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

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.

Lenses, Focus, and the Pursuit of Brilliance

 

color

Success, Fulfillment, and Humanitarianism…. these are three of my favorite lenses. I’d like to take this post to introduce you, in case you’re searching for a set of your own.

Success is a lens that drives many of us. It helps us to set goals and strive for growth and achievement, while seeking evidence of our competence. Although the need for success can catalyze our movement and fuel our perseverance, it is inherently neither positive nor benevolent. If untethered, success can manifest as addiction, threatening relationships and general happiness, and accordingly should be kept on a short leash.

Fulfillment is a highly personal lens that is tied to our core needs and gifts. The more we know what fulfills us the better able we are to focus our time and energy. In this way, our fulfillment lens- if well defined- can manage and steer our success, navigating us through the inevitable pitfalls and landmines. And although fulfillment is in some ways self-directed, we all share a fundamental need for human connection which gives this lens a somewhat broader and brighter orientation.

Humanitarianism is my favorite lens. It’s also the broadest in terms of its focus and reach. Humanitarianism helps us gaze beyond ourselves and our immediate circumstances, thinking about the broader community and world, as well as ideals and principles that unify and elevate us. Our humanitarianism lens helps us to be better and stronger, and lifts us up out of the weeds toward more noble goals and impacts. It gives us courage to be leaders, and keeps our other lenses in check by pulling them upward and outward toward the greatest level of brightness.

While each of these lenses is inherently limited, when working together they expand our possibilities and potential. When we are shining at our brightest we are able to help others calibrate their lenses toward greater success and fulfillment. But it is when we are at our best and join with others who are also shining brightly, that the real magic happens. Suddenly, the possibilities seem limitless and ideas and solutions materialize with little effort or obstacle. This is when virtually anything becomes possible. 

This notion of collective brilliance has benefits well beyond the success that we crave. When we are shining together brightly we gain a sense of shared intimacy and connection that is resonant with fulfillment, purpose, and mission. Interestingly, these are the very ingredients that can be missing when we strive for success or fulfillment alone.

How ironic that the pathway to personal and professional success may be best accessed through gazing beyond ourselves and our immediate struggles.  In this way, lenses can provide us with the focus and clarity to brighten our vision- individually, collectively, and societally- so that we can maximize our potential and impact toward the greatest good.

Clearly, helping one another develop and utilize these lenses toward a collective brilliance is a goal that is worthy of our most focused pursuit.

Reinvention and The Narratives We Weave

 Perhaps our lives are like tapestries that weave themselves both forward and back.  Our experiences are the threads that add color and texture but only gain meaning once their patterns have emerged.

If our lives are like tapestries, then narratives feature prominently in their designs.  Narratives are the stories that reveal themselves as truths, framing the way we view ourselves and others, shaping our decisions and conclusions and how we engage with the world.

We see ourselves as heroes, underdogs or warriors and others as friends, lovers, or enemies, along with myriad variations of stories and themes that emerge and reemerge throughout our lives.

Our narratives come from many sources. We infer them from our families, the media, and our own experiences as we extract principles and patterns that seem to hold true.  Some have suggested that our narratives are rooted in our distant past through a collective unconscious or sacred contracts that proceed our births.

But regardless of their origins, our narratives become quite powerful once they are established, acting as lenses through which we interpret experiences and determine our actions.

Although many of our narratives are positive we are often most aware of those that are restrictive or negatively charged.  Stories about being a failure, a victim, or a fool can take on such a heightened level of prominence that they become perpetually primed, tainting all experiences that they touch.

It’s not surprising that when we finally decide to reinvent ourselves, we often focus on creating entirely new narratives independent of those that have previously dragged us down.  And while the work of starting anew can feel both invigorating and transformative, we quickly feel the familiar tug of our old narratives as they begin to undermine our growth and threaten to pull us back down.

For in our haste to distance ourselves from the past, we fail to sufficiently anchor our new narratives in our life tapestries, believing that they will weave themselves forward creating new designs that are both beautiful and strong.  In doing so we underestimate the depth of our existing patterns and the myriad threads that both nourish and sustain them.

In moments of weakness or self-doubt our old patterns become reinvigorated and quickly infiltrate our new designs, blurring their boundaries and threatening their significance.

Ironically, our best opportunities for reinvention are those that allow us to reweave our existing details and experiences into new designs.  By adding nuances, subtleties, and complexities atop existing patterns, we can create additional layers of richness that build on our past designs rather than competing with them.

Within the context of our careers this can mean cultivating new areas of expertise, audiences, or perspectives or perhaps a completely different approach to what we have done or seen.

Although growth is always profound in its effects, it often emerges from subtle variations and tones.

So as we contemplate our reinvention we should pause to appreciate the richness of our existing tapestries on which we can build.

10 Conversations to Have With Yourself As Soon As Possible

I first discovered the benefits of talking with myself back in college.  To be clear, I’m referring to an actual dialog, not the muttering or rambling that is often associated with talking to oneself.  In my version I actually pose questions, either verbally or in my head, and then formulate a response, which in turn leads to follow-up questions, forcing me to further refine or elaborate my thoughts.  To be truthful, as an interviewer I can be pretty tough on myself, and like Barbara Walters I’ve even been known to elicit some occasional tears.

Although when I first started talking with myself it was limited primarily to gathering my ideas for papers or presentations, the scope of my internal dialog has become quite expansive. Over time, I have found this exercise to be helpful in virtually every aspect of my life, allowing me to reflect on my experiences and observations and clarify my views and philosophies across all domains.  It has also helped me to cope with crises and low points, forcing me to articulate core beliefs, concerns, and disappointments while finding silver linings and truths on which to build.

But beyond helping to guide me through my own personal and professional journey, my internal interview process has proven beneficial for those around me who are seeking growth- both those who are conscious of their quest and those who are less aware, namely, my own children.  Before you raise the ethical question of whether it’s right to inflict my world views and strategies on my own children- a question that has been raised by my particularly precocious and impertinent 12 year old (see post- “Why Rubrics are Maddening” for more on her)- please read the rest of the post before passing judgment.  You will hopefully see that the internal interview process is simply a mirror that forces reflection and clarity, allowing the person- of whatever age- to practice being an expert, owning their experiences and views and having an opportunity to be heard- exactly what most of us (especially my 12 year old) are waiting for.

So here’s how it works, get comfortable with assuming 2 distinct roles- the interviewer who finds you fascinating and is genuinely interested in probing your thoughts and observations; and you as the expert who has a wealth of experiences, gifts, and observations to reflect upon and share.  Find somewhere comfortable to talk with yourself.  My absolute favorite interview location is my car, while on the way to my office, meetings, or wherever.  I admit that I used to be a little embarrassed when people in passing cars would stare at me while I talked with myself, but ever since Bluetooth technology came out, it’s no longer an issue.

You can of course customize your topics and conversations based on your circumstances and areas of focus, but I offer the following questions to get you started.  Don’t forget to follow up with additional probing questions, as the more you force yourself to clarify and elaborate on your responses, the more you will get from the process.  And I should mention an added benefit, when the day comes that you finally do get interviewed by a real professional, not only will you be ready but you will be able to counter with additional- and even better- questions of your own…..

Here are some of my favorites:

  1. What do you know to be true?
  2. If you were born to make one contribution to the world- what is it and why is it needed?
  3. Name the most important people in your life.  What do you most appreciate about each of them and why?
  4. What does being educated mean to you?
  5. What should all people be entitled to?
  6. What do you owe and to whom? (not necessarily in the money sense)
  7. What do you find most disappointing?
  8. What is the best gift you have ever given?  What is the best gift you have ever received?
  9. In what ways have you been shaped by your family/ ancestors?
  10.  What do you stand for?

I wish I could listen in on your conversations… I’m sure they will be fascinating!