Out Of Balance

My son is sick. He is being very dramatic about it, too, whining and flopping on chairs instead of standing up, sniffling loudly and moaning about how much his head hurts. I think I’m getting his cold, and I want to declare how icky and tired I feel too.

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What is interesting to me is how bad we feel because our bodies are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. The symptoms we have are there because our bodies are fighting off infection, and the runny nose, fever, and cough are there to get the invaders out of the body or burn them to death. Our bodies feel out of whack because there has been an extreme test that requires an extreme reaction before we reset to normal.

It’s an odd perspective to say we feel icky because everything is going right. It sure feels like something is terribly wrong – and I suppose the invading germs are wrong – but our bodies reactions are exactly right.

What if this were a metaphor? Is there another place where things are out of balance and feel wrong? I’m tempted to say that the current political climate feels terrible because a poison has been introduced – hate, intolerance, injustice, etc. – and the tumult that is resulting – protests, marches, lawsuits, rioting, etc. – is the body politic’s response to the disease. It is absolutely the right thing to happen, and should happen more, to drive the poison out of our system. Even thought things feel scary and dangerous, it’s more dangerous not to fight back.

Each of us is our own white blood cell attacking intolerance in our own environment. Each of us has the option to speak up when we see injustice in action. We are stronger when there are more of us. No one can do our job for us – we are an army of individuals addressing what we see as we see it.

Sometimes we will get things wrong. Some of us might interpret others actions incorrectly, or through fear-tinted lenses, and attack the wrong people. Other times we might not be as aggressive as we should be because we fear for our own safety or we don’t know what to do or say. At times we will just sit down and give up because it all feels so uncomfortable and out of whack. We may complain more than we act. All of that is normal, and human, and forgivable, as long as we get back into the fight.

The health of the entire nation is at risk, here. It’s not just the immigrants, or people of color, or Muslims, or whatever other group has been targeted. The culture of fear and hatred this poison is spreading will harm all of us. We can’t pretend not to be affected, even if we are not the group being targeted for prison or deportation. All of us need to fight to the best of our abilities for compassion, tolerance, kindness, compromise, mediation, coming together, helping each other, finding ways to live together in peace and justice. Isn’t that the American way?

Is that my monkey?

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When I first heard this Polish saying I thought it was brilliant! It’s so easy to get pulled into other people’s drama. It’s nice to have a reminder of what is and isn’t mine to deal with.

But what about self-drama? What things are coming from my brain that just aren’t true? “I’m not creative.” “I have no self-discipline.” “I can’t do that because of my background.” There is a lot of poo being flung around a lot of monkey minds because we mistake these messages for truth just because we think them.

We have talked about the idea of being creative or not in previous posts, and I will continue to discuss it in future posts. For the next, I’d like to quote Blake Boles from The Art of Self-Directed Learning: “Self-discipline isn’t some universal attribute that you either have or don’t. It’s a product of matching your actions to the work that’s most important in your life.” So if you can’t get started on a project, think about if you would feel worse if you never did it because a part of you would die, or if you’re doing this because of someone else’s circus needs. If it’s not your monkey, go find your circus and dedicate yourself to that.

Even bigger – we’re talking chimpanzee size, not spider monkey – is having a fixed or growth mindset. To quote Boles quoting Carol Dweck:

“People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that….So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things – not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan – without years of passionate practice and learning.”

Can you imagine living all your life believing that you can’t get any better? Why would you even try? If your brain is telling you that no amount of effort will make a difference, you might as well watch tv instead. But what if that’s not true? What if your effort could make a huge difference? What if the monkey you have in front of you can be trained? What if, when you find the thing that lights you up, you treat all setbacks as learning opportunities and just keep working towards making it happen? You could do anything you wanted to do.

You can do anything you want to do. (Navigating the abyss of freedom to figure out what you want to do is another post for another day.) Here are some keys (again from Boles) to help keep you moving forward when your brain gives you messages that you’re stuck:

Instead of:                  Use:

  • I can’t                           I could if I…
  • I should                        I choose to
  • I don’t know               I’ll find out
  • I wish                            I’ll make a plan
  • I hate                             I prefer
  • I have to                       I get to

One nice thing about a list like this is that you can listen for the first column of phrases to show up in your thinking and talking. It’s like a little reminder. Oh yeah, I could say “I choose to” instead of “I should.” What is it I think I should do? Do I choose to? Why or why not? What do I think would be better?

It also gives us a chance to use divergent thinking. Maybe I can’t right now, but I could if… what? What do I need to go forward? Is it something I can do for myself? ‘I could if I read a book.’ Or do I need to get help? ‘I could if I could find a professional monkey trainer to help me.’ What if you could come up with dozens of options? Not just one way forward, but so many that you have the freedom to pick the ways that feel best and have multiple ways forward? Not just climbing the ladder of success, but as Sheryl Sandberg puts it, climbing the jungle gym of success, sometimes sideways to find another way up? Your options are only limited by your vision.

What is your monkey mind telling you? Whose circus is that message coming from? You have endless possibilities inside you. Don’t let those monkeys smear you!

Cost of No Play

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Fifty years ago a man named Charles Whitman killed more than 30 people before being killed himself. The reason he snapped? No play. No play in his childhood, no chance to try  out different responses, or let his aggression out through play.

Rats that smell a cat run and hide. This is self-protective, and appropriate. But the rats that aren’t allowed to play when they are young never come back out again, and starve to death. They never learned to manage risk through play.

Children who get more recess do better in school. Body play helps stimulate the cerebellum and create more neural connections. Object play helps strengthen the frontal lobe, where executive function lives, and increases metaphorical thinking. Playing in one’s preferred way increases the intrinsic motivation to keep going, and develops a person’s engagement and persistence in the face of adversity.

I had the great good fortune to hear Dr. Stuart Brown speak yesterday at the First Annual Bay Area Play Symposium. He has been studying play extensively for many years, and has proven the scientific backing to support more play. He is now in his 80’s and looks a couple decades younger. He wrote the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, and is the founder of the National Institute for Play.

 Play helps people develop trust, belonging, safety, and rapport. When there is time to play, people are more effective and efficient at their jobs, and work together better because of the bonds they built during play.
What are you doing to bring play into your life today? Into your community? Your workplace? Your home? Scientific fact: we all need more play.

Why creativity takes courage

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We as a social species like to belong to the group. There is safety in belonging. There is security in knowing who is in my clique and who is out. We tend to dress like the people with whom we feel we belong. We tend to agree with what they say, since disagreeing means risking being thrown out of the group. Even the idea of being thrown out can give us a visceral fear, like a punch in the gut, real terror we might not survive.

There is a deep satisfaction and comfort in mirroring other people and being mirrored. Being too much out of phase with the people around us makes us deeply uncomfortable. We often don’t know why we’re uncomfortable, which gives our fertile imaginations a chance to make stuff up. What we make up is usually dire – we will lose our jobs, that person must be a terrorist, we will lose our homes, we will die.

So we hire people who are like us, and we are comfortable on a team with people who are like us, and we all prefer to think in a similar enough way that we can be familiar with each other. And then – we need a creative idea.

How much courage does it take to voluntarily stand up and give an idea that’s never been done before? How much more courage to offer a brand new sprout of an idea, one that hasn’t grown yet and is vulnerable to squishing? Even people who practice creativity in their daily lives might hesitate before risking humiliation, exile, and death.

This is why we need facilitators who bring in toys. We need our normal to be shaken up to allow for new to grow. We need a chance to see that our MSU (Making Stuff Up) is incorrect and no one wants us to die or even feel embarrassed. We need a chance to play around and see what happens without being judged or feeling like we are being judged. This is why we need play.

Out Of Gas

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A while back, I was driving home with my young son in the back of the car, when I saw a car pulled over under the freeway overpass and a young black man standing by it, talking on the phone. Many thoughts ran quickly through my head – I’m white and he’s black, what does that mean in terms of safety if I stop? I’m middle-aged, he’s young, would that affect what happens if I stop? Should I ignore him as not my problem? Is that the kind of example I want to be to my son?

I decided to pull over and ask if he was ok. He said he ran out of gas on his way to his second job. He said he had a gas can and asked if I’d mind getting him some gas. He even gave me money to cover it. I took the can and drove to the closest gas station I knew of, then drove back and handed him the gas and the change. He wanted to pay me something, or at least do me a favor in return, but didn’t know what to do. I told him to pay it forward, to help someone else in need some time in the future. I’ve certainly been helped when I needed it. (Remind me to tell you about arriving in Italy with no Lira on a Sunday when the banks were closed and needing to pee desperately, and not having a way to use the paid toilets…)

The rest of the day I felt a glow inside. I did something good for someone! I helped out someone in trouble, got him moving again. And there was a piece of me that was ashamed of the moment of fear I felt about stopping to help someone darker than me. (Frankly, with how pale my skin is, most white people are darker than me, but that’s another story.) I don’t want to live in a world where I even think about someone’s skin color before I stop to help them. I’m glad that this interaction went so well, there was gratitude and kindness and no one pretending to be in trouble to lure in unsuspecting victims. (Man, an active imagination can be a bitch sometimes.) Most of all, I’m glad I showed my son that kindness doesn’t cost anything and can make the world better.

Diversity of Thinking

Know what this is?

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This is the diversity of thinking within your group, made concrete. Each of these models came from the same packet of bricks and the same instructions: Build a tower. All five towers look different. This is because everyone brings their own ideas, experiences, likes and dislikes, feelings, and thoughts to everything they do, and when they are encouraged to bring themselves into the group, they can come up with creative and interesting ideas.

However, many of the creative ideas never get voiced. When your boss expects your tower to look like his because you have the same materials and instructions, you eventually stop trying to make your own tower and just ask what he wants. When your teacher at school, or your parents at home, continually told you that your tower should look a certain way, you probably stopped making your own tower and did what they wanted.

Once the habit of bringing ourselves to what we do gets squashed, it can be hard to bring it back. When the manager who says “build it this way” comes to you and asks you to “think outside the box,” does that feel safe? Even though there is this amazing diversity of thinking in our groups, we often end up saying the same things because we want to keep our jobs, be liked, not be attacked, fit in with the group, not rock the boat, etc. It gets so that it can be hard to even find the creative thinking inside ourselves.

My solution to that: Play! Set up situations where there is no right or wrong answer, no possibility to fail, and practice working those creativity muscles. More on that in another post.

In the mean time – appreciate the diversity of thinking all around you!

Creativity, Inc.

Last night I finished reading the book Creativity, Inc.; Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. It has a lot of great stuff to say about nurturing creativity in the workplace. I’m going to talk about a couple of his topics here, because I think they matter quite a bit. In any company, not just a “creative” one.

First, I want to talk about failure. What is your organization’s approach to mistakes? Do the higher-ups look for someone to blame? Do they spend a lot of energy trying not to make any mistakes, and then fire people who do make them? Or do they trust their people to clean up any messes they make, and believe that they are all on the same team working for the same goals? One of the directors at Pixar, Andrew Stanton, is quoted as saying “be wrong as fast as you can,” and “fail early and fail fast.” Why? Because you won’t waste valuable time dithering about which choices to make, you’ll keep moving forward and learning even if you realize you have to change direction, and you’ll still have time to fix the inevitable mistakes. If you know you’ll have mistakes, might as well make them as soon as you can so you have the maximum amount of time to fix ’em, right?

That doesn’t mean it feels good to make mistakes. Anything that’s labeled failure is going to be embarrassing and painful. It’s up to the leaders to set up the company culture to allow for playing with new ideas. “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.” (p. 111)

Daniel Pink, in one of his recent books, posited that anything that can be automated is being automated, and anything that can be sent overseas is being sent overseas. What American companies have, that can’t be done more cheaply or more automatically, is innovation and creativity. But companies have their bonus structures based on how much money a project brings in, and who wants to risk their bonus, and the bonuses of everyone on their team, on something unproven? Who wants to tell the investors that they tried something and it didn’t work? That is no fun. But what if everyone understood that some things just don’t work out? That’s part of the cost of R&D, or some other investment in the future. Artists don’t know which piece will be the one that catches someone’s eye, scientists don’t know ahead of time which experiments will be successful or economically useful, musicians don’t know which sound will get hits on YouTube. They have to try things, and see what happens. That’s the nature of doing something new. If you really believe that what your organization does is worth exploring and expanding, you’re going to have to try something new. Fail early, learn, change direction, keep going.

Part of the job of the leadership is protecting new ideas from too much scrutiny before they are ready, but they also need to give honest feedback about the ideas when the time is right. And here Pixar is also ahead of the curve. They’ve got their “Braintrust,” a group of directors who have developed an understanding amongst themselves about giving and receiving feedback. One of the smart things Pixar has done is to recognize what works in this, and to let them keep doing it. And to fix it when it doesn’t work as well any more.

The Braintrust works for a few reasons. For one, everyone in that room is viewed as a peer, not as someone who knows more or less than anyone else. In fact, they are usually other directors who have been through what the current director is going through, and thus their advice is usually appreciated. It’s harder to take critique from marketing, for example, who might be more interested in making money than in an artistic vision. And, more importantly, no one can force their ideas onto anyone else. It’s always left up to the director how to fix the problems that the group identifies. The philosophy is that every idea is better when it’s tested; no one attacks each other, they just push on ideas; and they also know that the director can probably come up with a better solution than they can for the problem. But the director might be too close to the project to see that something isn’t clear to the audience, which is where they can help.

This seems to me to be part of the fail fast system – all things creative start out ugly before they become great. But you can’t wait til something is pretty before showing it around. It has to be tested all along the way, so that it’ll grow strong and true. In your company it might not be a movie – but you can still prototype something quickly to see if it has any value. Don’t wait to show it around, but be careful of who you show it to. While a certain critical eye is necessary, too much criticism can sink a new idea before it learns to float.

Pixar has had a long string of creative, emotionally-authentic, entertaining, box office hit movies, so they’re doing something right. And they’ve now imported their ideas to Disney Animation, which has started making some exciting new movies on their own. So it’s not just a lucky combination of people that makes it work. There’s more to the book, and to what Pixar does to make their movies work, than what I’ve talked about here. But it can be interesting to look around at the rest of the work world. How does your work place compare?

I’m going to leave you with a couple more quotes:

“Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.”

“Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”