by anne lueneburger

Difficult conversations

This shot isn’t from an art gallery. This photo was taken in Shanghai where I was on a coaching mandate this spring. I’m looking at graffiti on a wall just outside the ‘slum’ area at Xiaonanmen station. A minute ago I had been immersed in a world of dense housing with people cooking on gas stoves on the street and scrawny chickens darting across old rubble and waste. A turn around a corner and I was in a rich urban development populated by lofts and artificial beaches, and other hallmarks of a modern metropolis. The contrast of poverty and privilege was stark. The angry expression on this man’s face seemed to represent the tension that often exists between worlds that are so close and so yet so far apart.

Growing up, conflict in my family was characterized by what the French call “soup au lait” (if you have ever heated up milk on a stove, you will know that it can boil over quickly, but then recede just as rapidly the moment you remove the pot from its heat source). Arguments quickly got hot and loud, only to cool off the next moment and certainly be forgotten the following day. Without exception, I found these exchanges stressful. The power imbalance between parent and child often translated into positions of being in the “right” and “wrong” and gave me a sense of helplessness when it came to the final decision. Most frustrating was that there were rarely any takeaways that would result from these arguments. Life would go on and it was “business as usual” – it all seemed to be a waste of time. No surprise then that I entered adulthood with a less than positive attitude when it came to conflict, and a rather unrefined tool kit that was little use in helping me to navigate tension effectively.

Over two decades have passed since then and today I want to share some hard won lessons, be it through formal training or the classroom we call “life”, on how we can create win-win outcomes in conflict situations.

Lesson 1: Stop thinking in positions.

I found myself smiling as I looked at the angry man. Our perception of conflict influences how we take our first step forward. I am no longer captive to my childhood paradigm when it comes to conflict. While some of us are born gifted mediators, navigating conflict can be learned. From what I know today, conflict is neither good nor bad. It is also not about winners and losers.

con·flict  \kän-flikt\ : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles

ne·go·ti·a·tion  \ni-ˌgō-shē-ˈā-shən : to confer with another or others in order to come to terms or reach an agreement

To shift beyond a “fixed pie” mentality we need to explore how we can expand the pie and negotiate. While it may not be feasible to completely obtain our position, it is often possible to satisfy our interests.

In this light, consider what would be acceptable outcomes for you? (And suspend your judgment for a moment and rank them in order of preference…) Also, have a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) in place. What is your best course of action, should you and the other party not come to an agreement?

Lesson 2: Make it a choice.

 “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”

– Terry Goodkind

While some may argue that avoiding any conflict is a lost opportunity, a good starting point is to gauge whether we really care or need to engage with the other party. Unless you thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with conflict, the time and energy involved in negotiation and the effects of this, also needs to be weighed against the benefits. Here are the two questions to answer:

  • How important is this project to me?
  • How much do I value this relationship?

Sometimes it is simply better to walk away.

Lesson 3: Keep your shades clear.


Negotiations are often full of the unexpected and the complex. If you are not being clear about your own values, beliefs, and emotional triggers, then the chances are your shades are dirty. If we are not checking whether our assumptions are true then we risk stumbling in the dark when it comes to influencing others.

As you are getting ready to enter a specific negotiation, here are three questions to clarify:

>What outcome am I looking to achieve?

>What are some of my main concerns, going in?

>What needs am I ultimately trying to meet?

Also take a moment to consider a time when you handled conflict well. Which of your strengths were particularly useful? Now think of a time when you did not manage conflict constructively. What were key emotional triggers that tend to trip you up in general? (Keep a list!) What needs are associated with these?

I often ask my coaching clients to sit the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory to clarify their default negotiation style and to explore the characteristics of alternative styles they might find useful, depending on the context.

Lesson 4: Rehearse.


You may remember the Hans Christian Andersen parable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the emperor’s weavers claimed a new fabric was invisible to all who were “hopelessly stupid.” No one, not even his advisors, dared tell the Emperor that he was naked. One day, as the Emperor strolled through the village, one boy in the crowd shouted that the Emperor wore nothing.

Who in your crowd is willing to shout out and hold you accountableFor tough negotiations, get an objective perspective from someone you trust and who gives candid feedback. Consider roleplaying to gauge how good your influencing skills really are.

Lesson 5: Lead with warmth.

Many of my clients, in particular female execs, are reluctant to accommodate during negotiations: “I don’t want to be the doormat” is a frequent pushback I receive as a coach. However, research confirms: leading with warmth as we aspire to influence others facilitates trust as it communicates that we are attentive to their needs. According to Gallup we are five times more likely to follow the lead of someone we trust.

Warmth expresses itself not only in what we say but also in how we say it. Vision is – hands down – our leading sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. It is not surprising then, that body language steers how other people think and feel about us, and also how we feel about ourselves as there is a feedback loop: try smiling for a couple of minutes and your brain will increase its serotonin production, which is responsible for feelings of happiness.

Suggest a time for your discussion that accommodates the other party’s schedule. Consider using a more welcoming space in or outside the office. A 2010 study by MIT and Yale brain researchers confirms: offer the other party a comfortable chair and a coffee and they will be more flexible in their demands.

Add competence and a projection of strength to the mix and you become a “happy warrior.”

Lesson 6: Listen. Carefully.

Start any negotiation by inquiring about the other party’s perspective first. Rather than delivering your version of the story and risking a defensive reaction, you are getting a general sense as to where they are coming from.  Also, they are more likely to listen to you when it’s your turn. Questions you may ask are:


>What is their goal or desired outcome?

>How important is this goal to them?

>What relationships play key roles here?

>What are they most concerned about?

>What are some of the influencing factors we might not be aware of?

>What are their specific needs and what outcomes would address those?

Some of this will be hard to listen to and not react. Remember that listening and looking for a place of mutual understanding does not mean you are in agreement with the other person. This is a tough test for your listening skills. Powerful listening means you don’t go into your own head. You fully concentrate on what the other person is saying – as well as to what they are not saying… Observing their body language, facial expression, and tone of voice can give good clues as to what they may care most about.

Bonus Tip1: As you are listening, in addition to an open body language (Lesson 5), send verbal signals of acknowledgment such as “Ok, go on”, “uh huh” or “tell me more”.

Bonus Tip 2: Make sure you get all the broken pieces on the table at once before you begin trying to “glue it back together”.

Lesson 7: Meet them where they are.


Ever heard the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? As you are listening, show empathy where appropriate. “I can imagine that this must have been hard/difficult/frustrating…” Dance in the moment, step to their side and let go of trying to control their reaction: you can’t. If you hear common ground, be sure to mention it, “It is clear that this is frustrating for both of us. So, moving forward, what is important to you now?”

Paraphrasing involves restating what was just said using other words. It lets the other party know they have been heard. You validate their concerns. As you summarize milestones, do NOT say “What you are trying to say is…” but rather start with “So if I understand you correctly…”, “In other words, what you are saying is…”, “Let me make sure I got this right…”, or “Do you mean that…?”

Paraphrasing can also serve as an opener to probe for more information: “Can I ask a couple of questions?” Once you have listened to the other person, you have won yourself a hearing to assert your own needs.

Lesson 8: Stay calm…and carry on.

keep calm

It is particularly tough to manage emotional triggers when time constraints are factored into the equation.  In response to requests such as “I need it now!” consider asking “What is important about having it now?” (And if it’s you who puts on the pressure, ask yourself the same question). This might allow you to address an underlying need differently.

Also, if you are someone who needs time to reflect before making a decision, buy additional time. Play back the conversation until now: “To make sure I get what you are saying…” or, “Hold on, let me make sure I get this right, can we back up for a minute and review how we got here….” You may also ask “to enlist third party counsel or check in with the other parties who are involved” prior to making a decision.

If you’re tempted to blow up in the face of antagonism, pause for a moment before you respond: count to three, take a couple of deep breaths. Or take a break, step out into the corridor, go for a walk and remove yourself from the psychological pressure in the room. Imagine it’s five years from now: what do you think you will have learned from this conflict? How will you feel about how you handled it? What advice will the ‘older you’ tell the ‘younger you’ that is experiencing the challenge?

At all times, what helps you control your initial reaction is to keep your eyes on the prize: what is it that you really want as an outcome?

Tip: Ask yourself, before saying something:  “Is it kind, is it relevant, is it true?” If the answer is “no” for any of these, bite your lip and choose words that meet all of these criteria.

Lesson 9: State your case. Tactfully.

Now it is time to share your perspective. Your goal is for people to understand your view without making them defensive. The more you can bring their filters down, the more likely are they willing and able to hear you.

Own what is yours. Apologize for any wrongdoing on your part first. And where there is room for doubt, consider stating it in a more ambiguous fashion, such as “The information I got was that our client proposal came out as scheduled. I’ll have to take a closer look into this.”

Be specific about what you need. Rather than playing the risky game of having others guess as to what we want, be direct and as succinct as you can. For example, “I need for you to say what the priorities for this project are.”

Attack the problem. Not the person. If the goal is to fix the problem, pointing fingers will cause the other party to check out and become defense. One way to overcome this temptation is to focus on the future.

Lesson 10: Brainstorm & Agree on “what’s next”.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

You understand what the other party’s needs are (in addition to your own). You have identified common ground. Now you are ready to develop acceptable solutions. Select those options that will work for both of you. “Reality-test” them, using criteria of fairness and reciprocity, to ensure that needs are met on both sides. Mention their needs first, use the “we” as well as the “and” perspective as you are asserting your own needs:

>“If we move forward with this option, how can we make sure it addresses your need for abc and my need for xyz?”

>“I know this is important to the two of us. You do need abc and I need xyz. What are options that get us there?”

>“What I heard you say is…and from my point of view what I need is…, how can this option meet these criteria?”

If you are in a genuine deadlock, explore openly the costs of no agreement with the other party, holding up the mirror on what is at stake for the two of you. As a last resort you may choose to let the other party know that you have a BATNA: “I have other ideas on how to resolve this, however, my hope is that we resolve this together.” This tactic works best if all alternatives were not accepted. Never to be used as a threat but used as another piece of information.

Lesson +1: Celebrate agreement. Write it up.

Summarizing the main points of an agreement helps avoid future misunderstandings and sets standards of accountability. Sometimes a simple email to all participants can do the job. Be sure to mention how and by when the solution will be implemented as well as any milestones and metrics.

Now go, and have fun “arguing!”

P. S. Some reads you may want to check out:

  • Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., and Nelfinger, J. (July-August 2013).“Is it better to be loved or feared?” Harvard Business Review.
  • Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. and Fisher, R. (2010). “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.” New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Kolb, D.M., Williams, J. (2003). “Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Medina, J.(2008). “Brain rules”
  • Ury, W.(1993). “Getting Past No.” New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

by pamela welling

In my last blog I wrote about how being über connected can sometimes be an über distraction stopping us from creating an environment conductive to idea creation or problem resolution. In response to feedback to the blog, I wanted to put together some practical tips on how we can cut time in to the schedule to break and think:

1. Know it’ll take a little prep: Allocate 20 minutes to work through the steps below, this advanced prep will allow you to be most effective in carving this time and maintaining it.

2. Pick your moment: Review your work and personal calendars to get a sense of where the natural downtime occurs in your schedule. Use any window available to you and block this out as your ‘think’ time. Expect this window to change throughout the year in response to your workflow and personal commitments.

3. Know it’ll most likely not happen once a week: Expect to meet your think time objective once every two or three weeks to help manage your own expectations.

4. Out of Office auto response: Feeling pressured to respond to messages immediately? Once you have identified your window and if you are able to carve an hour or more of time, use your email auto-response to set expectations and reflect your availability.

5.  Use your Smartphone to track the topics you want to analyze: Create a ‘think’ folder and brain dump topics that jump to mind into it. When you arrive at your window, you can come back to them and ruminate.

6. Identify the catalysts: Reflect on times you’ve felt inspired and identify the conditions that allowed you to feel that way. Analyze the location you were in, the activities you were participating in, the people you were with or what you might have been listening to.  Ideally, you’ll replicate some element of those conditions during your think time.

7. Get buy-in from your main stakeholders: If you are carving time at work, use evidence of past successes to explain the benefits to your boss, colleagues and reports. If your workplace is not responsive to this, then identify where you can carve time at home, including kids play-dates, the commute to work, or skipping one TV show every two weeks to make it an attainable goal. Know that you’ll need to negotiate with friends and family to get their support.

Easier said than done right? I agree that it is very hard to carve time. As I shared in my last blog, I try and hold over an hour every Friday afternoon, a guaranteed window in my schedule almost year round, to simply review and think. I get to it once every three or maybe four weeks in very busy periods, but it’s on those occasions that I’ve had my epiphanic moments; I’ve identified the source of an unexpected case of the ‘blahs’ at work (not feeling challenged) and then devised a strategy to respond (developing content for a new client group, which later benefitted my work with my current client group).

I’ve also been surprised by my creativity when trying to adopt the suggested steps above, and I’m sure readers who attempt them will be too. For example, I now actively spend 10 minutes every long subway ride to braindump ideas or issues I want to think about into my smart phone. Then when I hit my ‘think’ window, regardless of how much later it is, I can be instantly transported back to my conundrum and feel inspired to address it. The approach does take practice and effort but if you can form the habit, it’s an effort that will pay off.

Want to read more about time management? Check out some of our earlier entries:

Time to think? Part 1

Wishing our time away

Stressed out? Get control back into your life

Water cooler chatter can boost your bottom line

Do you build kayaks or canoes?

North of neutral dialog: serendipity

Time management issues? buy a tomato!

Be master of your time (most of the time)

North of neutral dialog: work-home balance

by renita kalhorn


When the doctor hits the patella of your knee with that little hammer your leg jerks up – you can’t help it, it’s a natural reflex. Though it sometimes feels the same with our emotions, it’s not. True, we can’t control the specific emotion that wells up in a particular situation, but we can make a choice as to what we do next and how we respond.

As with any new habit or skill, however, it takes awareness and practice to become the master of your emotions. (What, you were expecting a quick fix? 😉 You’re in luck, however: I’ve put together a step-by-step training plan that lays out exactly what and how to practice.

Okay, here we go:


Have a morning practice.  

Just as pilots check their flight plan, set the controls and evaluate the instrument panel in readying for take-off, you too will benefit from preparing yourself for the day ahead. Whatever you do — meditate, take a walk, do yoga, read a motivational book or write in your journal – investing the time (even 15 minutes is beneficial) to quiet your mind and plug into your inner energy source will give you a sense of perspective and allow you to stay grounded as you move through the chaos of the day. (And don’t even think about making the “I don’t have time” excuse. That’s like saying “I don’t have time to find my car keys so I’m going to walk to work.” You always have time to set yourself up for success.)

Like the Dalai Lama says: “We all know that on days when we are in a good mood, when the whole world seems to be smiling at us, we can accept predicaments or bad news more easily than if our mind is already upset, frustrated or troubled, when the slightest incident might cause us to explode with negative emotions.”

Identify your triggers.

Pretty certain you have seen or heard of a colleague loosing his temper or you’ve gotten critical feedback from a boss or colleague. Though we may feel ambushed, there are recurring scenarios where we can anticipate potential friction and think through how we typically react.

So, start a running list of those situations that tend to stir up negative emotion – you know, the juicy stuff like anger, resentment, insecurity, guilt. Now you can strategize what you’ll do or say in the heat of the moment when it may be difficult to think clearly.

Visualize and practice.

So you may have been at an office party, and your obnoxious colleague – who gets even more obnoxious when he’s drinking — starts bragging about how much his bonus was. Imagine how you’ll respond when he needles you about yours and insinuates that his was much higher. Imagine the various ways that scenario could play out and how you’d handle them (I’m thinking one of them could involve a suave James Bond impression).

(Don’t worry that imagining a scenario will make it more likely to happen. Actually the opposite is true – simply envisioning a solution may make the problem moot.)

Then, as much as possible, look for opportunities to simulate what you feel in those emotionally charged situations – to practice or rehearse when the stakes are low and your emotional reactions won’t be as costly.

For example, if you’re uncomfortable with confrontation or rejection, practice returning an item to a store or asking for a refund. If you’re worried about losing your composure during your performance review, practice receiving criticism from a friend or trusted colleague.

Forward-thinking and preparation are critical to navigating emotional minefields and not losing your cool in the moment.

So now that you know how to prepare, what do you do in the heat of the moment when your emotions flare up?


Recognize the signs of the fight or flight response. Heart racing, stomach churning, palms sweating: these are signs that your amygdala – the part of your brain that is on the lookout for threats to your survival – has been activated. Your brain, however, might very well interpret shallow breathing – which is what often happens when you feel insulted, angry or upset — as a threat.

So Step 1: take a deep breath.

Use your body to anchor you to the present. When your boss says “I need to speak to you later,” for example, your mind starts racing – into the past (is he upset about the question I asked in yesterday’s meeting?), or the future (Am I being taken off the project?). Neither is helpful. What you need to do is get out of your head and back into the present moment. Your body can help you do that.

Step 2: Feel your feet on the ground, your arms on your desk, your butt in the chair.

Hit the pause button. When are your emotions most likely to cause you trouble: when you’re talking or not talking? I thought so. Often, people start talking because they’re uncomfortable with silence, not because it will help the situation. If someone is intentionally needling you, they’re looking for a reaction. If you don’t react, there’s nothing for them to attack.

Step 3: Learn how to sit with the silence. Give yourself 10 seconds (at least) to let your rational brain kick in.

Check the crystal ball. Before you start talking, do a quick peek into the future. If you say what you want to say, how will the other person respond? Will it help or harm the situation?

As speaker Larry Winget notes, we start to think: “I’m working with this a—hole; I can be an a—hole back and it won’t really matter.” But it always matters — which is why you need to think about the future. “In 10, 12, 15 years, that a—hole’s your boss,” says Winget. “I’ve watched this happen too many times and it’s happened to me. I lost a deal because of it.”

Step 4: Watch your tongue and be forward-thinking.

After an emotional flare-up the best thing to do is move on and not think about it, right? Wrong! If you don’t recap and understand what happened, you’ll simply repeat the pattern again until you do.

Do a debrief. When you have some distance and are feeling calmer, take a moment to ask: “What was going on there? Why did I get so angry?” See if you can identify the exact trigger: “I hate when my boss gives me that obnoxious smirk.” Why is that upsetting? “Because it looks like he thinks I’m incompetent.” Oh really, why would he think you’re incompetent? “ And by drilling down, you’re able to understand why that situation hits your buttons – whether it triggers a feeling of powerlessness, frustration or pain from the past — and what your beliefs are about what they’re saying.

Make a choice. Once you understand what triggered the emotion, you can come up with a strategy for what you’ll do the next time it happens. Or, if it’s simply a reaction to something you can’t control, you can decide to let it go. Ask yourself: How much time do I want to spend thinking about this?

