Change They to We

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the next step in my painting, The Weeping Man. He’s nearly complete

The word that’s captured my recent attention is the word “they.” I’m captivated by language choices that might at first seem insignificant but, once unpacked, are profound. “They” is one of those words.

“They” caught my attention when 20 was making us dinner. His recipe included fennel and, until we googled it, we thought anise and fennel were the same thing. While we Googled for truth, Kerri asked, “Why would they name something twice?”

“Good question!” I replied and then asked, “Who are ‘they?'”

“Good question!” she echoed as the Google oracle brought us clarity about our fennel/anise confusion (as it turns out they are two different plants). Google was not very useful in clarifying who “they” were.

So, this week I listened for samples. Some of what I heard: “Why would they do that?” (a conversation about women in another culture). “They don’t care about us.” (what else, politics). “Don’t you think they cause their own problems?” (referring to a situation in a local minority community).

“They” can be a word of distancing, a word of exclusion. If you want to mess with the meaning, simply change the pronoun. For instance: why would we do that? We don’t we care about us. Don’t you thing we cause our own problems? “We” is inclusive. “We” makes us participants. “We” makes us culpable.

a detail of Weeping Man.

a detail of Weeping Man.

What if, in our current state of mis-education for instance, we stopped asking about our policy makers, “What are they doing?” And, instead, asked, “What are we doing?” What kind of action or meaningful discussion might ensue if we simply refused to use the word “they?” What if, as artists, we stopped asking, “Why don’t they get it?” and instead asked, “What don’t we get?” Artists do not create in a vacuum. Our expression might be individual and unique but without a community to receive, debate, appreciate, revile and otherwise engage it, has little purpose. After all, “they” are “we” if our language will allow us to see it.

the previous photo/stage I posted

the previous photo/stage I posted

Make Your Own Adventure

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make your own adventure

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Shift The Frame

another of my illustrations for Lucy & The Waterfox

another of my illustrations for Lucy & The Waterfox

I’ve been sitting in my fair share of waiting rooms, coffee houses, and gathering spaces lately and so I’ve been eavesdropping on conversations. Who knew there were so many problems in the world! Based on my public space sample you’d think that things were dire. The news of the day concurs with the casual coffee shop discourse. Problems abound. Wars rage, resources dwindle, political leaders squabble, corporations pillage, siblings rival, and people cut each other off in traffic! As my friend Albert used to say, “Good heavens! Just drop the bomb, already!” With so much devoted suffering, so much impending doom, ill intent and disaster anticipation, it’s a wonder we can sleep or step out of our houses in the morning.

Why is this the story we tell? We talk about life as if it was happening to us, as if we play no role in making things happen. I used to make it my practice to count the acts of kindness I saw each day and compare them with my count of acts of cruelty. There was never a day when the cruelty outpaced the kindness. For every example of road rage there were 20 instances of road generosity. In fact, in my count, the acts of kindness so far outstripped the cruelty that it became ridiculous to keep the count. We are far more kind than cruel, far more capable than inept, far more connected than detached, yet our narrative reverses the order. We tell a story of separation, of dog-eat-dog, of the inability to cooperate.

Many years ago the good folks at Disney conducted a study and found that when people had a bad experience at Disneyland they’d tell on average 18 other people. If they had a positive experience at the park they’d tell 3 people. That’s a significant imbalance. We seem reticent to share our joys and adept at sharing our fears.

It’s as if we are addicted to conflict and, well, we are. We delight in defining ourselves by our problems. It’s a pattern. More, it’s a story imperative. We are, after all, storytelling beings. We never cease storying ourselves through our inner monologues and outer dialogues. We justify. We defend. We interpret. In general, stories – lived and scripted – are driven by conflict; conflict moves the story forward. Stories are made meaningful by overcoming the forces of opposition. Our lives are made meaningful by the metaphoric mountains we climb. We mistakenly define a good life as the absence of conflict. Conflict is necessary; it is our relationship to conflict that keeps us hooked on the drama like so much sugar.

There is a significant threshold, a passage into health and power that happens in a life when the narrative changes from, “things happen to me,” to a story of, “I make things happen.” Conflict is present in both story frames. In the frame of, “things happen to me,” conflict is an oppositional wind. In the frame of, “I make things happen,” conflict is fuel, we no longer are at the mercy of the forces but in alignment with them. The metaphoric wind is at our back moving us forward.

