Don’t Collaborate, Co-Headline

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of collaboration lately. It’s something that higher education speaks of often- touted as the ultimate way to, as we say (with a shudder, in my case), “do more with less.” It’s seen as a way to conserve resources, heighten attendance and effectiveness by making a program or initiative accessible to a larger population, and help us get to know other individuals in our departments or divisions.

However, there’s a perceived dark side to collaboration too. The aforementioned benefits of collaboration as many of us have come to know it, come only to those who have a good methodology for their teamwork. For those who don’t, there are often fears of goals being compromised, work being shirked, and credit being unduly given or forgotten. In this comprehensive take on the troubles with higher ed marketing, Michael Fienen hit upon a really important point that we often worry about when we “get in bed” with other departments or stakeholders: everyone’s need to have a stake in a decision can lead to expertise being discounted at the expense of sound decision making.

Most of the frustration that we see with collaborative projects comes from the idea that their knowledge and expertise, their experience, their voice, will be sacrificed for the sake of expediency and completion. And whether those seeking consensus want to admit it or not, the work suffers as a result of that need for harmony. Why would anyone want to work in a system that operates in that fashion?

IMAGE CREDIT: Deadline

I believe another option may be out there. I thought about it last summer, when I went with a friend to see (most of- sorry Kyle, that’s on me) the Sullivan and Son Comedy Tour. It resurfaced this spring during the Undateable tour, which worked much the same way. What we may need to do is not collaborate, but co-headline. 

A co-headlined tour doesn’t have any one comedian billed above the others. It’s a group traveling and working together, but allows each comedian to maintain control over his or her own content. And while there may be moments or segments where content overlaps, for the most part people can work both independently and in concert with one another. Steve Byrne doesn’t get to take credit for Owen Benjamin’s jokes, and Ron Funches doesn’t have to worry about Brent Morin just not doing a set one night. The product is additive, but the process is individual.

For those who truly don’t have the trust or natural inclination to create a blended product, the co-headline could be an elegant solution. The acrimony that comes with sacrificing purity of work is replaced by trust for individual parties to bring their best work to the table. It takes humility to share credit with those around the table, but it also lessens the potential for discord if one office seems to be doing someone else’s work.

This method is also particularly respectful of existing initiatives. For example, earlier this spring, my office collaborated with Multicultural Programs, Mission and Ministry, and a few academic departments to group events that were already occurring on campus into a ten day “Social Justice Days” initiative. No additional events were planned, no events had undue interference as far as creative vision- we simply grouped them together in one place. All offices were credited equally, regardless of how many programs they brought to the table. And students got equal exposure to all of the events in terms of marketing, a persistent problem on our campus. Where we previously thought we wouldn’t have time to plan events to support this initiative last fall, we found that enough events and projects were already happening on campus during that timeframe to join nominal forces.

Where are the fellow artists on your campus or at your company that would be interested in coheadlining with you? As with the comedians on the tours I mentioned before, look to your work friends, to those who work as you do, to those trying to reach a similar goal. Voice your admiration and let them know you’re interested in teaming up. Then, position yourselves to share the glory while trusting them to do their own work. Lastly, celebrate for all involved (no group hugs required) when the grouped initiatives succeed.

The Power of the Power-Up

This past week in honor of Mother’s Day, I did an interview with my mom as an introduction to a project I’m working on with a friend, and one of her answers sparked a thought in my mind.

When Rose (my mom) was asked what I was like as a child, she said something that could be surprising for a few people who know me or read my writing often:

You were very, VERY outgoing. You would go up to anyone and everyone and just chat away. I was afraid you might get stolen or something. 

It likely surprises no one to find that this description of me, an introversion researcher, seems miles away from who I am today. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy people or shy away from conversations, but the boundless energy that my mom mentions from my youth, some of which I actually remember, didn’t carry through into my adulthood. Why?

If I’m being honest with myself, there’s a key difference between the life I lived then and the one I do now. Naps.

By that, I mean that the energy that it took to interact with people seemingly effortlessly could nearly immediately be recouped by an hour or two spent asleep. To this day, I’m significantly more likely to be more social at an evening event if I’ve had a nap just prior. However, we’ve declared it socially unacceptable to stop the business of the day with a nap break. And I think that’s hurting a lot of people.

In the absence of a way to recoup the energy that the average day for an adult in a workplace, introverts can become…well, you’ve seen a toddler around 3pm with no nap. Cranky, easily agitated, difficult to reason with. While your coworker from the next office over may not crumple to the floor screaming, it’s entirely possible that she feels that way on the inside but knows she can’t get away with it. I recall several references to that “3pm meltdown” feeling from testimonials in my book “The I’s Have It”:

“[M]any I’s mentioned they need time to recharge to be their best. What happens if you don’t get that time?”

