Just words: vote

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Vote is a four-letter word, but I never took Latin. So, no voting for me.

Hey, Friend,
Are you going to vote? I am sure there is an election coming soon. Have you cast your vote before? I have. A long time ago.

I grew up in East Germany before the Wall came down. Every couple of years, they had something one Sunday, which they called an election. You would walk to the polling station, show your ID, be given a ballot, take one step to the right, fold the ballot, and stick it in the ballot box. Done. You had just voted for one list of candidates. All of them. From different parties and associations. All on the one state-sanctioned list, which you approved towards the 99.9%. And if you did not, they would revisit you with the “flying” ballot box. Again. And again.

In the first election after demonstrations, civic movement, and round tables— remember 1989? — I registered my protest vote. I had done the math. After the counting and announcements, I revoked my right to vote for a couple of years, believing that only people who don’t mix up politics and math should vote. Protest voting is nonlinear.

The German word for vote is die Stimme. Most common backtranslation: the voice. When you have a voice, you vote — when you vote, you have a voice! I always thought the words vote and voice are related, and maybe they are. But I never took Latin.

In England, I voted in local elections. But neither John Major nor Tony Blair were my fault. They were not my success either. European immigrants only vote locally. And in Canada? Permanent residents can’t vote for anybody. I watched the news and kept quiet.

And now I am here. Southern California. Best climate I have ever been in. Geographically. I will keep quiet, hanging on to my Green Card.

How about your voice? Your Stimme. Your vote!

On the complexity of change: It’s time — now

Hey, Friend,

Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?

Time!
Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.

Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?

Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous?
We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours.
We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month.
We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly.
We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else?
We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?

Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.

Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.

Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.

Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.

Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.

Time changes and is the same all the time.

Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexity of Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.

That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.

Time is up.

Just words: ambiguity

Hey, Friend,
Middle of a work day. I am using my lunch break to write. Thank you for your comment, Chris, on my previous post on the word herd immunity. Sitting about 150 miles away from your home, I can picture your schedule (I might pick up on this later) and imagine the conversation with your son. The marvels of reading and writing…

The post heading gives it away: what caught my eye was: “It boils down to a coping mechanism for a yawning lack of ambiguity tolerance among us humans.” Fancy word that. Let me bounce it around a little.

I believe you are right. We are always trying to cope with ambiguity. We like to know what this virus is—exactly. What does it do the body, to my body, should I get infected? When will we get back to normal? On November 11? Or on December 14? And what does normal mean, anyway? And why did you throw another Latin word into my immunity?

So, I looked it up: ambiguity. It’s old. It can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of all Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Latin, Spanish, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, … Linguists hypothesize that PIE was spoken in the third millennium BC, 5000 years ago.
*ambhi (around) and *ag (to drive, to move)
In Latin, the word referred to “double meaning” already.

So, I guess even 5000 years ago, the nomads had to deal with unsteady things, that kept moving, struggled with deriving one meaning from the many they saw, and encountered phenomena of a doubtful or uncertain nature. So much so that they probably had a word for it.

5000 years. And we are still struggling and coping with ambiguity. Why? It’s everywhere. As they say: Words have more than one meaning. (Linguists call this phenomenon polysemy. And yes, it is pretty much all words.) Most phenomena in nature and in society are complex; development and processes in general are often nonlinear; each one of us can take a different perspective, develop a different — often only partial — understanding. Ambiguous.

So, what are we going to do with our lack of ambiguity tolerance? Tolerate it more? Eliminate ambiguity as drastically as we can? Struggle with it from time to time over the next 5000 years?

Or is there another way? What do you think?

As always, hanging in there and thinking of you (plural … again!)

Mat

Just words: herd immunity

Hey, Friend,

It’s been another long work day. I had meant to write to you in the morning … Well, I am doing it now. So? How are you? Have COVID-19 and the general state of the little world we find ourselves in also impacted your daily schedule, workload, energy, emotions, expectations and even your ability to think as much as they have mine?

Am I really just one in a herd? And I am supposed to wait for herd immunity? I don’t know about that. Even the word irks me.

Immunity apparently came from Latin via French into English.
Not very rare and interesting — for a word.
What it meant first is interesting. Today!

immunitatem
: “exemption from performing public service” or

immunis
: “exempt, free, not paying a share”. What can I say? Is this where it is going this time?

Only in the late 19th century, the word immunity got its medical sense of protection from disease.

Don’t get me started on herd! What am I supposed to be? An ox? A bellwether? Or some non-descript cattle? What does it take to be part of this herd immunity?

Why are an animal metaphor and a strange old legal term being hooked up and dangled before us from time to time as a possible exit from a pandemic? Maybe, just maybe … there are better ways.

Hanging in there as always and thinking of you (plural, of course; but that’s a topic for another day…).

In any case. Just write. I want to know what you think. Can you derive any sense out of this?

Mat

In eigener Sache

It was bound to happen. You can take Mat out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of Mat.
Addressing two challenges—one linguistic and one very worldly.

Challenge #1

In eigener Sache. It is what it is, but it is difficult to translate into English. Literally: in one’s own matter. Often used in company announcements that pertain to the company itself. Please note … does not really capture it. We are happy to announce … does not fit the context I am thinking of. Any suggestions that go beyond the the discussions in the forum of the online dictionary leo.org?

Until you come up with something better, I will just call it About us, which is

Challenge #2

Life goes on. Work piles up. COVID-19 has been confusing people, making many sick, and killing far too many. Too many lost their livelihood, feel frustrated and excluded, and wonder when and how this will end. And many say: I can’t breathe. Not now and not before.

And that is just the context. For this blog. On May 2, more than two months ago, I wrote the last post. Silence. Busy processing. Busy with busy. Busy learning, trying to understand. To understand what’s going on.

Doesn’t writing help? To process? To understand? Yes, it does. For me, it does. Reading also helps, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the challenge then? Finding the time to write, before one is overtaken by events. Having the energy to key in thoughts. Being focused on writing about one when a trillion is happening all at once.

But that is not all. Writing when everybody is talking is hard. Is anybody listening? Am I listening? Enough?

Just Words: I give you my word

And you get 7 points for this.

I’d like a word with you.
I give you my word.
You are twisting my words.
This blog became popular just by word of mouth.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.

This is a new beginning. The beginning of a series of blog posts. We are continuing the posts on leadership and personal practices – the BASE Model – and on problem-solving and the complexity of change. Yet, something new is added: For each post in the series Just Words, I will select one word. Just one. Look at it from different angles. Play with it a little. Perhaps, see it in a new light. In a different context. And, today’s word is

the word

We are starting with an old Germanic noun. Linguists reconstructed a form wurda in Proto-Germanic, the assumed precursor to languages like Danish, Dutch, English, Friesian, German, and Swedish.

Is it important to be more aware of each individual word? Especially an old one such as word? One that we use quite frequently and in different contexts? One that different people have been using over many centuries?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Before I answer it, confession time: I am a philologist. (In Greek: philo- = loving; logos = word) I love words. Using them. (My family, friends, and colleagues tell me I use too many too often 😉.)

So, my answer: Yes, being aware of one’s words is important. For two reasons: Words have consequences. Depending on the words you use, people will hear something different, feel something different, understand something different, or do something different. Or as Carl Sandburg said: Be careful with your words: once said they can only be forgiven, not forgotten. Words are powerful tools. Words can pinpoint and cover up. They can heal and hurt. And they can clarify and obscure. And so much more. Let me tell you two stories to illustrate.


I grew up in Finsterwalde in Germany. In this small town is a short street, named after Max Schmidt. The Max-Schmidt-Straße. For many years, I did not know who Max Schmidt had been.

1943. The war was in its fourth year. Max, a merchant in town, met with others in his local pub. Small talk and a beer or two. A time to tell jokes and anecdotes. Often with few words; one knew and understood each other. A popular opening gambit was the question: Do you already know the latest joke? The friendly reply was: no. And then the joke would be told. So, Max Schmidt sat down with his buddies and opened the conversation with “Do you already know the latest joke?” … … … “We will win the war.” One of the listeners mentioned the 5-word joke to a Nazi official in town. The Gestapo interrogated Max Schmidt. He came before the “People’s Court”, was accused of Wehrkraftzersetzung – undermining military force – sentenced to death, and executed in July of 1944.
For a 5-word joke.


When I was a student of Linguistics, I learned about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a hypothesis that discusses the relationship between linguistic structures in a language and people’s thinking and cultural values.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist and chemical engineer, became an engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company in 1919. In one incident, a worker had placed containers with liquid next to a heater, which started a fire. The containers were labeled “highly inflammable”. The worker had believed that inflammable was the opposite of flammable, like incomplete is the opposite of complete.
2 words. 1 prefix. The in- in incomplete or the in- in insure.


Do words matter? Even just one word? Carelessly or imprecisely used? The things we do with words …

Does it matter whether we talk about social distancing or physical distancing under COVID-19? Should one call it the Chinese virus? Are love and hate opposites? Can one compare apples and oranges? And which one is a correct word?

I will go through this word for word. You can take my word for it.

Boundaries – Physical, Part 2: Mind-Body Connection, Re-Imagining the Interpersonal, and “Interacting, Fast and Slow” – A riff on the work and words of Daniel Kahneman

Spiral dynamics – Ken Wilber

Greetings to you. How are you? I am well, and I very much hope you are also. Is this a good time to connect? Great, let’s get started then.

These social niceties probably seem more than a little out of place in a blog entry. Well, they are! At least, they were according to the schema I (we) previously held about how blog entries are “supposed” to work. Can we agree that things are different now? For me, they certainly have changed, even since my last post (Physical Boundaries: Part 1, in case you missed it) from nearly four weeks ago. Four weeks. My last post looks juvenile and naive to my eyes, in the light of these intervening days and weeks. But that is the way of these things. If the past month has taught us anything, it’s that exponential growth/change (scroll down to the section on it in Mat’s most recent post, if you’re in a rush) is damn near impossible to account for, in advance or otherwise.

And yet, the curve does seem to be flattening, at least in a number of places. How? Simply put, boundaries. And accountability. As well as some support… and, why not? Expectations. BASE. When things work, regardless of whether or not they work optimally, there is almost always a good measure of all four of those things at play.

So, without more preamble, let’s dive in to the exploration of Cognitive and Interpersonal Physical Boundaries.

Cognitive Physical Boundaries can sound like a self-contradictory turn of phrase, especially for those of us educated in a Western thought paradigm. “How can I have mental boundaries that are also physical?” you may ask. My response, if I were feeling a bit cheeky, would be along the lines of “how can you not?” Unless you are making a deliberate, sustained effort to separate your cognitive and corporeal awarenesses, the strongest likelihood is that a large part of your lived experience is found in the interplay between the two. 

