Steward Your own Growth

In my last post, “Check Your Professional Baggage,” I suggested that asserting your needs or accomplishments directly to your supervisor is not necessarily the best way to create opportunities for growth and fulfillment. Rather than leading to the validation and compensation that we crave, such actions can instead lead to self-destruction or marginalization, both of which should be avoided at all costs.

So what is the better way, I’ve been asked. And am I really suggesting that women should simply allow ourselves to be taken for granted or underutilized, rather than standing up for ourselves and asserting our value and self-worth?

I’ll begin with the second. Of course it’s not right, or necessarily fair for professionals to be pigeon-holed or constrained by jobs, expectations, or leaders that are overly narrow or restrictive. But fairness, or the actualization of human potential for that matter, are not the primary lenses employed in the workplace- or at least not the workplace to which I’ve been exposed. While our professional histories with all that we’ve accomplished, endured, and contributed blaze like beacons in our own minds, they may barely register with leaders who control access to opportunities for growth and advancement.

So what can we do if we are not getting the support or supervision that we need to grow and be successful? Many suggest that in such situations we should leave our positions in search of healthier environments with better leadership. For me, the notion of equating my own success and growth with effective supervision suggests a perpetual state of vulnerability and searching with no guarantees of rest.

Consider the following assertion. Growth doesn’t happen through validation, appreciation, or being handed an opportunity.   Clearly, all of these conditions can support and even expedite growth, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to make it happen.

Growth is an internally driven process that involves expansion and evolution of skills, knowledge, and contributions. As you grow it’s natural to seek new opportunities and challenges through which to flex your talents and maximize your impact. Although many of our jobs feel restrictive and tight, we can usually find spaces in which to grow, developing new skills, insights, and connections that correspond with our areas of interest and goals.

And regardless of whether we’re expanding and evolving where we are, new opportunities are developing all around us, even though we may be completely oblivious or disconnected- especially if we are consumed with our own “stuckness” and misery. Being able to capitalize on emerging opportunities involves a sense of timing and sensitivity to shifts in circumstances, priorities and contexts, along with an ability to leverage your specific skills, experiences, and relationships.

Interestingly, while you ready yourself for these emerging opportunities, it’s actually the big categories of perceptions that can matter most. Rather than the specific historical details about what you’ve accomplished and endured, it’s the relationships and reputation that you’ve created- are you perceived as pleasant, competent, a team player? Although these categories may seem overly simplistic and even insulting in light of all that you’ve done, issues of collegiality and interpersonal dynamics are a major influence in securing the opportunities and positions we seek. I have seen leaders go to unbelievable lengths to avoid dealing with women who are perceived as emotionally fragile or needy (my words, not theirs), even if they are extremely competent and valuable from a human capitol perspective.

Based on my own experiences, here are some high-impact investments to consider with regard to your own professional growth and fulfilment.

  • Work on the values of humility and gratitude. These lenses will ground you and see you through periods of transition and dysfunction, no matter how long-lasting.
  • Cultivate your skills and knowledge. We can always expand our understanding of the world, and education is an investment that always pays off.
  • Build real and authentic relationships. In the end it’s the relationships that will lead to opportunities and fulfillment. While popular, the notion of networking is superficial, always go with real relationships that are built on respect and trust.
  • Find your passions and interests. This is often harder than it sounds, but figuring out what you really care about and what moves you will help you find the path for growth and fulfillment.
  • Lead from the middle. Regardless of how far up (or down) the food chain you find yourself, there are always opportunities to support others around you.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that women – or men- should stay in unhealthy situations, or positions that constrain our growth and potential. There is much more to say and write about this topic, but my point here is simply that if we are serious about fully contributing our gifts and talents, we must begin to empower ourselves to steward our own growth.

Check Your Professional Baggage

luggage

It’s not surprising that so many talented individuals are seeking professional growth and advancement. And based on my own experience I can certainly understand the sense of urgency and despair that can go along with feeling stuck and underutilized.

But as I interact with professionals from varied backgrounds and positions I am seeing a common pattern that is both troubling and dangerous.

On one hand, I see professionals (mainly women, although not exclusively) who are yearning for the recognition and validation that they deserve. In addition to their talent and potential, they seek appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices that they’ve endured for the good of the organization or unit. These yearnings, when unmet, can be so strong and compelling that many turn to the promise of new positions or employers as the only viable solution.

