Wide Open Spaces

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What to write on vacation?  Depends on the schedule, no?  Happily, on my Rocky Mountain escape this week, time lolls wide open.  How rare and precious to have these days with no commitments, no agenda, and a true feeling of detachment!  Wow.  How refreshing, nourishing, relaxing, and challenging.  No patients to see, meetings to attend, immediate work crises to solve.  I feel at once liberated and anxious—as if I enjoy the bright Colorado sun now, but there must be some black cloud looming over the ridge to the west.  *sigh*

The LOH retreat positively saturated me last weekend—mind, body, and soul.  I had Hippie Zealot Conference High, for sure.  And as so often happens, synthesizing learnings and insights proved challenging off the mountain and in real life, especially with only four intense days of re-entry before leaving again for spring break.  But now I have time and space—physical and mental—to process, hallelujah!

It never ceases to amaze me, the cosmic collision of ideas and insights that simultaneously shape my personal and professional development.  It’s like I feel the universe’s Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Einstein hands sculpting and unifying my consciousness at all levels—it’s awesome!!

Weeks prior to LOH, my own coach Christine and my coach friend Donna each independently introduced me to the work of Jennifer Garvey Berger, expert in adult development and leadership coaching.  She incorporates ideas of complexity and systems, central tenets of LOH training, in her philosophy.  I started listening to her book, Changing on the Job, the week before LOH started.  My friends came to Berger’s work separately (they don’t know each other, which I intend to remedy soon), and the temporal overlap of their new learning with my own makes my heart leap—my friendships are, without question, divinely inspired.  The central learning for me so far is recognition of my current and aspirational states of development as a person in all aspects of life.  I look forward to acquiring and practicing more skills for growth—it is a lifelong process!

Two weeks ago, while searching links for my Thank You post to Ben Zander, I came across Rosamund Stone Zander’s book, Pathways to Possibility, the follow up to their co-authored book, The Art of Possibility, still my favorite book of all time.  I started PtP days before LOH; the synergism of ideas almost overwhelmed me.  I finished it last week and holy cow, this is advanced practice personal development.  The stories we tell, the ones that rule our relationships and lives, can be so deeply entrenched that even when we recognize their dysfunction, revising them feels almost impossible.  In my personal life, I recognize intellectually that I hold onto some seriously destructive stories—ones that cause chronic and palpable suffering not just for me but those closest to me.  I lose circulation in my figurative hands, my emotional grip on these stories is so tight, and I still refuse to let go of them.  It is positively frustrating and fascinating.  I know this stubborn intransigence has untoward effects on my leadership capacity and style at work, however indirectly, because I firmly believe that ‘how we do anything is how we do everything.’  It just kills me—like a padlocked steel door in the long hallway of self-awareness, behind which live insight and psychological freedom—I know I have the key somewhere, I just can’t find it yet.  I will return repeatedly to integrate the practices in this book, like I do to AoP.  And, I get better every year at holding myself with a little more compassion.  We’re all here doing our best; I am no exception.  Nobody is better supported in this work of self-discovery than I.  So I journey on mostly joyfully, surrounded by fellow wayfinders, working on ourselves for the benefit of us all.  Onward!

Spring break writing

I started this post with at least two other ideas to write about, but I’ll hold off.  I have four more days here in the mountains.  More time and space to think on, manipulate, and start to apprehend all of these ideas and learnings of late.  My thank you cards, washi tape, journal, and laptop are spread out over the coffee table.  My favorite movies play on DVD and cable as pleasant and entertaining background ambiance.  What a gift and a blessing are time and space.  May I savor these days with deep and sustaining gratitude.

This Is My Hogwarts

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My friends, I belong.  This weekend marked the beginning of a ten month training program in communication, leadership, connection, and creativity.  9 of us made it to Colorado after the bomb cyclone (Patrick, we missed you—can’t wait to meet you in May!) to launch Cohort 11 of Leading Organizations to Health (LOH).  Our teachers, Tony Suchman and Diane Rawlins, led us through three days of introspection, skills acquisition and practice, and formation in community.  It all happened at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, surrounded by mountains, river, wildlife, and a rich history of family and hospitality.

