedback, critique, or opinion can be shared the greater the effect that it will carry.

Consider the process of buying jeans (I buy jeans once every three years so they aren’t cheap and it’s a weighty decision. Judge me.). If when trying on jeans the spouse/friend remains silent or offers a “those look fine” while playing Angry Birds, you may in fact purchase the jeans you are squeezing into and think nothing of it. If months later that same spouse/friend remarks that those jeans don’t fit you very well, you may lose your mind. Honest, real time, feedback would have been helpful.

Why do we withhold helpful information? Why did Taryn and I not speak up at the doctor’s office? 9 out of 10 times my decision to not speak is about my desire to be seen in a certain light. At the doctor’s office I wanted to be seen as a good dad. In a boardroom I am slow to speak so that others do not see me as pushy. I don’t know what it is for you. Don’t want to be seen as emotionally needy? Want to avoid confrontation so that you can remain the “fun one”?  Don’t want to risk being wrong and lose your status as “the expert”? Afraid of the political repercussions in your organization?

Our silence does little more than 1) increase resentment and frustration, as what we want to improve does not and 2) increase our own anxiety about the improvement of the individual/org/family dynamic/relationship. These fears must be overcome if we 1) care about the recipient of our thoughts and 2) want it to improve, grow, or advance.

This requires real time feedback. The problem is that our businesses turn feedback into lengthy forms and time consuming annual reviews. Our families wait to have the crucial conversation until the “next time we are all in town together.” We “reflect on it” and delay feedback for weeks and even months allowing feelings to linger and fester and miss the opportunity to affect change. Information withheld is possibility withdrawn. Or as I read once before, “feedback delayed is feedback denied.”

Taryn and I could have saved ourselves hours of re-reading, phone calls, and nervousness had we simply shared the truth in real time. There was an urgent need for truth. Instead “the banana bind” remains heavy on our young parent minds. Should we call our doctor and tell him what’s up? Probably. But that would require courage and humility and would essentially be a confession that we have questions about how to take care of our child. God forbid.

Poop Texts or How Our Environments Can Move us to (In)Action

Sometimes my phone rings and I don’t have to look at it to know who it is. On Sunday mornings between nine and noon my phone familiarly vibrates. Rather than my usual response of grabbing it out of my pocket like I’m in a wild west duel and then gazing at like it’s the first revealing of the ten commandments, I sink a little deeper into my chair and know that I am loved.

The loving text message begins, “I can’t tell you the last time it took me this long to poop. What’s going on with my body? It’s a bowel movement. Not a bowel stand still.”

On Sunday mornings my brother sends me “Sunday Brother Texts.” These text messages always begin by talking about poop. I hope that my son has a brother to talk excrement with. I am not sure that his sister texting him about poop will have the same charm. This brotherly tradition began over three years ago and Jordan never misses a Sunday. Once he moved to San Francisco I asked him how he always remembered. He answered, “My phone tells me, you dummy.” And here I thought he was a thoughtful guy.

Jordan has set an alarm on his phone for every Sunday morning at 8:15am. It reminds him that he should send me a note about his poop and an encouraging word about whatever it is I am going through at the time. This habitual texting, and the Siri reminder that prompts it, has reminded me that it is not always the most proactive person who gets things done but the one who creates environments that demand action.

Another friend of mine has spent months looking for the perfect job. He wants to talk about art and faith and get paid for it. Like millions of other Americans he has not found someone to hire him although he is quite talented. So what is he to do with this passion he has? He answered that question by scheduling three weeks of free (he may require attendees bring cheese) lectures at his home. Instead of waiting for someone to ask him to do what he loves, he created an invitation, put it on a website, and began to prepare. He had no choice. He created an environment that demanded action.

We all have a list of things we want to do (You don’t? That’s a good first step. Make a list). And we have an equal if not longer list of the reasons those things can’t be done. “We need someone to give us permission. We need to get a master’s degree. We need more money before we can take that risk. We don’t know anybody. We haven’t seen it done before.” All of those things are true. They are not reasonless excuses. They are legitimate concerns. But what if you created a situation that required that you ignore those excuses? What if we created situations that demand action?

