Dare to ask a bigger question

Several years ago, when I started to reinvent my business, I faced a sea of unknowns and many questions. I wondered: What was calling to me? How would my passion for story, or performance, fit into my leadership development work? Where would my work be most useful, valued and needed? Would I be marketable at all? What should I do to learn and develop my practice?

Starting out on a voyage of uncertainty and upheaval in my career, I figured that the sooner I could get to the land of answers the better. After all, time was running out! I had just turned turned 60. Surely all the personal growth, prayer, and contemplation I had done, together with my maturity and the earnestness of my quest, would serve to help me find my answers quickly.

I now smile at my hubris.

Because the big questions, the ones worth living into, don’t give up their answers just because we are in a hurry.

Instead I watched the years tick away. Questions didn’t seem to care about my timetable. I received information and answers, but they came at their own pace, not mine. I learned to stay open, curious and wait. (More truthfully, I did the best I could.)

Write out your questions

I have a great new client who’s just entering the discovery phase of her career reinvention process. As she sets out to interview people and check out new options for herself, I suggested that she make a list of the questions she wants to explore.

Listing the questions is a powerful tool, especially when it leads you to the bigger questions, the ones underlying your initial questions.

You may start with “What…?” and “How do I…” questions, and then find yourself discovering new “Why…” questions.

If you want to try this, take a sheet of paper and write forty questions about a subject that is important to you (like your life, your work, your relationships). If forty come easily for you, keep going. One teacher I worked with insisted that I write out a hundred questions. That was a stretch.  As you start to get tired of question writing, keep going. Just when you feel as if your questions are getting repetitive or silly, that lone question that’s going to be really useful could jump out at you.

When you’re done, review your list. What questions have you missed? Which ones inspire you? Which ones make you curious? Those are the questions that can point the way forward.

Permission to ask the big questions

Last week, I was applying to be considered for a cool conference sponsored by author and podcaster Krista TIppett, a champion of big questions. Instead of asking  “Why do you want to go to this conference?” questions, the application asked:

“We live in a moment of uncertainty and change – of vast open questions at the heart of our life together. Rilke spoke of “living the questions.” What questions would you like to pose, hold, and live with others in the period ahead?*

That made me think. And for a moment, while filling out the application, I stepped away from the obsessive, small questions I live with like “which garden bed most drastically needs my attention?” “What’s for dinner?” and “Is there gluten in the salad dressing?” and took a moment to think.

I wrote out a few unapologetically big and maybe uncool-to-chat-about-at-parties questions that I really care about, such as:

  • How do we embrace the pain of the world, and feel the gross inequalities without surrendering to despair?
  • How do we stay connected to what’s happening in the news, including our crazy politics, while staying connected to our own hearts and inner work?
  • How do I acknowledge the benefits I’ve received from being white while reaching out across interracial and intercultural divides?

Fortunately, I was only given 600 characters for my answer, because I could have kept going.

As today’s daily political quagmires are reported through the news, we’re presented with a near constant stream of allegations and disturbing news bites, and it’s hard not to be reactive. (“That’s bad.” “That’s really bad.” Do you realize how really bad that is?”) I feel taunted to come up with quick, easy responses.

But what if we could slow it all down and look for the questions that could take us underneath all the chatter?

What is we started with just one question: “What are the questions we should be asking?”

What’s your big question? I’d love to hear.

 

Freedom! Let’s get the job done…

My fifteen-year old granddaughter and her BFF cousin spent last week with us (such joy) and entertained us by singing most of the songs from the musical Hamilton. They did a wonderful rap, introducing us to the work of actor, director, and visionary, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m smitten (I know I’m terribly late to the party, but out here on America’s West Coast we’re thousands of miles from Broadway!). For anyone who wants to see a great example of theatrical storytelling: watch Miranda’s rap for Obama’s 2009 Poetry slam at the White House (and long for better days!). I like it so much that I’ve watched it without sound just to enjoy the energy and charisma Miranda brings to his performance, even without his terrific lyrics.

The other reason I’m smitten is because Miranda is using his fame to focus attention on immigration by supporting the Immigrants: We Get the Job Done Coalition with some personal, Hamilton-inspired fundraising. He just released a video that riffs on the line from Hamilton: “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done).” The rappers K’naan, Residente, Riz MC and Snow Tha Product combine forces to show how vital immigrants and refugees are to America, addressing both their contributions and sufferings. With gritty clips of dark subway cars filled with the frightened faces of immigrants going to yet another of their many jobs, dirt-smeared workers doing work no one else wants to do, and hostile police raids, it’s not a light video to watch. But it’s worth seeing and I’ve seen it now multiple times.

