Category Archives: Quest Stories

Willa Nehlsen – “How do we live in comfort but not extravagance?”

I  had the pleasure of leading a StrengthsFinder workshop with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Willa Nehlsen was one of the participants. When Quixote Consulting leads a strengths workshop, we focus on finding the passion each of us has in our work and connecting with a sense of purpose – of doing our good work for the benefit of something larger than ourselves. Willa and I spoke after the program about how she was retiring soon and how to engage both of these paths to happiness in a very direct way. Then I wrote a series of blog posts about the oil spill and she wrote to me, “The human race has clearly won the fight to live in comfort with only a few threats from nature; how do we learn not to overshoot and destroy nature and ourselves? How do we live in comfort but not extravagance?” That got me off my seat! Here is my interview with Willa in two parts. First is her thoughtful take on moving more directly into a passionate life in retirement. The next provides great inspiration to use less. Willa Nehlsen on Retirement and Living Your Passion sound clip Willa Nehlsen on Using Less by Living in Comfort, Not Extravagance sound clip Willa’s Three Favorite Books: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges

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The Young Man and the Pipes – Jerry Roback Feels the Music in Vietnam

The Young Man and the Pipes – Jerry Roback Feels the Music in Vietnam By Jerry Roback Jerry Roback served in Vietnam in the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War. Jerry has a huge heart and many stories from his time there. He continues to travel back to Vietnam to help the local people whom he fell in love with so many years ago. Brave and playful, Jerry is an inspiration to me – and one heck of a kazoo player to boot. Here’s a musical encounter he had with a boy who plays the khaen, an instrument in the harmonica family. I don’t know where this kid came from. One minute there were a hundred kids jumping around me celebrating the hair on my arms and the look on my face, the next instant there he was, big as life standing right next to me playing his pipes. He must have been about 14 or 15 years old.  I realized that I had seen him before, hovering around the edge of the kids’ tribe watching me.  He didn’t have his pipes then. Back then, most of the adults were about 10 feet further back watching, friendly, but keeping their distance and he, like most teenagers, was in between. I couldn’t tell what he thought of anything or anybody. I just knew he was really interested in me. It was my first day in an Ethnic Minority, Mountain People village in 41 years and yet I was quickly feeling like I was coming home. There is a straightforward quality to these people, not much subterfuge. They’re right there staring at your bald spot or your camera or watching when you slip in the mud crossing the river and laughing and pointing at you. Laughter is both a great equalizer and a great re-assurer. I remembered this truth quickly because it has always been the experience that I have used to encourage myself to stay a little bit longer and go a little bit deeper into the strange new worlds I like dropping into from time to time. A little laughter goes a long way in those situations. I know that if my paranoia kicks in, I’m in trouble. I won’t have the slightest idea what is going on.  I’ll think that the people are hostile or arrogant or out to get me or something like that, but with these people since I’ve been there before with them, I was giving myself more of a chance to clear my fear barrier. Don’t get me wrong. I always try to look like I’m doing fine but the truth is that I’m not. I’m just hanging in there. The most credit that I can give myself is that I’ve learned to try to keep a part of myself out there looking for a good sign or a friendly wind to ride my way out of the scary place. This time the wind was going to be this boy. It’s just that I didn’t know it yet. Most times it’s like that with us people. If we give each other half a chance somebody is going to help us, give us a wind to ride our way right out of whatever it is we are afraid of. If you don’t believe me or if you don’t play your part in this beautiful dance of reassurance much anymore, you need to get out into the world where the nice and friendly people live and let them remind you of how to do it and how to be it before it’s too late for all of us. I don’t mean to be an alarmist but let’s face facts – these are times when the most courageous, valuable folks around are those with a smile on their faces and a twinkle in their eyes. The people causing all of the problems are the ones of us who don’t believe in the wind or carry the twinkle in our eyes anymore. And, believe me, I’m talking to myself on this one! On this day, it was just about when I was beginning to wonder if I ever was going to catch a wind or even if such a wind existed when I felt this hard nudge in my side and heard this sweet sound coming into my ears. I looked down and there he was playing those beautiful pipes. I knew right away that I was going to find the wind that I was looking for.  In fact, I already knew that it had found me. I could feel it in my bones. The peace and the love of life, and the reassurance I was looking for was blowing right out of this young man’s mouth and right up into my ears through those sweet sounding pipes.  All I had to do was listen. I was just starting to wonder where he was going to put the cigarette he was holding so that he didn’t burn himself when I noticed myself leaning in closer to him so that I could hear the music better.  I knew he wasn’t going to burn me or himself with the cigarette because it was already a part of his hand, 14 years old and it was just a part of his hand. About then I realized that the story on me was that I was simply trying to find one more thing to worry about to keep from letting go. Thank god I got over that! By now we were really leaning into each other like two lost brothers coming home. You know how music can get you like that. Everyone around us was listening. I realized that this boy was an honored musician in the village. How young he was didn’t matter. He had earned his spot by playing the hell out of those pipes. I was moving to the music. We were leaning into one another, shoulder to shoulder. I noticed he was looking at me, looking deep into my eyes while he played. I stayed right with him, leaning in, looking deep into his eyes right back. This went on for quite a while and then he looked a question into my eyes. I believe that he answered his own question then because he looked inward, gave himself a little nod, stopped playing and walked [...]

