Truly Powerful People (234)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

In another blog in another life I wrote some rants to artists – meaning, of course, that I wrote them to myself. As I set up my new business I have been reviewing the archives and I came upon my rants. Here is a remake and an update of a ghost-of-rants-past (it is Halloween, after all). Read the word “art” as also meaning “life:”

What if you will never be understood? What if trying to be understood was a fool’s errand, a waste of your precious energy? Consider this for a moment: all great art lives beyond the rational; it transcends the world of data and fact, of the linear sequential and the prescription, and it reaches into places where words cannot go. You can’t measure it, quantify it, or contain it. You can engage with it. It only has meaning in relationship.

It seems to me the power of the arts (life) is in NOT being understood; moving beyond understanding is the point, not the problem. Trying to be understood is really a mask covering the need to be liked or appreciated. Like yourself. Appreciate yourself. What other people like or don’t like is none of your business. Besides, you are the only one who will ever really understand yourself – no one else has access to your internal workings. No one else really knows what you believe. Free yourself from the attachment to what others think and pour your energy into what you bring to life – and bring it.

As my mentor, Tom, used to say, “You will know the power of your work by the size of the tide that rises against it.” Some people may appreciate you and your work, others will not. That is beyond your control. What is within your control is your capacity to do your work. You can cut your ears off investing in what others may or may not think about what you create or you can do your work and offer it to the world. Trying to be liked or understood will knock you off your artistic rails; you’ll lose sight of the essential and trade it for the superficial. It will make you timid. Stop trying to be understood and do your work. Stop trying to be liked and offer your work as if it might actually change someone’s life – because it might.

Truly Powerful People (233)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I had to go to the Radio Shack in the junction today and bumbled into a mass of zombies, goblins, superheroes and heroines, witches, mummies, frogs, ladybugs, princesses, multiple genetic copies of Darth Vader AND Luke Skywalker, hobos, vampires, miniature bankers (definitely the most frightening costume), and even a few headless horsemen. It was impressive! Had any of them been taller than 3 feet I might have felt something other than warm and fuzzy (though I pretended to be frightened more than once). The parents dressed in costume, too – they were taller than 3 feet but were careful to let us know that they didn’t really think they were monsters. The shopkeepers were also in costume and jolly passing out candy to the mob.

There was panic in the Radio Shack because they were running out of candy. The manager opened his wallet and sent one of his employees running (literally, he said, “Run! Now!”) to the market to get more candy. He didn’t want any of the kids in costume to be disappointed and the bucket was nearly bare. It was personal and I loved him for that. He looked at me and exclaimed, “We’ve gone through bags and bags of candy and still they keep coming! I don’t want anyone to go away disappointed.”

After leaving the RadioShack (I turned down the mini-Snickers that was offered me. The manager thanked me for leaving candy for the kids. He was so earnest that I laughed out loud), I sat on a corner and watched the heaps of generosity. Every direction I looked, I saw people helping people cross the road, enter shops, herd kids, calm high excitement, feign terror, bow to little royalty, share, share, share.

This is who we are. It is always so close to the surface and beyond beautiful when it reveals itself. And, you’ll be happy to know, the Radio Shack employee made it back to the store, huffing and puffing, with arms full of candy just moments before the bucket went empty. The manager nearly wept with relief.

It’s the little things that make living so grand.

Truly Powerful People (232)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I just found these notes in a journal I kept during my summer travels. They are from a conversation I had with my dear friend, Cindi. She is a very pragmatic woman – the world is clear in her eyes – and she shared with me her two cardinal rules for raising her kids:
1) Say what you think. Don’t edit and don’t assume that others (your children) have to think what you think. Their thoughts are theirs; your thoughts are yours. She filled out the thought this way: “As an adult, if you say what you think the children don’t have to try and figure out what you really mean. No manipulation or status or power games necessary. What you hear is what you get!”
2) No enabling. They make choices. Support their choices even if the consequences are at first painful. In the long run they’ll be stronger for it.

