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Category Archives: Philosophical Musings

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.

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.

I’m Trying to Find a Way to Responsibly Wrap Up Yesterday’s Kony Discussion

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…before my blog fades back into internet obscurity. People are asking a lot of great questions, and yesterday’s blog post went kinda viral because of that (also because of a link from Visible Children). I’m aware of the nature of viral sharing, which means I have approximately two seconds to communicate anything I want while I’m still standing in the spotlight’s shadow. I think I’ll say this:

I am not an authority on Uganda. This guy is. The only authority I have to even write about Invisible Children as a nonprofit is that I care a lot about transparency and nonprofit behavior. A lot of people who consider themselves advocates choose a focus and then become knowledgable enough to fight for it, and my focus is on disability rights. My sister has spent years and years teaching me about it, so it comes naturally (and if you’re playing along at home, yes, I’m applying metonymy to my sister and me).

What I do have a solid grasp on, though, is film, pop culture, and marketing. It’s sort of what I do when I’m not trying to start a nonprofit. I would like to believe I do it responsibly, but I’ve also taken a series of wacky “test paths” as I tried to figure out how to make a positive impact. I’ll be honest; I was never able to put enough time or energy into film to reach a place where I could use it to make a difference, and I really admire the people who can.

The side effect of spending a long time thinking that filmmaking would be my path, though, is spending about five years studying all the how’s and why’s of film and impact: how is it beautiful, how is it dangerous, how can we allow ourselves to be deeply moved while also trying to consider the people who sit just outside the frame of a movie or a YouTube video?

So again, I am not qualified to speak to the issues surrounding Joseph Kony. I am, however, qualified to think critically about the abundance of sensory input I receive each day. We all are. The Kony 2012 campaign was the lens of the conversation because from an activism and advocacy standpoint, it is probably the biggest viral social media campaign we have ever seen. People are scrambling for for a way to interpret what just happened because there is no precedent for this. But do you know what does have a precedent?

This type of image.

Sudan, 1993 and Kony 2012

Kevin Carter--Sudan, 1993

Taken by Kevin Carter, Sudan, 1993 was a quintessentially iconic image that circled the world. People saw it and became rightfully horrified. The child in the photo, of indeterminate sex, suddenly represented every child not just in Sudan, but in the entire continent (also, she’s a girl). People instinctively drew a “predator v. prey” inference because of their natural reversion to archetypes, and the photo became a widespread symbol of starvation.

The Save the Children Foundation appropriated the photo and used it on their donor brochures accompanied by the headline, “Stop a Different Kind of Child Abuse.” Save The Children’s use of the photo suggested a “starving Africa” in need of aid, which was not simply offensive; it was also an incorrect interpretation of the photo. David Perlmutter later noted in his book Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises that the famine the photo reflected was most likely the result of a civil war that raged in the region at the time. Further, in 1993, Save The Children had no outposts in Sudan.

For good measure, I’m going to throw in one more image that sets a precedent:

our response to images

I so badly want to love you...

This is a spider. With the exception of a small, brave subset of the human population (myself not included), do you know what we do when we see one of these guys? Our pulse quickens; we abandon whatever we’re doing; and we look for the fastest way to get it the hell out of our vicinity. This is no doubt evolutionary; our biologically constructed reality is such that when we see a threatening thing or animal, we react instantaneously. We don’t have to think. It doesn’t matter if most of the spiders we encounter every day are harmless; once the fear seed is planted, the reaction prevails.

What does this have to do with film and the media? Well, the visual and emotional medium draws upon the same receptors, and we react in the same way: instantaneously. But in this case, unlike that of our reaction to a potential threat, we do have to think. And the questions I raised, with regards to a campaign designed to produce an emotional, knee-jerk reaction, are good ones to start with as we think past our immediate responses.

Always seek the bigger context. Always, always, always. That’s the message I’d like to impart, as a tiny blogger who has a bigger platform than usual for a couple of seconds. Oh, and go check out The Great Exchange. I think you’ll like it.

An Unexpected Lesson About My Social Network

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using your social network for social good

Jesse Eisenberg! You're never going to believe what The Great Exchange has been up to!

I’ve always been extremely happy with my talented and supportive network of friends. The last two nonprofits I’ve worked for have asked me, at various points, to use my lovely social network to seek in-kind donations or drum up support. I saw nothing wrong with this, because I certainly backed the mission of each respective nonprofit and I was happy to get the word out. However, I promoted the organizations in the most passive way possible, which is to say, I occasionally splashed their name on my Facebook wall and told people to follow the cause.

