Painting Stars

Last week, ragged coming off a long flight and feeling unprepared for a talk I needed to give that evening, I decided go for a run.

Mind you, this is not the kind of thing I’d normally do. My working days are, lately, chopped into 30 minute increments. I look on curiously to my fellow airplane passengers who actually watch movies on the flight as I crack open my laptop. And I’m a big believer that the best way to show respect to your audience and their time is to prepare properly for a talk.

But on this day, I was feeling both tired and under the weather. I couldn’t seem to kick a nagging headache. And, given the time change, I had at least another 10 hours left before calling it a night. It’s not that I really wanted to go for the run either, but it seemed like it would help me kick the headache and I then could get back to work.

You probably can see the punchline coming: there was no trade between the run and the time alone in a cramped hotel room prepping for the talk, because the talk came together on the run itself.

We’ve all seen this happen before, but we tend to dismiss it as the exception rather than the rule. But it turns out that there’s a whole field of creative thought that advocates for parallel creative pursuits as a way to keep creativity flowing. Einstein called this “combinatory play,” and he is famous for having come up with most of his breakthroughs while playing the violin.

Image by Lee White

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, calls combinatory play “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.” She tells the story of Australian writer and poet Clive James who, after a spectacular failure of a play he’d written, got completely stuck creatively for weeks and weeks. Then, one day, one of his daughters asked if he would spruce up her run-down second-hand bicycle, which James agreed to do, painting his girls’ bikes vivid red, the seat posters like barbers’ poles, and,

When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars – a field of exquisitely detailed constellations – all over the bicycles…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle too. He did it…When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another…And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area.

And, lo and behold, somewhere in the midst of painting all of those stars, James figured out that he did want to write again. He got unstuck.

I do, at times, take “a break” – writing a blog post or going for a run or playing the piano – when I feel stuck. But I’d never considered that to be more than a respite, I’d never thought of creativity as something to be actively fed and cultivated.

If anything, it had always seemed that the only way to defeat stuck-ness was with sweat and brute force. Who’d have thought that there’s such a think of intentionally tilling my own creative soil?

It turns out it’s both.

It turns out that having some places where we are unabashedly doing things that bring us joy and allow us to self-express is an integral part to living a creative life—whatever that means to you.

It turns out that we all need small and big moments of painting stars in our lives.

How are you?

Notice how grooved we get in our reply to this question.

Either we respond with an anodyne “Fine thanks. And you?”

Or we use it as a chance to vent about the last three things that went wrong in our day.

Here’s an idea: use this as a moment to consciously, genuinely share the most positive thing that’s happened recently, or one thing you’re looking forward to.

By sharing that emotion and that energy, the person who was kind enough to ask can feel that and pay it forward.

Election Day

I have a lot of hopes and fears going in to this Election Day.

Today does not feel like a choice between two candidates with opposing views, or even between two candidates with opposing values.

Today I feel like democracy, global stability, and the last shreds of decency hang in the balance.

I’ve been trying to make sense of it all these last few months, and I think I have a clearer perspective on how my experiences and situation – including, perhaps most significantly, that I live a major metropolitan area – distance me from huge swaths of the U.S. population. I’ve come to recognize that the feelings of anger, hopelessness, outrage, and the sense that the system is broken, are very real for tens of millions of people. And I’ve come to believe that the pain that this election has exposed is not going away any time soon.

But, try as I may, what I still fail to understand, and where I cannot help but feel sadness and fear, comes down to what I understood to be American values.

I would like to believe that there are immutable truths we hold self-evident as a people and as a nation.

I would like to believe that any individual seeking public office – let alone the highest office in the land – must show that he rejects hatred, he rejects demagoguery, he rejects demeaning women and Hispanics and Muslims and pretty much anyone else who comes in his path.

I would like to believe that we all recognize and remember that we are a country of immigrants, a country of misfits, a country that fled persecution and marginalization to form a more perfect union.

I would like to believe, while our union is very far from perfect and while our language of unity has, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, papered over inconsistencies and outright hypocrisies, that someone who expresses hatred and disrespect isn’t “not politically correct,” he is trampling on core American values.

I would like to believe that Ryan Lenz, the editor of the Hatewatch blog at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is overstating when he says, “For racists in this country, this campaign has been a complete affirmation of their fears, worries, dreams and hopes…Most things they believe have been legitimized, or have been given the stamp of approval, by mainstream American politics to the point now where it’s no longer shameful to be a racist.”

I would like to believe that Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right in 2008, is wrong in crediting Trump with “sling-shott[ing] us a long way” and that he’s wrong when he says that he expects that “we can just look at 2015 and 2016 as the beginning of a new stage.”

And I have to believe that today our nation will show the world that the core values upon which it was founded still remain – albeit under attack and deeply wounded.

I have to believe that today will not be the day that the long march towards tolerance was halted.

I have to believe that we won’t look back at today as the last day that our democracy was strong.

I have to believe that we will remain “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

God Bless America. 

Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

Seth Godin’s Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work

File under: Things I wish I had written & Things to print and have up on the wall.

The question this makes me ask is: is there ever a time that I’m not part of a small team? Is there ever a time when I’m not working on a tight deadline? Is there ever a time when the work isn’t important?

And, if no, then here are the rules of the road around communication, making and keeping promises, having a real Plan B, and keeping it personal, all while remembering not to question goodwill, effort or intent.

Thanks Seth.

A Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work, by Seth Godin

We are always under tight deadlines, because time is our most valuable asset.

If you make a promise, set a date. No date, no promise.

If you set a date, meet it.

If you can’t make a date, tell us early and often. Plan B well prepared is a better strategy than hope.

Clean up your own mess.

Clean up other people’s messes.

Overcommunicate.

Question premises and strategy.

Don’t question goodwill, effort or intent.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” is not a professional thing to say. Describing and discussing in the abstract is what we do.

Big projects are not nearly as important as scary commitments.

If what you’re working on right now doesn’t matter to the mission, help someone else with their work.

Make mistakes, own them, fix them, share the learning.

Cheap, reliable, public software might be boring, but it’s usually better. Because it’s cheap and reliable.

Yesterday’s hierarchy is not nearly as important as today’s project structure.

Lock in the things that must be locked in, leave the implementation loose until you figure out how it can get done.

Mostly, we do things that haven’t been done before, so don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.

Care more.

If an outsider can do it faster and cheaper than we can, don’t hesitate.

Always be seeking outside resources. A better rolodex is better, even if we don’t have rolodexes any more.

Talk to everyone as if they were your boss, your customer, the founder, your employee. It’s all the same.

It works because it’s personal.

Getting through the troughs

I was talking to a nonprofit Executive Director last week about fundraising. We spent most of our time unpacking the heart of every fundraising meeting: the energy you bring into the room.

It’s not just important, it is everything. No matter the words you say, if you say them without the other person being able to feel them then the meeting has already failed.

But what do you do if you’ve had a bad run and you’re not feeling the mojo? Maybe it’s been a tough month or quarter and you can’t seem to put a smile on your face and “stay positive?”

My take is: don’t try to fake it.

Of course you have to be professional, and fundamentally you have to retain your long-term optimism and your deep belief that you’ll get big things done—if you don’t believe in you, no one will. But overly polishing and buffing your delivery will fail most of the time.

Inauthenticity is like a single poisonous drop that contaminates the entire cup of water. Rather than slap on a can-do attitude, bring your truth in that moment into the room. Be willing to lay it bare.

If things are hard, if you are feeling frustrated, if you don’t know how you’re going to storm the next hill, don’t complain, but don’t hide that away. Show faith and trust in the person you’re speaking with; have the confidence to share the real.

Sharing this truth might help you discover what’s really going on, and it will certainly communicate that you need actual help and that this meeting isn’t just another meeting. That’s an honest ask for support that, at a minimum, will be met with humanity and, in most cases, action.

People are craving this sort of connection, and they are more likely to help if they understand that they can, actually, help. Seeing your willingness to be authentic lets them understand the kind of partner you’ll be to them in the long haul—especially when the chips are down.

Transform the spark

There’s a feeling that happens every once in a while…you have a fleeting moment of recognition and hear a quite voice saying there’s something different you could do, right here, right now, in this situation.

Where does that feeling come from?

Its starts with observing and listening with the intent to be changed by your surroundings. This orients you in a different way, allowing you to take notice of things that others are missing.

The moment you see something different, you have the chance to do something different.

This something might be small and it might be heroic. In truth, you probably don’t know what will feel small and what will feel heroic to others, because the quality of this moment has changed thanks to the ‘it’ that only you are seeing.

You might smile or invite someone new into your circle. You might raise your hand for a task that others think they don’t want to slog through. You might anonymously help someone else shine.

When you have a moment like this, the only thing you must be sure to do is act.  Because that moment of observation, that difference in perspective that hit you, is both powerful and fleeting. It’s the action you take that transforms that ephemeral moment of recognition into something tangible that’s experienced by others.

Only then does it begin to ripple out.