Belwood Step Dancing …or Brain Training on the Edge!

The Community Hall was packed with people – mothers, fathers, kids everywhere – and the judge sat front and centre, ready to assess the steps of each participant. We were numbers 205 and 206, and I was sooooooo nervous. I hoped that when the music started, my feet would just do what I have trained them to do, but I had no idea if they would.

What am I talking about? My step dancing competition from last week!

There’s lots of research that tells us that as we age, our brains get smaller. Nerves die off, losing their connections, and that leads to a thinned out network feeding our thinking functions. But brain shrinkage isn’t inevitable, and that research also tells us that picking up a challenging new hobby makes a huge difference. I’ve successfully managed to ignore this fact until my friend Marlene sprang into my kitchen after her first step dancing lesson, loudly announcing that I would be joining her from now on. (I actually don’t recall having any part in that decision, by the way.)

Marlene picked me up the following week, and dragged me to Chanda Leahy’s studio. Fast forward about 7 months, and you find the two of us in the Belwood Community Hall, ready to dance a reel at the Spring Rain Feis 2017, while Chanda’s son Xavier accompanied us on his fiddle.

I’m a musician, and I thought that learning the steps to some jigs and reels would be easy. NOPE! Despite having the most remarkable teacher in the world, it was quite a few months before I made the switch from looking like I was stomping cockroaches skittering across the hardwood floor to something vaguely resembling dancing.

Which brings me to last Saturday when Marlene and I got ready to perform. We were in the Pre-Beginner Category (seriously), and our “competition” ranged in age from 5 – 12 years old – we were the only adults!!! The kids took their performing seriously; they had clearly practiced more regularly that the two of us, who had those silly day jobs to keep us occupied.

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Our competition…with Xavier accompanying them, and Chanda looking hopeful!

None of that mattered, of course. All that mattered was the certainty that my heart was about to explode in my chest while I waited to perform. There was anxious banter between the two of us and Xavier while he tuned his fiddle, and I wondered how I was ever going to remember all the steps. With mild panic setting in, I realized that I might crash and burn in front of all those parents and kids.

How may times do we, as adults, really experience that feeling of risk, of fear of failure? When was the last time you felt your heart jack hammering with uncertainty? Do you take risks? Are you prepared to try and fail? And what happens when you do?

I think many of us adults coast through our days doing things that are safe and secure. We don’t step to the edge of our comfort zones, because that’s un-comfortable. It takes extra effort that, in our busy, crazy and chaotic lives, we don’t want to expend. It’s easier (and safer) to just do the same old / same old. So we do.

Who knew step dancing was going to take me to the edge? But when Xavier started to play (at warp speed, I might add), my adrenaline-infused feet began to dance, and I was carried away with delight that I was actually doing this crazy thing!

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I’d love to tell you that we won our Pre-Beginner Category…but that is not the case. I can tell you that we grinned through the entire sequence, and by the time we were done, everyone in the audience was grinning with us. We got a huge round of applause and one little girl told me she thought we were very brave.

Our Saturday morning was a clear reminder to me that I need to make myself less comfortable now and then, and that a little risk – of failure, of embarrassment, of a mis-step – bring a sense of accomplishment and pride when it’s done. Just try it. I’ll be here, grinning and clapping for you!

Roast Beef, Politics and the Forest

Two hours. That’s how long it took me on Saturday night to drive into Toronto. My most wonderful friend Rochelle, her wife Amy and their 13 year old son were hosting me and my son Rory for a birthday dinner. The roads were slick and slippery, and when I reached the Don Valley Parkway, it lived up to its nickname of “Don Valley Parking Lot”. I sat quietly in my car, not moving, trying to be patient.

By the time I reached Rochelle’s, I was weary, but excited about the standing rib roast waiting for me inside. And when the door opened, love from my friends and family poured out the front door, enveloped me and carried me up the stairs. In a heartbeat, I had a glass of wine in my hand, been hugged by everyone in the house, and the insanity of the drive had vanished.

