For the sake of a Community

I started playing fiddle about five years ago. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I travel down to Toronto each week with my friend Eleanor and we play in a group called MSR Fiddlers (March, Strathspey, Reel is the acronym). This is a diverse group of folks of all ages, stages and abilities, brought together by the simple love of Cape Breton music, step dancing and the generous and loving spirit of our leader, Sandy MacIntyre.

Three "hatted" fiddlers!

Three “hatted” fiddlers!

I don’t remember much about my first year of playing with this group. I struggled mightily as I tried to learn the instrument, play and memorize tunes, and try to keep my feet from stomping when we’d really get a tune going. Trying to fit in was not on my list of priorities. Then again, this is not an organized group – we slip in at staggered times, acknowledge one another with a head nod or and wave, sit down and launch into tunes. This community of people come together once a week and play music, nothing more. 

And then Leona got sick. 

Leona and Fiona - different in age but sisters in spirit!

Leona and Fiona – different in age but sisters in spirit!

Leona, a Cape Bretoner through and through, was like sunlight on anything she touched. She makes me smile just thinking about her. It was her second battle with cancer, and despite her motorcycle adventures in the summer and her zip lining in the winter, our group knew that this battle was her last. So one evening a few weeks ago, at Lucy MacIntyre’s bidding, we did something that we’ve never done, at least not in the 5 years I’ve been going to play music. 

Eleanor, warming up for a performance.

Eleanor, warming up for a performance.

We introduced ourselves to one another.

Names were exchanged. Street addresses and e mails, laughter and wishes and things that could have/should have/might have been done years ago. Characters like The Professor, The Teacher, Poodle Man (he brings his miniature poodle!) and The Older Lady now had real names. People learned that they actually lived down the street from one another. 

We were a disparate community of musicians who had morphed into a community of friends in a moment, simply because one precious member of our community was going to leave us. 

I believe we all have different communities in our lives. Our immediate families are a community, often extended to cousins, uncles, aunts, once removed or otherwise. I have my yoga community that meets every Thursday night, none of whom know my family. Or my friends from work, who make a huge community and are separate from other parts of my life.

Much loved members of another community of mine!

Much loved members of another community of mine!

These communities may or may not overlap, but it is our inclusion in those communities that gives us strength, a sense of belonging and a place in the world. They don’t have to be large; they just have to be.

Leona Au Coin, though if she were alive would most likely deny it, was a cornerstone of our fiddle community. She chose to learn the fiddle after having a stroke. She wanted something to help challenge and restore her brain. She somehow reached out to all of us in her own way, and helped shape us into this unique congregation of musicians and friends. 

Her funeral is next week. Our community of fiddlers will gather at the funeral home with our fiddles and honour her life the only way we  know how: play her favourite tunes. Because of her, we know each other’s names and we feel connected. We’ll also see members of Leona’s other communities at the funeral – her family, her travel friends, her work friends; so many people will be there to celebrate her life. And we will blend those communities, if only for a day.

To all my friends who read these musings of mine, I would ask that you take a moment and consider your own communities. You might surprise yourself when you realize how many communities you find yourself in. And to honour my Leona, take a moment and be thankful for those communities, and let all the members who touch your heart in some way know how very, very special they are.

Taking my own advice, if you are reading this, whether I know you or not, you are very much a part of my community, and I am so grateful for your presence. 

A small part of our community!

Eleanor, me, Anastasia and Leona – a small part of our fiddle community!

Don’t aim for the trees!

I was 38 years old when I started skiing. My then husband had skied all his life, and we wanted our family ski together. So Rory (5), Jaime (3) and Susan (38) started into lessons at the Mansfield Ski Club. 7 years later, we could all ski down anything, and had skied in Utah and all over Alberta and BC. In all those years of lessons, I am pretty confident that each and every ski instructor shared this lesson: don’t look at what you want to avoid…look at where you are going, and your skis will take you there. Trust your skis and your ability.

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

In 2007, we were skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with my most wonderful friend Kira and her family. Second to last day, lots of powder and great weather, I (stupidly) decided to follow Jaime down some steeps through the trees. I dodged the trees successfully…until I slowed down and came out into a clearing…and managed to catch a spruce tree that I was trying to avoid with my right ski. That ski released. The left ski did not. 

3 breaks in the lower left leg, a most memorable toboggan ride, emergency surgery, a rod, a plate and lots of screws, 7 months of intensive physiotherapy and I was back to skiing the next winter. Kira and I headed to Banff and skied Lake Louise. It was as if I hadn’t broken my leg. Except, I had developed a new and irrational fear of skiing in trees. If I even got close to them, I had an immediate and visceral reaction of panic.

