Archive | April 2014

My Second Epiphany

My first epiphany came several years ago when I realized that I could maximize my impact by helping others fulfill their potential. For much of my life I had carried a sense of heaviness, searching for ways to satisfy my mission and civic responsibility. Although I found pleasure in developing community programs and collaborations, I knew that my efforts were inherently limited and that knowledge left me frustrated and sad. So when I finally discovered that I could amplify and leverage my own talents by helping others navigate their journeys toward success, I was both relieved and anxious to offer my support to the greatest scale.

 My eagerness resulted in an open door policy. I tried to help anyone who came my way, offering my connections, strategies, and even a temporary home for students in need of support or guidance. As I came to recognize the importance of professional development, I worked to synthesize my experiences into processes and frameworks, offering workshops, articles, and even a TEDx talk, all in an effort to help others become unstuck and actualize their talents toward the greater good.

 Although well intentioned, my logic behind this approach was fundamentally flawed. I was working from a false assumption that because all individuals possess talents, which I know to be true, they represent equally good investments in terms of my time and resources. I now know that this is not the case- my second epiphany- and that in reality, individuals vary considerably with regard to their respective return on investment potential.

 To be clear, I still believe that everyone has something to contribute and that we cannot see or appreciate the long-term impacts of our individual actions and relationships. But when it comes to making meaningful and timely change within our most challenged communities and neighborhoods, certain individuals are clearly more poised to be agents of change. These are individuals who are intimately close to the problems and potential solutions, have a sense of mission and urgency, and are already adding value, yearning to do more and better through their own success and leadership.

 I now understand that these are the people I am most interested in supporting. And I believe, at least I think, that they definitely need support. Being from challenged and impoverished communities, their own success is not assured. Instead, navigating the education system and the various obstacles that block and limit opportunities can consume their energies and resources. But layering the additional intricacies of understanding and impacting the systems and structures affecting their communities calls for knowledge, competencies, and connections that can take a lifetime to develop.

 But imagine the rewards if we fast-track the rising stars within our most challenged communities, nurturing and supporting them with all the riches we already bestow on those deemed worthy through traditional leadership and mentoring programs.  In what exciting and unexpected ways will our communities grow, and what will we look and feel like as a healthy, vibrant culture that not only embraces diversity but seeds and nurtures it from within?

I can’t wait to find out.

Quenching our Thirst for Appreciation

We all need to feel valued. It’s a fundamental ingredient for growth, fulfillment, and virtually all things healthy and good. And yet despite its universal importance, the state of feeling valued remains elusive and slippery, especially for those who struggle most for its attainment.

 We are all familiar with the maddening paradox. The harder we work to prove our devotion and worthiness, the more frugal the appreciation and accolades. And the less we receive, the more we seem to crave, leaving us in a perpetual state of neediness and vulnerability, pulling us into the weeds and further from the growth we desire.

 Unfortunately, when we live and work from a place of vulnerability, we become consumed with our own fragile state, unable to focus on the needs of others, thus depriving them of our support and attention.

 Although this pattern is self-perpetuating, its cessation is within our control. By addressing our fundamental need for feeling valued, and in essence filling ourselves up with meaningful appreciation, we can replace the cycle of vulnerability with one of strength and support.

 How can we accomplish such a seismic shift? I share a deceivingly simple exercise that I adapted from a course on mediation. I have found it to be wonderfully powerful and I encourage you to give it a try…

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Assemble a small group of people. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as you care about them and they all know one another to some significant degree.  I have done this exercise with my own children as well as a group of friends. Please note that there is no need for everyone to be on their best behavior- in fact I find it to be most powerful when my children are at their worst….

You will serve as facilitator and let the group know that you’d like them to participate in an exercise. The instructions are simple: you will all take turns being the focus of the group. Whoever is the focus will sit in a designated chair and listen, accept, and acknowledge the observations that are offered to them. The members of the group will take turns addressing the person of focus by sharing something about them that they particularly admire or appreciate. All are encouraged to be thoughtful in their offerings and not directly repeat something that has already been said. At the end of the their respective turn, the person of focus will return to their seat and continue sharing their own offerings with the other members of the group as they take their turn as the person of focus. As facilitator, you make the first offering for each of the persons of focus, setting the tone and ensuring that the exercise is treated with respect and thoughtfulness. 

