Emerging From the Middle (TEDx Presentation)
When I first heard the theme “Invented Here” I was immediately reminded of my children, and the story that I have told them ever since they were very young. The story changes with each telling, but the plot is always the same. It begins with my children- and all children- being born with amazing gifts and talents. The middle is about the success that they will find as they cultivate and utilize their gifts. And the end is about the contributions that they will make when they connect their gifts with the needs of the world.
It’s a good story and they enjoy exploring it, although they always want to focus on the middle- the part about success and all the wonderful things that they will buy and earn as a result of their talents. But I, as their mother, always refocus to the end of the story- the part about making their contribution and connecting with the world. This is the part of the story that I’ve always been most interested in and in a terrible hurry to get to. So much so that I remember on the very day that I finished my qualifying exams, I rushed home and called the Buffalo Board of Education, announcing ceremoneously that I had just completed my coursework and was ready to make my contribution, ready to help the students and the schools. I still remember the silence on the other end as the poor woman tried to figure out what to do with my call, and eventually her weak and empty promise that someone would be in touch.
See, that’s the part of the story that breaks down- the notion that if we prepare ourselves, if we cultivate our gifts and talents, opportunities will arise; the notion that preparation will lead to utilization. The truth is that most of us are underutilized. Despite hopefully having good jobs and salaries, and certainly being busy, the best part, the essence of what we have uniquely to offer the world, is usually untapped and even unrecognized by those around us.
Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of untapped potential. I literally see it everywhere- seniors, with lifetimes of experience and skills, immigrants with rich cultures and dreams, and women- women like you and me who are dying to make a difference, dying to challenge and stretch ourselves to make a meaningful contribution.
When you think of talent in its broadest forms as a natural resource, THE natural resource, you start to feel it bubbling up around you, it’s literally everywhere, just waiting to be utilized. And yet through this talent- a sea of abundance- we’ve managed to construct a pipeline right through the middle, supposedly designed to convey talent toward some unknown destination. And because it’s the only pipeline, of course we spend our energies, and our stories, trying to get in, and through, and convincing ourselves that we’re somehow worthy of our places.
The pipes are narrow so we have to squeeze and contort ourselves to get through. And so it’s not surprising that somewhere along the way we get stuck, we get stuck in the middle of our stories. See, we all knew that the pipeline was broken, but somehow we’re surprised to discover that it’s also incomplete. The pipeline is constructed entirely around the middle of the story, the part about success and limited opportunities that we need to prepare for. It’s not at all connected to the beginning or end of the story, which are the most powerful parts. The beginning is about each of us having unique gifts and talents, and the end is about connecting our talents to the world. These are the parts that give our lives hope and focus, but they’re also the parts that allow us to move. This idea of clarifying and staying true to our mission while responding to an ever changing world- by staying connected to both ends, we are able to move, pivot, and stay nimble. But if we lose these connections we find ourselves firmly stuck in the middle of our stories.
Stuckness looks different when viewed through different lenses. In individuals I sense it as a restlessness, a yearning to move and grow. In organizations it looks quite different. Sometimes I see it as a lack of clarity in mission or a lack of responsiveness to the population served or the surrounding environment. But interestingly, when organizations get stuck they layer themselves in complexity, adding programs, grants, and staff. As they become more complex they are less nimble and able to stay relevant, and eventually may become obsolete. And communities that are stuck, unfortunately we know these all too well- an inability to gain traction or momentum despite pouring in of resources, with leaders looking for panaceas or false proxies of success.
It is clear that the implications of our stuckness- individual, collective, and societal- are profound. However, the promise of getting unstuck is even more compelling. By tapping into our collective talent we can gain stronger communities while also finding success and fulfillment along the way. But getting unstuck, truly emerging from the middle, will take a catalyst stronger than the inertia that grounds us. It will take an ending of epic proportions.
Getting back to the story that I tell my children,I find that as they grow older and become more entrenched in the systems that surround them, the story becomes more dramatic and compelling. The story now begins with my children- and all children- as superheroes, born with amazing strengths and powers that the world desperately needs. Their task of cultivating and delivering these powers is their mission, no their destiny. And it is my job as their parent, and our job as a society, to help cultivate their gifts and connect them in a way that will have the greatest impact.
I tell my children that their story- like all great stories- will not be easy. They will face countless threats and obstacles that will try to distract them from their mission and zap them of their powers. But here’s the crazy part- the greatest threats and obstacles that they will have to endure are the very systems- the pipeline- that we have created. And education system that will try to reduce them to numbers and letters, either making them feel inadequate or entitled; a world of privilege that will try to zap their sense of empathy and compassion; and a media that will try to sell them a sense of beauty and self-worth. To help our children we must first convince them and eachother that we are destined for greatness, then arm them with the tools and strength to get through the pipeline while pushing back on those who will try to constrain and shrink them, while reserving energy so that when they make it to the end of the pipeline they can reach across the chasm and pull others in, making more room.
Clearly this is difficult and complex work, but wokr that we must take on. It will call for new paradigms for education, consulting, and support. But even if we are successful- and we must be successful- I have to tell you that alone it will not be enough. If we truly want to emerge from the middle we must have the courage to ask ourselves and eachother, what could our children accomplish, what could we all accomplish if we didn’t have to use our energy and stories to get around systems that are designed to constrain us?
It is time to develop new models and systems that are designed from the beginning and end of the story, models that are constrained only by an insistence that we serve the greater good. Only when we are able to both believe in our greatness AND have communities ready to receive our gifts, will we tap into true potential. But once we are able to do so we will ffinally discover our infinite potential that is invented here
(My TEDx presentation will be available witin the next few weeks on TEDxbuffalowomen.com)