Lighting a Fire in the Blood

I continue to be in awe of the Theory U process and the experiences and reflections brought about by ULab. This is not a lighthearted romp.  It’s captured me and many others. Writing is part of the journey so here goes.

Smartly, the course designers set us up with a full week (Week 0) of orientation.  Our work centered around setting goals and intentions for the course, connecting with other participants to form a case clinic coaching circle, and creating a shared experience through watching the documentary Fire in the Blood.

A little background…

The beginning of the U process about is breaking out of habitual patterns and seeing a system from others’ perspectives. A “sensing journey” is one tool to facilitate this shift in awareness. You can think of a sensing journey as a field trip designed to open the heart.  For ULab, Fire in the Blood was our sensing journey.  Film maker Dylan Mohan Gray generously allowed ULab participants free access to the film.  Fire in the Blood chronicles the systemic dysfunctions that prevented millions in Africa with AIDS from accessing life saving medications long after the cost of the medications dropped.

Image by DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile.

Image by DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile.

Rather than taking notes and gathering facts as I tend to do, in the spirit of ULab, I watched and listened with as open a heart as I could. The two hours I spent watching Fire in the Blood was a journey through the emotional landscape:  anger, disbelief, sorrow, hope, aching, compassion, relief.

It reminded me of seeing Roméo Dallaire speak about Shake Hands with the Devil, his account of being the force commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide.  My friend Andrea and I read Dallaire’s book and attended a talk he gave years ago. I was grateful for the ULab discussion boards after watching Fire in the Blood and know Andrea would have cried along with me this time, too.

One of the moments that brought me to tears was when medical staff told how they were forced to decide who would live and die because there was not enough medication for everyone in need.   If doctors determined I was the most appropriate person to receive the medication it would mean my family members would die.

Let me say that differently.

For you to live, people you love will die.


It’s unthinkable. Our hearts cannot bear that thought for long. It hurts too much.

Medical staff explain the situation to one man and ask if he will accept the medication.  He replies, “I accept with my whole heart.” His face and voice will linger long in my memory. I wonder what happened to him, to his family.

Here’s something beautiful so you can relax after all that. But don’t push that feeling away entirely- it’s instructive.

Image from

Image from


How do tragedies like this happen? How do these stories go unnoticed and untold? Lots of reasons.  It happens because our world is large and complex. It happens because it’s hard to ask questions, to connect, and to find the silence to discover what we know to be right. It happens because it feels like too big a job to create a world that does a better job at producing results more of us want and need.  It happens because knowing hurts.  We’re “busy”. It’s easy not to know. I didn’t. Not about this story. I might might not have known about Dallaire’s story had I not been living in Canada when the book was released.

The encouraging lesson from Fire in the Blood is that real people were able to make a difference. Some of them are  recognizable: U.S. President Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu.  More of them are everyday brave people like you and me.

That’s what the Theory U process and the ULab experience is about. It’s about uncovering these divides between how systems operate and what we want to bring about in the world.  Sitting with that disconnect and discomfort is part of the deal.  Importantly, we don’t stay there. The rest of the process is what we DO with what we learn.

The filmmakers let thousands of ULab participants see Fire in the Blood for free because sharing the story was more important than recovering the costs it took to make. I wholeheartedly (and brokenheartedly) recommend watching Fire in the Blood.  You can see the trailer here and can read more about how this story seemed to choose Dylan Mohan Gray here.  You can rent the film for the cost of one cup of coffee shop java ($1.75) and buy the film to stream and download anytime for about the cost of a latte and cookie ($8.25).

Watch with an open heart and have your hankie handy. If you have friend to cry with, even better.

We all have experiences that shift our understanding of the world and this was one of mine. What have you learned or experienced that allowed you to see the world in a different way?








What is this ULab you’re tweeting about?

If you follow me on Twitter, or happened to have noticed the Twitter widget down there,  you may be wondering what all this #ULab business is all about.

ULab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self is a MOOC offered by MITx through the edX platform. It is a course based on the work of Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT.

Scharmer’s books Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future provide theory and examples of a “social technology” designed to address the gap between the results we say we want and what we collectively create. Too often, we fall short of the vision and Theory U aims to help. You can read more about the books here.

I read both books last year and was immediately captivated. There’s solid, academic content in both with plenty of social science and economic theory to chew on. Fan’s of Peter Senge may appreciate that Senge is involved in Scharmer’s Presencing Instutite and Scharmer incorporates some of Senge’s ideas into Theory U.

