The only place where things are real

I hope you will set aside 20 minutes and take in what is a perfect introduction to David Whyte‘s work. A poet and philosopher, and a longtime consultant to leading organizations, he begins by talking about the “conversational nature of reality.” It’s a phrase that may seem esoteric but the meaning of which is fundamental to your experience as a parent, a partner, an employee, a leader, a friend and any other present or future role you can imagine.

Early in the talk he says, “The conversational nature of reality is the fact that whatever you desire of the world — whatever you desire of your partner in a marriage or a love relationship, whatever you desire of your children, whatever you desire of the people who work for you or with you, or your world — will not happen exactly as you would like it to happen.

But equally, whatever the world desires of us — whatever our partner, our child, our colleague, our industry, our future demands of us, will also not happen. And what actually happens is this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. And this frontier of actual meeting between what we call a self and what we call the world is the only place, actually, where things are real.”

I hear this as an invitation to a third way…one that is about engagement with the unknown rather than the seduction and false security of yes/no, this or that thinking and acting. This requires the capacity to sit in complexity…messiness…precisely when we – when I – want my work and relationships to unfold in neat and tidy, measurable and manageable pieces.

The poems he recites are from a collection called “Pilgrim.” And the work that first made me a fan is called “The Heart Aroused.”

You Have To Explain About the Thread

“The Way It Is”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford –

I was captivated this week by the most recent episode of the podcast, This American Life. Specifically, a segment featuring the magicians Penn and Teller describing their process of developing a new trick. Teller, the conspicuously silent partner, has fallen in love with the idea of recreating a classic floating ball and hoop routine. Penn is less enthusiastic, as in not at all. As Teller works and works to make the trick worthy of their show by the standard they have agreed to over 40 years of collaboration he falls short time and again.

A breakthrough comes when they agree that the way to make the trick compelling to both themselves and their audience is to let the audience in on it from the very beginning. The trick begins with Penn’s announcement: “The next trick is done with just a piece of thread.”  And off goes Teller, beautifully and brilliantly manipulating a ball with nothing more than a piece of thread.

What Penn and Teller understood and acted upon – after years of work on one specific illusion – is what William Stafford implores us to do in the poem above: “You have to explain about the thread.” 

I am often in a position to do exactly that. In the classroom or at a speaking engagement I am frequently asked about my own thread. Why do I do what I do? How did I get started? What are the steps I took from there to here? I always respond in the same way, that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with my life when I was 17 years old. A bright red thread emerged through my experiences in musical performance and student leadership. I was intuitively aware that the abilities developed and practiced in those early settings were the strengths I would call on throughout my adult life. I held onto the thread through the first few years of college but lost it completely once I had to marry my intuitive sense of it to the harshly practical world of “knowing what you want to do with your life.” I didn’t know how to manifest my nascent understanding of my thread into a next step. And I was too afraid to explain about the thread. I wasn’t willing to say, “This is my thread. I don’t know much about it but I do know a few important things, not least of which is that it’s mine. Will you please help me figure out where it leads?”

Instead, I let it slip away. As it turns out, it did not let go of me. We played peekaboo on occasion, a flirtation here and there, but it took over 10 years and an extraordinary confluence (aka, the thread working hard behind the scenes) of people and events to land me in front of a classroom of aspirational leaders. The specifics of that first class are hazy because my memory is dominated by the aliveness I felt at having my hands on the thread once again.

Most recently, my thread has led me to the college classroom and the opportunity to teach and mentor undergraduate students. The thread has a solid sense of humor. It says, “You struggled to claim me as your own. Others struggle, too. Here is your chance to help a few people struggle a little less, to find the thread a little earlier, and to gain the confidence and declare their commitment to hang on.”

There is no “magic.” There is finding your thread and there is holding onto your thread because “while you hold it you can’t get lost.” There is demonstrating to all who cannot see it that what looks like magic is just your commitment to trust where it will lead. Sometimes, like Teller performing for a full house, we hang on with artistry and elegance. Sometimes, like Teller in the early days of practice, we hang on in spite of our fumbling because our curiosity compels us to learn where it wants to go.  And sometimes we don’t hang on at all. But it is there, waiting to dispel the illusion that we can find our way without it.

What is your thread? Where is it leading?
Who have you explained it to? Who have you asked for help?
What makes it hard to hang on?
Is there someone whose thread confuses you?
Will you listen to them explain about the thread?

For further reading, here’s another reflection on “The Way It Is” by Parker Palmer.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

You Don’t Fear People Whose Story You Know

20130316-155255.jpg“Ask: ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.

Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”

Turning to One Another,” Margaret Wheatley

You do not have to be good.

flying_canada_geese

Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting, for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing, as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

The Poetry of Leadership

My first blog was called “Specimen Life,” a name I borrowed from the introduction to John Updike’s autobiography in which he wrote: “…my autobiography is my attempt to treat this life…as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in the world…”

My hope, through my writing, was to demonstrate the “universality of the personal.” That by using my own experiences of learning and leadership in my writing I would speak to and resonate with others in a deeper way. As my writing evolved, this is exactly what happened. I found that the more personal my expression became the more specifically and personally it spoke to my readers. They got it, not because they had “been there” or “done that” but because we are all human beings and we get what it means to be in the human experience.

I was heartened then, to read Sofia Starnes’s, Poet Laureate of Virginia, recent letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal in response to a piece which heralded the death of poetry. She writes: “…(the author) fails to appreciate the universality of the personal. Poems always are personal. After all, personhood—beautiful, intimate—is what we all share.”

And, as I tend to do, I started to think about how this commentary on the deeply personal, deeply beautiful and intimate nature of poetic expression, is also a commentary on the best kind of leadership.

Isn’t it true – doesn’t it absolutely have to be true? – that you are more likely to follow someone who sees you as more alike than different? Who relies on your shared experience as a common ground from which to collaborate in the creation of something remarkable? Who respects that at the very center of your common ‘personhood’ is the beauty and intimacy that is the source of creative expression?

Don’t you want to follow someone who just makes you feel more alive?