At the time, I was convinced that I was passive with my social network because I knew I wanted to start my own organization someday; I understood that I would eventually be leveraging this exact same network to promote my own cause, and I was wary of fatiguing them beforehand by requesting them to support too many other organizations.

Now that The Great Exchange is a reality, I’m surprised to learn that I’m still passive with my social network. Will this change over time? I really can’t say. I went into this project assuming my friends would ardently support my cause because, well, because they’re my friends. That was a fairly natural assumption, but it’s not quite accurate. My friends support me because they’re my friends. What they support beyond that–cause or otherwise–is entirely up to them. And I can see a certain negative trap coming from miles away, one where I start to believe that the degree to which my friends support The Great Exchange will directly reflect how they feel about me.

The Great Exchange is personal, so if I tie it to my friends, I am prone to begin taking their measure of support for The Great Exchange, well, personally. And that’s not fair: to them, to the organization, or to my sanity.

For the strength and sustainability of everything involved, it is imperative that I build a second network, separate from the one that I know and love so dearly. This second network will consist of people who are interested in disability rights first, not in me. There will always be overlap, of course, but passion for the cause–or for social entrepreneurship, compassion, woman leaders, the Austin community, etc–is paramount.

I always knew I’d be reaching out to other disability rights advocates, community-oriented businesspeople, and nonprofit directors I admire in order to widen my network. I just didn’t realize how important it would be to start compartmentalizing the different elements of my social life. I’m so excited to start my outreach push; it’s going to lead to a strong, happy organization.

Why Entrepreneurs Watch Bad Television

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the social entrepreneur's brain is like a dolphin

Much like a start-up, this guy never sleeps.

If you’re running a start-up, then your start-up is pretty much on your mind all the time. Even if your thoughts are engaged elsewhere–making rent by working 30-40 hours per week for another company, for example–your own start-up is still crouching in the shadows, waiting to emerge when any tangentially related feedback is triggered. It’s like there are two streams, not one, constantly running through your mind: the one in which you’re part of the present moment, kicking ass at your job or conversing with a friend at a bar or walking your dog in the sunshine; and the start-up one, which is always on notice.

This is true with one exception: when you’re watching TV. In my experience, television is one of the only things that puts my brain into a nearly worthless state. I don’t even get that luxury when I’m sleeping, because I dream about The Great Exchange. It can’t be any television show, though; it has to be the most banal, coma-inducing nonsense on the air. I find that reality TV works great.

If you want further proof that The Great Exchange is always “working,” here’s a sample page of the notebook I keep next to my bed:

An entrepreneur's brainstorm

This is all from a period of a few hours.

So here’s to you, Ben from “The Bachelor.” Thank you for saving my sanity by providing me with a much-needed 120 minutes a week of empty brain space. And the girls you keep sending home are too good for you, anyway.

Zen and the Art of Grant Applications

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I just sent off my first grant application! And I learned something very important in the process.

Well, it was technically an award application, but if I receive it, I’ll get $5,000 for The Great Exchange. I discovered the award within one day of the deadline, so the process of writing it was a five-hour, 11-page, mind like water experience of trying to reiterate my passion over and over in meaningful ways.

As I send off my heart, categorized and packaged into a strange, evaluator-friendly format, I’m a little surprised that I’m utterly empty of expectations. Of course I’d love to secure the first small chunk of The Great Exchange’s budget. Of course I would. But I’m simply not expecting to receive this grant, nor am I expecting not to.

I’m just happy that in a couple months, I won’t have to wonder about what would have happened, had I only submitted this application. I hate “what-if’s.” I hate them so much that every time I go to my favorite restaurant in Austin I try a new dish, despite knowing exactly what my favorite dish is.

Today, after this submission, more than feeling excited or nervous or hopeful, I feel content. I suppose you could call it the sheer enjoyment of eliminating a “what if.”

I’m glad I arrived at this feeling naturally, because it seems like a fairly profound way to avoid becoming defeated. I think the process of applying for grants will be much easier when I see each grant not as a make-it-or-break-it means to an end, but as another “what if” put to bed.

100 grants won or lost won’t be 100 grants won or lost; they’re just 100 ways in which I won’t have to wonder anymore.