I have nothing to say

Most of the time, most ideas worth writing about don’t show up fully formed at the precise moment we stare at a blank sheet of paper.

Indeed, if we expect all of our useful, original ideas to show up only after we settle into the chair, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration.

The ideas come at other moments.  Our job is to remain curious and attentive, so that we stop for long enough to notice our glimpses of passionate insight, of outraged exasperation or of simple, concise observation.

When these moments occur, we must hold on to them for long enough to write down the feelings we have, the core of the insight, and a few scratches about how the argument will flow.

Once that’s done, the writing boils down to the relatively simpler act of putting words around the thoughts so others can see them too.

Kart #7

This past weekend I was the chaperone for my son and 24 of his friends for a go kart racing birthday party. The boys raced in groups of eight for the first hour or so, and then a few of them started to drop out or take breaks, so I raised my hand to jump in to one of the groups.

After I finished my race, an old friend who was on sidelines laughed as he chided me, “Wow, you really crushed those 13 year olds!”

It’s true, my competitive instincts had mingled with the smell of gasoline and the purring of the kart’s 25hp engine, and I’d driven to win. And win I did.

As I was bantering with my son and his buddies about my old man driving skills, a few of them quipped that Kart #7, which I had raced, was “much faster than all the other karts.”

(That may be, I thought, but that doesn’t explain why I kept lapping them. I’m just a much more experienced and better driver).

Near the end of the party, the last race rolled around and there was one empty kart left. By that point, my son, the birthday boy, had switched to Kart #7. As I buckled myself into another kart, I smiled at him jokingly and said, “Now you’ll see that it’s all about my driving skills!”

It’s true, I did win race #2. By a little bit. In the first race I’d finished nearly two laps to each one of theirs, while in the second race I might have passed everyone once.

But if you’d asked me after Race 1, I would have said that most of my success was due of my driving skill, and that Kart #7 might be a tiny bit faster. What I learned after Race #2 was that most of the difference was because Kart #7 was a lot faster, and I’m a tiny bit of a better driver than a bunch of 13 year olds.

I can’t help but wonder the extent to which many of the differences in the ways we see the world result from misattribution of the credit we deserve for our own successes. It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.

The truth is that the veil of our own privilege is one of the the hardest veils to remove. Privilege is not something we can see all at once, and sometimes I wonder if we ever have enough perspective to see it fully.

Harder still, once we spot it, is to figure out what to do with it: the world neither needs us to apologize for all that we have been given nor to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Rather our job is to see ourselves – and others – as fully as we can, and then to use all our abilities and good luck and the gifts we have been given to make manifest the better, more just world in which we so deeply believe.

That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

Havdalah Reflection

muslim-ban_havdalah

This weekend, I went with my family to the Havdalah service at our temple. Havdalah is a celebration of the end of the Sabbath, a quiet, simple, beautiful service that ends with extinguishing an interwoven candle in a cup of wine.

We were there with other Fourth Grade parents to watch the kids reenact Havdalah Hispana, a study of the Sephardic Jewish traditions that flourished in Spain. The kids spoke about the hundreds of years of convivencia, peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in Spain from the eighth Century until 1492, the start of the Spanish Inquisition.

At the end of the service, standing holding hands in a circle surrounded by friends and strangers, practicing shared rituals, I felt safer, more at home, and a part of something bigger than myself.

And at that moment I couldn’t help but think how, at that same moment, in every single mosque in all of the United States, congregants were probably feeling less safe, less certain, less secure. That is why I am so angry, and why what is happening feels so counter to the ideals and the values for which this country stands.

And I ask myself:

Do the people supporting the Muslim Ban not understand the impact of what they are doing?

Or do they not care?

Or worse, is this exactly what they want?

The answer to these questions will help us understand the best ways to respond.

 

Mass protests, surgical precision, the right message

While I’m no expert in DC politics or protest movements, it feels impossible to do anything other than reflect on what’s happed in the US over the last few days, and try to make sense of how best to fight a new Administration that shows such blatant and unmitigated disrespect for anything other than its own ill-informed, hate-filled views. (Warning: this post will ramble more than most.)

To start, I’m struck and inspired by the power of the mass protests that broke out. This weekend’s demonstrations at airports around the US were both immediate and spontaneous, which made me feel, happily, that public, large-scale resistance will be the new normal.  A new standard of civic engagement would be a great thing in both the short-term (holding the line on policies) and the long-term (by creating a much more engaged and empowered population). This, combined with the ACLU’s immediate and effective actions that resulted in a nearly-immediate judicial response, is a template for future resistance.

Second, while mass protest is one important ingredient, we must remember, in the midst of our passion and our outrage, to keep our wits about us. While there are nuances of the inner workings of power and politics in DC that are foreign to me, one thing that has to happen is for a small number of elected Republican officials to feel that the cost of supporting unacceptable and un-American policies is too high (whether they take a stand because of principles or pragmatism doesn’t matter much). We must identify these individuals, understand what motivates them to act, and then engage in the actions that directly raise the cost of continuing to play along with the current nonsense. This is the kind of surgical precision that could quickly limit the power of the Executive Branch.

And third, the message. Hillary was ultimately brought down by a simple and repeatable storyline that had to do with an email server, Bengazi, and “corruption” at the Clinton Foundation. There might have been additional details, but the message that the people on the fence repeated to me was always short and simple. One risk in taking on the current administration is to be sucked into each individual battle while losing sight of a simple, repeatable counter-narrative that has just 3-5 headlines, not a hundred. “Alternative facts” feels like it’s already on the short list just a week in. What else will be the defining narrative that the opposition writes of this administration?

Beyond these three ideas, a few other reflections from this weekend, with no attempt to connect them to each other:

  • Steve Bannon is clearly Emperor Palpatine to Trump’s Darth Vader. Palpatine lurked in the shadows, was nearly all-powerful, and was always strategic. Vader was the figurehead, but he was flawed, stunted in his development, and he never showed much subtlety. But Palpatine was the guy who was really in charge. Whenever this administration does something outrageous, one must come up with a “why” on the assumption that there was a reason. So, while I wasn’t surprised, given Bannon’s record of anti-Semitism, that the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day excluded mention of Jews, I let myself be outraged and forgot (until today) to think about the “why” behind it. Was this an intentional anti-Semitic nod to Bannon’s/Trump alt-right base? Was it part of a storyline that they’ll also create against Black Lives Matter? Did it have to do with Israel? An angry response isn’t good enough, we must understand the motives behind the actions if we are to respond effectively. (Similarly, why did the Administration include, against the advice of counsel, green card holders in the Muslim travel ban? Maybe it was a mistake and the protests were unexpected, but it could just as easily have been an intentional strategy so that the pull-back – which still leaves the US with a policy that’s both stupid and un-American – looks good by comparison).
  • I think it’s possible that a lot of good people just don’t know enough Muslims well enough to understand that this feels like an attack on all Muslims, especially those living in the US who woke up on Sunday feeling less safe and more fearful. A Muslim friend shared how Muslim friends of hers living in the Midwest, surrounded by a sea of Trump supporters were feeling more isolated than ever. It made me wonder if the appropriate response – if you have the strength for it– is to find a kind, good Trump supporter and speak to them in personal terms about how quickly what it feels like to be Muslim in America has changed. It’s a lot harder to spout generalized hatred when a person you know and like says, “This is what this feels like to me.” My personal experience is that, as a Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors, the parallels between what’s going on now and what happened in the U.S. in the 1940s are chilling. And while I don’t yet personally feel less safe today, the line that I felt was crossed this weekend was one in which the President of the United States communicated wholesale prejudice against an entire religion and, in so doing, validated that kind of thinking and that mindset for millions of his supporters. This was underlined for me in the seven horrible minutes I spent reading David Duke’s Twitter feed this weekend, which, outside of making me feel physically ill, gave me a glimpse of a bile that I naively thought was no longer tolerated in modern America and which now seems like it being given voice by the President of the United States of America and his staff. This is terrifying and it threatens the very foundation of our democracy and the values upon which this country was founded.

And finally, my favorite sign from the weekend.

first-they-came-for-the-muslims

They

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t understand.

They are too set in their ways.

They are too persuaded by that one person.

They don’t trust me enough.

They don’t share my vision.

They don’t know what I know.

They aren’t willing to go out on a limb with me.

Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.

Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.

Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?

Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.