Parenting Hack: Thing It/Unthing It

I was sitting around chatting with a group of moms the other day. One friend mentioned that her son was not eating meals, and they were, as a result, putting in extraordinary efforts to get him to do so. Her pediatrician’s advice? Just “un-thing” it.

Un-thinging is the process of not making a big deal out of something; in other words, not making it into a thing. Her son can eat or not eat. Either is fine. As a parent, you set the direction and the implications (i.e., here is good food, you need to eat or you’ll be hungry), but you don’t get tied up in what the child chooses to do. You don’t bribe or coerce. You don’t have an emotional reaction. You stay chill and let them figure it out independently. By un-thinging it, you lower the stakes. You normalize the situation. You create the space and opportunity for change.

In becoming conscious of un-thinging things, we have also started to play around with thinging things.  By thinging something, you differentiate it. You make clear that the plane diaperbehavior is situational and even special. You create limits and boundaries around it. For example, when flying with my toddler the other day, we decided to thing the use of a diaper. My daughter is in the middle of potty training, and we don’t want her to think that wearing a diaper is typical behavior. And so, my wife drew planes on each of her diapers. We talked about how these were special “plane diapers.” When we took the diapers off, we said goodbye to the them and made a big deal of wearing underwear again because we’re not on a plane anymore. We made diaper-wearing during travel a thing.

Beyond that, we are thinging a whole host of behaviors associated with travel:  lollipops to pop her ears on the plane (“plane lollipops”), the use of a tablet (“special Daniel Tiger”), eating more frequent desserts (“something we do on vacation”), and sleeping on an inflatable mattress (the “travel Older Toddler bed”). We want each to be a specific experience with its own use case, boundaries, and related expectations. We are creating the association that these are all related to this special time and place and do not reflect the new normal.

Stepping back, thinging and unthinging are simply more intentional practices about consciously choosing – in this case, consciously choosing your relationship with each action. What do you need to unthing to create space and opportunity for change? What do you need to thing to create differentiation and limitation?

Meredith

 

How Uber is Healing the World, One Ride at a Time

Living in San Francisco, it’s not uncommon that I hitch an Uber when I need to get around the city.

Debates on Uber continue to make headlines: How should we regulate ride-sharing? Is riding with a stranger safe? Is Uber’s surge pricing unjust? How does ride-sharing impact congestion?

While these debates swirl in my head, I can answer for the goodness of Uber immediately and from my heart: Uber is healing the world, one ride at a time.

Here’s why: Take a typical morning commute. The other day, I felt ambitious, getting up before dawn to work out during pre-business hours. I called an UberX. As always, when I matched for a ride, the driver’s name and photo flashed on my screen. It was DeAndre,* a forty-something black man driving a Prius. His photo showed a wide smile and beautifully-coiffed dreadlocks.
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My reaction to seeing a driver’s photo is immediate. Each time, I have a knee-jerk reaction to their most basic demographic details. And, to be completely honest, I have a different reaction to Stephanie, the white, blond twenty-something on my screen versus Jian, the fifty-something Chinese man coming to pick me up. This is where Uber starts to work its magic: my human biases, typically lurking beneath the surface, come to awareness with the flash of the app.
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While I am embarrassed by these initial reactions, the last few months of studying unconscious bias have helped put this in perspective: Neuroscience proves that acting with bias doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human. Given the richness of experience, it is impossible for our brains to process all the information we receive. Instead, we process only a fraction of this information consciously while allowing our unconscious brain to sort through the rest with the help of pattern-recognition. These patterns come from our personal experience and broader societal context (both good and bad). This approach can be helpful; we are able to quickly distinguish a butterfly from a bee and act accordingly. Unfortunately, this approach can also be harmful.  When making decisions about human beings, for example, we automatically make assumptions about people, my collection of Uber drivers included. We apply implicit stereotypes according to others’ race, gender, weight, age, and innumerable other dimensions. We’re biased against those who look different from us, and even, in some cases, against those who look like us. Thus, when the face pops up on my app, it brings awarenes sot my crazy web of biases.

But here is the second thing about Uber: I am not limited to living within my biased assumptions about these people. Instead, as we zip across the city, I get to spend a perfectly-orchestrated five, ten, or twenty minutes getting to know the person beyond the assumptions. It is the perfect set-up: a complete stranger, a delimited amount of time, and a willingness to talk. It is my opportunity to connect across differences and prove to myself just how wrong my biases are. In the course of everyday life, it is an opportunity that you can find nearly nowhere else.

