The First White President

Great article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in October’s Atlantic Monthly: The First White President. Brilliant and intelligent. It begins:

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.


Grief

I made a grief resources page.


The Importance of Psychological Safety on Teams

Great article today on the importance of psychological safety on teams: Engineering a Culture of Psychological Safety, via Martin Fowler:

Teams without psychological safety underperform. Here are the danger signs and routes to improve.

From the article:

When discussing failures, people need to feel safe to share all relevant information, with the understanding that they will be judged not on how they fail, but how their handling of failures improved the team, their product and the organization as a whole. Teams with operational responsibilities need to come together and discuss outages and process failures. It’s essential to approach these as fun learning opportunities, not root-cause obsessed witch-hunts.

My ex-boss Casey used to say, “It’s my policy that you made the right decision. It’s more important to make decisions than be perfect. We may make another decision based on new information, but you will never be blamed for making a decision.” That really helped me feel safe. And it’s become my policy now too.


Optimism as a Learned Skill

sunriseI was talking with a colleague about optimism lately – he commented that he tends to see the worst case scenarios for each new situation. I said I thought optimism is a learned skill.

We were working on a piece of software together and got stuck – we could not see a way to make it work, to accomplish our goals. Right now this is a key piece of software for our company, since the way it is made currently made limits our growth. Our job was to undo this limitation. But we got stuck and couldn’t see a way out.

We were both dissatisfied by this – unhappy with the current mess we were in and unhappy with our limited ability to untangle it. My friend was sad about this and pessimistic about the outcome. But he was also mad, and his anger had dignity – he wanted things to be better, which is a great strength. The fact he was expressing his anger let me feel my frustration and anger too.

I was frustrated, but I was also excited. I thought we were about to learn something new and cool. That often happens when we get stuck, especially in software. One of the essential characteristics of software development is that we are always at a growth edge, working on unknown problems that stretch us. Once we solve a problem, if we encounter a similar one, we can just copy the solution. Hence we’re always working on new things.

So frustration often feels like dignity energy to me – being mad can give us the energy to overcome our ignorance and create something new.

And indeed that was what happened – we went home for the night letting our subconscious minds work on the problem, and in the morning came in and asked for help. The clues came from several people – one person taught us a lot about the design of the software, so we could have a larger vision, and two others helped us narrow our problem down and understand precisely what our company needed from us. And then we were able to find an elegant solution.

The mess and frustration did lead to a breakthrough.

hope written on a hand

So what exactly is optimism? I looked it up in Seligman and Peterson’s Handbook of Character Strengths and Virtues, my main reference for Positive-Psychology-based personal growth. Optimism is a virtue of Transcendence, closely allied with hope. It seems to have several components:

  • goals – approaching life in a goal-oriented way
  • pathways – goal planning, being able to imagine routes to reach the goals
  • agency – goal motivation, being motivated to achieve goals

In other words, hope was defined as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways…

[I]ndividuals who are able to realize these three components and develop a belief in their ability are hopeful people who can establish clear goals, imagine multiple workable pathways toward those goals, and persevere, even when obstacles get in their way. (Hope on Wikipedia)

Unfortunately Seligman and Peterson say science doesn’t know how to teach or grow optimism. (Update: Actually Seligman has done a lot of scientific study on teaching optimism.) But I think we can. So how do we do it? Here are some things that work for me:

The first two are things you can practice. Practice is a way to invite things into your life, to give them space. My friend and mentor Jim McCarthy says about inviting, “A want is a baby have.”

The third one is about getting to know yourself better, getting to know other people better, developing intimacy, and letting their qualities and strengths rub off on you. And the last two, meditating and seeing a therapist, are both practices and ways of being intimate with yourself. They let your own inner strengths shine out, which I find helps me be more resilient and hopeful about life. Optionally if you like reading, learning about positive psychology (the science of psychological wellness) can give you a bigger picture. I’ll write more about positive psychology here soon.

But how do those things work? That’s a topic for another blog post. Or maybe the how doesn’t matter. If you want more optimism, I invite you to try some of these out. And if you have other things that work for you, I’d like to hear about them.


Love Dogs

One night a man was crying,
“Allah, Allah!”

His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer for that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage,
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.

Jellaludin Rumi,
translated by Coleman Barks, available in the book Essential Rumi


Running As Spiritual Practice

Lately I’ve been interested in running as spiritual practice. I didn’t used to think about myself as a spiritual person – that came to me later in life, after I started meditating. And I only recently started running. But now somehow running is caring for my body, mind and spirit. When I run I can just be with me. No music or headphones. I treat it more like a moving meditation.

After writing the last blog post, I remembered there was an On Being episode on Running As Spiritual Practice that I wanted to listen to. So I did today. Wow.

Here’s a couple of excerpts:

Sometimes, as runners, we’re not all feeling great about ourselves. And I woke up one morning — you know, you just have those mornings, and you look in the mirror, you’re like, “I hate this.” It’s so irrational. You know that nothing has changed in the past seven hours since you went to bed. Nothing is different. But you wake up, and it’s almost like my body isn’t mine, which makes me sad because all of my body is mine. Like, if anything, it’s the only thing that is truly mine.

So for me, though, once I started running it was really hard to be angry at my body in the same way. I would get out on the road and, all of a sudden, step by step, it was like running myself back to myself in a lot of ways.

Christina Torres

When I was training for my second marathon — I was running Chicago, and I went to go get some new shoes. And the guy at the running store — I was telling him, “Yeah, I’m not super excited about this. I just want to get through. I’m kind of nervous about my time and everything.” And he was like, “Yeah, the best thing for you to remember is that the blessing is outside of your comfort zone.”

And so that was something for me to really kind of think about. And it was something that I would actually meditate on, literally just saying over and over and over in my head as I continued my training. And it’s something that I do now. Whenever I’m challenging myself to something new, I keep saying that the blessing really is outside of your comfort zone. If you stay and do what you’re comfortable with, you’ll never experience something new and incredible.

Ashley Hicks

On Being – Running As Spiritual Practice


Strava for Apple Watch

I have been running a fair bit lately – both for exercise and to care for my spirit. I’ve had an Apple Watch Series 2 for some time and in general been quite happy with it. It’s not really a watch, like the iPhone is not really a phone, but more on that some other time. I had the idea the watch might help me track my running better. I was using the Nike Running Club app for iPhone. But the Nike Running Club Apple Watch app was incredibly frustrating. It actually crashed the watch. Not once. Not occasionally. But often.

A friend pointed me at the Strava app for iPhone, which also has an Apple Watch app. Some say the Strava app is not very accurate. It’s accurate enough for me. It uploads data to Strava’s website where you can track your runs over time. And it has one key feature that I haven’t seen mentioned online: it never crashes. It’s rock solid.

Maybe people take that aspect for granted. It does seem like not crashing and certainly not crashing my device is a minimum bar for a key app that I’m going to spend time with. So coming from Nike Running Club, I was happy to find something more reliable.

Strava’s app is very basic. It tracks time, distance, pace, and heart rate. That’s all I need. Recommended.


Befriending Shadow

Under an empty autumn sky
Stretch endless wastes
Where no one goes.
Who is that horseman riding in from the west?

Wang Changling, eighth-century Buddhist poet

The unacknowledged sides of ourselves hold tremendous power – both destructive power and creative power, sometimes both at the same time. David Richo starts his book Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power & Creativity of Your Dark Side with this poem, returning to this image of the unknown, mysterious stranger throughout his investigation. The book is in some ways an answer to Wang Changling’s question, and some ways a guidebook for our own journey in getting to know ourselves, so we can answer the question on our own.

Our scared and arrogant ego has an enormous capacity not to know itself. This shadow side of our ego contains the disowned, disavowed, unlived, and excluded traits and powers of our personality. It is the dimension of our personality that is rejected by our conscious ego. It is both negative and positive. The negative shadow contains all that we despise and reject as unworthy in ourselves. It is not evil, only inferior. Only when it is denied does it gain an autonomous life of its own and become destructively evil. Our dark side is destructive when it is discredited or neglected. It is creative when it is acknowledged and attended to. The positive shadow contains all our untapped creative potential. We may have been taught to despise that side of ourselves too. (p. 12)

Richo asks us to welcome the rider in, to get to know her or him, to befriend these mysterious and unknown parts of ourselves. He has a very optimistic, kind, and friendly way of going about it, and asks good questions. For me the gateway into this book, what made me want to read it, was grief – the pain of wanting things to be different than they are, the pain of holding onto “I” too hard. I have a wise friend who says, I have a hard time letting go of things without leaving claw-marks. Richo encourages us with practices that open dialog with the parts of us that are holding tightly – What are you wanting? What does it feel like? Can we feel the dark despair, depression, the disturbing feelings and simply be with them, without changing them?

A result of befriending the shadow is that dark and light are recognized as interior realities. In befriending the shadow, a form of initiation, we recognize this and no longer need to flee, control, or destroy it. Both loss and grief initiate us into the realization that all is transitory and that we are not entitled to an exemption from that stern reality. A wound is the cost of opening. How have your personal wounds opened you? How have they closed you? (p. 292)

Part of what made the book helpful for me was the guidebook quality – the book wasn’t just someone telling a story or conveying facts, but invited me on my own inner journey. The questions and practices opened doors for me and helped me be curious about the grief, the difficulty, my inner landscape. Essentially Richo is asking throughout the book, how can I grow? How does my view of myself, its known and unknown parts, serve to keep me asleep? How can knowing my shadow, my unacknowledged parts, help me wake up and grow and heal?

Rebirth is a crossing of the threshold from the conditions of mortal existence to the world of the Self. List the milestone events of your life, the painful crises, the failures and successes, and your strongest relationships. Each of them was meant to make you a person of more love, wisdom, and healing, was meant to conduct you to your destiny. Without “yes, buts,” acknowledge that this has happened and look for ways to foster it even further. What did you lose and what did you gain in each of your milestone experiences? How have others benefited from your journey? How are you fighting the movement that wants to happen now? How are you allowing it? Who is helping or hindering you in this mysterious process? Whom do you have to thank for whatever in your journey has already been successful? (p. 292)

Who is that horseman riding in from the west?

Highly recommended. Available from Amazon.


On Retreat

I’ll be on meditation retreat in Colorado the last two weeks of July so won’t be posting here until August.


Just Below the Great Red Spot

A beautiful image of Jupiter taken by the Juno spacecraft‘s JunoCam, just below the Great Red Spot.

Juno will perform a controlled deorbit in February 2018, ensuring it does not contaminate any of Jupiter’s moons with Earth life forms.

(Via Hacker News)