Yet nine times out of ten the reason we get so irritated with the people who are closest to us is that they show us that we do not in fact correspond with the ideas we have of ourselves. We are meaner, weaker, dumber, and less interesting, tolerant, and sexy. In short, we are human, which typically comes as extremely disappointing news.

When it comes to emotions, there is no quick fix. There is only practice: in identifying them, preparing for situations, and in processing them.

Also, if you want to learn more about this, check out one of our most read posts on amygdala hijacks!

by renita kalhorn

A married couple was celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. At the party everybody wanted to know how they managed to stay married so long in this day and age.

The husband responded, “When we were first married we came to an agreement – I would make all the major decisions and my wife would make all the minor decisions. And now, after 60 years of marriage, I can truthfully say that we have never needed to make a MAJOR decision.

He’s on to something.

Everyday, throughout the day, we’re faced with hundreds of decisions. Major or minor, each one requires brainpower as we process information, weigh the alternatives and make a choice. Eventually, this leads to what researchers call decision fatigue and the harder each decision becomes. (If you think about the last time you bought a camera, a car or even a new toothpaste, you know what I’m talking about.)

At that point, our judgment falters and our brain starts to take shortcuts, like doing something reckless or doing nothing at all. (This helps explain why ordinarily sensible people make that impulse buy at the checkout counter and why married politicians send inappropriate photos on Twitter.)

Thing is, if we’re in reactive mode simply making decisions as they pop up, we’re using up precious brainpower on trivial decisions, like what to eat for breakfast or which movie to download. Then, when it comes time to make decisions that actually have a lasting impact on our work and relationships, we’re pooped.

Make fewer decisions

Leo Widrich, the co-founder of start-up Buffer and one of the speakers I interviewed in the Mental Toughness Summit, has adopted a very deliberate strategy for decision-making: make less of them.

“If someone suggests a place to get dinner, I say yes. If someone asks to do something on the weekend, I say yes. I don’t own any clothes apart from white t-shirts (and one black Buffer t-shirt), so I don’t have to decide what to wear. I listen to the same music I’ve always listened to, if someone suggests some new music, I say yes and listen to it.”

Of course, there are times where the default is “no” but Leo’s streamlined the number of decisions he has to think about to those he believes will make a difference to his long-term success and happiness.

Get rid of redundant thinking

Another way to simplify your life is by reducing redundant decisions and automating your schedule.

Make a list of the activities you want or need to do on a regular, repeated basis – team meetings, client prospecting, monthly report-writing, yoga class, poker night. Then designate a specific day or time for them in your calendar. This dramatically simplifies the process of figuring out when you’re going to do them – and also makes it more likely that you’ll do them (cold-calling, I’m talking to you).

Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, demonstrates this disciplined approach by structuring his week according to business area: Monday, he focuses on Product issues, Tuesday on Video & Teaching, and so on.

Rather than making your life rigid and fixed, automating means you spend less mental energy on making the same boring decisions over and over, which frees up creativity and allows you to be spontaneous where it counts.

Now it’s your turn: how can you apply these strategies to YOUR life?

by anne lueneburger

Eric D. Dawson, President and Co-founder, Peace First 

Boston, MA

As Eric comes up to meet me at Columbia University for our interview, I am stunned by how young he looks. He easily blends in with the rest of the graduate student population and his grin has a boyish quality to it as he notices the cowboy boots I am wearing that day: “For our wedding, my wife wanted diamonds in her wedding band,” he recounts, “and the deal was if she got that I would get cowboy boots. For one, they make me taller. And as I grew up in the Midwest and my grandfather had grown up on a farm, it just felt like cowboy boots fit that aesthetic.”

Dawson’s youthful looks and easygoing demeanor can be deceiving. Nearing his forties he can look back over a long list of accomplishments, starting with when he was only 14-years-old and he launched a student-teacher movement against the discrimination of children with developmental disabilities. And while working towards three Harvard degrees, this ‘child advocate’ founded Peace First, with the aim of making violence in schools a thing of the past. In addition to impacting positive social change at large, Eric is also a dedicated husband and father of three

the context

Peace First, conceived in 1992 at Harvard University, is an independent non-profit organization. Headquartered in Boston, the organization also has offices in Los Angeles, and New York, and its reach is expanding rapidly, both in the US and globally. Its mission is to teach children critical conflict resolution skills, reducing youth violence and creating stronger schools and communities, in short: anti-bullying and pro-kids.

To date, Peace First has trained over 40,000 students as well as close to 2,500 teachers in conflict resolution skills; in addition, with its emphasis on community projects, the organization offers school children a sense of civic engagement. Peace First’s work carries impressive results: its partner schools are reporting a 100% reduction in racial slurs, an over 80% increase when it comes to students mitigating fights and being support champions for each other, and a 60% decrease in violence overall.

Eric Dawson, as the co-founder and head of the organization, has been nationally recognized for his leadership and contributions, including being awarded the prestigious Ashoka and Echoing Green fellowships. Dawson, who co-founded the organization at age 18, focused in phase one of his leadership on designing a curriculum of change, during phase two on building a growing organizational culture and, as Peace First has entered phase three, his emphasis is on scale and how to make the peace concept a universal one in order to address the soaring demand (so far over 250,000 schools and school districts worldwide have expressed interest to partner with Peace First).

growing up, taking a STAND

Born in St. Louis Missouri and the youngest of three, he moved at a young age with his parents back to Columbus, Ohio to be closer to family.

When Dawson was a freshman at his neighborhood public high school, the inclusion movement (advocating the idea that all people should openly accommodate any person with a disability without restrictions) was mainstreamed into schools. While kids with disabilities – particularly mental developmental disabilities – had previously been kept in separate wings of his school, Dawson saw them now included at lunchtime, and during music class or gym class. Unfortunately, a number of students would harass and ridicule these children: “It made me very angry. I started a group called STAND: Students and Teachers Against Negative Discrimination. We started with 100 members, both disabled and non-disabled students, and ran discrimination simulation exercises for the school. It was a huge success. We made harassment and bullying unacceptable and we ultimately changed the culture of our school.”

Dawson saw support for STAND come from a large cross section of the student body: “Change was happening from within, which made it so powerful.” As the initiative gained traction, Dawson and his fellow students created a teaching program for 4th, 5th and 6th graders for the entire district, which translated into 10,000 students being taught how best to fight discrimination. Much of the content focused on clarifying assumptions and answering questions about the disabled community. This in turn reduced much of the fear and aggression that had emerged when it came to interacting with people who were different.

In addition, quality control was an integral part of the training process, a feature Dawson had picked up from his parents’ consulting business on program evaluation: “We assessed on a regular basis what people took away from any given module,” Dawson shares. “And I remember getting this envelope of evaluations where a 4th grader wrote under ‘what did you learn’: I learned to see with my heart, rather than with my eyes. That was powerful.”

a kid in a candy store

Following in the footsteps of his Russian immigrant grandmother, Dawson was involved with a lot of theatre when he was growing up: “I hung out with a lot of adults, doing community theatre and also some television commercials. What I loved about theatre was the language and the power of storytelling. I grew out of it, for a lack of better words, when I was 18. I realized at that age that I liked my own language better rather than reciting what someone else had written. And I wanted to play ‘myself’, explore what is out there.”

Harvard offered just that for the high school graduate with a 4.2 GPA, it opened a variety of new doors, some unfamiliar, some uncomfortable: “Harvard was a bit of a culture shock to me. I was far away from home for the first time. And while I did not have money to go home for Thanksgiving and I was working 30 hours a week to pay for school, there were people who had their laundry done, and who had never thought about taking public transportation. Harvard was also intriguing to me. The school did not offer the structure I had experienced growing up, I was surrounded by lots of flexibility and not much nurturing or guidance.”

Dawson sounds like a kid in a candy store as he is reflecting back on this experience. One particularly important encounter proved to be with a professor of children’s literature out of the University of Connecticut who had launched festivals for children which encouraged them to take leadership roles with the aim of creating peace in the world. Her idea was that adults had had their turn to make the world a better place and had failed. According to her it was now time to let kids speak up and to make peace happen. Dawson remembers vividly how, with a group of other likeminded students, he began building a program around these peace festivals: “In my freshmen year I was eligible for advanced standing and I could have had the opportunity to finish in three years, but my academic learning was taking second place to being drawn to how to help kids to be peacemakers. It was the early nineties, the height of youth violence in Boston and cities around the country, young people were dying. Eighteen kids were shot or killed every day by handguns in the US.” This sense of urgency caused Dawson to decelerate his studies and he got involved as the education director to develop a peace curriculum that led to launching what is today Peace First.

Not victim, not bully, but problem solver

What sets Peace First apart from similar initiatives is its approach to not look at children as victims that need protection nor as perpetrators that need incarceration: “We arrest kids, medicate them, turn our schools into prisons, either literally with metal detectors and police officers, or spiritually with zero tolerance policies. We have a whole language of looking at kids as problems, and as a young person that made me angry. Our big idea was: “What if we were to look at kids as problem solvers rather than problems? What would it look like if every child in this country had a tool belt, an opportunity to work for peace?”

