Monday, June 30, 2014

Learning to Walk Again

It had been another fourteen hour day with no lunch break and barely leaving my desk. I left the office that night with tight shoulders and a feeling of extreme fatigue. I walked past the security guard to the parking garage and my car seemed to drive itself home. As I crawled into bed, I fell into a restless night of sleep knowing I would have to do it all again tomorrow. My mind, body, and spirit had become so fatigued I could no longer sleep soundly. I gained weight because there was no time to workout. I was becoming uncomfortable in my own skin. I had no time to make new friends after almost a year of living in a fabulous new city because I was always working. The slightest error or problem at work would cause me to weep and become withdrawn. I constantly asked myself if there would ever be a time I'd feel like I'd accomplished something of value and worth? After the many personal challenges of 2013, I was heading down a path of internal destruction. With all of the career coaching I had given others, I knew it was up to me to reclaim a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Looking back it seems obvious now. My return to a business environment was only placed in my path to remind me of my true calling and passion. There were moments during the past year that I truly enjoyed my work. But I knew it was not fulfilling my deepest calling and did not allow me to be my best self. Without the richness of personal or professional support systems, I could not make smart decisons or perform at my truest level of excellence. I longed for thoughtful, supportive conversations with colleagues. I longed for interactions where I could mentor and encourage others. I longed to be able to trust my decisions and intellect. Everyday there was unnecessary scrutiny and a new decision to be made with little time for depth. While I enjoy a fast paced, energetic environment, this had become unhealthy. For some, this was an exciting and prestigious way to work. For me, it was draining and dangerous for my wholeness. I was eating more and sleeping less. Researchers have coined a phrase called "decision fatigue." The findings indicate that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control when faced with constant decisions under pressure (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007). The simple act of making decisions progressively depletes our ability to make them well. I found myself agreeing to things that I would never find acceptable outside of this fatigued physical and mental state of mind. 
My values, priorities and leadership style were becoming deeply incongurent. I was not positively motivated and had become physically and emotionally depleted.

After one particularly late evening at the office, I was reading some of the writings of Nipun Mehta and realized I required a more peaceful, supportive existence in both my professional and personal life. Mehta offers a simple thought process in recounting his walking pilgrmage across rural India. His acronym for WALK still speaks volumes to me:

The W in WALK stands for Witness.  "When you walk, you quite literally see more. Your field of vision is nearly 180 degrees, compared to 40 degrees when you are traveling at 62 mph.  Higher speeds smudge our peripheral vision, whereas walking actually broadens your canvas and dramatically shifts the objects of your attention. A walking pace is the speed of community. Where high speeds facilitate separation, a slower pace gifts us an opportunity to commune."

The A in WALK stands for Accept.  "When walking in this way, you place yourself in the palm of the universe, and face its realities head on. Mehta writes, "We walked at the peak of summer, in merciless temperatures hovering above 120 degrees. Sometimes we were hungry, exhausted and even frustrated. Our bodies ached for just that extra drink of water, a few more moments in the shade, or just that little spark of human kindness. Many times we received that extra bit, and our hearts would overflow with gratitude.  But sometimes we were abruptly refused, and we had to cultivate the capacity to accept the gifts hidden in even the most challenging of moments. So I encourage you to cultivate equanimity and accept whatever life tosses into your laps -- when you do that, you will be blessed with the insight of an inner transformation that is yours to keep for all of time."

The L in WALK stands for Love. "The more we learned from nature, and built a kind of inner resilience to external circumstances, the more we fell into our natural state -- which was to be loving. In our dominant paradigm, Hollywood has insidiously co-opted the word, but the love I’m talking about here is the kind of love that only knows one thing -- to give with no strings attached.  Purely. Selflessly. Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Now-a-days, people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” We have forgotten how to value things without a price tag.  Hence, when we get to our most abundant gifts -- like attention, insight, compassion -- we confuse their worth because they’re priceless. Metha noticed that in urban cities, the people he encountered began with an unspoken wariness: “Why are you doing this?  What do you want from me?”   In the countryside, villagers almost always met him with an open-hearted curiosity launching straight in with: "What’s your story?”
The next line in Metha's essay took me to a deep place of knowing." He writes, "In the villages, your worth wasn’t assessed by your business card, professional network or your salary. That innate simplicity allowed them to love life and cherish all its connections."

The K in WALK stands for Know thyself. "Sages have long informed us that when we serve others unconditionally, we shift from the me-to-the-we and connect more deeply with the other.  That matrix of inter-connections allows for a profound quality of mental quietude. Like a still lake undisturbed by waves or ripples, we are then able to see clearly into who we are and how we can live in deep harmony with the environment around us. When one foot walks, the other rests.  Doing and being have to be in balance. Our rational mind wants to rightfully ensure progress, but our intuitive mind also needs space for the emergent, unknown and unplanned to arise. Doing is certainly important, but when we aren't aware of our internal ecosystem, we get so vested in our plans and actions, that we don't notice the buildup of mental residue.  Over time, that unconscious internal noise starts polluting our motivations, our ethics and our spirit. And so, it is critical to still the mind. A melody, after all, can only be created with the silence in between the notes (Methta, 2005, 2012).

And there it is. I have chosen to walk. No anger, no regrets, no wasted time. I am learning to walk again while healing my mind, body, and spirit. It is with gratitude that through a painful experience, I have returned to my true path. I have chosen to return to completing my PhD and pursuing a career in higher education. No big titles or the glamorous perks of corporate life, but I am able to hear myself think again. I can even trust my decisions, leadership abilities, and use my God-given talents. I am encouraged to continue my pursuit of my PhD by my colleagues. I am awakened in the mornings ready to mentor, encourage, and give of myself to my students and staff. That is my calling. That is my path. 
I am going to continue walking it. I might even run again! Walk with joy and peace where ever the path takes you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Careers, Confidence and Confusion

Last night while speaking to and interacting with Arizona State University students, many of them graduating in May, I noticed a familiar look of concern and bewilderment across their faces. After spending six years of my life as a university career coach, adjunct professor and student adviser, I know the look. Everyone wants the secret sauce to getting a job or finding a career path. Here's a bit of the advice I offered:

1) Get experience in the world of work and in navigating life. That includes everything from studying abroad to volunteering to being a lifeguard during the summer. Every experience matters and employers pay attention to more than your GPA. They want to know you can navigate life. Package your expereinces in away that gives the employer a reason to believe you can do the job.

2) Be flexible. Be brave. You may have to move to a new city, state or country for a job. Say yes to opportunities to find out what you like and don't like. If you choose not to move, you are choosing to accept what is available in the job market where you have chosen to stay.


3) Your degree is only an invitation to the party. Your personality, attitude, intelligent questions, prior experiences get you in the door. Your eagerness to learn and listen keeps you at the party. People hire people who are intelligent, kind, authentic and who get things done. 


4) Make your experiences relevant to employers. Confidently package what you have done. Stop apologizing for what you have not done. Your study abroad trip, internship, volunteer work, part-time job demonstrate something about you. Tell your story in a compelling and relevant way.


5) Believe that you are created for a unique purpose, even if you don't know what it is yet. Stop comparing yourself to others. Everyone is equipped with a specific set of strengths, gifts and talents. You have to try new and sometimes uncomfortable things to discover what they are.


6) Careers rarely move in a straight line. Do not fear the zigzag. Just keep moving forward in the discovery process. Life is too full of change to be afraid of it. Believe your dreams are possible.

Those of us in higher ed have not always painted an accurate picture for students of careers and discovering your life's purpose. I am sorry for that. Students, please stop taking advice from everyone who wants to give it to you. Talk to and listen to those who know the current employer trends and thinking in the job market. Make sure your advisers have experienced life themselves. One day I want to write the ultimate career guide for undergraduates. For now, this will do.


What do you think?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

February is over, now I can say it...

Thanks for the requests. As promised, here are the highlights from my recent rant:

As part of my doctoral coursework, I had to take a diversity and social justice class. Since then, I have had a heightened awareness of race in America. Every February it becomes even more elevated. 

February is designated as Black History Month. The concept of Black History month began in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, an alumnus of the University of Chicago.  Woodson was living in Washington, DC and traveled back to Illinois to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the emancipation sponsored by the state. It was during this time he posed the idea of highlighting the contributions of Black Americans during the month of February. It is said that Woodson chose February because it encompassed the birthdays of two great Americans who shaped African American history, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. 

I appreciate and understand the idea behind Black History Month, yet I am saddened by the need for it. Isn't Black History American History? During the month of February, we see public service announcements sponsored by corporations who tell us about historic or contemporary famous black people. Children have programs at school, churches may bring in speakers and we all feel good about doing the right thing in February. Do we talk about are these contributions as part of the study of great Americans within a context of American history? Are we including diverse speakers with diverse points of view in our church and school programs throughout the year? Why do we have to wait until February?

Throughout our daily lives, we are creating more history than we recognize. Whether we choose to admit it, race and gender play a pivotal role in how we perceive, interact and communicate with each other. It is influenced by our parents/relatives, the city/state we lived in during our formative years, religious/political leanings and our current/past personal interactions with individuals of a different race or gender. Having lived in several multiple regions of the United States and from international travel, I can honestly say we all harbor poorly informed ideas of each other. All races. All cities. All states.

Even if you disagree with my religious or political leanings, I am personally called to think deeper than gender and race. I don't claim to have an answer, but I certainly wish we could engage in more courageous conversations on this topic. We all carry our silent attitudes and wounds. I'm tired of watching people pretend. I'm tired of micro-aggression. I'm tired of everyone walking on egg shells. Why are we so afraid to have a conversation? Are we embarrassed that we don't know more or just pleased with the status quo?

In moving around the country, I am sometimes saddened by how many social and professional circles exclude me because of the assumptions that come with my gender and ethnicity. You might be surprised by my interests. They might be the same as yours. If they are not, we can still find ways to grow in community. Maybe we should step out of our comfort zones and go where we are not in the majority. Maybe we just try to do more things together than separately. The exclusion hurts us all more than anything. I am not angry about it, just observant and disappointed. In the workplace, many people respond defensively and dramatically to simple questions or comments when posed by women and persons of color. Keep calm. Just asking. Carry on. How can we do a better job of listening without reacting or taking everything so personally? How do we appreciate seeing a situation through another persons lens?

Then there's the rare and awkward moments when we actually try have to face conversations about race. Some people fumble around with political correctness, jokes or just hide behind religious and denominational tenets. Political correctness is often taken to to extreme but also I am smart enough to know when we dance on the edge of deeply held prejudices it impedes growth and progress. It hinders heartfelt conversations. It creates inauthentic interactions. I am so over it.

The age old question is how do we engage in this missing and often frightening conversation? My heart sinks when people go on mission trips to Africa yet are fearful to engage in a conversation with a black person in their church, workplace, or local community. The only answer I have to changing hearts is that we actually get to know each other. If you are a person in the majority, don't always seek to be the savior of someone of a different race. Find your intellectual and social equal who is of another race or gender. Learn more about what they think and feel. You may not agree and that's okay too. Stop being angry with each other. I'm not. Just tired of the same old reasons why there's a problem.

A solution often offered in the workplace is to conduct "diversity or sensitivity training." This frequently means individuals with good intentions try to teach everyone how to be more "politically correct and respectful." It fails every time. We all have experienced "diversity fatigue" and the eye rolling that goes on when playing the interactive diversity games that are often part of this type of training. You know that one "friend" you have that informs your thinking about race or gender? We would all do well to remember, one person does not speak for an entire race. Building ongoing relationships matters more than a day or week of training. 

I know. Now you're going to avoid talking to me because I'm one of the angry ones. Nope. Wrong again. The difference between greatness and mediocrity lies in the courage of developing one relationship at a time and talking about it. There are many reasons NOT to like being around me, I just hope race and gender are not among them. Maybe we should change the name "Black History Month" to "Cultural Competency Month." I just want to move into authentic fellowship in the spaces I occupy. Who's with me? Leave your comments below. Anger, negativity and ignorance will be deleted
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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Raw Realizations in three C's

Goodbye 2013.
Many will wax poetic about you. I have no grand messages or brilliant declarations. This past year has been an awakening of the deepest parts of my soul. I want to grasp and positively use the pain of this awakening. I don't make resolutions but I do plan to keep moving forward with my life goals. The words written here are for my own reflection and renewal. Perhaps someone else will find truth or an insight that might bring healing.

My 2013 has been navigated in less than perfect circumstances. I have been fully bent but not broken. I have arrived at some raw realizations as a result of 2013. So here they are in three words (with a few explanations):

Change. Early in the year, I moved again to a much bigger city. I changed jobs. I changed industries. The change became even more difficult as I recovered from a lingering illness that caused extreme fatigue. I survived a car accident. My car was totaled. My mom died. I've felt alone and misunderstood as toxic people appeared out of nowhere and seemed to be everywhere. Through it all, I have discovered I cannot negotiate life alone. We all need encouragement and love no matter how strong we appear. My husband and my sister, Connie, have loved me consistently and been a source of unimaginable support. And that's all you need--one or two people to love you like crazy. I know I have changed this year.  I have become more aware of suffering and unspoken pain. It has moved me from being concerned generally about others to being concerned viscerally for them. Through my own changes, I am more thankful for family and friends who love me even when I have not been easy to love. We all need wind beneath our wings...corny I know, but listen to the words of the song sung by Bette Midler here, it is real to me in so many ways.

Cry. When we are born we cry. When someone dies we cry. My mom died in August of 2013. I cried a lot. I cried more than I expected. And even months later, I find it difficult to control when or where I might start crying. I have cried around people who could care less that I was crying. I have quietly cried in the restroom stall at work. I've cried sitting in my car in the parking lot as I see an old woman navigating the grocery store. Tears are starting to form just writing this. So what. No one can determine how you will grieve. You are forever changed when you lose your mother. You possess a new gravitas once you have lost both parents. After talking with others who have lost a parent and been through the grief process, I am told it will get better but will never go away. So I cry when I need to.  It cleanses my soul. It allows me to bend and not break. If you see me somewhere crying in 2014, just hand me a tissue or give me a hug. I'll do the same for you.

Consider. During this tough year, I had to seriously consider how I would react to adversity and who I would be on the other side of it. I think about reactions, behaviors and communication styles frequently for purposes of continuous self-improvement, but it took on new significance this year. As I try to gain clarity around my dissertation thesis, I have been reading a lot about psychological capital. I wonder how and why some people thrive in certain environments and circumstances while others crumble. The concept of psychological capital is one of the best explanations I've found. According to Luthans, Youssef & Avolio (Oxford University Press, 2007), psychological capital is defined as "an individual's positive state of development" and is characterized by hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism. Here's how the researchers define those characteristics:
Hope. Persevering toward goals and when necessary, redirecting paths to goals.
Efficacy. Having confidence to give the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks.
Resilience. Bouncing back when beset by problems and adversity.
Optimism. Making positive attribution and expectation about succeeding now and in the future.

Hope, Efficacy, Resilience and Optimism. HERO. I seek to have these HERO characteristics as 2014 unfolds. Yeah, I want to be a hero. Maybe even a superhero. I want to be more considerate of others. I want to overcome pettiness. I want to trust more. I want to have a good belly laugh at least once a day. I want to dance more.I want to have honest conversations with authentic people. I want to get on with a life that energizes my soul. I want to help others find meaning and make meaning.  2013 has prepared the way. My faith reminds me there is joy and possibility awaiting in 2014. I will seek joy with open arms and a changed heart.

Sydney, Australia 2014. Bringing in the New Year!
Goodbye 2013. I am better, not bitter. I'm bending but not broken. Thank you for three C's and the raw realizations. Welcome 2014. I seek new adventures and a pure joy that reverberates in the presence of others. Be kinder. Be gentler. Someone needs that from you and me.  We are more than conquerors. We are over-comers. Go!

Happy New Year. Leave a comment for me below. Let's learn from each other.