Hello, Life Experiment #3 (plus an update).

laser cut cubes

In this Year of Experiments, the past month was about Creating Order, and in fact, some order has been created, though–as The Organizer warned me there might be, lots remains to be done.

Here’s what my basement looked like then.

The Organizer takes stock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what it looks like now:

As they say in 12-step programs, it’s about progress not perfection.

That being said, here is what I’ve found: Order is calming. Order is freeing. Order is something I want. Order is also, as one friend noted, always a work-in-progress. It’s a habit, not a goal.

As it happens, the same is also true of the act of forging human connections–the focus of Life Experiment #1, where I connected (or re-connected) with 30 people over the course of January. Much more to be said about that, but for now, just to note that this practice also underscored for me the importance of habit.

So here’s the bottom line: where I started envisioning this Year of Experiments as consecutive, I’m increasingly starting to see it as cumulative.  Spending some time–in this case, a month–consciously focusing on a quality that enriches my life is sort of like planting a seed.

And now for Life Experiment #3, which is about seeing more (and seeing differently) and framing (and re-framing).  Or to put it in concrete terms, during this month, I’ll be taking at least one photograph each day.

There are a bunch of reasons I settled on this particular Life Experiment.

For one thing, I got a new camera a few months back, and I’ve yet to really use it. For another–and this is a big one–I’ve just started co-teaching a photo and writing workshop for foster kids and am awed by what I’m reading and seeing. I won’t say much more about that–their stories are theirs–but this is another way to connect with what they’re doing.

I also know from past experience that using a camera opens up the world in new and unexpected ways. Years ago, I spent some summer weeks at the Maine Photographic Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops), and I recall a pervasive sense of heightened awareness. Thought it occurs to me that this may not be saying much–I am someone whose boyfriend once shaved his mustache for her as a birthday gift (It was not my favorite look) and I failed to notice. That is until he told me that the mysterious gift he’d been hinting at for hours was “right under your nose–or rather under my nose.”

So clearly, I can use some practice with this seeing thing. As always, you’re welcome to join me. I hope that you will.

The Dog Days of Plan B Nation

I met Jan on Facebook through our friend Betsy, and the three of us planned a dinner together, but then Betsy stood us up.

So we sat there in a cozy booth at Casablanca, a Harvard Square restaurant, exchanging tentative smiles and casting about for conversation.

“This is sort of like a blind date!” Jan said, officially breaking the ice. Soon the words were flowing. By the end of the meal, we were friends.

While our lives are quite different in many ways—I’m single, she’s married with three kids, among other things—we also have much in common, including literary tastes, curiosity, and a dry sense of humor. During the past year or so, we’ve also been fellow travelers in Plan B Nation. Here, Jan shares some thoughts on her journey—and a furry guy who’s helping her through it.  

 

 

 

 

By Jan Devereux

This Valentine’s Day I sent my 23-year-old son a card with a photo of a young man and his dog sitting side-by-side, wearing identical frizzy red wigs: “May you never grow to look like the one you love,” the card teased. With neither a sweetheart nor a pooch, my son is in no imminent danger of this romantic peril. The joke was on me, as it’s certainly no secret that his old lady has been crushing on her puppy lately.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I’ve yet begun to resemble my dog, physically, but I have begun to recognize, and even embrace, a few emotional parallels. If you’ve ever lived with a dog, I don’t have to tell you that change stresses them out. Dogs thrive with a predictable routine, well-defined expectations and limits, and consistent, positive reinforcement. As dog trainers know only too well, many “problem” dogs are merely reacting to challenging circumstances created by humans.

Fellow citizens of Plan B Nation, is this starting to sound familiar?

The challenge of being between jobs in today’s economy is stressful enough to make us all behave like this dog:

Photo credit: Tastefully Offensive.com's Tumblr

Now, if I actually were a dog, I’d probably be a Border collie. Bright, hard-working and a quick study, I like to be busy and to get things done. A straight-A student straight through graduate school, I was the (admittedly annoying) girl who always did all the assigned reading before class and finished her term papers before the due date. Laser-focused on my studies and too much of a worrywart to procrastinate, I managed to earn two Ivy League diplomas with honors and without ever pulling an all-nighter. I’m still punctual to a fault, the party guest who habitually arrives unfashionably early.

I’ve always worked—being a stay-at-home mother for a few years doesn’t count as “not working” unless you think meeting the 24/7 demands of three young children is a walk in the park. I went back to paid office work when my youngest child, now 17, started preschool. Most nights, I went to bed dog-tired, but I usually awoke excited to tackle whatever the next day might bring.

When I left my most recent job, as director of communications at an independent school, I experienced an initial rush of exhilaration, like a dog unleashed. There were so many avenues I wanted to explore, both professionally and personally, so many paths beckoned that it seemed as if it might even be hard to choose among them! After a few months, however, it gradually dawned on me that, especially in this economy, the choosing was not entirely up to me. Without a job to provide the scaffolding for my days, a clear purpose to guide my actions, and the reward for a job well done, I felt like a dog cut loose from the pack.

Worse, by focusing all my energy on finding the right job, I’d inadvertently created a dynamic that was bound to frustrate a goal-oriented person, at least in the short-term. Picture the Border collie faced with a field full of plastic lawn sheep: I eventually realized I could exhaust myself trying to herd inanimate objects, or I could reframe the problem.

I needed an interim project with a more certain payoff. So, naturally, getting a puppy seemed like the solution! There were plenty of good reasons not to add the distraction of raising a puppy while I was supposed to be figuring out my next act, professionally. But, the fact is, getting Eddie was the one of the smartest decisions I’ve could have made.

Training and bonding with Eddie these past months, I’ve re-discovered the restorative power of friendship, canine and human. Now I organize my day around our walks with friends who have dogs. If you’ve read Gail Caldwell’s poignant memoir of walking with her best friend, the late Caroline Knapp, and their dogs, then you’ll be able to picture us following in their footsteps at Fresh Pond. Its title, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is what one of my friends always says when we reach the point where the path loops around a wildflower meadow. Having a ready excuse to get away from my computer and out in the fresh air has been a lifesaver.

Eddie has also been my inspiration for a new creative project, a blog called Cambridge Canine. I’d been looking for a focus for my writing and found plenty of fresh material right at the other end of the leash. They say, “write what you know” –well, dogs are what I know best right now. The blog may never claim a huge following, but the posts are fun to write, and the occasional encouraging comment or Facebook “like” is reward enough to keep me in the hunt.

A recent health scare underscored that we can never be certain what will happen next; like players in a game of Whac-a-Mole, we slap down one stressor only to see another pop up. Watching my dog cavort with his friends is a daily reminder that life is lived most fully in the moment. My professional future is still in limbo, but when I’m out walking Eddie, I try to stop worrying so much about where I’m heading and focus instead on enjoying the journey as much as he does.

Recently, a friend remarked, “My dog is my sanity.” I couldn’t agree more.

How to get out of bed

Day 7

Mornings have been hard for me lately. I’m not exactly sure why. My life hasn’t really changed much. The same things are difficult. The same things are good. If anything, some of the good things have gotten a bit more good. So why have I been waking up in a state of despondent gloom? And, more to the point, what can I do to make things a little bit lighter?

Mulling over these questions the last few days, it hit me that I’d failed to note perhaps the most salient clue: The fact that, however I feel, I am indeed getting up!

What is it, I wondered, that gets me moving on days I could easily burrow in? Could the answer be to figure that out—and then do more of it?

In that spirit, I asked myself: “Self? What gets you out of bed on those mornings when nothing seems worth the effort?”

The answer came immediately. “I get up for the coffee.”

