Do the work that is yours to do

Finding work that feels right is both complicated and simple. It is complicated because it can be hard to find. It’s complicated to figure out what we want to do for our work, and then complicated to find the right job, one that suits us and our aspirations. It feels simple when we’ve found it, when we look back and can see it was clear all along, even when we weren’t looking.

For a few years now I’ve been exploring what our work means in our cities and I’ve landed on the understanding that our work is the force that generates cities. Our work matters to our cities because it creates them; it shapes our economic life, our social habitats and our physical habitats.

We are each meant to contribute to our cities through our work. But what is the work we are each meant to contribute? How do we know if we are doing the work we are meant to do? I’ve noticed two things that help me notice if the work I am doing is truly mine to do.

First, work that depletes me is not my work to do.  Even if I am good at that work, if it takes energy from me it is time to let it go. It is the work that gives me energy that is the right work to do. This is a simple and staggering realization. It is the work that fuels me that is worthy of being done by me.

If your work depletes you it is not your work to do. (Choose work that fuels your being.)

Second, work done from a place of panic and urgency is from a place of fear and mistrust. There are times when urgency is necessary, when lives are threatened or harm to others is immanent. For most of us this is not the case, yet we behave as if it were. Many of us do work that we believe will not be done if we don’t do it. The opposite would be to trust that with others, all the work that needs to be done will be covered.

Do the work that is yours to do and trust that, with others, all the work that needs to be done will be done.  

All the work that needs to be done in the world can not be done by any of us alone. Moreover, we all have different skills and interests, and we have different passions and purposes to pursue in our work. If we trust in this, we make room for ourselves to take very unselfish action and do the work that is authentically ours to do. In doing this, we make the world a better place.

There is a voice inside each of us that tells us about the work we are meant to do. It is in the classes we loved in school. It is in the games we love(d) to play. It is in our hobbies. It is in the things that thrill us. Our duty is not to do the things that someone else says we ought to do, but in figuring out the work we are meant to do.

I am convinced of this: the essence of who we are as mall children gets obscured as we age. The journey of work is to find the lost parts of ourselves and stitch them into the lives we live. This might take years or decades, even a lifetime, yet the time it takes is not a reflection of our worth. The value is in noticing we are on a journey.

At 46 years old I recognize that my own journey unfolds in stages; just when I think I know who I am an the work I am to be doing a wrinkle comes along to nudge (or knock) me into the next stage of my journey. I can feel, though often in ways I can not articulate with words, the direction in which I am moving.

Now as I look at my life story I wonder at how I missed some of the clues, though I recognize that there was no other journey for me to take. I now pay more attention and I can better see the hints and synchronicities that feel like my soul sends to me about where I’m going and the work that’s mine to do. When I pay attention it’s far simpler.

What is the work that is yours to do? 

How do you know that work is yours to do? 


Professional citizenship


I had clear instructions. Introduce the speaker and remind the audience about the hashtag #lifecycleofaplanner (for twitter), the conference theme. What came out of my mouth was #lifestyleofaplanner. As I listened to the speaker, I realized I wasn’t wrong. My mouth knew something my brain did not know.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience working as a city planner in Toronto, including as Chief City Planner, Paul Bedford described the life of a planner: connecting the dots, capturing the heart and mind, and the need to be bold or go home. He described a lifestyle. The planner as a person and the work s/he does are not separate.  As he put it, the ability to learn is the only constant in change. That is lifestyle.

To be the planner our cities need of us, you:

  1. Live, breathe and love your city. You choose to be a part of your city. You dive into your city to better serve your self, citizens and your city.
  2. Know what you believe. You have figured out your personal beliefs, and they align with your work.
  3. Live your work as a privilege. You approach your work with curiosity and passion. You choose this work, or maybe it has chosen you. You do not take it for granted and fully enjoy
  4. Live as a change agent. When you know what you believe, and you choose to live what you believe, you make change happen. Anywhere and everywhere. 
  5. Serve citizens in the present and future. You are positive and proactive.
  6. Search for, and make decisions based on purpose and principles. You are connected to the underlying purpose and intention of your work. You are flexible in how you get there, noticing which methods are the the best things in each given context.
  7. Experiment with creativity. As you learn and grow in your practice, you explore how to experiment and be creative in your work.
  8. Connect the big picture and the ground in simple ways. You find synthesize and integrate everywhere you go, enabling yourself to better understand your context, as well as others. You find language that has meaning for others.
  9. Welcome the constant renovation of life. You recognize that you are always under renovation, as your city is too. You shed what you no longer need, and allow the new to come forward.
  10. Choose to swim, not float. You choose the direction you move in.

This is the lifestyle of a planner who serves citizens well. This is professional citizenship, a lifestyle, a personal journey on the inside that shows up on the outside in the work we do. If these do not apply to you, you are in the wrong job, or the wrong line of work.


Want to explore your own professional journey a bit further? Check out The Art of Hosting BIG Decisions (While Looking After Self Others, and Place).


The ‘City’ and the ‘city’


In a recent Facebook exchange, a rural friend noted that an article I shared referred only to city government. Why couldn’t the emerging principles for an innovative city apply also to rural areas too? She reminded me that I work with two distinct meanings for the word “city”. Here’s how I use them.

The “City”, with a capital ‘C’, is the municipal corporation. It is our city government that fulfils the role of civic governance, looking after the things we collectively have an interest in, such as the city’s physical infrastructure, social and cultural programs, and support for economic development. The City, as we know it, collects resources (taxes) from property owners and provides us services in return. This role of civic manager is different from three other roles in the city: the citizens, the business community and community society. (For more on these four roles, visit my post on Marilyn Hamilton’s four integral city voices).

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

The “City” is the upper right quadrant, with a focus on the needs of the “city”, with a small ‘c’, which is the whole thing, the economic, social and physical habitat we make for ourselves. Here’s a metaphor I use to make the distinction: the City is the brain, the city is the body. They are not the same thing.

Here’s another distinction. While the City is defined by a boundary, its jurisdiction, the city has no such boundary. Yes, we can discern the difference between urban areas and rural areas, but it isn’t about what is or is not the other. They come together; they are intertwined, inextricably in relationship. The city does not exist without the rural, and the rural does not (mostly) exist without the city. The energy the city needs comes mostly from rural areas (food, fuel, for example), and rural residents are in constant relationship with cities. The exchanges are numerous: economic, technological, educational, cultural and health. There are very few people who have no connection to a city.

Cities are the result of human effort, not simply urban human effort. Cities belong to all of us. Those who live in them and those who do not.

So back to my friend’s Facebook query. The article was by Sacromento Mayor Kevin Johnson, naming three emerging roles for City government: open source leadership, City government as the ultimate service provider, and to be the hubs of innovation for the ‘Next’ economy. For Mayor Johnson, cities 3.0 are driving the revitalization of the nation. There is, however, no reason why any level or size of local government could benefit from his insight. His message is for small cities and large cities. Small municipal governments or large municipal governments. For all the parts of a city and its region, for no city stands alone.

Mayor Johnson’s real message though, is for Cities to rethink how they engage with the other three voices of the city. There’s no need to wait for other orders of government to get involved. Just get things going on the ground.

And guess what – that’s where you are.


My invitation to you, whether you live in the city or a rural area:

  1. Notice the interconnections, everywhere, between the city and its region. Where do you fit into this web?
  2. Notice the boundaries between the City/rural relationship. Where are the boundaries helpful, not helpful, to the city and its region as a whole?



Boldly grow the Self


I spent Saturday with a group of women exploring their leadership by connecting their inner dreams and desires to outer action: Inside Outside Leadership. Our time together allowed us to tend to our “self”, a practice that unearths passion and desires and dreams. It reveals our senses of direction, our path, even if only a wee spot of solid ground on which to take new steps.

This is work that lifts the veil of our Higher Self, allowing our work, where we spend our time and energy, to best serve self, others and places. This is an essential part of how we make cities (and homes, neighbourhoods, organizations, countries, etc) that serve citizens well – by being good citizens that tune into our drive to thrive.

Boldly grow your Highest Self, and you grow a better world.

As we left the company of each other, we offered our individual intentions to our circle. Here’s the shape they took as a collective intention:

Self boldly growing

_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

_____ _____ _____


Improvement means scratching the itch


Last week, I attended the Canadian Institute of Planners / Alberta Institute of Planners conference in Banff.  As I was there, I was noticing that I was very uneasy, itchy.  While there, I posted a blog about scratching the itch, recognizing that 800 of us were there to collectively scratch an itch – to find and implement better ways of organizing ourselves and our cities to work better.

This is a universal itch for humanity, to make our world a better place, at any scale.  I observed at choice last week about what to do with the itch.  Sometimes it is best to ignore the itch and let it go away.  Other times, the best thing to do is scratch,  inviting the discomfort that comes with learning something new.

At the conference, I chose not to itch.  Today I do.

For the last 15 years I have had great difficulty giving my full attention to speakers at conferences.  I am often, but now always, physically unable to sit and listen to any length of time.  The reason for this is becoming more clear to me.

Over time, I have begun to choose very carefully where I spend my time.  At conferences, I choose to go to sessions that call me.  I take time to generate the issues that I was tackling with at work.  It may have looked to others like I was not paying attention, but I was exploring what was working for me, and not, allowing the words of presenters to pop in and out of my head.  It is a wonderful opportunity to generate a plethora of ideas and ways to improve my work.  It was time well spent.

