The Big Reread

books

I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.

I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.

Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.

I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.

My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.

By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.

The books I am rereading

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)

Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand  (early college)

The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)

Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)

West of the Night by Beryl Markham  (adulthood, Tanzania project)

The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)

The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)

 

*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way

 

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.

 

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.

 

May You Be Humbled

What do you hope for your daughter?

I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.

“I hope she is humbled.”

Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.

I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.

My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.

My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.

How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.

Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.

The State of Being Stuck

stuck

Like modern cars with interconnected systems and computers, our lives- and careers- have become increasingly complex. Although our sensors are robust when it comes to signaling feelings of dissatisfaction, many of us lack the specialized tools for diagnosing specific issues and making the necessary adjustments to get us back on track.

Serving simultaneously as drivers and technicians of our own lives can seem daunting. But if we accept the importance of this duality, we must begin to assemble the appropriate tools that are designed specifically to address the nuanced ways in which we find ourselves stuck or off-track, and can lead us toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our current and future roles.

Through my background in Cognitive Psychology and my professional experience in Higher Education, I have come to understand the various heuristics or short-cuts in reasoning that can undermine our growth and satisfaction. Regardless of the merits or constraints of your professional situation, these limitations can collectively undermine success and happiness. Luckily they can all be addressed through a deliberate “reprogramming” process, but they are critical to recognize and bring into awareness before such progress can be made.

While I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, I will make an exception and provide more extensive details below. From my vantage point, the pervasiveness of “stuckness” in the workforce when coupled with the underwhelming job market makes these types of posts and strategies more important than ever, but I am curious to know whether readers are ready to embrace this type of assistance (see my request at the end of the post).

Too tight

Consider the importance of labels in our lives. We give them to people, objects, and places, almost anything that can be described or categorized. We even label ourselves, describing our jobs, lifestyles, philosophies and political views. Labels fulfill many purposes. Although each of us experiences the world in slightly different ways, labels provide a sense of consistency across variation, allowing us to communicate, connect, and operate on common terms. They also allow us to make inferences and guesses, helping us to process information quickly and efficiently. Clearly, without labels life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with limited opportunity for reflection or sharing.

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

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

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

Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation.   At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. But be forewarned, doing so can upset the delicate balance of relationships and expectations, and should be implemented with caution.       

Too low

In addition to constricting our space with narrow labels, we also set our gaze too low, forcing ourselves to stoop, eventually stunting our growth. Think of your mind as a web of interconnected layers of labels, concepts, and ideas. At the lowest levels are your actual experiences, things that are happening or have just happened- individual conversations, images, or thoughts. These low level experiences are highly personal, charged with emotional details and content connected in turn to other personal experiences that are similarly charged. As you travel higher in your web, you find more general and abstract labels, ideas, and beliefs that have fewer personal details. While lacking in emotional content, these higher level labels can offer rich guidance, helping us to understand complex situations and make strong decisions through reflection, reasoning, and higher order thinking.

In the professional realm our highest levels might include strategic priorities, mission aspects, or general beliefs about our work and what we do. This level tends to be the most resistant to change, regardless of new leadership or contextual influences, our highest level ideas serve as anchors providing us with consistency and guidance through periods of change and uncertainty.   In the middle layers you might find strategic goals and objectives, or threats that are of immediate concern. And at the very bottom are our day to day meetings, activities, and interactions.

Of course each of your layers and networks combine and interconnect, making up a complex web of information, thoughts, ideas, and memories with various levels and sub-levels. As human problem solvers we have total access to this universe of connections. We can work from the top down or bottom up depending on our needs and situations. We can jump between layers and sub-layers, connecting disparate experiences, deepening our learning and understanding towards better decision making.

And yet despite this expansiveness, we tend to stay at the lower levels, focusing on immediate experiences that are emotionally charged while offering little insight. Just like junk food that gives us a quick fix but little else, these low levels perpetuate a hunger and craving for more stimulation. Just walk around a coffee shop, shopping mall, or other public venue and listen to the conversations of passers-by.   You will hear play-by-play accounts of conversations and experiences, emanating with emotion and interpersonal drama. Since low-level details are emotionally charged, they easily trigger other experiences and past dramas, creating patterns and priming reactive responses. Although staying at this level can provide immediate validation and temporary relief, it does little to create movement or open the way toward greater growth and fulfillment. Instead, it keeps us stuck.

In the workplace, this tendency plays out in different ways, causing employees to perseverate on low-level tasks and activities without seeing the larger picture or goals. They may focus on being busy, seeking validation, looking for respect and growing frustrated when they feel undervalued or appreciated. Others may fixate on interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, complaining about how they are mistreated or about the toxic environment in which they work. Although people universally crave growth and respect, they often look to be given it through opportunities, titles, or responsibilities. And in doing so they may fail to access the universe of possibilities that surrounds virtually every choice and decision they make.

Too Close

As problem solvers we are notoriously lousy at seeing the world through others’ perspectives. Researchers have long studied the limitations that accompany human cognition. Many of the classic studies focus on young children, who, depending on their specific developmental stages can make some surprising errors, being fooled by the way things look. They tend to focus on the most obvious dimensions, believing that a taller and thinner vessel contains more liquid than one that is squatter, or a stretched out row of pennies contains more money than one that is close together. As adults it’s easy to smile at these errors, dismissing them as endearing examples of children’s naivete and innocence. But the truth is that even adults get fooled by appearances, trapped by our own perceptions and perspectives.

How we view the world and the decisions we make are largely influenced by our personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds.   What comes into our sensory systems in terms of images, sounds, or stimulation is interpreted by our minds which activate concepts and labels in our interconnected networks to give them meaning and context. Our languages help us make sense of the sounds through perceiving words and sentences; our religious and moral frameworks help us interpret right and wrong; and our individual cultures and families help us discriminate between opportunities and threats. Even though we understand at some level that others may have different views, we are quick to believe the veracity of our own interpretations and experiences, jumping to conclusions and diving back into the weeds.

Luckily there are some powerful ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives. They involve moving ourselves out of the lower layers to find more powerful frames and labels with which guide our insights and specific perceptions. We should recognize that is only through the understanding of others’ perspectives that we can adapt our own behavior and decision making to be maximally effective and impactful.

Too Dark

We expend a great deal of energy trying to preserve ourselves in all of our facets. We are wired to see threats, both literal, in the coming to attack you sense, but also more subtle emotional kinds. Once we perceive someone or something as bad or somehow “against us”, we begin to interpret their behaviors and actions through this lens, which in turn becomes highly charged and primed for activation. 

Categories associated with dangers and threats are of a special kind. Even at the highest levels of our networks they elicit fear and strong emotional responses. Some have theorized that these labels are necessary for survival and are rooted in a fight or flight response.   But regardless of their origins, they seem to have a uniquely loaded nature, heightening our negative reactions once ideas or labels are associated or connected. Another way of looking at this is through the idea of thresholds which are levels of activation necessary for a label to be “fired.” Although many high level concepts require significant thought and reflection to be accessed and understood, categories like danger, fire, or enemy activate more quickly and easily, as soon as a threat is perceived.

Because we exert a great deal of energy to preserve and feel good about ourselves, and our tendency to see the world through our own perspectives, we are likely to assign others to enemy-related categories in the face of conflict. Especially when we are engaging at our lower levels where emotions run high and thresholds low, we are quick to trigger the danger response. Unfortunately, once these labels are triggered, our openness shuts down, in essence turning of the lights and missing out on the other information and details that could lead to other decisions and perspectives.

In addition to danger-based labels, we all have other categories and frames that are easily triggered and activated. Some of us are especially sensitive about our appearance, our families, or some other characteristics that make us feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate. We might also bring perceived threats from our childhoods or pasts, situations that made us feel weakened or small, that set up permanent triggers that remain ready to be fired. Once triggered they result in a shutting-down or darkening, mobilizing our resources for self-protection and defense. In this mode little growth and movement can occur. In the next chapter we will explore techniques for guiding ourselves through perceived threats and dangers in order to maximize learning and maintain our movement. But for now we should begin to consider the power of threats and triggers and how they can force us to shut down in the face of perceived danger.

 

Confronting our Fears

Take a moment to put these tendencies together- too tight; too low; too close; and too dark. It’s not surprising that collectively they elicit negative feelings. In fact these same words could easily be used to describe a torture chamber befitting a horror movie, the idea of being trapped in a tight and dark chamber without room to stretch or breathe. This scenario automatically triggers feelings of vulnerability and helplessness and makes us long to turn on the lights, and escape from danger.

The irony is that when it comes to stuckness, we are all trapped by our own doing. The same systems that allow us to be constrained- the network of interconnected levels, labels, and ideas- will also allow us to move and grow. It is completely our choice to override our pre-programmed tendencies and stretch beyond. I am happy to share some new tools that can help us more fully utilize our systems toward greater movement and growth, if there is an interest. Please reply if you find these types of posts and information useful…..-Mara

So You Want to Change the World?…..

I know you’re out there, even though I cannot see you.

Maybe we have already met. Or perhaps our paths are yet to cross in some interesting or circuitous way. That’s how it usually happens, some chance encounter or a connection through a friend. Or sometimes just a radiant energy that leads to further conversation. Although your stories are all unique, a distinct pattern has begun to weave itself. Perhaps the following profile resonates…

Although people are naturally drawn to you, you often feel alone, fundamentally different from those around you, like an outsider peering in.

Although you experience joy, you would not describe yourself as fun in the usual sense. Your happiness has a serious and reflective quality, a kind of gratitude rather than youthful abandon.

Although you are an achiever, you seldom take pride or satisfaction in your accomplishments. Instead, you refocus on the work ahead, yearning to use your gifts and talents toward the greatest impact.

You are at your best when serving others, and although you feel blessed with a strong sense of purpose and mission, sometimes these gifts feel like heavy burdens that are yours alone to bear.

Perhaps I know you because I am of your kind, and I seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to your energy- like an airy layer of possibility floating above the negativity and fear that protect the status quo.

The great news is that our number is growing, and those who radiate the strongest are young and brilliant, determined to use their talents to make significant and lasting change. They seem to know instinctively that our systems are broken, and they are ready to serve and lead, understanding that the two are inexorably linked. And perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid.

But they desperately need our help. Their power can only be activated through opportunities to mobilize and leverage their gifts. When the spaces (or jobs) are too tight or restrictive, or the goals too narrowly defined, their potential fails to be realized, with only the most local benefits and impacts.

In order to increase their numbers, we must actively cultivate the talents, passion, and sense of purpose that lie latent within all children and adults. But for these young professionals, the Super Stars who are ready and eager to make their mark on the world, we must put their talents to use recognizing that they are special and finding ways to connect them with the communities they long to serve.

For those of us lucky enough to meet these individuals, we must serve as their mentors and sponsors, helping organizations utilize their talents either through existing or customized opportunities. And when necessary, we must help them create new models and paradigms, connecting them with resources and support, nurturing their efforts and helping them take root.  This clearly calls for a deepened level of engagement and commitment.  However, once we contemplate the implications, we will realize that the true burden- and possibilities- are collectively ours to bear.

Be Brilliant

It begins with a spark, a current of energy that radiates outward, illuminating the darkness and igniting our collective possibilities.

It exists among us in people of all ages and backgrounds. Although some have achieved prominence it is not about money or power in the traditional sense.

Brilliance is an inner light that shines with clarity and purpose, emanating from within while radiating outward, catching and amplifying the light of others, brightening our world.

To behold it, we must be open and ready. For brilliance is most often quiet and understated.

A taxi driver from Ethiopia who sends his children home every summer to remember what’s important; a homeless woman who feels blessed to sleep in a park that is peaceful and safe, asking of nothing and appreciating the gift of life

Sometimes brilliance is bold and dramatic. A friend who funds medical projects in Africa, or Rotary clubs that together eradicate polio around the world

But regardless of the scope or focus, brilliance includes a heightened sense of purpose and meaning that serve as a driver, activating courage and strength, and mitigating fear.

People who shine brilliantly possess an inherent respect for others, and an ability to experience joy and gratitude that nourish their soul and provide all that they need.

To be clear, the world does not cultivate brilliance, nor does it recognize it as such. In fact the very word is defined as a one-dimensional strength, impressive and rare, but somehow different, as if too much.

Perhaps the notion of brilliance is inherently scary. If we were to acknowledge that it exists and represents a superior state that cannot be bought by money, power, or influence, it would be too jarring to address.

In many ways we are unprepared for brilliance, finding it easier to modulate our light, keeping our expectations low and seeking satisfaction in good enough.

After all, those who dare to shine often find their light weakened or snuffed out by others who fail to nurture their flames.

It is ironic that brilliance is viewed as threatening when it has the power to elevate us all.

By merely recognizing brilliance we connect with what is important and are rewarded with a sense of warmth and promise, a clarity that can guide us toward our own growth and fulfillment.

But how can we nurture brilliance, in ourselves and others?

First we must develop our sensitivity- noting shifts in our own levels of radiance and the radiance of others, as conditions change and become more or less conducive.

As we begin to notice changes we can glimpse the sources of our light, feeling out the edges and boundaries and appreciating our impacts and possibilities.

It is critical that we start with ourselves. For t is only when we are shining brightly and able to sustain our own brilliance that we can cultivate it in those around us.

Yes, brilliance is highly combustible, spreading from person to person, eventually  lighting up the world.

And although it begins with any one of us, we simply cannot be brilliant alone.

Who Are You and What Do You Do?

Two simple questions that can illuminate how we see ourselves and our place in the world

“I am a mother of four and an Associate Dean at the University at Buffalo”

“I am a University leader who works to develop and leverage potential toward the greater good”

“I am a connector, facilitator, and creator of new community models and paradigms”

We all have access to an infinite number of descriptors and frames for characterizing who we are and what we do. The way we define or describe ourselves and our life work can vary with our mood, audience, or area of focus. But by putting ourselves out there in a way that is thoughtful and authentic, we can define our space in and for the world and invite others to engage, share, and co-create.

This morning when I was driving my daughters to school I asked them who they are and what they do. Claire quickly announced that she is a gymnast. And Natalie exclaimed that she is a lover of nature and animals. Obviously their depictions are incomplete, yet they serve as bold announcements of their core interests and passions which are still so beautifully clear and accessible.

As we grow older we often lose the brilliance of our passions, strengths, and gifts. We learn to become more understated in our introductions, qualifying the expectations of ourselves and others. We wear our titles and job descriptions like a yoke, yearning to unburden ourselves yet complicit in our own subjugation.

What is our fear of brilliance? Is it the association with bragging, boastfulness, or conceit?

How interesting that narcissism is on the rise with an insatiable thirst for material possessions and status. People yearn to be beautiful, successful, and powerful yet we cannot exclaim the importance of our mission or the passion with which we work and live.

Several years ago my oldest daughter told me that I am not like other mothers in that I love myself so much.

I could tell that her words were not intended to sting or embarrass, but that she was testing out an observation and trying to put her finger on a quality that she was drawn to but also a little afraid. I explained that I do love myself but even more importantly that I love my life. Every day I have opportunities to make a difference, to connect with people, and to learn.

She assured me that this wasn’t a bad thing…. just different.

Sometimes I have the urge to introduce others to the world and to point out the amazing things that make them so unique and important. In doing so, it is my hope that they will begin to see themselves as I do, and to appreciate the gifts that they have and the power that they possess to make a difference.

So try this… pretend that you are me describing you, and ask yourself…

Who am I, and what do I do?

Embrace the Hot Potato

hot potato

We find ourselves in complex and dangerous times. With dwindling resources and a ravenous appetite for accountability, our leaders are increasingly reticent to take risks or overcommit. While understandable, this reluctance can translate into work environments that feel uninspired and lacking vision, leaving many professionals yearning for better opportunities and more meaningful impact.

Although I am sympathetic to individuals who find themselves in these situations and seek greener pastures, I am convinced that there are always opportunities for growth, even in the most constricting environments. Here is a trick for identifying potentially interesting opportunities….

Embrace the hot potato. 

The hot potato is the expansive category of activities that no one seems to want to own. Typically, it includes tasks that are time consuming and low profile in terms of the associated recognition and rewards. They may include dealing with problem clients, partners, or customers, cleaning up mistakes or oversights, or smoothing out interpersonal dynamics or discord. Or perhaps they involve pushing out ambiguous or ill-conceived ideas, finding solutions to problems, or being adaptable in times of change. 

Although when viewed individually, these specific activities may seem unimportant since they are often not valued, incentivized, or even included in our performance evaluations, they can represent important foundational investments on which we can build. And when bundled together under higher level frames such as commitments, responsibilities, values, or strengths they can become valuable assets to be leveraged both within and outside our respective organizations as opportunities shift and reveal themselves over time. 

For me, my hot potatoes have included a deep commitment to relationships and community collaboration. Despite ever-changing institutional priorities around engagement and outreach, I have developed and maintained lasting connections with individuals and organizations that go well beyond my specific roles and duties (which have also shifted and changed). Ironically, although I don’t always feel that they are valued, these connections are largely responsible for my continued success and fulfillment, allowing me to flex and respond to new opportunities, challenges, and developments. 

Clearly, it is natural to hold high expectations for our leaders and feel disappointed when they are not met. But by observing the gaps in leadership and our own natural responses and contributions to make things right or better- even if they seem to be unrecognized or undervalued- we can begin to create space for our own growth and movement. By owning our contributions and framing them within higher level values, principles, and commitments, we can begin to become more sensitive to the contextual challenges and limitations that frame the work of our leaders and our broader units and institutions. 

Once we find ourselves seeing voids in leadership as opportunities for ownership, and vice versa, a remarkable transformation begins to occur. We start to become the very leaders that we seek, and suddenly our work environments become less threatening, we feel more competent and fulfilled, and ready for the new challenges and opportunities that arise.