Monday, January 30, 2012

The Mind of the Community

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At a recent WSAE meeting I was asked to explain what we meant in our white paper on Innovation for Associations when we referred to the "mind of community." Had I had a copy of the white paper with me, I could have quoted from it directly.

All organizations serve a community in one form or another and innovative organizations have developed mechanisms that provide a keen understanding of what’s on their community’s mind. In the most successful cases, it went beyond an awareness of a constituent’s needs. These innovation processes were imbued with a true sense of how the constituents thought—what they wanted, what they didn’t want, and how they would react in predictable and unpredictable circumstances. The methods for attaining this understanding varied, but the knowledge, once attained, was used throughout the innovation process to serve as a constant guide for successful decision‐making.

The added emphasis is mine, not the white paper's. I tried to capture the essence of this idea in my half-formed and stumbling verbal response at the WSAE meeting (and probably failed), and it's been tumbling around in my brain ever since.

But it did help me remember an old blog post from Dan Pallotta, a post in which he derided philanthropic organizations for focusing too much on what their donors said they wanted.

There are two kinds of people in the humanitarian sector. Those obsessed with giving donors what they say they want and those committed to giving donors something more magnificent than anything they ever dreamed they wanted. The latter are in short supply.

To respond, Boy Scout-like, to what donors say they want, and to dedicate the whole of your organization to telling them what they want to hear, is at best professionally lazy and at worst a wholesale dereliction of duty. Donors lead busy lives. They cannot and should not be expected to have the same level of sophistication about giving questions as those of us who have made philanthropy our careers. Most donors don't know what they really want because they haven't had time to think about it. Those of us who lead philanthropy and humanitarian organizations have a duty to share our expertise with them and to do it in a way that engages them. We have a duty to lead, not to follow. Imagine if your dentist let your teeth rot because she didn't want to tell you that you needed a root canal because she knew it wasn't what you wanted to hear.

And that helped me realize that what Pallotta is saying about one kind of philanthropic organization is equally true for one kind of association. In many cases those associations are extremely well-oiled machines, with tremendous capacities for doing functional things like plan conferences and publish newsletters, but few of them have built any capacity for understanding what the industries and professions they represent need to succeed and thrive in the future.

If anyone in such an organization does, it's usually the CEO. They are the one in the board meeting, hearing directly from the volunteer leaders, and frequently not about what they want in the short term but instead about their vision of the future and the broad strategies needed to create it.

But the meeting planner or the newsletter publisher? Well, they don't have that kind of access, and they almost never develop that kind of understanding. Their only tool is asking the general member what they want, often in the form of an online survey, and they’re stuck catching members when they’re drinking their morning coffee and scanning their Twitter feeds. Like Pallotta says, the members are busy, and any information they offer is tossed off of the top of their heads.

At least in a well-constructed board meeting, the focus is on the future and long-term success. People are correctly oriented in their thinking and the daily distractions have been eliminated. And the social time that often accompanies them gives another opportunity to interact with board members in yet another capacity, all of it separated from direct queries about what one thinks should be done.

All of these activities, I believe, help build a deeper understanding of the mind of your community. And if yours in the kind of organization where only the CEO has this kind of experience, then the question to ask is how can the same kind of opportunities be created for everyone on the staff? Some may think that's the wrong question, that the appropriate focus should be on the CEO and how they communicate that understanding throughout the organization. But I think that's a fool's errand. Understanding the mind of any community isn't something you can learn from someone else. The only way to do so is to become part of the community itself.

For organizations struggling with this, I would ask them to look at the wall that likely exists between their members and their staff. If such a wall is there, if the organization is rigidly structured so that the only interaction staff and members have is in the context of service delivery, then I say tear that wall down. If you want your staff to better anticipate the needs of your members, to understand how your members' community will react in predictable and unpredictable situations, you need to make them part of it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

During the last winter of her illness she lay much of the time on her red sofa, that had come so far out to this rock in the wilderness. The snow outside, piled up against the window-panes, made a grey light in the room, and she could hear Cecile moving softly about in the kitchen, putting more wood into the iron stove, washing the casseroles. Then she would think fearfully of how much she was entrusting to that little shingled head; something so precious, so intangible; a feeling about life that had come down to her through so many centuries and that she had brought with her across the wastes of obliterating, brutal ocean. The sense of “our way,”—that was what she longed to leave with her daughter. She wanted to believe that when she herself was lying in this rude Canadian earth, life would go on almost unchanged in this room with its dear (and, to her, beautiful) objects; that the properties would be observed, all the little shades of feeling which make the common fine. The individuality, the character, of M. Auclair’s house, though it appeared to be made up of wood and cloth and glass and a little silver, was really made of very fine moral qualities in two women: the mother’s unswerving fidelity to certain traditions, and the daughter’s loyalty to her mother’s wish.

I remember sitting in the airport in Flint, Michigan, talking to someone about why I like reading Willa Cather so much. I was introduced to her late. Unlike so many, I never read My Antonia in middle school, instead checking it out as an audiobook from my local library, a full-grown adult with a whim many years later. As I told my travel companion, that book, and O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and now Shadows on the Rock—they are all about the spaces that exist between people, and how the fleeting moments of true emotional connection that people experience are pulled tenuously over those spaces, stretching into the thinnest of gossamer filaments of memory, ready to snap with the merest tug, lost forever and forgotten.

Despite the passage above, in Shadows on the Rock, Cecile’s mother is already dead, and Cecile is living along with her father on the rock of Quebec, thousands of miles away from their actual home, 17th century France. Cecile’s father, Euclide Auclair, competes with Cecile as the primary character in the novel, an apothecary in the service of a French count, and a man who represents a transitory state between the encrusted civilization of the Old World and the burgeoning and blending civilization of the New.

He lived on the steep, winding street called Mountain Hill, which was the one and only thoroughfare connecting the Upper Town with the Lower. The Lower Town clustered on the strip of beach at the foot of the cliff, the Upper Town crowned its summit. Down the face of the cliff there was but this one path, which had probably been a main watercourse when Champlain and his men first climbed up it to plant the French lilies on the crest of the naked rock. The watercourse was now a steep, stony street, with shops on one side and the retaining walls of the Bishop’s Palace on the other. Auclair lived there for two reasons: to be close at hand where Count Frontenac could summon him quickly to the Chateau, and because, thus situated on the winding stairway connecting the two halves of Quebec, his services were equally accessible to the citizens of both.

These two halves of Quebec, the Upper and the Lower, are very important to the story, the citadel of French power and culture at the very top and the frontier world of commerce and wilderness at the bottom. For just as Cecile’s mother was committed to the former, bringing it with her across the ocean in her heart and treasured hopes for her daughter, Cecile is beguiled and drawn much more to latter, viewing it honestly as the only home she has ever known.

So much so, in fact, that Cecile, despite her dead mother’s wishes, has no real desire to return to France, or even to perpetuate the French culture and lifestyle in the New World. Somewhat early in the novel we hear the story of Bichet, an old knife-grinder who lodged with Cecile’s grandparents in France, and who is rightly accused of stealing two brass kettles but wrongly tortured and abused by the French authorities, confessing to countless other crimes as a result. As Euclide describes it to Cecile:

“Your grandfather and I hurried to the prison to speak for him. Your grandfather told them that a man so old and infirm would admit anything under fright and anguish, not knowing what he said; that a confession obtained under torture was not true evidence. This infuriated the Judge. If we would take oath that the prisoner had never stolen anything from us, they would put him into the strappado again and make him correct his confession. We saw that the only thing we could do for our old lodger was to let him pass quickly. Luckily for Bichet, the prison was overcrowded, and he was hanged the next morning.

“Your grandmother never got over it. She had for a long while struggled with asthma every winter, and that year when the asthma came on, she ceased to struggle. She said she had no wish to live longer in a world where such cruelties could happen.

“And I am like my grandmother,” cried Cecile, catching her father’s hand. “I do not want to live there. I had rather stay in Quebec always! Nobody is tortured here, except by the Indians, in the woods, and they know no better. But why does the King allow such things, when they tell us he is a kind King?”

“It is not the King, my dear, it is the Law. The Law is to protect property, and it thinks too much of property. A couple of brass pots, an old saddle, are reckoned worth more than a poor man’s life.”

And Cecile means it. As we come to see, the prospect of the Count going back to France—of his own will or by royal summons, and therefore bringing his apothecary and his daughter with him—becomes a central plot point in the novel. But Cecile, a French girl who has never seen France except as an infant, has no desire to return. She finds no greater happiness than in the simple pleasures of her existence in Quebec. Her connections to the people and the place are that strong.

She put the sled-rope under her arms, gave her weight to it, and began to climb. A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbours’ houses. If the Count should go back with the ships next summer, and her father with him, how could she bear it, she wondered. On a foreign shore, in a foreign city (yes, for her a foreign shore), would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one’s own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea.

Jacques is a young boy from an impoverished background, who Euclide and Cecile both try to protect from the roughness of his own life, and who wants everything they have but can never fully express his aching desire.

Much as Jacques loved chocolate (in so far as he knew, this was the only house in the world in which that comforting drink was made), there was something he cared more about, something that gave him a kind of solemn satisfaction,—Cecile’s cup. She had a silver cup with a handle; on the front was engraved a little wreath of roses, and inside that wreath was the name, “Cecile,” cut in the silver. Her Aunt Clothilde had given it to her when she was but a tiny baby, so it had been hers all her life. That was what seemed so wonderful to Jacques. His clothes had always belonged to somebody else before they were made over for him; he slept wherever there was room for him, sometimes with his mother, sometimes on a bench. He had never had anything of his own except his toy beaver,—and now he would have his shoes, made just for him. But to have a little cup, with your name on it…even if you died, it would still be there, with your name.

More than the shop with all the white jars and mysterious implements, more than the carpet and the curtains and the red sofa, the cup fixed Cecile as born to security and privileges. He regarded it with respectful, wistful admiration. Before the milk or chocolate was poured, he liked to hold it and trace with his finger-tips the letter that made it so peculiarly and almost sacredly hers. Since his attention was evidently fixed upon her cup, more than once Cecile had suggested that he drink his chocolate from it, and she would use another. But he shook his head, unable to explain. That was not at all what her cup meant to him. Indeed, Cecile could not know what it meant to him; she was too fortunate.

Jacques is a minor character in the novel, but he adds so much depth and understanding to the subtext. He is like so many of Cather’s minor characters—well crafted as individuals, with internal motivations and desires, but also easily viewed as archetypes, supporting the flow of Cather’s narrative and highlighting the differences between people that so often so unexpressed.

In many ways, Shadows on the Rock is a very religious book. Belief in God and Catholicism is very much a part of the story, with most of the characters showing true devotion to the faith. In researching the book, in fact, I found it featured on a website for Catholic educators. The conclusion presented there? “This is a wonderful story to study with young girls giving them an example of a truly Catholic girlhood where simple pleasures provide happiness and the importance of family is emphasized.”

I’m not so sure. Yes, it can be read that way, but there are other parts that make it less than devotional. Cecile’s father, for one, is more secular than sectarian, a bit of a scientist with more “faith” in his drugs and potions than the fervent prayers of many of his patients. And Cecile herself, who is certainly devoted to her faith and to the Virgin Mary, is often more focused on her own natural and expressive reverence than anything the representatives of the official church can offer her.

For example, when Cecile thinks she is to be taken back to France, and goes to the Monseigneur to tell him of her fears for Jacques and who will watch over him, they have this exchange:

“You must pray for him, my child. It is to such as he that our Blessed Mother comes nearest. You must unceasingly recommend him to her, and I will not forget to do so.”

“I shall always pray for him,” Cecile declared fervently, “but if only there were someone in this world, here in Quebec—Oh, Monseigneur l’Ancien,” she turned to him pleadingly, “everyone says you are a father to your people, and no one needs a father so much as poor Jacques! If you would bid Houssart keep an eye on him, and when he sees the little boy dirty and neglected, to bring him here, where everything is good and clean, and wash his face! It would help him only to sit here with you—he is like that, Madame Pommier would look after him for me, but she cannot get about, and Jacques will not go to her, I am afraid. He is shy. When he is very dirty and ragged, he hides away.”

“Compose yourself, my child. We can do something. Suppose I were to send him to the Brothers’ school in Montreal, and prepare him for the Seminary?”

She shook her head despondently. “He could never learn Latin. He is not a clever child; but he is good. I don’t think he would be happy in a school.”

“Schools are not meant to make boys happy, Cecile, but to teach them to do without happiness.”

“When he is older, perhaps, Monseigneur, but he is only seven.”

“I was only nine when I was sent to La Fleche, and that is a severe school,” said the Bishop. Perhaps some feeling of pity for his own hard boyhood, the long hours of study, the iron discipline, the fasts and vigils that kept youth pale, rose in his heart. He sighed heavily and murmured something under his breath, of which Cecile caught only the words: “…domus…Domine.”

Cecile knows that Jacques needs something more than what the church can offer him. And the Monseigneur, I think, knows it, too—his internal thoughts providing the reader with a telling critique of his religious upbringing. It’s a device that Cather uses multiple times in the novel—allowing the characters themselves to reveal something to the reader than may remain hidden to the other characters. Here’s another example, from when Euclide and the Count are discussing the potential of one or both of them returning to France. The Count relates a story about a long ago audience with the King:

“My second audience was at Fontainebleau, shortly before we embarked for La Rochelle. The King received me very graciously in his cabinet, but he was no longer in a conqueror’s mood; he had consulted the treasury. When I referred to the project he had advanced at our previous meeting [the seizure of New York and the Atlantic seaports from the English], he glanced at the clock over his fireplace and remarked that it was the hour for feeding the carp. He asked me to accompany him. An invitation to attend His Majesty at the feeding of the carp is, of course, a compliment. We went out to the carp basins. I like a fine pond of carp myself, and those at Fontainebleau are probably the largest and fiercest in France. The pages brought baskets of bread, and His Majesty threw in the first loaves. The carp there are monsters, really. They piled up on each other in hills as high as the rim of the basin, with all their muzzles out; they caught a loaf and devoured it before it could touch the water. Not long before that, care-taker’s little girl fell into the pond, and the carp tore her to pieces while her father was running to the spot. Some of them are very old and have an individual renown. One old creature, red and rusty down to his belly, they call the Cardinal.”

The carp, of course, represent the church and the church leaders—the allusion to the Cardinal at the end is unmistakable—and in that context, the metaphor of the ravenous carp tearing the little girl apart becomes quite sinister. What I think is going on here is not Cather’s rejection of reverence and Godliness, but her rejection of organized religions that put things like education and politics and discipline between what is holy and the people meant to receive it. And Cecile, it seems to me, in her affinity for Quebec, its natural wonders and its people, is much more a testimony for the spiritual life rather than the religious one.

The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.

Not just miracles, Willa. Stories, too.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Stop Calling It Strategic Planning

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So I'm working my way through Humanize, and like most everyone else, I'm really enjoying it. This will probably be the first of several posts describing the thoughts it provokes for how I am and should be running my association.

But dare I start with the endlessly controversial subject of strategic planning? I've heard Jamie Notter (and others) decry this staple of association board meetings as a tool whose time has come and gone, but it wasn't until I read the treatment of it in Humanize that I really understood what he was talking about.

And it's convinced me of one undisputable fact. I need to stop calling what my association does strategic planning.

Because it isn't. Humanize (the book was co-authored by Jamie and Maddie Grant, so it doesn't seem right to attribute anything it says to only one of them) says strategic planning is based on three faulty assumptions:

1. You can predict the future.
2. You can separate thought from action.
3. You can script the formation of strategy.

Since we don't make those assumptions, and since strategic planning is such a derogatory term, why should I persist in using it? To illustrate, let's tackle the honest truths of traditional strategic planning one at a time.

You Can't Predict the Future

...strategic planning is based on the assumption that you can truly predetermine outcomes in this world. It is predicated on the notion that we can sit here, at point A in time, and devise a plan to get us through to point B in the future, knowing enough about how the future is going to play out to make the correct strategic choices today.

That's what Humanize says, and Humanize is right. That is the assumption that two-day strategic planning retreats have when they are organized to create a three-to-five year plan for an organization.

Except we don't have a three-to-five year plan. We have a mission and a set of strategic priorities, and every time our leadership comes together--not just at their annual retreat, but every time--we ask what we know about our current position that would warrant a change to either of these items. Sometimes nothing changes. Sometimes everything changes. Sometimes the things that changed the time before get changed back again. We respect the idea that we can't know what's going to happen in the future. It's hard enough just figuring out what's happening now, and that's where we keep our attention focused. What's happening now and what does that tell us about where the association should go next.

You Can't Separate Thought from Action

This is where our illustrious leaders head off to their strategy retreats to develop their carefully laid plan that is then distributed to the worker bees for flawless execution.

My current board chair has taken to using a different metaphor when talking to people about their respective roles in the association. There are no queen bees and worker bees. We are all both directors and actors in the play.

Granted, different decisions get made in different parts of the association, but strategy and tactics must be intertwined if either is going to be successful. Those who create the ideas have a responsibility in helping to implement them, and those who coordinate programs have an obligation to inform our strategy with their practical experience. For us, the challenge is less one of process and design and more one about finding the human resources and the time in everyone's busy schedules to communicate enough to keep strategy and tactics aligned throughout our organization.

You Can't Script the Formation of Strategy

There is no research that supports the idea that elaborate planning processes work any better than the messy, informal processes that have also been used to create strategy.

This is the point that Humanize and I agree on the most when it comes to strategic planning, and what really tipped me over the edge in my resolution to stop calling what we do strategic planning.

To even call what we do a process is most likely an exaggeration. There is no real process--at least not a single process that we have consistently followed for as much as two years in a row. It's messy, and constantly evolving, with only a handful of guidelines to afford enough structure to keep people grounded and more or less understanding what we're trying to do. I've never written these guidelines down before, and maybe I should. Off the top of my head, they would look something like this:

1. We need a mission that everyone can support, that defines why we exist, and around which we will dedicate our resources and activity.

2. We need a vision for the future, a single or set of envisioned states of being, that inspires people and keeps us stretching to achieve more than we might have thought possible.

3. We need to develop a set of programs that are clearly aligned with our mission and which are capable of moving us towards our vision. These programs should both serve the interests of our members and engage them in the process of their development and execution.

4. We need to develop and employ the appropriate resources so that the programs have the best chance of success.

5. We need to monitor the progress of the programs and evaluate their impact on our mission and their ability to move us closer to our vision. We must make adjustments based on this evaluation, striving for a cycle of continuous improvement.

These guidelines frame the conversation my association has on an on-going basis. Not just at the board retreat, but at every board meeting, on committee conference calls, and day-by-day with the staff. As long as we stay true to these concepts then everything else is up for negotiation and change.

So what should I call this thing that we do if Humanize has convinced me to stop calling it strategic planning?

I have one idealized suggestion. Association management. It is nothing less than the most fundamental value our business model is capable of creating, and no one should shy away from it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Right Way to Use Expert Speakers

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How many times have you gone to an educational conference sponsored by an association and been presented with an expert speaker who knows next to nothing about the industry represented by the association? She's there because she's an expert on the topic she's come to present on, but it's her standard and practiced presentation, and it fails to take into account fundamental aspects of the industry she's addressing. If your experience is anything like mine, you've see this happen many times.

So why don't you do something about it? And I'm not talking about negative comments on the evaluation form.

The last time this happened to me something wonderfully spontaneous happened. The speaker was there to present the results of a survey exploring trends and issues related to membership marketing in associations. Good information and the speaker had good professional experience. But he was talking to a group of trade association professionals and his data was based on a survey audience that was split; 40% trade associations and 60% professional societies.

The problem was he didn't break out the responses from the trade associations so we could see how our direct peers compared to the overall universe. We were left taking guesses as to how the responses to each question applied to us and what we could still learn from the data.

This could've been a disaster, but it wasn't. Thanks to a less than bashful audience and a less than flustered speaker, I soon found myself listening to and engaging in one of the most productive peer to peer to expert conversations I've had in quite some time.

People were challenging assumptions, sharing experiences, and the speaker was doing a good job facilitating the discussion and interjecting his own perspective when it was helpful and appropriate.

It was fantastic, and it made me think--what if someone actually planned their education this way?

Bring in an outside speaker. Make sure she has real expertise in an area relevant to your industry. Ask her to prepare three or four pieces of content--each no more than 10 minutes in length (I'm not kidding; count her slides). And then, get a group of smart, out-going members, spread them liberally through the audience, and ask them to challenge the content, speculating out loud about how it translates to your environment and what value they find in it.

Those not in the loop may think the session has gone off the rails. But I'll bet the ensuing conversation will have far more value to your members than letting a speaker who doesn't know who she's talking to drone on.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

I’m pretty sure I picked this one up at one the library’s semi-annual book sale. That means I paid only 50 cents for it or it was in a box of books that cost me only a dollar total. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones. He is proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honour falsely to the mighty gorilla. He is an intensely vocal, acutely exploratory, over-crowded ape, and it is high time we examined his basic behavior.

And I think, cool, we’re off to a good start. Morris is going to write from the perspective of a zoologist, studying an unusual species with the clinical detachment he would bring to any other species, primate or otherwise. But that quickly fades. In the next few paragraphs he introduces himself as a fellow human, as a member of this strange and unique species he’s going to critically examine. And when the “it” becomes a “we”, Morris fails in doing the revolutionary thing he sets out to do.

Otherwise the book is a mixed bag. Some things seem like deep and previously-unrecognized revelations—the 40+ years since his publication in these cases helping to prove Morris had flashes of extraordinary insight.

His analysis of the human evolutionary story as the primate turned predator has tremendous explanatory power—and indeed, Morris attributes a lot to it. At a minimum, it helps to explain why human society is so different from chimpanzee society and gorilla society, and why humans seem to struggle so much with the societal pressures that are placed upon them.

If we accept the history of our evolution as it has been outlined here, then one fact stands out clearly: namely, that we have arisen essentially as primate predators. Amongst existing monkeys and apes, this makes us unique … The point is that a major switch of this sort produces an animal with a split personality. Once over the threshold, it plunges into its new role with great evolutionary energy—so much so that it carries with it many of its old traits. Insufficient time has passed for it to throw off all its old characteristics while it is hurriedly donning the new ones. When the ancient fishes first conquered dry land, their new terrestrial qualities raced ahead while they continued to drag their old watery ones with them. It takes millions of years to perfect a dramatically new animal model, and the pioneer forms are usually very odd mixtures indeed. The naked ape is such a mixture. His whole body, his way of life, was geared to a forest existence, and then suddenly (suddenly in evolutionary terms) he was jettisoned into a world where he could survive only if he began to live like a brainy, weapon-toting wolf. We must examine now exactly how this affected not only his body, but especially his behavior, and in what form we experience the influence of this legacy at the present day.

Other things seem laughably wrong and contrived. Allow me to paraphrase a few prime examples (and no, I am not making these up):

• The female orgasm developed, in part, because of the female’s need to stay horizontal after the sexual act. If she were to get up and walk away, like other apes do, the seminal fluid would leak out of her vertically aligned vaginal passage and she would never conceive. The violent response of the female orgasm, leaving her sexually satiated and exhausted, has the effect of keeping her horizontal for the appropriate amount of time for insemination to occur.

• Weak and effeminate fathers raise lesbian daughters and strong and masculine mothers raise gay sons. Children or either gender, exposed to a behaviorally “inappropriate” parent, will seek those behaviors in a mate when they come of age, and may only find them in people of their same gender.

• Humans intentionally imbue commercial products and brands with a resemblance to our “threat-faces.” Car designers arrange headlights, metal grilles, and hoods so that they take on the appearance of an aggressive human face because roads have become increasingly crowded and driving has become an increasingly belligerent activity.

• The corporal punishment used in some schools, especially the spanking and paddling, are a cultural holdover from our evolutionary predisposition for male sexual dominance over females. The schoolboy assumes a classic submissive feminine posture of rump-presentation, and the teacher has replaced the repetitive pelvic thrusts of the dominant male with the rhythmic whipping of the switch.

• Girls think spiders are icky because their long legs remind them of the hair that sprouts on their bodies during puberty, and body hair is essentially a male characteristic, and therefore grotesque from a young girl’s point of view.

But the clincher for me was the following. It’s not so much wrong anachronistically but morally. It is a book that goes out of its way to treat and describe human beings as another species of primate, different in type but not in kind from gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees; and in doing so, often compares and contrasts behaviors of the different species. Here, Morris is talking about juvenile isolation and its effect on development and socialization.

Experiments with monkeys have revealed that not only does isolation in infancy produce a socially withdrawn adult, but it also creates an anti-sexual and anti-parental individual. Monkeys that were reared in isolation from other youngsters failed to participate in play-group activities when exposed to them later, as older juveniles. Although the isolates were physically healthy and had grown well in their solitary states, they were quite incapable of joining in the general rough and tumble. Instead they crouched, immobile, in the corner of the playroom, usually clasping their bodies tightly with their arms, or covering their eyes. When they matured, again as physically healthy specimens, they showed no interest in sexual partners. If forcibly mated, female isolates produced offspring in the normal way, but they proceeded to treat them as though they were huge parasites crawling on their bodies. They attacked them, drove them away, and either killed them or ignored them.

Something about that paragraph unsettled my stomach, and when I read the next sentence I knew what it was.

Similar experiments with young chimpanzees showed that, in this species, with prolonged rehabilitation and special care it was possible to undo, to some extent, this behavioral damage, but, even so, its dangers cannot be over-estimated.

Similar experiments? You mean experiments, like the ones described being performed on monkeys, where infants were taken away from their mothers, raised in complete isolation, and then forcibly mated, only to have the researchers watch with clinical fascination the way they attacked the parasitical infants that eventually came out of their wombs? That was done to chimpanzees? Who? Who did that? Aren’t chimpanzees sentient? Wouldn’t such actions be utterly immoral?

Sadly, none of these questions are ever answered in Morris’ text. I had to go to Google for that. See Project R&R. Morris just goes on with his critical analysis of the naked ape, speculating on how these experimental results are probably transferrable to that species as well.

Maybe asking for a completely detached treatment of the human species isn’t such a good idea after all.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why Change the World in 2012?

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Thanks to Elizabeth Engel for tagging me in the meme started by Maddie Grant about what people are planning to do to change the world in 2012. It's been fun noodling on the idea and thinking about how to respond.

But I have to be honest. When I first saw Maddie's post and realized what she was doing--calling out certain bloggers to respond to her challenge--my first reaction was anxiety. Oh no, I thought. Please don't tag me! And when I got to the bottom of her post and saw that I had escaped her attention, I felt a calming sense of relief.

This was the year, you see, that I gave up on New Year's Resolutions, frustrated as I have been with this traditional exercise in self-reflection and goal-setting. It comes only once a year--at one of the busiest times, no less--and it consistently leads to overreach and failure. It's not just me, right? There has to be a better way to grow and make conscious improvements in your life.

So in response, I consciously decided to forego the capital R Resolutions this year in favor of selecting just one small behavior change to stick with for the month of January. If, at month's end, it has become a sustainable habit, then great, I'll select another small change for February. But if I'm still struggling with it, then I'll re-evaluate the change and decide if I should give it another try in February, or seek change elsewhere. In other words, I will add a pattern of periodic self-reflection to my life, and create the change I seek one small step at a time.

But that's me. And none of that is going to change the world. At least not in 2012. So, now that I've been tagged with this meme, what can I realistically say?

First, I'll admit that I haven't read any of the other posts, so I don't know what level of change people are aiming at. Ending world hunger is probably a bigger problem than I can solve this year (especially with that pesky board meeting coming up), so any effect I think I can have on the world around me should probably be focused on the people and organizations I already interact with. And in that department, I do have one idea.

Elevate the conversation.

Across the board--whether it's an interaction in the association that employs me, in one of my growing list of volunteer commitments, in my relationship with my family, or even in the activities I choose to fill my reflective time with--I can more consciously be the agent that elevates the conversation one level above where everyone else is focused.

Too much of the time, you see, in all of the circles I've described above, we seem so consumed by what needs to be done that we consistently lose sight of why we're doing them in the first place. And yet the why has to inform the what, or the what begins to lose its meaning.

In my many roles--association CEO, volunteer board member, role-modelling father, personal change agent--it's becoming more and more apparent to me that it's my job to have a very clear handle on the why. My job is to inspire people, to lead them in the work that they do, to help them understand the why so they can make better decisions on the what that otherwise consumes their attention.

So throughout 2012 (or maybe starting in February?), I'm going start asking why more regularly. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing it this way? What are we trying to achieve and are we sure this activity and this action is helping us get there?

In some cases, I'll know the answers to these questions, and then it'll be my job to take action--reinforcing the why when there is alignment and making changes when there isn't. In other cases, I won't know the answers, and it'll be my job to work with others to discover them, to define and shape what we do so it resonates with a why that is meaningful and necessary.

In the end, I don't know if any of that will change the world, but it might heighten my ability to do so.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dear Older Generation: It's Not Just Your America

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The world is not coming to an end. For a while there, it looked like that's all you wanted to focus on, but I think even you have come to realize that that's no more true today that it was when every other generation began to pass into the uncomfortable position of no longer being The Most Important People on Earth.

So that's good. I commend you for that. But now you appear to have taken up a new refrain. Okay, you seem to be saying. So the world is not coming to an end. It'll chug along just fine without me. I don't like it, but I can accept it. But, dammit, America is no longer the America I grew up with. That America, "my America," no longer exists...and we need to get it back!

I'm paraphrasing, I know. But I've been seeing this sentiment popping up more and more in the media you still control. Here's the latest and the one that prompted this post, but it's hardly the only one. You know, some folks have been saying this ever since Obama got elected, but that gives it a partisan slant I'm pretty sure not even you intend. You're just upset and confused. Decisions are beginning to be made that you disagree with, priorities are changing, and it honestly looks to you like the America you grew up with no longer cares what you think.


This is the America whose economic future is still held hostage by the politics of your generation, right? The one in which any sensible approach to Social Security or Medicare reform is doomed before it can even put a press release together? Doomed because people of your generation, who vote more reliably than any other demographic in the country, go apoplectic every time the political opponents of the reformers start demagoguing on the subject? Even politicians of the younger generation seem insistent on reassuring you. Don't worry, they go out of their way to say. We'll make sure you get the money and benefits you were promised even if we have to bankrupt the country to do it.

But let's put that aside for a second. It's really just one of my pet grievances anyway. Instead, allow me to grant you your fundamental premise. You're right. The America you know, love and understand doesn't exist any more.

So what?

It may trouble you to know that America doesn't belong to just you. It belongs to all of us. And if it's broken, I'd first want to ask you to think carefully about how it got broken in the first place. Then, I'd like to ask you to stop clinging so nostalgically to it so we can take a close look at it and maybe figure out a way to fix the damn thing.

There are some of us, after all, who still have careers to pursue and children to raise and dreams for the future, and we're not ready to give up on America just yet. I'm personally less interested in the political rancor that infects all structures built on the ideal of self-determination, but one of the things I am interested in is exploring a new generation of leadership issues. And that's how I want to approach this subject.

Believe it or not, there's a whole new generation of leaders who are standing ready to tackle the tough problems we're facing. But you won't see them in the crowds on Black Friday and you certainly won't see them in your misty-eyed remembrances of Depression-era patriotism and sacrifice.

We have a different set of life experiences than you do, and that gives us a different perspective on the issues of the day. You must know what that feels like. Surely you can remember how square your parents' generation was?

But perhaps most importantly, and the thing that sets us the most apart from you, is that we've grown up enough to know that we'll be here after you're gone. We have to find ways to make America work again because there will come a day, in the not-to-distant future, when we'll absolutely and irrevocably be in charge, and your perspectives and priorities will be the things our children read about in their history books.

Maybe if you look at things from that perspective you'll get a glimpse of why some of us seem so angry--and why the America we'd create seems so different from the one you grew up with. It's not that we're right and you're wrong. Nothing is ever that simple, and I'm sure that we'll make tons of mistakes. But it is our turn, and I wonder if you could manage to step aside and let us lead while there's still something to work with.