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Notably Quoted

It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous.
Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life (p. 18)

Administration

Thoughts on Family

I just finished reading Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox. The book is a memoir -- a series of short vignettes, actually -- by the now-aging Fox, author of several novels and children's books. From my perspective, Fox's early life was amazingly difficult, as she was early-on placed in an orphanage and then shuffled in and out of a variety of other living situations...all the while maintaining distant and strained relationships with both of her parents. And her parents! Her mother was cold, detached, unloving. Her father was slightly more emotionally available, but also highly dysfunctional and alcoholic. I find it amazing that Fox survived at all.

I have a 'round-about connection to Fox. (Am I allowed to claim that?) The daughter that she gave up for adoption, and speaks briefly of in the last chapter, is Linda Carroll. Linda is a therapist in Corvallis, Oregon (where I lived for twenty years), and someone I have known for more than a quarter century now. Well, not only have I known Linda a long time, I rank her as just about the most influential person I have ever known in terms of my own growth as a human being. Really, Linda's impact on my life has been profound. She was the one who helped me through a very difficult time in my post-divorce period...and, through the years, has always been at least one step ahead of me developmentally, ready to guide and teach.

Richard Bach has observed that "rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof." Linda, ever since our first meeting, has felt as if she is part of my family on this planet. So, I was very interested to read about the growing-up experiences of the person who gave birth to her.

Linda has her own extremely interesting biography...having been given up for adoption, of course, and then finding Fox not that many years ago (the mid 90s) in order to attempt the never-established mother-daughter connection. Further, Linda's own experience as a mother includes having given birth to singer-actress controversial-figure Courtney Love. (And, to extend the story, Courtney's daughter is her child with tragic-rock-figure Kurt Cobain.) Linda's book talking about her life and relationship with Courtney is due out in a couple of months, so I know I'll be among the first to read Her Mother's Daughter.

Loneliness & Connection

I was a married person in my 20s, but I have lived most of my adult life single and alone. For the most part, this has been ok. Although this is not the way I planned things, it's the way my life has turned out. I do know that I would prefer to be alone than to spend my life in a bad relationship. So, I've said, my "aloneness" is entirely voluntary and acceptable...and that I'm not really lonely.

Well, who am I kidding? Sometimes the truth stabs at my heart during the most unexpected times and places...for example, watching the movie Shall We Dance?. Beverly Clark (played by Susan Sarandon), at one point, offers this analysis about why people get married:

We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet ... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you are promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You are saying "Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness."

My truth is: I am seeking someone to be the witness to my life. I want to share the joys and pains with another and to end this emptiness. Life is difficult enough without having to go the distance alone.

Potting Soil & Personal Growth

One evening some time back, after I had come home from working out, I crossed the living room to close the drapes and, as I did so, I accidentally knocked one of my largest houseplants off a shelf. The result was a rather huge mound of wet potting soil on my carpet.

“Crap!,” I said.

Along with pieces of jade plant, I started picking up clumps of the soil and putting them all into a shopping bag. It didn’t take too long to see, though, that if I continued very far with this activity, I would be at risk of grinding the wet soil into my lightly-colored carpet, making it all the more difficult to clean up. I paused, thought a minute, and decided that this might be much easier to eventually deal with if the soil were dry, rather than this wet, clumpy stuff. (I’d just watered the plants two days earlier.)

I decided that I’d just wait and let the whole mess air out. And, then, I started to think about my old, old (thirty-plus-years old) vacuum cleaner and how unlikely it would be that it’d successfully help me clean up this mess — even if the potting soil eventually turned into a dry sand. So, it looked like I’d have to do two things: let the huge mound of soil dry for a few days in the middle of the room and look for a new vacuum cleaner.

The next day, when I was out driving, I happened upon a vacuum cleaner store. I stopped in and forty-five minutes later walked out with a wonderful, powerful, new machine. OK: that was the easy part.

The most difficult element of this whole thing, as you might imagine (well, maybe not), was waiting for the darned soil to dry. There it sat, day after day, a huge pile of black dirt in the middle of my light brown carpet, reminding me of my clumsiness and taking away from the perfect order of my at-home world. When messes, disorder and pain occur in my life I want to fix what ever it is. Immediately! I don’t like to leave things unattended; I want to take care of business. But, there it was, every morning when I awoke, every night when I returned home…a mess in the middle of my world. Not even, as things go, that big of a mess, but, simply put, a mess.

When I was away from home, I could pretend it didn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. This ugliness was non-existent, that is until I returned home. Then, there it was again. Waiting for me to ignore. Well, not ignore, exactly, but to leave unattended until it could be properly “fixed.” I tried not to look at the black spot in my life. I averted my eyes. I turned my back. I went for a walk. But, always, always, there it was. A black spot I could not ignore, because, well, it was a black spot!

But, then, slowly, I realized what a good lesson this was. This was a test of patience: a growth experience. This was “a good thing.” I knew that all I had to do was wait and this problem would find resolution. It merely required time. All that was getting in the way was my impatience, my obsessive nature. I recognized that my “fix it now” nature was not the best approach. That sometimes the best thing is to do nothing… at least for a while. “Every mess in its own time.” Maybe that’s what should become my motto, my creed for living, for the new, improved, patient me.

Eventually (it actually only took five days), I was able to clean things up. The new vacuum clearer did a great job sucking up that dreadful black mound of now-dry powder and restoring order and harmony to my living space. To my life.

I am wishing that the peace that eventually came to me in this process had always been with me. I would like to always have been the patient one, the person, who despite small or large life dilemmas, could say… “ah, so…every solution in its own time.” And, “this too shall pass.”

Unfortunately, I’ve been prone to be the fix-it guy. Fix it now or all is lost. If it isn’t fixed now, the world is not perfect, and I want the world to be perfect.

Maybe, though, I’m growing. And I’m glad that I am…living, growing, and evolving. Experiencing what this life is all about. Really. Living.

Failure, Rejection, Success

I was on another “first date” yesterday...one of those experiences that come my way occasionally because I belong to an online matching website. At one point in the conversation, I referred to my job-search efforts in the last couple years, lamenting, I guess, about how much rejection had been involved. She observed, “well, that’s just part of the process, isn’t it?”

Actually, as I was attempting to be serious and engage in some emotional self-disclosure, this remark struck me as rejection-like in itself: certainly dismissive of my frequent feelings of rejection as I go through this process. I’m not so sure there’s going to be a second date.

Also, yesterday, in response to an email to an old friend in Minnesota where I had stated that I was now “officially discouraged” after two years of attempting to land a permanent position, I was regaled with a story about Thomas Edison.

“I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances.”

After inventing the light bulb and establishing power stations throughout the US and the world, Edison sold all of his holdings in the lighting industry. Using his liquidated assets, he plunged into a venture to increase the yield of iron from New Jersey ore by crushing it and passing it through electromagnets. The process never worked, costing Edison ten years and most of his personal fortune. But Edison had an amazing ability of turning liabilities into assets. Edison used his rock-crushing machinery to enter the cement industry, revolutionizing that industry and becoming the third largest producer of cement in the US. Guess who poured the foundation of Yankee Stadium?

I guess I should be wondering what it is that’s going on...for when I expect someone to “get” a feeling I’m expressing, what I seem to find is someone unable to listen to my experience. Oh, for someone to listen to me! To get me! 

I guess that what this blog is for: someplace I can go to talk, with, hopefully, very little chance of rejection.

 Actually, the stories about Edison are pervasive: 

Thomas Edison was asked if he felt discouraged by the 1,073 failures he had before inventing the electric light bulb. He said “I did not fail 1,073 times. I found 1,073 ways not to do it.”

It appears that I’m on my way to being successful in finding about a thousand ways to not get a job!

Some Not-So-Random Thoughts About Change

Introduction

Change has come my direction in at least a couple of ways: either having it thrust upon me or recognizing myself the need for change and deliberately planning for it. Unplanned change may be a necessity when a crisis strikes. Examples of crises are natural disasters, as well as some “unnatural” ones (such as having a key employee or significant other unexpectedly leave). Planned change comes about when there is time to lay out a strategy for a transition from one state or condition to the next. 

In the next section I discuss the strategies and coping mechanisms I utilize when I find myself in the midst of a change process. As such, this comprises an abbreviated version of my “philosophy of change.” Following the discussion of my philosophical approach, I conclude with a specific example of a change process I facilitated on the state level in Oregon.

An Abbreviated Guide to Successfully Facilitating Change

I have participated in a variety of situations involving major change: starting a small business (with no business training!); implementing a new student support services program with a very tiny budget at a four-year campus; and assuming a new role with the university system central office to come up with a plan for the universities to work more effectively with the community colleges. These particular examples of change were not borne out of a sense of crisis, though they all involved “creating something out of nothing” and necessitated that I serve as a change agent in these various environments.

Given the many transitions I have experienced and/or facilitated, I believe in the statement: change is difficult. Planned or unplanned, change upsets our lives. And, who needs that? Aren’t we all a bit more satisfied with status quo, even when the status quo isn’t all that terrific? At least we know where we stand and what the rules are. But even a change process can have rules, or at least guidelines. What follows are ways that I have for facilitating and/or coping with change. Mostly these principles apply to administering planned change, but many of these are also applicable for tending to unplanned change as well.

Provide leadership and vision. Because change is typically so unsettling, having solid leadership to manage it is essential. A leader who exudes confidence, is able to articulate the need for and direction of change, and can provide a vision for the future, is the individual who can make change a manageable, less frightening experience for all involved.

Plan ahead. If you know where you are and where you want to be, then it’s possible to plan. A detailed (and written) plan is going to assist everyone in the change process because it can reduce the anxiety level by laying out a pathway for the change ahead.

Anticipate obstacles and expect the unexpected. The path of change is often littered with barriers, of course, even in the presence of a good plan. A good strategy when in the midst of change is to expect the unexpected: there are bound to be many unanticipated problems to solve along the way. How does one handle the unexpected when, well, it’s so unexpected? There is obviously no one answer for that question. Perhaps it is simply best to realize that no plan is perfect and that using our own personal coping mechanisms are what we need to rely on during times of high stress.

Focus on teamwork. When groups and organizations are engaged in a change process, things typically go smoothest if a team approach is used. The concept of “team,” in my experience, has various interpretations. My use of the word team connotes a sense of involvement and investment by everyone in the organization, and, to the extent possible, a role to be played by everyone individually in order to make the change process a successful and non-threatening one. In my opinion, the responsibility for establishing a team approach lies squarely with the organization’s leadership: everyone must be invited to participate and be utilized to their fullest potential. Also in the domain of effective leaders is the responsibility of establishing clear expectations of team members and outlining individuals’ roles.

Model and facilitate good communication. The absolutely central concept to facilitating successful change, to providing leadership and vision, and to promoting a team approach, is communication. In any organization, communication breakdowns and rumors can subvert the change process by providing inaccurate, incomplete, and/or totally fabricated “information” to the participants in the change process. Change is facilitated in the most-healthy way by keeping everyone in the loop, listening to the ideas (and frustrations!) of team members, and respecting the thoughts and feelings of everyone.

Keep breathing. Literally, change can take your breath away. There is a lot of anxiety and tension associated with change. I always need to remind myself, and those around me, to “keep breathing. Relax. Things will all work out.”

One Example of Facilitated Change

When I was employed by the Chancellor’s Office of the Oregon University System, I led the process that resulted in the first new statewide transfer degree in fifteen years: the Associate of Science/Oregon Transfer degree in Business (AS/OT-Bus, adopted by the Oregon State Board of Education in April 2003). The only other statewide transfer degree that existed before then in Oregon was the Associate of Arts/Oregon Transfer degree (AA/OT, which came in to existence as the result of legislation in 1987). In facilitating this process:

  • I worked with a cross-sector group (the Joint Boards Articulation Commission) to propose the concept for this degree in late 2000.
  • From 2001 to 2003 I provided the leadership for the grass-roots movement that culminated in the establishment of this degree.
  • I articulated a vision for the anticipated product.
  • I laid out and implemented a plan to involve everyone that would need to have a voice in developing a new statewide degree.
  • I communicated regularly with all the groups participating in the degree-development process. In so doing, I focused on trying to make the degree the work of a “team of teams.”
  • I led countless group discussions and modeled good communication. I kept everyone in the loop.
  • I kept breathing, and reminded everyone else to do the same, over an over again, as the political process evolved toward the final agreement of what the degree should look like.

In the end, we had created another viable pathway for community college students to pursue that would ease their transfer to a business program at one of Oregon’s public universities.

Conclusion

Facilitating change is, perhaps, one of the most difficult assignments a leader (academic or otherwise) can undertake. To the extent possible, I believe that change is most adequately handled when it is approached deliberately and with sensitivity. The most effective individual to facilitate a change process, I believe, is a leader with the most highly-developed communication skills.