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Growth Doesn’t Happen in the Weeds

statue

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?

Contemplating Courage: Getting ready for the Woman Up Conference

courage

In my eternal quest for powerful frames, I find myself fixated on the notion of courage.

As a concept, courage is loaded in all the right ways. It implies a sense of purpose and strength, and the notion of fighting for something important and meaningful.

This summer my three daughters were all assigned Malala as required reading. I found this to be remarkable since their ages vary dramatically- 15, 11, and 9. But when I read the book to my youngest, I was so grateful that Malala’s story was being shared so broadly. And as we moved through the chapters and incidents leading up to Malala’s shooting, my daughter’s eyes were suddenly opened to injustices and inequities of a scale she struggled to understand. And she was moved to wonder aloud how she would handle such threats, how we as a family and society would respond to such gross injustice.

I yearn for more stories of courage, for my daughters, for myself, for the women around me. More than inspiration, they offer perspective, hope, a tingling sense of being acutely alive, in tune with some higher purpose or sense of clarity. But they also offer a mirror, for reflecting on our own choices, character and strength.

When I travel to Tanzania I marvel at the women, the Sisters running clinics, building schools, working to open opportunities and hope for those who live without. And just recently I joined American Women for International Understanding (AWIU), a group that hosts an International Women of Courage Celebration, honoring women such as Captain Niloofar Rahmani (pictured in this post), the first female fixed-wing Afghan Air Force pilot in the history of Afghanistan.

I will continue to learn from women around the world, seeking out their stories and opportunities to connect. But at the same time I’m ready to celebrate courage right here in our own communities. I am ready to honor the stories of girls and women who are pushing against fear and injustice to expand opportunities for themselves and others.

As we come together to contemplate women’s leadership, empowerment, and all the frames that attract those of us in search of growth, advancement and fulfillment, we need to expand our scope of what is possible and what should be celebrated and admired.

It is with this sense of contemplation that I will be speaking at the Woman Up Conference on September 27th http://womanupconferences.com/. I look forward to joining other Western New York women who are eager to be part of our city’s Renaissance, to lend our collective talents and energies toward something better and brighter.

And beyond the Conference, in the months and years ahead, I look forward to many more stories about women of courage. Stories about perseverance, vision, and righting wrongs. Stories about the amazing women who deserve to be recognized, supported, and emulated. Stories that will help inspire us to reach our potential, and to have those critical conversations with our daughters and the future women of the world.

 

 

Kitenga Update- Truly Remarkable

Although I have returned to Kitenga many times since my original trip in 2009, my visit this past week (July 2016) felt qualitatively different. Even as the various buildings have taken shape over the years, the idea of a comprehensive and vibrant campus for girls has felt largely conceptual and entirely aspirational. Perhaps it was the expansiveness of the vista, the absence of children’s voices, or the lack of infrastructure or tarmac roads. Perhaps the Sisters’ vision was simply too bold or audacious for my mind’s eye to fully construct or comprehend.

And yet, there it was in undeniable form. As I stood with my UB colleagues, beholding the remarkable progress since my last visit, I was filled with a sense of awe and gratitude. Not only were the buildings real and tangible, but they were aesthetically beautiful and sound. As I walked through the courtyard of the dormitory, I could feel the presence of the girls and young women to come. And reflected in the gleaming windows of the new science building, was the promise of innovation and achievement, empowerment and hope.

The transformation was truly remarkable and I am humbled by the power of your generosity. With the collective support of the GEC community, the Kitenga campus is poised for success and impact. The school will become a model for the promise of education and all that is possible when we invest in girls, their families, and communities.

Congratulations GEC- truly remarkable!

-Mara

Taken from the GEC website  http://www.girlsedcollaborative.org/kitenga-update-truly-remarkable/

 

 

 

Actualizing our Potential

This Friday, at the EOC Women’s Conference, I will be talking about the notion of actualizing our potential.

I see potential everywhere. It’s like a radiant energy that hovers around us, waiting to be activated and utilized. Although potential is inherently powerful, it comes in a latent form, requiring a vehicle for its release. Think of natural gas, sunlight, or wind. Identifying their presence is critical, but it’s only through harnessing and channeling their energy that they become useful.

