Be Authentic. Help Others Be Authentic.

Lately, I have been given opportunities to try on some new responsibilities at work. It has been fun. Today I was able to serve on the panel that selects the college’s President’s Award winner. This award is the highest honor given to a student at our school. Candidates are nominated by faculty and staff and then vetted for  academic performance, community service and extracurricular involvement.

Here’s the thing. All the students we interviewed were excellent. Each comes from a different walk of life with different obstacles, experiences and academic accomplishments. All of their bona fides were uniformly impressive. Their resumes and GPAs stack nicely.

Here’s the other thing. None of that stuff matters. What impressed me most about each of the students I met was his or her passion. These students presented their authentic selves. They were comfortable, honest and sometimes delightfully weird.

Every one of these students is going to be a bright light. They seem to know something that other people don’t yet recognize. They understand the power of being themselves.

These students are passionate about their lives and their learning. They understand how the work they are doing and the sacrifices they are making relate to their future selves.

One student is passionate about mathematics. Another is passionate about caring for others. Another is passionate about snowboarding and family. Another about helping others laugh through adversity. These students are really interesting, really talented, really unique people. And I am only now getting to know them.

Some of them have been in my classes. I have helped some in the library or chatted for a few minutes in a hallway, but I had no idea who they really were and what compelled them.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I should have allowed myself to get to know these students much sooner. I should have made these connections on day one. It would have made me a better teacher and mentor. It would have made me a better steward of their time.

I also can’t help wondering who else is sitting in my library, studying quietly. What weird, authentic self is quietly waiting to be recognized.

I can’t help thinking that I should be meeting these students and my first question shouldn’t be “What are you working on?” or “How can I help?” My first question should be “What do you love to learn about?” or “What are you passionate about doing?”

People who work with students should ask these questions first. Probably anybody who works with people should ask these question first. The people around us are talented, energetic and unique. They are greatly gifted. The problem is they may not know it. They may not see it in themselves, but it is there and it is powerful when it is discovered.

The best thing we do for the people who come to us for learning is to authentic with them, listen and encourage them to be authentic too.

The Tyranny of Big Ideas

I am a person who loves big ideas. You may have noticed.

I can’t really help it. I get inspired by other people’s bold thoughts, sweeping visions and prophetic pronouncements. I walk around with this sense that we are living in radical times and believe that the scale of change around us requires a comparable measure of audacity, brilliance and courage.

I am not alone. The world is filled with people who are ever-watchful for the next brilliant solution to a once seemingly intractable problem. You find these people, people like me, more often than not, watching TED Talk videos.

John Spencer sees a problem with TED Talks. TED Talks are conceived as being a way to jump start meaningful conversation about worthwhile ideas. The point of the conversation is, of course, to vet the ideas and improve them through critique. Spencer doubts the quality of the conversation that follows.

Spencer describes TED Talks as a kind of “Secular Scripture”, a text that  cannot be refuted. For Spencer, TED Talks are sometimes brandished as a kind of idea bomb that gets tossed his way whenever he offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing wisdom. This has not happened to me, but I see the danger of the experience he describes.

Big ideas can be habit-forming. Big ideas can be addictive. There is an element of wishful thinking that sometimes hounds the believer of big ideas, a willingness to trade away the obligation to be skeptical and mistrustful of ideas that have not yet proven themselves or arrive unaccompanied by detail and practice.

This is where most big ideas suffer. Big ideas are often celebrated and lauded before they get connected to details and practical application. Worse, big ideas get praised as half-solutions before the nature of the problem is fully explored. And then, the person who is casting doubt is a naysayer. But the work of skeptic is necessary. Otherwise, we lurch from big idea to big idea, each time willing ourselves to believe that problems have been solved, really and permanently solved, simply because we would like for them to be solved.

Sometimes big ideas are used as a tool for political manipulation. (Recommended listening: DecodeDC’s “There’s a Plan for That”)

It can very difficult to argue with big ideas. This is partly because bold ideas are generally conceptual in nature and painted with broad strokes. It is hard to deconstruct broad strokes without nitpicking. Nobody likes a nitpicker.

Sometimes, big ideas arrive with such force that there is no space left for critique or examination. In Spencer’s view, if TED Talks are a conversation, the original presenter gets to speak with a megaphone and everyone else answers in scattered whispers. The TED Talk viewer is given easy access to new, challenging ideas but does not often see those ideas presented in context with opposing, contrarian views. In this way, TED Talks can sometimes become a kind of sales pitch — quick, to-the-point, ready to sell and, ultimately, unanswerable.

Spencer’s critique is fair. Like Spencer, I think TED is an excellent site rich with powerful, challenging ideas that deserve to be shared and discussed widely. We just need to be sure that we aren’t giving these ideas a pass just because they are big, bold and lovely. Ideas get improved by being pulled apart, debated, and, sometimes, refuted. Not all ideas deserve to be implemented. Not all big ideas need to be tried.

More to the point for me, there is a warning here to beware the lure of the big idea as a magic tonic that cures all ills. People like me are called idealists. People like me have a lot to offer the world, but we have to be careful. We should never expect big ideas to save the world. Ideas never saved anyone or made things better. Hard work makes things better. Easy to forget sometimes that the way to change the world is to work hard. The process is iterative. The process is incremental. The process can be frustratingly slow. Without the work, however, the idea is just a false comfort, a fun diversion that keeps us from the discomfort of disagreement and uncertainty. Nothing useful ever happened without discomfort and uncertainty. We work through that.

We need big ideas. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t need to be so complex. Sometimes we need smaller idea, so long as it is the right small idea and it is coupled with lots and lots of work.

Living Someone Else’s Dream

I teach at a community college and know that there are thousands and thousands of students with no idea of how they want to use their lives. Many are being trained for vocations in which they have little interest or enthusiasm. Somewhere along they way, these students have borrowed someone else’s dream. Some are starting on career paths with the belief that the point of their work will be to make money which will allow them the freedom to magically discover their interests and pursue a better life. That doesn’t happen. The pursuit of money fuels the cycle of disappointment.

Samsara is the Buddhist concept of being entrapped in the cycle of perpetual despair. We are trapped. Our children get trapped. Their children get trapped. We build lives that justify the experience of our suffering. We habituate ourselves to routines and expectations that do not serve us. Our children learn to do the same. They teach their children to do the same.

This doesn’t need to happen. Disappointment is a wheel. It doesn’t have to turn.

My wish for my students is to find a measure of the purpose Alan Watts describes in this video:

My hope is that more of my students can wake up to the realization that they are living someone else’s dream. They can stop the wheel and ask themselves, “What would I do if money were no object?” And then, they can commit themselves to learning about their true passions. Our world needs people who are awake and committed to becoming their best selves.

Fully Invested

Some of us are lucky. We have found the thing we love and are doing that thing every single day with every available once of energy, talent and focus.

Some of us are still searching. We are looking for that thing that ignites our passion and sets our mind on fire with the urge to create, build and improve.

For some of us, that thing is our work. For others, that thing sits outside our work. In either case, it is desperately important that we find that thing, pursue it and give over everything we have got.

I get frustrated. I get stuck. And then I see people like Ian Ruhter, fully invested and actively engaged with his gift to the world:

“If you had been searching your whole life for something you love, what would you be willing to sacrifice?” — Ian Ruhter

Note: This post was inspired by Trent Gillis’ post “What Would You Be Willing to Sacrifice?” at the On Being Blog. Take a look.

Blogging advice from Chris Brogan

Chris Brogan recently posted “A Primer for Blogging”, which offers 21 helpful “rules” on developing a useful blog that gets read.

Number 9 caught my eye: “Realize that posts that are helpful to others get shared more than posts that are merely interesting.”

I’m trying to imagine what problems my blog might possibly solve for people. I’m drawing a blank.

I’ll keep at it, and, until I can find a way to be useful, comfort myself with sharing those moments that feel, at the least, interesting.

Of course, no list of rules is complete without Number 21: “There’s not a single rule on this list that isn’t breakable. Break all the rules you want and enjoy yourself.”

And best of all, Number 20: “You’re doing it wrong. So is everyone.”

Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning by Peter Bergman

So, every now and then the universe throws a reminder flag and tells you to slow down and take a look. Today, that flag was “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” by Peter Bergman.

Bergman reminds me that disciplined focus and mindfulness are more worth cultivating than simple information gathering and fast acting information reflexes.

There is skill in being able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are going to get your attention. How very much more powerful and useful to also be able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are not going to get your attention. It helps to call to mind the things that typically distract you and prepare yourself to move beyond those things.

I haven’t built my two lists yet. It does, however, call to mind my earlier post about the Stop Doing List, a mindfulness practice which I have not well-maintained.

Ah well. It’s a new week with new opportunities to do things differently or not do them differently.

What Success Looks Like

I’ve been thinking a lot about what success looks like. Wondering when I will feel like I am using everything I have to offer and making the things only I can make. I’ve been wondering how much energy to give over to career-building and worrying about how far away being “in charge” of things carries me from making things I care about.

And then I am given two gifts from the universe: this 99% blog post and this video of Neil Gaiman’s recent commencement address at the University of Arts in Philadelphia.

The 99% blog post woke me up to a very real conundrum: the more successful I become, the more my time is potentially spent reacting to the needs and requirements of other people. I’m not suggesting that I don’t want to react or respond to the needs and requirements of other people. That’s why I’m a good librarian. I like to help people. I just need to figure out a way to declare creative work as a priority and protect my time to do that work. I like the idea of creating a separation between communicating acts and “actionable stuff”.

Belsky writes:

Amidst the research for my upcoming book on extremely productive creative people and teams, I have found that the “uber productive” actively develop methods for defying this new and dangerous trend. They impose discipline on themselves and set up blockades when necessary. And, most importantly, they have a “separation of church and state” philosophy for communications and actionable stuff.

This gets back to my email problem and the feeling that I spend most of my productive time digesting, writing and replying to emails. There needs to be a wall.

And then, a better gift — this video of Neil Gaiman’s advice to artists:

There is so much to love in this message that I won’t try to catalog it all. The single, simple metaphor: the work you are passionate about is a mountain. Walk toward the mountain. Do things that carry you closer to that mountain. Don’t do things that carry you away from that mountain.

Be focused. Don’t tolerate distractions. Make mistakes. Make big mistakes. Make fantastically beautiful, collosal mistakes. And then learn from those mistakes and don’t make them again. Make new mistakes. Make different mistakes.

Make great art. Make great art when life is going well. Make great art when life is going to shit. Keep making great art.


I Learn Outloud

I talk a lot. I talk about things I understand, but sometimes I talk even more about things I don’t understand. Its how I learn.

People who don’t really know me can be forgiven for thinking me arrogant, a pretentious “know it all”. Sorry, folks. I can’t seem to shut up.

Talking aloud is how I make sense of things. Talking is how I sort out my thoughts and test out new theories. I like to explain things to people so I can see how well I understand them. Sometimes I explain things about which I have no clue just to find where my gaps are.

I used to think of this particular trait as a a kind of character flaw. I’m learning not to dwell so much on the idea of character flaws. Seth Godin’s post, “Stick to What You (Don’t) Know” helps a lot.

Required reading if you are like me and find yourself saying things before you realize you are thinking them.

To quote Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”