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.

The swimming pool strategy for work

My epiphany this summer that I am just figuring out now: I use the swimming pool strategy to find meaningful work.

For a few years out of high school my brother Scott and I worked at the local swimming pool as swimming instructors and lifeguards. Wonderful work, especially in the summer.  A flexible schedule, well paid, new and unexpected friends and a lot of fun.

The challenge was that we were part of a huge pool of casual employees working part-time hours.  Each of us was lucky to get 20-26 hours a week.  When saving every penny for university in the fall, we had our eyes on the extra shifts that came up – some at a moment’s notice, others when we saw an opportunity and took it.

As I reflect on this, I see two strategies that play out for meaningful work – then and now:

Play in the pool

A hot day is a wonderful day to do what you love – play and float around in the pool.  On a hot day the pool will also fill up with hundreds of other people.  There is a head lifeguard whose job is to make sure that there are enough lifeguards keeping an eye on things and make sure everyone is safe.  But since there are not enough lifeguards in the schedule, more will be needed.

When you love your work, it shows.  You are available to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.  Let the head lifeguard know explicitly that you are ready to serve when needed. While it might not be your turn on the rotation, others might not be available and voila!  There you are.  Doing what you love and ready to serve.

  1. The above applies to a hot summer day and an outdoor pool – I have to be conscious of the context each and every day
  2. I will be called on when I am needed.  If others are called, they are needed, or it is simply their turn
  3. When having fun, genuinely, I make myself more available
  4. I show up for work,  even if I don’t know I will be needed, to see what will happen
  5. Play and have fun, splash, float, swim, bob

Do the hard work

We also had our eyes on the work nobody else wanted.   We cleaned the grunge off the waterslides.  We tarred the filter tank.  Crawled into the crawlspace under the pool and then crawled into a 1’ x 3’ hole into the surge tank to scrape the slime off the walls.  Then volunteerd to do it again the next year.  We cleaned the changerooms.  In all of the above, we played music, joked around, and laughed hysterically – usually right when our boss showed up to see how we were doing.  Every time we thought we were in big trouble, especially when our boss found a big blue happy face (the clean part) on the brown floor of the changeroom.  Now we see that we were never in trouble because we were doing the work others did not want to do, we were doing it happily and we were getting the job done. Well.
  1. Volunteering for grungy hard work is an opportunity to do good work
  2. Volunteering for grungy hard work is an opportunity to have great fun with my mates
  3. Do grungy hard work with mates

That Old Chevy Won’t Last Forever

At every turn, we fix and tinker, and I wonder if this is the most effective way to expend our energy at this time of economic crisis as Alberta releases its new budget.  

In the novel The Road Home, Rudi is in rural Poland struggling to keep an ancient run-down Chevy in operation.  Running it as a taxi is his only source of income.  He has put all his hope, energy and money into it, and when it fails, he as nothing left to hang on to in life.  There are no jobs.  The town will soon be underwater behind a new dam, the Central Office of Planning’s top secret initiative.  There is clearly danger in putting all one’s eggs, and hope, in one basket – or one old broken down Chevy.  
Alberta’s Old Broken Down Chevy is our oil and gas – our primary economy. By not making efforts to diversify our economy we put all our hope, energy and money into the Chevy.  At some point, we will be underwater as a result of our Central Office of Planning’s endless tinkering to make sure the oil and gas economy stays in operation.   Alberta released it’s new budget yesterday with a plan to run a deficit for four years.  Perhaps we are worse off than Rudi.  Our Central Office of Planning doesn’t appear to have a plan. 
I was reminded this week that the two Chinese characters that together depict the notion of crisis: danger and opportunity.  What happens if when we look at the economic downturn not only as a dangerous event, but as opportunity?  
A few missed opportunities in the budget:
  1. Spend on infrastructure during the economic downturn when jobs are needed.
  2. Spend on infrastructure during the economic downturn when the price is best – when thee is less competition for labour and materials.  
  3. Plan for the next phase of growth related to oil and gas.  From a provincial and regional perspective, know and understand what will happen where and what is needed to support it.  
  4. Plan and spend on the diversified economic drivers, rather than the old Chevy.
  5. Stimulate the economy with efforts that support diversification, something other than the old Chevy.  
  6. Take the time to reflect on how the last growth spurt was handled with the intention of learning and being smarter with time and money.  
Carbon capture is tinkering. Ceasing chiropractic coverage is tinkering.  While these actions address, in theory, some of the dangers at hand (bad image, spend less), it does not create opportunity.  Let’s find ways to balance our attention on the immediate (tinkering) with the opportunities to rebuild and restart our economy.  That old Chevy is good for while.  But you know, nothing lasts forever.  Whether in Alberta or on Wall Street, that old Chevy needs a little less attention.
(Originally published on April 9, 2009 at