We are training in relationship-centered care and administration, helping one another embody our best relationship tendencies, so we may help our organizations function at higher levels of connection and effectiveness.  It’s too exciting!

I walked into the lodge at Sylvan Dale, saw the vaulted ceiling with the icicle lights, and immediately thought of Hogwarts.  I came to this place, called by something to the Why of my soul, to be with others like me.  We are here to train, to hone our skills for good.  Within the first session I realized I can totally be myself in this crowd.  Here, I’m no longer a lone voice focused on relationships ahead of everything else, no longer the only one who cannot help seeing how the nature of our relationships permeates every interaction, every decision—and how we recreate them in every moment.  No more self-editing and explaining, tip-toeing around what matters most to me.  I can fully inhabit my relationship convictions here, in this space and among these new friends.  I feel an ease of purpose and values in this group that I come to, like a deep well, to fill my bucket and irrigate my garden of personal and professional growth.  Here, I am not a black sheep.

I now have 9 new people-nodes to connect and integrate into my existing relationship webs—a new and emerging system.  We share stories with common themes, new insights, and mutual support.  These ten months we will form and evolve as individuals as well as a community.  It’s a type of love, really…  At least that’s how it feels to me.  Hooray!

 

 

Thank you, Mr. Zander

Zander Cheng

Dear Mr. Zander, I met you almost 10 years ago and you transformed my life.

You and Ms. Zander gave the keynote address at the second ever Harvard conference on coaching in healthcare.  I was one of only a handful of physicians in attendance.  You discussed the central tenets of your book, The Art of Possibility.  I could not wait to get my copy signed, and you also graciously agreed to a photo.  I have since read and listened to your book at least a dozen times, and every time I gain something new and relevant.  The names of the practices ring in my consciousness on a regular basis:  Give the A, Rule #6, Be a Contribution, Lead From Any Chair, and Be the Board.  I describe the practices and their benefits, still, to anyone who will listen.

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Back in 2015 I boldly contacted the Boston Philharmonic to see if you could speak at the American College of Physicians Illinois Chapter Meeting.  You actually spoke to me on the phone and considered coming!  I was honored.  Though it did not work out (I knew it was the longest of long shots), it amazed me that someone as sought after as you would personally take a phone call from a random, unknown doctor in Chicago.  Later that year, when I attended the Harvard Writers conference (the birthplace of this blog), I had the honor of observing a master class where I witnessed you love some young musicians into their best selves.  They believed in themselves because you saw them, loved them, and believed in them.  That is the best thing any teacher can do for a student.

Throughout these last ten years, I have continued to seek, study, and attempt to apply learnings from authors, teachers, and mentors like you, people who see the world as broken as it is, and also the hope of humanity’s strengths and connections.  There is no shortage of people trying to help us all be better, for ourselves and one another, and no more urgent time or need for this teaching than now.  I count myself beyond fortunate to have benefited from your influence and inspiration so early in my life and career, to have you as my model.  No doubt I am only one of thousands, if not tens (hundreds?) of thousands, whose lives you have transformed for the better.  I wish you an ever broader and higher platform from which to reach countless more people and organizations.  I wish you peace, health, and joy in all your endeavors and relationships.

Please know how much you have meant to so many.

Sincerely,

Catherine Cheng, MD

 

Theory and Practice

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Does anyone become a great skier or volleyball player by just reading books and watching videos of other people doing it?  Of course, not.  And even if you have the best coach, with the most knowledge and expertise, you still have to get out on the trail or the court and do it yourself, find your own groove, create your own style and habits that work for you and your team.

I realized this over the past week, as once again I found myself calling forth everything I have learned about leadership from books and observations of other leaders.  Leading people is hard, and I often feel at the same time that I do it well and that I totally suck at it.  I worry that because it feels mentally and emotionally exhausting, I must be doing it wrong—like if I really knew what I was doing it would just be easy.  But that is perfectionism and fixed mindset talking, I’m pretty sure.

Knowing theory is key, no question.  If you don’t understand in advance what it will be like to stand up on skis (they don’t stop themselves and if the tips are pointed downhill that is exactly where you will slide), you will fall and risk injury to self and others a lot more than if you are prepared with a few pointers in advance.  It’s the same with leadership.  Remembering how it feels to be led well, versus poorly, allows me to have empathy for those I lead.  Mastery of, or at least proficiency in, some key communication tools such as reflective listening, nonjudgmental questioning, and objective feedback, makes the skills easier to access under stress and pressure.  Holding core values and principles in front, and exemplifying them, rather than just professing them, earns trust and credibility.

I wrote to a mentor recently, “I find myself repeating language from the books, inventing analogies and using examples from the team’s lived experience to show how the theories apply.  Words like empathy, curiosity, generosity, non-judgment, deep breathing, and ‘How fascinating!’ exit my mouth a lot, as well as, ‘It’s all about relationships!’ People must see me as a broken record…”  He reminded me that we need these mantras to keep ourselves focused and also to repeat out loud and invite accountability in our actions.  I wholeheartedly agree.  Maybe I will take a misstep here or there (no maybe—it will happen!).  It won’t be because I’m not trying or I don’t care—it will be because I’m human and we all make mistakes.  It’s because I’m out there practicing.

When I think back to high school volleyball practice, residency, personal training, and the early days of parenting (hell, every day of parenting), it’s not the easy days that stand out in memory.  It’s the hard days, the days when I really struggled, but came out having grown, even in a little, in my learning.  It’s the days when I can say, hey, I know better now, and I will do better next time—bring it.

So yes, leading well is hard.  It’s exhausting.  It costs inordinate amounts of energy, self-awareness, -monitoring, and -control.  It makes me hypervigilant of my words, posture, and actions.  Theory and practice go hand in hand; they are the twin pillars of learning, application, and success in all realms.  I will keep reading for theory (I highly recommend Legacy by James Kerr and Big Potential by Shawn Achor).  I will keep showing up every day ready to do my best in practice.  I feel confident in the trust and credibility I have already earned, and that people can see that I’m honestly doing my best, for all of us.

 

Synthesis and Integration: Self and Other Focus

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Hey friends, how was your week?  Learn anything new and interesting?  Anneal any new ideas to existing frameworks in your already complex world view?  I did!  And it came in another big wave after my presentation on Friday.

I wrote last week about how I put together a new presentation.  For the first time, I added the idea of medicine as a complex adaptive system to a talk I gave to physicians at various levels of training and practice.  The objective of the presentation was for people to understand the scope of physician burnout, and leave with some ideas of how they could not only cope better themselves today, but also influence the system and move it toward a healthier, more compassionate state in the future.

As usual for my talks, I focused first on personal resilience.  Many physicians push back at this idea, and rightly so, as many medical organizations have instituted physician wellness programs aimed mainly at ‘fixing’ the doctors with yoga and meditation classes, while allowing the system that burns them out to continue its toxic trends toward over-regulation, loss of physician autonomy, and driving metrics that lie outside of, or even counter to, our core values.  I worried that my talk would be taken as just another attempt to tell physicians we aren’t good enough at self-care.

Thankfully, the feedback so far has been positive and I have not heard anyone say they felt berated or shamed.  I hope it’s because in addition to tips for self-care (eg 7 minute workout, picnic plate method of eating), I talked about how each of us can actually help change the system.  In a complex system, each individual (a ‘node’) is connected to each other individual, directly or indirectly.  So, difficult as it may be to see in medicine, everything I do affects all others, and everything each other does affects me.  This means I can be a victim and an agent at the same time, and the more I choose one or the other (when I am able to choose), I actively, if unintentionally, contribute to the self-organizing system moving in one direction or another [URL credit for image below pending].

