Miscellaneous

Crisis, Insecurity, and Facing the Unknown

One of the earliest horror movies I remember seeing as a teenager was The Haunting, the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. I don’t remember too much about the actual storyline, besides the customary “people spend the night in a haunted house to test for the paranormal” plot, but what I do remember is the chilling door scene.

Anyone who’s seen it knows what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t, there’s an intensely creepy scene where two of the characters are huddled together in a bedroom while an unseen presence starts to loudly knock in the hallway. The knocks get louder as the presence gets closer to their room, until the bedroom door literally starts to bend inward from the force on the other side.

That scene has always stayed with me, not only because of how well done it was, but because it was the first time I realized how enjoyable being scared can be. 

There’s a lot of people who avoid horror, and I absolutely sympathize. I for one can’t stand any kind of gore, and it’s incredibly hard to find good horror movies that are exclusively based on fear and suspense rather than disgust.

And yet, there is such an incredible power when it comes to fear evoked in a form of media. 

As I spent more time working in social services and witnessing some terrible aspects of humanity, I started to avoid any kind of media that felt too “real”. I couldn’t stand family or legal dramas, especially if kids were abused. I couldn’t handle anything that reminded me of the world I saw at work every day. But what I could handle was fantasy, science fiction, and horror. 

Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between suspense and surprise, using the analogy of a bomb going off and shocking the audience (the surprise) versus the audience witnessing the bomb being placed, and waiting for it to go off (the suspense). As he stated, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

And yes, good horror movies have their moments of surprise, but the suspense has to be there too. We know the characters are in peril, before they do. We know something bad is going to happen, while they’re ignoring the signs. When the knocking creeps closer, as the characters huddle in fear, we hold our breath right along with them, waiting to see what will happen.

But there’s another element to good horror movies that is, in my mind, the most important. It’s what truly draws me to them, and why I find them a tempting break from reality. And that’s the magic of catharsis. The moment when the tension finally breaks. The moment where we can finally let that breath out.

And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it, with horror in media versus real life? A well-scripted catharsis, that gives us the ability to release the tension, let it all go, and just breath.

"Alright monster, let's do this!"

The Past as Prologue

I’ve always loved history. Despite the extreme bias in who often drives the narrative of what happened and why, there’s so much to be learned in looking at the past. So much has changed over time, and yet so much about humanity remains the same. I find it fascinating.

When I fly in planes, I think of all the people who lived who could never have imagined seeing our world from 10,000 feet above it. When I’m standing in old ruins, whether they be an Anasazi cliff dwelling or a medieval fortress in Germany, I think of the people who lived then, what they felt, what they experienced.

However, there’s an illusion when it comes to history. In order for our brains to process historical events, we tend to break it into pieces. Here’s where the Civil War happened and these were the major players; this was the Depression and the impact on the public. Everything is neatly chopped up into sections, like it was in our high school history books. 

It’s not wrong we do this, it’s a way to make sense without overloading our brains. Yet in reality, history is not a series of events, but a river, always flowing. There’s what we can see on the surface, and the things buried deeply underneath, but it’s all connected, and it never stops. 

We see things like this pandemic as a singular event, a major one, but singular nonetheless. Yet we are only here today because of so many choices and actions, some harking back to generations ago, that set a stage on which we now find ourselves players.

This is not an entirely new feeling, at least for those of us who are trying to take accountability and responsibility for the inequities in our culture. How do you make things right for the actions of ancestors who made choices ages before we were ever on the scene?

In my mind what truly feels overwhelming at the moment is not an awareness of a singular event, but rather the sudden realization that we are a part of this river, and we are being swept at high speeds into an unknown destination. We have always been a part of it, but we don’t always feel it. And feeling it is scary.

The truth is that we didn’t have to be here. We really didn’t. There are countries that took this seriously from day one, took all responsible measures with testing and quarantining. They had strong teams to work on managing the crisis, and strong leadership from the top positions. 

Yet we live in a country where our president understands nothing and cares even less, where some states still have not issued a stay at home order, where people still think it’s appropriate to gather in large groups to celebrate a Christian holiday. Where people claim that “freedom” matters above all, above the health of the most vulnerable among us (as long as everything goes according to their own personal criteria for freedom, and they don’t have to consider the rights of anyone who lives differently from them).

The stage for all of this was set such a long time ago, when it became the norm that a philosophy of individualism was held above all else. When it was decided to pretend that wealth and safety was only obtained by those who deserved it, and the rest of us were lesser. When people doubled down on using religion as a proof of superiority. And it’s only been enhanced by all the many choices over time that led to a narcissistic and scientifically illiterate shell of a man being held in high power.

How do you get catharsis from that?

"I don't need to listen to scientists, I'm a natural genius!"

When Leadership Matters Most

Not too long after the pandemic escalated, I found myself watching Angela Merkel deliver a national address to Germany. She isn’t my national leader, and I don’t know how much we would align politically, but I felt a desperate need to hear someone in a position of world power speak calmly and intelligently about what was happening.

We all know that during a crisis, leadership is key. Strong leadership is the difference between calm and chaos, lives saved and lives lost. Humans are social, communal creatures, but we also have strong fears, and good leadership helps us manage them.

There is nothing like a crisis for highlighting what both good and bad leadership looks like.

We’ve seen leaders step up in a myriad of ways. Politicians who were struggling with popularity before the crisis started are showing strong skills we couldn’t see in calmer times. Doctors and scientists are being calm, rational voices amidst a great deal of chaos. Managers are being supportive and understanding of the demands of trying to simultaneously work and parent at home. And individuals in every conceivable kind of situation are making sacrifices for the common good.

Then there’s the other side. The CEOs and managers who insist that their employees keep working in inadequate safety with insufficient protection while at the same time, they spend vast amounts of money on marketing to promote the idea that they care. The politicians who try to claim they “just learned” that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, despite it being a known fact for months, as an excuse for lack of decisive action. The people who think they can disbelieve a virus out of existence, or blame it on some random piece of technology, rather than take the science seriously.

The frustrating thing is that although leadership matters at all levels, strong leadership at the mid level cannot make up for inadequate leadership at the top. It makes a difference, absolutely; it saves lives, for sure, but for any organization or group to successfully weather a crisis, you need that strong, committed, intelligent leadership from every level.

