The Argument for Holistic Approaches

We like to put things into nice, neat categories. It helps us organize. It allows us to rely on well-honed heuristics that pre-determine assumptions about an idea or an organization. We do this every day in thousands of covert ways to make our lives more efficient and psychologically satisfying.

We also do this with our community change organizations. We have housing organizations. We have mental health organizations. We have civic organizations. We sometimes talk about these as sectors and emphasize the need for enhanced “cross-sector collaboration”. We less often acknowledge that these sectors are in many ways artificial. They were created by us and are maintained by us.

This dividing of the boundaries of helping organizations (and the funding that supports them) often leads us to ineffective approaches in part because they fail to acknowledge that the outcomes we seek — reduced poverty, improved well-being, declines in infant mortality, etc — are all connected on fundamental (and often causal) levels.

I just finished reading a very nice National Bureau of Economic Research paper entitled ‘Poverty, Depression, and Anxiety: Causal Evidence and Mechanisms’. In short, this review highlights something that we all discuss intuitively — poverty and mental health are inextricably linked.

Unfortunately, our social service system is not built to deal with this reality. We have incredible programs (although clearly not enough of them) that connect people to mental health services and supports to prevent and treat adverse symptoms. We have dynamic initiatives that help people emerge from poverty by improving employment, increasing financial skills, and expanding education. Yet, too often, these resources are disconnected across sectors with the assumption being that they are separate issues. While the mental health/poverty dichotomy is poignant, the same could be said in other areas we well.

These lines were created by us and can be changed by us. We need to embrace holistic approaches that don’t do one thing or another — or even take one thing and tack on another — but perhaps combine the efforts, in an integrated and intentional approach that doesn’t see one thing as adjacent to another, but considers them in concert together. This has potential to change how we strategize, how we partner with others, how we distribute funds, and — perhaps — how we structure our organizations as a whole.

We are working hard at this every day at Norwescap, building an integrated system for comprehensive participant support. Follow our journey and leave your idea, question, or comment below so we can learn from each other.

Shifting Perspective

After nine weeks of commandeering my dining room table as a work location, I decided today was time for a change. When COVID-19 struck, my normal work-from-home office was lost by the demands of virtual education, so I shifted operations to a new location. The dining room spot was fine, with a nice view out the window and the thrilling backdrop of my coffee machine enhancing all my Zoom meetings.

Today, I have picked up and moved exactly 15 feet into another room and faced my workstation in the opposite direction. While the geographic dispersal is minor, it feels different. Is it better? I can’t say just yet, but the simple act of shifting perspective presents me with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

This is true in all aspects of our lives. Even when pandemics don’t threaten our public health, we are susceptible to living and thinking into ruts that lead us down well-worn paths. These rigid guardrails are not always bad, but they limit our creativity. In normal times, our work life builds in experiences that challenge these norms — new meetings, new places, holiday celebrations, conferences, travel — but, now all these things — both professional and personal — seem to happen in the same virtual “room” leading to a greater likelihood of falling into the malaise of the comfortable.

Sometimes, we just have to step outside the comfort of these pathways, to shift our vantage point, to listen to a new perspective, to force ourselves to think differently– if even for a moment. We can always return to what was good in our previous location or view. I may find myself back at the dining room table after all (or hopefully steal my office back when summer hits!).

So, if you’re feeling in a bit of a rut, shift your perspective — mentally, physically, emotionally, relationally. It might just be the change that you need right now.

Locally Vocal

Over the past week, we have seen the energy around the tragic death of George Floyd sweep across the world. Thousands have protested in large cities and small towns. Many more have voiced their sympathy, outrage, and distress on social media. The solidarity is powerful, even if the core message is threatened by cooption from all sides. We absolutely need collective voices to be raised to create the world we want.

As I navigated the long lines of cars in the protest in my town this weekend, I felt challenged to take the same level of energy and passion that we apply in response to a tragic national story and apply it every day to our local concerns. The core systemic issues behind the deaths of George Floyd and countless others are not isolated to those circumstances or communities but exist in every community across this country. It is true that some places have embraced equity more fully than others, but nowhere (yet) has inoculated itself against the ubiquitous underlying racism, inequity, and power imbalance that continues to haunt this nation.

What if I/we poured more energy into pursuing local anti-racist policies every day — at every School Board and Town Council meeting — with our neighbors and friends right here in the places where we live? What if we don’t wait until the next tragedy — cop killing, school shooting, racist Federal policy comes — but mobilize continuously? What if we avoid getting sucked into the soap opera of the incident and focus on the root causes that produce these incidents perpetually? What if we stop over-focusing on the drama of the players on a national stage — expressing our undying appall at what someone says or tweets — and shift more of that attention to what is going on right in our backyard?

We can do this — here, now, together.

I know there are many who do take this approach every day. I certainly do not claim to be an expert at this type of local engagement and acknowledge that I approach this topic from a place of privilege. I am humbled by all this and tempted to not click “Publish” to unleash my musings to the world, but I have to be committed to the hard work ahead. I am ready to be more locally vocal starting now. Will you join me?

Are you someone actively shifting your energy and engagement to local issues? Leave a comment below with your perspective. I’d love to learn from your experience and collaborate on creating the world we want to see, where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Digging Deeper

This morning arms, back, and shoulders are reminding me how I chose to spend my weekend. For about nine hours, the family and I created a fence enclosure for our new garden. This required digging three, four-foot deep holes for the main poles. The work was as exhausting as advertised.

As the hole went deeper, for a while I would occasionally set aside the post-hole digger and reach deep into the hole to scoop out the wet clay with my hands. It was a welcome occasional shift of muscle energy until at one point I thrust my hand down into the hole — and couldn’t reach the bottom!

When we dig deeper, we enter the unknown. The brute force that we could get by with in shallow ground no longer works. New tools and techniques are needed to reach our goal. The first time we push into that dark unknown it is unsettling, but the more we familiarize ourselves with the deep, the more adept we become at pushing further.

We live in unprecedented times when each of us are called up to exercise our muscles in new ways. We need deeper insight and compassion. We need to plumb the depths of our desire for social justice and community well-being. If we stay in the shallow end, I fear that we will just turn over the same dirt that we have before. Let’s dig deeper than we ever imagined.

Reshaping the Clay

In my work, I spend a good deal of time creating and analyzing logic models. These charts — most often oriented in a series of columns- are designed to give a snapshot of a program or initiative that aligns the inputs (resources involved) and activities (actions taken) with the anticipated outputs and outcomes (or results). Logic models are mandated by many funders to force their grantees to think sequentially, to act strategically, and to (theoretically) measure what matters. I find them generally to be useful tools, except for one small thing:

The world has a way of screwing up our perfectly-crafted logic models.

The clear lines of a logic model between “do this” and “accomplish that” make sense in a vacuum. In a sterilized laboratory, we can isolate the input variables and control for the outcomes. We can set a goal and take an action with minimal fear of contamination.

Most of us, however, don’t work (or live) in laboratories. Those of us dedicated to long-term community change find an ever-evolving cacophony of inputs, unforeseen assumptions, and winds of change that often take our pretty logic and scatter it haphazardly across the front lawn. These disruptions are often frustrating. They can lead to tough questions and feelings of failure. Yet sometimes they lead to better things than we had originally imagined. As painful as it is, disruption can create opportunities and open new doors of possibility that were inconceivable in our initial thinking.

The trick here is to recognize the disruption as the norm and the logical order as a useful illusion. It is to think of our models as an artist, who when the fancies change, takes the ball of clay and reshapes it into what it must be here and now.

The Compulsion to Prognosticate

We live in an uncertain world. We do not know what will happen next. We cannot control the actions of others. We do not know how long we will be around on this planet. We don’t know how long this planet will orbit around the sun.

All of this has always been true.

All of this seems even more true as we live in the current moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a broad array of collective behaviors among each of us. While the situation itself is a public health emergency that is experienced in biological particles that elicit physiological responses and even death, for most of us most of the time, the pandemic is most consciously experienced in a psychological space. We are faced with maintaining a sense of well-being and continuity in the midst of a world that looks and feels very different than the one we thought we were living in a few months ago.

Of all the varied coping mechanisms that I have observed being deployed during this crisis, the most poignant is our utter compulsion to prognosticate. From casual conversation to every pundit on every news network to the President of the United States, we seem obsessed with prognosticating about when we’ll get “back to normal”. Of course, the pandemic has thus far proved the most optimistic of these predictions to be wildly inaccurate, and –hopefully — will prove the direst prognosticators the same. The issue, however, is not the accuracy of our predictions. It is our seeming inability to not make them. We seemingly can’t help weighing in one when we think schools will re-open or travel will resume, and we wildly criticize those whose projections differ from our own.

Why are we so seemingly obsessed with predicting the future? We want to feel that we are in control. It is deeply unsettling to feel out of control and uncertain about the future. We like to live with the illusion that the world is predictable. We rely on patterns and rituals — morning coffee, Easter egg hunts, happy hours, sports playoffs — as markers in time that anchor our place in the world. Without these predictable patterns, we can feel a bit lost.

We also like to measure the limits of our endurance. We seem to have the capacity to push through a challenging experience when we see its endpoint. I can run a hard interval or burn the midnight oil for a project if I can envision — at the end of that 800 meters or 24-hour push — there will be a breath, a respite, or a reward. It is when there is no light at the end of the tunnel that we become susceptible to depression and learned helplessness.

So, it’s clear “why” we prognosticate, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy. In fact, I believe that this compulsion has negative consequences in an uncertain world. It keeps us from focusing on the moment, from being present, and it leads to greater feelings of insecurity when — inevitably — our predictions fail.

As we have sheltered in place, we have experiened that fear and doubt about the world. We have missed our friends and canceled our travel. But, we have also experienced good things. We’ve maybe relaxed a bit more. We have burned fewer fossil fuels. We have connected with our families at a deeper level.

If we spend the moment obsessed on when this all will end — on some normal (that by the way is a myth concocted by our brains to keep us psychologically safe from reality)– we risk missing out on the magic that is right now. If we obsessively push for a return to the past, to re-open our economy for example — we embrace an illusion of certainty that has never been true of the future. Further, we risk, by our actions, creating a far different future than the one we are obsessed with returning to. More specifically, if I’m obsessed with eating out at a restaurant again because that feels normal and I rush out to do so, my actions may further spread the virus leading to even greater disruption down the road.

So, next time you find yourself compelled to prognosticate — and you will either by your own volition or the inquiries of your prediction-addicted friends and families — make note of it, take a breath, and focus on the day that is before you right here, right now. That is what is “normal”. That is what is certain. That is what we will always have — not matter what the future looks like.

Consider the Collective

The world is in a furor over the COVID-19. The supermarket shelves are emptying. The pundits and presidents are exhorting. The numbers are growing.

At some point in the future, we can debate — with the benefit of hind sight — the effectiveness of all this chatter. We can share our concerns or praise for the institutions responsible for protecting people during crises like these. We can philosophize on how an increasingly interconnected world makes us all simultaneously more alive and more vulnerable.

Right now, however, is time for a conversation on how we approach this crisis — from an individualized or collective mindset. I would argue that we would do well by to embrace a collective, public health approach to our thinking around this issue. So much of the chatter in the world is about “How do I avoid getting/treat coronavirus?” That is fundamentally the wrong question.

In this world of viral infection — and indeed of viral ideas — it is the collective that matters. Our behaviors — washing our hands, staying away from public places, wearing a mask, etc. — should be performed for the good of the collective, not solely for our good. As a healthy middle-aged man, my risk of corona virus death is pretty low, but my capability to spread a virus to a neighbor, coworker, or stranger with more health vulnerabilities is great.

This is the same challenge that I present when people argue against the flu shot — and complain “I got the flu shot one year, and then got the flu.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the reason for getting a flu shot. Yes, we would all personally like to avoid the symptoms that accompany a viral infection, but the reason the shot is widely recommended is to prevent the spread of the virus across the population. It is a collective goal.

Whether we like it or not, we are part of an interconnected web that is more diverse and multi-faceted than ever. As citizens of that global order, we are required — not only to buy up all the hand sanitizer that Wal-Mart can hold to protect my family — but to consider the collective. This is a great opportunity to challenge our thinking and critically assess the ways we see this crisis portrayed in the media and in our personal conversations. If we can embrace this collective mindset more fully, it has incredible ramifications — not only for our ability to fight the threat of this (and the next) pandemic, but for the way we build a world more broadly that reflects justice, opportunity, and well-being.


“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food

until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;

for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3:19

As I opened the email attachment, I didn’t anticipate it being dramatically different from the hundreds of other attachments I had opened in the previous month. Yet, as the PDF loaded, I found something strangely familiar staring back at me through the screen. It was like looking into to the face of a long lost cousin. What I had just received in my inbox was a later version of some work that I had pioneered a number of years ago.

My first reaction was one of joy. A piece of work that I had labored on for more than a year was moving forward into a more robust state. This work has the potential to provide real help to real people, addressing social determinants of health and building bridges across the healthcare and social services sectors. I was thrilled to see that this effort, from which I had become disconnected, still had life.

Then another emotion fired across my synapses. I realized that neither the document, nor the person who sent it to me or those who were executing the plan had any idea that I had played a fundamental role in making that possible. The history of how this idea began and the hard, pioneering work to advance an innovative concept had been lost. I would be lying if I were to say that didn’t sting a little.

I was left with these two fundamental emotions: joy about the product of my work and its ability to achieve the mission for which it was intended and sadness that my role in it had been erased from all evident memory.

When we say that we want to leave a legacy, do we mean that we want the sweat and toil that we exert to produce value in the world? Or do we mean that we want a monument — or at least a nice plaque — that recognizes us? Certainly these two ends are correlated and not mutually exclusive, but if we had to choose between them, which would we choose? Would you rather make a big difference and get no credit? Or get numerous accolades for things that don’t really matter? One preference is grounded in purpose, the other in ego.

In his book, ‘Ego is the Enemy’, Ryan Holiday described the challenge of ego in this way:

“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.”

Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

I was writing a historical piece recently about a person who was well known “during his time”. All but a few names are obscured from history, and those that remain are always caricatures of reality transformed into legend. We are all in the midst of this dust cycle after all. Our best hope, therefore, is to leave behind remnants of progress — the impact made from a successful venture, the community built through loving relationships, the choices made to advance powerful ideas.

So, I’m left with two revelations. First, I need to work today with the expectation that I will never get credit for it. Someday, I will fade, and perhaps even these words will end up somewhere else — in their current form or remixed into inspiring new forms from others — without my name in the byline. If I am writing this to benefit others, then I have to be okay with that. If we can approach our writing, work, and relationships in this way, it may change the decisions we make and the way we choose to pursue our goals.

The second revelation is one of hope. When you put your heart into something — when you bring your sweat and energy into the world — and when that is based on the good intentions of building a better world — it has an impact. Unfortunately, most of this impact you will never get to see. Your efforts will a amalgamate with those that have come before, during and after. You’ll move on — from that job, community, or this earth — before the progress is realized.

Occasionally, you’ll strike a great victory, and they’ll throw you a parade. We must treat these moments as precious, but not be seduced by them. Most often, you’ll just get a glimpse of the remnants of your work — recognizable, but different — and you can secretly smile at the subtle evidence that you did leave a legacy — even if no one else knows it.

Hatchet Job

Over the course of the my life, I have developed many skills. Some of these came through formal instruction. For example, I took piano lessons for close to fifteen years of my life. Other skills came through more informal practice. No one has ever taught me how to enjoy a cup of coffee, but through admirable persistence, I am proud to report that I have mastered this skill. Some of the skills I possess came to me fairly easily, while others sucked tremendous effort out of me before leaving behind the nugget of learning. With this in mind, I want to make the following confession.

I’m not good at throwing hatchets.

A few months ago I took my first journey into the new entertainment craze. For my birthday, I gathered a group of friends, donned my best plaid shirt, and embarked on a facility. As a novice, I entered this enterprise believing that the center premise of the sport was:

Throw Hatchet, Hit Target.

With this assumption, I was pretty confident. I am a pretty decent performer at other games involving the throwing of objects (e.g. cornhole), so while I wasn’t cocky, I felt that I could hold my own.

As it turns out, I was operating on an inaccurate description of the activity. In reality, hatchet throwing is best operationalized as:

Throw Hatchet, Stick Hatchet in Target

As it turns out, this subtle change is difference between success and abject failure. It is the “sticking” point (pun absolutely intended). The likelihood of hitting the target and sticking the hatchet in the target are only weekly correlated.

On that first night, I tried every motion, speed, sound effect that I could, hitting all the meaty parts of the target, but watching my hatchet clunk to the ground at least 8 times out of 10.

This is an important lesson for us as we approach new challenges. While we can, and should, draw on similar past experiences for the skills and confidence they lend us, if our assumption of the challenge — biased by these previous experiences — is inaccurate, we may find ourselves retrieving the results of our efforts from the floor, instead extricating them from the wall.

Last week, I was invited to another opportunity to build this skill as friends gathered to celebrate a birthday. Armed with my corrected assumption, I studied (via Google and YouTube) the various techniques one could use to ensure “stick-age”. I watched the pro world championships. I practiced darts the day off to hone my aiming prowess. I was confident that this time would be better. But…

..I’m still not good at throwing hatchets.

Despite my revised worldview, increased knowledge, and enhanced preparation, I was still bound to futility in my hatchet attempts. As I retrieved failure after failure from the floor, my frustration grew along with my resignation of the above face.

Now, I am faced with a choice. Am I okay being bad at hatchet throwing? Do I value improving this skill? Is there value to me that could be gained by improving this skill? Do I have the means to improve this skill? Would improving this skill affect other areas of my life? Despite how emasculating it can feel, I don’t have to be good at everything, but despite how difficult it may be, some things are worth making the investment to learn.

It is in this space that we all live when faced with a challenge that outpaces our skills. If we decide that we must pursue the challenge, we have to put in place a deliberate plan for improvement (My son supports this idea in relation to hatchet throwing, begging for us to build a target in our backyard). Or, we may decide that the investment required to build that skill does not equate with the benefits. In this situation, I believe I can make peace with my futility — and be prepared for frustration that next time I get invited to a hatchet party.

It’s okay to be happy

We live in a world that prizes accomplishment. We demand that our lives matter, that we make a difference, that we add value to the world. Even in our leisure, we are pushed intrinsically and extrinsically to plan the best vacation and consume most delicious meal — to run or ski or hike farther and faster than last time.

In this push for bigger and better, there are so many good things that emerge. We learn and grow. We create things that make the world better. We experience life in its fullest and test our perceived limits.

Yet sometimes — at least for me — this constant push to be more and do more can distract from a core truth.

It’s okay to be happy.

While I want to be better tomorrow than I am today, it is okay to appreciate who I am right now. While there is so much change that our world still desperately needs, there are so many examples of progress that we could raise a glass to right now.

While we must keep pushing every day, we also must give ourselves permission to be happy — right where we are, right now.