But interestingly, while staff members are seeking validation, recognition, and opportunities for growth, supervisors are focusing almost exclusively on high level goals and priorities, with little focus on cultivation of talent, innovation, or professional development. Obviously, this observation represents a sweeping generalization and is offered not as a gesture of judgment or acceptance, but only to point out what I see as a significant disconnect.

My concern is that when professionals (often women) feel underutilized and undervalued, they are often counseled by well-intentioned colleagues, friends and family members to assert their worth. They are encouraged to point out their various accomplishments and contributions, clarify how they are working beyond specified expectations, and in essence stand up for themselves, demanding the recognition and opportunities that they deserve.

My concern is that these types of self-empowering behaviors can run directly counter to the leadership environment, inadvertently putting the professional at risk.

Here’s how I see it. All of the details about our individual jobs and what we’ve accomplished and endured over our careers and lives are highly personal experiences and memories that are closely connected with similarly charged details that are easily triggered (see my post titled “The State of Being Stuck” for further explanation). This is why we often get emotional at work when things are particularly bad or stifling.

Perhaps not surprisingly, leaders tend to function primarily at more abstract and less personal levels. Their interactions with staff and employees easily get filtered through polarized labels leading to overly simplified distinctions such as “team player vs. loose cannon”, or “pleasure to work with vs. needy or unstable”. These labels in turn can become even more powerful than our actual accomplishments, talents, or the sacrifices that we’ve made, thus affecting future opportunities for growth or advancement.

My point is that given the leadership environment, the act of directly asserting our needs and personal/professional histories may not be the most effective way to gain the recognition and opportunities that we seek. I know this assertion may fly in the face of conventional guidance or wisdom, but frankly, I am tiring of seeing so many talented and capable women self-destruct around me. There are better ways to ensure our growth and fulfillment.

 

Make Room for the Unicorns

 

unicorn

My daughter Natalie can’t be burdened before she goes to bed. Any mention of schoolwork or summer reading is quickly dismissed. She explains that there is simply no room for serious thoughts. She must keep her head clear for the unicorns and other fanciful creatures that fill her dreams.

 Not surprisingly, Natalie loves to go to sleep. She tackles her nighttime ritual with gusto, cozying under her covers and shooing me away after a quick book and kiss goodnight. And she always rises with a dreamy faraway look, slowly transitioning into the world of wakefulness and the promise of a new day.

 Like Natalie, I too enjoy sleeping. But sadly, no unicorns visit me during the night. Perhaps my mind is too cluttered with serious thoughts. Perhaps there is simply no room for them to play.

 Over the years I have worked at readying for sleep. I have trained myself to relax, replacing anxious worries with soothing calm. And most nights I am able to drift off into nothingness, a restful reprieve between busy days.

 Yet the quality of my slumber pales in comparison to Natalie’s. What I wouldn’t give to glimpse her unicorns, to stroke their downy white fur and feed them sweet treats from my hand. But even more than her unicorns, I envy Natalie’s ability to slip into the world of magic and fancy by simply opening her mind.

 Is this a blessed gift of childhood, or a secret all her own? I shall prepare my mind for unicorns and hope that they will come.

 

 

 

Experiential Learning: “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” – David Livingstone

EL

Educational trends rarely excite me. By the time they’re broadly embraced, they’re often mere shells, stripped of any real meaning or theoretical power. And yet, despite my cynicism, I can’t help but celebrate the growing buzz around Experiential Learning.

Experiential Learning encompasses all flavors of applied education including academic internships, mentored research, service-learning, and cultural exploration. And while many schools and programs have long embraced their benefits, the notion of Experiential Learning is rapidly permeating more traditional bastions of education resulting in exciting new opportunities and programs of study.

From a cognitive standpoint, which is my own academic background, the benefits of applying learning within diverse contexts and settings are both obvious and compelling. And when facilitated properly, they can result in deeper and more sustained learning and opportunities for access and transfer of knowledge.

When viewed through the lenses of relevance and real-world application, Experiential Learning can be a catalyst for innovation, workforce readiness, and the types of entrepreneurial thinking and problem solving that we seek across disciplines and modalities.

