We Get to Invent It! 

You never know when creativity will strike or, more importantly, be called forth.

This weekend I’ve been feeling particularly melancholy, what with, you know, the world.

Thankfully Dan Rather et al over at Steady send a weekly email entitled “Smile for a Saturday”.  I needed a smile this morning, so I opened it and watched a video of Brazilian pianist Elaine Rodriguez conducting an impromptu performance in flexibility and good humor, when one of her piano pedals malfunctions.  I learned a bit about the literal mechanics of moving pianos; but more importantly, I saw how expertise, humility, and connection can save us in adversity.

While crew rushed to change pianos on stage, Ms. Rodriguez spoke to the audience.  She explained what was happening, got help, and continued to play music that did not require the pedal while she and the audience waited.  She chose pieces that sounded appropriate for the circumstances.  She looked into the audience and made eye contact, engaging them throughout.  She gave everybody, including me, the sense that we were all in it together.  Nobody knew what would happen next, how long it would take, and how the evening would turn out.  But I’d bet money that every person was glued to their seat, happily in it for the duration.

“We get to invent it!”  This may be one of my favorite sentences, and I have exclaimed it more often in the past two years than possibly in my whole life.  We thought we could not include telehealth in regular medical schedules.  We thought teams always had to meet in person, in the office, all the time to function.  We thought executives’ work necessarily required them to travel internationally over 50% of the time to lead effectively.  Maybe so, and maybe not.  COVID forced us all to reassess our default assumptions and practices.  Some served us well and proved their value through lockdown and beyond.  Some not so much, and now we get to invent how to be and do differently. Faced with adversity, we can play different songs.

My nascent idea and title for this post had just formed when YouTube autoplay began the next video, of Ben Folds composing a new song, on stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2017.  Friends, you’ gotta watch this!!  He literally invents a song and leads the National Symphony Orchestra through its impromptu performance, beginning to end, in ten minutes.  Stop reading now and watch, and let’s debrief below, shall we?  I’ll wait. 😉 

See if you agree that this improvisation parallels our pandemic experience:

A Minor Key

First, the MC accepts an audience suggestion of A minor as the key for the piece.  Minor keys have a somber and ominous feel compared to major keys.  They grab my attention, make me slow down, listen more slowly and mindfully.  This makes sense because most music we hear is composed in major keys; it’s the default.  Okay, now I’m prepared for the Darth Vader theme (in case you’re wondering about the difference between major and minor keys, hear the Imperial March in a major key, and Chariots of Fire in minor).  This is the first constraint placed on Folds’s new composition:  Invent a song that everybody expects to sound solemn, foreboding, and sad.  Stay home.  Wear a mask.  Curtail your travel.  No more team lunches, boondoggles, water cooler chit chat.  Stress, stress, stress.  A minor sounds like the right key for inventing a song in the Age of COVID.

Upbeat!

Next, the MC asks the audience what tempo they want to hear, ballad or upbeat?  Immediate and loud spontaneous consensus: “Upbeat!”  What a fantastic challenge, how will this work?  As leaders, culture and morale start with us.  We get to choose how we show up, no matter the circumstances.  Maybe this correlates with taking a minor key and making an upbeat song—knowing to start slowly, from a serious, thoughtful place, AND choosing to uplift.  Minor key does not necessarily make a song sad, plodding, or a slog.  Rather, it makes our upbeat-ness necessarily more intentional.  To see and amplify the positive in a negative situation does not mean ignoring, repressing, or dismissing the bad.  It means accepting and embracing it, naming it, navigating it, making the most of all that is, and then moving forward with it all, in concert.  This is what leaders are called to do.

“These New Spaces Are All Designed to Be Flexible.”

The MC asks for a ‘an interesting sentence’ from the program book, perhaps as the unifying theme for the upbeat song in A minor—the mission, purpose, direction—the cause.  I kid you not, this is the sentence that emerged.  How cosmically prescient, this video, I have goosebumps.

“We Get to Invent It!”  In the wake of Battleship COVID, we now get to design our spaces to be flexible—all spaces!  That includes physical work spaces, spaces in our own minds for how and what to be, and spaces between us in relationship, whether at home, in college dorms, at work, at the grocery store, at concerts, or in traffic—everywhere, all the time! 

