Exploring Best Failures

Because failure can be so painful and emotionally triggering, we distance ourselves at all cost, finding ways to deflect, blame, or avoid. But in doing so, we miss out on one of the most powerful catalysts for professional and personal growth.

To be clear, not all failures are best failures. Most are uninteresting, simply not getting what we want, or thought we wanted. But some failures are more complex and meaningful. They involve acting on some core intention, the essence of what we believe or are trying to offer, and then hitting a proverbial wall- running into someone or something we didn’t expect or see coming. Best failures are painful in a special way. Their impact stays with us, altering our behavior and how we see the world. Best failures matter. They are inherently powerful and beckon us to examine them more closely.

In a 2013 post, I mused that just once, I would like to go to a conference that focused on best failures rather than best practices. I was tired of pretending that we had it all figured out, holding up programs as examples of excellence and superiority, with participants taking notes and hoping to replicate results. I knew then, and still know, that focusing on successes can only get us so far. Instead, if we are able to explore our most powerful failures, we can reap the many benefits, identifying structural errors and false assumptions that can release us from stagnation and stuckness, and lead us to growth and expansion.

So why are there no best failures conferences or symposia? Because failure is closely associated with feelings of shame and embarrassment, and getting too close can result in negative emotions and discomfort. But what if we could get some emotional distance and create space for holding up our best failures as opportunities for growth, learning, and innovation. Not just any failures, mind you, but the really powerful ones, the ones that will lead to new opportunities and expansion, the type of growth that we all need and crave.

Here is a process for tapping into the power of best failures. I suggest that you do this together with a friend or mentor, someone who can challenge and guide you, and perhaps share in the process along the way.

  • Identify best failures.

Remember that best failures are not about simple rejection or not getting what you want. They are symbolic stories, representing grand attempts to engage your mission or core contributions, going for it, throwing your heart and soul into something of importance, only to hit a wall. Best failures leave you reeling, profoundly disappointed, and in some way changed by the experience. Because so few failures are best failures, you will need some time to sort through your collection and identify those worthy of further exploration. Imagine yourself sorting through your closet, briefly examining each garment, deciding which to keep and which to give away. As you bring potential candidates into consideration, ask yourself whether it is a symbolic and important failure with lessons to reveal. If not, acknowledge its lack of significance, and decide to simply let it go.

  • Imagine if.

Once you have identified a best failure to work with, allow yourself to indulge in the exercise of rewriting histroy. How do you wish others had behaved differently, what ending would you have preferred? Acknowledge that this is the fantasy portion of your work; the place where most of us like to go, and stay. Take a moment to appreciate how it feels to go there, wishing and rewriting, yearning for someone to have done something differently. Now reflect on what you have learned or gained from this activity, and whether it is worthwhile to continue to focus on what could have been. Once you conclude that it is neither a good investment nor a path forward, note that it is clearly time to move on.

  • Alternate paths.

Now, hold up that same best failure and allow yourself to revisit your own behaviors leading up to the unwanted outcome. If you were to go back in time, knowing what you know now, how might you have done things differently and why? Without getting emotional, revisit the chain of events going back as far as you can, noting the various details and nuances to be modified, edited, or slightly tweaked, with each change leading to a different result or response. Acknowledge these variations as choices, and note your power in determining possible outcomes, even without altering another’s actions.  Reflect on this idea of power.  Synthesize what you have learned or discovered, and practice giving it voice- actually talking about it or describing it to someone you respect or care about. Feel your space expand.

  • Apply your insights.

Now apply these lessons to where you are now and consider how you might use them within your current or evolving context. Think of these insights as gifts that you are giving yourself, not from a place of blame or humiliation, but instead from a higher state of empowerment and growth- the version of you that lies ahead. What opportunities can you identify for putting these lessons and ideas into practice? How will you recognize their effectiveness? Take some time to imagine what it will feel like when you are honoring, or have honored these gifts. How might you expect others to respond?  What do you need to nurture or protect this best version of yourself? Feel this commitment take root.

Congratulations for your courage and commitment. In honor and recognition of the work you have done, and will continue to do, imagine receiving an invitation to serve as the keynote speaker for our very own Best Failures Symposium. Don’t get nervous, you have plenty of time to prepare your remarks, and the audience will be filled with only those who are committed to growth and learning. As you reflect on what you will share with fellow participants, allow yourself to put your insights into practice, making the most of the decisions you have as you live your life and do your work. Note how your choices affect you and others around you, and your ability to see and actualize opportunities for movement and growth. How has your story changed and how will it continue to evolve? Know that as you live boldly, you will have even more best failures to share.  These are the evidence of our courage and the keys to continued growth.