When we make this story frame shift, we no longer need the drama; we no longer seek to fix things. We see a different set of options. Literally, we see a different set of possibilities. We create and live from a different pattern. We see choices instead of victimization. We see active participation, conflict as challenge, engagement, and opportunity.

The, “I make things happen story,” necessitates responsibility: wars can’t just happen, resources can’t just dwindle, political leaders just can’t squabble, corporations can’t just pillage. We would tell a story of “we,” and take the step into maturity that the story of, “things happen to me,” obscures.

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Bring It

768. 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 afternoon I taught a Business of Theatre class at Cornish College for the Arts. The students were seniors in the final weeks of their degree programs. Their assignment was to make project pitches as if we, the class, were granters or investors. My job was to support them to get better at doing project pitches. Through the several pitches, two themes emerged that became the focus of our conversation.

The first theme: rather than pitch their ideas as great, almost all the students justified or somehow diminished their idea. They defended it prior to an attack.They were unconsciously seeking reinforcement or approval of their idea. Or, to be clear, they sought approval as if I was the keeper of worth for their idea. Had I said, “What a stupid idea,” they might have agreed with me. The need for my approval trumped their personal point of view. My approval was more important than their idea.

Theme number two is related to theme number one: they entered the relationship assuming that the granter (me) had all of the power. As pitch makers they cast themselves in an unbalanced, powerless position. They came as supplicants. They assumed that the grant maker held the golden key to open the door to their project/dream. In this play (a pitch is a play) they cast themselves as impotent.

Both themes were unconscious. Both were based on assumptions of lack.

Every artist, if they are to thrive, must reorient at some point in the arc of their career. They must leave behind orientating according to what they might get from the world and reorient according to what they bring to the world.

Grant makers, foundations, investors and auditors have no power over an artist – unless, of course, the artist is oriented in the relationship according to what they might get from the relationship. At best, a granter can support a route. They might open a pathway to fulfilling an idea. There are hundreds of routes. There is one dreamer. The responsibility for manifesting the dream is the dreamers not the granters.

No one need apologize for his or her dream. No one need justify why it is important. It is a dream. It is an idea. It is a desire. No one else need approve; the approval belongs to the dreamer.

The students and I discussed the power of bringing the dream to the world. We played with the perspective shift that happens when artists own the responsibility for their dreams and refuse to define their role as impotent. Bring the dream. Stop seeking your worth in the responses of others. Bring it. The granter will fund it or not and that should have no impact on whether the dream is pursued or not. Bring your best game. Bring it everyday. If you have a dream, create it. There are many routes. Explore them all and in each case pitch your best game.

Drop The Story

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

Skip came home from a weekend workshop with poet David Whyte carrying a few good questions. He told me about the workshop and shared the questions and this one made me catch my breath; I’ve been thinking about it for weeks: What is the old story that you need to let go? Flip the question and ask it another way: What do you get from hanging on to an old story that no longer serves you (this is the question I think educators need to ask – a post for another time)?

Often in my coaching practice I hear clients argue for their limitations. Do you remember the line from Richard Bach’s book, Jonathon Livingston Seagull: “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they are yours.” Old stories are arguments for limitations. Old stories are like a too small cocoon; the struggle to push through to the new story is precisely what makes our wings strong.

We hang on to things that no longer serve us because they are known. They are comfortable. At least that is the easy answer. The deeper truth is that letting go of old stories invites new stories and along with new stories come new identities. Along with new stories come new powers, responsibility and ownership. Power, responsibility, and ownership are things that people say that they want but generally avoid until pushed; life in the cocoon is sweet – lot’s of naps and no culpability – although the price is withered potential and frustration.

What is the old story that you need to let go? What if no one else was responsible for your happiness or your success? What if your circumstances were just that, circumstances? This will sound as if it is a new topic but consider this experiment: turn off your television for a few months and check your personal email only once a day. Detox from the electronic time-fillers. What questions come up when you are no longer anesthetized? What patterns change? What limitations will you need to transcend when you can no longer ignore them or drown out their call?