I Am Groot. Who Are You?

I finally got the opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy last week. Despite being a fan of both the Marvel movies and sci-fi space opera, I wasn’t sure if Marvel was going to pull this one off. One of the Guardians is a gun-toting, sarcastic raccoon, and another one is a…tree? If Marvel can do this, I thought to myself, they can do anything.

Well, it turns out that Marvel can do anything. Through the combination of top-notch CGI and a stellar voice performance by Bradley Cooper, Rocket Raccoon became the best character in the movie. Rocket’s voice and body language communicated his personality so well that his performance felt seamless. He had a clear identity and it came through in everything he said or did.

Rocket Raccoon

It turns out that the entire movie played with this theme of identity and communication. Guardians of the Galaxy made me think about how our sense of self influences the way we interact with the world. (mild spoilers ahead)

I am Groot

The other CGI character in the movie is Groot, a tree creature who can only speak three words: I am Groot. His way of connecting with others is to state his identity. This limited vocabulary doesn’t stop him from communicating with the team. Rocket (who knows Groot well) is able to interpret Groot’s tone. Rocket translates Groot’s one simple repeated statement into the details of what Groot is thinking.

Groot is comfortable with who he is and this is expressed in his actions. One great example of Groot showing his character is when he grows a flower for a random girl he spots on the street. It’s a touching scene, and demonstrates how Groot is communicating his identity by sharing a physical part of himself.

Groot giving a girl a flower

Groot’s identity is firmly rooted (how else?) in his connections with Rocket and the other Guardians. There’s a great scene later in the movie that illustrates this perfectly, but to tell you about it would spoil it. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If not, get out there and go see this movie!

 Call Me Star-Lord

In contrast to Groot, Peter Quill (the leader of the Guardians) is struggling with his identity. He left Earth when he was young, and he is clinging to his past rather than allowing himself to grow. He jokes around his fears and attempts to communicate with others through obscure pop-culture references. He confuses Drax, who has a tendency to interpret everything literally. Gamora also finds him challenging to communicate with, and asks him to explain himself in several scenes. These situations are played for laughs (and they are a lot of fun). But they are also showing how Peter’s lack of a clear identity is interfering with his ability to build relationships with others.

Peter Quill, Drax, and Gamora

Peter Quill, Drax, and Gamora

Peter tries to deal with his identity crisis by choosing another name. Peter wants to be known by a nickname he created for himself, one that embodies who he would like to be: Star-Lord. But no one takes this pretend identity seriously. Peter needs to grow up and show what he is made of, and he gets his chance as events unfold. By the end of the movie, he has reconciled with his past and has truly become Star-Lord. He has also forged close relationships with his team. (Just in time for a sequel!)

Who Are You?

Guardians is a movie about identities and how they support our interactions with others. It shows us how knowing who we are and what we stand for can help us make changes for the better. And it makes me wonder about my own identity. In our lives, we play so many roles. I have been (and still am) daughter, sister, student, co-worker, wife, mother, aunt, friend, writer. So who is the real me? How can I stay whole and grounded, so that I can connect meaningfully with others in a genuine way? How can I bring my best self to the world?

In Guardians of the Galaxy, a ragtag group of criminals goes on a journey of self-discovery and becomes a group of heroes who save the universe.

Who are you? And what will you become?

***

Just a reminder – if you haven’t had a chance to answer my quick summer poll, please take a second to give me your feedback on my blog. It’s your chance to change the future. 🙂 Thanks!

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Attack of the Jargon Gorgon

As he climbed the marble staircase of the Temple of Empowerment, Perceiveus prepared himself to face his greatest foe: Mesnooza, the Jargon Gorgon. Her confusing words had paralyzed many heroes before him. Perceiveus was determined not to make the same mistake.

He reached the top and found Mesnooza waiting for him in the torchlit chamber. He averted his gaze, catching only a glimpse of her glittering eyes. Her features were hidden behind the wall of writhing serpents that gushed from her head like oil-slick tongues. He didn’t need to see the rest of her to know that she was hideous.

Medusa by Caravaggio

“So, your stakeholders have finally sent you to deliver the goods,” said Mesnooza, affecting boredom. “Well, you may have an impressive body of work, but you’re just the flavour of the month to me.”

“We hope you had a game plan before you took on this stretch assignment,” hissed one of her serpent locks.

“You can fire away, but you’ll never be buzzworthy,” pronounced another serpent.

“You think you’re bleeding edge, but you’ve had your heyday,” taunted a third serpent.

Perceiveus ignored the serpent chorus. He circled Mesnooza with caution as her serpents stretched towards him. He flung a dagger at her heart, but she danced away from it.

“I hope you level-set your tiger team, because a win’s not in the cards for you,” sang Mesnooza. Her serpent speakers echoed her.

“It’s time for you to eat a reality sandwich, and stop chasing butterflies.”

“Should have done your due diligence before giving in to blue-sky thinking.”

“Those red flags might have warned you that this was a career-limiting move.”

Perceiveus struggled to concentrate. He grabbed a torch from the wall and thrust it at the nearest serpent. It cried out in pain and went silent. Enraged, a nearby serpent bit his arm, denting his armour. Another serpent whipped him across the face, and he staggered back.

“I don’t think you’re giving this one-hundred-and-ten percent,” snarled Mesnooza, upset by the fiery attack. “Time to go back to the bush league.”

“Feeling hot under the collar?” sneered a serpent. “You’re on a burning platform, and you’re dealing with a bag of snakes.”

“Face it, you’re behind the eight ball. Time to pay the piper.”

“Too many balls in the air. You can’t hack it,” spat another serpent.

Hack it. Sword! In the confusion of battle, Perceiveus had forgotten his primary weapon. He drew his blade and began slicing through his reptilian enemies.

“You might think you’re making an impact, but I’m not low-hanging fruit,” panted Mesnooza, as she dodged his blows. Her serpents were not faring as well. Their voices became weaker as their numbers diminished.

“You might be gaining traction, but you haven’t moved the needle,” one murmured as it went unconscious.

“You think you have your ducks in a row, but we’re playing hardball,” whispered another faintly.

“Time to…think outside the box!” croaked a wounded serpent, before Perceiveus cut its neck clean through.

Mesnooza was exhausted. No one had ever stood up to her power, and she did not know what to do. Her single remaining serpent seemed to realize the game was up.

“Let’s get down to brass tacks and bottom-line it,” said the serpent. “It’s cut and dry that it’s time to put this to bed. Time to fish or cut bai-”

Perceiveus looked up from the serpent’s severed head. “It’s over, Mesnooza.”

But Perceiveus had made the mistake of looking Mesnooza in the eye. Now that she was no longer hidden behind her jargon serpents, Perceiveus could see her true face. She was the most beautiful woman that he had ever beheld.

“I’m sorry I caused you trouble,” she said. “I feel so free now, like a great weight has been lifted from me.”

Perceiveus was stunned into silence.

While Perceiveus stared, Mesnooza slipped away through a side door and escaped from the temple. Who knew that I could stop men in their tracks without my jargon? she thought. Enough of that ugliness. It’s time for me to start a new life. And I’ll create a new name to go with it. Hmmm. I’ve always liked Helen…

***

Image: Medusa by Caravaggio. Source: Wikipedia.

I hope you enjoyed my retelling of Perseus and Medusa. This story was inspired by my difficulties in cutting through jargon in a business environment. What jargon have you heard that brings on your fighting spirit?

Would Your Captain Be Proud?

My favourite scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is known as “Captain’s Orders.” I’m not going into all the details here, because I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it. In this scene, Captain America tells a group of people a difficult truth that goes against what they believe. He then asks them to take courageous action based on that truth. And they do it. Why? Because the Cap asked them to.

