Tag Archives | Edge of Chaos

The “What If” Puzzle


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What is the difference between “What if…” and “What if…”?

I was recently talking with a group of friends who are, like me, small business people. We were talking about wrestling with self-doubt and dealing with our Inner Critic, and the “What if” questions started coming up. You know, the Doomsday Version.

At the same time, these are wonderfully creative people, problem solvers of all types. They (and I) also ask the other “What if…?”

What, I wondered, is the difference between “What if…” and “What if…”?

Let me explain.

The Doomsday Version might include,

  • “What if they don’t like me?”
  • “What if people don’t understand?”
  • “What if it’s cancer?”
  • “What if I’m wrong?”
  • “What if I look stupid?”
  • “What if I build it and nobody comes?”
  • “What if I can’t pay my bills?”
  • “What if I lose my house?”

…and so on.

Every scientist, artist and other problem solver also asks “What if…” but those questions are very different. The Creative Problem Solver version might include,

  • “What if I mix these two colors (or substances)?”
  • “What if I used this material?”
  • “What if I explored this canyon?
  • “What if I brought these teams together?”
  • “What if I asked this question?”

So I wondered aloud, how are these questions different, and how might we change the Doomsday Questions that stop us into Possibility Questions that help us move forward?

How do we identify the difference between the “what if” that leads to discovery and the “what if” that hides behind security? One of the differences that is immediately apparent is the addition of certain words – even if they are only implied.

The protector, the inner critic, asks, “(But) what if…” whereas the scientist, the artist, the writer, the explorer, all ask, “(I wonder) what (would happen) if…”

It is the difference between open possibilities and the possibility of Doom

We agreed that the voice of Doom, that voice of Fear, has a role. It is trying to protect us. But too often we don’t question the Doomsday scenario and we let it stop us.

The difference between the Doomsday “What if” questions and the “What if” of Creative Possibilities is the difference between Fear and Curiosity.

How can we tell them apart?

When “What ifs” come up, how can we tell which driver is behind the wheel?

One way is to look at the language. Does the question start with “But?” If so, it is probably Fear speaking.

Does the question begin with “What would happen if…” or, better yet, “I wonder what would happen if…” If so, then it is probably Curiosity speaking.

Take an even closer look. If the question is about things over which I have no control (or think I have no control), it is probably Fear talking. If the question is about things I can do, then it is probably Curiosity speaking.

Can we shift from Fear to Curiosity?

Is there a way to shift from a position of Fear to one of Curiosity? Yes!

How?

The first step is to recognize which voice is speaking. The words themselves are a giveaway, as is the issue of control.

Yet another giveaway is the tone. This can be challenging if the voice is in my own head, but I can still ask, is this a voice of protection or of exploration?

The second step is to ask, is the voice of Fear raising an objection that can be planned for, or is it just raising an old fear that is no longer relevant or is beyond my control?

As Mike and Birdy Diamond pointed out in their Captains Curious post, Fear doesn’t last in the face of Curiosity. Curiosity allows us to plan.

The third step is, as my friend and colleague Michael F. Broom says, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Tara Joyce, who wrote a Captains Curious post about Living the Questions, was the person who introduced me to the concept of the value of living on the “edge of chaos.”

Jeffrey Davis writes about the value of “fertile confusion.”

And Paula Swenson, whose Captains Curious post will appear this week, has written about the importance of “making friends with uncertainty.”

These can all help us move from Fear to Curiosity.

I have learned

Once upon a time, as I was preparing to move to a different city, someone very important to me tried to talk me out of it. She was worried about me, and she was going to miss me (and I her).

“But what if (The Doomsday Scenario happens)?” she asked.

Now, I confess, I had already worried about that possibility. But I had faced it.

“I know what to do if it does,” I said, “Besides, what if it doesn’t?” I asked. “What if I live happily ever after?”

I chose not to live in fear of something over which I had no control.

As I have learned (over and over) to walk not in Fear but in Curiosity, making a comeback from one challenge after another, I have learned that “what if” can feel like chaos, like confusion, like uncertainty.

But it is almost never as bad as I fear.

Sometimes it is worse, but it might only be the edge of chaos. It could be fertile confusion. I can make friends with uncertainty. I can chose adventure. I can choose wonder.

As I write this, I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, “2010.”

It might be horrible.

Or it might be something wonderful.

I can choose what questions to ask, and how to plan.

And so can you.

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Curiosity in Action: Employee Engagement


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I was recently invited to a forum on Engaged Team Performance by one of the managing partners of Implementation Partners, Roland Cavanagh. I first met Roland two years ago, when I interviewed him for a research project.

The forum consisted of two presentations, one from a client and the other a company built from a similar vision,  about how they view employee engagement and how their efforts to apply Engaged Team Performance resulted in highly engaged, creative, even joyful, company cultures and enhanced the success of each company.

The two companies were, in some ways, very different. One was a relatively small, stand-alone company that was built from the beginning on its model of structure-supported creativity and interaction; this company’s story reinforced my belief that small companies have the potential to test theories and practices that can change the world.

The other company was a newer subsidiary of a much larger, older organization. As part of this larger, older organization, they had to overcome entrenched attitudes and habits: Speaking up and thinking creatively were not encouraged. Questioning was not encouraged.

For example, when looking for ways to streamline a particular process, they could have just automated it. Instead, they worked with the team members to investigate why things were done a certain way. Why do we do it this way? Does it have to be done this way?  How else might we accomplish this? What are the risks and benefits of making a change? Then they came up with a plan, one that was based on answers to questions, not generally accepted assumptions.

Within a larger culture of “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die,” this took some getting used to. It required trust-building.

But as they became more comfortable with this questioning approach, and with the follow-through on the answers, they questioned more and became more creative in their proposals for how they might do things differently. They implemented changes to the process that resulted in time savings that benefited the customer and freed up resources. Rather than cut head-count, they applied those human resources to other projects and initiatives, giving people even more opportunities for creative problem solving. It was more fun for them, and both their customers and the organization enjoyed the benefits.

It struck me, as they were describing this, that what I was hearing was a perfect demonstration of the importance of developing and applying curiosity. By creating a safe space and encouraging team members to exercise their curiosity, they became more comfortable with it and it became part of their culture. They were then able – and eager – to apply that curiosity to additional projects and creative endeavors.

When I brought this up and commended the presenters from this client company during the Q&A period, I was reminded by their blank looks that Curiosity is taken for granted and overlooked in most situations as the integral secret sauce that makes such initiatives successful.

In fact, “secret sauce” probably isn’t the best term to use. Curiosity isn’t a process or a methodology that needs to be learned. Instead, it is a muscle that every person brings with them, and organizations with engaged members encourage, even expect, those members to exercise that muscle.

I don’t think it was an accident that the presenters described environments that encouraged curiosity as part of their successful efforts to build Engaged Team Performance, even if they never used that term. I also don’t think I am looking for something that wasn’t there. But I noticed it, because I pay attention to this subject.

I’m looking forward to reading Building Engaged Team Performance, the new book by Roland Cavanagh and Dodd Starbird of Implementation Partners. Based on the case studies presented at this forum, I expect it to be a very interesting read – even if they never use the word “curiosity.”

What do you think? What role does curiosity play in engaged organizations (large or small)? What is the impact of the absence of curiosity or, worse yet, its being stifled?

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).

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.

Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos


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The other day I was talking to a friend who loves jazz, and it got me thinking.

One of the many things we touched on is how, unlike classical music, which is played pretty much as written on the page, jazz is by nature improvisational. This means that players weave an ever-changing tapestry around a single theme. It is a group discussion, where participants take turns talking. Like a group discussion, it works best when all of the participants listen to each other and respect each other’s turns.

I was reminded of how I recently saw a foursome comprised of McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Francisco Mela, and how I was struck by how smoothly they managed the transitions between full-on playing by the group and solos supported by the others. The solos were long and far-ranging, sometimes played with clear intention and sometimes with wild abandon. The four clearly listened to each other playing, they played to support the others when it was not their solo, and they watched for signals about the transitions.

Jazz musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom but, like freedom in other contexts, it works best when that freedom is exercised with awareness of and respect for the other members of the group and for the group itself.

And within that context, magic can happen.

It occurred to me as we were talking that jazz requires systems thinking. It requires awareness of the system, and awareness of how changes affect that system.

It requires agreement from the participants to support the system and each other.

When participants don’t support each other and the system and they focus only on themselves, indulging in tunnel vision, the result is noise. Chaos.

And yet – jazz also requires living at the edge of chaos.

How aware are you of the systems of which you are a part? Whether the system is a work group, an organization, a committee, your family, or a sports team, how well does that system work if the members don’t think beyond themselves? At the same time, how flexible are those systems? Do they support creativity, innovation, improvisation?

Bird Brains -or- How Do Birds (and People) Learn?


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My office looks out upon a patio garden that is twice as large as this room, and I spend a good deal of time here working – and contemplating the garden. The patio is enclosed by a six-foot privacy fence and shaded by a heritage Valley Oak. Over the years I have transformed (or more accurately, continually transform) it from an ivy-ridden rectangle filled with oak leaves and acorns to a miniature secret garden and wildlife sanctuary.

Two of my favorite features (which also drive me crazy) are a fountain and a bird feeder. The fountain I built several years ago from a large ceramic pot, and the bird feeder (and a separate hummingbird feeder) hang from a nearby post.

The fountain is a favorite with the birds, but it occasionally stymies them. The goldfinches were the first to figure out how to use it as a water source, landing on the spout and having a drink. The current spout also provides a spot where they can stand in the running water and cool their heels, which they often do in the summertime.

For more than a year I watched other small birds watch the goldfinches but never make the leap to perching on and drinking from the spout themselves. It wasn’t until last Spring that I saw various house finches and chickadees making the same use of it.

This morning a house finch visited who is apparently new to the neighborhood. A female (or juvenile) who may just be finishing molting, she has little tufts on her head that mimic a horned owl, giving her a slightly disheveled look. She landed on the edge of the fountain and spent a good part of the morning looking longingly at the stream of water coming from the spout. She hopped about on the edge, eyeing the stream, peering down at the water in the bowl, and flinching as water droplets would bounce up at her. She made numerous attempts to lean forward to drink from the bowl, but it was a big stretch and she often had trouble keeping her balance.

How Do Birds Learn?

Meanwhile, a male house finch, glorious with his red head and back, swooped down from the bird feeder, landed on the spout, and had a good long drink. Tufts watched him with her head cocked, and even hopped up and fluttered in the air while she watched. The male flew back to the bird feeder, but Tufts remained on the edge of the fountain, eyed the spout, and then continued reaching down for a drink. A few minutes later, the male came back for another drink. He clearly said something to her and looked at her while he drank. Tufts again watched him intently but again, after he flew away, she returned to stretching down, almost beyond her reach, to drink from the bowl.

How many times, I wondered, would she have to watch him before making the attempt herself? Just then, Tufts leapt off of the edge and into the bowl – and into the water. Much to her apparent surprise, she got rather wet. She flew up to the fence and shook herself off, and I swear I could see her frowning in contemplation. She hopped over to the bird feeder and munched for a few minutes, then flew back to the edge of the fountain – and hopped down into the water again. This time she hopped back up onto the edge, preened, stretched, and looked quite satisfied with herself.

Was her initial hop into the water an attempt to get at drink? Was it an unsuccessful attempt to land on the spout, or was it an end run? Was it her intention to take a bath, or was that just a serendipitous outcome? I’ve been sitting here for about two hours, and I haven’t yet seen her land on the spout. I have only watched her observing another bird drinking from the spout two times; how many times will she have to see it before she is willing to try it?

