We could all use some practice talking about our strengths and achievements. Here is a video workshop that is part of our ELN digital badge series). It’s great for students and professionals- we have students submit video profiles sharing their own stories about internships, study abroad, service or other types of experiential learning. I would love to hear your stories about all the great things you’ve done and hope to do in the future…
New Years can be a time of great excitement and anticipation but also one of angst and concern. Over this break, I have talked with many parents who are anxious about their children’s journeys at college, or their upcoming transitions into Higher Education. The conversations have reminded me of the countless discussions I’ve had with UB students over the years, trying to put them at ease while helping them clarify their goals and choices. For whatever reason, this type of mentoring seems particularly needed at this time, so I will attempt to offer some general insights and guidance in hopes that it will find and resonate with whomever is in need.
College is not an end in itself but a portal to opportunities and experiences
With so much emphasis placed on getting into the “best” schools, it is no wonder that students feel extreme pressure and also fear and anxiety. Through my experiences with my own children’s high school guidance process, there has been little discussion of how to prepare students to be successful once in college, or more importantly, how to access the resources and opportunities to best support their happiness, mental health and achievement. While gaining admittance to many colleges and universities can be challenging and certainly worthy of focus and celebration, it is by no means the end, but only a beginning. The notion of leveraging the opportunities and experiences that a particular college or university affords, calls for a different type of support, guidance and empowerment. Since many students select colleges and universities from a distance, that is, not necessarily going deep into respective offerings and opportunities, they must orient themselves while at the same time completing demanding coursework and requirements. Moreover, the process of exploration can take time as students begin to discover what they like versus what they thought they liked or wanted to pursue. If parents can see this exploration as an integral part of the college experience, rather than a failing of the student or the institution, students can embrace the journey more fully and often towards better outcomes.
Curiosity and excitement rather than fear
Intentions matter when it comes to education. Students who approach their experiences through the lenses of positivity and confidence fare better across a number of measures. They also show more resilience, persevering over time and experiencing more satisfaction in their accomplishments. In order to reap these benefits, however, confidence must come from a place of authentic interest, vision or a sense of purpose or belief in what is possible or important. The source must be deeper and stronger than simply wanting to achieve, perform, or make one’s parents happy or proud. It needs to be strong enough to guide students through failures, crises and other bumps in the road that invariably creep up during college. When students are caught up in fear, I try to help them “flip it”, to set some goals that connect with their curiosity and excitement. Helping students see the value of these intentions early on (in fact, as early as possible) will help them develop an internal “sensor” and an ability to make good decisions when they find themselves off course or in a state of dissonance (when their feelings or outcomes conflict with their expectations or plans).
The value of negative evidence (when we are able to access it)
From the standpoint of helping us clarify our academic and professional goals, negative evidence is even more powerful than our successes. By negative evidence I mean “when things do not result in the positive outcomes we desire or expect”- I hesitate to use the word “failures” which is the obvious way to think about negative evidence. The notion of failure is so charged, especially in education, that we literally shut down when we feel ourselves in its gravitational pull. Instead, think of negative evidence as disconfirming input. If you try one method of studying and you get a poor grade, then your grade suggests that your method of studying is not effective- at least for that particular course or professor. If you get poor grades across a category of courses, then the pattern of performance may suggest certain weaknesses or challenges or perhaps a lack of fit. The point is that our methods and approaches to interacting with our world aren’t always successful or adequate, especially as the context and expectations around us change. Often we need to modify our approaches, and the more information we get, the better we can adjust and adapt. But the beauty of college is that we can pursue areas of study and work that align with our core interests and strengths. So while students will and should experience challenges that stretch and develop their capacities and toolkits, sometimes patterns of negative evidence suggest problems with “fit” and can provide opportunities for students to pivot and explore other pathways that may be better suited. I find the biggest challenge in helping students access the insights offered by negative evidence is their fear of parents’ judgment, disappointment, or insistence that they pursue a given major or complete their studies on time.