I still love to ski, but I always stay away from trees. Those beautiful little glades with trails that beckon? I avoid them. Even the larger open tree areas in Whistler and Big White, I stay away from those. It limits the areas I can ski, but quells my panic. 

A bit of mountain to ski down...note the lack of trees here.

A bit of mountain to ski down…note the lack of trees here.

However, last week, the most miraculous thing happened. Kira and I were in Whistler, and after the first day of heavy, wet snow (and tired legs), Kira reminded me that we just have to trust our skis and our abilities…and make sure we look at where we want to go, not what we want to avoid. In other words, don’t aim for the trees.

We ended up in Symphony Bowl one morning, and down we skied. We took different routes and before I knew it, I found myself in some tight trees. I could feel the panic start to rise as my skis were turning. I found myself staring hard at the trees, turning past them and looking for the next one to get ready for my turn.

Then it happened. I heard Kira’s voice in my head, echoed by all those other ski instructors, and I actually listened. Then instead of looking at the trees, I looked at where I wanted to go.

Holy cow. 

It really worked! 

I was turning like a  ninja (or my version of an old lady ninja), gliding between the trees like I wasn’t afraid at all.

And you know what?

I wasn’t afraid at all!

I could end my story here, celebrating my brave and skillful skiing ability; how I learned to look at where I wanted to go, and not at what I needed to avoid – the trees. But that is not the purpose of this story. As we went up the chair lift, I shared my inspiration with my two ski buddies (who love and tolerate my relative insanity). In a moment of quiet contemplation, Remy turned and said something like this:

Three skiers focusing ahead...or at least on the camera!

Three skiers focusing ahead…or at least on the camera!

“That is a metaphor for life. Trust yourself, trust your abilities, and point yourself in the direction you want to go. Don’t look at what you want to avoid…look ahead at where you want to go.”

So, my friends, whether you are skiing, traveling, writing a policy document, developing a new learning program, or just trying to live a good life, remember to focus on where you want to go. Don’t focus on what you want or need to avoid. That will lead you astray, or at least into the next tree. Look ahead.

Trust me, it works. 

 

Savagery to Civility – a continuum explored

 

My friend Bonnie and I had lunch with my Dad yesterday. Bonnie jokes that in order to prepare for a lunch with “Poppo”, she has to read every newspaper around and then study what he might be most interested in..then prepare to be schooled by his superior ability to gather and analyze information.

Today was no different from most days. Our discussions took us from assisted suicides to self-induced stress from our over-connection to cell phones and computers, to the similarity of political realities between the first World War and what’s happening in the Ukraine today.

Poppo getting ready to work at his computer...and become smarter than me yet again!

Poppo getting ready to work at his computer…and become smarter than me yet again!

My father eloquently explained that on the continuum between savagery and civility, humankind has not progressed very far. We have learned and seen so much, but we have not moved our positions to any great extent. 

I wholeheartedly agreed with him, quickly rising to the occasion with a story (typical of me…like father, like daughter). 

I recently received an e-mail, along with other members of the project team, about a quirk in a program I’m working on for the federal government. Something about the wording of the e-mail struck me as hilariously funny. I responded, but only to the author. The demands of this task team are huge, the stress they are all under is significant, and praise and acknowledgement is a rarity (in my experience) in the public service. I was careful in crafting my response, to note the humour, assign no personal blame or responsibility, and perhaps, create a smile and make the day better. 

I failed miserably. 

The author’s response to my e-mail was immediate, brief and, in my father’s words, savage. 

I was heartbroken. Not because I was chastised and berated for my attempt at humour. But I was saddened because the default position for this individual was so very, very negative. It hearkens back to our lunch discussion, where the default position of so many powerful political figures, when faced with a posturing or sanctions, is to strike out with negative force. Has this savagery pervaded our society so much that it has become a professionally acceptable approach to business? Or to the rest of our lives?

Honestly, this one e-mail has had a powerful impact on me. I had to stop and consider my own default position. What do I do when faced with something that I can easily misconstrue? Do I lash out, choosing to be savage and remaining on the low-end of that continuum? I hope I don’t. I believe I try to conscientiously move myself towards civility, in fact, striving to move past to a greater form of humanity and love. 