All of us can step up and do our best. Yet a poor CEO can sink an entire company, a bad president can traumatize a nation.

"Enough."

Searching for Catharsis

So, here we are. In the midst of an pandemic, with poor national leadership, and a great deal of unknown elements facing us in the coming months.

We are dealing with a huge amount of trauma. People are being laid off, or forced to continue working with inadequate safety precautions. People living in poverty and people of color are facing hugely inequitable treatment in health care and employment. People are trying to work, and home school, and keep sane in our new non-normal. And to top it all off, we are surrounded by those delightful human beings that demand we must continuously be productive with our time or we are failures who lack discipline. (Stop telling me that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, Bob, I don’t care).

This isn’t a story. We don’t get the triumphant moment, where the music swells and we confidently stride into the night, having figured out exactly how to defeat the monster. The monster is everywhere, and every time. The greed, the selfishness, the prioritization of wealth over all.

So how do we deal with this kind of horror?

"Into the bin!"

Holding on to our values

Every year, on the first day of the leadership program I facilitated, we would hand out an activity sheet to help our participants identify their top values. They would start by highlighting ten, and then we’d make them cut it down to five, and then to three. We would always hear a bit of grumbling, some “how am I supposed to choose”, even some creative attempts to find alternate words that would encapsulate multiple meanings. Finally, in the end, they would have their three. And then, as the year went on, they would forget about it. But we didn’t. And at graduation, we presented their values back to them, as a reminder of what brought them meaning.

My co-facilitator had designed the activity based on an exercise in a book called The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism by Michael Lerner. There’s a fair amount of evidence that meaningful work has more to do with employee satisfaction that pure compensation. We knew we couldn’t remove the big stressors for our students. We couldn’t change the reality of working in human services, or save them from bad management decisions. What we could do was provide them with an alternate perspective, a reminder of why they chose to work in this field in the first place.

I recently heard a snippet of a podcast called Every Little Thing, where they talked to a man who repairs label printers. He’d never thought of his job as essential, yet he works with a medical company that does coronavirus tests, and uses the labels to ship all over the country. In other words, him coming in and servicing the machine is critical to saving lives. His dedication to his work has an entirely new sense of meaning.

Right now, we can’t erase the bad decisions that have put us where we are. But we can remember our values, our reasons why. There are a great many jokes being made about saving the world while watching Netflix in our underwear, but regardless, everything we do right now matters. It has meaning.

Whether we are high risk ourselves, or simply love and respect people at risk, we are choosing, every day, to put our community, to put humanity, first.

"I'm sorry I scared you earlier, I only wear this because I'm immunocompromised!"

Finding the Precious Amidst the Inane

My best friend lives in another state, and for many years now we have met online, almost every weekend, to play a game together. It keeps us in touch, we can chat about our lives, and then we can run around with big swords and hit things. I’ve often called it a form a therapy.

Since all of this started, I’ve realized that it’s much more than that. It’s hard to even explain how critical my friend and our sessions are to my mental health and sense of safety, but she is truly an invaluable part in working through loneliness and keeping me sane right now. Meeting up and playing a game may seem so insignificant on the surface, but underneath, it is so much more.

Everywhere you look right now, we are surrounded by the precious. The families finding ways to visit through glass, teachers learning new technology to support their students, volunteers signing up to adopt elders in care homes for online visits, animal adoptions increasing while people are at home, nature being rejuvenated during the break from humanity, health care workers playing joyful music every time someone comes off a ventilator.

I have another friend who is extremely artistic, and will often stop to take a picture of a crack on the sidewalk, or a leaf against a window. She possesses an amazing eye for photography, and the smallest things can suddenly turn into art in her hands. She has such an incredible ability to see the beautiful in the most mundane things.

We’re going to be experiencing a lot of difficult feelings right now, but our other emotions are still right there. We may have to adjust perspective to see it sometimes, but there will still be things that will make you smile, laugh, happy cry, and gasp in awe.

You have no idea how happy this bobcat sighting made my mother.
Taking Action When We Can
 
Our world is filled with contradictions right now. We need connection, but we can’t be together. We want to take action, but we can’t leave our homes. We want to help the vulnerable, but we need to give them space.
 
I’ll be the first to admit that there are days I get absolutely nothing done. Isolation exhaustion is definitely a thing, and there are times that it just gets overwhelming. There’s so many difficult feelings that are completely normal when dealing with something on the magnitude of a pandemic. Anyone who’s previously experienced depression is already familiar with contradiction, in that you often know logically what will help, but there are days you just lack the capacity to make it happen.
 
It’s also clear that we’re all a great deal more stressed and anxious. I belong to a beachcombing group on Facebook, where people will post pictures of our beautiful beaches as well as good finds, like agates or petrified wood. It’s normally quite fun. But lately, every time someone posts a picture of going to the beach, even if they are local, others will start complaining they should have “stayed home” and that this person is “part of the problem”. It’s frustrating, because I think most of us recognize that there’s a balance that needs to be struck between staying inside for community health and getting outdoors for our mental health. And yet these few people are only able to manage their stress by going on Facebook and getting angry at others for doing what they believe is inappropriate. We can have empathy for them, and understand that this is how they are dealing with their anxiety, but it’s not exactly helpful in any capacity.
 
So how can we deal with our feelings in a healthy way? There’s a great many resources out there on ways to self care, such as this list compiled by the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, so I won’t repeat them all. But I think there are a couple things worth highlighting.
 
For one, there’s a lot that we can’t control. The people who comment on those Facebook posts are trying to exert control over others, because they feel that lack of control in their own lives. It’s understandable, but it’s not constructive. Focusing on what we can do, what we can control, is critical.

Credit for this awesome infographic goes to The Counseling Teacher, who even has an editable version you can make for yourself or your family.

The other piece I find essential is taking action whenever I can. It’s not the same kinds of action all the time. There are days where I just clean, because cleaning my physical space helps me feel sorted mentally. There are days where my action is talking to a friend, or writing for just an hour, or finding new recipes online. And yes, there are days where I can be more active politically or engage with our world a bit more. But every day isn’t about saving the world – it can’t be.

