Sustained Engagement

I had the privilege of spending time recently with some amazing activists– people who have been engaged in “the fight” — for affordable housing, for environmental protections, for educational reform — for years and for years. I marveled at their stories of the long journey, sometimes with little or no visible progress, from where they began to where they desire to go.

I find myself inspired by that level of engagement in others and want to learn from them. But, what it is that we mean by “engagement” after all? Let’s unpack this by looking at the first definition from the Oxford dictionary:

Engage = to “occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention)”

If we are awake to the world around us, we have a choice to make. With what do we choose to engage? Most of us certainly have no shortage of options. As I write this, I could be attracted to any one of dozens of applications on any of the three electronic devices within my physical reach. My attention could be occupied by the music playing over the speakers or the other people moving in and out of this shared space. My interest could latch onto any of the three dozen tasks in my ‘Next Actions’ folder.

With the exception of mindfulness meditation and sleep, disengagement is really not an option. With a number of engagement options approaching infinity, the nature of our engagement can be fragmented, causing us to chase our tails and burrow down rabbit holes that may keep us from our ultimate goal. Therefore, the more fundamental question is:

What engagements are you sustaining today?

Beyond the momentary fix of your shrinking attention span, sustained engagement is what makes the difference. It is essential in relationships of all kinds. It is the type of long-range thinking that helps one save for retirement despite the bulls and bears of the market. Sustained engagement is a fundamental prerequisite of producing any value from a term paper to scientific discovery.

This is exactly what we can learn from my activist friends. Sustained engagement is vital in our community work as citizens, activists, dreamers, and leaders. Change requires that we get occupied by something and stick with it beyond the ever-shortening news cycle. So, I will ask that question in one final way:

What are you engaged in today that you will still be engaged in a decade from now?

There is no such thing as the “Black Vote”.

Like many of us these days, I find myself frequently digesting media in relation to the current presidential campaign. I am intensely interested in how this period of the American experiment plays out and take seriously my role as a citizen in that process. As I consume the media related to the election lately, I keep hearing a simple phrase repeated:

(Candidate X) doesn’t has (or doesn’t have) the “Black” vote.

This phrase troubles me.

At best, this is an example of loose usage of language to describe data in an overly-simplistic and reductionistic manner. This happens all the time in the popular media as complex nuances of error margins and polling methodology are boiled down into a sound byte, absent the nuance, study limitations, and concern over the data literacy of the audience.

Indeed, the headline is not inaccurate. Analysis of polling data certainly shows trends in the cross-tabulations of the number of individuals who select “black” to indicate their “race” and their support for a particular candidate. However, while factually accurate, these reports often fail to note that the only way in which these cross-tabulations are formed is by forcing individuals to select from a half-dozen socially-constructed categories to describe their race that fail to accurately describe a complicated construct.

I do, of course, support one of the core intentions behind this type of reporting. Clearly, it is vital both morally and practically that all voices be heard in an election, especially when those voices are from groups that have been historically marginalized- and notably when the percentage of those who might self-identify in a category have been low in previous contests. For example, the population identifying as “black” in Iowa is approximately 3% and New Hampshire is 1%. So, pointing out that demographic changes in the electorate are coming in an upcoming state (e.g. 27% of the South Carolina population identifies as black) is highly appropriate.

This troubles me, however, because our inexact use of language preys on poor data literacy to reinforce the notion that there is homogeneity in the ideas and attitudes of a socially-constructed racial group. It feeds our lazy minds and doubles down on our internal heuristics. I believe we can do better in three specific ways.

  • Identify the forced choice that separates the racial groups in a poll. These are not finite, clear-cut delineators between people. They are a socially-constructed and (often) dominant culture accepted set of options that at best oversimplify the complex and evolving concept of self-identification. Reporters should stop saying “Blacks say..” or, “Whites say..” and temper their language to describe those who “identify as” as a particular group. This subtle nuance may help draw attention to the inherent difficulty with these categorical descriptions and soften the reinforcement of harmful, historical characterizations that can be exacerbated by this type of reporting.
  • Describe the variance that exists within groups, not just between them. An over-simplified headline stating that “X wins the Black vote” could mean the candidate received 51% of that vote or 100%. Descriptions should be more accurate and highlight the full range of responses from that group. This reinforces the notion that, while we use categories to simplify data analysis, we recognize (and value) homogeneity and diversity that lives within all groups.
  • Incorporate mixed methodology to capture a deep understanding of what these votes mean. Given the complexity of racial selection, the history of this country, and the massive amount of rationale that one might base their selection upon, we need more qualitative data along with the quantitative to illustrate the complexity and diversity of these decisions. These data should embody the same amount of rigor applied to the collection of the qualitative polls, not just pull random quotes that support a narrative.

It is a big year for the United States and a great time to get engaged in political discourse. As we do, we should be rational, engaged consumers of the information sent our way and demand that it is presented in a way that moves us forward as a nation.

The Ideal

It was less than ideal. The cold rain came down as I attempted to run through the puddled streets. As the miles ticked by, the heat receded from my fingertips and my lips felt the icy sting from the combination of wet and cold. My fickle brain kept asking: ‘Why are you doing this?’ I saw no one else.

When the weather is 70 and sunny — when the skies are clear — these streets are full of every manner of people. Runners, walkers, strollers and bikes clog the sidewalks and trails. When the “ideal” happens, the masses emerge, while these less than ideal days yield only a few brave souls. 

I wonder how many people spend their lives waiting for the conditions to be perfect before they act. They wait for the clouds to break. They wait till they get more money. They wait till they get married. They wait till they get promoted. They spend most of our lives waiting for some ideal day to come.  
For those of us who find ourselves stuck waiting for some ideal future, here are three realities that we must realize:

1. The ideal is a rare occurrence. Of all the given days of the year, most of them are too cold, too hot, too wet, too cloudy, too windy, too humid, or too something. Very few days are just right in the course of a year or a lifetime. If we were to add up those few ideal days and contrast them with the remainder of those we are given, I believe we would discover that most of our lives — most of our runs, most of our days at work — are indeed less than ideal.

2. As with all things, this too is a matter of perception. The same person who complains that the 60 degree day is “too chilly” in the fall will be complaining that it is “too warm” in the spring. One person’s dead end job is another’s dream job. We are indeed fickle shoppers of the ideal, and the perception from one person to the next is weakly correlated. Therefore, we can conclude that in reality the ideal is an illusion of our perceptive systems, our context, our experience and our mindset. Not to suggest that things like frost bite are not real, but our concept of what is ideal is truly more perception than reality.

3. If we spend all our time waiting for the appearance of the ‘white whale’ of an idyllic situation, we will most likely not be ready for it. If I spend my winter binging Netflix and saying “it’s too cold”, when that gorgeous spring day emerges, I will be fat, out of shape, and therefore, unable to enjoy the opportunity of running without the confines of a hat and gloves. If I wait to be promoted to a desired role, I may find that I failed to learn some of the key lessons that would make me successful in that role. By setting my sights so fully on that future state, I may have failed to learn the lessons of the current one. It is on the less than ideal days — indeed the majority of them — that the building blocks of success are laid.

Today is less than ideal. Get over it. That’s just the way it is.

How will you spend it?

The Physics of Work

“I can’t wait to retire,” he said, “I’m tired of working.”

“I need to establish better work-life balance,” she said.

What is this thing we call “work”, and why does it seem so onerous? It seems that in a world of increased well-being and leisure, work has been defined a a necessary evil, something done primarily for extrinsic rewards for a period of time until we can justify its elimination. Work is described as something distinct from (and therefore balanced against) the fundamental concept of “life”.

Before we condemn work as something that we hope humanity evolves from in some future state, let’s take a look at the term from a scientific perspective.

Enter Physics

I am not a physicist, but I understand that work is the product of two factors: force and displacement

Force is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, when many people talk about “work”, I believe they are really talking about force. We know that we have the capacity to exert force on the world, and we are always embodied with a sense that the amount of force we can create is finite and extinguishable. We get tired. We get distracted. We know that we can only work so hard for so long before our ability to generate force diminishes. Force is purposeful  and effortful. It requires intention. Though we don’t like to think about it, eventually we die and cannot produce any more force.

Displacement is more foreign to colloquial ways of thinking. In simple, scientific terms, displacement is movement in the direction of the force. It is the movement of a soccer ball away from the kick. It is the air rushing from my mouth when I exhale. Displacement is change. It is impact. It is the result or outcome of our efforts — and it happens outside of us, in the world we inhabit.

Herein we see a key point: Work is not just effort, but the marriage of effort and impact — force and displacemnet. Work is not just the exertion of energy, the exhaustion of our bodies — it is progress. We don’t just work to do stuff. We work to accomplish something. This may be why we hate so deeply tasks that we perceive as meaningless. We are built for purpose and have an innate desire to see our finite ability to produce force create displacement in the world around us.  

Sometimes displacement is difficult to ascertain in the short term, but there are no immovable objects, there is just force over time. As a product, the amount of force that is brought to a problem interacts with the subsequent displacement to produce the total work. This is another argument for the benefits of human collaboration. To create change on wicked problems, we almost always need more force than one individual can generate. 

Drawing from this physics perspective, work does not mean “what I do between 9 and 5”. Work is any and all actions that I bring to the world. It is the investment I make in my relationships, It is the effort I put into maintaining a healthy body. It is time spend volunteering or learning or being a citizen. All of these are work. All require our exertion of force. All create displacement in the environment. 

Work is not distinct from life. In fact, work is an essential component of life. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that you skip your vacation, abandon your retirement plans, or abandon rest and leisure. Rather, I think we should re-think the way we talk about work– expanding our focus beyond the force to the displacement — and beyond these false boundaries. I don’t ever “go” to work. I do work all day, every day, until I am dead.

What force as you using to create displacement in your world today?


When you find yourself near the end of a long line, what do you think?

Do you bemoan your rotten luck and bad timing?

Do you honk your horn, work up a sweat, and curse the gods?

Do you feel lucky that you’ve chosen a popular path, building anticipation of what joy awaits at the destination?

Do you feel like a conformist drawn into the vortex of conformity with the masses?

Do you consider the event a shared experience with other human beings or take every effort to nudge yourself forward and improve your situation not thinking about your fellow line-mates?

The way in which we approach a wait reveals a great deal about our mindset. The story we tell ourselves drives how we feel about the situation– is it an undeserved violation of your human right to proceed unmolested or an opportunity for memorable (or perhaps even cherished) experience?. This mindset determines what we receive — or don’t – from the experience.

The same may be said about anytime we face any obstacle that stands between where we are and where we want to be — or basically anytime we attempt anything at all.

What will you tell yourself?

“It’s not what you have. It’s what you give”

I awoke the other day with a seven mile tempo run on the agenda. For those who aren’t familiar with a tempo run, it is basically a run in which you spend a period of time running at a designated pace that is faster than your normal pace. Tempo runs are essential to training because they teach you to run faster and to maintain that speed for increasingly longer distances.

I tend to dread them.

On this particular day, as my cadence quickened, it became clear that I was not in top form. My legs were sore from the workout of the previous day. My breathing quality was hampered by allergies and poor air quality. My sleep the night before had been too short and disjointed. I “just didn’t have it”. I had no shortage of excuses for why I would most likely fall short of the goal pace for the day.

In running, and in the rest of life, it is not about about what you have on a particular day. Rather it is about the effort that you give. After all, my ultimate goal was not to “win” in that particular training session, but to “win” (e.g. set a personal best) at the marathon I registered for that was still three months away.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot always control the way I feel on a given day, and I certainly cannot control the humidity level or the wind speed. Even though I can push through obstacles, I really can’t control the outcome fully. But, what I can control is what effort I give.

As always, this applies more broadly than to running. In our work and volunteer lives, there are myriad things that can inhibit what you “have” on a particular day. Most of these lie beyond our control. What we can control is the effort given, the attitude chosen, and the next step we take.

This relates to to foundational research by Carol Dweck on fixed and growth mindsets. Her body of work has established key differences between individuals in focusing on what they have (e.g. fixed mindset) as opposed to the effort that they give (e.g. growth mindset). Fixed mindsets are associated with lower rates of success, less risk taking and slower rates of learning while growth mindsets open up many new possibilities. The good news is that Dweck –and others who have expanded her work– have demonstrated that these mindsets are malleable, even with simple reframing of directions and recognition.

Finally, the concept of having and giving relates to the concepts of wealth and generosity as well. Religion and philosophy have long espoused the idea that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”. Authors like Adam Grant, in the sensational book ‘Give and Take’, have demonstrated that, despite what it may look like, a giving approach has greater benefits than one focused on receiving. It’s not what you have, it’s truly what you give.

I’m happy to say that on that particular tempo run, I chose to push myself, when I could (and have before) have chosen to mope, make excuses and give up. I gave all the effort I could, and even though the average pace at the end was not what I had intended, the average effort made it a successful day– one on which I could build toward my ultimate goal.

It doesn’t matter what you have today — how you feel, what unexpected obstacles and opposition you face — it’s what you give — how you choose to spend your time, what choices you make, how you contribute to others around you — that matters.

Stroke Work

I am a subpar swimmer. Growing up in the middle of the United States– far from an ocean of any kind– predisposed me to be more adept on solid ground than water. I never participated in a swim team and never spent significant time in the pool. That was the case until  a few years ago when I fell in love with the sport of triathlon. As a lifelong runner who developed an obsession with cycling, the addition of the third sport was a must. I’ll never forget the first day in the pool — gasping for air after a mere 25 yards — afraid that I was going to be the first fatality in the long history of the East Side YMCA. But, I made it, and I’m proud to say that I’ve done a few triathlons since– even completing a Ironman 70.3 (half ironman) event a couple years ago (for those unfamiliar that is a 1.2 mile swim in open water with a bunch of other people who are likely to kick you in the face under water). Fun times!

Despite this progress, I have never been fast. Despite my level of fitness, my heavy legs and absence of any form of form make me more prone to sink to the bottom than to glide forward. I know this. I have tried so many things to amend it with only incremental progress.

So now, I am once again in that crazy, life-sucking/life-exhilirating cycle called triathlon training. A few days ago, I awoke in the morning (or more accurately sometime north of 5 a.m.), dreading the early morning trudge to the pool– coming off a sad swim the week before, doubting myself— secretly wishing the person in charge would not show up to unlock the doors. No such luck.

Reluctantly, I made my way to the pool, jumped in and started my slow-mo version of a 400 meter freestyle warm up. Upon completion, I gazed up at the coach through my semi-fogged goggles, and she said the most shocking of things: “Your stroke looks pretty solid.”

You said what!? I had never heard that before. I had seldom felt that my stroke resembled anything close to being “solid” as grandmas and people twice my girth whizzed past me in the next lane.

But, there it was. “Your stroke looks pretty solid.”

I know that she could have been lying– or just trying to be nice– but despite my awareness of such a fact, that one statement affected my entire attitude and approach. I went on to have the best swim yet of this training series and felt positive as I left the pool and got on with my day.

Did this comment fix all the things that are wrong with my stroke and turn me into Michael Phelps? Of course not. But, it did change my outlook and it reminded me of how this simple concept might work in our approach to communities.

Mothers (and fathers even) all across the world have been known to implore their kids “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. This sage advice is designed to suppress excess criticism or at least to connect it with praise. We know from research that positive reinforcement has a bigger impact on modifying behavior than does punishment. An encouraging word goes a long way. If I were being told– as other coaches have done– to “fix this” and “don’t do that”– it can become overwhelming and perpetuate a self-belief that inhibits performance and desire to push through. But, emphasizing what was good about my stroke changed my entire outlook.

The same is true for communities.

One of the biggest mistakes that is made by well-intentioned people looking to create change in communities is to begin with identifying what is wrong. These are often the stimuli that draw us into the fray– we see data or hear stories of malnourished kids, unsafe living conditions or environmental injustice, and we are drawn to act, to unleash our fury on the problem to fix the community. Face it. Sometimes those things are glaring– staring us in the face like a large graffitied-wall. This approach is even embedded in our processes that require “needs assessments” and the incentives to make things sound bad are strong—making it more likely that you’ll succeed in winning a grant or recruiting volunteers.

The reality is that, much like my swim stroke (debatably), most communities are “pretty solid”. Sure there are disparities and visible challenges–but most often there is also incredible resilience and dynamic resources that are already at play. An approach which begins with “what is wrong” at best risks missing out on these opportunities and at worst layers another level of damage on a community that needs someone to see what and build on what is good.

Fortunately, there are approaches that flip the script and begin with “what is right” with a community, rather than what is wrong. These “asset-based” approaches have been defined by my colleagues at the Community Tool Box define as “anything that can be used to improve the quality of community life”.  As with many topics, they have a helpful guide for folks who want to learn more about asset-based approaches. I highly recommend it.

Another place to learn about this is explore the literature on “Asset-Based Community Development”. According to organizations like the ABCD Institute at Depaul University, asset-based community development (ABCD) is “a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development.” They describe five key assets: individual residents, informal associations (e.g. clubs, institutions like government agencies or businesses), physical assets (e.g. parks or buildings) and connections between these other entities.The basic argument of these approaches is that in order to create community change, one should take into account the resources already at play in the community of focus and use them as building blocks to address the needed change.

While this is essential, there are two caveats that should be mentioned. First, these resources should not be considered solely as tools to remedy a problem, but as remarkable accomplishments in their own right. True asset appreciation must be divorced from the deficit conversations–otherwise they may been seen as a means to an end and not appreciated.

The second issue is that asset-based approaches should also be participatory. There is always a tension between an outside-in, helicopter approach in which well-meaning individuals or organizations bring their ideas and resources in from afar to fix the situation– which may or may not incorporate the assets involved. A better approach would be to identify those assets and work collaboratively with them to create bottom-up change.

These approaches have been outlined in methodologies like community-based participant action research. In these approaches, local knowledge is utilized and — importantly– power is shared between the external resources and the internal ones. An ideal situation is one in which the power to make decisions about direction are shared equally between the organizations and the individual resources within the community, but this is seldom put into practice for a number of reasons including the demands of funders, the desire of people with power to keep it and the logistics of engaging real people and not just those who are paid a salary to work in a place. However, these are obstacles that can be overcome.

When combined with a participatory framework, asset-based approaches have the capacity to be efficient, to maximize impact and to generate sustainable empowerment. Just as my mindset and motivation changed with a simple affirmation that I wasn’t seen as a horrible, slow swimmer– we can do the same by affirming the joy, wisdom, resilience and innovation that already exists in all places– even those with some significant challenges.

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