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?

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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 the Business World can Learn from the Black Panther

So many super hero movies make the bad guy very evil, and the good guy very good, so there’s no question of who you should root for. I thought the movie Black Panther (yes, there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to wait to read this) did a great job of making the bad guy very understandable.

I’m going to digress for a moment so no spoilers will show up in the beginning of this article. I was reading some Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People, originally published in 1936) the other day, and his very first chapter is about how people we consider the bad guys consider themselves good guys. Apparently a then-famous bad guy called “Two Gun” Crowley shot a police officer for asking for his drivers license, but Crowley wrote in a letter “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one – one that would do nobody any harm.” Carnegie’s point is that no one blames themselves, no one sees themselves as the bad guy. Crowley thought he was defending himself, even though to the rest of the world his actions looked reprehensible.

Likewise, Erik Killmonger in Black Panther believed he was doing the right thing. There is no question that there are Black people across the world being treated poorly. He believed that having better weapons would allow these oppressed people to rise up and destroy their oppressors, allowing them to be fully free. In fact, everyone loves a story of how the oppressed win freedom from the mean bullies in power – look at Star Wars. Everyone believes they are Luke Skywalker, no one thinks they are Darth Vader.

The thing is, how you do a thing matters. Giving people freedom is an important goal. Doing it in a way that kills people is not ideal. Killmonger wants to fight partly because his father was killed when he was a child – but now he’s lost his humanity. He is fighting because his heart was broken, but he’s willing to kill his girlfriend, his allies, his cousin, anyone standing in the way of his goal. In fact, it looks like he would end up as a dictator, rather than providing people more freedom.

The thing is, Killmonger wasn’t entirely wrong. He was right that there are people who need help, that he could help. He was right that Wakanda was standing by and doing nothing, even though they had resources available to help.

What would have happened if T’Challa dug in his heels and said it’s my way or no way? There could have been a victory, but it would have been hollow. It would have been two strong forces fighting to see who was mightier, with many more dead, and with no heart, no humanity left. But that’s not how the story ended. Instead, the king realized there was validity to his opponent’s views, and there was a way to incorporate Killmonger’s desire to help his people with T’Challa’s desire to protect his people. This was a much more satisfactory ending, because the promise was that many more people would be helped without killing others, and in the end heart and humanity matter as ways to be in the world.

That brings me to business. You knew I was going to get here eventually, right? I see many people in business trying to defend their ideas, unwilling to admit that their opponents might have some good ideas too. What happens? People nurse grudges, like Erik Killmonger, until they are strong enough to fight back. Or, people work against the goals of their organizations, like Okoye was helping the women escape from their captors in the beginning of the movie. (According to Gallup, 17% of American workers are working against their employers’ interests.) And instead of coming up with the best ideas, people fight for their way until there’s no one left to fight.

T’Challa had to change what his father had done, and his father before him, for generations – he had to open Wakanda to the rest of the world. This was not a popular choice. But it allowed him to accommodate the desires of Okoye, and Killmonger, and others who felt Wakanda wasn’t doing enough to help other Black people around the world. He had to be willing to stand for his belief that leading with heart was as important as protecting the country his ancestors had founded and kept safe from the world – and he did it because he knew they were strong enough to protect themselves should anyone want to take over. It wasn’t only heart, and it wasn’t only muscle, it was a combination using the best of both.

Do you as a leader listen to your people? Do you listen to your heart? Do you always do what has always been done, or are you willing to hear new ways? Can you be flexible and humble enough to incorporate new ideas into your own? I see T’Challa as a hero, not for being able to fight and survive, but for being able to find a path that can give everyone what they really want – a way to help the people who need help while staying whole themselves.

I haven’t given myself a plug lately – if you need help listening to your people, please contact me. I can help you be a hero too, without bloodshed and without revolution. I don’t have a heart shaped herb, but I do have tools that can incorporate all of your peoples’ good ideas, which leads to happier, more productive people, and better ideas to bring into the world.

Defense

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My husband came into my office the other day looking grim, and I immediately got defensive. As far as I knew I hadn’t done anything that would upset him, I had no indication that he was looking upset because of me, but I automatically told myself a story that he was upset with me, and that I needed to defend myself.

Sometimes, when I feel the need to defend myself, I go on the offensive and attack first. Sometimes I withdraw into myself. Either way, it’s difficult to be curious and open. I think I know what I will hear, and I don’t want to hear it, so I’m shut down and angry. I feel like I’m under attack and need to defend my borders.

These stories we tell ourselves get us in trouble, not just at home, but also at work. People at work may feel that if someone questions one of their ideas then they are questioning their worthiness to exist, so they defend their ideas to the death. Or maybe they’re afraid that if someone shoots down their idea that will mean they will be injured somehow so they don’t bring up their ideas at all.

