The Norm

When my son was a baby, there was a woman in my Mommy/Baby group whose daughter was tiny. Her (white) doctor told her to butter all of her daughter’s food so that she would gain weight, since she was below the low end of the charts for normal weight for babies. The thing is, the mom and dad were both of Asian descent, and were small adults. The scale of “normal” was made for white people of northern European descent. Her baby was totally normal for who she was, and didn’t need any extra butter in her diet.

Being off the scale in the other direction causes problems too. I knew a (black) child who was much larger than other kids his age. Everyone thought he was much older than he was, and assumed he must be slow or stupid or immature. But we expect much different behavior from a 5 year old than from an 8 year old! If a 5 year old looks like he’s 8, we treat him differently and expect different things from him. He was always feeling inadequate and being treated as stupid, just because he was big for his age.

It’s so easy to assume that our own experience is “The Norm.” For example, I’ve only been pulled over by the police twice, and both times it was for something wrong with my car (a light out next to my license plate; tail lights that weren’t hooked up after brake work). So it’s easy to assume that most people don’t get pulled over very often. But some people get pulled over a lot. Is it because they are bad drivers? It’s easy for me to assume that, but it’s not necessarily true. I’ve taked to people who get pulled over for “driving while Black.” Not for speeding, or getting into accidents, or for missing brake lights, but for their skin color.

We teach our children in Kindergarten to have empathy for other people. Just because it doesn’t hurt you to bite your friend, doesn’t mean your friend likes getting bitten. It hurts physically and emotionally to get bitten, doesn’t it? Does that mean we need to bite every kid to show them how it feels? Probably not the best solution. Better to teach kids to understand that other people feel things that we don’t feel – and that they don’t feel what we feel – and that we need to listen to each other to find out what is going on inside another person.

When we don’t learn that very well, we start making harmful assumptions. If I only got pulled over twice in 30 years of driving, and this other person got pulled over ten times this year, that must mean she’s a bad driver, right? Not necessarily. But we need to listen to the people who say they have a different experience than we do, and believe them.

Likewise, a rich white person who assumes that they are the norm, and that everyone starts from a place of power and comfort, can only assume that if someone is poor and miserable then they did something to deserve that. They made poor decisions or were somehow bad people. After all, aren’t I doing okay? And isn’t everyone just like me?

First image on Google for “norm”

It takes imagination to picture yourself in someone else’s shoes. It takes reading books about other people’s experiences, and watching movies, and seeing art, and talking to other people. It means knowing other people! Mixing with people of different backgrounds and heritages, and really listening to them. It means giving up one’s own certainty that we know how things really are, to hear how they are for someone else.

My son has a book called “The Only One Club.” The child in the book is the only Jewish kid in the whole class, and feels isolated and weird. The whole class figures out, over time, that every kid has something about them that only they have – the only one with all his adult teeth, the only one with divorced parents, the only one with a twin, etc. I like this book because it normalizes being not part of the norm.

It is so much easier for the people on the outside to see the differences. The poor person says hey, it’s not so easy for me to get child care, or afford college. The black person says hey, I get pulled over a lot more than whites do. The gay person says hey, I can’t marry the person I love. The people who are rich, and white, and straight, and Christian, don’t see how they skew everything until it’s pointed out to them. Heck, even white women aren’t seen as the norm – medical research on things like heart attacks is mostly done on men, so women’s symptoms aren’t always recognized. The people doing the research assume the norm is who they are, and don’t always account for the differences between people.

This is one reason representation is so very important. When the people running the government, and Hollywood, and the police, and the schools, and the doctors, all look the same, they tend to assume they are the norm and anyone outside the norm is bad. But what if they’re just small, or big, or female, or dark, or light, or whatever, and that’s normal for them? When there’s more representation, more norms are seen, and more norms are tolerated and understood, and more people are accepted as who they are. This is why I saw Black Panther on opening weekend – I’m white, but I want to see black super heroes. I want to see Asian, and Hispanic, and African, and European, and Pacific Islander, and Native American super heroes. I want to see Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian, and Atheist, and Agnostic, and Buddhist, and Hindu people in government, schools, hospitals, police, and movies. I want people to see that there is no one thing that is NORMAL.