But beyond its virtues as a high-impact pedagogical tool, Experiential Learning is a wonderful vehicle for supporting character development and identity formation, helping individuals to frame their own goals and interests within broader contexts and needs. Not only is this necessary for our long-term societal health, but also for the fulfillment of individuals seeking to utilize their own education and skills toward the greatest impact.

Interestingly, by embracing the value of Experiential Learning, we begin to view our roles as educators and parents quite differently. Schools and programs seek to provide rich and meaningful opportunities for students to explore and integrate, applying and deepening their learning through facilitated reflection and inquiry. And in this new paradigm, parents ideally help prepare their children to be open and ready to embrace opportunities and the learning they afford- even (or especially) when the lessons are inherently difficult or dissonant with their own experiences and ideas.

This is a role that I thankfully learned from my own mother, who seemed to understand the value of fully immersing oneself in new experiences and adventures, especially in the formative years. As I prepared to depart for my junior year of high school in Germany, I remember her dismissing my flowing tears, instructing me to not waste a single moment feeling sad or missing my family or life in Buffalo. Instead I should fully embrace every single moment of the experience that lay before me.

As I reflect on my current role as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at the University at Buffalo, I could offer the same motherly advice to our current and future students. Before them lies literally a world of opportunities. And our job is to help them embrace and integrate these experiences into their undergraduate preparation, positioning them for success, fulfillment, and an impactful career.

These are the wonders of Experiential Learning.  It is indeed an exciting time!

Go Ahead and Frame It

frame

As I sift through seven years of accumulated stuff, readying my office for an impending move, I can’t help but reflect on the two distinct piles that sit before me.

The first is contained within a massive recycling bin and consists of endless reports, proposals, articles, and documents of various lengths and content. Despite the care with which they were once prepared and filed, they have become entirely disposable, not even worth shredding let alone transporting to my new office.

The second pile, however, is proportionately precious. It contains mementos of people and projects that have permanently infiltrated my identity and how I work and live. Not only will these treasures enjoy a place of honor in my new office, but they have recently been framed, and will hang proudly on freshly painted walls, helping to guide the next phase of my ever-evolving career.

This notion of framing our proudest accomplishments and integrating them into our work is in many ways a big idea- especially when our achievements are only tangentially related to our official job descriptions or titles. As women seek more fulfillment and challenge from our work, we often find ourselves supplementing our jobs with community involvement and outside initiatives, knitting together a patchwork career (see my blog post of the same name). While holistically, such activities can mitigate the discontent and restlessness that can come with feeling underutilized, they are ultimately inadequate as long-term solutions for growth.

And yet these supplemental activities often become the most satisfying aspects of our work, significantly contributing to our overall effectiveness and stability as professionals, while at the same time remaining outside the scope of discussion or compensation. How does one negotiate this inherent dilemma?

Clearly, this is delicate business. Anytime one steps outside the boundaries that have been set for them, there is risk involved. However, it is absolutely possible to stretch the spaces around us, and often necessary if we wish to achieve the fulfillment that we crave. Within virtually any job there are opportunities to flex our skills, interests, and experiences in ways that add value without threatening those around us.

The secret is largely in the framing. By stepping away from our specific activities and interests, we can identify points of alignment and synergy with our jobs, supervisors, and the contexts that surround our work. Once we can identify the common themes and ideas, we can then begin to weave them together to expand our notion of what we do and have to offer as professionals.

But in addition to framing, we must also develop sensitivity to the boundaries and limits of how far we can go. What makes people uncomfortable, what are the hidden implications and threats at play? Or perhaps more importantly, what do the people around us need to feel successful, safe and supported? Once we understand these variables we can better frame and share our own experiences in ways that will enrich our respective work while supporting the collective efforts of our teams and organizations.

 

May You Be Humbled

What do you hope for your daughter?

I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.

“I hope she is humbled.”

Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.

I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.

My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.

My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.

How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.

Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.

An Unexpected Plug for Peer Mentoring Circles

I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.

What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.

In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.

Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.

When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.

This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.

This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.

Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.

While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.

The State of Being Stuck

stuck

Like modern cars with interconnected systems and computers, our lives- and careers- have become increasingly complex. Although our sensors are robust when it comes to signaling feelings of dissatisfaction, many of us lack the specialized tools for diagnosing specific issues and making the necessary adjustments to get us back on track.