Everything is connected but it can be tricky to see the patterns
Students often find me when they have switched majors multiple times, either formally or in their heads. They share a sense of frustration and even desperation as they try to settle on a major, reporting that they have “tried” a number of options, but can’t seem to settle on the right one. As I listen to them list their pivots, I often hear embarrassment and shame, a sense that they have somehow failed and wasted precious time pursuing the “wrong” pathway. In these situations, my work involves disabusing them of this notion of failure and instead encouraging them to see their various efforts as valuable data points. The notion of trying something is exactly what we want students to do in college. In essence, we want them to become researchers on themselves- trying something based on hypotheses or expectations, and then they see how it goes- reflecting on the results and learning from outcomes, they can make modifications and adjustments toward some increasingly clarified goal or endpoint. The great news is that there are so many different career paths and professional pathways- more than students, and certainly parents, even know. And the fact that new fields of study and innovation are emerging all the time means that professional and academic opportunities are much more abundant than we are led to believe. If students are able to see patterns with regard to their interests (and their boundaries), they can find areas of study and work that align closely with their strengths and passions, setting them up for exciting and fulfilling careers and the ability to flex and pivot as the landscape continues to evolve and change.
You as a mentor
Ideally, the relationship between parent and child evolves as the they get ready to start college or university. As my own children get older, I think of myself more as a mentor, recognizing that their choices are largely their own, and that the best I can do is to help them navigate options and experiences, learning as they go towards finding their place in the world and hopefully living fulfilling and productive lives. Being a mentor is not always easy or natural for everyone, but it is a journey worth taking. Here are some points of conversation or exploration that I utilize in my own interactions with students – and even adults who are contemplating professional growth or change.
Start from what you love
I begin my conversations by asking students when they are their happiest, what activities they most enjoy, what they are really good at, or other types of questions that seek to clarify a point of positivity, excitement or joy. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for some students (and adults) to get there. Sometimes we need to look for “clues”, asking what their parents, siblings, friends or childhood teachers would say about their strengths or talents. However you get there, this place of positivity can be “mined” for valuable details about the why’s and how’s and what’s- why do you love to ………….., how does it make you feel, what is it about that activity or topic that makes you feel that way….. these insights can be pivotal in developing a sensitivity to “fit” with regard to careers, academic pathways, and learning experiences that might be worth exploring.
Explore emerging fields and innovations to see what inspires you
You would be amazed at how many students say they want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers (or virtually any other career) and yet show little or no interest in related stories, topics or articles. To be blunt, you cannot really fake interest- even if your parents expect you to. I find that many students, and adults, aren’t really curious about anything- or rather, haven’t discovered areas of curiosity, often because they are so busy meeting the expectations of their daily lives. With the demands of coursework, jobs and related commitments and social engagements, it is easy to become detached from curiosity and inspiration. Taking time to scan magazines, news sites or blogs is a great way to discover or rediscover your interests, a step that is critical to finding greater fulfillment and inspiration.
Examine your own experiences through this aspirational lens
Once your student gets excited about some field or area of innovation, help them examine their own experiences through that lens, identifying any accomplishments, skills or experiences that are at all related. Students (and adults) often miss authentic experiences that may not be tied to formalized jobs or programs. In the world of experiential learning, authenticity is the gold standard. So even hardships, struggles or negative evidence can be transformed into assets and resources related to academic or professional opportunities. Having a strong foundation on which to build is the best place from which to approach growth and opportunity.
What are the key gaps between your current capacity and where you’d like to be?
Once you have a point of inspiration that connects with your curiosity, passions or sense of purpose, and you can see your core capacities and resources on which you can build, now you can identify gaps and areas for cultivation and growth. Notice that approaching our “deficits” in this way is neither threatening nor demeaning. It is simply recognizing a pathway toward a goal or vision that is inherently meaningful AND possible to achieve. This approach is more likely to encourage risk taking, resilience, and grit while supporting mental health and general wellbeing than the alternative approaches often embraced.
