Sunday, May 29

Memorial Day 2011

I was privileged to be in some schools this past week, working with educators passionate about their work with kids.  At the end of one lesson, one of the educators said something like, "Don't forget it's Memorial Day weekend.  Be sure to thank any soliders you see."

It was both the sentiment and the tone that struck me.  It was almost casual, like "Have a nice weekend and don't forget to study for your tests."  But there was nothing else around the statement.  There had been nothing about Memorial Day in the lesson.  Nothing.  The statement didn't seem to be an afterthought so I could assume they had been talking about Memorial Day earlier in the week, though there is no way of knowing for sure.

Still, the tone and the sentiment echoed in my head.  And it clanged loudly when I got back to O'Hare on Friday.  I saw a family in matching "Welcome Home!" T-shirts anxiously peering through the entry doors to baggage claim.  I saw a woman hug a younger woman in uniform; a mother welcoming home a daughter?  Perhaps.  The hug was mammoth: affirming, grateful, happy, loving, proud.

I saw a tall soldier standing alone near baggage claim, checking his phone.  Why does it take such courage to walk up to a stranger to say "thank you," and yet it took me a few seconds.  Would I be intruding?  Would he think I was a little nuts?  But it wasn't really all that hard even though it made me absurdly emotional.

I simply walked up to him, stuck out my hand, looked him straight in the eyes and said, "Thank you" as I shook his hand.  He said "You're welcome" as a slight smile flickered across his lips.  I don't know if that made his day, but it sure made a difference to mine as I thought about why I really am thankful for whatever he does, whether it's at the front line or at some desk.  He serves our country in a way I cannot.

I don't agree with all of the conflicts in which my country is currently engaged, but that sure doesn't mean that I'm not grateful for the men and women who put their lives on the line so I can sit comfortably at home and complain about the some of the ridiculous decisions our politicians make.  It may seem corny, but those soldiers continue to be one of the reasons we are "the land of the free" even if we don't always seem to be "the home of the brave."

So, it's Memorial Day weekend.  If you get the chance, be sure to thank any solider you see.

Tuesday, May 24

Help me feel...anything at all

Help me feel....anything at all.

That phrase scratched into the bathroom stall door echoed agonizingly in my head.  I wondered about the young woman who wrote it.  Was she still at that high school?  Had she graduated?  Moved beyond the pain so clearly articulated in those spare six words?  Was she still in this small Midwestern town or had she sought relief beyond its borders?  In what ways had she sought that relief?  Those options as potentially terrifying as the cry for help.  More importantly, did any adult seek her out and try to offer any kind of meaningful assistance?  The key word there is "meaningful."

I was talking with a friend after we had visited a school doing some amazing project-based learning.  I said I wasn't sure I would have been successful in that kind of learning environment in high school.  I was introverted (not shy), preferring to keep to myself for many reasons.  For a time my anthem was Simon & Garfunkel's "I am a rock". The best line: "And a rock feels no pain/And an island never cries."

I played team sports, but was never chummy with my teammates.  I preferred to work alone, to depend on only myself.  I could control quality, direction, everything.  And it was safer to do it myself.

So when I read those words on the stall door, I felt my heart contract with a searing recollection of pain.  I was blessed.  Even as I guarded myself, people reached out to me, encouraged me in ways I was able to realize and acknowledge much later.

When Alan November speaks, one of the things he talks about is the importance of empathy as a global skillEmpathy.  He has a point.  It is easy to closet our emotions, to protect ourselves but insulating ourselves against the feelings of others.  But then it becomes far too easy to insulate ourselves against the perspectives and experiences of others so that we are soon cocooned by our only our perspectives, experiences, and feelings.  Aside from the selfishness, there is always danger in being immersed in only one perspective and only in one's owns emotions, experiences, and thoughts.

High school can be hard enough.  If we are to teach our children well, we do need them to learn to be empathetic.  Not just globally, but locally.  Perhaps even more so locally.  Perhaps we adults need to do a better job of modeling empathy.

Perhaps, then, at the very least, this young woman would feel less invisible.  And that in itself could be a very big deal.  And not just to her.

Monday, May 16

Fitting in & comfort zones

I learned something about myself this weekend as I was thinking about what it means to "fit in."  Actually, I was thinking about organizational cultures and the expectations of those cultures.  How new people learn most of the written rules but no one thinks about sharing the unwritten rules because they're familiar with them and they just don't think to forewarn.  I suppose in some situations such lack of sharing can be malicious, but I'm confident that has not been the case in my workplace. 

I know that in my prior job, it was easy to forget certain things that new folks hadn't yet lived with.  Until they slammed into some glass wall or tripped over an unseen wire.  Some of those unintended consequences are more painful, difficult, humiliating, frustrating (you get the idea) than others.  Some are simply inadvertent oversights.

Folks who are fairly new in a place (and I'm not sure when "new" is no longer "new") often learn about cultural expectations for behavior the hard way.  Those are the unwritten rules.  In my current work situation, I seem to have muddled my way into several of those unwritten rules and I have, as you can imagine, experienced a bit of frustration about not knowing that rule, about not understanding that rule.  That frustration has occasionally contributed to a sense of just not fitting in, of not knowing how to fit in.  And I've not cared for that 9th grade flashback of watching the circle of kids slowly close just as I was approaching.  Insidiously subtle, painfully clear.

Now I'm not saying I've experienced an insidious or painful shut-out because I haven't.  But the feeling of not fitting in forced me to think about my own expectations and to question what behavioral expectations I'd projected on my workplace and my colleagues.  And I realized that some of the frustration I've experienced, which has peripheral or marginal association to corporate cultural, served to amplify my sense of not fitting in and quite probably, possibly (I hope) in misinterpreted ways.

So then I found myself wondering how to find my way back to my comfort zone.  But then I started wondering how far beyond my comfort zone I might go before I felt uncomfortable and if this sense of not fitting in was that marker.  Or do I feel like I don't fit in, do I feel uncomfortable for other reasons (probably) and how many of those are of my own making because I tried to project or impose a particular cultural organizational behavior or expectations that had little or no chance of being met.

What I've learned, I think, is that I probably feel like an outsider yet precisely because I'd interpreted a particular corporate culture and kept insisting in my head that what I imagined was the intended corporate culture, that the reason I've been banging into glass walls is because I keep erecting them and then, like a squirrel burying nuts for the winter, forgetting where I'd put those walls or, even worse, not even realizing I'd built them.  Then I'd get ticked off at a bunch of other people who had nothing to do with the glass walls.

I have no actual answers to anything, just musings.  So I'll continue to think about what it means to fit in, what it means to try to be a change agent and how that can work but doesn't always work the same way in different places, how far one can get beyond one's comfort zone before being really uncomfortable, what it means to misinterpret a corporate culture, and what happens when unreasonable and inaccurate expectations are made on a corporate culture that isn't even aware of the expectations.

Oh, just for the record: "fitting in" does not mean "conformity," but it does mean being able to work within the corporate culture without succumbing to that which ails it.