It Is All About The People

I recently returned from a two-week vacation abroad. The trip itself was marvelous; my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit several countries and receive world class service that caused us to emanate gratitude throughout each day. Even now, I am astonished when I reflect on the experience. Which got me to thinking, was it all by chance or something far more intentional, calculated, predictable even?

At one time the buzzword was satisfaction. Recently, the concept of customer experience is more in vogue. As a student of social psychology and human behavior, I have found myself drawn to this research throughout my professional career. Other business leaders including marketing professionals, sales persons, and executives have long been interested in the intersection between psychology and commerce as well. One of the reasons why so many are interested in this topic is there is a lot of money to be made by understanding how people operate. While the enrichment of community is enough for me, the fact is that strong persons and strong communities mean strong financial gains and this often catches the attention of even the most avaricious of scrooges.

Before I go any further, I want to address something important. Some rightfully have a concern about the ethics of leveraging the power of persuasion to close a sale or turn a profit. I share many of these concerns. However, I am convinced that the innate value in customer experience is often more valuable than the primary goods and services originally exchanged.

I will give you an example. Every year my wife and I go to Ruth’s Chris for our anniversary. The food at Ruth’s Chris is excellent quality; there are large portions, they have top grade beef, and the chefs prepare the food with great skill. I have never had a meal there that I did not enjoy, but that is not why my wife and I return to Ruth’s Chris year after year. The service is impressive as well; the servers are personable, yet respectful and every employee is attentive to the customer, but we do not return to Ruth’s Chis year after year for the service either. We return year after year because we know that we will reconnect, laugh together, and have a great time. We go because the experience strengthens our marriage and this is worth more than anything on the menu. Does Ruth’s Chis profit from this? Absolutely. Do they attempt to sell us a more expensive bottle of wine because we are celebrating? You bet, but the experience is invaluable.

I began this post with a rhetorical question about whether or not our experience as we traveled to and throughout Europe was intentional. Of course it was! The trip began with a flight out of San Francisco aboard a Virgin Atlantic aircraft. Although we traveled economy class, we were immediately impressed with the company. The plane was clean, comfortable, and well designed, entertainment choices were top notch, and the service was impeccable. Even when one of our bags didn’t make it through our transfer in London, I never stopped being impressed with this company and here’s why: I was treated relationally with dignity and respect. The customer service representative demonstrated legitimate empathy and worked hard to correct something outside of her control. I have flown with many other companies and I can tell you that I would happily pay a premium for the Virgin Atlantic experience again. This is not an accident. The company has invested greatly in leadership development and creating key performance indicators focused on their customers.

Our flight with Virgin Atlantic was great, but the river cruise we took with AmaWaterways was outstanding. To be fair, these companies had two very different roles in our vacation. Nonetheless, both are the embodiment of service excellence. As a premier luxury cruise line, AmaWaterways goes out of their way to create unforgettable experiences. In this arena, luxury is so ingrained that it has become rudimentary. If you are familiar with the kano-model, luxury and customer service are “basic expectations” aboard AmaWaterways ships. For this reason, they invest heavily in “satisfiers” and “delighters.”

I’ll give you just one example: my wife has many dietary restrictions, which greatly limit our dining options when we away from home. Many companies have graciously set aside options for customers like my wife, but the crew aboard AmaWaterways ships go well beyond simply meeting my wife’s dietary needs. Both times we have cruised with AmaWaterways, the chef and maitre d’ have personally come to our table to ensure that my wife had appropriate options at each meal and that her dining experience was just as exceptional as the other guest’s.

One of the coolest things about customer experience is that the principles can be applied to every industry, not just the obvious ones like hospitality. I currently work in multiple sectors including healthcare, residential property management, and education. Customer experience is important in all of these because the common thread in all of them is people.

