Noble Pursuit Syndrome

Earlier this week, I told my friend, Jeff Mohr, about a strange result from a survey that we took last year about nonprofits’ experiences working with consultants. As Rebecca Petzel noted in her writeup of the results, the nonprofits we surveyed generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction in the quality of their consultants’ work, but the majority also said that the work had not stuck. (Here’s some additional analysis performed by a larger group of participants at a followup workshop.)

How could organizations be satisfied with the work if it didn’t stick?

Jeff’s response was to cite a term that his dad, Mike Mohr, likes to use: “Noble Pursuit Syndrome.” It seems that folks in the social change space often rationalize work by suggesting that the intentions were good, therefore the work could not have been bad.

Not only is this something I observe others do all the time, it’s something I personally do all the time! My higher self is aware of this and tries to counterbalance it, which is a big reason why I ultimately left consulting. But it’s also a big reason why I stayed in consulting so long. I and my team would work our butts off on an inspiring project, and at the end of the project, we would review our often softly-framed success metrics, discuss all of the things that we thought went well, then collect our checks and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

I always felt (and still do feel) completely validated from a market standpoint. But it was hard to truly assess the quality of our work from a social impact standpoint. While I tried (and am still trying) to be thoughtful and rigorous about impact, I often found (and am still finding) myself falling back on Noble Pursuit Syndrome. It’s a challenge, and I believe it’s a serious problem in this space.

Jeff said that Mike has threatened to write more about the syndrome. I, for one, would love to hear what he has to say, and I hope that others share their thoughts and experiences with this as well.

My Self-Care Dashboard

When Kristin Cobble and I were starting Groupaya, we spent a lot of time discussing the kind of culture we wanted as an organization. In particular, we both felt strongly about the importance of integrating personal development into our daily work lives.

In order to meet this goal, Kristin designed a collective process for us based on Daniel Ofman’s Core Quality Framework. The premise of the framework is that our biggest pitfalls are our greatest strengths (our “core qualities”) taken to an extreme. We all reflected about ourselves and about each other using the framework as a guide. It was enlightening to compare the differences in perception.

For example, I identified my drive to learn as my core quality. Too much of that led to dabbling and lack of focus — my pitfall. Kristin and Rebecca Petzel, on the other hand, both chose to focus on my high standards as my core quality. My corresponding pitfall was my tendency to drive myself and my team mercilessly when my standards weren’t being met. They wanted me to be more accepting when people made mistakes and more patient with people’s learning curves.

As we explored this further, we agreed that I actually wasn’t bad at these things. I had evolved these skills through lots of practice over the years. The problem was that these were not natural qualities for me, and when I was stressed or tired (which was often during my stint at Groupaya), Grumpy Eugene would come out of his cave.

Each of us had to commit to a practice to help counteract our pitfalls. Because I was generally good at being patient when I was taking care of myself, I committed to self-care. And the way I would do that was to commit to playing basketball once a week.

I had asked my friend, Lisa Heft, to work with me as a coach the previous year. One of the things I realized from that work was that when I’m playing basketball regularly, I’m generally happy and centered. Needless to say, I was not playing regularly at the time, much less exercising at all. I figured that committing to basketball once-a-week was more than reasonable, easily trackable, and would pay off big.

Despite all that, I got off to a bad start in 2012. We were swamped with the usual challenges of running a business and dealing with client work, and as usual, I neglected my self-care practices. What was different this time was that I felt bad about my neglect, because I had made a commitment to my team, and I wasn’t living up to it.

In order to turn this around, I decided to track my progress in a simple Google Spreadsheet, and to share this with my colleagues, so that they could check up on my progress anytime. I had a row for each week of 2012, and a column for the number of times I had played basketball that week.

The simple act of tracking in the open had a transformative effect on my practice. It forced me to think about the practice regularly, and it allowed me to see in very concrete ways how I was doing.

Over the next several months, I evolved my spreadsheet to incorporate new practices and learning. For example, I wouldn’t always play basketball, but I would sometimes go on runs or long walks, and while that wasn’t as good as basketball, it was definitely good for me (and my colleagues) overall. So I started tracking that too.

I eventually added two more practices to my spreadsheet: turning off work email in the evenings and on weekends, and taking play days in the middle of the week. Every time I did one of my practices, I gave myself a point. Using a line graph, I charted the total number of points per week as well as the four-week running average.

I also added a notes section for context. There were weeks that were restorative despite not doing any of my practices, and I wanted to be sure I noted that. There were weeks when I was traveling or sick.

The chart essentially became my personal dashboard, and my practices became almost a game — keep the line above 1 (my commitment to my team). It was very challenging for me to maintain that on my own, so I started incorporating other tricks such as signing up for a fitness bootcamp.

Moreover, the chart helped my interactions with my team tremendously. Whenever I would get frustrated at somebody, before I unloaded those frustrations, I would first check my dashboard to see if I had been taking care of myself. I often found in those situations that I hadn’t, and it was a signal to me that I should go for a run before I said anything to anybody.

I have found the dashboard so valuable, I have continued the practice. Here’s what this year’s spreadsheet looks like:

Self-Care Spreadsheet

Notice the different colors indicating whether or not I did a practice that week. Here’s what the corresponding line chart looks like:

Self-Care Dashboard

As you can see, the four-week running average is a better indicator of my state of self-care at any point in time than my number for that week or of the overall average. You can also see that I’ve been doing very well with my practices over the past few months. If I were to compare this chart to last year’s numbers, you would see that I’m taking much better care of myself this year than last.

I’ve made the Google Spreadsheet template available for anyone to copy and adapt as he or she sees fit. I’ve also put together a screencast that quickly walks through how to use and customize the dashboard. Post your questions or thoughts below, and if you decide to use or adapt it, please let me know, as I’d love to hear how it’s working for you!

Kangaroo Court: A Tool for Constructive Feedback

One of my personal challenges at Groupaya was not overwhelming my team with negative feedback. I was generally proud of the quality of my team’s work, and I think I was decent at expressing that pride in the form of positive, constructive feedback. However, I also generally had a long list of nitpicks, and I never felt the need to hold any of that back. In my mind, my positive feelings far outweighed my criticism. However, I often had difficulty communicating that.

My friend, Alex Kjerulf, is a happiness guru, and he speaks often about negativity bias. Humans are biologically more attuned to negative than to positive feedback, between three-to-five times as much. To compensate for negativity bias, you need to share positive feedback three-to-five times as often as negative.

I tried to do this, and I was sometimes even successful, but there was a deeper issue. Rebecca Petzel once said to me, “You’re the most positive person in the company, but somehow, your negative feedback stings more than anyone else’s.” My problem wasn’t necessarily quantity, it was quality.

I tried a lot of different things, and nothing seemed to work well. Out of desperation, I decided to invent a game inspired by kangaroo courts.

Kangaroo courts are essentially arbitrary forms of justice. In government, they describe a corrupt judicial system. In sports, however, they’re used as a way to enforce unwritten rules and to build team camaraderie.

A team’s veterans are usually the arbiters of justice, although the coaches sometimes play this role as well. Veteran leaders might fine their teammates for something ludicrous, such as wearing a really loud tie, but they also dole out justice for disciplinary reasons, such as showing up late to practice. Fines are often used to fund team parties.

I decided that Groupaya needed a kangaroo court. If I could attach a number to my feedback, then the magnitude of my feedback would become more clear. For nitpicks, I would dole out small fines. For major problems, I would dole out larger ones.

Given that we were not as liquid as professional athletes, I figured that an arbitrary point system would serve our purposes. Since we were using points instead of money, I figured we could actually reward people as well as penalize them. Since we had a flat, collaborative culture, I decided that anybody in the company should be able to both dole out and take away points. And if we were going to go through the effort of giving and taking points away, we might as well keep track of them.

On June 13, 2012, I created a page on our internal wiki outlining the “rules” of the game, and I announced the game on our internal microblog. I then modeled the game by docking two points from myself, one each for misspelling two people’s names in different places. (This is a huge detail pet peeve of mine, given that we’re in a relational business.)

The game lay dormant for a few days, then on June 17, 2012, I gave and took away points four additional times:

Eugene: +5 to Kristin for her June 14 addition on Charter markers to the Groupaya Way wiki. It was great information, and it showed that she’s developing an instinct for how to use wikis in-the-flow. Love it!

Eugene: -1 to Kristin for being overly motherly with Rebecca

Eugene: -1 to Rebecca for comparing me and Kristin to her parents.

Eugene: +1 to Eugene for unintentionally conceiving of a way to get people to learn how to use the wiki.

Out of the six times I delivered justice, three were “real,” and the rest were jokes. Two of the three “real” instances were me penalizing myself, and the other was me awarding points rather than taking them away.

At this point, our ops guru, Natalie Dejarlais, figured out what was going on, and contributed her own dry sense of humor:

Natalie: +1 to Rebecca for not comparing me to her parents.

Rebecca and Kristin Cobble, my Groupaya co-founder, were mystified. Rebecca, ever the competitive one, was miffed that she was down a point in a game that she hadn’t signed up for. Keep in mind, all of this was happening online. We had not seen each other or talked over the phone, so I had not had the chance to explain the game verbally.

Shortly afterward, I left town for a client, and while I was gone, Natalie explained the game to Rebecca and Kristin at coworking. They got it, both started playing, and the game took on a life of its own. Everyone played. We gave and took points away from each other and ourselves about 40 times a month.

Lots of them were silly, where we were simply goofing off and having fun with each other. Many were concrete and substantial. Unexpectedly, the vast majority of these were positive. I had designed the game to be a safe way to give negative feedback, but it had emerged as a way of celebrating each other’s successes, of tracking what we were doing well, and of lightening the overall mood.

At some point, I decided that the points winner each month should win a trophy (a Surfer Obama bobblehead doll I picked up in Hawaii along with a tiara that Natalie contributed to disincentivize me from trying to win) and that the points would reset each month. We had a monthly awards ceremony, where Natalie would blast the theme song from Rocky, and Kristin would pretend that she didn’t love Surfer Obama. (When she finally won, she confessed her true feelings.)

The game had its desired effect in terms of improving the overall learning culture in our organization, but its most important contribution was joy and humor. I often pondered writing a mobile app so that we could extend the game to our larger network, as we often found ourselves granting points to our external colleagues and clients, who never got to actually see them (or, more importantly, win Surfer Obama).

I’m strongly considering introducing some variation of the game into Changemaker Bootcamp, as I’m looking for creative ways of introducing more concrete feedback so that participants can track their progress. Amy Wu, Groupaya’s brilliant designer, recently told me that she had adapted the game for her kids to great effect. If you decide to adopt or adapt the game for your team or organization, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear about it!

May Progress Report on Balance and Impact

“I think I’m probably going to end up like a Tex Winter at some point. Maybe like a Pete Newell. Pete was on the sidelines for a number of teams for maybe the last 15-20 years of his life where he just encouraged people how to play. He sat with Lenny Wilkens in Cleveland for a number of years. He was a helpful consultant. That might be what I’m left to do — be a mentor of some sort.”

Phil Jackson, 67-year old basketball
coaching legend on his basketball future

The end of May has arrived, month five of my self-imposed and hopefully temporary retirement. As I noted a few weeks ago, I have some clarity on some professional goals and even some ideas about how to achieve them. As expected, this whole process has been both exciting and scary. It’s also sometimes depressing. When you put your heart and soul and sweat and tears into something for ten years, it becomes a huge part of who you are. Unraveling that feels like therapy, in both good and bad ways.

Earlier today, I read the above quote from Phil Jackson, and I found it a huge downer. That guy won 11 rings. I know he’s 67 with bad hips and a bad back and that he doesn’t want to do the coaching grind anymore, but there are undoubtedly better ways for him to be contributing to the game right now. What’s worse is that I kind of see myself in his words right now, even though I’m 30 years younger and nowhere near as accomplished.

I still get consulting inquiries, all of which I’ve turned down so far. It’s nice to know that people still respect you. It’s even nicer that Groupaya is still around and that Rebecca Petzel is still working as a consultant, as I can point people to either of them and feel good about the referral.

But I find a lot of that hard as well. It’s hard to turn down great projects, especially when your bank account is going in the wrong direction. Chatting with people about this stuff gets the intellectual juices flowing. Then the ego kicks in, as I imagine what I’d do if I took on those projects.

When I inevitably refer the work to my peers, I’m sometimes deflated by what I imagine will not happen because I’m not taking on the work. A lot of that is pure ego, silly and wrong. Some of it is not. Either way, it can be hard to let go.

Sometimes, I see work happening in less-than-skillful ways, and I get angry and feel myself wanting to fall back into comfortable roles and patterns. “Hire me as a consultant, and I’ll show you how it’s done!” I think to myself. Maybe I’m right. However, if I’m honest with myself about what it means to make a true impact while maintaining my health and sanity, I remember why I’m trying to break out of that very mindset.

Earlier this month, I attended the wonderful Creating Space conference in Baltimore, where Esther Nieves shared her motto: “Slow the pace, stay in the race.” I try to remind myself of this constantly, and when I’m actually practicing it, I can see it working. I’m thinking about things in a methodical way, and I’m liking how that process is going and how balanced my life is feeling while I’m doing that. I’m talking to a lot of people, listening deeply, trying to challenge my own assumptions about what needs to happen in the world. I’m doing experiments systematically, and I’m learning a lot that way.

Still, it’s hard. It does not come naturally for me to go slow, even when I’m actually and literally running. I occasionally go on long runs with my sister, who is constantly encouraging me to slow down so that I can run longer. I just can’t do it. I get bored. I’ll end up stopping after five miles, completely gassed, and she’ll keep running another three or four miles.

When I’m not using all of my skills, I feel underutilized and unhappy. I just have to keep reminding myself that I’m going slowly right now so that I can figure out ways to apply all of my skills in a more strategic, impactful, and joyful way.

Which brings me back to Phil Jackson and the world of sports. Earlier this year, as I went through a process of personal visioning, I put together a list of role models. One of those people was Jon Gruden, the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl at 41. He’s been out of coaching for the past four years, to the constant surprise of many pundits, given that he’s still young and in-demand and that he’s a self-proclaimed football junkie who has never had (nor wanted) a life outside of football. What I love about Gruden is that he’s found outside-the-box and probably even more impactful ways to stay close to the game.

I know what I’m passionate about, and I know what kind of life I want to live. I’m in that outside-the-box mode right now, which is occasionally a struggle, but which has been great overall. I think good things are going to come out of this whole process, although I am impatient to figure out what those things will be. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself: Slow the pace, stay in the race….

Beginner’s Mind and the Pace of Learning

Earlier this week, I was watching videos of some of Groupaya’s strategy meetings last year. I was looking for video clips of interesting group dynamics that I could share at Changemaker Bootcamp, but I found myself instead reliving some challenging moments from last year.

Rebecca had set the tone of that meeting by having us celebrate our highlights. This was a good thing, because I spent most of the rest of the meeting talking about what I thought we were doing wrong.

In the midst of my meeting-long, blistering critique, I emerged from my agitation to express a momentary, but authentic feeling of self-compassion and perspective. I said, “I’m not actually unhappy about where we are right now. I think we’ve accomplished some amazing things. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is marathon, not a sprint. If we have to adjust some of our expectations accordingly, then let’s do it.”

Kristin let out a visceral sigh in reaction to this, so much so that I was taken aback at first. “Thank you for saying that,” she said when I looked at her questioningly. “That is so true.”

As it turns out, she had been carrying the same weight that I had, already heavy from her own expectations and exacerbated by what I was adding. “When you run a marathon, you take water from the water station, and you take a moment to replenish yourself,” she said. “You can’t finish otherwise. When you sprint, you don’t have time for that, but you don’t need it either.”

Starting Groupaya made me a much better consultant, largely because of moments like these. It’s easy to say stuff like this to others, but it’s incredibly hard to do in practice. When you are a doer who feels urgency — self-imposed or otherwise — you pressure yourself to go, go, go. Sometimes it’s merited, often it’s not. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to maintain a sense of perspective, to manage your expectations accordingly, to push yourself without killing yourself, and to take the moments you need to replenish.

Now, I find myself at an interesting confluence where I’m needing to take these lessons to heart and where I’m relearning them all over again.

My one leftover project from Groupaya has been helping the Hawaii Community Foundation with a culture change process. I often complain about how foundations don’t move fast enough, and so I find myself in an unusual position of constantly reminding the great folks there to slow down. It’s been a new challenge for me to think about designing water stations as part of my process, giving my client a chance to replenish while reminding them that there’s 20 miles still to go.

Similarly, Changemaker Bootcamp has been a revelation for me. It’s really helped me understand what I know that is valuable, and what I’d like to help others learn. Figuring out how to stage that has been a huge challenge.

What’s unexpectedly helped me throughout all of this has been my photography class. Our teacher, Lauren Crew, runs a very loose class, focusing on immersion and discussion. I love to learn this way. It plays to a lot of my strengths, but it can easily get overwhelming. Every assignment feels like a huge stretch, and you become viscerally aware of what you don’t know and what you can’t do.

Despite everything I know about learning and pacing, despite the confidence I have in my ability to learn, and despite the joy I get from being immersed in a learning process, I have felt a lot of doubt and self-consciousness throughout this whole process (and it’s only been two weeks). What the heck?! I’m a beginner taking an extension school class with a bunch of other incredibly nice beginners with a great, supportive teacher. Why am I getting frustrated at not taking Pulitzer Prize-caliber photos every time I click on the shutter?

Our assignment this past week was about fear. Lauren has encouraged us to start each assignment by being literal, but because of my outsized expectations, I’ve had a lot of difficulty doing that. It’s required a lot of discipline to stop conceptualizing and to start shooting, to recognize that being iterative will work much better than obsessing about perfection on the first try.

I wanted to capture my fear of being placed in a box, of being artificially labelled and constrained. (This explains a lot about my career choices.) A visual that came to mind was the fountain in front of the Embarcadero Center, which consists of lots of boxy tunnels contorting in all sorts of directions. I had wanted to recruit a friend to be a model, but my limited schedule was going to make that very difficult. Besides, it made more sense for me to be in the picture, since this was about my fear, so I decided to do a self-portrait.

I shot for about 20 minutes, and I felt anxious the entire time. I had wanted to come on a foggy morning, but the best opportunity I had was in the middle of the afternoon when the light can be challenging. There were waterfalls everywhere, which limited where I could place my GorillaPod and compose my shot.

The absolute worst part of that whole experience was being my own model. I wasn’t just posing for a cheesy headshot. I was contorting my body in ways that are not flattering, and I was doing it repeatedly, since I had to check the shot and set it up anew each time. To make matters worse, there were several people there taking photos of the fountain, and it seemed like every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at me.

I’ve been intentionally learning in public, posting my photos on Flickr for all to see. I got a shot that was fine for classroom purposes, but I felt incredibly self-conscious about sharing this particular one publicly, something that hasn’t generally been an issue for me. Part of it was that I didn’t feel like I had successfully executed my vision, but the bigger part was simply not like to see myself in this picture.

Still, I forced myself to push through the discomfort and share. On Facebook, my friends (as usual) expressed support, but my friend, Justin, also asked me to go into more detail about what I was unhappy about. In response to my critique, he decided to play with the image on his own to see if he could get it closer to my original vision.

My original picture is on the left, Justin’s version is on the right. You can see how he manipulated the photo to create a much greater sense of being boxed in while also drawing out the details in my face. He also shared the exact Lightroom settings he used, so that I could replicate his changes and build on them.

Despite all my anxiety, here’s what I loved about this whole ordeal:

  • I loved the feeling of making progress, to know that I’m getting better. To even be at the point where I have a vision for a photograph is huge progress. Furthermore, I understood how to manipulate my camera in ways that I didn’t even a few months ago.
  • I loved the feeling of challenging myself, of living in my discomfort. This process of stretching myself and of being uncomfortable is what’s going to make me better.
  • I loved how learning in public brought much needed support, but more importantly, new insights and a better product. Ward Cunningham often describes the essence of wikis as putting something out there and coming back to it later and discovering that someone has made it better. This experience is not just limited to wikis, and if you’ve ever experienced this firsthand, you know how wonderful and addictive it is.

Learning can be a joyful process, but it can also be a brutal one. My photography class has reminded me of both of these things, and it’s made me much more conscious about how better to support learning, both for others and for myself.

Photo (top) by Dominik Golenia. CC BY-ND 2.0.