Here is a sampling of the answers I received:

“[I] get short with folks and have no time for nonsense. Ick. I’ve found other ways of coping, but that’s my reaction…” (Gwen)

Gwen’s sentiment about getting short with people was a common thread I noted as responses to my question rolled in. Heidi T. was one of those who agreed, saying, “small annoyances become a bigger deal than necessary.” Other words that echoed in the answers I received: “cranky”, “irritable”, and “unreasonable”.

“I call it the introvert hangover – I get irritable and lose focus if I go too long without quiet time” (Chris)

Chris’s response was one that resonated with several people, and is so indicative of the problem at hand. A hangover from alcohol or sugar (and yes, a sugar hangover is real) comes from the consumption of an excess amount of something that, in appropriate amounts, has few ill effects. But after we reach a threshold that our body can handle, we start to feel ill. The introvert hangover is our body’s response to excess- irritability, short temperedness, and a loss of focus. When we look back on some of the negative characteristics associated with introversion- assumptions of judgment, self-centeredness, and aloofness – one starts to wonder if these conclusions were drawn from introverts who were, as Chris says, hungover. These characteristics generally aren’t true from a “fully charged” introvert, but could certainly be mistakenly assumed of an introvert in dire need of a recharge.

IMAGE CREDIT: Sue Caulfield

So until we get to a point where we allow for midday naps (which I’m more than happy to carry the banner for!), what should we do if the day becomes too much and we find our battery gauge in the red?

  • Change your surroundings. I’m a 3pm walker. That is to say, if I get to a point in the afternoon where an email I open or a meeting I’ve finished is pushing me into the tantrum zone, I get up and leave the office. I head outside our gates and wander the neighborhood for a short time. I should also note, because it can be important- I don’t take a phone with me. This keeps the trip short, and it keeps me aware of the amount of time I’m spending away. I’ll head to Starbucks or the nearby grocery store (I’m not me when I’m hungry), up the street to browse the movie theater marquee, or even occasionally to Marshalls or Paper Source to look at greeting cards. It’s a moment that I take for myself, and by leaving my phone behind, it stays a solitary moment.
  • Be a tourist. Who else is in the area that you should visit? Do you have other colleagues that could use a short break from what’s eating away at them? Spend a brief moment together, with a “no work talk” rule, and give each other some time away from your breaking points. For those with a strictly social interpretation of introversion, this may seem counterintuitive- “why would you spend your you time with other people?” To that, I would say that introversion isn’t a social construct- it’s a description of where your energy comes from. For many introverts, time and conversations with people they know and are comfortable with actually provide energy, rather than taking it away. These interactions, when held to a brief period, can give the charge that may be needed.
  • Hide out. I don’t (really) mean this literally. But, it could help. If you have a busy few days on your calendar, schedule time early in those days, leading up to that period, or perhaps for a few days following, where you can work from somewhere else. Home, a coffee shop- my personal favorite is the second floor of our campus library. I am still productive and am still reachable to others that may need something, but the comfort of a home court advantage can help mitigate any strain that could be seen as environmental.

While none of these strategies will take the place of the charge that a short nap could provide (seriously, folks, can we rethink this??), it will keep you from that meltdown that once overtook the personable toddler within, and maybe even give you the energy to roam the aisles on your next flight, asking where everyone else was going (somehow, I didn’t know that everyone was going the same place, but what can you do?).

 

IE 201: Temperament in Two Dimensions

Recently, I gave a new version of a talk about introversion where I hit upon an important nuance about introversion that I wanted to share.

Thus far, we’ve been looking at the 101 level of temperament- with introversion at one end, and extroversion at the other. The highest level of mastery at this level is signified by an understanding that people exist on a spectrum, with elements of both within reach of everyone. However, I am seeking to promote all of you to the next level of understanding.

Those who are introverted are generally assumed to be shy- the quiet that comes from introspection and contemplation get conflated with the quiet that comes with hesitation and reluctance to engage socially. To be fair, as often, I’m sure the extroverted are just as often assumed to be outgoing. What’s the problem here? Well, as odd as this is going to sound, the problem can be explained with plane geometry.

Most of us are accustomed to discussing temperament in one dimension, on a line:

IMAGE CREDIT: Smarttech

(I should note, if I take any issue with this model of explanation, its that it places introversion in the arena of negative numbers. Assume that I’ve acknowledged that- believe me, I don’t like it any more than you do.)

But I’m about to let you in on a little secret: that’s not all. Human beings can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to any one dimension (mathematically or literally!). Thus, I want to introduce a second dimension into the mix.

