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.

Generative Thinking

generative

An amazing thing is happening in my world. Really good competent people are moving into key positions or blossoming within their current roles, and the synergies are astounding. It’s as if the universe of possibilities is opening up, and for me the excitement is palpable.

Awareness of this phenomenon seems to be spreading. Several of my colleagues have a brightened energy, as if resonating to the new landscape of possibilities. They find themselves developing new opportunities for growth and collaboration while mentoring and supporting those around them. It’s as if by simply honoring their commitments and relationships, their worlds are expanding, in turn generating new benefits and possibilities that continue to grow and intersect. Yet at the same time, many others remain completely outside of this phenomenon, seemingly unable to detect or tap into the sea of potential that surrounds them. And when framed against the vibrancy of their peers, their negativity emerges in stark relief, leaving them virtually in the dark with little sense of hope or clarity.

For me this dichotomy has become so pronounced that I can literally sort colleagues into these categories- bright or dark. But increasingly, I’m convinced that this distinction is neither permanent nor unavoidable. Instead, at virtually any moment it is possible for individuals to flip the switch, activating their potential to thrive in this new landscape.

But before they can brighten, they must first recognize that the landscape has indeed profoundly changed. From my vantage point the new vista it is defined by complexity, uncertainty, and a dearth of the core elements that many of us have come to expect and need. Clearly defined and meaningful goals and expectations, guaranteed security, and appreciation and support have long been viewed as key ingredients for professional fulfillment and success, but are now, at best, temporary luxuries, and no longer foundations on which to build careers.

Understanding this important distinction can prevent feelings of victimization that can result in in ego-driven decision making and the train-wrecks that eventually follow. By acknowledging the new landscape and accepting the inherent flux, we can reinterpret voids in leadership as opportunities for ownership, and lack of resources as platforms for innovation. In transforming apparent deficits into spaces for movement, we can get ourselves unstuck in virtually any role or situation while making important contributions that in turn will propel our growth.

But how do we fill such voids amidst the uncertainty that defines our workspace? This is where the notion of generative thinking becomes critical. By overriding our default tendencies to avoid additional work and assign blame to others, and allowing ourselves to think, design, and add value, we can begin to stretch the spaces around us and expand the realm of possibilities. Although doing so will not release us from the expectations that are set by those above us, we can begin to see them as minimum expectations and no longer defining constraints, allowing us to ensure our value while serving as a springboard for growth and fulfillment.

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.

we are so very small

alice

Have you ever noticed how a particular life lesson can continue to present itself, not relenting until we finally acknowledge its wisdom?

For me, the notion of scale has been a frequent visitor over the past several months, seemingly begging to be explored and appreciated.

So here it goes…

During my recent Global Explorers trip to the US Southwest (see various posts), our Navajo guide mentioned how small and ephemeral we all are relative to the vast permanence of the Canyon walls. He was speaking primarily to the children, explaining that although their lives and struggles can feel massive and all-consuming, we are here for such a brief time, and should feel blessed to experience the beauty and gifts of the earth. He urged them to follow the rhythms of nature, to find comfort in our collective smallness and to respect the spirits that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. I was fascinated by his words and their calming effect on the children. Although in many ways our time in Canyon De Chelly was the least adventurous and exciting part of the journey, it would become one of our most precious memories. And for me, seeing the children (including 2 of my own) snuggled cozily under the blanket of stars, rocked by the cradling arms of the Canyon, was a vision that will stay with me forever.

But when I returned home to Buffalo, I sorely missed the towering Canyon walls and the sense of scale that they imposed. As I spoke with parents and students about the beginning of the school year, their anxiety was palpable. They spoke of getting into the best high schools and colleges, of entrance tests and state exams, career paths and well-paying jobs. And as I listened to their worries I envisioned them expanding in size, inflating like floats in the Thanksgiving Parade, getting bigger and bigger until they threatened to burst from their own pressure and size.

When I consider my own journey and especially my efforts in Tanzania, I recognize a similar distortion in sense of scale and significance. If left unchecked, my yearnings to grow, utilize my gifts, and make a difference in the world can lead to feelings of restlessness and anxiety, in turn preventing me from being my best, and giving the most.  It’s only through relaxing my need for control and success that the magic of life can finally take hold.

It seems as if we’ve created a world with a distorted sense of scale, striving to become ever bigger towards some over-inflated goal or vision of ourselves.  How ironic that the pathway to happiness and fulfillment lies in the realization that we are so very small, and the comfort of allowing ourselves to be cradled within the vastness of the earth.  How thankful I am for our time in the Canyon, and the secrets it continues to share.

 

Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

candy

Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Thank You Global Explorers

marble

Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Cazau and Julia instructed the children as they stood in a circle somewhere off the road near Gallup New Mexico. It was the final day of our adventure and although we needed to head for the airport in Albuquerque, they wanted to squeeze in a final discussion, so the roadside clearing would have to do. Luckily, over the past nine days, the kids had become so immersed in the spirit of the Canyon and the San Juan River, that they were able to hold their energy even so close to the city.

I too held out my hands, wondering what memento would be offered and whether it could do justice to the experience that we had all created and shared. When I felt a small smooth marble placed in my palm, I immediately understood the symbolism. The notion that these children held the Earth in their hands- that even though it was so much older and bigger than any of them, or us, they were largely in control. And how they would choose to utilize their influence would in many ways define our individual and collective futures.

The children understood the significance. The trip had been full of powerful moments – sleeping on the Canyon floor under a blanket of stars, experiencing the joyous embrace of Kathy and Ravis who welcomed us into the Navajo traditions, and spending lazy days and nights on the river, sharing stories and laughter, and a sense of community for which we would always yearn.

In that moment, perhaps the children felt the magic slipping away and the sense of responsibility settling in its place. How would they take what they learned and transport it back to their individual lives? They shared their reflections- spending more time outdoors, less technology, trying to be present and not overscheduled. They promised to come back to the Southwest, to become river guides and group leaders, continuing the journey that we had all started together.

As I stood within the circle listening and watching, I was moved beyond words. I felt so hopeful that these children would carry this experience with them forever, that they were changed in some important and profound way.  I wished that I could follow each of them home to help them process the jarring reality of return, reconciling the fact that they are changed, yet expected to be the same, helping them reflect on the wisdom of the Canyon when they are tested by the challenges of their lives.

Perhaps this is our next frontier as educators and parents, creating tools and forums in which to share and integrate experiences, helping others to process new-found truths and epiphanies within the borders of existing realities.  This integration  is more complex than we may realize. But ultimately, it offers the promise that we so desperately need. By creating and leveraging high impact experiences, we can become kinder, happier, and more responsive to the world around us, global citizens worthy of the precious earth we hold.

Our Time in the Canyon

 light

We are all so very small. This was the message I took away from the Canyon, and somehow it brought me a sense of great comfort and warmth.

We had hiked down into Canyon de Chelly, battling the heat and dryness, our bodies still unaccustomed to the desert sun. The petrified sandstone was smooth and slippery with undulating contours and dizzying heights. Dazzling blue sky against terracotta painted contrasts so striking that they demanded adoration, leaving us speechless.

When we finally spotted the homestead, it was nestled within an oasis of green, snug within the canyon walls. Our guide mentioned that for some the Canyon can evoke feelings of being trapped along with an intensity of emotion that is both cathartic and powerful. But for us, the Canyon rocked us in a gentle embrace, lulling the children into blissful happiness while whispering songs of wisdom and comfort.  

Our hosts were Kathy, the keeper of the family’s land and legacy, and Ravis, a Navajo guide who grew up in the Canyon and worked to preserve its culture and traditions. Each shared their stories and gifts with the children.

Kathy welcomed us as only a grandmother could. She spoke of growing up in the Canyon , the rhythms of life and work, and the sense of clarity and purpose with which she toiled. She soothed wounds with plants and herbs, taught the children how to spin wool and weave, and made delicious fry bread, hypnotizing us with stories, humor, and kindness. Her grandson, Montay, played joyfully with the children, running through the orchard and scaling the Canyon walls, enchanting us with his innocence.

Ravis was more commanding. He spoke with a quiet yet authoritative voice, referencing spirits, tradition, and the Navajo ways. He spoke to the children before they went to sleep, lying together on the Canyon floor under the vast blanket of stars, singing them a low and beating melody. He spoke of the age of the Canyon, the vastness of its history, and the briefness of ours. He shared the four words with which parents teach their children, the rhythms of nature, and spirits that occupy all living things.

In the morning, as the sun was rising and we were contemplating our impending departure, Ravis asked the children to introduce themselves. He spoke of the importance of identity, sharing our lineage and celebrating our parents and grandparents and the families or clans from which we come. He explained that by knowing someone’s family you know a great deal about their character and what to expect. We are all shaped by those before us, connected through family, traditions, and the spirits who watch over us.

And in the end we are all 5-fingered people, inhabiting the same earth, cherishing and tending it for the next generation and their children and grandchildren who will follow. 

When we left ,the children were sad but Kathy urged us to feel only joy. In Navajo there is no word for goodbye, only the happiness that will come when we meet again.

Steward Your own Growth

In my last post, “Check Your Professional Baggage,” I suggested that asserting your needs or accomplishments directly to your supervisor is not necessarily the best way to create opportunities for growth and fulfillment. Rather than leading to the validation and compensation that we crave, such actions can instead lead to self-destruction or marginalization, both of which should be avoided at all costs.

So what is the better way, I’ve been asked. And am I really suggesting that women should simply allow ourselves to be taken for granted or underutilized, rather than standing up for ourselves and asserting our value and self-worth?

I’ll begin with the second. Of course it’s not right, or necessarily fair for professionals to be pigeon-holed or constrained by jobs, expectations, or leaders that are overly narrow or restrictive. But fairness, or the actualization of human potential for that matter, are not the primary lenses employed in the workplace- or at least not the workplace to which I’ve been exposed. While our professional histories with all that we’ve accomplished, endured, and contributed blaze like beacons in our own minds, they may barely register with leaders who control access to opportunities for growth and advancement.

So what can we do if we are not getting the support or supervision that we need to grow and be successful? Many suggest that in such situations we should leave our positions in search of healthier environments with better leadership. For me, the notion of equating my own success and growth with effective supervision suggests a perpetual state of vulnerability and searching with no guarantees of rest.

Consider the following assertion. Growth doesn’t happen through validation, appreciation, or being handed an opportunity.   Clearly, all of these conditions can support and even expedite growth, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to make it happen.

Growth is an internally driven process that involves expansion and evolution of skills, knowledge, and contributions. As you grow it’s natural to seek new opportunities and challenges through which to flex your talents and maximize your impact. Although many of our jobs feel restrictive and tight, we can usually find spaces in which to grow, developing new skills, insights, and connections that correspond with our areas of interest and goals.

And regardless of whether we’re expanding and evolving where we are, new opportunities are developing all around us, even though we may be completely oblivious or disconnected- especially if we are consumed with our own “stuckness” and misery. Being able to capitalize on emerging opportunities involves a sense of timing and sensitivity to shifts in circumstances, priorities and contexts, along with an ability to leverage your specific skills, experiences, and relationships.

Interestingly, while you ready yourself for these emerging opportunities, it’s actually the big categories of perceptions that can matter most. Rather than the specific historical details about what you’ve accomplished and endured, it’s the relationships and reputation that you’ve created- are you perceived as pleasant, competent, a team player? Although these categories may seem overly simplistic and even insulting in light of all that you’ve done, issues of collegiality and interpersonal dynamics are a major influence in securing the opportunities and positions we seek. I have seen leaders go to unbelievable lengths to avoid dealing with women who are perceived as emotionally fragile or needy (my words, not theirs), even if they are extremely competent and valuable from a human capitol perspective.

Based on my own experiences, here are some high-impact investments to consider with regard to your own professional growth and fulfilment.

  • Work on the values of humility and gratitude. These lenses will ground you and see you through periods of transition and dysfunction, no matter how long-lasting.
  • Cultivate your skills and knowledge. We can always expand our understanding of the world, and education is an investment that always pays off.
  • Build real and authentic relationships. In the end it’s the relationships that will lead to opportunities and fulfillment. While popular, the notion of networking is superficial, always go with real relationships that are built on respect and trust.
  • Find your passions and interests. This is often harder than it sounds, but figuring out what you really care about and what moves you will help you find the path for growth and fulfillment.
  • Lead from the middle. Regardless of how far up (or down) the food chain you find yourself, there are always opportunities to support others around you.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that women – or men- should stay in unhealthy situations, or positions that constrain our growth and potential. There is much more to say and write about this topic, but my point here is simply that if we are serious about fully contributing our gifts and talents, we must begin to empower ourselves to steward our own growth.

Check Your Professional Baggage

luggage

It’s not surprising that so many talented individuals are seeking professional growth and advancement. And based on my own experience I can certainly understand the sense of urgency and despair that can go along with feeling stuck and underutilized.

But as I interact with professionals from varied backgrounds and positions I am seeing a common pattern that is both troubling and dangerous.