After calling an Uber the other day, I jumped in with a forty-something Middle Eastern man named Muhammad. If I had jumped in a taxi with him, I would have kept to myself, falling in line with the norm of silence and ticking through emails on my phone. I would have left the car the same that I entered it. Instead, I met him as a human being. I asked him opening questions that went deeper and deeper: “How long was he driving today? What does he do when he’s not driving? What’s important about that?” I found that Muhammad spends his days as a stay-at-home dad. He loves to play bongos on the beach while his daughter dances. In addition, he planned to take his kids out to their favorite Neapolitan pizza place for dinner that night. I left the car after looking at pictures of his kids and an enthusiastic mutual handshake.

I’m grateful to all my drivers for connecting across humanity, teaching me about their lives, and reprogramming my biases about what is possible. I’m grateful to the traditionally-dressed African man who gave me lessons on veganism. I’m grateful to the gay Palestinian who reminded me how brilliant the Bay Area can be. I’m grateful to overweight suburban dad who gave me a recipe for lean broccoli casserole.

I wish you all many delightful Uber-enabled interactions.  Post your best stories in the comments below.

Ride on, my friends,
Meredith

*Names changed out of respect to the lovely human beings I’ve met

For more on unconscious bias and bias in general, here are my top picks:
Privilege, Power and Difference by Allan Johnson
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives by Howard Ross

To test your own unconscious biases, take the Implicit Association Test on Harvard’s website

Welcome to Fullness

As you may have guessed from my relative reticence, the last weeks and months have been particularly busy. In the last six weeks (since, roughly April 15th), I’ve travelled to Shanghai, Chicago, Phuket, Boulder, Singapore, a tropical island in Indonesia, Cape Cod, and Michigan. I’ve camped the Nor Cal woods with my fiancée, snorkeled Southeast Asian waters, and taken a beer tour of Chicago. I’ve attended offsites, retreats, annual meetings, and trainings. I’ve coached former classmates on storytelling, tried a new recipe for gluten-free/dairy-free mac and cheese, and volunteered at the soup kitchen. On the home front, we’ve replaced our washer and dryer, fixed the ice tray in the fridge (shockingly complicated), and replanted the front bed. For the wedding, we’ve ordered and addressed wedding invitations, finalized plans for cake, and completed the final fitting for my wedding dress. Most importantly, though, I’ve spent time with so many people I love around the world, including a few walks around the block with Reese, some quality time with Liz, and a beautiful bridal shower with nearly every member of my extended family.

I share this not to provide an excuse for not posting, but to take a stand: Yes, the last six weeks have been busy, but I refuse to call them that. In fact, I am hereby abandoning the word “busy.”  
busy
Why am I abandoning “busy?”

First, I don’t want to compete in the busy-ness competition. Sometimes, particularly amongst my overachieving friends, we end up one-upping each other with the intensity of our schedules. It’s as if our commitments act as a proxy for importance (“So many people have demands on my time and talents!) and capability (“…and I’m completely able to satisfy them all!”). It’s an alluring game to play as it feeds the ego and seems winnable. That said, winning the busy-ness competition is no treat. You may receive a bit of awe or pity, but to maintain your sense of importance and capability, you need to sign up for being even busier than you were before. I once heard a friend describe it as “winning a pie-eating competition where the prize is. . . more pie.”

Second, I want to encourage real conversations. We often ask each other “How are you doing?” in a ritualized way, not expecting a full answer. It’s easy to answer “I’m busy” and sharing your schedule. When someone asks me how I’m doing, I aspire to respond to those questions with a better answer – one that goes a bit deeper or shares a bit more. Why am I busy? What is happening in the world as a result of my efforts? What is meaningful about that?

Which brings us to the third and most important reason: I want to put attention on the underlying meaning, not the superficial hum of the activity. Ultimately, the word ‘busy’ doesn’t encapsulate the meaning behind it all. We all choose to sign ourselves up for work and activities, for life and relationships. We choose the things that make us so busy – and we presumably choose them because they’re important to us in some way. Being “busy” doesn’t invoke that overarching purpose in the activity; it just implies activity – and perhaps too much of it. Yet when I look at the litany of life in my first paragraph, I don’t feel exhausted, I feel exhilarated. Sure, I’m sometimes overtravelled, sometimes overworked, sometimes overstretched. But my underlying feeling here is one of satisfying fullness, and not of meaningless busy-ness.

Therefore, that’s my new word: instead of saying “I’m busy,” I am going to say “I’m full.” I am full of activity, full of life, and full of meaning. In many contexts, to be full is to be complete. I want the fullness that comes with having my time and talents used completely towards my ambitions.

Goodbye busy-ness. Welcome to fullness.

Meredith

full

Enjoy Your Fake-ation

Liz and I spent Valentine’s Day weekend on a romantic retreat to Vancouver.  And we’re spending this weekend catching up with friends in Boulder.  In both cases, instead of hopping from tourist activity to tourist activity, we’re spending most of our time doing all sorts of normal things.  We started with registering for our wedding at a Canadian Crate and Barrel, attacking the store on a quiet Friday.  Since then we’ve shopped at innumerable grocery stores, bought swimwear for our honeymoon, and gotten a bunch of work done.  All of this has brought up a curious question:

If a vacation is when you go away and do ‘holiday’ activiites (e.g., touristing, relaxing),

and a stay-cataion is when you stay home and do ‘holiday’ activites,

what is it when you go away and do ‘normal’ activites (e.g., running errands, doing work)? 

Introducing:  the fake-ation (or, in other words, the ‘fake vacation’) – the time that you go away from home, but end up doing all sorts of normal things.  You run errands, you catch up with friends, you get some work done, you finally go to the gym.  To be honest, it’s hard to find a pure incarnation of any of these; you have to go get more sunscreen when you’re hanging out on the beach or take an hour to read in the midst of everyday.  But the fake-ation is real.

Doing normal stuff here in Boulder,
Meredith
fakeation

Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two) here.

In Part One I talked about how 80% of Gandhi’s autobiography is about “Very Normal Things”, including eating, getting dressed, and moving around.  Here’s what else he spends most of his autobiography talking about:

Very Normal Thing #4:  Housework
Counter to the outsourcing trends of his milieu, Gandhi spends time hand-milling his own grain, starching and ironing his own clothes, and cutting his own hair.  He learns how to repair shoes and helps figure out how to spin thread and work the handloom.  Gandhi is big on cleanliness; not only does he clean his own latrines, he volunteers to inspect other peoples’ latrines to make sure they’re up to snuff (and sweeps them out if found lacking).  And Gandhi even spends a lot of time on interior decoration:  first on making his pad swank and deserving of the status of a barrister, later on disposing of all that junk.  By the time I got to the end of his story, I was convinced that Gandhi was very handy around the house.

Very Normal Thing #5:  Getting Sick and Getting Better
Gandhi variously contracts and recovers from ringworm, dysentery, constipation, headaches, and pleurisy.  He is constantly nursing others, within his family, when the black plague hits town, and as a wartime medic (Boer War, WWI).  He learns how to become a compounding pharmacist and volunteers at the local hospital.  He also becomes a bit of a quack doctor (as he admits) when he gets into earth treatments (apparently applying a poultice of dirt under a bandage?) and hydropathy (some sort of obscure water treatment?).  At one point Gandhi even calls in an “Ice Doctor” who cures him of dysentery by packing him in ice.  Like his obsession with food, there are many tales of sickness, health, and his related philosophies.

Very Normal Thing #6:  Annoying Administrative Work
In every group he’s a part of, Gandhi volunteers for many of the annoying tasks most of us would avoid doing – and then describes them in extensive detail.  He translates correspondence from one language to another, answers other peoples’ mail, collects dues, raises money, hand-cranks the printing press, leases buildings, folds newspapers, passes around petitions, serves as secretary, scribes documents when he can’t get them copied, you get the picture.  Even Gandhi tires of administrivia though; at one point, he bribes children to help him fold pamphlets with used postage stamps.  Score.

The most interesting point, however, is that in the midst of these “Very Normal Things,” you see the greatness of the Mahatma emerging.  He approaches the most annoying administrative work with a sense of servanthood.  He strives for simplicity in his clothes, his surroundings, and his speech.  He pursues brahmacharya (self-restraint) by limiting his consumption and swearing off sex.  He seeks purity in keeping his surroundings clean and instructing others to do so.   He practices ahimsa (non-violence) through his staunch vegetarianism.  He advocates for Hindustani identity when he refuses to remove his turban, translates papers into accessible Indian languages, and insists upon wearing his khadi dhoti.  Every “experiment with truth” he runs is enacted in the petri dish of his life.  And the way he approaches the mundane realities of everyday – from food to clothes, from housework to administrative work – reinforces or undermines some ‘lived value’ he holds.  Ultimately, in Gandhi’s case, those lived values – the ahimsa, brahmacharya, servanthood, identity, purity that he cultivated – became the same strengths which he brought to bear later in his toughest political trials.

There are a couple of moments when you can see the grand trajectory of the political movement in something small.  For example, when Gandhi starts a vegetarian kitchen at his ashram and engages the students to cook in it, it becomes an object-lesson in self-sufficiency.  When a friend comments:  “The experiment contains the key to Swaraj” the links between the most mundane (e.g., schoolboys cooking daal) and the most ambitious (e.g., India achieving political independence) start to come into focus.

Gandhi teaches me that “Very Normal Things” and “Very Big Things” are ultimate one and the same.  But I struggle with this.  I love thinking and writing about the big, the grand, the ambitious, the intellectual – the “Very Big Things.”  There’s some part of me that thinks that I will do my part in solving all the world’s problems by coming up with deep insights and articulating them in a compelling way.  And yet, when I focus on the “Very Big Things,” I don’t necessarily see the change I seek.

Given this, I’m trying to focus on the “Very Normal Things.”  Great things are the result of small, everyday actions, lived with intentionality, improved upon by reflection, and accumulated over time.  Even the most inspirational leaders live their lives day-by-day.  So I am building faith that if I do my “Very Normal Things” well, they’ll build into something weightier over time.  That feels happily accessible, but also a bit daunting.  It makes me realize that I’m indeed doing “Very Big Things” with every small action.

The small contains the key to the big. 

Off to do “Very Normal Things” with my Sunday,
Meredith

One final fun fact:  Gandhi also just took away my excuse for not going to the gym:  “. . . I believe even now, that, no matter what amount of work one has, one should always find some time for exercise, just as one does for one’s meals.  It is my humble opinion that, far from taking away from one’s capacity for work, it adds to it.”

Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two)

When I travel, I often select my reading material based on something appropriate to my destination.  Headed to Johannesburg in May, I read Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories, a collection of vivid vignettes of South African life after apartheid.  Headed to Seoul in September, I picked up Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom to get a view into everyday Korean life.  And over the last thirteen days in India, I read Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography – or, as he titles it The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

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Gandhi was one of the most effective and influential advocates for Swaraj (Indian home-rule) and his accompanying tactic of ahimsa (non-violence).  His name is known the world over.  As I loaded him onto my Kindle I expected to read about the story behind the “Very Big Things” he accomplished:  Articulations of high-minded ideals.  The narrative of an epic political movement.  Sweeping insights into leadership.

Do you know what I found?

Instead of hearing about Gandhi’s “Very Big Things” I was struck by the mundane, the minute, and the everyday.  Gandhi spends his life doing what most of us would recognize as the same “Very Normal Things” we ourselves do, but with a heightened sense of morals and meaning.  Here’s 80% of what Gandhi talks about in his autobiography:

Very Normal Thing #1:  Eating
If Gandhi has one lifelong obsession, it’s food.  In his teenage years, Gandhi starts running with the ‘bad boy’ crowd and sneaks away to eat meat.  He later repents of his rebellious ways and becomes a relentless advocate for vegetarianism.  Over time, he pushes this even further, swearing off salt, lentils, and dairy.  At one point, while sick, he drinks some goat’s milk at a doctor’s recommendation and then beats himself up for the rest of his life about it.  He ends up as a fruitarian who eats five or fewer types of food each day and finishes dinner by sundown.

Very Normal Thing #2:  Getting Dressed
Gandhi talks extensively about his Anglicized clothes in London.  He buys a chimney-pot hat for nineteen shillings and an evening suit for ten pounds.  When he moves to South Africa, he’s still consciously distinct from other Indians in his attire, in his hybrid frock-coat and turban.  In fact, there’s an entire turban-wearing fiasco when he joins the courts.  Over time, however, Gandhi dresses more simply.  He moves to a shirt, coat, and dhoti combo and later resolves to wear only khadi (locally produced hand-woven cloth) – a highly politicized fashion statement in keeping with the Swadeshi movement.

Very Normal Thing #3:  Moving Around
In the years he travels between India, England, and South Africa, there are long recounts of boat trips.  We learn what he ate on the boat (fruits and nuts), what he did on the boat (played chess, learned Tamil and Urdu, accidentally visited a hooker in Zanzibar), and who he hung out with on the boat (the Captain, a couple of English guys, a Puritan).   Later in life, Gandhi takes a lot of trains, particularly in third-class.  There is plenty of drama about train ticket cancellations, whether he gets bedding or not, how dirty and crowded the trains are, and the difficulty of getting on the train when people block the doors (it’s true; it’s happened to me as well).

In short, Gandhi’s autobiography is filled with extensive descriptions of “Very Normal Things.”

With that, I’ll pause this post given the length and continue with Part Two.  Look forward to “Very Normal Things” #4 through #6 as well as how it all comes together.  Continue in Part Two of Two here.

Also, if you have not yet done so, hit the ‘subscribe’ button on the right of the page to ensure you get other upcoming posts.  (It makes me really happy.  Seriously.  Like macaroni-and-cheese-happy.)

Glad to be home,
Meredith

Fun facts about Gandhi:

  • Gandhi thinks the Eiffel Tower is ridiculous.
  • Gandhi ends up in a brothel a couple of times, but always by accident (oops!).
  • Gandhi was all about home-schooling for his kids.
  • While living in England, Gandhi took dance lessons.
  • Gandhi was a married as a child at the age of only thirteen.