A patient and their family expect competent, best-practice medicine when they are in the hospital. The delighter is when the nurse sits at the bedside to comfort and pray with the patient. Apartment residents expect clean, safe units and respectful service. The delighter is when the management company has placed a team within the community whose specific role is to build relationships and live life with others. Students expect to learn about a specific subject and gain the knowledge to pass exams. The delighter is when their professor comes alongside and seeks to understand their unique perspective so that the knowledge can become wisdom. Simply put, regardless of what you do for a job, if you make people your vocation you will be successful. Our entire economy is built upon human relationships, so it is no wonder that when we build humans our economy grows.

I will close with a quote from our ship’s captain because he said it best on the last day of our cruise: “All this luxury really means nothing; after a while you get used to it. The crew is what you will remember.”

Excellence

My wife and I have long used the word excellence as the standard, or at least the goal, of our relationship, parental efforts, and work. Doing so has not come without complications however. The word itself is complex, nuanced, and carries abundant social connotation. Using the word excellence to describe one’s life is often met with a bit of cynical judgment. To be fair, it is a rather lofty statement. In modern English excellence is synonymous with superiority, brilliance, supremacy, and other seemingly pretentious notions. In this way, excellence is mixed up with self-glorification and condescension toward others. Nonetheless, we have stuck with the word and, more importantly, the pursuit.

I have wanted to breakdown and articulate what we mean when we say we are pursuing excellence for some time. When the senior leaders of the organization I recently partnered with, Apartment Life, announced that excellence is the theme for 2019, I decided this is an excellent time to take a shot.

I think the miscommunication about excellence comes in through semantics and how language is used. The word itself originates from the Latin roots ex, meaning out beyond, and celsus, which means high and lofty. In other words, the root basically means, “out front and proud of it!” The problem is that we have borrowed much of our meaning from ancient Greek philosophy.

For the Greeks, excellence was associated with virtue. It is thus something we practice or strive for, rather than something we are. It makes much more sense to state that it is something we are becoming. The Greeks used the word Arete, which is a concept to describe the fulfillment of purpose. The reason we cannot technically be excellent is because it has no precise measurement. For example, we call a person brave when she acts with bravery, even though that act of courage is not scalable to all of humankind. The point is that excellence is indeed obtainable and many are able to put it into practice. This is important because it clarifies that excellence is not perfection, which is unachievable.

A great example I have heard is in regard to athletics. We call a person who regularly trains to run races a runner. This person who commits him or herself to the sport practices and strives everyday so that he or she can compete. On the day the race comes, say our runner falls ill and performs poorly. She or he is no less a runner than if she had taken gold. We would not bar this person from ever racing again and, more importantly, we wouldn’t suggest that he or she is not excellent at the sport based on one race. So it is with applying excellence to our everyday lives. It is a practice that we pursue and a description of our best.

Part of why I prefer the Greek meaning to the Latin root is that I don’t believe that my win necessarily means another’s loss. When we speak of excellence, we are not simply referring to our position relative to others. While it is true that the aptitude and proficiency of others gives us reference and scale, excellence is about our own independent actions. With that said, others can play an important role in our excellence. Others become our coaches, champions, and accountability. And sometimes, they can even be our competitors.

While competitors are not necessary for us to have excellence, it can be motivating to have them on our tail. To hear their steps and breath propels us forward. I personally want others right up at the front with me because they become a reminder that I’m on the right track. They also provide community and fellowship. As they give their best, they hold me accountable to giving my best. Excellence is thus about integrity as well.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one final thought regarding excellence and my spirituality. For as much as the Christian tradition uses the word excellence, it is surprising to me that the Greek word Arete is pretty rare in scripture. It shows up a few times in 1 and 2 Peter and then once in Philippians. The beautiful thing about the Philippians reference is that is lands right in the middle of chapter 4 during the exhortation which ends with “…Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Excellence is not arrogance; it is the practice of living out our calling. Excellence takes focus and effort, but it also takes grace and humility. It need not be doggedly pursued to utter exhaustion. Rather, it is one bold step at a time down a path of growth. As you walk this path, may you be blessed and may you become a stronger, braver you.

