Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

Telling Compelling Stories about our Experiences and Achievements

One of the hardest things for people to talk or write about is themselves, and why they are uniquely well suited for a particular opportunity or honor. I have been noting this challenge at the University as I work with some of our most outstanding students. Despite the fact that they have so much to offer- travel, research, academics, the whole package- they often blank when asked to write a personal statement or to be interviewed about their experiences. Invariably, they insist that they’re not good at talking about themselves or bragging about their achievements. And yet ironically, they have spent so much of their time and effort collecting these very accomplishments.

Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re all in such a hurry. Students rush through high school trying to get into college, and then once in college we hurry them through as quickly as possible in an effort to save them money and get them into the work force. In our haste, perhaps we are failing to support their critical reflection- namely, helping them understand and articulate what it is that they’ve experienced and accomplished, what they can offer that is uniquely theirs. And yet, these are the very skills that will move them to the next level, allowing them to create and secure opportunities for growth, advancement and expansion. And perhaps most importantly, these are the skills that will help them self-correct when they find themselves in positions and situations that no longer connect with their cores values, interests or goals.

How can we help students get better at talking about themselves and their experiences? (Although intended for students, these techniques can be used by anyone for virtually any opportunity or goal.)

  1. Begin by listing the categories of skills and competencies that are of critical importance to your intended audience. You can usually find these in the specific posting but I encourage you to dig deeper. Look at reports, press pieces, or profiles of individuals who have held the position/opportunity (or similar position/opportunity) in the past. Allow yourself to imagine the perfect recipient/employee or candidate. What types of categories of skills and competencies would they possess and why are these important given the demands/honors of the opportunity of interest?
  2. Once you have a good list, allow yourself to reflect on your own positions, experiences and achievements and begin to note these under the specific categories with which they correspond. While you can start with specific responsibilities or activities, also note actual experiences that connect with these- both good and bad. Allow yourself to reflect around these experiences and note any big lessons, developments or growth. Ask yourself, “why was it important, what did I learn, and how did it impact me or those around me?” Keep going with this exercise until you have an extensive outline of key skills, experiences and competencies that you can reference and expand upon. Hopefully, at this point you can take some satisfaction in noting the abundance of experiences upon which you can draw.
  3. Now it’s time to look for patterns. Everyone has unique patterns that help describe the ways they approach choices in life and work. Patterns often reveal themselves over time and diversity of experiences. Once you can recognize and articulate these, they can be extremely helpful in telling compelling stories about you and what you will bring to any particular opportunity, along with how you will respond to challenging situations or contexts. Consider using critical questions to help reveal your defining patterns. What drives you? How do you define growth or success? How do you add value to challenging contexts? Consider how these patterns have propelled you on your path and have led to your current interest in this particular opportunity.
  4. The fourth step is perhaps the most important. It involves flipping your lens and focusing not on yourself and your accomplishments, but instead on what you can uniquely contribute to the potential employer, organization, opportunity, or broader community via your efforts. Through succinctly articulating how your unique skill set and experiences can complement and benefit the recipient, you can assure the decision makers that you have strong potential and are worthy of their investment.

Once you have worked through these exercises, allow yourself to practice talking about your experiences in relation to your signature patterns and sense of broader impacts/contributions. You can move between these levels of reflection, making connections, bringing up specific examples/evidence, but always tying it back to the specific opportunity and what you have to offer.

The most exciting aspect of helping students master these skills, is seeing them discover and internalize their signature patterns for the first time. There is something quite powerful in recognizing the unique ways in which we approach our lives and work. When these patterns resonate strongly with employers and the needs of the world around us, we feel empowered and more confident, and begin to seek out opportunities and choices that further strengthen our potential contributions. It is when these internal and external narratives strongly align that we can be our most impactful.

Growth Doesn’t Happen in the Weeds

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As I talk with women from diverse backgrounds and professions, the notion of “the weeds” seems to resonate universally.

The weeds are a highly emotional place, a vast and interconnected tangle of thoughts, memories, and experiences. Charged with  emotion and fear, the weeds are highly sensitive. Once triggered, they ricochet us through patterns and responses, leaving us wounded and depleted as we struggle to regain our sense of balance and control.

Not surprisingly, growth doesn’t happen in the weeds. And yet that’s exactly where many of us find ourselves. Sent there by tragedy, crisis, relationships, and even complacency- almost any life or work event can serve as a trigger.

Over the years, I have developed an acute sensitivity to the weeds. I experience them as creeping vines, wrapping around our ankles or torsos. I can often sense their shadow as they approach- thoughts of self-doubt or defensiveness, a tightening in the throat or stomach. And in others, they manifest as a darkness, draining both energy and light.

From a cognitive standpoint, the weeds represent the lowest levels of our thinking. Laden with details and context, they keep us trapped in our emotions with little room for reflection or insight. But if we are able to leave the weeds behind, we can travel higher in our systems, entering a universe of concepts and ideas. Unlike the closely knitted tangles of emotions, these constructs are expansive and dynamic, able to be nested, stacked, and rearranged as we build and reconfigure our understanding of ourselves, our work and our worlds.

The cognitive differences between the weeds and higher thinking cannot be exaggerated. It’s like comparing the most innovative playground to the rings of Hell. But escaping from the weeds is neither easy nor intuitive. By definition, it involves getting away from danger but also finding something  safer. In simple terms, breaking free from the emotionality of the weeds is only part of the solution. We must at the same time embrace the benefits of higher thinking, pulling ourselves upward through textured goals, commitments, and thought patterns. Imagine yourself on a climbing wall, searching for constructs to grab onto as you lift your feet higher.

The good news is that it’s all within our reach, and interest in this new frontier seems to be building. With every month, I’m being asked to speak about these and strategies with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. From companies wanting to provide their associates with tools to reach and dream higher, to women looking for opportunities for advancement, and organizations focused on community impacts, we seem to be collectively yearning for growth and expansion. Perhaps this is an area that is ready to be developed and cultivated. Perhaps the time has finally come for cognitive redesign.

As someone who has studied and thought about these ideas for over thirty years, I am excited and eager to share my strategies and insights. But I am also mindful of the paradigm shift that this approach represents. I’m curious to hear my readers’ thoughts and feedback. Does this notion of the weeds resonate with you? And are we really ready to embrace a more generative approach to growth and advancement?

Unstuck

The state of being stuck is depleting. When we are unable to move, to stretch our talents and actualize our potential, we become frustrated and demoralized. Like car wheels spinning in the snow, our ruts grow ever deeper as we exhaust our resources  yearning for change.

If our individual stuckness is a condition, then our collective paralysis is epidemic. As individuals we may feel restless and underutilized, but as we expand our lens outward, the implications become even more profound. When people are underutilized their talents go untapped. But when the systems that are designed to develop, support, and connect talent to the bigger world, are themselves stuck and out of alignment, our communities become dangerously compromised. And since the world and surrounding contexts in which we live and work continue to change at an accelerating rate,  vulnerabilities become further strained, necessitating increasingly more resources to hold it all together.

Despite what we tell ourselves, stuckness is not an inherently temporary state. Instead, it becomes its own point of stability, making our lack of movement increasingly difficult to budge. Because it exists across so many levels and systems from micro to macro, change does not automatically transfer or morph into larger areas. And as we become increasingly frustrated with our state of stuckness, anger and emotion can exacerbate our patterns, resulting in polarization of perspectives and further deepening our collective dysfunction.

But the good news is that change is within reach. The very condition of being stuck offers directionality for getting unstuck.  And the fact that our condition manifests itself at so many levels, translates into multiple access points and lenses through which we can redesign. At the individual level we can identify points of fragility and leverage, re-engineering our approaches for greater movement and alignment. Or instead, we can begin by envisioning a more nimble and actualized version of ourselves, then working backwards to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. Or conversely, we can begin with our larger systems or social infrastructures, imagining fully functioning communities and societies and identifying the associated processes and structures that would allow us to thrive and contribute.

This exercise of mapping upwards and downwards, from macro to micro, will lead us through multiple paradigms and domains. From education to healthcare, to workforce and social support structures, all systems interconnect and weave to create the communities we seek to build, and the individuals who will live in and support them. Since our stuckness does not exist in isolation, but instead permeates virtually every facet of society, we need to be maximally flexible in our solutions. Luckily, there are so many toolkits and paradigms from which to choose. From engineering and architecture, to technology and computers, cognitive science, business and strategic planning, and even spiritual realms, each offers a unique perspective and agenda.  But collectively they all embrace the idea of shaping and redesigning structures and processes to actualize goals and potential. And through the mere act of broadening our lens to look at stuckness in its entirety, we gain access to the full range of design metaphors. Let’s face it, we can no longer rely on the art of specialization for our future viability.  Instead, we need to knit these frameworks together toward a maximally robust and powerful approach.

Clearly, it’s hard work ahead, but do not be daunted. The benefits of nimbleness and flexibility are far greater than we could ever imagine. Whether you are focused on your own professional growth, or building healthier businesses or communities, we all have a part to play in a much bigger system- either one that is strong and robust or deeply dysfunctional.  And as we ready ourselves for the year ahead, we should ask what the world- our world- would look like if we were all unstuck, moving within our full range of motion, with not a drop of talent wasted or untapped.

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.