Culture

Staying Cool Under Pressure

The work that I do as a school leader is often very exciting and demanding. Being responsible for  children, adults and high stakes results, requires me to tap into a wide range of skills I've accumulated over the years from setting a clear vision to motivating others when they're lacking confidence. Though I seldom have to explain why I do the work I do, many people are often curious about how I manage some aspects of my role that can be challenging.The question I'm most often asked is, "how do you stay so calm?" Years ago when I found myself in difficult situations, I would hear a little voice whispering "don't ever let them see you sweat."I don't hear that voice much these days, but my sense is that the mentality is baked in. The underlying mindset I hold onto is that appearing stressed seldom makes things easier. It's my responsibility as a good teammate and leader to remove barriers and sources of stress for others so they can focus on what matters most. Having played enough sports, I know that when a coach looks overwhelmed or worried, it impacts the way the team feels about the game.

Though the mindsets I hold are fundamental to the way I operate in difficult times, there are some actual technical/skill-based moves I repeatedly pull that help me stay "75 and Sunny" even in the midst of an unexpected hurricane.

1) Keep things in perspective: Whenever I find myself in the middle of stressful situation, I try my best to be mindful of the fact that there are 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week and 365 days in a year. The situation I'm handling begins to look small with respect to time and energy when I keep in mind that it's only one event at one point in my entire career.

2) Rallying my team: I have seldom dealt with a difficult situation alone. Even when I have final decision rights on the best course of action, I am never hesitant when it comes to pulling in thought-partners and key players who can help me remain focused on resources and options at my disposal. I know that my work is demanding and I can't do it without my team behind me. I also recognize that I'm not always the best person to handle critical steps in resolving complicated situations so I leverage the strengths of my team to get things done.

3) Finding the appropriate release: Experiencing stress and appearing to be stressed are not synonymous. I'm not a robot! I don't hide my emotions ad infinitum, but I find the appropriate time to release in a way that does not add fuel to the fire I am trying to extinguish. When I recently handled one of my most challenging crisis in the last year, I stayed focused on being logical and rational in the moment while mobilizing my team to take the best course of action to contain an isolated event that could have mushroomed into a nightmare. But trust me, immediately after the smoke settled, I went into a private room, ate several chocolate chip cookies and prayed. Once I was calm, I took a few minutes to chat with a teammate and mentor about the experience and how I was feeling.

4) Striving to achieve the best possible outcome: Being a leader requires you to strive for excellence in everything you do. You may drop the ball occasionally, but you always push yourself to learn and grow and to serve as a model for others. This can be dangerous though if you lose perspective and ignore reality while becoming obsessed with a vision to the point that your perfectionism hinders your ability to get things done. When you're trying to manage stress during a difficult situation, you can't be concerned about how far off the reality is with respect to what you would imagine in your ideal world. I don't have any survey results, but I'm willing to bet that no one who has ever been responsible for passengers on a sinking cruise line has worried about how much their guests would miss out on the wonderful five course dinner available in the dining hall. Your primary concern needs to be doing the best you can with the best you have in the moment even when that means good trumps great for the day.

As the old saying goes, "Keep Calm, and Carry On!"

 

Mastering Your Craft...

In a world that is so obsessed with social and economic status, it often feels difficult to be comfortable with what you have and where you are. At every turn there are messages telling us to have more and be more. For many of us, these messages are the basis for diseases that form within our minds and hearts, informing the ways in which we view ourselves and our significance in the world. Each and every person has a unique purpose and while a few of us may be led to fame and fortune as a result of pursuing our special assignments in life, most of us will take our final breaths and leave behind a life and legacy that are only celebrated and remembered by a few people who knew us well and loved us for who we were and hopefully despite who we were not.

So if fame and fortune aren't what we're all driving toward we may pause to ask ourselves what is it that ties us all together in our journey toward fulfilling our purpose and finding some level of significance. I am learning and believing that what we should be striving toward is mastering our craft, whatever it may be.

Living a life of joy and fulfillment involves doing your very best and that doesn't necessarily mean doing your best in a particular space, or doing your best with a particular task, but rather striving to do your very best wherever you are.

I spent some time last week listening to speeches and sermons by the great Dr. Martin Luther King and found myself scratching my head when King shared a story of a man who shined his shoes. In his story, Dr. King spoke in detail about this man, another Black man, who was masterful in shoes shining.

Dr. King, talked about the man's focus and the level of thought he seemed to be putting into his work and as I listened I could feel something within me wrestling with an emerging paradox.

What struck me was a tension I felt somewhere in my mind where an image of one of our nation's greatest advocates for equality was passionately praising the work of a service provider in a role that would garner little or no respect whatsoever in our tremendously hierarchical society shaped and informed by social, cultural, educational and economic elitist sentiments.

In my mind, there was something odd about King's excitement over this man's shoe shining skills, a man who likely faced great obstacles in the segregated south and had very limited opportunities to take advantage of the privileges afforded to his white brethren at the time because of the overt systemic racism that ruled this nation.

As I continued listening though, I began to understand the point of Dr. King's message. His reflection wasn't an assessment of the man's worth but rather an observation of this man's focus, intent, drive, passion and brilliance all utilized in his efforts to be his absolute best. The man's title and role may not have had value to those who took advantage of his service, but he was not concerned about status.

His only goal was to determine, for himself, the value and quality of his position by doing what he was called to do as best as he could possibly do it and the truth of his mastery, made me think about the significance we all possess despite what structures we operate in that are determined and sustained by external forces.

Dr. King struck something in me that pulled back the lenses through which I view the world and adjusted my vision in a way that allowed me to think about the potential we all have to simply do our best with whatever the assignment is that we have been given.

Our craft, no matter how big or small, does not determine who we are but it is through mastering our craft that we reveal to ourselves and the world who we are and what we're made of.

No matter what it is that you are positioned to do, don't just do it, but do it as best as you can!

What Ridiculing Others For Sport Says About You

“If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a very serious problem.” When award-winning author, Toni Morrison offered this hard-hitting analysis of white-supremacy in a PBS interview with Charlie Rose, she gave the world a lesson on all forms of degradation. This critique especially applies to the popular forms of insulting gossip we see in mainstream culture today. Though our use of negative language directed toward others can be benign in some instances, it feels as if verbally wounding others for pure amusement has become quite a sport in varying forms of social media.

Celebrities are the easiest targets for “ordinary folks” looking to get their rocks off on slamming others. Hair, makeup, clothing, romantic relationships, even family are all up for grabs in the vicious game of nasty commentary thrown at people in the public eye.

Sure, we all have something to say about other people and sometimes it’s not nice. Who hasn’t watched a season of Basketball Wives, Love and Hip Hop, or Real Housewives of Atlanta and felt compelled to let it be known that some folks need to be put in the time-out corner permanently? That’s rather “normal.” It’s when it becomes a pattern of behavior or when your views reach a level of extremeness that goes beyond objectivity involving a degree of viciousness that you should take a step back and think about what’s causing you to be so worried about how other people are living.

Like everything else, these attacks as patterns of behavior stem from a few ugly places many of us wouldn’t dare talk about. Do you know what it may mean when you find yourself dogging others for the fun of it?

1. There’s Something They Have And You Want It

You may hate on the rich and famous, but I’m willing to bet that if they handed their fortune and fame over to you, you wouldn’t mind holding onto it for a while. They may have many things you believe you want or need to feel fulfilled and if you haven’t dealt with the jealous, mean-spirited child inside of you who had the potential to be a terror on the playground, beware! That child is now an adult who still has some growing up to do.

2. You Haven’t Found Or Fully Embraced Your Own Purpose

Like me, you may believe that everyone has a purpose and I’m sure you would be hard-pressed to find one person who believes their purpose in life is to tear others apart. So why do you spend so much time doing it? Well, what better way to spend your time when you haven’t found or embraced your own purpose than to put down others who are living theirs?

3. You May Be Lacking In Authority

Have you ever worked with someone who may be lacking power or authority in some area of their life so they embrace every chance they get to stand on someone else’s neck? Unfortunately, they don’t just exist in one area of work and life. They’re everywhere! What a joy it must be to spend your energy feeling as though you have some say in somebody else’s life because you’re lacking a say in your own. It might be scary but just imagine what could happen if you embraced what parts of your life you actually do have complete control over. Maybe then you’d stop wasting your authority trying to slam other people.

4. You’re Disillusioned By The Power And Convenience Of Social Media

It takes very little effort to make a public statement these days. With a simple tweet, Facebook update or blog post, we throw our opinion into the air for the world to see. Since it has become increasingly easy to speak publicly, people feel entitled to being heard. Here’s the truth, the vast majority of people don’t care about the vast majority of your opinions and no one is required to listen to you. Sure people in the public eye put themselves out there in a way that makes them vulnerable to criticism. But who died and gave you the authority to slam them? News flash: a seven year old with a cell phone has an opinion, but that doesn’t make the opinion worth hearing. Step down from your tweet horse on high.

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Turning Inward, The Next Chapter of Activism

As a result of my work and personal networks, I frequently meet teachers, scholars, lawyers, and non-profit leaders who consider themselves activists in some fashion. Focusing on topics from educational inequity to LGBTQ rights, they are keenly aware of issues of race, class, gender and socioeconomic status that influence the lives of the people for whom they claim to be advocates. Like any good activist, these folks are consistently focused on and, some might say, uniquely sensitive to social, cultural and political statements and policies that carry any level of bias based on a variety of identities and are fervently outspoken when they are standing guard as watchdogs and find the slightest infraction in action or rhetoric.

Regardless of how loud you might think they are, we need activists today, just as we needed them fifty years ago. They hold our nation and our world accountable for ensuring that we are progressing in a way that is truly meaningful for all people and they force us to avoid resting on our laurels because things are simply better than they once were.

Anyone who reads my work or engages in a one hour conversation with me about politics might call me an activist. Though I'm not opposed to assigning that word to my role in some capacity, I feel that the term has been terribly abused and misused and needs redefining.

What I have concluded based on my own personal reflections, is that those of us who have been called or dare to call ourselves activists must prepare to move into the next and perhaps most spiritually radical phase of activism: turning inward.

Yes I am an advocate concerned about the state of Black boys in the American education system and the humanity of Black men in the criminal justice system. I'm also a critically thinking brother of three Black women concerned with the systemic forms of racism and sexism that influence their life opportunities. All of these things are indeed parts of who I am as a writer and thinker, but while I hold views about the external factors that impact conditions for these specific populations, I also hold internal racial and patriarchal views that I need to wrestle with in my own journey.

As someone who is deeply concerned about the biases and hetero-normative policies that shape the experiences of queer Americans, I also struggle to reconcile my own ideas about masculinity and gender roles, just as I see the results of classicism in my own community while still holding what others can reasonably consider classist perspectives.

I can tell you from personal experience, that turning my focus from the external analysis of what bell hooks describes as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy” and seeing all of the mess I’ve been conditioned to hold within me has been painful. It can be heartbreaking if your identity is partially or fully wrapped up in the views you hold of yourself as anti-something only to discover that you are to some extent, no matter how small, also breathing life into the very thing you seek to eliminate.

It can be haunting when you realize that not only do you hold contradictory views and experiences but that you also have no clear understanding of how to reconcile them and what it might mean for your work if the enemy on which you have held a laser-like focus is indeed a part of your very being. Still we must interrogate our own identities in an effort to save both ourselves and others from the social ills we believe to be detrimental to our people.

Who and what are you when you strip away your activist robes? Who and what are you when you step off the stage? When the day is done and you take off every pin and button with some sarcastic, witty political statement written in a color designed to catch the eyes and provoke the minds of others, what can you say for and about yourself? Where is it that you stand when no one is watching or listening?

When the cameras are not near, when your phone is dead and you are walking through what most would consider to be a “dangerous” neighborhood and you hear a little voice in your head begin to speak, what does it have to say?

Activists must continue to be outspoken, but in this time, in the this place, where we find ourselves battling for equality an ever changing world, leaders and thinkers, of all walks, must move from just being outspoken to also being "inspoken," that is we must learn to speak to and from the raw and imperfect person within us who is not concerned with what others on the outside might think about our own terrifying truths.

We have to be courageous enough to see ourselves with the same critical eye we have cultivated to see the world. This is the next phase of activism. It’s the intimate and deeply disrupting act of looking inward and asking ourselves what diseases we carry in our own bodies for which we are also working tirelessly to create a cure. When we fight we, must fight to save ourselves.

Balanced Thinking, A Much Needed Commodity

In the space of education reform (my primary area of professional experience) there are new solutions to the needs of our nation's children every year which are both endorsed and attacked with great passion. These policies and practices are very political and often times personal for the thousands of men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving children in our country's most disadvantaged communities. Debates are infused with strong language and often extreme positions are espoused in efforts create a sense of excitement and sometimes fear. I suppose in many ways, education reform is not drastically different from other complicated political issues with respect to the sorts of behaviors it drives leaders to demonstrate.

In watching the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC), it is clear to me that economic and social issues are at the forefront of many of our nation's leaders. What doesn't always seem present though in the debates we hear in the political arena is a strong appreciation for balanced thinking.

While reading an article last week titled 15 Ways 20-Somethings Ruin Their Twenties  I was delighted to discover the author’s push for us to consider that being a "pessimistic, opinionated hater" likely means that we need to have a better pulse on reality. "Every movie out isn’t terrible, every song isn’t garbage.” Speaking to the kind of pessimistic character who is intent on taking extreme positions, the article suggests that “…this personality type is in for a reality check when eventually nobody wants anything to do with ‘em." Well it turns out that this kind of behavior isn’t exclusive to 20-somethings. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at American politics.

Meditating on the presence of the “pessimistic, opinionated hater” made me think of conversations I have had about my beliefs and opinions at ages twenty-two, twenty-three and now twenty-five. In reflecting on the shifts in my own views and the way I speak about what I observe, I found that I've learned to accept a higher level of ambiguity that is inherent in life while also finding a way to stand firm in my values and opinions without completely ignoring the reality that there's always a small chance I may be completely wrong. I’ve learned to see not just black and white but every color surrounding every issue I encounter.

Today I can fully admire the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives and to cite both affirming and dissenting evidence in forming an opinion. This does make sense, right? I mean what good is it for us to talk about our beliefs in a way that does not demonstrate our ability to fully assess a situation? Don’t we risk sounding authoritative and intellectually arrogant to the point that we neglect opportunities to see the forest for the trees? If balanced thinking makes sense (and I know it does) then why is there such a lack of it in the space of public affairs?

Now I will say my ability to think in multiple dimensions has been stretched to its limits over the past month in listening to the Republican Party discuss their views on abortion as well as a number of other key issues. These are views that often neglect the practice of balanced thinking and while I can sit through an interview with just about any conservative who fundamentally believes in dismissing a woman's right to bodily integrity in pursuit of defending the rights of an unborn child or fetus (may I remind you often not discriminating on the basis of how that living being comes about) I do reserve my right to call such beliefs close-minded and replete with unbalanced thought. Still, my strong beliefs won't stop me from listening to others and really thinking critically about what they're saying and attempting to understand not just their positions but how they in fact arrived to those positions in an effort to more fully shape and understand my own.

Balanced thinking involves a willingness to listen carefully, instead of running away from or attacking views that don't immediately fit into our own brains. It's a commodity that is needed in political, professional and personal realms of life. We must strive to avoid the easier path toward forming concrete opinions rooted in what social scientists refer to as cognitive distortion—seeing things in black and white.

Unless we are willing to balance our thinking, chances are we'll seldom see the whole picture and quite frankly life and all of the many important issues we must resolve in the interest of our nation are far too colorful for that.

For more information on common barriers to balanced thinking and cognitive distortions visit 10 Negative Thinking Patters to Avoid

A Note on Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer

  “I don’t do that. I don’t tell people what they should get out of a film.” This was Spike Lee’s response last Friday evening when I asked him what he wanted his audience to take away from his latest work Red Hook Summer.

 Like many of Lee’s films, this newest addition to the Brooklyn filmmaker’s repertoire is filled with many themes and lessons on which any conscious viewer could walk away reflecting.

From confronting the devastating realities of one American ghetto to debating the viability of traditional methods for rearing children through religion in a rapidly evolving culture, characters in the film meet a number of complex situations that force their mindsets to shift a bit as the audience receives powerful tokens of wisdom and profoundly gripping images that rattle the mind in between moments of laughter.

An uncompromising Brooklynite, Lee crafted a film that explores the realities of Red Hook which is presently fraught with gang activity and sobering levels of economic disparity, while, as some sources indicate, it is on the path to becoming Brooklyn’s latest gentrified area.

Despite some of the changing tides we hear about in the film, the main characters in Red Hook Summer are not at all shy about the challenges they face. Among many arguments concerning the economic state of both our nation and his small piece of Brooklyn, the film’s Deacon Zee, played by Thomas Jefferson Byrd unabashedly reminds viewers that Red Hook has 80% unemployment.

In addition to the state of Red Hook, the minds of viewers are stretched far enough to be exposed to both the realities of the community as well as the troubling experiences of Lee's key characters.

In the film we see the violent product of one former church-going boy’s transformation into a member of the gang, The Bloods as well as the struggle of the film’s lead character, Flik Royale, who—like many young Black men—is missing the presence of a man in his life after the death of his own father. Most riveting perhaps, is the emergence of a man who visits the local church and knows the congregation’s bishop through a dark past.

Regardless of what Lee intended, this film is not a break from his tradition of creating thought-provoking work.

With a little help from Clarke Peters who plays a well-known minster in Red Hook and the grandfather of the film’s protagonist Flik Royale, played by Brooklyn’s own Jules Brown—who was discovered by Lee in the eighth grade—Red Hook Summer is sure to leave audiences with a great deal to think about with universal themes including forgiveness, friendship and love.

Just don't ask Lee what you should learn from all that he offers in this film. If the 55 year old actor has some concrete ideas, he's not sharing them and like many artists, is living the work open for interpretation and understanding.

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