10 Conversations to Have With Yourself As Soon As Possible

I first discovered the benefits of talking with myself back in college.  To be clear, I’m referring to an actual dialog, not the muttering or rambling that is often associated with talking to oneself.  In my version I actually pose questions, either verbally or in my head, and then formulate a response, which in turn leads to follow-up questions, forcing me to further refine or elaborate my thoughts.  To be truthful, as an interviewer I can be pretty tough on myself, and like Barbara Walters I’ve even been known to elicit some occasional tears.

Although when I first started talking with myself it was limited primarily to gathering my ideas for papers or presentations, the scope of my internal dialog has become quite expansive. Over time, I have found this exercise to be helpful in virtually every aspect of my life, allowing me to reflect on my experiences and observations and clarify my views and philosophies across all domains.  It has also helped me to cope with crises and low points, forcing me to articulate core beliefs, concerns, and disappointments while finding silver linings and truths on which to build.

But beyond helping to guide me through my own personal and professional journey, my internal interview process has proven beneficial for those around me who are seeking growth- both those who are conscious of their quest and those who are less aware, namely, my own children.  Before you raise the ethical question of whether it’s right to inflict my world views and strategies on my own children- a question that has been raised by my particularly precocious and impertinent 12 year old (see post- “Why Rubrics are Maddening” for more on her)- please read the rest of the post before passing judgment.  You will hopefully see that the internal interview process is simply a mirror that forces reflection and clarity, allowing the person- of whatever age- to practice being an expert, owning their experiences and views and having an opportunity to be heard- exactly what most of us (especially my 12 year old) are waiting for.

So here’s how it works, get comfortable with assuming 2 distinct roles- the interviewer who finds you fascinating and is genuinely interested in probing your thoughts and observations; and you as the expert who has a wealth of experiences, gifts, and observations to reflect upon and share.  Find somewhere comfortable to talk with yourself.  My absolute favorite interview location is my car, while on the way to my office, meetings, or wherever.  I admit that I used to be a little embarrassed when people in passing cars would stare at me while I talked with myself, but ever since Bluetooth technology came out, it’s no longer an issue.

You can of course customize your topics and conversations based on your circumstances and areas of focus, but I offer the following questions to get you started.  Don’t forget to follow up with additional probing questions, as the more you force yourself to clarify and elaborate on your responses, the more you will get from the process.  And I should mention an added benefit, when the day comes that you finally do get interviewed by a real professional, not only will you be ready but you will be able to counter with additional- and even better- questions of your own…..

Here are some of my favorites:

  1. What do you know to be true?
  2. If you were born to make one contribution to the world- what is it and why is it needed?
  3. Name the most important people in your life.  What do you most appreciate about each of them and why?
  4. What does being educated mean to you?
  5. What should all people be entitled to?
  6. What do you owe and to whom? (not necessarily in the money sense)
  7. What do you find most disappointing?
  8. What is the best gift you have ever given?  What is the best gift you have ever received?
  9. In what ways have you been shaped by your family/ ancestors?
  10.  What do you stand for?

I wish I could listen in on your conversations… I’m sure they will be fascinating!

Dying to Grow: How to find meaningful professional opportunities within a stark and barren landscape

From my vantage point things are bad. Not a week goes by without a friend of a friend contacting me asking for help with their job search. Most are currently employed, with either their position coming to an impending end or an unshakable sense that they need to get out and find something healthier or more fulfilling. And although their situations are all unique, they seem to share a collective sense of suffering that is distinctly palpable- they are literally dying to grow.

One cannot overstate the suffering that comes with craving growth and change while feeling stuck in an unhealthy situation. Although this scenario often plays out in the realm of personal relationships, it can be equally traumatic when it transpires within our professional lives. And if you are taking the time to read this post, there is a good chance that either you are currently in this position or care deeply about someone else who is. But before I share the guidance that I offer those who find me, I feel compelled to offer a few words of caution based on experience and observation.

First, I urge you to resist the tendency to self-destruct. Once we recognize the need to grow or move on it’s as though all of our faculties work on overdrive to make it happen, even if the right opportunity has yet to emerge. Hopefully you’ve read some of my earlier posts about framing and high-trigger labels that pull us down into the weeds and prevent us from achieving growth or stability. Once we perceive a situation to be a threat or somehow toxic, the “danger” and “fear” labels kick in and our reactions tend to become highly emotional and charged. When this happens we can inadvertently exacerbate behaviors that undermine our success and feelings of security and strength, which in turn can send us on a downward spiral resulting in further damage and complications.

I find that the best springboard for growth is stability and thoughtfulness. Clearly, if you yearn to grow and find more fulfilling work, you are seeking something better and more meaningful. That desire or sense of readiness is enough, you don’t have to prove to yourself or anyone else that it is so bad that you have to leave. In fact, if you are fortunate enough to have a current position, then you should embrace and nurture that role, even if it is not something you want long-term. I often tell my mentees that the nature of a job search looks very different depending on the urgency of your security and basic needs. The luxury of a stable salary allows you to do the clarifying work necessary for finding the best opportunity, so allow yourself to see your situation as a (temporary) gift rather than a crisis from which you need to immediately flee.

My second caution relates to our tendency to jump to the “I could do that” phase of a job search. Although our ability to know when we are unhappy or dissatisfied in a current professional role is quite developed and accurate, we often lack the self-awareness and tools to clarify our core needs and gifts that are tied to our sense of fulfillment. Without this clarity, attempts to define our next steps through exploring available opportunities and job postings that may or may not align with our core needs and contributions, is a crap shoot at best. And at worst, it perpetuates a state of vulnerability and need for external validation which is a slippery slope in itself. Of course you need to be realistic about the current landscape of opportunities, but beginning your process with this exploration before you do the necessary clarification work will limit your options and lead you back into the weeds rather than the upward trajectory that you crave.

So alas, how does one effectively create opportunities for growth when the landscape seems so stark and desolate? Here are a few of my high impact practices that you might consider.

• Begin your search by spending some time clarifying the outputs of your dream position. In other words, what do you want your contributions to be, and who is your target audience/ client base? I realize that this is somewhat opposite of how most people go about a search, but I assure you that it is well worth the investment of time and effort. There are a few ways to go about this, one is through the “I believe….I promise….I expect” exercise that is described in a past post by the same name. Another is through the MOVE Mapping Process that I have developed which clarifies who you are at your best and what you have to offer relative to the surrounding needs and context related to your contributions. Any way you do this, you need to clarify what you can uniquely offer the world, in any domain that you are interested in. This piece will serve as the foundation for your search and also your application materials- so don’t skip this regardless of how challenging and time consuming it may be.

• Once you can articulate what you hope to contribute and to whom, you need to go back and reweave your experiences and qualifications (CV or resume) through this new narrative. Clearly, you can’t go back and change what you’ve done or accomplished to perfectly fit your dream job, but your experiences should all hang together around your focus and should tell a comprehensive and compelling story about what you have to uniquely offer. I find that there is often a pronounced disconnect between what individuals tell me, verbally, about their qualifications, and what their application materials suggest. However, once they have found the right frame for what they offer and stand for, they can organize their experiences in a much more compelling way and suggest their unique qualifications for the particular opportunity they are pursuing.

• Work with the job posting and make it crystal clear that you meet all specified qualifications. You need to understand that search committees must show that all specified qualifications are met before granting interviews. While it is important to articulate your unique skillset and experiences that will benefit the position, you cannot skip the critical step of demonstrating your suitability with regard to specified qualifications. When you craft your cover letter, I strongly suggest referencing the qualifications or categories of qualifications listed in the posting with clear statements about your background and experiences. I am surprised to find that many applicants ignore the specific requirements and frame their letters around their unique backgrounds and skillsets as well as submitting generic resumes organized around their own sense of importance and prominence. By doing so they place more work on the committee to effectively map the provided information to the specified job requirements and run the risk of being eliminated or dismissed regardless of their actual suitability.

Now obviously these suggestions assume that there are postings that align with your core needs and contributions as clarified in the recommended exercises. In order to maximize the possible space of opportunities, I suggest the following additional activities:

• Spend some time clarifying the ideal environment most conducive to the “best version of you.” Our growth is not only tied to the work we do but also the environments in which we work. It’s helpful to plot out differences in your “output” in relation to different types of contexts. There are numerous assessments out there that can provide insights into your ideal work environment, but I find it’s not that hard to gain insights on your own. Simply begin by asking what situations evoke the greatest levels of productivity and work fulfillment vs. those that make you miserable. Having a clear understanding of this range will allow you to explore possible options but also reveal new possibilities related to non-traditional avenues of employment that you will find more fulfilling.

• Consider separating your monetary needs from your growth needs. Since our efforts to find more meaningful work can often be compromised and muddled by our monetary and security needs, I find it is often helpful to separate the two. Try spending some time clarifying how much money you need in order to “buy” your security and create some space to work on your professional growth. Perhaps you can decide to stay in your current position for a set period of time or maybe you need a part-time or full-time job in order to achieve the necessary income. But regardless of your situation you can think of the money-making part as separate from the space to create and nurture your professional growth which you might accomplish part-time, or through volunteering as a necessary step toward a full-time career opportunity. Understanding exactly how much you need to make and the best way to accomplish this, can free you to focus on your growth at the same time, without thinking of yourself as a failure or taking steps backward.