I pray that Miranda does for immigration what his play Hamilton did for American history: get people interested.

As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think of George Washington’s response in Hamilton to the question “Does this mean freedom?” with two apt words: “Not yet.”

Freedom. Not to be taken for granted. Let’s get the job done.

When One is More than Enough

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows

Did you know that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, and it was to his brother? Throughout Van Gogh’s life, his brother was his main admirer, even as the world didn’t understand, at the time, what Van Gogh had produced.

If he hadn’t created in spite of the lack of recognition, what would the world have lost?

Tim Buckley’s brilliant cover rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, has moved listeners around the world. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Buckley only released one studio album, Grace, to mixed reviews and a small audience. But years after his tragic passing, his Hallelujah continues to be heard by millions. (Watch the haunting video below of Buckley in concert.)

 

In our fame-crazed culture, selling one picture, making one album, or appealing to one person doesn’t seem like much. Celebrities in every field set a high bar for the kind of audience you need to appear successful.

And what’s the point of creating, if you’ll never do it “like that.”  How would you dare call yourself a writer, artist, poet, singer, doodler, cook, designer, builder or creative spirit of any kind if your work may never reach beyond the people you know?

I can get swayed by that kind of thinking. After all, top bloggers have hundreds of thousands of followers. Then I recalibrate and remember that YOU are reading this blog right now. And that’s what matters most to me.

Big numbers aren’t always the prize.

Wanting to go viral can rob us of the joy of creating. Why not create for one person—and that person could even be you? You can have a big impact that’s not connected to big numbers.

When I write poems, I don’t strive to be published (quite a feat), or recognized as a “good poet.” Untrained as I am in the art of poetry, I hesitate to call myself a poet at all, but in the spirit of Jonathan Fox who wrote Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity through Poem-Making, (who believes we all have poetry inside.) I write anyway.

Happily, some of my poems have been read, acknowledged and had an impact on the one person or small group they were intended for.

For example, I wrote a poem:

  • For a friend when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She loved the poem, and kept it close to her.
  • As an early Father’s day gift for a friend who had recently lost her Dad. She was moved to tears.
  • For my Mom to let her know how much I loved and acknowledged her. (How glad I am to have done that before a stroke took away her ability to communicate.)
  • For a women’s gathering, reflecting on an activity we did together; it was very appreciated.
  • For my husband to reflect his goodness back to him. He keeps the poem tacked to his office wall so he can read it while he works.

When one person reads my poem and is moved, I feel like my work has been rewarded.

Sometimes I write poems that will never be read by another, because a flow of words happens to please me. The effort settles me, inspires me, and allows me to step into my role as creator.

When you look at your life, are there areas in which you are hesitating to claim your role as a creator, because it feels like others have done it better, or because you see recognition distributed to only a few celebrities? What would it take for you to start creating?

As I start working on my new book, a voice inside wonders if my work will ever be published or distributed to more than a few readers. Fortunately, a wiser, more writerly voice says, “Write anyway. Imagine your audience of one and write to influence one life.”

You are a creator, and it’s time to claim your place at the table of creatives. No one but you gets to vote on this.

You can create for one. Even if that person is you.

Is this it?

 

Sometimes I open the door to my mind to write and there’s nothing there. Depending on how I’m sitting (or what I’m hoping to do), this can feel like a blessing or a curse. As I was pondering what to write this week, all I could come up with was a poem by James Broughton.

THIS IS IT

This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That

O it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are
so This is It

Staring at the empty page, I ask my brain  “What can I write?” And my brain, acting like that awful boy Richard in 3rd grade who taunted me relentlessly about being smart, decides to mock me and says “Nothing.” Nothing to write. No ideas. Empty.

The power of nothing.

When I dive into nothing, I always find something, But when I insist on finding something, I may only come up with nothing,

So what now?

Ring a chime. Light a candle. Just sit. Feel the muscles of my butt in the chair. The tinnitus that rings in my ears. Allow the it to be it. Sip tea. And wait.

And the words will come, or they won’t.

And you will read and enjoy, or you won’t.

And life goes on either way.

This summer, I hope we all can enjoy more beloved It-ness.

And Here we are/so This is it.

 

Are you rolling the rock uphill? (Or Sisyphus in the garden)

From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube

Do you ever feel like you’re just rolling the rock uphill?

As I face that huge to-do list of things-that-have-to-be-done, I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus, the hero of Albert Camus’s famous 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus described Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology, who offended the gods and was punished by being condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with his rock, its weight would send it cascading back down the hill. For Camus, the myth demonstrated man’s existential plight, and the absurdity of having to do work that is futile, day in and day out. (Watch Peter Dronen’s animated film here.)

That’s how I feel in the springtime when life and all the weeds return to my garden. The gods warned me (through a number of gardening colleagues) not to plant such a huge garden, but I, as a proud, inquisitive, and energetic mortal, decided to defy them. I created something way bigger than I can manage. During the springtime, I weed one area one day, then move on to the next, return in a week to the first, to find, guess what? A new set of weeds has taken over and my work must begin again. Like Sisyphus, I will never get it all done.

Should I just throw in the spade and crumple into a pile of (unwanted) buttercups?

 

 

An actress friend of mine from New York City has a different take on the matter. When she heard how overwhelmed I was feeling trying to manage our property, she laughed. “Oh, you get used to that living in New York City. Every day there’s so much you can do in The City, but you realize that you will never do most of it. You get used to knowing that what you do will only be a smidge, compared to what you can’t do.”

A lightbulb went off! I saw that I had been believing that I should get it all done. It was as if my life was constructed around a huge game called “accomplishing all there is to do.” But I had forgotten that I’d chosen the game. Maybe there’s a different game out there called “it will never be done and much of what lies ahead of me will never get finished.” Sure, there are responsibilities in life, like mine to my family and clients, that have to get done; I am accountable for managing these. There are consequences for not doing some things. Yet I’m the one who chose many of the obligations on this man-made mountain I have chosen to climb.

Awareness may be the first step in recovery. But I still need strategies that can help me navigate the absurdist drama before me. I’m experimenting with these.

Stop and smell the roses. Or the peonies. Or the unwanted buttercups.

The peonies are blooming in the garden and they are luscious beyond belief. Their intoxicating perfume lifts me out of my hopelessness about the garden. The weeds can wait. Checking into my here-and-now sensory experience, helps me bypass my mind’s diagnosis of “there is too much to do.”

Get some perspective.

Have you ever been sick, really sick, when even doing the simplest task seems out of reach? When I’ve been laid low by sickness or hurt in an accident, one of the gifts I’ve received has been to watch the list of what I expect from myself miraculously shrink. When I am able to leave my bed, I delight in what I can do, such as make my first cup of tea, in the face of all that I can’t.

I want to remember that perspective, that gratitude, as I get swept back into the rhythm of regular life.

Track your real accomplishments.

On the surface, this can seem like returning to the land of the ever-present to-do list, checking things off the list, and watching how new items magically spring up to replace what you’ve checked off. But I’m talking about a different kind of reflection.

This week, I discovered a little software app called “Idonethis.com” that allows you to track accomplishments. (It’s free in its hobby-personal version , and requires almost no learning curve.) You can either list tasks and check them off (the old way) or pause a moment, reflect, and record what you accomplished that matters most to you.

For example, my big accomplishment on Tuesday was not tied to any goal. It was a surprise insight that came out a conversation with one of my former podcast guests. “Don’t try to write another career book about working in the 3rd act of life. Connect working with the kind of questions of meaning that show up in writers like Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr.”

One five minute insight meant more to me than a mountain of to-do’s done. And taking a moment to record this was very satisfying, a glimmer of meaning I could take from my work.

Meditate. Become more mindful.

This is a longer-term strategy, so I won’t write about it here, although I know it’s the door into a way of being that is not dependent on the world becoming fixed, ordered, or behaving as it should.

From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube

 

Camus was interested in finding meaning in an absurdist world where the tasks of life seemed overwhelming and futile. (And if you need to practice feeling the absurdity of life, just turn on NPR and listen to the news out of Washington, D.C.)

He thought the world was godless. I don’t agree, but I appreciate his wrestling with the question “why bother” in the face of the craziness of life. His essay closes with Sisyphus accepting his fate and the absurdity of his work, finding, within his choice, the possibility of happiness.

Accepting that part of life that may always seem a bit futile, absurd, and at times overwhelming, seems wise.

Take that you forest of weeds.

8 reasons not to tell stories (a warning for consultants and trainers.)

Photo: Christine Butler –  Creative Commons license

“Storytelling is dangerous.”

