The treadmill gets a bum rap

I surprised myself the other day while running on a treadmill.  I have always thought of the treadmill as a metaphor for people who are stuck in the rut of working too hard and they can’t stop.  It finally dawned on me: I can get on or off a treadmill any time AND I can choose how hard I work.

The treadmill is a wonderful metaphor for choice in our world.  Whether thinking of the treadmill in the gym for humans, or the treadmill in the hampster cage, the same principles apply for physical fitness or my work/life fitness.  They also apply to a community’s fitness:

  1. I choose how fast, slow or steep I go. If the going is too slow or too fast, I can adjust. I can slow to a walking pace to relax, or I can bump up the pace to meet the needs of the moment.  I am not required go full tilt all the time.  I am also not required to slack.  The choice is mine.
  2. I choose how hard to work. I make decisions about how fast or how steep the work is, in alignment with my fitness goals.  I recognize that if I work hard and fast all the time, I will not last as long as if I work hard and fast with breaks to slow down.
  3. I choose when to get on or off the treadmill. When I want a good workout, or even a steady pace, I get on the treadmill.  When I have had enough, I choose to get off and go for a snack.
  4. I choose to seek feedback about myself. As I work, I can seek feedback about the toll the work is taking on me.  I can take my pulse, or use the heart-rate monitor on the treadmill, to see if my work is too hard or too easy for my fitness goals.  By welcoming feedback – especially from my own body – I will make better choices for me.  If I don’t seek feedback, the treadmill may just throw me off.
  5. To make the right choices for me, I need to have goals in mind. How fast, how hard, how steep, and when to get on/off are all connected to my fitness goals.  Is there a big event I am ramping up for that requires harder work for a length of time?  Will I need to allow myself a break after that?  Are there other things happening in life that mean I should slow down?  My choices and feedback are intertwined – my goals will determine the feedback I will seek, and the feedback may alter my goals in turn.
  6. I choose the role a treadmill will play in my life. What are my fitness goals for my work life?  What sort of workout do I need at this moment?  How does this workout relate to by bigger goals further off in the distance – will it help me get there, or just tire me out?
  7. (Note: running faster on the treadmill will not get me off the treadmill.)

The bottom line is this – while on a treadmill, I have a choice about how hard and how long I work.  I can also make choices aligned with my goals and intentions.  These principles apply to anyone, any organization or community: intention around pace, intensity, feedback, goals.

It’s up to me to do what I need to do to suit myself.

It’s up to us to do what we need to do to suit ourselves.

My gatekeeper tension

The tension is growing within me.  I am in the inner circle.  Five of us decide who gets to play in our community of practice playground.

Our purpose as a community is to create space and place to practice being (and being in) learning living systems as social innovators.  As I imagine the playground down the street and the various collections of small people during recess, they choose who they spend their time with.  Sometimes the choices are clear and easy, other times agonizing.  And the choice is ultimately about resonance and attraction.

I struggle with being in a position where I am expected to accept or reject the people interested in playing in our playground because it interferes with resonance and attraction.  A couple of months ago, I glibly referred to the inner circle as the gatekeepers.  Today, my curiosity about the word ‘gatekeeper’ compels further exploration: what it means, how it shows up, and whether the purpose of the gatekeeper is aligned with the purpose of our community of practice, and emerging operating principles.

What it means

The Collins dictionary on my shelf, a gatekeeper comes with a gate and a wall, defined thus:

  • Gatekeeper – ‘a person who has charge of a gate and controls who may pass through it’.
  • Gate – ‘a movable barrier for closing an opening in a wall, fence, etc.  It is an opening to allow for access’ (and egress).
  • Wall – ‘a construction used to enclose, divide or support, often to protect and surround a position or place for defensive purposes’.

How it shows up

The gatekeeper, the gate and the wall show up in how we organize our community of practice.  Simply:

  • The ways we enclose, support and protect ourselves are the wall.
  • The people (inner circle) who determine who may pass through the wall are the gatekeepers.
  • The criteria for passage are the gate.

The quality of the relationship between these three elements is crucial for them to work well together.  The purpose of the wall must be clear to articlate the criteria for passage.  The criteria or passage must be clear to determine who may pass through.  If not, both the gate and the gatekeeper are not able to ensure the intention of the wall is realized.

Alignment of purpose

How well a wall functions is connected to the clarity of the wall’s purpose.  The purpose will dictate how permeable the wall needs to be – what, who and how much the gate and gatekeeper will allow to pass through.  To understand the purpose of the wall though, the purpose of the community of practice must also be clear.

Our emerging purpose:  To create space and place to practice being (and being in) learning living systems

Our emerging superordinate goal, to which our purpose serves, is to:  Be a meshwork of social innovators who create conditions for the continued evolution and growth of life

So what role does a wall in a community of practice play in light of these two statements?  To what degree does a wall separate us from others? Contain us?  Restrict us?  Support us?  Protect us?   Each of these can roles naturally occur in living systems.  They each can restrict us from, or release us to, our growth and evolution.

At this juncture, our gatekeeper practice does not align with these statements.  We judge interested play mates for fit, without criteria.  We are not clear what we are looing for – or not looking for.  We trust on our intuition, but likely also our insidious bias and limiting beliefs.  We decide if they fit before really letting them in and limit our opportunities to be surprised.  We may at some point also be distracted by another gate, ‘the number of people admitted to a sporting or entertainment event, and/or the total amount of money received from them’.

What I value in our community of practice is our trust in self organizing systems.  I value our keen attention to creating minimal structure to allow what needs to happen just happen.  I value our interest in creating dissonance for our selves and each other since we recognize that that is what we need to learn and grow in our life and work.  These qualities are welcoming and expansive in nature.  Our behaviour at the gate does not exemplify our ‘inside’ behaviour.

Emerging operating principles

My emerging operating principles for how I wish to operate as a gatekeeper at the gate in the wall around in a community of practice with the above purpose:

1.     Trust We trust that the people who are attracted to this playground bring something that our community needs.  We may not know or understand what that is as they pass through the gate, but we trust that if what we do resonates with them, there is a relationship worthy of exploration.

2.     Resonant permeability – The gate is open to those that feel called to play in our community of practice playground, whether they have been explicitly invited or not.  The gate is also open to those that feel called to step away.

3.     Evolution is expansive – Being welcoming to all who express interest in what we do is expansive.  Putting our attention to qualities of expansiveness will increase our expansiveness.

4.     Our space and place thrives when we are who we really are – There is no threat in trusting resonance and attraction.  Only those for whom our community of practice resonates will linger.

5.     The wall is a source of intelligence – A wall serves as the transition from one space to another.  The gate is simply where this transition takes place.  What, precisely is the transition, and the nature of it?  In the living system of a human body, a cell membrane serves as a wall.  Bruce Lipton (The Biology of Belief) even notes that the membrane may be the real source of intelligence in a cell, not the nucleus.  The wall may be the brain, as we have come to know it.  What if the real intelligence in our community of practice is in the people who choose to transition in and out of our community?

The gatekeeper in me welcomes all who pass through – the gate ‘as a mountain pass, especially one proving entry into another country’…

The gatekeeper in me is brave enough to share what is behind the wall.

Pondering the purpose of a city/town

How we create our cities and towns has an impact on the quality – and longevity – of our existence.  While this may feel far off, irrelevant and easy to dismiss, there is a simple and familiar metaphor that highlights our individual and collective situation: it’s our bed, we have to lay in it.

Two examples from headlines one October day in 2009 in the Edmonton Journal:

  1. Cities tapping out our rivers, report warns: tampering with flow regimes has put ecosystems at risk; and
  2. Proximity to quality transit, parks may cut diabetes risk: healthy neighbourhoods are 38% less likely to develop disease.

People need to water to survive, let alone be healthy and thrive.  Further, “people who live in neighbourhoods with safe sidewalks, ample parks, good public transportation and ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables are 38 per cent less likely to develop diabetes.”   The point: as we create our cities and towns, we make decisions everywhere, big and small, that have an impact on our well-being.  We decide whether we wish to have a habitat that supports our well-being.  We decide whether or not we wish to make it easy or hard for people to exercise and eat right.  We decide whether we care or not if collectively we look after the places and people we live in and with, and rely upon.

I am not in support of or in opposition to the arguments in these pieces of journalism.  Rather, my intention is to highlight the often unconsidered consequences of our choices as we create and recreate our cities, towns and communities.  In choosing to leave with each other we have made implicit commitments to each other.  In choosing to create and live in larger and larger settlements (and even the small ones), we specialize what we do for each other and we advance what we are capable of.  We are growing and evolving as a species.  Because of this specialization, we have made great advancements in health care, in communication technologies.  None of this would have happened without the creation of cities.  We live together so we can grow and evolve as individuals and together.

