Returning to Normal, Part I

Editorial note: I have more to say about this topic, so I’ll be revisiting it soon—with research and quotations even. I haven’t done a series on this blog before, so this will be a test to see how it works.

Over the last several weeks I’ve returned to a number of things:

  • to San Luis Obispo, a town I lived in for more than 10 years and where both of my kids were born
  • to Cal Poly, where I got both my bachelor’s and master’s in English (and my minor in Philosophy!)
  • to surfing and bouldering and being outside every day worshipping the sun and the natural world
  • to a regular gym routine where I can already feel the results of sustained pushing and pulling of large weights (large to me, at least)
  • to friends I’d left 5 years ago and with whom I’ve picked up as though I’d never left

And, perhaps most importantly for me and my family, I’ve returned to a role with a size and a scope that’s manageable. Dare I say “normal?” This is precisely why I can do all those things on the list above. Normal. What does that mean, exactly? Not abnormal is descriptive. Natural is even better. This means that I could say the amount of work I was doing at my last job was not natural, which sounds about right. It was my primary motivation for considering another job.

The work was meaningful, challenging, important, and simply too much. For the more than 5 years that I worked with the organization I kept telling myself, “It will ease up soon. Just another six months. Next year will be more manageable.”

Little lies to keep me going.

Small imputations of hope.

What kept me going for more than 5 years? The mission of the organization, many of the people I worked with, the financial security, and my own ego. Definitely my ego. Because sometimes it felt good to be so busy, to feel so needed, and to be recognized through promotion for my successes.

But my promotions at work resulted in the demotion of the time and attention I had for my family and for myself. The higher up I went the more trade offs I was making.

No, that’s not right. There were no trade offs. Work came first, and I was at work in some capacity (physically, emotionally, mentally) most of my waking hours.

Now I’m at a job that is also meaningful, challenging, and important, but at a scale that is, frankly, human-sized. And I’m in a position to maintain that normalcy. Or not. Because I was partly responsible for the overwork at my former gig. (Technology also shares blame—I’m more skeptical of it’s supposed usefulness every day—as does the general culture of reward and recognition for overwork or “busyness”).

In this new role I have even more opportunity to create the natural work environment I want to see, and I’m also aware that I have a window of opportunity to do it, so I plan on using this time very, very wisely. Because now that I’ve returned to normal I’m sure as hell not going back.

Writing as Discovery

Error is an essential part of any real intellectual pursuit. ~Ta-Nihisi Coates

Since I started this blog (oh, so many years ago), I’ve struggled with two things:

  1. consistency, obviously
  2. perfectionism, which is part of the reason for (1)

Especially when it comes to writing, I have a tendency to want perfection. Not great. Not good enough. Perfect. (If you read some of my earlier posts you may disagree with this statement).

But blogging is not perfect. Not generally anyway. I’ve learned that it is built for immediacy, not for delicacy. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t beautifully detailed, intricate blog posts out there; it does mean that the form favors speed over precision. It favors writing as discovery. The essay form in its purest sense; or maybe even closer to zuihitsu. Yes, definitely more like 随筆.

Ta-Nihisi Coates (an excellent writer I just discovered) recently wrote a pair of golden paragraphs about blogging, intellectually curious readers, and error:

Back when I started blogging, there was an annoying premium on “public smartness” and “being right” among pundits, journalists, and writers. Likely, there is still one today. The need to be publicly smart and constantly right originates both in the writer’s ego and in the expectation of incurious readers. The writer gets the psychic reward of praise—”Such and such is really smart” or “Such and such was ‘right’ on Libya.” And the incurious reader gets to believe that there is some order in the world, that there is a stable of learned (mostly) men who will decipher the words of God for them. The incurious readers is not so much looking for writers, as prophets.

And Andrew [Sullivan] has never been a prophet, so much as a joyous heretic. Andrew taught me that you do not have to pretend to be smarter than you are. And when you have made the error of pretending to be smarter, or when you simply have been wrong, you can say so and you can say it straight—without self-apology, without self-justifying garnish, without “if I have offended.” And there is a large body of deeply curious readers who accept this, who want this, who do not so much expect you to be right, as they expect you to be honest. When I read Andrew, I generally thought he was dedicated to the work of being honest. I did not think he was always honest. I don’t think anyone can be. But I thought he held “honesty” as a standard….

Ta-Nihisi liked Andrew’s honesty; Andrew’s readers liked his honesty. After reading a few of his posts, I like Andrew’s honesty. Even more, I like his imperfection. Which is like mine. And Ta-Nihisi’s.