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Six Leadership Lessons from Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk director/writer/producer Christopher Nolan (Batman Trilogy, Interstellar, Inception) didn’t say these lessons out loud. Always pay more attention to what a leader does than says. I gathered this advice for leaders from watching the expansive special features on the Dunkirk DVD set. 1.     Keeping doing the parts of the job you love Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema are everywhere in the scenes of the filming taking place. It looks like the $100 million movie that two boys filmed. Leaders often move up through the ranks in a company. They’ve had a lot of jobs. But when they get to the top, they’ve only got one job. Don’t forget the part of the work you love to do. And spend time doing it. Don’t let go of something that grounds you to the work and your passion. 2.     Put your imprint on it Nolan likes using real film, not digital. He wanted natural lighting. He wanted IMAX. He wrote the story. And he was completely hands-on in every aspect. One of the actors tells how Nolan looked him over on the first day of shooting and told him the boots of his laces were tied incorrectly. British soldiers in WWII tied them differently. 3.     Make it real Minimal CGI, no green screen. No patina of colors . The film wasn’t even scanned digitally to add stuff in later. He used real ships, real planes from WWII where possible. And he used real kids (18-21 years old) as lead actors. There were no 40-year old infantrymen running around. When the bombs went off on the beach, those kids didn’t need to act, they were scared. And the actors that portrayed pilots were actually up in the air while they were in the cockpit. A real pilot was in the section behind them on the plane actually flying it. 4.     Go first Don’t make any of your people do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. Nolan was first in line to go up in those antique planes, first in the water, first to jump off of something, all of it. Go first and you’ve captured hearts and minds. 5.     Decide what you want to do…then figure out if it’s impossible or not Nolan wanted to film in IMAX format and he wanted the action handheld. AND he wanted to film on the wings of the planes in the air. The IMAX format cameras are over 50 pounds, not exactly handheld-worthy. And they’d never been brought up in the air the way they used them. Like Roger Bannister and the 4-minute mile we now know these things can be done. 6.     Listen to and lead with the passion you were born with Nolan grew up with this mythology – the most inspiring retreat in modern warfare. He’s lived with this story since he was a boy. And in the special features he’s everywhere – up in the air in an old Spitfire plane, in the water, jumping off a ‘sinking’ ship, everywhere. His passion came to life. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema reminded me of two excited boys running around in charge of a movie that cost $100 million to make. Christopher Nolan won his first Oscar for Best Director for Dunkirk. He earned it by leading with passion. How will you lead the change you want to make today?

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“We’re Too Busy to…” (Quest story)

Jayne told me the story of a team she once facilitated to help communicate more effectively. The leader of the team told her and his team a laundry list of things this team was too busy to do: •    We’re too busy to have meetings with agendas •    We’re too busy to touch base with people how projects are going •    We’re too busy to think about communication preferences This leader was also swamped: “I get 200 emails a day from the team telling me status updates.” What about his team? Here’s what they had to say: •    He sends emails barking orders that repeatedly say ‘get it done, get it done, get it done’. •    We’re successful but we hate each other. This was a team with swagger. All millenials (including the leader), they said to Jayne at the beginning, “You better have extra things for us to do because we’re going to be better and faster than any team you’ve ever worked with.” And they meant it. The first team building activity they tried they leaped into action…or more specifically the leader leaped into action. “Here’s what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.” And off they went, implementing his plan…at least at the start. The result? Jayne said it was amazing to see a team get something so wrong, so early in the game and stick with it. The plan pretty quickly got thrown out the window – not consciously, it just kind of happened that way – and they rushed headlong down a dead end, getting more and more frustrated. Then they looked at Jayne as if she had betrayed them somehow by giving them a challenge that they were terrible at. This story is sad and it’s funny in a schadenfreude kind of way. “Hey, at least we’re not that team!” And it may hit a little too close to home. Does this sound like a leader you know? Are you this leader? Are you on this team? We all share some of these characteristics when we’re under stress. Bad teams and bad leaders don’t lack energy or personal investment. What they lack is a way to work smarter, not harder. They get the job done operating in a pretty constant emotional state of “We’re successful but we hate one another.” You’re busy, too busy really. I know, I am too. But if you’re reading this – busy as you are – you’re at least open to answering three questions: 1.    What kind of team will you be on today? 2.    How will you lead? 3.    What will you do today…that you’re too busy to do?