We are in a state of latent potential. Although potential is literally everywhere, building and bubbling around and through us, it remains largely untapped. It is true that we try to develop our potential, through education and workforce training programs. But our attempts are largely limited. Rather than cultivating its abundant forms- the gifts, talents, and resources that individuals and groups and places offer- and creating tailored vehicles for delivery and dissemination, we continue to work backwards. We build our pipelines and factories with specific opportunities in mind, letting jobs and workforce sectors guide and limit our preparation.

And in doing so, we continue to propagate the belief that preparation will lead to opportunity, and that opportunity is in fact enough to get us where we need to go. And yet clearly, opportunity is not a sufficient pathway for actualizing our collective potential now or in the future. Opportunities- in the present sense- are often limited and highly specific, forcing us to compete with one another by squeezing into constraints and limitations. And let’s face it, even if we strive to win these opportunities, they are simply not enough. They will neither accommodate everyone seeking them, nor will they utilize or actualize the talents and resources of those who win them.

Of course we should continue to pursue opportunities, preparing ourselves and one another to compete for positions that offer security and meaningful work. But we cannot stop there. We need more vehicles, more models that will allow individuals, systems, and communities to plug in their respective resources, to add value, to connect with others. We need models that are generative, systems that create new spaces and opportunities, that leverage- by design- latent potential toward the greater good.

It is true that the frontiers of entrepreneurship and social enterprise are creating new spaces and opportunities for growth. But if we allow ourselves to see potential as a natural resource, THE natural resource, we will recognize that we haven’t even scratched the surface with regard to what is possible. This is the world that I revel in- the land of possibilities and potential. And although it may seem fantastical, especially for those who focus on “matters of consequence”, I assure you that it is real and well within our reach, and more fulfilling than you could ever imagine.

I look forward to sharing more this Friday. Please join me for the EOC Women’s Conference from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 18 in the EOC, 555 Ellicott St., on the UB Downtown Campus.

Conjugating Power

Rothko

Having power; wielding power; feeling powerless; being powerful. My head spins with nuances and their implications.

Lately I’ve been inundated with articles, reports, and conversations about women and power. The data are concerning. Although women begin their careers ambitious and eager, their aspirations drop off precipitously, resulting in underrepresentation across sectors and systems. Even women at the very top of the proverbial food chain report feeling uncomfortable with power, suggesting that this currency which has featured so prominently in our collective aspirations is more complex than initially conceived.

Clearly, power remains important, lodged securely within the crossroads of access, influence, and impact, critical to the wellbeing of women and their families but also to the health and vibrancy of our communities and broader society. As a cognitive psychologist I always return to the principles of problem solving and the way we define our most intractable challenges. So often our inability to move the needle on complex social issues lies in a lack of clarity regarding what we are seeking or rejecting in the long and short-term. Without clarity we remain muddled, poking around at the edges, trapped in a state of perpetual dissonance.

If we agree to go deeper, examining our core definitions of power, we confront its most standard form-the notion of acquisition, power obtained by virtue of position, influence or wealth. As one gets closer to power, rising in influence and authority, its attributions become clearer. We see that power is fragile and ephemeral, needing to be maintained and protected at all times. And by virtue of its possession it sets its owner apart, creating distance and otherness as it waits to be used or wielded toward some personal gain.

Rather than attracting us as women, these attributes have a repelling effect, especially for those of us drawn to the virtues of balance, humility, and more progressive notions of success and fulfillment. So although we may hear the call to lean in or power through, we can’t help but pause, sensing, knowing that there is something inherently restrictive or wrong about committing or submitting to this flawed ideal.

But clearly this version of power is not the only available form. Instead of acquisition we can choose its manifest state, being powerful instead of possessing it. This deceivingly simple variation yields dramatically different attributions, stretching the space around us as we expand our reach and impact, radiating positivity and purpose. Unlike having power, being powerful is not tied to a position or wealth, or inherently limited to a particular sphere or domain. We can be powerful in all aspects of our lives, as mothers, leaders, friends, or professionals. And the state of being powerful is not given to us and cannot be taken away. It is neither ephemeral nor limited, but instead lasting and contagious, spreading to those we touch and with whom we interact.

It is time we finally get comfortable with power. But in doing so we should resist the urge to simply accept the old and limited version that we know is neither fulfilling nor sufficient. Let’s take the time and effort to clarify the type of power that we seek and need. It is ultimately through this process that we will forge a new and better path forward.

It’s Hard to Stand Still

standing still

Certain states of being are natural. Growth, for example, is written into our DNA. From the moment we’re conceived we stretch and move outward, engaging with the environment, learning, and developing our skills and understanding toward a higher state of mastery. Ironically, entropy is an equally natural state, an inherent tendency for things and systems to break down over time, losing focus, strength, relevance, accelerating toward a place of disorganization and eventual obsolescence.

In contrast, the act of standing still is neither natural nor sustainable. Upon scrutiny it is merely a fleeting moment in time before either growth or entropy kick in. And as such, it is a particularly precarious place to rest or hold onto as the  world changes and thrashes around us.

And yet despite its inherent dangers and limitations, the notion of standing still continues to factor prominently in our plans and decision making. When faced with the overwhelming and often competing challenges, threats, and demands associated with our lives and work, our systems and structures, many make a deliberate decision to stay where they are, steady, constant and secure.

Efforts to stand still look different with varying players and contexts, but universally they consume large amounts of effort and focus. Because the dichotomous forces of growth and entropy serve as magnets with opposing fields, the cost of resisting and remaining braced in a neutral position can be depleting. Any movement in either direction must be corrected immediately before momentum builds, ricocheting people and organizations forward and back at an often dizzying pace.

Why would anyone or any organization choose to stand still? When forced with a categorical choice between growth and dissolution all would claim to embrace the former. Indeed most publically extol the virtues of innovation, generativity and growth. Organizations post job descriptions calling for leaders who can think outside the box, who are entrepreneurial and collaborative. Meanwhile individuals fantasize about new jobs, new adventures, and opportunities to spread their wings and soar.

And yet when push comes to shove we gravitate toward the middle, seeking comfort, shelter, and security, implicitly defending and supporting the status quo. How ironic that a place that is not really a place at all can keep us so collectively stuck.

What is it about growth that seems so scary? Perhaps it is simply a fear of the unknown or the risk of losing our footing. Maybe it’s a need to feel the ground beneath our feet or under our nails. After all, growth is about expansion and generativity, elevation and brilliance. To many, these concepts feel foreign and suspicious, too airy and nebulous, too risky and uncertain. But once we begin to unpack the notion of growth, revealing its facets and structures, giving it shape and texture, we can start to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity, ways to chart our progress and find the sense of stability we crave. Maybe then we can finally allow ourselves to go for it, leaving behind the false sense of security that we’ve come to associate with standing still.

Limits to Leaning in

outside

Of course you feel restless. You’re underutilized and undervalued, and you’re clearly not alone. Every day I meet women who are yearning to grow and stretch themselves, to use their gifts and talents to somehow make a difference. Whether searching for security, a better job or promotion, or simply trying to get their foot in the door, we are all collectively waiting, waiting for opportunity to present. But the trouble with waiting is it’s hard to stand still. Over time, frustration and disappointment can build, eventually wreaking havoc, damaging our careers and lives, leaving us wounded and weak.

This is what I worry about. Over the years I have seen countless women- competent, hard-working women- self-destruct around me. Ironically, their demise is often facilitated by the encouragement of their colleagues and friends who urge them to stand up for themselves, to assert their value and self-worth. Although well-intentioned, such advice can serve to amplify the damage that can come from feeling stuck, fueling the narratives of victimization and fragility that ultimately do us in.

When I see women self-destructing I yearn to yell STOP or SLOW DOWN, urging them to tackle their growth through a different lens. Of course I want to acknowledge their pain and frustration, to listen to their stories and affirm their worth. But more importantly I want them to realize that the very systems and organizations that they long to lead or contribute to are inherently insensitive to their own needs and talents that they’re trying to assert. To put it clearly, our systems are not about us or what have to offer. They are about limited opportunities, expectations and access. Virtually insensitive to talent, they are driven instead by changing priorities and parameters which are largely outside of our understanding or control. Opaque, complex, and riddled with roadblocks and dangers, their successful navigation takes wicked skills and composure, accessible only to those who have the social and economic capital to master their intricacies or endure the ride. Within these systems are nuanced rules that can change at any time. But almost uniformly, any hint of perceived weakness or fragility can shut opportunities down, leaving us feeling marginalized and victimized without even knowing what happened.

This is clearly bad news, and I’m sorry to be the one to deliver it. But frankly, I’m tired of going to women’s leadership conferences or reading books that suggest we must simply toughen up, lean in to the challenges, or set our aspirations higher. It is time we admit that the challenges and roadblocks that threaten our growth, both individually and collectively, are increasingly complex, subtle and nuanced, calling for sophisticated tools, frameworks, and support.

In addition to being smart and competent within our respective areas of focus, we need to be strategic, flexible, and resilient. And of course above all we need to be likable and pleasant to be around, regardless of the conditions or expectations we are expected to endure. These qualities are necessary for us to be successful, to be given opportunities to work and support our families, and to cultivate spheres of influence through which we can eventually (collectively) steward institutional change and community impact.

This last piece is absolutely critical, although many continue to suggest that our own individual security and needs must come first before we can set any larger humanitarian goals. With recognition that I approach these thoughts from a position of financial stability and privilege, I would like to test this assumption, suggesting that the act of expanding our lens beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs is a necessary ingredient for the type of growth and fulfillment that we crave and need. It is also a necessary ingredient for being strategic, nimble, and an effective leader- and indisputably necessary to save and change the very systems that threaten our collective future.

Despite varying levels of realization, the status quo is no longer an option. The new frontier is about ideation and generativity- expanding opportunities and creating new spaces and models toward greater impact and opportunity. In forging our new pathways we can draw from diverse disciplines and frameworks, cobbling together a new more comprehensive toolkit with which we can empower ourselves and one another to be more mindful, strategic, and resilient. The tools exist although it is up to us to recognize their value and commit to their utilization.

At the end of the day one simple truth continues to drive me; the indisputable fact that the world needs every drop of our collective talent. Talent remains THE natural resource, bubbling up around us waiting for us to recognize its value and applications. While I continue to look forward to the day that our systems are designed to develop, harvest and leverage talent in its most varied and resplendent forms, I know that it’s up to us to make it happen. Yes, the work ahead is more complex and challenging than we may have realized, but the benefits are also exponentially more profound.

Women, Power, and Getting Unstuck

sun

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 feminine 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 comes 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.

Creating Space

space

We could all use some distance. Some room to breathe, to gain perspective, and collect our thoughts. When our emotions drive us we are reactive, vulnerable, and often find ourselves up against the wall.

Space is critical for good decision making- a buffer of calm, a sense of control, the knowledge that it will somehow be all right.

When we’re too close to life’s details our emotions kick in. Like being trapped in a pinball machine, our anxiety is triggered, activating those around us, shifting energy and ultimately depleting our collective resources.

While many of us yearn for more space, solitude, and calm, we mostly wait for it to appear. We somehow fail to realize is that space is created, constructed and controlled by us alone.

Every second we receive stimulation from the environment- sounds, images, experiences that our minds interpret as we establish threats and priorities, making attributions and planning and executing our actions.

Although we often feel like we don’t have control or choices, our constructions are largely our own doing. While they can default to an automatic mode, the framing of our experiences can be brought under deliberate volition.

Let’s consider space in a different way. Imagine a telescoping lens that can move your field of vision both outward and upward. As it pulls away from a specific experience or situation that is highly emotional, it creates a larger field around it with more room to move, breathe, and think.

Imagine your lens spreading outward from a place of “I can’t believe she said that,” to the larger frame of “negativity in the office” and finally to the positive notion that “everyone deserves a safe and supportive work environment.” As we expand our focus outward, we stretch the space towards more abstract frames or categories. And as we do so we become more emotionally detached.  And when we find the optimal lens, new solutions and approaches begin to emerge. Space generates innovation.

This telescoping also moves upward from reactions that are ego and fear driven to those that are tied to core values and beliefs. As your lens moves from “he doesn’t respect me” to “everyone deserves to feel respected and valued,” and finally toward broader notions of universal love and support, we can feel our energy lifting. And as we move our gaze upward we begin to see threats differently, compassion kicks in, moving us out of the victim role towards a state of higher self.

To be clear, this transformation is not automatic. It takes control and time, especially when we are feeling threatened or under duress. Contemplative practices can help, giving us tools and frameworks, and signs to recognize in advance of anxiety taking over.  Rituals and practices can establish time and space, making it easier to reach and maintain a place of balance and higher thinking.

The alternative to creating space is to be reactive and emotional, a highly dangerous and exhausting way to live. Since the notion of waiting for life to calm down or for others to gain perspective is not a particularly viable solution, we are left with really no alternative, that is if we truly want to do and be better.

Victimization at Work

angel

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.