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My Vacation To The Lake And Learning To Care Intentionally

View of Lake Hartwell in South CarolinaThere I floated on my bright yellow raft, not too far away from the dock. It was the first morning of our summer lake vacation and was starting to warm up into one of those typical late July hot southern days. But instead of feeling the peace of being on the water and the relaxation of being on vacation, I unintentionally brought something else along with me. A big, nasty ball of feelings that I had slowly and gradually crunched up in the pit of my stomach: bewilderment, anger, sadness, and more.

Yep, I made the critical error of bringing my job – and the frustrations of the last few weeks – along with me. I wager that every single person who works inside a nonprofit wrestles with an existential crisis at times. I was wrestling with the question of whether anything I was doing in my work really mattered. So there I floated, eventually coming to a point where the constant refrain in my head was, “…I could so care less.” I had gotten to a point where I was starting to find easy solace in apathy. 

Eventually, the slow ebb and flow of the water did its job and I felt my muscles and mind start to relax. The sounds of the birds and the cold beer in my hand led me toward some much needed inner solitude. I questioned how I had arrived at this place where “Screw it all!” was an acceptable landing spot.

I needed to confront head-on the confusion of experiencing this apathy in work that I deeply enjoyed and was exceptionally good at for an organization in which I believed in its mission. What the hell was going on that would make me accept the possibility of caring less?

Then, I recalled something a trusted mentor told me not long ago. I didn’t actually want to care less. My problem was that I was caught in a pernicious trap of caring too much. How is caring too much a bad thing? For me, caring about the outcome of every single experience, every single event, every single opinion in my workplace was exhausting. Further, it only led to disappointment and cynicism when those outcomes failed to match up with my expectations. It was a sure-fire road to burnout and I was on the express bus. 

Fortunately, I was able to pause. I quieted the thoughts about how I should care less or care more. Instead, I started to reflect on how to be more intentional as to what I truly do care about.

Not everything is worth the battle or engaging in the fire drill. We don’t need to actively participate in everyone’s drama. So many things exist far outside our control. However, what we can control is our thoughts and reactions to the daily dramas. When we get clear about our values and goals, we can make better choices about how we want to matter.

Later that evening, I sat on the deck overlooking the lake and spent time with the person I am at my core. I took some time to recall my values and why I returned to the nonprofit world. I sketched out the big picture goals for my work. Anything I could use to reorient me toward giving my best effort to my organization as well as my career. Shortly afterward, I let go a great sigh of relief and settled into enjoying the next few days of special quality time with my family.

By the end of the vacation, I left the lake with what I call my Roadmap for Intentional Caring.

The temptation to care too much is always there. And the relative “safety” of trying to not care at all is always there, as well. It’s locating the sweet spot in the middle and being able to get back there to intentional caring when we swing toward either end of the spectrum.

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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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Tales from Waikiki: Imprinting and the Power to Change

Earlier this month, my extended family and I spent a week vacationing in Hawaii. Out of that experience exploring the wonders of Oahu came some juicy ideas well worth sharing over the next few weeks. So, here we go…

We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village at Waikiki based on a spot-on recommendation that it was a great hotel for families. Besides the beachfront access and several pools for my daughters to swim in daily, (not to mention all the shopping for my mother and sister), the Hilton had a waddle of tropical penguins. The birds were conveniently located right outside our particular hotel tower so we stopped to visit them pretty much every time we passed. These Hilton penguins are called African Penguins so they’re adapted for tropical environments. Over the week we learned a lot about them as a species (endangered) and some of their quirks (they sound like braying donkeys which is why they’re sometimes called Jackass Penguins).

We also learned about something called imprinting. Turns out penguins – as well as many other birds – learn how to be birds shortly after birth by observing the characteristics of the other birds around them. It’s a rapid process…and it’s fairly permanent, meaning what is learned through this process cannot easily be undone. So if a young hatchling observes not a bird but a human, they’re going to be imprinted with human characteristics. In other words, you’re going to have a rather confused bird who is going to try and act like a human. One penguin at the Hilton named Icarus had this sort of human imprinting, which is immediately noticeable because she (yes, she…these penguins are also notoriously difficult to sex) is fairly tame by penguin standards. Icarus will also never mate because she’s not attracted to other penguins; case in point: she mercilessly attacked the last male who tried to get it on with her because he was too penguiny.

Where am I going with all this? Let me ask a question: how many times do we behave like we’ve been imprinted by our past? Except we’re not holding on to the actions of others we’ve observed, but our own actions. We say – either openly or quietly to ourselves – that we’re a failure or stupid or not talented enough for what looks like a great job opportunity. Every time we do this, we’ve essentially confirmed our own imprinting by not letting go of that past behavior. The good news is that we’re not easily imprinted birds, but humans capable of flexible thought. We can retrain ourselves to think differently about who we are and what we’re capable of achieving in our lives. We can reimprint ourselves whenever we choose.

Notice what’s holding you back. The key is self-awareness. Get mindful of thoughts that contain images involving past failures and weaknesses. Listen for words like can’t and never. If it feels like a barrier, then it probably is. Say you’re holding on to an image of failing at starting a business or bombing an assignment. Now imagine taking the picture out of your head and tossing it into the fire. You’re not forgetting the lessons learned…instead, you’re torching their power to hold you in your present position. You’re claiming your right to be free of all the past crap that’s simply not serving you right now.

Re-envision what you want. Time to re-imprint our thinking and behavior with something different. You’re free to be as creative as you want now. Imagine vividly yourself as successful. What would it look like? And perhaps more importantly, what would it feel like? Imprinting isn’t a logical, rational process; it’s a visceral, emotional one. The stronger you can cement the images in your body, the better you’ll be able to hold on to these newly imprinted images.

Maintain awareness. Even though we can change how we think and feel, it’s still not a walk in the park. Change takes dedication and commitment. Remain vigilant when it comes to how old imprinted behavior reenters your thought process. Remember: you’re not a penguin…you can do this.

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We’re All In-between Swims

This one’s subtitled: An essay on learning (and trying not to drown).

Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to experience the excitement and anxiety of learning something new – the art of whitewater kayaking. Ever since my first rafting trip as a teenager, I knew I wanted to paddle my own boat. The kayakers looked like they were enjoying the river in ways that we on the large raft were unable. I told my buddy next to me that someday I wanted to do that. Someday. So, a few years ago, I decided to stop letting life get in the way of something I yearned to do. I signed up with a local kayaking school and set out to pursue a goal that I had put aside for too long.

However, the first course did not go quite the way I envisioned. I naïvely thought kayaking would be much easier than it actually was and that I would pick up the instruction much faster that I actually did. In reality, I felt awkward in the unstable boat and unnerved by my inability to master something that on dry land looked so easy.

Yet I walked away from that experience with three powerful lessons that offered insights into my own sense of learning and living.

Lesson #1: Just because you’ve been on a river before does not mean you already know what you’re doing. I’ve been rafting before in whitewater and even done some flatwater kayaking and I thought those experiences would give me an edge in quickly learning how to paddle a kayak. One mistake I made was that I didn’t approach this new experience from a place of “not knowing,” but instead tried to filter it through past experiences that may have gotten in the way of actually learning. Recognize each experience, regardless of how familiar it may be to you, as an opportunity to learn something new.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to do something new because you might look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Guess what? More than likely, you don’t know what you’re doing! This means you might notice some uncomfortable feelings like incompetence and helplessness. About half-way through the lesson, I committed a typical newbie mistake of panicking when I accidentally capsized my kayak. Trapped underwater in my kayak, I thrashed and flailed trying to get my boat upright. Two instructors came to try to rescue me before I remembered that I could rescue myself by ejecting from the boat. When I surfaced and caught my breath, I realized that my classmates had witnessed the whole episode with a mixture of fear and thankfulness that it wasn’t them. Yet regardless of how I must have looked, I learned very quickly how to remain calm while underwater and how to get myself out of a capsized kayak. Remember that embarrassment only lasts for a few minutes, while the lessons you gain through trying something new last much longer.

Lesson #3: We’re all in-between swims. After I managed to get back in my kayak, one of the instructors said, “Even the best paddlers get themselves into jams. Dude, we’re all in-between swims.” As I rejoined my fellow kayakers, the full force of that statement hit me. Individuals who choose to fully experience life inevitably encounter challenging situations that are bigger than themselves. Sometimes we can paddle through the situation and sometimes we have to eject. It’s about not letting our fears get in the way of fully learning and living. Be open to not getting it right all the time and understand that failing can often lead to the greatest learnings of all.

So, are you taking tentative action in order to always remain upright in your boat or are you pushing yourself and allowing for the possibility of tipping over? The first option is one of safety, the second is risky, but one of true growth. If you’re playing it safe now because you’re afraid of capsizing, ask what it’s costing you. Maybe it’s a life of significance, meaning, and fun. Start paddling in your life and see where it takes you.

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Don’t Jump Ship Too Quickly

Admit it. There are days when you come home from the job and toy with the idea of ditching it to move on to something better. But is ditching your job the best answer? It all depends on your circumstances.

CNN published a (somewhat surprisingly) insightful article called Look on the bright side of a bad job. Based on this title, I didn’t have high expectations. I rather expected the writer to admonish his readers to just “buck up” and find their shiny, happy selves. Instead, there are some pretty good ideas in the article…in particular the last one under their category of Wisdom.

If you’re unhappy, examine why. Do you dislike the people you work with or is it the actual work? Are you in a dead-end position? Think back to your interview and see if you missed any warning signs that this job might not be the one for you. Use your experience to avoid falling into the same predicament in your next job. If the situation didn’t turn sour until after you’d been with the company for a while, you know to stay attuned to shifts in attitudes and practices…Making the best out of a bad job situation doesn’t mean being complacent. A positive outlook shouldn’t replace your plans to move on (emphasis mine).

This is brilliant advice. I know from personal experience that when the shitstorm at work starts to get wild, there’s a strong impulse to jump ship. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to move on (say, when our health is at stake or the situation has become toxic), but it’s not always the best plan for our working future. Most times, these bad jobs are chock full of learning that we need to absorb in order to make better future decisions that will help us find work that has meaning and purpose. Or else, we risk falling into the same situation again and again (think Bill Murray’s plight in Groundhog Day).

If you’re in a spot where you’re edging toward the end of the plank and thinking about leaping for another ship, take some time to answer the questions posed above. Take full advantage of the wisdom and experience that this experience is offering you.

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Build A Learning Culture With Learning Circles

Most organizations are chronically deficient at learning and it’s easy to see why. Learning takes time, patience, and healthy dose of curiosity – all qualities that are in short supply at probably 95% of all companies and non-profit institutions. When there is learning, it’s cloaked with best intentions in workshops and other professional development events. Don’t get me wrong…these ought to be a part of one’s plan to build a learning organization, but they are simply not enough. Without building the capacity to learn into an organization’s DNA, these events will barely penetrate the surface of how your people approach their work. What to do if you’re a manager or charged with leading your organization’s learning operations?

One action is to start a learning circle. Google learning circle and you’ll get a slew of resources. However, drill down a little further and you’ll find there are relatively few that address learning circles within an organization…particularly a for-profit company. Don’t let that stop you, though. If you recognize the importance of developing a learning culture in your workplace, here’s a framework to experiment with:

Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!
Well, that’s only partly true. There should be no hard rules to the circle. It should be free to evolve as the needs of the group evolve. However, don’t take the “no rules” mantra as an invitation to anarchy. A successful circle needs a basic structure that provides a purpose for the group to exist.

Pack a Problem and a Yippee!
Each person in the circle must be prepared to bring two items to each meeting. The first is a problem. Even better than a problem is a mistake, but this takes some comfort with the group so don’t expect this at the outset. The second item is a Yippee!, which is an example of something that went well. It’s important that learning be a balanced process where both good and bad are reviewed and then celebrated.

Play 20 Questions.
Most people will want to instantly solve problems often without bothering to dig deeper into the actual issues behind the problems. Don’t let the natural tendency to problem-solve get in the way of the actual learning. Instead, put a question threshold into place. Insist that no less than 20 questions get asked before a statement can be made. This will spark curiosity and instill an investigative mindset that – done consistently – will begin to form a habit.

Spread the Learning Love.
Encourage the group to constantly share their learning outside the circle. Give them the tools and resources to create a wiki and a blog. By further emphasizing the importance of knowledge sharing to the whole organization, the circle will be more likely to build the discipline for recording what it knows (which can be so easily forgotten) and disseminating it to a broader audience of colleagues.

Cloning for Success.
While there may be a temptation to immediately initiate several circles throughout your organization, I’d encourage you to start small. Start with one group of four to five individuals and allow it to evolve for a few months. Then when the time is right, charge each pilot group member with starting another learning group with new individuals. This replicating strategy ensures that subsequent groups have a firm understanding of the circle’s purpose and get a jumpstart on the process.

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If Leadership Was A Punctuation Mark, What Would It Be?

Ever work for someone who thought leadership was defined by an exclamation point? Ever get confused by your own leadership style and whether you should get folks to follow you through a series of statements ending with periods? Is there a reason I’m beginning this post using only question marks? Hmmm?

We can get caught up in the notion that a leader has to be commanding…commanding in a sense where you’re slinging around words, phrases, and sentences ending with an exclamation point (my daughter likes to call them “shoutty marks”). It might sound something like this:

“Bailey! Come here! And explain to me why Johnson is pissed off!!!”

Or perhaps, more often, we simply issue those commands with a bit more subtlety. Something like:

“Chris. Please come to my office and tell me what’s going on with Johnson.”

Another option? Yep. How about using that wonderful creation, the question mark?

“Chris? What happened to make Johnson so angry? And what’s your plan for making this right?

The first option isn’t going to win you any leader-of-the-year awards while the second might get you an honorable mention. The third one, though, leads to the gold medal round. The key is to get curious, which isn’t always easy or even the first thing we think of doing when something important is on the line.

Ask: is there something to learn here? And not just for you, but the folks you lead. By asking questions, you’re helping them learn from their own experiences. What may seem like an initial failure can turn into new opportunities. Use open questions (those that don’t lead directly to a “yes” or “no” answer).

Finally, all of this isn’t to say there are not times when every leader must emphasize their words with an exclamation point or nudge folks with a period. It’s just important to remember that questions are an essential part of a leader’s repertoire.

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Does Happiness Always Mean Getting Your Way?

The BBC had an interesting article yesterday called Why are Dutch children so happy? that went on to explain why the Netherlands was at the top of a recently published Child Wellbeing Report produced by UNICEF. (By the way, the United States – perhaps unsurprisingly – rates pretty much near the bottom compared to Europe and Canada). The lead-in to the article reads:

Dutch children have been rated the most fortunate children in Europe. Their parents go out of their way to please them, and teachers expect less of them than some of their European counterparts.

Well, that’s not exactly how the UNICEF report portrays the Netherlands, but does raise some interesting questions when we think not only about our own children (regardless of which country you call home) but own lives at work. How much is our own happiness tied to having things go our way? Can there be happiness in our challenges and struggles?

Let’s take this example from the BBC article:

18-year-old Ysbrand, a student in Helmond near Eindhoven, says this picture matched his childhood. He says that his parents spent a lot of time with him when he was younger. His mother stayed at home while his father worked.

But, he said the contrast when you get to 18 can be something of a shock.

“Now I’m left to look after myself,” he told the BBC News website. “My parents say that I need to care for myself and to be independent. It’s hard. I don’t have much money as a student and to go out is expensive. Beer, for example, is very expensive in the Netherlands.”

By focusing on what will make us happy right now, we postpone possible future pain. Not that we shouldn’t aim for joy in our life, but we need to be honest with ourselves and consider whether our present experience – even if it does suck – won’t make us a better person down the road. Sometimes we need to unhappy in order to learn how to be happy. I can certainly remember painful experiences in my life that were hellish in their own special way, but in reflection I’m so glad that they were my experiences. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without them.

And I hope this doesn’t seem like I’m picking on the Dutch. Frankly, I don’t think the example of Ysbrand above is all that different from some of the experiences I’ve seen from fellow parents here in the U.S. The desire to coddle and over-protect kids transcends borders and culture.

Today, we’re challenged to look at our own happiness and determine whether that happiness is real or is simply deferring pain for another time. Ask whether that graduate degree that might be challenging and even painful to undertake might lead to a better tomorrow for you. Ask whether the pain of quitting your job might not be the first step toward finding your own soulful work. Remember that happiness sometimes means taking the hard and painful path.

Be well.

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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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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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