There are still ways I don’t see how I skew things to fit myself. I feel embarrassed and stupid when I see how I contribute to keeping the status quo. I’m not saying it will be easy to convince those in charge that they are wrong or unfair. It is difficult for anyone to admit they are wrong, and even more so for people with fragile or inflated egos. I think though that the more visible all the differences are, the more we see #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, the more our culture will expand to allow for all of us. Doctors will learn different heart attack symptoms, and stop telling Asian moms to butter all their baby’s food. Police will stop focusing on skin color when more skin colors are represented on the force. Women will be accepted into traditionally male jobs when we see women in the movies doing all these jobs. We can elect non-Christian officials and not see our country eaten up in the flames of Hell. The more it happens, the more it can happen, and the better all our lives become.

What You Focus On, Grows

I wrote this quote when I realized how different exercise feels to me when I focus on the pain in my muscles, the pain in my lungs, the feeling of inadequacy, and the feeling of punishment, versus when I focus on the joy of being alive, the air flow through my lungs, the feeling of growing strength, and the feeling of gratitude for all the parts of me that work. Do I focus on the pain, or do I focus on the fun?

There’s a Native American idea that goes something like this:

A grandfather is telling his grandson that inside every person there are two wolves. One wolf represents the fear, pain, resentment, and anger a person feels. This wolf thrives on putting others down, holding grudges, being defensive, and hurting others. The other wolf represents the love, joy, gratitude, and compassion a person feels. This wolf thrives on giving to others, remembering kindnesses, having compassion for people’s pain, and lifting each other up. These two wolves battle each other inside all of us. The boy asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

It’s interesting to me that modern neuroscience is reinforcing these ancient beliefs. I had this conversation with my son recently:

Him: Mommy, I wish I could erase some of my memories from my mind.

Me: Do you want to know what scientists say about memories? They say that memories exist in our brains because we think of them over and over. The more we think of them, the stronger the neural connections there are, and the faster and easier it is to remember them. We can’t get rid of these connections, but we can make other connections stronger than the ones we want to forget. We know from asking people not to think of pink elephants that when we try not to think of something all we can think about is that thing. We’re both thinking of pink elephants now! But if we think of something else, something we like, we can make that thought stronger than the memory you don’t want to have, and the memory will fade.

Him: Great! I’m going to think about Minecraft!

Do you see the shadow, or do you see the sun?

Do you focus on the pain, or do you focus on the fun?

The moment is the same; your attention chooses one.

What do you choose?

When 7-Year-Olds Are In Charge

Imagine this: You’re around 7 years old. You are in a classroom. Your teacher asks you to come up to the blackboard to spell a word: Antidisestablishmentarianism. You’ve never heard of it, and have no idea how to spell it. How do you feel? Probably embarrassed at your lack of spelling chops, humiliated that you have to expose your ignorance, angry that you’re being put on the spot, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

Fast forward. You’re now an adult, in a business meeting. The boss has been hearing from the same three people for half an hour and needs a new perspective on the thing they’re discussing. They (I’m going to say ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ because it’s easier and I don’t want to imply all bosses are either ‘he’ or ‘she’ by picking one. I’m sorry for the singular/plural disagreement.) call on you. How do you feel? Maybe you don’t think anyone’s idea is particularly good, but you don’t have a better one to offer. Maybe you haven’t been listening because it’s been the same stuff over and over, and you’re thinking about lunch. Chances are good that your inner 7-year-old will take over – you’ll feel embarrassed to be put on the spot, humiliated that you have nothing to offer, angry that you had no warning, afraid of being laughed at or yelled at….

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The thing is, the boss had the best of intentions. They wanted to hear from more people, get more ideas, even the beginning of an idea to start a new conversation. But the person being called on is suddenly in fight/flight/freeze mode and can’t come up with anything intelligent to say. Everyone feels frustrated. No ideas come out. Another meeting wasting more time with no outcome.

Does this sound familiar? I know my inner 7-year-old comes out at times. Often when I need to do something very adult and responsible like call clients or speak on stage. I feel afraid and embarrassed and very, very young. It can be a real challenge to remember that I’m an adult now, that I’ve got this, that my inner child is safe, and my adult self can handle whatever comes my way.

In the meeting example above, often the person being put on the spot doesn’t have the chance to collect themselves before needing to respond. What can a meeting group do to help them out?

I’m so glad you asked! First of all, treat all questions and comments with respect and lightness. That is – if the boss yells at people for asking dumb questions, no one will ask questions. If group members grumble that their precious time is being wasted answering dumb questions, no one will ask questions. Then, when a single question could change the course of the company, no one will ask it and the company could go under. It really is that dire. Every question needs to be treated with respect – no put-downs, no grumbles, have a real honest desire to answer seriously. However, some questions are veiled grumbles or put-downs themselves, and these don’t need to be taken seriously. But you can’t put them down either, or the more 7-year-old-inclined of the group will retreat. So humor and compassion are key.

Next, reassure the person who is staring at you like a deer in the headlights that their answer isn’t life or death. Ask them to start a conversation, not have complete answers. That’s what the team is there for – to come up with a stronger answer together than anyone can do on their own. Is anything feeling off for you? Do you have any concerns? What sounds right about this plan? In your experience, will this work? Tell us about your doubts. We can help flesh it all out.

Note how different this is from: if you see a flaw in the plan, it’s your responsibility to fix it. Or, if you think there’s something wrong, what do you think is the right thing? These types of responses make people much less likely to say anything. Too much pressure, too much responsibility, too much extra work.

Another strategy: assume any problem or mistake is just data, not failure. People do NOT like to fail. Having one’s mistakes scrutinized is very painful and likely to bring out the 7-year-old in us. Having one’s mistakes seen as information about what works and what doesn’t takes some of the sting out of it. And seeing that data as a piece of a new brainstorming session can help move it into a positive new idea.

Leaders who are sensitive to the emergence of our inner 7-year-olds can make a world of difference to the people who follow them. People who assume everyone around them is as tough as a Navy Seal will squash new ideas left and right. People are just grown-up little kids, at least some of the time, and having our inner children be respected and not humiliated will bring out loyalty and great new ideas. I pinky promise.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

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People need to see you make it safe to participate. If they don’t see you do it, they won’t do it either.

I was reading the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. One section really caught my attention. He was talking about why things that are public and easily observable catch on more than things that are private. People use other people to judge the value of things. If someone rejects a kidney, other people will think it’s a sub-par kidney and reject it even if they need one to survive. Even in preschool, children play with the toys that other children play with. And – if no one asks a question after a presentation, then no one else will either. They will think no one else is confused, so they won’t admit they are either.

“Behavior is public and thoughts are private.” (p. 134) If you want to make your work place a safe place to speak up, then people need to see behavior that supports that. People need to see that you don’t shame people who ask questions, that you thank people for bringing up opposing views, that you ask for more opinions and don’t want people to just say what you say.

If the boss can do all this, that’s best. If the boss doesn’t, then rank and file people can do it too. It helps if there’s more than just one. The more observable behavior people see, the more they can imitate. So even if you don’t see other people doing it, you can be the shining example that lets others know it’s okay to challenge bigotry, or it’s desirable to question the way things have always been done. Get a friend to back you, and the behavior you model may in fact become contagious.

In other news: I will need to miss next week’s blog. Back in two weeks!

Death of a Pet

My cockatiel died this week. She was 22 years old, with a life expectancy of 12-15 years, so she lived a long life. I’d like to think it was a happy one, too. Her death has me thinking about life and death, and I want to share some thoughts with you.

Toby[1]

I considered writing about what you are doing with your one precious life. I thought about writing about holding your dear ones close and telling them you love them. I even pondered writing about unconditional love. Instead, I want to write about prey animals.

My bird was a small bird, and in the wild she would have been preyed on by larger animals. So she was wired to not show weakness. She knew that looking weak could mean being singled out of the flock, so she never told me when she was hurting.

I knew something was up because the feathers where she broke her wing 17 years ago were growing in wrong, and when she preened them she squawked. But I have no idea if she hurt the rest of the time. If I knew, I could have done something about it. I could have taken her to the vet, gotten medicine, gotten work done on the amputated tip of her wing, something that could give her relief. But she didn’t tell me.

When I was a kid, I didn’t tell people either. I tried, but got shut down so many times I figured I was safer not saying anything. I was a sensitive kid, and a lot of things hurt me. I kept being told to toughen up, not be so sensitive, get over it, etc. So I stopped admitting things hurt. I stopped showing up, because saying the wrong thing could get me attacked. I felt like keeping my head down was the safest thing to do.

It may have been the safest option at the time – it’s hard to tell now, and I don’t want to argue with anything that let me survive. Now, however, not showing up has some pretty big costs. It means losing a part of myself. Not offering my gifts to the world. Not being seen, not being befriended, not being loved. I am an adult, no longer a prey animal, now big enough to do hunting of my own. I don’t want to give anyone else the feeling they aren’t safe around me – but I also don’t want to lose my voice again. I will stand strong.

So, this week I am saying goodbye to my long time friend and pet. She taught me a lot about birds. I would wake up early to take her out of the cage and let her walk on me, peck at my freckles, turn her head so I could scratch all the right places on her head and neck. I miss her. And I honor her by being the most vivid, honest, biggest, brightest, most courageous me that I can be. I love you Toby. Rest in peace.

Revising Our Thinking (Advanced Problem Solving)

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This quote has always struck me as both wise and difficult to do something about. On the one hand, the thinking we have now is what led us to consequences, perhaps unintended, that are causing problems. On the other hand – how do you change how you think? Thoughts are just there, like air.

Actually, it turns out that thoughts can change. I think this is fascinating stuff.

First step – pause. If there’s no pause, there’s no chance to question. We believe what we think because it’s always there, informing everything we experience. If we can take a breath, stop the knee-jerk reaction, pause before moving ahead, it gives us a chance to do something different.

One way to practice the pause is to meditate. One school of meditation suggests that you notice what you are thinking, and then let it go. Aim for total quiet in the brain. Thoughts and feelings will come through, and rather than getting snagged in them, just let them pass. This takes practice, and honestly, doesn’t work all the time. When I meditate, I spend plenty of time thinking. But even a little practice in letting the thought be separate from the thinking of it helps create a pause. Seriously, even 3 minutes once a week.

Second step – question. I’m going to quote the wikipedia page about Byron Katie for this:

Byron Katie’s method of self-inquiry, The Work, consists of four questions and what she calls turnarounds, which are ways of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. The questions are: 1. Is it true? 2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? 4. Who would you be without the thought?

Contemporary neuroscience identifies a particular part of the brain, sometimes called “the interpreter,” as the source of the familiar internal narrative that gives us our sense of self. This discovery, based on solid experimental work, show that we tend to believe our own press releases.

If we can question our own thoughts, we can start to figure out where they might be right, where they might be wrong, where they might be more compassionate, where they might be more expansive, etc.

Pause, and question. How often do we do this in our own lives?

I’m going to tell you a parenting story. My son has sensory processing issues, which means he’s sensory seeking a lot of the time. He was playing with a toy on a string, enjoying the feeling of it swinging around his head, swinging against furniture, swirling around on the floor and against the edge of another toy. All that swinging was driving me crazy. I saw the floor being scratched. I saw the toy about to hit things on shelves, about to sweep the papers off my desk, about to hit me. I kept asking him to stop, and he didn’t stop. I was getting madder and madder.

This time, hallelujah and hooray, I remembered to pause, and question. I took a break, went outside, and asked myself what was going on. I helped myself remember that my kid gets hooked by how things feel. He wasn’t continuing to swing the damn thing around in order to piss me off, he was doing it because he liked how it felt. It was hard for him to stop because it fed something in his brain. I had a choice how I responded. I’ve tried yelling, I’ve tried grabbing the toy away, and these things don’t usually end well. What other choices did I have?

Once I calmed down, I went back inside. I told him he could use the toy on a string in a certain area, but not in others, because he could damage things. He agreed, and after a while was done swinging it around and moved on to something else. Relationship preserved, boundaries enforced with kindness, no yelling. What a difference. Pausing, and questioning.

I think it can be unnerving to be still and open to new ideas. It’s much easier and more comfortable to just be Right. All. The. Time. But we can’t solve our problems with our current thoughts and frames of reference. If we are open to new ideas, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. It’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a vessel for new ideas flowing in. (That may be another blog post.) But how wonderful to find a new solution!

Where have you paused, and questioned? What happened?

Grownups Need Play Too

When you search for information about play, you come up with a lot of information about the benefit of play for children. Children learn how to be adults through play, just like puppies learn how to be hunters through play. Play helps children learn, practice social interactions, and figure the world out.

One World Futbol

This video shows the power of playing with a ball. The confidence, strength, and joy that can come from physical and team play. But it’s still focused on youth.

What about adults? Do adults have all the confidence, strength, joy, community, and learning they will every need? (Ha!) Adults also need play to give them a myriad of results – friends, health, mental stimulation, practice with difficult situations, excitement, possibility, hope, and acceptance.

More and more, people are realizing the importance of play for the personal lives of adults:

A quick search on line for “importance of play for adults” includes: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/11/15/the-importance-of-play-for-adults/, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199907/the-power-play, http://firstthings.org/the-importance-of-play-for-adults/, https://www.verywell.com/stress-management-the-importance-of-fun-3144588

However, play and work are still thought of as opposites. Play is good to help people be less stressed, but the work place must be serious.  There are a few exceptions:

Play at work

Playing at work

Many dot-com companies have long recognized the link between productivity and a fun work environment. Some encourage play and creativity by offering art or yoga classes, throwing regular parties, providing games such as Foosball or ping pong, or encouraging recess-like breaks during the workday for employees to play and let off steam. These companies know that more play at work results in more productivity, higher job satisfaction, greater workplace morale, and a decrease in employees skipping work and staff turnover.

If you’re fortunate enough to work for such a company, embrace the culture; if your company lacks the play ethic, you can still inject your own sense of play into breaks and lunch hours. Keep a camera or sketch pad on hand and take creative breaks where you can. Joke with coworkers during coffee breaks, relieve stress at lunch by shooting hoops, playing cards, or completing word puzzles together. It can strengthen the bond you have with your coworkers as well as improve your job performance. For people with mundane jobs, maintaining a sense of play can make a real difference to the work day by helping to relieve boredom.

Using play to boost productivity and innovation

Success at work doesn’t depend on the amount of time you work; it depends upon the quality of your work. And the quality of your work is highly dependent on your well-being.

Taking the time to replenish yourself through play is one of the best things you can do for your career. When the project you’re working on hits a serious glitch, take some time out to play and have a few laughs. Taking a pause for play does a lot more than take your mind off the problem. When you play, you engage the creative side of your brain and silence your “inner editor,” that psychological barrier that censors your thoughts and ideas. This can often help you see the problem in a new light and think up fresh, creative solutions.

Playing at work:

  1. keeps you functional when under stress
  2. refreshes your mind and body
  3. encourages teamwork
  4. increases energy and prevents burnout
  5. triggers creativity and innovation
  6. helps you see problems in new ways

Tips for managers and employers

It’s tempting to think that the best way to cope with an ever-increasing workload is to have your employees work longer and harder. However, without some recreation time, it’s more likely the work will suffer and your workers become chronically overwhelmed and burned out. Encouraging play, on the other hand, creates a more lighthearted work atmosphere that in turn encourages employees to take more creative risks.

  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among employees. Throw parties, put a basketball hoop in the parking lot, arrange a miniature golf tournament, stage an office treasure hunt.
  • Encourage creative thinking or just lighten the mood of meetings by keeping tactile puzzles on the conference room table.
  • Encourage workers to take regular breaks from their desks, and spend a few minutes engaged in a fun activity, such as a word or number game.

from:  http://www.helpguide.org/articles/emotional-health/benefits-of-play-for-adults.htm

 

Even here, however, play is something separate from work. What if play could be utilized as a part of work? Yes, I’m talking about LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. How did you guess? LSP lets people play their way to serious results. One case study is described here:

Case Study

As you can see, play was an integral part of finding a serious solution.

So often I find I need to talk about the benefits of the work I do without mentioning play because I don’t want to scare people off. I can help your team work better together, communicate better, be more efficient, solve problems that need everyone’s brain working together – but I save my methodology til later. LSP can provide serious work results, and I don’t want it to be dismissed because toys are involved.

I find it interesting that I also end up feeling very serious when I talk about play. I just re-read my post, and I’m very earnest! I am also learning how to incorporate playfulness into serious work. How do you do it? I’d love to hear!