When Disruption Meets Laughter & Fun

I was so honored to be a guest on DisrupTV with my good friend Vala Afshar of Salesforce and Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research.  As to be expected, we had a great time talking blue lobsters, innovation, virtues, strategy and women in tech.  Take a look!

                   

Rush to Discover, Don't Rush to Solve!

http://www.jeshujohn.com/

Oh wow! A problem.... let's go solve it! It's our first reaction, right? It's human.  We see a problem and our instinct is to start fixing it, solving it.

What if, instead of rushing to solve it, we rushed to discover as much as we could about the problem - like, why is it a problem, why is that a problem, why, why, why?  What are people doing when this is a problem? Is it only a problem when they are doing that? Where is it a problem? Only there? When is it a problem? Only then? What is the weather when it's a problem? What mood were they in when it was a problem? See? You learn so much when you Rush to Discover first.  You learn what really matters and why.  And guess what? Then you can work with the people who have this problem together - to create solution(s) that will really make a difference - that will work when, how, where it's a problem.

Rush to Discover. Don’t rush to Solve!

So, next time you see a problem, stop, discover and learn.... 

Human Assets or Asses?

img.jpg

Yup, I said it and mean the double entendre. 

What company doesn’t say people are their greatest asset? How many companies really treat their employees like assets? Not as many, and less than we’d like to think.  Too many companies still treat employees like Asses –beasts of burden, tools for labor.  And then, managers* get surprised (duh!) when employees act like asses – non-caring beasts of burden and seemingly stupid, stubborn people.

Golden Rule: It’s a Rule, not an Exception!

How employees act and engage all depends on T – on how you Treat them.  Remember the golden rule? Guess what, it’s a rule, not an exception.  Try Treating everyone you encounter this week, especially your employees, as an asset.  You might see some Asses become Assets (even you?).

* Not leaders, cuz real leaders don’t treat their employees like asses.

 

 

How to Make Sure You’re Heard in a Difficult Conversation

I'm honored to host this excerpt from Amy Gallo's new book, HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work.  Amy is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and a wise woman. 

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How to Make Sure You’re Heard in a Difficult Conversation

Your words matter.

A difficult conversation has to be a two-way street. You’re unlikely to come to a resolution if you don’t hear the other person out. But equally important when addressing a conflict is getting your message across. So after you’ve thoroughly listened to your counterpart, increase the likelihood that they will see things your way by doing the following.

Own your perspective

If you feel mistreated, you may be tempted to launch into your account of the events: “I want to talk about how horribly you treated me in that meeting.” But that’s unlikely to go over well.

Instead, treat your opinion like what it is: your opinion. Start sentences with “I,” not “you.” Say “I’m annoyed that this project is six months behind schedule,” rather than “You’ve missed every deadline we’ve set.” This will help the other person see your perspective and understand that you’re not trying to blame him.

Explain exactly what is bothering you and follow up by identifying what you hope will happen. You might say, “I appreciate your ideas, but I’m finding it hard to hear them because throughout this process, I’ve felt as if you didn’t respect my ideas. That’s my perception. I’m not saying that it’s your intention. I’d like to clear the air so that we can continue to work together to make the project a success.”

Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, says that you should admit blame when appropriate. “It’s easy to demonize your colleague. But you’re almost certainly contributing to the dynamic in some way, as well,” Clark says. Admitting your faults will help set a tone of accountability for both of you, and your counterpart is more likely to own up to her missteps as well. If she doesn’t, and instead seizes on your confession and harps on it—“That’s exactly why we’re in this mess”—let it go.

Pay attention to your words

Sometimes, regardless of your good intentions, what you say can make the issue worse. Other times you might say the exact thing that helps the person go from boiling mad to cool as a cucumber. Here are some phrases that can help make sure you’re heard:

  • “Here’s what I’m thinking.”
  • “My perspective is based on the following assumptions . . .”
  • “I came to this conclusion because . . .”
  • “I’d love to hear your reaction to what I just said.”
  • “Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?
  • “Do you see the situation differently?”

There are some basic rules you can follow to keep from pushing your counterpart’s buttons. Of course you should avoid name-calling and finger-pointing.

Your language should be “simple, clear, direct, and neutral,” says Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. Don’t apologize for your feelings, either. The worst thing you can do “is to ask your counterpart to have sympathy for you,” she says. Don’t say things like “I feel so bad about saying this” or “This is really hard for me to do,” because it takes the focus away from the problem and toward your own neediness. While this can be hard, this language can make your counterpart feel obligated to focus on making you feel better before moving on.

Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, provides two additional rules when it comes to what you say:

  • Say “and,” not “but.” “When you need to disagree with someone, express your contrary opinion as ‘and.’ It’s not necessary for someone else to be wrong for you to be right,” she says. When you’re surprised to hear something your counterpart has said, don’t interject with a “But that’s not right!” Just add your perspective. Davey suggests something like this: “You think we need to leave room in the budget for a customer event, and I’m concerned that we need that money for employee training. What are our options?” This will engage your colleague in problem solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative.
  • Use hypotheticals. Being contradicted doesn’t feel very good, so don’t try to counter each of your counterpart’s arguments. Instead, says Davey, use hypothetical situations to get him imagining. “Imagining is the opposite of defending, so it gets the brain out of a rut,” she says. She offers this example: “I hear your concern about getting the right salespeople to pull off this campaign. If we could get the right people . . . what could the campaign look like?”

Watch your body language

A lot of people unconsciously convey nonverbal messages. Are you slumping your shoulders? Rolling your eyes? Fidgeting with your pen? During your conversation, pay attention to your facial expression, arms, legs, and entire body, and take stock of the overall impression you’re giving.

Do the same for your counterpart. If her nonverbal cues are sending a different message than what she’s articulating, ask about it. For example, you might say, “I hear you saying that you’re fine with this approach, but it looks as if maybe you still have some concerns. Is that right? Should we talk those through?”

Change the tenor of the conversation

Sometimes, despite your best intentions and all of the time you put into preparing for the conversation, things veer off course. You can’t demand that your counterpart hold the discussion exactly the way you want.

If things get heated, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, mentally pop out of the conversation as if you’re a fly on the wall, and objectively look at what’s happening. You might even describe to yourself (in your head) what’s happening: “He keeps returning to the fact that I yelled at his team yesterday.” “When I try to move the conversation away from what’s gone wrong to what we can do going forward, he keeps shifting it back.” Then state what you’re observing in a calm tone. “It looks as if whenever the sales numbers come up, you raise your voice.” Suggest a different approach: “If we put our heads together, we could probably come up with a way to move past this. Do you have any ideas?”

If it seems as if you’ve entered into a power struggle in which you’re no longer discussing the substance of your conflict but battling over who is right, step back and either try one of the phrases or questions from the “Pay Attention to Your Words” section above or talk about what’s not working. Say, “We seem to be getting locked into our positions. Could we return to our goals and see if we can brainstorm together some new ideas that might meet both our objectives?” Here are some other phrases that help to productively move the conversation along:

  • “You may be right, but I’d like to understand more.”
  • “I have a completely different perspective, but clearly you think this is unfair, so how can we fix this?”
  •  “I’m not sure how this connects to what we’ve been talking about. Can you help me make the connection?”
  • “I’d like to give my reaction to what you’ve said so far and see what you think.”
  • “This may be more my perception than yours, but when you said ‘X,’ I felt . . .”
  • “Is there anything I can say or do that might convince you to consider other options here?”

You can’t force your counterpart to appreciate, understand, or even just hear your perspective. But using the tactics above increases the chances. Getting your point across, coupled with hearing your colleague out, is a necessity if you want to reach a resolution.

This article was adapted from HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work and How to Make Sure You're Heard in a Difficult Conversation.

Amy Gallo is the author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, a how-to guidebook on handling conflict professionally and productively. She is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, where she writes and develops ideas for the web, magazine, and press. She covers a range of topics with a focus on managing conflict, managing yourself, leading people, and building your career. Having worked with dozens of organizations and written about workplace dynamics for over a decade, Amy is particularly interested in situations in which relationships fall apart and how to repair them. Before working as a writer and editor, she was a consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a strategy and organization consulting firm based in New York (later acquired by Booz & Company, which is now Strategy&). She is a graduate of Yale University and has a master’s from Brown University. 

Can You Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven?

Everyone says we must be data-driven.  I have trouble with that phrase, as discussed before.   Too often, we're making decisions based on the data presented...as is.  We're not asking the hard questions behind the data.

When I was at Bell Labs, we used to ask, "How much did you pay for that data?"  You can get data to say whatever you wanted depending on how it is presented and calculated, on what you show and what you don't.  

Before you start making decisions on the data in front of you, ask why it is the way it is, what's driving those numbers, what was the context, the constraints, the demographics, the sample size, the timeframe and frequency, etc. 

For instance, a company says it promotes more of its people than its competitors,  but perhaps it's 50yrs older? Perhaps its twice as large so the overall numbers are bigger? Perhaps it hasn't  in the past 5 yrs but given the number it had the previous 30, the overall number is still big.  Perhaps, perhaps - if you don't ask, you won't know and you could make decisions that are yes, based on the data in front of you, but not on the story behind that data. 

"Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven"

I propose we start being data-discerning, not data-driven.... you may be surprised at what new insights you discover! 

