Learning Leadership through Art

As part of the “Nature of Leadership” retreat I helped run last week, everyone painted an oil painting. For most, it was their first one ever and it was clear that this experience deeply impacted each person and the team on many levels.

First, though oil painting is not as “adventurous” as mountain climbing, our clients found that they had to overcome a different kind of fear, so they could break through a different kind of limit. As C-level executives at technology companies, oil painting is a very unfamiliar challenge. When they first learned they would be painting, many responded with, “Impossible.” They had to alter their thinking, applying the same positive attitude they use in their professional life to overcome this fear of painting. The hardest step was to put down the first stroke on the white canvas.

Second, while oil painting appears to be an individual exercise, our clients realized that team support makes a big difference for everyone’s success. After overcoming their initial fear of getting started, many of these normally very confident and authoritative executives soon experienced a “break down” moment – they felt desperate from their lack of skills and their self-confidence plunged. Several people almost wanted to throw away their brushes and trash the canvas. At such moments, sincere compliments from colleagues, along with advice from the coaches, was a huge morale boost that encouraged them to continue the work.

Third, as they compared paintings later, it was very amusing and amazing to see how everyone painted dramatically different paintings from looking at the same spot. The art of painting is not just a copy machine production of the world in front of us, but a recreation of the world from the painter’s mind. It’s not just what they see, but how they interpret it, how they wish it to be, and what they desire. Regardless of skill level, the painting also reflects the person’s personality in an amazingly accurate way!

The same thing happens in our communication and collaboration with others. We hear the same thing and see the same thing, but everyone can interpret them differently; some would rather believe things are what they wish for, instead of what they actually are. Then we pass on our understanding of the situation to others, naturally adding our own intentions, wishes, and pre-judgments. It’s important to realize that everyone’s opinions and understanding of the same situation can be justifiably different. Instead of trying to quickly judge the other person, we should try to understand them first.

Finally, after we finished painting, we had a round-table discussion where everyone explained his/her motivation and the process behind his/her painting; then, other members of the team talked about what they saw from others’ paintings. It was very interesting how everyone noticed different things from the same painting and got different feelings about the person or personality behind the same painting.

This is like any review/reflection process we have after each project or event because reflection is the most important part of the learning experience. How the artist intended the painting and interpreted his/her own painting is totally different from what it looked like to others. In fact, who we are in our own eyes can be quite different from who we appear to be in others’ eyes. It’s hard to see ourselves. Sometimes we miss our greatest attributes, and, of course, sometimes we miss our biggest shortcomings. Through listening to how other people interpreted each painting, we get a direct connection as to how others understand the artist’s personality, style of communicating, and/or behavior.

More important, for a leader, it’s important to understand other people’s unspoken intentions, unexpressed emotions, and unvoiced desires. When we are giving our take on others’ paintings, we are actually practicing understanding others beyond words, or, in this case, beyond the surface of the painting.

Art is not only a healing and self-discovery experience for each person, and when done as a group, it is a great team building process. Not only did the team encourage each other during painting, but helped one another by offering ideas and feedback. More importantly, the whole team gained an understanding of each other at a much deeper level through their reflection, so they could bond at a much more intimate level.


Getting My Courage Back

Have you always wanted to make some big changes in your life, but were held back by fear? Be it moving to a new place, changing career track, or starting a new business. Even you know that’s what your heart calls for, but you just couldn’t muster the courage to take the leap of faith?

In fact, I have been living in such fear for a long time and it was not even about a big adventure at all. For the past several years, as much as I love Boston, my heart has been telling me that I need to move on with my life. The world is too big and I long for exploring the unknowns.

I moved to Boston in late 2003 and it took no time before I fell in love with the city, declaring it my favorite for so many reasons – four seasons, education, professional development, friends and social circles, positive influence, active lifestyle with all my favorite sports within easy reach, close to nature from mountains to oceans, diverse cultural scenes, great food, proud history, awesome sports teams … and on and on – the reasons can go on forever.

I thought, “This place has so many things to explore that I can live here for 10 years.”

But, as my 10 years “deadline” approached and I started to think about moving, I kept delaying my move, saying, “I’m going to move after this year.” I found myself wanting to stay longer for one reason or another: to be close to my friends, to enjoy my favorite season one more time, to finish an educational program I was taking, to complete a project I was volunteering for … the excuses go on and on.

Though, I realized what keeps me in Boston is not just my favorite things, but also my fears. The longer I stayed, the bigger the fear. Whenever I thought about a new place to move to, I caught myself thinking, “But they don’t have this …” and while some of the “don’t have”-s may be facts, some came from my fear of the unknown. I was trying to find excuses to stay in my comfort zone.

As an immigrant living in this country without family, friends are all I have. Having been a nomad for so many years while traveling and climbing around the world, I treasure the safety and stability of a “home.” Moving to a new place is scary. I will have to start from scratch again to find new friends, to tap into a new community, build a new home. Will I enjoy it as much as Boston? Will I be as happy as I was in Boston?

It’s ironic to realize how much fear I have about moving, especially because I have been trying to encourage other people through my motivational speaking to overcome fear and pursue their dreams. I seemed to have less fear when I decided to go climb Everest than to move – how ridiculous!

Before I came to Boston, I had lived in China and all over the U.S. During those years, I was excited about each move and to explore new places; fear never crossed my mind. Now, I understand how other people felt when they made comments like, “You have so much courage to move to a new country.”

I wonder, “Why was I so ‘fearless’ before? How do I get back my courage?”

I thought back to the difference between when I was ‘young’ and now, and I noticed how my focus had shifted. When I was young, moving was exciting and my mind was focused on a new life in a new place. I wasn’t worried about the future because I believed I would figure out my way. Also, the need to move was initiated by external motives, such as going to school or changing jobs, it was a “no brainer” because the move was necessary and I didn’t have to initiate the decision process. The external motives took away the biggest hurdle, the fear.

As life goes on, when moving is not “required” by external circumstances, I have to take the initiative to make the change. That’s when I found myself spending more time worrying about losing what I have in my current comfortable life. That’s what was holding me back. To step out of my comfort zone, I have to look forward into the future and follow my heart. Just as many have said before, what people regret most in life is what they could have done but did not.

Maybe you have wanted to change your job or career track for a long time? Maybe you have always wanted to start your own business? We often see people finally make such changes when the job was eliminated or the industry was outdated; but, why only make such changes when you’re being “forced” to by external motives?

What are some changes you have wanted to make but haven’t yet? It’s hard to take the initiative, but when you look back, you will be happy that you tried.

What I learned from Skiing Everest in a Day

Do you believe your daydreams can become a reality as soon as tomorrow?


Last week, I was skiing at Breckenridge in Colorado. At the end of the first day, I received from the resort an email with my “scorecard”. It said I skied 7,854 vertical feet on my first day – a small number for big skiers, but I was just happy to be back on the slope.


I’m not a big skier; in fact, when I first started learning to ski in 2009 – one year before my climbing trip to Mount Everest – I tore my ACL early in the season. It was quite a blow to my confidence, and it took me several years to regain it on the slope. Though I’m inspired by those images of skiers carving perfect turns shooting down from high peaks, I’m pretty satisfied for now with practicing basic techniques in protected territories.


On the second day, I worked hard and hit 18,033 vertical feet. I was excited.


I ski for fun, not for earning points, but those seemingly meaningless points actually did bring me some joy, just like those little gold stars given to kids in preschool. They acted as an interesting incentive for me to push a little harder each day. A few days later, I surpassed 20,000 feet, the equivalent of skiing down Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. I began to daydream: How nice it would be to ski the equivalent of Mount Everest, 29,029 vertical feet?


That goal would require a performance improvement of almost 50%. While I thought it was a reasonable goal for future trips, I didn’t think it was possible this time.


On my second to last day in Breckenridge, I was skiing with some friends who are expert skiers. They pushed me to work harder than ever. At end of the day, I was exhausted but thrilled to discover that I skied 25,613 vertical feet!


Suddenly, skiing “Everest” was not as far-fetched as it was a few days ago.


I realized that while I was still skiing at my own comfortable pace, the only difference is time management. Instead of a long lunch break, we took short breaks from time to time and stayed higher up on the mountain to avoid the crowd. Most runs on the mountain are about 1,300 – 1,400 vertical feet, so I only need 3 more runs to reach my Everest goal.


However, squeezing in 3 more runs is not as easy as it sounds; it would require an extra hour of skiing. We had already managed our time very efficiently. We were on the first chair up the mountain and skied all the way until the mountain closed at 4pm.


That night, my mind was occupied with calculations of time. How could I squeeze in 3 more runs?


Avoiding crowds and lines would be critical, so I planned my route to focus on runs around two fast lifts higher up on the mountain. I needed to be even more efficient when taking breaks.


During my last day on the mountain, I was obsessed with time management. Every minute counted. At the same time, I was aware of the dangerous side effect when one’s mind is too focused on a goal. I repeatedly told myself to slow down, safety first! I picked the trails with the best snow and enjoyed the serene scenery with every turn.


Thanks to the new technology, I was able to check my progress in real time. I was on schedule, but I would be short by one run unless I could catch the last chair at 4pm.


During the last hour, it was as if I had the clocked dialed in my body. Even shaving off one minute or a half-minute from each run would make a difference. At 4pm, with my heart pounding, I flew through the gate to grab the last ride. Behind me, the worker pulled the line and shouted, “Closed!”


I hit 30,336 feet on that last day! Without the last run, which was 1,466 vertical feet, I would have been 159 feet short of my “Everest goal.”
I didn’t mean to turn every run on the slope to a goal-chasing mission, nor did I mean to make every vacation day a “lesson” day; but sometimes, when it’s something to your nature, you simply couldn’t resist the call.


When your audacious daydream is connected to your heart, you simply couldn’t stop thinking about it, even when you couldn’t explain the connection and you didn’t ask for it. You are obsessed with making your daydream a reality. That’s the first fundamental difference between a pure daydream and a reachable goal.


“Audacious” is relevant. A goal that appears like a daydream to one person may be completely trivial for another. A big skier can easily hit 30,000 or 40,000 vertical feet on a regular basis, but for someone like me, who is still relatively new to the sport and whose previous regular range was only half of that, skiing “Everest” in a day was a big challenge.


It doesn’t matter how others may laugh at or brush aside your dream. Your dream is your own. However, just to want it, is not enough. A dream would remain a daydream if you do nothing about it.


When you can visualize your goal, you can reach it.


Visualization is more than just a wishful thinking, a beautiful imagination. It’s about focusing your mind, and thus your energy, on it. When you want it so much, you not only visualize the goal, you also visualize the path towards the goal. You map out each step and come up with a solution to each anticipated hurdle.


When you focus your mind on it, you naturally direct all your energy to the task. The action is the most important difference between a daydream and a reachable goal. The distance between a daydream and a reachable goal is only one step.


When you put your mind on it, make a plan, and focus all your energy on the action, a daydream becomes a realistic goal. Stop pushing them away and get started now!


Stop pushing them away and get started now!

What A New Year’s Resolution is Not About

New Year’s Resolutions (NYR) are not just a wish list of what you want to have the next year because while visualization can help you reach a goal, nothing really happens without hard work.


NYR is not a list of target or goals, especially not SMART goals; and, if you read my latest book, After the Summit, then you know I’m not a big fan of SMART goals.


A goal is only a mechanism to keep us on track in making progress – to implement our vision of who we want to become. The goals themselves should not be the destination we are shooting for as a being. So, it’s more important to have a “goal” of who you want to become instead of a “goal” of what you want to have or points you want to score.


What we want to become is connected to our why. The deeper the connection, the deeper our why, the more it helps motivate us through obstacles and difficult times. Losing 10 pounds is not as strong as being healthy. To be healthy, you need to practice healthy routines constantly – for your entire life; but to lose 10 pounds, you might use a crash diet or a “dedicated” month-long boot camp – you stop challenging yourself after you reach your goal.


Last year, I set a goal of reading one book per week (52 books total). While I was proud that I accomplished that goal, I did notice sometimes I was anxious to move on to next book, instead of spending more time digesting the book. I learned a lot from those books, but they could have made a bigger impact in my life if I took more time to pause and put into actions of what I learned, instead of simply moving on.


Luckily I took notes after reading each book. Occasionally I got time to look through my notes and realized what I had missed in my haste to move on to hit my “goal”. The true objective of reading books is to improve ourselves, instead of for a “trophy” of hitting a certain number of books in a year.


In this information-flooded world, we are constantly being bombarded by numerous emails, news articles, and books. Some of them are not only worth our time to read, but they should be read slowly. You should take time to let them ruminate and to slowly put them into practice. Some should be read again and again daily, or over regular time intervals, so we can reflect and check our progress over time. But more than often, we are instantly buried in the new information we received immediately after and soon forget about them. Quantity trivialized the quality of important learning that could truly change our life.


Despite that I’m not crazy about SMART goals, I still believe there’s merit in making NYR. By having a goal, you are more likely to achieve it than not having one at all; but it’s important to learn how to set the right goal. Without boring you by repeating a whole chapter from After the Summit, how do we make NYR work for our purpose?


NYR should be about non-stop improving ourselves. Instead of revolutionary goals or many goals, focus on COMMIT to taking a small step to improve one area in your life at a time, the area you want to improve most, the area you are willing to put in your best effort with your whole heart, and the area you are willing to step out of comfort zone to suffer to endure in order to make it happen.


Commit means you do it consistently – day in and day out – until it becomes your habit. Then you add on to that small step and practice that consistently, and so on. Consistent small steps will add up to a huge improvement over time, and, instead of one New Year’s Resolution, you get Everyday Resolutions! You don’t even have to wait for a New Year, or any special event date, or tomorrow, to make a new resolution!


What is that one area in your life you want to improve most? What is the first small step you can take? Start now!