New Year’s Resolution: Out of the Weeds

weeds

I’ve always loved the New Year. The anticipation of things to come, new goals and aspirations, and the promise of growth and fulfillment- I get giddy just thinking about the possibilities. And yet, despite our dramatic chance to do something big and bold, we continually miss the mark, setting resolutions that are inherently underwhelming and even counter-productive, sending ourselves back down into the weeds from which we came.

If you follow my blog then you already know about the weeds. They are the scary dark regions of our inner world where we tend to go and stay. If you think of our minds as expansive networks of concepts, memories, and ideas that stretch out in all directions, the very lowest levels are the weeds. They are filled with personal and emotional details that are highly charged and interconnected. Once activated they quickly trigger related experiences and memories, creating a pin-ball effect that consumes our energy and resources, preventing us from accessing higher levels of thinking and decision making, and their associated benefits.

Higher is definitely better. Free of contextual details and hyper-connectivity, the higher levels allow us to think critically with emotional distance from the minutia that can paralyze our growth and deplete our resources.

But getting out of the weeds is tricky. Because our patterns and emotional triggers are so deeply ingrained, even as we inch our way up through positive choices and behaviors, one false move can send us back down, strengthening the very patterns that we’re trying to break.  Like tendrils wrapping around our ankles, the only way out is to disconnect ourselves entirely, removing their source of sustenance and support.

Although the process can be challenging, the underlying logic is quite simple. To emerge from the weeds we must create powerful goals that are less specific and detail oriented, far enough away from the weeds that they’ll stretch us higher while mitigating the risk of falling back down. Finding the right goals takes some practice. Want to lose weight? This is too specific and risky, tied to past issues and emotional triggers. How about making healthier choices, or being stronger? You might have to clarify what these look like or mean. You might ask yourself why you want to be healthier, is it just for you or for the people you love? What example do you want to set? Who is the person you want to become? By doing this additional clarification work, you can create new associations and roots that are positive and powerful, moving you beyond your insecurities towards growth and actualization, even in the face of struggle or uncertainty.

This process is equally powerful for professional goals. Are you determined to get a better job, or to get paid more? Such commitments can enhance your vulnerability and unhappiness, leaving you at the mercy of uncontrollable forces or decisions. How about better utilizing your strengths, or finding ways to stretch or grow, or associate yourself with more positive and professional colleagues or initiatives? Any of these will open up spaces to move and gain satisfaction, which in turn will lead to new opportunities within or outside your current roles.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when you can feel yourself elevating, your energy and outlook moving higher and brighter. And while set-backs and bad days will continue to be inevitable, you’ll find yourself less responsive to their triggers. And eventually, when you barely notice them at all, you’ll know that you’ve truly emerged from the weeds, with nothing but expansiveness and possibilities ahead.

The Big Reread: The Garden of Eden Revisited

hemin

Perhaps revisiting our youth is dangerous business. So dangerous, that our present narcissism prevents us from getting too close.

Did I find traces of my younger self within the pages of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden? Certainly. In fact, I immediately recalled the titillation of discovering this gem within a small German book store, paying what had seemed an exorbitant amount, and reading it boldly; or rather, trying to be bold in the absence of anyone to care. I was only sixteen, living as an exchange student in a small village in Rheinland-Pfalz. I had wanted to explore the world, to become worldly.

Initially the cover had drawn me in. The plot had sounded so sophisticated and risqué. And yet, in the end, it was the every-day descriptions that stimulated my imagination- the food and cocktails, the setting and dialogue, all described so richly with excruciating detail. I remember thinking, how truly amazing that such mundane objects and actions could become so exquisite, making me feel so strangely alive.

Upon my most recent read- I have to admit that I have picked this one up several times since my first introduction- I still felt the same sense of stimulation. However, this time it wasn’t the minute details that dominated my attention. Clearly, they still felt electric, but I now understood that the energy was not their own. Instead, it was radiating from the underlying tensions of the characters and their respective relationships. And ultimately, it was the fragility of the situation itself, or perhaps the inevitability of its ruin, that charged every detail with a heightened sense of sharpness.

This theme of inevitability took on a prominence both within the central narrative and also the stories within a story that I had barely skimmed in earlier reads. The idea that once set into motion, our interactions build towards some unstoppable crescendo. And although there is a nobility in exhibiting restraint, discipline, holding to the belief that we ultimately have control, in the end we must allow our lives to run their course. This recognition in turn creates a sense of detachment, which is perhaps a self-indulgence or instead a protective shield. But regardless, once the crescendo is reached, there is simply no going back.

As I reflect on my self-imposed challenge (see “The Big Reread”), I have indeed found traces of my former self within the book’s well-worn pages. And have also witnessed the distance I have come. Through my experience I now appreciate the impact that relationships can have, projecting their colors onto things and places, as if throwing their energy like patterns on a screen. And yet in many ways I am still that same explorer, trying to be bold, and still drawn to the humming tensions that play out just under and around the surfaces.

*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014

Homage to Deep Integrative Learning

Mapping Brain Circuits

For years I have watched reform play out in higher education and PreK-12, both within each respective system, and through efforts to more seamlessly marry the two.

While well intentioned, these initiatives have been woefully doomed, inherently limited by the very learning goals they employ.

For those who try to follow my blog, you may sense the coming of a familiar refrain. Namely, it is only through the pursuit of sufficiently powerful goals that we can extricate ourselves from the proverbial weeds that continue to pull us down. And unfortunately, in the world of education, and certainly PreK-16 collaboration, the goals that we have thus far followed have been underwhelming at best. Workforce readiness, critical thinking, and even college preparation, while all important constructs, are insufficiently powerful to actualize the latent potential of our systems, or their respective students.

In some ways the problem can be viewed as a moving target. We can prepare students for key jobs and career paths but the economic landscape will continue to shift and change. We can prepare students for college, but higher education will continue to morph in response to its changing realities. And while critical thinking is certainly important, it begs for specific ends and purposes in mind.

The undeniable fact is that the world is changing at an accelerating rate. And if we want to survive and thrive within this dynamic environment, we desperately need goals that can serve as both anchors and drivers, expanding the space for innovation and creativity, while at the same time ensuring a strong and stable foundation for growth.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge, such goals are well within our reach. In fact, I would argue that the notion of Deep Integrative Learning might just be the Holy Grail we’re all seeking.

What is deep integrative learning? Perhaps it can best be understood through its associated competencies: the ability to attend to the underlying meaning of information and content; to integrate and synthesize different ideas and sources of information; to discern patterns in evidence or phenomena; to apply knowledge in different situations; and to view issues from multiple perspectives.

While each of these represents important abilities that align closely with employer needs and expectations, thus supporting the goals of employability and indirectly college readiness, collectively, they offer so much more. Beyond academic and professional success, they address societal and civic needs related to personal responsibility and perspective taking. And from the standpoint of pedagogical diversity, they present a vast universe of learning opportunities, including both academic and non-academic experiences.

Beyond its conceptual merits, however, I have seen the benefits of deep integrative learning first hand. Students who return from study abroad or a service trip profoundly changed, and look at their discipline and career goals through a new set of lenses. When we are able to support and empower these students by nurturing their observations, testing their assumptions and stereotypes, and introducing them to new paradigms and frameworks, we will witness the generative power of learning. In addition to  better workers, students, and professionals, they will become better citizens and stewards of the world, the ultimate goal to which we should all aspire.

A Year of Gratitude

gratitude

One year and 94 posts since I first started my blog

It began as a whim, or perhaps an experiment. What would I share, and would anyone read it. I gave myself a year to find out.

At first it was a guilty pleasure, posting observations and critiques that I had amassed over the years. Hitting the publish button felt cathartic, and somehow emboldening. But the satisfaction was always short lived. Each post catalyzed the next, like a cascading need to give voice, to externalize, to release.

Yet over time, and writing, my mind has cleared. The intervals between posts have lengthened, and I find myself strangely in the present, not worrying about what to write, or think, but simply knowing that inspiration will come.

It usually visits in the morning, in the form of an idea, a phrase or observation that reveals itself as truth. And once acknowledged, it begs to be developed, quickly taking shape and form as I struggle to keep up.

Everything about this process is personal. And yet the exquisite point of connection with my silent readers is what brings it to life. I often sense that my ideas are not intended solely for my own benefit, but will resonate with some unspoken need or yearning.

Although I cannot know the intended, this knowledge elevates my sense of purpose and the purity for which I strive. Shedding layers of pretense and ego, I try to reveal what is most vulnerable and true.

Doing so has undoubtedly changed me. In addition to clearing my mind, it has allowed me to shine more brightly, to resonate at a higher frequency, or however you choose to interpret it.

And while I once feared that the intimacy of my musings would evoke discomfort, I have found the opposite to be the case. People seem to respond to this level of intimacy, which in turn deepens engagement, allowing for more productive and meaningful relationships.

Interestingly, over time, my external audience has become an internal filter, helping me distill the essence of experiences and ideas, reflecting on whether they are sufficiently worthy of contemplation and sharing.

Increasingly, the answer is no. The urgency and heaviness that once cluttered my mind and prodded my writing, has transformed into an airy sense of wonderment. It often evades rumination and worry altogether, instead encouraging me to slow down and simply be.

What a journey this blog has been. And what a treat to touch souls with you, my silent readers, on your own quest for fulfillment and truth.

And so, as my one year anniversary quietly passes, I am unsure what is left to be written or shared. Yet I know that turning back is no longer an option. Forward and upward, and together, we must go.

The Big Reread: Siddhartha Revisited

siddhartha

Some twenty-five years after my original read, I returned to Siddhartha looking for a trace of the teenager I had been, and perspective on the distance I’ve since come.

Admittedly, my reread began with some frustration. I wanted desperately to remember how I was first connected with the book. This contextual detail has become an important thread in my recent evolution. I have learned to embrace connections and the serendipity/fate that often catalyzes my most meaningful encounters. But despite my best efforts I have been unable to uncover the source of my initial interest. I suppose the question of how a 15-year old would stumble upon such a heady read will remain a mystery, at least until it is ready to be revealed.

Yet my connection with the book was immediately apparent. Its cadence and voice spoke to me in a way that was familiar and intimate. The story of a boy who is bright and curious, acknowledged for his academic gifts and promise, but rejects the easy path for a journey of personal growth and enlightenment. The resonance with my own childhood made me laugh out loud; curious and smart, certainly, with a leaning toward blatant insubordination.

Of course I had loved this book. The beginning of the story was affirming, giving me the validation and approval that I had so desperately craved. I was a precocious child who yearned for so much more – more experiences, more meaning, more truth. And although I did well by everyone’s standards, I felt trapped by the small town, small ideas, and compliance to conventional teachings and wisdom.

It was this insatiable version of me who leapt from the pages, urging me to rush forward, skipping over details devouring the big ideas, leaving me hungry for more. But as I sat rereading Siddhartha, pacifying my inner child, slowly reading aloud to appreciate the cadence and beauty of the prose, I found myself suddenly alone. Although the lessons of Siddhartha’s later years rang resoundingly clear and true, poignantly speaking to the adult I now was, the text had lost all familiarity. I was clearly reading it for the first time.

I laughed out loud as the realization hit me. As a teenager I had obviously skipped over the entire second half, racing toward the end, ready for my next read. I had gotten what I needed, what I had wanted from Siddhartha’s early years, and had dramatically declared the book to be pivotal to my growth and evolution.

To the current me, Siddhartha is clearly about the wisdom of humility, the insights that come from the rhythms of nature and the intimacy of touching souls. It’s about the riches of a life lived with honesty and simplicity, and about receiving the gifts that come when we are ready.

Although I cried when I came to the end of Siddhartha, it was not from sadness. Yes, I had enjoyed reconnecting with the youthful impatient version of me, but I was grateful for the sense of peace and reflection that enveloped my second reading. And this time rather than rushing through to get to the good parts, I instead found myself lingering on every page, hesitant for the book to come to an end.

