Sunday, April 20, 2014

Blame Hitler


In "Hush" a young girl's friend is effectively murdered, and the ghost knocks at her window in her dreams until she pursues justice.

Today I started reading "Unchosen," by Hella Winston. Normally disdainful of books, I walked in the street fixated to the Kindle. And suddenly started to cry uncontrollably.  

(Like the writer Nora Ephron said, you have to put the pain on paper or it lives in your head forever.)

My entire nuclear family on my father's side, which I have never understood in proper sociological or historical context, could have been lifted, in a certain sense, from Chapter 1.

It talks about Yossi, a young Hasidic man who shaves his sidelocks and beard in a gesture of freedom.

Yossi's parents strictly forbade any contact with the outside world and he had barely any education. 

His grandparents were raised in New York City and had not known such stricture until the post-Holocaust immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe. They adopted it. 

Yossi is one of so many people who cannot live within the restrictions of their communities, and yet they cannot reject it and still be a loved part of the group.

It's not exactly my historical story, but close. My own father's parents both survived the camps - physically intact if not necessarily emotionally. He is a playful guy who loves American culture. And he married my mother because he loves her, in an act of rebellion against arranged marriages and the values represented by his Hasidic dad. 

Like Yossi's grandfather, my Zayde went from wearing American style suits to Eastern European garb. In a community where the rabbis blamed assimilation and Zionism for the concentration camps.

My father was always ambivalent about his act of independence. It was a slap in the face to his father. By being who he was, he had broken the rules - which left him forever marked and shamed, no matter whether anyone said it aloud or not. 

For her part, my beautiful, loving, sincere mother was always treated as inferior. I could not stomach this, and how my dad seemed to hypocritically shift between enforcing Old World rules and pursuing New World freedom.

Nobody chose to live this tragedy. It was all inflicted on us by the actions of one evil man, may he burn forever in Hell, and those who went along with him.

My aunt, on my mother's side, lives up in Monsey and is super-strictly religious. She became that way so her kids could marry. And she thinks she knows why I'm not religious. 

"Blame Hitler," she once said. "He really fucked your family up."

It's true. Hitler directly killed six million. And then he systematically destroyed many of those who survived. Because the families that remained looked for a way to explain the unexplainable and they tried to carry out an insane kind of logic on their kids.

Of course keeping out the outside world doesn't work. Just like we don't know why the Holocaust happened. Just like my mother and my father and their now-deceased parents before them (may they rest in peace), were all victimized.

Some people find it odd that I - rejecting most religious ritual personally - feel so passionately about defending the right of people to be religious. And to discover themselves in religious community.

But structured faith is essential to life, like water, for many. Even for those who are not traditionally religious, like me. 

May G-d have mercy on all our souls, and grant all the Yossies and Chanas a joyful escape from the purgatory of the streets they wander, sometimes literally. May we find solace in a place where everyone is cherished for simply being who they are.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Numb, Addicted & Helpless


In Ft. Lauderdale on spring break the kids are getting drunk like crazy. Crazy.

And we are older, and asking why they need to drink so much, holler and gather in a place just to lose themselves in sleeping around.

They seem numb.

I read this book on the plane, "Hush." It's  a true story and the author will not name herself. She lives in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, was raised ignorant and insular. And helplessly watched a brutal crime that tormented her to action.

This woman also talks about numbness, the inability to do anything at the time of the crime or after. And how one day, suddenly from within, she felt excruciating rage that propelled her into doing something.

The actor Rob Lowe once drank and drank, the life of the party, until he wasn't. He talks about his alcoholism - which he characterizes as overpowering - in a couple of books. I read a bit from "Love Life."

In it he shared a story from his rehab. It was about a fellow addict who had a seemingly impenetrable exterior, even in tough and intrusive group therapy.

The guy had numbed himself with alcohol for so many years. As a child some neighborhood kids stomped his infant brother to death. And he, sitting there at age four, could do nothing about it.

The leader had the group wrap this famous man in a blanket, and together they took him back in time. Before the bad thing happened. Before the powerlessness, shame and guilt that turned his exterior emotions to stone and led him to the bottle. 

They held him until they saw him take that crucial first step of letting it go. Only when he was no longer that child could he begin taking back his power as a grown adult.

I was so moved by the story in that book, and by "Hush." I am awed by people who have been knocked down so hard in life and they relentlessly get back up instead of hiding in a bottle, in bed, in the refrigerator or at the mall. 

This is the spirit of the other new book I want to buy, "Own It," by Tabatha Coffee. But I don't think I am there yet.

This story kind of tells why. We were walking on the beach and someone threw a frisbee right in my direction. I saw it coming and froze. Just like in my dreams, where I can see the bad guys chasing me but I cannot move, nor fight, nor stay alive. The end seems predetermined.

Therefore, afraid of the frisbee, I crouched in the sand until it landed. And heard all the players laughing.

I was so embarrassed, but tried to wave it off. "No worries, I am spatially disabled," I said. 

Afterward I wondered what it was in me that left me so immobilized. So helpless and so in fear.

In the end it does not seem all that complicated. Obviously it has something to do with my past, an incredibly sheltered upbringing and sexist social structure where father = G-d. Sure it had good aspects, but overall it left me terrified. Any free thinking meant you were an "apikorais," heretic, evil, cursed, destined to wander alone for all time.

What is frightening to me is that I cannot stop myself from thinking more and more freely with time. And that the more I do so, the happier and more at peace I feel.  Also more productive at work.

I love being culturally Jewish, I love G-d, but I can't tolerate the idea that you must follow a certain set if rules in order to find salvation. It's just bullshit.

At work and at home, helplessness is not holy. Empowerment is.

Here's wishing peace to all people in this world, whom I believe that G-d loves equally. And to those of the Christian faith, happy Easter.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Because I Said So"




So I spent a week in supervisory training at my agency (The National Archives) and they taught us a really good thing: You've got to expose your mental models, your reasoning.

In other words, having the right answer is not enough. Doing the work yourself is not the job anymore.

Your job is to motivate other people toward a shared goal.

Sounds obvious, but here's the thing: Many leaders misunderstand what "shared goal" means.

It is NOT your goal that you share with the people. Rather it is "our goal" reached by consensus around what has to be done.

The way you get to "our goal" is to lay bare your logic: how you got from point A to point B.

In my group we're working toward our own shared goals. And I'm spending probably 50% of my time this week just talking to people about the reasoning. Then tweaking it according to their responses.

Yeah - that's the other thing. You get to "we" and "our" by adjusting what you've got along the way.

Many leaders fear being seen as stupid for not knowing all the answers. This is unfounded.

What employees really want is to be included in the process of setting out the goals, and also to help correct them - when incorrect assumptions or faulty logic has been used.

When the enterprise works according to rational logic - not "intuition," "gut feel," "my preference," or other arbitrary criteria - then everyone can put a stake in the ground.

Happy Friday and here's to building and rebuilding, from the ground up.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How To Get Your Innovation Moving In A Bureaucracy: Leverage The Leader's Field Of Vision


In the movie Paranoia, Liam Hemsworth plays an innovative developer who gets caught between two lifelong rivals. His problem? Overeducated but underpaid and exploited, and he can't get his good ideas taken seriously no matter how good his presentation.

In real life, professionals at every stage find themselves frustrated by a seemingly immovable and impenetrable corporate mechanism that seemingly resists every attempt to inject a new idea. I have often wondered why we put such an emphasis nowadays on advanced education and technical certifications and then ignore the precious advice we've already paid for.

But it can be done. One example: Goucher College provides academic support for the Hispanic community on the weekends, including daycare. But something was missing, realized one student: The community needed a GED testing center, because the credential is important to apply for jobs successfully.

Instead of dropping a voting card in a suggestion box, the student did extensive research, found out exactly how the process works, showed the school how it could be done in a practical manner, and won approval. In my mind there is no better example of innovation for good - this student has  put food in the mouths of children.

Align With The Leader's Field Of Vision!

When presenting his idea, Liam Hemsworth did not understand the perspective of his boss. The leader had created a great technology, only to have it stolen by a partner-turned-rival who was better at marketing it. Had he understood that perspective, he could have presented the innovation in a way that fit into the leader's field of vision.

Do you know how your leader views the world? Vision and values are not enough. You must see what they see when they look out the window from their office. This is essentially how they think, how they take in information, and what motivates them to act.

You Are A Thousand Times Better Off With Your Leader's Support.

A common misconception about innovation is that it must upset people. This is absolutely not true. In fact, most organizations and most people actually welcome it.

The problem is that change takes many years to take root, and you must have an incredibly strong base of support to withstand the winds that will whip against you like a hurricane. (Consider the Internet, social media, and now mobile and "Internet anywhere.") 

So when you are the lone ranger who has an innovative idea - even one as simple as my friend's, who said we should use smaller margins in government correspondence to save paper - do whatever you can to fold it into your leader's vision. You may not get credit for the concept - in fact it is probably better if you do not. What matters is that you use all your cognitive and emotional intelligence to figure out how to get the idea done, and then focus very very hard on researching, presenting and then executing it.

Paranoia has a different ending than the one I'm presenting here. I won't spoil it except to say that Hemsworth finds it impossible to work within the rules. But if you intend to make your career in a large bureaucracy, you have to find different tools than the ones he employed. Understanding where your boss is coming from, and then presenting a solution that makes it easy to say yes, is a very good way to think about it.

* All opinions my own.

Copyright @ 2013 On My Mind.