Category Archives: Tough times

Encoding a Better Future

The Early DaysI began my  career as a software programmer at IBM. With a mathematics degree and just enough computer science classes from University of Wisconsin, I was chosen to write support tools for a new Federal Aviation Administration computer system. Thirty years ago, we coded in Ada on a main frame computer and would have to wait so long for a program to compile that I knit sweaters while I waited.

I continued in this world for the next 12 years, soon moving into program management (I am way  too extroverted to be a coder) and supported the release of healthcare software, including one of the first Hospital Electronic Medical Records programs.

Today, meanwhile, I have been considering how our belief systems affect our perception of reality. I witness students whose personal stories determine their success or self sabotage. I ache for young people who believe that they don’t deserve happiness or kindness. I see others, in contrast, who are wired for success. I will not be the first to call our stories “software of the mind,”  but am struck how our internal beliefs take in the data around us and spit back whatever results we seem programmed to expect.

As a program manager and as a coder, I lived in constant fear of severity 1 errors. When you release software for testing or to the public, when a program breaks, the error is given a severity level of 4, 3, 2 or 1. A severity level 4 (“sev 4”) error is a cosmetic fix that is rarely  resolved or maybe you would work on it during  the days when only you  had to work since we were a newbie you had long used up your vacation. Sev 3’s were more important, but didn’t affect overall operations and Sev 2’s had a work around, but were serious enough that you’d need to work a night or weekend to resolve. Sev 1’s took down the system and you weren’t going anywhere until they were fixed, especially if the software was out in the field.

I have applying this same error designation to my internal software and conflicts that affect my system. My brain seems to perceive most challenges as Sev 3 or  4 errors and if I have time to reflect on a lazy day, I might refine my belief systems a bit to incorporate.

Really surprising news I seem to log as Sev 2 errors and respond by heading to a journal, a wise friend or counselor to suss where I now stand.  I have had some Sev 1’s in my own mental software where life shocks have stopped me in my tracks and notice that I use those moments mark the end of an old identity and emergence of a new me.

Some times we as the coders would negotiate severity levels with clients when they identified an error. What seemed cosmetic to us would be considered critical to them. Playing with this analogy, I wonder when and why we incorrectly log the error severity levels within our mind software? Angeles Arrien would caution to pay attention when we might normalize the abnormal or abnormalize the normal. When do I engage in denial or overdramatize? Looking through a conflict resolution lens, where am I missing discord and not appropriately engaging in the change process? Or, where am I getting stuck in a victim stance or overwhelm needlessly?

I return to the Art of War for guidance here. When discord occurs, we are counseled to step onto the battlefield like a Sage Commander and survey where we stand. Objectively assess, who are my opponents? What resources do I have at my disposal? What does this battlefield look like and what might I be missing?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Returning to the software analogy, how can I be a sage customer service representative who listens carefully to a problem as it is described and be willing to return to my belief system coding team and calmly explain where we might need to do some updating?

May you find each problem that arises as an opportunity to create the best darn mind software available. You’ve got a large market waiting; we could use your help in processing the data we receive daily from these polemic times.

What do you pray for?

For the past few  weeks I have been walking the Camino de Santiago. This ancient pilgrimage route runs the width of northern Spain taking you to the Galician cathedralimage where St. James’ bones are reportedly entombed.  Walking the whole  500 miles in one fail swoop has been on my bucket list after walking it in halves three previous times.

Lighting candles for others, and your journey, in the myriad of churches along the route is a common ritual. I have been holding a set of loved ones in my thoughts along this path and lighting candles for them has made sense. I appreciate that a friend recently sent me  an article on the value of prayer for secular and religious people alike, and of just holding gratitude for those around us in this manner. One of my mentors, Angeles Arrien, asked that we honor her after her death  by lighting a candle each month for a year on the 24th, the day she passed, and send along a prayer. I will complete that tradition tomorrow.

But, what do you pray for?

There are prescribed prayers in all the spiritual traditions, but what am I to wish for when praying for another? Walking hundreds of miles, you have time to think and this has been a point of deep consideration. I found I initially want to pray for health for those who are sick, that friendships are mended where suffering exists there, or that someone will get a good job. These wishes fall apart quickly when I think about how I am playing god as I start to guess how another’s life should turn out next. I am the conflict lady who likes to remind, at least herself, that we need discord to grow. Often my initial prayers were selfish requests to keep those I love with me in a way that makes me comfortable.  My  candle prayers, with hours to consider them, have needed to get away  from specific solutions into the essence of what I want to send out to another.

Drawing from the Taoist and Buddhist play books, I found that what feels responsible is to wish for another’s well being. What form that will take is not my call. I started to modify a  Buddhist metta prayer that goes, “May you be filled with loving kindness, may you be well, may you be peaceful and at ease, may you be happy.”  Praying for well being, may not mean someone is cured of an illness necessarily, or a friendship is rekindled, since well being may come through these  challenges. Sending thoughts of well being to someone who is no longer in physical form seems to fit better too.

What does this have to do with leadership and playing life well, which is blog’s theme?  I can easily get focused on form when coaching or teaching another. It is a constant temptation to hope for what others should learn or how they should behave.   Not only  arrogant, I close down possibility when I get into specific solutions. Yet, if I am holding a more detached  yet engaged wish for their true well being, I am much better at my job.  This begs the question, how might we live our work as an effective prayer?

Show up

I am not the first, nor will be the last, to write about the recent passing of Angeles Arrien. Angeles was an internationally renown and beloved teacher/ cultural anthropoAngeles Arrienlogist whose work has been a foundation of my own. She left us suddenly and unexpectedly on April 24th with her pearls of wisdom arising as answers as we each wrestle with her passing.

Angeles’ core philosophy included four life practices that are found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, called The Four Fold Way. They are: 1) Show up, choose to be present 2)Pay attention to what has heart and meaning, 3)Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome and 4)Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
When tough times come, it is all too easy to want to run away. Grief physically hurts. It pulls stomachs into knots and bends us to its will as we weep with happy memories appearing unbidden, torturing us with the knowledge that they will never be again.  You think you are safe and then turn a corner or wake up from a dream and Mr. Grief belts you again. A week after Angeles’ passing, our beloved dog Kiki also left us very suddenly, so we had some pretty visceral grief practice these past two weeks.

Where to begin to create greater ease? I keep hearing, “Show up, choose to be present.”  Show up for the loss, for the pain, for the tears and the disappointment. Pay attention to the intensity of the grief and feel the jagged edges within when it feels impossible.  When I was researching Worst Enemy, Best Teacher  I was struck by how the world’s warriors traditions all include practice in enduring pain. They counsel fasting, sparring, and endurance activities that push the initiate to find strength through intense discomfort. When you land on the battlefield of loss, it all makes sense. Showing up is the only way to get through. The 12th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi, once prescribed that the cure for the pain is in the pain. 

Arrien also connected showing up to the cross-cultural archetype of the warrior through her research.   Running away, although it is alluring for a moment, creates a dragon that chases until we are willing like a knight of the Round Table, to turn around and confront. Whenever we are in a leadership role, it demands that we show up for the tough times. When profits disappear, projects are cancelled, or key employees are lost, the warrior work begins.

Also, when there is ease and comfort, we need to show up and pay attention to the gifts and strengths of those around us.  Show up and recognize the impermanence of it all and give thanks. It will be no surprise that Angeles was an expert in the practice of gratitude and wrote her final book, Living in Gratitude on this subject.

Angeles mentored a huge gaggle of us, and from them, I am also gathering jewels.  Cheryl Esposito, Leading Conversations, brought back the memory that when Angeles would be driving home a critical teaching and we would find ourselves much too serious, she would begin to say, “Kisses, kisses” and blow them out to the audience. Today, we are all blowing kisses right back.  Thank you Angeles.

Screen Invasion

Perhaps no meeting is as good a use of our time as sitting alone in silence, letting go of fear and allowing the wisdom of the universe to emerge with the guidance that will help us take the next healthy action. – Steve Roberts, “Cool Mind, Warm Heart”

I am noticing that other consultants I respect, like Steve Roberts above, have been often writing this year about the need to slow down, get quiet and listen. They speak to my soul.

A few weeks ago, I was working in Puerto Rico and took a bathroom break to find this.

Watching Thor while washing my hands

Watching Thor while washing my hands

Really, we need screens in the bathroom now too? When I am mediating or facilitating tough disputes, bathroom breaks provide needed moments of quiet and space to re-center. Last week, I refueled the car to find that the local station had added TVs above every gas pump. Then, walking down Main Street in Bozeman, and I found that they have installed screens on lampposts. Oh my. I’m sure you can add three more crazy locations you have found screens installed in your daily life, but this is rough news for this gal.

Ever since I was little when a television is on, my eyes are glued to the screen. If you want me to complete a sentence, don’t take me to a sports bar, or even a sushi bar if they happen to need to play Japan-amation. My students giggle at how easily I am distracted by shiny objects in whatever form; that dancing screen light seduces me away in seconds.

Selling screens and Big Sky on the street

Selling screens and Big Sky on the street

So, how can we call for silence and time without stimulus when the screens have become an invasive species? I don’t have an answer to share. This is probably just an end-of-year a plea for no screen zones. How might I advocate for places where I can keep my observation skills turned on without having them co-oped by CNN, ESPN or Fox? How might we demand that some parts of our world are preserved for re-centering, quiet and clarity?

In meantime, I am trying to find humor in all the strange places that screens are sneaking in like these naughty pets who are so proud of what they have accomplished! I will also admit that seeing Thor leap around on that screen while washing my hands wasn’t the worst part of my day.

May you find joy, humor and a bit of quiet during this holiday season.

You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you. Sarah Ban Breathnach

When I was given the opportunity to provide a Tedx talk in 2012, I wanted to tell the world everything I knew about transforming conflict. There was this technique, and that one, and, oh my, I must tell you about elemental conflict styles! It didn’t take long to realize that with less than a quarter of an hour, I could only share one skill. If these were my lifetime 13 minutes of fame, what did I need to tell the world?

It was quickly clear what I needed to share — I had to discuss gratitude. Simply put, when conflict, or really anything, comes…be grateful.

Watching the included video, you’ll realize that gratitude is a prescribed behavior by both the spiritual traditions and by brain science, but why do I return to it today? Not only we just celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, but also a recent conversation with a favorite client that reminded me how leadership demands not only us providing consistent gratitude, but teaching its importance.

Entitlement is not a favored attribute within our culture, nor in many of the cultures with whom I get to work. Yet, it seems to be a learned behavior. Be it through upbringing, cultural context, or as a survival skill that got us to demand basic rights, we all have a bit of entitlement within us, and that’s all right in my book. We need to self advocate at times. There are moments when I need to demand what is mine, especially when it comes to basic human rights.

On the other hand, too much entitlement doesn’t serve anyone involved. It sends us into an attitude of scarcity and criticism. We can miss the hidden opportunities in what we didn’t choose. Also, those who are being generous on our behalf miss our acknowledgment, and may wonder why this generosity is deserved.

If I didn’t learn the power and importance of gratitude as a young person, I may need your mentoring as one who understands its value. You may mentor by modeling sincere gratitude and acknowledgment. It may be adding appreciation to your organization’s code of conduct. Working on US State Department programs where we are asking community volunteers to host international visitors, our team has begun sharing the importance of gratitude in US culture during each program orientation. Gratitude has thus become a core leadership skill I now teach after I learned that not everyone was parented as I was to give thanks for every ride I was given home whether it was another mother or my own.

Appreciating a Peruvian patron saint

Extending gratitude to a Peruvian patron saint

How can you impart the power of gratitude to those around you? Not everyone in my experience has learned of its strength. How lucky we are to have you not only to be thankful, but also to remind us how it can support us as an employee, employer, family member or friend.