What makes Scharmer’s approach especially attractive to me is that he puts the Heart, Mind, and Will at the center of his model.  Have you ever seen  “Heart” represented in a logic model or evaluation theory?  I haven’t.  Mind and Will don’t show up much either. These concepts are often disguised in mission statements, vision statements, and strategic plans.  Yet,  heart, mind, and will are unspoken actors in everything we do.  Who ever decided that it was unprofessional to talk about how passionate people are about the work they do anyway?  It’s possible to be passionate AND clear, inspired AND effective.

Creating change is as much about internal change as external action.  Scharmer provides a new language to talk about what matters in all sectors of society and offers tools and practices to create change in a deeply meaningful way.    Honest, deep conversations about what’s really going on would solve many problems in our homes, neighborhoods, programs, and organizations.   Scharmer is an action researcher.  He and his team didn’t offer the ULab course for free to as an ego boost or to create a broader fan base.  They’re offering the experience to create action and build a community.

I’m taking part in ULab because I think Scharmer’s work matters. It speaks to me and I wanted to explore these ideas and practices in a more powerful way than I can do alone.  There’s much that applies to evaluation practice and being an intentional, mindful human being- topics I care about. I’ll share more about Weeks 0, 1 and 2 in my next post.

Here is an amazing image by graphic facilitator extraordinaire, Kelvy Bird from the first live session of ULab 2 weeks ago.  It gives a nice overview of the course journey and what we’re up to.  It’s not too late to join if you’re curious.

ULab Live Session 1 Image by Kelvy Bird

ULab Live Session 1 Image by Kelvy Bird

To be clear, I have no connection to Otto Scharmer or the Presencing Institute other than being one of 20,000+ students taking the ULab course.

New Year’s Collage

Do you do anything special to start a new year?  I usually spend the first week of every year engrossed in post-conference survey data analysis and adding my tasks to our team’s work plan.  This year I only worked half time over the holidays and got to do other things.

One of the things I did was unexpected and full blame credit goes to my sister.

You see, my sister shared a Facebook post from Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things describing Gilbert’s love of collage as a tool for reflection and planning.  (I  recommend Eat, Pray, LoveThe Signature of All Things is on my “to read” list.)

Have you ever created a vision board for personal or professional purposes?

It’s been years since I have.  Part of the reason I stay away from vision boards is I dislike the term “vision board”.  It’s too hokey, even for me. (If you want to call it a “vision board”, that’s OK.  You make a “vision board” and I will put quotes around it.)

My sister and her friends were enthusiastic about this and Elizabeth Gilbert is sassysmart.  It sounded like fun and I was surprised by that. I had time, supplies, and old magazines.  Why not? There was no plan or theme. I knew I didn’t want words- only images and patterns.

One of the first images I cut out was a butterfly with a pencil body.  I had to have it! It connected to my desire to come out of my cocoon and write more…and more elegantly.  I found a Keebler ad with three elves in a tent called to mind the joy our family experiences on our backpacking adventures.  The picture of one girl with her arm around another reminds how much I cherish my sister and friends and the importance of compassion, gentleness and taking care of each other. Some of images I liked and didn’t know why (A lace clock?!).  It didn’t matter. I collected them anyway.   The dining room was littered with magazine confetti and I was having a blast long after the official child in our house lost interest.

The next morning it felt incomplete.  I promptly added asparagus, eggplant, ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, and running shoes. Also, more trees.

There was not a single obvious image related to my job. I felt terrible.

Chart scrap glued on and guilt averted, I appreciated the result.  (My scanner wasn’t big enough for the whole collage and the chart scrap got cut off. You’ll have to trust me that it’s there on the real thing.) I still felt bad for leaving my job off the collage in the first pass.


After a week pondering this image I see the reasons WHY I do what I do on the page. The collage expresses what I value most.  Connection…of people and ideas. Recognition… of  what matters most deeply and how hard it can be to know if and when we’re moving in the direction we intend.  Sparkle…from colleagues and committee members who liven up my working world with their insights and personalities.  Space… for growth and learning, reflection and action.  Balance… between multiple forces (the epic battle of asparagus and eggplant vs. ice cream and chocolate cookies).  Fun, silliness, a bit of design.

I like this possible vision of the year- or whatever it is.  What I see will evolve over time as visions tend to do.

What’s images and patterns would you like to see in YOUR new year?

I know you have scissors, glue, and old magazines…

P.S.  Sharing the collage was NOT part of  my plan.  One of the reasons I created this blog was as a place to explore new ideas and things that matter to me. This qualified and I plan to do it more.

