The Label Doesn’t Stick

If you’ve attended many conferences or trainings you’re familiar with the ritual: you arrive at the registration desk, a kind person takes your name, checks it against a list and then hands you a blank nametag and a Sharpie.

You write your name on the nametag, remove the backing and stick it to your shirt.

Has it ever, even once, stayed put? Not for me. And, without fail, I fold it onto itself and toss it in the nearest trashcan.

I was reminded today that I do a much better job of making labels stick, especially the ones I give myself, than the “name tag corporations” who supply those useless stickers.

For a long time I “wasn’t good at math.” It’s true that I did poorly at math in high school. But I did poorly at math because I found it difficult, and I lacked the work ethic and the humility to ask for help. As a defensive tactic I decided that math was not relevant to my future which made it easier to adopt the “not good at it” label. The fact is that I am good with numbers and surely, with the right attitude and maturity, would have been a fine math student.

That label no longer sticks.

For a long time I was sure I “didn’t have anything to say.” More than anything in the world I wanted to make my professional mark by sharing – through writing and speaking – my ideas about learning and leadership and the very complex relationship human beings have with their workplaces. But perfectionism had its way with me and if I couldn’t do it like David Whyte or Parker Palmer or Manfred Kets de Vries or Margaret Wheatley, then why bother?

Never mind that I had been speaking and writing about those things since I was 17 years old with an energy and enthusiasm that was my very own. I had the goods, at least my version of the goods, but lacked the wherewithal to put them on display. And so the label of “having nothing to say” was an easy hiding place.

I gave my first professional talk at a conference when I was 37 years old after which I had only one thought, “What the hell was I so worried about?” I loved it and I just kept going. Not long after that I started this blog as a way to both practice my new commitment to expression and steer clear of that old label.

Because that old label no longer stuck.

As easily as those conference nametags fall off, our old labels adhere to us so well that we mistake them for a permanent part of our daily attire.

Socks? Underwear? Self-diminishing label of insufficiency? Check, check and check!

The good news is that an old label is indeed removable. The bad news – the really tough part – is that an old label is indeed removable. Once you take it off, you feel naked for a while, which, when you think about it, is the ideal condition for trying on something new.


name tag

Tell Me Your Story

I was here, and you were here,
and together we made a world.
{David Whyte}


If you tell me your story, I will tell you mine.

From that small, open place we will take steps that help us to know one another. Through our disclosure we will build trust, and from that trust we will experience the reinforcement of connection.

I will only learn about myself, which means that I will only learn how to walk in this world, through my relationship with you.

When I resist I do so because I don’t want to be reminded of what I don’t yet know. When I resist I am bound by the seduction of the status quo, refusing to yield to the certainty of change.

When I engage I do so because you help me to remember that my initial discomfort holds the seeds of my future wisdom.

Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.


 

 

Open, Not Apart

IMG_5965Our hearts do not break apart, they break open.

It is through this opening that what we need tiptoes in, staying beyond our vision until we are ready to see.

This is difficult to explain. It must be lived…felt…to be understood.

Consider the way the fallen Redwood opens space in the canopy of the forest for saplings to receive sunlight. Consider how its decaying trunk provides nourishment for the forest floor and refuge for small creatures.

As we reel from the destruction of the fall we can also trust that what it has set in motion will be more generative than anything that might be gained from its perpetual and upright symmetry.

A healthy forest integrates both the broken and the whole, becoming more resilient as a result.

Our heart’s ecology is the same. When it breaks it does not pull us apart but equips us to open wider still.


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Humboldt Redwood State Park – November 19, 2018

This isn’t what I want

Again and again it seems that we attract into our lives precisely the encounter, the conversation, the article or poem, precisely the thing we are intended to wrestle with in order to shift to a new level of understanding.

I’ve heard myself say, many times, “But this isn’t what I want!”

I read a poem that forces me to confront themes of reconciliation and mortality (Kingdom Animalia) and I resist it, minimize it, dismiss it because it is just what I need right now.

I read a book (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone) that reminds me of the powerful benefits of therapeutic conversation, the examples reflective of (because, human) my experience. I don’t want to be uncomfortably reminded of those themes, but I need to be.

I have a conversation that disrupts the smooth waters of my well-constructed ego, one that challenges my perception and forces my humility. I need that disruption. I certainly don’t want it.

This is, I think, the price of paying attention. And I would rather do so with vigilance and continue to encounter what I need to encounter than bury my head in the sand and risk no encounter at all.

“Development” or “learning” is never about arrival. It is about engaging the same themes again and again and having an incrementally better go of it the next time around.


 

The Trap of Almost Knowing

I had a painful, shameful memory yesterday. I recalled a speaking engagement from some years ago that ended with my being cut-off mid-sentence by the host because I had gone over my time. There were several of us slated to speak that night which meant that our host had to manage a tight schedule. I knew the expectation – I had 12 minutes – and I failed to adhere to it.

The embarrassment I felt that night washed over me again with the memory of it: how I tried so hard to save face (how, exactly?) and make a graceful exit (impossible) in the milliseconds after seeing my host walk down the center aisle and in full voice exclaim that “we have to move on.”

As I autopsied the experience I realized that I had made an obvious and avoidable mistake in the lead-up to the event. I had failed to clarify what it was, precisely, that I was expected to address in my remarks. I had the gist of it, you see, but I also had the nagging feeling that there was another level of specificity required, the absence of which left me in improv mode rather than prepared mode. In improv mode, perhaps needless to say, time is fluid and evaporates quickly.

There is a trap of almost knowing that can get in the way of actually knowing, or so it seems to me. The misplaced confidence of my almost knowing prevented the humility of my desire to actually know from being activated and acted upon.

In other words, I acted from my head and not from my heart. I allowed “enough” information to be a substitute for the complete information, a protective cerebral response (“Of course I know what I’m doing!”) standing in for an open and inquisitive one (“I think I’ve got what you’re looking for, but could we please review it once more?”).

As a practical matter, I have carried this experience forward and am much more exhaustive in my “pre-game” conversations about expectations and outcomes.

As a human matter, I recognize the gift of this memory as a tender and instructive reminder to trust that vulnerability in the pursuit of understanding is the best kind of strength.


 

Learning is Not Optional

Have you achieved what you’re capable of?

Are you well equipped for the speed of change and the demands of complexity?

Are you operating in a competitor-free environment?

Are local, regional, national and international issues irrelevant to your organization?

Is your team crystal clear about your vision and self-driven to attain it? Committed to your values and living them with integrity?

Do you and your colleagues have difficult conversations as soon and as often as needed? Do you do so with deep respect and empathy?

If so, don’t worry about learning.

If not…


 

Poem for a Sunday Morning

The Seven of Pentacles
{Marge Piercy}

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.


With thanks to my dear friend, Alia, for sharing this poem with me.

Again and Again (Until)

In the particular is contained the universal.
{James Joyce}


When you achieve a significant developmental milestone, you own it forever.

Once you learn to walk, there’s no going back to crawling.

Learn how to ride a bike? You’ll always know how.

Great study habits? Always applicable to the next tough class.

How about hard conversations? Or setting boundaries? Or standing up for yourself? Or trying new things? Or managing anger? Or exercising patience? Or being vulnerable?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

Once you learn it, you’ve got it. It’s the joyful, extraordinary truth of development.

Until you have it, however, you won’t have it. And you will keep crawling, just as before.

This moment, with this person (and it’s usually another person who challenges and sparks our most needed development) is your present, particular opportunity to make a universal change.


 

I Can’t Do It Without You

I will always think too small about my own potential.

Left to my own impulses, I will always make the canvas of my possibility too small, and paint myself, with big, bright strokes, right into the corner.

Since I am both the painter and the canvas, I will think it a sufficient representation, even a bold one, but I cannot see it, so I do not know.

When I invite you into the gallery, you look upon the work I have created, you tilt your head, you take a step closer and immediately I know that you see it. You see that something is not quite right.

I ask, “What is it?”

And you say, “Well, it’s lovely, but it’s just so much smaller than I thought it would be.”

“What do you mean?” I protest. “It’s just how I imagined it!”

“Exactly!” you say, as my trusted colleague and friend. “That’s exactly the problem! You think you’ve stretched yourself to a new limit but you’ve only painted yourself into a corner. It’s too small a space for you!”

“No, no…,” I begin to protest further, but then I step back to look at my creation and I see, right away I see that you are right.

I had the choice of any canvas I wanted. The small ones were much too small and I am far beyond their limitations. But the large ones, the truly expansive ones, those are for the real painters, the ones who merit the largest possible expression of themselves.

And I chose the one in between, the one that would allow me to satisfy my too small definition of self.

You saw what I could not see. You helped me know what I could not know. That is why my development, my learning, is impossible without you.

Today, I buy a new canvas. “Will you come with me, please?”

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11 Reasons Why You Should Take a Walk in the Woods

I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.
{Henry David Thoreau}


I live in Southern California where a walk in the woods is a luxury enjoyed only after a long drive or, like I did recently, an airplane ride. My dream is to someday live where I can step out of the house and onto a forested trail but, for now, inspired by my recent wanderings, I offer you these enticements, hopeful that they will encourage your own exploration.

  1. Technology has had its way with you. You need a break.
  2. The natural world has stood the test of time; there’s a lot to learn from it.
  3. Simpler is better. You already overthink too much stuff.
  4. Connection. The spacious intimacy of the woods is the perfect environment for a deeper conversation.
  5. You could use a fresh perspective. (Any walking will aid this, being in the woods is a bonus!)
  6. You love to be outside, remember?
  7. Your body is built to move. Even slowly, it’s hungry for it.
  8. You’ll get dirty, at least a little bit, and that dirt will reinvigorate the kid in you.
  9. Trees are quiet. They don’t talk back.
  10. Trees are patient. You won’t be rushed.
  11. You’ll be reminded that you are a part of something much larger than yourself.

I can’t help but wonder how our lives, relationships and communities would benefit if we chose more often to enjoy the restorative, essential and affirming benefits of a nice long walk in the woods.

Happy trails!


SWSP Ridge Trail

South Whidbey State Park, Ridge Loop Trail