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My bad

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That last post was supposed to go to my personal blog. I haven’t been able to write in here ever since I had to (temporarily, I hope) give up the nonprofit thing in pursuit of fixing my brain stuff.

Peace and love and good tidings!

resolutions

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New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday. I absolutely revel in the entire cheeseball affair. I love spending the evening with friends; I love the optimism; I love the promises that haven’t fallen by the wayside yet. I love the possibility of the next year stretching before me like fresh, untouched snow. I love the ritual of toasting the future. I love the sense of forgiveness and the palpable feeling of pressing forward with open eyes. I love that at the stroke of midnight, for the first time all year, everybody is synchronously in the moment. Think about that. We aren’t a Buddhist society and that just doesn’t happen on a regular basis. 

And I love the resolutions. The energy and excitement of planning always outstrips the slog of the follow-through, but nonetheless, there they are: a list of ways in which we’re planning on growing, on learning, on proving we’re not dead yet. It’s a way of affirming that we are still children, still in school, still shifting and connecting our delicate and beautiful little neurons. There are mountains to push and tiny habitual rivers to re-channel. Our New Year’s resolutions are the flowers that we lay at the alter of neuroplasticity, our prayers to the gods of the brain. 

The nature of my religion, if I have one, is rooted in my wholehearted faith in that entire wormy mess of fibers and synapses. New Year’s Eve, for me, is the most sacred and spiritual holiday. And my resolutions are the tokens I scatter to the wind to show my appreciation for the dynamic reminder that for the duration of our lives, we never have to finish. We can always have more: more knowledge, more compassion, more love. More artistic skills or musical ability. Our minds, in tandem with the unsullied future, are a limitless wealth of opportunity. 

That’s awe-inspiring. 

That’s why I write New Year’s resolutions. 

The Neurological Poetry of Leadership (Part One)

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This is the second post in a row in which I’ll be referencing something I wrote in the past. Forgive me; I’ve been looking at a lot of old stuff lately. This is something I wrote about two years ago about the way the brain works, while I was trying to explore what was happening to me (I had anxiety at the time):

“Reading about the brain is like reading poetry: the words come together and you see yourself in them and one by one, various glimpses of understanding emerge. You read about how our neurons don’t really regenerate or change like the rest of our cells, and that we’ve had the same neurons since infancy, and you think, “yes, that’s right. That’s why the ‘me’ has been consistent since childhood, even throughout the development of more complex thought. That’s why I’ll still feel like ‘me’ when I’m 70, even under a collection of new experiences.”

“Such comfort in the consistency of self.

“You read about how the limbic system, our mammalian brain, our emotional and instinctual and deep animal side, is the first thing to develop. The emotional connections the limbic system forms in infancy will remain with us for the rest of our lives, despite the ongoing growth and development of our cerebral cortex, our “human” side. You picture yourself holding an infant in your arms and smiling at them, kissing them, cooing to them, “my sweet baby, I’m going to create the most positive connections a limbic system has ever seen.”

“Such romance.

“You read about the left brain versus the right brain, and the right brain sounds so very spiritual, and the left brain sounds so very necessary. The right brain is the “big picture” side, the “oneness” side, the “now” side. It seems to me that time only exists in the left brain; or linear time, anyway. It’s the left brain’s responsibility to absorb and sort billions of pieces of data, to make sense of them, assign them language and give them a context. It’s the left brain’s job to align your body in space and to sort information into a “before” and a “now” and a “tomorrow.” With the right brain, it’s just now, now, now, and I’m assuming that’s why so much creativity originates from the right brain: with no context, you can just invent new ideas. They can just explode out of your head and the left brain will crawl over them and categorize them later.

“Such symbiotic beauty.

“The left brain understands words and the right brain intuits body language. The more developed your right brain, the greater your empathy, the greater your ability to spot a lie, the greater your capacity for reading emotions. I can bet any amount of money that when my sister was having her seizures, it was her left brain that suffered; and when her darling plasticity took over, it was her right brain that overcompensated.

“Such a gift, my sister’s brain.

“Finally, you read about the amygdala, one of the deepest and most ancient parts of our brain. Located in the very basement of the limbic system, the amygdala are our little almond-shaped vehicles for processing fear. The amygdala will tell us when situations are unfamiliar and therefore threatening. It’s up to parts of the cerebral cortext to step in immediately and say, “no, this is familiar. It’s okay.

“The exchange must look like this:

“Is this new? No, this is familiar.

“Is this new? No, this is familiar.

“Is this new? No, this is familiar. Everything is okay. Everything is fine.

