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December 2010
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June 2011

"Stand Still When the Hippos Charge"

Yesterday I read a wonderful Change This Manifesto on The Zen of Business: 7 Habits of the Highly Creative by Matthew May. I'm currently in what I'm referring to as "creative recovery" (otherwise known as AA for creatives) so these habits really struck a chord with me.

One of my favorites on the list is the habit of "Seijaku" or stillness, solitude, quietude. It is the habit of learning to quiet your mind, designating a place and time for creative solitude. In other words, "stand still when the hippos charge," advice from National Geographic journalist Boyd Matson.

As luck would have it, when I opened up Typepad to start this post, I saw that someone had visited a post I wrote a few years ago about The Tyranny of Now. In it, I lamented the fact that I was responding to the "nowness" set for me by my email and my ringing phone and the clamor of unread items in my feed reader. In other words, the hippos were charging around me and I was running for my life.

This is an issue that has plagued me off and on for awhile now, so lately I've been trying to create for myself moments of creative solitude.

I start my day with Morning Pages, a practice of writing 3 pages of stream of consciousness, just to empty your brain. What I've found is that each morning, as soon as I open my eyes, I'm flooded with the things I didn't complete the day before and the things I MUST do today. By emptying my brain of these worries, I create in myself a stillness that allows me to get to my "to do's" with less anxiety and more focus.

I have also designated another room in my house--NOT my home office--as the place to go when I need to get some space from my work. This quite literally changes the dynamic for me as it is a room that's off limits to my laptop and phone. When I enter it, it says that I'm setting a boundary between me and technology that I will not violate while I'm in there. It's helped tremendously in getting my brain to shift from the Tyranny of Now when I need it to.

The other practice I'm working on happens to be one that is in May's Manifesto--the idea of "Datsuzoku" or taking a break from routine. May points out that our bodies and brains work in 90-minute "pulses" or rhythms:

When we're awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. And here's the thing: our bodies clearly signal that rhythm in the form of restlessness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. Generally we either ignore or overrride these signals, because we have a lot to do and many ways to artificially pump up our energy with various supplements. The problem is that after working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, our brains begin to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly, creatively and reflectively or seeing the big picture.

I've most definitely noticed this in myself and have been trying to pay closer attention to the signals my brain and body give me that it's time for a break. This isn't always easy--I have to fight with myself to NOT keep going. There's something that says I'm being "weak" or "unproductive" if I don't push through. But in reality when I honor what my brain and body are telling me, I'm actually MORE productive. It's funny what can happen if we just stop and listen.

So what do you do when the hippos charge? Do you stand still? And how do you do that?

How School Screws Things Up For "Real Life"

My older daughter graduated from college in May and has been working at her new job since June. Last night we had a conversation that got me thinking about how school does a really terrible job of preparing our young people for "the real world" by setting up some seriously unrealistic expectations.

In school, we teach kids that:

  • Life happens in a series of connected, time-delineated steps (courses, semesters) so there's always "light at the end of the tunnel" and its clear what the next step will be.
  • If you follow the rules--of an individual teacher, of the school--you will be rewarded.
  • If you work hard, you will be rewarded.
  • There are always "right" answers to questions and problems.
  • Problems are well-defined and if you don't get the "right" answer, it's because you didn't work hard enough. 

Ironically, those kids who take these lessons of school most seriously--who try hard to do what we ask them to do in school--end up being the most disillusioned and ill-prepared for what happens when they graduate. Further, these rules are hidden, making their impact more insidious and talking about the problems they cause more difficult.

What we really need to be teaching young people, if we truly want to prepare them for the "real world," is that:

  • Work and its problems are really ill-defined. Rarely are there "right" answers. More often than not we are having to make trade-offs that force us to choose between "bad" and "worse" or at least between "OK" and "less OK." There are always going to be extenuating factors and issues that impede our ability to achieve the ideal, even in those situations that seem the most clear-cut.
  • Sometimes hard work is rewarded. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes following the rules is rewarded. Sometimes it is not. The challenge is learning when to stop beating our heads against a particular brick wall where our hard work and rule-following is not working. When do we need to break the rules? When do we need to work hard at something else or somewhere else?
  • Related to this, working harder isn't always the answer. Sometimes we are in situations where problems go unsolved and issues are unresolved because of things that are entirely outside of our control. Sometimes there is no answer and we have to learn the lessons of patience and of moving to a new situation, rather than just buckling down and trying to make the best of what we have.
  • There is no "light at the end of the tunnel." There is just more tunnel. Some parts of the tunnel are darker and some have more light flickering in. But there is always tunnel and we are never sure what lies at the other end.

I remember graduating from college and facing many of the same issues my daughter is now facing. I was so used to a world where everything had been so clearly defined for me, where if you just went with the program you would get where you needed to go. But that's not how the real world operates. It seems like we should be preparing our kids for that.

Podcast: Protecting Yourself When Social Media Tools Disappear

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Allyson Kapin, co-founder of  the Rad Campaign, and I had the opportunity to record a Social Good podcast with Allison Fine for the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the demise of Delicious and the issues that arise when free tools disappear.

In the podcast, Allyson Kapin makes some excellent points about the need to not put all your eggs in one social media basket and makes a plug for open source options, which are probably the most sustainable way to maintain free tools--unless you're Google. We also discuss the characteristics of social tools like Delicious that make them most attractive to people.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Reflecting on Online Community Building

For one of my clients, I'm developing an online community of practitioners working for a variety of nonprofit, government and for-profit entitities in New Jersey.

We wanted to treat the process of forming and nurturing this community as a learning project so we could share our "lessons learned" with others who are doing this kind of work. Our intent is to write an Issues Brief at the end of the project ot share with others.

A few days ago I ran across an excellent post from the Harvard Business Review, The Best Way to Use the Last Five Minutes of Your Day. It suggests ending each day with three questions:

  • How did the day go? What successes did I experience? What challenges did I endure?
  • What did I learn today? About myself? About others? What do I plan to do--differently or the same-tomorrow?
  • Who did I interact with? Anyone I need to update? Thank? Ask a question? Share feedback? 

Although intended for individual practice (and I may use them that way), these seemed like the perfect questions for continuous reflection on our project. I've now set up a Google doc that I've shared with other leaders on the team and we're recording our responses each day so that we'll have a record of our work and can also respond to what we're learning.

I'm seeing particular value in the third question-who did I interact with and what do I need to do?--for this project, as it's very much about nurturing relationships and forming connections. That question forces us to think each day about how we are connecting with people and what we need to do to keep those connections going.

I'll keep you posted on our progress, but wanted to share a little of the process, as I think these are great questions to apply to both projects and individual improvement.