As I became older and started to meet more people, the conference also became an opportunity to connect with people.  My itch this week was how little opportunity there was to connect with each other.  A professional conference is a room full of professionals engaged in parallel play.  Each of us is taking in what we find of value for our personal, individual work.  We are a collective because we do the same work.  We do not have the power of a collective that engages in deepening our work together, learning how to create the social habitats our cities need to reach their full potential.

Planners work out of a passion for our cities.  As our last speaker went overtime, allowing no questions from the audience, I was acutely frustrated.  And many of the audience rose to their feet in ovation.  We celebrated a one-way transaction.  No interaction.  No feedback.  In fact, we celebrated this one-way information delivery.

This stopped me in my tracks.

I see the value in the presenter’s message.  I see it was appreciated, for it articulates our shared understanding of city life, and a shared intention to improve city life.  And I see that the presentation also, in its delivery, was anti-itch cream.  It maintained the status quo of our shared frustration, slowly-paced change.  We didn’t scratch.

The maintenance of the status quo takes place because there was no opportunity for the interaction of our minds, hearts and souls as we work to similar purpose – the well-being of our cities.  We are able to hide in ourselves because in traditional conference settings there is no, or minimal, opportunity for:

  1. the audience to ask questions and help the presenter share insight relevant to their work
  2. the audience and presenter to hear what resonated with the audience
  3. the audience and presenter to hear what the audience struggled to understand
  4. the collective to make collective meaning
  5. the collective to discern, together a collective course of action

Just as our cities need quality feedback, so too does any group of people wishing to take conscious action together.  Conscious action does not come from hiding.  In fact, as I moderated a session on public engagement strategies, I noticed a further challenge: while together, we do not practice our practice.  We spoke about engaging the public in new ways.  And we did not engage the audience in new ways.  So the audience did not experience something new.  They only heard about it.

And here I am writing about it, telling you about what I see, but not giving you the experience of what it could be.

There is value in simply receiving information, and sitting to get it.  The value of this diminishes, however, when we do not create opportunities to digest individually and collectively the information that comes our way.  I itch for balance.  To hear what others have to say, and to figure out what WE think it all means, and what WE and I ought to do about it.  What we need is no different than what our cities need.  There is a big gap between what we want to do and how we go about learning how to do it.  Just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle hearing about it, we can’t learn to work with communities, stakeholders, citizens and cities hearing about it either.  We need to practice what it means to live, work and serve our cities.  We need to practice active citizenship, rather than excessive, passive downloads of information.

I love this irony: I figured out the language for this tension as I sat and listened to a plenary speaker at a 2008 planning conference.  My body snapped up straight as Bill Sanford said these words: ‘Akrasia – Greek for the gulf between what we know we ought to do and what we actually do.’

Akrasia implies a gap, a space for improvement that compels us to work to make things better.  The conventional conference has its time and place to share information, but let’s not mistake it for the development of citizens, or professionals.  From time to time, it is the right thing to do, to receive information and hide ourselves.  I am wary of when it tucks us away from working for what we want.

What we need more of: stepping into the uncertainty and unease of living in community and dreaming together explicitly about what our cities are and can be for us, and what we need to be for them.



Lost and headless

This little piece of wood is an error, despite its check-mark shape.

I came across this little piece of wood unexpectedly, in a place I should not have found it.  It should not have been made like this.  It should have been like its companions:

But somewhere in the manufacturing process, the error was made and the little piece of wood was lost, headless and bent among its mates.

Sometimes, as we make our way through the world, we find ourselves looking a lot like everyone else, but yet fundamentally different.  We fit in the box, but we are not built fundamentally for the same job as everyone else.

But being unable to do its particular job does not mean that our little piece of wood is not able to do other things.  It may be the catalyst for fire in just the right place.  It may be a shim to help something get to a new height.

We have no idea what a little piece of wood can do or be, just as we have no idea what each of us can do or be.  We have no idea what power we can have.  We usually have no idea what purpose each of us has, but we don’t need to know.  We have a choice about what we wish to believe in, however.

This little piece of wood went into the fire, just as it was getting started. Along with the kindling and the wood, it played a role in getting the fire started in our fireplace this morning.  The fire probably would have started without this one little piece of wood, but fire would not have lasted (safely) without wood.  Each little piece has its place.

Each of us has our place, regardless of our shape or whether we appear to be fit for the job.

As citizens and cities, we have choices at every turn to create places and spaces for people to be everything they can be.  Every citizen has her/his place.  We don’t need to leave anyone lost and headless.

_____ _____ _____

Join me and my colleague Marilyn Hamilton as we host 50 visionaries in the Integral City 2.0 expo and eLab from September 4-27.  We aim to reinvent the city.

Luke and Yoda

Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate and Slide;ology, belives that we each have the power to change the world with our ideas.  She notices that when an idea is embedded in a story arc, the audience gets attached to ideas and they take root.  When a story is told, we physically react, and it is through this process that ideas take hold in us.

Any presentation, then, is about the story and the audience.  The story’s arc is grounded in the hero, but the hero is not the presenter, as we usually think: it is the audience.  In her TEDx EAST talk, Duarte offers the perfect metaphor: the presenter is not young Luke Skywalker out to save the world, but his mentor, Yoda.  The presenter is not the star of the show; the presenter is more like Yoda, who helps the audience move from one thing to another.

There is more to this metaphor than meets the eye:

  1. The world is full of Lukes.  There is not one Luke Skywalker that will save the world, but 7 billion.  It is not up to one hero to make a difference, but the hero in each of us.
  2. Yoda intelligence is everywhere.  There are, all around us, people with Yoda intelligence offering their wisdom to anyone willing to receive.
  3. The Luke in us works on inner well-being.  As was the case with young Luke, heros have moments when they are frustrated and do not believe in themselves. In this mode they have great difficulty hearing the messages of their mentors.  It is life’s journey to face difficulty and find peace and strength in such difficulty.
  4. The Yoda in us notices the right challenge at the right time for apprentices.  Each of us will at several points in life play the role of mentor or coach. Our default is to imagine that we must provide direction to our apprentices, but recall Yoda, who sits patiently, waiting for Luke to learn at his own pace.  He knows what challenge will, at the right time, best support Luke’s learning.  And he remains ever calm and patient with the apprentice while the angst of learning is taking place.

With so many Lukes and Yodas in the world, the odds are for us, not against us.

I dream of a city…

A poem from the WE space at the United Way’s gathering with John Ott yesterday:
I dream of a city
truly great
for everyone
and I wonder where
we will put the line
between possible and
or will there be no line
and just an invitation to
my story led me
with allies
supporting aspirations
to evoke new stories
collective knowing and
no formula
will suspend certainty
or see the whole
no checklist
will seek diverse perspectives
or welcome all that arises
for formulas and checklists do not trust
the transcendent story
larger than me
the transcendent story
serving me
serving us
aligning with what is
a lifelong commitment
to what we long for

13 ways to THRIVE in community

Our attention creates our reality.  The more I complain, the more I swirl around in a trap of negativity.  The more I appreciate what I have, the more I swirl in wonderful places, with wonderful people, doing wonderful things.  I get more of what I put my attention to.

This notion came front and center at the Community Planning Association of Alberta Conference this week as I listened to Alberta MLA (and Conservative Party leadership candidate) Doug Griffiths speak about thirteen ways to kill a community.  I was struck by his list of things that cause harm, his list of what NOT to do.

Griffiths’ 13 ways to kill a community:

  1. Don’t have good quality and quantity of water
  2. Don’t attract business that competes with yours
  3. Don’t involve young people
  4. Don’t assess community needs
  5. Don’t shop elsewhere
  6. Don’t paint
  7. Don’t cooperate
  8. Live in the past
  9. Ignore your seniors
  10. Do nothing new
  11. Ignore immigrants and newcomers
  12. Don’t become complacent
  13. Don’t take ownership

Knowing what not to do can be useful.  It is nice and clear and allows me the opportunity to easily notice if my actions (or inactions as the case may be) are harmful.  Yet hearing what I shouldn’t do does not provide clear guidance about what to do instead. I still need to know what to do, so being explicit about what to do is critical.  It isn’t good enough to know what doesn’t work.  I have re-framed his speech.  Drawing from his work, here’s my take on thirteen ways to thrive in community:

  1. Provide good quality and quantity of water
  2. Welcome competing business
  3. Create ways for young people own problems, solutions and action
  4. Notice good things everywhere
  5. Choose local businesses first (and be a business that people want to choose first)
  6. Be proud of where you live and look after your place. (Keep things clean and tidy.)
  7. Support what others are doing and work together
  8. Live in today for the future
  9. Engage seniors everywhere
  10. Try new things (and welcome risk)
  11. Welcome and cultivate the “anything and everything is possible” spirit of newcomers
  12. Be active and vibrant
  13. Assume personal responsibility and ownership of your place

I just heard the banquet supervisor with his staff as they are cleaning and setting up the tables for the next meal.  He’s nice and clear on what to do.  He’s setting his community up for success: “Work on one table at a time, rather than spreading out.”


A fantastic image came to mind in conversation with a colleague this afternoon: the whack-a-mole game at fairs and carnivals.  This is also a common phenomenon in the world where I feel like I am one of the moles.  Chances are, if I come up with an idea someone is there to whack me on the head with a mallet.  After a while, I might choose not to offer myself and my ideas.  I have a choice to make.

I wonder who I am wacking with my mallet?