Archive | March 2014

Gnawing Around the Edges

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This is my daughter’s gerbil. He has a habit of chewing on his food bowl. He simply cannot help himself.  He goes on nibbling and destroying until we finally replace the dish, and then he begins anew.

You’ll have to excuse the absurdity of the metaphor- but in some ways we are like this gerbil. We can’t help gnawing at the edges, slowly destroying our institutions and their leaders until they almost collapse, and then we start anew.  And like the gerbil, we simply cannot help ourselves.

I know this might seem ridiculous, but these are the things that I think about. An observation or idea reveals itself and then continues to emerge in various  situations until I finally acknowledge its form . So please bear with me as I try to make the connections.

Although we function at a higher cognitive level than rodents, we too are “wired” with certain tendencies that help us to survive. One such tendency that seems to be innate is our focus on major categorical boundaries or edges. These are the major differences that we perceive as such- blue vs. green; Democrat vs. Republican; good vs. bad, virtually any category that we can comfortably agree differs from the closest alternative. We’re really good at differentiating these high contrast boundaries, and we (naturally) enjoy doing what we’re (naturally) good at.

In this way it’s not surprising that we invest so much time- our own and others’- in debates about categorical differences, and also why we hold on so tenaciously to our own experiences and perceptions. The differences appear to be so strong and obvious that we feel compelled to fight for them. This notion of categorical perception lies at the very heart of polarization. 

This tendency can be seen in a myriad of ways and extends well beyond individual people (or gerbils) to involve institutions and systems that together accelerate the undoing of our proverbial food dishes.

What is the alternative? -you might ask, especially if this tendency to gnaw around the edges is in some ways innate or pre-wired. Well, although our attention naturally gravitates to the edges- the boundaries that divide us, there lies a wealth of fertile common ground in the spaces between. 

If you think of categories or labels as spectra, there are infinite opportunities for consensus and agreement before we hit the categorical cliff. Although it may take some self-control and discipline to avoid the edges, this is where progress can most easily occur.

One would hope that unlike gerbils we could control our pre-wired tendencies, especially in areas that are fundamental to our continued viability.  Interestingly according to my six year old, once gerbils destroy their food dish, they will start gnawing on their cages, slowly destroying their own homes and means of security.

So while we are obviously superior to gerbils and rodents, perhaps we should take a moment of introspection and self-control and consider, for once, trying to stay within the edges.

 

*Please note that no gerbils were harmed during this photo shoot. On the contrary both Pip and Zip (I have no idea which one this is) greatly enjoyed the experience.

Lenses, Focus, and the Pursuit of Brilliance

 

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Success, Fulfillment, and Humanitarianism…. these are three of my favorite lenses. I’d like to take this post to introduce you, in case you’re searching for a set of your own.

Success is a lens that drives many of us. It helps us to set goals and strive for growth and achievement, while seeking evidence of our competence. Although the need for success can catalyze our movement and fuel our perseverance, it is inherently neither positive nor benevolent. If untethered, success can manifest as addiction, threatening relationships and general happiness, and accordingly should be kept on a short leash.

Fulfillment is a highly personal lens that is tied to our core needs and gifts. The more we know what fulfills us the better able we are to focus our time and energy. In this way, our fulfillment lens- if well defined- can manage and steer our success, navigating us through the inevitable pitfalls and landmines. And although fulfillment is in some ways self-directed, we all share a fundamental need for human connection which gives this lens a somewhat broader and brighter orientation.

Humanitarianism is my favorite lens. It’s also the broadest in terms of its focus and reach. Humanitarianism helps us gaze beyond ourselves and our immediate circumstances, thinking about the broader community and world, as well as ideals and principles that unify and elevate us. Our humanitarianism lens helps us to be better and stronger, and lifts us up out of the weeds toward more noble goals and impacts. It gives us courage to be leaders, and keeps our other lenses in check by pulling them upward and outward toward the greatest level of brightness.

While each of these lenses is inherently limited, when working together they expand our possibilities and potential. When we are shining at our brightest we are able to help others calibrate their lenses toward greater success and fulfillment. But it is when we are at our best and join with others who are also shining brightly, that the real magic happens. Suddenly, the possibilities seem limitless and ideas and solutions materialize with little effort or obstacle. This is when virtually anything becomes possible. 

This notion of collective brilliance has benefits well beyond the success that we crave. When we are shining together brightly we gain a sense of shared intimacy and connection that is resonant with fulfillment, purpose, and mission. Interestingly, these are the very ingredients that can be missing when we strive for success or fulfillment alone.

How ironic that the pathway to personal and professional success may be best accessed through gazing beyond ourselves and our immediate struggles.  In this way, lenses can provide us with the focus and clarity to brighten our vision- individually, collectively, and societally- so that we can maximize our potential and impact toward the greatest good.

Clearly, helping one another develop and utilize these lenses toward a collective brilliance is a goal that is worthy of our most focused pursuit.

Sculpting our Words

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I’ve always been drawn to the complexity of words. 

In the beginning it was the particular feel or sound that appealed to me. But over time I discovered the magical effects that words and combinations of words can have on people and situations.

I’m not talking about manipulation or messaging, or strictly getting what we want. 

The magic to which I’m referring is largely humanitarian in its intentions.  It involves dealing with situations that feature conflict and possibilities for hurt feelings, defensiveness, and collateral damage of the interpersonal kind.

Growing up I was always sensitive to the dangers of human interaction.  I saw minefields everywhere and experienced sadness and guilt at the hands of words (both mine and others’).

But in addition to managing their impact, I was also interested in leveraging their meaning. By recognizing the nuanced subtleties of words, putting them together just so, and choosing the right tone and mannerisms I could say exactly what I was feeling or thinking.  But even more importantly, I could make everything ok, even when it clearly wasn’t.

Over the years I have tried to share my gift for words with those around me.  As a friend I’ve offered countless conversation starters, and enders, for relationship break-ups and traumatic life events.  As a parent I have modeled different ways to handle situations in hopes that my children would become more sensitive and kind.  And in my work life I have used my words to incubate ideas, navigate change and uncertainty, and forge collaboration and trust.

But as I reflect on the deep challenges facing our youth, communities, and ourselves- perhaps it is time to elevate the importance of words.   Being able to articulate visions and ideas in ways that resonate and align with commitments; helping children assert their individuality while preserving their social capital; arming women with the words to empower themselves while building consensus and support- these are all necessary for our collective growth.  Yet they all call for a sophisticated grasp of language and communication that many seem to lack.

Without this ability, things can go terribly wrong and yet individuals may have no conscious awareness of their involvement or shortcomings.  This lack of self-awareness or sense of responsibility is perhaps the most troubling trend that I see.  When framed within the virtue of honesty, we can completely miss the opportunity to do and be better, to elevate and mediate, to lift us all up and forward.

I should note that this sculpting of words goes well beyond English or ELA class.  My own development has led me to the fields of literature and writing, cognitive psychology, as well as training in mediation, and even strategic planning.  But there are virtually millions of pathways and opportunities to cultivate and develop associated skills.

Perhaps at the core is the idea that we have an inherent responsibility to those with whom we interact.  Once we recognize that words are perhaps our most accessible and powerful tool, we can begin to enjoy their humanitarian potential.

Confronting our Fear of Assessment

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Our discomfort with assessment is understandable.   Although the term itself is neutral with regard to judgment, it’s become inexorably linked to issues of quality, compliance, and punitive measures. Perhaps at the core of these associations is the sense that assessment is an external process imposed by those who are on the outside, wielding their power and resources to determine our respective fate.

Interestingly, the notion of internal assessment, or self-assessment, lacks the same fear-provoking effect.  That is, as long as it’s perceived to be led “by” and “for” ourselves, with no high-stakes outcomes attached.  Internal assessments that are truly formative in nature, intended to support our own growth and development, are actually seen as beneficial and are often welcomed or even sought out in the form of consultants, workshops, or self-help books.  These approaches encourage us to set and clarify goals, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and develop strategies and frameworks to keep us on track.

