Changes Afoot

I’m working on a new focus and format for this site.   I’ll be doing a “soft launch” and then announcing on Twitter once I have enough content to share.

My earlier blogging experience taught me that I was interpreting the “Publish” button as a “Perfection” button.  Running your work through a perfection filter is a sure way to guarantee doubt, procrastination, analysis paralysis, and meager output. Going forward my goal is to

  • embrace imperfect content,
  • track what works, and
  • build on what I learn.

The whole shebang is a prototype.

Prototypes are built to fail.

Prototypes are built for improvement. 

When we live afraid to fail, we don’t take risks. We don’t bring our entire selves to the table—so we end up failing before we even begin. Let’s stop worrying: What if I fail? Instead, let’s promise ourselves: When I fail, I’ll stick around.  -Abby Wambach

This prototype is worth me failing and sticking around for.


My hiking feet relaxing beside a waterfall in New Hampshire. 





Four Dollars and a Tweet

Last Sunday as I was waiting for the water to boil for my cream of wheat I decided to glance at Twitter.

I came across a tweet from New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof about this opinion piece on the refugee crisis in Europe.  He admonished, “If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant”.

A lot of us do see ourselves when we see others’ suffering.  That’s what empathy is: I hurt and you hurt with me.  It’s a biological response.  We can’t help but hurt at the sight of so much loss and trauma.

We don’t want to hurt. It may feel easier to turn away especially when there are so people needing help.   “They’re so far away,” we think.   What can one person do?  We protect ourselves by closing off and shutting down. With the constant barrage of suffering that comes at us through the media we get a lot of practice shutting down.

Kristof reminds us not to shut down.

After reading and retweeting the story, I scrolled down on my Twitter feed. This is what I saw:

Four dollars


Who would think fast food chicken nuggets is a better way to spend $4 than donating to help the refugees!?   No one, of course. But that’s not the choice we have before us each day.  Our daily choices are a lot more complicated and unconscious than that.

I became furious. Furious at chicken nuggets, french fries, and all their retweets. Furious at frivolous spending when there are people in real need.  I could think of 100 better uses for $4 than buying fast food!  (Empathy turned to anger and disgust.)

But I wasn’t angry at chicken nuggets or french fries or fast food.

I was angry at myself.  How many times have I spent $4 frivolously? I don’t know, but I’m sure it was enough times to make a handsome donation to UNHCR or any number of other charities.

I’m fortunate that I can be occasionally careless at the $4 level. We found nearly $4 under the mats last time we cleaned out the car.   Even though our family rarely eats fast food I couldn’t be sure our annual spending to help others was greater than our fast food expenditures.   Ouch again!  It seemed wrong, out of line with our values, and entirely within my ability to change.   (Enter compassion.)

Compassion, the desire to turn empathy into action that relieves suffering, is a complex process that science is only beginning understand.   While the compassionate response is complicated, strengthening  our capacity for compassion through deliberate training is straightforward.   Strengthening compassion allows me to feel my friend’s pain and deliberately put my attention and energy towards wishing her joy and for her suffering to be relieved.  Practicing compassion helps us no longer feel helpless. It’s a practice I do often, especially when I am not sure how else I can help a situation.

Sending compassion is a good start.  I’d received a wake-up call from the Twitterverse.  I was compelled to do something with more impact than sending compassion and more enduring than a donation.

How could I turn this Sunday morning awakening into a new practice for myself?  More importantly, how could I do a better job of making generosity a routine practice for our daughter?  Giving benefits the giver and the receiver.  Even giving small amounts can increase happiness.  I want her to experience that. Then it came to me:  The Lobster Fund!

What is The Lobster Fund?

