Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The meaning of life, part two

Mission is not a job title or description. Mission is a few words that describe your essence. What you are here to do (and who you are here to do it for). In our class we use the zebra as the icon for mission. Zebras, like snowflakes, are unique. Each one has a slightly different set of stripes that distinguish them from the rest. People are unique, but by the time they've been through school are so atuned to pleasing others and doing what's expected that their stripes (their unique identity) have often faded or disappeared.

The past month I had the luxury to dig in and work on my mission. Even after you've identified the stripes, there's work to do to figure out how to take action. By contrast to the people I've encountered who are wandering and longing I ended up rubbing elbows with researchers at the local historical library. These people sit for hours, digging, reading, looking for clues and stories. They have found their stripes and are enjoying the benefit of working wholeheartedly. I even ventured into the local Earth Day celebration nearby and marveled at the guy who is working to have license plate holders (they apparently weigh a pound) removed from cars to increase their efficiency. He passionately lists the fuel-saving benefits and talks to anyone who will listen. I signed the petition of the raucus women who are trying to rid the state of plastic bags. These people are ignited by passion.

If you are one of the lucky
ones who know (even if a small part of) your mission, give it voice, put it in writing.
  • Start doing something with it; volunteer, take a class, set up an interview, something.
  • Each time you follow your passion, watch for the door that opens next.
  • Write down every experience that makes your heart sing.
  • Dig deep and observe.
If you don't have a clue about your mission, I'll share mine and then describe a bit about what each word means to give you an example. My mission is simple. It's only six action words, in no particular order. Others use phrases or sentences. It should never be as long as a paragraph because you should be able to tell others what it is on command.


I begin my explanation with "ask" because it was the first stripe I identified doing this multi-year process. I finally dug deep enough to remember being teased for being the great interrogater for as long as I remember. I ask questions. As I mentioned in the previous post though, "ask" has more than one meaning. It also represents my voracious need to research, always interested in digging and asking, my love of inquiry-based coaching and why I am a good community-builder.

Learn (ing) is what happens when you ask. I learn from those who speak to me, I learn from my research, I learn from the collective wisdom in the communities I build. I am not happy unless I'm learning the next big thing.

Create (ing) is as necessary to me as breathing. I must create. I create beautiful food, I create beautiful photos, I create messages. I am a creative being. When I don't create I suffer.

Share (ing) is a natural output of creating. I write for others to read, I cook for others to eat, I take photos for others to enjoy.

Connect (ing) is a way of saying that I bring the learning and creation and sharing together to connect with other people and ideas. I build communities of people who benefit from watching each other learn and grow.

I added Behold late in the game (within the last year) because as it turns out I see things others don't see, one of the reasons why people like my photographs. I'm still playing with the concept to see if it really fits with what I'm here for mostly because I'm the luckiest photographer that ever owned a Nikon. I take photos with an intuitive sense that often doesn't know what it's captured until I see it on the screen.

Here's what I'm not allowed to ask next, "But how am I going to get a job doing that?" The how will come in time. Getting bogged down in the job that you're supposed to pursue next is counterproductive. This is an intuitive, iterative process that requires taking some steps and letting them compost. Taking some action and seeing how it feels. Every time I pursue these stripes another door of understanding and opportunity opens. And I sit like a pig in mud, joyous in the actions I take that match my stripes.

Allow yourself to be satisfied with the joy of the search.

Next: The meaning of life, part three

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The meaning of life, part one

Not sure about your young adult experience, but mine included sitting around oftentimes high, asking esoteric questions like "What IS the meaning of life?" Turns out we were asking the wrong question. We were on the right track, we should be asking ourselves insightful questions. Down deep, though, I think we were asking, "What is the meaning of MY life." It was easier to speculate about the former.

Decades later, nothing has changed. I'm surrounded by people looking for meaning in their lives. Point in fact during a long overdue dinner with friends I asked about his life since he had taken early retiement a couple years ago. He's a cycling nut so it was natural to take a part-time job working on bikes, he has a couple of cycling groups, and he has a bunch of free time. He gladly helped the neighbor build a fence partly because he's a really nice guy and partly because it filled the time.

His story reminded me of my pause when two other friends during a recent trip to the coast verbalized their quest for the next big thing. Both women are accomplished and have a history of leading people and service projects. They took opportunities as they came, but they never found their real passion, something they can do wholeheartedly.

It also reminded me of my poor Mom who worked as a hairdresser until she was 77 and at 88 is bored silly, depressed and doesn't know what to do with herself now that she can no longer work 12 hours a day and then go home and keep up with a large yard. Her purpose, literally, was working and raising a child. What now?

Nothing prepares us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. In school we fulfilled requirements, were directed to a course of study, but no one ever asked us, "What are you passionate about?" "What makes your heart sing?" If we were college bound, well-meaning counselors directed us to colleges and degrees and if college wasn't our path, in short order we got a job. Our others-directed path intersected with careers and titles and job descriptions. It's likely we've been admonished for what we really love, "You can't make a living doing that!" We may even have forgotten what we really love, or see it vaguely in a distant dream once we retire. What a crock.

Then life shifts into gear and the days and months go by and we accumulate responsibilities. We get a bigger better job, bigger better possessions until one day we wake up living someone else's life. Thoreau called it ". . . lives of quiet desperation." It's not too far fetched to believe that people who lack meaning and feel desperate try to fill the hole with "busy" or bad habits. Our soft spots provide relief from the malaise.

The people who sign up for our Creating The Life You Want course have, to some extent, figured this out. While they come in very different places in their lives, they've all become discontent enough with status quo, they want to make some change. They are searching for more meaning in their lives. Their success is as varied as their reasons for attending. Over the years I've notice, however, that many are satisfied with applying values and boundaries (two of the early modules) because it feels doable even if a bit fearful. However, most of them fall short of discovering their mission (module five). We define mission as one's "reason for being," "daimon," in Martha Beck's words, "your own north star." It is the shining light that has always called you from afar, sometimes an old avocation or dream cast aside. I have grown to believe finding our mission is the KEY to creating the life we really want. Stopping short of figuring it out is to "settle." Settle for what is easy, safe and predictable.

Here are some of the reasons why mission can be hard:
  • We have negative connotations about "mission statements" and struggle to distinguish the different between the statement and the core of what it represents. Every word in my six-word mission has double and triple meanings.

  • We have years of experience sucking it up and making a living. We are tired at the end of the day and calm ourselves by buying in to the idea that we should just be happy with what we have. At the core we are also a bit lazy (until we fire up with passion).

  • We have chatter in our heads about whether or not we are talented or smart enough to have a purpose, and what does it matter anyway. This negative voice gets louder when things get difficult.

  • We have to tolerate the abstract nature of the question itself, a tendency to discount our own gifts as being trivial, and the reluctance to follow our gut.

  • We get hooked up on reality while we are trying to creatively tap into our talents and gifts.

Mission takes thinking and writing and observing and feeling and intuiting. It calls on us to ask ourselves, What am I doing when I am acting wholeheartedly? What comes easy to me? Who am I here to do it for? I have always been known for asking questions. It's what I do. Who knew it is good for building community and researching, both parts of my mission. Watch your patterns and observe what you're doing when your're "in the flow."

Next: The meaning of life, part two

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Expert, Savior, Facilitator . . . you choose!

I was lucky enough to be invited to my daughter's first training session for a group of her co-workers. She's working on her graduate degree and saw some applicability of what's she's been studying to the welfare of the people she works with. So the insightful managers in her unit agreed to let her conduct a class. Turns out she's a natural in front of a room.

So, the back story is that she's a social worker, and the topic of her thesis boils down to the social worker's perception of the role they play in order to be the most helpful AND avoid what is called compassion fatigue--caring too much.

The terms my daughter uses to describe the roles professionals generally play when dealing with tough and numerous clients are that of expert, savior or facilitator. Most often compassion fatigue is caused in part by what role the helper perceives is theirs, plus how well whatever they do works in the end. Helpers can be:

Experts--someone with all the answers, here to give advice and see that things are done according to the expert view.
Saviors--someone who is there to save others; make everything better for those who believe.
Facilitators--someone who is there to help people help themselves find the way.

It can't be just me that sees a correlation between these roles for social workers and roles we assume with friends and family on any given day. When we play the expert we are bound to give everyone we know advice for how they should do this and that and how they should live their lives if they'll sit still long enough to hear it. When we are savior we are bound to give until it hurts. The only role that makes sense is that of facilitator--one who helps others figure out their own problems and solutions.

What does this have to do with change? Making change doesn't make sense unless it fits into the values of the one who's changing. The more time you spend on other people's lives, the less amount of time you have to spend on your own. No one is an expert in anyone else's life. No one can be our savior if we aren't able to save ourselves. The only logical and compassionate role we can all play is that of facilitator--walking alongside and letting others figure out their own lives.

What we get is more time to work on your own stuff. Too bad, though, other people's problems are so much easier and quicker to solve.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Keep your eye on finish line, and push

Every change requires some kind of discomfort. When it gets uncomfortable I want to bail. Like yesterday 25 minutes into my wait for the bus, shivering in the wind, thinking "I wish I would've brought the car." People were smoking around me, it was late and all I wanted to be was home. Then I remembered why I was waiting for the bus--trying to be more mindful of how much I consume in all areas of my life. Trying to make a change. The bus is new and a bit inconvenient, and it's an entitlement for me to be able to take off in my car at whim. However I gloated a bit as I deboarded, feeling smug I had taken the bus instead of driving my car alone.

At home we've committed to composting. It takes some set-up, but we've had the bin for some time, and the thing between us and composting was moving the bin six feet. Finally a beautiful Saturday, perfect for compost work, but as soon as we ran into the gaggy little worm-like things all packed like sardines in the center, we were ready to quit. Way less convenient than the disposal in the kitchen. Way harder to go out and dig in worms. Until you watch your garbage dwindle in half because of your bin!

I remember when my daughters played high school volleyball, both on state championship teams, the days they could muster up and push a little farther than they thought they could was the day they won. "Push," we used to yell. Keep your eye on the finish line, and push.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.