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Reflecting on Gratitude and Going Beyond Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving grace 1942

Today is the day that Americans come together to celebrate Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to gratitude (in Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October, to traditionally align with the harvest).

What a wonderful holiday concept: spending time focused on gratitude for what one has.

There are many good reasons for giving thanks. Psychologist Robert Emmons and other researchers working within the emergent field of positive psychology  have looked intently at the psychological effects of gratitude and found it positively correlates with well-being and goal-attainment. For example, Emmons and McCullogh (2003) conducted a series of experiments comparing those with a grateful outlook to those who did not and found those who expressed gratitude more often reported higher levels of subjective wellbeing in some of those studies. (For those interested, Emmons’ 2007 book Thanks! is an accessible primer on the research on gratitude).

Giving thanks is a way of introducing a small disruption in the everyday and inspiring reflection on the present moment. Gratitude is a part of many meditiation and yoga practices, as well as mindfulness practice (PDF – example).

So in solidarity with my American friends who are giving thanks on this day and all of us who take time to express gratitude on any day, I offer a departure from the usual post and share some things I am thankful for (in no particular order):

  • To everyone who is willing to fail, get up again, improve and work to succeed and tell others about their story so others can be inspired to fail and succeed in new ways.
  • To teachers (and that doesn’t have to be the person at the front of the class). To those who take the time to help others to learn, really learn, and understand material. This could be trainers, classmates, or grandparents — anyone who cares that I learn something and tries to help myself and others toward that goal.
  • To students of life. Those who are willing to be taught, to learn, to adapt and to innovate when necessary. This includes clinicians and scientists using the best evidence to make decisions and pointing out where it doesn’t exist (and taking action on filling the gaps). It’s people asking hard, but important questions — including those about their own closely held beliefs. It’s those who see learning as fun and seek to infect that sense of joy in their fellow knowledge travellers. It also includes all of those who work in knowledge translation and exchange to help the learning process along in professional and personal life.
  • To the organizers, funders, sponsors and participants behind and in front of TED, Thinkr, the RSA, Google Zietgeist Minds and all the organizations and individuals out there sharing stories of success, creativity, and inspiring us all to think in new ways. It’s easy to take all this for granted so today, I am not.
  • To everyone who takes the time to listen and seeks to understand . We all don’t agree, but if we try to truly understand each other by listening, cultivate empathy, and mindfully reflect on our impact on the world, those differences can be sources of learning and creativity than unproductive conflict, hatred and ignorance. Too much of that and in a world of the 140-character sound bite, it’s too easy to be seduced by quick outrage and self-supported misconceptions.
  • To the individuals who work at inspiring others to be their best selves through compassion and creation. The diverse voices of people like Seth Godin, Jonathan Fields, Brene Brown, John Maeda, and Jon Kabat Zinn who all provide means of making sense of human life and inspiring a greater appreciation of what happens along its journey.
  • To the Internet and every person and organization responsible for developing it, delivering it, and maintaining it and fighting for the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that come with having so much knowledge, information and entertainment at our fingertips. It’s easy to take this enormous treasure trove of knowledge and services for granted.
  • To every administrator or department chair who marshalls power to change the structure of the workplace to make it more humane, by rewarding earnest effort while providing the space to slow time to pause and think, nurture the organization’s collective mental health, and allow everyone to genuinely learn and share their best with those they engage with. Work takes up a lot of our lifetime — imagine if it buoyed us and sustained us rather than trapped us?
  • To every person who says, means and listens to the message that we are all enough. The rat race is for rats and the human race is intended for human beings, not human doings.
  • To everyone who feeds us — from farm to market to fork to the earth. Most of us have little comprehension of where our food comes from, travels to, goes through, or ends up and if we did, we might act a little (or a lot) differently. We have the luxury of ignorance in North America, but should we? Spend time with a farmer and you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know about the very things that sustain us.
  • To every blogger and Tweeter out there who takes the time to share their thoughts and promote positive, critical thinking about topics that inspire new thinking. Thanks to the amazing blogosphere and Twittersphere, I have made a lot of wonderful friends I’ve never met in person, but who inspire me every week.

Thanks to everyone out there making the world better. Today is the day I give thanks to all of you.

What are you grateful for?

Photo By Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Designing a Social Innovation Wonderwall

Wonder octopus

Paying attention to the social, technological, economic and environmental stresses and challenges we face isn’t always conducive to positive thinking and sometimes its useful to look at where problems are being addressed rather than created. Where to go for such inspiration is question is where this post begins. 

And all the roads that lead you there are winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I
Would like to say to you but I don’t know how

I said maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all, you’re my wonderwall

– lyrics from “Wonderwall” by Oasis (1995)

Inspiring words and the desire for inspiring action

Marketer and blogger Mitch Joel recently wrote on the growing trend towards appending inspirational quotes to images and posting them on Facebook. I’ve seen it, too. Sites like Values.com, apps like Little Buddha and tweet feeds like @Zen_Moments do a great job of providing a daily dose of inspiring words. These daily doses of inspiring words can motivate further action or pacify us, but it is only when something happens that our world is changed. There is wishing for change, imagining change, intending change and then there is action. Our social world only experiences the latter and thus, for social innovation to take place we need to understand actions not just words.

With that, it occurred to me that there are far fewer places online that provide the same sort of wonderwall of resources highlighting actions as there is words. As I mindfully comb through the Web in my daily journeys I find myself amazed at what social innovations are out there facilitated by technology with the World Wide Web. These range from simple one-horse projects to complex initiatives, all working towards making the world a better place.

Why don’t we have a social innovation wonderwall?

With the many challenges facing us in adapting to a rapidly changing social world it would be useful to have some places and examples that show actions (and particularly the lessons learned from those actions). Listed here are three examples of resources I’ve found and highlight creative examples of social action from fundraising to creation to sharing.

Three socially innovative contributions to a wonderwall

1. Kickstarter. I’m a big fan of Kickstarter and have supported many projects on that site. Kickstarter has projects that are not all social ventures, but many aim to do good. Films, books, performances and other projects that don’t have mechanisms for raising funds from grants or attracting funding from traditional venture capitalists or lenders. Browse through and you will find a host of creative ways to use technology, share ideas and maybe find something you want to back.

2. OneWorld Futbol . I am a big fan of Sting‘s music and enjoy his fabulous (and free!) iPad app and noticed a link on the latest update that led to the latest charitable initiative he’s supporting called the OneWorld Futbol project. The idea brings technological innovation together with social need to create an indestructible soccer ball that can be distributed globally to children in war-torn and impoverished countries. Through a buy-one-get-one program, you can get your own ball to perhaps inspire youth here to connect to their peers in less advantaged parts of the world. Soccer will not save the world and, like similar-spirited programs such as Right to Play, there is no mistaking sport for replacing the need for food, clean water and shelter, but it adds a quality of life to youth that is also important while providing opportunities for leadership and joy-making.

3. Fast Company. The social design and technology magazine has long been a leader in reporting on innovations, but recently it launched three spin-off sites (FastCoDesign, FastCoCreate and FastCoExist) that highlight ideas and products that are making a difference in the world in creative ways. For-profit, for-benefit and governmental innovations are all profiled here. Nearly every day there are updates on initiatives taking place across the globe (although mostly in the United States) providing a veritable feast of inspiring actions taken to potentially spur social innovation.

These are but three examples to show how actions are being done in different ways: raising funds, creating products, and showcasing work of products already created. Know of more? Add them to the comments and perhaps we can start creating a wonderwall to inspire others.

* Photo of the Wonder Octopus from the Wikimedia Commons used under license.

The Genius of Seth Godin

In his new book, Linchpin, businessman, marketer, blogger, auteur Seth Godin asks the question: Are you indispensible?