Dawson and his team at Peace First launched a three-week curriculum for schools around Boston which quickly expanded into a year long curriculum and a training program for teachers. Parallel to Dawson starting his Masters in Human Development Psychology on a part time basis, Peace First was launched as a non-profit with the help of two fellowships and a quarter million dollars philanthropic investment. With the limited resources of two full time and nineteen part time staff, Peace First created a weekly curriculum model mapped onto the academic public school framework, starting with kindergarten all the way through to 8th grade.

 a playful approach to conflict

Not all conflict is bad. In fact, when well-managed, it can result in more creative ideas and solutions than a conflict free environment, as exemplified by Peace First curriculum that operates on two key premises, as Dawson explains: “It all starts with the assumption that young people are good and have natural inclinations towards peacemaking. It is our job to unleash young people’s imaginations around resolving conflict and to give them tools to support that. The second premise is that peacemaking skills need to be in every community. Violence exists in all communities, it is not only a problem of poor communities and we want to create a shared sense of responsibility, to be courageous and compassionate.”

The first half of each school year, the Peace First curriculum focuses on creating awareness around the concept of conflict and explores it experientially in the form of games and role play: what is conflict? When is it good to have conflict and when not? What makes conflict get worse and what makes it get better? How do we, as a community, want to resolve conflicts? These are all questions that the school children address together with their Peace First teacher and their classroom teacher.

During the second half of the year all children identify a problem in their community that is important to them, develop collaborative solutions and then implement them: “We have kindergarteners who start recycling programs, 3rd graders who develop yoga programs for 8th graders who pick on them, and we see 8th graders develop workshops for their teachers on sexism. The options are endless,” explains Dawson.

Much of the Peace First approach and content is applicable in the adult world and in fact reminds me of how we coach executives when it comes to conflict management in organizations: We help leaders assess the situation at hand, to become aware of their very own behavior and conflict management style, to weigh the risks and consequences of options for action, and to build empathy and the courage to act on what seems right.

nobel prize for peace

To feed the demand in the market, Peace First is working actively on a solution to reach a wider audience: “We are developing an online digital platform where teachers anywhere in the world can go online, type in for example ‘10-year-olds and communication skills’ and lessons will pop up which they can use. So they can take our content of over 400 lessons that we have developed over the course of twenty years and use it as they see fit.“

Dawson’s plan is generous, as the service will be offered free of charge and open for anyone. But there is more when it comes to building reach: “For many, the concept of peace carries a somewhat soft ‘touchy-feely’ connotation.  People think of the 60s, 70s, holding hands. It may be inner peace, meditating. What we will launch is a kind of Nobel Prize for kids, called the Peace First Prize, a national search for young people who transform their communities in phenomenal but accessible ways. The prize does not require extraordinary acts, rather it targets delicate, transformative acts of peace that we may see on the news and think ‘I could do this’.”

In addition to connecting all applicants in the Peace First community, the 5-10 winners of the Peace First Prize will get a two-year $50,000 scholarship to support their peacemaking work and will also go on a speaking tour. Dawson’s passion around the idea of making a lasting impact is reflected in his body language as he leans forward: “I get excited about movement building, inspiring young people, and about having the prize be a vehicle for peacemaking on a larger scope.”

Not unlike the folk story of the Stone Soup, in which a hungry soldier, with his powerful and persistent rhetoric, persuades an entire village to volunteer additional ingredients to the soup he is making from a stone, Dawson has used his strong conviction together with his ability to influence and mobilize those around him to make Peace First the powerful force it is today. Influential support champions such as Hollywood actress America Ferrera, national television and print media, as well as non-profit organizations such as the Girl Scouts have signed on to support the Peace First Prize which aims to reach about 25 million young people.

Having said this, there still remains a disconnect between everything Dawson wants to accomplish and what he is actually able to do given the resources at hand: “Running Peace First is like being a parent. Sometimes it is so lovely, the best thing I have ever done, and sometimes it is a pain the ass.”

conflict, up close and personal

As with many of us, managing conflict effectively on a personal level is also a challenge for Dawson: “I was a naturally empathetic kid. Empathy is a phenomenal skill. To be too empathetic can also lead to making it difficult to engage in conflict as you can get hypersensitive as to how someone might experience it. Conflict is not about fighting. It is about honesty and listening deeply to what you need and what the other person needs.”

As he went through Harvard’s divinity school for his masters, Dawson worked as chaplain in the Intensive Care Unit, supporting people who had been stabbed and many of whom were dying: “I expected it to be emotionally exhausting, but it turned out to be spiritually exhausting. I would show up in a room and would have nothing practical to offer. I was not a social worker, nor a doctor, all I could do was sit and listen to them.” It turns out this was just what was needed, active focused listening: “It was transformative because what it showed me is that problem solving is sometimes not useful. Sometimes all we need to do is to show up and be there for the other person.”

Active listening has become an important tool Dawson uses when it comes to addressing conflict in his personal life. Working on resisting his need to please others or to ‘fix what is broken’, he makes “a conscious effort to make space for his professional and personal interactions, and to embrace conflict, giving it space to rise and subside.”

save yourself and you can save the world

As an 8-year old, Dawson got bored after school and decided to design a utopian community.  Unlike most of his peers, he did not focus on trees or mountains, but designed economic systems where everyone was taken care of with hospitals for anyone who got sick, and with free housing for everyone: “The challenge I had as an 8-year old, I couldn’t figure out how to get people to work that did not have to, as everyone was taken care of.”

Yet, it were the very three elements that we know sustain motivation at work that had kept the young Dawson so enthusiastically focused to his project: autonomy (he was in charge of designing this utopian community), growth (as he build the project he was learning along the way and developing new ideas), and finally a sense of purpose (to take care of everyone in his community and make it a better world).

Motivation to work was never a challenge for Eric Dawson. He lives to work: “I want to be careful about using this language, but I am an addict to work. It fuels me, I crave it. Not meaning to belittle people who have a chemical addiction but I think the brain works the same way when it comes to being addicted to work.” Not unlike his entrepreneurial parents who ran their own business, which often meant that work would know no boundaries, Dawson struggles to add discipline to his schedule and to create boundaries between his personal and professional life.

There were a number of occasions throughout his life when he disrespected these boundaries and it was forced on him to slow down: “During my sophomore year in college I was taking five classes, I was working four jobs, and I was running Peace First and organizing a summer camp in a public housing development. I got very sick, my body stopped working, I was hospitalized. I realized I couldn’t do it all.”

One of Dawson’s colleagues bluntly commented on Dawson’s work ethic: ‘Eric get off the cross, we need the wood’. And Dawson is determined to set boundaries to realize a richer personal life: “I get up very early, 4.30am, go to the gym and am at my desk around 7 and I stop at 5:30ish, go to my family, and I am a dad. Then I go to bed at around 9pm. I spend every first Friday of the month with my family. From Friday night to Saturday night I don’t work, and what helps is my wife and children who demand that I am here for them and fully present. Yet, it remains a constant struggle.”

The struggle clearly stems from Dawson’s sense of possibility for the positive social impact Peace First can have, not only for his children but for countless more children out there. The idea of resolving conflict is not new, yet it is his sovereignty over his work and his passion and creativity on delivering his message that is contagious and that has created huge momentum. And that gets him in trouble when it comes to balancing his life. As his mother once said to him: “If you were using cocaine, we would know exactly what to do. But what do you do if your son is trying to save the world?”

And with that, cowboy boots long forgotten, Eric Dawson heads off – clearly mulling over the next life-affirming developments for Peace First as he goes…

by anne lueneburger

Peter Bakker, President, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)

February 2012. As I try to eat the delicious ‘egg of the day’ in a heirloom corn meal (which, I’m informed, is injected with truffles) in one of the finest all-organic joints in NYC and I just can’t manage to keep my silver steady on the steeply sloped plate, Peter Bakker can’t help but burst out laughing. This spontaneous, refreshing expression of human interaction is one of many examples that Peter Bakker is the real deal: successful business leader, sought after speaker at the World Economic Forum and, as his humor at my clumsiness illustrates, also approachable and fun.

2012 has started off well for Peter Bakker as he has assumed his new role as President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The previous year had been one of major transitions for him, both professionally and personally. After 10 years as CEO with global logistics leader TNT (a company with over 150,000 employees and €660m in profit), he stepped down after splitting his company into two publicly listed entities. Complementing this, on the personal side there were some equally key milestones: Bakker turned 50, he lost 20 pounds in a detox on all raw foods, and he is in love: “I feel great,” he declares as he savors a roasted beet.

The Role

The WBCSD offers a unique platform for the leaders of 200 member companies (who between them cover all business sectors, all continents, and account for a combined revenue of over $7 trillion), to share best practices on sustainable development and to create innovative tools to bring about positive, lasting change.

The management of the organization is the responsibility of the Executive Committee, which currently includes senior leaders such as the CEO of Unilever, the Chairmen of both Toyota and Bank of America. In turn, a network of 60 national and regional business councils and partner organizations, many of which are located in developing nations, support the General Council in its mission.

Peter Bakker, as the President of the WBCSD, carries the responsibility for both the WBCSD’s mission as it brings together a global business community for a sustainable future, and the day-to-day management of WBCSD affairs in which he is assisted by a staff secretariat.

A pioneer in Corporate Responsibility, Bakker has received the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2009, the SAM Sustainability Leadership Award in 2010, and the UN’s WFP Ambassador Against Hunger in 2011.

Success: 15% IQ, 25% luck … and 60% putting in the hours

Born in Dieren, the eastern part of the Netherlands, Bakker is the oldest of three and his parents’ only son.  He grew up in a typical Dutch middle class settings. After a stint in the army, Peter Bakker studied and earned a Bachelors in Business Administration from the HTS Alkmaar, and a masters degree in Business Economics from the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

At the age of 30, in 1991, he joined Royal TPG Post – at the time a large bureaucratic operation: “I was one of these young guys that wanted change. When my two months trial period was over, I locked myself up in a room and thought for about two hours whether I wanted to leave or to stay.” Walking out of his hideaway, he eventually told his boss: “I’ve decided to stay.” This was somewhat unusual for this environment: not only was it normally the supervisor who decided whether a trial period should be taken forward into an extended contract, but it was also assumed that no one would ever even contemplate turning down a full time position with the Post. For Bakker, it was over these two hours that he decided that he “wanted to change everything in that organization, and that nothing was going to stay the same.”

Bakker is a believer in hard work: “I think success is the result of 15% IQ, 25% luck, and the rest putting in the hours.” His now legendary 18-hour days started to pay off soon. Only two years later he was appointed financial director of TPG Post’s parcels business unit.

In 1996 the CEO of TPG Post called the 35-year-old into his office to offer him the job of financial control director: “I told him I wasn’t interested. I wanted to be the head of e-shopping, not finance.” This was another defining moment for Bakker, “I took another time out, sat down and thought about whether I wanted to stay and accept the promotion or leave.” Again, the answer was affirmative: “After much thought, I believed that it was in this organization that I knew so well that I could have the greatest impact, that I could move the needle and make a difference. “  However, in addition to seeing a window of opportunity to lead with impact and to fundamentally change the organization, it was also in line with his character: “I don’t have it in me to give up, it’s not in my genes,” he laughs.

One of his first negotiations as CFO resulted in the acquisition of TNT, a surprising outcome as at first TNT had set out to take over TPG Post. His success catapulted him to becoming a member of the Board of Management in 1997.  However, this success didn’t occur without any moments of failure and learning: “One of my biggest mistakes was neglecting my intuition. I experienced this when it came to making important people choices. I had a key member of my team who was not performing. For quite a while I remained passive and it took me a year to finally sit down and let him know that we had to part ways. All along, however, my intuition had told me to have this conversation.” He adds: “Now I have these conversations much earlier – it allows to limit negative impact for everyone involved, and to explore good matches in house that allows talent to play to their strengths rather than force them into a role that depletes their energy and will never allow them to grow and be the best they can be.”

The merged companies needed a new leader for TNT NV, the Netherlands based holding company of TNT Express and Royal TNT Post (formerly TPG Post). Bakker was ready for the challenge and he was presented with the opportunity: “I knew I wanted to be CEO. I was only 40 at the time, and in the midst of all these scandals and firms breaking up like ENRON, I wanted to have the opportunity to find ways to make business good, not evil.”

Doing well, doing good

 ‘Positive Change’ was Peter Bakker’s theme, and it now also took a concrete shape in the form of corporate responsibility. Under the leadership of Peter Bakker TNT moved away from its sports sponsorship focus and launched a ground-breaking partnership with the UN World Food Program. Much like U2’s lead singer Bono, with whom Bakker has joined forces in his fight against hunger, Bakker pushed forward in using TNT’s core competence in the name of doing well and doing good: “If we claim we are the best logistics company in the world, why can’t we help bring our expertise to those who need it?” Support to the WFP did not only come in logistic contributions and cash from the organization. The power of CEO contagion extended to TNT’s employees, who raised $22 million for ‘school feeding’ through bake sales, sponsored events and other fundraising activities.

Bakker also established, together with his team, ambitious CO2 reduction targets as part of TNT’s ‘Planet Me’ initiative, which resulted in leadership of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index: “Engraining these values deeply into our organization not only made a difference to people less fortunate in this world. We also saw it positively affect bottom line, as people were more engaged at work, and we were becoming a talent magnet in the market.” Walking the talk, Bakker replaced his big company car with a Toyota Prius.

When it came to expanding TNT’s mail operation, Bakker successfully pursued an aggressive growth strategy, often using his gut instinct: “When it comes to making decisions, I make it a point to listen to different stakeholders and also to look at the evidence. But there comes a point when I have learned to trust my own intuition and to just go for what I think is right.” After much internal push back, it was under his leadership that TNT made China its new home market with the largest number of employees outside the Netherlands.

After Bakker’s many successes and 10 years as CEO, TNT NV was split into two separately listed companies in 2011: TNT Express NV and PostNL NV. Bakker led the demerger of TNT and, after its completion, stepped down and left the TNT group in June that same year.

Something old, something new

Moving on Bakker maintained his active involvement in the World Food Program. As East Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years, with more than 11 million people starving, Bakker travelled to Somalia as the ‘epicenter of the famine’ to assess the situation first hand. As an Ambassador to the WFP he was working the phones and calling up senior leaders of transportation and food companies and persuading them to help the U.N. resolve the crisis.

Bakker remains loyal to his conviction that it is companies that represent the core catalyst for positive change in the sustainability challenge. It was consequently no surprise that he accepted a move to Switzerland to take over the leadership of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development with its powerful member organizations.

This new challenge put fresh wind in his sails. As he was building his team he called the ‘young talent’ at the organization in for a personal meeting in his office, something not done by his predecessor who had led the WBSCD for close to 17 years. It is a small organization of 60 people and Bakker wants to have a deep reach and hear the voices of all involved: “I’ve started inviting everyone in the firm over to my home for dinner. About six people at a time. There’s nothing like getting to know people over a good and informal conversation.”

So far he’s enjoying the journey: “This new role is like a seamless jacket, it is a perfect fit and there are no irritating hems or uncomfortable pockets.” Traveling for the first time to New York in his new role, Bakker reflects that, “When I got into the cab at the airport, I had a sigh of relief. This is the first time I’ve come to New York with none of the road shows I had previously as CEO of TNT.”  He chuckles as he adds: “This time it’s only to save the world.”

Moving forward, Bakker intends to make ‘corporate sustainable responsibility’ mainstream, and push the idea that publicly traded companies adopt a more measured view of growth, including a comprehensive reporting system on their performance on the sustainability front, “Short term profits need to be seen in the light of long term sustainability and value needs to be offered to all stakeholders. We need to look very much at non-financial performance targets and carefully assess the cost of decisions to society as a whole. Over time we will see the emergence of a new competitive model. “Bakker has started conversations with top business schools such as Harvard, INSEAD and CEIBS in China to create a Masters in Sustainability, first of its kind.

Bakker’s definition of sustainability extends beyond the environmental aspects and includes the social component. His vision is that, as a result of his work and that of committed leading organizations around the world, by 2050 (when the world’s population is predicted to reach 9 billion), overall consumption will use no more resources than are available today.

Bakker is in it for the long haul – as his 10-year contract with the WBCSD testifies. He feels like he has found the sweet spot of doing what he does best and what he loves doing most: making a difference.

Success, and the hard and long hours that are behind it, can come at a price though, and Bakker’s marriage did not survive this journey. He continues to be very close to his three children who live in the Netherlands with their mother and, as we talk about regrets, he reflects that, “I am still working long hours. But now both my partner Merel and I try to travel together whenever we can, and we make sure that we make time for the relationship.”

And it is with that in mind that Peter Bakker proposed to Merel, and they plan to get married this summer in a Buddhist monastery nestled in the mountains of Geneva, their new home. So an enlightened next chapter awaits Peter Bakker and, most likely, a more informed and conscientious business community too.

As we step out of the restaurant, the bitter cold greets us and Bakker wraps himself into a coat and scarf.  We say our goodbyes, and he walks north in West Village, a man of remarkable achievements in his past and aspirations in his future blending into the crowd of New Yorkers hurrying home.

by renita kalhorn

“Recalculating…” That’s what the GPS system in your car diplomatically says when you’ve deviated from the set route. What it’s politely refraining from saying is: “Dude, you’re not following the plan.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have something similar when you get off track en route to your goals – when you’re deviating from your game plan for success? If you had a GPS inside your head, here are the “wrong turns” that would set it off:

> You think it’s “too hard.”

“Maybe I should give up.” That’s what you’re quick to say whenever there’s a setback or things don’t go according to plan: quitting is your default setting. And you rationalize by saying, “I didn’t really want it anyway.”

When you’re mentally tough, you know it’s going to be hard — but it doesn’t matter. Your default is set to persevere. Sure, every once in awhile, you may feel like giving up but that feels even worse so you find a way to bounce back. As Napoleon Hill said: “Persistence is to the character of man as carbon is to steel.”

>You always have an excuse.

No surprise, there, I’m sure. From the transparent (“I’m tired,” “I’m too old”) to the desperate (“My organs hurt,” a new one which I came up with the other day in kickboxing class) to the cleverly insidious (“It’s selfish to go for a run instead of cleaning up”), our minds are infinitely creative in coming up with reasons why we can’t. But in case you haven’t noticed, there is always something.

When you’re mentally tough, however, you’re so focused on your goal and clear on your priorities that potential excuses don’t even register on your radar. And when it truly is bitter cold outside or the room is noisy or the meeting time inconvenient, the mentally tough say: “Great! A chance to prove myself.”

> Your emotions run the show.

“I don’t feel like it.” “This is boring.” “I’m too upset to concentrate.” If you want to achieve a goal, whether you feel like doing what you have to do is irrelevant. Do you think Olympic athletes “feel like” jumping out of a warm bed at 5:30 a.m. every morning to train?

When you’re mentally tough, you feel the feelings and do it anyway. So you pick up the phone even though you dread a lukewarm response or outright rejection. You listen to criticism from your boss without getting defensive or lashing out. And, most importantly, you learn to shift your focus from the thoughts that perpetuate the negative emotion – “Why do I always screw up?” – to thoughts that feel better like, “I can do this,” or “I’m getting the hang of this.”

> You’re reactive, not proactive.

“Why can’t I get a break?” “Why does this always happen to me?” Out of control and up against the world – that’s how you feel when you let external circumstances and the opinions of others dictate your feelings.

When you’re mentally tough, you take responsibility for your thoughts and actions, and you make more decisions: how to spend your time, what to focus on, what’s important and what’s not.

>You’re fixated on the way things are.

It’s natural to get frustrated when results are slow in coming or you keep running into obstacles: “Maybe it’s not meant to be,” you think. Yes, it’s hard to look beyond the reality that’s in your face everyday but that’s exactly what you have to do.

As sports psychologist Jason Selk says, ask yourself: “What’s one thing I could do differently?” Develop a relentless solutions focus, and don’t take “I don’t know” as an answer. See your current situation as a springboard to what you want, and vividly imagine things the way you want them to be (see how John McEnroe did it here).

When you’re heading from one location to another and you make a wrong turn, you don’t throw up your hands and say, “Oh, forget it, I’m never going to get there,” and head back home to the couch. So why would you do it on your journey to success? Get better at recognizing when you’ve gone off track and simply “recalculate” how to get back on.


by jennifer bezoza

Over the last couple months, a few clients were struggling with a similar dilemma: wanting to be a good corporate citizen while also wanting to say no to peoples’ requests at times.   As we explored this tension between the seemingly different goals, inevitably, we explored the specific organizational politics, and thought through how to build relationships, promote oneself in a balanced way, and also not take on too much out of scope, particularly as demands and resources are tight.

William Ury, Co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, is most well known for his book, Getting to Yes, but he is also the author of the book, The Power of a Positive No; How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. In this book (published in 2007), Ury outlines a simple and easy to use formula, which changed the way I think about how to say no, and is an effective tool when you need to say no and genuinely want to be supportive of efforts and key relationships.

Formula for Delivering a Positive No:

Say YES – Articulate that you want to support the individual/team/organization in its goals

Say NO – Explain briefly that you are not able to meet the particular need/request as stated.

Say YES – Offer alternative(s) in terms of how you can and are willing to be of help/service to the goals.

I challenge you to try it out and see what you think! Chances are you will say “yes” to using it again.  Let me know how it goes!

by anne lueneburger

Ralf Schmerberg, Artist, Berlin

September 2006, Berlin: Bebelplatz 9. Around the largest round table in the world, 112 intellectuals, artists and human rights activists gather for a day to share their thoughts on 100 thought provoking questions. This ‘Table of Free Voices’ seated luminaries such as US actor Willem Dafoe, star of Mississippi Burning and The English Patient; Nicaraguan human rights advocate Bianca Jagger; German entrepreneur Roland Berger, founder of the successful strategy consulting firm that carries his name; Kenyan sports’ icon Tegla Loroupe, world record holder for 20, 25 and 30 kilometers; and India’s grassroots activist against child labor, Kailash Satyarthi, survivor of numerous attacks on his life for defending his cause.

Questions covered a wide range of topics and came from people like you and I from across the globe. Here’s a sample of the questions asked: What is today’s most important unreported story? Do I really think myself or am I just influenced by all the things I have learned and see? And If we produce enough food to feed everyone in the world, why don’t we? They were subsequently listed on the website and were captured in ‘Problema’, a dramatic visualization of the event with a mix of documentary and photo story line.

Behind this event was one man, Ralf Schmerberg, who brings his creative talent to social discourse. Schmerberg and I sat down in New York’s Highline Park to talk about his journey from butcher apprentice to Cannes Festival awards as an international artist, filmmaker and producer.

Professional context

The autodidact Schmerberg has been working since 1987 as a photographer, and got into film in the mid 90s when he founded Trigger Happy Productions, a multifaceted production company. Schmerberg has produced ad campaigns for clients such as American Express, Hewlett Packard, Lufthansa, LEVI’S, Nike and the city of Paris, as well as two anti-Aids campaigns for the United Nations Foundation. One of the most sought after directors in the German music business, he produced music videos for leading German rock bands ‘Die Fantastischen Vier’, ‘Die Toten Hosen’ and for Chaka Khan.

His work is part of the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, and he has received numerous accolades and awards around the globe, including the “The Polaroid Final Award” and the “Gold Medal for Humanity” for his documentary “Hommage a Noir” at the New York Film Festival. He has been nominated for the “Unesco Award”, and his commercial “Bottled courage” for Nike was nominated for Hollywood’s 2009 Emmy Awards. Member of the exclusive Directors Guild of America as well as the Art Directors Club Germany, he also won several Lions in Cannes and has received the prestigious Lead Award.

From the day I went away, I am going home

Schmerberg was raised in Germany as the middle child of a ‘typical’ post second war family, his father a salesman for automotive supplier Bosch, and mother a homemaker who attended to home and family. “I have always been very outgoing and independent,” Schmerberg smiles, “even when I was in elementary school I would ring the door bell of our neighbor in the morning and might say something like ‘Frau Krötz, I am going to school now’.”

Much to the chagrin of his conservative father, Schmerberg in his early teens began identifying with left wing politics and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. He stopped after middle school, deeply disliking the German school system that “forces everyone to follow a rigid curriculum, regardless of their particular talents and passions.” This resulted in further friction at home. Schmerberg was developing a concept of autonomy. His desire to be independent with his choices could be aligned with psychologist Jack Brehm’s ‘reactance theory’ which shows that whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us want them significantly more than before.

Conversations which he had about ‘the world’ with the butcher in his local village (of less than 10,000 people) just outside of Stuttgart, intrigued him as it was the first time that a ‘father figure’ had approached him as an equal, and engaged him in discussions around the meaning of life. As a result, and partly to spite his father, Schmerberg – at the age of 16 – started an apprenticeship as a butcher.

It is hard to imagine, as Ralf Schmerberg sits in front of me, with his tall and lean frame, and long slender fingers, that he would even possess the strength and, moreover, some of the mental ‘brutality’, that comes with preparing animals for consumption: “It took me a while to admit to myself how miserable I was in this environment. A cultural value that was deeply engrained in me was that ‘you don’t quit something you have started’ though. So for about a year-and-a-half I dragged myself to this place. And one morning, the sun was shining through the windows, I could see the bright blue summer sky from inside the butchery, I threw up my hands in the air, looked at my colleagues that were at their cutting stations and started running out the door shouting ‘ I am leaving, and you can all go to hell!’ I ran faster and faster, it felt like I was running for my life, my own life.” Much like Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous tune ‘From the day I went away, I am going home’, Schmerberg sensed that his true journey was about to begin…


It was in the search of a home that he left, at the age of 16, to join the highly controversial Baghwan Shree Rajneesh spiritual community, first in India and later in Oregon. The Ashram in Poona was, by all accounts, a different world from that which Schmerberg was used to: intense, emotionally charged, and highly experimental. Days started out with meditative practices and continued with therapy groups, some of them involving physical aggression and sexual encounters between participants.

Schmerberg describes his time with the movement as an “intense time of learning and search of self”. Much like the movement’s founder Baghwan, an educated and intelligent man, Schmerberg struggled to subscribe to external discipline, convention and system. It is no surprise that, despite the controversies that surrounded the movement, he was touched by some of the key messages of the community. Baghwan’s teachings emphasized the importance of awareness, love, courage and creativity, qualities he saw as being negated by society and its norms. He delivered his message with a rhetoric that Schmerberg found inspiring, as it was so different from that of his own father – this iteration of a father figure used humor to communicate and never ‘discipled’ his followers.

Five years after joining the community, Schmerberg recalls doing farm work on the Oregon Ranch: “I was pulling carrots next to another member, and we were talking about life. At one point she asked me whether I thought I would be able to fend for myself and survive in the ‘world out there’. I did not have an answer. This really troubled me.”

The next morning Schmerberg left the ranch: “I cried in the bus as the landscape flew by, carrying me further and further away from what I had come to know as my home.” As he shares this with me, I can see him welling up.

I am a photographer

Back in his native Stuttgart, now 22 years of age, and Ralf Schmerberg was bartending in a club, uncertain about his future. “One night a group of photographers with models and make-up artists came in. We connected, and I ended up spending time with some of them. After a few weeks I grabbed my sister’s camera, asked two girls to pose as models, and we did some photo shoots out in the countryside. It was as if I had been struck by lightening. I was hooked, absolutely fascinated by how fast I could see the results of my work, how playful it was. The next day, I proclaimed I was a photographer.”

Schmerberg takes a camera out of his bag as he speaks, and shoots a butterfly in the high grass right behind the bench we are sitting on. “If someone would ask me ‘where will you learn to become a photographer’ I would respond that I am not learning to be a photographer, that I am a photographer.”

From self-belief to reality

Schmerberg claims that all of his work to date has been experimental, and he has gradually built on the experience he accumulated over the years. Schmerberg is an autodidact – he has never taken a course in photography or film, never read books about photography, nor does he know much about the different functions of the high end camera he is using other than a few buttons. His talent comes from his ‘eye’ – in fact, as he shares this he laughs: ”I have two differently colored eyes that also perceive different angles of what is around me.” Schmerberg’s work has an acute sense for beauty and of creatively translating words and meaning into images.

Working long hours and experimenting with his camera, his work soon received recognition, and he was hired to shoot ads for well-known brands such as Kodak.

Two years after the landmark initial first photo shoot he received his first two awards from the Art Director’s Club of Germany.