IMAGE CREDIT: SparkNotes

Shy and outgoing are a separate dimension, characterized by different traits and qualities. Shyness and the ability to be outgoing are measures of something much different- the ability to find comfort in social interactions. Comparatively, introversion and extroversion are a measure of where someone gets energy from. This is why those who look at temperament more closely are so quick to say that the two are so different.

Most assumptions on temperament are based on consideration for these two quadrants- all positive numbers or all negative numbers (again, problematic, but stay with me here). Most of these assumptions ignore two full quadrants of people- people for whom energy acquisition is limited not my a dislike of people, but a high level of discomfort in approaching them (shy extroverts). Or, consider those who truly enjoy people, but struggle to draw energy from the encounter it takes to build meaningful relationships (outgoing introverts). This is a next-level understanding of temperament. Our accommodation of, and consideration for, all sorts of temperament can’t stop with one dimensional learning and understanding (opting introverts out of public speaking by default, or encouraging extroverts to plan social events for the department). Indeed, a one-dimensional understanding of any aspect of the human condition can be dangerous.

This can be helpful when determining fit for an organization, devising and implementing training and on boarding strategies, and finding ways to properly advise/supervise, evaluate, and recognize the people around us. As you find yourself in a position to take part in any or all of these activities with your students, supervisees, or even your supervisors and superiors, expand your scope to multiple dimensions.

pasta rice image

When I explained this at my latest talk, I explained the differences in degrees as varieties of the pasta/rice analogy I’ve used for some time- think of shy extroverts as parboiled rice (takes less time to finish), and outgoing extroverts as whole wheat pasta (can stay in the hot water longer) IMAGE CREDIT: Sue Caulfield

I am thrilled to see that so many are becoming aware of the true differences between introverts and extroverts. But wait…there’s more. I plan to challenge myself to explore the complexity of multiple dimensions and the people within them. Join me, won’t you?

2 Legit to Quit: Why My Summer Will Live on Legitimacy

This time of year in my office is one naturally inclined toward reflection. Performance is being reviewed, superlatives awarded, certificates printed and plaques engraved. We look at who has succeeded and who will continue to grow- both the people that we work with, and the processes that guide what we do.

Those who know me well know that systems and processes fascinate me. And part of my evaluation of my own work includes a deep and intentional look at how processes and systems I’ve designed perform in real time. But admittedly, I’m not always the very best at thinking about the human implications of these systems. Yes, I do think about it. But after a recent talk, Malcolm Gladwell brought another facet of those decisions, to my attention.

On the tour to promote the paperback release of his latest book David and Goliath, he talked primarily about the idea of compliance to the law and why we do it. Well, most of us, anyway. For so many years (and society, in turn) believed that deterrence, or a high enough penalty that violation isn’t attractive, was the key to keeping bad behavior at bay. More recently, an alternative to this reasoning has emerged: that of legitimacy. People comply with rules and systems that they deem legitimate. His components of legitimacy:

  1. Fairness
  2. Consistency/Trustworthiness
  3. Respect

To me, the idea of setting guidelines grounded in legitimacy is one that I stumbled into last year, when examining penalties levied against our student groups last year. Some were disproportionate, some truly didn’t apply to some of our groups, and there was little nuance that reflected a desire to understand the students behind the positional titles. Thus, the deterrence strategy did little to correct behavior for many; the alternative, while not perfect, showed greater consideration for the relationship that the organization wanted to have with its members. And that imperfection? Well, it tends to be tolerated and understood better when a relationship emphasizes humanity over compliance.

So what will I be looking at as I seek to tweak some of our tools, guidelines, and systems this summer?

Fairness. Are the systems that you work within fair to all the groups or individuals involved? If you treat all groups equally, you may believe that the answer is “yes.” But as we learned during and after the ages of legal discrimination and segregation, equal treatment is not always fair. Equality means that all people will be treated the same, while fairness is more concerned with everyone having what they need to be successful. My goal in re-examining the projects I oversee will be to make as many pieces as I can, fair. This may mean providing versions of guidelines in a few different formats for ease of understanding, and sharing key information with all board members and not just presidents (a notorious practice that I’ve been seeking to expand for years now).

Consistency and Trustworthiness. This can be a tough one, because we regrettably work in a culture that holds things tightly. This may mean that first impressions of students stick with them far longer than is developmentally appropriate, or memories of past executive boards may color the gaze with which we look upon a longer-tenured group. But to treat students consistently by enforcing deadlines and guidelines appropriately helps to build trust. This trust is essential for when they come to you with the bigger stuff, the real life stuff, the stuff that transcends their roles as a leader or student.

