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rediscovering our spark for imagination, learning, & thinking about things differently

The War On Play

Why is there a war being fought against play?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.

I hear it when I talk to friends about the near-constant stresses of their work. The fear of taking time off only to see the mountain of work upon their return. The endless cycle of meetings where conversation tends to focus on the tactical, on the execution, on the pressure to get shit done NOW. If I would ask, “But did you get to actually play today?” they would look at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. And for good reason…we’ve pretty much separated the ideas of work and play in our current economy.

I truly believe we can and must reconnect work and play if our organizations are going to succeed.

Yes, it’s an uphill battle and the latest employee engagement statistics don’t offer much reason for optimism. And we’re not exactly helping our kids see the connection, either. I witness this every day when my children bring piles of homework from school. Just this past weekend, my daughter probably had four or five hours of personal time. The other remaining hours were devoted to projects, studying, and various other work. She, and so many other children, are suffering a deficit of play.

It’s almost as if our educational system is saying, “Get used to it kids. We’re preparing you for the real world where work is first. Life is just that thing that fills in the odd spaces.”

Why do we believe this is okay? Why have we decided that we need far less time to play, create, and wonder? Why do we regard learning as this intensely serious undertaking instead of the playful possibility it can be? Is this a reason we see so many more instances of depression and anxiety among adults and teens today?

Maybe it’s because as much as we like to believe we value creativity, we really don’t know how to handle it…in our businesses and in our schools.

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Let’s Love Experts Again

Experts have been getting such a bum rap lately. It seems no one likes them and no one (at least who is reputable) wants to be considered one anymore. There are even some who believe they’re on their way to extinction.

It’s easy to understand why. Because they’re always in your face telling you how smart they are and how their way is the only way to do something. And all this bullshit is usually backed up with actual expertise that has about as much depth as a kiddie pool…or blasted at you by an ego roughly the size of the Grand Canyon. Never mind that they act like Moses just back from a tête-à-tête with God complete with stone tablet in hand.

But I’m here to preach a different gospel. I argue the true experts – the ones who know and value their own worth – will humbly submit what works fantastically for them and show others how they got their results. They don’t cast about with “should’s” and “must’s” and “do as I say’s.” Instead, they offer suggestions knowing that every situation varies and what works well in one place and time might not work nearly as well in another.

Put simply, it’s the difference between dragging and leading. A pseudo-expert feels they need to drag everyone to their truth. A true expert believes in their value and will lead anyone seeking new learning to their own experience.

Don’t be afraid to be an expert. Let’s show these pseudo-expert dimwads what true expertise looks like so maybe folks will trust and respect experts again.

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The Perils Of Psychic Claustrophobia

I tend to have some interesting phobias, but they’re probably not uncommon to those experienced by other folks. For most of my life, I’ve been afraid of spiders. Here’s where it gets interesting…not all spiders. For instance, I really like tarantulas. I guess its because they’re kind of like giant fuzzy caterpillars (you know, the brown and black kind that you commonly find crawling up trees and along porch rails) only with eight big legs. And I love Spider-Man. On the other hand, I can’t stand the ones with long spindly legs like black widows and argiopes. I find them fascinating, but the thought of having one touch me sends a cold shiver running through my body.

Another phobia that I seem to have is linked to small, tight spaces. I remember my one time doing some cave exploration in high school, I found myself in a confined area trying to squeeze through and all I could think was “what if I get through, but can’t get back out?” Well, that was my last spelunking adventure.

[An aside…as I get older, I realize that many of my fears are irrational and the quickest (but definitely not easiest) way to overcome them is to confront them head on. Perhaps there’s more there for me to consider. Okay, back to the original point]

This weekend is a holiday and my wife decided to take the girls to visit her parents. This left me alone in my home for the first time in quite a while, and it has been a wonderful time. It’s not so much the quiet as it is the isolation that has been rewarding. The past two days have allowed me the chance to review all that has been going on in my life the past few months, to realize that the critical problems I’ve been facing at work are not insurmountable, to reorient myself back toward my north star – the very philosophy that defines how I choose to bring myself to my work and my life.

I realize now that I had been suffering a type of psychic claustrophobia where problems at work and home had closed in on me leaving me constricted and struggling for breath. I desperately sought an exit. Little did I know how simple the solution could be. For me, it was some temporary freedom from many of my other roles: father, husband, manager.

This is what works for me. If you’re finding that nothing seems to be fitting into place like it once did, perhaps its time for a retreat of your own. We each have a different breaking point and a different idea for retreat. And it won’t permanently solve the problem. In retreat, there’s work that must still be done. It might not be isolation that’s needed, but time with a good friend. Whatever it is, be good to yourself and find what your mind, body, and soul need.

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Lost Is Just A State Of Mind

Yesterday afternoon, I flew into Manchester, NH and rented a car to drive down to Nashua where I’m spending the night. I had my Google-mapped trajectory all laid out, but shortly after leaving the rental car lot I must have made a wrong turn somewhere. This became clear when the two lane road started winding through some truly beautiful country beside the Merrimack River.

There are some folks who would freak out if they discovered they were lost in a strange place. I’ve never felt that way. Honestly, I’ve been known to seek out occasions to get lost and see if I can find my way out (oh, and by the way, I’m a typical guy when it comes to asking for directions – I don’t). This instance was no different. While there were no distinguishable road signs cluing me in on where I was going, I knew I was heading south toward Nashua.

Along the way, I started to ponder what lost really is. Sometimes we talk about what it is to be lost, but is it actually a state of being? Or rather, is it a state of mind? We may not always know where we are and we may not always know exactly where we’re going. And yet, whether we determine that we’re lost is in our own minds. It just might be that where we are and where we’re going will lead us to where we need to go. It’s opening ourselves up to the universe and a greater power to guide us. And along the way, we might see some really neat scenery or discover a cool little roadside vegetable stand. As J.R.R. Tolkien writes, "Not all those who wander are lost."

Consider chucking the maps and the GPS once in a while. Put away those books written by the various gurus and experts. What would happen if you developed a more intimate relationship with your own intuition and instincts? It just might be that you know exactly where you are and the place you’re heading…if only we’ll ask ourselves for direction.

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The Importance Of A Liberal Arts Education

One of my pet passions is helping liberal arts college students integrate the full college experience and build a solid portfolio for the upcoming world of work. The reason for this passion is that I wish someone had helped me do this throughout my collegiate days. I was a history major and approached my choice with love and fascination, but also with a certain anxiety as to what in the hell I would do with it once I stepped on the other side of graduation. Work in a museum? Go to grad school? What does a wandering historian do?

And that was part of the problem…I felt like since I was trained for being a historian, that was what I was. I internalized my subject as a part of my identity. Perhaps folks like advisors and professors did make it clear that I was actually being taught valuable skills to take to potential employers (It’s equally possible that they were trapped in a familiar academic mindset that the purpose of college is to study for its own sake). If they did, it didn’t quite penetrate my thick early-twentysomething skull.

Where’s all of this coming from? This morning, as I was perusing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s website looking for the latest Steelers news, I ran across this article on how some of this year’s college grads are still struggling to find their first job. It’s a well-constructed and thoughtful article on the seemingly conflicting purpose of liberal arts schools: should they teach their students toward a future job or should they teach toward intellectual growth. As with anything complex and paradoxical, I think both notions are right. Jim Fitch, Associate Director of the office of career services at Allegheny College, mentions this inherent tension when he says:

The faculty would tend to encourage students to study for the sake of studying. That’s what the liberal arts tradition is all about. But we help the students take that learning and build some cognitive hooks.

Where I think most liberal arts colleges fall down is not in helping their students realize they have marketable skills and experiences. For the most part, I think there is a growing emphasis on how those ways of thinking about history can benefit employers now. Where liberal arts colleges need to pick up the pace is in helping their students build those “cognitive hooks.” Or in other words, help students better market themselves…give them the tools to help a prospective employer connect the dots between studying Russian literature and writing copy for magazine ads. The fact is that employers are eager to hire liberal arts students simply because they are well-rounded individuals who are prepared to think. Jeff Martineau, Director of Higher Education at the American Academy for Liberal Education, argues:

A general education is useful for students because it allows them to step into any profession and succeed, which is important in a shrinking marketplace. This is especially true in a job market where today’s college graduates will have four to five careers. To make those transitions across fields does not require a specialist. It requires people who can adapt.

In a service or creative economy, I think the pendulum is swinging toward those folks who can think, process diverse information, and generate insights. Sounds like liberal arts colleges are just the place for tomorrow’s best and brightest. We just need to help grads connect the dots.

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What’s Your Ministry?

I’m doing some reorganizing in my home office and I found a stack of Fast Company magazines. I started looking through them and and discovered that I read only the first half of the May issue. Toward the end of the issue is an article called God and Mammon at Harvard and discusses how the Divinity School is producing some top level business leaders.

What struck me was the story of Tom Chappell, CEO of Tom’s of Maine, and his soulful path:

[Chappell] had come to the divinity school at age 43, after an aggressive growth period in his company that had left him emotionally and spiritually drained. The business was thriving, but he was finding more emptiness than fulfillment in success, he says. Many entrepreneurs would argue that when you reach that point, it’s time to flip the business, buy a sailboat, and travel the world. But Chappell was haunted by a comment from his pastor’s wife: “What makes you think Tom’s of Maine isn’t your ministry?” she asked.

We can read ministry in any number of ways (personally, I don’t think the ministry has to be religious), but I think Chappell was being challenged to reconsider and transform himself and his purpose. I thought about that line a lot today. Some interesting and perplexing issues surfaced at work today that might have caused me to feel discontented and disillusioned with my job role. And yet, I was equally haunted by the notion that my work in my current organization is my own ministry. I believe that my work is to encourage a joy-full attitude, cultivate a positive organizational culture, inspire new leadership qualities in my colleagues, and strengthen the organization so that it can achieve its core mission.

Do you have a ministry?

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The Path To Our Goals Can Be Irregular And Uneven

We had a pretty nasty storm here last evening: hail, high wind, blinding rain, thunder, and  plenty of lightning. While my daughters are not big fans of noisy storms, I love them. I’m one of those dopey people who gets close to the window to watch nature’s light show. This morning, I visited Doug Thompson’s Blue Ridge Muse blog (I guarantee that five minutes at Doug’s blog will make you want to visit this area of the United States) and he had a fantastic picture of the storm as it hit the southern part of Virginia.

It got me wondering about a very elementary question: why does lightning travel in a jagged line rather than a direct line to the ground? I had an idea, but wanted to check it out. A google search took me to a webpage produced by WV Lightning. Using a simple experiment that would work great for teaching children, the explanation is that the bolt takes the path of least resistance to its destination.

The lightning knows where it needs to go. It doesn’t struggle through the small stuff in its way. It doesn’t complain about the twists and turns it needs to take as it moves. It understands its environment completely and works with it. The path to the ground may be irregular and uneven and yet it finds a way to its goal.

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Just Wondering

Is there a more powerful word in the English dictionary than WONDER? I just returned from a long hike through the trails that surround my neighborhood and I found myself walking with a sense of wonder. Wonder is like super-charged curiosity. It’s deeper and more poetic in what it unleashes. 

Just start a sentence with "I wonder about…" and see where it takes you. I started looking at the clouds and finding all different types of formations. Interestingly enough, many of the clouds were looking like insects: a praying mantis, a couple of bees, maybe a large beetle with pointy jaws. Rather than thinking, "That’s weird," I had far more fun asking, "I wonder why?"

The act of wondering isn’t just something you can do while meandering through a forest path or sitting on a beach; it has a beneficial purpose in our work. However, there needs to be a conducive climate for wondering to fully occur. If your workplace is buzzing with speed and franticness, then there’s little fertile ground to start. Wondering is an organizational skill that can be developed when we’re given the chance to slow down and see the bigger patterns. If you’re saying, "But Chris, I can’t slow down, there’s just too much to do and too little time," begin to wonder about the quality of your output. Are you just going from task-to-task? Are you accomplishing what’s really important to you and your work?

If you are in a go-go-go workplace that prides itself on high levels of action, it may take some courage to introduce reflective wondering. To an untrained eye, you might look lazy, uncommitted, and unproductive (three killer words that can be leveled at employees). On the contrary, you might notice that after allowing reflection and wondering into your daily routine, your productivity will actually rise. Have fun!

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

Ah, Mick, Keith, and the Stones may not have been spiritual gurus, but they sure got it right on this one. At the risk of not saying anything new or unique today, sometimes getting what we want from life can be to our own detriment. Maybe we want a new job, or a renewed relationship with a loved one, or just for things to stay exactly the same.

However, what happens when we don’t get what we want? How do we respond? Sadly, I’ve been known to shake my fist at the heavens and complain about the unfairness of it all. I’ve also been told that I can be a bit melodramatic at times, as well.

Just maybe there’s greater learning in not having our desires completely met. Okay, obviously. But, often getting to the core of that learning takes patience and an openness to considering other possibilities. Take time to slow down, get curious, and reflect on what’s there. Because you may not get what you want, but you do get what you need.

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Be The Architect Of Your Life

Most of us are educated based on what is known or inevitable in life. We are taught knowledge, but not encouraged to cultivate wisdom. Wisdom is embracing the unknown, respecting it, enduring it, learning from it. Why is it so hard to enter the unknown? Consider what Brian Alger says:

For a person limited to the [safety of] knowledge, the unknown is to be
avoided for it is a place where years of intellectual scaffolding built
up around certain assumptions or presuppositions can come tumbling down
in moments. Knowledge, in this context, needs to be held still to
preserve identity.

I’ve experienced this collapsing of intellectual scaffolding and it’s not fun. When something is bound to our identity, it becomes potentially very dangerous. It’s easier to align ourselves with a lie or half-truth rather than change ourselves to reflect what we know to be the truth. Yet, there comes a point when scaffolding built on such shaky foundations falls to earth and we’re left with a decision: recreate as before or rebuild on a stronger base.

Be the architect of something better in your life. Create from a foundation of your unique and true self. Don’t get fooled into quickly erecting a prefab Wal-Mart. Instead, lovingly and patiently place each brick in the Cathedral of You. Be an enduring figure.

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