Yet these articles point to a bit of a conundrum: what if the choices we are making in how we create our cities is undermining our very evolution?  What if we harm our ecosystem to a degree where our existence is threatened?  What if we design our cities to ensure people are nowhere near as healthy as they could be?  Is the purpose of a city to harm humans or to support humans’ growth and evolution?  Which purpose do the choices we make as citizens, community organizations, NGOs, businesses, developers and builders,  and public institutions serve?


The gift of receiving

I have missed and overlooked a lesson that my kids are offering me every year: the gift of receiving.  They are full of joy and trust and love.  They are thrilled knowing this Christmas season they will receive gifts destined just for them.  They are full of wonder and awe.

I realize I have been making an assumption my whole life that giving is hard to do.  It can be hard, particularly when I give something we are attached to.  It was hard as a kid, but as I have grown older, it gets easier to see that what I have to give is more precious to others than it is to me.  What has gotten harder is receiving gifts from others.

Back to my kids – full of joy and trust and love when it comes to asking for receiving gifts.  As an adult, I am noticing that it has become increasingly difficult to receive, let alone ask for, a gift. Receiving a gift – a compliment, a favour, a thank you, a gift – is  fraught with emotion.  A brush-off, suspicion, anxiety, fear, powerlessness, selfishness, vulnerability all take their turn.

Within me, receiving a gift feels like I am broadcasting weakness.  How dare I reveal that I don’t have everything I need, that I am all together.  I must put on a brave face no matter what.  If I am sick or hurt, it is easy to rationalize welcoming help.  But if I am physically well, then I had better not ask for anything.  But this does not serve me or others well, in the end.  Even the gifts I did not ask for, the ones that make be feel bad but are really in service to my own personal learning and growing. Those gifts that I realize much later that really were gifts, not torture.

At the bottom of all of this is my sense of self worth. The biggest gift I can give is to myself – the gift of receiving.  I will be honest and reveal when my soul feels bad and ask for what I need.  When I receive the gift of hard-to-hear feedback, I will receive it as a gift to be in better relationship with those around me.  When the world says “no” I will take that as a sign that I am not needed there yet.  When the world says “yes” I will take that as a sign to jump in the canoe and head down the stream.

Receiving gifts is tough, perhaps because it is closer to my heart and my sense of well-being.  Far more personal, even threatening.  But also far more rewarding.  And more giving.

A parting note to self (via my friend Chris Corrigan) – it is hard to give if the gift is not received.

The gift of the sprained ankle

Sometimes you have to be hurt before you sit on the sidelines.

My outdoor soccer team decided this last summer that we would field a team for the indoor season.  We love doing this together and so off we go into a new adventure.

The morning of Game 3 I took an unexpected and tumbling trip down the basement stairs and landed in the emergency room, and left with four staples in my head.  I went to the game that night and watched from the bench.  I support my team no matter what.  Then on my first shift of Game 4 I got tangled with the opposing team’s keeper and hobbled off the field with a sprained ankle.

And so I am wondering what the Universe is telling me.  It might be about soccer, or just the phenomenon of noticing when it’s time to take to the sidelines for a bit.  A question from a couple of team mates startled me in the middle of Game 3: “are you in agony watching and not playing?”  As I reflect on this, I notice that I wasn’t in agony.  I didn’t even think of being in agony until it was mentioned.  I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just watched and enjoyed my team’s efforts.

I have a feeling that the agony, however, is setting in around this ankle.  Not only can I not play soccer for a while, I am required to keep it elevated.  I can’t be physically active.  I have to sit or lie down.  This could well drive me nuts.  It is not lost on me that also at risk, if I do not heal well, is skating, cross-country and downhill skiing.  I love winter and I consider not being able to do these things agony.

But I am curious about what windows might be opening.  One gal on my team has suggested I start doing other things to keep my fitness level up.  I could do weights, and she advises that combined with the weight I have lost I could get quite ripped!  There might be other physical activities that could serve as cross training for running and soccer, that might even improve my performance.  Beyond the physical, I can spend additional time writing and doing things I like around home.  I can find a balance of these things.  Nothing is lost when I notice that other things are gained – I just have to be open to finding them.

So the conscious choice I make is to be on the sidelines enjoying my team’s games and friendship.  The other choice I make is to receive the gift of the sprained ankle.  I see opportunities to try new physical activities and reacquaint myself with quiet things to do at home and work.  I am curious about other places where I need to step back into the sidelines and let others have a turn.

