Successful leaders work hard at building environments centered around four qualities that have been proven to be the most transformational for empowering people. Ask yourself whether your leadership influence is contributing these important attributes.
"Christina's World" Andrew Wyeth (who died in January 2009 at 91 years of age) was one of the best-known U.S. artists of the middle 20th century, and was sometimes referred to as the "Painter of the People," because of his work's popularity with the American public. He learned art at an early age from his father, who inspired his love of rural lan
dscapes, sense of romance, and a feeling for Wyeth family history and artistic traditions.
In October 1945, his father and his three-year-old nephew were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home and was struck by a train. Wyeth referred to his father's death as a profound personal tragedy and a formative emotional event in his artistic career. Shortly afterward, his art began to be characterized by a subdued color palette, realistic renderings, and the depiction of emotionally charged, symbolic objects and people.
One of the most well-known images in 20th-century American art is his 1948 painting, “Christina's World,” currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The woman of the painting is his neighbor Christina Olson who was 55 at the time of this painting. She had an undiagnosed muscular deterioration that paralyzed her lower body. Wyeth was inspired to create the painting when through a window from within the house he saw her crawling across a field.
He described her as being "limited physically but by no means spiritually." Wyeth further explained, "The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless."
"In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul, almost," he said years later. "To me, each window is a different part of Christina's life."
So the painting depicts Christina’s journey of hope to get back to her house, the windows to her soul – the journey to reconnect with her true self in the midst of her disabilities, to hang on to the hope that she can fulfill her true soul’s purpose no matter what obstacles she faces.
The Power of Hope
Experts tell us that hope is one of the most powerful emotional attributes in helping us move our lives toward where we truly want to be. Without hope, we die. As author Brennan Manning wrote, there are three ways to commit suicide: take our own lives, let ourselves die, and live without hope. In those terms, consider how many people there are among us who are in reality committing suicide - they're letting themselves live without hope. Perhaps they're afraid of hoping (for fear of getting disappointed). Perhaps they don't even know what to hope for. Perhaps they don't think they're worthy of anything good to base their hopes on. In any case, they're taking their own lives by living without hope.
Hope is an optimism that believes something is possible, even when the reality we see appears to contradict the possibility. Hope not only refuses to let go of the possibility, it chooses to take action to turn possibility into reality.
So how does this work in real life? Think of people like former South African President Nelson Mandella and world-class athlete-cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. They represent countless everyday people who have done the same thing: rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.
Here's what Lance Armstrong once said: "If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from the. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: Give up, for fight like hell."
The power of hope is in its ability to help us create new facts about our possibilities - to chart new directions, to establish new behaviors, to take bold action in the face of odds and obstacles. That's what successful people do.
Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, Harvard neuroscientist and psychiatrist, describes the difference between successful and unsuccessful people. The study of successful people reveals that they “rely less on existing facts about any given situation to get what they want. Instead, they recognize the challenges, and rather than giving in to the relative impossibility of achieving their goals, they seek out routes that will allow them to achieve them. In other words, successful people do not lead statistically sensible lives. Rather than asking questions based on what is probable, successful people train their brains to focus on what is needed to accomplish the less likely of two options.” (Pillay, Life Unlocked, pp. 49-50)
How Hope Works the Brain - the Four Steps to Creating Your Reality
And the power of this Hope Approach is that it actually taps into and leverages the way the brain has been wired to work. “When the brain thinks that something is possible, it will stretch out the route for achieving it. It will chart a path toward your goal that is radically different from the course it would chart without hope. We call these motor maps and they are action plans based on information that we give the brain. They are highly dependent on what we imagine. If we remain fearful, fear will disrupt our imagination. If we focus on our goals instead of on our fear, the brain can use what we imagine as a guide for sketching out motor maps. This imagining is tied so closely to doing that expert athletes can literally make improvements in their performance by first imagining them and then practicing them. We call this motor imagery (or imagery of action), and it precedes actual movement or action. So, if you want to make a change in your life, first imagine yourself making that change so your brain can determine the route that will take you to your goal. Hope is necessary for action.” (Pillay, p. 51)
So what’s the process of using hope to create your new reality?
- Start with hope – believing that something is possible
- Then imagine yourself doing it (motor imagery)
- And your brain creates motor maps – action plans – to help your whole body mobilize into action
- Then ACT on those plans.
And the good news is that it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. If we continue to take those steps, it becomes a self-perpetuating process and creates its own momentum. Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good To Great, calls it the flywheel principle. With every simple turn of the wheel, it begins to pick up speed. Every turn creates more turn, until it finally has its own momentum. Our part is to keep turning the wheel - to keep doing the simple actions, keep taking the small steps that move us forward. The flywheel reminds us that our actions will ultimately generate a sustainable momentum.
Keep affirming your hope - keep imaging yourself doing what you're hoping for - and then keep stepping into the actions your brain creates to bring your imagination into reality - keep acting - and then keep on repeating those steps.
I'm a firm believer in this process, having seen the reality of it take place again and again for myself. Hope generates belief, which generates vision, which generates action, which generates reality. As long as I keep turning the flywheel, momentum keeps building. Don't stop turning the flywheel, don't stop hoping and acting!
Christina's World, Your World
Go back to Andrew Wyeth's painting. Notice Christina's body language. She's paralyzed from her waist down. She can only get around by crawling. There's a cross wind blowing - notice the strands of hair on her head. Her arms have an emaciated thinness. What's more, she's off the beaten path. See that? In the middle of a barren field. And her house stands on the top of a hill that for a paraplegic must seem starkly unattainable.
And yet what is her body language? Does it describe defeat? Hopelessness? Resignation? No, she's leaning forward, toward her home, what Andrew Wyeth describes as her soul, her true self. She hasn't given up. She's focusing her life on where she truly wants to go. She's about to mobilize all of her strength to move up the hill and get home. One crawl forward at a time. Putting one arm ahead of the other, pulling her lifeless legs behind. One crawl at a time.
Now that's courage. That's the power of hope.
So what do you find yourself afraid of? What feels hopeless to you at times? What do you tend to despair about? What are the obstacles you face that stand in the way of your dreams?
What does stepping into hope look like for you? What is the new reality you want to imagine? How can you affirm that vision to yourself and others again and again? Are you willing? Are you willing to take action, to create new facts and act on them in ways that move you forward? And are you willing to keep hoping, keep imagining, and keep acting, refusing to stop turning the flywheel?
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This last Saturday at Second Wind we began a new series ("Applying Your Spirituality To This Week's Glocal Hot Spot") in which we're taking a very current event happening in the world and asking what the story tells us about the journey of spirituality. How does this event inform and shape our spirituality so that we develop a real-world kind of spirituality, a perspective on faith and the spiritual life that works in real life, that embraces contemporary life in a relevant way. Saturday we focused on the story unfolding in Chile with the 33 trapped miners which has already broken the record for the number of days miners have been imprisoned underground. Experts are predicting that it will be at least another 3 months before the men are able to be rescued, provided more collapses don't take place. A heartbreaking story, to say the least. Imagine if you were a family member or one of the miners. How would you be feeling? What would keep you alive and hanging on? Would you hope for a good ending, even if the possibility existed that it might not happen? Would you allow hope to set you up for a potential catastrophic disappointment? Does hope work?
The Washington Post last week reported about Jerry Linenger who was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.
The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.
"Expectations unmet are a horrible thing," Linenger recalled, "especially when you're already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn't."
Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount. "They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow," he remembered, "and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy."
What do you make of Linenger's conclusion? Is it healthier to simply not hope, to not have expectations, in order to prevent disappointment?
Though I can appreciate the need to try to minimize emotional pain from loss and grief (I've gone through this many times myself), the truth is that according to recent neuroscience about brain formation and function, hope is one of the most significant brain functions to not only taking away fear but also to producing profound life transformation.
As we know, our brains were originally wired for fear responses - it was to protect humans from being gobbled up by predators - it's the basis for the fight or flight response. And according to recent research, fear is so wired into our brains that the brain actually "senses" fear-producing stimuli even at an unconscious level (before we recognize it). When something dangerous occurs outside of awareness, the conscious brain reacts to it. In other words, as experts are telling us, your brain prepares you to respond to danger faster than it does to other tasks, and it starts to respond to frightening things before you even realize they are frightening.
And unless this wiring tendency is proactively dealt with, fear always trumps everything. And when we live in fear, our stress levels stay heightened, causing us to live on increased cortisol which keeps our physical and emotional systems over-stimulated and thereby more susceptible to disease and deterioration.