All of this is normal human behavior. I don’t want anyone to think it’s wrong or bad to want to defend oneself. I want everyone to feel safe sharing their ideas. And – it’s very helpful to notice when the automatic reflex of defensiveness goes into play, so that we can ask ourselves different questions or tell ourselves different stories.

With my husband, I’ve learned over the years that my instinctive responses are often way out of sync with what’s going on for him. My fears are based in childhood stories, and almost never play out in my adult life. So I make space to ask what’s going on, while telling my defenses how much I appreciate that they are there, and to please wait in the wings for me to call on them if and when I might need them. It turned out that he was upset about an email he had gotten, and it had absolutely nothing to do with me. I was able to give him support, and he left considerably happier.

So what can you do when someone else gets defensive? Certainly, if you are the one getting defensive, you can notice, as I’ve learned to do, and put off the heavy walls until you’re certain they’re needed. But if it’s someone else, how can you help them listen?

Short term: Back off. Let them know you don’t mean to step on their toes. Acknowledge them for their insight, bravery, loyalty, or whatever else you see in them. Admit to any aggression you may have (inadvertently) brought to the encounter. Ask to talk about it later, when people are feeling more even-keeled.

Long term: Model openness. Talk about when you feel defensive and why. Ask how you come across to others, and try to be less aggressive. It is very powerful to be publicly vulnerable, and it gives others permission to talk about what is going on for them.

We don’t need more people in the world who look like they never make mistakes and never feel bad. We need more people who show up with all their humanness and flaws, and show how to move forward anyway. It’s more honest, it fosters more open communication, and allows others to show up more fully as well.

So. It’s The Holidays.

As fun as the holiday season is, it’s also stressful. Meeting new people at holiday parties, dealing with family, travel…

I was thinking recently about Amy Cuddy’s work (Amy’s TED talk) about how our actions shape our emotions. She quotes research about job interviews where the interviewee either took power poses or normal poses for two minutes before the interview, and the ones that stood or sat in power poses did better on the interviews. Apparently, how we hold our bodies affects the hormones we create, which affects how courageous, outgoing, and confident we are.

It occurred to me today that dealing with family at the holidays can be as stressful as going on a job interview. I remember when I was in my twenties and even my thirties feeling like I reverted to a child whenever I went back to my parents’ house. With so many years of accumulated power dynamics, it was easy to fall back into those patterns when I was back in those walls.

Putting the pieces together, it seems to me that standing in a power pose for two minutes before talking to your parents, or in-laws, or that uncle, or whoever is difficult for you, could change those power dynamics significantly. Of course, this is only one piece of the complex web of relationship, and changing the stories in our heads, the words we use, the attitudes we hold, the subjects we are willing to discuss, the boundaries we keep, and so forth, will also be part of the picture. Still, having a way to give ourselves a boost of confidence going into difficult conversations seems like a very good thing.

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What is a power pose? It’s a way of holding the body that takes up more space, that looks confident, and that signals dominance. (It may be important to do this privately, in the bathroom or a back bedroom.) For example, you could stand with your legs apart and your arms above your head and apart. Think of someone who just won a race, for example. Or, try putting your hands on your hips and your head up, like Wonder Woman. Or if you’re sitting, spread out, put your arms on the chairs next to you, or stand up and lean on the table in front of you. Think of any alpha male you know, and imitate what he does.

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Two minutes is all it takes for a new confidence at the holiday party, or with your judgmental in-laws. Let me know how it goes!

One Uncomfortable Thing A Day

I am trying to build a business. A lot of what I need to do is uncomfortable, so I resist doing it. Call people I don’t know to ask them to do something for me? Definitely not what I call fun.

My mentor Jesse from Thrive Academy says that one’s success is directly related to the number of uncomfortable conversations one is willing to have.

Interestingly, once I’m in a conversation with someone I’m more willing to go for the uncomfortable questions. If I’ve established a connection with someone, I’m often interested in what’s underneath. Not always, and it’s not always appropriate to ask, but somehow it’s okay with me because we are in relationship, and we are together, and we are risking something that will bring us closer.

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Pick up the phone? Now that’s a different matter entirely. I’m alone, anxious, not in relationship, not sure who will answer or what they will say, unable to see a face, feeling cut off from all my sources of information. Not an easy position to be in, for me.

So I have started a practice – make one uncomfortable phone call a day. If I go into it knowing I will feel uncomfortable and acknowledging that, it’s somehow easier than if I assume I should be able to do it easily. I’m no longer wrong for struggling with it. In fact, I’m brave for trying it.

I often don’t do more than leave a message. I have never gotten one of those messages returned. The point is two-fold:  One, to plant seeds in different places. Eventually, the right person will hear my message at the right time and call me back. Two, keep doing the thing I don’t want to do. After a while, it’s a little less excruciating. A while after that, it’s almost easy. Almost. Seriously, it does get easier with practice and repetition.