Schmerberg’s early work was characterized by constructing the image: “It really was a kick for me to create my own world. I could tell the models to tilt their head a certain way, to bend their body at a specific angle, it was the first time I experienced the rush of power.” It was four years later, as Schmerberg reviewed his portfolio one evening, that he got a sense that he may have “abused his power of holding the camera”. Appalled, he decided to no longer photograph humans, but to focus on still life. “I was focusing exclusively on objects, be it lanterns or cars. One day I found myself on a random walk and wanted to take a photo of a plant standing on a trash bin. However, it felt like it was not quite right and I started moving the trash bin. The bin was too heavy, so I ended up taking a photo without moving it. And what was interesting: the result was just as good. It was not necessary to move or change anything. This was the moment when I decided I would take photos of whatever I found interesting, be it humans, animals or objects. The key was not to change or influence the visual, but to simply capture it.”

What evolved was Schmerberg’s signature style of bringing ‘real people’ into advertising, portraying life as it happened in front of his lens for fashion houses such as Joop. “I work to make things visible, touchable and aim to get to my audience’s head and heart. I think it is important to leave the human aspect in advertising and communication and not to artificially change or distort it.”

A vote of confidence

Schmerberg was becoming a sought after commercial photographer. In the mid nineties, barely 30, he was hired for a photo shoot for Mustang Jeans: “The company rep asked if, while on the road, I could take along a camera and film a few scenes. Even after I told him that I had never done this before and didn’t know if I could do it, he insisted and told me that he thought I could do it.”

This vote of confidence puzzles Ralf Schmerberg to this day: it was the unfamiliar situation of someone of authority believing in him and his ability to conquer the unknown. In his past, it seems, he often had to overcome the objection of others to believe in his convictions. He was familiar with their doubt – be it succeeding outside of his father’s social milieu, be it surviving in a world without the support of the Baghwan community, or be it creating a profession without any formal training in a society that was all about formal education and degrees. It had been that very doubt that further spurred his motivation to push forward.

In the psychology of motivational coaching, if a client is not moving forward towards an aspirational goal, despite a judicious mix of challenge and support on the part of the coach, one of the tactics left is that the coach slips into the role of the client: of not believing that progress is feasible. Often what happens is pushback on the part of the client. Much like passing the baton in sport: the need to belief in oneself is passed on to the client, the coach is off the ‘hook’ as a motivator, and the client frequently finds the motivation in him or herself.

A balancing act

Over the years, Schmerberg has mastered the art of aligning his need to make a living with his desire to be a catalyst for change. Given his status in the advertising world, producing a couple of ad campaigns is pretty lucrative. Rather than focusing on generating more income, however, Schmerberg devotes the remainder of the year to projects close to his mind and heart. Most of these he finances out of his own pocket, to keep his independence and the ability to craft the message that he wishes to communicate.

In 2003, he filmed and financed the 1.5 million Euro production ‘Poem’, a visualization of 19 poems by the likes of Goethe, Paul Celan and Heiner Mueller. In 2007 he filmed and financed the documentary ‘Trouble – Teatime In Heiligendamm’ about the resistance against the G-8 meeting in Germany. In 2011 he released ‘Problema’ which captures the highlights of the ‘Table of Free Voices’, where 58 nations gathered in their efforts to answer some of the most burning questions on social topics, the environment, peace, health and well-being. Again, he financed this million-Euro documentary out of his own pocket: “It was important to have total freedom when it came to putting this film together. I did not want to follow anybody’s agenda.”

Not surprisingly, critics have suggested that it is “not that difficult for a privileged producer who collects close to half a million Euros for a couple of advertising gigs to finance large scale projects out of pocket.” In fact, some have accused Schmerberg of being a narcissistic hypocrite who, on the one hand, works for organizations that through their very existence contribute to societal problems, and on the other hand uses that income to protest against social injustice. Their assumption is that his motive isn’t a noble one, but rather about developing his own status and his personal fame.

Then there are voices openly admiring Schmerberg as a man who follows his passion. In our work with clients who aspire to live an authentic life, we have often found them (understandably) struggling with the risk that comes with trailblazing one’s own path. The fear of compromising their standard of living, of stepping out of their comfort zone (and what is more: their innate fear of failure) often stands in the way. In addition to doing one’s own due diligence as to what is personally possible, it is key to look at others and see what we can learn and adopt from their life lessons. Schmerberg’s biography offers a few:

Awareness: Early on Schmerberg was focused on creating a life that felt authentic and real, in spite of resistance within his environment. He experimented, sought insights about who he was (and who he was not) and followed a number of leads, and he remained open to opportunities. Even in his career as a photographer he didn’t stop paying attention to how he was evolving and when course corrections were necessary.

Commitment: Once he had clarity as to his professional calling, Schmerberg was determined to make it reality. At the start of his career as a photographer, he decided to forgo monetary comfort to live his passion: “I waited tables and did whatever else came along to make money. I knew I wanted to be a photographer and was determined to live that dream.” As we all do, Schmerberg did have options: he could have apprenticed in a more ‘solid career’ in banking or insurance, for instance, but he chose not to.

Tolerance of uncertainty: Over the years, his films have been controversial and the possibility that his socially critical stance might upset his advertising clients is a real one. Schmerberg operates in a highly competitive industry and new talent rises daily. There is no ‘guarantee’ that he will find another gig, as his popularity might change. His ease of accepting the opaqueness of what may be next can, in part, be attributed to his notorious reluctance to plan far ahead. But there’s no doubt that part of this can also be attributed to his willingness to take the risks which enable him to live the life that he wants to.

Personal sacrifice: Producing his films not only consumes his time and financial resources but Schmerberg is also ready to lower his standard of living to live his convictions. When he decided to produce ‘Problema’, he moved to a smaller place, refrained from expensive travel, and decided not to buy anything new. In fact, as he is on tour for promoting ‘Problema’ when we meet up for our interview, I noticed as we stroll through New York’s Meatpacking district that his shirt is torn and that he is wearing no socks – which turns out not to be a fashion statement, but the result that for about two years he did not buy any new clothes.

That is not to say that Schmerberg is reckless. He maintains a reasonable level of personal comfort. What is more, he is the devoted and responsible father of four, planning for the future of his offspring: “I could be run over by a bus tomorrow, so while I do not think they need privileges, I am concerned with and plan for their financial security.”

It’s a process: Schmerberg did not start out as the social change agent that he has become. Early in his career much of Schmerberg’s focus had been on self-realization through his work as a photographer. His passion for and dedication to his profession combined with his talent has over the years resulted in an increasing reputation and success in his industry. Over the years he also evolved as a photographer, and has added new skills and competencies as an artist and filmmaker to his repertoire.

Despite his relatively young age (46), Schmerberg’s professional focus seems to have moved on to creating something ‘larger than the self’ with his increasingly big scale and global projects. Not one to prioritize profits over conviction, however, he offers his work as free downloads to maximize impact: “I’ve spent the last two years in the edit room making it. All together it took me eight crazy and exciting years. The whole project was based on giving, learning and questioning. We decided to release the film for free to the world because we think it’s too precious to pay for.”

The importance of closing doors

Part of his success is also based on Schmerberg’s uncanny ability to forgo opportunities and to leave behind options quickly once he realizes that they are not (or are no longer) part of his authentic path. Be it quitting school, leaving Baghwan, committing to the career as a photographer, or deciding what kinds of clients to categorically reject, he is not afraid to live up to what he believes is his path: “I refuse to take on any commercials that have to do with pharmaceuticals, insurance or banks. I have come to realize that advertising is more influential than religion.”

What we know from research when it comes to living a meaningful and fulfilling existence, a life that is characterized by playing to one’s strengths, it is no more about opening the right doors than it is about closing the wrong ones. And doing so consistently, ruthlessly, and without regret is a core characteristic of success stories.

‘Problema’, opportunities?

Schmerberg’s documentary Problema focuses on problems in the world and how we can find answers to them. An important step to creating awareness on social challenges and starting to develop solutions, no doubt.

However, an equally crucial element in finding solutions and creating a world that reduces suffering and offers well-being for life on earth would be to look at what is going ‘well’, and what we can learn from this to create a better world. This view is similar to the science of psychology, where in 1998 the newly elected president of the American Psychology Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, acknowledged that the discipline had been served well by focusing on what was wrong and how to fix problems, but charged that it would not be complete without looking at the other side of the coin – that it was now time to learn from people who were thriving within their lives. This started the increasingly powerful science movement of positive psychology that has since produced significant insights on what practical interventions we can use in every day life and work to live a more fulfilled, happy and successful life.

And, looking at things from that perspective, Ralf Schmerberg would certainly have plenty to offer… a project for the future?

by anne lueneburger


Pete Eckert, Conceptual Artist, Sacramento, California

Good coaches are good listeners. Exceptional coaches master the art of listening which takes place at a deeper level. They receive information in what they hear with their ears, as well as through their other senses.

My recent conversation with Pete Eckert took place over the phone. As I asked him questions, I had the sense that he was listening to my every word and sensing its intonation with an almost palpable attention. It literally felt as if he was in the room with me. Like a master listener, he was fully engaged (and made me feel fully engaged!), in the moment.

His responses were candid, without obvious filtering even though, as he shares, “some of this is not so easy to talk about.” Pete Eckert is a photographer. He is also blind. An inspiring individual and trailblazer, his work and his life story build powerful bridges between the world of the blind and the sighted.

What he does and how it works

Equipped with three cameras: a digital point-and-shoot Canon; an old Mamia Flex Twin lens reflex, and a large 4×5 Toyo view camera with a Rodenstock lens, Eckert creates striking black and white images that reflect movement and light, adding hints of color. His art is shot mostly at nighttime.