A year or so back, I received a fancy coffee maker as a gift, and it’s this primo coffee—not just any coffee—that’s been making all the difference. Sometimes I contemplate returning to my previous caffeine habits. The capsules for the new machine are pricey, and I’m trying to conserve. But for now, the expense is worth it. The coffee is something I look forward to, and that means a lot.

And right then, it hit me. I was onto something. This idea of “looking forward to”—what role did it have in my life? It occurred to me that perhaps I’ve grown looking-forward-to deprived.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Life in Plan B Nation tends to be focused on getting things done, on keeping the nose to the proverbial grindstone, on being responsible, plugging ahead, and keeping emotions in check. It’s easy to feel that we don’t deserve special rewards and treats—not when we’re so far behind where think we ought to be.

The problem with this approach: We. Get. Tired. The fact that success is in short supply doesn’t mean we haven’t been working, often way harder than we did when our careers were thriving.

Which got me to thinking about Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber’s spot-on description of how exacting we tend to be with ourselves—and because it’s so great and because I have the book right here, I might as well share it with you:

You go along in life and you do what you’re supposed to do. And every time you do something you’re supposed to do, you put a dollar in the bank. Okay. Every time you’re kind, patient, or you do the thing you’re supposed to do—whatever it is (you know what those things are for your)—every time you put a dollar in the bank, a dollar in the bank, a dollar in the bank . . . .

Finally, you feel like you’re just kind of worn out. You feel like you need a little pleasure in your life, a little time on the beach or something. And so you think “I’m going to go to the bank, and I’m going to take out some money, and I’m going to do something nice for myself.”

So you go to the bank and you say, “Here I am. I want to take out some of the money I’ve saved so that I can do something nice for myself.”

And the response is, “Oh no. You haven’t earned nearly enough to get anything for yourself. Oh, you have to work much harder—you have to put much, much more money in before you can get anything for yourself.”

And, of course, if this were First National you were dealing with, you would say, “No, this is not the way this is going to work. This is my money. You can’t tell me when and where and how I can spend it.” And yet, with this system of self-hate that’s exactly what’s going on!

She concludes: “THERE’S NO MYSTERY IN THIS FOLKS! . . . [T]he person at the bank DOES NOT LIKE YOU! *It’s important to get that*. . . . THIS PERSON IS NEVER GOING TO GIVE YOU A DIME! YOU WILL WORK YOURSELF TO DEATH, AND YOU’LL NEVER GET A THING FOR IT. IT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT!”

So.

Here is what I am going to do: First, I am going to incline my mind (as the Buddhists say) towards things on the horizon to which I’m looking forward. The workshop for foster kids that I’m co-facilitating. Watching a TV show I refuse to name with my friend Wendy.  Hotdogs and a movie at Popcorn Noir in Easthampton (not to be confused with East Hampton).

Next: I am going to give some thought to other things I might look forward to and how I can make them happen. Tango lessons? A day trip? The specifics are up for grabs.  And while I don’t know what I’ll come up with, I look forward to finding out.

Note: The quoted passage is taken from Cheri Huber’s There Is Nothing Wrong with You (Keep It Simple Books, 1993). It also has pictures that will make you smile.

Pattern recognition

701 - Puzzle - Seamless Pattern

I generally tend to think I know myself pretty well. Apart from having lived with me, lo these many years, I’ve spent a good bit of time exploring what I do and why I do it. Between 12-step programs and Vipassana and therapy and lots of reading, I’ve pretty much come to see myself as the #1 Expert in Me.

Which is why it was surprising the other day when I espied an entirely new pattern. (Not that the pattern was new—it’s not—but it was new for me to see it.)  Surprising and also exciting, because seeing is always the first step towards relating differently.

So here it is, the thing I realized: I have spent a huge part of my life trying to get people to give me things they don’t want to give me. I don’t have to keep doing this.

Like most transformative insights, this one sounds obvious. And simple. What makes it significant is the way it reordered my internal landscape. I felt it as a visceral shift. A relaxing. An ahhh, ah hah.

The best part is the awareness that I don’t have to work so hard. My life is quite challenging enough, without this added pressure. Also, that massive energy I’ve invested in trying to wrench things loose? It’s free to be deployed in other far more fun and productive ways.

There are likely lots of reasons that this pattern took root, many of which no doubt wend back to my teeniest tiniest childhood. On the one hand, it strikes me as important to recognize this—to see that the pattern is not my fault, that there are causes and effects. On the other hand, you know what? It doesn’t really matter why. What matters is how I act on this new knowing and how it acts on me.

I don’t expect this pattern to disappear in a day or even a year. But I do expect that it will slowly fade, become quieter and less demanding. What I have now is the permission to let go of a tremendous weight. Already I feel lighter, if not entirely free.

I should be you

140/365 Envy

The mind gets a lot of crazy ideas.  (Well at least mine does, and I suspect if you pay attention, you’ll find that yours does too.)

In recent weeks, it’s taken to suggesting that I should be someone else. Now who this person is varies, depending on the day, my mood, and what I’ve been reading or thinking about.  And the fact is, if you lined up all the people my mind tells me I should be, you’d find that their behaviors and beliefs are often quite clearly at odds. But my mind doesn’t care about that. It’s quite convinced that it’s entirely right—and it’s out to convince me too.

My mind has been especially insistent since discovering The Fluent Self, a blog-cum-transformational playspace created by Havi Brooks.  “You should be Havi,” my mind clamors. “She is doing such interesting things, and she talks about them in such interesting ways. You should be her not you! I can help you do that.”

It’s taken some time, but I am finally getting my mind to accept that this is not going to happen. A major breakthrough came when I showed my mind this video of Havi doing her Shiva Nata yoga practice wearing a pink wig.

“You see that?” I said to my mind. “That is Havi. That is not us. We can learn from her. But we are never ever ever going to be her.”

On hearing this, my mind became a bit disconsolate, though after watching the video twice, it allowed that it was likely true.

As is often—if not always—the case, the trick is to find something between the all and the nothing. What does my mind’s crush on Havi have to tell me? For one thing, it’s about my need to be more playful. It’s about doing more to find my tribe and building a community. And maybe it even means traveling to Portland to attend Rally (Rally!)

It also helps to remind myself that however crazy in love my mind may be with someone else’s life or work, there are others to whom my own life and work speak in similar ways. This came home to me a few months back, when I became friendly with a writer I’ve long admired. I was thrilled when she told me she liked something I’d written but then rushed to send her an essay that I thought was way better—one of my all-time favorites penned by another writer.

Some days later, I got this careful response:  “As for X’s piece…honestly? Between us? It’s not really my thing . . . . I hope it’s okay to say that—she’s clearly a smart writer.” The fact that this writer I so admired could prefer my piece to the one I’d just sent came as a revelation.

As it happens, my mind is still not entirely convinced that I shouldn’t aspire to Havi. But I’m prepared to wait. Soon it will be on to something else. (And if not, I still have the video.)

And vs. Or

Resurrection

Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.

The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”

But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t  have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.

Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget.  That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stairway landing between two floors of the family home.

What provoked the meltdown? Once the furious howls subsided, he choked out the following explanation: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and downstairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Especially, during the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten increasingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m conflicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such conflicts are especially common in times of transition, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m juggling freelance writing with blogging, leading a writing workshop for foster kids, and looking for more paying work. I’m also trying to organize my home—a task that’s especially pressing since my lease is up in a couple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speaking of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal matters relating to the Plan B Nation trademark, prepare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be happier!

Not surprisingly, such internal conflicts are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were destined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound observation, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such conflicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move forward while engaged in an internal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bullet (sorry!), I do have a few strategies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resorting.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m sharing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Consider the situation. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed decision, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nagging sense that whatever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep moving forwards

Some years back, at a similar point of overwhelm, I remarked to a wildly efficient friend that I was tempted to give in and simply do nothing at all.  He gave me a horrified look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies madness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.  For me, tracking progress is an essential strategy here.

3. Exercise

Sadly, I’m not one of those people who enjoys the actual experience of exercise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much better after I’ve gotten moving that I’m determined to do better in making it a regular part of my life. In the meantime, as they say in 12-step programs: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruthless (or as ruthless as you can be) about saying No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Simply put, give yourself a break. Recent research suggests that self-compassion is more effective than self-esteem in fostering contentment. Recognize that you’re in a tough situation and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in figuring out how to go about this, Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is a great starting point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anxious feeling. Then I remind myself I’ve written this post. And that’s, at least, a start.

A Valentine’s date with Leonardo da Vinci

Every now and then you have a chance encounter that turns into something far more. That’s what happened to me with Allegra Jordan, whom I first met back in 2006 at a women’s program at Harvard Business School.

Somehow we got to talking. One thing led to another, and we made plans to meet for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Harvard Square. Over upscale New England home cooking, we traded life stories, finding many overlapping interests. Along with our Harvard professional degrees (mine a J.D., hers an M.B.A.), we shared ties to the southern United States (she’d grown up in Alabama, while I’d spent years working in Tennessee and Mississippi). But most important of all was our shared concern with finding ways to bridge our secular and spiritual lives, whether they be devoutly Christian (hers) or Buddhist eclectic (mine).

Flash forward five-plus years, and both of us have been through seismic changes—jobs, relationships, geographic moves.  At the same time, the commitments that brought us together remain very much the same, and what began as a single meal is now a solid friendship.

In this guest post, Allegra describes how her own Plan B Nation story led her to launch Innovation Abbey, a social justice-oriented consulting firm with projects around the world (and with which I’m now honored to be affiliated). 

By Allegra Jordan

February 13, 2010. Snow is falling as my dog Belvedere and I pull out of my Chapel Hill driveway and begin the drive to Atlanta. By the time we reach the North Carolina border, traffic is at a standstill. Eighteen wheelers slide precariously close to us along the rolling hills. The six-hour trip ends up taking three times that long.

If this had been an ordinary trip, I would have turned around and waited for the roads to clear. But it was Valentine’s weekend, a brutal anniversary. One year before, I’d received a pink slip from my then-husband, followed by the same at work. The descent was so stunning it became introductory material for a forthcoming book with the tongue-in-cheek working title Is Feminism in Bad Shape? Check out Allegra. The story: our plucky honors Harvard Business School graduate marries, pursues a career in innovation, sacrifices, and ultimately becomes a cautionary tale for others.

Stick around for the weekend anniversary? No way.

Instead, I got tickets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. My goal: To rest my eyes on consequential, centuries-old beauty. I hoped this experience would soothe and heal my heart. I was going to show up to life, show up to beauty, and show up to excellence. If I had to drive 18 hours, I would gladly do so.

But there was no “a-ha” moment for me on that bleak winter day. Tense from the drive, protecting a badly wounded heart, I searched in vain for what I was seeking. I saw nothing that moved me, nothing that seemed to justify the long and exhausting trip.

Valentine’s Day dawned in Atlanta to below-freezing temperatures. The sun had yet to rise when I embarked on my return trip over black-ice slicked roads. As I carefully started the long drive back, my spirits were low. It would have made sense to wait a while, but I didn’t have that luxury: I needed to make it back in time to pick up my sons at their father’s.

And then, just a few hours later, everything suddenly shifted.

As I crossed the border into South Carolina around 10 a.m., the sun peeked into view. As if on cue, the air seemed to warm. My tension and anxiety drained away, leaving a feeling of calm. For the first time in three days, I finally relaxed. It was then the blessing came.

I can only describe it as an epiphany. And epiphanies or daydreams are funny, inexplicable things. Neurologically, I can speculate that after I finally relaxed the executive center of my brain, I opened the door to a series of neuro-tonal images. It was a bit like being awake and dreaming at the same time.

I saw Leonardo sitting on a ladder. I drew closer.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“I can help you,” he said.

“How? There’s no place for me.”

“There was no place for me either—I did so many different things and few of them fit with each other. Even Michelangelo made fun of me for that big horse I tried. But if I could make it in the 1500s, then perhaps you can too.”

“But my work situation, my home life—I’ve been so betrayed.”

“Have you ever worked for a Sforza?”

I laughed. The Sforza coat of arms includes a viper eating a child. It’s hard to think of a more threatening boss than that.

“If I could do it, perhaps you can too,” the master said. “I’ll help.”

That was it. The epiphany was over.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison writes that a true and good friend is someone who takes the pieces of “who I am” and gives them “back to me in all the right order.” In that sense, this epiphany helped me see the path forward. In those moments, I found my tribe.

One year later I started Innovation Abbey, recruiting a first-class team that shares my dedication to evidence-based innovation steeped in deep wisdom about how people really work. Since our launch, we’ve worked in 10 countries in Asia and two in Africa, as well as in the United States. Our projects are starting to bear fruit, though the work of innovation— innovare or renewal in Latin—is the work of a lifetime.

Our competitive edge? We believe that human beings, not data or processes, are the root cause of innovation. Yes, people of faith need people of spreadsheets, and I have been a person of spreadsheets. But it also works the other way: data and processes need the human spirit.

Our name hearkens back to the ancient abbey system of Europe and Asia, which managed to combine operations and deep knowledge of people to show a better way forward. While far from perfect, the 1,400 Cluny abbeys nevertheless helped bring Europe out of chaos, war, and disease 1,100 years ago­—and without a single mobile phone.

I’ll close with a humble—but telling—story from a project we completed in Laos late last year.

In the Lao culture, there isn’t a word for innovation. But there is a word for love.

We were invited to work with a public health administrator working to teach her team about innovation.

She gathered her whole team—including her driver—to talk about innovation, using the materials we had provided as a jumping off point. The first discussion caused confusion. But the team did not give up. “We don’t know what this is but we love our regional manager who tells us this is important. We will do it for this manager whom we respect,” was the general consensus.

The tide finally began to turn when the Lao team connected in Thai with another group studying innovation with us. After this, the Lao team began to feel more comfortable with the innovation process and related concepts, the team leader told us. How did she know? Here’s what she said:

“I got in my car. Usually you tell the driver where to go street by street and they drive you that way. But this time the driver turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking. For two years we’ve driven that way. I know a shorter route. May we try it?’”

When I heard this, my heart lifted. Think of the time value in money! How much time had two years of the directive mindset cost the team? And how much time might be saved going forward? Not to mention the larger changes likely to follow as the innovation mindset begins to take root and flourish.  And significantly, the breakthrough stemmed from love—from the feelings of respect and connection that bound team members to their regional manager.

I see innovation as the response of humanity struggling to renew in the midst of a competitive and dysfunctional world where there are amazing things yet to be discovered. I’ve had to give up almost everything to gain this wisdom. It’s becoming slowly apparent to me that it is worth it.

It’s our challenge to build a beautiful future together on the cold embers of a past that did not work. We have the spirit of a genius engineer, painter, draftsman, sculptor, and inventor that can meet us, even today. As I walk into this unknown, and potentially beautiful, unbounded future, I do so with a new confidence that I’m not alone. I’m searching for—and starting to find—the members of my lost tribe, the brilliant, visionary, heart-centered tribe of Leonardo da Vinci.

Note: To learn more about Innovation Abbey and its projects, email Allegra with questions or to request an inaugural set of white papers: “The Devil in Innovation,” “Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom about Modern Innovation,” and “What We Learn about Innovation with the Bottom Billion.” Readers are also warmly invited to attend a Tedx event on the theme “Beloved Community” in Chapel Hill on March 3, 2012.

Awakening Joy in Plan B Nation

Joyful Runway

Much has been written about the psychological costs of job loss and other fall-out of the Great Recession, but far less ink has been spilled over how we can best address them.

“The worst things in life start showing up when people experience extended unemployment,” asserts Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in his chilling manifesto The Coming Jobs War, which paints a dire picture of a global job shortage. “Those wounded will probably never fully recover.”

In a similar vein, Atlantic journalist Don Peck cites a troubling litany of consequences stemming from long-term joblessness, including “growing isolation, warping of family dynamics, and a slow separation from mainstream society,” as he further details in Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

My reaction to such observations is mixed.

On the one hand, I welcome the acknowledgment that the Great Recession has exerted unprecedented stress on millions of Americans. It strikes me as a much-needed antidote to the view that the jobless, foreclosed-upons, and other casualties of these new hard times just need to buck up, to opt for the sort of relentless cheer skewered by cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.

On the other hand, it strikes me as unnecessarily disempowering to simply give in, to believe that there’s nothing we can do to change our relationship to the bad things that come our way.

It’s in this spirit that I’m embarking on meditation teacher James Baraz’s 10-month online class Awakening Joy. I first heard about the program from some like-minded friends (read: friends not prone to the aforementioned relentless positive thinking) and decided to give it a try. My initial skepticism largely faded when I learned that no one is turned away for financial reasons. (I myself opted to pay a small fraction of the total cost.)

Baraz—a founding teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—draws heavily on the Buddhist tradition, but as he makes clear in the first class, the program is in no way limited to any particular religious faith.

So is it possible to “awaken joy” when we’re facing huge challenges?  Baraz says Yes. Where his approach differs significantly from many other proponents of positive thinking is that he—like the Buddha—is focused on the practical strategies that allow us to do this.  Rather than saying  “just do it,” his focus is on how to do it.

The first step? Simply cultivating the intention to be happy. To this end, Baraz and his teaching team provide a number of exercises and practices, including the act of reminding ourselves again and again of our intention. Another suggestion: Making a conscious decision to recognize and relish moments of well-being. (Positive psychology acolytes refer to this as “savoring.”) The theory is that where we choose to place our mind goes far to  determine how happy we are.

“More than 2,000 people have tested it, so it’s not some airy-fairy idea,” Baraz said of the class, in a 2008 O magazine interview. “I’ve learned that it’s possible to change, no matter what your history or the limiting beliefs you’ve held on to. If you have the intention to be happy and you do the practices, if you give it your best shot and are very patient, it works.”

That being said, the Buddha told his students to not take anything on faith—rather to “see for yourself.” That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, and I’m curious to explore what happens. Interested in joining me? Click here for sign-up information.

Plan B Nation: The Podcast (now on Work Stew)

Perhaps the best thing about starting this blog has been the opportunity to meet really cool people who are thinking and writing about the very things that most interest me.

This fact hit home again earlier this week, when Work Stew founding editor Kate Gace Walton contacted me about doing a podcast for her site.

Like me, Kate is something of a culture straddler—a Harvard grad who spent time in the corporate world (she has an MBA from Wharton)—before engineering a life more in line with her values and interests, a transition she eloquently describes in the essay Random Acts of Business.  A mother of two, she now works in recruiting near her Bainbridge Island, Washington home.

In the year since launching Work Stew, Kate has gathered dozens of stories reflecting a vast assortment of work experiences, with the goal of creating a forum that both informs and inspires. The essays and podcasts are as fascinating as they are diverse. Hollywood screenwriter, particle physicist, minister, ex-spy, restaurant cook, and flight-attendant-turned-gorilla-caretaker are just a sampling of the paths represented.

My own recent conversation with Kate about life in Plan B Nation covered a lot of ground, ranging from what my career has in common with a traditional marriage plot to what comes next for all of us in the New Economy. Want to listen in? Click here.