Seth, if you don’t know, is a genius. On the first page of Lynchpin he describes what a genius is:

“If a genius is someone with exceptional abilities and the insightto find the not so obvious solution to a problem, you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize to be one. A genius looks at something that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck”

By that account, Seth is a certifiable genius.

This blog is about making sense of a complex world and Seth is one of those people that does that, paradoxically, by making things simple. Paradox is a hallmark feature of complexity and one of the reasons why the world is so often puzzling to us. Efforts to quell terrorism lead to more terrorism, exercises in control lead to greater instability (for more examples see another great book by Joshua Cooper Ramo) — that sort of stuff.

Seth is a straight-talker without being arrogant or simplistic. He his assertive without being aggressive. He challenges, while supports and understands. He is a rare being and one that I think deserves a blog post and some promotion.

Some examples? In his book “The Dip” he makes the case for quitting. We often hear that quitters never win and winners never quit, yet Seth shows how that’s not the case. It’s thoughtful and strategic quitting that counts.

In his recent interview on CBC’s Spark, Seth courageous says: “If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” . Few people are willing to say this stuff, but its true. We often fear success, because we’re not supported in doing something that doesn’t fit the system of production created for us in work, school and society from the 20th century onward.

Another great interview from Seth (also on Spark) is available here .

Lastly, I want to say that Seth is one who not only speaks but he acts. He invited a couple thousand of his blog readers to get a free copy of Linchpin in exchange for a donation to the Accumen Fund, which aims to transform the lives of people in poverty worldwide, particularly in Africa. I took up this offer. Seth believes that the world works best when we’re able to tap into our natural motive for generosity and to further back that up, he sent me a SECOND book for free to give to someone else. I’ve done one, well five, better in return. I chose to purchase a five copies of the book for each of the members of my research team; a talented group who form a wonderful linchpin for the future of health promotion and social innovation.

I’ve endorsed a product like this because I think it has a message that is necessary in a complex world of rapid change, where making sense is hard and often confusing. But in an age of uncertainty, stress and the collapse of many of our institutions due to rapid change, Seth provides inspiration, guidance and clear-headed thinking in a way that few others have. If I can offer one thing to Seth in small payback for his inspiration in me, the least I can do is write about him and encourage you to follow his lead and, in doing so, follow you own.

The book can be bought online below or from your local independent bookseller:

Amazon (Canada)

Amazon (United States)

Chapters/Indigo (Canada)

Barnes&Noble (United States)

Borders (United States)

Amazing Stuff: The Inspirational Sound and Vision Edition

 

Occasionally this blog departs from the usual discussion and offers to share something that I find amazing (or highly notable) that has come across my ‘e’ desk or captures the wonder of social media, networks and the Web as a whole. Here is the first Amazing Stuff of 2010 with a theme fitting for a new decade: inspiration.

It’s the first Amazing Stuff issue of the second decade of the 2000’s and depending on how last week went, you might be thinking 2010 is really the start of something new and exciting (all New Year’s Resolutions aside) or that you’re in for the same thing, maybe worse. In the case that your 2010 has not started out as well as you wanted it to, I present a list of Amazing Stuff on video that just might help remind you how good the world is and what the power of a dream, an open mind, a kind heart or all of those things might do for you. And if you’re already in that space, then recommend something to 1000 Awesome Things to show it off to the world.

If you’ve seen these before, perhaps its time to view them again.

1. Free Hugs. The Free Hugs Campaign was started by Juan Mann in Sydney, Australia and began with the simple premise that everyone could use a hug now and again and why not spread a little cheer by offering them for free, at near random, to anyone who walked by and would accept one or ask for it. The story was captured in a great music video by Sick Puppies that is not only inspirational, but a great rocking song too.

2. High Fives Project. If hugs aren’t your thing, how about a high five? Colleen Smith has embarked a journey similar to Juan Mann and has decided that a good old high five is a pretty good way to get people smiling and thinking differently. And you know what? It does (at least according to the video of Colleen in action).

3. Benjamin Zander on TED. Benjamin Zander is part conductor, part motivational speaker and all enlightening or entertaining (or both). In his TED talk a few years ago he outlines the way to listen to classical music in a manner that inspires creative thinking. If you’re even marginally interested in classical music, you’re likely to get a lot out of your next listen after seeing this. If you’re not a classical music fan, you just might be after seeing this.

4. Fun Theory. Imagine Richard Simmons meets Tom Hanks (as the “boy” in Big, jumping on the piano in F.A.O. Schwartz) or consider health promotion if it were designed by an 8-year old. That’s what you get here. Seeing is believing and believing means that you’ll start to wonder why the stairs in your subways, malls and buildings aren’t a little more entertaining to take.

5. Anvil: The Story of Anvil. This isn’t a video in the same sense as the others, rather it is a full-fledged documentary. And a very good one at that. The touching, funny and curious story of one of the legends of heavy metal music, Canadian rockers Anvil and their unusual persistence in the face of rock obscurity and erstwhile fame.  You don’t even have to like heavy metal to find something in this connection between music and video something inspiring and showing the power of positive thinking (and perhaps reasons to have a good manager) in pursuing your dreams.

I hope that there is some inspiration found in some of these.

And if not, one bonus video is Warren Miller’s 2008 movie “Children of Winter“. It is a visual masterpiece and something that, when the weather outside gets frightful, is a delight to watch indoors to make you enjoy those moments outside even more.

Complex Change and Energy

 

Simple, straightforward and predictable things are pretty boring, but they at least can be understood without much effort. And sometimes that simplicity provides comfort that we can’t find in complicated, complex or chaotic events. As we find ourselves working long hours eating badly and sleeping less hours than our body would like its no surprise that we find a lot of organizations trying to make complex change using simple processes (that won’t work). It’s tiring thinking about complexity and simplicity is, well, simple. We don’t need to consider the pushback that could come from making our morning coffee, we need not worry about the unintended consequences of ironing our shirts, or contemplate the emergent patterns that come from picking a green M&M out of the holiday party bowl over the red one. After a long day at the office or an emotional conversation with a loved one, these ‘simple pleasures’ as they are often referred to provide us comfort that can’t be found in complexity.

But change is rarely a pleasure, but always an adventure; When it comes we need to be ready and have the energy to tackle it.

It is perhaps for that reason that people try to deny it or over-simplify problems. Its the very reason why the self-help book section of a store is so big, why New Year’s resolutions are so popular (do you have yours yet?), and why late night infomercials and daytime talkshows still persist in their efforts to sell us the quick and easy change. Change your life in three, five, seven, 10 or 12 easy steps!

It is never that easy. If it was, I could teach my students health behaviour change in an evening seminar at a hotel airport instead of a semester-long graduate course that is, at best, showing the ice floating above the waterline. However, in that proverbial sea of self-help resources one of the few ideas that stands out comes from The Power of Full Engagement. In the book, authors Jim Loehr and and Tony Schwartz point out that a key to change is managing energy as much as it is our cognitions, emotions and behaviour. It is the energy we bring to situations that is the necessary precondition to becoming fully engaged and able to change. It’s why its so hard to pay attention in class or a meeting when you’re tired. Or why you tune out when the message itself is tired; the same old stuff trotted out again and again.

Change in human systems is complex.

Tired individuals and organizations tend to opt for those solutions to complex problems that are simple and, as H.L. Menken said, wrong, — see my last post. Ever seen profound change take root in an exhausted environment? Not me. It’s one of the reasons why effective leaders are those that aim to spark emotion and raise the energy level of those that follow them as much as instill new ideas. Indeed, if you look at many of the best leaders out there, they tend to create environments where new ideas come from introducing new ways to see the complex and make it exciting. A terrific example of this is Benjamin Zander’s talk at TED looking at how the complicated structure and complexity of classical music can enliven the spirit.

So perhaps our first strategy to change is to take a nap, play some Chopin and watch an inspirational movie than try and solve it otherwise we might end up with simple and wrong solutions to complex problems and be no better off for it.

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