She has two incredible children, all grown up and stepping boldly in the world. Say what you think. No enabling. I think she’s right. If we followed her two simple rules, in the long run, we’d all be stronger for it.

Truly Powerful People (231)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

While I was waiting for Steven Pinker to bury me in data I listened closely to a conversation happening in the row behind me. I’m a notorious snoop. I love listening to people talk – not so much for what they say but what they don’t say or, even better, what they are not saying.

Two elderly women sat next to each other and started to chat. They discovered that they were both retired teachers (which is what caught my attention). They began to compare notes about their careers, specifically their pet-peeves (we really do sort to the negative. Don’t ask me why. Someday I’d like to ease-drop on a conversation that begins something like this, “Oh, you’re a teacher, too! I had the most amazing kids all my life, let me tell you how fortunate I was to live this life….”).

Here’s the phrase that caught me (I wrote this on my program so I wouldn’t forget): “You can’t really do anything to help them (the students); the good kids will get it, the bad kids will ask why do we need to learn this. I never understood why they just couldn’t shut up and learn.”

Imagine: me hyperventilating, rubbing my forehead to stave off the stroke that was seizing me. I bend forward and put my head on the chair in front of me. The people seated next to me freeze, uncertain if they should call for help or call for help (if you know what I mean).

I’ve never heard a better encapsulation of what’s awry in the public schools: teacher as content deliverer, student as open mouth eating whatever worm comes their way. Test and repeat (this is a comment on the system, not on the amazing teachers dying under the weight of the stupidity).

With my head safely resting on the seat in front of me, my row-mates frozen, looking for escape routes, pretending that I wasn’t there, I closed my eyes and had great appreciation for Tom. He once told me that when interviewing teachers he’d ask a trick question. He’d ask them to tell him a story of the bad kid, the worse student they ever taught; if they told him a story he knew they were no good as teachers and wouldn’t hire them.

My cheers go out to the kids who are asking of the world, “Why do we have to learn this?” It is the only question worth asking. It takes a lot of power to speak the truth to an adult. If the adults don’t have an answer, perhaps they should take a cue from the kids and ask the only question that matters, “Why are we doing this?” Within this question is the key that unlocks the door to true power.

Truly Powerful People (230)

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Last night I went to a lecture given by Harvard professor Steven Pinker. He’s written a new book called The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. His lecture was a blizzard of data, graphs and charts showing one undeniable pattern: despite what we believe, violence has declined radically over the past few centuries; we now live in the most peaceful period in human history. In fact, compared to earlier times, some of our rates of violence don’t even register on the charts. He left us buried beneath the data with a few big questions about this decline, chiefly “Why the decline?” He had lots of suspicions but who really knows.

It was hopeful in a cerebral sort of way.

I grew up hearing (and believing) that the 20th century was the most violent century in human history. As Dr. Pinker said, “You can only believe that if you don’t compare the 20th to all other centuries.” According to his charts, the 20th century with its two world wars was garden party compared to centuries past. Genocide and annihilation was the game of those days! So, the second big question, “Why?” that came to my data-stressed mind was, “Why the disconnect between the data and our belief that we live in a terribly violent society?”

It is all a story. There is no doubt that violence is present in our world. And there is no doubt that we focus on it; where we place our focus dominates what we see. I know about the power of story and I wonder what we would see if we started telling a story of “the most peaceful time in human history.” I wonder what we would create if we approached our days on earth, not from a story of fear as our media and politicians would have us tell, but from a story of greater and greater cooperation and collaboration?

What is most remarkable is that despite our belief in a hyper violent world, the rates of violence continue to drop. Despite our fixation and belief, we are somehow together telling a story of greater and greater peace.

You can bury me in that kind of data any day of the week.

Truly Powerful People (229)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

[continued from 228]

There is a direct relationship between healthy boundaries and power. Drawing boundaries is different than controlling. Taking on the responsibility for other people’s choices or investing in the idea that you can protect anyone from feeling the consequences of their actions is a study in weak boundaries; a weak boundary is a bunk buddy to controlling behavior. When there is a breach of boundaries, manipulation games abound. It creates energy blocks, confusion, and dependency; it zaps power.

Power creation often begins with healthy boundaries. Empowering yourself requires you to empower others because you clarify the boundary: what is yours vs. what is not yours. When you own and feel the effects of your choices, you grow. When you get out of the business of owning other people’s choices, they have the same opportunity; they grow.

Growth and power often begins with learning to draw a line. Learn to recognize the power of proper boundaries and you’ll see how quickly edges can become horizons – for everyone.

Truly Powerful People (228)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Enabling is one of those words with a double meaning – and the mirror meaning is the opposite of its twin. You can enable 1) to empower, or you can enable 2) to dis-empower: take actions intended to be helpful but actually perpetuate the problem. Knowing the distinction is key to understanding true power. Knowing the difference is vital if you are going to be able to reinforce cultures of creativity instead of cultures of control.

The sticky word in the dis-empowering form of enabling is “intention.” If you intend to protect someone from feeling the impact of their choices, or to mitigate or take on the responsibility for their actions, or to make things easier by constantly moving the boundary or changing the game, no matter how well intentioned, you are actually making things worse. It might feel good – it might feel like love – but you are essentially blocking them from growing and preventing them from becoming powerful. In truth, you are drinking their power from them (Ana-the-wise calls this, “vampiring”); needing weakness in others to feel power in your self.

Feeling the impact of choices leads to the capacity to make better choices. Responsibility abounds in someone who owns their actions and choices, power is easy when boundaries are clear and easily drawn and held (holding boundaries is different than controlling).

Absorbing the impact of bad choices for others will teach them that no matter what they do, you will always swoop in and save the day. You get to be powerful. They get to be free of responsibility. No learning or growth necessary. It fosters dependency (both ways) and dependency is the essential ingredient of a culture of control. Think about it: if you’ve learned to expect me or the teacher of the state or the HR department to control you then you never need control yourself or be responsible for your actions.

Empowered people empower others. Truly powerful people inspire truly powerful people.

Truly Powerful People (227)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

This morning I read an article in National Geographic magazine about the last reindeer herders in Scandinavia. I found myself yearning for the simplicity of that kind of life. I’m not romanticizing the difficulties. Theirs is a hard life and it is likely a community about to disappear into contemporary society. What I am aware of and yearning for is a community with a clear central focus that knows each member is necessary – it requires the best from everyone if the community is to survive and thrive. And each member of the community knows their value to the greater whole. Their rituals are meaningful, their narrative intact. To betray the community is to betray your self – it is unthinkable.

Last night I watched the documentary film, Inside Job that tracks the decisions and events that made our 2008 economic suicide possible. It is basically the story of how the largest financial institutions in America knowingly sold worthless products to the world in order to realize obscene profits – all with the collusion of the government and the agencies tasked with regulating them. When their ponzi scheme failed it took down the world economy, 30 million people worldwide lost their jobs, more lost their retirements, and savings,… and the bankers and government officials at the center of it all profited mightily. To betray the community was rewarded. To betray the community was profitable.

I found myself wondering what the reindeer herders in Scandinavia would do to a member of its community that so violently betrayed the trust and ruined the health of so many of its members. What must a community do when their rituals are violated and their narrative assaulted? We did nothing.

What does a community do when their rituals have no substance and their narrative is hollow?

The juxtaposition between these two stories about community reminded me why I started this exploration of power – and not power over other; power with. I wrote it yesterday but it is present for me again today, these power-over stories and structures are old, old, old, and they threaten our very survival. We live in the age of power-with (it’s called a global community for a reason), no single member’s actions are separate or distinct; if one member falters we all falter. Just ask your local financial services representative (I use that term loosely) what will happen to markets in America if Greece’s economy falls. No need to ask the Greeks what will happen to their economy if a few American bankers drive the USA’s economy over the cliff – they already know. There is no such thing as “us and them” in our times. It is a world of “we” and truly powerful people know that in their bones.

Truly Powerful People (226)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I remember leaving the meeting with the school superintendent and being utterly baffled. The district hired me to create art projects in their schools and to inspire and promote experiential learning processes. Apparently, the art projects were becoming too powerful. The experiential learning was uncontrollable. The teachers, students, and parents were debating issues and engaging in meaningful conversations about big ideas, conversations that had no easy answer and required wading neck deep into deeper questions, they’d started digging into issues and challenging superficial responses, in short, they were thinking critically. They were on voyages of discovery and resisting attempts to contain their exploration. They were having fun. The board, through the superintendent, asked me to stop it. They wanted something more tame – the art was meant to be a distraction, an entertainment. It was the first time I truly understood the purpose of the public schools and the revelation was as disorienting as it was breathtaking.

I wrote a letter as part of my resignation explaining the purpose of the arts to the board and to the superintendent: it is through the arts that a community identifies itself (asks, “who are we?”) and engages with the deeper questions (asks, “why are we here?”) and has the capacity to re-imagine itself over time (asks, “what is ours to do?”). A community that reduces its art (and its expectation of education) to entertainment is a community on life support; it is already dead.

I wrote that letter 20 years ago and remembered it today as, more and more, I recognize the work of truly powerful people is to be the agents of retiring the old and make space for the new. The time for life-support is done. We have too many inert old world systems that we pump energy and resources into even though we know the patient is long dead. For instance, it is almost 2012; continuing to entertain the rhetorical blather that testing has anything to do with improving the quality of learning is to support the ill-intended purpose of education as taught to me by the board and the superintendent so many years ago. We’d get more for bang for our buck if we gave teachers bathroom breaks, time to eat lunch everyday, and the capacity to teach (as opposed to feed the insatiable needs of the test).

Or perhaps we should continue to focus on the short-term market gains and losses as the meter for how well we are doing in the world? How well are you doing? Who is explaining the market to you? Is the purpose of the market the same as the purpose of your life on this planet? How might you otherwise meter the worth of your time here? How might we as a nation set a more worthy intention?

Maybe we should continue to protect all the institutions that are “too big to fail” at the expense of the real health of the community; isn’t that the equivalent of saying, “The tumor is too big to remove so we will do nothing and hope that it takes care of itself.” It won’t. The heart continues to beat although the brain is clearly dead.

It is old, old, old, old thinking.

We live in the age of the internet. Bigger is not better. Connectivity and relationship rule the day and our systems and our expectations are decades behind. Better questions to ask in every sector, for a start, might be, “What are we doing?” Followed hard upon with a hearty, healthy series of the question, “Why?”

As Alan said after he returned from his recent teaching trip to Europe, our work as artists and coaches and teachers and leaders is to roll the old paradigm into hospice and become the midwife for the new.

Empowered people empower others when they look at the clearly naked emperor and cease to pretend that they see clothes.

Truly Powerful People (225)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

The other day Ana-the-wise told me that we are now beyond the time when our actions are conditional. She told me it is the time for comprehension. This is what she means:

It is time to make strong offers without the inhibition of doubt. Offers with energy-leaching questions like, “What will they think of me?” or “Does my thought/action/idea have merit or worth?” minimize the offer. Release the investment in the doubt (the condition), make the offer, and see what happens. Make the offer; you’ll never know if it has merit unless you make the offer and make is powerfully. If you make a timid or half-offer, you’ll continue to question the worth of your offer (and yourself) and the only thing you will know with certainty is that you held yourself back. If you’re driving with one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brakes, it’s time to make a choice: hit the gas or stop the car. Either way, it is an action without conditions.

Empowered people empower others by bringing their best – as a choice. Bring your gift without apology or condition – it is your gift and the world needs what you have to offer. Bring it.