Speaking the Future into Being

This week was the end of my level 2 improv class. It’s been a bit of a slog for many of us, which I’ve written a little about. Level 1 was a lot of “Whee! Let yourself go! Improv = recess for grownups!” In level 2, we get smacked upside the head with how much we have to learn. It’s stage 2 of the four stages of competence: we know what we don’t know.

We also had our showcase this week, in which the various classes perform in front of a live audience. We had about ten people enrolled in our section, but it turned out only four of us could play that night. And you know what? It was awesome. With ten people on the line, you can hold back because hey, someone else will probably jump into the next scene. You can also pre-plan your initiations a little. With four people, you’re in the mix pretty much constantly and there’s no time to pre-think. I missed my buddies, but I loved it.

I study improv for the larger life lessons way more than the performance-based aspects of it. By that I mean, my ultimate goal isn’t to join a troupe, but to learn how to be more creative and flexible, less wedded to the way I think things should be. (Even though I would be a great queen of the world, you know I would.)

But I also know you can’t just think about improv. You can’t get to the life lessons without getting in there and doing it—and it’s so much better in front of an audience, especially an audience that’s rooting for you to do well. After all:

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You don’t observe a dance class… you DANCE a dance class!

One of the profound moments from Wednesday night’s showcase was an opening exercise before we went on stage. After a few warmup games, our TA asked, “So tell me what you appreciated about your performance in the showcase.” The group paused for a moment–our TA’s first language is Spanish and I wondered briefly if we’d heard him wrong. (He was a great TA, by the way–and being able to improvise AND be funny in your non-native language? FIERCE.)

But no, he was asking us to talk about the showcase as if it had already happened. So we did.

I appreciated that we got to the who-what-where of the scene really quickly out there.

I appreciated that there wasn’t any dead space during the show.

I loved the way we all had each other’s backs.

This was a revelation. By making these statements, we set our intentions for the experience that was to come. And we spoke our reality into existence.  

The churchy word for this is eschatology–the branch of theology that thinks about the fulfillment of promises made in scripture. Most Christians I hang out with don’t like to talk about eschatology because it can get into some nuttiness over the end times and the antichrist and other various and sundry. I try to hold the topic lightly by asking questions like, “Where are we headed? If God is love, what are God’s ultimate hopes for this creation? How are those hopes already in evidence? How are they not yet realized?” 

How many of you have been part of an experience or project that kicked off with, “What do we all hope to get out of this? What are our goals?” Those questions are fine, as far as they go. But by asking us to speak about the showcase as if it were completed, our TA asked us to place ourselves in the future already–to sense what that accomplishment would feel like in our bodies, to picture ourselves at our best, and to experience the fulfillment of all our hard work.

Powerful stuff.

And a heads-up to the good people of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Greensboro–this is one of the first questions I’ll be asking when we gather on retreat tomorrow!

~

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Three Things I Learned from My Readers about Saying Yes

The following was sent to my email newsletter this morning. Click here to join and have twice-monthly dispatches from the Blue Room sent to your inbox!

My readers are awesome.

Two weeks ago I posed this question to you:

Saying Yes is risky. It can take you places you never could have predicted. Got an example from your own life?

I got dozens of responses, and reading them was holy ground for me. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. Your wisdom will make Improvising with God a better book. I’m humbled by your candor and courage!

Three themes emerged from the stories you shared:

1. Every important No comes from a larger Yes. A few of you wrote to tell me about going through divorce, and the pain that comes when a marriage ends–even if it’s ultimately the best decision. In some ways, the end of a relationship may seem like a profound No. I asked folks if it felt that way at the time: did it become a Yes only in retrospect? Yet each of these people shared that actually, at the time, it absolutely felt like a Yes. For some it was a Yes to doing the healthy thing for oneself and one’s children. For others, it was a Yes to exploring one’s own inner life and how they contributed to the difficulties in the relationship.

These comments helped me think about Yes and No in a deeper way. I’ve been reflecting on the civil rights era, for example, and how protest movements have a strong sense of resistance to them: No, we will not go to the back of the bus. No, we will not be second-class citizens anymore. But even that No comes from a much stronger Yes–a thirst for justice and freedom, for example.

2. Yes really does come with a risk. Many of you shared stories of saying Yes and having the gamble pay off. But not all of you. One person in particular wrote poignantly about having his heart broken by putting himself out there and having that vulnerability rejected. It’s hard for him to see anything good that will come out of what happened. I appreciated this perspective so much.

Many self-help books like to talk about creative risk in very glowing terms. But sometimes our Yes crashes down to earth, and that impact hurts. It’s spiritually dishonest to suggest otherwise.

3. This work needs to continue. The volume of responses I received has been great motivation to keep going with the book. What do we do when life doesn’t go according to plan? What does it mean to step out in faith? How can the tools of improv help us navigate this great improvisation called life in brave and creative ways? I can’t wait to dig into these and other questions.

And before I sign off, a bonus link. I love this season of the year because of the commencement speeches that get passed around on the Internet. Sure, many of them are boring and cliched, but hey, you’re not a captive audience on social media–you can skip those! But a few of them are stellar.

This speech by Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, is first-rate. You may remember Sandberg lost her beloved husband David about a year ago from sudden cardiac arrest. She speaks from that terrible heartbreak in powerful ways.

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Read the whole thing, but especially what she has to say about Plan B. For anyone who still thinks my interest in improv is about performance or on-stage comedy, let Sandberg’s words put that to rest. What she’s describing is the ultimate life improvisation.

Peace, joy and Yes to you.
MaryAnn

When Your Woman Card Isn’t Working Right

My computer science husband sent me this link recently: “I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism.

How can an article be so unsurprising, yet so wholly dispiriting at the same time?

The author describes her early career in computer science, but the dynamics are common in many male-dominated fields:

At Stanford, I took two introductory computer science classes. I soon became convinced that I was much too behind my male classmates to ever catch up.

…My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. Listening to them chat, I felt mortified: the same work had taken me 15 hours of anguish at the keyboard to complete. They are quantifiably five times better than I am, I told myself.

So she was shocked when the professor asked her to TA the class. She agreed with great trepidation. But then she started grading the same assignments she’d previously found intimidating–and was shocked: the braggarts were not five times more competent. In fact, their work wasn’t nearly as good. There was a disconnect between the men’s level of confidence and their actual output.

The so-called “confidence gap” between men and women has gotten a lot of airplay lately. This confidence drops off among girls in the middle school years, especially in technical subjects — and we’re seeing a bit of that in our own household.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement grows out of the awareness that women underplay their abilities relative to men, for a variety of reasons. It’s been famously reported that men will apply for a job when the meet only 60% of the criteria, whereas women only tend to apply if they are a 100% fit. Women are also reticent to negotiate higher salaries for themselves.

This disparity has bothered me for a long time, though probably not in the way you think. I agree with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. Too often–that is, almost 100% of the time–the problem is framed as a deficiency for the women, a character flaw that the women must fix somehow. Women need to lean in! Be confident! Fake it ’til you make it!

OK. I can accept that. And what about the men? Where is their need for change?

Take the example of the men who bragged about completing the programming assignment in three hours. At best, their bragging shows a startling lack of self awareness of their own competence. At worst, these men are aware of their limitations and are outright lying to cement their status in the pecking order. How messed up is that?

So sure, maybe women have some work to do to feel empowered to apply for jobs even if they don’t meet every last qualification. But we should also be teaching men to do an honest self-assessment of their gifts and skills. Is applying for a job when you only meet a little more than half the qualifications a good thing? Is that something I’m supposed to aspire to?

Sometimes it works out, I suppose. Other times you end up with a grossly underqualified [man] in the job, whose primary gift is the art of bulls***ting. (Hey, they call it the Peter Principle, not the Patricia Principle!)

And yes, there’s a certain amount of “fake it ’til you make it” required to get along in the world. But shouldn’t we be critiquing a culture in which men are socialized to misrepresent themselves in order to gain status? Why is it the women who must do the changing, adjusting, and conforming?

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 7.19.41 PM“If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, maybe there wouldn’t have been a global financial crisis.” Many have quipped this, and at least one person has asserted it in all seriousness. I believe strongly in increasing women’s presence in historically underrepresented fields. And that representation will bring its own cultural shifts. But I grow weary of the framing that women must contort themselves to the default (male).

Meanwhile we have Donald Trump saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Yes, many of us are excited at breaking that highest glass ceiling. But it’s cute that the Donald thinks Clinton’s gender is a net positive to the tune of 50 percentage points in the presidential race.

As Sady Doyle argued a few months ago, “America loves women like Hillary Clinton–as long as they’re not asking for a promotion.” Clinton’s approval ratings as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State were quite high. She’s consistently ranked one of the most admired women in the world. But now that she’s asking for our presidential votes, her disapproval ratings have predictably increased.

Setting aside the particularities of Hillary Clinton, the broader point stands: we judge women harshly when they come across as too assertive. What’s going to change that dynamic? Women getting better at the game? Frankly, I doubt it. What’s going to change the dynamic is men learning skills in collaboration, self-awareness, and authenticity. Once the typical corporate alpha male ceases to be the default marker of success, we’ll see real change.

What’s Saving Your Life Lately?

When I send out my twice-monthly-ish emails to subscribers, I usually close with the question, What’s saving your life lately? (Thanks for the question, Barbara Brown Taylor.)

And I love when people reply with their answers… everything from “finally feeling more human after my son’s death” to “working at a rescue shelter for cats.”

Here’s my current list, at varying levels of grandiosity. (Small things can save your life, right?)

The West Wing Weekly podcast. Nerd comfort food.

The book Challenger Deep, an excruciating but gratifying read about a young man with mental illness. Such reverence. Such

Last weekend’s run at Great Falls:

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Loved ones who forgive me readily when I screw up. Bonus when those loved ones are my children.

MyFitnessPal, my constant companion to help me make better nutritional choices.

Getting the summer camp schedule mostly locked down for the kids.

The Hamilton soundtrack–the multi-layered gift that keeps giving.

A week in which the writing flowed, aka lots of sh***y first drafts.

Kitties who jump five feet in the air when birds visit our patio bird feeder. I’d say they jump in vain, but it entertains us, so they’re earning their keep around here.

Swimming, then biking, then running, for the first time in rapid succession, in anticipation of a triathlon in two weeks.

What’s saving your life?

Monday Runday: On Being a Family of Runners

James is doing a running challenge with me, in which we’re running 26.2 miles over the next 8 weeks. It’s been astounding how dedicated he’s been to this task.

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Thanks to Facebook memories, I’m recalling that three years ago, I took the girls through Couch to 5K, two years after going through it myself. Since then, each girl has participated in Girls on the Run and assorted races here and there.

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2013

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Robert also runs, although he’s currently sidelined with a cranky Achilles.

Somehow, over time, we became a family of runners. 

I’m tempted sometimes to enroll my kids in club running activities–recreational track or cross country or somesuch. It’s startling how easily that thought jumps into my head. My kids enjoy this, therefore they should do it in an organized way. It’s what we do as parents. A kid’s interested in the guitar? We get them private lessons. They like to do art? Sign them up for pottery camp. They want to learn tennis? We find a league to join. At least where I live, that’s an implicit or explicit responsibility of a parent. We nurture through providing opportunities. And as the mother of a kid on the swim team told me a few years ago, it’s never too early to think about a child’s college application. (Her kids were in elementary school.)

Certainly there are benefits to team sports–a good coach can be one of those inspiring childhood influences that impacts a person’s whole life. And while running is an activity that we most of us learn to do naturally as children, there’s always stuff to learn. Still, I’m trying to resist the impulse to formalize this interest of theirs. Kids today are continually evaluated, graded, scantronned, judged and compared. Not with this. This is our limit.

Part of that comes down to money and time–there’s only so many enrollment fees we can handle, and only so much carting around we’re willing to do. (I have a friend who calls this phase of parenting “Carpool.”) But on a broader level, I want my kids to have something they can do purely for the joy of it. They can set goals, or not. They can strive to improve, or not. It’s entirely up to them.

And they’re teaching me a lot. I realize, as I continue to claw my way back from last fall’s injury, how easily I’d fallen into a mode of improvement and incessant goal-setting. This is painful to admit about myself, though will surprise nobody who knows me. (My friend J took a personality inventory that suggested she stop thinking about life as one big self-improvement project, and she was incredulous: “What else would it be???” Oh, my sister.)

And so, this is a new touchstone for me:

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My hopes and dreams are to be able to run for my entire life, to stay healthy and injury-free, to get an occasional PR through smart training, and to have a spirit of adventure in what I do.

When James runs, he says, “Look how fast I am!!!” I suspect if he joined a kids’ running team he would discover that, comparatively speaking, he isn’t fast. That’s the McKibben/Dana genetic lottery at work, and there’s only so much you can do to overcome that.

But at the end of our runs together, when the house is in sight, he turns to me, waiting for the signal. I say, “Now, James, turn on the gas!” and he does, leaving his mother in the dust… busting through whatever 8-year-old hopes and dreams he has, scattering them like leaves in the wind.