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  http://www.presencing.com/permissions.

CC License by the Presencing Institute – Otto Scharmer http://www.presencing.com/permissions.

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?




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.