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.

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About mbhuber2013

convener and co-founder of BTEP, instructor for Tanzania Study Abroad course; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at University at Buffalo

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