• My final recommendation for the purposes of this post is to think of your fulfillment and growth holistically- not necessarily all wrapped up within one perfect job or professional role. Once you know what your core gifts and contributions are (see my recent TEDx talk available on my blog site) you can begin to piece together different activities and experiences into your own unique quilt or tapestry. I know many of us yearn for a professional role that will allow us to fulfill all aspects of our life work in terms of professional, community, and social contributions- but it is possible to fulfill these needs in multiple ways. Ultimately, doing so will allow for new opportunities to emerge through which you can leverage and bring together your various experiences- but in the time it takes for those to develop, you need to continue to pursue them even if they don’t align with a specific or current job description. That is why the clarification work is so critical, it will allow you to create a path forward and to fulfill your needs and contributions even when your current position is less than ideal. By evaluating your fulfillment and satisfaction in a more holistic way, you can buy yourself some time and space to continue to grow and develop, without a sense of urgency and fear that can drag you back into the weeds and away from the growth you seek.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and I would greatly appreciate some feedback from those of you who are struggling with your own professional growth. Please share any comments, insights, or further questions through the “reply” function and I will try to respond via future posts.

Sharing Arthur O. Eve’s Vision

I first made the acquaintance of Arthur O. Eve in 2010.  He had placed an urgent call to the President of UB sharing his deep concerns for the youth of Buffalo and seeking the University’s help in finding a way to save our city’s children.  As the then Special Assistant for Educational Partnerships I was asked to follow up with Mr. Eve and learn more about his request.  Little did I know that my return phone call would lead to friendship and engagement beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

When I reflect on Arthur’s contributions to the world of educational access it is difficult to articulate the depth and scope of his impact.  But perhaps most impressive and inspiring to me is his continued commitment and love for our city’s children that endures despite his poor health, advanced age, and considerable personal challenges.  Not a month goes by without an urgent phone call from Arthur,  beseeching us to come together- colleges and universities, churches, schools, and community organizations- to work together to support the youth and their families.

Although I have to admit that his religious zeal made me a little uncomfortable at first, I have come to welcome his prayers and devotions.  In fact just yesterday as I was driving in blizzard-like conditions to a hockey game in Erie Pennsylvania, Arthur called to tell me that the Jesus in him loves the Jesus in me.  He also asked me to pray for his wife who is in the hospital.  While he sounded both tired and scared he had found the strength to reach out and share his love, a gift that has stayed with me and has compelled me to share this post in his honor.

Throughout my brief friendship with Arthur he has focused his passion on the role and potential of churches to galvanize collaboration around supporting Buffalo’s children and their families.  Although I had- and have- little experience with the faith-based community, I remain strongly committed to the promise of collaboration, and offered to articulate his vision in the form of a document that could be shared and built upon.  Although at the time (2010 – 2011) we were unable to put his vision (GEMS) into action, I believe that it remains both powerful and doable from an implementation standpoint.

Please read and consider his vision which is detailed below in his own words.

­­­­­­ GEMS

Grace, Education, Mentoring & Spiritual, Development

A Tutoring, Mentoring & Health Program with a Spiritual Foundation for Buffalo Youth.

THE NEED:     Today we are facing an unprecedented threat to our community’s children.  Every day we lose our most valuable resources to the ravages of dropping out of school, crime, violence, HIV-Aids, drug addiction, unemployment, teen pregnancy, apathy, chronic health issues, and hopelessness.   Buffalo has been renamed the 3rd poorest city in the country, socially and economically among Black and Hispanic children, with over 30% of its citizens living in poverty and 52% of the children dropping out of school.  NY State correction agencies use drop-out data, and 4th and 5th grade failures in reading to predict the number of prison cells that will be needed in future years. This speaks to the many challenges that face our city’s youth and the Church.  We all agree that education, mentoring, and spiritual development represent the only viable pathways out of this crisis.

CHALLENGES & OPPORTUNITIES:     Within every poor, oppressed, neglected, and struggling neighborhood in our city are churches that represent bastions of safety, hope, love, and spiritual development.  The pastors, ministers, evangelists, and members more than any other body or institution have the love, commitment, and power to foster the value of education, mentoring, and spiritual development and principles for households, families, and children within the safety of the church and other secure facilities. In addition to the churches our city also boasts a wealth of colleges and universities that serve as engines for knowledge and innovation.  These colleges offer a bounty of students, faculty, alumnae, and leadership who are well positioned to provide resources, tutoring, and mentoring to youth.  Many of these individuals have benefited from programs such as SUNY EOC, EOP, STEP, C-STEP, Liberty Partnerships, HEOP, Upward Bound, McNair Scholars, and a host of other programs designed to support children, young adults, and students of underrepresented or at-risk backgrounds.  These individuals (alumnae and completers) are especially suited to work with, support, and connect with Buffalo’s youth and families.  Jesus said, “As you do unto the least among you, you do unto Me.”  He also said, “To whom much is given, much is required.”  And the Bible reminds us to (Proverb 22:6 “Train up a child in the way they should go.  And when they’re old, they will not depart from it.”)

THE GEMS CONCEPT:     The GEMS program will include the church evangelists, ministers, and members as the first to go door to door around their churches in a 1, 2, or 3 block radius and invite the families to worship with them, and leave a list of programs and community activities that will take place at their church, in which they are invited to participate.  Any youth 19 years of age, or younger (with parental/guardian consent and participation) will be invited to come to the church for tutoring, mentoring, and spiritual development.  These services will be offered by the participating churches in collaboration with colleges, universities, community organizations, health and wellness professionals.  Each program will be relevant, engaging, and useful for children, families, and the surrounding community.

OBJECTIVES:     The GEMS Program seeks to meet the following objectives:

  • Develop a relationship based on faith, hope, family and community
  • Monitor and strengthen the health of the children
  • Help facilitate the access of resources in an effort to reduce barriers to youth’s success
  • Support youth’s efforts related to career exploration and college applications
  • Build strong connections both with the faith based churches, higher education, and organizations
  • Increase youth’s skills and confidence related to education and career opportunities.

THE VILLAGE:   “It Takes a Whole Village to Raise A Child’, is a wisdom that is just as meaningful today as it was in ancient Africa. We need Villages within our neighborhoods that are guided by faith and offer hope and a safe place for seniors, families and youth to live and grow.  Throughout our city there is an abundance of churches and community centers in every neighborhood. By identifying the streets surrounding them and making that area their Village, our community can be strengthened, and our children can thrive.  In a time with such great uncertainty, we need to support each other and be an extended family; bringing all of the available resources together. The colleges, community based organizations, health, and wellness services are ready, willing and able to provide: tutoring, training, job preparation, counseling, health screening, and whatever the individual needs are within the Village.  The Village churches and providers working together would allow for activities to be available daily; and would be the safe place for positive and supportive services.   The churches with a caring and loving heart can help bring neighbors together to have a productive and faith based purpose for the families who live in the Village.  We all agree that we must save the children and save the communities; with everyone working together toward that common goal, we can do it. The successful Village will need the church as a guide; the community centers and the twelve Circles of Hope, will provide. (Luke 9:56  For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them, and they went to another Village.) We need a Village.

CIRCLES OF HOPE:   The Circles of Hope will work together for the same mission, goal, and purpose: to Save The Children. There are twelve circles, each circle carries the message of a hope, and through their input and participation they can make a positive impact on each person within The Village community. Each Circle has it’s own identity, but shares in the goals of the GEMS Concept.  The churches, community based organizations, health and service providers, and individuals who care about children and their futures are asked to be an active participant in one of the Circles of Hope.  Each household will be made aware that there are Circles of Hope, ready to provide services and opportunities to the children and families in the community. “The Circles of Hope” all share in a love and desire to “Save the Children”. (Luke 8:1 And it came to pass afterward that He went throughout every city and, village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with Him.). Let each of us, “Keep Hope Alive”.

-by Arthur O. Eve

How to Get Higher Ed to the Table for Meaningful Education Reform

As cautious and thoughtful higher education professionals it makes sense to show programmatic restraint.  Rather than committing precious resources to new initiatives that may or may not be successful, of course we should prioritize the stewardship of existing commitments over fleeting dalliances.

But here’s the problem- if we allow ourselves to be guided only by the voice of caution and restraint, we will never reach the necessary threshold to pull the trigger on partnerships and initiatives that are critical to our communities and the continued viability of our social systems.

As someone who has tried to work higher education partnerships- mostly education related- from a number of angles both inside and out, I understand the inherent challenges.  Universities, by definition, have a strong need for thoughtfulness, control, and clarity.  We are strategic entities that value research and solid decision making in all we do.  In many ways this is why we have so much to offer- we know how to do things the right way and how to be successful by design.  To universities, systems level issues embedded in community complexities are about as ill-defined as problems get.  They are messy, mired in politics, and promise little in the way of guaranteed successes and wins.

Having had the opportunity to work with and for the Buffalo School District for one short but fascinating year (half of my salary was reimbursed to UB for half of my time while serving as a liaison for higher education partnerships), I can hardly blame the University for their reticence.  In the highly polarized context surrounding our Prek-12 education system, the most well intentioned activities can become suspect within a circus-like atmosphere that spotlights blame and vilification.

To be clear, Higher Education has its own dysfunctions, but ours are much more subtle and accessible only to those who can decipher the intricacies.  To the Prek-12 world, however, we often come across as aloof, out of touch, and unwilling to take part in solutions to problems that we clearly have a hand in.  This reluctance can be maddening for community leaders who simply can’t imagine why faculty and leadership wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to partner when the work is so obviously critical and the opportunities so great.  And to their credit, I have seen an enduring determination to bring Higher Education to the table regardless of past failures and shortcomings.  I can only imagine that this tenacity is rooted in a deep understanding of the potential benefits of partnering and also the necessity of marrying the two systems.

Hopefully, readers already accept both the importance of Higher Education’s role in education reform, and the cultural chasm between these two very distinct worlds.  If so then logically it follows that in order to leverage and ensure the benefits of collaboration given these inherent differences, we must address Higher Education’s understandable reluctance to “get in bed” with such a risky partner.

I assure you that I’ve given this problem a great deal of consideration.  I have studied the issue of educational partnerships through a number of roles and reporting relationships, working for the President, Vice President for External Affairs, Dean of Education, Provost, and now through the lens of Experiential Learning within Undergraduate Education.  And the more that I see the more I know that to make PreK-16 partnerships both meaningful and sustainable, we need to mitigate the risks for Higher Education and allow them to do what they do best, while not expecting them to wander too far from their core.  Simply put, we cannot expect Higher Education to relinquish their need for caution, good decision making, and success- since doing so would put them at risk while diminishing the integrity of what they have to offer in the first place.

I am convinced that the only way to realize the potential and need for partnerships is to create safe spaces for Higher Education to participate in the development and implementation of models in ways that align with their core needs and goals.  In other words, their involvement needs to be around innovation, research, and engagement and the environment needs to allow for fidelity of implementation, scrutiny of data, and continued reflection and capacity building.  Risk has to be mitigated through carefully framed expectations, research questions and hypotheses, with the freedom and flexibility to follow the data and do what is needed to make the initiatives successful.

To those who will point out that these conditions are completely unrealistic within the constraints of the current system and that higher education shouldn’t have the luxury of opting out, I feel their frustration.  But I would also point out that we in Higher Education are as slippery as we are cautious- it is very difficult to force us to a table that isn’t appropriately set.  I can tell you that continued efforts to strong-arm, shame, or incentivize us into collaboration will only result in continued frustration and disappointment.

But please do not give up, for the riches that await us- and our children- are well worth the effort.  Clearly, the brokering of partnerships between PreK-12 and Higher Education calls for a deep understanding of the systems and cultures at play along with their respective needs and priorities. But perhaps more importantly, it calls for the creation of opportunities and spaces to do things the right way, to relax some of the constraints and conditions that contribute to the inherent complexities of the situation, and to allow Higher Education to do what it does well.

To echo the conclusions of many of my past posts, we need facilitators, designers, and architects who understand the strengths and constraints of all relevant systems and can create spaces and models to leverage the best they have to offer.  And above all we need a shared vision that is strong enough to keep us on track, working towards a common goal that will elevate all of our work and prevent our natural tendency to withdraw from the relationship when things get uncomfortable.

In summary, I concede that we in Higher Education may have commitment issues, but that does not mean that we can’t be good partners.  Perhaps like any good relationship we could all benefit from clarifying our expectations and needs upfront.  Once we’re clear and comfortable with our abilities to be ourselves while respecting and supporting one another, we can finally start to enjoy the riches of a long and fruitful relationship.

The Science of Pigeonholing

Labels are important.  Without them life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with little opportunity for reflection or sharing.   But when it comes to growth, labels can be limiting since they come with sets of requirements that create expectations and influence action.

If you identify yourself as a vegetarian, for example, people will expect you, and you will expect yourself, to abstain from eating meat. If you label yourself as an environmentalist you will be expected to make certain choices and engage in activities that are aligned. As long as your desires and choices fit, all is well. But what happens when you act, think, or behave in ways that conflict with your labels?   You may feel constrained, forcing you to inhibit your desires in order to remain in alignment, or conversely, forced to reevaluate your core beliefs and identity. Over time our labels can become increasingly powerful, serving as drivers of our decision making and affecting the opportunities to which we are exposed.

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 competences extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeonholing 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.

I continue to see this pattern play out in my own career working at a major research university. Although I came to my first administrative role with a PhD and experience as an assistant professor, I was immediately treated like a “typical” staff member. Faculty and university leaders assumed that I didn’t understand research and were shocked when I revealed otherwise. When I tried to explain my academic background, they would quickly dismiss my competencies since they didn’t fit their expectations for my role. Time and time again as my specific titles changed, my perceived identity became closely associated with my new area of focus. When I was in charge of school partnerships, people thought of me as an education person; when I did experiential learning, I was only invited to meetings that involved service or student engagement. And each time I transitioned into a new role I felt the space shrinking around me.

Luckily, because of my background I knew what was happening and was able to resist, stretching, seeding new projects, and refusing to be constrained or pigeonholed. But most of us lack the awareness or specialized skillset, and inadvertently feed into this pattern. Once initial perceptions and expectations become set, our systems tend to reinforce these labels, making them harder to change and modify. This tendency can be so strong that many are willing to completely change jobs or lives in order to acquire new labels that will hopefully allow for more growth and freedom. But the tendency to define ourselves and others in narrow terms will follow us wherever we go.

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. Clearly, it is only through broadening expectations, asserting and inserting our gifts and talents that we can stretch the space around labels and give ourselves more room to move.

In Search of Powerful Frames: How about ‘thriving’?

Those who have followed my blog know that I’m somewhat obsessed with finding powerful frames that can keep us out of the weeds and move us toward more impactful and fulfilling interactions.

In the realm of parenting I’ve been struggling with the challenge of being supportive while holding my children to high standards and expectations- specifically with regard to school.  I’ve already shared my views about the dangers of quantifying our children’s gifts and potential through a hyper-focus on test scores and grades.  With this said, I remain acutely aware of the importance of these metrics within the broader frames of “success” and “opportunity”.   How can parents help children to be their best and achieve their highest potential, while not hyper-focusing on their grades and school performance, which can in turn lead to feelings of inadequacy and fear?

Well, just yesterday I stumbled upon the notion of “thriving” as a potentially useful and powerful frame.  Although it’s a general construct, we all seem to have a clear sense of when our children (or ourselves for that matter) are thriving, and when they are not.  When children are thriving they are at their best, happy and engaged, growing and learning in positive and healthy ways.

Interestingly, the notion of thriving is used as a general medical diagnostic for children.  When a child is not meeting normal growth indicators related to weight and height they are categorized as “failure to thrive” which in turn calls for more specific diagnostics to identify the underlying problems and related protocols.  In this way failure to thrive is not a specific condition or disorder, but is symptomatic of problems that are preventing the child from developing in a healthy way.

As parents, we all want our children to thrive.  In fact, that is our primary role- to provide them with an environment that is maximally conducive to their growth.  As our children grow older, schools become increasingly important in terms of their impact and reach.  Since both children and schools are highly complex with many nuances and subtleties, goodness of fit becomes a critical issue and must be consistently revisited throughout a child’s education.  Those of us who have access to options and the tools to make these assessments are obviously in a place of advantage that all should enjoy.

It’s certainly not easy for any of us- certainly not parents- to stay out of the weeds when it comes to issues of education (see previous post).  Clearly, as measures of performance and achievements become increasingly emphasized and focused upon, the more emotional and fear-based our responses and concerns will become.  It seems that a viable way out of this dilemma is to refocus on the vibrancy of our children (our own and our community’s) and to commit to providing environments most conducive to their growth.

Growth Happens in the Middle

In many ways it’s heartening to know that there is so much talent within our communities, ready to be cultivated and leveraged toward the greater good. And yet as I try to help individuals find their paths upward toward something better and more fulfilling, I am aware of the powerful counter-force threatening to pull them down, back into the weeds.

The weeds are a scary place. They include our specific experiences, conversations, and interactions and are heavily charged with emotions and psychological baggage. As we react to the details of our lives, trying to process and understand, we volley back and forth between interpreting, reacting, and discussing. And like junk food that leaves us craving more, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating continually pulling us back into the weeds and further from our desired growth.

In the workplace the weeds comprise all our specific experiences as we perceive them- how we are treated, how our contributions are received, the expectations and judgments of others, and the myriad reactions to who we are and what we do. Because these details are only details and are inherently neither good nor bad, they cannot lead us anywhere.  That is, unless they are connected to higher level goals and constructs.

Think of the weeds as the lowest layer of your cognitive network, a complex interconnected web containing all of your experiences, knowledge, and ideas. The lowest level represents your direct experiences which are closely tied to emotional and contextual details. But as you move higher toward the uppermost levels of your network you find more abstract labels, values, and ideas.

The good news is that we have access to all levels of our cognitive networks and can move freely between them in order to interpret and enrich our experiences, toggling between the specific and conceptual towards the greatest learning and growth.

The bad news, however, is that certain labels/frames are inherently powerful and act as magnets, immediately connecting or “triggering” low level details and emotions that pull us back down. I find that the categories of “danger” and “fear” which are obviously highly related (and perhaps the same thing), function as the strongest magnets, setting off panic, anxiety, and self-preservation related behaviors, which in turn keep us firmly rooted in the weeds, preventing us from seeing or leveraging opportunities for growth.

So how do we get out of the weeds? Clearly, the only way out is up, moving our focus to higher level concepts, goals, and frames that are less sensitive and reactive to our specific details and emotions, and connected to our core needs for fulfillment and growth.

This is where things get sketchy since the middle layers of our networks tend to be ill-defined and disorganized.   Since we spend so much time in the weeds, many of us haven’t put a lot of energy into clarifying and building powerful goals and ideals. And although our school systems, cultural, and religious institutions prioritize high level concepts, principles, and truths, they don’t necessarily unpack these notions into mid-level constructs that will guide us in the face of complex choices and threats.

So this is where the magic happens, the layers between our immediate experiences and the lofty ideals and visions to which we aspire. By clarifying and operationalizing the path between, and developing tools to monitor and adjust our progress, we can pull ourselves out of the weeds and continue to grow- regardless of our circumstances.

Elegant Systems Part II: Education, Deconstructed

We’re pretty good at recognizing dysfunction when we see it.  But when the system, in this case Pk-12 education, is so complex and multi-faceted, our understanding of the shortcomings is inherently limited, which in turn limits our ability to envision, engineer, and monitor change.

Toward this end, I find that deconstructing an idealized version of the system through identifying the basic elements of outputs, inputs, internal mechanisms, and quality control system is a very useful exercise. Although the resulting analysis will be purely conceptual, it will serve as a comparison for the current system, thus allowing for a gap analysis and resulting action plan, both of which are sorely needed. To be clear, for the purposes of this exercise, this post will focus primarily on the idealized system with future posts to complete the analysis and hopefully give rise to action steps and pilot initiatives (in case anyone is still with me at that point…).


In a highly functioning education system, the outputs would be graduates who possess the skills and dispositions that will allow them to participate in and contribute to high functioning communities. If we were to fully map out a functioning system we would need to operationalize and unpack these component constructs, but for our purposes we can simply point out that they would include economic, civic, and cultural contributions associated with idealized distributions of human capital and engagement which in turn would need to be mapped to the definition of high functioning communities.  My main point here is to suggest that the driving output of a functional education system would be the ideal citizenry and their related dispositions and skillsets.

It should be noted that our ability to design (or redesign) an elegant and high functioning system is inherently determined or limited by our ability to identify, operationalize and recognize our intended outputs. Put another way- regardless of the quality of teachers, curricula, and all the other elements of an education system that we tend to focus on- if we don’t know what we’re trying to produce, then we can’t make sure our system is working, or fix it when it’s obviously not.


In the world of education, the inputs are the students.  It’s an interesting question to ask what the students would look like in a high functioning system.  One way to approach this is to point out that in any system the difference between the inputs and outputs is addressed through the internal mechanisms or processes.  If the inputs are very close to the desired outputs, then presumably less work needs to be done.  But if the inputs are very different, then more intense (or transformational) processing is required.  On the other hand, if the inputs are varied, then differentiation and customization must be built into the system to ensure a consistent output.

So following this logic, the most efficient system would begin with inputs that are maximally “ready” to become the intended “outputs”, namely young children who are ready to participate in and contribute to the needs and opportunities within communities.  Clearly, the more prepared they are with regard to key competences and dispositions (if they were to be defined), the less complex the design of the internal mechanisms must be. However, regardless of the necessary degree of differentiation and customization, the system (and related systems) should be able to be tweaked and re-engineered to ENSURE a consistent and high quality output, if that output is adequately clarified and defined.  After all, that’s what a high functioning system does.

I can’t help pointing out that if the system’s ability to produce successful outputs is solely contingent upon the quality of the inputs, with no other connected systems ensuring that this initial expectation is met, then it’s really not a system at all and will fail, by design. 

Internal Mechanisms and Processes:

In an education system the “magic” for taking the inputs (students) and producing the outputs (the desired citizenry) lies in the teachers, environment, and the experiences that together afford those skills, competencies and dispositions to develop.  Obviously there are many variables that contribute to the complexity of the necessary “magic” but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll keep it very simple. We’ll assume that in our idealized system children come with diverse skills, passions, and interests as well as some degree of varying readiness and skillsets.  So even in a well-controlled high-functioning system, we would expect a high degree of variability with regard to inputs.  On the output end, if we were to fully clarify and build out our notion of an idealized citizenry and idealized distribution of human capital, we would presumably look for diversity in terms of talents and contributions, while seeking consistency in core dispositions and skillsets.

By design, the internal mechanisms and processes would need to create a pathway from the starting inputs, whatever they were, to a place within the intended outputs.  In order to create this pathway, the internal mechanisms (curriculum, environment, experiences, etc…) would need to be closely calibrated to the settings of individual students including their needs and talents, as well as the opportunities on the other end of the system.  Because of the high degree of variability on both ends (inputs and outputs), the system in the middle would have to be very flexible, responsive, and sensitive to maintain connections to both ends. (See my recent TEDx talk http://youtu.be/NpNwz0zk7ns for more about this notion of connecting to the beginning and end of the story….).

Quality Control

If a system is to be effective and sustainable within an ever-changing high stakes environment, then the quality control system becomes absolutely critical.  Like with any other important system, the quality control mechanisms should ensure consistently high quality outputs and timely repairs when problems or abnormalities arise. The quality control system should ideally also assess alignment with other related systems towards the broader health and viability of the communities related to the overall vision.

It’s important to point out that although absolutely critical to the ultimate and continued success of the system, the quality control system (which includes assessments) is not and should not be the driver of the system, which is in our case the output of a prepared citizenry. The quality control system is there specifically to ensure that the outputs will be achieved – consistently and with high fidelity- as a function of the system.

It should also be noted that even with all components intact, this idealized system is highly fragile due to its inherent sensitivity (which is necessary for its success). Because it is responsive to the opportunities, and expectations of the broader communities and surrounding context it can easily be recalibrated or thrown out of balance.

Namely, if assessments or any other component of the quality control system (or virtually any other element, component, or metric) is elevated through some weighted incentivization or punishment in a way that promotes it as the functional output, then the system will reorganize itself to maximize that “output”.  This is especially prone to happen when the ideal output (in our case prepared citizenry) hasn’t been identified, unpacked, or encouraged.  Simply put, in the absence of a powerful and recognized vision with clearly articulated goals, the functioning expectations or standards will become default outputs and the system will reorganize, leveraging any available space, flexibility, or control to do so.  It simply can’t help itself.

Interestingly, if most of the internal mechanisms are rigid and fixed (through mandates and policies) along with the expectations for the outputs (such as firm thresholds or pass rates), then the only component that can possibly be manipulated, squeezed, or controlled will be the very inputs that the system was supposedly designed to support and cultivate…..the students….

(I’m curious to know if anyone is actually with me at this point, so send me a quick note if this makes any sense at all… otherwise I’ll just work through this in private….)

An Elegant Education System?

I’ve always been drawn to the elegant simplicity of well-designed systems.  Perhaps it’s the certainty of success that grabs me, the notion that the desired outcome will be a foregone conclusion once the design is complete and all components working in concert.  Or maybe it’s the inherent leanness, with no extra parts or unnecessary complexities, the entire system existing for a solitary purpose and functionality.

Nowadays we have endless examples of well-designed systems, especially in the technology domain. In fact, we’ve become so good at building them that we find ourselves providing conveniences and applications that we never even imagined ourselves needing or wanting.  Constrained only by our ability to dream up new functions and outputs, it’s not surprising that many view our capabilities as endless with nothing but potential ahead.

Yet in stark contrast to these elegant and efficient applications are the very systems that underlie and affect our most critical societal functions and needs.  And although a number exist, the most troubling by far is the public education system which impacts virtually every facet of our societal health and wellbeing. The target of seemingly endless criticisms and critiques, the education system as we know it continues to be both broken and incomplete with no indication that any of the component pipes or their respective leaders have the capacity- or intention- to reengineer the pipeline into an elegant system.

But since there is no viable alternative to be found, we must forge ahead with the painful yet critical comparisons between an elegant and well-designed education system and our current approach.  For it is only by envisioning our ideal system and ientifying and clarifying the gaps and failures that we can discover the drivers and levers for change.

I look forward to diving into this design and mapping work in the coming months.  I’ll try to post the products of our efforts as they evolve, but please contact me directly if you’d like to participate.

Please view and share my recent TEDx presentation to learn more about why our pipeline is incomplete in addition to being broken….