If I had seen this in any other movie with any other character, I would have rolled my eyes. In today’s environment, where we have lost faith in so many of our leaders, who would act based on one person’s word? But it works. Because this is Captain America as played by the talented Chris Evans. And his character has unquestionable integrity.

Would you follow this man? I know I would. Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Would you follow this man? I know I would.

Anyone who’s worked in the corporate world knows how difficult it is to maintain your integrity, especially when you are in a leadership position. My worst experience as a manager was a time when I disagreed with upper management’s direction but needed to inspire my staff to follow it. I had to separate out the corporate message from my message, and speak to what I believed—because I needed to hold on to my integrity. At the end of the day, I’m the one who has to look at myself in the mirror.

Since that time, I’ve been careful to avoid putting myself in that situation. I try to live one of my favourite sayings from Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” This is the best statement on integrity I have ever seen. But it’s difficult to follow. So it’s good that I have many captains to look to for inspiration. Captain America may be the best of the bunch, but he’s not the only captain out there with integrity. What about Captain Picard of Star Trek: TNG or David Weber’s Honor Harrington? Speculative fiction abounds with captains who lead with integrity. And we can learn a lot about leadership and communication from them. Here are three things that I have learned:

Let them see who you are

The more genuine you are in your communications, the more your team will relate to you. Everything you say should come from your heart. This can make you feel vulnerable, but it will support you through difficult times. Don’t try to pretty things up or try on a different personality. People can sense when you are being yourself, and will respect you for it. As Captain Picard tells us, “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for who we really are.”

Communicate with a clear intent

Do you have a purpose for communicating that you believe in? Your agenda in speaking should be clear to you and your team. I’ve written in the past about Captain America’s direct communication style. This goes beyond style and into substance. Having an influential speaking style is not going to get you anywhere if people do not see your belief.  Get out from under the corporate speak and say what you mean.

Tell the truth, but don’t feel like you have to tell everything

There are some things you just have to keep to yourself. If communicating something will make things worse for people, don’t say it. Talk about what will help, not what will hurt. If Honor Harrington always told her crew the truth about upcoming spaceship battles (“We are almost certainly going to die”), they would never triumph against the odds. Holding a harmful truth close to your chest is not a lie—it is an expression of your values.

The most important lessons in life are basic truths that you can post on your office wall. Walk the talk. Think, speak, and act in harmony. Value your people. And make your captain proud.

***

Thank you to Andrew Knighton, whose post on self-publishing and integrity inspired me to write this.

How do you maintain your integrity at home or at work? Are there captains in your life or in fiction that inspire you?

How to Make First Contact

Calling up a stranger on the phone can be intimidating. It’s like you’re on the bridge of a spaceship making first contact with an alien species. If the conversation goes wrong, you may end up causing an interplanetary incident. Or at least get yelled at.

I used to work in a call centre as part of a customer relations team. Our job was to call customers who had complained about our company’s products and resolve the situation. When I first took on that job, I had doubts about my survival. How could I possibly talk to upset people every day? It turned out to be the best learning experience I have ever had. I now feel confident that I could ring up the Grand Poobah of Alpha Centauri and not break into a sweat. Why? Because I’ve learned how to master first contact.

The first thirty seconds of a phone conversation are critical. Here are five things I’ve learned about how to create a good first impression:

1. Watch what you eat before you call.

Never make an important call right after you have eaten a large lunch. Your body is too busy digesting to have any energy for brain work. And stay away from certain types of foods. Dairy foods, for example, can thicken up your throat and make it harder for you to speak clearly. Drink some water before you pick up the phone. And whatever you do, stay away from that spicy alien food!