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Quest Story: Skipping in Time by Rufus Collinson

I live on a busy city street corner in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Every evening, I like to sit on my stoop and watch the stream of humanity pass by – pedestrians, drivers and passengers. One cold night, I was nestled into my usual perch, watching and dreaming. Across the street, a teenaged boy suddenly grabbed the hand of his giggling girlfriend and began skipping down the sidewalk. They were in perfect skipping synchronization. Within two minutes, I felt as though I was watching a scene from a movie, probably a foreign film. A mother and daughter behind the skipping couple reached for one another’s hands and began skipping too. Two small boys on my side of the street, giggled and imitated the skippers across the way. Soon enough, every configuration of twos imaginable were holding hands and skipping toward the boulevard around the corner. A few feet from me, an elderly man skipped in place as his wife lifted her walker up and down in time with the rhythm of the crowd. I leapt up from the stoop and joined the throng, amazed by the transformative power of one exuberant action. We skipped together until we reached the boulevard above the harbor. There was a tiny moment of silence and then, each by each, we took one another into our arms and hugged. I walked home slowly, immersed in the blessing. I still am.

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Harpo Marx Buys a Brush (Quest Story)

On the vaudeville circuit in a city in the Midwest, the Marx Brothers were broke, had no gigs, and where on the verge of breaking the act up. Harpo made a crucial decision using his feeling function that was the tipping point in the Marx Brothers persevering, and eventually finding success on Broadway and the movies. Here is Harpo’s story, found in his autobiography Harpo Speaks. I was a man of nearly thirty years and here I was stranded in a strange city with seven cents in my pocket and no way of earning cent number eight. It was the only time I ever felt sorry for myself. I came out of my daze.  I was startled to find I was standing watching an auction sale.  The inventory of a little general store in the suburbs – groceries, notions, and dry goods – was being auctioned off.  There were about twenty people there.  They must have been jobbers, mostly, because the auctioneer was knocking down the stock in big lots.  I was careful to keep my hands in my pockets, so I could resist any crazy impulse to make a bid, and blow my entire capital of seven cents. The shelves were nearly emptied out and most of the crowd had left, but I still hung around, having nothing better to do with myself.  Finally everything was gone except one scrub brush, the former owner, hovering in the background, the auctioneer, myself, and an elderly Italian couple.  Either they had no money or they were too timid to make a bid on anything.  Whichever it was, they exchanged sad looks now that the auction was winding up. The auctioneer was tired.  “All right,” he said.  “Let’s get it over with and not horse around.  I have left here one last desirable item.  One cleansing brush in A-number-one, brand new condition, guaranteed to give you floors so clean you can eat off them.  What am I offered?” The old Italian guy and his wife looked at each other, searching for the key for the right thing to say.  The auctioneer glared at them.  “All right!” he yelled.  “It’s only a scrub brush!”  They held on to each other like they had done something wrong. I said quickly, “One cent.” The auctioneer whacked his gavel.  He sighed and said, “Sold-thank-god-to-the-young-American-gentleman-for-one-cent.” I picked up my brush and handed it to the old lady.  She was as touched as if I had given her the entire contents of the store.  The old man grabbed my hand and pumped it.  They both grinned at me and poured out a river of Italian that I couldn’t understand.  “Think nothing of it,” I said, and added, “Ciao, eh?” – which was the only Italian I could remember from 93rd Street. They thought this was pretty funny, the way I said it, and they walked away laughing.  I walked away laughing too.  A day that had started out like a nothing day, going nowhere except down, had turned into a something day, with a climax and a laugh for a finish.  I couldn’t explain it, but I hadn’t felt so good in years.  A lousy penny scrub brush had changed the whole complexion of life. When I got back to the hotel the money had arrived from Uncle Al.  Just as I anticipated, it had been decided that Groucho should audition as a single, Zeppo return to Chicago with Minnie, and Chico hire out as a piano player. To all of these decisions I said: “Nuts.” This was the longest serious speech I had ever made in front of the family, and everybody listened.  Then everybody started talking.  We talked ourselves out, until all our self-pity was gone.  What had happened to us was our fault, not the Shuberts’ or anybody else’s.  And what was going to happen to us would also be our own doing, not the Shuberts’ or anybody else’s. Aboard the east-bound Pennsy.  The other passengers on the coach kept complaining, so we bribed the porter a quarter and spent the night in the men’s room of the nearest Pullman car.  I tootled on the clarinet and played pinochle with Chico.  Grouch smoked his pipe and read a book.  Zeppo did deep knee-bends.  At the same time we were all working, throwing ideas into the kitty and putting together a show we could do back in New York.  None of us stopped to think how idiotic and deluded we were.  What show?  For whom?  We were not only exiled by the moguls, but now even the scavengers wouldn’t touch us. Absolutely idiotic.  And thank God we were.  The train ride from Indianapolis to New York, clacking through the blackness from the end of the line to what looking like the beginning of nothing, was the most momentous jump we ever made.  For me, it was the prologue to a new kind of life in a new kind of world.

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Quest Story: Pablo Neruda’s ‘Lamb and the Pinecone’

Born in Chile in 1904, Pablo Neruda was one of our most exuberantly generous modern poets. Here is a story of the power of small, unheralded giving to change the world. Pablo Neruda’s boyhood backyard was overgrown, and he spent many days exploring its small wild places. One afternoon, he discovered a hole in one of the boards of the fence separating his house from the one next door. Sensing something was about to happen, he stepped back. A small boy’s hand appeared and then disappeared again, leaving behind a small woolen toy lamb. Pablo looked through the hole for the boy, but he was gone. Moved by the gift, Neruda retrieved one of his most prized possessions from his house – a pine cone, “opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored.” He left it at the hole and went off to play with the sheep. That small incident had a profound effect on Neruda, and helped shape his gift to the world. He said that that incident was the first time he realized that all of humanity was somehow connected.

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Quest Story: What is a quest?

A quest is a journey toward a goal, an act of seeking – full of exertion and adventure. Some famous questors include: Don Quixote, Odysseus, King Arthur, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. When we read their stories, as well as those of modern business leaders, movie heroes, and famous literary characters, we discover many ways to re-invigorate ourselves. One way is to re-frame our daily work as a quest. We hope that each Quest Story presented here will provide inspiration for you. Each Quest Story highlights an individual, team, or group that embodies the ideals of the quest. Quests range from the famous to the unknown, historical to current, from the celebrated to the quiet. What’s your quest? If you know a person or group that is on an inspiring quest tell us and we may feature them (or you) in a future Quest Story.