A remark a student came to me with last week made me reconsider my consistency. One of our student staff members mentioned that a friend of her “had never seen me laugh before.” Even with folks who are always in trouble, I had a hard time figuring out who that could be. When she told me, it quickly made sense. This particular group of students relates to me in a more transactional fashion, and I tend to mirror that when they come in. But that mirroring comes at the expense of them seeing who I am. That sort of consistency matters too, and part of my efforts for the year ahead will include being a more consistent version of myself.

Respect. In the best case, this last piece is a byproduct of the first two being in place. People trust those who seek to be fair, and who appreciate consistent behavior and engender trust. I’d like to think that my students respect me, and i’m sure there are probably a few that don’t, but I could also probably predict why they feel that way. As i seek to move into another year in this role while navigating the inevitable politics and bureaucracy that challenge us all behind the scenes, we should always treat those around us, especially students, with respect. For me, this will mean:

  • Challenging myself to focus on meeting needs and expectations, even when I am personally challenged to do so;
  • Challenging students to reconsider or resize expectations that are truly outsized (and not just inconvenient);
  • Articulating the “why” behind situations or changes that affect students- why shouldn’t I? What is there to hide?
  • Expressing gratitude when i’m appreciative0 we all like to hear it, and we’re more inclined to continue good and positive behavior when its noted; and
  • Apologize when I screw up. This is something else we don’t hear enough, and i am making it a point to improve in this area. We’re not superheroes, any of us (unless you are, and then…awesome.), and things will fall through the cracks. But it’s how we respond to those situations that either earns or loses us respect. Which will you do?

Gladwell closed his talk with a pretty powerful statement about legitimacy:

Legitimacy of an institution is a rare and precious thing; if you squander it, it takes generations to get it back.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just keep it. Here’s what I plan to do to make sure that’s the case for me- what about you?

3 Real Takeaways from Hulu’s Fake Peek Into Residence Life

“Our lives could be a TV show.”

IMAGE CREDIT: Doug Hyun

I can’t tell you how often I hear that remark from people at the office- and have heard it, regardless of where I’ve worked. Those pleas get answered in the most seemingly random of ways; It would appear that enough current and former RAs have verbalized this need that we received Resident Advisors, which premiered on Hulu this past Thursday.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am still warming to the humor. I’m working hard to give it a chance because, as is often the case, I am a fan of several of the people involved. And additionally, as someone who did have several ridiculous situations happen to her as an RA, its always nice to see how our lives get dramatized. But even as I continue to adjust to how the story is being told, I’ve already gotten something from the two episodes I’ve seen so far to date.

All staffs are going to have people who come from different walks of life, and will need help adjusting to that reality. 

At the outset of the show, we are introduced to ambitious and high-achieving Resident Director Olivia (Jamie Chung) and her four RAs- “old guy” Doug, slacker/dumb guy Tyler, industrious Sam, and offbeat Amy. We’re made to believe that some of the humor comes from exploring each RA trope, as well as how these tropes interact with one another. And, to a certain extent this is true. The second episode sees two markedly different RAs dealing with a problem together but differently- a situation that any two student employees could encounter. But the part that stood out to me was how clear it became early on that each staff member had a different reason for taking on the RA role. Tyler (falsely or otherwise) believes that he can use it as a means to meet girls, Sam sees it as one of six jobs he holds on campus, and Doug is in it because he honestly enjoys working with students, helping them develop and set a path for their lives (sound like anyone you know?). Whether they know it or not, most RDs will work with staffs that have some combination of these three personalities. Yes, some would strive for six, eight, or twelve people that want to do this work out of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to impact lives. But that isn’t always going to be what we get…and we need to be okay with that. We train for diversity in a number of other ways- but do we allow for diversity of motivation? We need to be okay with the idea that sometimes, the ability to do the work is the thing- and as long as its getting done, aspirations of inspiring learning and changing lives don’t have to come standard.

Those paying attention closely in the first episode will take note- this could also apply to the staff member supervising RD Olivia. She’s not what student affairs would call a “lifer,” she instead sees the competency and people skills that could be developed in this role as key to success in Silicon Valley- and so she takes this job en route to another destination. Based on that avowed decision, how would she do in your res life department, in your division? For Olivia, residence life work isn’t the endgame, and that’s okay. I’d argue that it should be just as okay for the people we work with in our day to day lives. It occurs to me that she’s not the only residence life professional on TV portrayed in this light: the same could also be said for A Different World‘s Walter or Saved by the Bell: College Years‘ Mike. I could speculate as to how this portrayal informs how we’re interacted with by those outside the field…but that’s a musing for another day. What I will say instead is that we’re generally accustomed to accounting for differing motivations in res life employment for students, but less so for professional staff. My counter would be: if the work is getting done, relationships are being built, and learning is happening- why should we?

