In my eternal quest for powerful frames, I find myself fixated on the notion of courage.
As a concept, courage is loaded in all the right ways. It implies a sense of purpose and strength, and the notion of fighting for something important and meaningful.
This summer my three daughters were all assigned Malala as required reading. I found this to be remarkable since their ages vary dramatically- 15, 11, and 9. But when I read the book to my youngest, I was so grateful that Malala’s story was being shared so broadly. And as we moved through the chapters and incidents leading up to Malala’s shooting, my daughter’s eyes were suddenly opened to injustices and inequities of a scale she struggled to understand. And she was moved to wonder aloud how she would handle such threats, how we as a family and society would respond to such gross injustice.
I yearn for more stories of courage, for my daughters, for myself, for the women around me. More than inspiration, they offer perspective, hope, a tingling sense of being acutely alive, in tune with some higher purpose or sense of clarity. But they also offer a mirror, for reflecting on our own choices, character and strength.
When I travel to Tanzania I marvel at the women, the Sisters running clinics, building schools, working to open opportunities and hope for those who live without. And just recently I joined American Women for International Understanding (AWIU), a group that hosts an International Women of Courage Celebration, honoring women such as Captain Niloofar Rahmani (pictured in this post), the first female fixed-wing Afghan Air Force pilot in the history of Afghanistan.
I will continue to learn from women around the world, seeking out their stories and opportunities to connect. But at the same time I’m ready to celebrate courage right here in our own communities. I am ready to honor the stories of girls and women who are pushing against fear and injustice to expand opportunities for themselves and others.
As we come together to contemplate women’s leadership, empowerment, and all the frames that attract those of us in search of growth, advancement and fulfillment, we need to expand our scope of what is possible and what should be celebrated and admired.
It is with this sense of contemplation that I will be speaking at the Woman Up Conference on September 27th http://womanupconferences.com/. I look forward to joining other Western New York women who are eager to be part of our city’s Renaissance, to lend our collective talents and energies toward something better and brighter.
And beyond the Conference, in the months and years ahead, I look forward to many more stories about women of courage. Stories about perseverance, vision, and righting wrongs. Stories about the amazing women who deserve to be recognized, supported, and emulated. Stories that will help inspire us to reach our potential, and to have those critical conversations with our daughters and the future women of the world.
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.
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.
Of course you feel restless. You’re underutilized and undervalued, and you’re clearly not alone. Every day I meet women who are yearning to grow and stretch themselves, to use their gifts and talents to somehow make a difference. Whether searching for security, a better job or promotion, or simply trying to get their foot in the door, we are all collectively waiting, waiting for opportunity to present. But the trouble with waiting is it’s hard to stand still. Over time, frustration and disappointment can build, eventually wreaking havoc, damaging our careers and lives, leaving us wounded and weak.
This is what I worry about. Over the years I have seen countless women- competent, hard-working women- self-destruct around me. Ironically, their demise is often facilitated by the encouragement of their colleagues and friends who urge them to stand up for themselves, to assert their value and self-worth. Although well-intentioned, such advice can serve to amplify the damage that can come from feeling stuck, fueling the narratives of victimization and fragility that ultimately do us in.
When I see women self-destructing I yearn to yell STOP or SLOW DOWN, urging them to tackle their growth through a different lens. Of course I want to acknowledge their pain and frustration, to listen to their stories and affirm their worth. But more importantly I want them to realize that the very systems and organizations that they long to lead or contribute to are inherently insensitive to their own needs and talents that they’re trying to assert. To put it clearly, our systems are not about us or what have to offer. They are about limited opportunities, expectations and access. Virtually insensitive to talent, they are driven instead by changing priorities and parameters which are largely outside of our understanding or control. Opaque, complex, and riddled with roadblocks and dangers, their successful navigation takes wicked skills and composure, accessible only to those who have the social and economic capital to master their intricacies or endure the ride. Within these systems are nuanced rules that can change at any time. But almost uniformly, any hint of perceived weakness or fragility can shut opportunities down, leaving us feeling marginalized and victimized without even knowing what happened.
This is clearly bad news, and I’m sorry to be the one to deliver it. But frankly, I’m tired of going to women’s leadership conferences or reading books that suggest we must simply toughen up, lean in to the challenges, or set our aspirations higher. It is time we admit that the challenges and roadblocks that threaten our growth, both individually and collectively, are increasingly complex, subtle and nuanced, calling for sophisticated tools, frameworks, and support.
In addition to being smart and competent within our respective areas of focus, we need to be strategic, flexible, and resilient. And of course above all we need to be likable and pleasant to be around, regardless of the conditions or expectations we are expected to endure. These qualities are necessary for us to be successful, to be given opportunities to work and support our families, and to cultivate spheres of influence through which we can eventually (collectively) steward institutional change and community impact.
This last piece is absolutely critical, although many continue to suggest that our own individual security and needs must come first before we can set any larger humanitarian goals. With recognition that I approach these thoughts from a position of financial stability and privilege, I would like to test this assumption, suggesting that the act of expanding our lens beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs is a necessary ingredient for the type of growth and fulfillment that we crave and need. It is also a necessary ingredient for being strategic, nimble, and an effective leader- and indisputably necessary to save and change the very systems that threaten our collective future.
Despite varying levels of realization, the status quo is no longer an option. The new frontier is about ideation and generativity- expanding opportunities and creating new spaces and models toward greater impact and opportunity. In forging our new pathways we can draw from diverse disciplines and frameworks, cobbling together a new more comprehensive toolkit with which we can empower ourselves and one another to be more mindful, strategic, and resilient. The tools exist although it is up to us to recognize their value and commit to their utilization.
At the end of the day one simple truth continues to drive me; the indisputable fact that the world needs every drop of our collective talent. Talent remains THE natural resource, bubbling up around us waiting for us to recognize its value and applications. While I continue to look forward to the day that our systems are designed to develop, harvest and leverage talent in its most varied and resplendent forms, I know that it’s up to us to make it happen. Yes, the work ahead is more complex and challenging than we may have realized, but the benefits are also exponentially more profound.
I’ve always loved the New Year. The anticipation of things to come, new goals and aspirations, and the promise of growth and fulfillment- I get giddy just thinking about the possibilities. And yet, despite our dramatic chance to do something big and bold, we continually miss the mark, setting resolutions that are inherently underwhelming and even counter-productive, sending ourselves back down into the weeds from which we came.
If you follow my blog then you already know about the weeds. They are the scary dark regions of our inner world where we tend to go and stay. If you think of our minds as expansive networks of concepts, memories, and ideas that stretch out in all directions, the very lowest levels are the weeds. They are filled with personal and emotional details that are highly charged and interconnected. Once activated they quickly trigger related experiences and memories, creating a pin-ball effect that consumes our energy and resources, preventing us from accessing higher levels of thinking and decision making, and their associated benefits.
Higher is definitely better. Free of contextual details and hyper-connectivity, the higher levels allow us to think critically with emotional distance from the minutia that can paralyze our growth and deplete our resources.
But getting out of the weeds is tricky. Because our patterns and emotional triggers are so deeply ingrained, even as we inch our way up through positive choices and behaviors, one false move can send us back down, strengthening the very patterns that we’re trying to break. Like tendrils wrapping around our ankles, the only way out is to disconnect ourselves entirely, removing their source of sustenance and support.
Although the process can be challenging, the underlying logic is quite simple. To emerge from the weeds we must create powerful goals that are less specific and detail oriented, far enough away from the weeds that they’ll stretch us higher while mitigating the risk of falling back down. Finding the right goals takes some practice. Want to lose weight? This is too specific and risky, tied to past issues and emotional triggers. How about making healthier choices, or being stronger? You might have to clarify what these look like or mean. You might ask yourself why you want to be healthier, is it just for you or for the people you love? What example do you want to set? Who is the person you want to become? By doing this additional clarification work, you can create new associations and roots that are positive and powerful, moving you beyond your insecurities towards growth and actualization, even in the face of struggle or uncertainty.
This process is equally powerful for professional goals. Are you determined to get a better job, or to get paid more? Such commitments can enhance your vulnerability and unhappiness, leaving you at the mercy of uncontrollable forces or decisions. How about better utilizing your strengths, or finding ways to stretch or grow, or associate yourself with more positive and professional colleagues or initiatives? Any of these will open up spaces to move and gain satisfaction, which in turn will lead to new opportunities within or outside your current roles.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when you can feel yourself elevating, your energy and outlook moving higher and brighter. And while set-backs and bad days will continue to be inevitable, you’ll find yourself less responsive to their triggers. And eventually, when you barely notice them at all, you’ll know that you’ve truly emerged from the weeds, with nothing but expansiveness and possibilities ahead.
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.
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.