I don’t have to be right. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I rarely am. I want to discover, explore, learn, and grow. I want to engage, argue, expound, challenge, and conclude. I will be opinionated, vociferous, experimental, skeptical, excited, critical, and a host of other things. And not perfect.

Authentic Leadership: A Self-Admission

If you’ve read other entries in this blog you’ll know that I’ve always been a proponent of encouraging people to be autodidacts, to seek knowledge on their own and to engage in the joy of learning. This philosophy comes as a result of my own experiences as a home-schooled kid and as a college English instructor. When I taught my classes were open, democratic, collaborative, and relied upon the self-direction and self-motivation of my students. I took joy in seeing self-expression that was as untainted by my rules as I could make it.

Ironically, however, that’s not how I’ve conducted myself as a manager in the corporate environment. Here I’ve been very directive. Basically, I adopted the hegemonic, hierarchical structure of the organization. I didn’t do this unconsciously, but felt neither safe nor supported in taking a different approach.

Until a year ago, when a new leader created the space for me to be more myself. So much so that I truly feel free for the first time in my career to be who I am and to bring my whole self to work. In fact, I just wrote a prose poem based on a prompt by another equally open and collaborative leader, our new Chief People and Experience Officer. The prompt is based off the concept of “giving yourself an ‘A'” as outlined in The Art of Possibility, by Ben and Rosamund Zander. Here, for your merriment, is the prose poem I wrote. Feel free to point and laugh:

I brought my whole self to work,

my fearless, innovative, expressive self,
my skeptical, inquisitive, philosophical self,
my artistic, creative, expansive self,
     the one that sees possibility everywhere and in everyone
         that hopes to inspire others
             that feels joy when others are joyful
     the one that contains paradoxes and contradictions
         that accepts all aspects of existence
             that experiences frustration, sadness, and loss
     the one that embraces reality and revels in the art of evolution
         that savors the puzzles, the cacophony, the chaos
             that creates order, meaning, purpose
the self that seeks greatness
the self that loves all living things
the self that is, and always will be, becoming something more

I brought my whole self. It made all the difference.

Robert Frost fans may note a stolen line at the end. Poetry is still a work-in-progress for me.

The more I think about the changes at work, the people who are being drawn to the group, and the direction my boss is taking the team (leading through “benign neglect”), the more excited I am to be a part of it.

Cut the Noise

I estimate that throughout my career roughly 60% of my work has been frittered away on useless assignments. Some of it’s my fault; most of it is the fault of those above and below me. Far too often I’ve been asked to drop everything and gather data or attend a meeting or talk to someone or reinvent an entire process, and it all turns out to be for naught. Zero. Less than zero, in fact, because all that time I could have spent doing something productive and valuable is gone. And the work I should have been focused on is not done.

I’m not saying this because I’m doing any better. I know I’ve been the noise for my managers and my staff. What I’m really interested in is how we got to this point (causation has always been a fascinating subject to me), and, most importantly, how do we fix it? How do we cut through the noise to focus on those things which either definitively provide value—or, conversely, which we consciously acknowledge be to creative ventures that require uninterrupted non-productive intellectual space?

How do we have the brave conversations with the right people to regain the quiet, recapture the focus, and actually get some work done? Ideas, anyone?

Link

Leaders: 4 Ways to Improve Your Ability to Think and Learn « Linked 2 Leadership.

There are many instances I can point to where the research and the advice on a specific subject is decades ahead of the practice.

However, in the case of stress and it’s deleterious effect on performance, it seems that the practice is regressing from the research at an ever-increasing rate. The points in the article above are oft repeated and well-supported. What’s not mentioned in the article is the significant cost to organizations in lost productivity and increased healthcare expenditures that are the result of ignoring stress in the workplace.

If that’s the case, though, why is there so little movement in the right direction on this issue? I think we all know the answer to that question, and it can be expressed in a simple equation:

short-term costs > long-term risks = fewer resources today

As long as the short term costs are seen as more pressing than the value of bringing on and effectively training enough of the right employees to avoid long-term costs associated with stress, the stress will continue.

Google’s 20%

Just read an article about how Google is beating Apple at innovation right now. One of the factors identified was “the company’s 20% time, the backbone of the company’s bottom-up approach to innovation.”

The 20% time approach embodies the philosophies of freedom and motivation that are crucial to innovation (and to job satisfaction). With my new team, this will form the crux of our own approach to creativity. Space to think: what a concept.

Here are two of my favorite videos that relate to this topic in just the right ways:

via Larry Page ignored Steve Jobs’s deathbed advice, and Google is doing great – The Next Web.