Threats, weaknesses, opportunities

I was asked to think about “threats” and “weaknesses” recently as part of a group project related to quality improvement. Actually, there were four components of the quality assessment process indentified by the group: threats, opportunities, weaknesses, and strengths. As I understood the task, the facilitator paired threats and opportunities, and asked everyone to identify the opportunities most important to countering the threats. Next, the opportunities were prioritized, I presume, in order to identify the most efficient way of eliminating the threats.

As I attempted to prioritize the items listed under each dynamic, I realized that the threats on the list were largely external. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me; it’s rare for individuals much less groups to move beyond reflection to introspection. But when we can, introspection enables us to identify when we are persisting in self-threatening talk or self-threatening activity…and once identified as such, why would anyone persist in self-threatening behavior, thought, or action?

That’s not to say that threats to survival never exist externally. All sorts of natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes most certainly do present a very real threat.   They are external; I can’t control them. Nor can I anticipate them with 100% accuracy.   I suppose one could say every time I get behind the wheel of my car, I accept the “threat” of accident, injury, or even death.   There are precautions I can take to minimize the threat or reduce injury should the threat manifest, but I can’t really eliminate the reality that an external threat exists when riding in a car.

Thinking about this, made me realize that in my experience “threats” are most often rooted in fear. And that fear is rooted in a past experience that either frustrated my sense of wellbeing, is rooted in imagining a future well beyond my personal control, or both. So I’m left wondering what purpose it serves to identify “threats” as part of a quality review?

Can an organization’s quality be diminished by threats? I think that depends on whether “threats” are defined as external forces or internal fears. And I should think that the only reason an organization would want to identify “threats”, is because it imagines that its survival is somehow being compromised by these threats. If, as I’ve suggested, threats are largely imaginary, then they may only be resolved by attending to them in the present moment – talking through them, examining them, and identifying what is at their root. Only then can we even hope to determine if the “threats” are based on perception or imagination, or a reality beyond our control.

In this regard the only “opportunity” created by a “threat” is to remain in the present moment, to accept that there are always components of our lives – including our work – that will be out of control. We can spend so much of our time and energy planning for threats that largely exist due to a misperception or from a misunderstanding, that we miss the opportunities that cross our paths.  Louis Pasteur said, “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” Notice he does not say the “fearful” mind nor the mind that identifies and eliminates threats.

If we persist in a belief that threats are external, we will certainly miss the “opportunity” to discover the internal nature of threats and fail to realize the internal fears they are built upon. It is less likely these threats will ever be eliminated much less reduced. Logically then, there is a block impeding the ability to see external factors (i.e. threats) as the opportunities they can become.

Despite questioning the origins of “threats” I do regularly think of my “weaknesses” as “opportunities”. I suppose this is because I think of “weaknesses” as internal, and therefore some aspect or component of my self, my work, my relationships, or my understanding that I can strengthen or expand. In terms of quality, if someone is explicit about the parameters of quality in a given context I can create a growth continuum toward mastery or performance expectations. I can identify what aspects of my knowledge or what skills I need to develop and measure my efforts along that continuum. As a part of that process I will likely identify and locate the external resources I need to strengthen my knowledge or skills. By and large, with the availability of those resources I can establish growth and eventually succeed. As I think through this process, it seems nearly everything is within the locus of my control – even if a certain resource is unavailable to me, I’m usually resourceful enough to find another option. Even if an external threat changes my plan, I have enough internal strength to make a determination for regrouping and proceeding, pausing, or discontinuing altogether. This may take me more time, but I generally find a way to strengthen my understanding of self, if nothing else. In this sense, I am still very present to my circumstance. I try not to base the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of my effort solely on external evaluations, which can then become external threats leaving me subject to the labels, perceptions, and judgments of others. I try to avoid basing my effectiveness or ineffectiveness on “threats,” and to at least take time to reflect inwardly on why I feel threatened in a situation.

I learn a lot about this on my yoga mat. Often my yoga teachers will remind us that our yoga practice isn’t about competing with others in the room. It’s not even about doing a pose better than you did the day before. It is about giving your full attention to every pose, every time you make the attempt. Sometimes that will leave you feeling as if you truly did your best work, and other times I leave my mat wondering why everything seemed so difficult. When a pose that has been easy in the past suddenly become challenging, it’s difficult to stay in the present to accept what is. It’s far easier to look for “threats” like the room was too hot, or the person next to me was breathing too loudly, or I don’t like the way this teacher asks me to hold my foot.

In reality, something has frustrated my sense of competency. A setback or failure disrupts the way I see myself, it humbles me, it is indeed an opportunity to be self aware in a way I may not wish to be – above all it means I must take personal responsibility for what is.

Taking personal responsibility may not always mean doing more, working longer, trying harder, expending more effort – taking personal responsibility may also mean acknowledging that while my daily practice is to offer the best that is within my capability in every moment, my effort results in something different in this moment only when compared to a similar situation in the past or to an idealized future. In the words of Father Thomas Keating, “Effort refers to the future and to what we do not have. Consent refers to the present moment and its content.” — (The Better Part, Fr. Thomas Keating, p 41)

Whether we are talking of threats, weaknesses or opportunities, life on the mat or life off the mat – it would seem that opportunities present themselves when we consent to what we are prepared to find within ourselves.

Thanks for reading!


Unlabeling, vulnerability, and purposeful discomfort

My external classroom has recently expanded to host students of 11 different languages from 13 different countries.

I wish I could follow this up by writing that my internal classroom is knowledgeable about, and perfectly and appropriately responsive to, each of my 30 students. That’s not the case. I make remarks and assumptions as a result of labeling (stereotyping) probably more frequently than most people precisely because I’m confronted with so many unique human beings on such a regular basis. I have to work as hard (if not harder) at what I call “unlabeling” in order to create space and opportunities to get to know my students for who they are, not what I think they are. (i.e. Russian, Portuguese, Ethiopian, Middle-Eastern)

Not coincidentally I’ve also been busy creating a presentation about literature and stereotyping, loosely planned around Chimamanda Adichie’s TEDTalk “The Dangers of a Single Story.” Adichie’s point is that when we accept one story as being representative of all people we fail to see the multidimensional aspects of others within the culture. I extend this to the idea that when I base my relationship with you on labels derived from “research” or “assessments” or even “expectations of model behavior”, I am no longer present to your unique story. This is where what I call “unlabeling” comes in.

First, I need to consider why do I want to attach labels to anyone anyway? For efficiency, for safety (usually mine, not theirs), for control (again so I can control the other to my standards), for purposes of comparison and variances in achievement, for ease of identifying outliers (again, usually my safety is actually at the heart of this), for predictability, and for purposes of shaming and blaming. Let’s face it, when I have fooled myself into thinking that I can predict how you’re going to react, interpret, or respond to me, I can also fool myself into thinking that I have the upper hand in the exchange. So labeling is not only inappropriate teacher practice, it’s inappropriate in relationship practice whether that relationship is personal/social, workplace, education, family, or stranger.

If I haven’t already said it this plainly I’ll repeat myself – unlabeling is hard. It requires that each time I encounter you, I take inventory of my self first. What labels of you am I bringing to our interaction? Can I drop them? If not, why not? Is it because I’m hanging on to a past disappointment of myself, or hanging on to the memory of a time you disappointed me, or even the memory of how someone other than you reacted to me in a similar encounter?  In unlabeling I take away the predictability of my encounter with you, and this leaves me highly vulnerable because I can no longer be prepared to get the results I think are necessary to get what I want, how I want it, when I want it. Unlabeling leaves me vulnerable to accepting that today you might be tired, confused, sad, or distracted, and prevents me from acknowledging that your response to me today reflects today and only today. Your response to me today does not mean that every time I encounter you, this is how you are going to perform, or think, or act. Because the times that you don’t react according to how I think of you, watch out! I’m not likely to want (or allow) you to change even though I have said all along that I want you to change.  Confusing, right?

I know I’m sensitive to labels because I feel as if I’ve been fighting labels my entire life. “Don’t be such a baby.” “You’re only suited to jobs requiring repetitive motion.” “Why can’t you be more…?” “You don’t have the right … (fill in the blank – degree, experience, score).” “We don’t allow women to…” “You always…” “You never…” “You’re too smart to …” “You think too much…” “You’re wrong…”

And because I’m surrounded by folks who insist on attaching labels to me (folks who model that labels are important), I fall into the trap of labeling others. I try to remain vigilant, but I’m as guilty as anyone else. I persist, I fail, I have a flash of insight, I do better at unlabeling for a while, and then…

I’m usually most aware of my propensity to label others when someone has relied on a label (or what they think they know about me) to shame or blame me. I’ve rarely wavered from acknowledging my mistakes and shortcomings openly because one of my greatest ideals is this idea of vulnerability. I think it was Thomas Merton who wrote something to the effect that if you have stripped your self to a point of true vulnerability, you’d best hide it because people don’t want to encounter those who are truly vulnerable…it’s just too scary for the others.

Painful as it may be (and my vulnerability has led to the ending of some significant relationships and jobs), I know that if I am no longer willing to be vulnerable with someone, there is no trust in the relationship. And if there is no trust – no room for the unpredictable – there can be very little authenticity in our relationship.

To be vulnerable is often to be uncomfortable in the moment.

To remain present with someone who is vulnerable is also uncomfortable in the moment.

One of my yoga teachers used the phrase “purposeful discomfort” yesterday.   I think this idea applies to what it can feel like to be vulnerable, to what we experience when we unlabel ourselves or others (good, bad, right wrong, weak, strong, hard, soft), and most certainly to the how it feels to truly and authentically practice trust.

Thanks for reading.