One Year, One Thing

Image from page 410 of "St. Nicholas [serial]" (1873)Internet Archive Book Images.

Image from page 410 of “St. Nicholas [serial]” (1873)Internet Archive Book Images.

Today Facebook provided  me with my year in review, saving me the trouble of reflecting on the year myself.  (Ha!, nice try, Facebook!)

Facebook’s look back at my year bears little resemblance to how I experienced it.  Facebook missed many high points and all of the low ones. Tis the season for looking back over the year and thinking about the next one. Despite it’s flaws, Facebook’s version of my year had me smiling. It had me sighing, too.

We smile for all we accomplished and sigh for the times we fell short.

We smile for the joys and sigh at the sorrows.

We smile and sigh out of relief, too.

This sighing and smiling is important.  We ought to reflect more often. Better, we ought to put what we learn from reflection into action.

Resolutions are not reflection in action. Resolutions are culturally encouraged self-flagellation, lists of the many ways we fall short as professionals, parents, people.

Skip resolutions. Skip the harshness.

The only resolution worth keeping is to no longer make resolutions.

For 2014,  I decided to do ONE THING  I believed would improve my life. I committed to developing a meditation habit again.

In January  I set a target number of meditation minutes I wanted to achieve each month.  (Yes, that’s my evaluator side showing.) To support my practice I completed a series of weekend meditation retreats.  The first one instructed us in the importance of gentleness. Obsessive tracking is anything but gentle.  I stopped  collecting data. Instead, I decided I wanted to sit every day, even for only  5 minutes.  It didn’t always happen, but I didn’t give myself a hard time about it.  I also didn’t pat myself on the back too much about consistency.  I meditated more days than not in 2014.

I haven’t participated in a research study to conclusively document the benefits of my practice,  or measure whether my telomeres are in better shape, but I have seen them and felt them.   Part of meditation is noticing and being gentle about when the mind goes off on one of its tangents.  This is what minds do.  Though I hadn’t anticipated it, being gentle with myself on the cushion allowed me to give myself a break off the cushion.

Gentleness is not permission to be a slacker- it’s simply permission to be a human being with all the glory and grit that comes with it.

My unsolicited advice for 2015 is to pick one thing, ONE THING, that you believe will have a positive impact in your work or personal life and do it.   It could be anything- ANYTHING.  It could be cooking vegetarian food one night a week, or taking a walk around the block, or coloring in a coloring book, or re-learning the language you took in high school,  or taking photographs, or writing 500 words a day, or trying ballet, or mastering a computer language, or keeping a gratitude journal.

Your ONE THING  doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. All that matters is it matters to you.

Do that one thing consistently and with gentleness and see what happens.

I haven’t decided my ONE THING for 2015. Have you?


P.S. Yes, I realize the image at the top is crooked.  That’s how it downloaded and I embrace the imperfection of it.  Gentleness, remember?

Lessons from Dad on making a difference

It’s Fire Prevention Week so this post is in honor of  my dad, a retired firefighter and fire prevention educator.


Herosim is about concern for other people in need, a concern for defending a moral cause knowing there is a personal cost or risk…and you do it without expectation of reward.

The quote above is by Phil Zimbardo, PhD,  President and Director of Research for the Heroic Imagination Project.  Zimbardo and the HIP team believe we’re all heroes in waiting.   We don’t need a uniform or special training. You can read more about what makes a hero here.

What I found most heroic about my dad was the work he did to prevent fires when not many people saw the value of this approach. Here are few lessons I learned by watching my dad simply do what he was called to do.

Lesson 1: Let yourself be affected by the world.

When I was about 3 my dad found a picture in a firefighting trade magazine that changed his life. A tragic cameo was left behind by a little girl who never woke up when fire stuck her home- her toddler curls silhouetted against the smoky remains of her bed.    Dad knew there had to be another way to fight fires than, “putting wet stuff on red stuff”.  He taught his first fire prevention class not long after he saw that picture- at my nursery school.

Lesson 2: Service is greater than glory.

Dad taught kids how to treat a minor burn, practice exit drills at home and the importance of having and checking smoke detectors.  It was work that lacked the  glory typically associated with the fire service- riding on fire trucks and running into burning buildings.   To be fair, he DID still run into burning buildings.   He simply thought it was a better idea if people didn’t have to do that.

Lesson 3: The unmeasurable matters.

Funding the fire prevention program was a continual battle.  The department leadership wanted proof that the program worked.  Dad’s struggles to justify what he did made me wonder, “how do you measure the non-happening of something?” By observation, I knew my dad made a difference because we couldn’t even get a gallon of milk from Wegman’s  without someone stopping him to chat about fire prevention.  Kids we didn’t know would come yelling, “Fireman Mike, Fireman Mike!”  It drove my sister crazy!  Parents might scowl at Dad, blaming him for having to spend  $40 on new smoke detectors to avoid being pestered to death by their kids.  I’m fairly sure Dad also collected other data about the programs, but this is the one  I remember.

Lesson 4. Be equal with your audience.

Dad studied engineering in college, not fire science.  He finds creative ways to solve problems and is a natural-born story teller.  He used an overhead projector (remember those?) as a kind of diffuser to teach kids the difference between a smell, a scent, and an odor.  He knew fire gear looked scary to kids. He put it on piece by piece so they wouldn’t be scared if a fire fighter ever had to rescue them.  Dad also got on the floor with the kids when he taught. He never talked down to anyone.

Lesson 5.  It’s OK to be many things.  In fact, it’s better and more fun.

Some professions do not come with an “off” switch.  First responders always respond- they can’t help it. Dad has been retired for years and still has a first responder mindset.  He was also co-leader of my Girl Scout troop. He knows something about everything from carpentry to Chinese cooking to the Civil War to cartography.  When I studied Earth Science in 9th grade, Dad took me and my sister on a hike and showed us an esker.  The great thing about Dad’s approach to life is that when he retired, he had no shortage of interests to pursue or ways to have fun.  He also didn’t completely lose his identity when “Fireman Mike” hung up his hat.

Lesson 6:  There are lots of ways to be brave.

Kids often thought it was cool that my dad was a fire fighter.  I saw dad at some “working fires” and witnessed a few emergencies.  It was exciting.  What touched me even more was watching my dad stand up for what he felt to be right even when it wasn’t popular or posed a risk to himself. Doing what you believe when it seems you’re the only one who believes it is brave- as brave as running into burning buildings.

Lesson 7: Be part of a team.

Research indicates heroes are more effective in a network.  Fire fighters are a special kind of team- they’re a professional family.  Police officers are the same way. Dad taught fire prevention with firefighters from other departments.  They partnered with and learned from teachers on curriculum design and content delivery.  They also engaged high school students and members of the National Honor Society to operate the puppets involved in some of the programs. A lot of people got to be involved in making a difference.

Lesson 8:  Always have two ways out and check the batteries in your smoke alarm.

Rather than take the next quiz to find out what brand of hipster you are, take this quiz  on smoke alarm safety. Visit the National Fire Prevention Association website for tools to be smarter about fire safety, or  stop by your local fire department.  Apply your learning and see how you can improve the safety in your home. Sparky the Fire Dog has great kid-friendly resources on his website, too.

Do these things and you’ll be a hero.  It’ll make my dad happy, too.



Learning JUST for fun

Hi, my name is Anne and I’m a recovering edu-holic.

I’m addicted to reading, learning, courses, credentials, anything with a syllabus, merit badge, gold star or that might result in a new strange combination of letters at the end of my name.  If I’m not doing these things, I am researching these things for….for I don’t know why.

It’s been over 5 years since my last credential.  At the end of 2013 I got twitchy about that. I’d participated in webinars, courses and conferences but it didn’t feel enough. I was about to spend a lot of money to take a test and get a credential just because I could and felt I should. Not because I deeply wanted to.

At best that’s nonsense. At worst it’s crazypants.

I took a deep breath and walked away.

I declared (to myself) a moratorium on professional development without a personal connection for 2014. I decided to learn, read, and study purely for the joy of it- not for approval, credentials, recognition or because something would make sense on my LinkedIn profile.

What a relief!

(OK, to be fair, I still LOOK at courses and certificates and degrees, etc.   But, I have given myself a break from the suffering and frenzy that can come with it. That’s progress.)

A few weeks ago I signed up for my first MOOC (Massively Open Online Course)- The Science of Happiness through the Greater Good Science Center. We’re studying happiness, connection, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, reconciliation, mindfulness, and gratitude from an interdisciplinary perspective. The course draws on neuroscience, evolution, physiology, complexity, anthropology and psychology and sprinklescphilosophy, religion and humanities throughout. More relates to evaluation and the conference our program is having on Collective Behavior  than I anticipated or intended. Oops!   These things happen.

Each week we’re invited to try evidenced-based practices to increase our happiness.  Putting research into practice?  Yes, PLEASE!

Through the course I found out that KindSpring was starting a 21-day kindness challenge on October 2nd.   I signed up for that too.  Why not? It’s a way to strengthen kindness muscles and find new ways to be kind  with a group of people.  For Day 1 the kindness challenge was “Pay forward a surprise treat”.   We left a home-made banana muffin and note for our postal carrier.

Kindness matters


It doesn’t matter what course is. It could have been sewing, or watercolor painting, or a foreign language, or astronomy or ancient Greek literature or swimming lessons.

The point is that we ought to give ourselves a break from achievement and learn for fun more often.

Yes, I’m still eying the John’s Hopkins data science specialization through Coursera so I might finally learn R.  But not this year.

Right now I’m selfishly studying happiness to make the world a better place.

It doesn’t have to make sense.

It’s fun. It might make a difference.

That’s good enough.




Happy Puttyfest!








What’s Puttyfest?

Puttyfest is a few days dedicated to celebrating people who boldly choose to follow many passions in life. Emilie Wapnick, founder of, is the pied piper of multipotentialites and anyone who’s ever wanted to be more than one thing.

I found Emilie’s blog a couple of years ago and instantly felt at home. Emilie’s message is that we can and should fully express our own fabulous combination of talents and interests.

The dominant message is: choose one.

Putty people say: select all that apply.

If you don’t believe me, believe Itzhak Perlman.  On the Great Performances special,  “Rejoice”,  he observed, “We are all a combination”.   Multipotentialites live the combination.

Would you tell a prism to only reflect green light? No. That would be silly and against the prism’s natural properties. It’s the same for people, we just forget.

I agree with Itzhak Perlman. Everyone is a combination. Some of us have recognized and embraced our prism-like (err, puttylike) qualities more completely than others.

I had a Twitter exchange with Emilie a few weeks ago and learned she’d designated September 23-25 “Puttyfest”. As part of the celebration she asked her followers to spread the word about what it means to be a multipotentialite and how this quality has been a positive force in our lives. This post is me fulfilling my Twitter promise to Emilie and the puttypeeps.

Multipotentiality is a big part of why I have a day job I’ve loved for the last 8 years. One of the reasons I was hired  was because I ditched the standard cover letter I’d written and wrote  how my eclectic experience matched each one of the program’s goals.

I work with and for people who would fall under the multipotentialite umbrella: interdisciplinary researchers. Interdisciplinary researchers are researcher/teacher/scholars following their curiosities and questions wherever they lead without much regard for where one discipline ends and another begins. Structures in academia and funding agencies aren’t well-equipped for this sort of thing. Interdisciplinary researchers find a way. And our program helps. It’s great fun.

I still have that cover letter.

It reminds me that letting the multipotentialite in me shine pays off even when (especially when), it feels daring.

It’s common among multipotentialites to feel baffled about this whole personal legend/life purpose/niche/ mission, etc. thing. We simply don’t get what that is about. It’s not how we roll.

The movie Rise of the Guardians has another approach- one that make sense to me. It may make sense to you. Guardians introduces the idea that each person has a Center. In this clip, North (a.k.a Santa Claus) explains his Center to Jack Frost, who is trying to understand why the Man in the Moon chose him to be a Guardian of the children of the world. Using a metaphor of the matryoshka dolls, North goes through various facets of who he is: big/intimidating, jolly, mysterious, fearless, caring, and at his Center: WONDER. North explains that wonder is his Center because,

“It is what I was born with….This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a Guardian.”

matryoshka dolls

matryoshka dolls

As a multipotentialite, the idea of having a Center that can be expressed many ways feels orders of magnitude lighter than searching for some life path in the woods of the world. I’ve watched this movie over and over with my daughter and never get tired of that scene.

One day I heard the phrase “…what I protect in children” differently. I remembered a conversation I had where I said one of my most important jobs as a parent was to keep my child’s curiosity intact.

And I understood myself differently.

My “Center” is curiosity.

It’s what I was born with, it’s what I protect in my child, and it’s what I bring to others through any work I’ve ever loved.

I’m not sure if curiosity “counts” as my multipotentialite theme, nor do I have the slightest clue how to turn curiosity into a renaissance business for myself.  Yet.

And that’s OK. I’m fortunate that I get to live curiosity every day.

It rings true and I’ll claim it.

That’s what multipotentialites do. We follow what rings true and claim it.