#46 – A Living System is a Learning System

“In biology, living and learning are synonyms, indistinguishable processes that keep life growing and moving forward. A living system is a learning system.”

 – Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”


Living and learning are inextricably linked. You can’t live if you can’t learn. You can’t grow, you can’t fulfill, you can’t become, you can’t materialize, you can’t evolve. You can’t be.

What is so challenging and so frustrating about this interconnection is that we need to be reminded that it’s true. Not at the biological level, of course, but at the rational, executive-mindset level of being. We get stuck, entranced, entrenched, enchanted, enamored, beguiled, bewitched, completely consumed by what we’ve done before. And so we do it again. Even though it doesn’t work. Even though we know better. Learning something new simply overwhelms our distracted, safety seeking selves.

This week, in the midst of these extraordinary circumstances, we find ourselves forced out of our denial of the living/learning connection and into new ways of working, relating and providing. It is a strange and discomfiting reality, one that has so much to teach us if only we will allow it to do so.

Many have said, including myself, “How frustrating!”

But another response is also available to us. In the words of Ben Zander we could say instead, “How fascinating!” Instead of leaning away from learning, this response leans toward it. It leans toward and into an opening to curiosity, the deepening of empathy, the commitment to new forms of connection and compassion.

This time has so much to teach us. We will know we are learning when we replace our yearning to “get back to normal” with a yearning to carry forward the hard-won lessons of our shared experience.

“When thinking falters, a living system is at risk. If it continues unchecked, the organism dies. Think about it. Now you know what to do.”

 – Margaret Wheatley, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”


This is #46 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another piece you might find valuable today.

PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#30 – You Can Adjust Your Default Setting

Two beliefs are highly problematic for the modern human being. The first is the belief that we are supposed to be rational actors and the second is the belief that we are.

Just two minutes of silence reveals that in each of our heads exists a chorus of competing, irrational voices that makes our decision-making, especially under stress, unreliable if not problematic. For an even more clarifying experience, try something new, meet someone new, go someplace unfamiliar, navigate by landmarks instead of GPS, anything that increases your heart rate and decreases your sense of security. Now listen to the voices in your head. They should be practically chanting what amounts to your default setting, or how you see the world and your place in it under the stress of change.

That messy mix of voices is the aggregation of your preferences, perceptions, judgments and biases, the result of years of dragging a large collection net behind you through a rich, difficult and multifaceted life.

Remember, your default setting has been working hard to help you make sense of your world and to protect your place in it for a very long time. It’s not that it’s bad or wrong, it’s just that it’s no longer as useful as it once was. It feels useful, and better than an alternative, because it’s familiar and that’s the thinking that keeps us stuck in the status quo.

Here are three options for how to adjust your default setting, not so you can finally become rational, but so that you can more capably organize your competing voices of irrationality under stress.

One, in the category of highly desirable but completely unrealistic, you can find a wise teacher high on a distant mountain and take the next 10, maybe 20 years to get there, live there, and learn.

Two, in the category of moderately desirable and more realistic, you can find a counselor, therapist or coach somewhere in your neighborhood (or via the magic of Zoom!) and take the next five years to explore yourself, make sense of your learning and practice new ways of thinking and feeling.

Three, in the category of undesirable and totally realistic, you can do the following beginning right now:

  1. Pay attention to yourself in familiar, stressful situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  2. Put yourself into unfamiliar situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  3. Share what you notice with someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart and see what they think and what feedback they have to share.
  4. Identify and clarify the few things that matter most to you (financial security, family happiness, health and well-being, new experiences, community building, environmental action, continuous learning, achievement, impact, etc.). Use your spending habits and your calendar for clues. Write them down and share them with the person in #3 above, among others. See what they think.
  5. Do the same thing with your strengths. Get as clear as you can about what you do best when you are at your best. Think of concrete examples, write those stories down and share them, as above.
  6. Repeat with an honest assessment of your weaknesses (“opportunities” or “challenges” for the euphemistically inclined). The more honest you get, the better off you will be.
  7. Now, your aspirations and goals. What do you want and why? Write it down. Who knows about this? Find the right people and let them know, you might even ask for help.

What’s happening here? How is this laborious (and therefore undesirable) process of self-reflection, paying attention, writing down and sharing going to lead to the better management of your inherent irrationality?

It’s going to ground you, root you, establish you in your corner of the world by using clarification and understanding as a means to build confidence. The irony of the personal and relational insight that you will gain is that it will make you more aware of and accepting of your irrationality, as well as that of others, which in turn will make you one of the most rational people around.


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#25 – Take Responsibility for Your Learning

This is #25 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another good one.


Jia Jang is inspiring. He feared rejection so much that he decided to pursue it directly with the hope that he would learn to respond to it more positively and more productively.

He recounts his “100 Day Rejection Challenge” in a self-effacing, funny and sincere TED Talk. It’s hard not to smile along – to root for him – as he teaches us an extraordinary lesson.

In the end I felt like I was rooting for myself; to keep learning new things, to keep seeking new challenges, to keep opening my heart to new people and experiences. All of this takes risk and, as Jia so thoughtfully proposes, all of it leads to benefits far too richly saturated for the fearful mind to anticipate or articulate.

{You can also hear Jia talk about his experience on this terrific episode of the TED Radio Hour}


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#24 – Empathy

This is #24 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”
Here’s another one you might like.


“So compelling is the evidence of our own eyes and ears, so swift is your mind to assemble your own version of the story, that one of the hardest things in this world is to understand there’s another way of seeing things.”

{ Niall Williams, This is Happiness }

Empathy is a too big a topic to be reduced to a single quotation from page 48 of the novel I’m reading. I admit that I would like to leave it at that. It’s an easy and satisfying way out of a deeper discussion on a topic that is easy to mention and difficult to live.

That’s why it’s worth fighting for. It needs more practitioners and when we’re done looking around for them, we can finally arrive at the conclusion that that means us.

It’s hard to speak about empathy in a personal way because it reminds of my daily failing to practice it. I am impatient and confident which is not a terrific combination for pausing to consider another way of seeing things.

I did have a small victory the other day. At the very last moment before issuing a sigh of impatience at my perception of someone’s carelessness, I remembered that they were holding the pain of unwelcome news. I stopped myself and chose another path.

It was a close call, a brief break in my pattern. I can do it again.

I know I can do it again.


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#8 – Take a break

This is #8 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes,
including you.”

– Anne Lamott


If you are reading this on Sunday afternoon, I hope it’s from an easy chair or the sofa. I hope you’ve just returned from a hike, or even a walk around the neighborhood with your pup. Or maybe you just popped in from the garden for a glass of water (a cold beer?!) and took a quick peek at your phone.

I hope you are taking some time today to reconnect to activities you love and to recharge by taking some time to read for pleasure, to call a friend, to watch a great movie. You need that time. We all do.

If you struggle to slow down, you’re not alone. Dividing up a two-day weekend between activities, commitments and relaxation can be tough. The truth is that we are pretty lousy at giving ourselves permission to step away from the grind of our responsibilities.  A quick search reveals that in 2018, the US workforce allowed 768 million vacation days to go unused. Approximately 70% of employees did not use all of the time they had coming to them.

That’s both a waste and a shame especially when it’s a safe bet that you aren’t going to be sitting around in 10 years telling stories about how great it was to do more work when you could have used that time to do anything but.

For our sanity, for our health, for our families, and just for fun, we have to do better. You can start this weekend. There’s just enough time.


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#7 – Get Moving

This is #7 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


I feel an energized anticipation when I am getting ready to move.

I feel engaged – challenged, curious, motivated – when I am in motion.

I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, stimulated, creative, purposeful, accomplished, and unstoppable when I return and come to rest again.

Some version of this is true whether it’s a sniff walk with the dog, an aggressive uphill run or a long meander on a forest trail.

I am not made for sitting at a desk for long stretches, though moments of insight, inspiration and even revelation do occur there.

I have determined, however, that those moments occur at a frequency proportionate to the quality of movement that I practice when I am not there.

There is no doubt at all that how well I work, and how affirmatively I live my life, depends on my resolve to get and to keep moving.


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The End of the Beginning

Fifty days from today is Sunday, March 22. Assuming all goes as planned and I have the opportunity to write a post each day between now and then, that will be the day on which I publish #1,000.

Between 2007 and 2015 I wrote more than 300 posts. The following year I selected my favorites and published a collection under the title, “A More Daring Life.” I continued my intermittent writing habits for a couple more years until in mid-2018 I read a Seth Godin piece in which he encouraged bloggers to get into the habit of writing every day.

I took him up on it, deciding to write each day for one year. When that anniversary arrived, I kept going, in large part because “1,000” was less than a year away and achieving that nice round number was a goal too enticing to pass up.

Now that I’m within 50 days of it I have given myself permission to let March 22 mark the end of the beginning, the date after which I no longer write and publish every day.

There are other things I want to do, other projects to explore, new work opportunities to invest in. I want to make those investments wholeheartedly. I will still publish “Poem for a Sunday Morning” and perhaps one or two other selections during the week that emerge from my experience. I just won’t do it every day.

To mark the occasion and to complete this daily practice in a way that I feel great about, I have compiled a list of “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For” and will write about them each day between now and the third weekend in March.

Since Sunday has become “poetry day” on the blog, I will begin the countdown tomorrow with idea worth fighting for #1: Read More Poetry.


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Too Many Trails

I watched a hiking documentary the other day. It’s called, “Figure It Out On the Hayduke Trail.” That led to my watching another hiking documentary, this one called “Mile, Mile and a Half.” It’s about a film-making team’s trek down the John Muir Trail. (Both are available on Amazon Prime if you are so inclined.)

But this isn’t a movie review. It’s simply an opportunity to state the realization that I had in watching these adventures unfold in two dimensions: I want, no, I need to be out there, too.

So I asked a loaded question of a small group I was working with today. I asked them, as a way to kick off our conversation, what would they be doing if they weren’t doing “this”? And by “this” I mean, “this job,” “this career,” “this pattern or path of the life they find themselves in.”

My answer: I’d be outside, on the trail, among the trees. I turn fifty years old this year and I plan to spend a whole bunch more time on the trail than I have so far. I’m a little late getting started on this aspiration and there are too many trails to walk. But I’m not too late and I don’t need to walk them all.

I just need to walk the next one. And then the one after that.

I read somewhere that’s how you get to where you want to be. That it’s how you build a life.


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Pacific Crest Trail near Mt. Eddy (California)

Poem for a Sunday Morning

WEAN YOURSELF

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.

Listen to the answer.

There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi


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One Minute

One minute is longer than you think.

In class today, my colleague and I had our students give one minute presentations. We put a selection of topics in a bag, had them each blindly draw one out and after a few moments of reflection, speak about that subject for one minute.

They talked about money, achievement, finals week, 5 years from now…, gratitude, confidence, networking, an embarrassing moment, etc.

What I learned is that in one minute it is entirely possible to effectively communicate an idea with the support of an example or a story.

As a concept I imagine this rings true, nothing earth shattering here. But as a practice, I encourage you to try it. See if, like many of my students, you can smoothly articulate an initial reaction to a subject and then support it with an example from your personal experience.

We wanted our students to feel both the pressure and the potential that comes with brief opportunities to be heard. It became obvious to me that developing this ability will make them not only effective networkers but excellent dinner guests, colleagues and leaders, too.