Cartoon by Brendan Leonard
I’m starting a new project, and am feeling vulnerable. So I wanted to write something about it. To try something new, you have to be willing to believe in something when few others do. You have have to be willing to fail, sometimes in obscurity, and sometimes publicly. There’s the risk of loneliness and embarrassment.
Somehow vulnerability is the essence of leadership. It is holding a flag and a vision and saying, will you join me? Often we think of leaders as invulnerable, and there have been many who have tried to be so. But the ones we empathize with and connect with and are willing to follow are the vulnerable ones, the ones who are human. The ones who can make a mistake, admit it, and correct it. And great leaders do that over and over again, and help their team do it, until they succeed.
Brené Brown writes and talks about vulnerability, and has a great TED talk on it. She says it’s the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And yet it often feels yucky. So for members of teams that want to be great, it seems to be important to lean into it. Even just the simple ask of asking for help means you need to be vulnerable. The project I’m working in is much bigger than me, bigger than one person– teams are often working on projects that are bigger than what one person can accomplish. They rely on people asking for help from each other. Teams thrive on that vulnerability– if I show my weakness, my teammate can show their strength in that area, and we can succeed together.
Vulnerability brings connection too. It’s scary, and I generally won’t do it for its own sake. But to grow, I need to look for a larger purpose. I’ve found I’m often willing to be vulnerable in the service of something larger– to help others for instance. The larger the purpose and the more connected it is with my heart, the more willing I am to deepen that vulnerability. It’s much easier for a team to be vulnerable together and believe in a shared vision together– alone we often feel powerless, but even with a few others, we can try for something inspiring. So paradoxically vulnerability leads to growth and connection, which leads to strength.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This is part of the book Summoning Genius.
How do I know if I’m on a genius team?
You won’t. At least, you probably won’t at the time. It took Thomas Clarkson and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade 51 years to see slavery eradicated in the British Empire. The WHO’s Smallpox Eradication Unit worked on their problem for 14 years. The Apollo Program moon-landing team knew in 8 years. But in general, there is an element of humility necessary: you pick a great problem, and work to solve it. That’s all. History will decide whether your team was up to the task.
It’s not a very satisfying answer. All three teams mentioned didn’t know at the outset they’d be successful– conventional wisdom was that they wouldn’t. And they had many setbacks along the way, even right up until the end. Success wasn’t assured. Big problems take courage, creativity, and persistence– courage to choose a large problem that needs solving in the first place, creativity to work on it in new productive ways, and persistence to see the task through in the face of setbacks and criticism.
All these teams were not arrogant about their abilities– they knew they might fail in very public ways. They placed themselves in a place of learning, and sought help from many sources. They admitted their mistakes. They used other peoples’ ideas if they were better than theirs. They changed course after setbacks so they could keep making progress. They had an accurate– not overestimated or underestimated– sense of their own abilities. And they kept the focus on the problem they were solving, not on themselves.
Humble doesn’t mean humiliation– it just means having a right-sized view of oneself and one’s place in the world. The Manual of Character Strengths and Virtues says humility is associated with these characteristics:
- "an accurate (not underestimated) sense of one’s abilities and achievements
- an ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations
- openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice
- keeping one’s abilities and achievements in perspective
- relatively low focus on the self or an ability to "forget the self"
- appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world"
So while we can keep the idea of a genius team in our minds– that we want to be on a team that is unusually courageous, unusually creative, unusually persistent, unusually effective– we need to keep a light touch about it and not let it get to our heads. And we especially need to understand that as leaders or members of any team, we’re not special or blessed in any way– we’re just regular humans.
Being on an effective team is power. Power can lead to hubris and even the ancients knew what problems hubris brings. Great teams– and great team members– embody humility.
This is part of the book Summoning Genius.
Positive Psychology is the study of mental health, as opposed to the study of mental illness. Unfortunately it is still somewhat of a fringe discipline– most psychology is still the study of illness and how to cure it, rather than studying health and character strengths and how to develop them. This is the equivalent in conventional Western medicine of being able to heal broken bones and do surgeries, but not seeing the benefit of healthy eating and exercise.
There is now some research and discussion on how to develop psychological health on an individual basis. You can find science-based books on happiness, grit, resilience, optimism, flow, and more. There is a Handbook of Character Strengths and Virtues that catalogs what is known about character strengths, how to tell if someone has them, and what is known about how to increase them.
But little seems to be known about positive psychology and teams – the study of what makes teams psychologically healthy, high performance, fun, and growth-oriented. This is odd to me since teams are a fundamental unit of social organization in the workplace – teams are how work gets done. There are a lot of anecdotes – business magazines lionize successful companies and tell stories about what makes them successful, at least financially successful. Some industries like manufacturing have practices (like Lean Thinking or the Toyota Production System) but what about industries that rely mainly on creative work? Success is more than just financial success, but even on that level can we take what we know about a productive team or company and repeat its success with any level of confidence? Probably not, since exceptional teams and companies are rare.
This is important to us – individually and as a society. Positive psychologist Abraham Maslow said that as individuals, we want to work in a healthy and fun environment that helps us develop as people, meets our personal needs, and contributes back to society. As a society, we have pressing challenges – global warming, ecological problems, resource exhaustion, war, poverty, and the survival of our species, to name a few – and we could use highly effective help solving these problems.
That is why I’m interested in genius-level teams – high-performance teams that perform collectively at the level of a human genius, teams that can tackle and solve the pressing problems facing our world. It’s clear there have been teams like this in the past, and they have accomplished great things. I would also say there are some teams like that operating today. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on teams that performed that way for short periods of time.
How do we do it on command, reliably, repeatably, and often enough to make a significant difference to our world?
As a species and a civilization, we need this ability. We need to summon genius when needed. We can’t wait for it to be born. We can’t wait for the ones that are born to decide to work on the problems we consider important.
When we gain this ability, I am sure there will be many ways to do it. I don’t know them all. But I believe we can find them together. I believe we can learn new greatness-skills, work in healthy ways, have world-changing and world-healing creative breakthroughs, do work that is fulfilling and meaningful, and solve important problems.
To start along that path, I want to write down what I know about this topic as an easy-to-use handbook on how to be an effective team member– the handbook I want for myself. The journey from being an average team to being a high-performing one starts with a single team member. That member can be me. Or you. We don’t have to be a genius ourselves. This transformation can happen if we care, if we’re willing to be vulnerable and take the risk to start to change our aspirations, our viewpoint, our behaviors, our habits. It can happen if we take the risk to grow.
Unusually effective teams – genius-level teams – are also unusually creative. Surmounting hard problems requires hard work, but hard work isn’t enough. So this handbook is also about creativity as an individual and as a team.
Being a team member also means being an effective leader. In great teams, people lead and follow as called for in the moment. That may mean creating safety, modeling vulnerability, taking the initiative, raising controversial issues, or teaching these skills to others, so that the team as a whole is more effective. Leadership is a deep subject, so this book will only scratch the surface, but my hope is that this handbook can be used by people to help themselves and their teams move toward being highly effective. I also hope people will share this knowledge with each other, to improve this handbook, ideas, and skills.
I want this handbook to be based much as possible on science, on what is known to work, with an emphasis on how to do it. I want it to be an open source book that can be improved on over time with help from others, a guide that I can use myself to give me courage and inspiration, and one I can use with my teams to help them grow and accomplish their goals and give back to the world.
So I’m going to try to write it here on this blog and see where it goes. I’m inviting you to join me in exploring this topic together.
Here’s the book: Summoning Genius
I’ve said before that an enlightened society would not be a racist society. I’m fortunate to be part of a yoga community, 8 Limbs, that is doing work to understand and talk about racism. They’ve helped me expand my mind and heart in this area.
Recently there was an incident that occurred at the Northwest Yoga Conference that is making waves in the yoga community in Seattle:
On February 22 at the Northwest Yoga Conference (NWYC), a problematic interaction transpired involving an Indian woman and a white woman who also happens to be the director of the conference. Savitri Palkhivala was interrupted, asked to stop speaking and immediately leave the room, and ultimately the conference, by the conference director Melissa Hagedorn-Phillips. This elder, who has been practicing meditation for 35 years, was silenced while speaking about the emergence of female power in yoga as well as the aspects of the modern yoga culture that troubled her. This was an act of both racism and Cultural Appropriation.
8 Limbs made a statement about this incident. It’s well-considered and worth reading if you are interested in yoga and creating a more equitable society.
This statement from Laura Humpf of Rainier Beach Yoga about the incident is also thoughtful and great. Laura points out that it’s not about blaming Melissa for what happened– we need to look at ourselves and work together to better dismantle racism in a large way in our community.
In the Land of Witches there is, every year, a Festival of the Dreaming, during which all the witches dream the same dream together. The dream may be very simple. Last year they dreamt they were taking a pumpkin cake out of the oven. Everyone awoke in tears.
The Dream Science obliterates distance as well as time.
“Let me help you,” Verken said.
At that I snatched my wrist out of her grasp. She was a witch, a musician, and a free woman, and I was not; but there were some things that I knew better than she. On the subject of offers of help, I was something of an expert. In my home city, my mother’s cousin had offered to help her in her poverty by taking her youngest girl child off her hands. He sold me to my first mistress, whose son, a university student, helped me by teaching me my letters…
Via AskReddit, a beautiful description about how cells came to use mitochondria for energy:
Back in the old times, when all life was single celled… photosynthesis was invented by the cyanobacteria. This released a poisonous, toxic gas into the atmosphere that killed almost all life: oxygen.
There were few ways to survive. Most of the survivors were the cells that lived in places oxygen couldn’t reach. The bottom of the ocean or other extreme environments for example. Therse were the extremophiles: the archaea, the anaerobic bacteria. Many remained there and still exist today. Not to be found on earth’s oxygen rich surface.
Others though, were more clever. They survived by inventing chemical reactions that used up the oxygen. If the oxygen were used, it could not kill them, and they could continue to live on the earth’s surface and away from extreme environments. These too, still remain today. Some became the modern day aerobic bacteria. Others, we now know by another name.
The third way to survive the threat of oxygen was the most ingenious… rather than invent your own chemistry to use up the oxygen… hold someone hostage who HAD found a way, and use their chemistry for your own selfish purpose. These cells engulfed some of those who had the chemistry to survive. They captured them. Made them live internally… almost as if they had become organs of their hosts. The cells who had learned to survive oxygen still continued to live though… they went generations and generations inside these host cells. The DNA of the two became intertwined and interdependent. over time.. none could live without the other. They were now one cell: the animal cell. A cell which could survive the oxygen plague because of its internal hostages which used to be free roaming beings of their own: what we now call the mitochondria.
I’m new to talking about racism. But undoing racism is one of my interests. And I want to be courageous, and I want live in a kinder, more tolerant, fair society. It’s clear to me that an enlightened society would not be a racist society. So here goes…
On Thursday and Friday I attended a workshop on Undoing Institutional Racism put on by the People’s Institute Northwest (PINW). PINW is affiliated with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. PISAB is headquartered in New Orleans has been around for more than 35 years teaching anti-racist organizing skills all over the country.
I really recommend attending this workshop. I found it to be hard and uncomfortable, and also very helpful and inspiring. You have to register about 3 months in advance to go because they fill up, and it costs $350, but the planning and cost are definitely worth it. It would be even more effective to go as a group from the same organization, to have the same language and talk with each other about it.
The program’s focus is not individual bigotry or how to talk with people about racism, but instead focuses on institutional racism – racism that’s perpetuated by systems, our society, culture, rules, laws, organizations, government, and corporations. I found this valuable when looking at the Shambhala Buddhist community that I am part of. It’s a mostly white liberal community – and would like to be more welcoming to people of color, but there are few people of color presently. The training made it clear that is a result of our systems and culture, it’s not by chance; and that to replace what exists now, it’s vital that we take a systems view and an organizing view (working together with many others).
The training had a focus on this view, which is PISAB’s view – I found it to be very aligned with the mahayana path: individual liberation from racism can’t happen without working on the social systems of racism. You have to work on both together.
PISAB takes an organizing perspective. From this perspective, at the Shambhala Center of Seattle we have a group of people who consider themselves anti-racist – both people of color and white people who are actively working on undoing racism. The trainers provided a framework for thinking about how we, this group, can help the community we love wake up little by little and undo our institution’s racism little by little. And how we can help our larger society.
One of the main things I took away from the workshop was that we are not alone. There are other people and groups working on undoing racism in ourselves as individuals and in our organizations and society, and there are these communities in Seattle – including other faith-based anti-racist communities. And they want to know us, be friends with us, and want us to join together to help each other.
Another valuable thing I got from the workshop was simply to meet other anti-racist whites in our city who are thinking about the same things and working on themselves and their organizations. I also learned about two organizations that I’m going to look into:
- CARW – the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites – a group of white people in the Seattle area working to undo institutional racism and white privilege through education and organizing in white communities and active support of anti-racist, people of color-led organizations.
- European Dissent – persons of European descent who “dissent” from the racist institutions and values designed to benefit them (no website) – associated with PINW and PISAB and use their organizing principles, there is a Seattle chapter
As a meditation instructor, I tell frequently tell others that it is ok to be uncomfortable. Being with ourselves when we are uncomfortable is how we learn to be kind to ourselves and to others.
It’s uncomfortable talking about race and racism. It’s uncomfortable working to undo racism in myself and the organizations I am part of. But as the trainers said, if we want a better world, we need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I was glad to spend time with people who were willing to do that for our society.
Ursula K. Le Guin died a few days ago. She was a hero of mine – someone I looked up to my whole life. I read her books as a child and as an adult. They expanded my mind and heart, helped make me an optimistic person, and made me interested in kindness. Jo Walton, author of Among Others, one of my beloved books, writes of Le Guin,
She widened the space of science fiction with what she wrote. She got in there with a crowbar and expanded the field and made it a better field…
Le Guin expanded the possibilities for all of us, and then she kept on doing that. She didn’t repeat herself. She kept doing new things. She was so good. I don’t know if I can possibly express how good she was.
I’ve returned to A Wizard of Earthsea so many times in my life. Ged’s struggle with his shadow, releasing it, the havoc it wreaks on his life, and then his quest to heal the wound really speaks to me and inspired me to heal myself. Her other books influenced me in similar ways. Like Walton, I don’t know if I can possibly express how good she was. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin says,
And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man who, knowing his whole true self, can never be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark. In the creation of Éa, the oldest song, it is sung,
“Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”
Bless you Ursula, you made the world a better place.
About gourds, one thing they say in Blue Ridge is, “It takes a fool to grow a gourd,” and they notice how I always get a good crop. The other thing they say is that you have to hard-cuss gourd seed as you put them in the ground. To get their attention before they’ll even consider coming up. Gourds are stubborn-stubborn. In the mystical poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi gourds are a metaphor for human beings, and their rattling speech. If we make our noises against enclosure long and hard enough, we’ll break out and have some chance to germinate. This is the process: planted in mid-May, a gourd vine becomes a wildly growing thing through July. I have clocked one tendril on a wet and sunny summer afternoon at one and a half inches every two hours. The entire vine grows seven yards a week. Of the kinds I know, one flowers white, opening in the evening, the other yellow, opening in the morning. Where the flowers drop off, fruit nubs appear and swell and streak and fill with rain. In the middle of September you bring these heavy young-uns in and lay them side by side on newspapers on the daybed, where they can rot. When they get good and mildew-black with fur, you take them to the picnic table and wash them in white vinegar, scraping off the scum with your fingernails, leaving designs. After another month they’ll fuzz up again. Take them back to the table with the vinegar and hold and wash and caress them like babies. Then do it again. You’ll have dirty fingernails and hands that smell vinegary and some fine hardshell gourds. People, of course, make marten houses and soup ladles and fancy African instruments out of gourds. Some friends brought me a Balinese penis-sheath that is a long-handled dipper gourd cut off where the handlepart enters the womb cavity. Me, I shake them to loosen the seeds from the clump inside and give them away whole on Gourd Day. Why can’t a person make up a holiday and a way to celebrate it? It is December 17th, around sunset, with the sky deep winter red, that I secretly tie gourds to my friends door knockers and message nails. They call me the gourd fairy. No cards or words go with them. Shelled-in, foolish, and hard to get started, gourds don’t mean anything.