Thursday, April 26, 2012

Creativity and Relationships

                Most of the many works I’ve read on creativity and innovation acknowledge the importance of feeling stuck, even of experiencing failure. Most recently I came across this passage in Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works:
Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next. (Kindle edition, Loc 203)
In some ways this is rather obvious, necessity-as-the-mother-of invention stuff. I also could go on one of my this-is-why-we-need-to-let-kids-struggle screeds. Maybe another time.
                Instead, I want to consider why this idea is true not just for creativity, but also for learning, particularly in human relationships.
                Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest success I ever experienced as a soccer coach. Sometimes I really miss coaching. It’s nostalgia triggered by a spring break visit to my first school, where I hadn’t been in around 15 years. Our host kept introducing me as the guy who started the soccer program.
                My first few years we were terrible, and double digit losses were not uncommon. It was a new program, we were a very small school, I sometime used middle schoolers on the varsity, and we had to play giant public schools. We kept our chins up and had fun, although the constant losing hurt. Gradually we improved to where we could put up a fight. In the fifth year, I thought we finally could be a team to be truly competitive. I had high hopes, and the players were excited. Maybe we even could make the play-offs!
                We began the season badly, and things grew worse—mainly because of my response. I berated the players, and I kept trying to force them into my system rather than make any adjustments. Never did I question my approach, and my mood grew darker and darker. Finally, after one particularly disheartening loss, I sat alone for hours and suddenly asked, “Mark, what in the world are you doing? This isn’t the way you want to coach.” Practice the next day was very different. It began with my apologizing for how I had been treating them as players and as people. In turn, they accepted their responsibility for certain things. We had a long, pretty intense and honest discussion. Training sessions became fun again. We won four of our last five matches.
                Two years later I had a fabulous squad, with many of the players returning from the team mentioned above, along with some strong new boys. Expectations were sky high. A ref told me after a pre-season scrimmage, “Mark, you are loaded for bear!” That created pressure and tension, and I had the problem of not being sure how the pieces were going to fit together, especially in the way I liked to organize a team. I could see the potential, but it wasn’t gelling. I knew I didn’t want to repeat recent history. So I rethought my tactics and designed a team concept based on the players’ talents rather than a standard formation. We kept practices light, with lots of fun and games and laughter. After the regular season we were undefeated. To remove that pressure, I scheduled an extra match against a team I knew would probably beat us. We lost, and it was a relief for all of us. After all, we’d never even had a winning record before, and now people wanted us to go undefeated. We won the first three playoffs games, which put us in the championship match. Everyone was tense. So in our final practice, we had our team meeting, and I sent everyone out not to train, but to play in the mud left over from some recent rains. The next day we won state.
                While I’m incredibly proud of that state championship, it’s not the greatest success to which I referred above. That team was so talented many coaches could have won the title. However, I don’t think I could have without having sloughed through the muddy trenches of two years before…and certainly not without having been able to work through that frustration and re-create the season. Doing that necessitated asking myself some really hard questions and accepting answers I didn’t like. Then I had to change my behavior accordingly. If I hadn’t, a bunch of boys would have had miserable experiences mainly because of me. In both seasons I think I taught some important lessons, but mostly in the first. That experience also taught me a great deal about the never-ending process of learning and growing and self-improvement.
                In many ways, coaching and teaching—and I guess most human activities—ultimately depend on relationships. When one isn’t working and we’ve hit that wall, then if it matters to us, we have to get creative. Sometimes that involves reinvention of the self.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Not Just What or How, But Why

                In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been reading Dov Seidman’s How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything. It’s an excellent book, and the premise is captured in this passage:
Sustainable values are those that connect us deeply as humans. They include integrity, honesty, truth, humility, and hope. Sustainable values are therefore all about how, not how much.
   What makes an institution sustainable is not the scale and size it reaches, as the collapse of major financial institutions demonstrated. Rather, it’s how it does its business—how it relates to its employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers, the environment, society, and future generation. (Kindle edition, loc 319)
On the surface, this seems like another way of advocating thoughtful brand management. That shortchanges Seidman’s work, though. He's advocating something much more integral and organic that that, which can become merely another strategy and connected tactics. That approach, argues Seidman, eventually will fall apart. Plenty of examples bear out that truth.
                The book provides plenty of prompts for reflection. As I’ve been considering his line of reasoning, I keep finding myself taking it one step further. The what still matters, and the how matters more than ever. But we can’t ever lose sight of the deepest why. Then the rest blossoms from that seed.
                And that would be a pretty good place for schools to begin as we do some hard thinking about how we do things.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Let Fish Walk!

     Austin Fisher is a high school senior in Carrollton, Ohio. He should be walking in his graduation in a few weeks--but he won't be. It seems that Austin accumulated sixteen unexcused absences, which is two more than is allowed. So school admininstrators have determined that they have to follow the guidelines, no matter what reason Austin had for missing that much school. He is a varsity baseball player, and he worked two part-time jobs. Oh yeah, Austin also was taking care of his mother Theresa, who has suffered from breast cancer for the past six years. (See a report on the story here.)
     Recently I've been reading Dov Seidman's How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything. Last night I studied his section on rules. As most of us know from experience, we often create rules based on past issues. But we can't anticipate everything that could happen, and then the rules can cause more problems than they might have prevented in the first place. I hope the school personnel making this call feel as if they have no choice. I'd love to hear their side, as perhaps there is more to this story than I know after seeing the news report.
     Since they're in education, I wonder what they hope to be teaching students at this school. That rules are rules? And that they apply to everyone, no matter what? I'll say this for Austin Fisher. He understands some things that the leaders of that school apparently would be incapable of teaching him. Based on what I've seen, I wouldn't just want Austin walking at graduation. I'd want him giving the commencement address.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Leadership: My Inner Landscape

     A week from today I head for a workshop at the Santa Fe Leadership Center. While many of their programs look fascinting, I'm particularly intrigued by the one I'm attending: Leadership Unplugged: The Inner Landscape of the Leader. It touches upon many of the topics explored at various times in this blog. The topic also is one I ponder regularly.
     On the first day we have to introduce ourselves and give three pieces of information. The first two are simple enough--our names and our positions. The third is a bit trickier. We have to expalin why we lead. And we have just sixty seconds for the entire spiel.
     That's where I'm struggling, as the answer is pretty complicated. Actually, I'm not sure I really know the answer, at least not in any simple fashion. I'm not going to go through the entire thought process here, but maybe this will help me boil it down while giving you some mental fodder.
     First (and I'm not sure I shuld start here, as it's not my best feature), I don't really like being told what to do. Yes, I'll listen, seek advice, want guidance, promote collaboration, delegate substantially. Ultimately, though, I like having a great deal of freedom and responsibility.
     I also lead because I greatly enjoy the challenges the role brings. From logistical puzzles to personnel issues, I thrive on the variety each day can bring. It fosters growth and lessens boredom.
     Ultimately, I lead for a more ethereal reason. I derive great satisfaction from striving to use my talents for some greater purpose. That fuels my hope that I am doing work which has true meaning and significance.
     None of this will come as any surprise to those who have read Dan Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Pink points out that the time-honored carrot-and-stick approach works only for certain rote tasks and only in the short term. Instead, most people draw inspiration from having a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
     Thus, in a sense, I feel as if my answer to the question doesn't dig deeply enough. To reach the eeal point, I want to reframe the question. Given Pink's findings and given the difficulties of real leadership, why do some answer the call of leadership when so many won't?

Thursday, April 12, 2012


                One of my favorite parts of soccer is not just a goal, but the wonderful celebration that almost always ensues. It’s a natural, joyous reaction to a rare event. Even the greatest scorers still revel in the moment, whether it’s a simple tap-in or a smashing volley.
                Contrast to the advice often given by many American football coaches: “When you score a touchdown, act like you’ve been there before.” And the NFL has clamped down on “excessive” celebrating.
                I remember one of the first high school teams I coached. The program was new, so we weren’t very good and didn’t score much. When we did, at first the players didn’t really celebrate. I encouraged them to; in fact, we even practiced celebrating during training sessions. In games they began to celebrate wildly when scoring, and I believe it increased their motivation. I have to think it contributed to the steady improvement of the program.
                Why adopt a posture that smacks of ennui? It saps vitality, mocks genuine curiosity, stymies innovation, and breeds ingratitude. It does the same to the people around you.
Recently I read of two incidents which, while extreme, show just how harmful such an attitude can be. In the first, a man gave $1K a week to a certain charity for a year. In the second, a man gave a non-profit a $500K gift. In both cases, no one said thank you. The first man stopped giving, and the second withdrew his pledge for another $250K. Who knows how much the bad PR cost them? I trust it also cost them loads of self-respect.
I hope I never become so blasé or jaded that I don’t celebrate reaching any of my goals and that I always include the teammates who set me up for success.
While you think about that, enjoy this video of goal celebrations performed by Stjarnan FC from Iceland. These players know how to do it!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rethinking Character in Digital Era

            In my last post, I concluded, ”So as an educator, certainly I’m concerned about the implications of all this technology. Of course, like Carr, I’m worried about the adverse effects it may be having on our brains, particularly those of young people who are in key formative periods. But I want to fire another warning shot. We had better also think very hard about questions of character.” In that regard, we need to rethink the oft-repeated notion that character is how one behaves when no one is watching. Because now there seldom is a time when someone isn’t watching you in some fashion.

Recently I’ve begun reading Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion. It does a phenomenal job of laying out some of the massive implications of increasingly pervasive technology, most of them zipping along behind our veil of blissful ignorance. In short, there is no privacy anymore—at least not if you participate in even rudimentary aspects of modern life. Early on the authors point out that the London bombings were solved because there are thousands of cameras all over the city, many more than imagined in Orwell’s 1984. Plus in the novel the two-ways monitors could be turned by those in the know. Signals from cell phones, scans of toll tags, ATM records—we leave a trail of digital footprints wherever we go.

These footprints can save our lives. The book opens with a story of a woman saved after a car wreck when a rescue crew found her by tracking cell phone signals. In another example, you may recall a case a few years ago when a Duke University lacrosse player was accused of rape. At first, he seemed to be assumed guilty. However, as the case unfolded, the digital trail of his path the night of the incident showed that he could not have been present at the time the woman said the rape happened.

Of course, all this means that we have ceded a high degree of freedom, often without realizing it. Even when we do so, a quick cost-analysis suggests to us that the potential loss is well worth the convenience that it affords us. After all, just imagine if we had to withdraw cash only when the bank was open? I’m really just getting into this part of the book, so I’m curious to see what the authors see as the potential damages.

At this point, there is no turning back that I can see…and I don’t believe we should even think of doing that if we could. Instead, we’re presented with a challenge. And I don’t mean just protecting our privacy, although that’s obviously important. Now that we all live such public lives, let’s really think about how we conduct ourselves all the time. We need to keep in mind another idea about character: that one should never do anything that would prove truly embarrassing if it ended up on the front page or the evening news. Because it very well might. Or at least on a blog or Facebook.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Facebook--Neuroscience and Behavioral Science

A recent post on the Committed Sardine Blog had the headline “Facebook's 'Dark Side': Study Finds Link to Socially Aggressive Narcissism.” The sub-title read, “Psychology paper finds Facebook and other social media offer platform for obsessions with self-image and shallow friendships” (”. Among the key findings:
·         Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a "socially disruptive" narcissist;
·         People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.
·         narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site's public walls and changed their profile pictures more often
A number of previous studies have linked narcissism with Facebook use, but this is some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most "toxic" elements of narcissistic personality disorder.
I’m not really the right person to comment on Facebook. I’ve been on it once, and that was to help my wife figure out how to cancel her account. Yet I suspect that many of you are seeing these findings and, like me, feel not the least bit surprised.
It’s not as if self-centered exhibitionism is anything new. Not that long ago in the past, however, it was reserved, in one example, for the drunken fan who decides to run onto the field during a ballgame. I assume regret came with sobriety. Now, the hope is 10,000 fans video the event and it goes viral before the end of the game. Most of our popular tools and social media encourage such self-centeredness. We use i-devices (albeit with a lower case i) to regularly update our status. Success is measured in terms of “friends” and “followers,” however loosely we use the term. And how many of the bits floating through cyberspace are worth someone’s two cents. Think about this currently popular picture that “explains” social media:

While not focused strictly on Facebook, Nicholas Carr considered these implications in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr begins by allowing that there are enthusiasts and skeptics regarding the Internet. He writes: “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act” (Kindle edition, Loc 123). In a wonderful analogy, Carr reflects upon how his own way of processing information has changed: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Loc 182).
The analogy calls to mind the mythological origins of the term used for the psychological disorder we call Narcissism. Despite being wooed by the beautiful Echo, Narcissus is incapable of turning away from his own reflection in the waters of a small pond. Eventually he changes into a flower. While we can feel pity for him, the real sadness comes from the way his behavior leads to Echo wasting away to nothing but a hollow sound.
Meanwhile, while the Facebook findings do not surprise and are explored in some detail, it was another line in the article that hit me: “The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.”

                So as an educator, certainly I’m concerned about the implications of all this technology. Of course, like Carr, I’m worried about the adverse effects it may be having on our brains, particularly those of young people who are in key formative periods. But I want to fire another warning shot. We had better also think very hard about questions of character.