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…


 

Chance to Lead

The greatest punishment for being unwilling to rule is being
ruled by someone worse than oneself.
{Socrates}


If you have an opportunity to lead, take it.

You may succeed or you may fail, yes, but what you learn will ripen into lessons you will harvest for years to come.

If you have an opportunity to lead and you don’t take it, don’t complain about the person who does. They deserve your expectation of their success, just like you would want from them.


 

Thresholds

We are called to be larger than who we can imagine being in this moment.
{Sr. Joan Brown}


A threshold is a demarcation between the known and the unknown, an entry point to a new frontier.

It’s not an easy place at which to stand as it represents a break from our familiar or ordered understanding of things. One more step, and we are in the unfamiliar, a disordered version of our experience.

These threshold moments exist in each of our lives, some large and some small, some by our choosing and some purely by chance. Each one is an opportunity for development depending on our choice to step across that demarcation line or retreat from it.

And the reason it is so hard to take that next step, and why we so often retreat from that threshold, is that we feel utterly alone.

But we are not alone.

Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. We are more connected than we realize, more connected than we allow ourselves to admit. Perhaps that’s because we’ve bought into the myth of “going it alone,” and perhaps because being connected makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. To be seen by another for who and what we are, especially as we stand at the threshold of our own becoming? I admit that is a scary thought.

And (and this is such an important “and”) it is precisely that vulnerability that leads to our connection and that connection is what leads us to our greatest strength: the ability to rely upon one another to see us not just as we are but as we may yet be. To hold an imaginative sense of one another’s larger self at the moment when we alone are least able to hold it is a gift both precious and powerful.

To stand at a threshold, then, is to stand in a place of complete connection, summoning courage from one another to cross over and into the frontier of our largest possible self.

I don’t know if the world can be saved but if it can be, this is how we will do it.


 

 

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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An Admonition

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

{Mary Oliver}


It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine feeling whimsical without also having a deep reservoir of personal responsibility.

Whimsy feels like freedom. A whimsical person is less interested in the judgments and criticisms of others and more concerned with seizing the present moment and making out of it what she can. That would, most often, mean to take what is and happily question, examine and play with the possibility of what it might become.

Personal responsibility is the best kind of maturity. It is to be the author of one’s own life. It does not require the validation of others, especially authority figures, though it gladly welcomes their support and acknowledgment of positive contributions made. Mostly it welcomes their willing efforts to knock down the roadblocks that prevent the exploration of new frontiers.

So many modern workplaces are starving from a lack of whimsy and responsibility, or in the language of business, “creativity” and “ownership.”

A whimsical person, a person who is responsible to him or herself through their commitment to self-authorship (see Do Your Work) does not choose to belong to an environment in which he or she will be led by those who do not demonstrate that same kind of commitment.

The whimsical, self-authoring employee sniffs out paternalism and the narcissistic impulses that feed its compulsion for hierarchy, rigidity and control. Like so many wild animals sensing and fleeing a coming storm, they are long gone before being lashed by what can be avoided.

The modern organization, then, has to reconcile itself to the truth that whimsy (creativity) and responsibility (ownership) will only exist if its leaders model and cultivate them in the most authentic manner possible. Leaders must be prepared for and promoted into positions of greater influence based on personal demonstrations of creative thought and the integrity of self-authorship.

The degree to which this is true of the leader is the degree to which it is possible for the team.


 

 

The Benefit of Taking a Break

When I started playing piano in January of this year I had no idea how fast I would progress. I set two goals at the beginning of the experience; the first, to practice every day and the second, (my hoped for outcome as a result of the first) to be able to accompany myself singing a song by the end of the year.

Now that it is June, I have been at it for just about five months and I am feeling confident that I will meet goal #2 even though I recently had a major setback on goal #1.

My mid-May vacation to Whidbey Island was on the calendar for over six months and, once I started practicing piano in earnest, that block on the calendar started looming as “that week when I won’t be able to practice” and then, as the time approached, “that week when all the work I’ve done so far will come crashing down into a heap labeled ‘Nice try. You’re starting over.'”

And so off I went on vacation, partly happy for the break in my piano routine and quietly concerned about the coming setback.

On my first full-day home from the trip, I didn’t go near the piano. I was busy playing catch-up, of course, but I know I steered clear in part to avoid being proven right, my hard won gains lost to my eight day hiatus.

On the second day home, I put in a good practice but it wasn’t pretty. My wrist and finger strength were diminished and I fumbled my way through scales and exercises that I had already mastered. A little sore and disappointed, I tucked the bench back in, closed the keyboard and resuscitated some optimism for the following day.

On that day, and in the week or so since I’ve been back, I discovered just how important it is to take a break from learning. Aside from that awkward first practice when I was re-introducing myself to the piano, my sessions at the keyboard have been marked by feelings of ease and clarity. I am seeing the music and playing it in ways that I could not do before I left on my trip, which tells me that the only explanation is that I took a break.

Not only did I not lose any ground during my time away, I broke through to a new plateau of competency because of it. It’s such a joyful feeling to arrive at that new place that it’s difficult to adequately express just how satisfying it is.

The seduction of competence is that to attain it we must do more and more and more, and that we must do it ever faster and more intensely. We don’t talk much about the role of taking time off, about the necessity of allowing our brains, hearts and bodies to get synced up, about trusting what is happening in the background when we challenge ourselves to do something hard, something new.

We don’t talk about it because doing is so much more fun than not doing. It’s so much sexier, attractive and stimulating. But it’s only one part of the equation. That other part, the walking away, that’s when the magic happens.


 

 

Agency

I was an attendee at a conference a number of years ago and the presenter, a teacher of considerable renown, was speaking about agency.

“Agency” is a social science term that is defined as “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(sociology)

Early in her presentation, having clearly articulated the attributes of agency and its relevance to our time together, she asked us to engage in paired conversations about our personal experience, a time when we did or did not demonstrate agency.

After a short time she asked us to share our thoughts with the full group and I shot my hand in the air, eager to make a contribution.

She called on me and I proceeded to describe what my partner had said and why I thought it was an important point.

As the words were leaving my mouth I knew that I had stepped in it, big time. And since she was no small personality she let me and everyone else know it, too.

“Talk about stealing someone’s agency!” she bellowed, with the tone of a teacher resigned to her student’s position on the learning curve.

It felt pretty lousy to be called out like that. It was a healthy public shaming that I carried with me for quite a while. But I’m glad she made the point so energetically because I needed to hear it.

In my eagerness to make a “valuable” contribution, I stepped on someone else’s right to “make their own free choice.” Instead of inviting or encouraging my partner to share her story, I broke the unspoken trust of our brief interaction by putting it into the public domain.

I haven’t done it since, and when I encounter other’s trespassing in a similar way, I share my story as a cautionary tale.

Making space for other’s to be heard is one of the core responsibilities of leadership. Respecting the right of other’s to choose for themselves is just common decency.


 

Joyful Uncertainty

Insert your definition of success here:                                 .

Now, what is one thing – the next thing – you can do to move in that direction? It doesn’t have to be the best possible thing, just the thing that makes the most sense right now, given your present circumstances.

A good rule of thumb to help you decide is that your “next thing” brings you the unmistakable quality of joyful uncertainty.

Joyful because it’s what you want.

Uncertain because you know there are no guarantees.

If it only brings joy, it’s comfortable for you and not a stretch.

If it only brings uncertainty, it’s probably someone else’s agenda.

This is your path, after all, and your path is still being created.

For now, just the next thing.

Keep Going

There is no secret.
Keep going.

{@Oiselle}


It’s easy to chase the silver bullet, the guru, the program, the process, the event, the equation, the one missing piece that will bring everything together and lay before you the clear path on which you will glide through your life.

A couple of times each semester I bring in a guest speaker to talk with my undergraduate students. I bring them in because of their particular expertise, of course, but my secret agenda is to provide my students with more examples of non-linear paths to “success.”

Everyone I know who has achieved his or her definition of that word has done so in a way that defies logical explanation. They have done it for one clear and simple reason; they learned and decided to keep moving forward, to say “yes” to new experiences, along with an occasional “no” to what no longer served them.

In other words, they kept going. They keep going. And that’s what sets them apart.

There is a path for each of us. At its trailhead stands a marker and on that marker is your name. Along the way it is neither clearly marked, nor easily traveled. In fact it is often difficult, stretching out over terrain for which you feel ill equipped and unqualified.

And this is how you know it is yours.

Keep going.


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