My family and other animals

My family read together each night throughout my childhood. We’d sit on our faded blue living room couch and listen to my father read aloud.

One of the books we discovered together was My Family and Other Animals by famed naturalist Gerald Durrell. Gerald relates stories from living on the Green island of Corfu with his fractious siblings and widowed mother between 1935 and 1939 and the beginning of his naturalist adventures.

One story stands out in my memory. Gerald, a precocious 10 year old, asks for birthday presents. Very carefully, from family member he requests a gift which that family member is well suited to gifting.

From his brother Larry (who became noted author Lawrence Durrell), Gerald requests a pair of binoculars because he knows his intellectual brother appreciates the importance of observation and detail. Gerald’s brother Leslie is the most practical member of the family, so Gerald requests a sensible Ersatz alpine hat. The list also includes exotic items like an airgun and a scorpion encased in amber.

I’ve always been impressed with the poise and forethought Gerald showed in assessing the personality of each person and requesting the appropriate gifts.

As I’m traveling in Mexico this week with my own family, that forethought seems even more useful. It is hard to play to the strengths of another person, but worth the effort.

Help people do things they already want to do

Years ago, my old professor BJ Fogg advised me that the best way to help people was to enable them do things that they already wanted to do.

You are going to be more successful if the idea you are selling is one the other person is already inclined to believe.

Develop the empathy to know what they want

Gerald Durrell accurately assessed the strengths of each member of his family. To do so required a lot of empathy, an understanding of each person.

Practice this kind of empathy through curiosity. As I discussed in Everything is Sales selling is rooted in discovery and a deep curiosity about your customer.

In order to sell, you must first develop the curiosity to understand who the other person is and what they need.

Spend time with people doing their thing

My good friend David and I live 30 minutes apart and would enjoy seeing each other more than we do. But we only get together only a few times a year.

We share a love of weight lifting and recently went to the gym together for the first time. Now we’re scheduled to spend time weight lifting together once a month.

Identify the person or group that you want to spend time with. Adopt their activity or find something that you both enjoy that you can do together.

I only go on dates that I’d be happy to do solo

First dates have a low probability of success, whether due to cancelation or a lack of chemistry. Years ago, back at the dawn of online dating, I decided to only go on first dates that I would be equally happy to do solo.

Prioritize things that you’ll enjoy, even if the company or outcome is uncertain.

Maintain flexible goals

In my early 20s, I built a company helping kids with autism and their families.

With children with autism, progress is often so gradual that most people wouldn’t notice any change. And because progress can be so unpredictable, it helps to maintain flexible goals.

The more you cling to a specific outcome, the less likely it is to happen!

In selling, too, not getting attached to a specific outcome results in better learning and more growth.

Gerald Durrell took enormous delight in carefully requesting the exact thing of each family member that they would be most inclined to gift him.

Even if the rest of us aren’t quite so meticulously, there are some lessons to be learned about selling and persuasion from his example.

Until next time,

How to Get Someone You Love To Change (Spoiler: You Can’t)

Last month, I went for a hike to celebrate my father’s 74th birthday. My father is a botanist, and it was with profound joy that I watched him meticulously bend over to identify flowers amidst the California bloom. Aside from being happy to see my father doing something he loved, I was moved because this simple habit, walking and bending down, was almost impossible for him 5 short years ago. 

For most of the last two decades, my father suffered chronic back pain – the result of years of pounding concrete as a runner. It pained me to see him suffer and I desperately wanted to help him. I tried everything I could think of to get him to change his habits and improve his back pain.

Nothing I did had a lasting impact. Hard as I might try, I couldn’t “fix” him and my father would inevitably return to the habits that caused pain in the first place. Moreover, my judgments and pressure created a wedge between us.

Then,  after decades of worsening pain, my father underwent back surgery, which resolved the back pain. 

Early in his recovery, I lent him my Concept 2 Rower and a few free weights. I’d recently taken up rowing, and built out a home gym. While I had no expectation that he’d adopt a new physical routine, I enthusiastically shared what I’d been learning. I taught him a few simple exercises: how to row with good form, how to lift some basic weights, and how to hang from a bar.

When I came back to reclaim my Concept 2 Rower a month later, he was rowing and practicing the exercises I taught him every day. In the two years since, I’ve helped him continue to build on his exercise habits until he’s exercising for two hours most days!

