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.

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.

Gnawing Around the Edges

photo

This is my daughter’s gerbil. He has a habit of chewing on his food bowl. He simply cannot help himself.  He goes on nibbling and destroying until we finally replace the dish, and then he begins anew.

You’ll have to excuse the absurdity of the metaphor- but in some ways we are like this gerbil. We can’t help gnawing at the edges, slowly destroying our institutions and their leaders until they almost collapse, and then we start anew.  And like the gerbil, we simply cannot help ourselves.

I know this might seem ridiculous, but these are the things that I think about. An observation or idea reveals itself and then continues to emerge in various  situations until I finally acknowledge its form . So please bear with me as I try to make the connections.

Although we function at a higher cognitive level than rodents, we too are “wired” with certain tendencies that help us to survive. One such tendency that seems to be innate is our focus on major categorical boundaries or edges. These are the major differences that we perceive as such- blue vs. green; Democrat vs. Republican; good vs. bad, virtually any category that we can comfortably agree differs from the closest alternative. We’re really good at differentiating these high contrast boundaries, and we (naturally) enjoy doing what we’re (naturally) good at.

In this way it’s not surprising that we invest so much time- our own and others’- in debates about categorical differences, and also why we hold on so tenaciously to our own experiences and perceptions. The differences appear to be so strong and obvious that we feel compelled to fight for them. This notion of categorical perception lies at the very heart of polarization. 

This tendency can be seen in a myriad of ways and extends well beyond individual people (or gerbils) to involve institutions and systems that together accelerate the undoing of our proverbial food dishes.

What is the alternative? -you might ask, especially if this tendency to gnaw around the edges is in some ways innate or pre-wired. Well, although our attention naturally gravitates to the edges- the boundaries that divide us, there lies a wealth of fertile common ground in the spaces between. 

If you think of categories or labels as spectra, there are infinite opportunities for consensus and agreement before we hit the categorical cliff. Although it may take some self-control and discipline to avoid the edges, this is where progress can most easily occur.

One would hope that unlike gerbils we could control our pre-wired tendencies, especially in areas that are fundamental to our continued viability.  Interestingly according to my six year old, once gerbils destroy their food dish, they will start gnawing on their cages, slowly destroying their own homes and means of security.

So while we are obviously superior to gerbils and rodents, perhaps we should take a moment of introspection and self-control and consider, for once, trying to stay within the edges.

 

*Please note that no gerbils were harmed during this photo shoot. On the contrary both Pip and Zip (I have no idea which one this is) greatly enjoyed the experience.