Create a reminder. Make an invite. Plan the party. Make a deadline. Write the business plan. Build the company website. Put in your 2 weeks notice.

We often have something we want to do and don’t do it. I don’t believe that it is for a lack of desire, but for a lack of circumstances that require us to act on our desire. We are comfortable, routinized, air-conditioned people. In order to do something different we have to create conditions that demand movement.

My wife and I recently had our first child. Before our son arrived, if you were to ask me what I was looking forward to the most I would have said spending hours of time in bed cuddling and laughing and zerberting as a family. These last three months have had many zerberts. To maximize cuddles, we have had many nights in which our son slept in bed with us. With my wife’s return to work nearing and psychologist’s theory echoing in our heads we knew that we needed to transition him to his own crib in his own room.

Sometime in late September we created a deadline – November 1st. By November 1st he would spend all night in his room, in his crib, and we would not bring him into our bed first thing in the morning. In order to achieve this goal we decided to begin “sleep training.” If you are a parent, just reading those words felt like someone slapped you in the face, punched you in the gut, and stole your wallet. If you are not a parent, sleep training is essentially the process of hardening your heart – you let your son/daughter cry themselves to sleep so that they become capable of soothing themselves during bedtime.

During this time my son cries like someone shot him in the leg. The rule is that we cannot visit him until after 20 minutes of crying. At that time you can enter the room and soothe him. At about minute 3 you want to rescue him. “All of this screaming is hurting his throat! He sounds like he is gagging. Is he gagging? I think he’s choking! Do you know baby Heimlich? I don’t! Maybe someone really did sneak in through the window and shoot him in the leg! We have to get in there NOW!”

The crying is deeply unsettling. As a parent it is very difficult do stick with this sleep training and I cannot imagine why anyone would. EXCEPT…Taryn and I had a goal and set a date. By doing so we created a situation that required action.

We often feel defeated because we don’t do what we set out to do. But what if it was not a failure of willpower, but the result of an environment (company culture, religious institution, family system) that did not demand us to act?  Someone once said, “The best kind of self-control is to avoid situations that require self-control” I think that the best way to inaction is to create environments that require action.

Want to have a novel done by the year’s end? Mail an insensitive friend a check for $1,000 and tell them to cash it if you don’t get it done. Want to improve your marriage? Create a shared calendar that has weekly conversation topics for Sunday night dinners. Moving to New York to chase your dreams? Book the Uhaul now.

And to my brother: it sounds like you need to get your bowels acting. The probiotics are above the sink.

I’m an 8 or I Will Laser You!

Do you have a person who is one of your favorites but you don’t actually know them that well? Many of those people for me are a part of a cool community here in San Francisco called ReImagine. Each month ReImagine holds interesting and provocative conversations with themes of how to be a follower of Jesus in regards to money, work, alcohol, faith transitions, sexuality, etc. This month they hosted a conversation about how our personality types influence our spiritual lives. I was one of the essayists. You can read my essay below.


Many of my earliest memories are of bedroom fights, silent dinners, and tearful nights. This chaotic home led to an armored heart and a hyper vigilance that is at the core of my personality and many Enneagram 8s. At nine years old my parents divorced and I learned that the best way to get a sense of value was to be “the strong one,” the little protector, and the one that others turn to for guidance in crisis. This divorce, and the three divorces that would follow, left me with the nagging fear that I was responsible for my own care and safety. Family was no help. God didn’t seem to care. It was up to me to move and shake things toward the way they should be.

While I can absorb a great deal of suffering (both my own and others), I do so only with brawn and intensity. It is an intensity for problem solving, overcoming difficulty, and winning.  I can still recall my father telling me repeatedly, “Shappells never quit.” Quitting was a sign of weakness and I was not weak. So instead of quitting when things were difficult I would use my resourcefulness, my energy, and my commanding style of leadership to make things happen. While I am quick to find and implement solutions, at my worst I am a dictator who takes a preconceived best route of action and uses others as the means to my end.

I think of my intensity like heat. When I believe the lie that I must be the strong one, I act out of my own self-protection and behave like a red-hot laser (purposeful, direct, intense, on the hunt, and often objectifying). My behavior is often more about myself – my successes, results, and performance. The lie that I am responsible for my own safety and success keeps me in a state of overcoming, reforming, and challenging regardless of the cost (emotionally, relationally, or otherwise).

For example, sitting at a Denny’s consuming an inappropriate amount of calories-in-a-skillet, a friend of mine lamented about a relationship that recently ended. He said, “I know its been over six months, but I can’t help but wonder if Becky still loves me.” Without blinking I said, “She doesn’t love you. Not sure if she ever did. And it’s time for you to move on.” I lasered him. Many friends, colleagues, and clients have been lasered. I want to challenge, push, and accelerate their environments to maximize results. I often do so with no real concern for them.

My desire to maximize results and to feel my impact on the world  led me to make a difficult decision last October. After three years of pastoring a community in the Mid-Market neighborhood, I elected to leave. It was a difficult decision. I had no idea what was next but was certain that my entrepreneurial spirit and resilience would serve me well and I would have a desk and a 401k in no time.

I had many sleepless nights and a perma-raised heart rate as I tried to impose my will on the job market. I was impatient, hasty, and anxious. I tried developing, finalizing, and defending job possibilities that were not ready for it. After only a couple weeks I was exhausted and bewildered about why I could not figure out what was next. My laser wasn’t working.

During what would become a few of the darkest months of my life, I was fortunate to have a coach who served as my doula through this period of vocational risk (aka unemployment).  After our first meeting his invitation was to try three things: 1) spend 20 minutes in silence each morning 2) yoga twice a week and 3) to check in at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm and ask myself “where am I experiencing anxiety?” I really liked my coach, but he’s a little dumb. Do you know how much I can get done with those 20 minutes? I could send 3 resumes in that time! And yoga is for people who aren’t athletic enough for real exercise! Not to mention I’m too strong for anxiety!

Whether it was his prayer or some kind of coaching judo, I found myself doing as he said. At the beginning it was like asking a horse not to gallop – I would blankly stare at the wall, attend 60 minutes of what I would call sweaty stretching, and dreadfully pound on my keyboard at nine, noon, and three. But over time I found myself enjoying yoga, silence, and frequent reflection. I even began to reengage with writing lyrics and prose. The result was not the finest most well paying job in San Francisco, but something richer.

As a strong willed and intense eight, I will take on any enemy and fight any battle. I will quickly enter conflict, seek to end systemic injustice, and befriend those in crisis. I often take the intense heat inside of me and direct it at other’s needs all while failing to recognize that I have unmet nurture needs myself. These rhythms of meditation and reflection were opportunities to nurture my unmet needs so that I could then better meet the needs of others.

Parker Palmer once said that burnout is not over extension or busyness but rather a state of emptiness. When I am internally empty I rely on strength and aggression. I laser. But when I take time for reflection I become more like a fireplace (warm, inviting, and available) and I can better listen, pursue, and serve those around me. The Enneagram, my coach, and my practice helped me see that integration comes when I feel my own needs deeply, allow God and others to fulfill these needs, and then use my strength to love others in the way that I have been loved.

I learned that for my integration it is important that I have structures in place that invite me to be mindful of myself, my body, my fears, and my anxieties. Without these things I believe the lie that no one gives a damn and that the guy upstairs creates resistance rather than opportunity. Disintegrated and stressed I isolate and I rely on my intensity rather than on the warmth of my God-given self. And so as someone who believes in “my way or the highway” I now begin each morning  with a deep lung filling breath, feel the fragility of life and know that there is a grander Way and a Master Creator to submit to. And I am coming to see that this Creator does not need me to be strong, but rather to be weak.

Confessions of a Conference Planner or the Shelf Life of an Epiphany

I am sitting at a conference that I have spent over 9 months helping to create. The event is about accelerating the good economy – how we all can consider our social impact when investing, consuming, and working. Like most conferences, if you boil it down, it is about changing the world. It’s also about cute little scones and lanyards.

But as I sit among these 1800 attendees I can’t help but wonder, did this really matter? Were the 6 months of planning, thousands of people hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth it? Did the world actually change? Did anyone change?

As I check my Twitter feed I see that I have friends in Cabo, Atlanta, New York, Boston, and San Francisco for conferences. Others are posting speaker lists and even lanyard designs (THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER!) for conferences in Chicago, Portland, and Los Angeles. If you are a “missional” church planting Christian, a female social entrepreneur, a right-handed juggler, or an over 50 transvestite Hairy Potter fan you have MULTIPLE options for conferences to attend. The conference world is saturated. Why? Because people attend and will pay for it. And why do people attend?

I have planned them, spoken at them, attended them, paid for them, and even longed for them. I usually really enjoy them. There are many positive reasons to create and attend conferences. There’s energy, momentum, and powerful story telling that can inspire, challenge, and introduce new patterns of thought. But is that why I go and keep coming back?

A recent UW study suggests that large church services do a masterful job of creating an “oxytocin cocktail”. The same could be said of many conferences. Oxytocin is a chemical in your brain that is released during periods of social bonding.  It is often stimulated during romantic contact, breast-feeding, or even a casual hug. REMINDER – next time I hug someone, step back, look them in the eye, exhale like a yoga teacher and say “ahhhhhhhhh…you make good oxytocin.” Conference rituals such as lanyards (seriously), group applause, and media that show people similar to us all release some amount of oxytocin. Oxytocin is often the beginning of connection, but as researchers point out, the flip side is that it creates an in-group bias and can limit our ability to think rationally as an individuated self. In other words, when we attend conferences what tends to stick is our connection to the group not the individual ideas, presentations, or strategies that we need to return home with.

We attend conferences because we want to be better leaders, dentists, teachers, and sales people. But is our capacity to do X really going to increase because we went to a 90-minute breakout session with three experts (they do write for the Huffington Post!!) leaning over a long skirted table?

What bothers me is not that conferences exist and people attend. They have their place. What bothers me is that so many talented people seem to believe that the key to starting a movement is these convenings. While it may be well informed strategy and a good allocation of resources, my hunch is that the conference world is saturated because it is easier to create three day epiphany machines than it is to the dirty work of entering individual lives, neighborhoods, companies, and industries. After all, it is easier to paint a room with one of those spray painting roller guns than it is to get in there with a single brush.

The epiphany circuit, as I am coming to call it, does not get into the corners of our lives. It does not help cover the trim and the other hard to reach places. It’s a broad stroke and we should treat it as such.

Dee Hock, the founder of Visa (he left in ’86) says that most information is not internalized because we live in a noisy world. I would argue that the conference world (like cupcake stores, trendy burger restaurants, reality shows with hillbillies, etsy stores, and political Facebook posts) is noisy. In order for any of the information at a conference to be internalized it has to go from noise to data. And in order for something to move from noise to data it has to be differentiated from the noise.

Once the information is differentiated then, and only then, can we internalize the data. Once it is data it still has to be contextualized to become knowledge, then practiced to become understanding, and finally joined with a purpose to become wisdom.

All of that deserves its own post and more thought. For now what I am suggesting is that we need more conference leaders (and university professors, preachers, and consultants) who make less noise and actively invite people to move from data to wisdom.

The shelf life of an epiphany is shorter than a carton of milk. I want to create learning environments, conversations, and relationships that are nonperishable. Are epiphanies bad? No. But behind every epiphany that “stuck” is the steady hard work of a small group of people working to make their changed world view a reality. There is contextualization, practice, and purpose.

If you are a conference leader, a coach, a therapist, a pastor at the pulpit, or any leader with a microphone or pedestal and you are looking to simply surprise, provoke, or shock – you are wasting your time. If you are trying to generate epiphanies you should know that your events often fall, not on deaf ears, but on full ones.

I understand the irony of writing this in the middle of a conference plenary and posting this on a blog. Is there anything more noisy than the millennial bloggerdom? But I write it for myself. I post it because I believe it needs to be said. And I will try to live it because it feels like what the world is asking of me. And maybe you too.