Today’s Resistance: Choose Love Over Fear

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Two weeks ago, the Callahans embarked on a ‘near-shore’ adventure — a long weekend in Montreal to meet up with friends, dine on poutine, and test our high-school French skills. As we crossed from New York into Quebec, we were grilled at the border by the guards: How long would we stay in Canada? Who were we meeting? When was the last time we saw them? Where were we staying? Did we have a reservation? Who made the reservation? When would we come back to the United States? As we drove through Quebec’s broad fields, we made appropriately grim jokes about seeking asylum in Canada as a LGBTQ family. We laughed about The Handmaid’s Tale and shared our adoration of Justin Trudeau.

But it was the drive back — not the drive there — that made the sad truth of our circumstances even more real. As we approached the American border, I felt my heartbeat quicken. Yes, we held American passports. Yes, we were crossing the Northern border and not the Southern one. And yes, as Caucasians we had the privilege of not triggering any of the profiling flags that would cause someone to doubt our case. And yet, I was attempting to cross the border into the United States with my child. Thousands of mothers and fathers in similar situations had their children taken from them over the past weeks and months. It was only an accident of birth and circumstance that separated me from the parent who comes to the border seeking asylum.

As this disturbing truth percolated in my head, it didn’t take too much imagination to hear Elliott’s cries not as innocent toddler crises — about dropping her milk, wanting to take off her shoes, or refusing a graham cracker — but instead about being separated from Liz and me. I cannot imagine the horror of having your child forcibly taken from you, however briefly. I cannot imagine the inhumanity it takes to do that.

On a daily basis, I’m ashamed by what our country has become. We increasingly live in a country which is run, at the highest levels, without a sense of compassion or humanity. While there may be room for power and politics in parts of government, the way we treat human beings is not up for debate.

Regardless of our political persuasion, we increasingly have a choice between acting out of love and acting out of fear. Do we believe that others are worthy of respect and treat them accordingly? Or do we demonize and dehumanize them, characterizing them as animals or criminals? There is a long history of humans blaming “the other” in times of uncertainty and distress. It is easier to point the finger than it is to take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. But it takes a certain level of personal evolution to assume responsibility, to humbly seek to understand, to leave the need to be right behind, and to contribute to the solution. I am not always good at this; I can’t imagine that you are either. But, hopefully, if we can choose to face every situation — even the smallest and most trivial situations in our lives — with love instead of fear, we can collectively shift into a different way of being.

What does it look like to choose love? Every time you find yourself afraid — afraid of a person, afraid of a situation, afraid of an outcome — look inward. Try to investigate what is going on inside of you. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of not being loved? Of not being good enough? Of failing? Of not being able to provide for your family? How do you act when you are consumed by that fear? In reality, that fear is just that — a fear. It may come true; it may not. You will find out over time. But, in the short term, your relationship with that fear — your mindset about it — dictates your actions. What would it look like to have more love, to have more faith? What might you see differently? How would you act differently?

So please, take all the political actions you can to influence our government in the direction you believe is the most compassionate and loving. Call your elected representatives. Sign petitions. Donate. But, in addition to these, take the initiative to shift from fear to love in your own life. Nothing but the sum of our everyday choices to love will unlock a bigger transformation in who we are as a people.

With love,
Meredith

Why You Should Re-pot Yourself

As many of you know, the Callahan clan moved from California to Connecticut earlier this year. I wrote about that transition here on my blog, The Intentional, and posted it to the appropriate social media channels. Amongst the chorus of wisdom and encouraging words, there was no comment more apt than my friend Michael reminding me that: “Qui transtulit sustinet.”

“Qui transtulit sustinet” or “He who transplanted sustains” is the state motto of Connecticut. I recalled the motto from the first time I transplanted myself to this state — from my hometown of Port Huron to college in New Haven. And here it was, cropping up again as I moved to Connecticut a second time.

There are a couple of meanings of the motto: The first implies that he who transplanted you will sustain you, indicating that God (who brought the settlers to America) would support them (in the new land). I prefer a second interpretation of the motto, however — the one that makes it more personal: He who transplants himself, sustains.

The idea of transplanting oneself resonates with the advice that “You have to repot yourself every once in a while.” The philosophy of repotting people is the same as repotting plants. When our growth slows or stops, it’s time to move. We pull ourselves up by the roots, shake off the dirt, and settle into a new pot with fresh soil. The pot should be a bit bigger than the old but not overly big; we need space to grow without being overwhelmed.

While the goal of repotting is growth, when plants are first moved, they often enter a period of shock. Instead of thriving, we appear wilted and thirsty as we adjust to our new circumstances. Change, as everyone knows, is hard. That said, over time, the new pot, with more space and refreshed nutrients, enables the new growth and, eventually, new bloom.

While repotting sounds wise, it is often painful and unpleasant. Your pot may be so homey that you could stayed there forever. And yet, if we’re committed to growth, we must repot ourselves instead of waiting for some cosmic gardener to change our circumstances. As John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal, only by intentionally repotting can we grow into our fullness as humans:

“Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives never called them forth. Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life-not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.”

-John Gardner, Self-Renewal

When we made the decision to move across the country, it was not pleasant. We didn’t happily repot; instead, we felt our roots holding onto the California soil with all our might. When the opportunity called to investigate our new potentialities — to see what new growth might be possible — we took it. And so find find ourselves here, repotted in Connecticut. We are certainly still adjusting from the initial shock, but we hope that the family who transplanted will not only sustain, but grow in an even bigger way.

Wishing you plenty of uncomfortable growth and self-renewal,
Meredith

From Student to Strategist

Working in the learning and development space, I often reflect upon what takes us from novice to master. For any given topic, what is the path of learning? How do we become experts? And how do we grow our ability to then teach others in a meaningful way? Below, I propose a framework for understanding how we move from student to teacher, from teacher to content designer and, ultimately, from content designer to learning strategist.

AS A STUDENT
Experiencing We begin in traditional student mode. Students in the experiencing stage are the recipients of the experience rather than creators of the experience. Though they may actively participate in exercises and offer their perspectives, they do so within the design of the course and typically at the behest of the teacher. They focus on content — comprehension, application, and integration — rather than the way in which the content is delivered.

Note that, for most learners, this ‘hard’ focus on the content is where nearly all their attention goes — and rightfully so. It is often only higher-level thinkers with a specific curiosity about learning and development who step above the direct student experience.

Understanding Stepping one level above the experience at hand, students shift their focus from the content of the experience to the design of the experience. Students are still primarily in observation mode, but their senses are attuned to different dimensions: They look for the choices made by the designer and/or the teacher. They are curious about the decisions made about when to tell, when to ask, when to demonstrate, and when to invite participation. They notice the teacher’s own style as a factor in facilitating the experience.

AS A TEACHER
Replicating Shifting roles, we next transition from students to teachers. Again, this transition is not for everyone; on any given subject, the majority of students will find that they capture the value they needed through their experiences and move on to apply their learnings in the real world. For the handful looking to teach others, their teaching approach begins in a crude and unrefined state; it lacks subtlety and depth of experience. They largely replicate the approaches they have seen, delivering content referenced in notes or memorized by rote. They navigate with the aid of lesson plans, outlines, or presentation slides. When complex questions come up, they tend to parrot their own teachers and cite the experience of others rather than relying on their own expertise or observations.

Tailoring As they teach the content again and again, teachers come to facilitate the learning experience more elegantly. They abandon their external aids, depending instead upon an increasingly clear understanding of what is required to meet the goals and how it should go. As they get the facts down cold, they are able to widen their aperture, intentionally managing their style and focus. They dynamically adjust to accommodate the learners in the room and their style of learning. Increasingly fluent in the content and structure, they grow more fully into their authentic selves as teachers.

AS A DESIGNER
Evolving With increasing experience, teachers may shift into content designers. At first, they may simply evolve pre-existing content, making an adjustment to the delivery here or a tweak on the timing there. Over time, they come to shift the learning experience in bigger ways, more fully revising content to better achieve learning objectives. Evolving designers take the power of the pen not only as they plan learning experiences, but real-time in the room as well; they are comfortable shifting the design in substantial ways on the fly in order to maximize learning in the room.