The Lobster Fund is an imaginary piggy bank invented one day when our daughter (I’ll call her “Ladybug”),  found a coin on the floor and handed it to her dad.  She was at an age where we saw all coins more as choking hazards than currency.  “I’ll put it in the Lobster Fund”, he said, explaining that with enough coins we could buy a lobster.  Even though we live in Maine, lobster is reserved for special occasions and sharing with visitors.  We all love lobster. It stuck. Since then any time Ladybug finds a coin, she brings it to us for the Lobster Fund.  The coins usually wind up on a desk or in a pocket. The money we found on the bottom of the car was in a pile on the mantel.

I asked Ladybug what she thought about making the Lobster Fund real.  She could keep half the money she collected and give the other half to kids who needed help.   In the kitchen we’d previously set aside a container to be repurposed but hadn’t found a use for it  yet.   I washed it and told Ladybug we’d decorate it for the Lobster Fund when it dried.

A week passed, but I didn’t forget about our plan.

Today the Lobster Fund is real. The first contribution was the pile of coins on the mantel.  I took a box of coins out of my closet and put it on my desk for my own small offerings.  A few coins here and a few dollars there will add up.  I look forward to seeing how much we save.  I’ve already chosen one local and one international charity to receive the money I save.  Ladybug will get to choose where to donate her Lobster Fund money when she fills the container.

As she deposited the first coins I asked Ladybug how we would spend the money in the Lobster Fund she said, “It’s for kids for who don’t have things”.

I had to remind her that she gets to keep half of what she saves, but not that it was almost time to watch the Green Bay Packers.

The Lobster Fund, complete with glitter embellishments.

The Lobster Fund, complete with glitter embellishments.


Learning from Vacation…about Work

The first two weeks of August my family went on a camping road trip from our home in Maine to my brother-in-law’s wedding near San Diego.  It was the first two week vacation I’d  taken in at least five years.  It won’t be that long before I do it again.

Here are are a few lessons I learned  (or was reminded of ) while on the road.

You see differently close up and open.

I’ve come to think of myself as a homebody because I spend so much time in and around my house.  I am NOT a homebody!  I’m an introvert who telecommutes.  I love new experiences, traveling, and being with people.   Attending to inner and outer worlds is important for balance.   Daily routines need shaking up with adventure.

There’s so much adventure to be had out there, in the real world, without an internet connection or device.  In 15 days we  drove 7,463 miles and were in 24 states.  Though we had a destination every day, we were totally open to the experiences of the road- good and bad.  We had our share of both. Getting out of “my” world helped me see the rest of it more clearly.  It’s all so beautiful and interconnected.

We saw purple clouds in Pennsylvania and a brush fire in Indiana.  We toured Mount Rushmore with hundreds of bikers and traded  stories with a couple from Quebec. I saw bathroom with graffiti that said, “You’re Beautiful. Love Yourself”, and a road sign to No Name Rest Area.  Our car was surrounded by sheep in Wyoming and corn and clouds in Minnesota.    We saw prairie dogs, elk, and fireflies.  My eyes welled with tears at the ancient majesty of the Rocky Mountains and the ecological misery left by mining operations.   We camped in Kentucky!

A few bits of beauty

A few bits of beauty

My favorite place is outside.

I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of gal.  I grew up camping, hiking, cycling, and playing in the dirt. For the better part of 2 weeks we slept in our tent with the top off, feeling the breeze and watching the stars. Being close to nature brings me closer to myself.  I  forget this because there so many other “important things” needing my attention indoors.  Returning to indoor life was unexpectedly difficult.  I had to challenge my own assumptions and habits about being inside.  With the help of extension cords, the deck is a viable morning office. Lunch–take it outside, maybe have a picnic. Card games, board games, puzzles, reading, crochet- all possible outside.   It feels good to end the day by stepping outside, taking a deep breath and saying good night to the stars. Try it!

All the "entertainment" I need.

All the “entertainment” I need, especially those sheep.

Less stuff brings more ease.

In two weeks we camped, visited family, and attended a destination wedding at a fancy-schmancy resort.  Everything we needed for these diverse experiences fit in the back of our small car. Our house was a tent and the “kitchen” fit in a milk crate.