Maybe she will decide that the method favored by most other birds just isn’t for her. Maybe she thinks she is a much larger bird. (I have watched robins and blue jays drink from the edge of the fountain, but for them reaching the water is not such a stretch.) I have also seen other birds – hummingbirds and goldfinches – fly into the stream of water to get a bath. But I have never before watched a bird intentionally dunk itself in the water for a bath. Does she just not get it? Or is she afraid to try something new?

How Do People Learn?

How many times do we have to see someone do something before we work up the confidence to try it ourselves? How often do we fail at the attempt – or try an alternative – and end up accomplishing something entirely unexpected? And, how often does someone who has accomplished an act consciously demonstrate it for others, encouraging them to give it a try? How many times will they be willing to demonstrate until the student works up the courage to try – or courageously fails until finally succeeds? Certainly, being willing to live at the edge of chaos makes a difference.

* * *

Meanwhile, I am watching a goldfinch pull bits of cotton wool for nesting materials from the erstwhile suet feeder. She pulls and pulls and pulls, until she has a beakful that is nearly too large for her to take away. “Silly bird,” I thought, “why don’t you just make multiple trips?” Then I had to laugh at myself, thinking of all the times I have tried to carry more bags of groceries than I should, simply because I didn’t want to make multiple trips from the car to the house and I was fixated on what seemed to be the simplest solution.

In some ways, we’re not so different from the birds.

Creativity, Change, and the Edge of Chaos


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Not so long ago I wrote about chaos and our fear that chaos is the only possible outcome – and a negative one at that – of trying something new. In that post I wrote about the importance of suspending disbelief in the idea of a positive outcome. (You can read that post here.) I even went so far as to suggest that Chaos is not necessarily bad, at least as a transitional state.

Well, in a recent blog post at Rise of the Innerpreneur, Tara Joyce writes that Chaos is the result of too much structure – and the result of too little structure. What? Chaos as a result of too much structure? That’s right. Most of us would probably accept without a second thought the idea that Chaos is at least a possible result of too little structure.  But with too much structure, a system strangles and the system fails, also leading to Chaos.

When a structure is changed or taken away, we fear chaos. I wrote about this in another blog post about my recent experience with circles. At a recent conference that was held in Open Space format, the typical conference structure did not exist. But that lack of structure did not result in Chaos: “It was somewhat uncomfortable, at least initially, for those who are more comfortable with Structure – even if they admitted it was only so they could resist that structure – but there was no Chaos.” There was likely no Chaos because the old, rigid structure was replaced with a different structure. Even a change of structure can feel like chaos must be just around the corner. But we have to live at the edge of chaos in order to change.

Tara makes an excellent point:

“Living at the edge of chaos

This is where life and creativity exist. They can’t be limited by too much structure or failed to let unfold in the moment through too much planning.

It’s a process of listening to, and trusting in, the ideas within us; then revealing those ideas through our action.”

I love that. The edge of chaos as an ideal state. In order to grow, in order to thrive, we must live at the edge of chaos, whether in business or elsewhere in life. I would also submit that living at the edge of chaos is an antidote to tunnel vision, which is a symptom of too much structure – in thinking and beliefs, and in human systems.

In my earlier post I proposed that Chaos is not necessarily a bad thing – as a transitional state. You know how when you start a major house-cleaning project, it always looks worse than when you started? That is Chaos as a transitional state. But maybe it is really the edge of chaos – it simply brings Chaos from being part of the wallpaper to being front-and-center while a new order is created.

At the end of my earlier post, I asked these questions:

Can we suspend our disbelief in the possibility that the outcome of trying something new can be anything other than anarchy, failure, or ridicule?

Can you suspend your disbelief long enough to give it a try?

Now I reframe those questions: Are you willing to live at the edge of chaos in order to make a space for creativity, change, growth?

And I add this question: Are you willing to help others step out onto the edge?

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