Storytelling at Work
August 10, 2016
What I Learned From Listening to Ravel's Bolero for 14 Hours Straight

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During the course of a lifetime a human being goes through many rites of passage. Birth, for example. First love. The death of a loved one and enduring a Republican primary debate. For me, one of the most memorable rites of passage happened in college during my "pledge weekend" -- the weekend I was initiated into a fraternity.

I realize, of course -- especially in these politically correct times -- that college fraternities are rarely associated with anything remotely smacking of insight, awareness, or transformation. But for me it most certainly was -- at least on the rite of passage night I was initiated into Pi Lambda Phi -- an experience now permanently etched into whatever remains of my mind.

The initiation?

To sit blindfolded in a pitch black room, next to 21 of my sweating classmates, all of us holding 17 marbles in our left hands while listening to Ravel's Bolero for 14 hours.

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That is not a misprint, folks. Fourteen hours of Bolero. Fourteen.

If you are not familiar with Bolero, allow me to briefly introduce it to you. It goes a little something like this: dahhhh, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah, dah, dah dah dahhhh, dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah.

It is, shall we say, an extremely REPETITIVE piece of music, a kind of mental military mantra, one that requires the kind of refined sensibility to appreciate that none of us in that room possessed. I think the operational word here is TORTURE -- a kind of classical music waterboarding experience I still have not yet completely recovered from. Five minutes of Bolero is usually enough for most people. Fourteen hours is like the last year of a really bad marriage.

Now here's where it really gets interesting... by the grace of the Bolero gods and the fact that the recording we were listening to had been made on a reel to reel tape player, every 17 minutes or so there would be a four second delay before the music looped back to the beginning. FOUR SECONDS. That was it. Every 17 minutes we had a four second reprieve from Mrs. Ravel's lunatic son.

What I learned during those four seconds taught me a lesson I will never forget.

Those four seconds were not memorable because of the SILENCE itself, but because of what happened DURING that silence -- the space that opened up -- a chance for the 22 of us to enjoy a blast of divine humor -- humor initiated by the youngest of us in the room that day, the Honorable Barry "Boonbeam" Birnbaum (now a much sought after attorney in New York City). What Barry did during those precious few seconds not only renewed and refreshed us, it most likely prevented the lot of us from spending the rest of our lives in a loony bin.

"Nice beat, but you can't dance to it" was Barry's comment during the first of our four second reprieves. "More bass! More bass!" was his commentary the second time around. "I much prefer the London Philharmonic version", he interjected after Round Three. And so and so on it went, 49 times every 17 minutes throughout that dark night of our collective soul.

The smiles and laughter that followed Barry's comments refreshed our minds and rebooted our souls. Humor saved the day. Humor gave us new life. Or as Gandhi once confessed: "If I had no sense of humor I would long ago have committed suicide."

Humor is the great equalizer, no matter who you are and what you do. It opens the heart, relaxes the mind, diffuses worry, energizes, uplifts, renews, restores, and rejuvenates. I like to think of it as one of the core universal truths on planet Earth. Beyond this Earth, I cannot say for sure, other than my perception that ETs from other worlds, at least in the pictures I've seen of them, never seem to be smiling. I don't get it. They all so serious. All that "advanced consciousness" and still no sense of humor. Really? REALLY?

I have no idea if extraterrestrials listen to Bolero or think George Carlin is funny, but I do know this: HUMOR IS A GIFT FROM GOD. Humor is divine. Humor is wisdom wearing a smile.

Why else do you think the court jesters had the ear of the King?

This story is NOT included in my new book on personal storytelling. It would have been cool to have included it, but I didn't write it until the manuscript was done.

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 11:10 PM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2016
The Martial Arts of the Mind

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Ten years ago I was invited to teach a course on "Innovation and Business Growth" at GE's Crotonville Management Development Center for 75 high potential, business superstars of the future. The GE executive who hired me was a very savvy guy with the unenviable task of orienting new adjunct faculty members to GE's high standards and often harsher reality.

My client's intelligence was exceeded only by his candor as he proceeded to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that GE gave "new instructors" two shots at making the grade -- explaining, with a wry smile, that most outside consultants were intimidated the first time they taught at GE and weren't necessarily at the top of their game.

I'm not sure how you say it in Esperanto, but in English what he said translates as "The heat is on, big time."

I knew I would have to raise my game if I expected to be invited back after my two-session audition was over.

And so I went about my business of getting ready, keeping in mind that I was going to be leading a 6-hour session for 75 of GE's "best and brightest" flown half way around the world -- high flying Type A personalities with a high regard for themselves and a very low threshold for anything they judged to be unworthy of their time.

I had five weeks to prepare, five weeks to get my act together, five weeks to dig in and front load my agenda with everything I needed to wow my audience: case studies, statistics, quotes, factoids, and more best practices than you could shake an iPhone at.

I was ready. Really ready. Like a rookie center fielder on designer steroids, I was ready.

Or so I thought.

The more I spoke, the less they listened. The less they listened, the more I spoke, trotting out "compelling" facts and truckloads of information to make my case as they blankly stared and checked their email under the table.

Psychologists, I believe, would characterize my approach as "compensatory behavior."

I talked faster. I talked louder. I worked harder -- attempting in various pitiful ways to pull imaginary rabbits out of imaginary hats.

Needless to say, GE's best and brightest -- for the entire 45 minutes of my opening act -- were not impressed.

Clearly, I was playing a losing game.

My attempt to out-GE the GE people was a no-win proposition. I didn't need new facts, new statistics, or new quotes. I needed a new approach -- a way to secure the attention of my audience and help them make the shift from left-brained skepticism to right-brained receptivity.

And I needed to do it five minutes, not 45.

The next few days were very uncomfortable for me, replaying in my head -- again and again -- my lame choice of an opening gambit and wondering what, in the world, I could do to get better results in much less time.

And then, like an unexpected IPO from Mars, it hit me. The martial arts!

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As a student of Aikido, I knew how amazing the martial arts were and what a great metaphor they were for life.

Fast forward a few weeks...

My second session, at Crotonville, began exactly like the first -- with the Program Director reading my bio to the group in an heroic attempt to impress everyone. They weren't.

Taking my cue, I walked to center stage, scanned the audience and uttered nine words.

"Raise your hand if you're a bold risk taker."

Not a single hand went up. Not one.

I stood my ground and surveyed the room.

"Really?" I said. "You are GE's best and brightest and not one of you is a bold risk taker? I find that hard to believe."

Ten rows back, a hand went up. Slowly. Halfway. Like a kid in a high school math class, not wanting to offend the teacher.

"Great!" I bellowed, pointing to the semi-bold risk taker. "Stand up and join me in the front of the room!"

You could cut the air with a knife.

I welcomed my assistant to the stage and asked him if had any insurance -- explaining that I had called him forth to attack me from behind and was going to demonstrate a martial arts move shown to me by my first aikido instructor, a 110-pound woman who I once saw throw a 220-pound man through a wall.

Pin drop silence.

I asked our bold risk taker to stand behind me and grab both of my wrists and instructed him to hold on tight as I attempted to get away -- an effort that yielded no results.

I casually mentioned how the scenario being played out on stage is what a typical work day has become for most of us -- lots of tension, resistance, and struggle.

With the audience completely focused on the moment, I noted a few simple principles of Aikido -- and how anyone, with the right application of energy and the right amount of practice, could change the game.

As I demonstrated the move, my "attacker" was quickly neutralized and I was no longer victim, but in total control.

In three minutes, things had shifted. Not only for me and my attacker, but for everyone in the room.

That's when I mentioned that force was not the same thing as power -- and that martial artists know how to get maximum results with a minimum of effort -- and that, indeed, INNOVATION was all about the "martial arts of the mind" -- a way to get extraordinary results in an elegant way.

PS: I was invited back 26 times to deliver the course.

THE COMMENTARY

Every day, no matter what our profession, education, or astrological sign, we are all faced with the same challenge -- how to effectively communicate our message to others.

This challenge is particularly difficult these days, given the glut of information we all must contend with. The amount of information available to us is doubling every ten years! Yearly, more than one million books are published. Daily, we are bombarded with more 6,000 advertising messages and 150 emails. As a result, most of us find ourselves in a defensive posture, protecting ourselves from the onslaught of input.

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What I've discovered in the past 25 years of working with some of the world's most powerful organizations is that if I really want to have get my message across, I've got to deliver it in a what that gets past the "guardians at the gate" -- the default condition of doubt, disengagement, and derision that comes with the territory of life in the 21st century business world.

My rite of passage at GE was a microcosm of this phenomenon.

Indeed, my presumptive effort to "win over my audience" by impressing them with data, case studies, and best practices was a losing game. Not only was I barking up the wrong tree, I was in the wrong forest.

The key to my breaking through the collective skepticism of GE's best and brightest wasn't a matter of information. It was a matter transformation.

They didn't need to analyze, they needed to engage -- and it was my job to make that easy to do. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi so deftly put it, I had to "be the change I wanted to see in the world."

I had to do something that invoked the curious, playful, and associative right brain, not the logical, linear, analytical left brain -- tricky business, indeed, especially when you consider that most business people, these days, have a very low threshold for anything they judge to be impractical

Which is why I chose the martial arts as the operational metaphor at GE, my attempt to move them from the Dow to the Tao.

Impractical? Not at all.

Bottom line, whether we know it or not, we have all entered the "experience economy" -- a time when being involved is at least as important as being informed.

Information is no longer sufficient to spark change. Data is no longer king. Thinking only takes us part of the way home. It's feeling that completes the journey -- the kind of feeling that leads to full on curiosity and the kind of engagement that opens the door to exciting new possibilities.

Which is exactly what happened at GE when I made the shift from marshaling my facts, to marshaling my energy -- and by extension, the energy of 75 of GE's best and brightest.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: What message have you been trying to deliver (with too little impact) that might be communicated in a totally different way -- a way that more successfully engages people and leads to measurable results?

Excerpted from Storytelling at Work
Idea Champions
Applied Innovation
My Keynotes
It All Began With Balls
Big Blues from the Viagra People

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 12:14 AM | Comments (0)

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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