The High Art of Designing Scaffolding

By Ian Gonsher (republished with permission)

Vasari tells us, that in preparing to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a debate arose between Bramante and Michelangelo about how to design the scaffolding necessary to proceed with the project:

The pope ordered Bramante to build the scaffolding in order to paint it [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]; Bramante did so by piercing the ceiling and hanging everything from ropes; upon seeing this, Michelangelo asked Bramante how, once the painting had been completed, he would be able to fill the holes; and Bramante replied, ‘We’ll worry about that later’, and added that there was no other way to do it. Michelangelo then realized that either Bramante knew little about it or he was not much of a friend, and he went to the pope and told him that this scaffolding was unsatisfactory and that Bramante had not understood how to build it; in Bramante’s presence, the pope replied that he should build one in his own way. And so Michelangelo ordered scaffolding built on poles which did not touch the wall, the method for fitting out vaults he later taught to Bramante and others, and with which many fine works were executed.[1]

A modern variation of a similar design used in the recent restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.[2]

Often, the most difficult part of any creative process is just getting started; preparing for the tasks at hand by putting the necessary structures in place that will bring the project to fruition. But scaffolding of this kind not only gives structure to the process; it demands a consideration of the tools, knowledge, and resources that are necessary for crafting novel and uncommon things.

Scaffolding can take many different forms, but in the narrowest sense, it is a tool. Woodworkers, for example and by comparison, will often design jigs to position a part in relation to a tool in order to augment the function of that tool. Like the scaffolding that Vasari describes, which was designed to bring the body of the artist into close physical proximity with the work, a jig allows the craftsperson to adapt his/her tools to act on a given material in a precise, repeatable fashion. When designing an effective jig, consideration must be given to the path through which the bit or blade will pass, and how the piece is fixed, but it must also do so in a safe manner. The design of a jig can sometimes be as interesting as the design of the piece itself.

We can further extend our definition of scaffolding to include the skills and knowledge necessary for operating the tools that advance the project, as well as to the critical engagement that is fundamental to the creative process in general. In this way, scaffolding is a form of learning. It gives structure to what we know and how we know it. Every new project comes with a new set of questions, a new set of constraints, that require new skills, and new approaches for creative problem solving.

The words we use inform the ideas in play, and those ideas give form to what is produced. Developing new language is sometimes necessary for scaffolding our understanding and communicating those insights to others. Neologisms and provisional project titles, for example, create space where new ideas can emerge.

We live in an age of abundant knowledge, where so many resources are a mouse click away. This too is a kind of scaffolding; an augmented intelligence. What are the books, tutorials, and courses necessary for mastering the appropriate skills (or at least becoming familiar enough with them to satisfy the task at hand)? Who are the mentors, experts, and partners that can help us navigate challenges as they arise? What do we need to know to make what we want to make? These are all ways we scaffold our understanding of projects.

This kind of scaffolding is nested within another, even more extensive kind of scaffolding; that of the institutions in which we operate and with which we participate. The structures of institutions dictate how we relate to one another, how we collaborate, how resources are allocated, and the kinds of spaces available for projects. Every institution structures these relationships differently, each with its own affordances and constraints, each with its own culture and values. We tend to gravitate towards institutions with which we have an affinity, and whose culture and values we are sympathetic to. But sometimes we should question these assumptions and eschew the formulas they produce. We should attempt to expand the territory of possibility and the creative dialectic in play. Like Michelangelo in Vasari’s telling, sometimes we recognize that it is necessary to dismantle inadequate scaffolding in order to design a better one, one that is more appropriate to the project at hand.

There are many ways to solve a problem or ask a question. There are many ways to structure a project. It is for these reasons, and others, that in addition to thinking of scaffolding as something that occurs prior to the task at hand, we should also consider scaffolding as something that occurs throughout the creative process, and which might require edits and adaptations as that process moves forward. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in the awkward situation of filling holes in the ceiling.

[1] Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.  The unpainted portion where the scaffolding met the wall is still visible just above the lunettes, although it is not easily seen from the floor below. It is also noteworthy that the recent restoration employed a system not dissimilar to the one employed by Michelangelo.

[2] Boswell, Victor. “Sistine Chapel”. Boswell, Victor. National Geographic. December 1989.

The Hope & Serendipity of #RCUS

The highlight of the year - BIF.  It's the embodiment of my definition of innovation ~ the Network + Serendipity - through Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS). It's the place to renew your mind and soul - to see what can and is being done to positively change our world by people of all ages, ethnicities, experiences, industries, sectors, geographies.  This will be my 6th BIF and every year I think it can't get any better... and every year it does.  Why? Because the human desire, passion and spirit to do good is everlasting.  Despite the misery and pain we see in the world around us, there is always hope - hope being realized by action.  That's why I can't miss a BIF - it renews your hope in mankind.

The Hedgehogs' Dilemma

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is a metaphor for the problems we have developing relationships. Look around our professional and personal lives; examples are everywhere.  My friend and colleague, Ian Gonsher, uses design thinking to solve the dilemma with applications for humans of all ages.  I bet you can think of ways to make it apply to you – at work and elsewhere.

