8 November 2021
Starting in March 2020 when we went into work from home to combat covid-19, I held a virtual “coffee” session with everyone from my team invited. “Coffee in the Clouds” was an opportunity to share what was happening and to get some human contact with other people. We started out meeting 5 times per week and gradually as we got used to the strange new world reduced the frequency to twice per week. While there was no set agenda, it was a combination check-in, update, ask-me-anything, and an opportunity to get some social interaction. We had guest speakers, we did short seminars on online productivity tools, we talked about our holiday plans. Mostly it was a virtual ‘water cooler ‘ chat with anyone who wanted to join. As restrictions are easing, and there are more opportunities to meet in person, we held the last “Coffee in the Clouds” session at the end of October.
We ended almost every chat with a ‘quote of the day’, some inspiring words that I found somewhere. I gathered these from many websites, from friends I know, from experiences I had. When we first started meeting, the quote was definitely about finding some hope in this weird work-from-home situation we were all living with. Gradually I expanded the type of quote I was looking for to more generally inspiring, relevant, or simply interesting quotes.
The complete list of all the ~150 quotes is here. I’ve selected the top ten, and added some comments on why I selected them, what they mean to me, or where they come from.
These are in the order that they were shared.
- “Every storm runs out of rain” Maya Angelou (American author and poet)
The very first of our Coffee in the Clouds quotes of the day. Such a beautiful way to say that challenges – even big ones – do pass. Many quotes by Maya Angelou follow; one that I never used but that is among my favourite of hers is “When you know better, you do better.”
2. “I tried and failed. I tried again and again and succeeded.” Gail Borden.
Researching Borden uncovered one of those fascinating sets of connections about someone you’ve probably never heard of…. Gail Borden was a Texan who lived in the 1800s, a man of many skills. Among those, he was surveyor, newspaper editor and one of the people who planned the original city of Houston. If he is famous today at all, it would be as the “inventor” of condensed milk. Condensed milk could be kept much longer than fresh milk. He was also related to both Lizzie Borden, the accused axe murderer, and Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. Which implies that Sir Robert and Lizzie were related.
What I like about this quote is the importance of persistence. So many other great attributes fail when not tied together with persistence. Although I also believe the quote which is often attributed to Einstein that ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity’, so it’s important to make sure you are persistent but also learning and adapting.
3. “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” Amelia Earhart. Aviator.
Earhart was the first women to cross the Atlantic by plane. Holder of multiple early aviation records. One of the most famous missing people in the world, lost over the Pacific with her navigator while trying to become the first person to circumnavigate the world by plane. This quote combines nicely with the previous one. As a child I had a poster in my bedroom saying “Not to decide is to decide.” It’s better to make a decision and move forward than to dither.
4. “The role of a leader is to define reality and offer hope.” Napoleon Bonaparte
I often use this when teaching about leadership or program management or helping the leaders on my team understand their role. One of the best definitions of leadership ever. But should it be ‘describe reality’ or ‘define reality’? ‘Define reality’, which is the quote, sounds more like Napoleon – creating what he wanted by force of will. But it seems to me that being honest about where we are, being willing to admit the challenges, and then offer the hope, the roadmap, the vision on how to get to somewhere better is true leadership.
5. “The three most important ways to lead people are by example, by example, by example.” Albert Schweitzer
Also ways four through ten.
6. “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]? And I say ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that” Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I found this quote for the session right after Judge Ginsburg died. A great jurist and fighter for equality, and this is a great reminder about how far we are from that goal not just in the US but everywhere.
7. “Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will be stretching out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” Sir Winston Churchill
The eminently quotable Churchill showed up a lot on our calls. A more controversial figure than I realized when I was young, there is no question of his ability to seize the moment, inspire his country and the world with a brilliant line. Not so much a ‘project’-applicable quote where there are milestones and deliverables. But in the long run, it isn’t the destination that matters, it’s the journey.
8. “Start by doing what is necessary; then by doing what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” St Francis of Assisi.
One of the roles I’ve had at multiple consulting firms was to take over projects that weren’t going well and getting them back on track. This quote really sums up my approach to managing those troubled project situations. Often the team is demoralized. They don’t believe in themselves or that the goals are achievable. Little victories start to bring them around and lead to bigger and bigger successes. Just achieve one small milestone. That’s enough to start.
9. “We meet no ordinary people in our lives.” CS Lewis
After Churchill, CS Lewis was the most frequently quoted thinker in Coffee in the Clouds. Lewis is probably most-well known today as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe books). He was an Oxford professor, philosopher and theologian, an Inkling, and friend of JRR Tolkien – they reviewed each other’s novels in progress at meetings of the Inklings.
I often say “Everyone is the hero of their own story” as a reminder to try to look at things from the other person’s perspective. Lewis takes that several steps further. If only we could remember this in every interaction with people and see their extraordinariness!
10. “Anyone can hold the tiller when the sea is calm.” Epictetus
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic Philosopher. Born a slave, he eventually was freed and founded a school of philosophy. One of my all-time favourite quotes.
I think of this several ways; I’m sure that there are more.
The sailboat’s not going anywhere when the sea is calm, so it’s irrelevant who holds the tiller. With a favourable wind the boat can easily achieve its destination, with even someone reasonably competent at the helm. It’s when the seas are rough that we need our best person at the helm. A reminder not only to evaluate the results, but the situation and circumstances that led to those results. A reminder to assign people tasks aligned with their capabilities and capacity to grow too.