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Me and Rochelle, changing the world at at TFC game.

We enjoyed an amazing meal, with oohs and aahs about the incredible “roast beast”. We stayed at the table post-meal and solved the problems of the world. Where to start? First, we tackled what we were each reading, and what books intrigued us. Next, we moved on to movies and TV shows, including Star Wars and Dr. Who (naturally). But try as we might, we were unable to avoid the elephant in the room. “He who shall not be named” kept surfacing and we finally succumbed to talking about Trump’s first week in office.

I imagine that many thousands of people across the planet were doing the same thing. Trying not to talk about Trump and the US, and what the future holds for us, but eventually ending up voicing concerns, anger, and fears about what direction he is taking that most powerful country.

I said how, on the morning of the election results, Jaime called me in tears, not believing that he could have been elected. Rory talked about involvement in politics, and what that would mean. Rochelle echoed that, noting how friends had suggested that she might be someone who could throw her hat in the ring, so to speak, in Toronto/Ontario/Canada to make a difference. As a woman, who is Jewish, and in a same sex marriage, she has the cards stacked against her if she lived in the US. But here, she is just another incredible, wonderful and compelling individual who can make a difference.

But politics isn’t for her. So how to make that difference? What can any of us do?

Politics reminds me of nursing…for some, thankfully, it is a calling. For me, it is intolerable. Politics falls into the same category. So where does that leave me? What can I do to be a voice, to speak out, to make a difference in this time of political, social and cultural chaos? If I’m not entering politics, and I am simply Susan Gesner from Belfountain, what can I do to help the world be a better place?

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Just Susan Gesner from Belfountain, spreading a bit more love.

I will do what I always do, but even more. I will make a conscious and mindful effort to look at everyone I meet as an individual, to speak to them, to learn about them, to value them. People will know that I see their value, that I am curious about them, and that they make my life better by knowing them. Age, colour, race, religion – nothing like that matters at all. If I can do that, perhaps those people I meet with do the same, and we will become a huge, growing snowball of consideration, attention and value.

I challenge each of you reading this (and usually I have 2 or 3 people who at least click on my words) to do the same. Be sure your friends and family know you are doing this, because they may choose to follow suit. Make the snowball grow, and we can blanket the world, or at least our part of it, in goodness and caring. Margaret Mead, perhaps the most famous anthropologist in the world, helped us learn about anthropology’s holistic vision of the human species. It was she who said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

To quote another powerful thought leader of our recent history, Winnie the Pooh said “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

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Janey, Marj and Julie leaving their corner of the forest. Let’s all do it!

I’m not going to stay in my corner of the Forest. I am going to continue to go beyond, to meet and talk and value and share. I know many of my friends will do the same. Let’s try to be the change this world needs right now.

What does it take to be a hero?

What does it take to be a hero? As I look at the news feeds about rescues in Syria and some of the monumental acts of sacrifice that take place daily, my first thought is that a hero is someone who does something super-human. Somebody who gives everything he or she has for a purpose they believe in. Not something that your every day, run of the mill individual is necessarily cut out to do.

And then I watched the Olympic Men’s triathlon.

I was watching Andrew Yorke. Andrew is my son Rory’s friend, a young man that I watched grow up. I have pictures of Andrew bobbing for apples in our basement, snowboarding with our family, and even some from he and Rory’s grade 8 graduation. Memories, too, of loading bikes on my truck and going over to Albion Hills to ride up and down the hills with a crew of kids that always included Andrew. Always moving, always playing, always laughing.

Still, kind of a run of the mill individual from Caledon East.

But Andrew was also the kind of kid who, when Rory was deciding whether or not to go to the regional arts high school and leave all his friends behind, called him up to tell him he had to go there…and they’d still be friends, even if they didn’t go to school together. Pretty heroic for a run of the mill 14 year old.

Andrew was ready for the Olympics, and in the best shape of his life. He stood at the beach, ready to enter the water, obviously prepared to give everything he had. And he did.

Yes, Alistair Brownlee won the event. He out-swam, out-rode and out-ran all the other competitors, Andrew included. But it was Andrew who is my hero. Because he gave everything he had. And more. Who knows what happened to cause the crash, but Andrew and Jason Wilson went down. Then Andrew did what he always does – he got up and kept going. Imagine spending years of your life focused on this single outcome, and then have your goals shatter into smithereens in a heartbeat….and then having the guts and the internal strength to get up, push your bike uphill, and keep going.

Something like that would crush most of us average mortals. We would sink into the ground and be afraid to rise. Not Andrew. He kept going. He finished the race, and he turned and waved to the crowds.

If you must know, I was crying when I saw Andrew cross the finish line. Not because I felt sorry for him, but because I am so fiercely proud of this young man. He is our Olympian, with a spirit and determination that knows no bounds. Andrew, you are a hero to Caledon, to Canada, and to all who know and love you.

Thoughts on Community and The Outside Track

On Monday night, March 7th, something quite wonderful happened in the hamlet of Belfountain. The Outside Track, http://www.theoutsidetrack.com/, a Scots, Irish and Cape Breton fusion band, performed at The Higher Ground Coffee Company, 

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The Outside Track (though Ailie, the harpist, is hidden on the right).

 

The café seats about 25 people comfortably. We had close to 50, without counting the band, the baristas and people who arrived because they saw the Open sign lit up. It was an evening of tunes, dancing, singing and laughter. When I introduced the band, I looked out at a sea of incredibly happy and excited faces. I knew that the night was going to be special.

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Our amazing baristas!

The room was filled with people from all walks of life. A real estate agent, a project management specialist, a retired French teacher, a flamenco dancer, someone battling cancer….a panoply of personalities and experiences, squished together, cheek to jowl, anticipating the celebration of music.

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G, Janey and Brian…new friends to each other.

These people were from my community. Or rather, my communities. I knew them all, from living in Caledon East or Belfountain, from going to physiotherapy together, playing fiddle, taking our children to swimming lessons, walking dogs together. And as I reflected on the magic of the night, I wanted to write something about the power and connection of community, and remind us all that a community’s heart and soul is something that draws us all together and gives us energy, love and hope.

But, well, you know, life got in the way. I had another workshop to run, then two reports to prepare, a proposal to get to the courier, groceries, laundry….you know the drill. And now it’s March 23rd, and the incredible show seems so long ago. Who cares about community anyway?

I woke up yesterday morning to the radio blaring news of the tragedy in Brussels. I felt weighted down in my bed, feeling an overwhelming sadness at yet one more senseless and heart-wrenching chapter in the theatre of the world.  At least 30 people were killed in two explosions, one at the Brussels Airport and another at the Maalbeek Metro Station. This was close on the heels of the Paris attacks in November, where gunmen and suicide bombers hit a concert hall, a major stadium, restaurants and bars and left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. That followed the Boston Marathon bombings where two bombs went off near the finish line, killing 3 spectators and wounding more than 260 other people.

How could I write about community, about joy and music, when these tragedies keep hitting us in the face every time we look at the paper, or listen to the radio, or stare at our computer screens?

But how can I not?

In the Globe and Mail this morning, I read an article about the Brussels event. Phil Gurski, an author who worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and just finished a book entitled The Threat Within, was quoted. “For more than a decade now, European civilians have been killed in the streets, oftentimes by terrorists who grew up in the very cities that they hit”.

Imagine that, if you will.

That brought me squarely back to the night of March 7th, and The Outside Track. In one room, on one night, the communities that make up my life converged for one purpose – joy. Oh sure, we wanted to stamp our feet, sing along and get carried away with the fiddle and the accordion. But what was clear was the joy that infused the air and drew us all together. Nights like that won’t change the world. The people at the café that night may not have known one another previously, because they come from different communities. But for one night, we all shared something powerful and wonderful. We were all in the same community.

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Laura and I are in a cycling and business community!

My blogs usually end with a linkage to a piece of business advice, like: “Imagine the worst-case scenario and build from that”, or “Start your mornings dealing with the hard stuff, when your mind is clear and you can make progress”. But not today.

Today, I want you to think about yourself. Who are your communities? Where and how can you connect them? Don’t worry about your business environment or your financial success. Think about bringing joy, by connecting one concert and one community at a time, in your life and the lives of others. The Outside Track did it for 50 disparate people in Belfountain. I hope that we can all find ways to make that happen again and again and again.

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Some of my favourite community members!

Anastasia’s Music

I was running south on Shaw’s Creek Road and a beautiful tune came through my headphones, an Andrea Beaton original that made my feet dance and my face grew a smile. I found myself humming along and by the time I got home, I had to grab my fiddle, pull the tune out of my memory and play it.

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Pulling a tune out of thin air…

I’m lucky like that. I can’t always remember the words to songs, or have the first notes of a tune ready to just start and play. But if I hear a tune few times, I can almost always play it back. I’ve never thought much about that skill, until I met my most wonderful friend Anastasia. 

Anastasia (or Aunti-Stasia, as I sometimes say in my head) is an amazing fiddler. She picks up her bow, and she looks like a professional player,  with an intense focus and drive. She’s also a  NINJA when it comes to sight reading. You can put anything in front of her, and she can play it. It is almost as if her brain doesn’t even have to register the notes she sees, and the tune goes from the paper to her eyes and down to her fingers in lightning speed. At our Tuesday night fiddle group with Sandy MacIntyre, she puts us all to shame when we get a new set of tunes, because she can play them perfectly as soon as she sees them.

But here’s the thing: she has serious trouble memorizing tunes. She can read anything. But take the music away, and she’s temporarily lost. 

I have read about how people’s brains are different, and I can acknowledge that, intellectually. But it really wasn’t until I spent time playing music with Anastasia that I really, truly understood how different people can be.

At first glance, Anastasia and I pretty similar. She’s got a handful of university degrees, and so do I. We are both medium height, with Germanic last names. We are both runners, and we play the fiddle. And we both smile a lot.

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Partners in crime after our Half Marathon in Ottawa!

But the way that we process information is dramatically different! My brain seems to capture the tune in its entirety, and I can reproduce it. Anastasia’s brain sees the individual parts of the tune, as transcribed in notes, rests, time signatures, and she reproduces it. We can both play the music, but we do it using different skill sets. 

I was running a workshop for York Region last week, and I had a room full of people who worked in the forestry sector. A quick glance around the room told me everyone was pretty much the same – outdoorsy types who prefer to wear plaid shirts and hiking boots, but were stuck behind a desk doing management plans. I imagined that everyone was going to have the same ideas and perspectives about the upcoming tree planting programs.

But then I thought of Anastasia and our differences. How many people around the table had brains that worked like mine? And how many were like Anastasia? And (gasp) how many other kinds of brains were out there???!!!

Before I got myself twisted into a knot, it occurred to me that I could just ask a question and I’d find out what kinds of brains were going to contribute to the discussions. So well before panic set in, I simply asked people to tell me how they “thought”. Were they problem solvers? Were they skeptics? Did they see a few clear choices, or did they see a variety of options? Could they hear the music and repeat it, or did they prefer to see all the notes beforehand?

As each person shared the way they “thought”, I wrote down their responses on a flip chart so we could all see them. Once I realized the wide variety of thinkers who sat around 

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Don’t be blind to the differences!

the table, I got excited about the diversity of ideas, options and models that we could generate. And interestingly enough, once everyone else understood this incredible diversity, they looked at one another differently and with a more critical appreciation of what each person could contribute.

Suddenly, the plaid shirts appeared quite different!

My take away from this? If you are a facilitator, or a participant in a meeting, or any living, breathing human being, please don’t forget that there is a wealth of diversity all around you, and that is goes above and beyond gender, culture and apparel choices. Take the time to recognize and take advantage of that diversity in your work and your personal life, and celebrate the differences as your move closer towards your goals.

I read a quotation this morning that said: Play the music, not the instrument. So listen for Anastasia and I playing music this weekend. She’ll be the one paying close attention to the notes, making no mistakes and playing with joy. I’ll be the one with my eyes closed, playing whatever notes come from my fingers, and also playing with joy. We may get to the music in different ways, but the result makes us both happy! 

Gifts within a Gift

For the first time ever, Jaime didn’t come home for Christmas. My daughter had just moved out west, and taking a week off her job was not really possible. So her Dad flew out and spent some time with her, and we skyped and talked and laughed while opening presents. Jaime sent her presents home with her Dad, and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I opened my gift from her.

It is something small and elegant. A leather journal, handmade in Victoria, B.C. My son, Rory,  told me Jaime had explained that she had actually seen it being made. How remarkable. And how perfect for me…the keeper of lists, of ideas, of many little journals, calendar books and note books. This was something unique in which to capture my most special moments, given with love.

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Jaime’s Gift

I decided that this special journal would be used as a place to record wonderful things. In fact, I decided that each day, I would purposefully look for something wonderful to include in the journal. It might be something that I had seen, like colours in a sunset or a message from someone I love. It might be a moment in time, a conversation that brought me joy, or anything that makes me pause and be grateful.

I decided I’d share with you, friends who read my musings, 2 of my entries that have taught me something, and ask you to ponder on them and how they relate to you.

January 20th – Rory was not blessed with a natural sense of direction. In fact, one of his first important tools upon going to university was a GPS to make sure he made it home from Waterloo without getting lost!  With two parents and a sister who all seem to have an internal compass, Rory was unique, and we assumed he’d always need that GPS to get around. But we should all know the fallacy of assumptions.

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Christmas morning, Rory and Lucy (without Jaime)

Rory quietly made it his purpose to learn how not to get lost, and understand directions. How lucky for me. Because last week, when we were meeting for coffee, I missed a turn in the great void of Mississauga, and got lost in a never-ending series of parking lots. I drove in circles trying to escape, and finally made a frantic call to Rory for help.  Once he knew where I was, he was able to calmly talk me out of the parking lot, back on the road and over to the Starbucks.

I never thought I’d turn to Rory for directions. But look what happened when I did?

January 25th – “Don’t you want to talk to me?” It was my birthday, and yes, I wanted to talk to people I love. Like Jaime. But I had crushing deadlines and was taking the entire day to simply write, write more, and finish writing. I needed about 10 hours of staring at my computer. Then Jaime called. I was clearly distracted during our conversation, and she finally said “Don’t you want to talk to me?” Well, actually, I’d rather talk to Jaime than do almost anything else in the entire world. Those 7 words made me pause…and to remember what was important in my life. “Yes, I do” was my response. I stood up, left my desk, sat down on the couch, and settled in for a wonderful talk with my daughter.

I decided, in that moment, what was most important to me was the person I love, not the work.

Both of these little vignettes hold a message for me. And maybe for you, too. Rory knew his weakness was his sense of direction, and he worked on it. Had I not asked for help, I would never had known that he is no longer directionally-challenged; that he is someone who can help me, instead of me helping him. (And I would still be driving in circles in that *^#$@ ing parking lot!). He reminded me that in life, in business, in everyday, to never underestimate or assume things will be just so. Alan Alda has some advice that applies here: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Rory reminded me to abandon my assumptions and let the light in. And get out of the parking lot!

Jaime also helped me remember, in just a few words, what was truly important. My work, regardless, will always be there. But the time I get to spend with my daughter will not.

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Marj, Sue and Jaime, all three gifts in my life.

So I answered her question with an open heart and open mind. What resonated most for me was that when I returned to my desk, after laughing and listening for about a half hour, I was ready to tackle my work with focus and drive. In the end, I got to talk to Jaime, and was refreshed and reinvigorated for work. I know we can’t all have the luxury of doing that, but perhaps the message here is to look for those opportunities and seize them when we can.