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Boots Bootzin Quest Story

  Robert “Boots” Bootzin, also known as “Gypsy Boots” (1914-2004) Largely responsible for bringing healthy living, eating and the acceptance of organic foods to the American consciousness, Boots Bootzin embodied the Quixote ideal. His quest was for people to eat well, live well, laugh and be happy and he lived this quest fully in a wildly exuberant, zany style all his own. The inspiration for the Nat King Cole classic “Nature Boy”, Boots lived off the land for over a decade in a canyon outside of Palm Springs. He first gained national prominence when he got Groucho Marx’s seal of approval on You Bet Your Life. He appeared 25 times on the Steve Allen show in the 1960s to 20 million viewers, swooping in on a rope and getting Steve to try something organic or do exercises with him. He coined the term “smoothie” and ran the Health Hut, which was an inspiration for GiIligan’s Island. To celebrate his 50th birthday he ran 10 miles barefoot in 120 degree heat. He ran the LA Marathon when he was in his 80s. Here are some quotes from his appearance on You Bet Your Life and his autobiography The Gypsy In Me. “Watch what you eat. Exercise. Relax. Take Care of yourself. And be able to laugh. Laugh at life and enjoy it, remembering always to be tolerant of your fellow man, regardless of his beliefs and ideas.” “The important thing is not in what you do in life, it is in how you go about doing it.” “I’ve always tried to throw myself into something with everything I had.  I can’t way I’ve made much money, but I haven’t had an unhappy day.  This is more valuable than all the money in the world to me.” On living off the land: “Well, I lived there about 20 years, in caves and under trees and top of trees.” “Well, of course I didn’t have to pay any taxes living that way and I felt very healthy up there, I mean I had a lot of air, I like a lot of air.” “I ate wild berries and acorns and I climbed high fig trees and I’d eat sweet figs – I’d chase the birds away because they eat the sweetest.” “I ate sweet figs and grass – its good for your eyes, alfalfa – cows got good eyes, I want good eyes.” On meeting his wife: “I met my wife out in San Francisco beach and I was beach combing and she was practicing her ballet, so I always dreamed of being a Nijinsky, so I went into my dance and she got intrigued, so she decided to share the tree with me so we decided to get married – we’ve been happy ever since.” Did his wife live off the land too? “Well, she did for three months, but then afterwards the mosquitoes got her and peanuts, she got tired of peanuts and tired of climbing fig trees for her breakfast, so she said, I compromise and we got half of a house, I mean we got a little house, a little cottage, a room.” His occupation: “I’m a singing fruit peddler. I peddle figs and peanuts and the peaches in the desert, Bel Air, Beverly Hills and I sing and peddle fruit.” On the Nature Boys “We wanted to live as we wanted, but at the same time thought we could give others something to enjoy.  If we had any talent at all, it was in knowing how to enjoy life and, hopefully, spreading that joy a little bit.” Getting Married “Before the ceremony we celebrated on the courthouse lawn.  We drank carrot juice and sang and danced.  Gypsy Jean played ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ and the ‘Wedding March’ on the accordion.  Lois banged away on a tambourine.  And Charlie crashed away on a huge drum and rattled a bunch of ring bells.” The Health Hut (Inspiration for Gilligan’s Island) “Most of my customers were not celebrities.  I never refused anyone.  If someone came in and said, ‘I love your food, but I haven’t any money,’ I said that was all right, just put on an apron and help out tonight.  That is how I got all my help.” “I had two mottos at my health hut.  The first was ‘a good laff feeds the soul.’  I still feel that way.  We had fun every night and every day.  We had art shows, weight-lofting exhibitions, and sing-alongs (way before Mitch Miller).  The rule was anything goes, so long as the food was good and the customers had some fun.” “This is where my second motto came in.  I said the food and drink came ‘from tree to you.’” On the Steve Allen show “Usually I just tried to get Steve healthy.  I fed him lots of food – dates, nuts, alfalfa sprout sandwiches, carrot juice, everything you can imagine, and probably a few things you can’t imagine, things I dreamed up overnight.” “I did a lot of running around and yelling on Steve’s show, but underneath it all was a serious effort to promote health.”   Most quotes from: The Gypsy in Me! by Gypsy Boots (available used from Amazon) You Bet Your Life DVD Disc 2 – Episode #54-30: broadcast – April 7, 1955 Watch Gypsy Boots on You Bet Your Life here.

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Quest Story: Buddy Guy’s Chicago Blues Quest

Born in 1936, Buddy Guy grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a teenager he discovered his quest – playing the blues guitar. When he was 21 years old, he left Louisiana to seek his fortune in Chicago, where such legends as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Little Walter were at the peak of their powers. Almost painfully shy and self-critical, his money ran out. He didn’t have any gigs and he started thinking about heading back home. His luck changed when he was invited to audition at the famous 708 club, where Muddy Waters heard him. “I was going on my third day without eating in Chicago, trying to borrow a dime to call my mom to get back to Louisiana. And Muddy Waters bought me a salami sandwich and put me in the back of his 1958 Chevy station wagon. He said, ‘You’re hungry, and I know it.’ And talking to Muddy Waters, I wasn’t hungry anymore; I was full just for him to say, ‘Hey.’ I was so overjoyed about it, my stomach wasn’t cramping anymore. I told him that, and Muddy said, ‘Get in the car.” He competed in guitar battles, where he emulated the showmanship of his childhood hero Guitar Slim. “I just walked out there with this 150-foot cord, and it was snowing, and I just went straight on out the door. The next day the news media was there, wanting to know who I was.” His performance at a competition in 1958 battling with guitar legends Magic Sam and Otis Rush earned him his first recording contract. Buddy Guy’s fiery, exuberant and at times anarchic guitar playing and singing has entertained audiences around the world, from his early days backing up Muddy Waters and playing with the great harmonica player Junior Wells, to his highly successful solo career. His club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’ Learn more: Play the Blues - Learn to play the blues harmonica in just two hours! Each team member will receive their own harmonica, a copy of Blues Harmonica for Beginners book and play-a-long CD. Within minutes you will be playing a real blues song together. The grand finale features your team as the stars performing an original blues song that you have created together!

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