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?
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.
We have such a paradoxical relationship with change. On one hand we long for it, yearning for new opportunities and growth, and yet we often completely miss its inherent powers.
Two fundamental errors keep us in the dark.
First, we believe that change is driven by the boundaries. If we think of our lives as series of categorical shifts, it’s easy to see the categories themselves as the primary levers of change. New jobs, new relationships or homes- if we can achieve movement between categories, we assume the details will fall into alignment, like magnets propelling us forward or upward, creating stronger and more healthy patterns. Because of this belief, we either wait for opportunities to materialize or try to force change through giant leaps or starting over. But either way, we often miss the most powerful drivers of change, the millions of seemingly minute decisions and choices through which we can reset our interactions, behaviors, and perceptions toward more positive and meaningful results. These deceivingly powerful changes can ripple and reverberate around us, transforming not only our own experiences but also impacting those of others, in essence flipping our realities and catalyzing seismic change.
But while our individual choices are indeed powerful, they do not occur within a vacuum, which is why our second fundamental error is so dangerous. This is the false belief that we can somehow resist or protect ourselves from the change and flux that surround us. Without even knowing it, many of us cling to the status quo, manifesting a deep sense of rigidity, fear, or vulnerability. We surround ourselves with those who will maintain our illusion of control. And yet the truth is unavoidable. The world is constantly changing around us, including the people with whom we work and live, and our communities and systems that frame and support our lives. And although we may be able to temporarily ignore these changes or judge them as unacceptable or unfair, our long-term inability or refusal to adapt or respond will eventually leave us irrelevant and obsolete. For change will not stop, instead our worlds will simply flow around us.
Interestingly, these two errors- missing opportunities for internal change, and our lack of responsiveness to outward change- are both the source of our collective stuckness and the vehicle for growth and prosperity. By embracing the myriad choices and opportunities for growth and becoming more responsive and sensitive to the shifts and flows that contextualize our lives, we can become more nimble and effective, both as individuals and communities. And in doing so, we can enjoy greater fulfillment and connectedness along the way.
Clearly, this state of heightened responsiveness represents a new frontier that calls for the development of new sensitivities, tools, and paradigms. But at its core is the simple acceptance that nothing stands still. Every day brings infinite opportunities to fulfill our potential and touch souls with those around us toward a better and more actualized world.
What do you hope for your daughter?
I looked expectantly at my mother as she considered the interviewers’ question. I was a finalist for a Congressional scholarship that would send me to Germany for my junior year of high school. I had made it through the initial rounds, through essays, presentations, and competitive interviews. This should have been the easy part. I telepathically sent her pleading suggestions- “I hope she learns about different cultures…. I hope she comes back with special friendships….or memories to last a lifetime.” Any of these would have been appropriate, expected, and fine. But I knew my mother and accordingly held my breath.
“I hope she is humbled.”
Humbled, are you kidding me? At the time I was pissed. But I was also sick with mono, willing myself to make it through the interviews before collapsing in the car to sleep through the long drive back to Buffalo.
I ended up winning the scholarship and spent my year in Germany. It was a complicated year, at times wonderful and at others overwhelming, and according to my mother’s wishes, I was humbled. My adolescent narcissism was unable to survive the cultural transplant. There was no one to feed and nourish it, and instead of the adoration I had anticipated the mild curiosity with which I was received had been short-lived. And of course in my absence my family and friends had gone on without me, unscathed and obviously no worse for wear.
My humbling didn’t stop there. Despite complete confidence in my abilities and promise, I fell from grace as often as I approached it, trying to navigate the sharks and other carnivorous creatures that seemed to be continuously circling around my feet.
My humbling lasted for years, and although there is clearly still much more ahead of me, I feel as though I have finally gotten it- really gotten it. Like a character in a Greek tragedy literally destined to undo himself, we are all trapped by our own insatiable needs for appreciation, recognition, and esteem. In addition to being fickle, these are the worst kind of false friends, leading us on a path of self-destruction instead of the fulfillment we crave.
How wise of my mother to front-load my journey, breaking through my adolescent haze with a wish that although I was unable to understand let alone achieve, would stay with me as a trusted foil, slowly breaking my dependence in search of something more trust-worthy.
Clearly, I am no longer pissed at my mother for the wish she bestowed upon me so long ago. Ironically, like so many of her lasting impacts, she has absolutely no recollection of her words. But as I behold the young professionals around me who are fighting valiantly to gain appreciation and recognition for their own impressive talents and contributions, I cannot help but wax maternal and wish them the gift of being humbled.
Like modern cars with interconnected systems and computers, our lives- and careers- have become increasingly complex. Although our sensors are robust when it comes to signaling feelings of dissatisfaction, many of us lack the specialized tools for diagnosing specific issues and making the necessary adjustments to get us back on track.
Serving simultaneously as drivers and technicians of our own lives can seem daunting. But if we accept the importance of this duality, we must begin to assemble the appropriate tools that are designed specifically to address the nuanced ways in which we find ourselves stuck or off-track, and can lead us toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our current and future roles.
Through my background in Cognitive Psychology and my professional experience in Higher Education, I have come to understand the various heuristics or short-cuts in reasoning that can undermine our growth and satisfaction. Regardless of the merits or constraints of your professional situation, these limitations can collectively undermine success and happiness. Luckily they can all be addressed through a deliberate “reprogramming” process, but they are critical to recognize and bring into awareness before such progress can be made.
While I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, I will make an exception and provide more extensive details below. From my vantage point, the pervasiveness of “stuckness” in the workforce when coupled with the underwhelming job market makes these types of posts and strategies more important than ever, but I am curious to know whether readers are ready to embrace this type of assistance (see my request at the end of the post).
Consider the importance of labels in our lives. We give them to people, objects, and places, almost anything that can be described or categorized. We even label ourselves, describing our jobs, lifestyles, philosophies and political views. Labels fulfill many purposes. Although each of us experiences the world in slightly different ways, labels provide a sense of consistency across variation, allowing us to communicate, connect, and operate on common terms. They also allow us to make inferences and guesses, helping us to process information quickly and efficiently. Clearly, without labels life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with limited opportunity for reflection or sharing.
In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competencies extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeon-holing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.
While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations. Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.
The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.
Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation. At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. But be forewarned, doing so can upset the delicate balance of relationships and expectations, and should be implemented with caution.
In addition to constricting our space with narrow labels, we also set our gaze too low, forcing ourselves to stoop, eventually stunting our growth. Think of your mind as a web of interconnected layers of labels, concepts, and ideas. At the lowest levels are your actual experiences, things that are happening or have just happened- individual conversations, images, or thoughts. These low level experiences are highly personal, charged with emotional details and content connected in turn to other personal experiences that are similarly charged. As you travel higher in your web, you find more general and abstract labels, ideas, and beliefs that have fewer personal details. While lacking in emotional content, these higher level labels can offer rich guidance, helping us to understand complex situations and make strong decisions through reflection, reasoning, and higher order thinking.
In the professional realm our highest levels might include strategic priorities, mission aspects, or general beliefs about our work and what we do. This level tends to be the most resistant to change, regardless of new leadership or contextual influences, our highest level ideas serve as anchors providing us with consistency and guidance through periods of change and uncertainty. In the middle layers you might find strategic goals and objectives, or threats that are of immediate concern. And at the very bottom are our day to day meetings, activities, and interactions.
Of course each of your layers and networks combine and interconnect, making up a complex web of information, thoughts, ideas, and memories with various levels and sub-levels. As human problem solvers we have total access to this universe of connections. We can work from the top down or bottom up depending on our needs and situations. We can jump between layers and sub-layers, connecting disparate experiences, deepening our learning and understanding towards better decision making.
And yet despite this expansiveness, we tend to stay at the lower levels, focusing on immediate experiences that are emotionally charged while offering little insight. Just like junk food that gives us a quick fix but little else, these low levels perpetuate a hunger and craving for more stimulation. Just walk around a coffee shop, shopping mall, or other public venue and listen to the conversations of passers-by. You will hear play-by-play accounts of conversations and experiences, emanating with emotion and interpersonal drama. Since low-level details are emotionally charged, they easily trigger other experiences and past dramas, creating patterns and priming reactive responses. Although staying at this level can provide immediate validation and temporary relief, it does little to create movement or open the way toward greater growth and fulfillment. Instead, it keeps us stuck.
In the workplace, this tendency plays out in different ways, causing employees to perseverate on low-level tasks and activities without seeing the larger picture or goals. They may focus on being busy, seeking validation, looking for respect and growing frustrated when they feel undervalued or appreciated. Others may fixate on interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, complaining about how they are mistreated or about the toxic environment in which they work. Although people universally crave growth and respect, they often look to be given it through opportunities, titles, or responsibilities. And in doing so they may fail to access the universe of possibilities that surrounds virtually every choice and decision they make.
As problem solvers we are notoriously lousy at seeing the world through others’ perspectives. Researchers have long studied the limitations that accompany human cognition. Many of the classic studies focus on young children, who, depending on their specific developmental stages can make some surprising errors, being fooled by the way things look. They tend to focus on the most obvious dimensions, believing that a taller and thinner vessel contains more liquid than one that is squatter, or a stretched out row of pennies contains more money than one that is close together. As adults it’s easy to smile at these errors, dismissing them as endearing examples of children’s naivete and innocence. But the truth is that even adults get fooled by appearances, trapped by our own perceptions and perspectives.
How we view the world and the decisions we make are largely influenced by our personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds. What comes into our sensory systems in terms of images, sounds, or stimulation is interpreted by our minds which activate concepts and labels in our interconnected networks to give them meaning and context. Our languages help us make sense of the sounds through perceiving words and sentences; our religious and moral frameworks help us interpret right and wrong; and our individual cultures and families help us discriminate between opportunities and threats. Even though we understand at some level that others may have different views, we are quick to believe the veracity of our own interpretations and experiences, jumping to conclusions and diving back into the weeds.
Luckily there are some powerful ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives. They involve moving ourselves out of the lower layers to find more powerful frames and labels with which guide our insights and specific perceptions. We should recognize that is only through the understanding of others’ perspectives that we can adapt our own behavior and decision making to be maximally effective and impactful.
We expend a great deal of energy trying to preserve ourselves in all of our facets. We are wired to see threats, both literal, in the coming to attack you sense, but also more subtle emotional kinds. Once we perceive someone or something as bad or somehow “against us”, we begin to interpret their behaviors and actions through this lens, which in turn becomes highly charged and primed for activation.
Categories associated with dangers and threats are of a special kind. Even at the highest levels of our networks they elicit fear and strong emotional responses. Some have theorized that these labels are necessary for survival and are rooted in a fight or flight response. But regardless of their origins, they seem to have a uniquely loaded nature, heightening our negative reactions once ideas or labels are associated or connected. Another way of looking at this is through the idea of thresholds which are levels of activation necessary for a label to be “fired.” Although many high level concepts require significant thought and reflection to be accessed and understood, categories like danger, fire, or enemy activate more quickly and easily, as soon as a threat is perceived.
Because we exert a great deal of energy to preserve and feel good about ourselves, and our tendency to see the world through our own perspectives, we are likely to assign others to enemy-related categories in the face of conflict. Especially when we are engaging at our lower levels where emotions run high and thresholds low, we are quick to trigger the danger response. Unfortunately, once these labels are triggered, our openness shuts down, in essence turning of the lights and missing out on the other information and details that could lead to other decisions and perspectives.
In addition to danger-based labels, we all have other categories and frames that are easily triggered and activated. Some of us are especially sensitive about our appearance, our families, or some other characteristics that make us feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate. We might also bring perceived threats from our childhoods or pasts, situations that made us feel weakened or small, that set up permanent triggers that remain ready to be fired. Once triggered they result in a shutting-down or darkening, mobilizing our resources for self-protection and defense. In this mode little growth and movement can occur. In the next chapter we will explore techniques for guiding ourselves through perceived threats and dangers in order to maximize learning and maintain our movement. But for now we should begin to consider the power of threats and triggers and how they can force us to shut down in the face of perceived danger.
Confronting our Fears
Take a moment to put these tendencies together- too tight; too low; too close; and too dark. It’s not surprising that collectively they elicit negative feelings. In fact these same words could easily be used to describe a torture chamber befitting a horror movie, the idea of being trapped in a tight and dark chamber without room to stretch or breathe. This scenario automatically triggers feelings of vulnerability and helplessness and makes us long to turn on the lights, and escape from danger.
The irony is that when it comes to stuckness, we are all trapped by our own doing. The same systems that allow us to be constrained- the network of interconnected levels, labels, and ideas- will also allow us to move and grow. It is completely our choice to override our pre-programmed tendencies and stretch beyond. I am happy to share some new tools that can help us more fully utilize our systems toward greater movement and growth, if there is an interest. Please reply if you find these types of posts and information useful…..-Mara
We have a lot riding on success.
In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.
The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.
More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.
If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.
This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.
In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.
Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.