To be clear, your brain and the thinking in which we engage it are not synonymous with the “mind.” A little word work can help us clarify the distinction: 

Cognitive -> Cognition -> Thought (intellect)

Mental -> Mindfulness -> Mentality (mindset)

To me it is very interesting how we can begin with two practically synonymous words —cognitive and mental— and end up with two words —intellect and mindset— that are at best parallel partners. Although serious study of the mind-body connection has not been prevalent in the West for much of the past few hundred years, more recently it has gotten more and more traction. From the likes of Deepak Chopra, to the rise in meditation and mindfulness apps, clinics, podcasts, and so on, collective humanity is almost crying out for a counterpoint to the overly essentialized, long-held view of the body as a mere implement for the mind; a fleshy automaton meant to enact the whims of one’s will, or to be the gateway for the spirit’s eventual decline and demise.

Want an example? My recent lived experience sheltering in place here in Southern California has taught me a lot about mind-body connection and a lack of healthy Cognitive Physical Boundary guarding. Maybe you’ve gone through something similar recently:

My sinuses were irritated. I noticed it, at first a little, and then more and more. I thought “it’s just allergies.” Then I thought, “Isn’t it?” Then I felt irritation and even mild discomfort settle in my pharynx (the part of your sinuses that sits above the palate, almost directly behind your nose). Then I looked up what that part of the sinuses is called, and I read some articles about how the pharynx is where respiratory infection and sickness often begin. Then I noticed that my pharynx was even more inflamed and irritated. Then I became something very close to obsessed with clearing it out. Saline, saline, and more saline. It did not clear out. I climbed into bed about eight hours later in a ragged state. It must have been an hour before sleep finally took.

And don’t even get me started on the evening where I felt warm and took my temperature, only to discover that it was between 99 and 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I took it about 8 more times over the next two to three hours… it came down within 45 minutes and stayed that way. But it took my mind, and my body, about 12 hours to accept that this was not the beginning of a downward spiral. The next day, when I woke up feeling about as fine as I ever do, I decided to be MUCH more purposeful about monitoring my mind-body connection.

Contact with too much news, at too many intervals, focused too much on the myriad, mysterious symptoms and transmission modalities had built a narrative of inevitable infection inside my mind and spirit. My body reacted in kind. Sensations turned into symptoms. Symptoms turned into self-diagnosis, despite a much more robust set of signals that I was doing just fine physically. Sound familiar?

I needed to really channel some effort and energy into being aware of my body and the influence my thoughts and feelings have on it. In order to establish that connection in a more positive light, I went back to a technique that a former aikido sensei showed me. I lie down on my bed, and I proceeded to breathe in and out five to ten times, first through my nose and mouth, and then (and here’s the important part), through each of my main body parts: neck and shoulders: in, then out; arms and hands, in, then out; hips and lower back, in, then out; and so on.

Even if the worst thing you’re dealing with is some tension or soreness, this is an amazingly effective way to connect mentally with a physical sensation in a way that also gives you some agency. Because, isn’t that the challenge we most often face? Our body hurts -> us, and our minds/thoughts absorb and create a story from that physical hurt? Using the technique I have just described, you can begin to shift the source and flow of that story. Instead of beginning with physical sensation and ending in a cognitively produced narrative, turn the whole thing on its head (so to speak). Start with a story of general wellness and genuinely curious exploration, and then send that out through the physical sensory receptors of your body through the elemental power of purposeful breath. It takes some practice and dedication, but it also offers the powerful reward of a cognitive physical boundary system that is more reflective of the actual relationship between our bodies and minds.

Interpersonal Physical Boundaries can be understood, on one level at least, to overlap with Kinetic Physical Boundaries. As I outlined in my previous post, most of us have an ingrained preference when it comes to the amount of physical contact we wish to make with others in different kinds of routine social encounters. But what about our the way our physicality reflects our psychosocial state? Put a simpler way, what about our “energy” or “aura” in interpersonal dynamics? I’ll start from the outside in. 

Have you ever been around someone whose mood or state of mind was almost physically perceptible to you? Whether it is joy, bitterness, anxiety, desire, rage, or indifference —to pick just a few possibilities— I cannot help but imagine that you have been able to sense what another person is feeling just by being in their physical, visual, or auditory proximity. But, how often have you wondered how this can be? Does the invocation of terms like “energy” put you off? I suppose I can understand if it does, since it opens more doors to ambiguity than it closes, but I also wonder if that isn’t just the nature of interpersonal dynamics. They’re just a complicated mixture of visible and invisible dynamics, right? 

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s agree that, at one point or another, we’ve all been on the receiving end of the unspoken, projected energy/aura of another person; a joyful friend, an upset stranger, a disappointed significant other, an annoyed boss, an entitled child… we can all picture and even use our sense memories to call at least one of these people to mind. And I bet those memories do not (need to) include perfect auditory recall in order to be vivid. It wasn’t what they said or did. It was how they felt that let us know. 

Ask yourself if you’ve ever been the one sending these energy signals to others.

Spoiler: you have.

At some point in your life to now, you have walked into a room and been greeted by someone who immediately picks up on some unspoken aspect of your current mood. The best part? It may have been an emotion/thought that you weren’t even consciously aware of yet! And that is the part I want to briefly focus on today. Conscious engagement with our interpersonal physical energy and differentiating it from the energy we absorb from the world, and people, around us. 

Check in with yourself. As you perform an inventory like that, do you do with some degree of evaluative judgment, or just curious discovery? The default for most of us is the former, but the better, and more accurate version, is the latter. For the next few days, commit to checking in with yourself at least twice each day, taking your emotional temperature as it were. But do it like an interested observer. Be curious, not evaluative. The goal is just to notice your internal energy at two different times per day, and then to be curious about if and how it might be, or have been, reflected in your physical interpersonal presence as perceived by others. 

Take it a step farther. Instead of attaching your emotional/interpersonal energy to your self-perception, depersonalize it. I’ll do myself as an example: I have spent most of today feeling impatient. I have been in a few meetings and conversations —both work-related and personal— where I wanted them to be over almost before they had begun. I am confident that those I with whom I was interacting picked up on that, even though I never said anything concrete about it.

Rather than owning it, however, I will simply note it and set it aside with this phrase: “There is impatience.” It is not me, and I am not it. I experienced it, and others, through my interaction with them, experienced it as well. But now, free of the burden of it, I can look forward and try my best to choose something different from this moment on. I’ll try wonder. My goal will be to first feel wonder at the actions and words of the people I interact with tomorrow. I’ll then try to project it from within, but also to connect with it in the world around me. It is still not mine. I can’t own or contain it. But there IS wonder, and I can participate, partake, and share. And the most genuine, impactful way I’ll do that will not be through my words, nor even my overt actions. It will be by way of a mind-body engagement with the wonder that there is.

I’ll leave you today with the voice of one of my intellectual heroes, Daniel Kahneman:

In this interview, he talks about how he thinks we —yes, all of us— misunderstood the nature and scope of the COVID-19 threat, as well as the risks we may run in misconceiving of the world as it is now, and as it will be hereafter. My biggest takeaway comes at around the 3:20 mark and lasts until just shy of the 7:00 mark. Give it a listen, if you will, and think about individual instances of behavior versus extended patterns of behavior, in your own life, and in the world around you. I hope it will be a good segue to the upcoming entries on psychological boundaries.

Additional link related to today’s post:

https://wildtreewellness.com/energetic-boundaries/

Until next time. Be well. Stay safe.

On the complexity of change: The chaos of COVID-19

A fractal phenomenon of sacrifice and comfort, of loss and gain, of hope and fear. An experience of chaos. And a time of chance. And opportunity.

Below I will make use of the explanatory power of Complexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.
And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

Why am I only writing about this now?

My colleagues and I have been teleworking from home for the last three weeks. I did predict that I would have more time to read, to think, to write. It has been 25 days since the first post with my initial thoughts on COVID-19. The next came four days later. And then nothing until now. I had not predicted that I would dedicate longer hours and more effort to my day job, thinking that working from home meant saving work time, having time for other pursuits. I was wrong. And I have been very lucky. Not only my mortgage payments are still withdrawn on the first of the month, my salary comes in at roughly the same time. I have a job to go to and I don’t even have to go to do it. So, the least I can do is do my job well to keep our contractors in gainful employ as newly minted teleworking teachers. And I hope that some good is coming of sharing my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic through the rational lens of complexity. And chaos!

Really? Now also Complexity Theory has something to say about COVID-19?

In earlier posts I referenced the Cynefin framework of problem solving by Dave Snowden and his collaborators. I talked about simple and linear problems—which he calls complicated—and I slowly began a discussion of complex problems and complexity in general. Little did I know at the time that I would feel that now I have to dive right into a discussion of the societal and individual situation of COVID-19 as a chaotic problem and could not develop my thinking further about complexity and the solving of complex problems.

Why Complexity Theory after toilet paper, shelter-in-place, social distancing, self-isolation, unemployment, recession, …?
The quality of a theory can be gauged by its power. Many theories have predictive power. When we apply an appropriate powerful theory to a set of observations of a system, we have a chance to predict in what state the system will be next or some time in the future. For complex systems, this is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I would argue that Complexity Theory is often not applied for its predictive power—maybe it even has less of it. For me, its strength is its explanatory power.

Is this chaos?

When is a complex dynamic system—a global process such as the pandemic COVID-19—in chaos?
When we perceive it as such. When the many interacting agents, components, and variables produce stark contrasts of change rapidly. At times, it looks like this rapid change came out of nowhere. At times, a minute action—the ill-informed and ill-advised tweet or utterance of a prominent political actor; the well-intended intervention of a country doctor—impacts the system at an extraordinarily disproportionate scale. At times, a draconian measure—a shelter-in-place order in a whole state or country; the closing of a national border to all non-residents—has dramatic and unpredicted side effects. Especially, when a dynamic system grows nonlinearly and exponentially. This is when it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to ascertain the temporary relationship between two agents, between two components, between two variables, because the relationship of any one of these to other agents, components, or variables is blurred. This makes it difficult and nearly impossible to carefully consider the context of the two agents, components, or variables.