As the exercise unfolds, allow yourself to observe the energy in the room and how others react to the feedback they receive. Also, pay attention to your own experiences as facilitator, noting how easy it becomes to offer meaningful observations, and the warmth and intimacy that follows.

Perhaps you will be invited to be the person of focus at the end of the exercise, but in some ways it doesn’t really matter. In fact, you may even find yourself declining the invitation in the interest of time or some other priority, since you will already have received the benefits that you need. I have found that the only thing that can effectively quench our thirst for appreciation is to shift our focus off of our own direct needs and experience the fulfillment that comes with helping others to be their best.

Enjoy…..

-Mara

Innocence, Truth, and Matters of Consequence: Beholding the gift of a special book

 

Prince

Perhaps there is no better gift than a book that speaks to your soul and becomes a trusted companion, ushering you through the discoveries of life.

The Little Prince was a gift that was waiting for me, hidden within a box of books donated by my mother-in-law for a fundraising sale that I was hosting.

Miraculously, it was never sold. Still with its dustcover intact, the 1972 copy- printed the same year as my birth- was peeking out from a pile of rejects, stretching and willing me to find it. 

What a find it was. Every time I read The Little Prince I am brought to tears, touched by its beauty and the insights it offers. And like all good books, these discoveries change with the rhythms and resonance of my life.

When I first discovered my book, I was immediately overcome by its beautiful simplicity and the innocence of the Little Prince. I found his love for the flower so touching, his disappointment and bewilderment heart wrenching, and his exquisitely delicate character left me sobbing. 

The second time I read the Little Prince, I had been drawn to an antique book store searching for a similar copy to give as a gift to my friend. Once again, it was waiting for me. Despite the owner’s insistence that no copies were in the store (he had just checked for another customer), there it was sitting patiently on the bookshelf. I was so happy to have found it that I sat down on the bench right there and read it from cover to cover  wiping away my tears.

How interesting that my second reading revealed a Little Prince who was not so naïve at all. He spoke of simple yet absolute truths: the meaning of friendship and responsibility, the importance of having a purpose. It was through that second reading that I saw the Little Prince as truly wise and the men around him so foolish. 

Several years have gone by since I picked up the Little Prince. But just yesterday it called to me once again.

This time I read through it quickly, the story now so familiar that I found it hard to pause and appreciate the beauty of the individual words. Somehow amidst the flowing cadence the phrase “matters of consequence” danced into my awareness, urging me to contemplate its meaning. 

The author playfully suggests that the Little Prince is written to and for children since only they understand what’s truly important. It is true that notions that are pure and simple are easily dismissed and discarded out of deference for the complex and more sophisticated.

I am perhaps only now coming to appreciate the purity of the most precious gifts that my children seem to already innately understand.

Ironically, when I first discovered my love for the Little Prince I was so eager to share it with my children. Although they wanted to love it, and pretended that they did, I knew that it was me they loved, and not my beloved book. 

But perhaps by connecting their love for me with my love for my book, we will have together created a thing of great and lasting consequence…

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…. You- only you- will have stars that can laugh…”

 

Marking Time

 

Wall

When I was a young child I had a strange image that would often come to me. I would see myself replicated in a long line with my present self at the back and many more versions ahead of me, extending way into the future. In this vision I -my current self- would be waving furiously trying to get the attention of my future selves, but to no avail.

In retrospect it seems much of my young life was spent racing ahead trying to catch up to the me(s) in the front, stretching my current understanding of life and seeking out experiences that would propel me forward.

Interestingly, although I have always felt a need to mark time through journaling, writing, and perhaps even this blog, I have never had any interest in pausing to reflect on what I had written and experienced in the past. I guess I was just too busy trying to get further ahead in line.

But lately I feel a change. The old image of the line has returned but now I find myself occupying a space somewhere comfortably in the middle. And for the first time, I am not straining to push or see into the future.

Instead, I find myself doing something I would have never imagined. I’ve retrieved a box from the attic labeled by my husband “The Mara Chronicles” and am slowly sifting through the poems, essays, and pictures, pausing to remember and appreciate my progression of selves.

It’s a little overwhelming, starting to delve in, unsure where to start and how long to linger. And the presence of my own children adds such interesting lenses and filters. I am holding a report that I wrote back in 1984 on a book that my 9 year old is reading right now. I will share it with her tonight and am wondering if it will be strange, a three-way conversation involving an earlier self who was/is in some ways closer to her than to me.