After the great e-mail episode that left me a bit bruised and confused, I took the dogs for a walk. Ball cap, lined coveralls and muddy boots are my dog walking uniform of choice, and few people take a second look as I spring along with the girls. As I was turning for home, a car slowed then stopped near me. A smiling gentleman explained that he has seen me walking with the dogs for months, and though we smile and wave, he didn’t know me. And he just wanted to say hi, meet me in person, so that the next time we pass one another, we will have something more substantive than simply a kind wave. We will have a friendship.IMG_2724

The next time someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, pause. Before you lash out, consider the intent and circumstance. Find perspective, both yours and theirs. Then proceed like my smiling gentleman and reach out with that smile. 

Move up on that continuum. Strive for something even more than civility.

There is hope, my friends. 

It is all around us. 

It is us. 

 

Change and Soccer: A retrospective

Change. It happens every day, all the time. We change our socks, change directions, change our plans. If we like change, we relish each new perspective. If we are anxious about change, we develop habits to maintain the status quo. But regardless, we live lives of change.

I’ve learned that there is more to change than meets the eye. In fact, I’ve found three key things that I bring to clients, friends and others when when they are experiencing change:

  • We can adapt!
  • Change is different for everyone.
  • The “behind the scenes” parts of change are often the greatest…and we don’t expect them.

My daughter was 5 years old when she announced she wanted to play soccer. Not only that, she wanted to be a great soccer player. Before I knew it, I was a coach for a bunch of little girls, all running in different directions, trying to chase a ball towards a net, with Jaime leading the charge. The “Red Team” was pretty good, and in time, we made the shift from House League to Rep.

The changes were all worth it...here's the Captain of the Blue Devils!

The changes were all worth it…here’s the Captain of the Blue Devils!

The changes were HUGE! More practices, more time traveling, more injuries; where do I stop? I almost run out of breath when I think of my life, let alone the girls’ lives, during those 5 years of Rep play and travel. It was a wild ride, with moments of great joy, of shock and disbelief, of exhaustion, stinky shin pads, and everything in between.

It was so very worth it.

I learned more than I bargained for being a soccer coach.

I learned that we can adapt. To anything. Shifting from House League to Rep meant meant onerous paperwork, more formality and accountability, and way more games. The change was hard, at first, but we adapted.

I learned that the change was different for everyone.

The girls had to adapt to the physical and emotional demands of playing at a higher level, 12 months year. They couldn’t stay out late, they had to get up early to do homework, they had to eat better to perform better.

Parents had to plan to travel to away games, pay for competitions in the US and England, and explain to their friends why they had no social life away from the soccer pitch.

I spent much of my waking hours designing practices, running games, traveling and trying to fit my day job around my every increasing soccer demands.

The “behind the scenes” parts of change were unexpected. Who knew that going from House league to Rep would impact my grocery bill so much? Or that my knowledge of cruciate knee injuries would become almost encyclopedic, and I would start to invite the local physiotherapist home for dinner?

Traveling with Jaime and Maddie (who is the physiotherapists daughter and now plays professionally!)

Traveling with Jaime and Maddie (who is the physiotherapist’s daughter and now plays professional soccer in England!)

Who anticipated that my entire family needed to have their passports up to date? Or the countless hours I spent reading weather forecasts? All this, just because my daughter wanted to be a great soccer player?

She became a great soccer player, by the way. Captain of her university team. The changes she made, I made, and everyone else made, were all worth it. Yup, they were hard at the time (the grocery bills were astronomical!). But we chose to accept the changes that were a result of a life of soccer.

I challenge you to stop and think about a change that you may soon be undertaking, and consider these things:

  • If you are moving, changing jobs, changing an activity at work, know that the obvious change is do-able and you can adapt. We all can.
  • Change will impact people in a different way. Your children may be affected by a move differently that you. Changing jobs will mean you will work with new people, who will be influenced by you.
  • There is residual change, or “behind the scenes” change, too. A move means getting to set your kitchen up just the way you always wanted. Learning a new software program means adding a new item to your resumé.

I believe the act of choosing to accept change makes all the difference in the world. If you accept the larger grocery bills and the long drives with exhausted (and stinky) teenagers, you will survive, and even thrive in a world of change.

One of the changes/gifts of being a coach? Gaining another daughter...the tall one!

One of the changes/gifts of being a coach? Gaining another daughter…the tall one!

Drop, clean and move on

Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward. Victor Kiam

I have a curious habit of sitting at my desk and dropping things on the floor. I don’t mean randomly dropping things. Rather, when I am done a project, I simply drop whatever paper or items were critical to that effort on to the floor. I have no idea why I acquired this habit, I just do it. You can imagine that at the end of whatever I’m working on, the floor near my desk is littered with paper and other items of dross, and my office tends to look rather, um, messy. (read: fire hazard).

