Growth Doesn’t Happen in the Weeds

statue

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?

Conjugating Power

Rothko

Having power; wielding power; feeling powerless; being powerful. My head spins with nuances and their implications.

Lately I’ve been inundated with articles, reports, and conversations about women and power. The data are concerning. Although women begin their careers ambitious and eager, their aspirations drop off precipitously, resulting in underrepresentation across sectors and systems. Even women at the very top of the proverbial food chain report feeling uncomfortable with power, suggesting that this currency which has featured so prominently in our collective aspirations is more complex than initially conceived.

Clearly, power remains important, lodged securely within the crossroads of access, influence, and impact, critical to the wellbeing of women and their families but also to the health and vibrancy of our communities and broader society. As a cognitive psychologist I always return to the principles of problem solving and the way we define our most intractable challenges. So often our inability to move the needle on complex social issues lies in a lack of clarity regarding what we are seeking or rejecting in the long and short-term. Without clarity we remain muddled, poking around at the edges, trapped in a state of perpetual dissonance.

If we agree to go deeper, examining our core definitions of power, we confront its most standard form-the notion of acquisition, power obtained by virtue of position, influence or wealth. As one gets closer to power, rising in influence and authority, its attributions become clearer. We see that power is fragile and ephemeral, needing to be maintained and protected at all times. And by virtue of its possession it sets its owner apart, creating distance and otherness as it waits to be used or wielded toward some personal gain.

Rather than attracting us as women, these attributes have a repelling effect, especially for those of us drawn to the virtues of balance, humility, and more progressive notions of success and fulfillment. So although we may hear the call to lean in or power through, we can’t help but pause, sensing, knowing that there is something inherently restrictive or wrong about committing or submitting to this flawed ideal.

But clearly this version of power is not the only available form. Instead of acquisition we can choose its manifest state, being powerful instead of possessing it. This deceivingly simple variation yields dramatically different attributions, stretching the space around us as we expand our reach and impact, radiating positivity and purpose. Unlike having power, being powerful is not tied to a position or wealth, or inherently limited to a particular sphere or domain. We can be powerful in all aspects of our lives, as mothers, leaders, friends, or professionals. And the state of being powerful is not given to us and cannot be taken away. It is neither ephemeral nor limited, but instead lasting and contagious, spreading to those we touch and with whom we interact.

It is time we finally get comfortable with power. But in doing so we should resist the urge to simply accept the old and limited version that we know is neither fulfilling nor sufficient. Let’s take the time and effort to clarify the type of power that we seek and need. It is ultimately through this process that we will forge a new and better path forward.

Limits to Leaning in

outside

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.

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.

Expanding the Jobs Space: Women and the New Frontier

There are not enough jobs. Despite workforce development programs, re-education efforts, and reported growth sectors, there are simply not enough meaningful opportunities for all who seek them.

I am painfully aware of this fact, especially when I help individuals apply for jobs. As we tighten their resume and reframe their experiences, we are in essence trying to win opportunities from others who are equally deserving.

This notion of competition for limited opportunities serves as the very foundation of the job market and the pipelines that feed it. It’s a notion that is inherently self-limiting.

When I play my favorite game of imagining the best case scenario, in this case every job that is posted in the local employment ads filled, and ask myself whether it would be enough, the answer is a resounding no.

Through the lens of community development our situation becomes even more frustrating. The existing space of job openings is neither necessarily nor sufficiently tied to strengthening our communities.

And so while we are trying unsuccessfully to tackle one problem- underemployment- we are ignoring the deeper and more systemic problems of community development and sustainability.

We need to expand the jobs space. There is no other way. We need to create new opportunities for people to contribute and earn. But ideally, many of these new opportunities should have positive impacts on the community- by design.

How do we do this?

We can expand space by building new models that make services accessible to the public, while also creating awareness and interest in their value- thus expanding the market.

There are many examples of services that are ripe for expansion. Mediation, the healing professions, consulting- all process related services that help individuals and organizations function at their best toward the greatest impact. And although practitioners exist within our communities, they are currently competing for a very limited audience that recognizes the value and can pay for their services.

But by educating and promoting the value, by coming together to form workshops, consortia, and well promoted events, we can actually create more spaces and opportunities for jobs, providers, and variations to emerge.

You can see this trend in the world of education where consultants and specialists can help with virtually any aspect of curriculum design, support, or reform. Since schools and districts can pay for these services through grants and other available funding sources, a rich market of vendors has emerged, expanding the space for new providers and paradigms.

Once a market is established growth and diversification will come.

Every day, I meet talented individuals ready to work and contribute to their communities but unsure how to find their way. The fact that most of these individuals are women suggests a unique opportunity for new models to be developed and customized.

Can these services make money and create jobs? Absolutely. But they can also result in stronger and healthier communities that value the contributions and wellbeing of all their citizens.

Clearly, this is a new frontier worth exploring.

The Trouble With Being Invisible

invisible_woman

Before I became a wife and mother I was told that if I did my job really well, no one would even know that I was doing it. By sensing the imbalances and needs of my family, I would smooth out the tensions and serve as the glue that would hold everyone together. To be happy, I would have to find satisfaction in the knowledge that I was effective, and not rely on external appreciation or accolades that were unreliable, at best.

As a young woman I accepted this advice as truth and began my silent and largely invisible service as a steward of family harmony. And after leaving an assistant professor position for something more family friendly, my contributions as a professional staff member quickly began to feel shadowy and unseen. And once again while I knew I was highly effective, I quickly became invisible to the (largely male) leadership surrounding me.

Between the worlds of vision and coordination are layers of process and implementation that serve as the life blood of organizations and programs. They are fed by teams of competent and talented professionals who are able to flex and pivot, applying their skills to constantly changing contexts and environments often with little direction or support. These individuals -often women- serve as the proverbial glue, ensuring stability and balance even in the face of uncertainty and dysfunction.

As a seasoned veteran I have learned to survive – and perhaps even thrive- in this environment. Despite a constantly changing landscape and cast of players, I am able to reframe my goals and leverage my relationships, weathering uncertainty and providing myself with the clarity that I need.

But when I look at the young professionals around me I have a growing concern about their invisible status and the implications for both their growth and well being. Because leadership is often unaware of staff’s talents, contributions, and the critical role that they play within the larger context, they are left virtually unprotected and vulnerable. And as institutions struggle to remain competitive and viable, strategic goals and targets begin to substitute for mission and vision, with all individuals becoming disposable- especially those who are unseen.

As someone who is watching this scenario unfold I can tell you that it’s alarming on a number of levels. For the individual it can be devastating- threatening one’s self-esteem and sense of identity and self. But for the institutions that they silently serve, the implications are even more profound. When these individuals become dejected, or even worse eliminated, the culture and outputs of the organization are weakened and lessened with little chance of redress or remediation.

Clearly, it is time to bring these invisible professionals and their work- our work- into the light. For those of us lucky enough to have security and perspective, our responsibility is even more pronounced. We must find our voices and the skills to demonstrate our value and the roles that we can play, creating new spaces and new opportunities for professionals to make their contributions and help us achieve harmony and impacts as well as success.

When I look back at the advice given to me so long ago, I now know that it was both dated and incomplete, attached to old-fashioned models that have proven neither sustainable nor fulfilling. It is time for us to finally emerge from the shadows, owning our impact and supporting one another as a true community of professionals.