Nodes in Complex System

My primary objective in every presentation is to inspire each member of my audience to claim their agency.  Before that can happen we must recognize that we have any agency to begin with, then shore up our resources to exercise it (self-care and relationships), and then decide where, when, and how that agency is best directed.

 

In 5 years of PowerPoint iterations, including and excluding certain concepts, I have always incorporated David Logan’s framework of stages of tribal culture.  Basically there are 5 stages, 1-3 being low functioning, and 4-5 high functioning.  The tribal mantras for the first three stages are, respectively, “Live sucks,” “My life sucks,” and “I’m great”.  Stage four tribes say, “We’re great” and in stage 5 we say, “Life’s great.”  The gap between stages 3 and 4 is wide, as evidenced by the traffic jam of people and tribes at the third stage.  In my view, the difference is mindset.  In the first three stages, most individuals’ implicit focus is on self, and subconscious mindset centers around scarcity and competition.  Victims abound in these cultures, as we focus on recognition, advancement, and getting ours.  We cross the chasm when we are able to step back and recognize how our mutual connections and how we cultivate them make us better—together—we see the network surrounding and tied to our lone-node-selves.

This week I realized that crossing the stage 3-to-4 chasm relates to two frameworks I learned recently:

The way I see it, in Logan’s tribal culture structure, one initially works toward self-actualization, essentially achieving it when fully inhabiting stage 3, “I’m great.”  But crossing to stage 4 requires self-transcendence, as described by Abraham Maslow, by recognizing a greater purpose for one’s existence than simply advancing self-interest.  In the same way, through stage 3 we live in what the Arbinger Institute describes as an ‘inward mindset,’ and we cross to stage 4 when we acquire an ‘outward mindset’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.  Essentially in stage 3 we mostly say, “I’m great, and I’m surrounded by idiots,” and in stages 4 and 5 the prevailing sentiment resembles, “We’re great, life’s great, and I’m so happy to be here, grateful for the opportunity to contribute.”

An astute colleague pointed out during my talk on Friday that we do not live strictly in one stage or mindset in serial fashion.  Depending on circumstances, context, and yes, state of mind and body (hence the importance of self-care!), we move freely and maybe often between stages, sometimes in the very same conversation!  The goals are to 1) look for role models to lead us to higher functioning stages more of the time, and 2) model for others around us to climb the tribal culture mountain with us, spending more and more mindset and energy at higher and higher stages.

The problem is the system, and we are the system.  So, onward.  Progress moves slowly and inevitably.  It will take time, energy, and collective effort.

We’ got this.

Living Large in Seventh Grade

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Did you know that Abraham Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid?  I didn’t either!  To be clear, I have not read the paper I just linked; it was linked in a different article I read today, describing more about Maslow’s work than I have ever known before.  It’s in Scientific American, entitled, “What Does It Mean to be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?” by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”

I was intrigued by this piece because I remember so clearly when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy.  It was in seventh grade, and I can’t remember anymore the class or context.  I just recall that it made so much sense, and I felt such a swell of joy at the possibility that something so complex could be distilled and explained so simply.  It would have been fair to predict at that time that I would go on to become a psychologist.  The boy I had a crush on that year (and all through high school, actually) asked me where I saw myself on the pyramid.  I remember looking at the tiers and thinking, very clearly, oh, I’m at the top.  I felt a little sheepish, afraid I would be seen as bragging, but it was the honest answer, and I said so.  “Bullshit,” was his reply.  I can’t remember our verbal exchange thereafter, but I think I was able to convince him that I really felt like I was ‘there.’  And I left that encounter feeling both a bit more self-aware and also proud that I had stood my ground and defended a truth.  You could also have guessed I would later entertain a brief interest in law school.

Kaufman has revisited Maslow’s work, including his hierarchy of needs, and evaluated the components in the context of modern life.  Reassuringly, 10 of 17 of Maslow’s self-actualization characteristics still stand up to ‘scientific scrutiny,’ (not sure how he measured this).  He names the ten characteristics in the article, and you can ‘take the quiz’ to see how self-actualized you are today.  I love quizzes like this.  I have done the Myers-Briggs at least 5 times.  Others I love are Gregorc Mind Styles, Insights Discovery, and the Gallup Strengths Finder.  The most useful ones tell you what you already know about your strengths, and also offer advice and insights on how to manage your blind spots.

But the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s article to me was Maslow’s interest in self-actualization and its relationship to self-transcendence.  We can understand self-actualization as ‘achieving one’s full potential’ and self-transcendence as ‘decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness,’ (again, not read the paper; it’s linked in Kaufman’s article) or basically subsuming and/or integrating oneself within a greater whole.  At first you may think that these are mutually exclusive states of mind and being.  The coolest thing is that it’s not actually an either/or proposition; it is absolutely both/and:

While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

It reminds me of another subsection of Chapter 3 in Leading Change in Healthcare, wherein Suchman et al discuss holding the tension and balance between self-differentiation (clear sense of individuality) and attunement (deep awareness and acceptance of how we are connected and resonant with those around us).  It also reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on trust; she describes eloquently in Rising Strong how we can neither trust others nor be trustworthy ourselves without clarity and boundaries around who we are and our core values, and living in that integrity all of the time.

Once again, I find encouraging and validating evidence for something I really feel I have known since an early age:  We are all our best selves and our best communities not in competition, but in collaboration.   Cohesion in diversity weaves a stronger social fabric of connections, more flexible and elastic.  But that means we need to know exactly what we as individuals each bring to contribute.  Personal, intrinsic meaning and purpose are foundational for substantive interactions with others and resilient communal relationships.

Our world can meet each and every one of our physiologic, psychologic, and self-fulfillment needs—we can provide this for one another.  We can each strive for our own goals, alongside our peers, and still help each other on the rocky, uphill parts.  We really need to stop with the scarcity thinking and get on with the business of working together, maximizing each of our strengths, and making society better for all of us.

Onward.

Fear, Ego, and Control

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

In this post I will attempt to describe some exciting connections between readings from the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Anthony Suchman and colleagues, and Carol Dweck.

An HBR article landed in my inbox this week, catching my inner Imposter’s attention.  The title, “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership,” triggered my ‘Is that me?’ reflex.  Because much of the time, I think I’m a pretty good leader (“I’m awesome”).  But I’m forever fearful that my ego will get the best of me and make me exactly the kind of leader I loathe (“I suck”).  I saved the article to read later.

Meanwhile, I continued to Chapter 3 of Leading Change in Healthcare: Authentic, Affirmative, and Courageous Presence.  Basically this chapter deals with earning and building trust.  Chapter subsections include self-awareness, reflection, emotional self-management, clarifying one’s core beliefs, and accepting oneself and others.  In the part on core beliefs, the authors reference Dr. Suchman’s 2006 paper, “Control and relation: two foundational values and their consequences.”  In it, he differentiates between these two ‘foundational world views’:

Control

The beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of the control paradigm are organized around a single core value: that the ultimate state to which one can aspire is one of perfect willfulness and predictability. What one desires happens, with no surprises; all outcomes are intended. For the clinician, the control paradigm is expressed in the questions, ‘‘What do I want to happen here?’’ and ‘‘What’s wrong and how do I fix it?’’  Personal success or failure is judged by the clinical outcome, the extent to which one’s intended outcome was realized.

Relation

In the relation paradigm, the most valued state to which one aspires is one of connection and belonging. In this state, one has a feeling of being part of a larger whole – a team, a learning group, a dance troupe, a community, even the world itself. One’s individual actions seem spontaneously integrated with those of others to a remarkable degree, contributing to the evolution of a higher order process, i.e. one at a higher system level than that of the individuals of which it is comprised…  One asks the question, ‘‘What’s trying to happen here?’’ and, according to one’s best approximation of an answer, seeks to shape others and the world while also remaining open to being shaped oneself. This balance between control and receptivity puts one in the best possible position to recognize and make use of serendipitous events.

In Leading Change the authors write about control, “…This is a fear-based paradigm in which one trusts oneself more than others and holds tightly to power…  It predisposes leaders toward dominance, distracts them from cultivating relationships and leads them to set unrealistic expectations of control.”  And about relation, “This is a trust-based paradigm, anchored in the belief that the sources of order, goodness and meaning lie beyond one’s own creation…  It predisposes leaders to do their best in partnership with others, to attend to the process of relating and to personal experience (their own and others’) and to remain open to possibility.”

When I finally read the HBR article, the message about ego reflected the control paradigm:

Because our ego craves positive attention… when we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our people, and our organization.

When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure.

The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe [confirmation bias].  Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.

Going to bed last night, I wondered, “Is Fear actually driving when we see Ego in charge?”  I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, but it’s more complex than that.  It’s not a fear that we feel consciously, or that we are even aware of.  It’s not sweaty palm, palpitative, panic attack fear.  Rather it’s a deep, visceral, existential fear—of being found out, of not being enough—akin to imposter syndrome, if not exactly that.  Control, Fear, Ego—they all seem lump-able with/in the Fixed mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.  The simplest example of this mindset is when we tell kids how smart they are, they then develop a need to appear smart, lest they lose their identifying label.  So they stop taking risks, trying new things, risking failure.  Their experiences narrow as they, often inadvertently, learn that control of outcome and outward appearance of competence is the primary objective of any endeavor.

Back in August I listened to Dweck’s book, having heard about it and already embraced its theory in the last few years.  I had already started making the connection between fear and fixed mindset, but this day I saw a sudden, reciprocal relationship between fixed mindset, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome.  I love when these lightning bolt moments happen—I was in my car on the way to work, and this triad came to me.  As soon as I parked and turned off the engine I tore into my bag for the journal I carry with me everywhere and scrawled the diagram as fast as I could, as if the idea would evaporate if I didn’t get it down in ink.  Later I added the comparison to Growth mindset—holding space for learning, integration, and possibility.  I held it in mind for a while, and then forgot it (which is okay—that’s why I wrote it down!).  Then today, putting together this post in my head, I remembered it with excitement.

8-31 triad update

The point of it all is that we are at our best, both individually and as groups, when we are in right relationship with ourselves and one another.  It all starts with relationship with self.  If I live in fear of being found out as flawed or imperfect, then I project that fear onto others.  I act out in an effort to control how others perceive me—when in reality I have no control over that whatsoever.  The negative perception of my ‘Ego’ by others then provokes myriad responses including fear, insecurity, false deference, resentment, disloyalty, and subversion, and the team falls into disarray.  If, on the other hand, I cultivate self-love and connection with others, I never feel that I am going it alone.  I am an integral member of a high-functioning, mutually respectful team, one in which I can admit my weaknesses and maximize my strengths.  We all feel confident that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way, and we rise to each and every occasion–together.

I’m still putting it all together, working out how it translates into daily behaviors, actions, and decisions.  For now I’m definitely paying closer attention to my feelings, especially in conflict, and taking a lot more deep breaths before speaking or replying to triggering emails.  I ask a lot more clarifying questions.  I try to make the most generous assumptions about people’s intentions, and remember always that we are on the same team—Team Humanity.

More learning happening around the clock, I say!  Hoping to articulate better in the sharing hereafter…

What do you think about all of this, does it make any sense at all??