Don’t Apologize For Your Strength

Recently, a person I admire asked me to tell another person some of the lessons I’ve learned from my leadership experiences. I wanted to come up with a better answer than:

To stop saying, “I’m sorry” all the time.

But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized the truth of them. Apology is as reflexive as breathing for me. If someone bumps into me, I’m immediately apologizing. When someone robbed my house, I apologized to the investigating officer for inconveniencing him by making him fill out paperwork.

When I became a team leader, one of my first leadership experiences, I spent most meetings as a mute, afraid to say anything that might upset people. As a department chair, I found myself prefacing a lot of meetings with: I’m sorry to take up your time… From my office at the district, many of my emails begin: “I’m sorry for the delay in responding…”

I’m aware that this constant atonement on my part is as annoying as the smell of cheap perfume. Some of the mea culpas, I’m sure, are due to my own neuroses, but I wonder how much is society’s conditioning? Research shows that we respond more favorably to women who exhibit their gender stereotype of empathy or behaving more emotionally. How much  of my internal pressure to ask for constant forgiveness is a form of benevolent sexism? This is often perceived as a tacit demand that women with even the smallest amount of positional power be hypervigilant of the moods and reactions of others.

If you don’t believe me about that last part, try this experiment that I’ve found replicates the same results over and over: The next time you’re at dinner with a mixed gender group, notice the body language of the men and women. Especially when someone is speaking. Men tend to lean back in their chairs, their comments directed to one other man at the table. Women on the other hand, lean forward, looking at everyone seated, scanning faces to gauge reactions. It’s present in vocal tone, as well. Men tend to make flat statements; women tend to put imaginary question marks at the ends of their sentences, as if they are asking permission to have the thought or opinion.

I’m not saying this always happens, but it happens enough in my experience that it’s noticeable.

As an antidote to the river of guilt that issues from me, I’ve begun trying to reframe my ideas around the concept of responsibility. I want to broaden my own understanding of the links between it and freedom. Constant apologizing creates a prison of my own making, every sorry is a brick of my own repression. So after five decades of feeling bad about breathing other people’s air and encroaching on other people’s space, it’s high time I choose to shut my damn mouth. It’s time to own my choices – the ones that gave me a profession, titles, respect, and accomplishment.

And I’m not a damn bit sorry for any of it.

 

   Day 6: What I’ve Learned About Responsibility, Choice & Strength

  1. “In a very real sense, by the time we are adult, we are the sum total of the choices we have made…One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes…in the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard
  3. “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” Moliere
  4. “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” Martin Buber
  5. “Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.” W.H. Auden
  6. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare
  7. “Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Photo credit: ericfoltz via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Stand Up To Stand Out

CBS This Morning introduced the 2017 National Teacher of the Year today and as I watched her poise and professionalism, I was proud to see such a great representative of our profession. But I also have to say that hearing Charlie Rose’s voice gave me a slight case of PTSD. It reminded me of the media training I’d gone through to sit in front of him, Nora, and Gayle in April, 2015.

To prepare me for the intensity of interviews, the Council of Chief State School Officers sent me to media training. This consisted of simulated interviews that were then recorded for playback to a panel for a critique. At the best of times, I am uncomfortable seeing and hearing myself on video; in this instance, it was excruciating.

The pretend interviewer was a former producer at Fox News who was a virtuoso of mixing softball questions with sharp jabs that kept me off balance:

“What do you love about teaching at your school, Ms. Peeples?” she asked, her smile as sweet and inviting as a cup of cocoa.

“Seeing the bravery of my students, Eva,” I said, smiling back. “Knowing that so many come from traumatic backgrounds, I love seeing them choose education for themselves and seeing them choose hope.”

“That’s a beautiful answer, but it covers up the fact that you teach students who are here illegally, right? ” she replied. “Your state wants to deport them, right? What do you want to say to your Governor about that?”

The panel watching this exchange with me stopped the video.

“You see your expression there?” Christina, my lead trainer, asked. “That’s what’s called a ‘microexpression of contempt’ and you need to know that your face does that when you’re mad.”

Along with my microexpressions of contempt, I also flubbed opportunities to “bridge” back to my main message, forgot to use stories to illustrate my points, and generally was a shaky mess. I felt like a total failure and it was hard to keep from crying.