Now look at the systems you have access to
Once you have a general sense of directionality and areas for growth, it is time to revisit the systems you have access to- including college or university. I often say that my own university – and really all US colleges and universities- are like grand buffets, with an amazing array of opportunities, programs and resources all waiting for students to activate. Of course, each college and university has a unique assortment of resources, both in terms of formalized programming and unique culture and setting, with people, places and experiences that can be accessed and leveraged. When we lack a clear sense of purpose or inspiration, we often fail to recognize the full array of opportunities that are available and instead see only the negative, pulling us into “the weeds” and undermining our success, fulfillment or growth.
Developing powerful narratives
Realizing that this post is already way too long, I will end with the importance of developing powerful narratives. Stories are undeniably powerful- both the stories we tell those around us, but also the stories that play out in our heads as we go through life. One of the most exciting things about college is the opportunity to develop powerful and resonant narratives about ourselves that emerge as we meet diverse people and ideas, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and explore and test different career options and ways of life. As we gain insights about ourselves and our place in the world, we can practice talking about who were are and hope to become. Sharing this evolution of ourselves with families, parents and friends, can be exciting when others recognize the vulnerability that comes along and respond with care and support. I can tell you that colleges and universities are full of faculty and staff, like myself, who are ready and eager to help your child navigate this process and leverage the buffet of resources and opportunities that we provide. When I contemplate the future of Higher Education, I am unsure whether our institutions in their current states of abundance will be able to continue to thrive. But I do know that they are a gift to our children, our communities and our world, offering riches beyond what most of our students and parents recognize or understand. In addition to helping our children gain access to Higher Education, we need to help them leverage and navigate the opportunities and resources within. I hope these insights and suggestions are helpful.
One of the hardest things for people to talk or write about is themselves, and why they are uniquely well suited for a particular opportunity or honor. I have been noting this challenge at the University as I work with some of our most outstanding students. Despite the fact that they have so much to offer- travel, research, academics, the whole package- they often blank when asked to write a personal statement or to be interviewed about their experiences. Invariably, they insist that they’re not good at talking about themselves or bragging about their achievements. And yet ironically, they have spent so much of their time and effort collecting these very accomplishments.
Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re all in such a hurry. Students rush through high school trying to get into college, and then once in college we hurry them through as quickly as possible in an effort to save them money and get them into the work force. In our haste, perhaps we are failing to support their critical reflection- namely, helping them understand and articulate what it is that they’ve experienced and accomplished, what they can offer that is uniquely theirs. And yet, these are the very skills that will move them to the next level, allowing them to create and secure opportunities for growth, advancement and expansion. And perhaps most importantly, these are the skills that will help them self-correct when they find themselves in positions and situations that no longer connect with their cores values, interests or goals.
How can we help students get better at talking about themselves and their experiences? (Although intended for students, these techniques can be used by anyone for virtually any opportunity or goal.)
- Begin by listing the categories of skills and competencies that are of critical importance to your intended audience. You can usually find these in the specific posting but I encourage you to dig deeper. Look at reports, press pieces, or profiles of individuals who have held the position/opportunity (or similar position/opportunity) in the past. Allow yourself to imagine the perfect recipient/employee or candidate. What types of categories of skills and competencies would they possess and why are these important given the demands/honors of the opportunity of interest?
- Once you have a good list, allow yourself to reflect on your own positions, experiences and achievements and begin to note these under the specific categories with which they correspond. While you can start with specific responsibilities or activities, also note actual experiences that connect with these- both good and bad. Allow yourself to reflect around these experiences and note any big lessons, developments or growth. Ask yourself, “why was it important, what did I learn, and how did it impact me or those around me?” Keep going with this exercise until you have an extensive outline of key skills, experiences and competencies that you can reference and expand upon. Hopefully, at this point you can take some satisfaction in noting the abundance of experiences upon which you can draw.
