Thursday, October 29, 2009

Being On Purpose

Horror movies are in plentiful supply this time of year, and they come in all forms. Sometimes the fright comes watching the machinations of a malicious intelligence, human or supernatural, unfold in some gruesome manner. Zombies are terrifying for an entirely different reason. They relentlessly and thoughtlessly keep pursuing their most basic need without conscience or rational thought. They don't care that they never actually accomplish anything beyond eating because they have no purpose and no ambition.

Being willing to ask the question "What am I doing here?" opens a floodgate of possibility, as it turns out. Without that question, we are not much further along than the zombies, acting to satisfy what we perceive our most basic needs without stopping to think about what we actually want to achieve. Asking the question paves the way for an even more meaningful one: What do I want to be doing? With a meaningful purpose, every decision can be measured. Does what I am doing contribute to what I want to create, or does what I'm doing actually stand in the way?

Waking up to a clear purpose also means that I invite opportunities to live out that intention. If I were comfortable being a zombie, I would never even consider watching for those opportunities. I would just keep doing the most obvious thing without questioning it. Now, I can clearly state that I want the music I create to make a difference in the world, that I want what I create (musically and otherwise) to have a positive impact on other people's lives. I also want to continue seeking out things that inspire and invigorate me, the things that keep me asking questions and finding answers.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What are you doing here?

I was at the end of a frustrating year of college at a school to which I didn't return. They had invited me to be a part of the inaugural year of their new honors program, and I spent the year growing up in a lot of ways. Musically, I had not grown much in those months, and one of my professors called me into his office one day as the spring semester was wrapping up. I had done well in his class, so I really didn't know what to expect. He started by asking a very direct question: "What are you doing here?"

He had seen some potential in me early in the academic year. In fact, he had considered splitting his large class into two sections with me leading the second section. That was quite a compliment, coming from an established professor, but the year passed without me ever really grasping and owning the potential he saw. This professor concluded that I was not being sufficiently challenged by the institution... that my full capability was not being nurtured. In some ways, it was easy for me not to thrive. Thus his question "What are you doing here?" was eventually followed by some suggestions of other (prestigious) schools that he thought would better sharpen me and call me fully forward.

I didn't take his advice on any of those schools, but his question stuck with me in more ways than one. Several years later, I was working in a church in a small town and a parishioner heard me practicing the piano one afternoon. Her question was identical to my professor's: What are you doing here? She saw something about me that I wasn't willing to see in myself, but the question immediately caught my attention.

I started waking up a bit that day, but I am only beginning to see how I have sold myself short in many ways for years. Perhaps it was because I didn't want to be driven by blind ambition, constantly striving to achieve more. More likely, it was plain fear that I wouldn't measure up to the challenge, that no amount of striving could compensate for my inadequacies. Sticking with what came easily seemed safer, but it wound up being ultimately less satisfying. It became rather like wearing clothes that are too small... I can completely fill them out, but there is more of me than what the clothes can contain. And it's not terribly comfortable.

Now I am being evoked again, and I am looking at myself with more honesty and less fear. Admitting my strengths and capabilities, I want a satisfying, sharpening environment that I have to stretch a little bit to fill out completely. I want to thrive. I can see many possibilities for how this can happen, and I am sure that there are possibilities I don't yet see. But if I remain willing to keep asking myself "What am I doing here?" and answer honestly, I believe those possibilities will become clearer and clearer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dark Corners and Open Spaces

Dark corners seem seductive sometimes. They are secretive and mysterious. Exciting even. Things that are whispered in dark corners are often titillating... things that wouldn't be spoken out in the open. Plots, schemes, complaints, juicy tidbits of gossip. In dark corners, you can say things without having to take too much responsibility for them. Some people may be suspicious of what hides in the dark corners, but it's an easy place to hide.

It's much safer than what happens out in the open. In open spaces, things cannot be quite so easily hidden. It may not be as exciting, but things spoken out in the open are often more honest. There's a greater likelihood that someone will be held accountable for something done where everyone can see and hear. It certainly seems more risky and vulnerable than the dark corners.

But actually, if we want our complaints and concerns addressed, there is a greater likelihood that we will get what we want when we are willing to be honest and open about them. If we can look someone in the eye and communicate openly about what we want, that individual actually has a chance to respond. Going into dark corners and whispering may be more exciting, but it often doesn't give anyone an opportunity to respond meaningfully. It does allow us the illusion that we don't have to take responsibility for our part in things... that someone else is responsible for dealing with our issues.

Unless what we really want is to complain without consequence, to create dissension or anxiety, to find collusion rather than solution. I find it difficult to believe that anyone truly wants that, deep down in the core of their being. Perhaps I am being naive, but it seems obvious that there is no real power or peace in the dark corners. As I see it, the true power comes from a willingness to connect with another person, even one with whom I have differences, openly and honestly. Then, our creativity can be engaged in finding ways forward in partnership. There isn't really any way forward from a dark corner, except out into the open.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Community Leadership

As I think about community and what that means, it strikes me that the word "leadership" probably has as many different definitions as the word "community." When I think of the kinds of partnerships that will carry my own various visions forward, that sense of working toward a common purpose seems best served by seeing eye-to-eye with another person rather than making demands or issuing orders. Of course, I still have the responsibility of carrying out my vision for my life, even though I am in partnership with other people.

A community vision is a bit different. Many people with many different ideas about the way things should be. At the very least there are likely to be different opinions about the best way to accomplish a vision. I have been in communities where everyone tries to take the lead and pursue their way of doing things, and the ensuing chaos didn't bring us any closer to our purpose. I have also been a part of communities in which no one wanted the mantle of leadership because it was viewed as carrying the burden of responsibility for doing everything successfully. That model wasn't any more effective.

My ideas about leadership have been developing over the last several months, so it only makes sense that my ideas about leadership in the context of a community have been growing. Although there are varying styles of leadership, a leader is first and foremost a vision-holder. Collective partnerships can certainly lead a community in the direction of their vision, and in a connected and purposeful community, leadership may even shift fluidly among different individuals at different times. But often it takes an individual to take a stand in order to propel things into the next step.

One thing I am realizing, however, is that a leader can help a community discover its vision. A leader can even guide a community in how to step into that vision. But a leader can only take a community where it is willing to go. Otherwise, the community will choose a different leader, by one means or another. I suppose one could try to be a chameleon, but if a leader's vision is different enough from the community of which he is a part, this seems like a short-lived solution. In fact, true leadership may involve having the integrity of personal vision to trust that communities which share a similar purpose will emerge in partnership.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tensile Strength of Load-sharing Bundles

I had a conversation with someone last week about ways to get my music out into the world. Walking away from this short chat, I had half a dozen names and organizations that could provide some support for what I am trying to create. And I would guess that each of those names could yield even more possible partnerships. By recognizing that I don't have to do everything myself, I was able to ask for and receive some valuable support.

When I believe that I have to bear the entire weight of my dreams and goals, I reach a breaking point fairly quickly. There are just too many things in which I an inexperienced and unskilled, and I feel the pressure of time more keenly. When I realize that I am actually surrounded by people who can partner with me in some way to share the vision I am creating, the possibility of reaching a breaking point is barely a consideration for me. And I am more open to how I can be of service in their visions as well.

I believe that this is a vital characteristic of healthy communities: "Bundles" of people partnering together in support of one another are going to be stronger by far than a group of individuals all trying to do everything themselves. It's difficult for a group of people to work toward a common purpose if they are each struggling to carry the weight of their own lives. Of course, this kind of partnership requires vulnerability and trust for a community's members to receive support from one another. And it requires willingness and acceptance for a community's members to offer true support to one another.

It may seem a bit counter-cultural to offer and receive mutual support in this way. We are accustomed to a strange mixture of problem-solving, enabling, independence, and blamelessness. I suppose in many ways holding others at arm's length (or farther) looks safer, but it doesn't create strong partnerships the way mutual support can.

But that support can get messy sometimes. It isn't always supportive to approve what someone is trying to create in their lives carte blanche. Sometimes support means that we hold one another's feet to the fire, or we notice blind spots that another person is missing. It means being aware enough of one another's true aims that we can speak up truthfully when we see something that is off the mark. And it also gives us an opportunity to examine ourselves when another person is honest with us. This is how we become sharper. This is what creates a strong community of strong individuals.

Of course, not every community is practicing this kind of supportive partnership. My guess is that very few of them do. But I am wondering what would be possible if they did. What would a world of load-sharing, bundled people in community with one another look like?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Community vs. Tribalism

When a hurricane was bearing down on us last year, my neighbor commented that my side of the street always got electricity back before his side. My response was that, if that were to happen, we could run an extension cord across the road to make sure they had at least enough power for a little fridge and cell phone chargers. And that's exactly what happened. For three days, our homes were literally connected to one another.

This same neighbor cares for the yard of an elderly couple in our neighborhood. Free of charge. Just because he is a kind and caring person. Another couple down the street share vegetables that they grow in their garden. We don't pay for the vegetables, but my wife did make a care package when one of them was bed-ridden after a recent surgery.

We are connected to one another, and we respond to one another out of that connectivity. In a way, we are all on the same team, even when a month goes by without any direct interaction. We have a common purpose of living peaceably in community with one another. In the More To Life organization, people unite as a team for the short-term purpose of creating a training weekend to serve others.

The idea of being on the same team doesn't always look like my neighborhood or an act of service, though. It often gets twisted around into tribalism: We are on this team, and they are on that other team. We have our purposes, and they have theirs. And we have to fight to get what we want. We have to compete with the other tribe(s) to make sure we come out on top. Otherwise They might take advantage of us. We won't get what we want. We won't be safe. We'll be hindered from accomplishing our purpose.

So our tribe's purpose can easily become "to fight against the other tribe(s)," whatever that looks like. It might be a marketing war, cultural conflict, a military war, or a legal battle. It might even manifest as a subtle whisper campaign. In any case, when we shift into this mode, we believe that our tribe is completely justified. Our tribe is right. Our tribe is deserving.

And our tribe is afraid. Fear is the primary motivator of tribalism in any venue. And when we are fighting with the other tribe because of fear, it makes defining a sacred purpose all the more difficult. How can we honestly create something as a community when we are acting out of fear to destroy the Other? Quote something about the phoenix or Kali if you like, but I would suggest that when a tribe is fearful, there will always be apparent enemies at the gate that demand immediate attention.

The tribe mentality limits us. It turns away the unique creative gifts others could bring to the table, and it keeps us in a state of separation. Seeing the potential for partnership and connectivity is expansive. If we take "we" to the ultimate limits, there is no "them." And I believe the closer we are to that understanding, the more we engage our integrity, gracefulness, and gratitude.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Being Greedy

Over the past year, I have been committed to stretching beyond my comfort zone and engaging my full capability in the world. I'm not there yet. Granted, it's a moving target, since my capability will hopefully continue to grow in different ways. But, there are still some things that keep me from allowing myself to shine as brightly as I could be. A year ago, I was placing the blame on external circumstances, but when I look at things honestly, most of the limitations are still coming from the same place they always have been. Me.

In the noblest part of me, I want what I create to contribute to making a more harmonious world. This goes for musical creations and otherwise. I want my music to be a part of creating a sustainable culture of grace, integrity, and gratitude. So, when someone asks what I want to do with my music, the answer has been deepening even as it has grown in clarity. It's certainly a long range goal, but there is no honest reason for me to avoid working toward it right now.

It has been more challenging for me to pin down an answer to the question: How much money do you want to make from your music? In some moments, I don't really believe I deserve anything for it, and in others I am disheartened that some of my pieces haven't earned more. When I try out a dollar figure, though, it often strikes me as being greedy. I somehow lose sight of what I actually want to create when money enters the picture. It becomes a bit of a stumbling block.

What I am realizing is that, although money is not the end in and of itself, it is a significant factor in allowing my music to have the impact I want. It seems logical to conclude that if I want what I create to make a difference in the world, it would have to be out in the world being heard or experienced. And if I earn money because of royalties, it means that my music has been out in the world being heard. Which means that when I cling to a belief that I am being greedy if I want my music to earn money, I am actually working against any efforts I may take toward putting it out into the world. I am at cross purposes with myself.

While I don't know what is possible, I do know that I have been in some ways keeping myself from reaching as far as I can be. I am willing to let go of the "greedy" label. What I actually want is more valuable to me than the lie.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Community Defined

Someone I am partnering with on a project recently described a familiar scenario: Several people were involved in a discussion, and they had reached an apparent agreement. Then one person simply restated what had been agreed, only to find that people had different understandings of their agreement. What had seemed clear was revealed to be subject to varying interpretations.

Sometimes language can be used to communicate with precision and clarity, and sometimes words can obfuscate. This might be intentional in some cases, especially in the realm of marketing and advertising, but in most circumstances, I think that people typically want to be understood when they choose to communicate. It's a huge assumption on my part, but I'm going to run with it.

As I have been considering many ways in which I can partner with others, communication has been rather important. And since I am a part of several different communities, I have been looking at many different possibilities for building on the relationships that already exist for me. I thought at first that a community's purpose would play a part in how communication and partnership could play out among its members, but I am finding that people often have different definitions for some of those purposes.

Even the word community is a bit muddy. I am a part of a community of people where I live, a community of different people where I work, and several other communities of people because of various interests. My definition of a community has been a group of individuals who have a common purpose, but I admit that I don't really know the purpose of many of the folks who live in my neighborhood. For some, community may have to do first and foremost with proximity, and for others it may have to do more with attitude than anything else. I have seen people who claim to have common purposes treat one another with suspicion and even malice. By my perception, that would make it difficult to develop a sense of community, but others might see no connection at all.

So, how can a sense of community be developed unless the word itself is well-defined by its members? Communication might be a start, and it couldn't hurt for that communication to be honest and connecting. Personally, I am considering some alternative words that might be less ambiguous. Partnership is certainly one of them.