Related to that, we need to allow for stylistic differences in how the work gets done. I previously spent a great deal of time in the world of gymnastics (a point I’ll come back to in a moment), a world that features two main levels of competition: compulsory and option. In compulsory competition, all competing athletes learn the same routines and will be judged based on their adherence to those specific moves and how they should ideally be performed. After a number of years and progressing through levels, you arrive at those levels that are modified optional (a combination of compulsory and optional maneuvers), and finally, fully optional. These are the elite level gymnasts that you see on television, with routines that (not accounting for trends- I miss consecutive whip backs…) don’t look anything alike and often include moves that athletes themselves make up. Things like student development theory, knowledge of diversity and mental health, and emergency safety protocol are the compulsory moves of this field, with other moves in other areas falling more on the side of optional. Is it easy to assume that residence life work, or indeed any facet of higher education work, should operate as compulsory exercises? Sure. But to tailor to the needs of individual differences, to ascend to higher levels, we have to embrace an “optionals” mindset. When I competed, compulsories were comforting in their predictability, but ultimately were not that interesting. I worked harder to get stronger and master skills that would help me advance because I thirsted for the opportunity to put my own spin and my own personality into my routines (and anyone who saw my mod-op beam routine would never mistake it for anyone else’s!).

Student staff, and even professional staff, will similarly thirst for opportunities to put their personal spin on the skills and required elements that must be in place. That may mean that they’re going to handle problems differently than you do. Are you okay with that? If the students are happy and safe, an agreed upon outcome can be reached, and no rules are broken, do you create an environment where your supervises (student or professional) have space to individualize their approach?

Let’s seek to loosen our grip a little bit. Here’s the part where the film studies major in me steps up on her soapbox.

Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician John Nash was noted for his brilliance in an approach to game theory, and his story was beautifully adapted into 2001’s Best Picture Winner, A Beautiful Mind. But what those less familiar with his story may not know, is that his hallucinations were of a wholly different nature than portrayed in the film (rather than government conspiracy, he hallucinated encounters with extraterrestrials), won a Nobel for economics (rather than math), and was divorced from his wife Alicia Larde Nash for much of what was portrayed as the middle of the movie, making their demonstrated enduring love seem less bulletproof. Does that change your opinion of the film’s cinematic merit? It probably shouldn’t.

When we articulate the desire to see our lives made into a TV show, we often mean that we want it told from our perspective, with all the same information that we have and with plot points dictated exactly as they happened and with all our knowledge imbued into their coverage. Even highly notable people don’t often get that treatment. But here’s a secret: shows like Resident Advisors, or any show that deals with a specific profession, have creative consultants and researchers. They have fact checkers and lawyers. And they report to network heads that can give notes on how things will be perceived. Why do I say this? To drive home a simple point: the creators and writers of Resident Advisors know that the term residence hall is the correct one, but they don’t care. 

To say that they don’t care is harsh. What I should probably say instead is that they likely had a version of the battle that we have in the field- do we call it dorm, a term that most people can immediately identify, or do we give its correct terminology and risk being misunderstood by those who don’t understand that? And because their loyalty lies in building a large audience and not a specific one, they elected to take on the latter. Yes, you can’t fire an RA without due process. No, the resident director probably doesn’t report directly to the Dean. They found one of roughly six student affairs folks that doesn’t care for hugging?!

[And if you ask me, the idea that Doug could have been an RA for eleven years and completed multiple graduate degrees without being drafted to work in student affairs is the real grievous oversight ;)]

This approach is not one unique to our field. Sorry. In fact, I want to thank Dan for this note that came up during an online discussion about the show last night:

This is a great example. Would most average people be savvy to the inconsistencies that could (and likely do) exist on The Big Bang Theory? No. But does it stop it from being entertaining (to some, not me)? Not really. But it is popular. And there’s a tradeoff there. Most shows that strive to get the facts exactly right, aren’t also the ones that boom with ratings. Just ask Matt Groening about Futurama. 

When I first started watching ABC Family’s Make It or Break It several years ago, I was drawn in by the idea of a TV show that took place in a world that I knew so well. Full disclosure: as someone who has also worked in a community college and two Parks and Recreation departments, I’ve dealt with this a few times more than some people. And at first, I let the factual (and athletic) inconsistencies get me down. But I came to understand that for most showrunners, writers, and creatives- the setting is secondary. Make It or Break It was only occasionally good television, but that had little to do with how good the gymnastics was- the setting was secondary. Resident Advisors happens to take place in a residence hall, but it didn’t have to. Similar issues could have been explored on a cruise ship, or a day camp, or with lifeguards. The setting is secondary to the stories.

An additional point to consider here: the writers of the show and those they consulted for the show weren’t residence life professionals, they were RAs. Many of the stories that are based on real-life situations (and some are) came from the RA perspective of the situation. Is it incomplete? Sure. And so long as paraprofessionals are at least partly shielded from the full scope of decision making, it’s going to be. But their stories are valid, as we generally strive to teach them. Should that affect how you receive the show? That’s up to you, but I choose to take off my work hat for twenty or so minutesand see life through the eyes of some former students who thought a formative experience in their lives was worth sharing.

Have you watched Resident Advisors yet? What do you think?

Connection Circle 2015

We’re back at it for year 2, and are so pleased you’re seeking to join us! The goal of the Summer 2015 Virtual Connection Circle is to create a space where women are unashamed to ask for help on whatever dream project or endeavor they wish to take part in. Each member of the group is committed to providing substantive feedback, encouragement, and advice to the other participating women in a space specifically designed to keep out needless negativity, judgment, or discouragement that keeps so many of us quiet.

These pitches can be personal or professional in nature: requests granted in this format have ranged from help refining resumes, to making connections about book publishing, to helping raise money for surgery. Think big, this is a powerful and understanding collective and we want to be as helpful as possible :)

Many people have asked, “What do you need from me for a pitch?” That’s a good question. A few quick guidelines/suggestions:
-Three to five paragraphs written; OR
-Up to 4 minutes of video, OR
-A slidedeck detailing your idea/need; OR
-A piece of art, featuring a one paragraph max explanation.
(It is worth noting that this pitch does not have to be professional! Want help with a passion project, interested in finding a new hobby, or looking for impartial life advice? All options are on the table!)
-Most importantly: what SPECIFICALLY do you need from the group? Do you want advice? Input? Contacts who can help you with a project? Specific items? Be as explicit as possible when requesting what you need- defining the action step you’re seeking is essential to getting the result you want.
Please also include a brief “about you” including your name, where you reside, what you do for a living (whether relevant to your pitch or not), and a moment in a movie/TV show/book that made you go “wow.” Please make sure that this information is emailed to amma.marfo@gmail.com by Friday, April 24th, 2014 at 5pm EST.

By the same token, you are more than welcome to participate without putting a pitch forward! The goal of this effort is NOT to be transactional, but to provide a space that is specifically geared toward being helpful and supportive.

Starting in the first week of May, one pitch per week will be selected. Members of the group will be encouraged to offer feedback, advice, encouragement, and ask questions of the person making the pitch. In the best case, the end of the week will bring the pursuer of help more knowledge, affirmation, and constructive feedback than when the week started.

By the end of the summer, let’s all strive to answer two questions for ourselves and for others: “What are you dreaming about?” and “How can I help?”

Sign Up for the 2015 Connection Circle Here!

Looking to see how it worked last year? Check out 2014’s pitches.

To head off a few AFAQ (Anticipated Frequently Asked Questions):

Q: If I participated in last year’s Circle, do I need to sign up again?
A: It would help me out, yes. This year’s weekly correspondence will be working differently than last year, so I would like to be able to pull from one place. You have until the 24th, so please do so ASAP!

Q: If I brought forth a pitch last year, can I pitch again this year?
A: I’m understanding of the idea that paths may change and needs along with that, so I’m going to allow for repeat submissions, IF your pitch is markedly different from what you’ve previously put forward.
If you’ve started work on a project, and your pitch would be additional support for what you’ve already started, I’d prefer to save the formalized pitch slots for new initiatives. That being said, please feel free to put forward your questions and calls for support on your own!

Q: What can a pitch entail?
A: As is stated in the intro of the signup form, pitches can be professional or personal, and previously have varied widely. Some ask for networking connections, some ask for feedback on projects- versions of this concept have gotten people jobs as well as connections for customized clothing for children with disabilities that are otherwise difficult to dress.
My sole request: please do not conflate the phrasing of “pitch” with the idea of a “sales pitch.” This opportunity is not designed to be used for solicitation, so please do not use them as such.

Hope this is helpful- if other questions arise, please don’t hesitate to reach out via message, or my email address (amma [dot] marfo [at] gmail [dot] com).

Lessons in Laughter, Pt 3: Laugh When It’s the Hardest Thing to Do

In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First, I covered the importance of finding your funny. Next, we talked about how to use that sense of humor to get you where you want to be (and away from where you don’t!). I’m going to close the series with the most difficult part: laughing when it seems like you should be crying, and why it’s important.

My mother and I were in the pre-op area, waiting for my father to be wheeled into surgery to remove his prostate, and we were laughing. Somehow, despite the gravity of the situation and the fear that each of us held tightly, we were laughing.

If nothing else, please giggle at the glasses. Part of being young is your parents deciding your glasses should COVER your face. Photo Credit: Nana Marfo

A bit of background: the Marfos are gigglers. My father has this Beldingesque bray that he does when something funny catches him off guard. My mother tries to hide inopportune giggles behind a tooth-hissing, near silent shake, but she never succeeds. And my sister and I have had marathon laughing bouts triggered by the simplest things (most notably, the discovery that the basketball team in Denver is called the Nuggets).That was literally a forty-five minute laughing session in the mid-nineties that I’m convinced extended my life.

But these laughs didn’t always come easily. I’ve spoken previously about my struggles with anxiety, a condition that convinces you life isn’t funny and never will be again. We have had struggles in the family with poor health, death, poverty, depression, and other things that, simply put, aren’t funny. The most recent test to our sense of humor was my father’s February diagnosis of prostate cancer. For someone who’s major anxiety trigger was something grave happening to her father…well, let’s just say that laughing wasn’t my default move. Panicking, retreating to my own space, crying, and worrying came far more naturally. But by June I had assuaged some of my fears by committing to being there for the surgery and helping my mom during the first stages of his recovery.

So let’s return to pre-op, where my mother had agreed to just be the patient’s wife for the day, and not a fellow medical professional (she’s a registered nurse by training). As the anesthesiologist spoke, she listened intently. But then, she slipped. Routine seemed to take over as she asked, “What’s his Gleason score?” I don’t remember what the Gleason score is, and it doesn’t really matter, except that it’s not a term that most people know. The doctor stopped, turned to her, and asked, “How do you know that?”

Without missing a beat, my mother, the more composed of my parents, said “I Googled it.”

I couldn’t help myself. I shot a glance at my dad and we started quietly giggling. My mom quickly explained that she was a nurse, and they finished the conversation and examination.

After she left, it got funnier. Mom immediately turned to Dad, and said, “Googled it was funny, right? Should I have said YouTube?”

Dad: YouTube would have worked, but I think this was fine.

My parents were workshopping a joke moments before my father rolled into surgery. If that doesn’t convince you that laughter can get you through the hard times, I don’t know what will.

But the fact of the matter is, “We laugh so we don’t cry” is a viable statement that has gotten people through a great many hard times. Srdja Popovic talks about creating a comical political statement in Yugoslavia as a means of showing the government its people couldn’t be broken. Finding the funny in scary or anxiety-provoking moments has proven to be among the most effective ways for me to live in a world that constantly sets me on edge. Hell, I’m writing near a window that reveals to me that it is snowing in Boston. Again. In late March. That has to be hilarious, or else it would make this Florida girl sob uncontrollably. And thanks to Hunter “Patch” Adams (and, to an extent, Robin Williams), the world knows humor to be part of a viable approach to medicine, one that I saw later in my father’s hospital stay.

As far as anyone in the hospital that day was concerned, my father was a winner. His prostate was the biggest one removed that day, which became a running joke with all the doctors and nurses that came to visit him (“you won!”). When he was told the precise mass of it (again, don’t remember- long day), I remember a previously groggy man unable to focus his eyes straightening, turning to my mom, and saying without missing a beat, “I knew I felt skinnier!” 

I’m proud of my parents for a number of reasons. They both immigrated from Ghana after making an education a priority to Canada. They navigated North America on their own, making friends and creating two children along the way. They are hardworking, kind, responsible, and brilliant, and ensured that my sister and I grew up the same. They are also two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, and raised us to remember that laughing was important. It keeps you young (ask anyone who’s met my mom- she is aging beautifully!), it keeps you sharp, and it makes life easier to navigate. Reflective writing doesn’t come easily to me, and I knew this piece was going to be the hardest to talk/write about, but I also knew that the laughs that would come in the process would be worth it. And in the end, that’s what it’s about. Just as Marcel the Shell smiles because it’s worth it, I encourage people to try to laugh as often as possible even when it’s hard- especially when it’s hard- because it’s worth it.

I’ll end this post as I ended my talk- with the final words of Peter McGraw’s The Humor Code. A tale of a Colorado professor who traveled the world for a year trying to find out the “anatomy” of a joke and what makes things funny, he ultimately landed on this sentiment/my new life motto:

Surround yourself with the people and things that make you laugh. Seek out interesting places and interesting people. Focus on the friends that make you laugh, not the ones who bring you down. Choose as a partner someone with whom you share a sense of humor, someone who helps you see the lighter side of life […] And maybe it’s cliched, but remind yourself that everything is going to be okay. That thing that seems so scary in the moment, so catastrophic and worrisome, is only scary because you’re paying so much attention to it. It’s okay to complain, but add a bit of wit to your grumbling.

UPDATE: It’s here! Watch the talk in full here:

 

Are We All In This Together? (f/ Kanye West)

Like many others that do the work that I do, this past week was an eventful one. Nearly 8000 of us traveled to New Orleans for the NASPA Annual Conference in New Orleans, prepared for several days of learning, networking, and spending time with friends and colleagues from all over the country. However, the more “connected” (digitally, not necessarily interpersonally) among us became roped into controversy over the use of an app where controversial thoughts, opinions, and actions were shared. As reactions to the issue began, swelled, and intensified, I had mixed feelings about the situation. Let’s assume for the duration of this post that the comments shared are (a) from our conference- there were several in the geographical area, (b) at a critical enough mass to be representative of the field- that is to say, that it was a fair number of people, and (c) true- that is, not someone trying to make a point about something. Is it the tool’s fault? (I don’t think it is, no.) Is it the field’s fault? (In a way, probably.) Why there? (Why not there?)

*In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a user of this tool, but received samplings of its contents from other professionals. Like the girl that “doesn’t even go here” in Mean Girls, I just have a lot of feelings and this incident provided an opportunity to express some of them.

But the controversy itself also brought to mind a lot of other feelings I’ve been trying to sort out over the past few months. As was likely to happen to someone who absorbs pop culture as I do, the answer came to me in a song. Just as Mary Catherine Gallagher (of SNL and Superstar fame) expressed her feelings best through monologues from made-for-TV movies, mine can best be expressed through “Stick to the Status Quo” from High School Musical. For your review:

A sampling of the lyrics, for those not wanting to watch:

[Martha]
Look at me
And what do you see?
Intelligence beyond compare
But inside I am stirring
Something strange is occurring
It’s a secret I need to share

[All]
Open up, dig way down deep

[MARTHA]
Hip-hop is my passion
I love to pop, and lock, jam and break!

[Krarnoff]
Is that even legal?

[All]
Not another peep

[MARTHA]
It’s just dancing
And sometimes, I think it’s even cooler then homework!

[Cliques]
No, no, noooooooooooo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It’s better by far
To keep things are they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo

Now ask yourself, seriously- seriously…does this sound familiar?

Whether in our online circles, or in our own offices, there’s a major disconnect between honoring dissent, individuality, and the all-too-popular concept of authenticity- and actually allowing it to flourish. A feeling of accountability to those that ushered us into the field has created a mold for what professionals that do this work should look like, and it’s pushing people that dissent to places of stress, crisis, value misalignment and, for a few days at a conference, to an app that allows them to speak their mind without putting a name on their thoughts and opinions. Further, this is a small fraction of people. A very small portion of 8000, which in turn represents a field of considerably more. It, in some ways, echoes conversations on our campuses about retention or high-risk drinking- at what point is the percentage of people affected small enough to accept? How much energy, time, and vitriol are we willing to put toward a vocal superminority?

I hesitate to say it this way, but I know of no better example- it’s a Kanye West problem.

IMAGE CREDIT: Giphy

Lots of people have opinions about Kanye West. Many of those people have negative opinions about Kanye West. He’s outspoken, he’s opinionated, rough around the edges, and often comes across as rude as a result. I would never condone his more outlandish behavior, especially when it’s at the expense of other people (as it has been many times). But I would also argue that if we really want to talk about being authentic, there is no better model. Granted, there are miles of middle ground to traverse with him- his authenticity could use some polish in more high-profile moments, and so could ours- but he is who he is. He knows what people think of him (yeah, he’s in on the joke), and behaves as he does anyway. Am I saying that we should all Kanye our way through the rest of our lives? No. In fact, I’ll say that part again. I am not suggesting or condoning that our level of disinhibition hit Westian levels. But I do think we should show more comfort with people being themselves, even (hell, especially) in moments where their decisions don’t align with our own.

No more foreboding calls of “it’s a small field,” which is on par with saying “the unemployment boogeyman will follow you if you don’t behave. When someone confides in you a dissenting opinion or action, seek to learn more without conflating that kernel of information with their whole being. Do as you would with a friend who makes a decision that challenges you (and for a field that loves calling one another “friend,” let’s really let that approach grow some legs). Let the status quo stretch to include real people, flawed and never fully formed, instead of cracking at the first sign of “incongruence” or “imperfection.” When someone demonstrates the vulnerability it takes to stand up in the lunchroom and tell you their truth, even if it’s scary…listen to them. Honor their disclosure. Recognize that as a piece of the person they are, and not a ding against the professional they serve as. A little less “Stick to the Status Quo,” a little more “We’re All In This Together?” Who’s with me?

IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr