2019: Reflections and Recommendations

Cacti and succulents at Huntington Gardens–one of my favorite days of 2019.

Here are a few of my favorite books, podcasts and even an album that I’ve appreciated this year, along with some general reflections as we close out one year and begin another.

Looking Back…And Ahead

I watch, along with so many of those around me, with deep concern as the world faces ever greater challenges, increasingly aware that our political structures and leaders are not going to be able to adequately address those challenges. I see the profound inequality and injustice across the globe and within my own country and city. I am frightened by the daily updates about climate change–the speed and ferocity of its effects. And so I remind myself, regularly, of the words of Ruth Messinger, former CEO of one of my favorite organizations, the American Jewish World Service. She calls on us to not “retreat into the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Last year one of my favorite books was Meg Wheatley’s Who Do We Choose to Be? In it, Wheatley introduces the idea of being, in the midst of these exceptionally difficult and potentially irredeemable times, a Warrior for the Human Spirit. If you have not yet read her book or listened to interviews with her, I start my 2019 post with a reminder that her book still sits atop my list and is one I revisit often.

And, even as my faith in the future of the world is often shaken and I notice the urge to retreat, I continue to see and experience examples of people doing work that matters, who are Warriors for the Human Spirit.I have been privileged and honored this year to work with clients who are, among other things, enabling East African youth to create meaningful work, bringing traditional beekeeping methods to rural Chinese farmers to create sustainable livelihoods and a healthier world, and producing soap products with ingredients that each have a story behind them that inspires and moves.

I am sure that the coming year, too, will continue to test our resolve. The urge to retreat will be great and the need to resist it even greater. Find the ways that you, too, can be a Warrior for the Human Spirit through your actions–be they direct or in support of those doing work that you admire. I urge you to get involved, not stay on the sidelines. The upcoming year will require that of all of us!

My Learning Focus: Embodiment, Embodiment, Embodiment

Last January I began studying at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, completing (yet another!) coach training program. You can read about my experiences at Strozzi here. Rather than learning with my head, at Strozzi I learned to learn with my whole being. It was not easy–and I am even more convinced that working with embodiment is one of the most powerful access points for navigating the increasing complexity we are facing, enabling us to become more present, engaged and alive. I hope to continue to share what I learn as I continue this journey and am excited to be bringing more and more of this into my work.

Books I Loved 

Some years I have a favorite book that I can’t stop talking about. This was one of those years. I’ve given copies of Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity to my kids and clients–and urged just about everyone I know to read it. Jennifer has written a short, engaging and highly accessible book. She describes five mindtraps that can get in the way of our ability to be effective leaders (in all aspects of our lives) and ways to “unlock” them–through powerful questions and simple practices. Jennifer is steeped in knowledge about adult development and complexity and demonstrates, in this book, her ability to synthesize complex content and research in a way that can be easily understood and immediately useful.

This year I read and re-read Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change. Reading Pema Chodron is one of the things that keeps me sane and hopeful even as she, too, is unflinching in her view of reality. This is also a short book full of the wisdom that Pema has acquired in her 80+ years on the planet. It’s kind of a “greatest hits” and yet goes deep. If you are new to Pema’s writing, this is a good place to begin. If you’re a regular reader but have missed this one, it’s worth it.

A book that has accompanied me this year, and become part of my regular meditation practice is The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have by the poet Mark Nepo. Nepo’s reflections, generally less than a page, including a reflection practice, are perfect as a way to center before I turn on a timer.  It’s almost always as if Nepo read my mind and offered me just what I needed that day. Nepo’s book is about 20 years old. A newer edition is soon to be published and the current edition is available used. It’s a gem.

Podcasts and Audio Resources

I believe that podcasts are one of the greatest inventions of the century. I walk and listen for many hours a week and feel better-informed and happier as a result (and get lots of steps, too.) I’m still an avid listener of the New York Times The Daily–it’s my main source of in-depth coverage of topical issues. In addition, I’ve discovered Throughline and Codeswitch, both NPR podcasts. The first is a history podcast, often digging into the aspects of history that we should know but don’t. Codeswitch deals with race and identify and has definitely helped me to gain greater insight and perspective on topics I do not know enough about. The New York Times’ series 1619 was one of the best things I heard this year, so if you missed it, take the time to listen–I was shocked at how much history we never learned.

I was introduced to Hurry Slowly this year and have, in turn, introduced friends and clients to it as well. It includes some of the most thoughtful and helpful conversations I’ve heard this year. Jocelyn Glei, who interviews people I’m almost always glad to learn about and learn from, also shares her own reflections–and I enjoy those as well. In her words: “Hurry Slowly is a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient through the simple act of slowing down.” Start anywhere–there are several seasons to draw on.

My guilty pleasure is Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? in which we get to listen in on couples therapy session and hear her commentary along the way. It’s a fascinating window into people. She just started a new podcast How’s Work? that applies the same methodology to work issues. I’ve only listened to one episode and enjoyed it. I can pretend there’s a professional value in listening, but I’m not totally sure.

Tara Brach’s website, which includes access to her guided meditations, is an incredible gift. I’ve never used a meditation app, so I can’t make any comparisons. Tara’s teachings and meditations work well for me and she is my go-to when I know that my level of distraction means that just putting on a timer may not be the wisest way to meditate. It’s especially helpful when I travel and don’t have the comfort of my regular space. What I especially like is that I can find a meditation that is exactly the length I need as there are so many choices.

The last recommendation in the “listening” category is an album that my husband and I (whose tastes are not always aligned) can’t stop listening to–Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F**ing Rockwell.” Here’s a song from it. I cook with it, walk with it, drink coffee to it, and read to it–and still am not tired of it. I’m not exactly sure what genre she occupies–it’s hard to pin down–pop, indie–not sure.

And with that–wishing you a good end of the year and beginning of the new one. Happy reading, listening and learning!

Best of 2018: Books, Podcasts and Blogs

As 2018 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve read and learned this year. Here’s my “best of” list. It includes the books, podcasts and blogs that enriched, expanded and challenge my thinking this year. I hope you find one or two things that appeal to you and that you can learn from in 2019.

Learning About Complexity

The most important thing I discovered this year was that complexity is not only something we’re dealing with (increasingly!), it’s also the topic of serious study and a profound body of work. For an orientation to one dimension of that work, here’s a post I wrote this fall that summarizes much of what I’ve learned. Recognizing that we can develop greater personal capacity to work with complexity has allowed me to feel less fearful about the pace of change and the uncertainty that we confront daily. This is a framework that I’ve used one-on-one with coaching clients, brought to teams of leaders to explore together, and talked to family and friends about at the dinner table.

Books to Read and Savor

My teacher, Doug Silsbee, wrote his first book specifically directed to leaders rather than coaches. Presence-Based Leadership holds a special place for me as Doug published it just weeks before he died of a rare cancer. The book is a guide for tackling complexity challenges. Doug embraced his own death as his final complexity challenge and shared his journey with grace, wit and vulnerability. I write about that here in case you are interested in learning more about Doug. And, if you’re a coach or interested in coaching, Doug’s first book, The Mindful Coach is one of, if not the best, book I’ve read about coaching.

Margaret Wheatley, who wrote Leadership and the New Science over 25 years ago–and is also a student of systems theory and, more recently, complexity sciences–this year published Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. While Wheatley’s assessment of our current reality can at times feel harsh, this is ultimately a powerful and inspiring book suggesting that what we do, day to day, moment to moment, matters deeply.

I highly recommend Amanda Blake’s Your Body is Your Brain. Amanda, a wonderful teacher, shares inspiring stories and practical guidance for making change that lasts by attending to both body and brain and the linkage between the two. This book is a great read for leaders and coaches (and not quite as heavy as the first two books.) My most recent post provides a small introduction, drawing on both Doug and Amanda’s work, to the power of somatic (body) work.

Podcasts to Walk With

For me, podcasts and walking go together. Podcasts get me walking, walking gets me to listen to podcasts. I’ve traversed many, many miles while listening to these podcasts. You can listen while driving, doing housework or at your desk, of course!

My day is not complete without listening to the New York Times podcast, The Daily. Each day, for 20 minutes or so, I learn about one story in the news, in depth. While it’s often the “obvious” story of the day, just as often, it’s not. It’s a deeper dive into something I was barely aware of or not aware of at all. I’ve stopped listening to all cable news–so this is one of the few ways I “hear” about the world. (There are other, very good, political podcasts, but this is the only one I listen to all the time.)

While the Coaches Rising Podcast is ostensibly for coaches, I’m including it here since some of you work as coaches and I think that even if you don’t, you’d enjoy listening to the amazing collection of interviews that Joel Monk, one of the co-founders of Coaches Rising conducts on a regular basis with some of the most profound and inspiring people in the coaching universe. Coaches Rising also offers affordable and superbly designed and executed courses for Coaches and those interested in coaching.

One of the ways I’ve learned more about complexity is through the Human Current podcast. Angie Cross and Haley Campbell-Gross host conversations with a wide array of people who explore many different aspects of complexity. One of the most powerful episodes this year is the conversation with Meg Wheatley (see above)–though, honestly, you can’t go wrong with any episode you choose to listen to!

Other podcasts that are oriented to coaches and leaders include Tim Ferris’s podcast–which is almost always a rewarding listen, Amiel Handelsman’s podcast (there are two episodes with Doug Silsbee that are exceptional!) and Work/Life with Adam Grant (there are a limited number of episodes and they are all good.)

Blogs to Follow

Four of the blogs I follow most closely explore the topic of complexity. These include the writing of  Sonja Blignaut, Chris Corrigan and Dave Snowden . Other writers/blogger/collectors of insight whose work I’ve come to appreciate include Jennifer Garvey Berger (and her colleagues,) Ed Batista, Mark Storm, Bruce McTague, Jane Watson and Carol Sanford. What all of these people have in common is a willingness to dig deeper–beneath the surface–and almost always surprise me with a new thought or perspective or way of framing something. I recommend them all highly. And, they are all people who have rich Twitter feeds–demonstrating that, used thoughtfully, Twitter can be a force for good. (And, I know I’ve missed some of the people whose work I really enjoy in this list!)

Collections

I also want to point to two collections of posts that I’ve started contributing to and enjoy a great deal. Lets Grow Leaders and the Lead Change Group both share monthly collections, typically around different topics in leadership, for your reading pleasure. You will often find my posts, both the ones I write here and the ones I write for Actionable, in their collections.

Wishing you a good close to 2018 and beginning of 2019! Happy reading and listening!

Finding Center in Turbulent Times

The source of our unease is the unfulfillable longing for a lasting certainty and security, for something solid to hold on to. When something unexpected or not to our liking happens, we think something has gone wrong. We are never encouraged to experience the ebb and flow of our moods, of our health, of the weather, of outer events – pleasant and unpleasant – in their fullness. Instead we stay caught in a fearful, narrow holding pattern of avoiding any pain and continually seeking comfort. This is a universal dilemma.

Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

The Moment We Are In

In the past year I’ve discovered and become absorbed, even obsessed, with the study of complexity. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that in the complex domain things are unpredictable and unknowable. Only in retrospect can we see cause and effect. Our capacity to accurately identify and to then navigate–rather than plan–in complexity requires a level of awareness–of consciousness–different from what was required in simpler times or in response to more predictable challenges. To navigate complexity requires that we be present–and from being present respond in a creative, reflective and non-reactive manner.

In the last few weeks I’ve felt overwhelmed by–at times done in by–the complexity (and chaos) of the world around us. In the last days, with the attempted bombing of key Democratic figures, and the shootings in both Kentucky and Pittsburgh by avowed racists and Anti-Semites, it has felt all too close and all too scary. Drawing a wider circle, the recent election in Brazil is frightening as is the general rise of anti-Democratic forces in areas of the world that we thought were sturdier in their embrace of democracy.

And, complexity is increasing beyond the particular political moment. Climate change looms over us, income inequality and all that is associated with it is still a strong force both here in the US and globally, technological advances are both wondrous and frightening. In our lives and organizations complexity abounds–as we learn to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and to a faster and faster pace. There is, appropriately, a great deal of talk about leadership, the subject I study and that is the basis of my work.

At a time when what I study and what I do every day is converging with the world outside—I cannot keep them each contained in their own, separate lanes. So, I think about what I have learned and how I can apply it in this moment. What I am sure of is that, by definition, there is no magic bullet. Each of us needs to decide what we will and won’t do–how politically active to be or not to be, how much to let in and how much to shut out.

In this spirit, I offer a practice that I believe can be a support and a learning tool in this moment–Centering. It’s a simple and powerful way to build the capacity to stand still in the midst of complexity so that we can make wise choices. It affords us a critical pause to reorient and remind ourselves that perhaps the most important choice we can make in this moment is who we choose to be—even more than what we choose to do.

The Practice of Centering

In 2013 I left the job that I’d had from 1998, and for the first time in my adult life had neither a job nor a salary. My intention was to use this transition, which included a generous severance package, as a launchpad for creating my own coaching and facilitation business. I had zero experience with not having a paycheck and the unpredictability that came with that. My parents were civil servants—I grew up with the stability and predictability that this afforded and never saw them struggle financially—though they lived frugally. I was excited and terrified.

My first investment in this new direction was to study. (No surprise there!) I had read a wonderful book called The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee, learned that he taught a program called Presence-Based Coaching, and signed up for a a series of retreats in Asheville, North Carolina to extend my coach training.

On our first morning together, we gathered in a beautiful retreat center in the Smoky Mountains. Doug, who was to become one of the most important teachers in my life, led us in a Centering practice. We stood in a circle and closed our eyes as Doug asked us to pay attention–first to our length, then to our width and finally to our depth. Each dimension was associated with a different quality–length with dignity, width with connection and depth with sufficiency. After spending five, maybe ten minutes experiencing these different dimensions, Doug asked us to “drop in” to our centers and ask ourselves what mattered most–to sense this rather than think it. (Instructions for the practice are provided at the end of this post.)

As we debriefed the practice, Doug shared that this wasn’t “just” a guided meditation but a specific somatic practice. By attuning to our bodies (our somas) in this way, we were finding where and how we could be better resourced—better equipped to be present and to access that feeling of being centered when we needed it. The practice was scalable. If we had one minute, that was sufficient. If we had ten seconds we could take three breaths–one into each dimension. Doug asked us to commit to practicing multiple (10, 15, 25!) times a day. He promised that doing this regularly would change us.

Being the good student, I did what Doug asked of us. I practiced frequently between retreats. Multiple times a day I would breathe into these three dimensions. And, as Doug had promised, I did notice changes. In a moment when life had become less predictable, when I was noticing just how scary it was to lose the certainty of a paycheck, I had this practice to draw on. It allowed me to ground myself, to remind myself that I was enough. It didn’t change everything–my fears were strong and the discomfort was enormous–that didn’t go away–and it felt somehow more manageable.

My first experience with centering was enough for me to realize that there was something to this! I saw the value of a practice that I could access whenever I needed it—that extended beyond my morning meditation. I felt grateful that I was just a little bit more confident, a little bit more present in conversations that mattered—that this simple, quick practice could really do that much.

Evolution of a Practice

As I built my coaching clientele, I occasionally offered this Centering practice to my clients at the start of a session. When I did it was usually well-received–but I wasn’t always comfortable suggesting it or leading it. I loved being guided, but being the guide was new territory for me–leading a centering practice was not yet in my comfort zone and I was nervous about trying it with people who didn’t seem like this would be their kind of thing–even though my assessments were likely inaccurate.

For the next few years I would sometimes center and often forget. I meditated daily and figured that was enough. If I was speaking publicly, I’d center before I spoke but not much more.

A couple of years ago, as I began to learn more about somatics (the body stuff) and complexity, I returned to the practice of Centering. At this moment, when the world was spinning in a direction that terrified me, it felt even more important. I have become more consistent in my practice—doing it both in response to triggers and at random points in the day. I am more consistent about bringing centering to my clients.

Centering is no longer a tool for facing the challenges of starting a business. I feel confident about my work and business—more than I ever expected to. Sure, there are ups and downs, but I know how to weather those pretty well. Today, Centering is the way that I find my ground. When I center, I am able to come back to the present moment and see more clearly, sense more clearly and make better choices. Given that my life and work is expressed almost entirely in words, these are most often choices about what to say and what not to say.

More often than not I am able to catch myself when I have the urge to give a client advice and listen more. More often than not, though with greater difficulty than in the work domain, I am able to step back from a potential fight with my husband or daughter and recognize that the words I want to say may not be the wisest words to say. When I center, I am able to allow the words that need to be said to emerge and to trust that this will happen. When I center I am more able—and this remains hard—to recognize that in this troubling moment in our world—I can make wise choices.

Centering isn’t Magic. It’s Biology.

The two people who’ve helped me most to understand Centering are Doug Silsbee, who I mentioned earlier, and Amanda Blake.

Doug’s recent Presence-Based Leadership: Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience and Results that Matter is his first book for general audience (rather than focused on coaches.) It is also his final book—Doug died just around the time of its publication. Perhaps the highest recommendation for his work is that he embraced death consciously, remaining centered and present until the very end. He viewed dying as a “complexity challenge” and applied the tools in the book to this chapter in his life. (For more on that, see the post  I wrote just after Doug’s death.)

Amanda is a coach and teacher, and just published a wonderful book, Your Body is Your Brain. Full of powerful case studies, she shows the power of engaging our whole selves, inclusive of our bodies, in addressing the challenges we face as humans and leaders.

For both Doug and Amanda, the centering practice I’ve described here is foundational.

Amanda’s Wisdom

 Our bodies, our brains, and even our behavior take shapequite literallyin response to our life experiences. And that biobehavioral shape ultimately affects the possibilities we see, the options we choose, and the actions we take. 

Our bodies are quite brilliant in knowing how to take care of us. The problem is that conditions change and “the brilliant way the brain puts behaviors on autopilot means that sometimes those once-useful ways of being become outdated.” When we center we are able to sense what is happening in the moment, to no longer be on autopilot. Centering allows us to notice sensations as sensations, to tolerate them when they are uncomfortable, and to choose not to “automatically act to make the discomfort disappear. 

Doug’s Wisdom

Doug suggests that we can learn “de-couple” our inner states from what he calls our Context (what is happening around us.) Doug writes that “by de-coupling our inner state from the conditions of our Context, we discover freedom and resilience.”

Centering does double-duty. In addition to supporting us in the moment that we center, we are training our bodies so that the next time we seek to decouple state from Context, that is a little more accessible. Over time centering becomes an available response to being triggered and, ultimately, we are triggered less and less forcefully. In sharing the Centering practice, Doug writes the following about what is happening within us, at a neurobiological level:

Invite the awareness that, in this very moment, the quality of your attention tells your hippocampus that this specific state is important enough to encode for future access. The inner state of center is being telegraphed across your entire nervous system. You are actively initiating the process of neuroplastic change, creating associations between neuronal networks of this state, in order to record it in long-term memory. 

Centering changes our brains and our bodies.

Last Words

There is no magic bullet. The world is complex and at times feels as if it’s veering into chaos. Yet, with practice, we can be more present and more centered. From that place of center we can access greater wisdom so that we can be our best even in this moment. When we are at our best we can make wiser choices that will support, in some small way, the creation of a world that is a better place for the people who live in it.

The Practice (Adapted from Doug Silsbee)

  • Stand or sit comfortably. Make sure that your feet are making contact with the ground, if you are sitting.
  • Take a moment and notice any sensations you’re feeling. Use this first moment to “drop into” what you are sensing, to your body.
  • Center in length. Sense the bottoms of your feet on the ground. Relax your shoulders. Relax your jaw. Let your gaze be soft. Now imagine that you can rise up, that your head is connected to the sky as if by a string. The dimension of length is the dimension of dignity. As you stand in your full height, you embody dignity.
  • Center in width. Gently rock your weight from side to side. Find the balanced place in the center of this dimension. Visualize yourself extending to each side, expanding, taking up space.This is the dimension of connection, we take up space and we share space.
  • Center in depth. Bring awareness to the space behind you, as if you had a massive tail extending out along the ground. Allow yourself to feel supported by this mass. In it you hold your wisdom, your experience. This is the dimension of sufficiency.
  • The last dimension is commitment. Focus on the space just below your belly, your center. Ask yourself: “In this moment what matters most? What’s really important? What do I care about?” If this is available to you, sense your commitment throughout all the dimensions.
  • Remember that this is scalable–and can be done in just a few seconds or for several minutes. You can focus on just one or just two dimensions.
  • A seven-minute version of the practice is available in this video, presented by a teacher at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership.