No Challenge, No Alchemy

Adapted from my book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What You Have Into What You Need. (2016) A Tribal Alchemy Resource. You can get a copy of the book here.


In the movie Pleasantville, two teenagers from the 1990s are transported through their television back to the 1950s. What David and his sister Jennifer discover (in this made-up TV land) is a Leave It to Beaver–like world where everyone and everything is perfect. Troubles don’t exist. Life is easy and simple and always goes to plan. Basketballs always find the basket. Geography lessons are simple because the size of the town and the size of the world are one and the same. The roads lead residents back to where they started. It’s all very pleasant. But something is wrong.


As David and Jennifer get to know the townspeople, a painful fact emerges. Though everyone in Pleasantville is pleasant indeed, this quality makes them, and the town itself, boring and bland. There is no advancement of anything. The pleasant life is void of texture, meaning, and purpose. In fact, everyone and everything—the entire world of Pleasantville—shows up in black and white. There is no color. Why? Color, as the residents of Pleasantville come to understand, is the result of creativity, ingenuity, passion, and risk. As David and his sister introduce these and other qualities to townspeople, they take on color; they take on life. Because of this, a division evolves for the first time in the town’s pleasant history. The townspeople split; some choose to embrace challenge, and some hold on to predictability.


Pleasantville reminds us that life gets better as it gets harder. We need life to be hard. Challenges make alchemy possible. These barriers to advancement inspire us to overcome through ingenuity. We know that evenour brains need challenge in order to thrive. The late Lawrence Katz, a neurobiologist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, conducted research on the brain. He determined that the brain needs exercise in a similar way as the rest of our body. He was instrumental in the creation of neurobics—everyday ways you can exercise your brain.


Since Katz wrote his book in 1999, a mountain of research confirms the need to challenge the brain through a variety of training and exercise methodologies. It seems that our brains thrive on challenges because challenges require the brain to work hard for specific rewards. Tribal (collective) brains are the same. Challenges must be overcome, and that requires alchemy. Tribes that push deep into these challenges, even when those challenges are hard, are the ones that work and live in color.


  • No challenges, no new ideas
  • No challenges, no change in action or condition
  • No challenges, no meaning


As much as we thrive on challenges, we often complain about the very dynamic (challenge) that enables advancement. I find this an interesting characteristic of our biology and social interactions. We seem to dislike the challenges necessary for advancement. Even though we know that advancement comes through challenge, we still fight it. We resist that which moves us forward.


What alchemy could be hiding on the other side of your challenge?

No Challenge, No Alchemy2016-08-31T05:27:22-04:00

How Emotionally Resilient Are You?

To be ingenious people, we have to respond to challenges and opportunities with resilience and engage change with flexibility.


Emotions are a source of great energy. Without emotion, action is flat and one-dimensional. Emotion infuses action with passion and intention. However, emotional energy can turn negative and even destructive. When emotions are corrosive, they not only affect the sender but the receiver as well. A negative emotion or attitude damages a tribe’s ingenuity because it eats away at desire and will. Further, a lack of emotional resilience and flexibility impairs our ability to adapt to external and internal change.

Here are three actions you can take to increase emotional resilience.


Own Your Emotional Condition and Development

Emotional resilience begins when we own our emotional condition and do what we can to create emotional health. This first means we cultivate emotional well-being. We’ll talk more about that in the third action-strategy. Beyond well-being, owning my emotional conditions means I recognize my triggers and emotional reactions and develop strategies to decrease my volatility. I discuss this idea at length in the last section of my book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What you Have Into What You Need.


Situations affect us differently. For example, a situation that angers you may not anger your colleagues. The reverse is also true. Instead of viewing my emotional reactions as “just the way I am,” I must own my reactions by,


  • Understanding the anatomy of my reactions (what happens and why),
  • Naming my reactions (to make them real)
  • Developing strategies that can mitigate the impact of negative reactions and more quickly move me back a place of calm where I can be more effect


Stay Longer in the Ambiguity of Change

Resilience increases when we remain in situations that are uncomfortable. This does not mean we should remain in dangerous situations. Neither does it mean that all discomfort is good. However, change can produce emotional discomfort. This discomfort reveals our lack of control over situations we once believed were stable. When emotional discomfort–due to change arrives–we may be tempted to prematurely end it by regaining a measure of control. We may leave the situation too soon. We may blame others in order to find a responsible party. We may grow apathetic or bitter. In all these situations we short-circuit the change process because the ambiguity seems overwhelming. Active waiting in times of change can increase resiliency. When we resist the temptation to bolt and embrace the potential for something better to come, our resilience increases.