- Now it’s time to look for patterns. Everyone has unique patterns that help describe the ways they approach choices in life and work. Patterns often reveal themselves over time and diversity of experiences. Once you can recognize and articulate these, they can be extremely helpful in telling compelling stories about you and what you will bring to any particular opportunity, along with how you will respond to challenging situations or contexts. Consider using critical questions to help reveal your defining patterns. What drives you? How do you define growth or success? How do you add value to challenging contexts? Consider how these patterns have propelled you on your path and have led to your current interest in this particular opportunity.
- The fourth step is perhaps the most important. It involves flipping your lens and focusing not on yourself and your accomplishments, but instead on what you can uniquely contribute to the potential employer, organization, opportunity, or broader community via your efforts. Through succinctly articulating how your unique skill set and experiences can complement and benefit the recipient, you can assure the decision makers that you have strong potential and are worthy of their investment.
Once you have worked through these exercises, allow yourself to practice talking about your experiences in relation to your signature patterns and sense of broader impacts/contributions. You can move between these levels of reflection, making connections, bringing up specific examples/evidence, but always tying it back to the specific opportunity and what you have to offer.
The most exciting aspect of helping students master these skills, is seeing them discover and internalize their signature patterns for the first time. There is something quite powerful in recognizing the unique ways in which we approach our lives and work. When these patterns resonate strongly with employers and the needs of the world around us, we feel empowered and more confident, and begin to seek out opportunities and choices that further strengthen our potential contributions. It is when these internal and external narratives strongly align that we can be our most impactful.
This post is written for all who are feeling stuck or unsure how to navigate change.
If you accept the assertion that we are all dealing with design challenges https://marabhuber.com/2017/10/28/redesign/, then resetting is simply a process of realignment. When the context surrounding our lives or work changes dramatically, our patterns of behavior and contributions may no longer fit or be valued. What was once satisfying may feel constraining or even dysfunctional.
I call this dissonance- the state of being out of alignment. It happens at work, in relationships, in virtually all aspects of our lives. Change can be thrust upon us through external events like death, infidelity, shifts in leadership or organizational structure. But it also happens from within, often subtly, compounding over time. Regardless of the source however, change is completely natural and unavoidable, and yet for many, terrifying.
We expend a great deal of energy, strategy and emotion trying to prevent change or slow it down as we grasp for security, sustainability or permanence. And in doing so, we fail to recognize that when viewed through a different set of lenses, change is actually a portal through which we can access growth, humility and perspective- all necessary ingredients for the fulfillment and connectivity that we universally crave.
You see, the secret to resetting lies in developing a sensitivity to the universe of change and differences that spins around us. But rather than trying to stop, prevent or judge the change, it requires a sense of honor and respect as we work towards deeper insights, appreciation and acceptance.
Put another way, resetting requires emotional distance, the ability to remove our feelings and needs when assessing the world around us. Once we release ourselves from our analysis we can begin to observe broader patterns and trends, issues and forces that shape constraints and opportunities, impacting the people and places around us.
As we develop an ability to “feel into” these contextual forces, we can gain insights into opportunities for our own growth and development while releasing the negativity and fear that threaten our success and happiness.
How to reset? Begin by looking around you, considering the internal and external landscape, the ecosystem of structures and people that comprise and influence your world. Start to formulate questions and observations, framing them through words and phrases that convey respect and care. Speak these words out loud in front of a mirror, noting your body language and the way you feel when you say them or imagine the conversations. As you try out different words and observations, work to release any tension or tightness, letting go of negativity, fear or hurt and embracing a more caring and open demeanor. And take the time to observe and reflect on the differences.
Here are some conversation starters with which you can experiment.
Things feel different lately, have you noticed any changes?
What does it feel like to be in your position? What are the pressures that you’re experiencing? What are you most excited about?
I can feel things changing but I’m not sure I understand how or why. Can you share your insights?
I get a sense that the context (of our work) has shifted, what do you see as the new direction? What are you concerned about?
I sense that our relationship is somehow out of alignment. I’d like to understand how things have changed from your perspective.