 

Getting Ahold of Your Fears

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If you follow my posts on social media, you probably saw at least one or two pictures of my recent encounters with some scorpions. If you’re a long time resident or native of the desert, you might be rolling your eyes at this quirky hillbilly who keeps behaving like a tourist. Maybe you’re wondering why I have this new silly fascination in the first place.

First off, poke fun all you like. I don’t cut slack to all the flatlanders who check every tree for bears and who are enamored with snow either, so I’m good with being the foreigner who sometimes mistakenly calls a single cactus a cacti and takes pictures of common pests.

Second, there is a specific reason for my scorpion fascination and I think it makes a great blog topic. When I first told others I was moving to the valley, many of them brought up one of two things: heat or scorpions. For whatever reason, my announcement incited their almost automatic warning about these two things. I heard these cautions so much that I actually began to feel a bit of angst and I was even inclined to read about desert survival. Of course, heat and scorpions exist everywhere I have lived, but I still developed some trepidation.

There are a few primary ways we can approach fear or things unknown. We can freeze and let them have their way with us, we can run away and hide, or we can confront them head-on with boldness. As a person who lived with debilitating anxiety for many years, I am committed to the latter. In short, I have gone on my little scorpion hunting expeditions specifically because they made me uneasy. I purposely exposed myself to these creatures, not just to desensitize myself, but also so that I could learn about them.

I do this sort of thing frequently, actually. For example, scuba diving when I felt queasy around open water, skydiving when I was uncomfortable with heights, spelunking to move past a fear of enclosed spaces, and actually doing that GORUCK even though I might have failed in front of men whom I respected. You’ll notice this last one isn’t a specific phobia, but actually a fear of vulnerability, which is probably my biggest fear of all.

Believe it or not, social interaction used to be very troubling to me. Not only was I absolutely terrified of public speaking, even a simple one on one conversation would cause my heart to pound and my stomach to turn. At the most difficult point of my teens, my doctor prescribed several medications to help quiet my overwhelmed mind. As an adult, I still confront this old beast, but I have since become familiar with him and I am no longer afraid. Just to be sure, I choose a path surrounded by others full of public speaking to help bolster my courage.

Real talk, those are the easy ones…

Other major points in my life when I have intentionally faced off with myself include reading parts of the Qur’an and going to a mosque when I realized I feared Muslims and attending an all-black church when some friends brought some blindspots to my attention.

My point is that when we shine light into darkness, it loses its power over us. If you are angered by a republican, might I suggest taking him to lunch. If you are disgusted by your gay neighbor, maybe its time for a pride parade. If you’re a vegan, ask a hunter about his hunting trip. Go ahead and attend a fiesta, or a Hanukkah celebration, or spend some time with children, or older adults. Whatever your growing edge is, go there and confront the darkness!

(Social) Media Matters

Several months ago I took to Twitter and pitched a softball to the marketing, Commerce, and tourism departments of several communities. I simply asked, “what are the top 5 reasons for a young, ambitious family to move to ___.” Only one community played along. That little tweet ultimately helped us decide that Gilbert is a good fit for us.

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For the last several years I have been working in Kingsport, TN and during my time here I have gotten to know many of the people who work for the city and our chamber. One of my favorite things about this community is how much the people here love their city. This is what prompted me to send that first tweet. I wanted to live somewhere like Kingsport.

I started following the social media of Gilbert back in May. I’ve seen their creativity, compassion, and sincere effort to serve their community members. It may seem crazy to choose a city based on something as silly as a tweet, but really it is based on the things we have seen since…

So, here are the top 5 reasons why we picked you, Gilbert:

1. It is important to us that our city is engaged and proactive.

2. It is important to us that our city remains relevant, willing to adapt, and enjoyable.

3. It is important to us that our tax dollars go toward a strong infrastructure as well as improving lives.

4. It is important to us that our city will partner with us in business and nurture the soil so that we can grow together.

5. It is important to us that our city is a place where our children can thrive.

We think you have these things to offer us and we are excited about the future. Let’s do great things together!

Peace In The Flow

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Last week my children left for Arizona after saying farewell to all of their friends. Many of these goodbyes were full of tears and the bittersweet reminder that love can sometimes sting a little. I stood back and marveled how each of them navigated these age old, but new to them waters. On the last day they played outdoors going down the slide on the fort we built together, crossing the stream to their Terabithia, and hanging from the climbing tree’s limbs one last time. This house is the first that they remember. Its where first BFFs were made, first teeth were lost, and first crushes developed. It’s where the little hash marks scar the corner indicating children’s growth and tiny hand prints can be found in the cement. It truly made a wonderful home and it was obvious to me that it hurt to say goodbye. As their father, part of me wanted to take all their pain away and somehow make it so they’d never have to say goodbye again, but I knew better and let them experience the changing of the season for themselves.

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We have been at the “in between” stage for a while now. It started with us telling the kids we were thinking about moving. After that, we started downsizing and packing. Next came moving things into storage. Finally, we were allowed to let the secret out once the house was on the market. The days since have been a whirlwind of emotion and the perpetual stress of the “hurry up and wait.” For 45 days these children were told to not touch the stainless steel, drip water on the polished floors, or leave any sign of us living within the house. When a show request came in we could hide the beds, wipe down counters, sweep, mop, fill the air with febreze, and load the animals into my truck in less than 30 minutes flat. We had the drill down so fast that even Seal Team 6 would be impressed.

All of this transition has been excellent for reflection and pondering questions of ultimate concern. While I can’t say that I’ve kept my cool every second, I can most assuredly testify that it is well with my soul. The very essence of my theology is finding peace amongst the flow. My sermons, writings, and daily conversations are bursting at the seams with the motif of change and process. Rather than a longwinded exploration, I will offer just a few of beautiful reminders my children have given me in the last few weeks.

  1. As Richard Carson says, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” When bigger stuff is going on, we can better see how small the small stuff really is. It’s been cool to watch my children let the little things slide off.
  2. Ask for help and be willing to lend a hand. I am much better at the latter, but this project has simply been too big. My kids have been remarkable at expressing their needs and chipping in.
  3. Share boldly. My children have been so incredibly open and honest during this process. I’m not going to suggest that hearing a teary eyed “Daddy, I don’t want to move” is easy. But, can you imagine how awesome it would be if you weren’t trying to guess what others are thinking and feeling?
  4. Empathy is the oil in a well-oiled team. After we ask about another’s experience, we are able to connect and grow even closer. Because my children have been so open asking for help and stating how they feel, I can identify potential hot spots and better assess how to come alongside them.
  5. Remember that everything has a season and even death can be beautiful. On the day I returned from the airport after dropping off my children, I noticed the first turned leaf on the big oak in the front yard. Every year I watch these leaves transform in glorious splendor and marvel as they die and slowly drift to the Earth. They signal that all of creation will soon join them in sleep and stillness until their resurrection come spring.
  6. We are not our things. Our things are not a part of us. The more we learn this important lesson, the more we will find peace in the now. How does one decide which of his children’s pieces of art to save? Capture experiences and let things go.
  7. Plans and expectations are the thief of joy. We priced our house competitively in a hot market. There is no good reason that it didn’t sell in the six weeks it was listed. But, each time there was a showing and no offer wed simply say, “the family whose prayer is still yet to be answered is out there somewhere.” I see it nothing short of providential that some friends were looking to rent a house at the time we were ready to rent ours.

Last one, but this one I learned more from my friends: Dig your well deep. Invest in relationships, your spirituality, and your community. Even if you are only staying for a short time, when the time comes and you grow thirsty, you will be glad that you did.

Work Hard, Rest Hard

I have worked in healthcare long enough now to see my fair share of burnout and compassion fatigue. It is difficult to watch talented, compassionate caregivers lose their edge, wither back, and harden their shells. Especially since it’s preventable. A few days ago I facetiously posted on my Facebook wall about how doctors had discovered the proverbial fountain of youth in basic diet and exercise, but that the general public rejected it because it didn’t come in a pill. I think it would have been funnier if it wasn’t so true. It is remarkable that even minor changes in these things really are the most effective way to not only prolong life, but to make it better as well.

The same is true with our emotional and spiritual health. Even the smallest adjustments can exponentially improve our wellbeing. Multiple studies have revealed that mindfulness and meditation can help reduce anxiety, tension, and depression, control metabolism, and lower blood pressure. Research also demonstrates that we can improve our attention, memory, conscious perception, awareness, and overall functioning. Virtually all the literature supports the position that peak performers are able to achieve wildly ambitious feats largely because, in addition to working hard, they rest hard. In other words, if your team isn’t a top performer, it might not be because they don’t work hard enough. It very well might be that they haven’t developed or been allowed to practice the skill of respite and self-care.

The crazy thing is that this is not a secret! There are books upon books about this stuff. And it’s not because folks don’t have a methodology either. There is a multibillion dollar industry around how to take good care of yourself. Just try and count the number of blogs, books, DVDs, articles, and audiobooks on the topic. At our hospital the leadership team has offered an entire room specifically for the practice of self-care. They know the cost, both financial and human cost, of burned out Team Members. So, why is it still happening? If it’s not an education or resource problem, what is it?

I think it’s a cultural problem. I think that our poor self-care is merely a symptom. The disease, if you will, is embedded in our ethos. Westerners are largely independent. We take great pride in hard work, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and blazing the trail. These values have become so important to us that we have social pressure to always be on, giving our all. We simply don’t celebrate rest. We barely celebrate innovation or creativity that make things easier. I’m convinced that if the pulley was invented in the United States today the poor inventor would be run out of town for trying to cut corners. We have very little empathy for struggling persons and we give badges of honor to individuals who martyr themselves and their families under the banner of hard work.

I know because I’ve been there. When I was in grad school the second time, it was not uncommon for my schedule to be full from my 4:30 wake up to my 10:00 bed time. Each week I ran nearly 25 miles, worked more than 40 hours, was at my internship for 10, attended several classes, completed my coursework, stayed engaged with my faith community, and remained a devoted husband and father. It was rigorous to say the least and I am proud of how hard I worked in each of the arenas to which I had committed. Most of the time people would affirm my efforts and applaud all that I was able to dependably accomplish, but every once in a while they would ask how in the world I had that kind of energy. I was always happy to share that it wasn’t magic and it certainly wasn’t that I am any more special than anyone else. I was excited to let them know that it was intentional self-care and boundary setting.

What my peers often overlooked was that my early wake up time was to exercise in a supportive, encouraging community. They might have missed that I kept a regular coffee appointment with a good friend who would attend to my challenges and pray with me before I went to work. They probably didn’t know that I was listening to inspiring, informative audiobooks during my 30 minute commute or taking that time to quiet my mind and pray. Surely they missed my daily commitment to 20 minutes of meditation and scripture reading. I religiously practiced self-care as if my life depended on it because, quite frankly, it did. Everything in my life that was not moving me toward my goals or was preventing them from being realized, was reduced or removed; I didn’t watch TV, I ate well, I took out toxic things, and I invested in relationships that were empowering.

When I tell people about the importance of self-care they kind of chuckle. Some will take it to heart and others will put it into practice in their own lives, but far too many roll their eyes and get back to the grind as quickly as possible. I hope they make it, but I know some of them will not. I don’t think we will have an award for “most well rested” any time soon. For now, the reward will have to remain uncelebrated mental health and longevity. However, I do hope that we can feed into a culture that honors others who honor themselves and make space for self-care. Perhaps we will slowly see a shift where hard work is in balance with hard rest

I Guess This is Good-Bye

FF8C1CF2-11EB-4904-97B5-1B03FA83808E.jpegWhen I was nearing the end of one of my chaplain residencies my supervisor asked me how I was planning to say goodbye to my colleagues. “I don’t know,” I responded, “I kind of thought that residents just sort of disappear into the sunset without telling everyone that they’re leaving.” My response was met with some funny looks from my peers and in true CPE fashion, I was encouraged to explore if I might be avoiding the discomfort of a goodbye.

In a hospital setting there are a lot of people coming and going. The reality is that most of our contact with others is temporary. Students and contractors come for a season, ambitious leaders continue up the career path, burnout and fatigue are common, and perhaps the most obvious, patients are discharged. As a result, many hospital employees arent great with goodbye. I don’t think this is isolated to healthcare however; avoiding goodbye is a human thing, the hospital just makes for a good excuse.

If I’m honest, part of why I didn’t announce my departure from the unit where I served was because I was afraid that no one would say anything. My negative self-talk had caused me to wonder if perhaps my absence wouldn’t even be noticed. Furthermore, as an introvert, any kind of event with me as the center of attention also sounded quite uncomfortable.

What I was missing was an incredible opportunity to connect. Saying goodbye in an exercise in trust and intimacy. It is a chance to grieve and have our grief absorbed by relationship. It’s funny that I missed this. After all, I am in the grief business. As a chaplain I sojourn with others every day in their grief and as a counselor, I specialize in the topic. In my professional role, termination is intentional and mandatory. When done well, it is healthy and part of the therapeutic process.

It would be selfish of me to allow my ego to prevent others from having the opportunity to say goodbye if they chose to do so. Because my mission is to courageously live an authentic life that influences others to do the same, I have been open with my own process and practiced vulnerability, even in things that seem silly or mundane. This post is no different.

So, my Appalachian friends, this is goodbye. My wife and I have placed our house on the market and begun the process of loosening our tent stakes so that we can move back West to be closer to our families of origin. We have done this once before, when we moved here from California, but this time is harder. We have sunk roots deep into this community, purchased our first home, and watched our children grow out of diapers here.

The last eight years have been chock-full of relationships and personal growth that is really quite daunting when I reflect back.

I have obtained two graduate degrees, completed internships and residencies at several facilities, and participated in hours of continuing education which built my skill and self-confidence as a professional and a leader. I have partnered with several agencies and worked with various organized faith communities to address issues of poverty, addiction, abuse, and justice. I have joined multiple civic clubs to build relationships and serve others. The work has been rewarding, but the relationships move me to tears. From professors to peers and supervisors to clients, so many have poured into my family that I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

My circles of community are broad and make a diverse tapestry of beautiful humans doing beautiful things in the world. I was ordained and baptized all three of my children in front of First Christian Church, Johnson City. The members of Leadership Kingsport befriended and trusted me to tell our story. My CPE groups helped give me the courage to confront my inner demons and continue healing from my past. The professors at Emmanuel and Milligan opened my eyes to vast new areas of academics and poured into my excitement to learn and grow. My friends at Covenant Counseling helped expand my clinical skills. And the PAX of F3 Northeast Tennessee have held me accountable to rising up as a leader in all areas of life. I will dearly miss being in the immediate space of so many of these brilliant and compassionate people. I will especially miss my Indian Path family. I cannot imagine a better place to spread my wings. The leadership team has invested much in my development and the clinical team has received me with open arms. I am daily affirmed, nurtured, and encouraged in ways I cannot even begin to repay. Even more, these ones have trusted me with their stories. So many in this building have come to me and shared their deepest fears, hopes, pains, and tales of triumph.

It has been an incredible honor to minister to this community. I appreciate the hospitality and each person who has welcomed us to these mountains. May you be blessed ten-fold what you have given to me.