Saturday, November 26, 2016

Get busy

"Do you ever think about dying?" a friend asked today which stands in contrast to recent thanksgiving holiday conversation spent chatting about martinis and dead plants. Yes, I'm aware that we're all going to die sometime sooner than we'd like; however, I'm not as worried about dying as I am about living.

I once had a bucket list in my early twenties. In making it I realized I was better off tossing the list for some deep work on a few things. 

In the movies the villains are identified by their lack of humanity and self-serving ways; they don't need much. Villains roam about alone with every pleasure met and in command, until they are not. Life too tends to celebrates aloofness and the fruits of self-control from graduation to promotion to physical commitments. It's easy to forget that the self-serving ways and lack of humanity toward others is what does in the bad guys. That and stagnation, the refusal to grow or change. 

"Get busy living or get busy dying," said someone, Red I think, in "Shawshank Redemption." The world shakes you up, swishes you around, and spits you out. It should change something in you or at least make you want to hang on to whoever's next to you. If you keep pulling back from others, letting go, you might be busy dying. If your hands are full from encouraging and holding others, well, you might just be busy living. I aim to live like I might die in the sense that I need to be kinder, softer, and more, well, more connected. 

Connection interests me because it's at the heart of community, vitality, and it relies upon openness, trust, and an inner resilience that springs from a faith in fellow beings as helpers, encouragers, and as vectors of good. Connection is hard, it can hurt. It's scary because it makes you vulnerable, but shutting yourself off doesn't work so great either. We don't always get to be givers. Sometimes we have to receive. Ask for help. If this feels hard, then this definitely applies to you. If you're of the opposite camp, always in need of help, go help someone else.

That crack in your heart that we are all so busy protecting, yeah, somebody is going to jump on that, let it be a springboard to something good instead of a pit into a vast darkness. Death isn't exactly waiting for you to eat the salmon mousse. A little sunshine, some patience, some quiet time- ask someone to rub your feet, you'll be just fine and better for asking for it or for giving it, just get busy, living. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016


I have voted absentee ballot most of my life. When I first lived on Capitol Hill in  DC, I was eating dinner at a local pub when the election results started coming in. Young hill staffers were sitting at tables with cups of beer watching the election results. As victories and losses were announced, staffers would groan, knowing they were facing job loss. Eventually shouts and calls ensued, with, “Who’s hiring!?” There are loses in every election.

After this election it occurred to me that for a long time, there has been a portion of our population that has felt left out- left out of jobs, of growth, of opportunity. Look around, you are in Appalachia where a lot of poor white people have felt left out for a long time. I’m starting to think that Trump's appeal is about populism, about standing against a political machine, and, unfortunately, I surmise that the Democrats populist candidate (Bernie) was out maneuvered by the political machine which left only one outsider, Trump.

What if Trump's election is not about his social policy, but about standing up to the political machines that have only paid lip service to those who have been left out?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

When to Walk Away...

A recent experience with collaboration left me feeling frustrated, though, coordination, not true collaboration, gets closer to the interactions. The group adhered to Robert’s Rules, but we did not talk much outside of the meetings. There was little knowledge of each other, and we had no discussion of ground rules, priorities, or specific goals for the work we were doing. As the year evolved, we had less and less trust and no place for feedback. At one point when ideas were brought forth for discussion, instead, accusations vented momentary frustration and caused irreparable damage.

How to collaborate? My “to read” pile proffered help from Dan Sanker’s Collaborate! The Art of We.

Turns out, it’s a good idea to spend time getting to know each other, building trust and mutual understanding, writing down goals and measures for success, and establishing communication protocols. Ground rules for constructive feedback include focusing on ideas, not the person. It’s helpful to have leadership that has the ability to see the big picture and has the ability to tolerate intense exchanges of ideas and opinions without withdrawing or becoming defensive, thus avoiding the shouting match/accusation mess endured in the above experience.

What can group members do in these situations?

Executives are the ones to set up the ground rules, agenda, and goals. It falls to them to articulate this and leaves the non exec in the weak position of asking non-threatening questions or throwing out reminders of why we are gathered. Without trust, specific goals, or a place for feedback, the best tact is retreat. If the group dissolves, hopefully, a new, more collaboratively minded group will step in.

Individually, it helps to be self-reflective, work on our interpersonal skills, and contribute to the mindset of how we can work together which includes things like treating one another with respect, listening to one another, being honest, honoring commitments, and sharing the blame when things go wrong.

I stuck out the group and tried to focus on the reason I was there. In retrospect, I would advise myself differently. It takes a toll to be part of something unhealthy, and it tends to draw you down. If you’re involved in a collaboration or group work in which there is not a discussion of the group’s goals, a reminder of what’s been accomplished, what work needs to be done, lacks written communication, allows negative comments to block the flow of ideas, walk away.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Licked by a Tiger

The soft probing lips of a camel nuzzles my cheek and sends tingling sensations allover my surprised body, confounded by the sensory overload.  The wet sandpaper lick of a cat offers a sense of intimacy that makes me both pull back and fall into it with giggles and pleasure. The tiger's stealthily approach and giant tongue that goes up one side of my face and down the other, sends neurological synapses firing from my brain to my toes in wave patterns; I brace for the claws. The teeth. They never come. The overwhelming physical and emotional violation of this kind of intense engagement is hard to explain to both the tiger or others, unless they too have been reared or loved by one. My mother-in-law loved in this intense fashion.

The cost of loving like a wild beast is that some will fear you even as you learn to relax and accept it. As I grew more confident as a daughter-in-law and later as a mother, I was able to better appreciate that my mother-in-law loved me in her way. Still, I had to manage the intensity of her love, every time, and I spent a lot of time avoiding the licks of the tiger.

I often wished that she could have adjusted her approach to love to something that wasn't so overwhelming, so daunting. I was certain that she had never been told, but the truth is she could never hear it. No one can tell the tiger anything but perhaps the young, the pure of heart. My daughter once told her grandmother, in her firm child voice, "No. I don't like that Mimi." My husband and I looked up, curious. The look on Mimi's face was priceless, of shock, but then it gave way to a breaking smile. No one but the wee one dared to tell her no.

The child took the licks and earned the right to say no to the requests. Never the licks. Childhood is a time of intense relationship building, of intimate bonding, but as we grow, the need to connect to the wider, broader world, increases.

Those intense, well-meaning, licks, kept us isolated and apart. The tiger never learned and neither did I. Consider this. Anytime your licks create walls or gates to go up, you are making it harder to become one, to bring others together.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Gift of the Messenger

I have a theory that books can save lives, mine in particular. I think that the magic book or words will appear when needed. It's the middle of the night, but I'm in need of some saving so I open my Kindle and find this:

"Sure burnout comes from not taking care of yourself and burning the candle at both ends, but, more often, burnout comes from one or a combination of the following: 1. Lack of connection to purpose in what one’s working on, resulting in boredom, disinterest, and apathy 2. Lack of connection to people; not feeling seen or cared for, and not having a shared sense of purpose 3. Lack of celebration, appreciation, and acknowledgment for wins (little or big) 4. Lack of safety for vulnerability, creative expression, and authenticity 5. Lack of a reboot and recovery between projects or trips 6. Lack of empowerment and accountability, and not being and feeling well used 7. Lack of intention, presence, and therefore boundaries." 
-Anese Cavanaugh, Contagious Culture

A few pages later there is this example that brought into focus the discrepancy of views of the same problem between a leader and the team.

"In their eyes, Jackie swooped in constantly, disempowered her team, made them feel inadequate, and then turned into a martyr at sunrise. It didn’t feel good. Let’s play it out. Jackie had unintentionally written herself into the role of hero in that no one else could do the job but her. (But the team was actually highly capable—the team members just needed clear communication and direction.) She then quickly stepped into the role of perpetrator, energetically blaming and judging the team for not being capable, and taking opportunities away from team members. (They felt small, judged, and robbed of experience.) And then she fell victim to being overwhelmed. Because she was so overwhelmed, she was often late to meetings, didn’t respond to e-mail, and left meetings early. Her team members felt she thought she was more important than all of them. By not speaking up, the team members had played right into the cycle with their own story, making the cycle even stronger. The fix was simple. The team members gave feedback (with care) and then made requests. Jackie owned her impact and made amends. Then they all redesigned agreements for how they’d move forward together. There was no drama. Just accountability. We write ourselves into roles every."  
- Anese Cavanaugh, Contagious Culture 

No drama? That's out of my hands. With care? I need more information here because I put a lot of thought into the message, and it exploded big, fat, and ugly. Screaming, "The messenger is not the message," is of little use. It dawns on me, this problem is as old as time.

Messengers get shot or need to run fast. 

The message is only relevant if you search inside yourself, and it sticks. Soul searching has a way of making us better human beings if we do it honestly, and no one wants to tell you this stuff because it's hard. It's uncomfortable. Listen. Listen deep in your heart. I'm trying to help you. It's a gift to get a message like this, one that makes you wince, yes, but if you use it... 

Use the message to make you better, not to shoot me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


"If your work is not having the desired effect, you must look at it from all angles until you find the source of the problem. You must not merely observe the rivals in your field, but dissect and uncover their weaknesses. “Look wider and think further ahead” must be your motto."

Sunday, March 13, 2016

An Evolution of Happiness

I just want you to be happy.
Thanks Mom. 

That felt like a ton of bricks when I went off to college. I didn’t know what would make me happy. I thought I was alone in this particular confusion, that I was born this way. There's some truth to this. Researchers at the University of Minnesota studied identical twins separated at birth and found that half of our happiness is hard wired; it’s in our genes. I’m a fairly serious, randomly funny, person that lives a messy life full of distractions, pot holes, and time warps. I would not say that I’m gentically programmed to be extremely happy, but I get that I, and you, are uniquely, genetically endowed- no other snowflake is like me or you. I thought happiness was follow this path to a good job and have a family on this timeline. However, who knew that learning the how and what it is that makes me, specifically me, happy would be so hazy.

Sometime in the mid two thousands with small babies in the house, my husband came in crowing about having heard the secret to happiness on the radio. I cocked my head.

It’s not what you think. It’s not the lottery, a powerful job, or money.
It’s two children under two?
It’s how close you live to your job!

A study had found that proximity or living close to your job, a short commute, was the key to happiness. At the time, we lived in Washington, DC, where no matter where you live, it takes forever to get where you need to go. A frustrating commute could turn a sane person crazy. From DC we would visit Athens and marvel that we could get anywhere in town in less than fifteen minutes. That moment was the set up for our intention to live some place that we could readily traverse.

My next external happiness clue came from a National Geographic story about the Blue Zones where pockets of longevity were studied that included, Loma Linda, CA, Sardinia, Italy, and Okinawa, Japan. Diets varied from vegan to Mediterranean, required no unusual exercise regimens beyond natural activities like walking but all of them had faith, family, and social networks that supported healthy behaviors. Happiness again seemed to be partly about location, a community having certain things in it.

The Harvard Grant Study which looked at a group of Harvard undergraduates over a seventy-five year period concluded that the best predictor of happiness is not the perfect job, not money, health, nor good looks, it's relationships. All you need is love.

Ok, so love and location.

The thing was, I was married, with kids, but I mostly wished I had some space, another location, from all that relating, love. Space to think in complete sentences. I missed my job where people listened to me, paid me money, and did what I said. I missed that, but not all of it, not the fifteen hour days, not eating takeout most nights, and not the just work, work, work. I wanted a better handle on my commute, my community, but also on my day to day life. I wanted to cook my own dinner. Read more books. There was something else I couldn't quite put my finger on. What else? Some big goal?

Research says one off events like getting a dream job or moving to Athens impact happiness but that these kinds of huge goals dissipate quickly which bring us to the ongoing twelve percent rooted in valuing faith, family, community, and work. 

I attend church regularly, I meditate occasionally, I work in the community frequently, and that family it keeps on loving me whether I’m happy or not, but work? Not eighty hour weeks that give us health problems. It’s co workers those social connections, but it’s also rewarding work. 

Rewarding work?

Rewarding work is about earned success, and you define how you earn this success- sales? Students taught? School lunches changed? Stories written? Films made? If you can discern your own project and discover the currency you value, work will be rewarding.

The pursuit of happiness is about discerning what makes you happy, but that is a kind of slippery thing. You have to notice what excites you. What do you love? What fuels your interest over time? Pay attention to what excites you. Notice your taste. Pay attention to your attention. I'll steal a line from Ira Glass, What make your world seem bigger, like a world you want to live in? A world with surprise? Joy? Then you have to learn to throw up the question, what's amusing to you? You have to figure out how to do this from where you are doing the work you do... so choose wisely. 

It's in your choices that you'll find your happiness, but you'll have to choose what makes you happy again and again and again. Happiness evolves.