On one hand, I see professionals (mainly women, although not exclusively) who are yearning for the recognition and validation that they deserve. In addition to their talent and potential, they seek appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices that they’ve endured for the good of the organization or unit. These yearnings, when unmet, can be so strong and compelling that many turn to the promise of new positions or employers as the only viable solution.

But interestingly, while staff members are seeking validation, recognition, and opportunities for growth, supervisors are focusing almost exclusively on high level goals and priorities, with little focus on cultivation of talent, innovation, or professional development. Obviously, this observation represents a sweeping generalization and is offered not as a gesture of judgment or acceptance, but only to point out what I see as a significant disconnect.

My concern is that when professionals (often women) feel underutilized and undervalued, they are often counseled by well-intentioned colleagues, friends and family members to assert their worth. They are encouraged to point out their various accomplishments and contributions, clarify how they are working beyond specified expectations, and in essence stand up for themselves, demanding the recognition and opportunities that they deserve.

My concern is that these types of self-empowering behaviors can run directly counter to the leadership environment, inadvertently putting the professional at risk.

Here’s how I see it. All of the details about our individual jobs and what we’ve accomplished and endured over our careers and lives are highly personal experiences and memories that are closely connected with similarly charged details that are easily triggered (see my post titled “The State of Being Stuck” for further explanation). This is why we often get emotional at work when things are particularly bad or stifling.

Perhaps not surprisingly, leaders tend to function primarily at more abstract and less personal levels. Their interactions with staff and employees easily get filtered through polarized labels leading to overly simplified distinctions such as “team player vs. loose cannon”, or “pleasure to work with vs. needy or unstable”. These labels in turn can become even more powerful than our actual accomplishments, talents, or the sacrifices that we’ve made, thus affecting future opportunities for growth or advancement.

My point is that given the leadership environment, the act of directly asserting our needs and personal/professional histories may not be the most effective way to gain the recognition and opportunities that we seek. I know this assertion may fly in the face of conventional guidance or wisdom, but frankly, I am tiring of seeing so many talented and capable women self-destruct around me. There are better ways to ensure our growth and fulfillment.

 

Go Ahead and Frame It

frame

As I sift through seven years of accumulated stuff, readying my office for an impending move, I can’t help but reflect on the two distinct piles that sit before me.

The first is contained within a massive recycling bin and consists of endless reports, proposals, articles, and documents of various lengths and content. Despite the care with which they were once prepared and filed, they have become entirely disposable, not even worth shredding let alone transporting to my new office.

The second pile, however, is proportionately precious. It contains mementos of people and projects that have permanently infiltrated my identity and how I work and live. Not only will these treasures enjoy a place of honor in my new office, but they have recently been framed, and will hang proudly on freshly painted walls, helping to guide the next phase of my ever-evolving career.

This notion of framing our proudest accomplishments and integrating them into our work is in many ways a big idea- especially when our achievements are only tangentially related to our official job descriptions or titles. As women seek more fulfillment and challenge from our work, we often find ourselves supplementing our jobs with community involvement and outside initiatives, knitting together a patchwork career (see my blog post of the same name). While holistically, such activities can mitigate the discontent and restlessness that can come with feeling underutilized, they are ultimately inadequate as long-term solutions for growth.

And yet these supplemental activities often become the most satisfying aspects of our work, significantly contributing to our overall effectiveness and stability as professionals, while at the same time remaining outside the scope of discussion or compensation. How does one negotiate this inherent dilemma?

Clearly, this is delicate business. Anytime one steps outside the boundaries that have been set for them, there is risk involved. However, it is absolutely possible to stretch the spaces around us, and often necessary if we wish to achieve the fulfillment that we crave. Within virtually any job there are opportunities to flex our skills, interests, and experiences in ways that add value without threatening those around us.

The secret is largely in the framing. By stepping away from our specific activities and interests, we can identify points of alignment and synergy with our jobs, supervisors, and the contexts that surround our work. Once we can identify the common themes and ideas, we can then begin to weave them together to expand our notion of what we do and have to offer as professionals.

But in addition to framing, we must also develop sensitivity to the boundaries and limits of how far we can go. What makes people uncomfortable, what are the hidden implications and threats at play? Or perhaps more importantly, what do the people around us need to feel successful, safe and supported? Once we understand these variables we can better frame and share our own experiences in ways that will enrich our respective work while supporting the collective efforts of our teams and organizations.