My father’s transformation has been profound. He is out of pain, working in his garden, and exercising several hours a day. I am immensely proud, but ultimately can’t take much credit for his recovery.


They have to want it

I have some tough news: you can’t change people. People have to want change in order to make progress. 

If they don’t want to change their behavior, that’s where to begin. You can start with data, with a personal appeal, or any other approach that you think will work to help them want to change. But without the core desire – their “why” – change is impossible.

Let go of the outcome

My biggest learning, and one that I’ve had to confront again and again, is that in order to help someone we love, we have to let go of the need for them to change. You have to let go of the outcome.

You don’t have to care less, but we all know when we’re being pressured, even if it isn’t explicit. And – I don’t know about you – but when I’m pressured, I dig in my heels and resist change all the more! 

To encourage someone you love to change their behavior, you have to first get comfortable with the fact that they may not ever change.

Attitude is everything

I spent many years helping kids with autism build better habits and learned an invaluable lesson: attitude trumps everything. 

Many of the kids I worked with were non-verbal, and they, and their families, would often be bossed around by therapists and specialists who believed things should only be done a certain way. 

These kids learned to respond, primarily, to a caregiver’s attitude. And I learned that when I showed up with a loving presence, we’d be able to connect much more easily.

This same approach holds true for everyone. To help someone you love change, showing up with a kind and gentle attitude is more than half the battle.

Be like gravity

The best invitations feel like gravity; impossible to resist

We’ve all been sold to by pushy salespeople. Gravity is the opposite. 

Instead of pushing and pressuring, be so engaging, so inviting, that people want to gravitate towards you, and towards the changes you’re asking for.

Start where they are

For someone to change, you have to begin with where they are right now. 

That’s true for any of us in pursuing any kind of behavior change. And it is particularly true when you’re wanting someone else to make progress.

We can’t run a marathon tomorrow if today we’re healing a sprained ankle. We can only build small habits from where we are right now.

Change takes the time that it takes 

This comes back, full circle, to “we can’t control people.” 

Change takes time, usually more than we want to give it. This is as true of change in others as it is for change within ourselves!

Helping someone we love takes the time that it takes. We can’t dictate how long a transformation will take. Impatience can not only create a negative atmosphere of pressure that slows down progress, but it also can mean that we miss important markers of progress along the way or lose the opportunity to be part of someone’s journey as they come back from a setback.

During a conversation with author and conflict resolution specialist Dana Caspersen, she said to me, “Not only can you not change people, but it is none of your damned business.” 

My judgment of the habits that led to my father’s injury and pressure for him to change did not help him recover, but actually got in the way of us having a healthy relationship.

Trying to get anyone to do something that they don’t already want to do is wasted effort. All that we can do is support and celebrate where someone is, and encourage them to take incrementally small steps in the direction we’ll hope they’ll go.

Until next time,

25 Days in Ghana with my Mother

Larabanga, a Sudanese style mosque and the oldest mosque in W. Africa

This fall I spent 3.5 weeks traveling with my mother in Ghana, Africa.

Before embarking for this trip, I had never had a particularly strong desire to go to West Africa. I’ve always wanted to visit many different places, like Morocco, Peru, and Nepal, but West Africa never quite made it on my list.

By contrast, my mother has dreamed of visiting Ghana ever since attending graduate school. She is a professional visual artist and has painted textiles from around the world for longer than I have been alive. In graduate school, she discovered the Kente textiles, which are the traditional yellow, gold fabrics of Ghana, and she has always been curious to see where they are made.

My mother trying out the traditional Kente looms in the Bon Wire weaving village, Ghana.

The relationship between me and my mom is complicated. She frequently drives me crazy, so traveling in close quarters for several weeks in a foreign country was a bold test for our relationship. How does the old joke go? “Why do your parents push your buttons? Because they installed them!”

When people have asked how our trip to Ghana went, I’ve been saying that I condensed 10 years of therapy into 3.5 weeks. But even that — while there is some truth to it — doesn’t give enough credence to my role in the relationship.

Just prior to going to Africa, I proposed that my mother and I go see a therapist together — a preparatory measure that might help shepard the trip to Ghana. One of the things that I brought up in therapy is the history of co-dependence in my family.

I think of co-dependence as me being unhappy with someone else’s condition, so much so, that I feel the need to change someone else in order to be happy myself.

My mother’s father died of alcoholism, and while I did not know my grandparents well myself, I suspect that my grandmother was codependent with my grandfather. My mother’s brother, my uncle, struggled with addiction, and died of associated complications. And, I suspect, other members of my family have echoed these codependent patterns, as well. And then here I am, 3 generations later, realizing that I have been codependent with my mother.

When my mother is unhappy, I am unhappy. When she is angry, I am afraid of the consequences. As a 33-year-old adult man, I remain timid and intimidated by her emotions, and my default is to try to “fix” them.

I brought this up in conversation with the therapist. Some of it landed with my mother and some of it she denied, but regardless, speaking it aloud made a difference.

My intention for the trip was to show up loving and supportive of my mother, but refrain from letting her emotions affect my mood or trying to problem-solve for her. This concept set a new precedent for our relationship.

One of the hardest things to explain is the fact that I did not expect my mother to change as a result of my actions. The change that I was hoping for, and at least partially achieved, was in and for myself. At times throughout the trip, my mom was just as controlling as she has ever been. My work was to show up calm, compassionate, loving, and clear — no matter what she was doing in a specific moment.

The experience of this trip got me reflecting on where else in my life I may have acted with codependence. When I look back at my very first romantic relationship back in college, I see threads of the same codependency I have with my mother. My former partner and I were consistently care-taking for each other and unhappy if the other was displeased. That was not the only relationship where this has been the case. When I look at my history as a leader of teams, I have a lot of strengths: I am compassionate. I am a clear communicator. I care enormously about the well being of my people, but sometimes I care beyond a healthy limit. There are times when it is not okay with me for my employees to be unhappy.

“Love. Guide. And then let go of the outcome.”

I think of good leadership, whether with a family member, a romantic partner, or a business colleague, as having three principles: love, guide, and let go. Love them. Invite them towards what you are wanting. Then let go of the outcome. Historically, I have been unable to let go of the outcome.

While the trip to Ghana was by no means a magic cure-all, it pushed me to spend those 4 weeks practicing how to love, how to guide, and — especially that cursed third step — how to let go of the outcome.

The first week was really challenging. Primarily because Ghana was a very challenging location to travel through, but also because the consistency of daily practice and spending more time with my mother than I have since I was 18 provided a level of practice that allowed for long-term change.

Three days after returning from Ghana, I evacuated my family from the Sonoma County fires and was grateful to discover an ease in leadership with my parents that had never existed before. Packing the house until midnight, getting up at 3am — all the while, trying to figure out which time zone I was in — allowed me to find a level of collaboration with my family that had never existed previously.

A walking safari in Mole National Park

I’m excited to bring this significant change into all relationships in my life going forward — into romance and every work relationship that I will have for the rest of my career. I look forward to transferring this skill and being able to show up more clearly than I was able to previously. Perfectly? Of course not. But with a new and improved baseline for loving leadership.

Last weekend, my mother called me up and my mind immediately jumped to several things that I had promised to do for her but had not yet completed — calling travel insurance, paying bills, etc. Before I could say that I was getting to them, my mother stopped me to say that she really appreciated everything I had done to support her in Ghana and during the evacuations.

That acknowledgement is not the reason I went to Ghana and took 4 weeks out of a busy career. I did not expect my mother to change in any way as a result of our time together or even appreciate my efforts. My work was about unpacking the complexities of our relationship. But that acknowledgement was definitely the icing on the cake.

My mother and my relationship is not perfect — and it never will be — but I’m grateful to have spent time putting in the work with her. And I look forward to more.

Meg Poe at Responsive Conference 2017 – “The Most Popular Class at NYU on Love”

I’m pleased to share this talk at Responsive Conference 2017 with Meg Poe, professor at New York University.

Megan Poe is a psychiatrist and interpersonal psychoanalyst who teaches one of New York University’s most popular and fastest-growing classes. Her topic? Love! At this year’s Responsive Conference, she’ll explore with us what it takes to live, love, and work well.

In addition to her professorship at NYU, Meg has a private practice in New York City. Meg’s mission is to help people feel most present and alive in their creative flow and inner life. She specializes in helping adults create more-intimate, fulfilling relationships in their lives and work.

This talk was recorded live at the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference in September 2017. Learn more at