And vs. Or


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.

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.