The Genius of Maya Angelou

Greetings. Maya Angelou was a remarkable gift to all of us. A woman whose early life was filled with adversity, she would become not only a renowned and revered poet but a person of rare vision whose words and sense of humanity would inspire people of all backgrounds, ages, and beliefs. At the heart of her writing was a powerful understanding of the importance, meaning, and dignity of everyone. An understanding that is essential to reaching our full potential as individuals, communities, nations, and even companies and organizations.


Maya Angelou also understood the value and power of connecting with strangers and of being more open to people who are different than us. In writing the closing chapter of The Necessity of Strangers, which is about the “power of travel,” I was inspired by a quote from her 1994 book Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

And we might even become remarkable collaborators and innovators.

As humans we are so similar, yet all too often we decide to focus on our differences as the reason (or excuse) for not connecting, learning, and working together in remarkable ways.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t share one of her poems titled “When a Great Tree Falls.” It is a poem filled with added meaning this week as our family attended memorial services for friends whose lives ended way too soon…

“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

We win in life and in business when we see the value of everyone. And when we commit to keeping everyone’s memory and special gifts alive.

How Boring is Your Job?

Greetings.  On a recent bike ride in Carroll County, Maryland, we came upon an interesting sign.  It's not exactly as it seems at first glance, but the sign did get me thinking about the importance of being engaged and doing work that is somewhat stimulating.  The sign reads "Boring Volunteer Fire Co." and it runs counter to my notion that firefighting is a dangerous but interesting (and important) job.  And it turns out that this 100% volunteer fire company has been serving the community of "Boring, Maryland" for over 100 years.

But let's stick with my first glance…

There are a lot of jobs that actually are "boring," unless we choose to make them otherwise.  By filling the boredom with a sense of energy, curiosity, and humor in order to figure out new and more interesting ways to get things done.  By taking the initiative to rethink the nature of our tasks and the real potential of our roles and responsibilities.  The bigger challenge is when we work in a boring company or organization.  A company or organization that is unable or unwilling to see the possibilities in every one of us and the work we do and, as a result, fails to give us permission to stretch, explore, and try new things.  In these places, efforts to inject new life into old jobs is a real battle that leads to only very small personal victories until we're able to find away out.

But what if companies asked all of us to become the entrepreneurs of our jobs?  To become more directly responsible for recasting them in ways that eliminated the boredom and produced remarkable results.  To unlock our genius in ways that delivered more compelling value for the organization and the customers we serve.  Now that's a "win-win" opportunity of the highest order!

We win in business and in life when we commit to bringing new energy and promise to the work we do.  And when the organizations we work for believe in our potential for genius.


The “Quiet” Car

Greetings.  I'm not sure what possessed me to sit in the "Quiet" car on yesterday morning's train ride to New York City.  But I did, and it turned out to provide an interesting lesson about people, travel, and all the opportunities we miss to learn and grow.  Not that I really understood what I was getting into during the first twenty minutes of the journey.  After all, I looked at the sign hanging from the ceiling with a slightly more flexible interpretation than some of the other patrons.  To me, the sign's meaning was clear: "QUIET CAR–Please refrain from loud talking or using cell phones in this car."  And that seemed perfectly reasonable.  I had plenty of work to do and, besides, I don't really think of myself as a loud person…especially not on trains. 

But when two gentleman in the row behind me struck up a conversation, albeit a not so 'loud' one, I quickly learned that some people take these signs a bit more seriously"This is a quiet car!" shouted a woman in the row behind them.  "You're suppose to be quiet!"  Which evoked the somewhat confused response that "we weren't talking very loudly."  "You were loud enough to disturb me," the woman quickly replied in a voice that was definitely loud enough to disturb (or amuse) me.  And soon all was quiet, by her definition.  Though that seemed to include some fellow passengers whose naturally loud breathing was even more apparent in the silence, and a gentleman right across from me who had two awesome habits.  First, he seemed to pound the keys of his laptop as though performing a Mahler symphony.  And, second, he spent most of the trip clicking and unclicking his ball point pen as though it might provide some inspiration or at least relief from the problem he was working on.

And in the silence of soda cans opening, more than occasional moans and groans, newspaper pages turning, coughs, sneezes, and other unique bodily sounds, I imagined what might have happened if the 50 or so people on this train car actually decided to get to know each other.  To find out what each other did, why they were traveling, and what meaningful connections might arise.  Quietly.  I imagined new learning taking place.  The sharing of tips on things to see and do in the Big Apple.  Business opportunities worth exploring.  Possible collaborations.  Job leads.  Advice about weather.  An unlimited set of possibilities that could have been sparked if we weren't all in the "Quiet" car and compelled to play by one particular passenger's passion for the rules.

I'm all for rules, and all for testing their limits.  That's how most new ideas ever come to be.  But maybe there are a lot of people who don't want to stretch their thinking on a Tuesday morning.  They just want to keep to themselves and crunch out whatever work they have to do without the threat of somebody stirring the pot or giving them a fresh way to look at something.  Maybe most of the world is one big "Quiet" car, but I never got the memo.

Quiet Car

We win in business and in life by talking to strangers in our midst.  And, in the process unlocking a new world of possibilities.  There is always a time to be quiet, but it needs to be balanced with the reality that "quiet" could limit our true potential.


You Matter Because You Are Here

Greetings.  It's the start of a new year and, even though I can't figure out what to call it (i.e., is it "Two-thousand-ten" or "Twenty-ten" or "O-ten"?), I have a sense that it could be a year of real possibilities for you and your organization.  If you've read Surrounded by Geniuses and followed this blog during its initial few months, you know that I have a strong belief in the genius of people and teams at all levels of companies and organizations.  A belief that they have the ability, with the right leadership and support, to come up with new ideas that deliver value to customers and improve bottom-line performance.  Yet more often than not, most people come to work and leave each day without a real sense that they matter.  

So as you and your colleagues start this new year, why not make a resolution to let everyone you work with know that they do matter.  That we can't succeed without them.  That their unique skills, energy, interests, perspectives, ideas, and passion are essential to our business.  That we need them now, more than ever before, to be powerful engines of innovation.  Then commit to letting them know, each and every day, that they make a real difference–that they matter because they are here.

It's a simple enough thing to do, and yet most of us forget to do it.  But it's vital if we are truly committed to engaging employees and unlocking the best they have to give.

Office Workers 

We win in business and in life by showing our appreciation for those around us.  And, in doing so, by giving them the courage and the will to stretch, grow, and make a difference.  

Cheers and best wishes for the start of a new year filled with great promise!