Serving simultaneously as drivers and technicians of our own lives can seem daunting. But if we accept the importance of this duality, we must begin to assemble the appropriate tools that are designed specifically to address the nuanced ways in which we find ourselves stuck or off-track, and can lead us toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our current and future roles.

Through my background in Cognitive Psychology and my professional experience in Higher Education, I have come to understand the various heuristics or short-cuts in reasoning that can undermine our growth and satisfaction. Regardless of the merits or constraints of your professional situation, these limitations can collectively undermine success and happiness. Luckily they can all be addressed through a deliberate “reprogramming” process, but they are critical to recognize and bring into awareness before such progress can be made.

While I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, I will make an exception and provide more extensive details below. From my vantage point, the pervasiveness of “stuckness” in the workforce when coupled with the underwhelming job market makes these types of posts and strategies more important than ever, but I am curious to know whether readers are ready to embrace this type of assistance (see my request at the end of the post).

Too tight

Consider the importance of labels in our lives. We give them to people, objects, and places, almost anything that can be described or categorized. We even label ourselves, describing our jobs, lifestyles, philosophies and political views. Labels fulfill many purposes. Although each of us experiences the world in slightly different ways, labels provide a sense of consistency across variation, allowing us to communicate, connect, and operate on common terms. They also allow us to make inferences and guesses, helping us to process information quickly and efficiently. Clearly, without labels life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with limited opportunity for reflection or sharing.

In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competencies extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeon-holing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.

While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations.   Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.

The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.

Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation.   At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. But be forewarned, doing so can upset the delicate balance of relationships and expectations, and should be implemented with caution.       

Too low

In addition to constricting our space with narrow labels, we also set our gaze too low, forcing ourselves to stoop, eventually stunting our growth. Think of your mind as a web of interconnected layers of labels, concepts, and ideas. At the lowest levels are your actual experiences, things that are happening or have just happened- individual conversations, images, or thoughts. These low level experiences are highly personal, charged with emotional details and content connected in turn to other personal experiences that are similarly charged. As you travel higher in your web, you find more general and abstract labels, ideas, and beliefs that have fewer personal details. While lacking in emotional content, these higher level labels can offer rich guidance, helping us to understand complex situations and make strong decisions through reflection, reasoning, and higher order thinking.

In the professional realm our highest levels might include strategic priorities, mission aspects, or general beliefs about our work and what we do. This level tends to be the most resistant to change, regardless of new leadership or contextual influences, our highest level ideas serve as anchors providing us with consistency and guidance through periods of change and uncertainty.   In the middle layers you might find strategic goals and objectives, or threats that are of immediate concern. And at the very bottom are our day to day meetings, activities, and interactions.

Of course each of your layers and networks combine and interconnect, making up a complex web of information, thoughts, ideas, and memories with various levels and sub-levels. As human problem solvers we have total access to this universe of connections. We can work from the top down or bottom up depending on our needs and situations. We can jump between layers and sub-layers, connecting disparate experiences, deepening our learning and understanding towards better decision making.

And yet despite this expansiveness, we tend to stay at the lower levels, focusing on immediate experiences that are emotionally charged while offering little insight. Just like junk food that gives us a quick fix but little else, these low levels perpetuate a hunger and craving for more stimulation. Just walk around a coffee shop, shopping mall, or other public venue and listen to the conversations of passers-by.   You will hear play-by-play accounts of conversations and experiences, emanating with emotion and interpersonal drama. Since low-level details are emotionally charged, they easily trigger other experiences and past dramas, creating patterns and priming reactive responses. Although staying at this level can provide immediate validation and temporary relief, it does little to create movement or open the way toward greater growth and fulfillment. Instead, it keeps us stuck.

In the workplace, this tendency plays out in different ways, causing employees to perseverate on low-level tasks and activities without seeing the larger picture or goals. They may focus on being busy, seeking validation, looking for respect and growing frustrated when they feel undervalued or appreciated. Others may fixate on interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, complaining about how they are mistreated or about the toxic environment in which they work. Although people universally crave growth and respect, they often look to be given it through opportunities, titles, or responsibilities. And in doing so they may fail to access the universe of possibilities that surrounds virtually every choice and decision they make.

Too Close

As problem solvers we are notoriously lousy at seeing the world through others’ perspectives. Researchers have long studied the limitations that accompany human cognition. Many of the classic studies focus on young children, who, depending on their specific developmental stages can make some surprising errors, being fooled by the way things look. They tend to focus on the most obvious dimensions, believing that a taller and thinner vessel contains more liquid than one that is squatter, or a stretched out row of pennies contains more money than one that is close together. As adults it’s easy to smile at these errors, dismissing them as endearing examples of children’s naivete and innocence. But the truth is that even adults get fooled by appearances, trapped by our own perceptions and perspectives.

How we view the world and the decisions we make are largely influenced by our personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds.   What comes into our sensory systems in terms of images, sounds, or stimulation is interpreted by our minds which activate concepts and labels in our interconnected networks to give them meaning and context. Our languages help us make sense of the sounds through perceiving words and sentences; our religious and moral frameworks help us interpret right and wrong; and our individual cultures and families help us discriminate between opportunities and threats. Even though we understand at some level that others may have different views, we are quick to believe the veracity of our own interpretations and experiences, jumping to conclusions and diving back into the weeds.

Luckily there are some powerful ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives. They involve moving ourselves out of the lower layers to find more powerful frames and labels with which guide our insights and specific perceptions. We should recognize that is only through the understanding of others’ perspectives that we can adapt our own behavior and decision making to be maximally effective and impactful.

Too Dark

We expend a great deal of energy trying to preserve ourselves in all of our facets. We are wired to see threats, both literal, in the coming to attack you sense, but also more subtle emotional kinds. Once we perceive someone or something as bad or somehow “against us”, we begin to interpret their behaviors and actions through this lens, which in turn becomes highly charged and primed for activation. 

Categories associated with dangers and threats are of a special kind. Even at the highest levels of our networks they elicit fear and strong emotional responses. Some have theorized that these labels are necessary for survival and are rooted in a fight or flight response.   But regardless of their origins, they seem to have a uniquely loaded nature, heightening our negative reactions once ideas or labels are associated or connected. Another way of looking at this is through the idea of thresholds which are levels of activation necessary for a label to be “fired.” Although many high level concepts require significant thought and reflection to be accessed and understood, categories like danger, fire, or enemy activate more quickly and easily, as soon as a threat is perceived.

Because we exert a great deal of energy to preserve and feel good about ourselves, and our tendency to see the world through our own perspectives, we are likely to assign others to enemy-related categories in the face of conflict. Especially when we are engaging at our lower levels where emotions run high and thresholds low, we are quick to trigger the danger response. Unfortunately, once these labels are triggered, our openness shuts down, in essence turning of the lights and missing out on the other information and details that could lead to other decisions and perspectives.

In addition to danger-based labels, we all have other categories and frames that are easily triggered and activated. Some of us are especially sensitive about our appearance, our families, or some other characteristics that make us feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate. We might also bring perceived threats from our childhoods or pasts, situations that made us feel weakened or small, that set up permanent triggers that remain ready to be fired. Once triggered they result in a shutting-down or darkening, mobilizing our resources for self-protection and defense. In this mode little growth and movement can occur. In the next chapter we will explore techniques for guiding ourselves through perceived threats and dangers in order to maximize learning and maintain our movement. But for now we should begin to consider the power of threats and triggers and how they can force us to shut down in the face of perceived danger.

 

Confronting our Fears

Take a moment to put these tendencies together- too tight; too low; too close; and too dark. It’s not surprising that collectively they elicit negative feelings. In fact these same words could easily be used to describe a torture chamber befitting a horror movie, the idea of being trapped in a tight and dark chamber without room to stretch or breathe. This scenario automatically triggers feelings of vulnerability and helplessness and makes us long to turn on the lights, and escape from danger.

The irony is that when it comes to stuckness, we are all trapped by our own doing. The same systems that allow us to be constrained- the network of interconnected levels, labels, and ideas- will also allow us to move and grow. It is completely our choice to override our pre-programmed tendencies and stretch beyond. I am happy to share some new tools that can help us more fully utilize our systems toward greater movement and growth, if there is an interest. Please reply if you find these types of posts and information useful…..-Mara

So You Want to Change the World?…..

I know you’re out there, even though I cannot see you.

Maybe we have already met. Or perhaps our paths are yet to cross in some interesting or circuitous way. That’s how it usually happens, some chance encounter or a connection through a friend. Or sometimes just a radiant energy that leads to further conversation. Although your stories are all unique, a distinct pattern has begun to weave itself. Perhaps the following profile resonates…

Although people are naturally drawn to you, you often feel alone, fundamentally different from those around you, like an outsider peering in.

Although you experience joy, you would not describe yourself as fun in the usual sense. Your happiness has a serious and reflective quality, a kind of gratitude rather than youthful abandon.

Although you are an achiever, you seldom take pride or satisfaction in your accomplishments. Instead, you refocus on the work ahead, yearning to use your gifts and talents toward the greatest impact.

You are at your best when serving others, and although you feel blessed with a strong sense of purpose and mission, sometimes these gifts feel like heavy burdens that are yours alone to bear.

Perhaps I know you because I am of your kind, and I seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to your energy- like an airy layer of possibility floating above the negativity and fear that protect the status quo.

The great news is that our number is growing, and those who radiate the strongest are young and brilliant, determined to use their talents to make significant and lasting change. They seem to know instinctively that our systems are broken, and they are ready to serve and lead, understanding that the two are inexorably linked. And perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid.

But they desperately need our help. Their power can only be activated through opportunities to mobilize and leverage their gifts. When the spaces (or jobs) are too tight or restrictive, or the goals too narrowly defined, their potential fails to be realized, with only the most local benefits and impacts.

In order to increase their numbers, we must actively cultivate the talents, passion, and sense of purpose that lie latent within all children and adults. But for these young professionals, the Super Stars who are ready and eager to make their mark on the world, we must put their talents to use recognizing that they are special and finding ways to connect them with the communities they long to serve.

For those of us lucky enough to meet these individuals, we must serve as their mentors and sponsors, helping organizations utilize their talents either through existing or customized opportunities. And when necessary, we must help them create new models and paradigms, connecting them with resources and support, nurturing their efforts and helping them take root.  This clearly calls for a deepened level of engagement and commitment.  However, once we contemplate the implications, we will realize that the true burden- and possibilities- are collectively ours to bear.

Flipping the Success Pipeline

Our society loves Super Stars, those select individuals who possess exceptional beauty, talent, and dispositions that propel them to places of privilege and honor. Their lives and successes serve as the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the massive industries that sell access to their worlds. With our collective adoration in mind it’s not surprising that we seek out early indications of stardom and compete for opportunities to nurture and support success, fast-tracking those with the most promise with elite education, scholarships, positions, and opportunities. This is the pipeline that is most direct and efficient, and the one that most artfully perpetuates the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, many who obtain positions of success and privilege do great things with their resources, serving on boards, establishing foundations, and subsidizing our most needed services. The undeniable fact is that without successful individuals who are philanthropically and civically minded, many of our communities would be stripped of the very assets and resources that we have come to rely on for our quality of life. Rightly so, we admire these individuals and appreciate their generosity, recognizing that they are special in going beyond the expectations that accompany the attainment of success.

But if we were to flip the pipeline and view stardom entirely through the lens of community development, would we select the same individuals to lavish with resources and support? While financial success would remain a viable pathway for making contributions, we would see it as at best indirect and inefficient. Simply waiting for and hoping that individuals will give back to their respective communities in ways that are significant and meaningful, and that these efforts in turn will translate into growth, is like waiting for Godot.

If we were serious about strengthening our communities our scouting for potential stars would look much different. We would seek out individuals who are closest to the challenges and problems, those who recognize the assets and capacities that could be leveraged and mobilized to make positive change. We would search for natural leaders from among our most challenged and underdeveloped communities and neighborhoods, those with a sense of urgency who spend their time and energies dreaming up solutions and developing their own capacity to catalyze change.

We would recognize that these are the people who are especially poised for success, and we would fall over ourselves for chances to cultivate and support their ideas, arming them with tools – leadership development, strategic planning, asset mapping, grant writing, mediation…. any strategies or paradigms that could aid their efforts and support our collective goal of making our communities stronger and our society healthier.  And once we prepared these individuals, organizations and systems would compete for them, offering signing bonuses and perks, recognizing their value in terms of furthering their respective missions and cultivating new and better opportunities associated with enhanced human capital and a more fully developed workforce.

What would happen then? Well, once these individuals achieved the success and notoriety that we have come to adore, they would start to become the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the industries that sell access to their worlds….

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