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.

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 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.

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.

Unstuck

The state of being stuck is depleting. When we are unable to move, to stretch our talents and actualize our potential, we become frustrated and demoralized. Like car wheels spinning in the snow, our ruts grow ever deeper as we exhaust our resources  yearning for change.

If our individual stuckness is a condition, then our collective paralysis is epidemic. As individuals we may feel restless and underutilized, but as we expand our lens outward, the implications become even more profound. When people are underutilized their talents go untapped. But when the systems that are designed to develop, support, and connect talent to the bigger world, are themselves stuck and out of alignment, our communities become dangerously compromised. And since the world and surrounding contexts in which we live and work continue to change at an accelerating rate,  vulnerabilities become further strained, necessitating increasingly more resources to hold it all together.

Despite what we tell ourselves, stuckness is not an inherently temporary state. Instead, it becomes its own point of stability, making our lack of movement increasingly difficult to budge. Because it exists across so many levels and systems from micro to macro, change does not automatically transfer or morph into larger areas. And as we become increasingly frustrated with our state of stuckness, anger and emotion can exacerbate our patterns, resulting in polarization of perspectives and further deepening our collective dysfunction.

But the good news is that change is within reach. The very condition of being stuck offers directionality for getting unstuck.  And the fact that our condition manifests itself at so many levels, translates into multiple access points and lenses through which we can redesign. At the individual level we can identify points of fragility and leverage, re-engineering our approaches for greater movement and alignment. Or instead, we can begin by envisioning a more nimble and actualized version of ourselves, then working backwards to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. Or conversely, we can begin with our larger systems or social infrastructures, imagining fully functioning communities and societies and identifying the associated processes and structures that would allow us to thrive and contribute.

This exercise of mapping upwards and downwards, from macro to micro, will lead us through multiple paradigms and domains. From education to healthcare, to workforce and social support structures, all systems interconnect and weave to create the communities we seek to build, and the individuals who will live in and support them. Since our stuckness does not exist in isolation, but instead permeates virtually every facet of society, we need to be maximally flexible in our solutions. Luckily, there are so many toolkits and paradigms from which to choose. From engineering and architecture, to technology and computers, cognitive science, business and strategic planning, and even spiritual realms, each offers a unique perspective and agenda.  But collectively they all embrace the idea of shaping and redesigning structures and processes to actualize goals and potential. And through the mere act of broadening our lens to look at stuckness in its entirety, we gain access to the full range of design metaphors. Let’s face it, we can no longer rely on the art of specialization for our future viability.  Instead, we need to knit these frameworks together toward a maximally robust and powerful approach.

Clearly, it’s hard work ahead, but do not be daunted. The benefits of nimbleness and flexibility are far greater than we could ever imagine. Whether you are focused on your own professional growth, or building healthier businesses or communities, we all have a part to play in a much bigger system- either one that is strong and robust or deeply dysfunctional.  And as we ready ourselves for the year ahead, we should ask what the world- our world- would look like if we were all unstuck, moving within our full range of motion, with not a drop of talent wasted or untapped.

Reset

reset

We have such a paradoxical relationship with change. On one hand we long for it, yearning for new opportunities and growth, and yet we often completely miss its inherent powers.

Two fundamental errors keep us in the dark.

First, we believe that change is driven by the boundaries. If we think of our lives as series of categorical shifts, it’s easy to see the categories themselves as the primary levers of change. New jobs, new relationships or homes- if we can achieve movement between categories, we assume the details will fall into alignment, like magnets propelling us forward or upward, creating stronger and more healthy patterns. Because of this belief, we either wait for opportunities to materialize or try to force change through giant leaps or starting over. But either way, we often miss the most powerful drivers of change, the millions of seemingly minute decisions and choices through which we can reset our interactions, behaviors, and perceptions toward more positive and meaningful results. These deceivingly powerful changes can ripple and reverberate around us, transforming not only our own experiences but also impacting those of others, in essence flipping our realities and catalyzing seismic change.

But while our individual choices are indeed powerful, they do not occur within a vacuum, which is why our second fundamental error is so dangerous. This is the false belief that we can somehow resist or protect ourselves from the change and flux that surround us. Without even knowing it, many of us cling to the status quo, manifesting a deep sense of rigidity, fear, or vulnerability. We surround ourselves with those who will maintain our illusion of control. And yet the truth is unavoidable. The world is constantly changing around us, including the people with whom we work and live, and our communities and systems that frame and support our lives. And although we may be able to temporarily ignore these changes or judge them as unacceptable or unfair, our long-term inability or refusal to adapt or respond will eventually leave us irrelevant and obsolete. For change will not stop, instead our worlds will simply flow around us.

Interestingly, these two errors- missing opportunities for internal change, and our lack of responsiveness to outward change- are both the source of our collective stuckness and the vehicle for growth and prosperity. By embracing the myriad choices and opportunities for growth and becoming more responsive and sensitive to the shifts and flows that contextualize our lives, we can become more nimble and effective, both as individuals and communities. And in doing so, we can enjoy greater fulfillment and connectedness along the way.

Clearly, this state of heightened responsiveness represents a new frontier that calls for the development of new sensitivities, tools, and paradigms. But at its core is the simple acceptance that nothing stands still. Every day brings infinite opportunities to fulfill our potential and touch souls with those around us toward a better and more actualized world.

New Year’s Resolution: Out of the Weeds

weeds

I’ve always loved the New Year. The anticipation of things to come, new goals and aspirations, and the promise of growth and fulfillment- I get giddy just thinking about the possibilities. And yet, despite our dramatic chance to do something big and bold, we continually miss the mark, setting resolutions that are inherently underwhelming and even counter-productive, sending ourselves back down into the weeds from which we came.

If you follow my blog then you already know about the weeds. They are the scary dark regions of our inner world where we tend to go and stay. If you think of our minds as expansive networks of concepts, memories, and ideas that stretch out in all directions, the very lowest levels are the weeds. They are filled with personal and emotional details that are highly charged and interconnected. Once activated they quickly trigger related experiences and memories, creating a pin-ball effect that consumes our energy and resources, preventing us from accessing higher levels of thinking and decision making, and their associated benefits.

Higher is definitely better. Free of contextual details and hyper-connectivity, the higher levels allow us to think critically with emotional distance from the minutia that can paralyze our growth and deplete our resources.

But getting out of the weeds is tricky. Because our patterns and emotional triggers are so deeply ingrained, even as we inch our way up through positive choices and behaviors, one false move can send us back down, strengthening the very patterns that we’re trying to break.  Like tendrils wrapping around our ankles, the only way out is to disconnect ourselves entirely, removing their source of sustenance and support.

Although the process can be challenging, the underlying logic is quite simple. To emerge from the weeds we must create powerful goals that are less specific and detail oriented, far enough away from the weeds that they’ll stretch us higher while mitigating the risk of falling back down. Finding the right goals takes some practice. Want to lose weight? This is too specific and risky, tied to past issues and emotional triggers. How about making healthier choices, or being stronger? You might have to clarify what these look like or mean. You might ask yourself why you want to be healthier, is it just for you or for the people you love? What example do you want to set? Who is the person you want to become? By doing this additional clarification work, you can create new associations and roots that are positive and powerful, moving you beyond your insecurities towards growth and actualization, even in the face of struggle or uncertainty.

This process is equally powerful for professional goals. Are you determined to get a better job, or to get paid more? Such commitments can enhance your vulnerability and unhappiness, leaving you at the mercy of uncontrollable forces or decisions. How about better utilizing your strengths, or finding ways to stretch or grow, or associate yourself with more positive and professional colleagues or initiatives? Any of these will open up spaces to move and gain satisfaction, which in turn will lead to new opportunities within or outside your current roles.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when you can feel yourself elevating, your energy and outlook moving higher and brighter. And while set-backs and bad days will continue to be inevitable, you’ll find yourself less responsive to their triggers. And eventually, when you barely notice them at all, you’ll know that you’ve truly emerged from the weeds, with nothing but expansiveness and possibilities ahead.

A Year of Gratitude

gratitude

One year and 94 posts since I first started my blog

It began as a whim, or perhaps an experiment. What would I share, and would anyone read it. I gave myself a year to find out.

At first it was a guilty pleasure, posting observations and critiques that I had amassed over the years. Hitting the publish button felt cathartic, and somehow emboldening. But the satisfaction was always short lived. Each post catalyzed the next, like a cascading need to give voice, to externalize, to release.

Yet over time, and writing, my mind has cleared. The intervals between posts have lengthened, and I find myself strangely in the present, not worrying about what to write, or think, but simply knowing that inspiration will come.

It usually visits in the morning, in the form of an idea, a phrase or observation that reveals itself as truth. And once acknowledged, it begs to be developed, quickly taking shape and form as I struggle to keep up.

Everything about this process is personal. And yet the exquisite point of connection with my silent readers is what brings it to life. I often sense that my ideas are not intended solely for my own benefit, but will resonate with some unspoken need or yearning.

Although I cannot know the intended, this knowledge elevates my sense of purpose and the purity for which I strive. Shedding layers of pretense and ego, I try to reveal what is most vulnerable and true.

Doing so has undoubtedly changed me. In addition to clearing my mind, it has allowed me to shine more brightly, to resonate at a higher frequency, or however you choose to interpret it.

And while I once feared that the intimacy of my musings would evoke discomfort, I have found the opposite to be the case. People seem to respond to this level of intimacy, which in turn deepens engagement, allowing for more productive and meaningful relationships.

Interestingly, over time, my external audience has become an internal filter, helping me distill the essence of experiences and ideas, reflecting on whether they are sufficiently worthy of contemplation and sharing.

Increasingly, the answer is no. The urgency and heaviness that once cluttered my mind and prodded my writing, has transformed into an airy sense of wonderment. It often evades rumination and worry altogether, instead encouraging me to slow down and simply be.

What a journey this blog has been. And what a treat to touch souls with you, my silent readers, on your own quest for fulfillment and truth.

And so, as my one year anniversary quietly passes, I am unsure what is left to be written or shared. Yet I know that turning back is no longer an option. Forward and upward, and together, we must go.

Committing to a Commitment Cleanse

cleanse

I’m no martyr. I take little satisfaction in enumerating the various organizations and activities with which I’m affiliated. In fact, I’ve grown almost embarrassed by my obvious state of overcommitment, worrying that it reflects some sort of personality disorder or escapism.

To be clear, I have no problem making changes in my life. I have grown quite skilled at identifying negative patterns, making healthier choices, and embracing a better lifestyle. In general, I feel happy and content, but the more cleanly I live, the more glaringly obvious my commitment issues become.

So recently, I finally committed to cleaning out my commitment closet, extricating myself from boards, organizations, and other activities that have become somehow extraneous or nonessential.

I started by identifying my core commitments. Family was definitely first. As my children grow older, their school and extracurricular activities seem increasingly more demanding, requiring more of my time and attention. Next, my work, which has recently changed in its rhythms and demands, making it more and more difficult for me to get away from campus. And last but not least, myself, yearning for more rest, relaxation, and balance, a chance to enjoy my life and all its myriad blessings.

Once I clarified my core commitments, I began to inventory my obligations that lay somewhere outside, especially those that seem to conflict or take away from my key priorities. Participating on community boards, my membership in a service organization, and the various ways I try to help people, saying yes to basically every request, and driving around town to cultivate relationships and explore possibilities. Although each of these activities has had an important place in my life, I was ready to accept the fact that collectively they had become unsustainable.

But how to extricate myself?   This was, and remains the hard part. Unlike a diet cleanse, there is no immediate gratification or visible transformation. Community work, when deep and meaningful, can prove difficult to bring to a halting stop. And even when one is able to find a way out, they might find a glaring hole left behind. Since we are drawn to community work for own emotional and psychological needs in addition to our desires to have a positive impact, these needs can reemerge even more defined and raw than before.

In this way, a commitment cleanse is more of a long-term transformation, involving three distinct yet interconnected categories of growth and change. First, the decisions of what to phase out and how to do so in a way that is not destructive or damaging to yourself or the community to which you are committed. Second, how to prevent yourself from slipping back into additional responsibilities and activities, and addressing the patterns that can manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

But the third process is perhaps the most important from the standpoint of ultimate happiness and life satisfaction. This involves shifting our focus back to our core commitments and finding more fulfillment, moving our gaze higher towards more powerful goals and objectives, and finding satisfaction in living a life that is balanced and aligned.

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?