Self-directed Summer Projects, a Step-by-Step Process

As we immerse ourselves in virtual end-of-year celebrations, finding creative ways to honor our students’ accomplishments and achievements, summer looms large with its uncertainty. With plans for internships, travel, or other structured experiences canceled, and employment unlikely, many are hoping to find meaningful options without the benefit of formal structure or support.

As I promote the value of mentored projects, the appeal is undeniable. The idea of students exploring topics or fields of interest, leveraging online resources, and exploring their own communities and networks leaves many asking where to sign up. But with colleges and universities consumed with COVID-19 related planning, few are offering facilitated support, especially for independent projects or internships. At the UB Experiential Learning Network, we focus entirely on connecting students with meaningful mentored projects, cultivating an ever-expanding portfolio of offerings, while also supporting independent projects developed entirely by students. Regardless of the specific nature of the project, we move students through the various stages of engagement, helping them earn digital badges along the way and encouraging them to take their experiences even further toward deeper impacts.

While our Project Portal is available only to UB students, I am happy to share our model and strategies for transforming summer (or fall) into meaningful projects for all students, regardless of age or background. The most exciting part of this approach is the fact that compelling projects do not require money or privileged access to networks or contacts, but instead depend entirely on students’ willingness to fully commit to Preparation, Engagement and Adding value, Reflection and Leveraging their experiences toward broader impacts. We call this process PEARL and we encourage all students to enjoy its benefits.

But before getting started with a project, and the PEARL framework, students must negotiate two critical tasks that will set them up for success.

  • Design your project

Your project should be inherently meaningful, to you and some external audience that you deem important. In deciding what to work on, focus on the outcome, making sure it is important and worthy of your time and effort, while also aligning with your interests and goals. A good project should stretch you, driving you to seek out new experiences and opportunities that you would not normally pursue, and engage with people, ideas, places and/or organizations in ways that will challenge your understanding and perspective. Your project should fit the parameters of your specific circumstances- namely, do you have a month or an entire semester or year to work on your project? Many students are opting for a Gap Year during the duration of online instruction. Your project can be as ambitious and multi-faceted as you choose to make it, but the initial design should reflect your constraints and expectations from the very beginning. I invite you to browse our available projects to get a sense of scope and framing. Note that most projects are designed to take about a semester, although some can be extended further. I offer some additional suggestions for summer projects at the end of this post, in hopes of getting you started thinking about possible ways to frame your ideas and interests. Remember that in order to sustain your efforts and attention, especially without the threat of grades or assignments, your project needs to be bold and interesting- so allow yourself to get personal and dream big.

  • Find a mentor

Mentors can dramatically affect the impact of a project. Often, colleges and universities pair students with faculty mentors who invite them into their laboratories and research programs, offering support in navigating choices and opportunities. You can enjoy the benefits of a mentor even without a formal placement or affiliation. Simply invite someone whose opinion you respect, someone who has something to offer in relation to your project. Let them know what you are asking- essentially for them to provide guidance, feedback and recommendations along the way, and ultimately vet your final product, providing an endorsement if they are so inclined. Note that you can have multiple mentors, and should seek out individuals who can help you deepen your understanding and leverage your time and efforts. Having mentors can help you follow through with your commitments, not wanting to disappoint them or waste their time. You might identify mentors in your own networks or extended families, but do not be afraid to approach someone in the community or broader field, especially if you have a compelling project and story to draw them in.

Once you have designed your project and secured a mentor, it is time to begin working through the PEARL framework. Take each step seriously and seek feedback and guidance along the way.

  • Prepare

This first step represents an important opportunity for growth and achievement, although few students take it seriously, instead choosing to jump right in. The truth is that we need to ready ourselves for high-impact experiences, establishing a base of context, skills and core understanding. Through my work at the University at Buffalo, I take students to a remote region of northern Tanzania, a place that is jarringly different from Buffalo, New York. Invariably, the students who get most from the trip have a base of knowledge and understanding on which to build. They are able to interpret specific experiences through historical and cultural lenses, building on their understanding to achieve deeper perspective. Similarly, students with basic laboratory skills are better able to immerse themselves in specialized research opportunities, approaching the work with some level of confidence and core competencies on which they can further build. In these ways, preparation sets students up for success and ensures that they will be ready for the opportunities they encounter. In the ELN, we approach preparation through three important steps. Each is necessary and inherently important- so allow yourself to dig in and fully commit to the process.

  • Set your intentions

Imagine yourself at the end of your project, discussing what you accomplished with someone whose opinion you value. When asked what you got from the experience, what will you say? Rather than leaving your learning to chance, it is helpful to set intentions from the very beginning, committing to certain outcomes that are especially important to employers and academic programs and institutions. Take a look at the Career Readiness Skills, which include learning outcomes that employers report lacking in most college graduates. If you are able to demonstrate strengths related to these outcomes, including skills such as collaboration, problem solving, communication, and cultural competence, you will be more compelling as a candidate. You might also review the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics that include outcomes that are of particular interest to academic institutions and liberal arts education. If you embark on your project ready to develop these competencies, you are more likely to find the experience meaningful in supporting your goals. In other words, you will get what you expect.

  • Establish general context

You may choose to do a project related to an area of expertise or instead something entirely new and unexplored. Regardless of your level of experience, it is important to frame your project in a general understanding of its relationship to a broader context. Students often skip this step as well, as they jump into internships, research or other types of experiential learning. In doing so, they fail to establish basic knowledge and skills, ultimately limiting their ability to explore or discuss their experience in compelling and powerful ways. If you are focusing your project on a particular industry or technology, you might begin by exploring the history of innovation, or related or competing discoveries in the field. Before beginning a project with a particular faculty mentor, you might research their body of work, gaining an understanding of their interests and priorities along with their educational and professional background. Spending time developing an understanding of context will help you in many ways, especially when you encounter challenges or disappointments. Rather than quitting a project when things fail to go as planned, you can gain the necessary perspective and identify ways to adapt or better understand the challenges. Before starting a project, allow yourself to get curious and explore the universe surrounding whatever topic you have chosen, noting any areas of interest or surprise that may lead to new insights or areas for further exploration. Here is a tip: If you are not interested in your topic enough to want to explore surrounding context, then you might need to find a different project. Let your curiosity be your guide.

  • Develop specialized skills and knowledge

In addition to general context, many projects call for specialized skills, knowledge or experiences necessary to fully engage and complete the related activities. Rather than be intimidated by learning more, accept the challenge and explore creative ways to obtain access to important opportunities and information. Remember that the internet provides an expansive universe of trainings, professional development, and competence building resources- many completely free and open-access. While official credentials and degrees are valuable, they are not always necessary, especially when projects speak for themselves once executed. You just might find it freeing and enjoyable to explore new skills and areas of development without the need to obtain certification or official endorsement.

After reading through these steps, it is probably not surprising that preparation can take a long time. But depending on your specific time allowance, you can adapt accordingly. Regardless of the scope of your project, however, preparation is a critical step that should be valued and taken seriously. Share your preparation with your mentor, perhaps synthesizing your work through a report or reflection paper. Take pride in what have already accomplished and get excited for the experiences and learning that lie ahead.

  • Engage and Add Value

This step represents the heart of your project- namely, the execution of a plan toward some outcome that is inherently meaningful. In the ELN, we group Engagement and Adding Value together because doing so makes your efforts more powerful. What will your final product look like and why will it matter?  Here are some general tips to consider as you engage.

  • Start with a project plan and share with you mentor before getting started. The plan should focus on the final product and work backwards, clarifying individual components and steps and setting goals and targets to keep you on track.
  • Identify the beneficiary of your project- even if it is theoretical. Namely, what populations or communities might, or should, be interested in the outcomes? If possible, think about ways to engage them through the process, inviting input while also establishing an audience with whom to share your final product
  • Identify any necessary costs or access critical to the success of the project. If obtaining these resources presents risk or uncertainty, you might need to adapt your plan to ensure viability for success. Many students begin projects that they are unable to complete due to funding issues or lack of access. Set your project up for success by thinking through these details in advance and modifying plans accordingly.
  • Seek frequent input from mentors and peers. Sometimes we get lost in our own work and fail to see alternate paths or possible solutions. It is also helpful to get reassurance and validation along the way.
  • Stay focused on the intended outcomes, resisting the urge to switch projects mid-course or take on something different that might seem more exciting or doable. The ability to persevere is an important skill to develop. But also allow yourself some flexibility to explore alternate paths or solutions as necessary.

When it comes to your final product, make it as impressive as possible and think about the various audiences with whom you will want to share your work. In the ELN, students earn digital badges upon completing their projects, and their work is embedded in the badge itself, serving as an ePortfolio of sorts. Regardless of how you display or share your work, the finished product should be polished and fully executed. Make sure you get the final approval from your mentor along with any endorsements or recommendations they can offer. Also ask if you can stay in touch, securing the benefits of continued communication and support.

  • Reflect

Reflection is just as important as the project itself. The idea of stepping away and thinking about what you have done and learned through various lenses will allow you to access new opportunities for growth and insight. In the ELN, we have a Reflection Badge that walks students through the stages of reflection. First, students revisit their learning intentions that were set during Preparation, noting any surprises, growth, or areas for further development. Next, they watch a video titled, “Telling Compelling Stories about your Experiences and Achievements” that shares a process for connecting projects with an audience of interest, perhaps a potential employer or graduate school. I encourage you to watch the video and reflect on your own experiences as they relate to your professional and academic goals.  After watching the video, students practice talking about their own experiences, recording videos of their own. Students report that this process is quite useful, especially the opportunity to see themselves talking, and making modifications to achieve some level of comfort and proficiency. As explained in the video, narratives can be quite powerful, including those we tell others, but even more importantly, the internal narratives that guide our efforts, especially in the face of adversity or challenge. I hope you will continue to reflect on your project long after it is completed, discovering new insights and opportunities to connect with audiences and experiences that will continue to help you grow and find success.

  • Leverage

We almost always fall short when it comes to leveraging our experiences toward deeper and broader impacts. While we invest heavily in activities that can differentiate us and support our goals, we are quick to move on to the next endeavor as soon as we complete the task at hand. But once you have invested in something important, why not continue to harvest the fruits of your labor? There are so many ways you can continue to build on your project to benefit your own professional growth, or further support your community partner. Where will your project lead you? Will you continue to explore a topic, clarify your career or academic pathways, or perhaps seek out additional opportunities to serve, learn, or contribute? So much of our success and fulfilment stems from the stories we tell about ourselves, and others. Allow your project to impact your story, providing insights, humility, and a sense of curiosity that will lead you in exciting and meaningful directions. Find inspiration in other students’ stories by visiting our stories page and think about adding your own.

I hope this process has been helpful with the design and navigation your own projects. I know the first step of “dreaming up” projects is difficult for most people. It happens to be my favorite part. Here is a short list of project ideas for you to consider and build upon. Remember, virtually anything can be a project- as long as it culminates in something meaningful. So be personal, creative and bold. Make your project count.

  1. Raise seed money for an identified cause through some fundraising activity and then invest in start-ups or organizations with related missions, or perhaps develop and pilot an initiative of your own
  2. Find an organization that you believe in and help promote their efforts or build capacity in some meaningful way
  3. Explore your community through a specific lens and create an app or interactive website to invite engagement from others
  4. Do a deep dive into your family history, interviewing different family members and chronicling important events, developing an interactive archive that future family members can enjoy and learn from
  5. Find an internet-based initiative that is seeking engagement such as open-source mapping, Wikipedia, or a global idea challenge and set some goal for participation or recognition
  6. Learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and embark on a challenge to change your own behavior or those of others in your community or spheres of influence in support of goals or targets.
  7. Choose a part of the country or world that you want to visit and plan your adventure. Allow yourself to explore the region and build your itinerary including travel details and budget- dream big or be realistic and frugal, use technology to transport yourself and make a travelogue to share your journey with others
  8. Explore the COVID-19 pandemic through a particular lens- education, health, economics, etc…- and identify organizations or models that will help us move forward, or alternately, models that are no longer relevant/effective. Focus your project on ways to innovate, better addressing the needs of communities or the allocation or management of resources.
  9. Dig into access and equity issues. Explore your community through a particular lens of challenge and access. Conduct research, interview those around you to understand specific challenges and inequities. Based on your research, identify solutions and engage others in your ideas and plans.
  10. Find a sense of purpose or passion. age in a structured journey to explore different career paths and areas of study and exploration. Allow yourself to get curious, to read, to talk to people, to immerse yourself in new ideas and sources of information. Learn about yourself and your history, and commit to setting some life intentions and goals that will set you on a path toward fulfillment and success.

Let these ideas inspire you to create your own projects, to leverage your unique resources and stories to achieve something important and resonant. Now, more than ever, the world needs doers, professionals who can add value, setting meaningful goals, and navigating challenges and uncertainties toward some meaningful outcome. Regardless of your circumstances or the evolving COVID landscape, know that you have what you need to keep moving forward. I implore you to be bold with your projects, to find mentors to support and encourage your work, and to leverage your investments toward bigger and far-reaching impacts. And most of all, have fun- there’s nothing more exciting than pursuing your dreams.

– Mara

Reset

glass

This post is written for all who are feeling stuck or unsure how to navigate change.

If you accept the assertion that we are all dealing with design challenges https://marabhuber.com/2017/10/28/redesign/, then resetting is simply a process of realignment. When the context surrounding our lives or work changes dramatically, our patterns of behavior and contributions may no longer fit or be valued. What was once satisfying may feel constraining or even dysfunctional.

I call this dissonance- the state of being out of alignment. It happens at work, in relationships, in virtually all aspects of our lives. Change can be thrust upon us through external events like death, infidelity, shifts in leadership or organizational structure. But it also happens from within, often subtly, compounding over time. Regardless of the source however, change is completely natural and unavoidable, and yet for many, terrifying.

We expend a great deal of energy, strategy and emotion trying to prevent change or slow it down as we grasp for security, sustainability or permanence. And in doing so, we fail to recognize that when viewed through a different set of lenses, change is actually a portal through which we can access growth, humility and perspective- all necessary ingredients for the fulfillment and connectivity that we universally crave.

You see, the secret to resetting lies in developing a sensitivity to the universe of change and differences that spins around us. But rather than trying to stop, prevent or judge the change, it requires a sense of honor and respect as we work towards deeper insights, appreciation and acceptance.

Put another way, resetting requires emotional distance, the ability to remove our feelings and needs when assessing the world around us. Once we release ourselves from our analysis we can begin to observe broader patterns and trends, issues and forces that shape constraints and opportunities, impacting the people and places around us.

As we develop an ability to “feel into” these contextual forces, we can gain insights into opportunities for our own growth and development while releasing the negativity and fear that threaten our success and happiness.

How to reset? Begin by looking around you, considering the internal and external landscape, the ecosystem of structures and people that comprise and influence your world. Start to formulate questions and observations, framing them through words and phrases that convey respect and care. Speak these words out loud in front of a mirror, noting your body language and the way you feel when you say them or imagine the conversations. As you try out different words and observations, work to release any tension or tightness, letting go of negativity, fear or hurt and embracing a more caring and open demeanor. And take the time to observe and reflect on the differences.

Here are some conversation starters with which you can experiment.

Things feel different lately, have you noticed any changes?

What does it feel like to be in your position? What are the pressures that you’re experiencing? What are you most excited about?

I can feel things changing but I’m not sure I understand how or why. Can you share your insights?

I get a sense that the context (of our work) has shifted, what do you see as the new direction? What are you concerned about?

I sense that our relationship is somehow out of alignment. I’d like to understand how things have changed from your perspective.

Once you are able to receive insights about the world around you, without personalizing or getting defensive, you will discover new spaces and opportunities to flex your talents, skills and contributions in ways that add value and feel inherently better. While your relationships and experiences may be different than what you originally expected or even hoped for, you will feel a renewed sense of alignment and stability, and an awareness of the universe of possibilities that is always there but always changing around you.

 

 

 

 

 

Actualizing our Potential

This Friday, at the EOC Women’s Conference, I will be talking about the notion of actualizing our potential.

I see potential everywhere. It’s like a radiant energy that hovers around us, waiting to be activated and utilized. Although potential is inherently powerful, it comes in a latent form, requiring a vehicle for its release. Think of natural gas, sunlight, or wind. Identifying their presence is critical, but it’s only through harnessing and channeling their energy that they become useful.

We are in a state of latent potential. Although potential is literally everywhere, building and bubbling around and through us, it remains largely untapped. It is true that we try to develop our potential, through education and workforce training programs. But our attempts are largely limited. Rather than cultivating its abundant forms- the gifts, talents, and resources that individuals and groups and places offer- and creating tailored vehicles for delivery and dissemination, we continue to work backwards. We build our pipelines and factories with specific opportunities in mind, letting jobs and workforce sectors guide and limit our preparation.

And in doing so, we continue to propagate the belief that preparation will lead to opportunity, and that opportunity is in fact enough to get us where we need to go. And yet clearly, opportunity is not a sufficient pathway for actualizing our collective potential now or in the future. Opportunities- in the present sense- are often limited and highly specific, forcing us to compete with one another by squeezing into constraints and limitations. And let’s face it, even if we strive to win these opportunities, they are simply not enough. They will neither accommodate everyone seeking them, nor will they utilize or actualize the talents and resources of those who win them.

Of course we should continue to pursue opportunities, preparing ourselves and one another to compete for positions that offer security and meaningful work. But we cannot stop there. We need more vehicles, more models that will allow individuals, systems, and communities to plug in their respective resources, to add value, to connect with others. We need models that are generative, systems that create new spaces and opportunities, that leverage- by design- latent potential toward the greater good.

It is true that the frontiers of entrepreneurship and social enterprise are creating new spaces and opportunities for growth. But if we allow ourselves to see potential as a natural resource, THE natural resource, we will recognize that we haven’t even scratched the surface with regard to what is possible. This is the world that I revel in- the land of possibilities and potential. And although it may seem fantastical, especially for those who focus on “matters of consequence”, I assure you that it is real and well within our reach, and more fulfilling than you could ever imagine.

I look forward to sharing more this Friday. Please join me for the EOC Women’s Conference from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 18 in the EOC, 555 Ellicott St., on the UB Downtown Campus.

It’s Hard to Stand Still

standing still

Certain states of being are natural. Growth, for example, is written into our DNA. From the moment we’re conceived we stretch and move outward, engaging with the environment, learning, and developing our skills and understanding toward a higher state of mastery. Ironically, entropy is an equally natural state, an inherent tendency for things and systems to break down over time, losing focus, strength, relevance, accelerating toward a place of disorganization and eventual obsolescence.

In contrast, the act of standing still is neither natural nor sustainable. Upon scrutiny it is merely a fleeting moment in time before either growth or entropy kick in. And as such, it is a particularly precarious place to rest or hold onto as the  world changes and thrashes around us.

And yet despite its inherent dangers and limitations, the notion of standing still continues to factor prominently in our plans and decision making. When faced with the overwhelming and often competing challenges, threats, and demands associated with our lives and work, our systems and structures, many make a deliberate decision to stay where they are, steady, constant and secure.

Efforts to stand still look different with varying players and contexts, but universally they consume large amounts of effort and focus. Because the dichotomous forces of growth and entropy serve as magnets with opposing fields, the cost of resisting and remaining braced in a neutral position can be depleting. Any movement in either direction must be corrected immediately before momentum builds, ricocheting people and organizations forward and back at an often dizzying pace.

Why would anyone or any organization choose to stand still? When forced with a categorical choice between growth and dissolution all would claim to embrace the former. Indeed most publically extol the virtues of innovation, generativity and growth. Organizations post job descriptions calling for leaders who can think outside the box, who are entrepreneurial and collaborative. Meanwhile individuals fantasize about new jobs, new adventures, and opportunities to spread their wings and soar.

And yet when push comes to shove we gravitate toward the middle, seeking comfort, shelter, and security, implicitly defending and supporting the status quo. How ironic that a place that is not really a place at all can keep us so collectively stuck.

What is it about growth that seems so scary? Perhaps it is simply a fear of the unknown or the risk of losing our footing. Maybe it’s a need to feel the ground beneath our feet or under our nails. After all, growth is about expansion and generativity, elevation and brilliance. To many, these concepts feel foreign and suspicious, too airy and nebulous, too risky and uncertain. But once we begin to unpack the notion of growth, revealing its facets and structures, giving it shape and texture, we can start to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity, ways to chart our progress and find the sense of stability we crave. Maybe then we can finally allow ourselves to go for it, leaving behind the false sense of security that we’ve come to associate with standing still.

Women, Power, and Getting Unstuck

sun

Our collective notions of power are in need of a major makeover.

Forget about the greedy self-serving kind, or the influence that comes with wealth and control. Although these are the connotations that are sold to us by a male-dominated society, they are not the type of power that we desperately need or crave.

What we need at this particular moment in time is an inherently different version of power, an ability to connect our gifts and talents with needs and opportunities around us, to add value, to build unity, and to create something inherently better.

This notion of power represents a dynamic interplay between two component forces- a clarity of mission and purpose, and a responsiveness to the ambient world. Honing and knowing what we bring to the table, what we represent in terms of our gifts and potential, and then tracking our focus on opportunities to respond and engage.

When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that our power is magnified when we work together. Not in a solely strategic or calculated way, but instead through intimate and personal connections, activating one another’s talents and networks to accelerate and amplify our impacts beyond what we could achieve alone.

This is the type of power- the only type of power- that nurtures our souls, that heals our wounds and fills us back up, undoing the damage that we have collectively incurred. Fear, aggression, victimization- all weapons that have drained our essence leading us toward self-destruction instead of the brilliant future that waits within reach.

But how can we find our power when so many of us remain trapped in darkness? Like a riddle, the answer is hidden in our false assumption, a fundamental error that is exquisitely simple yet profound. To find our power we cannot start with our supervisors, titles or salaries, or any other label or thing that is given to us or put upon us. For looking to others for our power is the surest way to never find or keep it.

The type of power we seek is neither ephemeral nor uncertain. Its permanence and strength derive from a sense of clarity and purpose tied to our own talents, mission, and what we uniquely bring to the world. To find it we must go deep, getting personal, moving well beyond our degrees, titles, and jobs that are externally bequeathed. We must delve into the very core of our experiences, insights and realizations, allowing ourselves to think, feel, and know.

And then we need to make things happen- big things, important things, things that matter. And we need to do it together, supporting one another, and celebrating and reflecting on our impacts, creating more spaces and opportunities to shine and help others shine, creating a world that values and leverages talent toward the greatest good.

Only then will we know what it feels like to be truly powerful, to be no longer afraid or hurt or angry.  Only then can we shine.

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.

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.

 

Go Ahead and Frame It

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As I sift through seven years of accumulated stuff, readying my office for an impending move, I can’t help but reflect on the two distinct piles that sit before me.

The first is contained within a massive recycling bin and consists of endless reports, proposals, articles, and documents of various lengths and content. Despite the care with which they were once prepared and filed, they have become entirely disposable, not even worth shredding let alone transporting to my new office.

The second pile, however, is proportionately precious. It contains mementos of people and projects that have permanently infiltrated my identity and how I work and live. Not only will these treasures enjoy a place of honor in my new office, but they have recently been framed, and will hang proudly on freshly painted walls, helping to guide the next phase of my ever-evolving career.

This notion of framing our proudest accomplishments and integrating them into our work is in many ways a big idea- especially when our achievements are only tangentially related to our official job descriptions or titles. As women seek more fulfillment and challenge from our work, we often find ourselves supplementing our jobs with community involvement and outside initiatives, knitting together a patchwork career (see my blog post of the same name). While holistically, such activities can mitigate the discontent and restlessness that can come with feeling underutilized, they are ultimately inadequate as long-term solutions for growth.

And yet these supplemental activities often become the most satisfying aspects of our work, significantly contributing to our overall effectiveness and stability as professionals, while at the same time remaining outside the scope of discussion or compensation. How does one negotiate this inherent dilemma?

Clearly, this is delicate business. Anytime one steps outside the boundaries that have been set for them, there is risk involved. However, it is absolutely possible to stretch the spaces around us, and often necessary if we wish to achieve the fulfillment that we crave. Within virtually any job there are opportunities to flex our skills, interests, and experiences in ways that add value without threatening those around us.

The secret is largely in the framing. By stepping away from our specific activities and interests, we can identify points of alignment and synergy with our jobs, supervisors, and the contexts that surround our work. Once we can identify the common themes and ideas, we can then begin to weave them together to expand our notion of what we do and have to offer as professionals.

But in addition to framing, we must also develop sensitivity to the boundaries and limits of how far we can go. What makes people uncomfortable, what are the hidden implications and threats at play? Or perhaps more importantly, what do the people around us need to feel successful, safe and supported? Once we understand these variables we can better frame and share our own experiences in ways that will enrich our respective work while supporting the collective efforts of our teams and organizations.