So, how does he go about creating art without seeing? Eckert explains: ”In essence, while most ‘seeing’ photographers go out in the world searching for shots, I am looking from the inside out. I see myself more as a conceptual artist than a photographer. During a shoot I think about it a lot, I shoot very slowly. If I am photographing a woman’s face, for example, I may think of a flower, the transition of skin tone. It must be fairly specific, as when it is too broad, I cannot conceive what I am doing.”

Aside from his extraordinary imagination, Eckert sees the world through sound and touch. “Just take when I am approaching an object such as a parking meter. I sort of ‘see’ sound, perceive the waves of energy, the sounds of objects that are moving around it that are deflected from it.”

While blindness does not necessarily cause other senses (such as smell or hearing) to become more developed, the loss of eyesight facilitates using one’s other senses more effectively. “I would go so far as to say that vision actually masks the other senses. Not having the ability to see allows me to develop an entirely different ‘view’ of the world. I get insight and expand my mind as to what is possible.” Eckert, who was completely blind by the age of 42, also taps into his memory when it comes to investigating his creations.

Once the shoot is done Eckert develops the film and runs contact prints. Only then does he involve sighted people. “They give me feedback before I create large dramatic final prints. I want them involved, to get them thinking.”

Over the past twelve years of working in photography, this 54-year-old artist’s work has received a lot of attention by the sighted world. His art has been exhibited in numerous prestigious art galleries and shows around the country and abroad. In 2011, his art was exhibited at the Photo LA 2011, the 20th Annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Exposition by the Blind Photographers Guild in Santa Monica (California). In 2010, Eckert was invited to exhibit In ‘Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists’ by the Falcon Gallery in Moscow (Russia), the ‘Fundacion Once III Bienal De Arte Contemporaneo’ in Madrid (Spain) and at the Centro de la Imagen exhibit ‘La Mirada Invisible: Colectiva Internacional De Fotógrafos Ciegos’ in Mexico City (Mexico) as well as nationally at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC. In 2009, Apple invited the artist for a presentation at their Cupertino headquarters in California. Eckert has won 1st place at the Artist Wanted “Exposure” competition in New York, and came in 3rd place in “Global Art Look” at the International Juried Show, Matrix Arts, California. The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery honored him with the ‘Award of Outstanding Artist’, and Eckert came in 1st on the Black & White 15th Annual Photography Competition in 2002.

Growing up, growing blind

Pete Eckert grew up on the East coast in rural Connecticut. His mother, a journalist, was head of a household of five children: three boys and two girls. His father, a civil engineer, was a creative spirit and always had projects going. Much like his father, Pete Eckert enjoyed to “build things and play mechanic. I was fairly solitary, wandering the woods and playing with small motorcycles.” Bright, but battling dyslexia, “the conventional school regimen was difficult.”

Based on his visual talent, he trained in sculpture and industrial design. While working as a carpenter, his dream was to study architecture at Yale. It was during this time that he started noticing that he was losing his sight. Following night blindness and tunnel vision, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that leads to incurable blindness. At 28 he was considered legally blind: a person with this condition would need to stand 20 feet from an object to see it with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet. “I was in shock, wondering how I could take care of myself and how I was to make a living.”


Engaged at the time, his (now wife) Amy stood by him during the two years that it took Eckert to bounce back and begin to think about his future again. Eckert decided that getting his MBA “was a very broad solution for an unknown problem. It was not yet clear to me what it would mean to be blind. I was the only one in my class in blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket. It was night school, and most of my classmates were in suits and ties. I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was hard to compete with me though because I was so determined to succeed. My intensity was fuelled by fear and desperation.”

Upon graduation from business school (with honors), Eckert struggled to find employment. “It was odd, as I was dressed up to get jobs, yet would have to pedal on my bike to these interviews as I no longer felt comfortable riding my Moto Guzzi.” There was abundant opportunity and interest in this bright and driven candidate among the traditional MBA hiring recruiters, yet as potential employers became aware of his visual impairment, they tended to back off.

Eckert decided to try a more linear approach to employment that would “fit his profile” – at least on paper. He secured a role as business consultant for rehabilitation with California’s Department Of Services For The Blind. Ironically, it was not long before he realized that this institution was “not a good place for blind person”. Rather than advocating the blind population, much of the bureaucracy seemed to support the 85% unemployment rate of blind people.

Eckert left the Department of Rehab: “I decided to get back into art work, to do something that I had enjoyed all my life. I started out using my machining and woodworking skills to produce 1750s type clocks. From that, other, larger wood works emerged. My production rate was slow, though, about four times lower than that of a seeing person.”

Blindness had also brought about a heightened sense of vulnerability around his physical safety. Shortly after receiving his MBA degree, Eckert’s training in martial arts earned him a black belt in tae kwon do. He now also decided to get a guide dog, a black German Shepherd named Uzu.

One day, cleaning out drawers, he came across a 1950’s Kodak, a camera that had belonged to his mother-in-law. After learning more about the functionality, Eckert was hooked. He picked up a computer and a talking scanner and began devouring books about photography. A local photo store loaned him a Mamiya Flex to get started: “I loved it. I used it so much that the camera started to show wear.”

Tipping point

Eckert found that his photos resonated with the world. Searching to find his authentic style, it was the comment of a friend of Eckerts, a guy from England, that pushed his work to a whole other level:”Pete, you could be just another shabby fashion photographer. Why do you follow the view of the sighted? Why not show the view of the blind?”

Eckert now went on regular nightly excursions with his cameras, in the company of his loyal companion, Uzu, to take the shots that characterize his work today. “My art does not represent all of the blind. It only represents my own view of the world. I strive to translate the non-visual graphically into a visual, sort of as a metaphor of blindness. It is a means to express color, to contain color. I try to portray what I perceive is in front of me.”

Eckert’s style, as for any artist, is ever evolving. He works in batches of photos, and his objects are driven by opportunity: ”I get inspired by situations I find myself in, and I often work in a stream of photos, typically in batches of about 100 photos that I can easily memorize.”

Blinded by assumptions

Eckert’s work is exceptional, not limited but expanded as a result of his life story. Not surprisingly, a number of people did not believe he was blind. “I was in galleries talking about my work. People challenged me that I was not blind.” Eckert still seems taken aback as he recalls this experience. “Their assumption was that a blind man’s photography could never be this good.”

On a very basic level, the reactions of the gallery owners are comprehensible, although they reveal a blindness even more profound. Eckert does not lead what, on the outside, you may expect to be a blind man’s life. You may see him in the fall, on top of the roof of his house, brushing off leaves. As he walks the streets, he wears regular sunglasses and has retrained his highly trained guide dog to behave more like a regular pet to the outside world: “Not standing out makes it easier for me to deal with the world. I feel more accepted.”

Lessons from Eckert

If I translate Eckert’s experience to my own work with leaders, then not questioning entrenched beliefs about one’s own story, or that of others, is one of the major challenges that the seemingly seeing person is blinded and subsequently limited by. When I ask Eckert what any of us can do to develop greater understanding about a world outside of their own, his response is passionate: “Stop assuming things. I am personally very careful about making assumptions, about anybody.” Taking this a step further and applying it to the day-to-day lives of professionals, a first step towards building bridges and strong relationships with others is to lead with questions. Strive to foster an open and inquisitive dialog, unburdened by preconceived notions.

Eckert’s yearning to remain a valued and appreciated part of the world of the seeing reminds me of something Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest, said in the documentary ‘Blindsight’: “When I was 15 I went blind, completely blind. I hated blindness. I wasn’t afraid to go blind and see darkness. That is a myth. I was afraid to be swept to the sidelines and be forgotten. To be obsolete.”

Biases towards blindness can take extreme forms. Tibetans believe that blindness is the divine punishment of bad behavior over the course of a previous life. It may manifest itself in a perceived inferiority when it comes to overall productivity and contribution at work (even if the obstacles of not seeing are not relevant in a given job context). It may show up in the form of aggression perpetuated on blind people from the sighted, as Eckert has seen a number of times:”One night I was attacked by three men. They almost ran me over, and based on their shouting it was obvious that there was purpose.”

Overcoming biases of the seeing world takes guts. To apply this more broadly, biases against who we are or what we stand for present tough and substantive challenges. Most of us experience this in some form at different times in our lives, be it in school, at work or at home. However, working on overcoming these challenges builds courage and fosters self-confidence and growth. And frequently it lets ordinary people produce extraordinary results.

Eckert consistently pushes himself and broadens his personal comfort zone to live his passion more fully “I believe it is better to risk all and die than to sit in the chair for the rest of my life.” He pauses, reflecting on the stakes, which in his case can translate into live and death moments, and adds: “As I get older, it is a bit scarier. Young men don’t fear dying as much.”

Choosing to see what matters

Eckert shared this example about how he can and does choose to experience life through his perceptions:

“There is this funky dive restaurant close to where we live. It is run down, next to a railroad crossing and not in a very good part of town. They serve great Japanese food and Amy and I like to go there. In my imagination, it has nice wooden paneling – from the 1850s – and there is an old train rumbling by! I have the liberty to choose how I perceive the world. It is my world full of spirits and it is up to me to see the good or to see the bad. It is a question of choice.”

And this choice is available to all of us, much of the time. This is not a question of positive thinking, it is not about taking something that is objectively difficult and challenging, such as a serious illness, and seeking what is good about it. It is instead about having a tool kit of tactics that enable us to embrace life and life’s challenges, and to broaden our own horizons through being anchored to who we are and what makes us unique. Through doing this we can build resilience, overcome obstacles and live a more fulfilled life. And Peter Eckert is an inspirational case-in-point.