We ate simply and packed healthy snacks. Though we had some fast food,  we usually found  grocery stores for supplies, making sandwiches for lunch and dinner in camp. Our camp dinners were delicious: spaghetti and meat balls, brats on the grill,  shrimp gnocchi. (OK, once the day went horribly wrong and we had to choke down canned “Chinese” “food” in the dark.  The dark was a blessing.  Let’s not speak of this again. )

One small duffle bag and carry-on sized  suit case carried clothes my daughter and I. We still had more than we needed. I enjoy having  limited clothing options when we camp and have since gutted my closet.   This feels good.

I use research to help people.

I brought only three books and didn’t open any of them the first week of the journey.  The second week (on my birthday, actually), I read a decidedly work-related book.  I kept track of every instance where the authors identified the need for more research, a gap in knowledge, or an opportunity to translate research from one setting to another.  Highlight after highlight my excitement grew.

After finishing a book about personal talents and passions that I’d started and stopped months ago, something occurred to me.   Every job I’ve ever loved has involved research. Much as I love conducting research and learning about new theories and approaches,  generating new knowledge is not enough.  Research should help people.   This is why I connect so strongly to the applied social sciences and scholar/practitioner professions.  Action researchers, evaluators, designers, social workers, nurses, writers, teachers, librarians. We all use research to help people.  So simple and obvious. It felt profound at the time. Perhaps it was from spending so much time at elevation.

Being away from my job for two weeks reminded me that there are any number of work related experiences that would serve others and bring me joy.  I don’t have do this work,  in this way,  in this organization.  As it happens, I enjoy what I do, how I do it, and the people I work with.  They’re bright and wise and thoughtful and creative  and daring and caring and dedicated and fun. We help brilliant people find new ideas, work together, and take risks.  My job is to help us do that better.

It’s an adventure worth coming back for.

By posting this picture I do not in any way condone drawing on rocks, even to make a smiley face.

By posting this picture I do not in any way condone drawing on rocks, even to make a smiley face.

What did you learn on your summer vacation?

I’m guilty

I’m guilty.

I’m guilty of abandoning my blog.

I’m guilty of making a bigger deal out of blogging than is necessary.

I’m guilty of distraction by shiny objects and moving stories.

I’m guilty of over-thinking and under-acting, of distancing rather than diving in.

I’m guilty of information gluttony and not being generous enough with sharing what I love, and learn, and discover.

I’m guilty of being too hard on myself.

No one wants to feel guilty, especially about a self-imposed activity that is supposed to be fun.

So, I’m going to try a new approach. I’ve developed a few simple rules about blogging for myself to follow and we’ll see if they help.

Simple Rules for Blogging (v1)

Lighten up.

Share what sparks.

Keep it short.

Express excitement.

Engage authentically.

Practice balance (not too loose, not too tight).

Do you have simple rules for blogging or other behaviors? What are they? How did you create them?

Wheels by AEHM

Wheels by AEHM

What’s your posture?

Have you ever felt total safety revealing your heart to strangers?


Me either.

At least not until I took what felt like a daring leap and joined a coaching circle through U.Lab.

The coaching circles are groups of 4-5 people who meet weekly for 75 minutes.  Each week a different person presents a case that is current, concrete and important.  The case giver is a key player in a scenario that can be explained in 15 minutes. And, if addressed, the case clinic can make a big difference to the case giver moving forward.  While one person gives the case, the others listen deeply.   Otto Scharmer calls this kind of listening, Level 4 listening.  The intention is to connect with other person and listen so deeply that you (and maybe the other person) are transformed by the experience.


CC License by the Presencing Institute - Otto Scharmer

CC License by the Presencing Institute – Otto Scharmer

In the video introducing the case clinic process, Scharmer describes the two ways we could present our case.  One way is the typical way we ask for  feedback in a professional setting.  The other is the REAL case. Presenting a REAL challenge puts us “one down” in a position of vulnerability (see video about 2:44-3:00 for how this looks).  THAT is the case clinic posture.  THAT is serious.

We were given a handout to on the process, a way to connect with each other through the Presencing Institute site and meet via Google Hangout. The basic structure is: 15 minutes for case presentation, a few minutes for clarifying questions and then 3 minutes of silence. Following the silence each of the coaches offer the images, thoughts, feelings and gestures that arose for them while listening to the case.  Then there is time for generative dialogue and NOT trying to fix/solve the problem.  The case giver then reflects on his/her situation and next steps going forward. The case clinic closes with each person expressing gratitude others and taking a few minutes to capture learning points.

Simple, right?

This has been a profound experience for the women in my circle. We didn’t know each other before the course.  We come from different countries,  backgrounds and professions (a coach, a scientist, a consultant, and me, an evaluator).  And every one of us presented a case from the heart.  I’ve learned about these women and learned to see myself in new ways through their eyes. We’ve decided to keep meeting even after the official end of U.Lab.

The vulnerable posture is NOT the one we bring to our lives most of the time, but I believe it is the one we need.  We get different results when we talk about REAL issues as REAL people, not the people we think we should be, but the confused, complicated people we are.

I’d like more opportunities for conversations like this and I’m rather certain I’m not alone.  Goodness knows we don’t need any more conversations about the cold and snow.

What do you think?  Would a structure like this work for conversations between friends, colleagues, family members, stakeholders?  Would you be willing to try it?




Four Other Valentine’s Day Gifts

Not everyone goes in for the unaffordable expectation version of Valentine’s Day.  Love is worth celebrating.   You don’t need a romantic partner or Scrooge McDuck’s money bin to spread Valentine’s Day love.

1. Give the gift of  your attention.

There’s a freedom that comes from conscious, wholehearted listening.  By deeply listening, we free ourselves from the constant chatter in our minds and allow another person to feel the experience of being truly seen and heard. I have been submitting a listening self-assessment each day for the past few weeks as part of my ULab homework.  Evaluators say, “What gets measured gets done”.  In this case, “What gets measured gets noticed”. Paying attention to listening has been a gift to myself and those around me.  Try it.

2. Start a conversation on the topic of love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The Fetzer Institute created a set of 52 Love, Compassion and Forgiveness Cards.  You can download them for free.     Each card has a quote on one side and a conversation point and an idea for action on the other.

A Love card quote says:

There is an old South African proverb that says the reason two antelope walk together is so that one can blow the dust from the other’s eyes. This sort of friendship enables joy.  Mark Nepo

A Forgiveness card poses the questions:

What role does empathy play in forgiveness? When have you been able to put yourself in anther’s shoes.

The associated action suggests, “Bring to mind a person who has hurt or offended you. Ask yourself: What qualities does this person possess that I would like to eliminate in myself”?

3. Consider sharing a crowd-sourced mindfulness-based Valentine.

Parallax Press engaged their readers to create 13 Zen inspired Valentine’s.  My favorites are #7 and #12.

 4. Tweet some love to your favorite non-profit organization or charity using the hashtag #npValentine.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has images available on their Facebook page you can tweet or email.   The Twitter feed will make you smile.   As a bonus, the Chronicle has an opinion piece by Jennifer and Peter Buffett about the place of love and compassion in philanthropy.  The Buffets say:

In a world in which everything is a commodity, we’re going to try to turn money into love. Jennifer and Peter Buffett

I sincerely hope they do. Every day people can do this too.  My friend Jennifer Iacovelli is on a mission to turn all of us into philanthropists. You can also visit ServiceSpace and explore the gift economy in action.

How are you going to spread love in the world this Valentine’s Day?

Chocolate is a totally acceptable answer. 🙂

Seven Silence Strategies

Tomorrow at 9am Eastern, ULab participants are joining in a collective moment of stillness. The intention is to reconnect to the global community many of us are experiencing in during the course.

Stillness is radical.

