Things I'm Noodling On: School Board & Numbing

Monday night was my last school board meeting. I spent 6 years learning about education, complex systems, governing, our community's culture (related to education, leadership, gender dynamics, fear, LGTBQ issues...the list goes on).

Some basic (and wildly underestimated) math, calculates that I spent 216 hours in meetings over those 2 terms. 216 hours - that's over 5 work weeks of sitting in a board room with neighbors from our wonderful community to try to push through headwinds and take advantage of the tailwinds presented to our district.

People often say that being on the school board is the ultimate thankless gig. I'm gonna call a bit of bullshit on that this morning. Remember bullshit is a complex thing - read more about it here to jog your memory.

Thankless defined as "difficult or unpleasant and not likely to bring one pleasure or the appreciation of others." Let's tackle the appreciation of others side first:
  • Fellow Pointers told me they appreciated my work often during my time on the board. 
  • I've received cards in the mail, pats on the back, messages on facebook, thoughtful texts, a hand-painted plaque and a couple of rounds at a local tavern all for my service to the school.  
  • The district pays a small stipend paid to each board member.
Plenty of appreciation from others.

So then let's dig into the difficult or unpleasant and not likely to bring one pleasure side of the thankless definition:
  • Sitting in front of my community either live in person or virtually via the unforgiving lens of a camera
  • Needing to know enough & communicate effectively enough to add value
  • Dodging the egos in the room (my own as often as anyone else's)
  • Trying to avoid the cultural landmines of our small, rural district
Yeah, all of that was unpleasant and difficult, and at the same time I learned each and every single time I put on my school board hat. The knowledge I gained will impact and benefit me and my family forever.

Can I call out the ironic part of this conversation for a second? Shouldn't the school board be the champions for messaging how excruciating learning is. It's super fucking hard. It's always been a difficult process. From the walking, talking and potty-training skills of toddlerhood to the algebra, acne and drivers ed days of high school. Learning is hard when you're reading philosophy in college and also responsible for your own car payment and checking account. Finding your way through dating and marriage and interviews and bosses and babies and taxes and cancer and divorce and .... every day we learn and every day it's a pain. So what moron (I'm pointing at myself here) thought the school board should be any different or any easier?

It's not. It's hard, horrible, and mind-blowingly amazing all tied into one. Exactly how I've come to describe life....recently. This season of my life has shown me that those paradoxes make life rich and wretched in the very same space and time.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the lines we start to want and expect all or nothing. The paradox is not for us. We want all fun or comfort and when we cannot have that we numb what we don't like. And numbing is effective. It kills the pain and it also kills the joy, gratitude and other skills that build our resilience to struggle.

For a few years, I numbed the discomfort of being a school board member - I used backbiting, withdrawing and judgement. And I still used sarcasm from time to time, but more often than I like. When I only focused on the pain, struggle and discomfort - that all I saw and I needed to numb. When I only focused on the inefficiencies, the fear based mentality, the politics of it - that what the school board was about.

However, when I started to focus on the learning, the courage and the neighbors sitting there next to me  - I could embrace the journey of sitting together in shared unpleasantness on behalf of something bigger than us as individuals and watched as my perspective change. I also saw my need to numb fade.

Being present, without the numbing drama, allowed me to make a clear decision at how I can best impact our community & our school district, and that required me to leave the school board to drive a different vehicle for a while. I'm looking forward to a new challenge with different struggles and different learning.


The Stories We Make Up.

So thankful for the wonderful and smart readers of this blog who ask more questions. It holds me accountable. It challenges my thinking and removes the stories we make up in our heads. 

If I write something that makes you wonder, ask me about it.

I'm not expecting perfection in my personal growth journey. I will screw this up over and over and over again. But I'm perfectly in progress and learning every step of the way. 


Things I'm Noodling On: Personal Growth

Learning and incorporating personal development practices are by far the hardest work I've ever done. And at the same time it's been more rewarding then I ever could have imagined. Personal growth is the kind of awful work that lights you up completely, but you have nothing to really 'show' for it. The reward is invisible to others unless they've gotten a glimpse.