Exponential growth

What does nonlinear exponential growth mean? I am not a mathematician; I am simply a person who derives a lot of meaning and sense from numbers. They hardly ever tell the whole story, but they tell you often what to look for in a story. In the story of COVID-19, you might have heard a lot about the doubling rate. Let’s do a very sad and saddening thought experiment because we often remember them better: We have a country—let’s call in Drumland—with 200 million inhabitants. It’s doubling rate is three days. Every three days, twice as many people get sick of an infectious disease.
Day 1=one Day 3=two Day 6=four Day 9=eight
Day 12=16 Day 15=32 Day 18=64 Day 21=128.
After three weeks, more than 100 people are sick. Nobody really notices. People get sick all the time. Yet, these are in addition to the ones who normally get sick during these three weeks.
Day 24=256 Day 27=512 Day 30=1,024 Day 33=2,048
Day 36=4,096 Day 39=8,192 Day 42=16,384.
After six weeks, people begin to notice. Especially, if there are large clusters of sick people in a particular community or group. Some begin to worry. Some take action. It is difficult to understand what is going on. Some action works, some does not. But the infectious disease does not slow down.
In Week 7=65,536 after Week 8=524,288 Week 9=2 million
in Week 10=16 million in Week 11=67 million.
At this rate of exponential growth in this artificial thought experiment, all 200 million people of Drumland are sick after 12 weeks. If this exponential growth were homogeneous.

Nonlinear and not homogeneous

Any process—a complex dynamic system—in a community or society is, of course, not homogeneous. Each person in Drumland can help slow down or speed up the growth rate. Some will stay home and not spread the disease virus. Some are healthy enough to not only be immune soon but also not contagious any longer. Some will help the more vulnerable to be more protected. Some will help heal the sick.

So, we could ride it out? Theoretically, maybe. Some governments worldwide still seem to think so. As I said in a previous post, I have no background in medicine or public health at all. All I can do is look at the numbers and think of the people. If only 1 in 100 infected people dies, in Drumland, this will be 2,000,000. If the health system is fragile, many people did not have a good chance of living healthy beforehand, or measures introduced sped up the growth of the infection, it could be more. Every single person in Drumland who knows at least 100 people will in all likelihood know one other person who succumbed to the virus, to which no one was immune before it arrived.

So what?

So, does Complexity Theory predict doom and gloom? For me it does not. It explains the seriousness of the current situation worldwide. I realize that it is far more serious in some countries, far more threatening in some cities, far more frightening for some families. Yet, I believe that the numbers show clearly that it is not a national problem nor an individual problem. I believe a pandemic is a problem for whole societies, for the world. Individually, we can get through this by staying home and strengthening our immune system further, if we are lucky to have our livelihood secure. If we all assume our individual responsibility for our society as a whole, for our neighbors and the people we have never met, and the people in other corners of this world, what can we do, once we understand one small aspect of this chaotic complex system a little better?

And a verbatim repeat of the beginning:

Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers above, I find it far more important for each of us thinking about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come in close proximity to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.

And the learning for after all this? The chances and opportunities?
A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

Boundaries – Physical, Part 1: What’s “social distancing” got to do with it?

Well, this is turning out to take much longer than I had originally anticipated. I set boundaries for myself at the beginning, and created accountability by announcing what they were. I originally intended to finish my exploration of the Boundaries portion of my BASE model in about one month. Two and a half months later I am just past the halfway point. FAIL! (That’s the unkind voice in my head, and maybe in yours too… but we’ll get to that in due time).

Should I be upset about this? Does it mean I cannot practice very well what it is that I preach? Maybe… nah. This is yet another case where the process is much more important than the product. I hope you’ll agree before all is said and done.

At any rate, this time around we will consider a couple of the areas pertaining to Physical Boundaries. As the post title and headlining GIF imply, physical boundaries are, in some way, similar to other foundational (but often overlooked) things in our lives. Like running water and reliable access to electricity, neither seem to make much of a difference in our lives until they throw us a curve ball; at which point they come to matter more than almost anything!

Since Physical Boundaries are so foundational to successful interactions (look at the GIF at the top again if you’ve already begun to doubt), let’s unpack them according to the first two Boundary aspects under the BASE model: Temporal and Kinetic.

Temporal Physical Boundaries really boil down to the question of how you spend your physical time. So much of our daily physical life is dictated by rhythms and routines that are, at least somewhat, beyond our direct control. We suspend our sleep time and get up in the morning most often because it is necessary to do so in order to be somewhere (work, our child’s/children’s school, an appointment of some sort) by a certain time. We eat at intervals that are as much dictated by imposed societal structures as by our bodies themselves. We do social self-care (e.g. the energy replenishing activities with other or within ourselves) in the spaces between because it is considered “optional” or, worse yet, something superfluous. And then, at day’s end, we return to sleep either because our exhausted bodies and minds force us to, or because of some other external factor, like a spouse or partner whose preferred sleep schedule somehow becomes our own, or one of our many screens that lulls us into a state of semi-conscious surrender.

Whatever the specific circumstances around your personal routines and their attendant physical implications, what I am getting at here is that all too often the interactions between our bodies and the passing of time lacks intentionality and/or is largely reactive. We owe it to ourselves to push back against that default state.

So, do you have a wake-up time that is in your personal interests, and not in the name of your job or some other external obligation? What about your bedtime? Sleep is wonderful and necessary, but it does not need to be something that we just passively try to “do,” or that, worse yet, just happens to us. It really can become an activity that we engage in with intention and deliberation. In fact, it has lately become something of a trending topic. So, naturally, there are people making money off of it! Here are a couple of examples:

Dr. Michael Breus, “The Sleep Doctor”

Hal Elrod (author of “The Miracle Morning”)

My intention here is not to hawk either one of these gentlemen’s products on their behalf. They both do offer sufficient free content, and Elrod’s book is hardly a big investment, for you to begin to educate yourself at very little to no monetary cost. That’s my jam. What you do from there is completely up to you.

What about your eating? Does it feel like something that has meaningful boundaries around it, or is it perhaps more like this (disclaimer – If Louis CK is triggering or otherwise upsetting or unacceptable to you, please skip the video):

If this describes your temporal physical boundaries for food, umm… maybe that’s bad?

While I doubt many of us in are the throes of the kind of chaotic eating habits described in the video, I am also willing to wager that we do not all enact intentional boundaries on our food consumption.

Do you have a daily eating schedule or plan? Not just a routine, a plan. Do you think you could follow one? If you have never given it too much thought, but if you also have felt at times that your relationship to food and food consumption is not where you’d like it to be, there are many options to consider that aren’t keto, paleo, or some other highly restrictive “diet.”

For instance, have you given serious thought to simply implementing some temporal boundaries around when you eat and when you don’t? You’ve probably heard of intermittent fasting, but maybe you immediately rejected it because you thought it might just be another extreme, or passing fad. I’m not here to advocate for it one way or another. All I will say is that having a temporal physical boundary for your food consumption could be an effective way to jumpstart a change for you, especially if you are unsatisfied with how you are currently handling this aspect of your physical life.

Have a look at some options and decide for yourself whether you want to learn more or not: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322293#seven-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting

And what about social self-care? How much time do you set aside for it? How much of it is driven by external factors, like work or school norms and routines, or by plain old inertia? One of the best ways to start to do more deliberate social self-care from a Temporal Physical Boundaries standpoint is to understand where you most naturally fall on the introversion<->extraversion continuum, and then examine whether how you allocate and spend your time matches up well with that or not. Yes, if you think of your “free” time as similar to any other highly finite resource, like money, then you are more likely to budget and “expend” it wisely and deliberately.

Kinetic Physical Boundaries, or the physical/movement activities in which we do and do not engage. In the case of Physical Boundaries, however, the Kinetic aspect also refers to HOW we engage in certain kinds of activities. Let’s look at just two: social greetings and leave-takings, and then body care.

Remember the hug/handshake fail GIF from the beginning? I have found this to be a great dividing line among people who are otherwise similarly sociable. Some of us are huggers, and some of us are handshakers. Some of us, thankfully an apparently much smaller number, are neither of those two, and prefer to avoid direct physical contact altogether. I call these folks head-nodders. You know, the people who greet you from up close or from afar with just a quick upward or downward nod of their heads. It’s also a particularly United-Statesian move, and one that has thrown many of my international friends and acquaintances for something of a loop. But I digress.

As the caption on the introductory GIF asks, if you are more of a handshaker than a hugger, do you literally use your body to enforce it, putting your hand out at arm’s length before those dreaded huggers can get in too close? Let me be clear, I ask because I am a notorious non-hugger and I am curious how others in my category go about their business. I ask because I have managed to avoid unsolicited hugs for most of my life just through the power of my gaze, facial expression, and general demeanor. I have actually stood next to my partner at social gatherings while people come up to hug her vigorously and then, with barely a glance at me, proceed to step back and extend their hands in order to shake mine. In extreme cases I have had people reach out to start to hug me and then, without a word or overt action on my part, pull back for a more “socially distant” handshake.

So, what does “social distancing” have to do with it? In recent days and weeks, we’ve all had to force ourselves to think differently about our physical proximity to, and degree of interaction with, our fellow humans. Has it been comfortable for you? Has it come somewhat naturally? No answer is “better” than another, but it may give you some concrete insight into your unconscious tendencies and preferences around Kinetic (and Interpersonal, to an extent, but we’ll get to that in a different post) Physical Boundaries.

I’ll just close this segment by saying that, wherever you may default to naturally on the hugger<->handshaker<->head-nodder continuum, you are by no means stuck there. Several months back, a trusted advisor of mine and I were talking about my tendency to enforce physical distance-keeping with just my demeanor. We kept going back and forth about the hows and whys of it all, until she finally said, “Why don’t you just put more energy into have a more open, welcoming way about you? Why not just try it and see what happens?!” Well, she was right. I spent the next weeks and months making more eye contact with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family. Not only has it made people more likely to greet me warmly, even just in passing. More smiles, more friendly hellos, and yes, more hugs. Heck, I’ve even started initiating some hugs with people I would otherwise have never hugged before. We can be more conscious and deliberate about our social distancing, even when there is nothing so urgent as a pandemic pushing us to do so. And we can do it not just to avoid illness, but also to pursue wellness. I hope you’ll keep that in mind…

Lastly, what about body care? Do you have an exercise routine? What about simple stretching, massage, or meditation? Have you ever considered chiropractic or acupuncture? Many of these things are costly, no doubt, and all too often are not (fully) covered by insurance plans. The only counter I would offer to those facts is this: the bill always comes due, either way. If you are not building body care activities into your life in a structured, sustainable way, you are most likely just kicking the physical health can down the road.