Our world and habits teach us to fill the space of each moment, meeting, and meal. The chatter in our minds reflects the noise of the outer world. Practicing silence and stillness is counter-culture and can feel intimidating. There’s good news. You don’t have to develop a 30 minute a day meditation practice to experience more stillness and silence.

In honor of the global moment of silence tomorrow,  here are seven  simple silence strategies to try during your day.

Silence Strategy 1: Take a private moment of silence for yourself early in the day.

This can be as quick as taking 5 intentional breaths before you get out of bed or as long as a half hour meditation session, or anything in between. You can be silent with your cup of coffee, breathing in that roasted goodness. Experiment until you find something small that works for you.  This is also an excellent practice to use before a meeting or presentation (see #4).

Silence Strategy 2: Notice nature.

This is one of my favorite ways to find silence and solace.  Even the most buttoned up corporate headquarters has a plant somewhere. Find it. Pretend to tie your shoe and spend a few seconds filling your field of vision with living green.  Even better, find a window or go outside and find a tree, shrub, flower, ant or bird to watch for a minute or two. I’ve done this during conferences when I cannot stand one more minute inside.  A few deep breaths outside does wonders. Any water source bigger than a water fountain brings  peace.


Silence Strategy 3:  Seek silence in public.

We can’t always be alone when we need to center ourselves and find a pocket of peace. No problem. You can be silent right in front of everyone and no one will notice. Half the people will be on their phones and not paying attention anyway.  Those who look your way will take whatever visual cues you provide and assume you are doing that activity. Hold whatever prop you have- your phone, tablet, notebook, laptop, magazine- in your hands. Set your  gaze so that you’re looking over the object and down in front of you rather than focusing on your prop. This is my favorite way to meditate when I can’t be alone.  No one has ever been the wiser.

Silence Strategy 4: Build silence into meetings.

Some workplaces have incorporated contemplative practices into their corporate culture. The rest of us have to be more creative in bringing stillness to work.  After giving yourself some silence before a meeting, share it in subtle ways with others.  Before the meeting starts, look around the room and offer a smile (or nod, or whatever other acknowledgement feels most natural), to the other people in the room. Do this with the intention to really SEE them.  You’ll be surprised what you notice.  Take a deep breath and use what you notice to begin the meeting. Between agenda items, provide 30 seconds to 2 minutes for people to reflect and write down any notes or ideas they have. Tell them you’ll save time at the end for these items.  See if you can extend the silence after people stop writing.

Silence Strategy 5: Take a deep breath (or two) before speaking.

This one can be HARD  and works in any conversation- even online ones.  So often we’re deciding what we want to say before we finish listing to what is being said. Pausing before speaking takes practice and you’ll be amazed at the results. The first few times I tried this in my work was when I was supposed to be “running” a meeting.  By pausing before I spoke I hardly said a thing after the introduction.  The meeting went along beautifully without my intervention, we accomplished everything we needed to, and I was able to listen deeply to the conversation. Added bonus, I freed myself from the burden of coming up with something smart to say all the time.   Ahhhh.

Silence Strategy 6:  Practice silence between tasks.

Some days I can be chugging trough my list of things to do and not even notice how much time has passed.  To be more present, I take a minute or two to relax between tasks.  Sometimes I recognize the next item on my list is not the most important task do or I’ll remember an idea I’d neglected to write down. Sitting with a sense of accomplishment for the small things is motivating during the times when it feels like nothing big gets done.

Silence Strategy 7: Have technology remind you to be mindful.

If you’re not up for self-propelled stillness, the editors of Mindful magazine have a solution. You can sign up for “Mindful Interrupters” delivered to your inbox or Twitter feed. Interrupters change frequently and are a playful way to bring you back to the present moment, which is really the whole point of stillness and silence. You can also find the interrupters on their web site.

Join me in 5 minutes of silence tomorrow at 9am Eastern. Those in the Pacific time zone can use the 5 minutes to try out Silence Strategy #1.

How do you build little moments of silence into your day? What do you learn from stillness?