Confident Thinkering

Folds sits at the piano and starts noodling.  He smiles.  You can imagine his integrated brain gears turning, changing position while staying in contact, engaged and rotating for optimal efficiency and torque.  He hits a little rut and resets, still smiling.  He knows exactly what he’s doing, understands and embraces the process of creation, the necessary messiness and disorganization of initiating something meaningful.  He also has no idea what he’s doing; the product is not yet formed.  He is inventing in real time.  Isn’t that what we are all doing now?  What expertise and skill sets can we ground ourselves in, as individuals and collaborative (or competitive!) teams, that give us the confidence to invent?  How do we orient ourselves for maximal power to accomplish our goals?

Think and tinker.  Use your knowledge, expound on theory, do the thought experiments.  Then take the experiments from thought to piano, to conversation, to teamwork.  Try stuff out.  Pilot–thoughtfully.  Exercise both humility and confidence at once:  Go all in, get all out quickly if it doesn’t work, repeat.

Collaborate

Over the next several minutes he tinkers with baseline, progression, melody.  He starts sounding out with the cellos, then winds, then violins, violas, and finally basses and drums.  At each stage, he invents something, tries it, integrates with the previous section, and assesses.  Does it work?  “…Just to make sure I don’t suck…sorry, this takes a second to create a whole song.”  The song evolves in front of our eyes and ears, passing through organic adjustments of timing, notes, combinations of sounds and participation.  “…Let’s hear it all together, make sure it’s not crazy…”  The orchestra conductor follows attentively, providing seamless ancillary direction and guidance to the group.

Is this not what any team in transition needs?  Leaders recognize material constraints and requirements:  A minor key, upbeat tempo, These New Spaces Are All Designed to Be Flexible.  They take the first steps, feeling things out, listening.  They check in with the team at all levels—how does it sound for this group?  What about when we add other groups?  How’s the harmony?  Is it working for the whole?  If not, what do we need to change?  

Revel in the Awesomeness

The performance climaxes after all parts have rehearsed, integrated, and repeated.  Folks are comfortable in their brand new learned nerve pathways.  Now they get to really play together, to have fun, improvise, and enjoy their accomplishment.  What would happen if we celebrated our successes, even the smallest ones, more often and loudly (“fivetissimo”)?

It occurs to me here that this performance works because of certain fundamental premises:  1) Everybody agrees to participate, and to follow Ben Folds’s lead.  2) Everybody speaks the same language.  Real time communication occurs cleanly and efficiently, with immediate feedback.  3) The leader trusts the team to do what they do best, giving appropriate instruction according to roles.  4) The task is brief, the goal is clear and simple, and the leader takes responsibility for the end product.

This video is neither a perfect nor a complete metaphor for creating optimal post-COVID environments and relationships.  Still, it inspires and activates me.  It provokes thought and creativity, and spurs me to enroll others in new ideas, experimentation, and shared accountability for our collective outcomes. 

Really, if you have not already watched, please take ten minutes.  You can even just listen.  I bet you won’t regret it, and it may even inspire you.

Cultural Perpetuity

What kind culture do you wish to perpetuate?  What specific actions, policies, behaviors, and outcomes would it manifest?

I learned the term ‘cultural perpetuity’ this past week, from a thought-provoking article on how Maslow’s Hierarchy was influenced by and also misrepresented Blackfeet Nation teachings:

  1. Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.
  2. Belonging. After we’re born, imbued with a divine purpose, the tribe is there to love and care for us.
  3. Basic Needs & Safety. While in Maslow’s model, we find love and belonging only after attending to our basic needs and safety, the Blackfoot model describes that our tribe or community is the means through which we are fed, housed, clothed, and protected. The tribe knows how to survive on the land and uses that knowledge and skill to care for us.
  4. Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
  5. Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.

I also listened this week to the Building an Anti-Racist Workplace episode of Adam Grant’s podcast WorkLife.  It’s an insightful, enlightening, and empowering interview with John Amaechi, whose work I will now explore further.  In their discussion on allyship, Amaechi points out that we upstand against racism and sexism not just to help our individual friends or coworkers, but because we uphold certain core values.  Thus, we speak and stand up to defend and disseminate a certain culture—to perpetuate it:

Adam Grant (21:43):
I wanna talk a little bit about sort of the- the ally perspective here. Just thinking about my own failures in anti-racism and other people who I know, recognize the problems and care about the problems, but haven’t done much about them, I keep coming back to this literature on psychological standing.That sense that, you know, it’s- it’s not my place, it’s not legitimate for me to speak up because I’m white. What are your thoughts on overcoming it and getting those people who are by-standing for those kinds of reasons on board?

John Amaechi (22:13):
There’s a couple of things that I’m trying to do. One of them is to stop the alignment of allyship with black people as individuals and start the alignment of allyship with their own principles or with their organization’s values. So racism is an incivility. Sexism is an incivility. I do not require sisters nor a mother, nor a wife to be against sexism and misogyny because it is an incivility. If I’d intervene on something that’s racist, it’s not on my behalf or another one of my black colleagues. It’s because it’s an incivility against the values that people say they share. Today it’s not about an individual. It’s about standing up for your values and understand that you don’t need to have a black person in your team for that to be important because the presence of a black person has never been required for racism to occur. The presence of a woman has never been required for sexism to occur. As men, we know that the absence of woman reveals sexism and misogyny.

What culture do you lead?

In my role as interim clinical director of a small practice, I see myself as a steward.  My best contribution to most places I inhabit is to highlight and foster relationship and connection.  At work, this manifests as effective teamwork, high engagement, and positive morale.  Last year as we recruited for a new medical assistant (MA), I got to listen on the phone as our current MAs interviewed a candidate.  Through my own questioning, the candidate’s responses were short and sedate.  Then each MA on the team met with her, describing with energy and conviction how they live out our core values of collaboration and accountability, as well as our mission of providing compassionate, holistic patient care.  With each encounter, I heard the candidate’s responses lengthen and deepen.  I heard her own energy and engagement rise to match that of the team.  It was one of my proudest moments as director—I could see (hear) and feel how far our culture of connection has come, and how it could persist after I pass the baton to the next director.

What is the dominant (perpetual) culture in America?

Do not underestimate the complexity of this question, and its profound implications.  The first answer is, of course, it depends whom you ask.

For far too many, the dominant American culture is white male supremacy.  For the past year, I myself find it inescapable.  Increasingly, every time I consider what to post to this blog, or jeez, every day and in almost every domain, the primacy of white men pervades my consciousness like smog on a hot, humid day.  Let me be clear:  White men are not each and all bad; I do not assume every one is a racist sexist, even the actual assholes.  But whenever American systems are examined, we find that they are primarily designed, favored, empowered, and perpetuated by and for white males—it’s baked into our societal structures, hence the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ racism and sexism.  If you are a white male, it may be hard for you to see the barriers that have not impeded your life journey (Amaechi discusses this in the podcast as well).  You may have answered that dominant American culture is one of success with hard work, of equal opportunity, and of individual freedom.  Of course that is a culture we’d all love to perpetuate.  How could we achieve it for everybody?

What culture do you work to perpetuate?

I think it’s about the values and commitments we hold highest and manifest most in our daily activities.  What do our daily encounters say about our priorities?  What do we want more of, and thus work for every day, for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, patients, parents, and children?  I want mutual respect and unqualified acceptance.  I want sincere valuation of diversity and real, wholehearted inclusion and integration of that diversity—of thought, experience, wisdom, and perspective—into a coherent, synergistic mosaic of strengths, engaged in service of elevating every individual to their highest potential.  I want to perpetuate a learning culture, one that operates with a growth mindset, founded on kindness, generosity, humility, curiosity, and resilience. 

None of this happens automatically; even well-established gardens of inclusive culture require regular tending.  I have to renew my commitment every day, in every encounter.  I fall down regularly.  And I give thanks every day for loving companions who help me up.  I try also to appreciate the challengers, to see them as allies rather than enemies or hindrances.  That is walking my talk, no?  To value those whose goals and values don’t align with my own, to find a place for them—for everybody—in my world?  I’m strengthening my practice of self-assessment.  How did I walk the talk today?  How can I do even better tomorrow?  The more concrete and specific, the better—words, actions, and attitudes.  It’s my own version of “trudging the road of happy destiny.”

On that note, I leave you with two more resources that hold me up this weekend:

First, Hank Azaria’s conversation with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman on the Armchair Expert podcast.  They discuss addiction, privilege, and racism, among other things.  What an inspiring example of vulnerability, courage, humility, connection, and lifelong learning and growth.

Second, a Forbes profile of Sharon Salzberg, 4 Ways Loving Kindness and Mindfulness Can Change Your Life.  You may read them and think, “Duh, I know that.”  But ask yourself, how does your knowing translate to doing

We have our whole lives to practice.  As Simon Sinek says, the goal is not to be perfect by the end; it is to be better today.

Letter to Self, November 4, 2020

Dear Cathy,

HOLY COW what a year, amIright?  How are you?  What was yesterday like?  I know you wanted to sign up to work the polls, and decided to be at work with your team instead.  Maybe they didn’t need you, but you thought it was right.  What was the vibe, could you feel the pulse? 

How have you observed people holding their own stuff together, and helping others do the same?  How have you done this… and not?  What do you need right now?  What does the family need?  And your teams?  Friends?  Leaders?

Today is your friend’s birthday, make sure you call her. 

And maybe keep the calendar clear this weekend (except for that alphabet workout on Sunday, of course).  Give yourself and the family time and space to breathe and settle down.  There may not be an outcome for a while—it’s anybody’s guess at this point!  It’s all so nuts.  Whatever happens, we must find a way to recover and reconnect; this is imperative.

How will you conduct yourself in the coming months, regardless of the outcome? 

Looking back, you have learned and matured much in the past 4 years—STRONG WORK, MAMA!  Haha, finally, I get to say this to myself. 😉  Remember when you could not help but RAGE and YELL on Facebook, when you succumbed to impulsive ad hominem, then felt helpless and exhausted?  The exhaustion feels different this time, no?  It has more meaning, more purpose.  Because you have done the inner work to show up as your better self.  You have reflected, consulted, read, challenged, practiced, rejected, regulated, and engaged.  You’ve also basked in the nourishing light and warmth of mentors and role models, showing you the value and fruits of magnanimity and grace.

You participated better this time.  You wrote and mailed postcards.  You phone banked to fellow Chinese Americans.  You focused more on what you’re for than what you’re against.  Most of all, you did your best to elevate conversations.  You seek the Strong Middle, where people can have heartfelt, empathic, and often uncomfortable conversations, in service of connection.  You compromised none of your core values, and held certain ones in front, like curiosity, kindness, respect, and generosity.  Often such attitudes were not returned, from either ‘the opposition’ or ‘your own side’. 

But you got enough to keep going, and now you’re stronger.  And it’s all stoked the embers of positive change—the rock circle around your inner campfire enlarges.   You’ve found friends who also seek connection across difference.  Together you will create wider space and build a beautiful bonfire—visible from afar, inviting, welcoming, warming, and inspiring.  There’s a knock you can no longer ignore; you are called to do more.

Let this letter serve as your ethos manifesto—a first draft, at least.  When you feel frustrated and hopeless, when all you encounter tell you it’s a lost cause; when you feel attacked and diminished, and tempted to behave badly or give up, read this.

It’s an Infinite Game.  The goal in an infinite game is not to ‘win’; it’s to stay in the game.  Others may play to vanquish you, your cause, or one another.  This will never happen—there will always be new players; the issues, conflicts, and polarities will never go away.  Your job is to modify the game, to make it more humane for all players, while you advance your finite goals.  The costs of playing should not outweigh the rewards as they do today.  You know you can help rebalance, to give voice, strength, and power to those whose Why is connection.  That is how you will leave the game better for having played.

Center.  Ground.  Focus.  Engage.  This mantra served you well for years.  You know your own core values.  Their roots run deep and strong; they hold you up; trust them.  You know the truth of your message, no matter how it gets assailed.  You also draw strength and light from your amazing friends. They will stand by you—and you them—you hold each other up high.  Trust that, too.

No ad hominem.  Your mantra for the past few years:  Present. Open. Grounded. Kind. Loving. Smart.  You can be strong and flexible—strong back, soft front, wild heart, as Joan Halifax and Brené Brown write.  It serves no one for you to engage with negativity.  Firmness, directness, and steadfastness, however, along with fairness, humility, and accountability, will get you far.  Standing in these practices, I am confident you will regret less in the end. 

One Day, One Moment, One Breath at a time.  Everywhere you go, in every challenge, mindfulness emerges as a universal sustaining practice.  You always have your breath.  You can always use it, this quintessential polarity that teaches us about simplicity and infinity.  Lean in to it.  Draw in strength, respire peace.

Finally:  Dance.  Less news.  More music.

You’ got this.