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?


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?




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. http://mrg.bz/yfvrFO

Image by DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile. http://mrg.bz/yfvrFO

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 Unsplash.com

Image from Unsplash.com


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.

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.



Following my own Advice

Here’s how I did following my own advice for navigating the spectacle of ASAE in Nashville last week.


Nashville showed us a great time!

Nashville showed us a great time!

1. Take time for silence and be mindful. Grade: C

On the positive side, I noticed the wonderful music and thoroughly enjoyed the delicious food and drink of Nashville.  Staying fully present in each session allowed me to experience ASAE in a new way.  It’s amazing what you can notice when you’re paying attention.  The C is because I did not accomplish my full 20-30 minutes of meditation each day. I managed only about 10 in my room and occasional snippets throughout the day. The biggest challenge was the sheer discombobulation of traveling and having to look fully professional before leaving my room.  Getting to sessions early was a nice way to find pockets of peace, even if only for a minute or two.

2. Use what comes naturally to help engage with others.  Grade: B+

Meaningful conversations started before I even got to the airport.  I shared a cab with a young woman from Seoul, South Korea, participating in the Bowdoin International Music Festival and visiting Maine for the first time. She’s a pianist and loved our verdant scenery and fresh air. We talked about classical music, following a passion and tea.  She ate 10 lobster rolls during her visit and says she’ll never think of lobster the same way again. I’d probably feel the same way about kim chi after visiting Seoul.

Asking people how they came to work in association management was a wonderful conversation starter and got straight to interesting stories.  Many people fall into association management and stay. The breadth of educational and professional backgrounds at the meeting was incredible- talk about interdisciplinary! And, every day I met someone else who works at a distance from their official place of employment.  How encouraging!

3. Reflect on what you see and hear. Grade: I (Incomplete)

I did a fair bit of reflecting on what I learned each day while I was at the conference.   The afternoon I got home was taken up by a nap. I was understandably exhausted from being up at 3am for 5:30am departure from Nashville.  Posts about what I learned are in development and I’ve done some research to answer questions that popped up during the week. I have at least 3 new posts based on different facets of the meeting.

4. Take fewer pictures and use the ones you take. Grade: B+

I took only 56 pictures at ASAE and used two of them in the previous post. One I tweeted to a friend during the meeting and I will use the other good ones.  The downside of taking fewer pictures was that  I missed some shots inside the conference center. I didn’t have my phone out as much and forgot.   It’s OK.  I noticed and appreciated the art while I was there and can remember without the photos.

5. Do mini-missions.  Grade: A-

I’m working on an entire post about my adventures in mini-missions. This turned out to be a fun way to focus on the parts of the conference that were meaningful to me.  I had fun following the event on Twitter and engaging with new colleagues that way.  I won’t tweet during a learning session because that, for me, is against suggestion #1 (be mindful and present).   I found authenticity everywhere, from the music permeating the streets, to the the woman caring for the rest room, to presenters and award winners.

6.  Do things just because they make you happy. Grade: A

I did visit Canada (well, the Canadians) and it did make me happy. I also visited the beer garden.  It made me happy to say “no” to some things like forcing myself to find a new session when the one I wanted was over full.  The Green Bay Packers were in town for a pre-season game and were staying at my hotel.  Had I not been up at 4:45 am that day, I would have stayed up to see them come back from the game, no question.  Instead, I called it a night.  It made me happy to say, “Go Pack, go!” to the Packer gear-wearing people I saw in Nashville during my visit, though. Getting a silly picture taken with my colleagues on the expo floor made us all happy.  The hamburger hat was my personal favorite.  We also went to Husk for dinner.  Happiness all around, even in the pouring rain.

Tootsies Orchid Lounge

Tootsies Orchid Lounge

I would also amend this advice for the next trip.

Do some things just because it makes someone else happy.

My colleague and her friend are big country music fans.  It was fun to see them enjoying the music and simply being in Nashville.  We had a drink in the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Sunday and they got me out on the floor to “learn” line dancing during the closing celebration at the Wildhorse Saloon.  I wouldn’t have done these things on my own and it was fun.

All in all, I did pretty well.  We’ll see if I can improve at the next conference.