“So, during bouts of anxiety I can only imagine my brain must be doing this:

“This is new. This is new. This is new.

“And I like that, the refreshing sense of wonder of it all. It makes me feel like a child in the best possible way, and I hope I never lose that gift. This newness, more than the effortless creativity of the right brain or the rich language of the left brain, makes it possible for me to write.

“And then you put your book down and you sleep well that night, convinced that there is a reason for why we behave the way we do and equally convinced that we can retrain parts of our brain if we need to. And you take comfort in the knowledge that when we die our right brain will take over and we’ll be “one,” and we’ll be “now,” and we’ll be I am, I am, I am.

“Such a lovely song, such a poetic bedtime story.”

I’ve learned a lot since then. And I want to talk about it, at length, in another post. But for now, reading this over strikes me – not as something that comforts me, which it does. And not as something that justifies tough emotions or anxiety, which it also does. But it’s more than that. To me, it teaches me how to lead. I’m going to repeat this ad nauseam: it is only through understanding the human mind that you can understand anything at all. Including teaching. Including leadership.Including business. Including nonprofits.  And I have thoughts, practical thoughts, business-oriented thoughts, about what this piece means to me. But for now I want to share the poetry, my non-practical, poetic self, and hope you understand. I’ll write more soon.

Intrinsic Motivators

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I was parsing through some old writing last night, and I found something I had scribbled on a napkin (cliche but yes, I’m that girl) three years ago, when I was living and working in Seattle:

“Walking to work today, for the first time in months I experienced a breath of the Seattle I moved to last March. Maybe it was the time of day, the movement of noon after a morning of working from home and drinking tea. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was stumbling through three parks that I never knew existed. Whatever it was, a wave of the initial March energy washed over me and my heart hurt, my like I was listening to a beautiful song, like I was singing and playing the guitar with Marius, like it did when I left Portland, and I felt hope. That’s a good sign, I think.

“Days like today make me want to drink too much coffee, to push all those feelings to the point of tipping and explore how it’s possible for happiness and sadness to feel so tangled up in each other sometimes. I think it relates to nostalgia, somehow.

“Work swallows that intensity as soon as I walk in the door, though. The eight hours a day that I’m in the office smooths everything into a professional state of numbness, the gravity pulling and draining my energy long after I’m home. I don’t know how to fit this unwieldy pit of time into the rest of my life. It doesn’t integrate seamlessly; it just drops, plodding, into the very center. The shards of what’s left – giddy songwriting between $1 PBRs, scooter rides on sunny days, shamelessly hip dance parties – vie for attention and finally fade away. Meanwhile, the only thing left to do is resent the mysterious force that leveled the frenetic energy and the moments of peace and reflection between, plowing creativity and leaving an orderly office building in its wake.”

This scratchy little piece of writing means something to me for two reasons. First, it reminds me how much I used to love all the little things when I lived in Seattle. I’ll always reference my time in Seattle as the best two years of my life, and there’s a huge part of me that wants to chalk it up to the place itself, to the salty fresh air, and move back. But it’s not that simple, and that last paragraph is the second reason this piece is meaningful to me: I used to have a really hard time reconciling work and life. And I still do sometimes. When things are the worst, I try to examine them the most mindfully, because that’s when I learn the most about what motivates me and how I think I’ll be able to motivate other people in the future. Here’s what I’m learning: it’s really natural for people to turn to a dichotomy of “work vs life” unless you help them smooth over the line. That doesn’t mean longer hours, though. I think for me, it comes down to what Dan Pink calls intrinsic motivators: feeling a sense of internal worth, purpose, and autonomy. Extrinsic motivators – carrots and sticks, bonuses or punishment – don’t work so well on me, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn I’m with the majority on that one. That whole TED Talk is wonderful, by the way.

When I started to think about intrinsic motivators and the Great Exchange, I wanted to let myself off the hook, because my immediate assumption was that all nonprofits have an intrinsic motivator built in (helping people). But I think that might actually be another extrinsic motivator in disguise.  What actually motivates me, intrinsically, is to have the freedom to work exactly how my complicated, beautiful little brain wants to work. I like working intelligently. I like working efficiently. I like working creatively and happily. I don’t like wasting time in meetings or putting in long hours to try proving my worth. And if this all sounds totally obvious, then look at the average American workplace.