Inviting onlookers

Last week, in a room full of people milling around, I was in conversation with a handful of leaders.  A couple had leadership by virtue of position/status – senior people in an organization.   A couple of others (including myself) also by position/status in that we were the “experts” brought in to teach.  A couple of others were leaders by virtue of their ability to step up and do/say what needs to be done/said.   Just outside our circle was Onlooker.  Listening in.  Hanging on every word.  Clearly interested, but removed from the conversation.  Clearly keen to be a part of what was happening, but clearly separate.

At first, I wondered why Onlooker didn’t just take the initiative to jump in and join.  None of us in conversation would mind.  Clearly, we weren’t speaking of anything top secret to be having such a conversation within earshot of others.  I felt frustrated that this onlooker didn’t just step in – it seemed even sinister that Onlooker would just listen in like that.

So I made an invitation.  “Onlooker, why don’t you step into the circle?  You are welcome to join us.”  “Thank you – I was waiting for the invitation.”

Onlooker was waiting for the invitation. I was floored.

I have been sitting with this question for a few days: whose job is it to make someone feel welcome?  As I reflect, my first reaction was to question why Onlooker didn’t just take the initiative to step in.  I see now that there is a vital relationship between the circle and onlookers:

  • The circle could have something important for the onlooker
  • The onlooker could have something important for the circle
  • One must take initiative to make the connection
  • The other must reciprocate to make the connection
  • If the connection is not made, the possibility is lost or destroyed
  • If the onlooker wants to play, s/he must risk jumping in
  • If the circle wishes to grow and learn, it needs to seek out and invite onlookers

At the heart of this are the possibilities that come with risk.  An onlooker risks indifference or rejection in seeking to play. The circle risks having to shape and adjust to make room for someone new.  The bottom line, though, is that we all know what it feels like to be an outsider.  It is a lonely place to be – even powerless.  Not everyone is always brave and courageous in this place against the power and camaraderie of the circle, so it is necessary for the outer edge of the circle to be permeable and welcoming.

A permeable, expansive circle will:

  • Recognize the power/status of being in/out of the circle
  • Freely invite onlookers
  • Trust the onlooker brings value
  • Expect and welcome the onlooker’s turbulence
  • Adapt and adjust to turbulence
  • Notice what is understood differently

As you read this, onlooker, I invite you to my circle.

Inviting the elephant

I am part of the design team leading the 2010 Alberta Professional Planners Institute conference October 17-20, 2010 in Lake Louise.  We have chosen questions to guide a big conversation, rather than in speakers.  We have done this with the express purpose of surfacing the elephants in community planning.  It is easy to hide when we sit and listen to experts.  A new possibility we are designing for: explore the untapped expertise and wisdom we already have amongst us.  The metaphor we are using to guide our design: the elephant.

Either the metaphor of the elephant is resonating with people, or it is an elephant itself.  We get comments about the questions that will be guiding our inquiry about planning and where it fits in the scheme of things.  The questions are too big.  What do you mean by the questions?  Of course I am planning to survive, aren’t you?  The questions are too big!  The questions lead to so many other questions? Boy, do those questions ever stop to make me think…

In a way, one of the elephants in the room are questions themselves.  How often do we think we have it right, without even asking questions.  John Godfrey Saxe’s poem is in our consciousness as we design, and we are curious about how this relates to community/town/city/country/northern/rural planning:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!-but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!-what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me’t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Bob Principles

I have a few friends who go by the name of Bob. They are wise, leaving me with short, simple and meaningful principles to live and experiement with. I have just come across the principles Bob Stilger works with that are worth sharing:

  • Every community is filled with leaders
  • Whatever the problem, community itself has the answers
  • We don’t have to wait for anyone. We have many resources with which to make things better now
  • We need a clear sense of direction AND we need to know the elegant, minimum next step
  • We proceed one step at a time, making the path by walking it
  • Local work evolves to create transformative social change when connected to similar work around the world

These principles are powerful in their simplicity. There is great possibility in our lives and work when we believe and recognize (in both the plural and singular) that:

  • We are leaders
  • We have the needed knowledge
  • We can act now
  • We choose direction
  • We make the path by walking it
  • We learn by connecting our local with the global

The choice:  believe in ourselves or sabotage ourselves.

Here’s a link to more information about Bob and his work:

Stirring Titles

I am cleaning my office and noticing the magazines sitting here before I put them away.  The titles, from Plan Canada and AACIP Planning Journals in the last several months, cause a stir in me…

  • Planners’ perspectives on art and culture
  • Rethinking infrastructure: going green
  • Planning for the homeless
  • Aging in place
  • Planning for changing demographics
  • Okotoks: staying within its limits
  • Welcoming communities: planning for diverse populations
  • Making it work: making it last; making it home
  • Food security: a growing concern
  • Planning without a net: the international experience
  • Looking to our past to plan our future

The stir?

Planners’ work covers a range of questions and matters that are deliberated widely in our communities – art, infrastructure, homeless, aging, sustainability, cultural diversity, food – and all of this on the home and international fronts.  And then there is the conversation about how to accomplish what we are aiming for.

But who is the “we”?  The perspectives offered are about how planners contribute to these questions, and these perspectives are offered to planners.  It is tempting to drift toward an assumption that it is the planners who are going to make the difference and that others get in the way.  What, however, if the “we” is planners along with the various stakeholders in our communities.  What if our technical expertise is not where our power of influence lies?

This spring I had an opportunity to run APPI’s Professional Practitioners Course with Gary Buchanan, an alternative written examination format for prospective professional planners where candidates demonstrate their mastery through conversation and writing.  The surprise at this particular gathering was the responses of planners in response to a question about the scope of planning today.  The candidates did not reveal technical aspects, but rather interpersonal.  To be able to do our jobs well these days, we need to be good communicators, negotiators, conflict resolvers, facilitators, coaches, and synthesizers.  All this with a bold courage to take leadership roles in unconventional ways.

Reflecting then on the titles above, I recognize the value of planners.  We offer technical skills to make contributions to our communities’ dreams.  Our value is no longer just  conventional technical skills.  Our value is in cultivating the conditions for all the players and stakeholders involved in these complex issues to clearly articulate where they are going, why and how they will get there.

From time to time we’ll employ our technical know-how, but these are not front-seat skills by default any longer.  Not if we want to make a difference.

Being Host(ed)

We explored how conversational leadership takes place, and how through conversational leadership, the doors open to co-create wise action and change in our organizations and communities.

Last week I relished the opportunity to show up and be hosted, rather than be host at the latest Art of Hosting gathering in the Edmonton area.  While I worked hard to get the word out to people I know who are searching continually for ways to be well with others, it was wonderful to arrive without having to organize anything. Rather than attending to the details of the venue, process design considerations etc., I was able to arrive in a different way: most fully and selfishly expecting to learn at every turn.  As host, I expect to learn at every turn, but there is a slight but meaningful distinction when being hosted – a bit more freedom to explore and invest in self.  It is a marginal distinction with significant implications.

The implication – and gift – for me is remembering how difficult it can be for me to be hosted.  Hence, I have been pondering the difference between being host and being hosted.

Host - Hosted

The smililarities between being host and being hosted are striking: both require welcoming the stretch of learning together, offering self fully and deeply to each other, and engaging together around a passionate call.

The distinction between host and hosted lies in the invitation, intention and the design.  Being host means noticing and responding to a burning question, the passionate call to gather.  Being hosted means responding to the resonance of that call. Being host means holding space (the physical and metaphysical) for the invitation and the gathering itself.  Being host also means designing process to create the conditions to release holding the space to allow those hosted to co-create space.  Hosting means intentionally letting go.  Being hosted means following resonance and choosing where to place attention.

In the setting of an art of hosting gathering, the hosted have an opportunity to become hosts.  The hosts also welcome being hosted.  In this relationship, both the host and hosted are actively engaged in co-learning.  Around the right question, this learning relationship takes place in connection to meaningful work.

Beyond the setting of an art of hosting offering, living the conundrum of being host and being hosted remains alive.  To host well, I must be willing to be hosted.  Willing to be hosted, I am open to surprise, willingly receiving what is offered.

Last week I recognized that I have been “holding” the art of hosting in Alberta for quite a long time with a couple of others – Marg and Hugh.  It is hard to hold space – even with mates.  It isn’t something that can even be held.  It can only be.

The art of hosting is about co-creating space, and opening space.  It isn’t something to hold long.

For wonderful details of the gathering, please see Tenneson Woolf’s harvest of the harvest of the harvest (photos, work/co-learning/relationship social movement piece on YouTube, blogs) here: