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Sunday, October 7, 2012

On The Benefits Of Eternal Cluelessness


Episode One
When my older daughter was born, everything was fine in the hospital. The nurses handled mostly everything. They knew what to do.
Back at home, for me, it was like "The Hunger Games" without a bow and arrow.
Some of it was obvious - food and fresh air and sleep.
But most of it was very much not. 
Tick, tock. Eight o' clock at night. We put a pretty onesie on her and lay her in her crib.
There she was.
There we were.
It was time to sleep. 
We just watched her. 
Until suddenly she started crying. Do we let her cry?
I voted yes along with Dr. Spock. My husband voted no, citing meaningless cruelty.
Then she resolved everything by throwing up her dinner.
Monday he went back to work. I called him bright and early.
"What do I do now?" I said.
"What do you mean, what do you do?"
"What am I supposed to do with her? I don't know what to do." I looked out the window, blinking, confused.
"Take her to the park, I don't know."
"Oh," I said. Couldn't I have thought of that?
"Just establish a routine. It'll be fine." 
"Okay."
I hung up the phone and considered. We had a huge, $300 Perego stroller. I put her in it. She squirmed and cried. 
I lifted her out and put her in a knapsack, the Snugli. She calmed down. 
I didn't take it off for six years, until my older one started preschool.
"Everybody" said to put them in the stroller; that I was crazy; that I was going to hurt my back. But eventually I figured out that I had to learn what they needed for myself. As long as they wanted the Snugli, they got it.
I dumped the Perego and got a cheap umbrella stroller for $19.99, packing it mostly with groceries and library books.

Episode Two
This one takes place a few years ago, as the older one was coursing through high school.
More studious than I ever was, I found her sitting up in the kitchen at 10:30 at night studying a Hebrew PowerPoint full of what looked like gobbledygook.
"What is this?" I asked her.
"It's from the substitute teacher," she said. "We're being graded on it."
When I went to yeshiva, I also got out at 5:30 p.m. But the teachers were Jewish wives and mothers teaching us to become the same. My kid was in some kind of decathlon.
I tried to dismiss it as just a crazy incident. School is full of them, right?
Another day she comes home, another problem. "The history teacher is teaching us from one textbook, but the test questions are coming from somewhere else."
Again, looking back at my high school, we studied history too, but my life was not about memorizing test books and test banks. It was about subjectivity, and the red pen. No the teacher wasn't always right. But most of the time, you learned.
Meanwhile my younger daughter had a lot of questions in Talmud class. And the rabbi, a very learned and beloved rabbi, put her off all the time. We used to joke that we would get him some flipcards. Then, instead of saying "not now," he could could just lift up the one that suited his particular choice of phrase.
You hate to be the problem parent, but finally I called. 
Once.
Twice.
Three times. 
I felt clueless, because I wasn't there, and times had changed, and maybe I just didn't understand the educational process. 
Until that one response, dismissive, cold: "We have many students here, and most of them do just fine. I need to know the specific data points that support your complaints."
Data points?
It was right then and there that I knew: This was not the right school for them. 
And we began the long, slow, agonizing process of breaking away from the mold we had been raised in for decades, the mold our parents expected us to stay in, the mold we were told was the right one. And put them in a private secular school which honors their faith, nurtures their hearts, and respects their diversity as individuals.
We couldn't admit we were clueless about the right school for them. Because we were so sure that there was only one right path and we had to learn to conform to it. 
But when we decided to follow the logic of ignorance - that we don't necessarily know what's right, and so we need to be open to learning - a different universe opened up for our children, and for us. 
When our older daughter graduated high school, it was awesome - a model U.N. where the nations actually got along (well, mostly). I looked at the young people, so obviously relaxed and happy, and I could not stop crying for the time we wasted worrying about breaking with the past. 

Episode Three
Throughout my career in government communication, the #1 thing executives tell me is that people want "just the facts, Ma'am." The standard narrative goes that people are "drowning in information" and "just need to know where to find things." That our job is to give them that information and walk away.
That's all true - but only partly.
It's partly true because the government normally does a very poor job of organizing information, particularly information that "outsiders" need. Keep in mind that "outsiders" can be defined as employees - anyone who lacks the many years of experience, and/or the professional network, that can tell them "where the bodies are buried." 
"Insiders," in contrast, know how to find obscure information.
Compounding the problem is the fact that, unless you are a subject matter expert in just about everything, you will eternally be clueless about the technical issues surrounding the particular mission of your particular agency. There is no human way that communicators can be "in" on every conversation, schooled on every subject, up-to-date on every single pertinent article and research and report. 
So it will happen that you find yourself immersed in situations where the technical ebb and flow is going on. And you are surrounded by people who are in effect speaking a foreign language. And you get the sense that there is an over-emphasis on all the technical detail. 
It is almost like listening to your father and mother go back and forth about the minutiae of homework and finances and family, and there is a conversation happening at that level, but a meta-conversation maybe is happening too. And you find that because you are almost blind and deaf to the substantive conversation, your eyes and ears become more attuned to the meta-conversation.
At that level you say to yourself, in all your cluelessness, "Is the communication optimal here? Or is something else happening, something to block it?" And maybe you can't literally "prove" anything is awry, but you can sense it in the air.
Which leads to the conclusion that I have come to about organizational communication - in government or elsewhere. And that is that the #1 thing people want is meaning. They want to belong to a mission that counts. They want their work to make a difference, to be worthwhile. 
Yes, they need the facts sufficient to do their jobs.
Yes, they need to know where to find things.
Yes, they need to know they're getting paid.
But what people are starving for, what they don't get often enough, is meaning - feeling - passion. Communication that comes from the heart. That includes them in the professional family, in the network, in the community, in the team. 
How do you learn the most important things in life? It's not from cold, distant, glossy brochures. It's not from a book. It's not from a teacher. 
Learning happens when you are in the situation. And you are thinking critically, and attuned to your own emotions.
You can't learn unless you first accept that you are clueless. It's an embarrassing feeling not to know. It makes you feel vulnerable, and weak.
But there is no other way to live, to learn, and to grow except to accept that cluelessness, and if you can even to embrace it.
So listen to what your not-knowing is telling you. In the end you find out a lot. Strangely, even, that you're stronger when you admit your own ignorance, and weaker when you pretend to know it all.