HedgeHog's Dilemma by Ian Gonsher

from

Mills-Scofield, LLC

Ian Gonsher does research and teaches at Brown University focused on the design process and creative practice, including Design Studio and Entrepreneurship Engineering Design projects in the School of Engineering and Designing Humanity-Centered Robots in Computer Science with Michael Littman where Legos are prototyping tools.  Ian was instrumental in the development and expansion of Brown Design Workshop and several cross-disciplinary projects spanning the humanities, sciences, Medical School and RISD such as The Creative Scholar’s Project and the Creative Mind Initiative.  Some of his very cool projects have been in Make Magazine, he’s been published in Harvard Business Review and is the co-founder of Critical Designs-Critical Futures on how design thinking and activism can spur social innovation.

3 Simple Words to Revolutionize the World

2.5 weeks til the magic of BIF2015.  I am blessed with the gift of my network and can't wait to see my students and clients and friends and friends-to-be. Thank you Nicha Ratana-Apiromyakij & Saul Kaplan for this honor from TIME magazine. 

"How many people end business meetings with an “I love you” and a hug? Venture capitalist and former AT&T Labs scientist Deb Mills-Scofield does.  To Mills-Scofield, to do business is to negotiate diverse personalities to get things done — and she has the gift for it. “The broader, deeper, and more diverse your network, the bigger the impact you can make on the world,” she says." Read on...

5 Reasons these 3 Steps Will Get You Those Top 4 Results

The Wizard of Oz © Turner Entertainment Co.

We love lists. If we do these 3 things, everything will be alright: our customers will shower us with accolades, our employees will ooze engagement and innovation and we will be profitable beyond belief. 

It doesn't work that way.  The path is not linear. It's not a set of prescribed turns to get to your destination. It's circuitous, it's emergent, and it requires thought.  So stop with the lists and start with the thinking...

If you want to lead, think... if you want to manage, keep reading those lists.

I Don't Know

Mike Cohea / Brown University

The freedom to ask questions and admit when you don't know is one we take for granted and our society tends to shun as a sign of weakness, yet it is how we learn, grow, create and have impact.  Michelle Bailhe's commencement address is one we need to read, re-read and live.  Please read this and be grateful for her generation that will help make this world better.  Thank you, Michelle.
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Our first week at Brown, 500 of us packed Salomon lecture hall for Introduction to Neuroscience. As the professors concluded their opening lecture, a student asked what seemed like a simple question: “Is it true we only use 10 percent of our brains?” Without hesitation, Professor Paradiso answered, “I don’t know.” Our professor, renowned neuroscientist, didn’t know. He said, “New research suggests we don’t really know what Salomon Hallpercent of our brains we use for neural processes like thinking. The field doesn’t know yet so I don’t know.”

The room went quiet. Students sat up straighter. Ears perked up. The only sound was of the mental gears in 500 Brown student minds — churning. I heard whispers of: “How could you measure that on a cellular level? Could you stain brain tissue or create a computer program?” Our collective curiosity galvanized us. Unimpressed by knowledge alone, by facts already discovered, we were ignited by what we didn’t know.

For the next four years, seeking out these “I don’t know” moments became our daily challenge, our intellectual regimen. Brown made our attraction to the unknown, the undiscovered, the unresolved — magnetic. Even before we arrived on campus, Brown dared us in our admissions essays to answer the question: What don’t you know? And our open curriculum is the University trusting in us saying “we don’t know every course you’ll need to make your impact on the world. Only you can discover that.” A Brown education is being challenged to discern exactly what you don’t know. This is Brown’s most distinguishing strength and its greatest adventure.

We probe visiting dignitaries, testing resolutions to global conflicts as if they could be solved Right There in the lecture hall. We cherish controversies yet unsettled, problems yet unresolved, doctrines long unchallenged. We don’t just embrace the unknown, we ask it out to fair-trade coffee with its enthusiastic consent. If author John Fowles is right that an answer is a form of death, saying “I don’t know” breathes life into our restless minds.

When we asked “whose stories are missing from the history of the civil rights movement?” Our “I don’t know” sent members of our class and faculty to Tougaloo Mississippi searching for silenced voices. When we asked “What was Brown’s relationship to slavery?” Our “I don’t know” launched investigations that rewrote our university’s history. “Does the Higgs Boson exist?” The curiosity of Brown physicists hurls them into experiments at CERN’s particle accelerator week after week after week. Apparently, people at CERN say “I don’t know” a lot.

But beyond the Brown bubble, it can be hard to say “I don’t know.” In our Information Age, we’re rewarded for absorbing knowledge, for being excellent sponges. We’re conditioned to fear moments when we don’t know, moments of vulnerability. Last summer, I worked for a non-profit law firm. One client was facing deportation back to Ghana but required thrice weekly dialysis for kidney failure. Dialysis in Ghana is scarce and expensive, but we needed proof that deporting her was tantamount to a death sentence. I suggested a Ghanaian doctor’s testimony to the lack of access. “Great,” said my boss, “how can we get that?” “I don’t know, but I will find out.” I started by contacting Brown professors who had done field work in Ghana. They directed me to the largest hospital. And then a friend in the Class of 2015, Yao Lui, was visiting Ghana with a Brown-founded medical nonprofit. He directed me to another member of our class, Nia Campinha-Bacote, who was conducting research at that main hospital. She then tracked down the chief dialysis physician, got her testimony and sent it back to us — across the Atlantic — for our client’s case. I was in awe of the power of the Brown community operating not just beyond these gates, but half-way around the world. “I don’t know” wasn’t a dead end in the conversation. It was a beginning.

But “I don’t know” is not only the first step on the path to discovery. It’s also a critical step on the path to human connection. Researchers have demonstrated the power of unconscious bias. When we meet someone new, we’re conditioned to think we already know them. To borrow Nietzsche’s term, there is no “immaculate perception.” Socially-constructed stereotypes seep into our subconscious. They sow assumptions about our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. Preconceptions and misconceptions about race, class, gender, language, religion, sexuality, nationality and ability profoundly shape our world. They structure our institutions and delimit our possibilities. Their reverberations are felt from France to Ferguson, from Birmingham to Baghdad, from Baltimore to Brown.

Bias is dangerous precisely because it is false knowledge. Because the truth is we don’tknow. We cannot know how someone thinks from a weak data set of appearances and social constructions. We as Humans are too Complex, too Dynamic, too Surprising, and too Magnificent. To know what someone thinks, we have to ask them what they think. This is the first step toward what President Paxson calls “transformative conversation.” Throughout our time at Brown, we’ve thrown ourselves into transformative conversations that have been both uncomfortable and powerful. We’ve used what we’ve learned from each other to strengthen our academic and personal lives. “I don’t know” is thus not only an intellectual mantra, it’s also a project of humanization.

Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston wrote “there are years that ask questions, and there are years that answer them.” Even though she went to Columbia, she’s right. This is a year that asks questions. Some of them personal: Where will we take our lives after graduation? How will we stay connected to the life-long friends and mentors that we’ve made here? Some questions are vast: How will we combat climate change and end mass incarceration? How will we alleviate income inequality and improve education? And some of our questions are deeply reflective: Am I enough? Am I brave enough to confront my own biases? Am I driven enough to persevere in solving the issues I care about?

These questions push us into uncomfortable places. To many of them, our answer may be — today and often — “I don’t know.” But Brown has given us every tool and every reason to Venture Boldly into our discomfort. This is how we’ve grown. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to take no observation, no dominant narrative, no established truth at face value. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to hold self-evident only that nothing is self-evident. Brown has shown us that the very engine of discovery and insight, of progress and justice, of our future and the world's is our fearless, relentless questioning. This is our greatest power. Brown has taught us that in this community, within these gates and far beyond, “I don’t know” merely means “I don’t know yet.

Michelle Bailhe recently graduated from Brown University with honors as a Human Biology concentrator focusing on health disparities in the US prison system and criminal justice-involved populations. She is a recipient of the Arthur H. Joslin Award for service to the Brown University community and the Gaspee Prize for top scholarship in American history in her class. Bailhe is an Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow through the Liman program at Yale Law School and worked with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest on health justice legal issues and community organizing. She is also an avid dancer and activist, having organized a March for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island. A California native, she will move to New York to work for McKinsey & Company and plans to pursue a career in public service.

The Upside of Impracticality: Or Why I Left Congress for Brooklyn

Caitie Whelan recently gave up the prestigious job of a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress to move to Brooklyn, NJ and write. Ayup! (Yes, she hails from the great state of Maine).  Why? She wanted to make a dent in the universe (something she's done before). Read on.  Be inspired. Think, ponder... and go make a dent.
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This is not a practical story.

Three months ago, I had a great job as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress. I had a great boss, a great dental plan, and a great city to call home. But something wasn’t great. And it came down to three words:

Doubt. Fear. Convention.

I saw too many people deflated by doubt, fear, and convention. Qualitative data was everywhere: deferring dreams for safe jobs, working for the weekend, resisting risk and reinvention. In short, too many of us felt too stuck, too small to  - as Steve Jobs said - “put a dent in the universe.” It was as present in DC as it was in Delhi or Detroit.

I know what it’s like to feel trapped and tiny. I also know that with the big challenges our world holds, we can't afford for people to play it small.  

I believe in many things: public libraries, underdogs, finding blue lobsters. Above all, I believe in the power of one person to make a dent. I’d seen that power undercut; I couldn’t respect my beliefs and not do something about it.

Policy’s one way to effect change, but I knew it wasn’t where I could be most effective. I liked writing and storytelling. I hadn’t done much of either. But I figured raw passion was a pretty good foundation to build from

I also figured since I had a lot to learn, I should surround myself with masterclass writers and creators. So, in March, I left my great job, my great dental plan, and my great city and I moved to Brooklyn to write, build a website, and make my dent in the universe.

In April, I launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking stories and great ideas from all over to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. All in a two-minute read.

I’m 30. I’ve never written for a living, managed a website, or lived in Brooklyn. Noah Webster would have good reason to put this under the definition of ‘impractical.’

Why ditch practicality? Three reasons.

1.  I believe in it.

Our world is shot through with pain.

Chad is short on food. The Middle East is short on stability. California is short on water. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. But we don’t have all hands

Many of our hands are tied up, doubting that we matter, fearing that we’ll fall short, or convention telling us to stay on script. It’s deflating enough to make us forget what we’re capable of.

The Lightning Notes is my reminder that doubt, fear, and convention may be big, but we are bigger. And we are made of tougher, more impactful stuff.

I believe in that.

2. Respect.

I’m a white belt again.

I could fall on my face, which would hurt. But not as much as never going in the ring. My gut was hollering, “Go for it.” When our gut hollers, that deserves respect.

And so do the people we serve

As Deb says, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. The Lightning Notes has no ads or paywalls. I wouldn’t want that as a reader; it doesn’t feel respectful for me to force it on another reader. Instead, I ask people to donate.

There’s plenty of free content out there. Why should people donate

They don’t have to. Yet, some already have. If 1,000 people give $8 a month, after Paypal fees and taxes, The Lightning Notes is financially viable. I’m giving myself one year to make it happen; I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Is there a faster way to make money? Yup. But I’m not doing this to be fast.

I’m doing this to respect that untamed part of myself that - despite doubt, fear, and convention -  hollered, “Go for it.”

And I’m doing this out of respect for the untamed part in each of us that’s hungry to contribute, to be a part of something bigger than we are, to put a dent in the universe.

3. Risk.

When I watched the Kentucky Derby, there was a moment where American Pharoah and Firing Line were neck and neck. And I thought to myself, “I know that feeling: it’s exactly where my excitement and fear are.” Such is the experience of risk.

But life’s inherently risky. Why not fill it with the risks, as Deb says, we believe in? I don’t want to take a bunch of dreams to my grave. So, I’m taking this one to the streets.

This is not a practical story. But neither is a world where doubt, fear, and convention are writing the narrative.

Let’s rewrite the narrative. Let’s live all the life we have in us to live. Let’s make our dent.

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. Prior to the Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and is co-founder/chair of the Salt Alumni Board. She is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. Follow The Lightening Notes on twitter.

A Biologist, Computer Scientist & Historian walk into a....

It is through eclectic, diverse, and seemingly random relationships, interactions and friendships that we learn and then change the world.  Andrew Kaplan eloquently sums this up in his post below he wrote right before graduation.  So much of our learning is from each other and I have learned so much from him over the past 3 years. Thank you, Andrew.
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To an old house on Angell Street*

As I sit writing this at my kitchen table, a housemate walks into the room and sits down next to me.

“How do you define religion?” he asks as he combs his unruly left sideburn with bunched fingers.

“What?” I respond.

“Just answer the question.”

I live in an old Rhode Island house on Angell Street with five other seniors. Our floors are sinking and our walls are thin; an open floor plan helps a whisper from the basement be heard in the third-floor attic. The house smelled of fresh paint the day I moved in.

Among my housemates are a neuroscientist, a biologist, a philosopher, a computer scientist and a historian. Or, looking at them another way, they are a dancer, a drummer, a basketball player, a teacher and a founder. And they are the blood pumping through the veins of this house, imbuing it with life.

Because I am about to graduate, people often ask me to describe my time at Brown. They expect tales of hallowed professors pronouncing truths in packed lecture halls. They expect memories of heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life on the quiet greens where foliage helps you spin nascent life philosophies into the early mornings. They expect stories of finding romance in the dining hall and losing it into the wild night. And I’ve had my fair share of those experiences.

But the old house on Angell and the people who live in it symbolize what has made my Brown experience unique. One of the greatest pleasures of the past four years has been discovering things I never thought I would simply by being around people who are so infectiously enthusiastic about topics I never thought I’d learn about.

When I think about my time at Brown, I think about one of my housemates working on a computer science project, describing the mystery of the deep web and the power of torrent — and blowing my mind in the process. Or when another inspired me to take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” by sketching out an action potential’s effect on the nervous system. Or when yet another sat down next to me and asked me to define religion, prompted by a class project on religious law.

This is for them and for what they represent. And this is to thank the countless Brown students with deep-set passions who have passed in and out of my life, many of whom I consider my friends. Watching a fellow Brunonian’s eyes dance with excitement when discussing a subject they love is a truly special experience, one that makes this place so exceptional.

So here’s to a group of housemates brought together by a university that cultivates passions ranging from the microscopic to the universal to form a microcosm of my Brown experience as a whole. Here’s to falling down an intellectual rabbit hole and emerging hours later with a better understanding of what drives my fellow classmates. And here’s to acknowledging one of the reasons why Brown is so special: Each member of the Brown community has the ability to awaken that same curiosity and passion in you.

Lastly, thank you to the place I associate with that type of enthusiastic learning: an old house on Angell Street with an open floor plan and sinking floors.

Andrew just graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science. He was a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action, which he co-founded with Sam Gilman. Andrew is moving back to NYC joining the Urban Fellows Program to pursue his passion for public service, especially for the homeless.

*Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald, May 21, 2015 and republished with permission by the author.

Why Language Matters for Everything

How many languages do you speak? Only 7% of American college kids study a language.  Think this is a problem? It is a huge socio-economic-global-geopolitical-security one!  Amelia Friedman didn't set out to start a business learning languages from her peers - like Bengali, Thai, Tamil... but she has.  We need to communicate like never before - and language is how.  So be a part of the solution - try learning a language and give to Student Language Exchange to make sure our next generation does. 

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em·pa·thy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Building empathy has been a priority among parents and educators for decades. Why? If the next generation of leaders cares for others in their community and across the world, they just might be able to make one another’s lives better.

More recently, empathy has become a priority for business leaders. In fact, entrepreneurs regularly use empathy maps when trying to understand their target customer. Empathy has become part of an entrepreneur’s tool belt, helping them rise above the competition.

There is debate about whether empathy is something that can be taught. I believe we can teach empathy by listening to and learning from people who are different from us. By asking questions. By meeting others on their level. By immersing ourselves in another culture.

In other words: We can build empathy by learning another language.

lan·guage (n): the system of communication used by a particular community or country

Language is so much more than a collection of words and rules for the order in which they should be spoken. It includes all aspects of communication: the way you should greet someone when they’re in mourning, the requirement that a gift need be refused three times before accepted, or the importance of covering one’s hair when in public— that is all a part of language.

A language is a doorway into another culture; it paves the road toward empathy.

ex·change (n): an act of giving one thing and receiving another in return

I didn’t originally found the Student Language Exchange with the intention of changing the world. The first courses we ran were a reflection of my curiosity and the curiosity of students around me. We just wanted to learn from one another’s experiences, so we ran semester-long courses where our peers could share their languages and cultures.

We came to understand dowry practices in Kenya, limitations of French language in Haiti and the aftereffects of English colonialism in Calcutta. We gifted one another the knowledge that we had gleaned in the first 20 years of our lives. And we learned to listen, ask questions, and empathize.

My formal coursework in language didn’t always allow me to really understand the people that spoke it, and the communities I could learn about at my university were limited, mostly to those of Europe.

At last count, there were 197,757 U.S. college students studying French and 64 studying Bengali. Globally, there are 193 million people who speak Bengali and only 75 million who speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan tells us that 95% of all language enrollments are in a Western language.

We tend to learn about cultures that are similar to our own. But this is holding us back. It keeps us from building empathy, from pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and from building bridges between peoples.

Our world isn’t perfect. Tragedies, whether man-made as in the case of the Rohingya Crisis or natural in the case of the Nepal earthquakes, plague our global society. We can’t be perfect either, but we can strive to empathize with those affected and respectfully communicate with people in these regions. Through open communication—and through connecting our privilege with their opportunity—we can do our part to make the world a little bit better.

In our SLE courses, students learn to think differently; they learn about other languages and cultures so that they can better understand different people.

I may not have originally intended to build a social enterprise, but somewhere along the way we began to see the impact we were having on our students and the communities they touched.

Today, only 7% of American college students are studying a language. Few Americans—our next-generation leaders—take the time to learn about a new culture and to build the skills they need to communicate with its stakeholders. If we can push that needle a little further to the right, we can make an immense impact.

And as these students will tell you, we already well on our way. Will you join us?

 

Amelia Friedman founded the Student Language Exchange while a student at Brown University (’14). An active advocate of global engagement, she has written about language education for the Atlantic, USA Today, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. She is the product of a marriage between a Jew from Maryland and a Catholic from Montevideo, Uruguay that demonstrate the importance of empathy every day. Amelia is a current Halcyon fellow living in Washington, DC.

In full disclosure, I have been Amelia's mentor since her time at Brown and am on the board of SLE, with great pride and admiration for her work.

Why CEOs have Liberal Arts Degrees

Some of today's top CEOs were history, political science, sociology, chinese and music majors in college. They are leading global airline, chemical, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and financial companies, among others. There are very practical reasons for a Liberal Arts degree, and Samanee Mahbub (Brown '18) thinks the reasons are crystal clear.  Let's hear it from her. 
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A “Practical” Liberal Arts Degree

“Samanee, what on earth are you going to do with a history degree? I’m not sending you to college to become a historian.”

Those were the words my mother told me when I mentioned the idea of switching from the ever so pragmatic economics major to my newfound passion in studying the past. Not exactly resounding support.

As a college student in this technological era, I’ve felt the constant burden of having to pursue a “practical” degree. My uncle pushes engineering. My brother insists I take computer science. My dad says if I don’t like STEM, then economics is the best option for a woman who wants to pursue business. Yet my mind doesn’t light up the same way in microeconomics as it does learning about the overlapping women’s movement, anti-war movement and civil rights movements of the 1960s.  

Educating myself about the fall of the Roman Empire may not provide direct, transferable skills to the corporate office, the quirky startup, or any particular field of work. But I argue it gives me something even better: critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills. Quite the buzzword these days. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines it as an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” I have a much simpler and arguably, more relevant definition: the ability to rationally use a mental toolkit to analyze a situation with which one might not have had previous experience.

History provides me with this mental toolkit. Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of authors of primary sources, understand biases present within my readings and even my professor, observe the tone of speakers in context to their audience, and seek out further information to support the claims I make when I write my history papers. Now let me change some of the words in this paragraph and show you how my history major will prepare me for the business world.

Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of [investors who want to pursue a particular M&A deal], understand biases present within [reports that do not recognize key factors that affect a company’s growth], observe the tone of my [interviewer] in context [of my interview], and seek out further information to support the claims I make when [I recommend a company to diversify their revenue streams in order to save their bottom line].

The situations I study in history are different, but as seen above, the skills used are the same. History, philosophy, sociology, or any liberal arts degree will not prevent me from pursuing a career in business. These disciplines provide me with a tool kit to navigate any situation I am presented, and in my opinion, make me a better employee.

So I’m going to take that Shakespeare class (or maybe not), I will learn about Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, and I’m going to delve further into Middle Eastern history. These are my passions. Even though they don’t directly align with my career aspirations, they will not take me out of the game. A career advisor once told me that those who pursue liberal arts majors and enter finance, consulting or technology are not the exceptions. They are the norm.

Therefore, I urge everyone who loves the liberal arts to pursue their passion. These pursuits are not lost in a world where STEM is rising. You will succeed because of the thinking skills you’ve acquired. And if you’re still not convinced, just remember, the CEO of Goldman Sachs is a government major.

Samanee Mahbub is originally from Bangladesh but has explored over 19 countries.  She's dreams of leading her country out of poverty.  While in high school, she started a 50-student organization supporting Acid Survivors Foundation to help rehabilitate burn survivors of acid attacks.  She is now the core programming director for the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Head of Design for The Intercollegiate Finance Journal.  She's spending the summer in Dhaka doing microfinance. 

If You Can't Deal with Conflict, Can You Lead?

Dan Rockwell, also known as Leadershipfreak, writes a daily blog that is simply astounding with wisdom and insight - you must sign up! With his permission, I'm reposting a rather critical one that all leaders must read and address.  When we don't deal with conflict, we inflict great damage on our organization.  Here's how to address it. Thank you Dan, for letting me repost! 
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12 WAYS TO OVERCOME FEAR AND CONFRONT LIKE A MASTER

March 7, 2015

Excellence requires confrontation.

Leaders who can’t confront:

  1. Live with nagging frustration.
  2. Fall below their potential.
  3. Lead unremarkable organizations.

4 reasons you avoid confrontation:

  1. Self interest. What if they get upset with you?
  2. False compassion. Real compassion confronts. False compassion avoids.
  3. Beliefs that confrontation is cruel. If confrontation isn’t helpful, don’t do it.
  4. Concern you won’t confront well.

12 ways to overcome fear and confront like a master:

  1. Believe in the ability of others. Protecting people prolongs weakness.
  2. Commit to serve others and make things better. Stress decreases the more you focus on serving others and bringing value.
  3. Reflect on past successes and failures, before confrontation. What worked? What didn’t work in the past? Confront your own failures or you’ll repeat them.
  4. Define what you want, but don’t practice (over-rehearse) what you say. Too much rehearsal makes you sound fake.
  5. Expand perspective. Pain limits perspective. All you think about is the toothache. Remember the big picture.
  6. Develop alternatives and chose one. Don’t look for “the” way. Find “a” way.
  7. Agree on issues. Confrontation means bringing up issues someone hasn’t acknowledged.
  8. Respond to defensiveness by asking, “What am I missing?”
  9. Use their language. One of the most challenging things I’ve heard was a simple question that contained my own words. I mentioned something I’d like to do, but had put on the back burner. He asked, “How could you move this to the front burner?” I immediately felt responsibility.
  10. Limit scope. “Everyone feels this way,” expands issues. “Here’s what I need from you,” narrows conversations to the immediate realm of control.
  11. Focus on what matters. Leaders who argue insignificant points stall progress. Ego needs to win all the time.
  12. Build relationships that withstand confrontation. How would you treat teammates today, if you knew confrontation was coming next month?

 How might leaders confront like pros?