As if the cleaning staff (if I had any) had taken the garbage can and turned it upside down as some form of protest. At least a day or two will go by before I clean up the mess, which then satisfies my urge for closure on the project.

Because of melting ice – I won’t get into the details, but suffice it to say that my love affair with this cottage is officially over – I had to move my office into the living room.

The new office corner, within warming distance of wood stove, and close to piano/fiddle/guitar.

The new office corner, within warming distance of wood stove, and close to piano/fiddle/guitar.

For the first time since the winter started, my feet are warm while I am working. I can look out the window and see Roxy barking at birds, and I can easily get up and get her when she wants to come in. And go out. And come in. And go out. Ad nauseum.

Looking out the door at Roxy's footprints. She's inside the house now, waiting to go back out!

Looking out the door at Roxy’s footprints. She’s inside the house now, waiting to go back out!

This morning, I decided to deal with the remains of a project proposal that I did not win. Papers, paper clips, reference articles, pages torn from the Globe and Mail, and a host of other bits and bobs went flying onto the floor. My other dog Lucy lay under the desk, watching things fly by with a knowing glance, anticipating, I’m sure, my eventual cleaning of the mess. In a few days.

But I then did something unusual. Having spent the last 10 months focusing on change management appears to have made an impact on my psyche. I realized a change in my behaviour was necessary. Don’t jump to conclusions and think I managed to restrain myself from throwing things on the floor. No, no, nothing that significant or monumental. What I did was congruent with my behaviour; I just sped up the process a bit.

Because I am now working in the living room, I didn’t like the idea of having such a mess in a room that I use for fun. My fiddle and guitars are perched near my desk, and the thought of having to traipse through the paper to get to my instruments wasn’t sitting well with me. What do I do? Um, clean up the mess sooner rather than later? So I did.

Why have I spent this entire blog writing about cleaning up under my desk? Because the very act of cleaning up work from a project I didn’t win has made a difference in my spirit that I didn’t even know I needed. When I found out I didn’t get the contract, I felt blue and sad for a while. The act of throwing pieces of that spent project on the floor was a process that made me stop and think about the efforts of my team, who worked with me to put the proposal together. It made me cherish them even more for their energy and commitment to my efforts. The act of cleaning up of the mess helped me to put that in perspective (even though I thought I already had). It allowed me to reflect, accept, and move on.

My strange exercise of “processing” works for me. Throwing things on the floor helps distill the things that are important, and be mindful of what something means to me. I learned that, perhaps, I spend a bit too much time thinking and re-thinking about what I mis-judged, or what might have gone wrong in my work. I learned that there are reasons to speed up the process now and then, even if it is simply to have a cleaner living space so I can get back to doing those things I love…like playing the fiddle, playing the guitar, or bidding on other, more wonderful projects. I may have fallen on my face, but I’m still moving forward…with a cleaner office and happier heart!

Monkeys and Motivation

I am still working for Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), helping introduce a new software system for managing, sharing, saving and storing information. I work with a team of Business Analysts, Information Management specialists and a host of others to help build the best information management solutions for each of NRCan’s business units. Our goal is to ensure effective uptake of the GCDOCS system.

(In other words, I’m working with a group of folks who’s job it is to get people motivated and interested in using this new system. It’s not easy, and motivation is a challenge.)

I’ve been doing a lot of research about change and motivation, and how to help people manoeuvre through the challenges that are thrown their way on the road to something new. Luckily, I found Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, and I’ve been eating it up. Pink writes not about change, but about motivation, and what motivates us to do anything.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

Harry Harlow was a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, doing research in primate behaviour. Pink provides the reader with a detailed description of Harlow’s experiments on learning with rhesus monkeys. Harlow grounded his research in the fact that the monkeys had two main drivers that powered their behaviour: a biological drive – food, water and reproduction; and an external reward/punishment drive.

What happened in Harlow’s experiments was most interesting. The monkeys were given a puzzle that they had to learn, and they very quickly learned to do it. In fact, they completed the puzzle simply because they found it gratifying. There was no reward, no satisfaction with food; Harlow realized that the monkeys found it gratifying to solve puzzles. The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.

How does this relate to GCDOCS and NRCan? The GCDOCS team is putting a huge amount of effort into motivating staff by focusing on the second driver – reward and punishment. Change management activities are based on the premise that the staff will not be inclined to use GCDOCS, and we need to first reward them when they do, and then perhaps threaten them with taking away their access to other shared drives in the future.