If you do not yet have a body care plan and routine, I urge you to start making one. Even if it is just implementing a regular 10+-minute walk into your day, five or more days each week. If you only go to see a physician (of any stripe) when there is something acutely troubling you, I would offer the alternative view that ongoing maintenance is frequently superior to sporadic, urgent troubleshooting. If you are already a regular exerciser, do you do enough to give your body opportunities to rest and recover? And, when you do exercise, do you push yourself productively, but not destructively, via varied workout routines with a range of emphases?

These are challenging kinds of equilibria to pursue, much more to achieve. A former fitness instructor of mine used to frequently urge those of us who took his exercise classes to “find that edge” in whatever we were doing. So, whether we were performing the most challenging version of a particular movement, like a burpee or a pull-up, or a modified version designed to help us gradually improve our strength and flexibility, he was coaching us to find the border between comfort and growth, because that is the space where the most productive investment of physical energy is made.

As leaders, we should always be ready to engage in these kinds of considerations about how, when, and where to invest resources. That is the very nature of most Boundaries, and certainly of physical ones. When conceived of correctly, they are not meant to simply hold us back; when conceived of correctly, they are an excellent tool for helping us grow.

On the complexity of change: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

On the complexity of change: What is happening with COVID-19?

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

On the complexity of change: Initial conditions … … … do you like skiing?

I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.

First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.

Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.

In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.

Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.

On the complexity of change: Complex and adaptive

Let’s forget about changing anything. Just for a little while. Let’s just think about complexity. Something complex. A complex process. Got it? Why is this process complex? What makes it complex?

First answers are simple: a process with more than one actor is more complex than a process with just one actor. But it is not just the participants. Many natural or industrial processes are complex, and they do not necessarily even have participants (humans) that act in them. So, there can also be many components. And if that were not enough, more often than not there are many variables. You remember these variables from math classes in school.

x + 7 = y

This is a nice linear equation – and thus not complex. For each x there is exactly one y, which can be calculated, if you know how do do this sort of thing.

Think about the complex process you have in mind. It does not just have one variable, one x, that changes or can be changed. Most processes in life, in society, in biology, in physics, in nature, … in most places where we care to look, have more than one variable. More than one (in)observable trait, characteristic, or feature that can change or that can be changed.

Now that’s OK, you say. We just have to look at a few more things. Right! Problems arise when there are very many, often too many, to always keep our eyes on, to look out for, to consider. And not only that. Each of these variables, each x, if you like, does not just have one dependent y. More than one variable can depend on each changing variable.

I am changing the period of time I use for exercise in the morning. I am changing time t. Time t influences my fitness level; I am increasing muscle mass and flexibility. Because of the increased muscle mass, my metabolism changes during the day. I feel better, I am more agile, I move more and quicker, burning more calories than on the days prior. And by increasing time t for exercise, I am reducing time r for reading … Twitter, my favorite book, a newspaper, or some emails. I am also reducing time c for cooking, so I will have to have my lunch prepared the evening before or will have to go to the cafeteria to buy something to eat.

You get the point.

A complex phenomenon does not just have many variables. Each of these variables potentially interacts – metaphorically speaking bounces off and changes – one or more other variables. Overstating just a little bit: each of the many variables changes all the time, in concert and against each other.

Did I say at the beginning: Let’s forget about change for a little while? Impossible. We quickly returned to the concept of change. Change is part of complexity and complexity is part of change. We cannot – and should not – consider one without the other. [Maybe just for a quick thought experiment, or if we are really tired in the evening.]

What are the consequences? Complex phenomena are in constant flux, change constantly. That’s why we often talk about complex dynamic systems. Variables interact with one another, components interact, actors (participants) interact. In these many continuous or iterative interactions, each variable, component, and actor are also prone to change. They co-adapt. Especially for social systems, we often use the label complex adaptive systems (CAS). And if we want to understand change better, be able to influence it a little bit, or just deal with it, it is useful to look at some of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems.

  • CAS are likely to be on a nonlinear trajectory, which means a change I put in does not necessarily result in a proportionate change to come out.
  • CAS are sensitive to initial conditions. The variables, however small they might be, that were there from the very beginning are most likely to have had a relatively large impact on the whole process, simply because they have been around for long enough.
  • CAS have attractor states – states they are more often and more likely in. They also have repeller states, states which they could reach theoretically but never or hardly ever reach.
  • CAS are likely to reach an equilibrium – like a standstill, change is very close to zero – if no new energy enters the system.

I am glad I got this out of the way. And maybe so are you. Remember that I said it is often useful to apply a theoretical lens to gain a better understanding of a problem? At some stage I had to introduce the lens. In subsequent posts, I will look at these characteristics of complex adaptive systems, one by one. And I will show for each one what role their understanding can play in solving personal problems, problems at work, in social interactions, or just around the house.

The neat thing with these CAS is that there has been a lot of research that tried to figure out how to get a better handle on the complexity. And I am as sure as one can be that what we learn about the ever-changing complexity will come in handy almost every day, when solving problems. Whether this is in your personal life, when making leadership decisions, or simply when you are trying to fix something that you believe needs fixing.

And to finish off, if you’d rather read the texts on the Complexity of Change in one possible order … a table of contents is emerging.

Boundaries – Professional, Part 2: Addendum!

Image result for challenge your assumptions

In a rush to bring a close to an already overly long post last week, I paid short shrift to the Interpersonal aspect of Professional Boundaries. I wrote a bit about establishing and maintaining clarity on the difference between purely social/personal relationships and those of the professional type, but I left out two essential pieces. I will boil them down in this (relatively!) brief addendum: it all comes down to statements and questions.

In my first real job out of grad school, I quickly found myself in a supervisory position where I interviewed, hired, trained, managed and, yes, fired people. Accountability (another staple of the BASE model) was becoming an ever-expanding part of my professional world. One day (a “casual” Friday at that), in our three-person office, my boss was working from home. That left me and my fellow teacher supervisor to our own devices. A re-hire candidate was coming in for a pared-down interview to determine if she would come in to teach again for us that summer. We had it on our shared calendar and thought that meant that our boss was aware and was fine with it.

Later on, when back-briefing him on what we had accomplished that day, we found out that we had been mistaken. The long and short of it was that our boss would have never approved of us bringing any prospective employee in for an interview if he thought we were going to be dressed casually (Friday or not). He was not pleased, and I realized later that it had more to do with the assumptions that had been made (more by my co-worker and me than by him) and the resulting communication breakdown, than with the actual situation of an employee seeing her supervisors in casual clothes. My boss made me keep “Challenge Your Assumptions” as my computer screensaver for the ensuing 12 months. The phrase, and the lesson it was meant to teach, has unsurprisingly stuck with me.

What it has to do with today’s post is simple. We often make not-so-good assumptions about the importance of differentiating between our statements and our questions in interpersonal interactions in the workspace. The other day, I heard about an employee who will soon be leaving a workplace, and as such is having some responsibilities transferred to other colleagues. When one of those colleagues got together with this person to discuss the details, the soon-to-depart employee at one point exclaimed, “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!” Their interaction went downhill from there.

As soon as I heard this story, an empathetic smile came to my face. This person has a question, whether they realize it or not. What happened? A statement was made, and to the wrong person at that. This employee, somewhat understandably given the stress associated with leaving a job, failed to challenge assumptions about how the transition would be handled, and as such made a statement to a colleague when a question directed to the supervisor or manager was what was most needed to clarify things. So, to keep this as short as I can, here’s the upshot: do your best to have clear Professional Interpersonal Boundaries around your statements and your questions in the workplace. This is likely to require active challenging of many of your favorite assumptions, but that’s almost never a bad thing. At worst, you come to the conclusion that your assumptions were good. At best, you save yourself (and your co-workers) some embarrassment and grief.

This leads me to the second thing: questions. Everyone knows how to ask them, right? But, how many of us can claim a high level of clarity and confidence that we most often ask the best kinds of questions in the most important work conversations? Count me as one of the people who can’t always make that claim. But, maybe you’re reading this and aren’t even sure what the heck I’m talking about. Let me try to clarify.

In his 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” celebrated Organizational Culture/Behavior/Psychology expert Edgar Schein lays out exactly why questions, and being very clear on when to they are superior to statements, matter so much. He writes:

“How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging.”

Simple, right? No, of course not. Schein already told us it isn’t simple at all. So what does it mean? He says we should “do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.” But what is that? Well, to paraphrase Schein, it’s finding the opportunity in any given interaction or conversation to be genuinely curious about something that is being said or communicated, and then asking a good question (i.e. NOT one whose answer we think we already know) about that something in which we are truly interested in learning more. Still not simple, I know, but at I hope least somewhat clearer.

So, what now? Well, for this week (and well beyond, if you like), perhaps just try paying more attention to the frequency and type of statements and questions you notice in your workspace, both yours and those of others. If you are a formal authority figure, let me suggest you REALLY pay more attention to this, but I advocate strongly for it no matter your position.

As you pay more attention, look for opportunities to turn a statement (one of your own or one you notice) into a question. Once you have a handle on that, try to turn it into a Humble Inquiry-type question. Want an example? Let’s go back to the situation I outlined earlier: “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!”

What kind of question can that become? In the moment, talking with a co-worker, perhaps something like “Did (our supervisor) say that you were to take this over effective immediately, and would it be alright with you if we went and asked (our supervisor) for clarification?”

Either or both of those might work, no? I am confident that the interaction would have been less likely to go south (as it did in reality) had either or both of those questions been asked in place of the statement that was made. Especially if they had been asked with an authentic tone of curiosity and interest. I wonder (genuinely) what you think.

Remember, comments are welcome on this blog. Feel free to post a reaction, a question, or an anecdote of your own. Mat and I will be happy to read them and respond whenever we can!

Boundaries – Professional, Part 2: Office Space Is A Function Of Our Head Space: How to stay motivated and make sure you’ve always got the memo …

Take a moment and watch this, even if you’ve seen it many, many times before. This time, watch it with an eye and a mind for cognitive and interpersonal boundaries in the professional context. Be prepared to look, somewhat critically, at the kind of thinking and interacting that is going on, and how the boundaries that are in place for the protagonist, Peter, are involved:

Look for the cognitive and interpersonal boundaries that define Peter in this space…

What did you notice? Just make a mental, or written, note of it for the moment. Now, watch this clip and do basically the same thing:

Now what cognitive and interpersonal boundaries are at play for Peter?

So, what changed? Go beyond the narrative device(s) utilized in the movie, and just think about what could have gone on within Peter in terms of his thoughts and interactional decisions vis-à-vis the workplace. It’s quite something when you stop and look at it with a different lens…

In today’s post, part two on Professional Boundaries, I will once again outline a couple key elements of Professional Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, much as I did for the Temporal and Kinetic aspects in part one.

Cognitive Professional Boundaries can cover a lot of territory. There are so many things to think about at work, around work, between yourself and “the work.” For my money, though, it mostly boils down to a couple of main things: 1) Your relationship to authority in the work context, and 2) the way you think about tasks in your workplace. Let’s begin with your relationship to authority…

For most people in the workplace, “authority” begins and ends with positions, titles, and so-called hierarchical org charts and corresponding work-flows. I’ll not dispute that in many work environments this is (or strongly appears to be) the law of the land, but I will assert that it is (almost) never as much the case as it appears to be.

Yes, supervisors, managers, and all-around “bosses” wield a certain amount of formal authority that can be neither avoided nor denied. But, do you automatically fold your tent or change your overt point of view when it doesn’t align with whatever the “boss” is saying? If so, I must simply ask you to consider why that really is. I mean, I get it, sometimes it is downright dangerous to disagree with a supervisor, manager, or other “boss” monster-type. Yes, you do need to read the terrain well in order to decide when it is acceptable to be a voice of disagreement or even dissension. You also have to do your homework. Nobody wins points for having the courage to disagree in an uninformed manner.

So often, the tasks we perform at work are tied to a dry, frequently outdated, job description that was written more to make sure we could be held accountable in the event of underperformance than to offer us pathways to success and growth. As a result, all too often we restrict our professional enthusiasm and working passion to those rare opportunities we are given (note the use of passive voice there) to step outside of those constraining job responsibility boxes and take on a special, usually temporary, new task. And once that special task or project ends, we return to our cubicles (real or imagined) and resume our business-as-usual routines. We resume a posture where all our real authority and light is dampened by a self-protective stance, doing just enough work, as Peter would say, to not get fired. Oh, we probably tell ourselves a different story about it. I’ll even grant that many of you reading this are doing much more than that notional bare minimum, but… is it really your best? And if it isn’t, why not? Really. Why not?

Is it your boss’s fault that you don’t consistently put your best work forward? Is your compensation rate truly to blame? Is it your competitive/counterproductive/challenging colleague’s fault? Is it because you haven’t been vested with the kind of positional, formal authority that you (and sadly most people) view as pre-requisite to being fully enabled to unleash all your talents? I mean, come on…

What if you could seek to embody and exercise a different kind of authority? What if your threw all your extra energy and focus at work into identifying right actions, tasks, and solutions for as many relevant issues as possible? What if you worried more about doing what is needed than what is “right” or “fair” in your, or someone else’s, highly subjective point of view? It’s risky terrain to navigate, no doubt.

But if you can change the way you think, actively challenging all your most embedded assumptions about what work owes you and what you owe work, you may find that a different kind of authority, the kind Ronald Heifetz and others in leadership studies call “informal,” can become yours to wield. Understanding, and learning to engage with, the part of yourself that is authoritative and solution-oriented, irrespective of your position or title, is as close to a fool-proof pathway to professional success and fulfillment as I can think of.

And it all starts with mastering your thinking around what authority really is for you, and what purpose it really serves. Professional growth then extends to how you can apply that thinking not just to the tasks that land on your proverbial “desk,” but also on those that face your entire workplace team and/or organization. Rare indeed are the stories of people who got bumped up in responsibility or pay, or who reported feeling more fulfilled, by having the firmest handle on what their job wasn’t…

Interpersonal Professional Boundaries are the trickiest to capture and make meaningful change within. Work relationships, as discussed at length above, are often driven by the almighty org chart, workflow, or by the prevalent culture in a given place of business. Haves and have-nots emerge and we all behave accordingly or we move on to a different job.

There are, however, a few things I believe it is important to keep in mind. They mostly center around what I see as the erroneous, and even dangerously misleading use of words like “family” and “friends” in the workspace. Before you close this tab, deeply offended that I dared to disparage the great familial environment that exists at your work (and that you may have perhaps even helped to create), bear with me for a few moments more.

While friendly and familial relationships are no doubt the great joys of most of our lives, are they always only joyful? The answer, of course, is “no,” or at least “probably not.” They swing and cut both ways. Sometimes they are the most volatile kinds of relationships we can have. Is this really the kind of thought and feeling process that will serve us best at work? I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe the answer to be “no.” This is especially true if you hold a position of formal authority.

Certainly, there are cultures outside the so-called “West” where the expectation is precisely that bosses, subordinates, peers and co-workers will treat one another as if they were friends and family (many times because they actually are!). However, in the context of the U.S./North American workplace, and in the ever-more globalized professional landscape, the safest bet is to establish and maintain interpersonal professional boundaries that are driven and informed by mission, tasks, work, and shared professional values.

I hope you found today’s post helpful, or at least interesting. Check out part 1 on Temporal and Kinetic Professional Boundaries if you missed it, and/or read parts 1 and 2 on Personal Boundaries. If you want the broadest of strokes, have a look at my introductory posts on the BASE model and Boundaries as its first component.

Finally, I hope you’ll spread the word about this blog and check back next week for my first post on Physical Boundaries. Most importantly, whatever you do, or don’t do, infuse it with intention and conviction.

On the complexity of change: All these complications!

A good morning. I know what I want to do. I know I can do it. I am optimistic. I have sufficient energy. [Not as much as I used to have some years ago, but good enough.] All this makes me feel great. Then! I glance at my email inbox. I see the one email. Yes, that one. I read it again. It sinks in deeper. I sink deeper. I have seen “this” before. I have dealt with “this” before. I had fixed it. Was that not good enough? Really, “this” is coming up again? It obviously is. ∑√i†!!! I have to do “this” again and can’t do what I want to do. Again, there is no time to do what I want to do, what actually needs doing [or so I believed], because I have to go back. Again. And again. Really?!

Sitting here writing, I can see “this” as what it is: yet another one of my encounters with a complex problem. Why does it happen so often? Time to put on our theoretical lens to get both a little more clarity and some – also emotional – distance.

The four types of problems – simple, linear, complex, and chaotic – do not each arise with the same frequency. Simple problems arise far less often than linear problems. We encounter linear problems far less often than complex problems. [Since we all live in a good world at a good time, chaotic problems arise least frequently of them all. But that’s a topic for another day.] We often find complex problems complicated. We might even react with frustrated surprise. Normally, we are more familiar, more comfortable, and hence more successful (in solving the problem) when we have encountered something more frequently. Here the opposite seems to happen: the more often the problem occurs, the more complicated we find dealing with it. It gets more and more frustrating. Why is that?

Essentially, a problem is wanting to move a process from state A to state B, and there is a hurdle between the two states. Two states. This makes us think of “this” as a binary. It is either “this” or “that.” It is an If—Then; if I do this, then that will happen. Either “this” gets fixed now and will be in a “good” state, or “this” does not get fixed and will be in a “bad” state forever. [We as humans seem to have a preference to see the world in linear binaries: either—or, if—then, cause—effect, plus—minus, right—wrong, … female—male, black—white, we—other, native—foreign, … That is also a topic for another day.] In other words, we expect to encounter linear problems more often than linear problems do occur. And, complex problems, because of their complexity, are likely to look different every time they arise. And, they appear frustratingly similar at the same time, especially if one looks at their surface first and foremost.

How can we deal with a complex problem effectively? This problem type arises from us being one actor in a complex dynamic system, which is basically a process that has multiple interacting actors, components, and variables and that is (very) sensitive to its context. [In a later post, we will take a good look at complex dynamic systems.] Because of that, we – as the problem solver – have to be prepared to consider this emerging process thoroughly and comprehensively. We have to assume there is no best solution, as their is for both simple and linear problems. After careful consideration or analysis, there is a solution. It is unlikely – and it might actually be undesirable – that a solution will bring the whole process into a stable end state. This means, we implement a solution and need to be prepared and willing to keep observing the changing system, ready to repeat our work of consideration and analysis and to implement another solution. The complex process will change again. The change is unlikely to be proportionate to the solution. The reasons for that are in the complexity of the process. More on this also later. So, we will have to be prepared to observe the system, consider it and its context, and to implement another solution, as we did the first time and as we will be doing as long as we care. Although different facets of the system, the problem, and our solution are often self-similar, it is not the same over and over again.

No one steps in the same river twice.

Boundaries – Professional, Part 1 – The Office: How to get more out when you go in …

If you skipped over the video above and jumped directly to this text, I would encourage you to go back and watch it. Or go ahead and watch it again, even if you already did. As you view it, try to notice which professional boundary aspects are at play. Which ones are being damaged or broken? Are there also some that are being appropriately held? Just watch and jot down anything you notice that either holds or challenges a temporal, kinetic, cognitive, or interpersonal boundary. Perhaps also pay some attention your internal (or emotional) response to what you notice. What strikes you as “to be expected,” “amusing, but wrong,” or even “appropriate” or “deserved?”

Spoiler alert: Almost none of the behavior we can observe in “The Office” is really appropriate, except perhaps what we see from Toby or, on occasion, Pam, Jim, Darryl, or Oscar. Most of the time, the characters are either selling themselves short, undercutting the entire enterprise, or overtly sabotaging their colleagues. Yes, this very much includes the individual who holds the most positional authority, Scranton Branch Manager Michael Scott.

Unfortunately, many of these same things are taking place in your office, and at your desk, every single day as well. Just in less entertaining and, hopefully, less dramatic fashion.

As I did in the two entries on Personal Boundaries, I will outline a few key considerations for each aspect of Professional Boundaries, and offer some important questions and actions to consider to improve your practice in this domain. Before we dive in, however, I will start by acknowledging that your position in your workplace will very much color the way you understand and interpret what I have to say about professional boundaries in all four aspects. This is both, I believe, correct and very important to keep in mind, particularly for those of us who do not hold positional authority (i.e. we are not anyone’s “boss” or “supervisor”) in our professional lives. If this describes your situation, then my best advice would be that you consider the following points in light of yourself as your own “boss,” because, yes, you are your own boss, first and foremost. No one else determines your thoughts, attitudes, and actions more than, or before, you do.

Temporal Professional Boundaries can be easily found in a few high-frequency work situations: meetings, tasks/projects (whether done in a “team” or on one’s own), and so-called spontaneous interactions. With meetings, whether you are the one calling them or simply being called to them, it is important to have real clarity on your relationship to meetings and time.

If you are the one who sets meetings, do you set them to start, last, and end, with deliberate attention to questions of time? Do you set team/office meetings to start at a time that can work as well as possible for as many team members as possible? This is especially important as in-office schedules become increasingly fluid and flexible for more and more workers. Even more important, especially for bosses, do you start AND END work gatherings on time? If not, what excuse(s) are your favorite(s)? Keep in mind, if an excuse becomes the norm, it’s no longer much of an excuse.

If you are a meeting participant, do you get to meetings on time (in your seat and ready to engage at least one to two minutes before the appointed meeting time)? Do you linger chatting with co-workers, or even your supervisor/boss, even after the meeting has ended? Perhaps you only tend to hang back and talk further when there are obvious and important reasons to do so, but it’s worth asking whether this is always, or often, the case. If it is, it’s also worth wondering why. What work might you be avoiding by hanging around after the “real” meeting has dispersed?

Within meetings, as a meeting leader do you manage time well, or do you let discussion, and even digression, rule the day? Do you provide an agenda (with or without time blocks)? Is it realistic? Do you follow it? As a meeting participant, do you make timely contributions to group discussions or meeting leader questions? Do you pay attention to for how long you tend to talk and seek to limit yourself accordingly, or do you find that others often end up cutting you off? If your boss is the one who often cuts you off, this is possibly a sign that you need to reconsider your approach. Perhaps you should consider limiting yourself to what you can say with just one breath (meaning, if you have to stop to take a breath, it’s also time to stop talking) each time you go to make a contribution. If this technique doesn’t encourage you to think before you open your mouth, maybe it will at least get you back to the gym more often…

NOTE: I am not addressing emergency work meetings here. I understand that there are periods in most any workplace where outside events dictate when meetings must start, end, how they “should” be run, and how long they must last. Those just are what they are. But, when we are in the normal course of things, we often fall into a kind of automaticity with the way we behave in and around meetings that can create at least as many problems as it solves, if not more.

Kinetic Professional Boundaries are fairly straightforward. Pay attention to how you carry yourself physically in different situations (e.g. while sitting alone at your work station, while sitting in meetings, when entering your boss’s or another colleague’s work area). Do you pay attention to your posture? Sitting up straight, but still comfortably, not only creates a better impression of you in others’ eyes, it can also have a positive impact on your own energy and engagement levels. If you’re not convinced that simple body movements can effect internal changes, don’t just take my word for it: https://news.osu.edu/nodding-or-shaking-your-head-may-even-influence-your-own-thoughts-study-finds/

One other thing to pay attention to, especially if you hold positional authority at work, is whether or not you deliberately and consistently mirror other people’s body position and language. For example, if you approach an employee who is sitting down, do you look for an opportunity to also sit before you begin talking to them? If you are a subordinate, if your boss is sitting when you encounter him or her, look for an opportunity to be seated as well, asking “permission” if necessary. This is also effective, and almost certainly appreciated, when engaging with colleagues. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can, and often should, do things physically to increase connection and engagement on cognitive and affective levels.

Resource recommendations (I don’t necessarily 100% agree with everything in these additional readings, but only reading, or recommending, things with which we agree may not be a best practice after all…):

Tips for leaders to run better meetings: https://www.inc.com/partners-in-leadership/4-ways-to-run-better-meetings-and-transform-your-culture.html

Strategies and techniques for making more meaningful contributions: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/04/how-to-get-heard-in-meetings-deep-breaths-superhero-poses-and-owning-bossy

Different meeting participant roles and functions: http://projectmanagementhacks.com/8-ways-to-contribute-to-meetings/

Come back later this week for part two on Professional Boundaries, the cognitive and interpersonal. Until then, check out Mat’s recent post on the complexity of problem solving and different problem “types.

On the complexity of change: What problem do you have?

It’s too difficult! Does this really have to be so hard? You are being complicated.

Have these thoughts crossed your mind? Every day? Each hour? Fleetingly? Or have they lingered, recurred? Made you swear or resign? Or you buckled down and tried harder? I know for me it has been all of the above. And more. I have to ask, though. All of these feelings and experiences are subjective. It depends on us whether or not and to what degree we perceive something – a task, a request, a plan, an experience, a process … – as hard and challenging or as easy and quick. Yet, many of the problems or challenges we face or see others tackling “contribute” in and of themselves to being more complicated than others. Why?

At first sight, the answer is trivial. Such processes are not only complicated, they are complex. Complex problems.

I believe it is useful to take a good look at their complexity. At bare minimum, we know better what we are dealing with; at best, we arrive at a path to a solution and—with a little bit of luck—get a feeling of ease and simplicity.

Let’s put on our theoretical lens. (Very helpful, remember?) What is a problem? And what makes many of them complex?

Let’s pretend you have not encountered the concept of problem before. Let’s take a fresh quasi-naïve look.

So, you stare at your very first problem … What is happening? The process you look at is in state A. You want to, have to, plan to have the process reach state B. There is a hurdle, an obstacle between state A and state B. It’s easy, right? Solving that problem involves overcoming the obstacle and getting the process from the current state A to the desired state B.

The management consultant and researcher David Snowden distinguishes four different types of problems. I will call them simple, linear, complex, and chaotic problems.

Simple. You get up in the morning. You want some coffee (desired state B). There is no coffee; the pot is empty (current state A). The obstacle is minimal: fresh coffee needs to be brewed. You have done it a thousand times. You know exactly what to do, without having to analyze the current state and its context, available tools and avenues, and possible solutions. This is a simple problem. It presents itself, you immediately recognize it, automatically know the details of the desired state B – a nice cup of dark roasted coffee, no milk or sugar because its acidity are low and neither is needed.

Linear. You have had your coffee. The day can start, but first you decide to immediately wash your cup. And! When you pour water in the sink, you realize the drain is blocked (current state A). (The desired state B is an unblocked sink drain, of course. The obstacle is the drain has to be unblocked.) You analyze the situation. You look and think, you poke around. What is blocking the drain? How stubborn is the blockage? You look at some contextual factors: how urgent is it? how much time do I have? what tools do I have at home? what am I able and willing to do? who could help? how much does it cost to call a plumber? and when are they gonna come? You do this analysis of state A and its context once. You know how to do it. You match the result of your analysis with an appropriate course of action, such as pouring hot water or drainage cleaner down the drain, removing the elbow underneath yourself and cleaning it, notifying the landlord or building manager, or calling a plumber … If this is indeed a linear problem, then this course of action will produce a result. With a bit of luck – and skill and effort – the drain is unblocked. And the cups of the future can be washed. A linear problem like this one requires analysis. Both the analysis and overcoming the obstacle require a skill set and some labor. Linear problems have a best solution, which is the one that most likely and most efficiently leads to the desired state B. You can consult an expert who will present, and often implement, the required solution to/for you.

Since the third type is called complex problems. You are assuming right: neither linear nor simple problems are complex. The general problem of problem-solving is, as David Snowden pointed out, that most problems we encounter in our daily lives, with our and other people’s’ health, at work, in relationships, in politics, with the environment, in history, … are neither simple nor linear.

I am going to hazard a guess: most problems you have encountered, witnessed, heard about are complex. So, in the next post—you have been reading for long enough—I will take a closer look at these omnipresent complex problems.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 2: Cognitive and Interpersonal

In part 1, we dug into the key questions and considerations that can aid us to better understand, establish, and enact Personal Boundaries in the Temporal and Kinetic aspects. In this post, we will continue in the same vein by exploring the essential points in the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Boundaries – Accountability – Support – Expectations are the four dimensions of BASE A model to improve any practice.

Cognitive Personal Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, particularly as they relate to ourselves. In psychology, and in cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, it has come to light in recent years that we humans are prone to a phenomenon known as automatic negative thinking. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines brilliantly in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we have an almost overriding tendency to construct entire narratives around even the most minute pieces of information. If you want to check this, pay attention to the ways in which your mind can (over)react to the way you see someone dressed, or their apparent level of cleanliness, while making your way around in public. You see one piece of information, and you build an entire story about what it means. But, how often is this story trending in a negative direction? Now, consider how much you tend to turn this potentially tremendous source of harmful cognition back toward yourself and your own actions. Having a Personal Cognitive Boundary around this entails noticing your thoughts, particularly those that seem to emerge of their own volition, and challenging their veracity/applicability, especially when they turn things in a negative direction. 

If you read the prior paragraph and mostly thought “hey, good for me, my thought patterns are usually focused on positive things about myself (and others),” well, there is room to be more mindful there as well. Just as automatic negative thoughts can build corrosive, false narratives around otherwise innocuous pieces of information, automatic positive thinking, or APT, (also a recently en vogue psychological term that focuses on the benefits APT can offer) can also have its pitfalls. Do you know anyone who is able, almost without fail, to explain away and/or twist any of their thoughts or actions into part of some larger heroic/martyrized narrative about themselves and their place in the world? Have you ever done it yourself? (hint: we all have, at least once). Be very cautious of this type of thinking as well. When taken too far, it is a step down a path to something not dissimilar to malignant narcissism, which, to quote British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld, is “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized.” Having an appropriate Personal Cognitive Boundary will also aid you in recognizing and mitigating automatic positive thinking that goes too far, too often. 

Lastly, we turn to Personal Boundaries in the interpersonal aspect. Quite simply, these Boundaries inform the way we interact with others. As you consider the interpersonal aspect of your Personal Boundaries, it may be helpful to better understand your extraversion/introversion balance. Although there are a number of trait dimensions that help define the differences between a more extraverted or introverted personality type, the simplest one for our purposes today has to do with whether you draw your renewal, strength, and energy from contact with other people, or from time spent with yourself. People often mistakenly associate extraversion as overtly skillful interactions with others, and introversion as objectively awkward, uncomfortable versions of the same. The problem with this is the attachment to what is openly observable, as I believe that extraversion and introversion are far and away more subjective, internal phenomena. Examine your own experience and begin to answer if you more frequently draw renewal, centeredness, and vitality from sustained contact with others, or from time alone. Perhaps your answer is that it varies and is most often a mix of the two things. Whatever the answer, it comes from inside you, not from some externalized set of definitions based on others’ observations of your experience. Knowing your answer on intro- and extraversion will be essential to setting your Interpersonal Boundaries. 

Another consideration for defining and holding your Interpersonal Boundaries is the way that input (also known as guidance or advice) functions in your life. How much do you either offer or seek out/accept input to or from others? How much of either, or both, is unsolicited? So many of us orient ourselves as either counsel givers or seekers. In either case, what can so frequently go unnoticed is whether or not this process is mutually consensual for all involved. No matter in which direction your preferred tendencies run, if you are not aware of your ego’s role in driving your input-giving or seeking actions, you will be largely powerless before this highly important life dynamic. 

One more contrast to consider when it comes to your Interpersonal Boundaries is as follows: is your purpose to be more interested, or interesting? Do you listen to others with a genuine sense of spontaneity and discovery, or are you simply waiting for the next opportunity to reassert your “self” and find the spotlight? This question is foundational to learning to do improvisational performance where, somewhat counterintuitively, being interested is far more effective than trying to be interesting. Consider your actions and motivations in this light, and see what personal understanding becomes available to you as a result. 

All of the above is in service of helping you better understand your own energy and flow as it relates to your Personal Boundaries. I invite you now to spend 5-10 minutes during at least four separate days over the coming week to further examine your Personal Boundaries in their Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal aspects. For a different kind of reflective journaling experience, make a set of quadrants by drawing an intersecting vertical and horizontal axis on a blank piece of paper. Since there is no hierarchy among the four Personal Boundary aspects, it does not matter how you label the four quadrants, other than to put one aspect in each. Use hand-written text, sketch, clip-art, or whatever motivates and resonates to represent your understanding of your Personal Boundaries in each quadrant. 

Resource Recommendations:

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – A wonderfully readable, yet scholarly book on the ways we think we think, and the ways our decisions show us that we actually think…

“Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman – A foundational primer on the basic concepts and perspective that comprise intelligence as an affective phenomenon and construct.

“The New Psychology of Leadership” Haslam, et al – One of the best among more recent works on how leadership and followers hip may actually function. Important insights for anyone who seeks not only to lead/influence others, but who also wants to understand why certain things work at some times, and then do not work at all at others.

“Finding Fred” by Carvell Wallace and iHeart Media – A touching and through-provoking podcast on the ways we can choose to be in the world, and the potential impact they can have on those around us, and beyond…

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/finding-fred/id1477279443

Until next week, when we will explore Professional Boundaries and continue to build on our self-understanding practice together. 

On the complexity of change: How did this all start?

Something changes, I change something. I experience this change or I don’t (really) notice it. I anticipate or plan this change, I am surprised or spontaneous. I feel joy or sorrow or both about it, in it, after it.

We are all the same and all different in how we bring about change, experience it, and handle it. Some of us—and I am surely one—find it easier to start and sustain change, to enjoy and tolerate it, and to (co-)adapt and vary the speed and direction of ever-present change, if and when we—I—understand it, its context, and its origin, at least to some extent. And when this specific change feels familiar. It even seems to be secondary whether this change is perceived—at that moment—as positive or negative.

How can one gain a better understanding and more familiarity of and with change? The very simple answer is: Through sustained and reflective learning: we notice a “gap” or a tension between us and our context—the people, things, and processes, within this context, or within ourselves. If one then does decide to act or react, we begin to gain a better understanding through – mainly – repeated reflected experience of this and similar phenomena of change often in the realm of emotions, through action engagement (basically by doing stuff about it), and through rational thought.

All three—emotional experience, relevant action, and rational thought—are reactions to change. They also can induce change, and can help us adapt to and influence change. Of the three, I will continue in subsequent blog posts with rational thought. And this is where complexity comes in.

Change is a complex process. It has multiple actors, components, facets. Quite obvious, right? What is often less obvious, especially when change is experienced as pressure, stress, and/or adversity (at that moment or for longer periods of time) is that the actors, components, and facets are changing too, repeatedly. They “have to” change because they are in continuous, repeated, intermittent interaction with one another.

I am well aware that I have invoked a number of theoretical concepts (change/dynamism, complexity) in this text already, and I am sure so are you. This is deliberate because I believe that I can reflect better, more productively, and more constructively, when my reflection is informed by an appropriate theory. Of course, complexity in and of itself is complex. So I find it helpful to use theory both as a crutch and—more importantly to me—as a lens.

Since I am hoping you find it useful both to think about change and to inform and influence your thinking systematically, I have picked a set of related theories—Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory, Dynamic Systems Theory—and will be writing about these by making them the servants of understanding change both theoretically and practically.

More on this in later posts. The titles of these posts (will) all start with “On the complexity of change.” If you find this or a later one interesting, I am hoping you will want to look at the others. So, why not follow this blog, if you are not doing so already.

Boundaries – Personal, Part 1: What are they, and (how) do we understand them?

As promised in last week’s post, this week I will begin to dig into the first of the four areas of Boundaries as I outlined them under the BASE model: Personal Boundaries. In keeping with what is often the natural emergence of things as we begin the conceptualization process, we will begin with ourselves. What are our Personal Boundaries, and how consistently do we recognize and adhere to them? As we consider this key question together, I will offer some guiding questions to help us along in the reflection/discovery process. In part 1, we will examine and interrogate the first two of four aspects of Personal Boundaries: Temporal and Kinetic. Later this week, in part 2, we will dig in to the Cognitive and Interpersonal aspects of Personal Boundaries. Toward the end of each part, I will close with an invitation to engage in some ongoing work over the course of the rest of the week, and also provide resource recommendations where I have them to offer. Without further preamble, let’s begin.

Temporal Personal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Before we can properly understand this, however, it is necessary to better define our own relationship to time. We can begin by simply assessing our level of attunement to the passing of time. Consider your responses to the following questions in the context of not relying on a timepiece: How often are you confidently aware of what time of day it is? To what extent are you able to keep track of the duration of activities in which you engage? For instance, do you frequently feel misaligned, in terms of either mindset or activity/energy level, to the time of day in which you find yourself, whether late morning, mid-afternoon, or early evening? What about the passing of time? If you begin an activity, say sitting down to read a book or getting engrossed in preparing a meal, are you able to stop yourself in the midst of it and accurately assess for how long you have been engaged (in minutes or fractions of an hour, not seconds)? No particular answer is more or less valuable or important, but it is good to have a sense of this for yourself, as it can help you have a more faithful frame of how you personally interact and engage with time in your day to day life.

What about your sense of time as it relates to others? How often do you feel impatient when you are expected, or obliged, to passively observe and/or wait while someone else engages in an activity, whether it be thinking, talking, cooking, working, or getting ready to go out? How do your expectations vary between the time you can patiently allot yourself to do something versus what you can graciously offer to another? You don’t need to answer these questions with judgment. Just take a moment to reflect and see what arises for you in response, possibly jotting a thought or two down, or even taking a more full five to ten minutes to journal on it.

Kinetic Personal Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. The central question here pertains to what and who determines the activities in which you do, and do not, engage? This may seem like a very simplistic question, to which the answer can only be some version of one of three major types:

“only I decide what I will do”

“I live to serve and match my actions accordingly”

“it depends.”

The relative valuation given to each of those response types will vary, of course, according to the cultural norms with which you were raised, those that are in place where you currently live, or those you have integrated into your personal worldview. In any case, what matters most is to be mindful and aware of what most often drives you to, or keeps you from, taking action and if those factors change under different circumstances (that do not rise to the level of the extreme – almost everyone’s motivations change in extreme situations).

The purpose here is to accept that we will struggle to reliably understand and evaluate, much less consciously moderate or modify, our own actions and tendencies unless we understand where they come from. Here you may find it helpful to reflect on things like your activity levels in terms of socializing, down/alone time, physical and mental wellbeing (nutrition, fitness, meditation, sleep, etc.), personal development (reading, journaling, ongoing education), and service to others. Of course, you also need to examine the activities you engage in that are the unhealthy opposites of the favorable ones I have just listed. What routines and/or patterns emerge when you ask these questions? Whatever your answers about the amount and/or quality of activity you engage in any and all of those domains, it is at least as important to understand whether the catalyst for your Kinetic Boundaries comes from within, without, or a mix of both. Spend enough time in honest dialogue with these questions, meditating and/or journaling according to what works best for you, and I am confident that you will have moments of surprise and discovery.

Resource recommendations:

Insight Timer – A freemium meditation and personal improvement app for iOS and Android. Plenty of great free content for beginning and building on meditation and mindfulness practices, and paid courses and additional content to boot!

7-minute workout – A great, free resource for getting your fitness fix, no matter your current fitness level or exercise habits! Shows how to perform all movements, requiring only body weight and some personal drive.

The Miracle Morning – A wonderful book, not free, with ample web resources, by Hal Elrod. This book will help you reconsider the extent to which a lack of time and energy are really what stand between you and pursuing your life goals.

That’s it for today! Be sure to check back for part 2, focusing on Personal Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, in the next few days.

Putting the “B” in BASE: Outlining our boundaries for ourselves and others.

What better topic for the start of the New Year than boundaries? Liminal spaces are defined by boundaries and, if we stop and think about it, so are many of the crucial decision points in our daily lives.

Last week I provided an overview of the personal and professional leadership model I have come to conceptualize over the years as BASE. Yes, it is yet another acronym for us to consider in a world that seems to be quickly approaching, or perhaps even exceeding, a critical mass state of WTFs and SMHs. Nevertheless, I share this with you in the sincere belief that by reflecting on the thoughts that underlie each of BASE’s four principles, you can build a program for yourself that will aid you in challenging even the most powerful of the FOMOs!

Over the course of this month, each week I will outline some critical questions and guidelines for developing ourselves and our thinking around the “B” in BASE: Boundaries. Today I will quickly outline what I see as the critical elements of Boundaries, and offer a few reflection questions to prepare us for the work ahead.

So, in that spirit, I offer you this invitation: when you read or hear the word “boundaries” what other things (whether they be other words, images, or emotions) do you immediately associate with the term? Take a moment and write some of those down before reading on.

Now, armed with your list of associations, consider the following question: what are the relationships between the boundaries that exist in your life today and your “self”? Are they relationships of reassuring structure and congruence? Do they generate productivity? Tension?

Reflect on the things you jotted down just a moment ago and try to connect with the thoughts and emotions you may have experienced as you wrote them. Did you feel mostly positive and reassured, or were apprehension and friction also involved? For many of us, traditional boundaries are experienced as much as limitations on what we want and need as they are sources of security and wellbeing. This ambivalence, or the potential for it, is vital for understanding the power of boundaries in our lives. However, let’s return for a moment to the definition and question about Boundaries that I posed in last week’s post:

Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?

For me, the real core question has to do with the extent to which we are in charge of the narrative we hold for ourselves around the Boundaries in our lives. In order to answer these questions, it may be helpful to think of Boundaries as falling under some different kinds of categories.

