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.

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.

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.

HITTING THE WALL how can you grow when there’s nowhere left to go?

wall

I really do get it.  You’ve outgrown your job and are capable of giving so much more.  You’ve tried to make it work even though you’re undervalued and undercompensated.  But it’s getting unbearable, even toxic, and you desperately need a change.  But despite countless applications for jobs that should be yours, the interviews don’t come.  And the panic starts to set in as you admit to yourself that perhaps you’ve finally hit a wall.  There’s simply nowhere left to go…

The realization that you’re stuck- really stuck- can be destructive on many levels. It can impact your health and wellbeing and relationships while jeopardizing the security of your current position.  And since growth is best approached from a place of strength and stability, a downward spiral is the last thing you need.

But what can you do when you’re up against a wall, committed to your growth but stuck with nowhere to go?

I’m going to offer a suggestion that may seem completely out there, but please read me out.   I strongly recommend that you stop focusing on your job and instead explore growth from a higher level.

Chances are you’ve been focusing on the particulars of your current situation, perhaps the roles and duties that you’re assigned or your interactions with your supervisor or colleagues.  These details have been pulling you down into the weeds (see my posts “Get Out of Your Way” or “Growth Happens Up Here”) and away from the upward movement you are seeking.

So my suggestion is that you do the opposite by embracing a lens that is much more expansive and upward focusing.  I would suggest something with a spiritual or metaphysical bent if you’re open to it (I have come to love Paulo Coelho or Caroline Myss’s books for this purpose), or if not perhaps a holistic wellness approach.  Find something or someone who speaks to you and set some goals that are empowering with some broader spiritual, humanitarian, or world lens.

Meanwhile, set some new goals for your current position.  While you wait for the right opportunity to develop, try to strengthen your relationships, learn something new, or change the way people view you. Perhaps emphasize becoming a team player, a positive influence, or someone who always finds ways to contribute.

But most importantly, while you’re exploring your own development, explain to yourself that you’re not giving up.  Instead of compromising your commitment to growth, you are simply facilitating it from another angle.

You see, one of our most critical errors in problem solving is perseverating on a solution or set of solutions even when they clearly aren’t working.  One of the best ways to get out of this pattern is to free yourself completely from the solution set and take an entirely different approach, ideally one with no shared assumptions or negative associations.

As someone who has intimately experienced the impacts of hitting the wall as well as rising above it, I can assure you that the only viable escape route is up.

Give it a try.

Get Out of Your Way… and stop undermining your professional growth

You have so much to offer and you’re ready to share your talents with the world.  You’ve made countless investments- education, soul searching, sweat equity- and you’re committed to making a change. But it doesn’t come.

I have seen too many strong and capable professionals self-destruct as they wait for the right opportunity to emerge. The more they refocus on their growth the more frustrated they become, in turn amplifying the flaws of their current situation.  What was once tolerable if not satisfying quickly becomes toxic and unsustainable as the walls start to close in around them.

By the time they find me they’re often in a state of panic and focus almost entirely on themselves and the urgency of their situations. What I tell them often comes as a surprise.

“You’re getting in your way.  You’re undermining your success.  If you’re serious about professional growth, then you need to remove yourself from the equation.”

Let me explain.

Even though you are ready to grow and have a greater impact, your hyper-focus on yourself is pulling you down rather than up.  When opportunities fail to emerge, our fear responses kick in- self-doubt, panic, anger- we all have our unique variations, but the results are seldom the growth that we crave.

Growth comes from utilizing our gifts and talents toward some impact, something bigger and broader than ourselves.  It’s actually a sense of impact that allows us to grow.

But how can you grow and have an impact when you are dissatisfied with your current position and desperate for change?  It may seem like a puzzle that is impossible to solve.

Yet the solution is quite simple.  Focus on your intended impact instead of yourself.

What is the impact that you are seeking?  Is there a particular population you want to serve?  What contribution are you longing to make, to whom, and in what context?

Once you have clarified your intended impacts then get close to them and the work.  Read articles, volunteer, ask to meet with people and listen to all that they have to offer.  Seek out opportunities to build relationships and get involved- even if it seems unrelated to your job search.

The funny thing is that as you get closer to the people you want to serve or the work that you hope to do, you will begin to find ways to add value, building credibility, relationships, and impacts along the way.  This is when movement will start to happen.

But even then you may find it necessary to remain in your current position, at least until opportunities develop. Chances are, however, your situation will begin to feel less toxic and ideally you may be able to find ways to grow and contribute until the right opportunity develops.

But beware, growth is a funny thing.  As soon as you shift your focus away from your impacts and back to yourself, you will feel the familiar tug of fear starting to pull you back down.

So whatever you do, even when movement starts to happen, remember to stay out of your way!

Dying to Grow: How to find meaningful professional opportunities within a stark and barren landscape

From my vantage point things are bad. Not a week goes by without a friend of a friend contacting me asking for help with their job search. Most are currently employed, with either their position coming to an impending end or an unshakable sense that they need to get out and find something healthier or more fulfilling. And although their situations are all unique, they seem to share a collective sense of suffering that is distinctly palpable- they are literally dying to grow.

One cannot overstate the suffering that comes with craving growth and change while feeling stuck in an unhealthy situation. Although this scenario often plays out in the realm of personal relationships, it can be equally traumatic when it transpires within our professional lives. And if you are taking the time to read this post, there is a good chance that either you are currently in this position or care deeply about someone else who is. But before I share the guidance that I offer those who find me, I feel compelled to offer a few words of caution based on experience and observation.

First, I urge you to resist the tendency to self-destruct. Once we recognize the need to grow or move on it’s as though all of our faculties work on overdrive to make it happen, even if the right opportunity has yet to emerge. Hopefully you’ve read some of my earlier posts about framing and high-trigger labels that pull us down into the weeds and prevent us from achieving growth or stability. Once we perceive a situation to be a threat or somehow toxic, the “danger” and “fear” labels kick in and our reactions tend to become highly emotional and charged. When this happens we can inadvertently exacerbate behaviors that undermine our success and feelings of security and strength, which in turn can send us on a downward spiral resulting in further damage and complications.

I find that the best springboard for growth is stability and thoughtfulness. Clearly, if you yearn to grow and find more fulfilling work, you are seeking something better and more meaningful. That desire or sense of readiness is enough, you don’t have to prove to yourself or anyone else that it is so bad that you have to leave. In fact, if you are fortunate enough to have a current position, then you should embrace and nurture that role, even if it is not something you want long-term. I often tell my mentees that the nature of a job search looks very different depending on the urgency of your security and basic needs. The luxury of a stable salary allows you to do the clarifying work necessary for finding the best opportunity, so allow yourself to see your situation as a (temporary) gift rather than a crisis from which you need to immediately flee.

My second caution relates to our tendency to jump to the “I could do that” phase of a job search. Although our ability to know when we are unhappy or dissatisfied in a current professional role is quite developed and accurate, we often lack the self-awareness and tools to clarify our core needs and gifts that are tied to our sense of fulfillment. Without this clarity, attempts to define our next steps through exploring available opportunities and job postings that may or may not align with our core needs and contributions, is a crap shoot at best. And at worst, it perpetuates a state of vulnerability and need for external validation which is a slippery slope in itself. Of course you need to be realistic about the current landscape of opportunities, but beginning your process with this exploration before you do the necessary clarification work will limit your options and lead you back into the weeds rather than the upward trajectory that you crave.

So alas, how does one effectively create opportunities for growth when the landscape seems so stark and desolate? Here are a few of my high impact practices that you might consider.

• Begin your search by spending some time clarifying the outputs of your dream position. In other words, what do you want your contributions to be, and who is your target audience/ client base? I realize that this is somewhat opposite of how most people go about a search, but I assure you that it is well worth the investment of time and effort. There are a few ways to go about this, one is through the “I believe….I promise….I expect” exercise that is described in a past post by the same name. Another is through the MOVE Mapping Process that I have developed which clarifies who you are at your best and what you have to offer relative to the surrounding needs and context related to your contributions. Any way you do this, you need to clarify what you can uniquely offer the world, in any domain that you are interested in. This piece will serve as the foundation for your search and also your application materials- so don’t skip this regardless of how challenging and time consuming it may be.

• Once you can articulate what you hope to contribute and to whom, you need to go back and reweave your experiences and qualifications (CV or resume) through this new narrative. Clearly, you can’t go back and change what you’ve done or accomplished to perfectly fit your dream job, but your experiences should all hang together around your focus and should tell a comprehensive and compelling story about what you have to uniquely offer. I find that there is often a pronounced disconnect between what individuals tell me, verbally, about their qualifications, and what their application materials suggest. However, once they have found the right frame for what they offer and stand for, they can organize their experiences in a much more compelling way and suggest their unique qualifications for the particular opportunity they are pursuing.

• Work with the job posting and make it crystal clear that you meet all specified qualifications. You need to understand that search committees must show that all specified qualifications are met before granting interviews. While it is important to articulate your unique skillset and experiences that will benefit the position, you cannot skip the critical step of demonstrating your suitability with regard to specified qualifications. When you craft your cover letter, I strongly suggest referencing the qualifications or categories of qualifications listed in the posting with clear statements about your background and experiences. I am surprised to find that many applicants ignore the specific requirements and frame their letters around their unique backgrounds and skillsets as well as submitting generic resumes organized around their own sense of importance and prominence. By doing so they place more work on the committee to effectively map the provided information to the specified job requirements and run the risk of being eliminated or dismissed regardless of their actual suitability.

Now obviously these suggestions assume that there are postings that align with your core needs and contributions as clarified in the recommended exercises. In order to maximize the possible space of opportunities, I suggest the following additional activities:

• Spend some time clarifying the ideal environment most conducive to the “best version of you.” Our growth is not only tied to the work we do but also the environments in which we work. It’s helpful to plot out differences in your “output” in relation to different types of contexts. There are numerous assessments out there that can provide insights into your ideal work environment, but I find it’s not that hard to gain insights on your own. Simply begin by asking what situations evoke the greatest levels of productivity and work fulfillment vs. those that make you miserable. Having a clear understanding of this range will allow you to explore possible options but also reveal new possibilities related to non-traditional avenues of employment that you will find more fulfilling.

• Consider separating your monetary needs from your growth needs. Since our efforts to find more meaningful work can often be compromised and muddled by our monetary and security needs, I find it is often helpful to separate the two. Try spending some time clarifying how much money you need in order to “buy” your security and create some space to work on your professional growth. Perhaps you can decide to stay in your current position for a set period of time or maybe you need a part-time or full-time job in order to achieve the necessary income. But regardless of your situation you can think of the money-making part as separate from the space to create and nurture your professional growth which you might accomplish part-time, or through volunteering as a necessary step toward a full-time career opportunity. Understanding exactly how much you need to make and the best way to accomplish this, can free you to focus on your growth at the same time, without thinking of yourself as a failure or taking steps backward.

• My final recommendation for the purposes of this post is to think of your fulfillment and growth holistically- not necessarily all wrapped up within one perfect job or professional role. Once you know what your core gifts and contributions are (see my recent TEDx talk available on my blog site) you can begin to piece together different activities and experiences into your own unique quilt or tapestry. I know many of us yearn for a professional role that will allow us to fulfill all aspects of our life work in terms of professional, community, and social contributions- but it is possible to fulfill these needs in multiple ways. Ultimately, doing so will allow for new opportunities to emerge through which you can leverage and bring together your various experiences- but in the time it takes for those to develop, you need to continue to pursue them even if they don’t align with a specific or current job description. That is why the clarification work is so critical, it will allow you to create a path forward and to fulfill your needs and contributions even when your current position is less than ideal. By evaluating your fulfillment and satisfaction in a more holistic way, you can buy yourself some time and space to continue to grow and develop, without a sense of urgency and fear that can drag you back into the weeds and away from the growth you seek.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and I would greatly appreciate some feedback from those of you who are struggling with your own professional growth. Please share any comments, insights, or further questions through the “reply” function and I will try to respond via future posts.