Once you are able to receive insights about the world around you, without personalizing or getting defensive, you will discover new spaces and opportunities to flex your talents, skills and contributions in ways that add value and feel inherently better. While your relationships and experiences may be different than what you originally expected or even hoped for, you will feel a renewed sense of alignment and stability, and an awareness of the universe of possibilities that is always there but always changing around you.
As I talk with women from diverse backgrounds and professions, the notion of “the weeds” seems to resonate universally.
The weeds are a highly emotional place, a vast and interconnected tangle of thoughts, memories, and experiences. Charged with emotion and fear, the weeds are highly sensitive. Once triggered, they ricochet us through patterns and responses, leaving us wounded and depleted as we struggle to regain our sense of balance and control.
Not surprisingly, growth doesn’t happen in the weeds. And yet that’s exactly where many of us find ourselves. Sent there by tragedy, crisis, relationships, and even complacency- almost any life or work event can serve as a trigger.
Over the years, I have developed an acute sensitivity to the weeds. I experience them as creeping vines, wrapping around our ankles or torsos. I can often sense their shadow as they approach- thoughts of self-doubt or defensiveness, a tightening in the throat or stomach. And in others, they manifest as a darkness, draining both energy and light.
From a cognitive standpoint, the weeds represent the lowest levels of our thinking. Laden with details and context, they keep us trapped in our emotions with little room for reflection or insight. But if we are able to leave the weeds behind, we can travel higher in our systems, entering a universe of concepts and ideas. Unlike the closely knitted tangles of emotions, these constructs are expansive and dynamic, able to be nested, stacked, and rearranged as we build and reconfigure our understanding of ourselves, our work and our worlds.
The cognitive differences between the weeds and higher thinking cannot be exaggerated. It’s like comparing the most innovative playground to the rings of Hell. But escaping from the weeds is neither easy nor intuitive. By definition, it involves getting away from danger but also finding something safer. In simple terms, breaking free from the emotionality of the weeds is only part of the solution. We must at the same time embrace the benefits of higher thinking, pulling ourselves upward through textured goals, commitments, and thought patterns. Imagine yourself on a climbing wall, searching for constructs to grab onto as you lift your feet higher.
The good news is that it’s all within our reach, and interest in this new frontier seems to be building. With every month, I’m being asked to speak about these and strategies with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. From companies wanting to provide their associates with tools to reach and dream higher, to women looking for opportunities for advancement, and organizations focused on community impacts, we seem to be collectively yearning for growth and expansion. Perhaps this is an area that is ready to be developed and cultivated. Perhaps the time has finally come for cognitive redesign.
As someone who has studied and thought about these ideas for over thirty years, I am excited and eager to share my strategies and insights. But I am also mindful of the paradigm shift that this approach represents. I’m curious to hear my readers’ thoughts and feedback. Does this notion of the weeds resonate with you? And are we really ready to embrace a more generative approach to growth and advancement?
Our collective notions of power are in need of a major makeover.
Forget about the greedy self-serving kind, or the influence that comes with wealth and control. Although these are the connotations that are sold to us by a male-dominated society, they are not the type of power that we desperately need or crave.
What we need at this particular moment in time is an inherently different version of power, an ability to connect our gifts and talents with needs and opportunities around us, to add value, to build unity, and to create something inherently better.
This notion of power represents a dynamic interplay between two component forces- a clarity of mission and purpose, and a responsiveness to the ambient world. Honing and knowing what we bring to the table, what we represent in terms of our gifts and potential, and then tracking our focus on opportunities to respond and engage.
When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that our power is magnified when we work together. Not in a solely strategic or calculated way, but instead through intimate and personal connections, activating one another’s talents and networks to accelerate and amplify our impacts beyond what we could achieve alone.
This is the type of power- the only type of power- that nurtures our souls, that heals our wounds and fills us back up, undoing the damage that we have collectively incurred. Fear, aggression, victimization- all weapons that have drained our essence leading us toward self-destruction instead of the brilliant future that waits within reach.
But how can we find our power when so many of us remain trapped in darkness? Like a riddle, the answer is hidden in our false assumption, a fundamental error that is exquisitely simple yet profound. To find our power we cannot start with our supervisors, titles or salaries, or any other label or thing that is given to us or put upon us. For looking to others for our power is the surest way to never find or keep it.
The type of power we seek is neither ephemeral nor uncertain. Its permanence and strength derive from a sense of clarity and purpose tied to our own talents, mission, and what we uniquely bring to the world. To find it we must go deep, getting personal, moving well beyond our degrees, titles, and jobs that are externally bequeathed. We must delve into the very core of our experiences, insights and realizations, allowing ourselves to think, feel, and know.
And then we need to make things happen- big things, important things, things that matter. And we need to do it together, supporting one another, and celebrating and reflecting on our impacts, creating more spaces and opportunities to shine and help others shine, creating a world that values and leverages talent toward the greatest good.
Only then will we know what it feels like to be truly powerful, to be no longer afraid or hurt or angry. Only then can we shine.
Many supervisors treat their employees unfairly. Although unfortunate, and in many cases unacceptable, this is not the topic that I wish to ponder. Instead, it is the victimization that we inflict upon ourselves that has begun to concern me deeply.
Perhaps I am overly sensitive to its symptomology. Whether it manifests as sadness, disappointment, or anger, there is a rawness of emotion, an underlying fragility and often a core of fear. While each unique, the stories reveal a common sense of loss, hopes and promises unrealized, broken trust, and unmet needs.
I am not a therapist so I resist the urge to deal with feelings directly, to analyze the patterns or judge responses. But I do acknowledge the emanating emotionality that follows like a scent, a shadow that shades one’s glow.
Once acknowledged, I flip the conversation to focus on talents, contributions, and sense of appreciation that we all crave and deserve. I try to point out ways we can assess our value, find spaces to grow, to free ourselves from the typical indicators of worth and success- a raise, a title, validation, dangerous commodities that are entirely outside of our control.
I do know that everyone wants to grow, to make contributions, and to feel valued- these are fundamental needs that should not be dismissed or minimized. But the best place to work on these is from a position of strength. Once we are vulnerable and our emotions are raw and triggered, we are more prone to the damage that absence can inflict.
I guess my concern about victimization is a larger concern about vulnerability, and the power we give to those who control access and opportunity. I do not trust that all leaders will administer them fairly, that they understand the untapped talent and potential that surround them, that they have the skills, interest, or sense of humility and gratitude necessary to fully nurture their charges to their fullest potential. That is not their focus, their point of accountability, or sense of worth.
To be clear, the solution lies not in dimming or numbing our need for growth or validation. Instead, we need to empower ourselves and one another to be strong and vibrant, to hold our energy and promise, and to grow and contribute even in the face of poor supervision, instruction, or leadership. We cannot continue to give our power away to those who may not honor or nurture it- it is too valuable and precious to squander.
Simply put, we can no longer afford to be victims. Nor can we fully actualize our collective potential when talent remains trapped under layers of hurt and anger. Sometimes I wish I could turn on a switch and behold the true radiance of everyone around me. What could we achieve with all of us shining at our brightest? Think of the illumination and change that it could bring. Imagine how it would feel.
Like modern cars with interconnected systems and computers, our lives- and careers- have become increasingly complex. Although our sensors are robust when it comes to signaling feelings of dissatisfaction, many of us lack the specialized tools for diagnosing specific issues and making the necessary adjustments to get us back on track.
Serving simultaneously as drivers and technicians of our own lives can seem daunting. But if we accept the importance of this duality, we must begin to assemble the appropriate tools that are designed specifically to address the nuanced ways in which we find ourselves stuck or off-track, and can lead us toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our current and future roles.
Through my background in Cognitive Psychology and my professional experience in Higher Education, I have come to understand the various heuristics or short-cuts in reasoning that can undermine our growth and satisfaction. Regardless of the merits or constraints of your professional situation, these limitations can collectively undermine success and happiness. Luckily they can all be addressed through a deliberate “reprogramming” process, but they are critical to recognize and bring into awareness before such progress can be made.
While I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, I will make an exception and provide more extensive details below. From my vantage point, the pervasiveness of “stuckness” in the workforce when coupled with the underwhelming job market makes these types of posts and strategies more important than ever, but I am curious to know whether readers are ready to embrace this type of assistance (see my request at the end of the post).
Consider the importance of labels in our lives. We give them to people, objects, and places, almost anything that can be described or categorized. We even label ourselves, describing our jobs, lifestyles, philosophies and political views. Labels fulfill many purposes. Although each of us experiences the world in slightly different ways, labels provide a sense of consistency across variation, allowing us to communicate, connect, and operate on common terms. They also allow us to make inferences and guesses, helping us to process information quickly and efficiently. Clearly, without labels life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with limited opportunity for reflection or sharing.
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 competencies extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeon-holing 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.
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. But be forewarned, doing so can upset the delicate balance of relationships and expectations, and should be implemented with caution.
In addition to constricting our space with narrow labels, we also set our gaze too low, forcing ourselves to stoop, eventually stunting our growth. Think of your mind as a web of interconnected layers of labels, concepts, and ideas. At the lowest levels are your actual experiences, things that are happening or have just happened- individual conversations, images, or thoughts. These low level experiences are highly personal, charged with emotional details and content connected in turn to other personal experiences that are similarly charged. As you travel higher in your web, you find more general and abstract labels, ideas, and beliefs that have fewer personal details. While lacking in emotional content, these higher level labels can offer rich guidance, helping us to understand complex situations and make strong decisions through reflection, reasoning, and higher order thinking.
In the professional realm our highest levels might include strategic priorities, mission aspects, or general beliefs about our work and what we do. This level tends to be the most resistant to change, regardless of new leadership or contextual influences, our highest level ideas serve as anchors providing us with consistency and guidance through periods of change and uncertainty. In the middle layers you might find strategic goals and objectives, or threats that are of immediate concern. And at the very bottom are our day to day meetings, activities, and interactions.
Of course each of your layers and networks combine and interconnect, making up a complex web of information, thoughts, ideas, and memories with various levels and sub-levels. As human problem solvers we have total access to this universe of connections. We can work from the top down or bottom up depending on our needs and situations. We can jump between layers and sub-layers, connecting disparate experiences, deepening our learning and understanding towards better decision making.
And yet despite this expansiveness, we tend to stay at the lower levels, focusing on immediate experiences that are emotionally charged while offering little insight. Just like junk food that gives us a quick fix but little else, these low levels perpetuate a hunger and craving for more stimulation. Just walk around a coffee shop, shopping mall, or other public venue and listen to the conversations of passers-by. You will hear play-by-play accounts of conversations and experiences, emanating with emotion and interpersonal drama. Since low-level details are emotionally charged, they easily trigger other experiences and past dramas, creating patterns and priming reactive responses. Although staying at this level can provide immediate validation and temporary relief, it does little to create movement or open the way toward greater growth and fulfillment. Instead, it keeps us stuck.
In the workplace, this tendency plays out in different ways, causing employees to perseverate on low-level tasks and activities without seeing the larger picture or goals. They may focus on being busy, seeking validation, looking for respect and growing frustrated when they feel undervalued or appreciated. Others may fixate on interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, complaining about how they are mistreated or about the toxic environment in which they work. Although people universally crave growth and respect, they often look to be given it through opportunities, titles, or responsibilities. And in doing so they may fail to access the universe of possibilities that surrounds virtually every choice and decision they make.
As problem solvers we are notoriously lousy at seeing the world through others’ perspectives. Researchers have long studied the limitations that accompany human cognition. Many of the classic studies focus on young children, who, depending on their specific developmental stages can make some surprising errors, being fooled by the way things look. They tend to focus on the most obvious dimensions, believing that a taller and thinner vessel contains more liquid than one that is squatter, or a stretched out row of pennies contains more money than one that is close together. As adults it’s easy to smile at these errors, dismissing them as endearing examples of children’s naivete and innocence. But the truth is that even adults get fooled by appearances, trapped by our own perceptions and perspectives.
How we view the world and the decisions we make are largely influenced by our personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds. What comes into our sensory systems in terms of images, sounds, or stimulation is interpreted by our minds which activate concepts and labels in our interconnected networks to give them meaning and context. Our languages help us make sense of the sounds through perceiving words and sentences; our religious and moral frameworks help us interpret right and wrong; and our individual cultures and families help us discriminate between opportunities and threats. Even though we understand at some level that others may have different views, we are quick to believe the veracity of our own interpretations and experiences, jumping to conclusions and diving back into the weeds.
Luckily there are some powerful ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives. They involve moving ourselves out of the lower layers to find more powerful frames and labels with which guide our insights and specific perceptions. We should recognize that is only through the understanding of others’ perspectives that we can adapt our own behavior and decision making to be maximally effective and impactful.
We expend a great deal of energy trying to preserve ourselves in all of our facets. We are wired to see threats, both literal, in the coming to attack you sense, but also more subtle emotional kinds. Once we perceive someone or something as bad or somehow “against us”, we begin to interpret their behaviors and actions through this lens, which in turn becomes highly charged and primed for activation.
Categories associated with dangers and threats are of a special kind. Even at the highest levels of our networks they elicit fear and strong emotional responses. Some have theorized that these labels are necessary for survival and are rooted in a fight or flight response. But regardless of their origins, they seem to have a uniquely loaded nature, heightening our negative reactions once ideas or labels are associated or connected. Another way of looking at this is through the idea of thresholds which are levels of activation necessary for a label to be “fired.” Although many high level concepts require significant thought and reflection to be accessed and understood, categories like danger, fire, or enemy activate more quickly and easily, as soon as a threat is perceived.
Because we exert a great deal of energy to preserve and feel good about ourselves, and our tendency to see the world through our own perspectives, we are likely to assign others to enemy-related categories in the face of conflict. Especially when we are engaging at our lower levels where emotions run high and thresholds low, we are quick to trigger the danger response. Unfortunately, once these labels are triggered, our openness shuts down, in essence turning of the lights and missing out on the other information and details that could lead to other decisions and perspectives.
In addition to danger-based labels, we all have other categories and frames that are easily triggered and activated. Some of us are especially sensitive about our appearance, our families, or some other characteristics that make us feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate. We might also bring perceived threats from our childhoods or pasts, situations that made us feel weakened or small, that set up permanent triggers that remain ready to be fired. Once triggered they result in a shutting-down or darkening, mobilizing our resources for self-protection and defense. In this mode little growth and movement can occur. In the next chapter we will explore techniques for guiding ourselves through perceived threats and dangers in order to maximize learning and maintain our movement. But for now we should begin to consider the power of threats and triggers and how they can force us to shut down in the face of perceived danger.
Confronting our Fears
Take a moment to put these tendencies together- too tight; too low; too close; and too dark. It’s not surprising that collectively they elicit negative feelings. In fact these same words could easily be used to describe a torture chamber befitting a horror movie, the idea of being trapped in a tight and dark chamber without room to stretch or breathe. This scenario automatically triggers feelings of vulnerability and helplessness and makes us long to turn on the lights, and escape from danger.
The irony is that when it comes to stuckness, we are all trapped by our own doing. The same systems that allow us to be constrained- the network of interconnected levels, labels, and ideas- will also allow us to move and grow. It is completely our choice to override our pre-programmed tendencies and stretch beyond. I am happy to share some new tools that can help us more fully utilize our systems toward greater movement and growth, if there is an interest. Please reply if you find these types of posts and information useful…..-Mara
We have a lot riding on success.
In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.
The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.
More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.
If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.
This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.
In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.
Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.
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?