And when I try to add the overlay of history it becomes almost too much to process- how our experiences, perspectives, and the broader unfolding of time interweave and mingle, making us who we are and who we’ve been, and will become.

For me this interplay between self and history is perhaps best explained through a sample poem from my Chronicles, titled “Berlin, 1988.” As context this was written in my journal during my year as an exchange student in Germany. I was a Junior in high school and spent a week in Berlin with other exchange students with whom I had grown close. We took a subway to East Berlin on the other side of the Wall, and spent the day sightseeing, meeting boys, and trying to be typical 16 year olds. We obviously had no idea that the Wall would ever fall, let alone the very next year…..

Berlin, 1988
By Mara Goodman

Huddled in the haunted
subway car,
we proclaimed our adulthood
and sang of our country’s honor

We had met impossibility
in the streets of Berlin
and now the shadow of her kiss
left us saddened and gray.

Climbing the wall
we were Americans,
cocky with independence
and a second tongue.

Amused by the novelty
we had giggled through customs,
got drunk on green stuff,
and sick on Eastern cigarettes.

We tried to flirt with a Russian
with a fur hat and big gun,
but he said no.
How hilarious it had all seemed,
we couldn’t even spend our 25 Marks.

But when we met them
the wall grew claws and iron fangs.
They could not know of
the fruit stand,
night clubs,
and colorful graffiti
just on the other side.

They were people
with diluted dreams
born into musts and cannots,
just waiting.

And saying goodbye,
only yards from life
we were helpless
and they were happy to have met us.

When we drove away
we knew that they could not come,
that they would never come,
and we cried for impossibility.

Welcome to My Workshop

My 6-year old has a workshop in her head. She told me about it the other day. I was so impressed and excited for her that I decided to create one of my own.

Natalie’s workshop has lots of different rooms. Her favorite is a screening room that can play any movie or TV show that she’s ever seen. When she’s bored or not allowed to watch television she lies in her bed or pretends to read, and then watches her favorite shows, either from the beginning or just the good parts.

Natalie also has an animal room. Since she loves all animals, this room is very crowded. In it she cares for and plays with puppies, bunnies, and all the cutest babies, but she also sometimes tames the wild animals that nobody likes or wants.

Natalie has other rooms in her workshop but they’re not as interesting. She prefers to spend her time with movies and animals, but perhaps someday that will change. Since her workshop is a mansion there are endless rooms to visit, and she can organize them as she likes or add new rooms as she goes.

Hearing Natalie talk about her workshop is a gift in itself. She speaks with such pride and a sense of knowing- both in terms of the reality of her workshop but also the knowledge that I get it, and her, and that I will always share in her excitement and be worthy of her secrets.

I certainly do get the wonderment that comes with appreciating one’s cognitive capacities and the unlimited possibilities they afford. Although I can’t remember when I first came to my own realization, I continue to be amazed almost on a daily basis.

In some ways, writing my blog has become my own mental workshop. I am able to notice patterns or recognize challenges and then delve into drawers of past observations or theories, weaving together ideas and constructs, and sharing as posts. Doing so allows me to clear my mind and be more present, enjoying my experiences and those with whom I interact, at home, at work, or out in the world.

Like my daughter, I am grateful that I can share my workshop with others who are worthy of my trust. I suppose all workshops are inherently intimate spaces, since our minds focus on what is most precious and dear. It is perhaps through our workshops that we play out our dreams and provide our souls with what they crave.

My Natalie knows so much for a six year old. She seems to know that life is magical and that she has all that she needs to nurture her gifts and dreams. She knows that while she can take comfort in her workshop she can play out her dreams within real life, when she is ready, at her own pace.

I hope that I will continue to be invited to Natalie’s workshop. And I hope that you will continue to visit mine.

The State of Being Nimble

nimble

I consider “nimbleness” the Holy Grail of being.

People who are nimble can handle virtually any situation, adapting and flexing in response to changing threats and opportunities, while at the same time staying true to their sense of self.  Organizations that are nimble remain relevant and aligned, modifying their programs and offerings in the face of shifting contexts and needs. And communities that are nimble anticipate evolving trends and priorities, leveraging their different strengths and assets while maintaining a core identity that never wavers.

What is the alternative to nimbleness?   Just take a look around at the vast majority of individuals, organizations, and communities who find themselves in a perpetual state of vulnerability.