A word of caution: I understand it takes great wisdom to know when to remain in discomfort versus remove yourself from it. Staying in a difficult situation as long as possible is not always the right strategy. Learning how, and how long, to stay in difficulty comes through trial and error, as well as life experience. However, if I am always removing myself from ambiguous or uncomfortable situations, it will be very difficult to increase resilience.


Cultivate Well-Being

Overload, burn out and unhealthy stress make cowards of us all. When we don’t take time to cultivate our own well being, increased emotional resilience is unlikely. Though the “how” of our renewal is different–depending on our interests, personalities and backgrounds– the need for renewal is something we share in common. Taking care of yourself increases emotional resilience in general, but it also readies you to engage your tribe with flexibility.


When you have emotional reserves you are able to handle the ambiguity of change in a more gracious way. It doesn’t mean your challenges will disappear. It does mean that your ability to thrive in those challenges becomes more evident to you and those around you. Determining how you renew yourself, and sustain that practice, enlarges your emotional and psychological capacity.


As you consider your own well being, it’s always good to remember the basics that enhance well-being:

  • Meaningful relationships
  • Purpose in life
  • Exercise and good nutrition
  • Novel experiences
  • What would you add to the list?


Psychiatrist Dan Siegel has a smart way of thinking about well being through his “mind platter.” You can check it out here.


Emotional resilience is not an esoteric or frivolous idea. It is a an important part of our make-up that directly influences our ingenuity and productivity in life. When we make the time to own our emotional condition, stay longer with ambiguous situations, and cultivate well-being, we take direct steps toward a more successful life.

How Emotionally Resilient Are You?2016-08-29T05:50:03-04:00

The Huntington Beach PD and Tribal Alchemy

The Huntington Beach Police get it.

In early August, I spent two days at the Huntington Beach Police Department (HBPD). Fortunately for me, I went to the right.

Huntington Beach Police Training Door


On day one, I spoke at the inaugural Leadership And Education Development Academy (LEAD). Thirty high school students explored with me four leader-skills that increase integrity, ingenuity and collaboration. The students explored the role and power of attention, how our biology affects our actions and relationships, how to solve problems creatively with limited resources, and why curiosity and risk are necessary parts of success.


On day two, I spent four hours with a group of Southern California police leaders—sponsored and hosted by the HBPD. Those gathered explored a collective ingenuity model I developed called, Tribal Alchemy. You can learn more about the framework here.



Law enforcement, like every other sector in society, faces significant challenges and opportunities. I developed the Tribal Alchemy framework because today’s challenges and opportunities are solved when collections of people ingeniously transform what they have into what they need. The law enforcement leaders I spoke to on day two, get this. Everyday, whether it’s an officer called to an emergency or another pouring over budgets, law enforcement leaders must find creative solutions that make the moment (and their communities) better. This kind of creative-solution-making requires commitment to personal and collective excellence. Southern Californians should be proud of their law enforcement leaders and their willingness to continuously improve themselves for the sake of the mission. I saw a powerful example of this in Huntington Beach.


My time with Chief Handy, and the men and women of HBPD, revealed how much they value creative action and positive change. The LEAD program is alchemy at its finest. It exposes high school students—already leaders in their communities—to ideas, mindsets and actions that will prepare them for greater leadership opportunities in the future.


Beyond leadership development, LEAD creates a positive bond between students and police. Because of this program, thirty Huntington Beach student-leaders view police officers as mentors who are willing to invest in their lives. Police departments around the country would do well to consider implementing a program like LEAD in their communities. Chief Handy has been instrumental in developing a LEAD program in two different states. It’s been my privilege to watch both programs influence the life-trajectory of hundreds of students.


My work as a researcher, author, and coach gives me the opportunity to speak to, and work with, a wide variety of organizations and groups (tribes). When I stand in front of a new group, my goal is to reveal the power and inspiration that comes from creating ingenious solutions. The Tribal Alchemy model reveals what we do, as humans, when we are acting together in inventive ways. It was energizing to see Tribal Alchemy at work within the HBPD. Everyday the HBPD works to transform challenging situations through the creative use of resources. I had the privilege of watching a bit of their alchemy in action. Not a bad stay in Huntington Beach.

The Huntington Beach PD and Tribal Alchemy2016-08-25T10:11:31-04:00

The Cost of High Performance

Yesterday, I watched the last 30 minutes or so of the Olympic men’s marathon. Beyond the runners amazing physical endurance, what was so obvious was their commitment to development. Their ability to perform at such an elite level is supported by their rigorous attention to training and continuous improvement. The world of an elite athlete revolves around the work they do to achieve and sustain high levels of performance. But this isn’t true of just elite athletes. Anyone, including you and me, that wants to sustain high performance in their personal or professional lives, has to be committed to organizing their lives around the practices and disciplines that make it possible.


Whatever your pursuit, here are 4 behavioral practices that high-performing people organize their life around.


Eat Clean — You may not eat like a marathoner or Olympic swimmer, but what you put in your mouth, matters. Your brain and body need consistent doses of clean food and good nutrients. You can’t perform at high levels when your regularly recovering from the affects of fatty and over processed foods, too much alcohol or soda, and/or the roller coaster of sugar crashes. Eating mostly veggies, some fruit and less meat is a place to begin. Also, a general rule about food is this: The more colorful your plate, the better (and I’m not talking about adding ketchup to your fries).


Sleep and Take Breaks — It’s hard to overestimate the importance of getting enough sleep and taking breaks during the day. Neuroscience has an ever-growing mound of evidence that skimping on sleep or avoiding strategic breaks (during the day) can dramatically decrease our brain’s ability to thrive. Seven to eight hours of sleep (at least) is what is required for our bodies to recover and restore from the day’s work. We need a short break about every 90 minutes or so during the work day. Beyond that, a strategic break in the middle of the day (a nap is best, and i”m not kidding) helps to remove toxins that build up in the brain as we work. It may feel counter-intuitive, but strategic stops increase effectiveness.


Learn Continuously — Recently I spoke with a master car technician who has been servicing cars for over forty years. What struck me was his drive, after forty years, to continue to learn about his craft. Not only did he regularly interact with other master technicians and car dealers, but he read voluminous amounts of material and invested in training and tools. All of this increased both his confidence and competence in his ability. It showed. Elite performers, in any endeavor, create reading and study schedules, personal and professional development opportunities, and spend time with other elite performers. All this (and more) is done to maximize strengths, minimize vulnerabilities and find big and small breakthroughs that increase excellence.


Practice and Experiment — High performers have a set of habits that enable them to thrive. Just like an athlete has a training regimen, high performers of any stripe have routines they hold to religiously. Some of these routines are tied to the first three elements of eating, rest and learning. But there are others such as, reflection and solitude, the development of personal and professional relationships, and strategic engagement of mentors and coaches. Along with habits of practice, elite performers are willing to experiment with new ideas, innovations and techniques that could increase performance. Not all experimentations become part of the habits of practice—some are jettisoned while others “stick.” The critical issue is that high-performers experiment in order to remain fresh and novel in their approach to their work.


The question for each of us today is: Which of the four behaviors above do we most need to change, right now, in order to enhance our performance? Of course after we identify it, the sooner we integrate it into our days, the better. By the way, quickly integrating smart and strategic behaviors  is another principle high performers know is critical to success.

The Cost of High Performance2016-08-22T05:17:52-04:00

Practice Fast

I have had the privilege of coaching hundreds of people. When I consider the one’s that really upped their performance, during the coaching, there are a few qualities that are common among them. One is this: They practice fast.


When high performing people discover a principle or idea that can improve their performance, they use it immediately


Not-so-high-performing people are going to “get around to” using principles they’ve learned, but there is always some reason they can’t.


So here’s a question for you…


Is there something you’ve learned recently that you need to practice?


Don’t wait. Integrate your learnings into your day as soon as possible. The shorter the distance between discovery and practice, the more likely you will integrate it and find out whether or not it is useful.



Practice fast. Start Today.



Practice Fast2016-08-17T06:05:42-04:00

Surf’s Up! Go Where The Energy Is

A couple of weekends ago, I was in Huntington Beach, CA for speaking gigs. Thanks to the Huntington Beach P.D. for the opportunity to share Tribal Alchemy!


During my visit, the Vans U.S. of Surfing Open was taking place. I watched two days of surfing finals from the Huntington Beach pier.



From the birds-eye view of the pier, I watched surfers cut across the waves–which provided the energy they needed to make magic on the water. These wave-riders reminded me of the connection between energy and ingenuity. Without the wave, the surfers would not have energy to ride their boards; not to mention create the ingenious twists and turns that thrilled the crowd. The key, for the surfer, was to keep her board just ahead of the breaking wave. In other words, she had to stay in front of the energy. That’s where she could explore ingenious moves.


Personal and collective ingenuity requires energy. If we get disconnected from energy, we are less likely to think and act in resourceful ways. Here are a few principles, we can learn from surfers, that will enable us to utilize the energy that leads to ingenuity.



See where the energy forms

Surfers sit on their boards in the water and they watch. They scan the ocean for the formation of waves (energy). This requires patience and vigilance. As the wave forms, they paddle to the spot they believe will give them the best chance of catching it.


In order to be ingenious, we have to first see where energy is forming and go to it. This requires that we pay attention to emerging situational factors. The elements of a situation are like the gathering waters of a wave. They combine to give us clues about possibilities and opportunities. Learning how to read the formation of situational factors helps us notice where energy is forming.



Twice in my life, I’ve lived in cities I didn’t particularly want to live in. I initially spent a good deal of time bemoaning my situation even though both places were full of energy and possibility. It wasn’t however until I changed my perspective that I was able to see the energy contained within them. Seeing energy form is the first step in using it for ingenuity. If we don’t pay attention to the clues that energy is increasing, we will miss the power it provides for creative action.


Sometimes the energy forms exactly where we think it will. Sometimes it forms somewhere else. The key is to watch with openness to the clues that it’s forming and go to it. Simply put, ingenuity requires us to get in the way of the energy we need to tap potential and possibility. For me, once I did that, both cities opened up for me in ways that enriched my life in ways I could have never anticipated.



Stay in the zone of maximum energy


The surfers I watched tried to stay at the leading edge of the wave. That is, they stayed just in front of the part of the wave that was breaking. The whitewater behind them and the wave still forming in front of them (see the pic at the top of this post). Let’s call that space the zone of maximum energy. If the surfers got too far ahead or behind that zone, they lost energy.


Ingenuity and creative action happen when we find a maximum energy zone. Finding this zone has to do with situational and relational factors that enable us to act. An energy zone can be as simple as the time of day you are at your best and able to do your most difficult tasks. An energy zone could be the rise in energy during a meeting, and your ability to go with that energy and find the possibilities hidden in it. An energy zone can also be a more protracted season of time. In one of the two cities (I mentioned above), the energy zone was a season of time where I provided leadership coaching for a community leadership program. For over eight years, I rode the wave of working with some of the best and brightest leaders in Tucson, AZ. The energy contained in that season not only allowed me to ingeniously express my own life-work, but also learn from so many intriguing leaders. And to think I almost missed that wave.


Staying on the front edge of energy allows you to use the power of the moment to propel your skills and ideas. Without the wave, the surfers are just bobbing on the water. With the front edge of the wave pushing them, they become acrobats in the water.


Can you tell if you are on the front edge of energy? What are the clues you might be lagging behind or getting too far ahead?



Once in the energy, don’t waste time–be ingenious


As soon as the surfers sensed a wave was “ride-able,” they got moving. They positioned themselves to catch the wave, turned their backs to the wave, paddled with gusto, and then got up as soon as possible to make magic. In other words, once the energy formed, surfers wasted no time putting ingenuity to work.


When you sense energy for an idea, project, or initiative, get up on that board and ride (as an individual or a tribe). Energy, like a wave, doesn’t last. If we don’t seize the momentum that energy creates, it will dissipate. And then it’s harder, and sometimes impossible, to catch it again. In my research and work, I’ve witnessed individuals and tribes sense energy for an idea and then wait too long to seize it. They stalled. And the stall diminished both the energy and inspiration needed for the possibility.


If you wait too long to seize the energy of opportunity, you will find yourself sitting on your board talking about the waves that “could have been.” And that usually leads to some kind of excuse-making or regret. When the wave arrives, if you’ve determined you should ride it, then get up and ride. Be ingenious and watch what happens.



When it’s over, it’s over


When a wave ended, the surfers wasted no time getting off it. Some rode waves as far as they could until the energy was simply gone. At that point, they would just fall in the water. Other surfers sensed the ride was over before the wave was. This looked more like a “bail out.” No matter the reason, when the wave-rider thought it was over, she ended the ride both to conserve energy and get ready for the next wave.


In life and work, when we hit a big vein of energy, ingenuity and meaning, it can be a fun and productive ride. We feel energized, full of purpose and that we are making a difference in the world. It can be hard then to let go of that situation when it’s coming to an end. Sometimes we ride yesterday’s energy both because it was a great ride and because it created security for us. Eventually though, if we don’t get off that situation, what once was full of opportunity becomes an obstacle to the next possibility. This is a tricky moment and requires discernment and often wisdom from other people to help us discern when a wave is over. But when it’s over, the wisdom of the surfer reminds us to get off, get back on your board, paddle back out to where the waves form and look for the next one.



Wave riders can teach us a lot about energy and ingenuity. In fact, check out this video (about 4 min) of surfers doing everything we explored in this article. It’s worth watching. You’ll see the wave form, how the surfer stays in the maximum zone of energy, how that energy enables ingenuity, and what the surfer does when its over.



Surfs up!

Surf’s Up! Go Where The Energy Is2016-08-08T05:49:23-04:00

Thinking Around Corners

I was sitting at a small cafe table recently in Huntington Beach, CA talking with my brother about life and work. He works for Apple. Because of my work around collective ingenuity, he mentioned Apple University and some of the training he’s received there. One of the concepts he mentioned hearing at an Apple University class was “thinking around the corners.”


Thinking around the corners happens when we anticipate what may be around a corner before we arrive. I’ll name it strategic anticipation. So let’s try it out.


Think of a situation you’re facing in your personal or professional life. Let’s apply thinking around the corner to it.

Here are three questions you can ask that will help you consider what might be around a corner.


What is likely around the next corner of this situation? 


This question helps you reflect on probable situations.  Consider Pete, a five year veteran on his sales team. Occasionally Pete gets flustered, even angry, when his sales drop. But, like clock work he returns the next day with an apology and re-doubled efforts.  So…if Pete gets angry tomorrow, it would be perfectly acceptable to think he will behave as he always has. Thinking around the corner is sometimes simply anticipating how you will respond to probable outcomes.


Consider Susie, a long time, loyal and sometimes difficult customer. She regularly is demanding, but you’ve learned how to navigate and overcome those “Susie moments.”  So…if Susie gets mad tomorrow, you will likely pull out one of your standard ways of rectifying the situation. Thinking around the corner in this case could mean having those responses ready when Susie shows up.


Again, sometimes thinking around the corner simply means that you strategically anticipate what is probable, based on past behavior. BUT, of course, as we all know, sometimes what is “probable” is not what actually happens. And that leads to a second question that can help you think around corners.


What is possible? 


This question is about considering what could happen. Could Pete–who always apologizes after getting angry—react different this time?  Could he over react and take it out on another employee? Could he walk out? Could he tell you that he’s had it? Could he start looking for another job?


Of course Pete could do any number of things. The key with this question is to try to think outside “normal” or standard possibilities. Susie could go ballistic the next time you you apply your tried and true strategies.


The value of this question (what is possible) is that it readies you for what might happen. You don’t even need to try and guess every possible outcome. But by simply taking time to think of a few out-of-the-ordinary outcomes, you are more prepared if something unexpected happens. The value of anticipating unique outcomes is that it heightens your sensitivity to any possibility. And that leads us to the third question.


 What will I do If something completely unexpected occurs around the next corner? 


Again, the value of this question is that is helps you strategically anticipate what might happen, no matter what does happen. Here’s an important principle: Over-reaction to a situation is often the result of not considering the possibility (the strong possibility) that the situation will go differently than you thought it would. 


Having the awareness that things could go differently makes you more ready if and when they do. And it allows you to create anticipatory strategies for your own behavior (if a surprise jumps up at you).


Try out these three questions today and you just might be able to  around the corners, or at least be more ready for what is around one.

Thinking Around Corners2016-08-03T11:00:14-04:00

Goldilocks Your Growth — Put Strategic Distance between Comfort and Change

comfort zone pic



A few weeks ago, I saw this picture. It reminded of research that shows a strong connection between our ability to overcome challenge and our willingness to experience discomfort. In other words, if there is too much overlap between the two circles, it will it be harder — or even impossible—  to change. Too much overlap means I’m not challenging myself enough. However, the opposite is also true. If I am pushed too far outside my comfort zone, I feel threatened beyond my ability to respond. If I’m stretched too far I will give up or freak out. When it comes to growth, it seems we need to “go all Goldilocks.”


Effective growth happens when we are significantly stretched to meet important demands. But if the stretch is too difficult –or we don’t feel we have the resources or skill to achieve it— growth becomes unlikely.



Take a look at the picture again.


Think about a challenge or opportunity you currently face. When you think about that growth opportunity, what distance would you put between the two circles? Are they overlapping at all? Are they separated by quite a distance? When we face growth-challenges, the gap between the circles matters, a lot. There are, of course, times when the gap is wide. The wider the gap, the more likely we are in some kind of crisis. During a crisis it’s often difficult to believe there is any magic to be made at all. We are just trying to survive. After a crisis though, we look back and see that there was magic in the mess. We can learn a lot during times of crisis. But we certainly we don’t want to live in a perpetual crisis just so we can experience change or growth. And so that leads to the Goldilocks technique I will name, “strategic distancing.”


Strategic Distancing


Strategic distancing occurs when we strategically move the two circles away from each other until we find the place of healthy tension or pressure. Once in the healthy tension, we can utilize our resources to engage the challenge, which then is more likely to lead to the growth or success we desire. The trick is to keep the circles at a distance that allows for the healthy tension, and the possibility of growth.


Think about building physical muscle in the gym. To build muscle we have to strategically add weight to tax our muscles (the right amount of weight adds healthy tension). Too much weight and we hurt ourselves. Too little weight and we build no new muscle. When it comes to adding muscle mass, the key is finding the right distance between weight that is too hard and weight that is too easy. The same is true for psychological, emotional and professional growth of any kind.



Again, think about that area of change or growth you are currently facing.


Here a few suggestions and questions that can help you strategically distance your comfort zone from the the place of greater effectiveness.


  • First, name your area of growth. If you had to give your challenge a name that was both realistic (highlighted the hard work) and optimistic (highlighted the desired change), what would you name it?


  • Next, what are you doing to stretch yourself beyond your current capabilities?


  • Are you overloading yourself with so much difficulty that you are unable to manage the change?


  • Are you cutting yourself too much of a break in order to stay comfortable, which in turn will thwart new growth?


  • What are the signs that things are getting too easy or too hard in your quest for change and growth?


  • And finally…What is one action you could take today that would help you put the right distance between your comfort zone and the magic? Be specific.



Strategic distancing allows you to determine the distance between comfort and “stretch.” We don’t always have this luxury, but when we do we should take full advantage of it. Don’t wait for the crisis. Start putting the right distance between your current state and the one you desire. Goldilocks your growth.

Goldilocks Your Growth — Put Strategic Distance between Comfort and Change2016-08-01T08:59:14-04:00