And if you're anything like me you want to talk about your personal growth journey non-stop because it's like you've been given the keys to the world's biggest and unlimited treasure chest, but you can only have your share when everyone else has gotten their share too. You are convinced this is a no brainer & try to spread this message like the plague. And similar to you actually spreading the plague, people are like, "Dude, BACK THE F OFF - I DON'T WANT YOUR DISEASE!" Talking about this kind of invisible and thought-provoking stuff makes you annoying AF. 

Most of us just want to communicate in these 3 shallow puddles (see below) not in a deep sea of thought and possibility. 
  1. Meaningless small talk
  2. 100% agree with and support unconditionally
  3. 100% disagree with and write-off unconditionally
I know this first hand because I've been the dickhead who didn't get it & wanted shallow and easy too and avoided people or was a jerk to them for trying to have this conversation. So many times before...ugh.

For example, I have a cousin who has always been about 20 klicks ahead of me in this personal development stuff.  Some years ago, when I was still an infant -- actually it was like 10 years ago when I was a full-fledged adult who believed my shit didn't stink & my world was the only true reality -- I was like, "Joe, shut the eff up! You're a freaking weirdo!" 

Now I am in awe of the work he's done and the time he's invested into his personal growth and development. We still aren't on the same exact Journey but our paths are leading us to the same meandering streams and we are falling from the same cliffs. We are there in the Wilderness helping each other find our way by shouting out occasionally to remind the other they are not alone.

Now we are both the weirdos who are doing purposeful and intention driven work with nothing but annoying conversations, challenging questions and a deeper connection to each other to show for it. 

But because there is no trophy or certification at the end of most of this work people have deemed it worthless. We like our work to be celebrated with praise and a flashy prize vs. a true sense of accomplishment & a new outlook on life. We'd rather not think or talk about how we spend our limited time & energy here on earth, we want people to just see how we do when they drive past our McMansion and see our fancy new car in the driveway. 

Old Way of Thinking
Stuff = Valuable
I used to believe things were the reward for the time and energy spent working. 

New Way of Thinking
Learning = Valuable
I now believe that changing my reality with new awareness and perspectives that enrich my life is the reward for time and energy spent working.

One draw back to going on a personal growth journey is that people don't understand why I don't engage like before. Just like I thought Joe was a weirdo before because I didn't know better; understanding has given me clarity. I now know based on my own lived experiences that our thoughts literally turn into our realities, so changes in thought will change our lives. This new reality, is giving me new non-negotiables...
  • I am not willing to let my thoughts or conversations be surface-level bullshit that shames anyone about their bodies, their choices or their emotions...and most fiercely related to girls. 
  • I am no longer tolerant of contributing to destructive behaviors or mindsets that further separate humans.
  • I am calling bullshit to the garbage perfectionistic demands that are pressed upon children.
  • I will absolutely not participate in basement-level thinking about politics.
  • I will not take on someone else's learned helplessness without consistently challenging it. 
I am actively avoiding things like my life depends on it. Because it does.

It's hard. It's painful. From time to time it feels like complete isolation. But the pit of my stomach isn't in knots anymore. The frustration or anger or anxiety that follows my fear & pain based thinking is not constant anymore. Now every time I behave in a way that makes me 'fit in' vs. 'belong to myself', the 'integrity hangover' reminds me it's not worth it.

Now I get to actually use the energy I used to waste talking about people or things, to find people who are going to add to my purpose driven work to learn, grow and contribute. I look for them so they can show me the way. 

And some people actually go as far to think the work I'm doing is useless, indulgent or devalue it with open ridicule or complete disregard. Remember me with Joe -- I know people do this because I did it too. 

That's okay! They've not yet embraced this shifted mindset. The mindset that values things that you cannot see or articulate. I'll just leave this here for them to noodle on while they're in church tomorrow.

Is anyone still reading? How has personal growth impacted your relationships with others?


Things I'm Noodling On: We Are Not Simple Machines.

Keep It Simple Stupid. It doesn't need to be difficult. It's easy to understand if you just keep it simple. 

Man, that's seductive. Who doesn't want a simple reason for why things happen or who they happen to? Just tell me what I need to know so I can simply move through my life unaffected. No difficulty. No problems. Simple. Sounds good, right? 