“Look Shanna,” Christina said. “You’re an A student or you wouldn’t even be here. But that’s not enough. You need to be memorable.”

That sentence stays with me, no matter what I’m doing. I realized that Christina crystallized something that is true of anyone who wants to stand apart from the multitude: They’re Memorable.

Shakespeare might as well have been describing so much of our current culture and media landscape in  Macbeth’s lament that life is “a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That’s why it’s even more important that anyone seeking to be an advocate or a creative of any kind needs to find a way to be memorable. And of course, being memorable is closely tied to being authentic, being real, and sometimes even allowing yourself to have microexpressions of contempt when something makes you mad.

Day 5: What I’ve Learned About Individuality

  1. “ To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson
  2. “There are two very different kinds of conformity, but they tend, somewhere along the line, to blend, unless we are always aware of the difference. One of them is essential if human beings are to live with one another in a civilized way. That is social conformity, which is basically only a kind of good manners, which, in turn, is formalized kindness. The other, the dangerous one, is conformity to alien standards or idea or values because that is the easy way, or because we think we can get farther in our job or profession by not fighting for what we believe in, or because we will be more popular if we surrender our own convictions to fit the community.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
  3. “It’s so hard to stand up, to not compromise, to give up an account or lose a vote or not tell a journalist what they want to hear. But those are the only moments where standing for something actually counts, the only times that people will actually come to believe that you in fact actually stand for something.” Seth Godin
  4. “Don’t wait for the auditorium. Share your best messages now. They matter now. We need them now. Not later. As you do this, you’ll find that what you have to say slowly begins to matter to more and more individuals. And before you realize it, you’ve found yourself a whole group of people tuned into what you’re saying. And that’s how influence works: one audience member at a time.” – Jeff Goins
  5. “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” – Barbara Kingsolver
  6. “Most people are in fact quite capable of novel thinking and problem solving, if only their organizations would stop pounding them into conformity.” – Adam Grant
  7.  “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes of more value to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.’ John Stuart Mill

My challenge: Feel the fear and say it anyway, write it anyway;  wear it, sing it. Embrace it.

Photo credit: jean louis mazieres via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

How To Pay Rent For Being Alive

After my father died suddenly nine years ago, I thought I was a model of stoic grief. I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy, and I believed, tastefully handled the sadness that spread over the week of his funeral. None of that prepared me for the suffocating depression that overtook me like viral pneumonia six months later.

I didn’t realize that grief is a tsunami and what looks like low tide is really a gathering wave. When the full force of the loss hit me, I could only manage to lie in bed and cycle through alternating periods of crying or apathy. After weeks of this, the only thing breaking through paralysis was anger. It settled in the center of my chest, near my heart, warping my personality, overriding my senses to see and believe that everything was black and hollow.

A tiny pilot light of hope somewhere inside my head reminded me that books are my best medicine. “Why don’t you find a book that will make this make sense to you? If it makes some sense, then maybe you’ll start to feel better” it seemed to suggest.

And that is how I came to read Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the few books to change not only my thinking, but my life. Written in 1959 by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, the book describes his understanding of why certain people, like himself, survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The short version is a paraphrase of Nietzsche: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.”

For Frankl, the “why” centers on three actions: engaging in meaningful work, caring for another person, and courage in the face of fear. These choices – and they are a deliberate choice, Frankl believes, are what give our lives purpose and meaning. Reading the book helped me to choose a loving action, even if it were something as small as being able to smile at my daughter or be brave enough to get dressed for work. Reconnecting to why I decided to teach who and where I did helped me find my way out of the despair. Most of what I know about how to live a life of purpose and meaning, I learned from his book. For me, purpose and meaning come from connections to my family and friends, engaging in the meaningful work of teaching and working with teachers, and in choosing to feel the fear, but still do whatever it is that scares me.

Day Four: What I’ve Learned About Service

  1. “…being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”  – Viktor Frankl
  2. “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” Shirley Chisholm
  3. “I don’t know what your destiny will be. Some of you will perhaps occupy remarkable positions. Perhaps some of you will become famous by your pens, or as artists. But I know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” – Albert Schweitzer
  4. “What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl
  5. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” Gandhi
  6. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
  7. “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men – go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families… Walt Whitman

My challenge: Pick something off of Whitman’s list and create a small act of service to it.

Photo via Visual hunt

Learning To Fight What Scares You

Fear is a central fact of my life and my ever-present companion. From the time I noticed that my list for Santa didn’t include the Barbies, makeup or other things the girls in my class wanted,  I knew I was different. No other girl asked for a chemistry set, a BB gun, and walkie-talkies. That, along with the stacks of Spiderman comics in my closet, set me apart and made me afraid that I wasn’t the kind of girl anyone in my family expected.

This led into a pernicious and lingering fear of being judged. When you grow up Southern Baptist, there’s a particular way to gossip about people and still seem godly: the prayer chain. It sounds kind of like this: 

“Lord, we just want to raise up Lorene’s daughter, Father God, and her drinking. Lord Jesus, we grieve that her babies have different daddies, even though all the men she knows are nice…”

For my Meemaw’s sake, I knew a baseline expectation for me was to stay off the prayer chain. Waiting in line at the grocery store in my small town, I heard people talking about my parents. They were one of the first couples to get a divorce – and it was an epic, operatic production involving both those in high standing and those in low places. I learned to achieve to distract away from all the unpleasant truths about my parents and myself. 

Those fears about myself solidified into one central truth: I wasn’t the girl anyone expected me to be because I am a girl who loves girls. That fear of knowing I am gay metastasized into shame.

And that shame is inked into me like a tattoo, burrowed into my bones like arthritis, a taproot of guilt that burrows right into the center of me. You don’t get that out of you overnight. Brene Brown says we measure shame and guilt in people by the way they talk to themselves and the messages they give themselves.

My fear is borne out in messages I’ve fought even today. Fear that boils down to the basic belief that I am not good enough. It creates a strong pull towards being that worst of all F words: Fake. Faking whatever I need to be to make myself somewhat presentable and acceptable, no matter how painful, has been a long act.

But what I’ve learned most about overcoming fear is that even though it’s familiar, it’s also fuel. The same energy that threatens to paralyze me is the same energy that can be turned toward fighting what scares me.

Being authentic is a choice. Being brave is a choice. I’m grateful for books and the ability to find my literary role models. That’s one of the reasons literacy is so powerful because you find that others fight – and win – the same battles.

As promised, here are seven more things I’ve learned after 52 birthdays that I’m sharing this week. These are seven authors who helped me turn fear into faith.

Day Two:  The Best Things I’ve Learned About Fear

  1. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”- Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, – “Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  3.          “The Litany Against Fear 

           I must not fear.
           Fear is the mind-killer.
           Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
           I will face my fear.
           I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
          And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
          Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
          Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert

  1. “You have plenty of courage, I am sure” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.” L. Frank Baum

5. “The very cave you are afraid to enter

            turns out to be the source of

            What you were looking for.

            The damned thing in the cave

            that was so dreaded

            has become the center.”   – Joseph Campbell

6. “Our courage grows for things that affect us deeply, things that open our hearts. Once our heart is engaged, it is easy to be brave.” Margaret Wheatley

  1. “I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert

These quotes are a mantra for me; their words wrapped around me like armor, making me brave and bold when I am scared and ashamed.

Next post: Time

Photo by Tom Margie/CC BY 2.0

Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

Birthdays, in my experience, become more odd the older you get. My friend Gini, when I told her I would be 52 this year, said: “Your fifties – you just live them. You’re not old or young. I never remembered how old I was in my fifties.”

So, on this even birthday year, I decided to make it more memorable by writing about things I’ve learned. My inspiration for this came from Srinivas Rao and Eleanor RooseveltI’m always inspired by her and I decided to give myself time to reread her slim, yet profound book:  You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life . Written in 1960 when she was 76, Roosevelt positions her ideas around the practice of lifelong learning because, she writes, When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense.”

Rather than write a tedious or hokey clickbait post like “52 Things I Learned in 52 Years” (an actual title idea I abandoned), I decided to rely on my old teacher practice of chunking information. So instead of 52 things all at once, I’ll space them out in Seven-A-Day shorter posts each day this week with some bonus material on Sunday to round out the number.

Another feature of this post: the author’s names are links are to the books where I found the source material, so these bullets also function as a recommended reading list. Most of the titles are available at your library (find them with this awesome tool), free through Google’s massive project to scan classic works, or dirt cheap on Amazon.

Day One: The Best Things I’ve Learned About Learning

  1. Be present and curious via Eleanor Roosevelt – “To this day I do not feel I have had a career. What I have done is to live every experience to the utmost. As I look back, I think probably the factor which influenced me most in my early years was an avid desire, even before I was aware of what I was doing, to experience all I could as deeply as I could.”
  2. Learning helps you feel better via T.H. White  – “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
  3. Learning makes you “bulletproof” via Alvin Toffler – “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”    
  4. You give yourself permission to learn via Mark Twain – “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning. ”     
  5. Don’t act like the smartest person in the room via Lord Chesterfield – “Never seem more learned than the people you are with. Wear your learning like a pocket watch and keep it hidden. Do not pull it out to count the hours, but give the time when you are asked.”     
  6. Everyone knows something you don’t via Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Shall I tell you a secret of a true scholar? It is this: every man I meet is my master in some point and in that I learn from him.”
  7. The person doing the work is the person doing the learning via Friedrich Nietzsche –  “The doer alone learneth.”

A birthday challenge from me to you: write your own list of learnings and share a link to it, or share your favorite quotes in the comments. Action creates its own motivation, so if you’ve been thinking about writing, consider this an invitation to get moving on one small idea.

Next post: Fear

Photo via Visual hunt

Slap A Smile On Your Face And Get Out There

You can tell the depth of my fear based on how big my smile is. The bigger the smile, the bigger the fear. It’s an odd defense mechanism, but one that’s served me in all the places and in front of all the faces that scare me.

“What are you doing on this side of town, white lady. You lost?”

This, from a six-foot-tall, seventh-grader on my first day of teaching. It was almost like he could see the fear radiating from me in little shock waves, like a cartoon. And certainly, I looked cartoonish. Dressed in an ill-fitting “ladies suit” from a department store, I resembled nothing so much as a frumpy bank teller.

Continue reading Slap A Smile On Your Face And Get Out There

Who Is Served By Keeping You So Busy?

We can’t expect those few who are well-served by the current reality to give us time to think. We need time to develop clarity and courage. If we want our world to be different, our first act needs to be reclaiming time to think. Nothing will change for the better until we can do that. – Margaret Wheatley

The most radical thing I’ve done in the past month is to do nothing. It was also the scariest because I’ve never faced a busier 28 days. Every one of them screaming at me to DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW!

Continue reading Who Is Served By Keeping You So Busy?

You’re Saved By What You Love

This is what I wasn’t brave enough to tell you because the force of your pain scared me when we saw each other last week:

Tell me who and what you love and I’ll show you that it’s the light when all others go out.

When it’s dark here in February and you feel like quitting. When you find yourself starting to envy the people you notice on your way to work. When you feel like maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to just completely change careers because this – what you’re doing now – feels too big and too difficult to do for even one more day.

Continue reading You’re Saved By What You Love

Discomfort By Design

“Everyone had a very top-down approach, and it brought the same individuals as always to the table.” — Antionette Carroll

This quote, from the founder of the social justice nonprofit Creative Reaction Lab, struck me as astute and succinct.

Top-down approaches are easy. They’re controlled, predictable, and efficient. Those aren’t bad things, but they risk becoming the central values and vision of any enterprise if you exclusively rely on them.

The second part of her quote — bringing the same individuals as always to the table — is another simple, but overlooked truth.

Continue reading Discomfort By Design

The Personal Spin Cycle: Blame

…we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” That’s it. Just certain.The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.- Brene Brown 

 

Pain and discomfort are the ground of teaching and learning. So, to hear Brene Brown describe blame as the way to discharge that makes sense to me.

I don’t have to sit in too many meetings or listen to too many people, like the cardiac nurse who hooked me up to the treadmill for a stress test, to know how often blame is heaped on teachers or students. Sometimes both.

Why isn’t (fill in the blank) happening? Teachers.

And teachers will say: students. A few will say: administrators. Others will say: parents. And around and around it goes, the blame cycle picking up speed and creating enormous distance between people.

This graphic is from a post meant for construction contractors, but it elegantly describes what blame does and how it proliferates along its own vector.

Brown outlines, in her brilliant TED talk, a way out of the cycle. One that is initially much more painful and uncomfortable: the courage to be seen for who we really are:

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

 

Image credit: Patrick McManaman/Unsplash