I'm reading a book right now written by Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program and the Panic Disorders Research Program in the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital. Dr. Pillay is writing about the recent neuroscience findings about the brain and fear and how to overcome the tendency to be paralyzed from from fear: Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
He says that hope is the choice to make the assumption that something is possible. Instead of allowing the facts to justify fear, we use hope to reveal new facts and remove the fears. This is precisely what people like former South African president Nelson Mandella, world-class athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, and countless others have done every day. Rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.
According to brain science discoveries, hope and fear both wander around in the unconscious parts of our brains. They both require amygdala activation, and whichever one is stronger will win the amygdala for its own use (the amgydala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, a mass of nerve cell bodies, designed to be the danger alert system, "the guard dog of the human brain." "It's so powerful and efficient that it alerts us to danger in our environment within tens of milliseconds of detecting it.").
Dr. Pillay's point is this: "To be processed by the amygdala, emotions have to stand in a queue, with their order determined by their strength - the strongest soldier gets to the front of the line. If fear is strongest, then it will grab the amygdala's power and dominate all the other soldiers in the line. If hope is stronger, then it will be preferentially processed over fear ... So we have to develop a strategy to help hope 'bulk up' and have an intelligence that supersedes the intelligence of fear. This isn't easy because, as we've learned, our brains are structured so that the amygdala processes fear first in order to protect us from danger." (p. 52-3)
This certainly explains why it's easier for us to give in to the impulse of fear instead of building hope. But it also explains why it's so important for us to choose hope, to give intentional attention to hope and what it is we're hoping for. Regularly imagining the state of life that hope is directed to. Those specific activities build up our hope response. And when we hope, says Dr. Pillay, we stimulate out brain center (amygdala) to use its mass of nerve pathways to empower our bodies to act in harmony with that hope instead of short-circuiting it with fear.
Hope isn't a naive, feel-good fantasy approach to life. It's central to using our brain structure to facilitate positive, profound life transformation. We do need fear, too. We need to feel fear to keep us from dangerous situations - we need the fight or flight response for survival. But we can't live there - we end up destroying our systems if we do. So we must "bulk up" hope. We must choose to imagine what we truly want our lives to become. We must spend time directing our attention to that picture. We must allow our emotional, rational, physiological systems to mobilize us toward that preferred future.
No wonder many of the sacred scriptures of the great faith traditions talk about hope and setting our minds and hearts on the object of our hope. "Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see." (Hebrews 11:1) Confidence. Assurance. And the rest of that chapter describes how those qualities lead to dramatic and transforming action. Maintaining that kind of hope is what empowers us to take necessary steps to bring it into reality.
It's significant that all the families of the 33 trapped Chilean miners are staying on the mining site in a tent village that they're calling Camp Hope. They are choosing to stay focused and to embrace hope. Like Elizabeth Segovia, the wife of one of the trapped miners (reported by CNN). The day before the tragic mine collapse, she received a piece of great news - she was pregnant with a girl - an ultrasound had confirmed it. The next day, her world collapsed. She cried and cried. As the weeks went by, she found herself talking to her baby girl inside her, "Daddy's okay? Daddy's okay! It's going to be alright!"
Last Thursday, Segovia got a handwritten letter from her husband Ticona proposing they name their daughter Esperanza Elizabeth -- esperanza is Spanish for hope. "First, because we never lost hope," she said, and "second, because it's the name of the camp where the families are living; and third, because the 33 miners never lost hope either."
With her daughter due to arrive in less than two weeks, and her husband due to arrive in perhaps four months, Segovia plans to make a video of the birth to ensure he doesn't miss it altogether. "We have to record the birth in great detail, as well as everything that happens to my baby day by day so we can show him," she said.
What do you need to hope for in your life? What is your preferred future? What do you need to hang on to in order to stimulate your brain center into powerful action? Where are you most fearful? Is your fear paralyzing you? Can renewed hope in you create new facts to bolster that hope and bring transformation? Esperanza. Hope. Best to hang on to it!
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[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message they observe is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. I'm thankful that I came across one of Berry's poems this week, especially at this time of year when Spring reminds me of the promise of renewed life. I find myself needing hope these days for a variety of reasons, but particularly in my work as I struggle with a sense of the lack of meaningful accomplishment. Mr. Berry is writing to me. So here's the poem, "The Peace of Wild Things."
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I don't know if you ever feel a sense of despair over parts of your life or the lives of those you care for. I do ... especially lately. Maybe it's the stage of life I'm in, roaring into my second half with lots of dreams and hopes, when at the same time having to come face to face with a more honest acceptance of mortality and that all my dreams might not end up being fulfilled and that many of them could've been a tad unrealistic anyway. Maybe it's a wrestling with what success is and isn't - the difficult task of having to redefine it in more congruent ways - and yet still deal with a deep passion to have my life count for something significant. Maybe it's also seeing my parents reaching their sunset years and struggling with health and mortality, realizing that I'm the next generation in line to take their place, having to pay more attention to my own health needs as time goes on.
We all face a sense of despair in various ways and for various reasons. Sometimes it steals our sleep. Often it steals our peace. Too often it robs us of joy. We lose hope. What then? Pop the pills? Swallow the antidepressants? Escape or run away? Stay in bed? Smother the ones we're worried about with our presence? Hang on for dear life just because we're afraid of losing?
Here's where I'm moved by Wendell Berry's perspective. Notice his process of dealing with his despair. "I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." Berry has discovered that nature's ability to exist in peace is directly related to it not "taxing their lives with forethought of grief." One of our homo sapien challenges is that because we have the ability to ponder, reflect, and evaluate everything, we are tempted to live in the past or in the future, with regret or fear, rather than in the moment. We consequently tax our lives with "forethought of grief." And wow, it is a tax burden, isn't it! We're making payments from our emotional bank accounts all the time because of that tendency. Grief is the result - a constant feeling of loss (loss of hope, loss of reputation, loss of significance, loss of meaning or fulfillment, loss of purpose, loss of love, and the list of grief from losses goes on and on).
Berry noticed that the wood drake ducks and the great herons seemed to exist differently. He watched them sit quietly in the still waters, and patiently pick food out of the waters, and stand in the shallow water simply being in that place and in that moment. It was a scene of peace to him. So he intentionally placed himself there from time to time - and discovered that during those times, he was able to mirror that peace. His mind and heart became still like the pond water. He entered as fully as possible into those moments, letting go of his worry, fear, grief, and losses.
Looking up into the sky, he knew the stars were there behind the lighted firmament even though he couldn't see them at that time of day. They were "waiting with their light," knowing that the time would soon come when after setting sun their light would be seen again. Berry felt a sense of hope for his own life return. Nature has its cycles, its seasons - times of fruitfulness and times of fallowness. Nature seems to know this and it empowers its peace and persistence. Day-blind stars will shine in the evening. The barrenness of winter gives way to spring's new life.
I'm thankful for this reminder today. Just reading this poem takes me to a place of more hope and peace inside. Visualizing the wood drake floating quietly in the still waters, seeing the great heron now standing, now feeding, a bite here, a bite there - neither one obsessing or worrying or "taxing their lives with forethought of grief" - simply being and doing what they always do. Can I allow myself to be in that place, too? If even for a moment?
Berry ends his poem with, for me anyway, a helpful reminder: "For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." For a time. We can't always live in this kind of secluded peace. Life happens, the good and the ugly, with its joy alongside despair and grief, and we often can't predict it. But I need more times to "rest in the grace of the world." I need to carve out moments of grace, where simply being is enough, where I am all I need to be right then, and I am loved and embraced there, period. Maybe that's what the Hebrew poet had in mind when he wrote about the Creator God, "Be still, and know that I am God." In life's stillness and quietness, I feel the divine, the Sacred, and I embrace my enough in the mirror of the true Enough. Resting in the grace of the world. Does it sound as inviting to you as it does to me?
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Don't you just love seeing rainbows? There's something both ethereal and inspiring about them. People get so excited when they see one in the sky, telling whomever's around, "Look! There's a rainbow! Over there, over there! See it?" And everyone strains their necks to get a glimpse of those spectacular colors in the sky. It's almost as though seeing a rainbow brings some kind of unique gift to the observer (kind of like the proverbial treasure at the end of the rainbow). And if you're really lucky, you might see a double rainbow sometime - double the luck or blessing. Rainbows have been centrally portrayed in art, literature, music, and sacred scriptures for millenniums. For example, in John Everett Millais' 1856 oil painting he titled, "The Blind Girl," he used the rainbow - one of the beauties of nature that the blind girl cannot experience - to underline the pathos of her condition. Notice how she sits there, totally incapable of seeing this double wonder of nature that the little girl in her lap is craning her neck to see and enjoy. A rainbow is so powerfully evocative of life and hope, if you can't see one, you've missed a profound human experience.
In most religious cultures, the rainbow is a symbol of the divine presence, the bow of God, the brilliant light display of glory around God's throne. So the rainbow evoked a kind of deep spiritual fervor and hope for a divinely blessed life.
And here's where this beautiful symbol and metaphor takes on expanded meaning. Experts tell us that there are 7 basic colors to the light spectrum we see in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. But in reality, as they point out, there are infinitely many wavelengths between 380 and 740 nanometers - the visible spectrum of light. That doesn't even count the different tints and shades obtained by mixing in white, black, etc. So, in truth, there is an infinite number of colors, if you look at it that way.
"The actual estimate for how many different colors the human eye can distinguish varies between one and ten million, depending on the reference which you consult. However, the perception of color varies from one person to another, so there can be no single number that is true for everyone. The number of different colors that you, as an individual, can distinguish also varies dramatically according to the conditions; it drops to zero in low light conditions, in which only the rod cells of the retina can function, as the cone cells of the retina are required for color vision." (Paula E. Burch, Ph.D.)
In other words, the whole color experience and reality of the light spectrum is about diversity, differences, innumerable options and shades and perceptions. No one person sees it the same way. And there's infinite variety in what can be seen.
So here's what we have with the rainbow: a powerful universal symbol of Hope, of the divine presence and blessing, and of the amazingly rich diversity in the human experience. Amazing, isn't it? That which has always been a symbol for God is also a picture of infinite diversity.
Like sometimes happens when we end up missing the opportunity to see a rainbow because we're perhaps looking somewhere else or distracted by something else or simply not looking for one, could it be that we too often miss experiencing a profound divine blessing because we don't appreciate the rich diversity of life? We don't see God in the midst of life's variety and infinite spectrum of life because we've boxed God inside boundaries that are in fact too limiting to the infinite God of life - boundaries of belief, boundaries of faith, boundaries of the way we think people should be like. We allow ourselves to have such narrow expectations of ourselves, others, life, and even God and end up shrinking our souls a bit more and more as time goes by. If spirituality involves the experience of the Sacred and Divine in all of life, then our spirituality is diminished by refusing to let God encounter us in the midst of the rich diversity and variety and differences inherent in the fabric of life all around us. To experience diversity is to experience God.
So why would any one of us think we had the conclusive picture of reality and life? Why would any one of us think that there's only one way to look at God, or there's any one religion or organization that speaks exclusively for God, or there's only a few ways to be human, or there's only one perspective on an issue, or that some people are better than others? It's too much of a tendency for me to put people in boxes or to place my expectations on others, thinking they need to be more like me. It's too easy for me to sometimes feel threatened by someone else's views or contributions or life, thinking that if they get away with their perspective, I'm diminished in some way - rather than embracing the truth that all of us are strengthened and deepened if we each are given the freedom and encouragement to be ourselves. The very nature of life, as the rainbow so beautifully portrays, is the beauty and divinity of diversity.
No wonder William Wordsmith's 1802 poem "My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold the Rainbow" begins:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!…
I love the passion for life he portrays. He feels his heart "leaping up" when he sees the rainbow - he willingly enters into the joy of life, allowing himself to be ushered into the chambers of awe, wonder, mystery, and Spirit. It's so valuable for him to experience this divine reality of life through the rainbow that if he can't have it, he would just as soon die. Why go through life just trying to make it to death safely? That's not living. That's being dead already, even though the heart might be pumping and beating. Wordsworth's reality is that life leaps for joy when it sees the rainbow - the depth and richness of life happen in the midst of variety and diversity and difference.
I want a deep and more joyful life, don't you? So maybe we should open up the box more to include more, to appreciate and value more, to be aware of more, to experience more. Maybe we should let God be more. And then watch ourselves be surprised by the God of the rainbow!
Okay, I admit it - I'm drawn to cities ... always have been! I was born and raised through my teenage years in Tokyo, at that the time the world's largest city. Ever since then, whenever I go anywhere, I always want to get to the downtown of any city. Among many things, I especially love the skyline of huge, tall skyscrapers. I love driving home to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and seeing the massive skyline of downtown getting closer and closer, and then suddenly being right in the middle of it all, feeling awe, inspiration, wonder and excitement that I live here. Is this weird? I think I know why I love this, though. Read on.
My interest obviously got piqued when I read about the world's tallest skyscraper officially opening way over in Dubai last month to a spectacular fireworks, laser, and water extravaganza choreographed to music.
The characteristics are quite impressive: The Dubai Tower's 160-stories reach 2,716 feet. It's so tall that it's visible from 60 miles away, reports say, and the temperature drops 6 degrees from base to peak. Winds at the top can reach 90 miles an hour. The highest floor offers views of Iran. Its elevators will travel the world's longest distance, operating a speeds of up to 22 mph. Its nightclub on the 143rd floor is the world's highest; above it, on floor 158, the world's highest mosque.
The skyscraper is not only a testament to engineering and architectural genius but also to a bold and courageously counter-intuitive vision that gave birth to the original idea. Phil Anderson, managing director of Economic Indicator Services, an economic forecasting service based in London, blogged recently about the beginning of this modern phenomenon:
"Bradford Lee Gilbert designed and built the very first so-called skyscraper in 1887 as a way of tackling a client's unusually shaped six-and-a-half meter plot on Broadway in New York. The solution was to build an iron bridge truss, but stand it on end so that the real structure of the building started several stories above the curb - producing the best design to maximize occupancy and rentals.
New York's press ridiculed the idea. Fellow architects pronounced the building unsafe. Building experts said it would blow over in the wind, if it ever got off the ground. New Yorkers themselves were aghast at the notion of a building that would tower above their side-walk to a height of 160 feet. A fellow engineer and friend begged Gilbert to abandon the idea, pointing out that if the building really did fall over, his legal bill would ruin him. Lawyers confirmed this.
But Gilbert knew better, arguing that the building's structure, with wind bracings from top to bottom, meant that the harder the wind blew, the safer it would actually become. To put the matter to rest Gilbert requested the top two floors of the new building for his offices. And the rest, of course, is history."
I'm always in awe of people who have a vision to do something that is often ridiculed or thought impossible, a vision that is counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom, a vision that takes boldness and courage to live out. When those visionaries refuse to give up, when they build their dreams based upon their best research and understanding and end up producing something transformational, the world is left a little bit better for it. Little did Lee Gilbert know the global legacy he was leaving because of his act of courage and vision!
One of the things I love doing is walking into San Francisco's downtown financial district, right into the middle of that urban forest of monolithic, giant trees. I crane my neck and allow my eyes to follow the path straight up to the top of the skyscrapers. Especially when those tall glass-encased structures, glimmering in the sunlight, stand against a dark blue sky, the feelings I get every time are a mixture of awe, wonder, and hope. There's an instant elevating of my inner spirit and passion for life. Almost a sense of transcendence ... in the midst of the hubbub of activity and life all around me.
Interestingly enough, ancient cathedrals were designed to evoke similar emotions - the human spirit was being led to look up toward the divine as a person's eyes followed the upward lines toward the tops of the spires and high, vast ceilings. A place where the divine and human meet.
That's the way I feel when I'm in the middle of our urban glass "cathedrals" in downtown. I realize that I'm in direct contact with the amazing human spirit of creativity and vision and skill that put these buildings first on paper and then on the streets. It's awe inspiring to me when I think of everything that went into making these dreams reality. All of this helps explain why I love being right in the middle of big city downtowns.
Skyscrapers are by design symbols of the willingness to break normal limits, their peaks pointing to the limitless sky of possibility. Their existence stands as monuments to courage and boldness in the face of ridicule and doubt. In some ways, they're our urban cathedrals for the elevation of the human spirit toward the divine life of creativity and possibility.
I want to challenge myself and all of us urban dwellers to embrace skyscrapers this year as one of our symbols of hope and courage. As we each forge into new territory, I want to live a life of possibility, I want to keep dreaming and planning and working to help make the world a better place. I want to create sanctuaries of hope, where people's inner spirits are elevated and drawn to transcendence, where bigger dreams are dreamed, and profound transformations take place, even when others might ridicule or doubt. And I want to be a part of a community that helps others embrace their highest possibilities, too.
Hey, here's a great idea: maybe we should all take a trip over to Dubai to soak up some of Brad Gilbert's inspirational legacy. If you book me a ticket, I'll fly over there with you! Or just as good for me, come on over to San Francisco and we'll take my favorite walking tour through downtown together ... and see what happens to our spirits.