It’s fascinating to read about the brain and discover how many workplace rules and systems go directly against the grain of our neurology. There’s another great TED Talk called Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work that illustrates one of these points really well; he points out that humans are phase-based workers just like they’re phase-based sleepers. So, being interrupted all day at work is pretty much the productive equivalent of having a sleep disorder. I should talk to you sometime about how well sleep disorders work out for people. Allowing people to manage their own time seems like such a simple concept. 

Anyway. When I talk about this stuff, the line is so blurry between workplace management and educational policy that sometimes I can’t tell if I want to run an organization or start a damn school. But I think it’s cool that all of this research can apply to both. I think we’d have much better leaders if we started teaching people, early and often, about the human mind.

My (Authentic) Nonprofit Resolution

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I should begin by mentioning that my overall New Year’s resolution is to be more authentic. I’m not even sure if I have a deep enough understanding of what I mean by that to explain it, but I think a lot of it has to do with behaving more like the introvert I am and less like the extrovert I want to be. Maybe it’s as simple as really feeling how exhausted social interactions make me, without passing judgement on the feeling or trying to push through it. Or maybe it’s as complicated as forcing myself to write again – not blog, but write. Blogging has an affected nature to it, because you’re always thinking about what people might want to read, what information would be useful, what’s going to keep people coming back. Writing, which is much more vulnerable and much, much more frightening, is something I probably haven’t done in years.

So bearing that in mind, here’s a resolution related to the Great Exchange that feels authentic to me: Lead like a teacher.

Some of my favorite people in the world are teachers. They’re the ones who noticed my good qualities before I did and unraveled them so subtly and magically that I didn’t even realize they were doing it. I did my work well in school not because I cared about being a good student, but because I wanted to make my teachers happy. To this day, I can sum up the feeling of receiving praise and how good it felt; it’s a content, warm ripple in my mind that moves to my hands and encourages me to keep doing whatever I was doing to warrant that kind of encouragement. And it never, ever had anything to do with turning in work or receiving a grade.

I even started keeping a notebook in high school about things I wanted to do for my students if I became a teacher, often shamelessly ripping off the tactics of some of my own favorites. I had an English teacher, for example, who kept an old, faded, and weirdly comfortable armchair in the corner of the room that he called the “Ugly Red Chair of Reflection.” If a student was having a bad day or even just needed some time to think, he or she could tune out of class for the day, sit in the chair, and write. No questions asked. And the teacher never needed to see what the student was writing. How amazing is that? It’s such an understated but powerful way to tell your students that you’re there to teach and they’re there to learn but you get it; they have a life, and it can get hard sometimes. And sometimes, because students are human beings who exist in a world that’s much bigger than a classroom, they just need some time to untangle their thoughts. To sit with themselves and push through their discomfort without interruption, and grow.

I don’t want to be a teacher anymore but the inclination to understand learning styles, and people in general, is still there. Beautifully enough, all of the qualities that I’ve admired in my teachers can be translated to any leadership role, be it a business owner or a person who’s trying to mobilize a very small nonprofit. I don’t think it’s patronizing at all to consider employees as students, to view office time classroom time, and to hunt down and encourage exceptional qualities the same way a teacher would. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that positive interactions will lead to great work in the same way that mutual respect will lead to a good grade. And I don’t think it would be unreasonable to have an Ugly Red Chair of Reflection in the workplace.

So I’m done reading leadership books and I’ve moved on to teaching manuals. Neurology books. Mindfulness practices. Anything that can more authentically get to the heart of how people operate and how we can create something beautiful together. Great work isn’t the goal; it’s the bi-product. The goal is happiness, which means doing for people what my teachers did for me: really seeing them.

 

A Note About the “Weird Kids”

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The shooting in Newtown affected me deeply, as it did many people. I think most of us are desensitized to the news by now, but we don’t have a frame of reference for the mass murder of children in our country, and it hit us all in a spot in our hearts for which we haven’t built up any armor. Regarding most parts of this situation, I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said articulately by other people. But as more and more details come out about the shooter, Adam Lanza, I do have something to say about his inevitable portrayal in the media as a “weird kid” who was “quiet, shy….socially awkward.” The New York Times even irresponsibly repeated his classmates’ speculation that he had Autism or another developmental disorder.

When something tragic happens, it is natural to search for reasons or answers. But it’s so, so dangerous for the media to start correlating “weirdness” or social awkwardness with a crime of this magnitude. Among the weird kids, and among humanity in general, this guy is an outlier. I know reporters are trying to do their jobs, but there are more responsible ways to discuss mental health issues than to imply that every quiet, awkward, or different person we come across might be capable of something like this. People listen to media reports and simplify. That’s why stereotypes are so easy to create, and why racist or discriminatory backlash occurs whenever a minority group is in the news for hurting other people.

So, just so we’re clear, there is nothing wrong with being a weird kid. If the shooter was in fact Autistic, it says nothing about Autism in general. The only group of people he represents is the one that has easier access to guns than they do to community support.

And for the record, every single weird kid I’ve ever known has grown up to do amazing things and change the world in profoundly positive ways. I’m so proud of them, and join them – and everybody else – in grieving this loss.

You’re never too old for mentors

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One of my tasks today is to make a list of five or so people in the Austin area who I really look up to and want to ask for help. I used to think that having mentors was a privilege that only young people can have, but now I understand it’s for everybody. When I look back on my life in Portland, my mentors were the ones who made all the difference. There were Brett and Amy, two genius filmmakers whose humor and tenacity taught me so much about running a business. And Jenn, my boss at the NELA Center. And about half of my classmates at the Northwest Institute for Social Change, even though they’re my age. And my big brother Marius, proof that gods can walk around on this planet in human form. And a whole host of other people who have easily and gracefully inspired me with their ability to live creatively and help other people in the process.

I’m missing that element in Austin, so I’m going to do some digging today. On my short list is a woman named Linda, who works here; and the awesome people who started Center 61. And even though he lives in Portland, I really, reeeeeeeeally want to talk to Stephen Marc Beaudoin, who started the best nonprofit ever and appears to be friends (of the Facebook variety) with about half of my friends.

If I can snag interviews with people like this, I’ll post them on my blog so you can read the words of people who have actually started stuff, and aren’t just attempting to. I’ll report back soon!

I am convinced that everything good in this world exists in the mind.

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If I could sum up the goal that isn’t on the list of the Great Exchange’s official goals, it’s to train people to bump up against the quirks that exist in the brain and forgive them. The more extreme cognitive differences are the easiest to notice and accept, and once you pull back from there, the subtle differences between all of us are easier to accept too. My sister, for example, does some frustrating things because her impulse control isn’t wired like the rest of ours. And by that, I mean I’m not entirely sure if it’s there. Literally. It could have been tied to the part of her brain that was removed.

One of her classmates is overtly blunt and comes across as quirky and rude. That’s because he’s Autistic and his brain’s rubric for social interaction isn’t the same as that of a non-Autistic person’s. Another classmate can’t contain himself when he gets excited. He’ll scream and shout and bang on the chairs. It’s perfectly natural, but the rest of us react to situations more quietly. We may be in the majority, but at the end of the day the rules that govern the “right” behaviors and interactions are pretty arbitrary.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If you can boil a behavioral, social, or intellectual difference down to something like brain wiring, then you are less quick to judge. There’s more than the brain, of course – the way people were raised, the experiences that line their faces, the mantras they’ve been repeating to themselves – but once you’re trained to start looking, you can build from there. The ultimate goal is that no matter who you interact with, friend or  coworker or stranger, you’ll be able to say, “The way in which your brain allows you to look at the world is fundamentally different from the way mine does, and that’s okay.”

Most of us aren’t there – I certainly am not – but at least I’ve had the privilege of growing up with someone who could teach me to start looking. I think she could teach a lot of other people to start looking, too, if only she had the chance to meet them. She’s my brain sage.

This was supposed to be a post about something I read in a Muhammad Yunus article, but I’ m really tired; and when I’m tired, I default to the mind. I find it incredibly soothing, like a bedtime story or a prayer.

What can special education teach us about nonprofit leadership?

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A lot, I would argue. A special education teacher’s job is to assess the individual learning styles and needs of each of her students, and create learning systems in which each person can thrive. IEPs, for example, outline a specific set of action items based on a thorough assessment of a student’s goals and abilities. Or they should, anyway; some programs are better than others. In the business world, IEPs are called “Performance Plans,” except they’re not as individualized and they’re not always mutually beneficial. They’re usually just a series of goals that will improve the company along with a financial reward if and when the goals are met (or sometimes, repercussions if they aren’t). That’s great if your business:

a. Has a lot of money to give, and
b. Works with employees who value the financial reward above other benefits

But because most nonprofit leaders won’t be working in a world where both a and b are true, they need to get a little more creative with their employees. And by “creative,” I mean “totally intuitive if you just focus on getting to know your employee and what s/he wants and needs.” That’s what IEPs are so good for. When I worked for Americorps, we didn’t really get paid a very livable wage, but one thing we did get was the privilege of devoting a certain amount of time every week to personal and professional development. This meant we could work on projects, take classes, volunteer at other organizations, meet with other people in our field, and just generally feel like our lives as well-rounded, multi-faceted people were being respected. For me, this made all the difference; incidentally, it’s also how I came up with the idea for the Great Exchange and started working on it.

If and when I’m lucky enough to hire employees, I’m never going to presume that their entire lives exist at the Great Exchange. It’ll be a lot more fun for all of us if we see each other as people. I really believe that people who work at nonprofits are motivated by being seen. Well, all people who work anywhere are probably motivated by that. I think it’s undervalued by a lot of leaders, though, and that the basic concept of empathy becomes replaced by band-aid solutions and abstract explanations of where the organization is going.

So, you want to be a good leader with happy employees? Here’s what I propose:

Sit in on a special education class. Notice how many unique learning styles there are and how many people react in different ways to different stimuli. Notice how the teacher treats each student as an individual. Notice how the language gets tailored to each kid, notice the use of visual cues and the amount of space each student is given. And then scale back and realize that, in a much more subtle way, your employees are just like this.

One of the reasons I think non-disabled people can learn so much from disabled people is because people who have intellectual or social disabilities are a more extreme, and very illustrative, example of how we all have brains that work differently. And if you look at any great leader, you’ll probably notice that they understand this concept very well. I’m not completely there yet, but I hope to get there when I’m ready to lead.

Oh, nothing.

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…Just daydreaming about what the future Great Exchange office will look like, and deciding that it will most definitely contain a puppy room. Good thing we have some inspiration:

 

puppy room inspiration

Martha and Truman, one of my family’s dogs

Small Pleasures

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…That pure, utter thrill of joy I felt today upon checking my Great Exchange email account and receiving three inquiries from people who had found the program independently. One from a special needs case worker who wants a job at the Great Exchange (to which I had to sadly reply that our budget is literally 0, for the time being), one from a parent of a disabled 19-year-old who’s interested in the program, and one from a group of students at Rice University who want to volunteer with the Great Exchange on their Spring Break.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt such gratitude for the small push of forward momentum via a source that seems completely out of my hands. And on the day before Thanksgiving, of all times. Thank you, thank you, thank you random emailers. May you always help me rejoice in the simple (profound?) pleasure of reaching people.

And thank you, blog readers, for joining me on this slow and steady journey. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Why People Donate

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been taking meditation and mindfulness classes at the Austin Zen Center. I started because of my interest in the neurological benefits of meditation, and stayed for the amazing people. It seems like every day I’m there, new ideas crop up about what mindfulness means within the context of social-emotional learning and how I can apply it to the Great Exchange. I’m especially interested in doing some research on mindfulness and Autism.

Anyway, while I came to the Zen Center prepared to experience epiphanies about the brain, myself, relationships, and our collective role as members of the same planet, I wasn’t prepared to hear the most concise explanation I’ve ever heard for why people donate to a charity or organization. One Saturday, after a meditation sitting and a Dharma Talk (a relatively nonsecular sermon about how we can become more compassionate) the Head Priest stood up to make some announcements. And at the end he asked, very humbly, for people to donate to the Zen Center if they had the means to do so. And he said something along the lines of, “I’m not saying this to get you to donate, but I’d like to point out how many people feel committed after giving a donation. And when you feel committed, you feel like you belong to that community.”

It was the softest “ask” I’ve ever heard, but the link from financial contribution to commitment to connection struck a chord with me, and I donated.

To raise money for a nonprofit, you combine a lot of storytelling with hard numbers; you’ll zoom in on one clear image of a person who was deeply impacted by your organization, and you’ll tell the story compassionately. People connect to this. You can then back your impact up with data, to prove that the one story isn’t an anomaly, and to infer that if you zoom out from there, you’ll hit many other data points that tell a similar story. That’s how we raise money, and we know this. But a more fundamental question to ask is, why does that work? And I think you’re selling the explanation short if you say that it simply appeals to a person’s emotions and moves them to act.

At the heart of the matter, I think, it’s that need to connect. People give because they want to be part of something; and if they donate to your nonprofit, then that “something” is your community. That’s really, really special. So in a way, your goal as a nonprofit organization isn’t just to help your clients heal and grow and learn; it’s to help your donors heal and grow and learn, too. Because we’re all just people and we all want to connect to each other.

At the end of a recent Thursday-night class at the Zen Center, my teacher read us this poem by Hafiz:

“Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
‘Love me.’
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
Language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear?”

I think it would be really revolutionary to let businesses and nonprofits start speaking that sweet moon language, too.

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