The State of Being Stuck

stuck

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).

Too tight

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.       

Too low

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.

Too Close

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.

Too Dark

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

Success with a Purpose: (Re)defining the next phase of our work

purpose

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.

-Mara Huber

 

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?

The Trouble With Being Invisible

invisible_woman

Before I became a wife and mother I was told that if I did my job really well, no one would even know that I was doing it. By sensing the imbalances and needs of my family, I would smooth out the tensions and serve as the glue that would hold everyone together. To be happy, I would have to find satisfaction in the knowledge that I was effective, and not rely on external appreciation or accolades that were unreliable, at best.

As a young woman I accepted this advice as truth and began my silent and largely invisible service as a steward of family harmony. And after leaving an assistant professor position for something more family friendly, my contributions as a professional staff member quickly began to feel shadowy and unseen. And once again while I knew I was highly effective, I quickly became invisible to the (largely male) leadership surrounding me.

Between the worlds of vision and coordination are layers of process and implementation that serve as the life blood of organizations and programs. They are fed by teams of competent and talented professionals who are able to flex and pivot, applying their skills to constantly changing contexts and environments often with little direction or support. These individuals -often women- serve as the proverbial glue, ensuring stability and balance even in the face of uncertainty and dysfunction.

As a seasoned veteran I have learned to survive – and perhaps even thrive- in this environment. Despite a constantly changing landscape and cast of players, I am able to reframe my goals and leverage my relationships, weathering uncertainty and providing myself with the clarity that I need.

But when I look at the young professionals around me I have a growing concern about their invisible status and the implications for both their growth and well being. Because leadership is often unaware of staff’s talents, contributions, and the critical role that they play within the larger context, they are left virtually unprotected and vulnerable. And as institutions struggle to remain competitive and viable, strategic goals and targets begin to substitute for mission and vision, with all individuals becoming disposable- especially those who are unseen.

As someone who is watching this scenario unfold I can tell you that it’s alarming on a number of levels. For the individual it can be devastating- threatening one’s self-esteem and sense of identity and self. But for the institutions that they silently serve, the implications are even more profound. When these individuals become dejected, or even worse eliminated, the culture and outputs of the organization are weakened and lessened with little chance of redress or remediation.

Clearly, it is time to bring these invisible professionals and their work- our work- into the light. For those of us lucky enough to have security and perspective, our responsibility is even more pronounced. We must find our voices and the skills to demonstrate our value and the roles that we can play, creating new spaces and new opportunities for professionals to make their contributions and help us achieve harmony and impacts as well as success.

When I look back at the advice given to me so long ago, I now know that it was both dated and incomplete, attached to old-fashioned models that have proven neither sustainable nor fulfilling. It is time for us to finally emerge from the shadows, owning our impact and supporting one another as a true community of professionals.

Reinvention and The Narratives We Weave

 Perhaps our lives are like tapestries that weave themselves both forward and back.  Our experiences are the threads that add color and texture but only gain meaning once their patterns have emerged.

If our lives are like tapestries, then narratives feature prominently in their designs.  Narratives are the stories that reveal themselves as truths, framing the way we view ourselves and others, shaping our decisions and conclusions and how we engage with the world.

We see ourselves as heroes, underdogs or warriors and others as friends, lovers, or enemies, along with myriad variations of stories and themes that emerge and reemerge throughout our lives.

Our narratives come from many sources. We infer them from our families, the media, and our own experiences as we extract principles and patterns that seem to hold true.  Some have suggested that our narratives are rooted in our distant past through a collective unconscious or sacred contracts that proceed our births.

But regardless of their origins, our narratives become quite powerful once they are established, acting as lenses through which we interpret experiences and determine our actions.

Although many of our narratives are positive we are often most aware of those that are restrictive or negatively charged.  Stories about being a failure, a victim, or a fool can take on such a heightened level of prominence that they become perpetually primed, tainting all experiences that they touch.

It’s not surprising that when we finally decide to reinvent ourselves, we often focus on creating entirely new narratives independent of those that have previously dragged us down.  And while the work of starting anew can feel both invigorating and transformative, we quickly feel the familiar tug of our old narratives as they begin to undermine our growth and threaten to pull us back down.