Except here's the thing: the K.I.S.S. principle works as it should when it remains within the discipline in which it was created - engineering. On those terms I wholeheartedly agree, when trying to repair a spy plane during war times let's keep the tooling and design as simple as possible so our pilots and crew come back in one piece. Perfectly reasonable. 

But guys, this is not a strategy to take with our lives or other human beings. This is not a sustainable approach to building communities where people want and need to belong. And it is certainly not a strategy for parenting. Raising people to weather challenging times is hard! It's the hardest thing I've done in my life and maybe because I was raised with some simple truths:
  1. You work everyday or you're lazy. 
  2. You are a virgin or you're a slut.
  3. You take care of yourself or you're a pain in the ass. 
  4. You go to church on Sunday or you're not faithful. 
  5. You laugh at others or you're the joke.
  6. You get good grades or you're stupid.
  7. You shut up or you're not grateful.
  8. You're right or you're wrong.
  9. You're good or you're bad.
  10. You love or you hate.
What a bunch of bullshit! This is not reality. The reality is we need to be resilient. We need to be able to think critically about the world around us to grow through the challenges we face and do our best to anticipate actual risks. Then we get to decide whether they are worth trying to overcome or not so we can quickly move on to the next thing. I'm not intentionally discounting random events (weather, illness, accidents) because I know they happen and reset paths all the time. That said, we can only 'control' that if we are living a fear-driven life vs. a values-driven life. I'm talking to values-driven people here, folks! 

It's bullshit to expect (or be taught) that humans are going to sail through 80 years of existence and feel one of three things - happy...or sad or pissed off about not being happy. That expectation is making us feel isolated and alone. 

We feel like we are the only ones who feel ashamed, helpless, or terrified sometimes. We tend to disregard our feelings related of ambition, curiosity and joy so we stay humble. Whatever we are feeling we have the K.I.S.S. mindset telling us 'You Are Making This Too Complicated". 

Bullshit - we are more complex than that and it's perfectly normal to feel however you are feeling whenever you are feeling it. 

Just like me, Kelly Johnson believed simple systems could keep complex people safe. So my hat goes off to the engineer who coined a phrase, Keep It Simple Stupid, for a way to design useful things without unnecessary complexity. Well done! Complex humans were safer because of your brilliance.

I look forward to continuing to do the hard work of challenging myself and community to think about issues such as parenting, schools and governance in a way that supports and enriches vs. isolates and excludes. 


Things I'm Noodling On: We Are All Wired Differently.

During the last month, I've heard the phrase "but we are wired differently" twice while having productive and thoughtful conversations with women.  The first time I heard it I hesitantly nodded and watched how it abruptly ended the conversation. I kept thinking about it because there was something about it that I felt unsettled about. It seemed like an easy out - the perfect way in shut down the discussion when were just 'getting' into it.

When it happened again just a week or so later, my noodling paid off and rather than just agreeing & watching end the chat, I asked more questions and I talked it through with my friend for better understanding and kept the conversation going. The discussion continued and proved meaningful to both of us.

I cannot help thinking that "we are all wired differently" is a form of bullshit. I think it's the kind of bullshit described by Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit then reexamined through the lens of BrenĂ© Brown in Braving The Wilderness.  "Bullshit changes the nature of debate — and calls into question the opportunity for productive discourse." 

The first case: Four women were just chit-chatting, when the small talk changed to a discussion started by someone who has unhappy with their current state of consistent anxiety. She felt her constant need to please and have everyone's approval was something "she wished she could do something about." The conversation continued with some acknowledgments of how unproductive trying please everyone is and a few examples of practices or behaviors others have used to overcome the very same thing. There are lots of suggestion - none were simple fixes and all required her to commit changing something.

Then there was a lull in the conversation. It's the awkward silence that happens when the person, who presented a problem with the hope of changing it, has to acknowledge they don't really want to make a change yet or of that degree to get what they are hoping for. In this case, she kinda shrugged helplessly and quietly waited for the moment to pass, but before it could her mother who couldn't handle the uncomfortable silence, swooped it with, "I can see how those ideas would work for some people, but we are all wired differently. That's just how she is." The rest of the group including me just nodded and accepted that as truth. The conversation moved back to the place that felt less dynamic and productive. But more consistent with the norm - focusing on & fearing things outside of our control. The nature of the conversation changed not on purpose or with real intention, but instead with one phrase that gave someone a free pass on being responsible for their circumstances.

What seemed like a smart, productive and meaningful conversation ended abruptly rather than responsibility being taken. And rather than just acknowledging she wasn't ready to make changes yet or just clarify that she was only venting as opposed to looking for solutions, her mother gave her permission to not even try to change because it might be hard for "someone wired like her." Giving her the false impression that other people don't have to work hard to improve their circumstances. Bullshit - it's total bullshit.

I understand individuals have different strengths and talents. I also acknowledge that some people struggle with mental illness and disorders that require more than sheer will to manage their anxiety - that's not what I'm talking about here. I see this as unwillingness to face our problems and take responsibility for what we do with our pain. I suspect for the most part, we are wired the same - some just take the path of least resistance more often than others. Which means they are victims of their circumstances vs. doing the hard & vulnerable work of finding a new way. And face it women - we are hardwired! We've got the I'm Not Enough soundtrack playing in the background. It's ultimately comes down to how we cope with it that determines how loud it is.

The second case:  Me and a friend talking about our personal journey through life as parents, leaders, etc. At one point, after acknowledging some frustrations in her progress, my friend dropped the bomb that her journey shouldn't require this or that like mine did because "we are wired differently." Although, I didn't expect it, my noodling prepared me to call truth to that bullshit. I did that with more questions and some extra compassion and a few observations.We continued to discuss and reach further rather than giving each other a pass.

We left the conversation feeling tired but on-track, but a bit more wholehearted. Together, we talked through the bullshit. We faced the reality that self-discovery & critical awareness is a long and claustrophobic ride on a clang-banging elevator that stops floor by floor encouraging us to step out where it's quiet and calm. And so many friendly & familiar faces are standing outside as the doors slide open. There they stand trying to please everyone with their small talk & their helpless shrugs.....and honestly, that unproductive peace used to be so damn tempting. But now when the doors open the smell of bullshit is just too overwhelming so we step back together and away we go.

Away we grow. 


Nagging Little Things

Recently, I've been waking a lot in the middle of the night. Maybe it's the sound of my snoring husband and our giant farting dog at the bottom of the bed...who knows. Whatever it is, I'm awake and alone with my 57 problems.

57 problems? Get over yourself, Julie! 

Okay, so I don't mean big, scary problems, I'm talking about the nagging little things that are constantly bouncing around in my brain. If you look up 'problem' online this is how it is defined:
a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.

My description of 'problem' clearly gives the location of the nagging things - in my brain and the online definition speaks to a need to deal with or overcome.  That disconnect is clearly a struggle for me. My problems are typically the same nagging things that just churn inside my head. ALL. THE. GOD. DAMN. TIME. which definitely highlights the need for me to deal with them.  So what are the problems and what am I not dealing with? Here goes:

  1. Leadership - I think we need to change the way we engage as community leaders. I want to create a training that focuses on leading with courage. What is Brené's people can prioritize my vision for this? How will I do it? What would the end goal be? How would I know it's making a difference? Who the hell am I to bring this type of training into our region?
  2. Parenting A Teenager - I wonder if other parents would like to have a space where they could bounce ideas off of other parents trying to give their kids tools to be resourceful and articulate when faced with the challenges. How would we avoid the freak out if unconventional and uncomfortable topics were brought up? Could our small town handle something like this? Would we be up for the ongoing work of starting uncomfortable conversations and be willing to listen to our children's point of view without dismissing it? What the fuck do I even know about parenting a teenager? 
  3. Politics - Can I openly support a person and not support their party. Can you be an influential community leader and still commit to compassion as a core value? How much civic engagement is enough? How do I get others involved beyond just election day? How do I practice self-care when there is so much to do to change how we govern our communities. What do I have to contribute to our political system - or am I just completely out of touch with 'reality'?
  4. Education - Do I walk away from the school board and the dysfunctional culture related to education in my district and just relax? Do I jump right in to the conversations related to the complexity of the public education system, the absolute need for clarity of roles and accountability at all levels? Will I have the energy for this if no one else shows up motivated to help? Is my community even aware of the severity of the problem? Who do I think I am to challenge a system that is currently a lighthouse in our community? Maybe I'm the problem?
  5. Blogging -  How often should I pull my ass out of bed and write about this stuff in the moment? Will I ever sleep longer than 3 hours again if I do that? Does this blog really help or is it just another way I spew my shit all over other people? Are my blog posts just in the way of real stuff people want on their Facebook feed? What kind of self-indulgent narcissist must I be to constantly put my problems out for the world to see? 
  6. Limiting Beliefs - I want to talk to other women about the lies we tell ourselves that how they hold us back. How should I do that? Should I start a book club or a supportive group that meets for coffee. Maybe it should be open to both genders? How the hell do I know how to facilitate something like that?]
So there's the list of my seemingly different problems --- with that one glaring consistency. The I Am Not Enough track playing on repeat in the background.

Looks like it's not the dog farts or the husband snores - it's the tiny voice that's trying to keep me comfortably in that safe place of no risk or vulnerability. That voice that wants me to avoid pain, struggle and living big. So I look back over time and relive the experiences when I was at my bravest and feeling the most alive I've ever felt. In those key moments, I told the nagging little thing bouncing around my brain something like this: Although I appreciate your protective tendencies, I will not be afraid to be who I am. I Am Enough. I can do hard things and I know that even when I fail -- and I will fail -- I will have done so Daring Greatly.

And then the bouncing stops. good night.


The Beginning of the Story...Story

One of the biggest realizations for me regarding the importance of sharing my story was a long time ago when I realized that my story mattered. It happened as most things happen in my life, I was at a MultiCultural Awareness training to learn about others and in turned I learned waaaay more about myself in the process. If there is one reason to embrace self-discovery through story & join me in The Figuring It Out tribe, it's the likelihood that you will completely blow your own mind like every 3 months from all of the learning. Seriously! Years ago, when I was an introductory member of the Figuring It Out Tribe, that mind-blowing was terrifying and unsettling. Which it turns out is totally normal - that's how learning feels. I didn't know that - most of us don't know that.

Sidebar: Most kids by the time they leave school do not know what learning feels like. We learned what it feels like to be taught or not be taught and that's very, very different.  Another blog for another time.

Anyway, I came from and married into a distinguished chapter of The Certain People tribe. The Certain People culture has the good fortune of rarely carrying the unsettled or terrifying burden. Instead they carry satisfaction, judgement, and anger with them. A self-inflicted mind screw isn't something Certain People are gonna mess with - they are doing just fine and have been just fine 50 years. And I'll be the first to say, they're not wrong. The Certain People culture is typical in southwest Wisconsin. And they are some of the hardest working people I know because they've proven successful by sheer will and determination most of the time. This tribe is full of people I love. People who have taken care of me when I couldn't take care of myself. The Certain People tribe is constructed of wonderful human beings. Some of them are my most treasured friends and family members.

That's why wandering away from them caused so much confusion and torment at first. It's a strange paradox because I wasn't going anywhere, but I couldn't take part in the day to day any longer. The satisfaction seemed to only come at the expense of others and the judgement and anger were just too heavy a load. The amount of work to resist change and innovation wasn't sustainable. I broke under that extreme pressure and turned toward a different path. I could not take one more moment of just being fine. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to figure something else out.

So here we are 10 years later. Happier, healthier and more energized than ever to find my way through my story and the stories of others -- and in turn blowing my own mind. And this decade of self-discovery has gotten much easier. I've found others from neighboring Figuring It Out chapters and we support each other.  We also embrace Certain People who are venturing away from their familiar territory because the pressure from within is too much. As they cross our borders unsettled and terrified, we let them know it will be okay. We help them navigate until they realize it's okay to love yourself and love people in a tribe you cannot reside in full time.  We are forthcoming about the constant tension between the Figuring It Out and The Certain People and share stories as a Figuring It Out living amongst the natives. Those experiences allow us to learn from one another so we can walk our way through it when we are alone in The Wilderness.