I wrote this in my chapter in Sakile Camara’s book for trainers Communication Training and Development (Kendall Hunt Publishers, 2017) that is about to be published. My article is titled The Savvy Storyteller: A Guide for Trainers.  I assume that if you read this blog and do any teaching, you value interaction, engagement and learner-focused objectives. Storytelling is a great tool for that. But then I realized that there are still trainers who value control over interaction. I decided I must warn them. In their case, storytelling could be very risky.

(My husband says to warn you that in the following I am writing tongue-in-cheek in case my aberrant humor doesn’t come through.)

8 reasons not to use stories:

Storytelling lessens our control. 

I once taught 45 four-year olds at a time in a bi-lingual Ecuadorian pre-school. They spoke only Spanish. I was told to speak only English. I could never figure out who was Paco and who was Pancho. That’s where I learned the mantra: “Control is everything.” Forget the job of teaching the little ones English during the hour I had with them. My real job, I was told, was to keep them in their seats. (“Buena suerte.” Good luck with that.)

So trainers, remember the mantra. You need to keep people tracking on your  agenda. You’ve divided it into ten minute sound bites to make sure that nothing goes askance. You’ve spent hours creating those lectures and exercises which will drive home your message, so beware: with storytelling people get to discover their own meanings from the stories. That could be chaos!

Just think about Jesus, probably the world’s most famous storyteller. He told stories over two thousand years ago and people are still debating what he meant!

That’s too inefficient! Couldn’t he have just handed out a rule book? Save your students time and just type up the golden rules they need to follow. Remember, who wants to be crucified or fired for failure-to-meet-pre-determined-training-metrics.

Storytelling asks us to listen.

First, you have to listen to an audience to make sure that they’re listening to you. If not, talk louder. If they still don’t listen, walk out. Watch it though, because great storytellers are likely to be really great listeners who value other people’s stories. You can’t afford to do that. Do you have ten minutes free during your work day? No? Then, how can you even think about listening to someone else’s story? As you read this, your colleague Jeremy is walking over to you, smiling, with a cup of coffee in his hand, looking like he has something to share. On your mark, get set, RUN while you still have time!!!

Storytelling asks us to be vulnerable.  

Beware the “V” word. It’s too bad that author, researcher, and speaker Brené Brown made it sound like allowing yourself to be vulnerable was a good thing. Our rule should be: Vulnerability is OK for other people, but NOT for us! Do you really want to share your failings in public? Unacceptable! Did you hear what happened to Brené when she started becoming famous: people sent her nasty-grams telling her she was too fat! This is why you should never show any vulnerability–or at least not until after you go on a starvation diet.

Storytelling validates the truth of other people’s experiences. 

This includes dead people and people you don’t like. Our job as teachers is to establish OUR expertise. That’s why we are paid. Do you want to put your job at risk by acknowledging that the folks you are training already know a lot about your subject–maybe more than you–and might have their own stories to tell? The best defense is a good offense…talk more.

Storytelling ignites change. 

Creative storytellers have been known to let audiences make up their own creative endings, or invent alternate scenarios about how a scene can go (like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed). Some storytellers even invite audience members to tell their stories and help act them out on stage. (Playback Theatre). Audiences discover their power to become agents of change inventing their own futures. But change is risky. Think about it, our training programs haven’t changed, and why should they? If someone suggests one of these co-creative methods on stage, ask whether he or she is planning to bring trees on stage to tell their stories about the environment. This has to stop somewhere.

Storytelling invites audiences to create their own meanings.

This happens especially when learners are encouraged to reflect. There are three reasons not to do this in our trainings: 1) It takes time; 2) They might come up with meanings we didn’t intend; and 3) It is harder to measure meaning as categories on multiple choice exams.

Storytelling doesn’t dance well with powerpoint. 

Storytelling asks us to remember emotions, reconnect with them, abandon our scripts and speak directly to the hearts and minds of our listeners. Just because national leaders can go off script doesn’t mean that we can!  Stories have a pesky way of changing as they are told and adapted to the needs and listening of different audiences. Stories refuse to stand still and they don’t like being reduced to bullet points.

But that shouldn’t be a problem since we can’t add anything to the slides that we created three years ago.

Storytelling connects us with our hearts. 

We can wax sentimental about hearts, but here’s the real scoop about what they do: make us get angry, feel really sad, or experience compassion for people we don’t even know. Don’t you have enough to worry about without thinking about the workers in China dealing with your electronic waste? Or what’s happening to polar bears? Our students need to stay focused. On our bullet points. From the talk we planned in 2014.

So please help me to send out the warning. And let me know, if you’d like to read the real chapter about what great trainers do!