For in our haste to distance ourselves from the past, we fail to sufficiently anchor our new narratives in our life tapestries, believing that they will weave themselves forward creating new designs that are both beautiful and strong.  In doing so we underestimate the depth of our existing patterns and the myriad threads that both nourish and sustain them.

In moments of weakness or self-doubt our old patterns become reinvigorated and quickly infiltrate our new designs, blurring their boundaries and threatening their significance.

Ironically, our best opportunities for reinvention are those that allow us to reweave our existing details and experiences into new designs.  By adding nuances, subtleties, and complexities atop existing patterns, we can create additional layers of richness that build on our past designs rather than competing with them.

Within the context of our careers this can mean cultivating new areas of expertise, audiences, or perspectives or perhaps a completely different approach to what we have done or seen.

Although growth is always profound in its effects, it often emerges from subtle variations and tones.

So as we contemplate our reinvention we should pause to appreciate the richness of our existing tapestries on which we can build.

10 Conversations to Have With Yourself As Soon As Possible

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my favorites:

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

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

The Science of Pigeonholing

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

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

In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competences extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeonholing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.

While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations. Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.

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

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

The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.

Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation. At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. Clearly, it is only through broadening expectations, asserting and inserting our gifts and talents that we can stretch the space around labels and give ourselves more room to move.

I Believe…I Promise…I Expect

Here’s an exercise that yields huge returns.  It’s much more challenging than you might think, and can be used with virtually any age group, demographic, or area of focus.  I developed it when my children were very young and I was looking to clarify my approach to parenting in an effort to stay focused and maintain my sanity.

The instructions are deceivingly simple.  Pick an area of focus, a role, or aspect of your life.  Once you select your lens, write with a few concise sentences that sum up the essence of your “platform”, starting with I believe,  I promise, and I expect.   Your statements should be general enough to capture your unique culture, mission, or approach, while specific enough to serve as a guide for future actions and decision making.

I have used this exercise in a number of settings and contexts including coaching, strategic planning, group facilitation, and mediation.  Based on my experiences I would offer the following observations for each category of reflection:

I Believe

It’s helpful to anchor this statement to the role on which you are focusing.  In other words, if you are completing this exercise as a parent, you should craft a statement about what you believe to be the core responsibilities of parents or conversely what you believe society needs in terms of its citizens or communities.  If you are completing this through the lens of leadership, consider the final “product” of your efforts in terms of the bigger world or context.  By framing your core beliefs around the highest level of outcomes that are relevant to your frame, you will create the most expansive space for creating movement and maximizing your impact.

I Promise

This is a big one as it speaks to core commitments, which shouldn’t move or shift regardless of changes in context or the twists and turns of life.  I strongly feel that we need more commitments from individuals, organizations, and institutions- commitments that we can count on no matter what.  Your own promises should come directly from your beliefs and should be broad enough to serve as anchors while allowing for varied solutions and goals.  In this way your promises should not limit you, but instead guide you in your decision making while ensuring ongoing alignment at all times.

I Expect

This one is my favorite but it’s often the hardest to adopt.  Here’s the idea:  while it’s great to commit to others through your promises, you also need to define the parameters of your engagement.  Specifically, what are your core expectations for the individuals with whom you interact in your respective role?  Like promises, expectations should also be tied to your core beliefs and should never waver, serving as a vehicle to ensure the stability of your beliefs while also enabling you to fulfill your promise to others – and yourself.

Although this exercise takes time and necessitates deep reflection and soul searching, I find that it is well worth the investment and yields multiple returns.   When I developed it for myself it was based on a very clear notion that I continue to share with my children today,

…..I don’t want you to waste any of your life trying to figure me out.  I want you to know exactly who I am and what I stand for, so that you can use your time and energy to figure yourself out, to recognize and cultivate your gifts, and begin to impact the world. The sooner you are able to do this, the sooner you will experience the magic that comes with fulfilling your promise.

I hope you all find this exercise useful.  Let me know if you have any questions or need any help!

-Mara