Measure What We Value

We measure a great deal in the modern office environment, and the nonprofit world is no different.  Finding the right measurement to capture what is truly important, however, takes time and thought.  Profit for a business is easy to track, but in the mission-driven world of nonprofits the right outcomes can be hard to quantify.

I was thinking of this while wrapping up James Williams’ Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention EconomyIn looking for ways to set boundaries for attention-grabbing technology, Williams turns to measurement as one key.  He begins by noting, that “Our goal in advancing measurement should be to measure what we value, rather than valuing what we already measure.”

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

How do we, both as individuals and as staff members of a large organization, do this work?  How do we measure what we value?  Williams has a suggestion on the organizational or corporate scale:  measure the mission.  If we “operationalize in metrics the company’s mission statement or purpose for existing, which is something nearly every company has but which hardly any company actually measures,” Williams suggests we can begin to measure what we value.

 That strikes me as an important step toward understanding what organizations should measure, and how we are succeeding in reaching “what we want to want.”  As individuals, we can also think about what we measure in terms of our personal missions and callings.  Being a little obsessive, I personally track 11 measurements each day for personal growth. (Yes, you can sigh now.) I know of others who have even longer lists.  As I pondered this while reading Williams’ book, it dawned on me that perhaps I should consider whether I measure what I value (or simply value what I already measure…like weight gain or loss).  You may have similar responses.

Williams ends his book with a call that we—as individuals and as a society—can reclaim our time and our souls if we understand what we value.

“As the mythologian Joseph Campbell said, ‘The modern hero deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul.’ This is true at both individual and collective levels.

In order to rise to this challenge, we have to lean into experiences of awe and wonder. . . .We have to demand that these forces to which our attention is now subject start standing out of our light. This means rejecting the present regime of attentional serfdom.  It means rejecting the idea that we are powerless, that our angry impulses must control us, that our suffering must define us, or that we ought to wallow in guilt for having let things get this bad.  It means rejecting novelty for novelty’s sake and disruption for disruption’s sake.  It means rejecting lethargy, fatalism, and narratives of us versus them.  It means using our transgressions to advance the good.  This is not utopianism.  This is imagination.  And as anyone with the slightest bit of imagination knows, ‘imaginary’ is not the opposite of ‘real.’”

I love the challenge in that last paragraph and the truth of that last sentence.  Let’s use our imaginations and focus on what we value.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Dr. William J. Murtagh: Keeper of the Register, Preservation Pioneer

(NOTE:  My appreciation of the life and legacy of William J. Murtagh was first published on the Preservation Forum Blog on November 2, 2018.)

Bill Murtagh, who passed away on October 28 at age 95, was among the most visible and effective preservation leaders in the middle of the 20th century, when the movement was expanding its focus from historic sites, museums, and teaching to the emphasis on people and community that we recognize today.

To those of us who came to preservation in the 1970s and ’80s, Bill was seemingly in the middle of everything. He served two stints at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, first as President Richard Howland’s assistant in 1958, later returning for several years as vice president for Preservation Services. He was a member of the committee that outlined the principles at the core of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. He was a key figure in the establishment and growth of preservation education programs from Columbia University to the University of Hawai‘i. His “Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America” was one of our first textbooks.

murtagh__002_.jpg
Credit: Lisa Berg

But it was as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places that Bill is best known, and that is where he made such an indelible mark on the field. First, the job title itself was evocative, and Bill worked to live up to the lofty aspirations it suggested. More importantly, he brought a democratic and expansive view of what the federal government should recognize as worthy of preservation. Where others may have been stingy in recognizing the places that matter to communities, Bill approached people on the local level to help them identify places and articulate the meaning of those places to tell the full American story.

This generous view of what makes America unique is what I remember from first meeting Bill Murtagh while working as a preservationist in Virginia in the 1980s. Bill, who had enormous national and international influence, worked tirelessly with his neighbors to ensure that the historic buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes of Alexandria, Virginia, were preserved, protected, and loved. He also served on the board of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, providing instant credibility as we advocated for the importance of historic places to the commonwealth’s economy and future.

Bill was always looking forward. In the fall 1999 issue of the Forum Journal, he took the time to contemplate what preservation would look like in this century, calling for renewal, retraining, and recommitment.

The National Historic Preservation Act is now more than a generation old. A renewed commitment to human resources is still needed. In my considered opinion, that includes retraining existing professionals and improving the training of newcomers to the field even in many of the programs that now exist in academia. … Of primary concern is that there now seems to be a thin or non-interested grasp at all levels of government as to why our 20th-century preservation laws even exist and to what stimulated their passage. Preservation concerns still need to be part of the curriculum at the preparatory school level. ‘Civics 101’ needs to be reintroduced into school systems.

Bill was ever hopeful for the day when America would have a national land-use policy and a cabinet-level post of cultural affairs to help recognize and protect our heritage for future generations. He encouraged us all to think about what mattered in our communities—and to find ways for the private and public sectors to protect and reuse those places. We all stand on his shoulders, and he will be missed.

More to come…

DJB

Boundaries

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Understanding the reality you face is often the first step toward personal and organizational growth.

Consider the oft-heard complaint about our lack of time in this period of ubiquitous technology.   While most of us think of this as the “Information Age,” the reality may be that it would be better characterized as the Age of Attention.  In an age of information abundance, the scare resource is attention.  Technology companies make money when they monopolize our time.  Netflix’s CEO has made this clear in noting that the company “is competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep, etc.”

Let that last one sink in a bit…your sleep is seen as a competitor by Netflix.  If you had any idea that technology companies were looking out for your best interests, this should dissuade you of that notion.

I’m currently reading Stand Out of Our Light, a book written by a former Google strategist turned Oxford-trained philosopher.  James Williams’ career arc was enough to get me to buy the book, but I was equally intrigued to read his take on how “technologies compete to capture and exploit our attention, rather than supporting the true goals we have for our lives.”  From endless games of solitaire to never-ending clickbait to Facebook news feeds to YouTube recommendations that entice us to watch just one more video…we’ve all seen how digital technology eats up our time by capturing more and more of our attention.

Williams believes that the goals of technology companies don’t match our best interests (individually and as citizens), making it imperative that we set our own boundaries.  He quotes the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Who will be great, must be able to limit himself.”  Williams is focused on the capacities that enable us to “want what we want to want,” capacities such as “reflection, memory, prediction, leisure, reasoning, and goal-setting.” We have to apply boundaries in order to “channel our activities toward our higher goals.”

Smart Phones

Smart Phones: Competing for Your Attention

While technology could help us deal with these challenges, that’s not the way of life in our current age.  As  you reflect on that, realize that,

“…notifications or addictive mobile apps may fill up those little moments in the day during which a person might have otherwise reflected on their goals and priorities.  Users check their phones an average of 150 times per day (and touch them over 2,600 times per day), so that would add up to a lot of potential reflection going unrealized.”

There is much we can do in response, and the book looks at steps we should take individually and collectively.  I decided some time ago not to use notifications with my technology, believing that leaving on the email notification feature is like letting the post office rush in and drop a letter on your desk every time you receive an email or text.  Start with the mindset that your email in-box – and essentially all technology – should be for your use, and then work from there.  Such a perspective may help you see the reality a bit more clearly and spend more time on what you want to want.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Extraordinary People Hidden in Plain Sight

In the Mouth of the Wolf

“In the Mouth of the Wolf” by Rose Zar and Eric A. Kimmel

Last week was difficult.  The horrific shooting on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shook many of us to the core. Coming at the end of a week of attempts at mass political assassinations, it called into question assumptions about our nation’s values. As a historian I know that anti-Semitism and bigotry are as old as our country, in fact as old as recorded history. Thankfully, stories of courageous response to bigotry are just as old, yet often not as well known.

The Overlooked Obituary project of the New York Times is designed to recognize extraordinary people overlooked by the editors of the paper in their day. People like Rose Zar, the remarkable mother of my National Trust colleague Howard Zar. Rose Zar’s overlooked obituary appeared in the Times on the anniversary of her death in the Jewish lunar calendar.  That happened to fall during this past week, bringing a story of hope and determination amidst a flood of bad news.

When she was 19 and living in the ghetto in Piotrkow, Poland, Zar—who had been part of the Jewish resistance prior to World War II—begin to feel the Nazi pressure on home and family.  Zar “grabbed her suitcase and forged passport and left her family behind,” moving around Poland for the next three years as a Roman Catholic named Wanda Gajda.

“When an SS commander summoned her to his office for questioning, she felt certain that it was the end. She answered his queries, telling about her experience as a nurse and how she had learned to speak German fluently. Several days later, she was introduced to the commander’s wife. The encounter she had feared turned out to be a job interview. She spent the final years of the war as her father had advised, hiding in plain sight in the home of a Nazi commander as ‘Fräulein Wanda.’”

After the war, she married her teenage sweetheart, a concentration camp survivor. They lived in Poland before moving to the U.S. (where they shortened their last name to Zar).  Before that move, she again had to respond to bigotry.

“When violence broke out against Jewish refugees in the Polish city of Kielce, Zar and her husband decided it was time to leave. They helped smuggle 139 Jewish refugee children with them through Czechoslovakia and into southern Germany, where they helped set up a school run by the International Refugee Organization and the United States Army.”

In that school she taught the children of their Jewish heritage. Many were later resettled in Israel, aboard the famous refugee ship Exodus.  After moving to South Bend, Indiana, Zar continued her life of service and wrote a memoir, “In the Mouth of the Wolf.”  Published in 1983, the book won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Book Award and is taught in schools across the United States.

Rose Zar

Rose Zar (courtesy of Howard Zar)

Zar’s co-author recalls her saying,

“Of course we must talk, we must tell the stories. Otherwise, they will be forgotten and the enemies will have won. I must talk about it. It is my duty to talk about it. If I don’t tell my story, who will?”

The conventional wisdom is that leaders must be charismatic and eloquent. That is certainly one type of leadership. But as Rose Zar’s story shows, there are extraordinary people hiding in plain sight who lead through perseverance and inner strength.  It reminds me of the words of President Obama as he was celebrating the creation of the Pullman National Monument in Chicago.  He said this place should be saved so that children in the neighborhood—as well as around the world—could see and learn that “extraordinary people can come from ordinary places.”

It gives me hope that I know of exceptional stories of life and leadership from colleagues who may not have the strong personality to stand out in a crowded room. They include Peace Corps volunteers. Writers and poets. Social workers. Teachers. You probably know similar individuals who, because of their life experiences or skills developed over the years, lead in the unconventional sense.

Challenges from mundane to horrific will be with us forever.  To respond, consider the ordinary.  Look in plain sight.  What you might find to emulate—as seen in the life and story of Rose Zar—could well be extraordinary.

More to come…

DJB

To Avoid Stress, Stop Screwing Up

Willpower

Willpower

I had a “What the heck?” moment recently when reading a book on willpower.  I came across the line, “The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.”  As my children might say, “Well, duh…”  Of course, if we didn’t get ourselves into stressful situations, we could reduce stress.

But if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I think authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney have a good point.  They were arguing that we should think about ways to set up our lives so that we have a realistic chance to succeed.  “Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.”

The entire book is built around the premise that all of us—even the most successful—have a limited amount of willpower to expend every day and that we use the same resource for many different things. So it is important to think about how we can use our willpower to set ourselves up for success.

“Each day may start off with your stock of willpower fresh and renewed, at least if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast.  But then all day things chip and nibble away at it….Consider some of the things that happen in a typical day.  You pull yourself out of bed even though your body wants more sleep.  You put up with traffic frustrations.  You hold your tongue when your boss or spouse angers you or when a store clerk says ‘Just one second’ and then takes six minutes to get back to you.  You try to maintain an interested, alert expression on your face while a colleague drones on during a boring meeting.  You postpone going to the bathroom.  You make yourself take the first steps on a difficult project.  You want to eat all the French fries on your lunch plate but you leave half of them there, or (after negotiating with yourself) almost half.  You push yourself to go jogging, and while you jog you make yourself keep running until you finish your workout.  The willpower you expended on each of these unrelated events depletes how much you have left for the others.”

If I put things off or set goals for myself that are unrealistic, pushing me into situations where I have to expend my stock of willpower, that’s not a recipe for success.  Instead, I’ve increased my level of stress.  However, Dutch researchers have shown that people with good self-control “mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.”  People with good self-control generally have less stress.

“They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them.  They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.  They play offense instead of defense.” (emphasis added)

Consider how you would (re)structure your life to avoid putting yourself in situations where self-control is an emergency rescue reaction.  What changes would be necessary for you to play offense instead of defense?

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Perseverance and Passion

Grit

“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth

If you are like me, you may have been told “You know, you’re no genius” at some point in your life.  During her childhood, Angela Duckworth heard that phrase over and over again from her father.  Years later when she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—she was able to savor the irony of being told that she wasn’t smart enough, and yet being recognized on an international stage for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology.  Duckworth was compassionate enough not to lord this over her father.  But she did write a book based on her studies which makes the case that for those who have a calling, who challenge themselves every day, who get back up when they are knocked down, perseverance and passion matter more than talent.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion is the 2016 book that resulted from Duckworth’s life and studies.  The fundamental insight that guides her research is “Our potential is one thing.  What we do with it is quite another.”  Early in the book she recounts the time she left a job at the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey to teach seventh grade math in the inner city.  There Duckworth came to see that we are all distracted by talent.  She was naturally attracted to those students who were “quick studies” and seemed to have the intellect and skills to succeed.  But as marking periods went by, these were not necessarily the successful students.  Duckworth became interested not in what made people smart, but what was needed to be successful in life.

What she found is that people who are successful over time have a passion.  A calling.  It may take time for that passion to evolve, and they may explore several pathways before landing on the one that sticks.  But having an inner compass, the “thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be” is critical to success.  And then you have to persevere, in the face of the inevitable failures, to reach your goals.  Duckworth notes:  “Enthusiasm is common.  Endurance is rare.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Duckworth’s book, including how experts practice differently from others, with a deliberative focus.  They make it a habit, with daily rituals.  Or how pessimists have permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity that “turn minor complications into major catastrophes.”  Hope and modeling a growth mindset, it turns out, are keys to perseverance.  Duckworth looks at how to grow grit from the inside out, ways to build an organizational culture that focuses on perseverance and passion, and parenting for grit.

Skyscape at Villa Panza

What is your calling?

Basketball coaching legend John Wooden captured the need for both perseverance and passion when he said:  “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”  One of my favorite stories in the book is from another sports coach who, as a philosophy and English major, has a special appreciation for the power of words.  Each year he has his team memorize three different literary quotes, handpicked to communicate a different core value.  The first team value is “We don’t whine.”  The corresponding quote, courtesy of playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Duckworth challenges us to cultivate our interests.  Develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice.  Connect our work to a purpose beyond ourselves. And learn to hope when all seems lost.

That seems like smart—perhaps even genius-like—advice to me.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

An Education in the Obvious

In the midst of one of the most turbulent weeks in our recent civic life, I attended the play Lincolnesque last Saturday at Washington’s Keegan Theatre.  First released in 2009, this new production couldn’t have come at a better time.  Here’s the synopsis:

“Leo has more on his plate than he can handle. He is a speechwriter for an endangered mediocre Congressman, in the final month before a do-or-die mid-term election. His new boss Carla is a dominating message maven who has been brought in from the corporate world to try and save the campaign. And his brother Francis is a psychiatric outpatient recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, despite having a powerful delusion that he is Abraham Lincoln. Desperate for inspiration, Leo turns to Francis for help writing “Lincolnesque” speeches, hoping that Lincoln’s transformative oratory will revive his boss’s career.”

Playwright John Strand uses humor and plot twists to bring Leo and Carla to the point of stealing Francis’ “Lincolnesque” citations for the final campaign speech that puts the Congressman over the top.  The power of idealism (or E&I as Francis calls it, for Ethics and Integrity) is clear, even when the staff take the low road and end up, as one reviewer noted, in the “inevitable aftermath.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about our political conversation these past few weeks and how it affects my work and life.  I suspect that many of you are having the same thoughts.  Political conversation is a measure of the civic health of our country, and right now that health is fragile.  Lincoln was not a perfect human, as Strand points out time and again in Lincolnesque.  The same can be said for Thomas Jefferson, the other American president whose words have inspired across decades even as his flaws as a person have been identified and examined in detail.  However, even in today’s understanding of history, author Thomas Reston writes that Barack Obama could note that, “’Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,’ . . . even as he (Obama) pointedly recognized that Jefferson’s household was built and maintained by slaves.”  What Lincoln and Jefferson did best was to focus on big ideas and big politics, not policies.

Studio Lincoln

Studio Lincoln by Daniel Chester French at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site (credit Carol Highsmith)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said:  “It seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.”  While we don’t need leaders who steal “Lincolnesque” citations, we do need the same clear thought about what it means to be an American. An education in the obvious, in other words. Historian (and National Trust Honorary Trustee) David McCullough has said, “What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition.”  Speaking to the National Trust conference in Providence after the 9/11 attacks, David reminded us that as a country:

“We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

That strikes me as what’s missing in today’s course discourse. Just like playwrights and other artists, historians and preservationists dedicated to telling the full American story and linking it to our present and future can help provide that “education in the obvious.”  It won’t be easy to be heard over the noise of today’s discourse, but I believe we have to try.  Our nation’s political health may depend on it.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB