Helping Students Find their Power

power

When did we give away our power? I found myself pondering this question at the prompting of a graduate student who was sitting in my office, eager to soak up every drop of insight I could offer. It was an excellent question, rooted in what I knew to be his complete sincerity and a palpable longing to make a difference in the world.

My answer rang cynical as it reverberated through my consciousness- how can you give something away when you never had it in the first place? As I reflected on the various leaders with whom I’d worked over the years, I was left with a general sense of disappointment, potential unrealized in so many ways.

I offered that true power comes from a place of clarity, some value or proposition that one knows to be absolutely and unequivocally true. Powerful people are able to steward a mission, an idea, or a contribution- holding it up, creating a path forward, dodging distractions, and elevating everyone in the process, moving us collectively toward a better and more enlightened place.

While non-traditional, this conceptualization of power does not preclude one from earning a good living or rising to a position of influence. On the contrary, it supports many of the familiar trappings of success that society craves. But it does so in a way that is fundamentally different, flipping one’s locus of influence, elevating the importance of ideas, and the skills and competencies needed to steward them.

How do we cultivate this re-imagined notion of power? By providing students of all ages with opportunities to delve within, exploring their own gifts, talents, and passions while developing a sensitivity and responsiveness to the people and world around them.

Central to this vision is the role of teachers, professors, and adults of all kinds.  For while the delivery of information and knowledge remains important, the new frontier calls for the creation of opportunities for students to connect with new situations, contexts, and challenges- stretching their understanding and skills, building their sense of power and agency. And above all it calls for mentors- powerful people who can harness their own strengths, connections, and experience to support the cultivation of students, putting them at the center, helping them prepare for their place in the world.

As (higher) education contemplates the next phase of its evolution, working to remain relevant and responsive within a quickly changing landscape, student outcomes and competencies will continue to guide us. But until we are able to elevate our notions of power and success, we will continue to miss the mark in helping students navigate and prepare for academic and career pathways.

Clearly, helping students to find their impact stands as a noble and important goal toward which we should strive. By preparing strong and powerful graduates we will support not only their own success, but ultimately a better and more enlightened world for all of us to experience and enjoy.

-For Andrew Tabashneck

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.

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.

An Unexpected Plug for Peer Mentoring Circles

I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.

What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.

In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.

Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.

When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.

This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.

This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.

Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.

While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.

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

My Second Epiphany

My first epiphany came several years ago when I realized that I could maximize my impact by helping others fulfill their potential. For much of my life I had carried a sense of heaviness, searching for ways to satisfy my mission and civic responsibility. Although I found pleasure in developing community programs and collaborations, I knew that my efforts were inherently limited and that knowledge left me frustrated and sad. So when I finally discovered that I could amplify and leverage my own talents by helping others navigate their journeys toward success, I was both relieved and anxious to offer my support to the greatest scale.

 My eagerness resulted in an open door policy. I tried to help anyone who came my way, offering my connections, strategies, and even a temporary home for students in need of support or guidance. As I came to recognize the importance of professional development, I worked to synthesize my experiences into processes and frameworks, offering workshops, articles, and even a TEDx talk, all in an effort to help others become unstuck and actualize their talents toward the greater good.

 Although well intentioned, my logic behind this approach was fundamentally flawed. I was working from a false assumption that because all individuals possess talents, which I know to be true, they represent equally good investments in terms of my time and resources. I now know that this is not the case- my second epiphany- and that in reality, individuals vary considerably with regard to their respective return on investment potential.

 To be clear, I still believe that everyone has something to contribute and that we cannot see or appreciate the long-term impacts of our individual actions and relationships. But when it comes to making meaningful and timely change within our most challenged communities and neighborhoods, certain individuals are clearly more poised to be agents of change. These are individuals who are intimately close to the problems and potential solutions, have a sense of mission and urgency, and are already adding value, yearning to do more and better through their own success and leadership.

 I now understand that these are the people I am most interested in supporting. And I believe, at least I think, that they definitely need support. Being from challenged and impoverished communities, their own success is not assured. Instead, navigating the education system and the various obstacles that block and limit opportunities can consume their energies and resources. But layering the additional intricacies of understanding and impacting the systems and structures affecting their communities calls for knowledge, competencies, and connections that can take a lifetime to develop.

 But imagine the rewards if we fast-track the rising stars within our most challenged communities, nurturing and supporting them with all the riches we already bestow on those deemed worthy through traditional leadership and mentoring programs.  In what exciting and unexpected ways will our communities grow, and what will we look and feel like as a healthy, vibrant culture that not only embraces diversity but seeds and nurtures it from within?

I can’t wait to find out.