Tag Archives | Courage

A Novel Approach to Diversity


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I just finished devouring the latest novel by one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley (Beauty, Sunshine, The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, Chalice, Dragonhaven, etc.). She writes primarily in the “fantasy” and “young adult” genres and this novel, Pegasus, is no exception to her marvelous track record.

I enjoy McKinley’s novels on several levels – so much so that there are a few I go back to repeatedly and re-read (specifically Sunshine and The Blue Sword). She creates different worlds in which we are immersed, with galleries of important characters. I never want her books to come to an end, ejecting me back into my own world, and I find myself having flashbacks to certain moments and events and wondering what is behind the curtain of reality in this world. (If those aren’t signs of a good novel, I don’t know what is.)

Her stories are not just adventures filled with mythical creatures, magic and battles (usually involving swords), they are psychological novels with emotional voyages of discovery.

It occurred to me as I was reading Pegasus that there is a common theme that runs through my favorite McKinley tales: Her heroes often find themselves thrown into situations with a Mysterious Other that is either misunderstood or demonized by the hero’s culture. The hero, through the unfolding of a relationship with a particular individual, begins to realize that there is more to the Others than originally believed and that at least some of the Conventional Wisdom about those Others is either incomplete, dead wrong, or simply cannot be applied to all individuals. Through curiosity and being willing to set aside natural revulsion to (or fear of) what is different, the hero begins to see the Other in a new light (and often ends up being changed in the process). Of course, this is done at the risk of being ostracized by the hero’s own culture.

McKinley’s heroes are repeatedly confronted by individual Others who do not match the portraits that have been painted of them as a group, and the hero comes to the question, “If this is not true about them, then what else is different than I’ve been told? What IS true?” And they are faced with a choice between retreating into comfortable myths and exploring for themselves.

At the same time, the heroes often find that there are Bad Guys among their own kind, further blurring the previously simple structures of right and wrong, safe and dangerous.

It takes courage for McKinley’s characters to follow their curiosity. Even though they are thrust into situations they did not choose, they do face choices throughout their stories, and it is their struggles with those choices that really are the stories.

We are not faced with dragons, vampires, Beasts, or flying horses, or even desert nomads with magical powers. But we do face the same choices every day: Am I willing to question the Conventional Wisdom about those who are different from me? Am I willing to question the stories I make up myself? Am I willing to acknowledge but not blindly accept the danger signals from my lizard brain? Am I willing to rock the safe and secure boat of unquestioned “knowledge?”

Our dragons, vampires and pegasi are all human. But they are of different colors, cultures, and economic strata. They are the younger – or older – co-workers and family members who just look at the world differently. They are those departments down the hall that make it difficult to get our work done.

It takes courage to connect with the Other, to be curious and step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. This is the edge of chaos, where things change, where our worldviews change, where we change.

McKinley’s heroes may not acquire riches as a result of their choices, but they do discover richness beyond their wildest dreams.

As can we all.

Who are the dragons, vampires and Beasts you have faced – or face? How does curiosity help? Please leave a comment (and give me something to read while I wait for Pegasus II).

Take Life by the Lapels and Shake It


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November 3, 2010. Today my late husband, Robert (the) Bruce MacRury, would have been 62. This is his fifth birthday since his death on June 14, 2005.

This birthday is a lot different from the first birthday. One of the things any widow(er) can tell you is that the first of anything is hard. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Holidays. Weddings, baptisms, funerals. The first car accident. The first time you have to figure out how to turn on the sprinklers. The first date. Some of those you see coming, some you don’t. But it’s still the first time you have to go through it without him. (Or her.)

One of the things I learned pretty quickly is that the anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. After dreading the event for days (or weeks) in advance, it was almost anticlimactic once it arrived. But perhaps that is because I also learned to be gentle with myself on those days. Although there was little planning I was able to do in those early days when all I could do was take each day one at a time, I did plan what I was going to do on those days. Even if it was only to plan to do nothing, or to play it by ear.

On Bruce’s first birthday after his death, I took the day off from work and went to a local park with a big lake. Bruce loved lakes and lake life, and if we didn’t live near a lake we would always find one near us and go hang out there whenever we could. So I honored the day by keeping some traditions, such as getting the first carton of eggnog of the season and a cranberry-orange muffin, and I went to the lake.

As I drove into the park, fairly early in the morning, the woman in the gatehouse asked if I was there to go fishing. “No,” I told her, “It’s my late husband’s birthday so I’m here to have a talk with him.” And she said, “Cool. Tell him I said Hi.” So I did.

I sat on the dock and drank eggnog and ate half the muffin and threw the other half in the water, along with a rose. I just sat and enjoyed the quietness of the lake, and talked to Bruce, and missed him. Then I made a little spirit bundle of autumn leaves and feathers, and went home.

The next year, when I was no longer living so one-day-at-a-time and was able to plan a little further in advance, I went to Yosemite for four days. By myself. We had been to Yosemite twice together, and it was a special place. This was also a special trip, symbolic in that it was my first trip by myself.

Every year it gets easier, although it is never Easy. I still miss him. He was smart, and courageous, and funny. He could always make me laugh. (When I showed the slide show for his memorial service to the minister who was to lead it, she said, “He was goofy, wasn’t he?” Yes, he was.) He was always up for an adventure. He watched cartoons on Saturday mornings. He would go out of his way to help people, and he was a teacher and mentor. He was my favorite person. And he believed in me.

I was talking to two girlfriends a couple of years ago, and I made the comment that I was very lucky. “You’re still lucky,” one of them said. She’s right.

It does get easier. It is a process. The third year I went back to the lake with a friend, and I can’t remember what I did last year (which says something). This year there was very little anticipation, and I am writing this post.

It does get easier. It is a process. I have reconnected with the wonder and sense of adventure that was part of our lives before. It’s part of what helped me commit to being here once I started to come up for air. I have learned not to drive myself crazy with guilt and what-ifs. I have learned not to ask, “Would I do this if Bruce were here?” He’s not here, so that question doesn’t have a place here either. I do sometimes ask, “What would Bruce say?” and that’s another question entirely.

I look at life differently now. I appreciate it more. I live it more. Not by going skydiving; I notice it more. I choose it more. And sometimes I have to grab it by the lapels and give it a good shake. I was thinking about that image last night, and how it’s not exactly a very Zen image. And yet it is a completely Zen, in-the-moment-right-now thing to do.

I have fallen in love twice since Bruce died. Neither relationship turned out the way I had hoped, but we are still friends. Those relationships do not diminish what I had with Bruce, nor does what I had with him diminish other relationships. I am writing, and singing, and taking photographs, and starting my own business. I am living a life I could not envision in the first months after he died. Life is good, even when it’s hard.

It is really too bad that it takes something significant like this to wake a person up, to make a person choose life. Maybe it doesn’t have to; maybe I can help with that. You can live. You can choose.

Yes, I look at life differently now. And I’m ok. I think Bruce would be happy to know that. And he’d be proud.

Happy Birthday, Bruce.

What Skydiving Taught Me About Curiosity


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It was one of the scariest moments of my life, when the person ahead of me on the airplane went to the door – and jumped.

And then it was my turn.

Believe it or not, I didn’t go skydiving for the adrenaline rush. But a friend of mine had been talking about it, and talking about it, and talking about it, until I finally asked, “WHAT is so fascinating about skydiving?”

And he answered, “It’s so peaceful.

*Puzzled look.*

Well, then I was curious. And I had to go.

So I jumped with two instructors at 15,000 feet. Now, Mt. Rainier is only fourteen thousand and something feet high. We jumped at 15,000 feet.

Nobody told me how NOISY it would be in freefall! Imagine being in a car with the windows open going 120 miles an hour. Only there’s no car.

But once the parachute opened – that beautiful parachute – everything got quiet. And it was peaceful. It was my favorite time of day, too – sunset. It was beautiful.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it hasn’t killed me. I learned that day that if I allow myself to follow my curiosity, I often get an unexpected bonus. In this case, the bonus was this: Now when I have to do something scary, I can say, “Pffft. I can do that – I’ve jumped out of an airplane!”

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

What unexpected treasures have you discovered by being curious?

Curiosity Is Like a Muscle


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Being curious sounds so easy, doesn’t it? If it is easy, why don’t more people do it? How can we foster and encourage it, both in ourselves and in others?

In my last post, I wondered about the things that keep us from practicing curiosity, from being curious: Habits. Conformity. Thinking we already know. Fear. In the end, people either continue to be curious or they give up their curiosity. They let their curiosity muscle get weak.

There is good news, though. Many, many people still practice curiosity. And even those who give up their curiosity, or keep it on a short leash, can regain it and make friends with it.

Are you afraid to be curious, to expose your curiosity? Do you make it safe for the people around you to be curious? We can choose at any time to be curious – about ourselves, about other people, about the world. We can foster that curiosity.

How?

How can I become more curious?

How can I encourage others to become more curious?

Ah, Grasshopper, I’m glad you asked that.

How can I become more curious?

Choose. Choose to wonder.

Be brave. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable at times. Being uncomfortable is not permanent, and it is not fatal.

Listen to your inner chatter, and notice when you wonder about something. Then, follow the questions.

Be open to learning. Even experts don’t know everything, nor were they born experts. But they become – and stay – experts because they’re always learning.

Ask. Don’t just wonder; ask.

Have you ever heard someone say that the more they learned, the more questions they had? Start.

How can I encourage curiosity in others?

Be curious yourself, and be visible about it. “Be the change.”

Be open to being questioned. Don’t be offended if someone asks you a question; assume positive intent. It is as important to be open to being questioned as it is to ask questions. Make it safe, and lead by example.

Vulnerability: We must be willing to admit we don’t know.

We must create a safe place for others to ask questions, and allow them to be vulnerable, too.

Try It Out

If you are not in the habit of being curious, you can choose to try it out.

If you are in the habit of being curious, be aware that it is an easy thing to take for granted. So remember that it can be challenging for others, and try to make it safe for them to be curious as well. Set an example: Be brave, be curious, and invite others to come along.

What can you do, or do you do, to exercise your curiosity? Do you make it safe for the people around you to be curious? I’d really like to know.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mohandas (The Mahatma) Gandhi

What Gets in the Way of Being Curious?


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I recently spent five days with more than one hundred fascinating people at the Become an Inspiring Speaker workshop. (And it was fabulous!) In one of the first exercises, we paired up to talk about our focus and our reasons for being there. I paired up with Ross Barrable, an acoustic sculptor and builder of wind harps. (How can you not be curious about that?)

I told Ross about my interest in wonder and curiosity as catalysts for creativity, innovation, learning, and compassion. His eyes lit up, and he asked me, “Why are people curious?” I suggested that a better question is, “What keeps people from being curious?”

We are hard-wired to be curious. Children are naturally curious, and grown-ups can be, too. In fact, the human brain rewards curiosity by emitting an opium-like chemical when a new concept is grasped.

Being curious is easy – as easy as falling off a log, as they say. Or is it? Some people lose their sense of curiosity. (Is it a sense? Is it a muscle? Hmmm.) Why?

If being curious is so easy, why don’t more people let themselves be curious? I think there are several reasons.

One reason is that well-meaning adults train children out of it. Children get scared, and we want to protect them. We want to look smart. And we get tired of all those questions. So we tell them what we know, or we tell them what we think we know, or we tell them to stop asking so many questions. Maybe curiosity gets squashed as people leave childhood and it is easier to conform than to keep being told to stop asking so many questions.

Another reason is just Habit: It’s easy to get comfortable, even lazy.

Another, more insidious reason is that we think we know the truth; for example, we think we know about people who are different from us. So we don’t inquire.

I think the main reason is Fear.

But I think the main reason is Fear.

By asking questions, I run the risk of:

Looking dumb.

Looking nosey.

Looking bigoted.

Looking disrespectful.

Looking defiant.

When we ask questions, we run the risk of being ridiculed for asking “stupid questions.” We also run the risk of getting new information that might force us to change the way we think. That can be uncomfortable.

Nobody wants to be forced to do anything, especially to change. I once read a quote attributed to Rosabeth Moss Kanter that said, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” I think that is true.

So, why don’t we ask questions?

It’s easier not to ask questions; it’s easier to go along.

We think we know something.

We’re afraid to admit we don’t know something.

We’re afraid of looking dumb.

We’re afraid of changing our minds.

We’re afraid that if we allow one part of our worldview to change, the whole thing will unravel, and that feels like chaos.

Fear.

Being curious takes courage. I submit not only that courage is like a muscle, but curiosity is like a muscle, too. Like any muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it becomes and the more fun you can have with it.

One more thought:

I submit that it takes more courage to admit that I don’t know or I am wrong than to get to know someone else.

I’ll say that again, a different way: It takes less courage to get to know someone who is different from myself than it does to admit I might be wrong, or that I don’t know. Once I am willing to admit that I don’t know something, asking the questions is easy by comparison. Even fun.

So, are you curious? If not, are you willing to wonder why? What keeps you from being curious?

Wondering How to Counteract Racism/Ageism/Sexism in Hiring?


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I was recently asked to write an essay on this subject, and I subsequently expanded on it and submitted it as a Guest Post to Michael F. Broom’s blog at The Center for Human Systems. I’m THRILLED to announce that it was accepted, so I’d be very pleased if you would click here to visit his site and read the essay. Then, please leave a comment and tell me what you think, whether you agree or disagree or have additional thoughts.

While you’re there, look around. The Center for Human Systems offers a variety of online and in-person programs, including the Triple Impact Practitioners Program from which I recently graduated. Originally developed for organization development professionals, the articles, blog and courses actually apply to anyone who desires to be more conscious in their dealings with others, including leaders at all levels and in all industries.

Stay tuned for more posts here on the subject of wonder and curiosity, featuring inspiration from cats, birds, spiders, yard sales, and Bobby Fischer! There’s some great stuff coming!

Freedom to Believe – and Freedom from Beliefs


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Martin Amis said something interesting about writers in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. When describing a friend who is a writer, he stated that he felt this writer’s gift had really blossomed when he stopped defending Marxism. His point was not about Marxism, it was about writing from a standpoint of ideology: “Writing is freedom. If you’ve got some Commissar staring over your shoulder, you’re not free. If you have some consensus that you’re loyal to, you’re not free.”

I think he makes an interesting point: One may have extraordinary gifts, but if one looks at the world through a specific lens, then everything one writes is going to be unconsciously edited to support or promote that viewpoint. If, however, one can achieve a perspective of being open to many perspectives, then one can be free to consider many viewpoints, many possible outcomes, and one can authentically create various characters.

This requires an ability to perceive and accept different shades of gray. It does not allow for black-and-white thinking.

I think this applies not only to writing, but to many things: To leadership, to management, to relationships, to creativity; to the choices we make, to the paths we follow, to the way we encourage ourselves to succeed or prevent ourselves from succeeding.

The lens through which we look at the world consists of the beliefs we hold – beliefs we often take for granted. And those beliefs may or may not be grounded in sound and current data.

True freedom begins with identifying our beliefs. It then requires that we examine those beliefs and ask ourselves where they came from and whether they are valid.

Identifying one’s beliefs is harder than it sounds. This is because beliefs are like a layer cake, or like the layers of the earth. There are conscious beliefs that are easy to identify. But there are other, deeper beliefs that we can only reach by digging. How do we do that? By asking questions, especially “Why?”

If one is willing to pay attention to one’s statements and actions and ask, “Why?” – “Why did I do that?” or “Why do I think that?” and “How do I know that?” – then one can begin to peel back layers and open curtains. Only then can we examine our beliefs – by first identifying them  – and decide whether they are valid.

I am reminded of a story I once heard, and I will paraphrase it here. There once was a woman who was teaching her daughter how to prepare a pot roast. “First, you must cut the ends off,” she said. “Why?” her daughter asked. “Because they’re no good,” the mother replied. “But they look fine,” the daughter said. “Well, that’s how my mother taught me,” the mother said in exasperation. Curious, the daughter later asked her grandmother about this. The grandmother burst out laughing and said, “I only had a small roasting pan, and the roasts wouldn’t fit in it if I didn’t trim them!”

The process of questioning our beliefs requires curiosity. And curiosity requires being open to chaos – or at least being at the edge of chaos – where things change our knowledge and our perceptions of the world shift. And that requires groundedness, a belief (ironic, isn’t it?) that change is not death, that I will go on and be OK even if I change, if I change my mind, if the world around me changes. I don’t have to control everything in order to go on.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that we go through life without beliefs. What I am suggesting is that we examine those beliefs so that we can consciously decide whether they are serving us or we are serving them.

As I said in my ebook, beliefs can be the seatbelt that keeps us from going through the windshield when life slams into us. They can be guideposts that help us choose what road to take. If we hold on to them too tightly, they can become a platform that we feel we must defend and even evangelize. If they are mistaken, they can send us down the wrong path. They can become unnecessary obstacles.

Here is an example from my own life: I believed that my gravelly, strangled-sounding voice prevented me from having an effective career presenting workshops and webinars, coaching, and facilitating meetings. Why? Because I believed people wouldn’t want to listen to me, and that they would not respect me because of how I sounded. Why? Because I hated listening to myself. Did I have any sound and current data about this? No. In fact, people were giving me unsolicited praise about my skills. I also created a double bind for myself: Because I had not done enough research and my voice had not been successfully diagnosed, I believed that there was no treatment for my voice. More specifically, the only treatment I knew of was unappealing. So therefore I had “real” obstacles to doing work I wanted to do. Once I did get more information, however, I found there were possibilities for improving my voice. So my beliefs on both counts were mistaken and created unnecessary obstacles.

If you had asked me if I believed these things, I probably would have said No – at least initially. Reflexively. It wasn’t until I examined the situation and the difference between my words and my actions that my beliefs became clearer. Often our words and our beliefs are consistent, but they may still be unfounded.

I am not going to ask you what you believe, at least not right now. But I will ask you this: How do you know what you believe? Are your actions consistent with what you say you believe? Have you ever let go of a belief? Are you willing to wonder?

Fear and Loathing and Compassion – for My Voice


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Fear. Hope. Joy. Grief. Tears. Why, I asked myself, am I all a jumble?

Driving home from a doctor appointment I was flooded with emotions, and all I wanted to do was have a good cry. But why? Were they tears of fear? Of relief? Of joy? If fear, fear of what? Fear of no longer having any excuses?

For about ten years my speaking voice has been deteriorating.

For about ten years my speaking voice has been deteriorating. It began with just sounding strained, sometimes raspy or gravelly. It has progressed to the point where my voice breaks, stopping and starting, and it takes a great deal of effort at times to force words out.

When the troubles started, I had been working for several years as a recruiter and salesperson – interviewing candidates, meeting clients, negotiating placements, and making follow-up calls. In other words, I talked for a living. And I loved it. I had what was for me, at the time, the best job in the world.

I thought at first that maybe I had worn my voice out from talking too much. It didn’t hurt – it just didn’t work right.

It grew gradually worse, and I wondered about various possible causes. Was it stress? Was it that I lived for a year in a sick (moldy) house? Was it the result of 20 years of second-hand cigarette smoke? The symptoms didn’t go away as possible causes were eliminated, and various doctors couldn’t agree. I eventually resigned myself to living with it, although it was embarrassing: Customers would ask if I was feeling well, and family members would ask if I was upset about something.

Certain words were especially hard to say: Hello. Susan Blake. Salad. Oddly enough, though, I could still sing.

It continued to get worse. Sometimes it was fine, but it got increasingly harder to have conversations, especially on the phone. Certain words were especially hard to say: Hello. Susan Blake. Salad. Basically any word with an emphasis on a syllable with a vowel in it – which is most of them. The vowel just wouldn’t come out. And the harder I tried the worse it got.

Oddly enough, though, I could still sing.

I didn’t let it stop me. My job (a different one by then) was eliminated in 2009, and I jumped into working from home – which involved a lot of phone calls and meetings. Oh well. You do what you’ve gotta do, right?

Then something interesting happened. I was at a conference, chatting with several people, and one of them took me aside and said she had noticed my voice, and told me that she used to sound like me. She asked if I had been diagnosed, and I said No, I had been to several doctors but they hadn’t come up with anything. She nodded, and told me that she had been diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes the vocal cords to spasm. She was being treated with botox shots to the vocal cords. (Eeew!)

That was interesting, even exciting, but I did nothing – ignoring the situation and attempting to power through it.

Almost a year later, another woman took me aside and told me the same thing. She passed the names of some specialists along, but I still did nothing.

Even though I knew there was a good chance that I had a real physical condition, I didn’t pursue getting an official diagnosis. I gave myself a lot of reasons.

Even though I knew there was a good chance that I had a real physical condition, I didn’t pursue getting an official diagnosis. I gave myself a lot of reasons – I didn’t want botox shots in my vocal cords. I was afraid I would no longer be able to sing. I haven’t sung in a choir in years, but singing has always been an important part of my life. I told myself that getting diagnosed with something that might be considered a pre-existing condition while I am getting my health insurance through COBRA might make it difficult, or impossible, or at least ridiculously expensive, to get individual coverage later. I said it didn’t matter how my voice sounds, even though the work I am pursuing involves a lot of group facilitation and public speaking, since I am getting lots of unsolicited praise for my coaching and facilitation skills. Also, several people – including intuitive coaches – told me that when I found my “true voice” my vocal problems would clear up. Part of me believed that.

I heard a recording of myself participating in a webinar, and I HATED the way my voice sounded.

My symptoms continued to grow worse, and I got tired of getting on the phone with someone new and having them say, “I don’t think we have a good connection, you’re breaking up. Can I call you back?” “No,” I would say, “It’s just my goofy voice.” Then, one day not long ago, I heard a recording of myself participating in a webinar, and I HATED the way my voice sounded. More than the normal “Ugh, is that really how I sound?” that most people experience, it was horrible.

So when I met a voice coach through an online community of which I am member, and she sent me a coupon for a voice coaching session, I said, “Why not?” After all, I pay attention to coincidences. We scheduled the call, and I completed her questionnaire – including information about my voice and the two people who had suggested it might be Spasmodic Dysphonia.

She cancelled the appointment – rightly – because I had an Undiagnosed Medical Condition.

I was crushed. I completely understood – and yet, I was surprised by how disappointed I was. And I was surprised that I was surprised. But I had finally admitted how much my voice bothered me.

I shared all of this with my sister, who sent me a link to a recent NPR story about a woman who had lost her voice and was diagnosed with another form of dysphonia. She visited a specialist who diagnosed her and treated her with a special massage of her vocal cords and neck. I listened to the interview and the vocal exercises the doctor gave her, and when she spoke clearly for the first time I burst into tears.

Which surprised me.

And that surprised me. (Hmmm, see a pattern here?) I have hated the sound of my voice for a long time but I thought that nothing could be done, so I stuffed it. I was beginning to have hope that maybe something could be done – and I was terrified.

Hope can be a terrible thing.

Hope can be a terrible thing. Not in the sense that it keeps you from acting, waiting for a miracle (which it can, which is a terrible thing), but because it takes courage to hope and act on it in spite of your fears. And once you let the genie out of the bottle…

Well, the genie was definitely out of the bottle. After a few days of just being with that, I screwed up my courage and made an appointment with my doctor and asked her for a referral to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. She gave me one, with her blessing, and I made an appointment.

I was terrified all week before the appointment – terrified that he wouldn’t be able to help me and my hopes would be dashed, that the only option would be botox shots, that the botox would ruin my ability to sing. But I was committed to going. And I did something important: I talked about it. I told people about what I was doing, made myself and my fears visible, and I asked for support. (And I joked with colleagues that if the specialist couldn’t help me, perhaps I would become The Singing Facilitator.)

Then my cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And it occurred to me that maybe my problem was pretty small in comparison.

It occurred to me that perhaps instead of hating my voice I might consider thinking of it with compassion.

And after a conversation with a Buddhist friend about the importance of compassion, especially for ourselves, it occurred to me that perhaps instead of hating my voice I might consider thinking of it with compassion. This wouldn’t change my plan, but it could change my attitude.

So I went to the specialist. I told him my story (the short version), and he said that just from listening to me he suspected that I did indeed have Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD). There is no cure for SD, but it is now recognized as a physical, neurological ailment that is not resolved through counseling or psychiatric methods. There is no cure, but the accepted treatment of the symptoms is botox shots to the vocal cords. (“Eeew,” I said.) Treatment at his clinic also includes working with a speech pathologist to unlearn various compensatory behaviors that people develop to try to force words out. (I get that – I had to unlearn protective and compensating habits years ago when recovering from shoulder surgery). He asked me to schedule a session with the speech pathologist for testing and an official diagnosis.

I told him that singing is very important to me, and asked if the botox injections would affect my ability to sing. He admitted that he did not know, and said he would email some other specialists and ask on my behalf. Cool. I also asked if anyone was doing anything with acupuncture, and again he did not know. (A doctor who will admit he does not know something gets a lot of points as far as I’m concerned.)

What is this about? Fear? Joy? Relief? Grief?

But all the way home, I just wanted to pull over and have a good cry. Why was I all in a jumble? I asked myself, “What is this about?” Fear? Fear of what? Fear of the treatment? Fear of it not working? Fear of losing the ability to sing, which comes from my soul? Fear of no longer having a reason to hate myself (my voice)? Fear of no longer having excuses to pursue my goals of public speaking, facilitating and coaching? Fear of giving up certain beliefs, even if they were bullshit? Were they tears of joy? Of relief? Of grief? Or all of the above?

Driving home I was listening to the soundtrack from The Beatles LOVE, which is a brilliant re-work of Beatles songs and snippets that blend in and out of each other in an amazing jumble, and it was so appropriate. Chaos in the music, chaos in my head – but not quite, because it all fit together. More like the edge of chaos, about which I’ve written just recently. You have to be willing to be at the edge of chaos for something new to happen. I was definitely at the edge of chaos – at the very least.

You have to be willing to be at the edge of chaos for something new to happen.

I didn’t let myself have that good cry until the next night, and what a Wail Fest it was. Why? Grief. And Relief. And Hope and Fear and Joy. There was a lot of letting go to do. Letting go of the denial: I have something for which there currently is no cure. Even with the botox, my voice will never be the same. Letting go of the idea that there was someone to blame – that it was all the result of my late husband’s smoking, or that it was my fault – the result of stress (stress of being a caregiver, stress of my husband’s death, job stress, loss-of-job stress) – or that it was the result of confidence issues, or of stuffing my wishes and my voice in favor of others and that I just hadn’t done enough work on myself – when, in fact, I have made choices consciously and without regret, and I am in a very good place. My voice isn’t broken because I’m maladjusted. There is no one to blame.

There is no one to blame… but I have let this be an excuse.

But I have let this be an excuse. I had to admit maybe I haven’t finished transcribing the 47 interviews I did for a very cool research project last year, not because I’m So Busy starting my own business, but because I so hated listening to my own voice. I had to admit that I have hesitated to take steps to launch my own workshops and record webinar products because of my voice. I was embarrassed at myself, and I grieved for the lost time.

And in the midst of all those tears, I found compassion. Compassion for myself. Compassion for my voice. I didn’t break my voice. And it helped to think that my voice certainly didn’t want to be broken, and it wasn’t trying to send me a message. My speaking voice is just broken.

I also remembered something I had learned years ago: I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Cure it, and I can’t Control it. But I can Contribute to making it worse – and hopefully to making it better.

Before I went for the testing with the speech pathologist, I did some research, and I wrote to the clinic featured in the NPR story. Various members of my family have sent me links to research on acupuncture as a treatment for SD. I spoke with a friend who is a professional singer and voice coach, and it turns out that she has worked with several people with varying degrees of SD. She helps them first to strengthen their singing voices and place them in “the mask” rather than sing from their throat – I totally get that, having studied voice for three years in college – and then she helps them learn to speak through that place as well. Hmmm.

She had me sing Happy Birthday. Even singing with a tube down my nose she said I gave her goose bumps.

I met with the speech pathologist, and she agreed that I have all the hallmarks of SD, with no nodules or irritation on the vocal cords, and no dire diseases. She recorded me reading some scripted material, and then she did various tests involving scopes down my throat and up my nose. I had also explained to her about the importance of being able to sing, and she had me sing Happy Birthday. Even singing with a tube down my nose she said I gave her goose bumps.

It was very interesting seeing how the vocal cords spasm when I talk but not when I sing. It turns out that speech is controlled by a different part of the brain than singing, which is why it is not unusual for people with SD (and people who stutter) to still be able to sing.

She was all in favor of the botox shots, but she also understood my hesitance. She offered to round up some patients for me to talk to, and she also suggested I do some searches on YouTube because there are a lot of videos there of people with SD and there might be some before/after videos. I have homework.

I also asked her about the work she does to help people unlearn bad speech habits they’ve acquired. She explained that she helps them learn to place their voices differently, usually in conjunction with the botox treatments. She has also done some work with singers who have damaged their vocal cords through how they speak, training them to speak more like how they sing. Bingo. The work she described is somewhat similar to what my friend does (and is covered by insurance) so I asked if we could just start with that – knowing that statistically voice therapy alone isn’t as useful as the combination – and she said yes. So I have an appointment for my first voice therapy session with her. Since I have had some voice training in the past, maybe I will have an advantage.

When I shared all of this with my family, one of my brothers, who is a musician and has also studied voice, wrote: “My singing instructor used to say, Good speech is half sung.” Hmmm.

Lessons… Why do there always have to be lessons?

I have learned a lot of painful lessons through this process – many of which I thought I already knew:

  • Denial is a powerful thing.
  • Sometimes our reasons (excuses) for doing something – or not – are not what we thought.
  • It’s all too easy to believe something is my fault – even though I have no sound and current data to support that.
  • More than one thing can be true at once.
  • I have to be willing to be at the edge of chaos for something new to happen.
  • I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Cure it, and I can’t Control it. But I can Contribute to making it worse – and hopefully to making it better.
  • Talking about my fears makes them look smaller, and sunshine is the best disinfectant.
  • Caring is dangerous. Live dangerously.

Caring is dangerous. Live dangerously.

I make my living partly with my voice, but I sing for joy. I’m not ready to trade the joy in on the living yet. But I am going to do everything I can to improve my speaking voice – I have gifts to share and I cannot let this stop me. It’s scary; I don’t know what will happen. But there is no spoon. I can’t control this disease, yet there are things I can do. Maybe I will learn how to speak like a soprano. (Not to be confused with The Sopranos.) If I can focus on joy and the Wonder that is my purpose and bring them to re-learning to speak, maybe I can beat the statistics. I may end up getting the botox shots, or maybe I will become The Singing Facilitator.

I have dreams, and I can make them come true. The process has begun. No excuses, only choices.

I may have to put my money where my mouth is and find a choir to join.

What Is Like a Muscle?


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I noticed a pattern recently in things I hadn’t previously thought of as related: Courage, Creativity, and Belief. I’d like to get your thoughts on it, and see where else we can take it.

A while back I heard the quote, “Courage is like a muscle,” and I was quite taken with it. The idea is that exercising a muscle is difficult at first, but the more you use it, the more you can use it. It’s easy to be timid, to play it safe, and harder to take risks, to be visible. But the more you take those risks, the more realize you can do it, and the fears you had were either unfounded, no longer relevant, or just not that important. You become able to act despite fear, and you become able to do more, go further, and push the envelope.

So I noticed when, early last year, Reut Schwartz-Hebron posed a question about habits vs. abilities in her (now closed) KindExcellence blog and a related LinkedIn discussion. She opened with:

“We are capable of innovation but we don’t always bother to innovate. We can be empathic and kind, but we are often not.”

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we will put it into practice when the time is right, even if in retrospect we think it was the “right” or more effective thing to do.”

She went on to ask for examples of effective habits, and examples of situations in which a leader had an ability but did not apply it – and asked whether anything else was missing other than having an effective habit in place.

I commented that “a key habit is courage. Yes, it is a habit, not just a quality. Someone once said that courage is like a muscle and must be exercised regularly. This is true for anything that becomes a habit. 

In that vein, I think that often managers fail to lead due to a weakness in their courage muscle. Whether in being willing to give credit where credit is due, or to take a stand, no matter how small, courage is the habit that supports so many other actions.”

This prompted Reut to write related blog post on “Courage As A Stepping Stone for Innovation” and asked people to expand on whether they thought courage was a habit and what other such habits might be required for people to be effective innovators or change facilitators.

I was actually surprised how many people disagreed! Many did agree, but many felt that courage was not required for creativity – you just did it (creativity) or you didn’t – or that courage was not a habit – either you had it or you didn’t and it is only called out in extraordinary situations – like the soldier who carries his or her comrades to safety while under fire, or the mother who lifts a car off of her child.

But I’ll go out on a limb and stand by the idea that it is a habit that can be developed by exercising that muscle. Sometimes people who have never been courageous before do stand up and make a courageous act, large or small – just like some who has never been interested in fitness may go to a yoga class and then decide to continue in that vein.

Recently a series of tweets from Linda Naiman caught my eye. Linda writes and consults on the subject of creativity. Some of her comments included:

“Learning to be creative is akin to learning a sport. It requires practice to develop the right muscles.”

and

“Business leaders are adopting the principles and practices of art and design to build creative muscles in their organizations.”

Linda has also written posts highlighting the connection between risk-taking, leadership and creativity, as well as exploring the notion that creativity and innovation in organizations are often viewed as dangerous:

“Creativity is fostered in organizational cultures that value independent thinking, risk-taking, and leadership.”

and

“Root fears present re creativity and innovation are fears of change risk and failure.”

Then Johnny B. Truant made me sit up this week (which is not unusual) when he re-published a blog post about the importance of belief. In particular, he stated that the obstacles that we let stop us only stop us because we believe in them – or believe in our inability to overcome them. He says,

“And if you stop projecting false problems in your path – or panicking about something that might happen – then you’ll soon discover that you’ll build a sense of surety within yourself that you can learn to trust, and that will keep you on that true path.” (This is what I was talking about in my post, Suspend Disbelief.)

But here’s what really made me sit up:

Belief is like a muscle. You have to build it over time, and it all starts with telling yourself that something you fear or that appears to be in your way isn’t really there. If it is, fine. Take the hit and adjust. But I’ll bet that a bunch of times you’ll walk right through it – no harm, no foul.”

Suddenly I saw a pattern emerging:

Courage is a muscle.

Courage is required for Creativity.

Creativity is a muscle.

Creativity requires positive beliefs in our ability, or at least a suspension of disbeliefs in our inability.

Belief is a muscle.

Belief takes a certain amount of courage.

Hmmmm.

I am one of those who believes that everyone is creative, but they may need help to be courageous about it, to believe in themselves, and to develop those habits.

What else is like a muscle? Let’s see if we can find more patterns, or expand on this one.

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