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The way forward

I was leading a (virtual) workshop this week, and one element involved mapping out a timeline of the past 30 years, to help us imagine the future ahead. What headlines and events shaped us? How did it impact our daily life? What institutional changes occurred? How did that change our values?

The storm of digital post-it notes overtook the screen within the first 10 minutes, and 10 minutes later we had constructed our working timeline.

As the dust settled, what emerged was this: we could see a blizzard of globally connecting technology in 2005-2008 hitting the world. Facebook opened up, YouTube was launched, the iPhone appeared, the web went mobile. And in the years that followed, what we saw was an intense increase in polarized opinions.

It continues today. You and I are both in it. We’ve felt it over the past four years, sharply. We may be feeling it more acutely these days, as perspectives swirl and clash. It’s the divide, the difference, the debate. We seem to hold vastly different opinions from each other now, and we all tend to believe we’re the right ones. Every side believes they are the Resistance.

But what is the way forward?

One of the most valuable talks I’ve ever encountered on this topic is from the early pioneer on studying online communities, danah boyd (the lowercase name is not an error, it’s her intentional styling. I enjoy that.) As an academic who specialized early on studying the impact of social media on young people, she is now employed in Microsoft’s research division to continue studying the ways humans connect and discuss online.

I was privileged to be in the front row of the audience when she delivered this talk at the South-by-Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas in 2018. The intensity, intelligence and passion of her speech blew me back into my seat. I highly recommend you watch this talk in its entirety. It’s never been more relevant.

The reason I resonated so deeply with her talk is the case she builds for something she never quite says: the answer is community. The answer is care. The answer is love.

The act of fact-checking and debating only creates stronger divides. While it may make us feel superior or intelligent when we engage in arguments, here’s the result: the person feels further alienated from you, and more closely bonded with the community that shares their viewpoint.

The way to interact with opposing points of view is not to get sucked into debate, or into attacks on character. Instead, the way out is to choose inclusion. Radical inclusion. To choose love, and offer deep, real, actual connection.

There is no other way forward.

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A Mattering Manifesto

Your participation matters. Your ideas and contributions and co-creation helps bring creativity and life to the world. You are an active, awake force on this earth, and you are invited to contribute.  (You are not a passive consumer, waiting to receive the wisdom and words and services of other “more important” participants.)

Your closest relationships matter. You are officially invited to hold closely and intimately your loved ones and provide for them. (You are not “missing out” on a distant, vague calling towards “mission” that somehow diminishes the worth of the people in front of you. You are invited to bring love and generosity to the immediate humans in your care and vicinity.)

Your needs matter. You are not meant to blend into anonymity in a crowd where your needs go unnoticed. You are meant to be known and seen and understood. It is valuable and necessary to voice your own needs vulnerably and request help.

You are not judged. You are a human being. Physical, emotional and biological. You have feelings, and those are part of you. You have instincts, intuitions, ideas. You don’t need to judge your feelings. You don’t need to judge your body. You definitely don’t need to judge yourself.

You are not better than, separate than, different from — anybody. You are not invited to judge others in any capacity, but are instead invited to hold with compassion the thought of the other. We are not separate from one another.

You are part of a story. Histories and texts we read are not locked-in museum pieces behind plexiglass displays. They are journal entries and letters recording stories of people who wondered, wandered, wrestled with ideas and movements. You, wrestle too. You, wander too. You, wonder too.

You are connected to the divine. There is no conduit at all required. In the silence and in the noise, in the kitchen and in the mountains, you are deeply connected to this. Be still, and know.

Your senses matter. You don’t need to wait for the approval of a leadership figure to affirm or confirm you. The exact mind you possess, the body you are planted within, the senses you employ, those are the senses you get to activate to hear, notice, discern and connect with this.

Do you find yourself ignoring, diminishing, reducing the value of your own senses, thoughts, observations and ideas?

Do you find yourself feeling disconnected from the divine?

Do you find yourself viewing old stories as only past-tense, instead of invitations to live out?

Do you find yourself slipping into those othering thoughts or actions?

Do you find yourself judging yourself?

Do you find yourself blunting and dulling your own needs, instead of sharing them with others?

Do you find yourself minimizing your closest relationships, pursuing an impact that is external to you?

Do you find yourself disempowered, viewing yourself as unqualified?

Come awake.

Come away from these patterns of dulling your own humanity.

Begin instead to see yourself as an active, qualified, valuable participant in this life. To see the beauty and depth of those right in front of you, and ascribe value to them. To notice your needs and ask for help. To let go of judging yourself. To see that nobody is separate from you. To see that you are an alive character in a living story.  To experience your connection to the divine, and embrace it. You are invited to value and cherish and express the ideas and thoughts you carry, and act with the certainty of your own mattering.

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Peacock Puke

The kids and I were just finishing up editing a video in my office when Kendra entered to say: “We…need your help.”

The cat had gotten into the garage, and knocked over a prized memento. It had fallen onto the concrete floor, the glass had shattered.

Tears were shed — this item had belonged to Ben. It was handmade craft from a community fair last year that had been living on a shelf: a jar of multi-coloured sand with a golf tee glued on as a nose, and feathers for hair.

But the breakage pattern was unexpectedly gorgeous — “like a peacock puked!” exclaimed Kendra.A breakage pattern from multi-coloured sand shows a gradated rainbow in the shape of a flame

To protect little feet from shards of glass, I got to work right away, while Kendra and the kids spilled into the outdoors and onto the trampoline.

It was a chain reaction of tasks: To sweep the glass, I had to move the shoes. But in doing so, I had to sort and tidy them, and take out the entryway mat. Which helped us see the glass was in more places: it was scattered throughout the whole garage — around our bikes, under the workbench, under the van. I ended up driving the van out of the garage, sorting out all the mess on and under our workbench, reorganizing the bikes, the boots, the coats. By the end of the experience, we hadn’t just cleaned up the glass mess, we had completely transformed the garage.

But this didn’t all happen in one continuous burst of work.

Partway through, my friend Colin came to pick up some eggs. I paused the work and we chatted at a safe physical distance, about work, family, the Covid craziness, and life in general — and for those few minutes, while his son napped in the car seat and a chilly wind blew on us, we got to just be there, two people, actually connecting for a moment, in the midst of a crisis.

Returning to the jobsite, I completed the task, and drove the van back into the garage, which had been now been returned to normal.

But it wasn’t back to normal at all.

The craft was still broken.The tragic destruction of the prized craft had resulted in urgent work. The urgent work had resulted in a transformed garage — but the transformation itself had been put on pause for a moment of human connection.

And so it is with us now, in the time of Covid. Life is shattering  around us, an unscheduled, unwanted explosion. And in it, the result will be a major transformation — our societies won’t look the same after this. Yet even within that, there is the invitation to pause long enough to stop, see, value, notice and connect with human beings who are here alongside us. We are beautiful in this breakage. We are the peacock puke.

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Easter eggs

With our chickens now fully grown, our little egg business is now and up running. A couple weeks back, one humble post on an online marketplace instantly gained us enough repeat customers to sell out of the approximately 315 eggs that our little hens produce each week.

It was my job this morning to keep the kids out of the house while Kendra executed an easter hunt throughout our house, so I piled the kids into the van and headed out for our own kind of easter egg delivery.

Today’s egg drop was for a customer we’ve still never met. Kendra interacts with him via text. We drop the eggs on his doorstep. The money is waiting in his mailbox. Today, he wasn’t home at all, so the money will come later as an e-transfer (we hope).

The next stop was the local credit union, to their drive-thru bank machine. I wiped down the screen and the pin-paid with a Wet Wipe and deposited the cash we’d been collecting from our egg sales over the past couple weeks.

I still had a little more time to kill. In our current quarantine reality, though, there are not many places to go, especially with kids.  As I slid my wallet back into my pocket, I remembered that Addie’s watch needed a new battery, from a speciality battery store, and that I’d already tried three separate occasions to get there, but the adjusted crisis hours kept blocking us.

I drove over to the store, pulled into the deserted parking lot, and stepped inside while the kids kept watching a DVD in the van.

Inside the store, caution tape prevented me from reaching the counter. Two cautious clerks stepped out, one for Speaking, and one for Standing. I explained my needs.

“We’re not doing watch battery replacements or installs right now,” said the Speaking Clerk.

“Oh,” I replied. “Can I at least purchase the battery and install it myself?”

“Yes,” said the Speaking Clerk. “What type of battery is it?”

I looked down at the device, held together with tiny screws. I looked back at the battery experts standing beside a wall of watch batteries.

“The kind that fits this,” I said, gesturing at the watch. “What battery would you guess belongs in this?”

The Standing Clerk selected three from the rack and placed them on the counter, the stepped away. Taking my turn, I stepped forward to analyze three packages. All three were circular, flat watch batteries, indistinguishable except for tiny variations in size and markings. There was no indication which would fit.

I didn’t fault the cautious battery salespeople for following reasonable physical distancing guidelines. I just sorta expected them to have an answer for the battery question.

“I’ll come back once I unscrew this at home, I guess?” I said. They nodded, and I turned to leave the store, saying “Thanks for your help” as I left. (I hadn’t meant the thank-you to be sarcastic, but it may have come across that way.)

I went back to the van, where the kids were anachronously ingesting a Halloween episode of Curious George on disc. I found my Swiss army knife in the glovebox, and fiddled with various settings and contraptions to see if I could unscrew the tiny screws. Nothing fit.

With a lip-fluttering dejected sigh, I sat back in the driver’s seat, van still pointed towards the battery store’s glass frontage just a step away.

I noticed the QR code on the back of the watch, the model number right beside it. I grabbed my phone, googled “what battery for a….” and had my answer in 0.445 seconds.

I hopped back out of the van, opened the store’s door with my jacket sleeve.

The bell jingled, and the two cautious clerks emerged from the back room.

“I forgot the internet existed,” I announced, waving my phone and my watch.

“Oh yeah,” said the Speaking Clerk. “Why do we always forget about that?”

“I need the CR1632 battery,” I said, and completed our physically-distant transaction with a tap of my credit card, and headed back home for our family’s easter surprise.

As I left the parking lot, I passed a restaurant advertising their new digital ordering system, one previously only ever known for its in-restaurant dining service — and another, and another.

“I forget the internet existed,” might as well be the slogan of every lagging organization from the past decade, who have been sleep-walking through digitization as if it were optional, or a hindrance.

This isn’t the time for a rant about digital transformation, and it’s not my point, but I’ll indulge in a brief aside. In our current coronavirus shock, every industry is now discovering the possibilities and limitations of how technology can or cannot help their core businesses. We’re becoming more aware of these capabilities, and we’re testing them: from online education to store deliveries. For most of the world, we now remember the internet exists.

This morning, I was reading Gabor Maté’s insanely brilliant and heartbreaking book, In The Realm Of The Hungry Ghosts. (I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to read it, but I already had it checked out when our libraries froze check-outs and returns due to Covid-19.) It’s a seminal work chronicling the impact and sources of addiction, written from this working doctor’s lived experience on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

In one passage, he describes the maddening inefficiency of how a certain Canadian system works to get people the resources they need. He wonders in passing if there might be a better way, and says something like this:

“An alternate system might well be possible…and it would certainly take imagination, compassion and flexibility.”

Like the internet for battery store clerks — if only there was a way that humans could see we have had those three characteristics in abundance all along.

To be clear, I am not talking about the internet itself.

The human capacity for creativity, for love, for responsiveness is being remembered now. We are all being jangled out of the back store rooms into the reality that all along, we have been fully empowered and enabled to live awake, alert lives of connectedness and ingenuity, of sensitivity and care.

Imagination, compassion and flexibility are all we would need in order to imagine an alternate system were people’s fundamentals needs are met in a life-giving way?

Then what’s stopping us?

These wonderful, powerful, explosively colourful gifts and characteristics have been present all along, hidden like easter eggs amongst our households and throughout our world. It’s time to return home to hunt for them.

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Kevan’s working from home tips

Recently, the shift to “everybody working from home” has left some folks scrambling. I realized I had pre-written a Google Doc about working from home that I’ve shared with people over the years, and that I could adapt it into a shareable post, to see if it helps!

Office & Technology Setup

  • If you’re planning to be on video a lot, orient your desk so the webcam points towards a simple, clean, attractive background. If you’re working a bedroom, flip your desk so your back is to the wall, not the bed. Be attentive to the decor and setting.
  • Invest in some key pieces of equipment:
    • An external monitor, if you don’t already have one. Helps with posture, and also gives you something to put your webcam on. (What webcam?)
    • A better webcam, one that is external, like this. Keep it at eye-level, not pointing up at your face from under your chin
    • Consider some additional lighting. I ended up getting a set of studio softbox lights (the kind used in video shoots), because, look, if I’m a lead facilitator on a multi-person, multi-hour video call, multiple times a week, this is a video shoot. Participants need to see me well-lit.
    • If you can’t get lights, consider:
      • Using natural light to your advantage by having your desk parallel to a window. (Your camera should never point at a window. That leaves you backlit, so people can’t see your face.)
      • Settings: I use a Mac app called Webcam Settings, that lets me control camera brightness, zoom, depth of field.
  • Starting using web-based tools as your default. Get a collaborative, cloud-based suite for you and your teammates right away. I recommend the G-Suite by Google, or at least just using Google Drive yourself.
  • If you’re going to be working from home for a while, consider a few more upgrades:
    • Call your internet service provider and seeing what options are available for upgrading the speed of your local internet connection. If a fibre connection is available, upgrade!
    • Consider upgrading your home wifi equipment, too. The Google Wifi Mesh Network creates stable connectivity for homes.
    • Yes, a standing desk is something you should have, and a good, proper office chair.

Etiquette & Courtesy 

    • If you share the home with family members, consider sharing your work calendar with them so they can see when you will be on meetings and calls. This will help you be respectful and aware of each other’s rhythms.
    • When on video calls, always, always, always use headphones with a microphone. Never, ever, ever use the default built-in computer microphone and speaker.
    • Always mute when you’re not speaking.
    • Meet your colleagues’ and clients’ expectations for availability via email and tools like Slack, and make it clear how and when you can be reached. For me, I have Slack notifications on my phone (during work hours), but have email notifications removed from all devices. My calendar is shared and up-to-date with meetings, and chunks blocked off when I’m unavailable.
    • Consider making yourself unavailable strategically. For example, I block off Tuesday mornings so I can take care of the kids while my partner does a fitness class, then I shift those hours into the evening. What might you creatively reclaim in order to give joy to yourself or your household?

Mental Health

  • I try to give myself 10 minutes of quiet time before the day starts. It’s just me, alone. It’s not time for email checking or web browsing. It’s silent, and it’s reflective. It’s journalling, and reading.
  • I try to do the same as the day wraps up, a short period of reflection (though this frequently gets skipped, as I’m moving rapidly to go help with the family).
  • Mid-day, I go for a walk, at least 20 minutes. Time outside, moving, vastly improves my energy and mood. (Though often, I’m choosing to spend time making lunch for the family.)
  • Beginning to pay attention to your own energy preferences will help you see when you have energy boosts, and energy drops. Working from home is no longer about time management, it’s energy management. The moment you find yourself zoning out or reading the news, just leave your desk. Better to clean the house than have your time wasted on non-productive screen time.
  • Never, ever, ever, multi-task on a video-call. The wilful choice to zone out secretly insults your meeting participants, cheapens your work day,  removes your reason from being in the meeting — and gives you a zoned-out, clueless face that everybody can see right through. Worse, though, it eats your soul. You’re better than that. You have a voice, a mind, and a contribution to make. Listen well, and contribute well.
  • I have a Chrome extension called “Block Sites” that lets me block sites I find unproductive and distracting. Sometimes I’ll block all news and social media, sometimes I’ll re-allow, depending on my focus.

Relationships

  • I have regular digital one-on-ones schedules with my closest colleagues, recurring weekly. These half-hour or hour-long connects are largely agenda free, or a small list gets generated just before the meeting. The primary objective is to connect with each other.
    • These sessions, which I sometimes take as phone-call walks for an hour, are incredibly valuable. They shape my understanding of the company’s health, help me connect personally with people, help explore new ideas, and come back tenfold in terms of company engagement.
    • Remember: as a remote worker, a one-on-one creates the possibility for a rich, deep connection that office environments often can’t give you. On a regular call, you have each other’s undivided attention. Nobody is eavesdropping. Remotely, you can achieve a candor and intimacy that is truly safe, which is a key ingredient for high-performing teams.

An acknowledgement

I realize many of these suggestions are only made possible with some resources and realities that are a product of privilege. Investing in new tools and equipment takes money and time, and isn’t necessarily possible during a quick shift to working from home unexpectedly. The freedom to focus on work tasks, especially during a crisis, with kids and family heavily in the picture, is not accounted for here. Even a luxury like separate office, with a door that shuts, is often not a reality. Some of the suggestions are more idealistic and long-term, and aren’t meant to be seen as quick-fixes.

More questions?

I’ve been working from home for 7 years now. Over those years, we left the city, moved to a rural setting, built a house, and my wife’s parents now live in our basement suite. We raise chickens, and have four kids! Ask me anything, and I’ll update this post with the answers.

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A Quarantine Song

As the urgent work remains of urging people to stay home, and as those staying home encounter true obstacles, I’ve been looking for ways I can contribute positively. I thought: I could at least write a song?

I decided to adapt/parody an existing song, one I wrote a year or so ago for work, called Cold Feet. In the original song, our characters are voluntarily self-isolating during a holiday season, and trying to make the best of it. I figured it would save me production costs, and still be quite thematically apt, to repurpose my own song!

I drafted 3 completely different lyrical directions, and finally landed on this one. The vocals were recorded in one take, at night after the kids were in bed, but rather than over-doing it, I’m embracing the low production quality and hoping it reveals the real-ness of our moment.

Maybe somebody in your life isn’t staying home enough, and you want to passive-aggressively send them this song, hoping to inspire them. Or maybe as a nurse, doctor or frontline worker, you need an appreciation anthem. Or perhaps you’re just working hard to socially isolate and physically distance, and you’re a little bit done with it all — this song might encourage you to keep going.

Lyrics:

Isolate
True that you gotta hide away
We’re in quarantine
Cause of COVID-19

Stay at home instead of heading out
Stop the virus spreading out
So the curve is flattening
Gotta keep that happening

If this quarantine
Makes your life a little awkward
Don’t break quarantine
Think of the nurses and the doctors!

Staying at home tonight
Is saving the world tonight
Do your part staying far apart from everyone
Singing a quarantine song
Hoping you sing along
And that peace will have increased when this is done

Suddenly
Here in quarantine
Yes, your body’s home
Baby, your soul is free

Maybe while we’re all confined
In the quietness we can find
Human kindness
Right there inside of us

Though this quarantine
Makes your life a little awkward
May this quarantine
Turn into an unlocked door

Staying at home tonight
Is saving the world tonight
Do your part staying far apart from everyone
Singing a quarantine song
Hoping you sing along
And that peace will have increased when this is done
(Repeat x 2)

____

Adapted from the song “Cold Feet,” written by Kevan Gilbert, original production by Isaac Karns.

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Designing love-based systems

I was in Vancouver’s Railtown Cafe a couple months ago, in town to help facilitate a design sprint for a non-profit. 

Powering up for the day with a breakfast sandwich, as smells of fresh baking and coffee wafted over the counter, I encountered this article from Jesse Weaver: “Human-Centered Design Dies at Launch.” 

The perspective goes like this: we say we’re doing “human-centered design,” but inevitably, business goals trump the user’s needs. Every time. 

In the comment section, one user washes the criticism away as being misguided: “Of course it does,” they say. “Human-centered design is a business tool. And a business exists to make money. You want change, go work in the non-profit sector.”

On that very day, where I was running a design sprint for a non-profit, it included an executive leader who was dead-focused on questions about return-on-investment, without a thought towards his team’s health, his non-profit’s impact or sense of purpose. I will assure you that he felt no freer to measure well-being and human thriving than a leader in a conventional business setting. 

The non-profit sector cannot and will not solve this: and even if it could, are we really going to take any notion of humanity’s well-being and shove off the responsibility to a whole other sector? If today’s organizations see themselves as having no responsibility for humanity’s well-being, then it’s time to redesign these systems.

Are we not ready for this — to change the nature of business? Are we not ready to optimize for something healthier and more long-lasting? Are we not ready to push beyond this scarcity-minded behaviour? 

Some say an alternative is on its way: from human-centered design to life-centered design, says Katharina Clasen. “The Future is Life-Centered” says Jane Fulton Suri, of IDEO.

These are healthy and humble evolutions — it shows a tremendous humility on the part of designers to suggest that it’s the designers or the design process that needs to change. But as much as this ever-evolving field might healthily and humbly disagree, design doesn’t need to change. Design is fine. Design is available any time of the day to help you pay attention to needs and patterns and realities, build empathy, imagine the future, create possibility and make plans to make it happen. It’s the systems that abuse design or ignore it entirely that are killing us. And it’s those systems themselves that must be reimagined and redesigned. 

I have a new norm for us to build towards: love-based systems. Develop a metric to measure the presence of love in your system, and optimize for that.

You don’t have to call it that.

Oh, we don’t have to call it love — we can call it social connectedness, belonging, community strengthening, empathy, or your favourite synonym that makes you feel less uncomfortable. But it’s there, waiting for us, as the hoped-for outcome of every human in every system, the punchline at the end of every research report, the unstated inference in each of our interactions, the one thing that would change our world if we would let it. 

In other settings, the “love” conclusion shows up under different names.

danah boyd calls it belonging, in her keynote and article about media literacy. She explains when we see false information spreading, our temptation is to correct people who spread it. We fact-check our friends. But the information-seeker accessing that false information is actually having a need met through it: to have a viewpoint affirmed, to have a perspective validated, to feel part of something. To feel a sense of belonging. When we ‘fact-check’ it, we signal to them that they are not part of our community. They don’t belong. In effect, we exile them, causing them to move further into the community that issued the false information. The way to successfully respond to false information is by extending belonging and connection to the seeker. Love.

Johann Hari calls it social connection. Though addiction and depression are multi-faceted issues, one of the key elements in both is social isolation — a lack of connection. Not universally, not all the time, and not without additional complicating elements — but social isolation plays a role. Love, then, is the starting point.

The City of Vancouver calls it social connectedness, or simply, community. When a community is able to recover well from a disaster, showing true resilience, it is when community ties are strong. So as a way of being prepared for its own inevitable disasters that may come in the form of anticipated earthquakes, Vancouver invests in a strategy that aims to increase the social connectedness between neighbours on street blocks and apartment buildings. They recognize that socially strong communities are stronger and more resilient. Love, you could say.

Speaking of Vancouver, Dr. Gabor Mate in his own research into trauma, addiction, stress and childhood development, lands also on the need to build strong relational bonds as a pathway through these negatives.

I heard Lance Priebe talk on a similar topic. He pioneered early tools for internet community moderation, helping identify ways to protect children online from toxic culture and predatory luring, as an element of building Disney’s Club Penguin. In his current work, he’s been exploring the world of eSports; competitive online gaming. Child luring remains a problem, as kids who are hungry for affirmation and fame respond to YouTube commenters and Twitch accounts powered by people reaching out to compliment them on their skills, only to gradually discover more nefarious aims. Lance was encouraging parents about how to counter this reality: be the one to pay attention to their gaming in the first place. Treat it like you would their dance practice or soccer games. Show up, support them, get them into healthy habits, cheer for them, pay for their equipment, and be the person that is already paying them enough attention that they need not seek it elsewhere. Love.

Tim Leberecht echoes a sentiment like this in his work, The Business Romantic.

Frederich LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations explores this with his idea of Teal Organizations.

Ram Dass, passing away last year in Maui at 88, would get to this in a heartbeat.

Buckminster Fuller, renowned futurist and author, equates love with gravity, as one of the only constantly-in-play forces in the universe, referring to it “metaphysical gravity.” He called love, “omni-inclusive and progressively exquisite,” and envisioned elaborate scenarios for world-betterment based on this sense.

Barry Oshry calls it “partnership.” His conclusion after anthropologically studying human systems over the course of his entire career was that humans inevitably stratify into social systems that cause alienation, and the only way through this are deliberate stances of partnership and co-creation. Later in his career, he began to shift to a more direct use of the word “love.”

And don’t make me quote Brené Brown at you. Because I don’t want to reduce the work of her amazing books and talks into just one tidy quote. I might suggest that any of our work combatting shame, choosing vulnerability, is not just towards helping businesses ship more products, helping leaders Get Things Done — rather, it’s towards creating a planet where we see and experience love in abundance, as a fundamental measure of our quality of connection. 

“Where is it on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” you might ask. “Why isn’t it the bottom of the pyramid, if it’s so fundamental, instead of at number three?” 

Besides the fact that love is clearly on the pyramid is this less-known fact: before his death, Maslow revised his hierarchy to place “self-transcendence” on the top, not “self-actualization.” Self-transcendence is described as “a shift in focus from the self to others.” The forgotten pinnacle, the missing apex, is this: centering on the needs of others. 

I offer these synonyms because I expect not all of us will be comfortable introducing “love” into the contexts where we work and live. Know that other names exist, but so does adequate research and data, showing that the whatever-you-call-it is foundational for health and thriving.

If we want to invest in social innovation, systems change, business success, economic thriving, health and well-being, invest in one thing: invest in love. It’s a worthy pursuit, a noble ambition, a viable product, a valuable metric, the key performance indicator.

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Every kindergartner’s roadside switchblade

I threw away a book last week. It was at a church book sale.

At first, the act of chucking a paperback into the recycling bin was thrilling. A heart-stirring act of rebellion. But later, as I drove away, I began to second-guess myself, wondering if that wasn’t simply an act of censorship on par with book-burning episodes from histories past. If there was content I disagreed with, wouldn’t it be fairer to find ways to engage in conversation with would-be readers?

But then again, if you saw a knife on the ground near a group of kindergartners, wouldn’t you lunge for the knife?

That happened to me, by the way.  Last spring.

May 28, to be exact: it’s forever burned in Ben’s head as his best-day-ever. “Dad, do you remember May 28, 2019?” he’ll occasionally announce out of the blue. “When you took the day off work to come on our kindergarten field trip?”

I certainly do, son. I fondly remember the kindergartners poking their fingers at the jars of hot sauce and mayo on my patterned shirt, then teaching you all a very loud marching chant that kinda annoyed your teachers, and also, helping save your classmate from that knife. 

It was at the very start of the trip, where the 20-odd kiddos waited in line for the city bus. I heard Ben’s classmate say, “What’s this?” and hold up what was clearly a toothy, rusty, dirty, discarded switchblade.

“Don’t touch that!” I hollered, and very safely wrestled the kindergartner for possession of the blade.

“We do not pick up knives that we find on the side of the road,” I announced, in one of those moments that feels very much like a Thing You Never Thought You Would Have To Say.

It became a legend for the rest of the field trip, and beyond. “Did you hear that someone found a knife?”

Anyway, back to the book.

I had tried to be sneaky. The book I wanted to discard was within reach, and I thought that placing it under the table to grab later for disposal would be less attention-getting, but somebody saw me. “What are you doing?” she said, as I awkwardly crouched to put the book on the floor.

“Nothing,” I said, very convincingly, placing it back on the table and backing away. I disappeared again into the milling crowd, circling like a discreet vulture, waiting for the time to strike.

I finally spotted an opening.

I might have just let it sit there, unpurchased, undisturbed; after all, what do I care? Let the people read it if they wish. But I couldn’t help but see it as one sees sunlight glinting off a rusty, roadside switchblade.

The more I looked at it, and considered leaving it there, the more the alarm bells would ring. I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow someone else to pick it up and take it home.

It was a book called Every (Young) Man’s Battle, and three key inspirations were causing me to take aim at it.

The first was an Instagram story.

There’s a fellow named Brendan Kwiatkowski, originally from Fort Langley, currently taking his PHD at the University of Edinburgh, with a focus on the messages about masculinity that shape our culture. On Instagram, he’s sharing aspects of his research and questions under the account name Re.Masculate.

A few weeks ago, he spent time revisiting the work of Every Man’s Battle through his current research lens. Sharing photo of page after page of the book, he exposed the messages and language of the book, showing words that convey messages like women are responsible for men’s feelings and actions, and passages that suggest that men’s motives for relationships and emotional disclosure are almost always sexual.

(Though the Instagram story has now expired, Brendan went on to share more of his perspectives through this interview/essay on a different blog, a dialogue on Purity.)

The second inspiration was that I just finished reading Linda Kay Klein’s 2019 book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.

Klein artfully and authentically uses her own personal storytelling, memoir-style, to talk us through her own experience of growing up in a culture that shamed women (and men) for their basic sexuality. She uses her story as a framework for her research: over 12 years, she interviewed dozens and dozens of women that grew up in similar environments, and in her book, retells their stories with faithful, clear-eyed directness.

“How did you come to believe that about yourself?” she at one point asks an interview subject, referring to feelings of worthlessness and shame.

The interviewee begins to unpack the reasons why she believes she’s broken, but Klein interrupts to clarify. “I meant, what external messages did you internalize that caused you to believe that about yourself?”

The interviewee can’t even answer the question. She just pauses. She says (paraphrasing): “Thank you for asking that. I never even considered that I could ask that. I’ve only ever seen these messages as coming from internally to me, as being fundamentally about my own brokenness. It never even occurred to me to ask if there was an external source from whom these messages were coming.”

There was.

There is.

This book was one of them.

And that’s the third inspiration.

I don’t want anybody else to accidentally absorb any more messages that trick them into a sense that their defaults are design flaws, or that their very self and sexuality is shameful.

So, heart racing, I hustled that book into the blue bin, like a roadside knife from innocent hands.

Driving away, I wondered if that was the equivalent of censorship. After all, why not start a dialogue instead?

Did the infamous May 28, 2019 not teach me anything?

Step 1, remove the knife.
Step 2, talk about why you removed the knife.

Consider this blog post the second step.

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Never thank a thenk

It all started with an innocuous ad in our local library: a call for submissions for a poetry contest, from an entity called the Canadian Chamber of Contemporary Poetry.

Submitting poems

It was quite a collection. Did I write all 36 of them in one sitting?

I recall a poem called Laundry Day, told from the point-of-view of an overworked mother lamenting domestic duties: “Oh, how I hate Mondays / It is the laundry day / I have to clean up the dirty clothes / And that’s why I hate Mondays.” A poignant line lodged in my memory goes: “I’d move to Argentina / But I still have baby Corina.” (See, even if she escapes the house, she can never escape responsibility.)

As for the aforementioned 12-verse epic Simba of the White Mane, well, there’s an actual book called that, pre Lion King. I literally saw the book lying in my basement and straight-up stole the title.

Other classics from my 36-poem collection included a hilarious novelty poem called “The School Was Overflowing,” and I can’t recall if it was about overcrowding or flooding, just that it was quite the zippy read.

Anyway, with all these poems to choose from, I was a surprised when I got the letter in the mail telling me that the Chamber had selected one of my poems.

Just one? I thought, feeling disappointed. Not all of them?

And, why this one?

It was a seven-line Seuss-inspired nonsense poem, called Never Thank a Thenk. It went like this:

“Never thank a thenk
Cause if you do
A thenk will think
About the things he thunk.
And if a thenk thinks his thunks
He’ll do the things the thenk has thunk
And a thenk thinks terrible things.”

Still, it was easy to be excited. My poem was going to be published, and I don’t even like poetry! I signed the appropriate paperwork, and my parents agreed to pay the $20 for a physical copy of the book it was to be published in, and I wrote a dedication: “To my mom, who inspired me to enter the poetry contest.”

As you can imagine, the experience had a strong impact on my sense of identity. I can write. I can win stuff. And it’s easy!

As my childhood went on, I began to recognize that I had been scammed. Well, “scam” might be too strong a word, but at least “taken advantage of.” A poetry contest that publishes so many participants’ entries, asks for an entry fee, and asks winners to purchase their own published work, is not exactly an above-board literary honour. The “Canadian Chamber of Contemporary Poetry” was a virtually non-existent organization trying to hustle young writers and make a buck, while, sure, promoting Canadian literary talent.

It’s hard to untangle formative experiences, and deconstruct identity. Before this contest ever happened, what did writing mean to me? If the contest hadn’t happened, would I have held the idea of “being a writer” so close to my identity? If it wasn’t an external authority validating my work, what would I myself say about my own writing? Do I even want to do this, or was a foundational childhood experience errantly influenced by predatory publishers?

This week, the words from “Never Thank a Thenk” popped into my head, and I spontaneously began to recite it out loud, to myself, in a dramatic voice. I stopped cold once I finished, as a new meaning dawned on me.

I’ve always known, unconsciously, that a “thenk” was a proxy for myself. The deliberate misspelling of a common word with an alternative vowel? That’s being a Kevan in a Kevin’s world.

As I recited and rethought those lines this week, I realized it’s a poem about a person who doesn’t trust himself to think independently, out of fear.

To “never thank” would be to never acknowledge or welcome or support one’s self.

Following that viewpoint, the poem could be interpreted this way:

“Don’t be too kind to yourself,
Cause if you do
You might think
your own thoughts.
And if you think
Your own thoughts,
You might act on your thoughts,
And you think terrible things.”

It blew my mind right open this week to see the unconscious message loaded into my own childhood poem. To be clear, I don’t believe 8-year-old me wrote that meaning purposefully. But I recognize that internalized message as a lifelong pattern from inside my own mind:  distrusting myself, fearing my own thoughts, anxious about my own worth.

Can you see it, in the same pitiful light I’m seeing it? A poem whose very meaning is about self-distrust, being shipped off to be validated by external authorities?

I won’t give my kid-self too hard a time. He was doing the best he could (and he did great). But one of the things I still need to return to is allowing myself to trust, care for, welcome and acknowledge my own self and voice.

The literal retranslation I’d like to shoot for would end up meaning this:

“You can acknowledge and welcome your authentic self.
When you do,
it gives you the freedom to connect
with your honest thoughts, feelings and needs.
And when that happens,
You’re able to make clear-eyed, unafraid choices.
Your thoughts don’t define you, nor force you to act.
And your mind and heart is perfectly worthy.”

So let me try again, re-encoding the message to younger version of myself in the hopes it can carry forward to today’s version, still carrying the same Seuss-inspired novelty vibes, but this time, with a new slant:

“Always thank a thenk
Cause when you do
A thenk can think
About the things he thunk.
And when a thenk thinks his thunks
He’ll be the thenk he always was
And a thenk thinks thinkable things.”

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Wondering about oneness, again

Some days, when my inspiration and aspiration light up like barbeque flames, I catch a sense of possibility. It’s the hope for interconnectedness that is true peace, absolute renewal. Some days it flickers on, like light returning after a power outage. Other times, it’s like it was never there, like the sun in the middle of a long, cold winter.

On Sunday night last week, that glimpse appeared again, and I let my fingers fly to try and express it. It was messy, unclear, and abstract, like trying to explain a dream involving childhood homes a person who was there-but-not-there…but enough to get a first draft, drafted.

I still can’t tell if I’m deluded by this, like an earworm of a song lyric that just needs to be removed, or if it’s a melody yet to be written.

I feel about it like one might feel about anything that’s both personal but unfinished, possibly misleading and possibly healing: like I need to learn from it.

Maybe we can learn together?

* * *

Oneness.

The world is one. All things. Your idea of self, your idea of God, your understanding of the planets and solar systems and the universe, all of them are part of the same equation.

And it’s easy to participate in this.

The easiest participants are nature and babies. I mean infants of all stripes, from baby tigers to baby humans. To be infantile is to never second-guess one’s safety and loved-ness, one’s connectedness to Other. Even human babies take a decent while to realize they are not the same being as their mother. Their instinct, when they see their ma, is to believe: that’s me. I’m her. She is I.

All of our very being and matter is composed of interchangeable parts that were once part of others, or eventually will become part of others. We’re like a waterfall, always in motion, atoms spilled over into the global pool of shared matter, only we like to pretend we’re fixed, static, stuck, solid, permanent. We’re merely cascades.

We were never separate. We still are not. We simply occupy a series of constructs to reinforce the belief of separateness.

“That’s you,” we say, holding up a mirror or a photograph. “Your name is SEPARATE PERSON XT100359.” And reality is severed into an illusion.

The only thing keeping us separate is our own stories, but there is no separation between “us” and “them.” We are already fully functioning, flourishing members of a floor-to-ceiling civilization that includes all things.

Whenever we claim territory, nations, names, what we are doing is causing a violent separation of ourselves from other.

What we are invited into is a realization that there is no separateness. No detachment. No divide. No barrier.

You are the same as the Other; the Other you fear.

Even the Other you revere.

When we talk of the “Universe” or of “God,” it’s simply our name for that that Capital-E “Everything” we’re describing.

Not just that, but an Everything that is conscious.

Better than that, it is Love.

I think of words from the Bible where one of the last prayers of Jesus was for his followers to be “One, as the Father and I are One.”

What could that mean? Could it mean we are already connected to the very being of the universe? That we are offspring of the Everything, if only we could see it?

All of us are already connected.
Peace is already possible.
You and I (and them) are already one and the same.

Any element of war or conflict or difference or disharmony is an artifice designed to support the Ego’s war to claim it’s not the Same as Everything.

It’s not that this is certifiable, empirically proven. I don’t claim that this is theologically, philosophically vetted and approved. What I have to say is not to be guaranteed or plunged into. But what I would wonder is this: could it not be explored?

If you were a scientist, could you generate a hypothesis or two to discover if this were true?

If you were a theologian, could you not begin a process of inquiry to explore the possibility of this?

If you were a pedestrian or a plebe like me, could you not allow this to be fully imagined, a world to be mentally inhabited, to be conceptually wondered-about, to see if it bears living into?

The reason why we don’t build the impossible is not because we’ve explored it, vetted it, and rejected on the grounds of implausibility. It’s simply because we have not imagined it. Again: The reason we don’t participate in the impossible is because we have not imagined it.

If it were true that we were already One, what would be possible if we chose to act in this way?