I don’t know what is uncomfortable for you. Maybe it’s talking in public. Maybe it’s petting a dog. I encourage you to take a tiny step forward on a regular basis. You don’t have to jump into hugging a German Shepard – but maybe a pat on a nice placid beagle? Maybe not a TED talk, but speaking up in a team meeting? Tiny steps are still steps. Acknowledging yourself for taking those steps even though they are difficult is strengthening and empowering. You are awesome for trying!

Practice Makes Perfect – Or Does It?

My father is a professional musician. He always told me that only perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice your mistakes, you get really good at making those mistakes!

This makes sense for anything where you are training your fingers or body to do something the same way over and over. Musicians, dancers, martial artists, all want their muscles to think for them from having practiced until perfection is innate.

What about other arts? I think practice makes easier, in a lot of ways. My husband is a professional artist, and he says everyone has 10,000 bad drawings inside them, so you’d better get started drawing to get them out. The more you draw, the more you learn about drawing, and the easier it is to draw next time. The more you perform, the more ease you have with performance.

I read about a ceramics teacher who divided his class in half. The first half he graded on quantity – they’d get an A if they used enough clay and made enough stuff during the semester. The second half he graded on quality – they’d get an A if they made really good stuff. What he found was that the half that made a lot of stuff kept practicing, learning from mistakes, trying something new, and getting better and better. The half that focused on making really good stuff spent a lot of time talking about it and planning it, but the stuff they made wasn’t that good.

So, another reason practice makes perfect is that practice allows you to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It lets you try out new things in a safe space.

The problem comes when all you do is practice. Or theorize. Or talk about it. At some point you have to do it. Experience comes from doing.

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I took a class with Caterina Rando, and she doesn’t like the idea of practice. She says just go out there and do it. The doing is practice of a sort, in that you get better and better the more you do it. But if you spend all your time trying to get perfect before putting yourself out in the world you’ll never get anywhere.

The thing is, mistakes teach you something. No one will ever get to be so good they don’t make any mistakes – and if they did, they’d be boring and stunted. You risk mistakes to try something new. You risk mistakes to get bigger, brighter, and more amazing. But if you don’t risk it, you stay small and dim.

Mistakes aren’t the enemy. Staying stuck is.

In improvisational acting, mistakes are celebrated. People feel like they failed and are encouraged to say Yay! Mistakes are a sign that someone stretched. They tried for something. They learned something. This is a cause for celebration, not demonization. It takes courage to fail, loudly, publicly, and on stage. But if it’s not actually a failure, if it’s a sign you’re human and striving and it gives permission to everyone else to be human and striving too, that’s a victory.

So, practice scales. Practice tai-chi. And then get out there and dance. Wildly, imperfectly, and perfectly you.

Talking While Female

Have you ever felt that men talked more in your meetings than women did? Did you find other people in the same meetings didn’t think this happened? There is an app that tracks if men or women speak more in meetings:

Look Who’s Talking

I love that this exists! I love that you can get nice infographics to give to people who say everyone gets equal time to prove that they don’t – or to celebrate the groups where people really do get equal time.

I saw a cartoon once where a manager says to a woman at a meeting something like, “That’s a great idea Miss Jenkins. Would any of the men here like to make it?” (I just spent way too long looking through New Yorker cartoons trying to find it. I didn’t, so you’ll just have to picture it.)

When I go to networking events, I often ask people if they’ve ever been in the kind of meeting where only a couple people speak up, and no one else says anything? It’s really interesting to me that some people say that all their meetings are like that, and some people say none of their meetings are like that. I always wonder about their experiences. Could it be that there are people who have never, ever, been in meetings where one person dominated? Or where people disengaged because no one seemed interested in hearing from them?

I don’t want to make assumptions about people’s perceptions of how much men and women talk, but I find myself making up stories. I secretly assume that the people who think everyone participates in their meetings are the ones who dominate, and who don’t notice people on the fringes not participating. Maybe they think that the people who don’t speak up don’t have anything to say? Maybe they are busy making up their own stories about why those quiet people are quiet – they’re introverts, they’re happy to do what other people want, their opinions don’t really matter?

Brene Brown recently stated that if she could give people one tool, it would be to talk about the story they are making up in their heads. It’s really powerful! I tried it recently when my husband and I were talking. I asked to change the subject, and he agreed, and took his hand off my shoulder. I told him the thing, and then asked why he moved his hand. In my mind, I made up the story that he was worried about what I would say, that he assumed it would be something negative about him, and that he was already getting defensive. In fact, he moved his hand off because I kept gesturing, and he felt like his hand was getting in the way of my moving my arms. There is so much possibility in being open to another interpretation of events! I was able to see my husband as kind instead of walled off, and he could reassure me that my gremlins were not in fact real.

When I make up stories about how other people’s meetings actually go, I don’t really have a way to know. But if any of these people get curious, they can use this app to investigate. I would love to get real data from people about how their teams operate!