It’s easy to feel like we’re not doing enough. I know, because I feel that way all the time. And there will always be those around us who want to criticize and tell us how we should be living our lives. But in the end, it’s about doing what actions we can, in that moment, for ourselves, and those we love.

"I think today is a self care day."

I want to take a moment here, and acknowledge that none of the above is easy or simple. There’s people right now who feel frustrated at being told “put it into perspective” when they’re dealing with a lot of anger and sadness. If someone just lost their job, thinking about appreciating the beauty around them is not going to be as vital as thinking about how to feed their family. If someone has a loved one who is sick, trying to force them to be optimistic is not going to help.

Dealing with trauma is very personal, and we all do it in our own way. Find what works for you. Just remember to ask for help when you need it.

"Feeling a little down...maybe I'll call Etta."

It’s taken me a long while to find the words to write about what’s going on the world right now. I knew I needed to write about it though, because writing is how I process, and I have to process to cope.

I wasn’t held back by writer’s block by any means, rather it was more a writer’s flood, a torrent of feelings and thoughts that were so interconnected and convoluted, I could barely get them out through my fingers for the longest time. And what I could get out was in fits and starts.

But the longer I’ve been sitting at home with my thoughts, the more I knew I needed to get the feelings out. Keeping it all in isn’t healthy, not for anyone. So here we are.

I hope you all get a chance to start processing your feelings. Whether you write, or talk, or make art, or chop wood, or whatever it takes.

As John Oliver said in his most recent segment, “The real test here isn’t whether or not our country will get through this. It will. The question is how we get through this and what kind of country we want to be on the other side.”

We live in an individualistic society, but we don’t have to be individualistic people. We can value our own needs and happiness while respecting the needs and happiness of others. We can suffer through this to become less, or we can survive it to become more.

Let’s remember to breath and find catharsis when we can. Have grace for ourselves when we can’t.

And if you do nothing else, remember to vote.

Welcome to the New Year

I had such good intentions of posting before the year ended. 

And it’s been far too long since I last posted, due to a combination of travel, holidays, a random dental emergency, and illness. I really wanted to write something as a wrap up to my first year of blogging, and yet, just didn’t manage it.

But I’m also a big proponent of the “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” path of life, so although I didn’t meet my goal, I’m just going to keep on keeping on.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this blog will continue to be something of a therapeutic lifeline for me. Writing is how I best process the world and my place in it, and I think I’m going to need to do a lot of processing this year. We’re only a few days into 2020 and the headlines are already in horrific territory. The uncertainty of everything feels like it continues to climb, and I think most of us would agree it’s already at a pretty unbearable level.

There’s so many new things I would like to try this year, and yet there are moments where it feels pointless. When part of the world is literally on fire, and we have a president attempting to start yet another endless war to distract from his own incompetence, it’s hard to feel like my little creative pursuits make much difference.

But when I think about how little time we all have in the grand scheme of things, and how little control we have over so much, it reminds me that my creativity is everything. Each of us have the capability to either take from the world or add to it. My corner may be small, my impact may be mostly on myself. But that’s ok. I’m still making a choice about who I am, and how I interact with the world around me. I’m choosing creativity, and kindness, and allyship. I hope you do too.

Happy New Year. Let’s do this.

What’s Left to Say?

I have a number of different leadership topics I’m working on for the blog, and originally was hoping to post one of those this week. But when you’re coming off a week with three separate mass shootings, and dozens of lives lost, somehow talking about workplace equity feels inadequate.

There is a connection, of course, as white supremacy infects every aspect of our culture. And I’m sure I’ll get back to it soon. But today my heart hurts and I just can’t do it.

There’s a lot of really eloquent writing out there on the systemic issues that are causing our problems with gun violence, and how it’s connected to a lot of other societal problems as well. There’s a lot of great advice about how to keep advocating for change. There’s a lot of powerfully and fiercely written criticism for those who keep diverting from the core problems to try and shield their racist and xenophobic beliefs.

Honestly, at this point, what is there to say about all of this that hasn’t been said?

I know what the problems are. I know what I can do as a concerned citizen, as insufficient as it may feel. I know that I’ll keep speaking up about racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other endless biases that damage people every day. 

Yet none of that stops the hurt.

One of the worst feelings in the world is the feeling of powerlessness. The realization that no matter what you might do or say, no matter how hard you are fighting to climb the hill, that at any moment someone can appear in front of you and boot you right back down. That your ascent wasn’t really a climb, just a temporary lift on a see-saw that is about to drop the instant the person on the other side has a better offer. 

That moment where you realize that despite having logic, and reason, and empathy on your side, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because there are people in this world who long ago traded in their soul for cash. 

That you can live in a country where the vast majority believe something needs to be done, and nothing happens, because we don’t have enough money to matter. 

I’ve never been religious. I was raised in a household with parents who encouraged me to make up my own mind about what I believed. Because of this, there have been various times where people raised in a religion have expressed surprise at who I am as a person. I still remember one woman at college, who asked me how I could be a good person without believing in god. Similarly, when a couple of Mormon missionaries started stopping by one summer and were invited in by my roommate, they expressed how if they didn’t believe in a god, they would be out in the world doing whatever they wanted all the time. 

I’ve never been offended when I’ve heard these things. It’s been more bemusing to me. Because to me, what these people were saying was that their choices in life weren’t really their choices. That they were doing anything good to get extra credit, and not because it was the right thing to do.

And I can’t help but think of this when I see yet another politician paying superficial obsequiousness to a faith, all while lining their pockets from corruption. There are people in this country who would trust them over me, because of what they say about their faith. But what about their choices?

Like how politicians love to talk about prayers. So many prayers. Every shooting, every tragedy, there are the prayers.

I’ve always taken the word pray very seriously. I know people who use the word in both spiritual and religious contexts. Some people think of it as talking to a deity, others to a universal force of some kind. 

I don’t ever use the word to describe my own actions. When people ask for prayers, I’ll tell them I’m thinking of them. For me, that’s the agnostic version. I hope, I think of, I send out good vibes. But to me, praying means invoking something more, and I don’t know if I believe in something more.

And it occurs to me that I, the non-religious, heathen agnostic, take praying more seriously than these politicians. Because when these people, who have real power and ability to create change, talk about praying, it is the most hollow of actions. They use prayer as a tool, as a device to play the role of the faithful, to look pious and concerned. And it is meaningless.

When it comes to belief, I don’t know for sure, because no one does. I suspect there’s more in this universe than we are capable of understanding. However, the truth is I don’t believe in god, and I don’t believe I get punished or rewarded after this life. 

I make the choices I make not because I fear consequence, but because certain things matter to me. Kindness matters, empathy matters. Taking care of people matters. Doing the right thing matters. It’s not about the next life, it’s about this one.

So how do we keep moving forward? I won’t lie, this weekend has been hard. Politicians love to talk about the mental health of shooters, but they never stop to think about the mental health of the rest of us. That there is a tangible, real, trauma that occurs to all of us when mass tragedies occur. That there are people every day now wondering if they’re going to be shot at work, at the concert, at the movie. That it becomes cumulative, and each time a little bit more overwhelming.

And this is just for me, a white woman. I can’t even imagine the daily toll if you are Latino or Black or Indigenous in this country. To know that if you were buying automatic weapons in vast numbers, suddenly gun control would become a major concern for conservatives. To be afraid to rely on emergency services if you are a victim, because of what it might cost in the end.

I don’t have any strong answers, because I’m sad, and when I’m sad my cynicism tends to overwhelm my hope.  I do know that writing this helps. Letting myself feel helps. Listening to music helps. Walking along the ocean and breathing in the air helps.

So this is one hope that I can be confident in. I hope you take care of yourself. I hope you remember we need all of us in this fight. I hope you unplug when you need to, be creative when you need to, go out in nature when you need to. I hope you surround yourself with people who live with love. I hope you let yourself feel the anger and sadness, but also the purpose and determination.

It’s about our choices.

The Gift of Forty

A week ago, I turned forty. Age is one of those things that on one level we can all recognize as relatively meaningless, and yet, birthdays still manage to have quite the impact.

With turning forty, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and self-reflection, and I have a great deal to say about women and confidence and leadership. But I want to take some time to do the topic justice. (Also, I am pet-setting a very emotionally needy poodle who has taken to sitting on my feet when I’m not paying enough attention, so deep analysis may be a little tricky this week).

So for today, I just wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned in my first forty years of life.

Kindness matters

I’ve spoken before about how I am not a fan of the word nice. To me, nice means behaving “properly” and how society wants you to act, especially as a woman. It’s a perfect little box that we are meant to fit in. Nice means prioritizing making others comfortable, even when they’re being sexist or racist or homophobic. Nice means asking politely to be treated as a full human being, and then not making a fuss when once again, the powerful put themselves first. And as I hit forty, I realize, I have no time for nice. I don’t care if the rich white man is uncomfortable with being called out for his bad behavior. I don’t care if the white woman gets teary at being called out for her privilege. I don’t care if the racist or sexist or homophobic jerk gets in trouble for ranting online. Nice doesn’t matter. 

But kind does. Kind means looking out for those who are most vulnerable. Kind means seeing the humanity in those most marginalized. Kind means calling out your own biases, and holding yourself accountable when you do damage. Kind is understanding that your intent doesn’t matter, and you need to do better. Kind is realizing that it doesn’t minimize your own struggles to acknowledge your privilege. Kind is putting people over profit. Kind is loving both yourself, and others.

Nice is a cage. Kind is a key.

The world is unfair. Fight for fairness anyway.

    I can safely say that before I worked in the world of Child Welfare, I had some pretty significant blinders on. That job is largely responsible for my high level of cynicism about the innate goodness of most people. There’s a difference between knowing what people are theoretically capable of, and then learning what people are literally capable of. 

    I also had another tough hit the night of the 2016 election. That’s when I realized that the misogyny in this country was still so strong that a large number of people would prefer an utterly incompetent male leader over a competent female one.

    And over the last few years, my heart has broken countless times at the blatant abuse of power and victimization of marginalized groups. There is a part of me that believes that humanity will always be doomed, because of those selfish and corrupt individuals who would happily pull all of us into the pit just so they can stay on top as long as possible. 

    I honestly don’t know if we can fix climate change in time, or stop some other kind of disaster for humanity.

    I also know I’ll never stop fighting for a better world anyway. It may be futile. But I’m pretty sure that no one reaches the end of their life and says, “Wow, I wish I was a bigger jerk to people.” or “Geez, I really should have exploited more people for profit.” I don’t have faith in a lot of things, but I do have faith in myself, and that choosing a life trying to make our world more fair for the oppressed is a life I can be proud to live. No matter the outcome.

Surround yourself with the right people.

    I think a lot of us, especially women, have a tendency to make allowances for others who are not treating us right. So often we question our judgement, tell ourselves we’re overreacting, make excuses. One gift of age? You eventually realize that life is too short to put up with toxic people. Your radar gets better. You realize that blood ties do not excuse bad behavior. That people who make you feel bad about yourself do not deserve to be called friends. That you can cut out those who would pull you down. That you can find your people, find your family, in a myriad of places. You deserve kindness and love, and don’t have to tolerate cruelty or toxicity.

This is not to criticize those who may be in genuinely abusive situations, which are much more difficult and dangerous to get out of. But so many of us tolerate negative, toxic, and harmful behavior when we don’t have to. We want to give grace, we want to be forgiving, we want to believe the best of those we care about. Yet what about giving ourselves grace, forgiving ourselves, believing in our own best? We deserve that, and to do it, we need to give ourselves the gift of being surrounded by loving, supportive, amazing people. 

There will always be a reason not to.

One of my work teams once did an activity where we wrote down notes, anonymously, saying what we appreciated about each other. I was both surprised and complimented when multiple people described me as fearless or adventurous. I would never describe myself that way. In my mind, I have bucketloads of fear, and feel like I generally play things very safe. 

However, one thing I’ve realized is that I have gotten better at moving through the fear. (Better, though not perfect).

Because, in the end, there will always be a good reason not to do something. A good reason to not move, to not change jobs, to not travel to that distant place or try that new thing. Only you can decide which reasons are too big to overcome. But if every reason is too big? That’s a good time to think about your choices, and the cost of fear.

I gave up a lot of security by quitting my job. I took a lot of risks moving to a state where I knew no one. None of it was easy.  But I don’t regret a second. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

You do you.

A side effect of being unpopular in school is that you grow up with a heightened sensitivity of what you choose to share with others. It’s taken me decades to get to a point where I am completely unabashed about how utterly geeky I am. I remember the day we had a work meeting, and everyone talked about a hobby they enjoyed. For the first time, I spoke openly about playing video games and how I found it really therapeutic to fight enemies in a game (I also may have used the phrase “big-ass sword”). People were surprised, and thought it was funny coming from me. They also accepted it unconditionally.

Accepting my weird, geeky self has led to writing a blog that uses a superhero figurine as metaphor and stories about video games to talk about leadership. And I love it. This blog is genuinely me.

So often the lessons we learn as children are the wrong ones. You don’t need to hide. Love what you love, be who you are, in all of its delightful weirdness. There will always be people who won’t accept it, but like I said above, you don’t need those people. There are plenty of us who will think you are wonderful, just the way you are.

I don’t know what the next few months will hold, much less the next decade. But if past history is any indication, I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m going to be. There will be failures ahead, this I know. But oh, what glorious failures. And in the end? I get to come out the other side even better.

Interview with Maya Angelou, May 19, 2013

Oprah: “So when whatever it is hits…”

Maya Angelou: “Thank you. Because I know something better is on the road for me. So you fired me? Good on you. And very good on me. Cuz what I’m going to get darlin’, you would long for.”

Empathy Isn’t Ending, For Crying Out Loud

Ok, I really, really wasn’t planning to write another post relating to data right after the first two. And then NPR, a source I usually enjoy for its content, published a piece called “The End of Empathy”. And I read it, and got annoyed. So now I have to write about it.

But this is only partly about data. Empathy is a really important topic to me, and I think it deserves better.

As I’ve said before, it’s important to call out how our media misuses data in service of an attention-grabbing headline. It’s easy for me to pick on Fox News for misrepresenting data, because I loathe their messaging. However, we should never let any media organization off the hook, including ones we support.

In this article on the supposed end of empathy, the author Hanna Rosin, quotes a statistic from a survey of studies done at Indiana University. “By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s a very shocking statistic. It’s what you’ll see most people quoting on social media when they post the link to the article and shake their heads about “these kids today”.

And I don’t believe it.

Now, I don’t want to come across as one of those people who will look at peer reviewed science and dismiss it. Studies are important when it comes to recognizing things like the efficacy of vaccines. But like I’ve said before, context is important. And drawing a conclusion about the entire population based on a study needs to be done carefully.

"Nuance? I can't get page views with nuance!"

Let’s break down some of the details of this study.

So for this particular study, the researchers collected data from 72 other studies that used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). According to their paper, this is “the only personality scale that follows a multi-dimensional theory of empathy”.

Wow, a multi-dimensional theory of empathy! Sounds great!

Snark aside, psychology and sociology have a number of indexes and other tools for measuring what happens internally for human beings. And this is helpful, because we need to be able to study and compare human thought and behavior. But remember, this isn’t taking a temperature. This isn’t a hard and fast number. It’s not objective. It’s a theory, and it’s used and interpreted by human beings.

Secondly, when you are pulling together the data of a number of different studies, dating from different decades, there’s a lot of information you don’t have. You may not be able to verify the validity of each study, to double-check the methods of research, or how participants were selected. You have no window into the biases or beliefs of the researchers. There’s a huge number of variables that may be unknown.

Thirdly, in this study, the researchers are collecting this IRI information to examine the change in college students over time. The researchers make deliberate mention of how they feel that this is a valid group to use, because college student populations have not changed much over time for “important demographic variables”.

So in the actual study, we are told we have 13,737 college students, of which it is estimated that 63.1% are female, and 69.0% are Caucasian, although the researchers admit that not all the studies they used included racial demographics.

And to be clear, when they say college students, they exclusively mean 4 year institutions.

And all of this would be fine, if the NPR article had bothered to make a distinction between “young people” and “college students”. But the author doesn’t. She uses these terms interchangeably.

She takes this information about a certain subset of the population, makes the broad generalization that it applies to everyone, and to top it off, makes some huge assumptions about what this means for our society as a whole.

"So based on the author's conclusions, we should be in total anarchy in about twenty years."

Now, my problem is not with the study itself. Sara Konrath and her associates wrote a really interesting paper. They talk about alternative theories, they acknowledge the limitations of their study, and are very clear on their data collection and analysis methods. They speak to the lack of similar studies being done in other countries, and a corresponding absence of cross-cultural information.

My problem is in the representation. I understand that all writers want a lot of clicks. I love getting clicks myself! And of course we love to come up with catchy headlines.

But what we say matters. If you’re talking about college students, you are not talking about people in the demographics that are less likely to go to college. You’re not including people in certain socioeconomic groups. You’re not talking about how attitudes may change for people at different stages in their lives. That is not everyone.

And if you’ve looked at 13,737 college students over the past few decades, that’s great. That’s a lot of information. But we have over 300 million people in this country right now. You may have an interesting piece of the picture. You cannot say it is the entire picture, not honestly. Not enough to conclude that “Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.”

There’s nuance to be had here. And this article shows none of it.

"If kids today have no empathy, clearly I am part of a much superior generation! Ha!"

I also want to take a moment to address something else from the article. The author is talking to a writer who is promoting his book on empathy, and includes this quote: “Breithaupt is alarmed at the apparent new virus of selective empathy and how it’s deepening divisions. If we embrace it, he says, then “basically you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy. Because if you feed into this division more and you let it happen, it will become so strong that it becomes dangerous.“.

I’m trying to think of a really polite way to say that I’m really tired of this kind of BS.

First of all, this “deepening divisions” rhetoric is being used so frequently, and I’ve seen it from a number of writers and creators that I respect. And it bothers me so much.

Because to me, speaking about deepening divisions is a huge red flag that we are dealing with someone who has not engaged with or read much about human history. To be blunt, If you think people are more divisive now than ever, you need to learn more.

And to me, it’s a double red flag when the word “civil” is used. Because telling people they need to be civil is a literal supremacist technique. I’ve written about this before, but claiming that oppressed people will get all their rights if they just ask “nicely” is a strategy of dominant culture to get everyone to sit down and shut up, and just accept the status quo.

Oppressed people finding their voice isn’t divisive. It’s empowering. And yes, to those who don’t want to hear those voices, or haven’t done the work to understand their own privilege, it is unpleasant. It does feel “uncivil”. It feels divisive when you want people to just go away, and they insist on continuing to exist, and even (*gasp*) being treated like full human beings. And many are attempting to deal with this by frowning and writing articles and publishing videos that bemoan how our society is just going down the tubes.

But there is always more to the story.

"No, there's no reason I have so many quotes from someone promoting a book. Why do you ask?"

Finally, it’s also a good reminder to be cautious in reading articles like this when the author finishes her piece with the declaration that the quoted Breithaupt has an “ingenious solution”, when he is oh-so-coincidentally selling a brand new book on empathy.

No bias there, I’m sure.

In the end, yes, we can look at studies like this, and have interesting discussions about the data. I think talking more about empathy is a fantastic thing. Studies that reveal some insight into how people think are great. But using data responsibly matters. And how you talk about things matter.

Empathy isn’t ending. There have always been those who have been cruel, and those who have been kind. Change happens, and attitudes and beliefs ebb and flow. Nothing is constant.

But let’s cut it out with the grand pronouncements, ok?

Data and Leadership

Last week I talked about some of the ways that data is misunderstood and misused. Today I want to circle back to leadership, and talk a bit about how these data issues can have far reaching impact in the workplace, and why every good leader needs to use data responsibly.

I know, I know, two posts in a row about data. But I think this is important for two reasons.

The first is that not everyone has access to the same levels of education, including math and science. There’s a large number of people who don’t have the background to understand how easy it is to misunderstand data, and inadvertently cause harm. The more we talk about it, and the more accessible we can make it, the more everyone benefits.

The second reason is that there are a number of people out there who know exactly what they are doing when they misdirect or abuse data. This happens extremely frequently with those in high levels of power. And I want all of us to have the capability to call out bad data when we see it.

Not all of us are managers, but all of us can be leaders. And a leader, at whatever level, needs to be able to question data being used in bad faith.

"Bob, your chart is terrible!"

Today, I want to break down one of the most frustrating examples I’ve seen of bad data used in bad faith, which was sent out by my agency’s HR department. Not only was the data suspect, the way it was delivered was problematic.

HR did regular employee engagement surveys, which on its own, is not necessarily a bad thing. As defined by Gallup, engaged employees are “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”. Doing these surveys is common at workplaces, and often a well-intentioned attempt to take the pulse of the workforce. But like most surveys, it’s extremely important to recognize the limitations of the data that you can collect.

And yet, a few years ago, the department sent out a very cheerful email to all employees. After the most recent employee engagement survey, they were thrilled to report the results. According to them, employee engagement was extremely high. In fact, we even beat the national average as reported by Gallup. We may have assumed that our overwhelmed, overloaded bureaucratic institution with constant turnover was struggling, but in fact, we were in great shape!

Any theories on what the issue might be with a message like this?

It’s a bit of a trick question. Because there’s not just one issue.

"I'm pleased to inform you that you're all very happy at work!"

Issue one – these surveys are voluntary. Now I don’t necessarily advocate forcing staff to fill out surveys. But tell me this – if you’re feeling disengaged at work, unmotivated, invisible, checked out – how likely do you think you are to do a survey asking you how you feel?

If you’re so overwhelmed with work that you’re doing overtime, and still unable to keep up with workload, how likely are you to stop what you’re doing to fill out a survey?

If you’ve spoken out to management and asked for help and support, and they’ve ignored you, how likely are you to think it’s worth your time to fill out a survey?

This is what is known as a sampling bias.

Let’s look at it this way. Say you want to do a survey to find out if everyone in your office would be willing to chip in for a new microwave. So you sit in the kitchen with your clipboard, and ask people as they come in to heat up their lunch. And you discover that a strong 90% of those people would be willing to give money. So you decide to let your manager know that 90% of the office is in favor of the idea.

But you didn’t ask the entire office. You asked the people who come into the kitchen. You didn’t ask the people who go out to eat, or go home for lunch. And those are the people who are less likely to want to chip in for an appliance they don’t typically use.

You didn’t sample everyone, so you can’t conclude your results apply to everyone.

This is what HR did. They sampled only those employees who had the time, interest, and inclination to provide feedback. And yes, most of those people would come across as engaged.

But that’s not all your employees. And HR should know that.

"I think we can safely say the two of us represent everyone's opinion!"

Issue two – we had huge rates of turnover at this agency. I know, because I worked in personnel for a number of years, and also handled hiring as a manager. It was not uncommon to see workers come in and burn out within a year, or for longer term employees to shift to the private sector.

So this employee engagement survey, even if you could get every employee to voluntarily fill it out, is missing a huge piece of data.

It’s missing the thing we can’t see. The people who aren’t there.

This is another common kind of bias, called survivorship bias. There’s a fantastic article on it written by David McRaney, that I highly recommend.

Essentially, we as humans, have a tendency to ignore what we cannot see, and give extra weight to what we do see.

Say, for example, that you are tasked with doing a survey of all the chairs in the office to see which brands hold up the longest. And you find some chairs that were bought twenty years ago, and yet are still in almost perfect condition. You make note of the brand, and think, wow, this brand is just amazing! We should only buy this brand from now on!

What you’re not seeing? All the chairs from that same brand that broke down and were thrown out years ago. The chairs that didn’t make it past a year or two. The chairs that would lead you to a different decision.

You’re missing an important part of the picture.

And again, this is what HR did. They didn’t do exit surveys, they didn’t follow up with ex-employees. They just looked at what was in front of them and used it to drawn conclusions for everyone. It’s not a true picture of what is happening.

"Well, I don't see any problems from up here!!"

Issue three – the presentation is a problem, as are the power dynamics.

This is not about why the data itself is important, but rather what you try to say with it.

Now it’s entirely possible that the HR team responsible for the survey and email didn’t realize the issues with their data. Which is rather concerning, but it’s possible.

However, it’s one thing for a co-worker to send out some information that could benefit from a second look. It’s a different thing when it comes from those who have power and control over your career.

There is a danger when those in positions of power misrepresent the truth, intentional or not. When people with power use data in bad faith, it has an impact. They’re sending a message, even when it’s not deliberate.

And I can guarantee that HR does know the turnover rates for the agency. I can guarantee that they were very aware of the problems employees faced with workload, stress, burnout, and other office frustrations.

We can give others the grace of assuming good intentions. But it doesn’t give them the right to not be called out for what they say. And HR should be called out for this.

Because there’s a big problem with HR sending out an email that says “you are all really happy and engaged, aren’t we so lucky!” while ignoring all those missing pieces of data.

It sends a strong message that your problems are not important. That they care more about their numbers looking good than delving into the reasons people are leaving. That if you’re not happy, the problem is entirely with you, and not the agency.

This is why I use the term bad faith to describe how data is sometimes used. Because data is good for educating and making informed decisions. But when you’re using it to sugarcoat, minimize problems, or otherwise distract focus from the negative, you’re not using it in good faith.

It’s one thing to want to encourage positive thinking. But when you refuse to acknowledge the negative, and try to throw sparkles over the situation, it’s patronizing. You’re trying to invalidate employees who are not engaged. You’re telling them they’re the minority, based on bad information, instead of trying to actively solve what’s wrong.

"No, I don't want to hear about your problems, the data proves that everything is fine!!"

I know this may seem like a lot to write about one email, but I think it’s such a good example of how small things can have a big impact. I still remember this email after several years, because of how insulting it felt.

When you are in a leadership position, it’s important to consider these things.

Doing a survey is fine. But be honest about what you’re measuring and what might be missing.

Sending out an encouraging email is great. If there are some positive trends in the data, fantastic. But don’t make grand claims. Don’t insult the intelligence of your employees by pretending one survey proves anything beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And above all, be aware of how you’re presenting your information. If you have power over others, you have to consider that in your message. You will not always be able to see your own bias, but if you are open to criticism, people will let you know.

As with all of the important tools of leadership, this is about being mindful, careful, and smart. A hammer can be used to hurt or to build. Data is no different. Use it wisely.

Data Matters

I want to do something a little different today and talk about data.

I know, not the sexiest topic in the world. But it’s an important one.

I was in a unique position while working for a social services agency, because I didn’t start in that field. I majored in biology while an undergrad, and after college I worked in the natural sciences for a number of years. I worked on a number of studies, and even published a paper called “Variation in resource limitation of plant reproduction influences natural selection on floral traits of Asclepias syriaca”, which is very fancy language for the time I spent an entire summer measuring flowers under a microscope.

One of my required courses as a science major was statistics. It was an interesting class, but what was most interesting was how it made me realize that statistics are incredibly easy to abuse. People are often impressed by them, because, well, they look impressive. But the truth is there are huge limitations and how statistics are used can have dangerous repercussions. Data can be used to oppress and abuse. It can be used to reinforce the status quo. It can be used to outright lie. And that’s why we need to understand it.

Even heroes needs math!

Coming from a science background meant that I had some pretty horrifying moments in joining social services, when I realized how data was talked about and used in making important decisions. Because it was bad. Really bad.

When I was recruited to join the training team for a local leadership program, I knew I was going to have to talk about data. In order to graduate, each participant had to design, implement, and complete a project. (To the best of their ability – we did give leeway for existing in a giant bureaucracy that could crush a months long project in minutes flat). And the last thing I wanted was for them to continue following the agency’s lead when it came to the use of data in project planning and implementation.

My co-trainers were kind and encouraged me in my data needs. Logically, I knew part of a one day session was never going to be enough to change the behaviors of a whole agency, but I had to try.

And as we hear a lot of the political discourse that is happening in the news, I feel like I need to talk about it again. Because there is a lot of bad data out there.

For some reason, the training montages always leave out this part.

Item 1 – who benefits from the data?

In the 1990s, pharmaceutical company Merck was developing an arthritis drug called Vioxx. They wanted FDA approval, because approval means money. So they engaged in a number of unethical practices to fudge their results in the clinical trials. The worst part is that they were not just hiding unpleasant side effects, but actual deadly ones. The end result? In 2006, estimates stood at 88,000 Americans having heart attacks from taking the drug, with 38,000 of those events being fatal. The drug was pulled, but the health impacts lingered.

More recently, Boeing has made the news for their 737 Max plane being involved in two crashes. Although there are still ongoing investigations, there is some evidence that the Federal Aviation Administration allowed Boeing to choose their own personnel to conduct safety studies, allowing the manufacturer to hold most of the power in approving their own aircraft. And if your job depends on you finding an aircraft safe enough to go to market in time for an important deadline? It’s going to get approved as safe.

It’s important to understand that this happens a lot in studies. Some of it is deliberate. Some of it is accidental. Some of it is due to unconscious biases. But you have to ask the questions, any time you see a study. Who paid for it? And who benefits?

As you can see, there's a clear increase...

Item 2 – correlation is not causation

People really struggle with this one. And it can be confusing.

Conveniently, there’s always plenty of examples of how this one works. Pretty much any time you pick up a paper, you’ll see some form of this.

Recently, an article was published about a study that found a correlation between men’s cardiovascular health and how many pushups they could do. Simple enough, right?  And most follow-up articles you find about it have headlines like this one from USA Today that say “Men who can do 40 push-ups have a lower risk of heart disease”.

Then there’s another type of headline, like this one from the Good News Network: “New Harvard Study Says That Men Can Avoid Heart Problems By Doing a Certain Number of Push-ups”.

Do you see it?

In the first article, they are reporting a correlation. Men who can do a high number of push-ups also have a lower risk of heart disease.

In the second article, they are reporting a causation. Go do push-ups, and you will lower your risk of heart problems.

Both of these are top articles on google. Both are reporting the same study. Both use the same data. And one is drawing the exact wrong conclusions.

When I was writing on empathy previously, I looked at a number of videos on Youtube. And I watched a particular one that talked about the science of increasing empathy. It’s a well intentioned piece, but there’s a flaw. At the end, they have an actor pretending to be homeless, and they watch as their study participants donate money. The participants who watched a video with a personal story about homelessness donated more money on average than the participants who watched a video with only statistics. So in the experiment, they confidently conclude that the personal video caused the participants to donate more.

It’s possible that this is the case. But again, we don’t have enough data to know for sure. There definitely seems to be a correlation. But a correlation is not causation. Much more data is needed, with a much bigger group of participants, before you can say something didn’t happen by chance. Maybe the participants were influenced by the video they watched. And maybe the designer of the study, subconsciously wanting a specific result, happened to sort the people in specific ways. Or maybe the people were just coincidentally sorted in a way where people who tend to donate more were in one particular group.

And this is the problem with much of pop culture science. It’s meant to make an impact, but it’s limited. This is why studies need to be repeated, with different participants and different scientists.

So if you see a really exciting headline, just remember to ask yourself. Did they prove causation? Or are they jumping to conclusions?

Ugh, of course it was a fake graph! Do your research!

Item 3 – getting only part of the picture

There’s a British magician named Derren Brown who once filmed himself flipping a coin and getting ten heads in a row. Something very statistically improbable, and yet he made it happen in under a minute. Magic!

Only, it wasn’t. Because he was only showing the last minute of what actually happened. And what actually happened was that he filmed himself flipping a coin for over nine hours, until he got the results he wanted.

One of the most popular “health indicators” in our society is the use of the BMI (Body Mass Index). For many years, the BMI has been used to provide a part of the picture when it comes to a person’s health. But it’s not a complete picture.

Did you know where it comes from? The original formula was developed by a Belgian mathematician named Adolphe Quetelet, back in 1835, in an effort to define a “normal” man. So almost 200 years ago, this guy crunched some numbers. And that’s fine, that’s what mathematicians do.

Then, in 1972, a researcher named Ancel Keys modified the formula, when he studied 7,400 men.

Sit with that one for just a moment…

Now, after years of major health organizations promoting BMI numbers as something to aspire to, more recent studies indicate that the BMI may not be the most accurate indicator of health, including for the following groups: Asian people, athletes, women who may be pregnant or nursing, nonpregnant women, and people over 65.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I think that if you take all women who are pregnant or nursing, and all women who are nonpregnant, than you actually end up with…let me calculate here… all women?

And this isn’t even delving into into racial biases when it comes to health studies and data.

In fact, Keys himself didn’t think the BMI should be a diagnostic tool, as there are so many variants in health for each individual. It was intended to show an average for a population, not an aspirational goal for an individual.

Caroline Criado Perez recently released an entire book on the way science has excluded women from studies, and focused almost exclusively on men. Everything from seatbelts to medications can be more dangerous for women, because of this bias. You can read an extract here.

Excluding half of the world’s population is not good science. And misusing things like the BMI or designing safety measures based on men’s measurements can cause real damage to real people.

So it’s important to ask. Who’s not being included here? What data might I be missing?

What...am I even looking at!?!

Item 4 – misdirection

This one isn’t about who funded or initiated a study. This is about people taking numbers and misusing the data to prove their own conclusions.

One recent example is the movie Captain Marvel. Heading up to the release date, a number of people online, mostly men, were deeply critical of the female-led movie and the lead actress, Brie Larson. These men kept talking about what a failure the movie would be, and they would do everything they could to present data that supported their position.

After the movie’s opening weekend, the box office on Monday showed a drop of over 70%. Immediately the critics jumped on this number, writing that it proved that the movie would be a flop.

The problem? That kind of dropoff is completely normal for big blockbusters. More people go to the movies on the weekend than on Mondays. It’s a number that only seems shocking if you don’t know any of the context.

This is a strategy you’ll see a lot when it comes to political discussion. And one of the most common ways to misdirect people about data is to use a graph.

I won’t go through every way that graphs are poorly used, although I do highly recommend reading this fantastic breakdown by Ryan McCready.

Some graphs are bad through sheer incompetence, but sadly, a large number of them are manipulated on purpose. Fox News is one example of an organization that consistently misuses public data to draw faulty conclusions. They’ve played with the axes on their charts to make changes over time seem more significant, double-counted data to improve the numbers that matter most to them, and my favorite, made a pie chart with numbers that came to a total of 193%. (For those of you unfamiliar, pie charts go to 100%. You can’t eat 193% of a pie).

This is why it’s important to look critically at any data that is presented to you. You should always be able to go back to the original source and find a match in what is being presented. If you don’t, you’re being mislead.

So who’s presenting this data? And what do they have to gain?

Death to bad data!! Aiieeeee!!

We live in a world where we are inundated with bad information. Organizations are run by people and people have agendas. Being able to think critically and question our sources is vital to making good decisions. This is particularly true if you are in a position of leadership. Because you’re not just making decisions for yourself. You’re impacting employees, co-workers, customers, and clients.

And I get it. I’ve been in management. I know how little time and money there is to think about data.

But the cost is far greater if we don’t.

Why start a blog?

I quit my job this year. I had been with the same public service organization for almost ten years, in a variety of positions. I’d been promoted multiple times, and was most recently in a position doing work I really enjoyed. But the culture and management of the organization had gotten to a point where my health, both mental and physical, was being negatively affected to a degree I could no longer ignore.

Me after a typical day of work.

I didn’t think of leaving as a defiant act, just as a necessary one. And yet, as I talked to a number of colleagues and co-workers, I heard the same thing again and again – “Wow, I wish I could do that”. Not one person questioned my choice to leave a stable job with decent benefits without another position lined up.
 

Reflection is deeply important to me. I like to believe that we can grow from all experiences, including the deeply negative. This blog is my attempt to process my experiences, reflect on what I’ve learned, dig into other perspectives, and hopefully come to a greater understanding of what happened, and how best to move forward.

I want to use this opportunity to not only reflect on workplace trends that I feel are both short-sighted and dangerous, but also to brainstorm and problem-solve for how to make things better.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. I hope any readers would question me if I did. But I think there is space to have some honest talk about leadership, management, and the way power is allocated.

There are many things we may not be able to impact, but we won’t know until we try, right?

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