For many, these two categories seem like night and day, and what we would pay for the latter – in the form of personal or professional development, we would gladly hand over to avoid the former.

I find this distinction fascinating, since most assessments, even the imposed variety, necessitate or even support the internal formative kind.  Accreditation, reviews, state tests, or virtually any systems-wide evaluation programs are designed to ensure and check internal quality control systems by imposing standards, targets, or set expectations.  These assessments that are tied to compliance or incentivization do not- or should not- in any way take the place of internal assessments. 

To me, the total reliance on external measures to evaluate one’s success or impact is unfathomable.  It makes me think of the proverbial woman who determines her worth and happiness by whether she is appreciated by her spouse.  By waiting for validation through external assessment, we are in essence giving away our power and condemning ourselves to eternal vulnerability.

And yet I continue to see organizations that point solely to compliance measures as evidence of their own efficacy and impact.  Ironically, when those measures are less than flattering, the organizations cry unfair and point to the limitations of the evaluation methods themselves. And when the results are laudatory they hold them up as evidence of their success.

It is clear that high-stakes assessments are not going away, especially in areas that scream for improvement and reform. But basing our systems solely on the external standards and expectations imposed on us will not lead us to the improvement that we seek, nor will focusing on the assessments themselves.   

There is simply no way around the work of clarifying our core beliefs, expectations, and commitments.  Once we can articulate and feel these in a way that is meaningful and real, we will naturally want to know if we are actualizing what we intend.  We will be able to see evidence of our impact in numerous ways, as well as opportunities to improve and evolve.

Once we achieve this level of clarity and cohesiveness, assessment will feel like the formative tool that it is meant to be, and fear can finally disappear from the equation.

Behind our Contact Lists

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Have you ever been asked to share your networks or turn over your professional relationships?  Does the mere mention cause you to feel defensive, evasive or even angry?  Perhaps the world can be divided into those who understand the importance and fragility of relationships and those who are focused only on leveraging them.

The chasm between these two groups can feel both vast and threatening, especially for those of us who view relationships as the very foundation of our success.  We do all that we can to sustain and nurture them, even in situations that are well beyond our control.

But when we are directed to give up our relationships, by leaders who fail to appreciate their value, it can feel like a direct blow to our own contributions and worth.

When faced with these situations, perhaps when ending a position or preparing for leave, we might be tempted to find comfort in the innevitable outcome.  For we know that relationships are strong and immutable only when built on a foundation of respect and understanding, allowing us to reap their benefits even in the face of changing contexts and expectations.   But without the history and attention to nourish them, their outputs will be short-lived, quickly withering and eventually drying up altogether.

So mercurial in nature, relationships can make or break one’s success depending on their willingness and ability to tend to their associated needs. Understanding the history, context, and varying perspectives involved in relationships is critical for a leader to build the necessary support and capacity, regardless of  specific mission or strategic plan.

By distancing themselves from relationships- or dismissing them altogether- leaders can easily succumb to the dangers of hubris, falsely believing that their success is all but guaranteed.   Rather than building on the efforts of those before them they inadvertently step on toes, ruffle feathers, and devalue those whom they need most.  These mistakes can prove quite costly, setting them up for failure and collateral damage along the way.

 As keepers of relationships we must resist taking any comfort in our leaders’ inevitable failure, since we stand to benefit more from their ultimate success. When our institutions and organizations thrive and meet their strategic goals our communities and our own families stand to benefit in important ways.   

Clearly, we all deserve to be valued for our relationships and the work that goes into cultivating and sustaining them. But ultimately, we have the power to transition our connections in a manner that transcends our specific roles and emotional needs.   

 Being able to frame our own work and contributions within broader institutional constructs- not just during times of transition, but also in times of weakened leadership- will help to ensure our own success and stability.  This higher notion of stewardship will in turn benefit our organizations and the relationships that are formed, setting an example for those with whom we work…. and even those we work for.