What if we looked at the third driver of behaviour? What if we focused our change management activities on this intrinsic motivation – that staff will be interested in GCDOCS and will be motivated by curiosity, interest and sheer gratification of using a new program? If we could recognize that there is joy in the activity, and that as humans, we have a desire to get better and better at something that matters, perhaps we could encourage staff to use GCDOCS because they want to, rather than because they have to.

Pink continues to explain that this kind of behaviour requires three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If we can give the staff some autonomy for how they choose to use GCDOCS – using their rules rather than external rules set up by us – we may see more interest in using the program. If we can encourage and support mastery, without worrying about success or failure, we may see more expansive use of GCDOCS. Finally, if we can prove purpose that relates to each person, and really and truly reflects their own own human condition, staff may choose to use GCDOCS because it makes sense to them and their lives.

In reading this blog, I see that I can replace “GCDOCS” with anything. If I want to help foster a change; if I want to awaken the motivation of colleagues, friends, anyone, then I must recognize (and celebrate) that motivation is intrinsic and doesn’t have to be external. I must realize that autonomy, mastery and purpose may speak louder than more time off, an increase in pay, or any other external motivator.

I play the fiddle. I’m not particularly good at it. But I am motivated to play and get better, not by any money or fame I receive (which, of course, I don’t), but because I love it. Like Harlow’s monkeys, I am gratified by the task at hand, and perhaps more by fluke than by practice, I get better.

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My advice to you, dear reader? Get Daniel Pink’s book. Think about what you do – in work, in sport, in pleasure -  why you do it, and how you are motivated. You may become happy with the inherent satisfaction of an activity rather than an external reward. And won’t that be fun???!!!

Psychological Capital = Cold house, warm heart!

I have friends coming to visit this weekend. Like most people, I try to ensure that my house is relatively clean when guests visit. I vacuum up the dog hair, make sure there are fresh towels in the bathroom, and generally straighten things up.

But if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I moved in the summer, and I live in an old log house. It was built in the early 1800s, with dark, squared timber logs, single pane windows and a small addition that has virtually no insulation. I heat with wood, though I’ve got an oil furnace too, so it means the air is dry, often dusty (okay, always dusty) and the house is cool. Well, cold. Quite cold.

As I sat looking out the kitchen window this morning – the one with two cracks in it, covered in plastic to try to keep the heat in – I felt a bit low. I was wearing my lined flannel pants and a down vest, looking at the mis-matched drawers and badly

New drawer, different style, but at least I have more space now!

New drawer, different style, but at least I have more space now!

varathaned floor. Above me, the lack of light fixtures made the bare light bulbs look ugly and harsh. The boots and shoes that spill out from the kitchen door clutter the floor and get in the way when I want to go in or out.

Kind of Beverly Hillbilly chic without the chic.

I could feel myself wondering how I ended up living in such a ramshackle, run down place, and I was starting to feel sorry for myself.

I hate that. It’s not like me.

Thankfully, I was distracted by the birds. Well, birds and a red squirrel. You see, when you look out that window, through the plastic and past those cracks, you see my bird feeders. This morning, three cardinals (two male, one female), a few red breasted

Feeder magic!

Feeder magic!

nuthatches, a white breasted nuthatch, 10 goldfinches and countless chickadees were feasting on the seeds. A red squirrel was on the ground, while the snow was dancing all around. As I looked out, I remembered that if I stood in my living room (which by then was warm because the wood stove insert had heated it up), I could see the string of Christmas lights I’d put up the other night, ringing the room like sparkles of light. My living room was made for Christmas, with the warm logs, a stone fireplace, pine floors painted a deep, rich burgundy red and just the right distance between the couch and the chairs to be cozy.

Jamie Gruman, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Guelph, writes about psychological capital. He explains that people are familiar with intellectual capital, which is what we know; and social capital, which is who we know. Psychological capital is who we are and who we are becoming, and is made up of four personal resources: hope, optimism, confidence and resilience. It is evident to me that though my intellectual capital may need work, my stores of social capital and my psychological capital are overflowing. In fact, my capacity for hope, optimism, confidence and resilience seems to grow daily, even though I have a space heater blowing on my feet in my office!

Christmas cozy in my living room.

Christmas cozy in my living room.

I recognize that life is short, fragile and precious. I know that, despite the Senate insanities and bizarre mayoral behaviours, and despite the fact that some of my loved ones live so far away, I’m living in peace, with a roof over my head that doesn’t leak, incredible children, friends that I love and cherish, and birds outside my window.

Hope, optimism, confidence and resilience. My wish for all of us in the new year. Oh, and warm slippers and more flannel lined pants!