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“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

Happy New Year! This is the one year anniversary of my Blog – my musings on an almost monthly basis, about books, articles, poems that have influenced me in some way. I hope that you have enjoyed them.

This Blog post focuses on the poem you have hopefully just read in my New Years e-card and animation: “Dreams” by Langston Hughes. If you didn’t read it, you might want to do so now……

First of all, Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets. The jazz accompaniment in the e-card pays homage to Hughes as one of the founders of the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Continue reading ‘“Dreams” by Langston Hughes’

Reflection time

What happens when we don’t have any time to think?  It seems that I periodically rush from one thing to another without a pause – not a moment to reflect on how I am or why I’m rushing.  And I know that I am not alone. I hear this from my clients as well.  What’s the virtue of knowing “how we are” in any given moment? Some people might call this “contemplating one’s navel,” meaning that it’s self-indulgent. Continue reading ‘Reflection time’

Strengths-based leadership

I was just reviewing a book about the Strengthsfinder Inventory, a tool I like very much and have been using for quite a while with my clients.  (My blog post called Asking for Help also mentions Strengthsfinder.) This particular book is called “Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams and Why People Follow”, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie (2008). Continue reading ‘Strengths-based leadership’

Community: How do I know who my colleagues are?

After my post on Asking for Help, someone who read it commented by asking, “Well, how do I know who my colleagues are?”

Hmmm… interesting question. And in thinking about it, I added other questions: Who can I talk to? Who can I trust? Who can I share ideas with? Who is my community? How do we know and how do we choose? We may live in a “community” or work with others in community and still be asking those questions. Continue reading ‘Community: How do I know who my colleagues are?’

Exploring “failure”

A friend suggested that I write a blog post about “making mistakes” and “failure.” Lo and behold, what should be the subject of the April issue of the Harvard Business Review, but “Failure”, or the “F Word” as Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of HBR, calls it in his issue introduction. (p. 12)

The articles in this issue have helped me realize just how ill equipped we are, as a culture, to cope with being wrong, making an error, or failing in a bigger way. And they point out how that inability to cope makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes. Making mistakes and learning from them is, in my view, a fundamental part of the human condition. In addition, some of the failures described in this HBR issue make me think that we need new language for some of what we call failures in everyday life.

Continue reading ‘Exploring “failure”’

Asking for help

Asking for help is a confusing and difficult proposition for many of us. I notice it in my professional work with clients and in my personal life. What is that about? After all, we have different skills and strengths and different interests. We can easily provide help to one another because of these different strengths and skills.

In fact, the folks who wrote the Strengthsfinder literature, Marcus Buckingham, Donald Clifton and Tom Rath – Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Clifton and Buckingham (2001) and Strengths Finder 2.0 by Rath (2007) – believe that we should not be wasting our time trying to improve our weaknesses, but rather we should concentrate on enhancing and refining our strengths by managing around our weaknesses. One of the ways to do that is to get help from others who are strong in the areas in which we are not.

Yet, we seem to throw up barriers. Here are some that I have heard:

  • I should know how to do this – that’s why they hired me.
  • It’s easier if I do it myself – I can do it better and faster.
  • I am the leader – leaders don’t ask for help.
  • Asking for help means I am weak.
  • I can’t risk the vulnerability that comes with asking for help.
  • If I ask for help, it means that I have to take action that I am not ready to take.
  • I have only so much “currency” with this person or these people; I can’t spend it on this.
  • I don’t want to bother him/her/them…

There are many different kinds of help. We purchase certain kinds through professional services. Edgar Schein in his book, called Helping (2009), believes that the “social and psychological dynamics of helping are the same whether we’re talking about giving directions or coaching an organizational client or taking care of a sick spouse.” He looks at the dynamics of helping from a cultural and sociological view and also says that all helping relationships are “initially unbalanced and ambiguous.”  That view leads to another four reasons, at least, for why we have a hard time asking for help:

  • What will I “owe” this person for helping me?
  • Do I have the wherewithal to reciprocate?
  • I don’t really believe that anyone can help me the way I envision.
  • What if after making myself vulnerable enough to ask, I don’t feel helped?

Now that I have enumerated the myriad reasons why it’s hard to ask for help, I want to put in a plug for the benefits of asking.

As a leader or facilitator of an organization or an initiative, one of the most powerful tools we/you have is to ask for help! Asking for input, asking people to use their strengths for the benefit of the organization, asking people to work with others to address a challenge shows people that you value their contribution.  Folks want to be genuinely involved and invested in the place in which they work. They want to contribute and they want to be useful. And they won’t necessarily offer if you don’t ask. In my mind, there is great strength in showing a certain vulnerability. Let’s be realistic: leaders can’t and don’t know everything. Nor do they make the right decisions all the time. And back to the Strengthsfinder authors: it is smart leadership to use others’ strengths. Leaders are likely to reach better solutions when they have diverse views to consider or trusted people with diverse perspectives contributing to the decision. The benefits outweigh the reasons not to ask.

Asking for collegial and/or personal support may seem even riskier. After all, there are no guarantees that we will be able to or know how to reciprocate; no guarantees we’ll get the help and support we seek and no guarantees that we won’t feel vulnerable.  But I would argue again that the benefits outweigh the risks. Maybe we will redefine reciprocity. Maybe we’ll be surprised with how helpful someone is able to be; maybe someone’s help makes the difference in the outcome of a decision or a problem. And friends and colleagues really want to help; they want to be asked; they want to contribute and they want to be useful.  We need community. We need to hear different perspectives. And I think that the intangible and really precious benefit of asking for help and receiving it is the possibility of deepening our human connection.

Incapable of being indifferent

“Incapable of being indifferent.” This is such an evocative phrase. I borrowed it from Kay Redfield Jamison, (Exuberance, the Passion for Life, 2004). It is the title of a chapter in which she describes the temperaments of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, to whom we owe the legacy of our national park system in this country:  “…exuberant men. Infectiously enthusiastic, stupendously energetic, they left the country a wilder and more beautiful place because of their vision and action…Neither was capable of doing nothing when there was much to be done. Their joy in the wild was contagious to those around them” (p 20).

Drawing by Martha to accompany Incapable of Being IndifferentI have interpreted this phrase in two ways.  The first: being curious about and interested in many aspects of life – people, art, nature, history, science, cooking, golf, computers, engineering, wind and solar power, space travel.  A friend sent me a cartoon recently depicting a young man asking his college advisor if he could major in “the universe.”  I can relate! There is so much to be interested in!

The second interpretation relates to the way we engage with these many intriguing aspects of life.  Engaging with passion, integrity and dedication, being committed to a cause. I am lucky to work with amazing people whom I think of as “incapable of being indifferent.”  They have dedicated themselves to work in nonprofit organizations with a variety of missions — helping children who have been sexually abused, providing  quality child care services,  offering health care, car loans, legal services and housing to individuals and families who would otherwise not be able to afford these services.  And they commit themselves 150%.   I am lucky to know teachers whose commitment to their students, whether elementary school age, college age or adult, is truly inspiring.

This kind of curiosity and passion is life giving and uplifting.  I almost have the feeling that this passionate energy force can fuel a fire or propel a train. The endeavors described above are ones that touch me, in particular.  But I am also moved simply by someone’s energy and integrity even if I don’t share the passion for his/her endeavor. Not all of us achieve the results and/or fame of Roosevelt and Muir, but we can have impact in our own spheres – not to be underestimated. I suppose that this same energy can be used to negative ends…fervor that causes prejudice and bloodshed…but I prefer to focus on the positive energy that brings us together rather than drives us apart, energy that innovates and works towards the greater good.

And I prefer to cultivate appreciation for the joy and sparkle and blessings in daily life.   Stopping to notice. Making sure to connect. Savoring. Engaging.  One more thing though. There is challenge in being incapable of being indifferent. How do we do this with lightness and humor?  How do we use our energy wisely, with generosity and abundance without burning it out and having to close down, thereby diluting the cause? How do we establish priorities for that energy?  Just as not all of us achieve the results and/or fame of Roosevelt and Muir, not all of us have their boundless energy.  Some of us have to set limits, establish priorities and choose the parts of the universe to which we will devote our energies. We have to know our limits, Maybe that’s where the art of living comes in – learning to live, “incapable of being indifferent” and yet judiciously at the same time.

Putting in the time matters

Ever since reading Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, I have been thinking about the notion of “putting in the time.” He says that 10,000 hours are required to reach a master level of expertise. He gives some very compelling examples:

  • The Beatles apparently performed in Germany more than 1,200 times over a period of 4 years (1960-1964).  That’s a lot of time on stage – over 10,000 hours of playing time.  Gladwell says that all of that performing time created their “brand” and accelerated their success.
  • Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming on a mainframe computer in 1968, at age 13.  Gladwell interviewed Gates, who said that early access to a computer contributed to his success.

So how do these examples translate to us in the everyday?  If we recognize that success and excellence require practice, then we take the mystery and “the luck” out of succeeding. Not that I do not believe in mystery and luck… But I do believe that success in a chosen field or endeavor requires commitment, discipline and fortitude.

Think of someone who for years has been championing a cause as a leader of a nonprofit organization. On a daily basis the role of Executive Director of a nonprofit can be exciting and feel intensely worthwhile. But some days, it’s a job, a slog. Doing the work, day in and day out with the accompanying setbacks of scant resources and political turmoil can be exhausting and discouraging. But over time … putting in the time day after day matters. Over 10, 15, 20 years, that everyday slog is an investment in mastery. And it isn’t only mastery. That time also represents an enormous commitment, wisdom and depth of understanding worthy of respect and regard.

Putting in the time to reach that level of mastery and wisdom means staying with the effort even when our energy flags, showing up even when we don’t want to be there, disciplining ourselves to learn something new or partner with someone with new and different ideas. Maybe there are days when we lose sight of the purpose, become tired of the political battles and find ourselves with low energy for writing the funding proposals. Those days require the discipline to stay with it anyway as well as the wisdom to know when to take a break – talk to someone with a fresh perspective, go for a walk in the woods, do whatever it takes to replenish – and the vision to know when it’s time to reconsider the project’s viability.

Working with an idea or a dream or for an important cause takes the courage to stay with the intention. I think that the success of an effort or initiative unfolds slowly. It is not a mystery and although some luck may be involved, change and success are the results of fortitude and “practice.” Putting in the time matters. We don’t often see the achievement on a daily basis; we see it when we look back. Day after day, sometimes slogging, sometimes gliding, sometimes having a breakthrough, sometimes just going through the motions. It all counts. It all matters.

Don’t go back to sleep

Greetings and Happy New Year! Welcome to my new blog.

My first blog post focuses on my thoughts about the poem you may have just read in my New Year’s e-card and animation. If you didn’t read it, you might want to now…… Click here.

What attracts me to this poem?

First, I am always awed when I read Rumi: a window into the consciousness of a man who lived so long ago (1207-1273). I am amazed that his poetry still strikes a chord.

There are two ideas in this poem that interest me.

One is the notion of “threshold.” I think of a threshold as specific and solid as well as mysterious and ephemeral. The literal meaning is “the sill of a doorway; the entrance to a house or building.” Pretty reliable. I see it with my eyes. I can touch it. I enter into the room.

But it also means… “any place or point of entering or beginning.” According to whom, I wonder. I might experience an event as a beginning whereas you might not. Let’s say you take a train from New York to Washington, DC. I get on in Philadelphia. For me, Philly is the beginning of the journey. For you, New York is the beginning. Is there a second beginning for you, when I get in the train? Perhaps, if we are friends. But probably not, if we don’t know one another. My trip from Philadelphia to DC might herald a whole new business opportunity. Or not. Is this a beginning now? How do I tell?

Another definition of “threshold” is, “the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to produce an effect.” This suggests, to me, a surge after a collection of energy… It could be a sad or dangerous threshold: a pain threshold, a threshold of anger, or it could be a happy one: a discovery to benefit the greater good finally comes to fruition after enough research data is collected; or, we cross a threshold together, when enough trust has been earned to transform our friendship into a bonded, loving relationship.

We have just been swept across the threshold, into the New Year of 2011. Yet, the change might still feel ambiguous and dreamy. Some may not have given it a second thought, except to write 2011 instead of 2010. But we have a choice about how we think about this New Year.

That’s where the second idea of interest comes in… “going back to sleep.” Rumi says, “Don’t do it! Don’t go back to sleep.” To me, this means, “stay conscious.” I want to be awake and alert when I cross a threshold, even if it takes me a while to realize that I’ve crossed one. I want to be awake to notice the tender shoots that may be stirring and emerging…so I may nurture them. I am curious to discover the entrances and the energy collecting. Are we about to discover something new or different? I’d like to be aware and attuned to the natural processes of growth, to the beauty of everyday changes, as well as to the awe of significant transformation.

I wish all of you a year of interesting “thresholds” – thresholds that are reliable and easy and obvious to cross as well as thresholds that are dreamy and exciting to decipher. And I wish you many conscious glimpses of the beauty and the awe along the way.

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Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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