Jaime’s gift of the journal is now being filled with my life’s gifts. Making faces through the window of an airport hotel last week; seeing a purple finch perched on my bird feeder; picking up a used Tim Horton’s cup, and then looking at how beautiful the road looked after that the litter was gone – these are all gifts. I spend my days actually looking out for those incredible moments, and sifting through them to decide what fits best in my journal.

I challenge you to get your own journal and for one week, write down one thing each day that amazes you, that brings you wonder, or brings you joy.

Perhaps you will find, like I have, that every day is jammed packed full of incredible moments.

Any of you out there interested in creating change? I believe we all are…just some of us are more motivated to do something about it! The Toronto Blue Jays are taking part in the postseason for the first time since 1993, and the changes they have made in their lineup are part of the reason. New pitcher, change in left field, and more, have all been positive changes.

Everyone with their hand up....they must be ready for change!

Everyone with their hand up….they must be ready for change!

Change, for anyone, is hard. Large changes or transformations within an organization – like a baseball team or soccer team – are even harder. It means taking all those individuals and helping each and every one of them to change. Sounds like a lot of work, and not very easy, when you look at it like that.

McKinsey is a global management consulting firm that does extensive research into improving client performance (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights). Their latest findings suggest that investing time and effort UP FRONT to design initiatives for change works better than putting equal time and effort in after the change has started. These findings suggest that the most effective initiatives involve four key actions: role modelling (BE the change), fostering understanding and conviction (help people to understand and believe), reinforcing changes through formal mechanisms (put it in their job specifications) and, and developing talent and skills (provide formal and informal training). These actions are critical to shifting both mind-sets and behaviours.

Yes, her eyes glazed over and I think I put her to sleep with my talk about change management!

Yes, her eyes glazed over and I think I put her to sleep with my talk about change management!

I can see you now, eyes all glazing over and wondering why you’re even reading this. I’ll tell you why: you’re reading this because it is going to make a difference in how you do change management! McKinsey’s research demonstrates that when companies or organizations (or teams) design a portfolio of change initiatives based on all four of those key actions, success is like to follow.

They go on to suggest that you must ensure these change initiatives complement and support one another, but at the same time, are truly innovative. Indeed, some companies indicate that just using tried and true activities often limits successful change. The most effective initiatives focus on an organization’s strengths and take advantage of where they are already effective, preparing and encouraging change in unique ways.

For you Jays fans out there, or supporters of Toronto Football Club, it means finding out what the team does really, really well, supporting that, and then introducing the change…say, like a new pitcher or incredible striker. And the team morphs around that introduction.

At the same time, the research tells us that being systematic in prioritizing change initiatives also helps to predict successful change. So preparing and planning for change in a systematic way, laying out which initiative will follow which other initiative, is going to help you in your change efforts.

And do you develop these innovative, creative initiatives by yourself, locked in your little change management office? NO! We know that involving people across an organization (or a team) with the design of that change will be wayyyyy more successful that ignoring them.

Brilliant defending!

Brilliant defending!

When I coached my daughter’s soccer team, I recall struggling with a defensive line problem – too many balls were getting past our defence into our net. It just seemed so obvious to me to sit down with my defence players to brainstorm ways to improve. It was the players themselves who came up innovative ideas, and created their own demanding practice drills that tightened up our defence. I coached the drills, but because the players had such a critical role in how we were going to strengthen our game, they chose to work hard. Talk about a change in behaviour and performance. FYI, we won the league that year.

You too, can win your league or at least be successful with your transformation when you adopt a multi-initiative approach to change. Consider how to role model, help your folks to understand what’s going on, use formal AND informal change mechanisms and develop (or bring in) talent and skills. Mindsets, behaviours and your entire organization are sure to change…is a good way! Just look at those Jays…some positive change, and they are on their way to the World Series!