I divide my thinking on Boundaries into two major sets: areas and aspects. The four areas of Boundaries in the BASE model are: Personal, Professional, Physical, and Psychological. If we want to fully understand the nature and role of Boundaries in our lives, we must be able to identify and evaluate them across a spectrum of our existential domains. Do these areas and aspects sometimes, or even often, overlap? They almost certainly do, but Boundaries that inhabit two or more of these areas in our lives most likely originate in just one of them. Knowing the genesis of any boundary that permeates multiple areas is vital to our ability to (re)assume agency with respect to it.

Again, take a moment to consider these four areas and make a short list of the Boundaries, for yourself and for others, that you can already identify in each. Remember that there is no way to get any of this wrong. If you perceive it as a Boundary in your life, then it is! Feel free to underline any that are present in more than one area, as they will likely be ones that warrant greater consideration from you.

Once we have a sense of the way Boundaries in our lives work across the four areas, it can be productive to examine them in terms of their aspect(s). The four aspects of Boundaries that comprise this portion of the BASE model are Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal. When considered properly and kept in balance, each of the four Boundary areas will also entail some element of each of these four Boundary aspects.

Temporal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Kinetic Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. Cognitive Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, and Interpersonal Boundaries pertain to our interactions with others.

As one final reflection exercise for today, return to your list of Boundaries in each of the four areas, and try to label each with one or more relevant aspects. Once you have made a pass at this, examine the list again and notice the distribution of Boundaries across both areas and aspects. Does it already suggest anything to you about the relative equilibrium in your life in this regard? Does it challenge or reinforce any closely held ideas you may have about your “self” and the ways in which you engage with your world? Feel free to journal a bit on this (set a Temporal Boundary for it!) and see what surfaces for you. Hang on to these “notes” you have made, as they will prove valuable as we delve more deeply into each of the four Boundary areas each week for the rest of the month.

I will stop here for now. Over the course of the rest of this month, I will delve into a different Boundary area in a new post each week. Along the way, I will provide more detail and definition to my understanding of each area and the important aspects within it, as well as offering some additional reflection questions and, here and there, book, podcast, and/or app recommendations.

Until next week!

BASE: A Model for Improving Any Practice (but especially for leaders!)

When I started out as a new leader (read: supervisor/manager) in a private education business 15 years ago, I had what most people would have termed the “right” personality for being in charge. Meaning that I never shied away from an opportunity to assess and evaluate everything, and everyone, around me. Neither was I overly hypocritical in this. I applied my unrelenting standards even more to myself and actions than I did to anyone, or anything, else. Or so I steadfastly believed…

In any event, as I transitioned from that role (after being in it for three years of intensive mentoring and on-the-job learning) into another position of leadership, I believed I had the framework in place for how I would enact my managerial approach in any and every situation. I quickly learned that I was mistaken, as my new job required me to communicate and influence across multiple, unfamiliar cultural paradigms, and to negotiate several interconnected bureaucracies whose central priorities were often at odds with each other. I adapted quickly enough and did what I saw as necessary in order to achieve basic day-to-day functionality, but along the way I largely lost sight of my original framework and slipped into a mindset and approach that were merely pragmatic, much more focused on what needed to get done in order to keep the trains running on time (so to speak) than on what I believed was most uplifting and important. Raise your hand if this sounds or feels familiar to you.

In the intervening years, as I gained more knowledge and experience in this new role, and as I worked through a doctoral program in leadership studies, I benefitted from the additional mental space that both offered me and was able to articulate for myself the four aspects of my leadership practice that I saw as foundational to success: Boundaries, Accountability, Support, and Expectations. Or, if you like a good acronym as much as I do, BASE. Pause for just a moment now and interrogate those words in terms of yourself and in terms of your personal and professional practice (whether as a formalized leader, colleague, parent, or teacher). Are you clear on what each one means for you, both conceptually and practically? What about for those in whose lives you hold a degree of influence? If your response was a full-on or even partial *shrug,* for any and all of them, don’t be overly concerned. You are far from alone. The good news is you are also in the right place.

Over the next four months I will focus, each month, on one of these principles and how they can be meaningfully applied to both our personal philosophy and professional practice. I say “our” very intentionally as I am in a never-ending state of interacting and striving to grow myself through these principles as well. Along the way, I will provide thought-provoking anecdotes, questions, resource recommendations, and specific actions we can all engage with to begin and continue our development both as individuals and as part of our larger social and professional networks. For today, I will leave you with a basic definition (my own) of each principle, and a guiding question for you to reflect on as we wrap up the current year and prepare for the next:

Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?

Accountability: The structures and practices that hold your Boundaries in place, also providing a framework for the continued growth and development of yourself and those around you. Can you name three or more productive ways in which you consistently provide accountability for yourself and others? Are they working as intended?

Support: The resources from which you, and those with whom your life is intertwined, draw energy and renewal in service of sustained Accountability. What forms of support do you consistently provide for yourself and others?

Expectations: The goals and standards that you set and hold to for yourself and others, with a clear focus on what is most right rather than what is most accessible or easy. Can you list your personal/professional goals and standards, both for yourself and others, in a straightforward way? How consistently are you aligning your practices, and those of others over whom you exert influence, with these goals and standards?

Spend five to ten minutes reflecting on these questions via quiet thought and/or in writing over the next week, answering as honestly, yet lovingly, as you can. It is absolutely “ok” if the answers you come up with are incomplete or only lead to more questions. We are here to learn to engage with ourselves and our world in the most authentic way possible, so approach this exercise with a simple growth mindset, knowing that every part of it is simply a step for you along a path of development and improved self-understanding.

Until next year!

The danger of missed connections…

Anyone who has done some amount of air travel will be all too familiar with the destructive power of missed connections. Suddenly, a well-coordinated travel itinerary becomes a cascading, downhill disaster of cancelled reservations, revised schedules, and the best laid plans gone “aft agley.” But these examples are in the extreme, derived from the most compacted, intensive of situations. It should lead us to wonder if there aren’t other kinds of missed connections in our more mundane, everyday lives and interactions. If so, are the less salient, but still very real, consequences moment-to-moment missed connections diminishing the quality of our relationships and, by extension, of our shared existence? This is what I invite you to consider with me today.

In the world of improvisation, or improv as it is more colloquially known, there are a few simple rules that govern all interactions between players. The most well-known amongst these is the famous “yes, and.” In the simplest sense, this means that whatever a fellow improv artist does or says in a scene needs to always be greeted with the spirit and actions of “yes, and,” never “yes, but” or worse yet “no, but.” In order to prepare for performances, improv artists often practice energy exercises in pairs or in larger group circles. These exercises are predicated on each member recognizing, and then responding positively to the energy that their fellow players offer them. You offer unbridled joy? I recognize it and offer my best version of the same. You come with sober gravitas? Right back at you, but not in a serve-and-volley sense. Rather, in a “thank you, and yes, I’ll join you in that” fashion. The point is to connect and join with whatever your partner(s) offer up. Only in this way can true improvisational performance work for both the players and the audience.

What does this mean for us, as leaders, parents, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and friends? Well, ask yourself this: how often do you meet the energy of those around you with a genuine spirit of “yes, and”? How often do you return eye contact and connection offered to you by a subordinate, a child, a co-worker, or the cashier at the supermarket? More to the point, can you think of times when, likely without the benefit of conscious thought, you averted your gaze before that connection could be made? I know I can, and it is not just because I tend toward introversion (though that is certainly part of the equation). No, I believe that it is because, especially in contemporary society, we are increasingly conditioned to forego these micro-connections and fleeting offers of shared energy. Why? Well, because they threaten to distract us from our preferred distractions, which is to say they stand to draw us back into a world that we increasingly strive to escape at every turn, through the ubiquity of our cloud-connected devices and the non-stop push alerts that dominate our every available neuron.

In his book “On Tyranny,” historian Timothy Snyder encourages us to “make eye contact and small talk” as one of his twenty lessons for the 20th century. So, what I invite us all to do today is really quite simple. I am not suggesting that we should prowl, stalker-like through our day, seeking to establish eye contact with every person who happens to wander within arm’s reach of us (or worse yet, with people minding their own business from across the room!). No, instead I am presenting us with the encouragement to set an intention; to accept those small invitations to connect, which we all too often simply miss, with our fellow humans. In doing so, we may be surprised at what we find, and all that it has to offer us in this ongoing improvisational performance called life…

Panta Rhei — what does that mean?

It is Greek, and not just to me. I am told the translation is: Everything Flows. The first one to say this was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 to c. 475 BC). He believed — as do we — that everything always changes, that we can understand ourselves and the world around us better, if we start with the premise of ever-present change. It is that change that we experience as development. Sometimes we are happy with it, sometimes — not so much. Sometimes we like the speed and direction of change, sometimes we don’t.

Heraclitus was known as the Obscure Philosopher. He apparently enjoyed playing with words, but more importantly, he believed in the unity of opposites and assumed there is some harmony in this world. Today, we capture the unity of opposites — things are plus and minus at the same time — as one part of a dialectic. [More on that in a later blog post.] It is difficult to understand and then express opposites at the same time. Helping somebody is both positive and negative simultaneously and subsequently: it is positive because the helped benefits from the help, it is negative because the help curtails, prevents, or even disables the potential for the helped to act for themselves. We are capable of self-determination — autonomy — and make our own choices; at the same time, we are always also other-determined — heteronymy: we choose to act on our want for a nice meal in a comfortable environment and might go to a restaurant. Quite determined, we hop into the car and drive off downtown. The restaurant owner might have decided to not serve dinner at 2am at night and went to bed already. Our eating habits are also determined by that and by many other decisions and choices many other people made.

So, in large part because of these tensions between opposites, because of different factors bouncing off off each other, changing, amplifying, and cancelling each other, and because of each of us determining to some extent how we are going to act at any given moment, something or other is always happening — everything always changes.

Heraclitus also said: No man ever steps in the same river twice. We use this sentence as the tag line for this site, by only changing one word: No one steps in the same river twice. In our experience and from our perspective, change from the “outside” does affect everybody the same and differently; everybody changes the same and differently—independent of our gender.
Why doesn’t anybody step in the same river twice? The river always flows; one way of looking at it is that it is not the same river water just a second later. And we also change. When we step into the same river (if this were possible), then we are not the same; we are a little older, maybe a little wiser, maybe just a little more hungry, or already wet …

Such constant change is complex in itself, and we often perceive it as such, and, when we are in the midst of it — and we often are — we find it complex and complicated to deal with this change.

We believe it is good to think about the complexity of change, to talk about it, understand it better. We don’t want to simplify change, belittle it, or reject it. Change is all around us and all within us; we might as well understand it better. In some way or another — based on the concepts in our blog post tags — we will always look at change, and not only in our blog writing.