Innovating With even more experience, content designers become innovators. They are able to take new learning objectives and craft meaningful learning experiences ex nihilo. They thoughtfully consider all aspects of the learning experience. They often begin by examining the world of relevant content on a topic and synthesizing this into the most important points. They then apply themselves to crafting the learning, adjusting each aspect of the embodied experience (e.g., the timing, the tone, the atmosphere, the space, the materials) to enable the higher-level goals.

AS A STRATEGIST
Translating Beyond this, we again transition roles; this time from the designer to the strategist. Translating strategists can take high-level goals (e.g., greater proficiency in mathematics) and render these into the right set of tangible learning objectives (e.g., understanding of concept of addition, facility with adding multi-digit numbers, speed of application). In addition to the learning objectives, they also articulate the design principles and high-level architecture within which the objectives are best achieved (e.g., twelve-session series over three weeks, focused primarily on application). Translating strategists can apply their skills in either direction — scoping a new learning experience from the top-down or evaluating an existing learning experience to understand whether it fits shifting needs.

Envisioning Finally, envisioning strategists primarily concern themselves with the goals at hand and how exposing people to learning experiences might contribute to those overarching ambitions. They bring a big picture view, carefully considering the relevant context (whether that be the organization, industry, community, country, or world as a whole). They see the opportunities and challenges within the broader system and can envision its evolution. Given this view, they identify where learning experiences might affect meaningful change in individuals and communities.

As you see, each stage includes a basic level and a more advanced level before fundamentally shifting focus via a role change (e.g., student to teacher). That said, this framework is not linear. Though some may ‘rise through the ranks’ from student to teacher to designer to strategist, this is not necessary; for example, a strategic thinker with experience in other domains may also strategize about learning. However, the best envisioning strategists are not generalists who see learning experiences as one of many levers to pull to execute a strategy, but those who have moved from student through strategist in this continuum and hold a nuanced understanding of how learning experiences can meaningfully shift human development.

Stepping back and reflecting, what has your own evolution as a learning professional looked like? At which level do you prefer to function? At which level do you aspire to function? Then, looking at your team, at what level are they engaging with your agenda? What potential do they have to operate at other levels and what experiences are necessary to get them there? And, most importantly, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?

Meredith

Leading With Meaning

There are many responsibilities we ask our leaders to take on:  setting the vision, making decisions, managing stakeholder relationships, and igniting our own motivation.  Often underappreciated, however, is the role leaders can and should play in interpreting and understanding the world, particularly when faced with change.  Is that 3% increase in revenues good or bad?  Are we threatened or energized by our rival’s new product launch?  Should we feel concerned that digital is changing the landscape of our industry or confident that we’re out ahead of the challenge?

Accurately interpreting changes and challenges to our organizations is more important now than it’s ever been.  Since the 1990s, we have recognized that the world is increasingly “VUCA.”  VUCA is a military acronym which describes our current situation as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.  It reminds us that not only is the world changing, it is changing quickly, unexpectedly, and along many dimensions.  This increasing rate of change demands that leaders interpret – and reinterpret – the company’s situation far more frequently than was previously the case.  Particularly in changing situations, effective leaders pair the ability to continuously create and deepen meaning with the ability to push towards right action.  As a result, we see both the situation and ourselves more clearly and are more likely to take appropriate, committed action towards our collective goals.

How is meaning created
There are four broad steps in the process of meaning-making within leadership.  We begin with the facts of the situation, layer on an interpretation of those facts, understand the implications for us individually and collectively, and then emerge to take action based on this deeper understanding.

Alternative approach - With the realm of meaning

A framework for meaning-making in leadership


Situation 
When faced with change, we first ask:  “What’s happening?”  The answer may seem straight-forward:  margins expanded two points, we are about to start a cost-cutting exercise, or the headcount reduction will affect 5% of the workforce.  Of all aspects of meaning-making, the situation is most closely grounded in facts.  That said, the situation often only reflects a selection of relevant facts, rather than everything which is true in the organization.

Interpretation  Moving down the U to interpretation, we start to question “What does it mean?”  This generally begins with a broad assessment of the overall ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the situation.  Should we be happy or upset about this change?  Great leaders give a more nuanced interpretation of the situation, including the valence of the emotion (e.g., ‘very good’, ‘somewhat bad’) and the details behind it.  While we often consider our interpretations to be objectively true in the world, leaders know that interpretation is malleable.  Revenues up 3% can be exceptional and beyond expectations, deeply disappointing and requiring serious action, or innumerable other options given the context and ambitions of an organization.  Effective leaders guide followers through this interpretation, helping them to understand the right way to think about the new information.

Implication  A clear view of the situation and interpretation brings us to the question of implications.  The fundamental question of implication is “Who are we?”  This piece of the U is often tied up in deep questions of identity.  Followers ask:  “If our performance is not good enough, what does that say about us?  And what does that say about me?”  This is where an individual’s stake in the situation enters the conversation as followers consider both “Who are we collectively?” and “Who am I in this situation?”  Frequent answers come in the form of “We’re the type of company that. . .” or “I’m the type of person who. . .”  These questions draw on the cornerstones of individual and corporate identity for their answers:  What do we value?  What are our beliefs?  And what are our fears?  Leaders know that elegantly taking the conversation to this level has the potential to connect listeners with the purpose, mission, vision, and values which fire right action and increase individual commitment to the collective.

Action  Finally, we emerge to ask “What’s next?”  Note that the action here can result in either a state of being (“here’s how we want to be in the midst of this”) or an act of doing (“here’s what I want you do to next”).  Either way, it’s a call to action for the followers.  A good leader will ensure that this action builds off everything that comes before – the situation, its interpretation, and its implications.  Beyond this, a great leader will also relate this particular set of actions to a continuous thread, articulating how the answer to ‘what’s next’ ties to ‘what we were doing before’ and ‘where we’re headed.’  The situation – and any change required in reaction to it – is seen in the broader narrative of the organization.

 

How this is different 
In a quickly changing world, we have become accustomed to move quickly between the situation and our resultant action.  When faced with a situation, our instinct is often to fix it or change it.  We skip from “What’s going on?” to “What’s next?,” focusing on movement at the expense of meaning.  Unfortunately, confining ourselves to the realm of movement is increasingly limiting.  Moving from the situation directly to action misses the opportunity – and necessity – to create resonance with stakeholders.  It ignores the emotional and existential questions that emerge within an organization, preferring to keep things at the level of ‘all business.’  While this may seem ‘cleaner’ in some ways, it demonstrates either an ignorance of or willful ignoring of truth.  Followers will – and indeed they must – find interpretations and implications for events, whether guided by leaders or found independently.  Leaders who are willing to go there with their followers, instead of leaving them to take this journey alone, build commitment and resonance in the organization.  By moving thoughtfully into the realm of meaning, they choose grounded action instead of immediate reaction.

Old approach - The realm of movement

Our conditioned way of moving forward from situations – all within the realm of movement

How to apply this approach
As with all frameworks, there are some things this approach helps us see and some things it obscures.  It is not right to apply this framework in all situations; indeed, it is not always appropriate or necessary.  Instead, what is important is that leaders are ‘at choice’ with their approach.  Is the situation complex, uncertain, or particularly important?  Does it call for a connection to meaning?  Straight-forward or routine situations are not helped – and indeed may be hindered – by this level of processing.  But the more ambiguous the situation or the more sizable the impact, the more important it is to lead one’s colleagues through this process of adjusting their understanding of the world.  The goal is that we, as leaders, choose our communication style in each case.

Doing this well takes great capability in a leader.  It is hard and sometimes uncomfortable work.  First, it requires immense self-knowledge and maturity on the part of the leader to walk through the U process independently.  She must understand the breadth of interpretations and the depth of implications before communicating these to others.  As such, this work cannot be done by communications specialists or speechwriters; to be authentic and effective, the leader must walk the path herself.  Second, meaning-making requires a capacity to communicate this same journey to others and to hold the space for the organization to follow through the realms of meaning and out the other side.

When practiced iteratively in response to various situations, effective meaning-making co-creates the story of an organization in response to the challenges it faces along the way.  The leader weaves the story of not only what we’re doing and where we’re going, but also the story of who we are and why this work is important.  By reinterpreting and renegotiating our identity as protagonists in the organization’s story, the followers also see more clearly their role in the hero’s journey and their contribution to the success of the organization’s mission.

Meredith

Questions for reflection

  • When do you take time to create meaning?  When are you inclined to move straight to action?
  • Where are you uncertain about your own situation?  Where are you in need of deeper connection to meaning?
  • Where might your followers or teammates benefit from clearer interpretation and understanding the personal implications of a situation?

Saying yes to fears

San Francisco, CA

This past weekend I was lucky enough to catch up with a good friend who lives on the other side of the world.  He mentioned that a friend of his was afraid about many things.  Afraid about things happening.  Afraid about things not happening.  Afraid about being liked.  Afraid about not being liked.

When my boyfriend passed away unexpectedly in 2010, I found myself scared of so many things.  I was afraid of never falling in love again, afraid I would fall in love again, afraid I would fall in love and then that person would pass away, afraid I would forget him, afraid I would always remember him, afraid of being judged for grieving in my own way, afraid that what I felt was real, afraid that what I felt was false.  The list went on for pages in my journal.

Writing down the list of fears helped immensely.  I found that the first step in moving through the fear was simply to name it.  Give it form and substance.  Put words to it.  I didn’t worry about the ‘why?’ behind it; tracing each fear back to its psychological source wasn’t the point.  The point was getting rid of the fears.  And to get rid of them, I needed to know what they were.

My list of fears was very long.

Then, I had to face them.  By facing, I do not mean doing the thing you’re afraid of or overcoming it in some forceful way (e.g., intercontinental flights for those afraid of flying).  Instead, by facing, I mean just that:  turning my face towards the fear.  The point was to look at each fear instead of hiding from it.  I needed to accept them.  And most of all, I needed to say yes to them.

So, for each fear, I just said “yes” to it.  This was not a “yes” that I wished the fear would materialize, but instead an acknowledgment of its possibility.  “Yes, I might end up alone.”  “Yes, people may judge me.” “Yes, I might never be able to move past this.”  I just said yes.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Yes, that might happen.  Yes, this might happen.  Yes, yes, yes.  I said yes.  I cried yes.  I kept going with yes until there was nothing left.

yes bold
And soon, I moved to a place of:  “Okay.  Yes.  But so what?  So what if it does happen?  If that’s what’s going to happen, then I’ll deal with it.”  And at that point the yes turned into a sort of acceptance of possibilities.

What I realized was that before I found yes, I was running from every fear.  I was doing whatever I could to escape them.  Trying every tactic.  (It felt something like this.)  I was exhausted.

But when I stopped running, turned to face my fears, and said yes, the fear passed right through me.  I always thought that once it caught me (like Coyote catching the Roadrunner), I would be destroyed.  But instead, when I stopped and let it catch up with me, it evaporated, ghost-like.  It’s almost like my fears passed through straight through me.

When I started saying yes to fear, I also saw that the thing I feared and the fear itself were distinct (FDR got this one right; in the very first paragraph of his First Inaugural Address).  If the feared thing happened, whatever it was, I could deal with it.  Step-by-step, I would figure it out, because that’s what humans do.  But there was no use in being afraid of it.  Why work myself up emotionally for a possible situation in the future?  Saying yes allowed me to let this go instead of ducking, dodging, hiding, and running to avoid it.

My mental image of running from and then facing fear is that of Bugs Bunny.  He runs away from Yosemite Sam, that creepy monster or some other cartoon villain with all his might.  But what actually diffuses the situation is stopping and facing the bugaboo.  Stopping and facing lets us see that the villain – the fear – is laughable and inept.

If you are looking to let go of fear (or simply anxiety or nervousness), you can take the same approach:

  • Make a long list of the things you’re afraid of.  It can be anything.  Fear of things happening, fear of things not happening, fear of the judgment of others, fear of how you’ll perceive yourself.  Keep writing until you have no more fears to share.  (“I am afraid of not having enough money,” “I am afraid of my kids not going to the right school,” “I am afraid if I speak up people will think I’m too assertive,” “I am afraid that if I don’t go to PTA meetings, people will think I’m a bad parent.”  Whatever it is.)
  • Go through the list.  Say yes to each one.  Keep on saying yes until the fear loses its magnitude
  • When you’re feeling afraid again, come back to the list or repeat the exercise anew.  Write down your fears, say yes to each one, and let them go

Wishing you all love without fear,
Meredith

 

"Fear Monster"