Exploring Rotary’s Membership Challenge from Within

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I am currently grappling with the decision of whether to leave Rotary, and I have been doing so for quite some time.  To be clear, I don’t want to leave Rotary, in fact I would love to get even more involved.

But as a busy forty-one year old with young children and a demanding career, I am finding it increasingly difficult to stay engaged.  And as I ponder my options I can’t help thinking about the broader challenges and the hundreds- if not thousands- of Rotarians who share my dilemma. 

Just last month I had the privilege of chairing our district’s President Elect (PETS 1) trainings at which issues of membership featured heavily.  Our incoming presidents were told of the “revolving door” phenomenon and its implications for our collective work and the future of our beloved organization.  The offered solutions focused on keeping members engaged, ensuring their involvement in committees and fundraisers, and keeping meetings fun and stimulating.   

While these solutions all make sense, they fail to touch my own issues and reasons for considering leaving.  To be clear, I am already engaged.  I became president of my club less than 3 years after joining, and I had a wonderful and successful year.  Following my presidency I happily agreed to get involved at the district level, chairing the president-elect training and also helping to develop and facilitate workshops focused on club growth and vitality.

So engagement is definitely not the issue, nor is the notion of having fun.  In fact, I couldn’t imagine a club being more fun and lively than ours (Buffalo Sunrise).  Within our membership of approximately 30, we have a clown, a humorist, a body builder, two singers, and a diverse assortment of accomplished professionals who love to laugh, have fun, and enjoy one another’s company.

So why would I ever consider leaving?  Simply put, I feel guilty.  As a person who wholly commits to everything I do, I’m having a hard time giving my club and Rotary all it deserves and asks of me as a member.  Although my president is understanding and my club forgiving, I feel my engagement slipping.  And since my career and family life promise to grow even busier in the years ahead, I don’t see this pattern changing.

To be clear, I don’t want to leave Rotary. On the contrary, I would love to help steward its growth and sustainability as we work through the changing landscape ahead.

But when I consider what it will take to rise through the ranks of Rotary to become an agent of change, I do not think it is feasible.  The shear time commitment involved in virtually every aspect of leadership has far-reaching implications for the profile of leaders who will continue to emerge.

How we respond to the constraints and needs of Rotarians like myself while staying true to the core of the Rotary tradition presents a dilemma that is both critical and complex. 

I am hopeful that we will rise to the challenge.

The Space Between

I was aware of her energy from the beginning.  I had just sat down when she approached the aisle with her 2 children.  Her daughter, maybe 11 or 12, was assigned to the seat next to me.  I offered to move so they could be together but both mother and daughter declined. After making her way to the window, the daughter quickly inserted her ear buds and sank deep into her seat, far removed from attention.

The mother took the aisle seat directly across from me.  It was a small plane and the space between us felt like a thin sliver.  My own husband and children were seated several rows ahead and I remember yearning to feel their presence.  But I was completely alone, alone with this woman sitting so close.

She bantered playfully with her children, but her affection felt somehow forced, perhaps too loud or edgy.  It made me hyper-alert, waiting for something to happen as I leafed through my magazine.

As we readied for landing, the stewardess placed her hand lightly on the woman’s seat and instructed her to raise it to an upright position.

Suddenly without warning the woman began yelling in a loud and aggressive voice, threatening and swearing at the stewardess for telling her what to do. 

The scene switched to slow-motion.

The stewardess began to cry, mascara streaming down her face, and quickly moved behind a curtain to place a call.  The passengers were silent but the little boy cried, asking his mother what was going to happen, if she was going to go to back to jail.

I felt the daughter sinking deeper as the stewardess announced that we were to remain seated upon landing, allowing the officers to board the plane.

The mother tried to minimize the situation, assuring her son loudly that she hadn’t done anything wrong.  She was unconvincing.

I could feel the tension radiating from the woman so close to me.  She had started a scene that was just beginning to unfold.  Too late to stop, I could sense her desperation.  And the stakes were so high.

As I sat there, inches away, I tried to absorb her tension, her anxiety and fear.  

I tried to fill the space between us with my calmest and most loving energy.  It was ok, it would be ok, she could resume control.

I continued to leaf through my magazine as calmly as possible, bathing her in my most supportive thoughts.

I held her in my energy until I had to leave.  She seemed much calmer, or perhaps that’s how I wished her to be.

As I left the plane I found my husband and kids waiting for me, only mildly curious about the woman and what had set her off.  Their attention quickly wandered to our trip and I suddenly felt so far away.

I struggled to catch up and fill the space between.

Changing the SAT, and Opening Up Education

It’s not surprising that the impending changes to the SAT have elicited such strong reactions.  In addition to evoking nostalgia from those who were subjected to the test, the changes draw our attention to the college admissions process and related trends that warrant attention.

The College Board admits that college readiness among high school students remains steady but low, at about 43%.  And that for low-income students, the rate of attaining bachelor’s degrees has remained virtually unchanged (8%), despite steep increases in immediate enrollment following high school graduation (from 23% to 55%).

These findings suggest that while getting into college remains a challenge for the majority of high school students, the goal of persisting and completing a degree is even more daunting- especially for those from low-income backgrounds.

While I am skeptical that changes to the SAT will single-handedly result in improved college admission and retention rates, I am heartened by the partnership between the College Board and the Kahn Academy that will make SAT preparation free and accessible via the internet.

By opening up the industry of SAT preparation and making it both transparent and accessible, it will- at least in theory- remove major barriers to empower individual students with the knowledge and tools needed to gain access to and succeed in college.

This move away from the “mystery” and need for consultants, strategists, and specialized fee-based preparation, represents a potentially monumental shift within education, one that may have far-reaching impacts in both directions of the pipeline.

Colleges and universities have long benefited from a level of opacity that has left students and parents to gauge quality through indirect lenses and measures.  Through web-based evaluation, social media, accreditation, and rankings, external metrics of quality are becoming more available, with much more innovation to come.  In the near future, web-based tools will allow parents and students to search for and select colleges based on individualized fit as well as likelihood of graduating and securing jobs or advanced degrees.  

As parents and students, and the money that follows them, become more sensitive to these variables, higher education will in turn respond, making strategic investments in programs and amenities that align with market demands, especially as they compete for increasingly precious enrollments.

Higher education can and will change, but the implications for Prek-12 are less clear.  As knowledge and information become more open and accessible to individual students and parents, the role of schools and their guidance counselors/ offices must be re-envisioned, or at least re-engineered.

Perhaps once the tools are available, parents and students will begin to see college acceptance not as an end (or accomplishment) in itself, but as a vehicle to propel them toward some higher destination.  Ideally, guidance counselors (and parents) will assume the responsibility and privilege of helping students find their place in the larger world, clarifying their strengths and interests, while exploring various applications and career paths. 

The opening up of education is already happening whether we choose to be aware of it or not.  Hopefully, we can fully embrace its potential and benefit from the unprecedented opportunity it will afford.

Feeling our Impact through Student Experiences

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Although we all strive to have an impact in the world, it’s often difficult to feel our contributions.  We may sense our influence as we connect and interact with others, but our effects often feel indirect and intangible, leaving us wanting more.

As someone who actively searches for touch points, moments in time that capture the power of our purpose, I wanted to share one such experience.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of gathering with members of the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) to raise funds and celebrate our collective connections with the people and country of Tanzania.

Although we have had only three such events since BTEP formed back in 2009, each has been unique in the specific projects and initiatives that are highlighted.  And the particular focus in turn exemplifies the various stages and phases of this interesting and ever-evolving project.

This year we had the pleasure of showcasing the six students who participated in our first UB Study Abroad course to Tanzania, three of whom shared reflections and thoughts about their experiences.

From our vantage point the trip had been a success.  Everyone returned safely and the University learned that Study Abroad to Africa was both viable and appealing, opening the door for future travel and exchange.

But hearing the students speak about their experiences provided a glimpse into the magnitude of our impact- not just the Study Abroad course, but the larger BTEP initiative that has slowly unfolded over the past 5+ years.

A Masters student from China, Yi, spoke about the hospitality of the Tanzanians and how they welcomed and embraced the students with such kindness and openness.  She shared that she had always dreamt of going to Africa, and how the trip has impacted her life.  As she works to complete the first year of her graduate program, she has decided to focus on micro-finance and supporting developing countries in their efforts to emerge from poverty.  She is now very clear on her goal of returning to Africa upon graduation.

Tyler, our youngest student to participate in the trip, spoke of the friendships he formed while in Tanzania.  He talked about the Bishop and the role that faith plays within the communities he visited, not as a luxury or simply an activity of going to Church on weekends, but instead as a lifeline for the people giving them hope and promise as they struggle every day.  Tyler also spoke of his relationship with the driver who he got to know through late-night conversations about life, marriage, and self-sacrifice.  He also described the sense of purpose that he was left with and power that all of us have to make a difference in the world.

When Tyler and Yi spoke about their trip it was evident to everyone in the room that their life path had been significantly affected by their experiences.

Although we cannot know where their educations and careers will take them, we do know that they have for the moment embraced humanity and their own connection to the world.

Through this point of connectivity our own impact and significance can be felt.   What a wonderful gift to share.

A Patchwork Career

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Many still cling to the notion of a dream job- a perfect opportunity that will afford success, fulfillment, and all that one desires.  Whether such positions actually exist or are simply the stuff of myth and fantasy is disputable.  But regardless, these ideals are false guides to those seeking professional growth and opportunity. 

Growth is by definition expansive.  It involves pushing upward in skills, thinking, and capacity.  As one grows professionally they seek to do and contribute more, which in turn becomes tied to their sense of fulfillment and identity. 

But the current job market is the opposite of expansive.   It is limited both in the number of jobs and the opportunities for growth and customization that they afford.

When I see women who are aching to do and contribute more- to utilize more of their talents and connect with more people in more meaningful ways- trying to fit themselves into jobs that are inherently restricted and constricted, I grow concerned.

Just the exercise of trying to fit one’s skills and life experiences into a narrowly defined job description can diminish one’s expansiveness and set one on a path not towards growth and fulfillment, but instead toward discontent and self-doubt.

The alternative, you ask?  I suggest a more holistic, or patchwork approach.    

Imagine your career- and life- as a colorful quilt. Each panel is interesting in and of itself, but the true beauty and functionality emerges only when pieces are sewn together.  How they are joined and configured is up to the crafter and contributes to the overall effect and distinctiveness of one’s work.

The notion of quilting a career is appealing on many levels.  In addition to emphasizing richness and diversity of experiences, it offers no dead ends or failures.

Rather than simply waiting for the right opportunity, quilting allows us to grow from wherever we are.  By cultivating experiences that are related to where we wish to go, we can create new patterns and themes that are emergent in nature, taking our careers in exciting and sometimes unexpected directions.

The notion of quilting leads us to seek out and collect experiences rather than focusing solely on titles, positions, or money.  Since experiences are more closely tied to happiness and fulfillment than more traditional professional goals, their benefits can be enjoyed as soon as one begins to value their acquisition.

Clearly, quilting is a craft that requires both skill and artistry.  Piecing together our experiences, building patterns and designs, and even describing our work in compelling and meaningful ways all contribute to our impact.

Admittedly, the notion of quilting one’s career – or life- is not for everyone.  Those who seek more neat and linear trajectories might find quilting too messy or inefficient.

But for those who are yearning to create and grow rather than conform to narrowly defined roles or opportunities, quilting just might be the best option.

In addition to fostering personal growth and fulfillment, quilting can create new spaces for reflecting upon and sharing our work, which may in turn create new jobs beyond those of which we had dreamed.