*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014

Committing to a Commitment Cleanse

cleanse

I’m no martyr. I take little satisfaction in enumerating the various organizations and activities with which I’m affiliated. In fact, I’ve grown almost embarrassed by my obvious state of overcommitment, worrying that it reflects some sort of personality disorder or escapism.

To be clear, I have no problem making changes in my life. I have grown quite skilled at identifying negative patterns, making healthier choices, and embracing a better lifestyle. In general, I feel happy and content, but the more cleanly I live, the more glaringly obvious my commitment issues become.

So recently, I finally committed to cleaning out my commitment closet, extricating myself from boards, organizations, and other activities that have become somehow extraneous or nonessential.

I started by identifying my core commitments. Family was definitely first. As my children grow older, their school and extracurricular activities seem increasingly more demanding, requiring more of my time and attention. Next, my work, which has recently changed in its rhythms and demands, making it more and more difficult for me to get away from campus. And last but not least, myself, yearning for more rest, relaxation, and balance, a chance to enjoy my life and all its myriad blessings.

Once I clarified my core commitments, I began to inventory my obligations that lay somewhere outside, especially those that seem to conflict or take away from my key priorities. Participating on community boards, my membership in a service organization, and the various ways I try to help people, saying yes to basically every request, and driving around town to cultivate relationships and explore possibilities. Although each of these activities has had an important place in my life, I was ready to accept the fact that collectively they had become unsustainable.

But how to extricate myself?   This was, and remains the hard part. Unlike a diet cleanse, there is no immediate gratification or visible transformation. Community work, when deep and meaningful, can prove difficult to bring to a halting stop. And even when one is able to find a way out, they might find a glaring hole left behind. Since we are drawn to community work for own emotional and psychological needs in addition to our desires to have a positive impact, these needs can reemerge even more defined and raw than before.

In this way, a commitment cleanse is more of a long-term transformation, involving three distinct yet interconnected categories of growth and change. First, the decisions of what to phase out and how to do so in a way that is not destructive or damaging to yourself or the community to which you are committed. Second, how to prevent yourself from slipping back into additional responsibilities and activities, and addressing the patterns that can manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

But the third process is perhaps the most important from the standpoint of ultimate happiness and life satisfaction. This involves shifting our focus back to our core commitments and finding more fulfillment, moving our gaze higher towards more powerful goals and objectives, and finding satisfaction in living a life that is balanced and aligned.

The Big Reread

books

I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.

I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.

Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.

I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.

My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.

By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.

The books I am rereading

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)

Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand  (early college)

The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)

Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)

West of the Night by Beryl Markham  (adulthood, Tanzania project)

The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)

The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)

 

*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way

 

Fairies, Unicorns and Most Things Magical

tunnel2

I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Clause and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no.

This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound.

It is grounded in the existence of infinite diversity, and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible, especially when we focus on the greater good.

From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust, transferrable and scalable to most domains and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and teachings, remaining open and determined to find something of value.

From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.

To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford.

In some ways my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored.

But interestingly, my belief policy does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they would never admit it.

Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped inside. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open, with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and reimagine themselves.

You might ask whether my belief policy is somehow counter to my training as a researcher, but I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Data and research allow us to be thoughtful and reflective, pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. But ideally, they should be grounded in theories and world views that are strong and powerful, guiding our questions and interpretations, scaffolding us higher and further.

I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may be unconventional, but I can assure you of their inherent appeal. And since the Land of the Cynics isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I encourage you to take a little vacation.

I will leave my door ajar, just in case you choose to visit… and stay.

Wishing our Leaders Would Dig a Little Deeper

 

shovel2

I’m a sucker for vision. When a bold leader lays out a plan that is clear, compelling, and resonant, I find myself tingling with anticipation. But when the moment of visioning passes and the focus shifts to implementation and administration, I always sigh with disappointment. Another missed opportunity to commit to the standards of quality and integrity that we so desperately need.

As a person who works in the vast spaces between vision and outcomes, I could use a little help. For once, I would love our leaders to dig just a little deeper, clarifying commitments and standards in addition to goals and objectives- a value, a promise, a commitment to something real and authentic, something that we can hold on to, that will not shift or move.

Of course I can understand their reticence. In a world that is constantly changing with new threats and obstacles emerging by the moment, any promise of quality seems risky and naïve -especially in the world of higher education, with systems comprised of diverse campuses, programs, and faculty all prizing their respective freedom and independence.

So when visions are set, it is the highest and broadest metrics that are employed, essentially inventorying and counting impacts, highlighting stand-outs, while implying consistency and quality through messaging and story-telling.

To be clear, I’m not some accountability or assessment freak. Nor do I inherently like being told what to do. But I know that the very act of defining quality in a way that is meaningful and clear is often the most powerful part of the visioning and leadership process.

If we turn to the world of manufacturing, this point becomes clearer, with the specific widget or commodity dictating the design of production. Ultimately, it’s an insistence on consistency and fidelity that refines the internal mechanisms, calibrating and realigning, until the desired product is not only achieved but guaranteed.

But when we look at our own system of higher education with its disparate campuses, programs, and teaching faculty the challenge of consistency and fidelity become both daunting and critical. When a leader boldly sets a vision for the entire system, it- by definition- has the potential for great impact, but only if it is clear and consistent enough to be implemented with fidelity.

Without this assurance from the very beginning, we will continue to define quality through our own respective lenses and tendencies, failing to leverage our full potential as a powerful engine for change.

As someone who designs courses, programs, and initiatives I know that virtually anything is within our reach, especially when we have compelling and resonant goals to help inspire and guide us. But for once I wish we would just go for it, setting a high standard for quality and fidelity to which we can aspire and rise. Not only will such a standard ensure consistency and impact, but it will help us to be a better, stronger, and more relevant system, thus ensuring our sustainability for decades to come.

we are so very small

alice

Have you ever noticed how a particular life lesson can continue to present itself, not relenting until we finally acknowledge its wisdom?

For me, the notion of scale has been a frequent visitor over the past several months, seemingly begging to be explored and appreciated.

So here it goes…

During my recent Global Explorers trip to the US Southwest (see various posts), our Navajo guide mentioned how small and ephemeral we all are relative to the vast permanence of the Canyon walls. He was speaking primarily to the children, explaining that although their lives and struggles can feel massive and all-consuming, we are here for such a brief time, and should feel blessed to experience the beauty and gifts of the earth. He urged them to follow the rhythms of nature, to find comfort in our collective smallness and to respect the spirits that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. I was fascinated by his words and their calming effect on the children. Although in many ways our time in Canyon De Chelly was the least adventurous and exciting part of the journey, it would become one of our most precious memories. And for me, seeing the children (including 2 of my own) snuggled cozily under the blanket of stars, rocked by the cradling arms of the Canyon, was a vision that will stay with me forever.

But when I returned home to Buffalo, I sorely missed the towering Canyon walls and the sense of scale that they imposed. As I spoke with parents and students about the beginning of the school year, their anxiety was palpable. They spoke of getting into the best high schools and colleges, of entrance tests and state exams, career paths and well-paying jobs. And as I listened to their worries I envisioned them expanding in size, inflating like floats in the Thanksgiving Parade, getting bigger and bigger until they threatened to burst from their own pressure and size.

When I consider my own journey and especially my efforts in Tanzania, I recognize a similar distortion in sense of scale and significance. If left unchecked, my yearnings to grow, utilize my gifts, and make a difference in the world can lead to feelings of restlessness and anxiety, in turn preventing me from being my best, and giving the most.  It’s only through relaxing my need for control and success that the magic of life can finally take hold.

It seems as if we’ve created a world with a distorted sense of scale, striving to become ever bigger towards some over-inflated goal or vision of ourselves.  How ironic that the pathway to happiness and fulfillment lies in the realization that we are so very small, and the comfort of allowing ourselves to be cradled within the vastness of the earth.  How thankful I am for our time in the Canyon, and the secrets it continues to share.

 

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