Theoretically, we could quantify one’s current level of nimbleness on a continuum anchored by two extremes. On one end we would find a perfect positive state including a clear and compelling mission, a maximal responsiveness to the external environment, and a highly functioning quality control system. At the other extreme one would find a complete absence or lack of clarity, opaqueness, and no working system for accommodating change or ensuring fidelity.

Assuming we could extrapolate some valid measure or system of evaluation, you might ask whether nimbleness is a construct worthy of our time and attention. I would argue absolutely, especially when we consider the implications of individuals, organizations, and communities that would place somewhere on the negative end of the spectrum. 

After all, a lack of nimbleness precludes growth, with individuals or organizations struggling to maintain and sustain themselves in their current form while the world around them continues to change and evolve. Because of the amount of energy and work that this consumes, and the growing distance between the external realities and the self, assets and strengths cannot be effectively leveraged resulting in missed opportunities for growth or eventual obsolescence.

While these implications are profound, they are completely reversible, and linear, with any movement toward the positive end of the continuum resulting in meaningful gains, both for the individual or organization and also the external world that stands to benefit.

With regard to movement or growth within the continuum, the defined features serve as both a guide and measurement. Clarity of mission- one can achieve this either inductively or deductively, or ideally by moving between the two, examining patterns of thinking and action along with guiding principles and commitments to identify one’s core or essence. 

Responsiveness to the broader world- this can be achieved through eliciting and reflecting upon feedback, data, or input, analyzing patterns and trends, considering implications and identifying areas of overlap or possible synergy.

And lastly a process and tools for adaptation can be gleaned from a host of paradigms and frameworks that facilitate what are in essence gap analyses and the work of strategic planning toward some identified vision or state of actualization.   Clearly, we can become more nimble- as individuals, organizations, and communities. When we are strong and clear, we function at a higher level of productivity, are more resilient, stable, and ultimately happier and more fulfilled.

Since nimbleness- as a construct and state of being- can be cultivated, measured, manipulated and brought to scale, isn’t it time that we embrace all that it stands to offer?

Education, Fear, and Parenting

Today our children sit for more state tests, a practice that has become steeped in controversy and conflict. Although I often turn off the morning news due to excessive violence, ironically today the bullying being alleged was by our own school district, forcing students to “sit and stare” if they (or their parents) opt out of the test.

As I drove my son to school this morning he asked, “Mom, why do the tests have to be such a big deal. Why can’t kids just take them and be done with it?”

His question drew us into a discussion about fear and how anxiety can lead to negative consequences. I explained that many parents are terrified of anything bad happening to their children and that the notion of academic failure sits pretty high on their lists.

Among other thing, fear of failure can prevent one from taking risks and stretching towards opportunities and goals that may- or may not be- out of reach. Fear also prevents us from learning from our failures, making corrections and modifications that can increase our likelihood for future success. It also prevents us from developing valuable coping mechanisms, being vulnerable when things go wrong, and experiencing the intimacy and growth that can result.

But in addition to a myriad of missed opportunities, fear of failure can promote controlling behaviors associated with anxiety and avoidance, or a need for dominance and superiority- characteristics that are neither pro-social nor conducive to personal growth or fulfillment.

As a parent I see one of my major responsibilities as providing a safe and supportive environment for my children to succeed and fail, and all the variations of outcomes in between.   I want them not only to survive their failures, but also to get close to them, exploring their many facets toward the greatest growth, empathy, and learning.

To be clear, I do expect my children to take school seriously as their performance says something important about them and their journey. It reflects their strengths and weaknesses, their work ethic, their priorities at that particular time in their life. But it doesn’t have to define or limit them.

Clearly there are serious problems with high stakes testing. But these specific issues are symptomatic of much deeper and more pervasive problems that are bigger than any specific set of tests that our children are forced to endure. If we address our broken education system solely from a position of fear of failure, we are inadvertently reinforcing the fundamental problem- subjecting our children -all children- to limited notions of opportunities for success. There has to be a better and more powerful way to frame the  conversation.

I remember when my daughter was applying to a highly competitive high school. In the face of widespread anxiety about the upcoming entrance test, I asked her if she was stressed. After assuring me that she was fine, she explained, “Mom, it’s no big deal if I don’t get in.  All I’m looking for is options.”  

In the end I guess that’s really all we want for our children, and ourselves- options. Perhaps by confronting our own fears of failure, we can remove some of the “high stakes” associations with education and parenting, and focus more fully on our children’s growth and learning.