The incomparable Alan Rickman as Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest

The incomparable Alan Rickman as Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest

 2. Prepare your first sentence ahead of time.

Think about your purpose for calling. After you get through the initial greeting, what is the first thing you are going to say? How will you start the conversation? Everyone is busy, so you need to cover off your key message in the first sentence. You could be selling services, responding to an inquiry, or asking nicely for those energy weapons to be pointed away from your ship. Whatever your purpose, plan it out so you don’t stumble on it during the call.

3. Smile.

A strange but true fact: when you smile while talking over the phone, the tone of your voice automatically changes. Even if you are feeling grumpy, force yourself to smile as you talk. You will sound friendly and approachable. Try it. Right now. See? It works! And because you’re on the phone, it doesn’t matter how fake it looks. (Although those aliens probably wouldn’t be able to tell anyway.)

Those Thermians from Galaxy Quest haven't quite mastered the human smile yet...but they're working on it!

The friendly Thermians from Galaxy Quest haven’t quite mastered the human smile…but they’re working on it!

 4. Start with a greeting.

It’s amazing how often people forget to say a simple “Hello” before launching into a speech. “Hello” is an amazing word. It means “I acknowledge that we are about to have a conversation, and I’m happy to have the chance to speak with you as a fellow traveler through the universe.” Don’t skip this! A greeting ritual is valued by all beings as a sign of respect. (And saying “Hello” is much easier than trying to bend your hand into a Vulcan “live long and prosper” gesture.)

5. Get the name right.

No one wants to listen to their name get mangled. It doesn’t matter that there are no apparent vowel sounds in WxrtHltl-jwlpklz. That is no excuse. Look up the name, and if you can’t find it on the internet, take your best guess and go with it. Then ask, “Have I pronounced your name correctly?” before you speak any further.

Now that I’ve covered off the secrets to a successful first contact, it’s time to go eat lunch. Mr./Ms. Reader, it’s been wonderful speaking with you. Thank you for your time. May you have a fabulous day!

Excuse me while I freeze

Oh, the joy of public speaking. You get to stand up in front of your peers as they stare at you blankly. (You just know they are thinking about when this will be over, so they can go grab lunch.) You persevere regardless, until suddenly you forget what you were going to say. The silence stretches.

If only you had a good excuse, you think. Maybe a Death Eater has cast a petrificus totalus spell on me. Or I’ve been transported to that episode of Buffy where nobody could speak. (At least then your audience would be suffering along with you.)

But no, it’s only stage fright. How humiliating.

Best episode of Buffy, ever. Except maybe the musical episode.

Good question.

I used to really hate being in front of an audience. I took drama classes in high school to get over it. Trust me, after you’ve squawked like a chicken as part of a class exercise, nothing is embarrassing anymore.

If you’re like me, it will never be easy for you to speak in front of people. But you can definitely master it, and even be known for your fantastic presentations. Here’s some suggestions on how to get there:

  • Rehearse. When a witch mixes up the words of her spell, she can accidentally summon a demon. (Oops!) You’re lucky—all you have to worry about is sounding like you know what you’re talking about. Grab an empty room and present to the wall. The first time you talk through it, you are going to feel like an idiot. Do it again and you’ll start to figure out what you want to say. By the third time, you’ll sound like a natural.
  • Take your time. Pretend you are speaking in slow motion. This will help you go from too fast to just right. You will look and sound relaxed. This will fool your body into thinking it’s relaxed, too. As a bonus, your audience will easily understand what you are saying.
  • Use the silence. Got stuck somewhere? No problem. Use this time to drink from a glass of water and casually glance at your notes. Don’t feel the need to add any fillers, like “um….” People like a good pause—it gives them time to digest your words. If you’re still struggling, then ask your audience a question. (“What do you think?” “Any questions so far?” “Did anyone else see that demon over there?”) By the time someone else finishes speaking, your brain will be back on track.

I’ve had people tell me, “You made it seem so effortless when you were up there. I could never do that!” The secret is that it’s not effortless. You need to do your prep work. Then you’ll be the one casting a spell on your audience.