Got Commitment? Create a Culture Where People Choose to Stay

We all have choices, and when it comes to jobs there may be more choices now than ever before. Unemployment is down, technology is creating jobs that have never existed before, and global economies are growing. Our employees can choose to leave our companies and work for our competitors all over the world.

As leaders, we have choices too. What type of choice is required of a leader who wants to stimulate high productivity, and rate well on all measures of employee satisfaction? It is the choice between a strategy based on imposing control and a strategy based on eliciting commitment (Handel, 2003).

I teach Sociology of Organizations & Institutions at Brandman University, and every term students share the terrible experiences they have had in the workplace. They talk about tyrannical supervisors, cutthroat coworkers, and feeling like pawns in a big chess game. These complaints are often describing organizations utilizing a control strategy – a model that assumes low employee commitment, is based on hierarchy, and seeks to maintain order and achieve efficiency. This model is designed to produce reliable results but fails to inspire outstanding performance.

In contrast, the commitment strategy works to develop mutual trust. It removes levels of hierarchy, empowers employees, and creates jobs with more responsibility and flexibility. Management hierarchies are relatively flat and differences in status are minimized. At the heart of it, the commitment strategy believes that eliciting employee commitment will lead to enhanced performance.

If the commitment strategy is so great, why don’t we see more organizations using it? There is a cost associated with the commitment strategy. It requires managers to learn new skills, invest more in relationships, handle greater levels of uncertainty, and move outside their comfort zone – where they will experience the discomfort associated with changing habits and attitudes.

I believe the commitment strategy not only leads to enhanced performance, but it also leads to greater retention. People who are committed will choose to stay with the organization. Based on my knowledge and experience, here are nine ways we can build commitment in our organizations.

  1. Effective Leadership – A strong measure of leadership is the willingness of the team to follow. If we want to be the employer of choice, we must grow our personal leadership skills. These leadership skills include communication, listening, integrity, transparency, and self-awareness.
  2. Opportunity – Opportunities can come in many forms – increased pay, promotion, professional development. People are looking for opportunities for growth, and if our company doesn’t provide opportunities they will look somewhere else.
  3. Autonomy – Autonomy can mean letting people set their own schedules, work at their own pace, make independent decisions, and more. Higher levels of autonomy tend to result in increased motivation, job satisfaction, and productivity.
  4. Ownership – Ownership is similar to autonomy, but means the employee is trusted to make decisions that impact the organization’s success. For example, developing new programs, defining processes, and proposing changes.
  5. Ability to succeed – Do our teams have the tools they need to succeed? Is there a sufficient budget? Have they been properly onboarded? Do they have mentors? As leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure our employees have what they need to be successful in our organizations.
  6. Social connection – Research shows that people with work pals are less likely to accept an offer outside their company. And the more workplace friends they have the more likely they are to stay. The importance of social connection at work varies by generation, but overall it’s correlated with retention.
  7. Work-life balance – Technology has increased work demands and impacted our ability to draw firm boundaries between work and life-outside-of-work, resulting in increased anxiety and burnout. Focus on the long-game and support staff when they request time off.
  8. Passion – As leaders, we don’t have control over every aspect of staff retention. Employees bring their own drive, motivation, and passion. But, we can look for passion in our hiring processes. If someone loves the subject of their work, they are more likely to stay.
  9. Special sauce – What makes our organization unique and different? Is it the annual holiday party? Weekly flower arrangements? Free gym memberships? Special sauce can be anything (and it doesn’t have to be huge or expensive), but it needs to be something our employees can’t find anywhere else.

Handel, M. (2003). The sociology of organizations: Classic, contemporary, and critical readings. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.


Things Happen for a Reason – But It’s Not Always What You Think



I’ve adopted a philosophy over the years that my failures and disappointments have propelled me into being a better version of myself. I’ve embraced my losses and painful experiences as lessons that have strengthened me. But I realize that this “everything happens for a reason” philosophy has limits. Yes, terrible unfortunate events happen in life and it’s appropriate to accept them and move on. But, as a society, adopting this “everything happens for a reason” and “accept it and move on” philosophy when faced with atrocious, heinous, wrongful acts caused by injustice is extremely dangerous.

We instinctually want the world to make sense. We want to feel in control. And we want to avoid discomfort. When a person is harmed, we naturally look for a reason. We want to believe that if we follow the rules, things will work out. And unfortunately, sometimes they don’t. This is when we need to distinguish between unfortunate events and injustices.

An unfortunate event is when a tree falls on someone in the park and kills the person. An injustice is when someone is sexually assaulted. An injustice involves power and/or a violation of someone’s rights. In both cases, we might ask ourselves, “why did this terrible thing happen?” And then we ask, “how could it have been avoided? who caused it? and how do I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?”

When faced with injustices that are so wicked that they feel unbelievable and overwhelming, we risk feeling powerless to make things right. In the the absence of an answer or solution, we will do the next best thing psychologically, which is to convince ourselves that the victims must have brought it on themselves. Psychologists refer to this as the Just World Hypothesis. This is the erroneous, yet powerfully instinctual, idea that individuals get what they deserve. This is extremely dangerous thinking. This is the thinking that perpetuates oppression. This is the thinking that leads to apathy and civic disengagement.

As I discovered in my dissertation research, increased information and exposure to complex problems when presented without tangible solutions or reflection creates a decreased motivation to address the problem. When we cannot make sense of the problem, we are more likely to blame the victim or avoid the issue. If we have privilege (meaning we do not fall into the oppressed category), avoiding the issue becomes an attractive solution. If we relate to the victim, we may be more inclined to blame the victim to give ourselves the false sense of security that it can’t happen to us.

My dissertation research involved working with individuals experiencing homelessness. The causes and solutions to homelessness are complex. It’s difficult to identify the cause, it’s not a one-size fits all solution, and it can feel overwhelming when confronted with the task of improving the situation. On its surface, individuals who are homeless have often experienced an unfortunate event. However, upon further investigation, most individuals have also experienced some form of injustice – a power dynamic that resulted in their loss of ability to secure housing.

Whether we are discussing how to respond to homelessness or sexual assault, we must question our instincts to blame the individuals. Instead of victim blaming, we must root out the problem, name it, fight against it, and educate about it. Otherwise, we perpetuate the oppression and the problem.

There is no shortage of overwhelming and complex issues – immigration, health care access, pay equity – that are driven by underlying power dynamics. These are issues that can trigger our instinctual thinking to blame the victim. It is often easier to blame an individual – a refugee, someone struggling with mental illness, a person with a disability – than to confront the bigger issue.

Instead of moving quickly to the Just World explanation, we need to ask ourselves, “is there an injustice here? is this person impacted by a system that reinforces power? could there be another explanation?” These important reflection questions allow us to find the answers that empower us to make social change. These answers often challenge the status quo and require changes to the power structures that perpetuate the problems. These answers are often more unpopular than the idea of blaming the victim.

Too many of us are checked out, disengaged, overwhelmed, distracted, and feeling powerless. In order to reengage in social issues, we must help ourselves and others to think critically about these problems, to move beyond victim blaming, and to look for injustice and name it. This process of reflection is necessary if we want meaningful change. Yes, things happen for a reason but it’s not always what we think.


Burkeman, O. Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person. The Guardian, February 3, 2015,

Pedersen, J. (2008). The effect of service learning in higher education on students’ motivation to be civically engaged. UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA.

Empathetic Leadership: 7 Tips for Supervisors


Original artwork by Joy Pedersen

As supervisors, we are in a powerful position to impact people’s lives. We spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over our lifetime. Most days we spend more time with our coworkers than our families. Therefore, our relationships at work affect our quality of life, our wellbeing, and our ability to make an impact on the world.

It goes without saying that our relationships at work impact our organization’s success. And if we want our staff to care about the success of our organizations, then we need to care about our staff.

As a new supervisor, in my 20’s, I was eager to show off my knowledge and efficiency. I was quick to reorganize the office, make organizational changes, and “improve” processes. Unfortunately, I was not truly leading. When I looked behind me, no one was following. I had not built relationships or trust with my team. I came into work each day and went straight to my office to return emails. My staff was unhappy, and eventually I was miserable too.

I learned an important lesson about leadership from that experience, and I approached every future leadership opportunity differently after that job. Being a leader is as much about the soft skills as the hard skills. Leadership is about helping others be the best they can be so the whole organization thrives.

An empathetic leader seeks to understand their staff.

Here are some tips for being an empathetic leader:

  1. Invest in relationships. The best advice I ever received from a mentor was, “It’s all about relationships.” Spend time getting to know your staff. Learn what is important to them. Is someone on your team taking care of an aging parent? Going through a divorce? Getting married? It takes time and effort to have authentic conversations, but these conversations are crucial to being an effective leader. Relationships also require a certain amount of vulnerability. Let your staff know interesting facts about you and find connections. Bonus tip: Emails do not build relationships. Pick up the phone, walk over to their office, take them to coffee or lunch.
  2. Assume the best. Most of us make assumptions about how others behave. These assumptions are based on stories we tell ourselves, the perceptions we have of others, and confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we filter information to look for examples that confirm our existing beliefs about a person. In short, we see and hear what we want to see and hear. These assumptions can poison our relationships if we attribute negative traits – like laziness, greed, or selfishness – to others. Rather than assume another person’s behavior is due to their shortcomings, try to assume that everyone is doing the best they can. Then, ask questions so you can truly understand the behavior. By assuming the best, we keep our relationships positive and respectful.
  3. “Tell me more.” Empathetic leadership is about understanding – understanding the behavior, values, motivation, hopes, and fears of our teams. Understanding starts with being curious and asking questions. And, the way we ask questions makes a big difference. Many supervisors frequently ask the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, why – without realizing the impact of these questions on their staff. These types of questions can feel like interrogation. Instead of asking “why,” try saying, “tell me more.” For example, replace “why did you do it that way” with “tell me more about your process.” This approach disarms the other person and reduces their defensiveness; therefore, opening them up to be more honest, authentic, and truthful.
  4. Take responsibility. As supervisors, it’s our responsibility to be clear about what we expect. It’s also our responsibility to create an environment that fosters success, provide necessary trainings, and support our staff. If our staff are not meeting our expectations, we must reflect on what part we play. We should frequently ask our staff, “What do you need from me to help you be successful?” In order to do this, we must understand the experiences of our staff. Are they feeling frustrated? Are they afraid to make a mistake? Are they feeling undervalued? We must be able to answer these questions, then take responsibility to make sure our staff are able to work at their full potential by addressing the issues within our control.
  5. Encourage risk-taking. A team that is afraid to take risks cannot grow. In order to feel safe taking risks, people must know it’s ok to fail and make mistakes. Failure and mistakes are part of any job. As a supervisor, we need to reassure our team that it’s safe to take risks. One way to encourage risk-taking is by sharing our own failures, admitting when we make mistakes, and apologizing when we have hurt others. Another way to encourage risk-taking is to give our staff opportunities to take small risks and support them if they fall short. Risk-taking requires trust, therefore our staff must know that we have their back.
  6. Show appreciation. Appreciation has several impacts. First, it shows people that you see and value them. Second, it encourages positive behavior. It is a lot easier to reinforce a positive behavior than correct a negative behavior; yet, we often miss our opportunity to tell people what behaviors we would like to see them continue. Finally, it makes a deposit with the other person. As supervisors, we have to make requests and withdrawals. It helps to have deposits in a relationship when we need to ask someone to do something hard or deliver a difficult message to them.
  7. Respect everyone. Most leadership articles about respect focus on how leaders can earn the respect of their staff, but empathetic leadership is about giving respect to our staff. Showing respect is a reflection of our own character. As leaders, we should show respect for others because everyone has value. We do not have to agree with or like other people to show them respect. And, our staff should not have to earn our respect. Everyone on our team has inherent value; and therefore, deserves to be treated with respect.

As a supervisor, our attention is pulled in a million directions, which makes it difficult to attend to others. At its core, empathy is about paying attention, seeing and understanding others, and helping others achieve their full potential. Although it takes more time and effort, it is time well spent and an investment in your organization’s success.


Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs: A Book Review


I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic and a few interesting things happened to me. First, many passages resonated with me and I kept coming back to the book. Next, I found myself sharing her message with other people. And then, I started creating. Since reading the book, I have tapped into my creativity in multiple ways. I have written blog posts, created comedy scripts, produced projects at work, painted my house, and it goes on. So I thought I would  share her message with a few more people that I love in Student Affairs, and I offered a workshop on “Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs” at our division-wide staff development day.

What is Big Magic? Think of a time when you created or finished something…and thought, “That is gooooooooood.” It may have been an assignment you completed in school or a picture you drew. Maybe it was something you built or a food you cooked. Another way to describe Big Magic is that while you were doing something you felt it flow easily from you. Gilbert describes it like being on a conveyer belt in an airport…you are being propelled. The time passes quickly. Or you are in the zone.

Big Magic is about tapping into our creativity. EVERYONE IS CREATIVE. Creativity is important because it’s the way we show our unique selves to the world. We need it to be our true and authentic selves. YOUR CREATIVITY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE REVOLUTIONARY OR SERVE A PURPOSE. According to Gilbert, there are no “creative” and “non-creative” people. There are just people who use their creativity and those who don’t.

Some people think creativity is self-indulgent. For some of us it was shut down when we were children. But, if we don’t express our creativity, it can result in resentment, grief and heartbreak. Brene Brown’s research shows 85% of people remembered an event in school that was so shaming that it changed how they thought about themselves for the rest of their lives, and 50% of those shaming events were around creativity, i.e. told they can’t sing, you’re a bad artist, your writing is terrible.

Here are the six principles I took away from Gilbert’s book:

  1. Acknowledge fear but don’t let it drive you. Gilbert says fear and creativity are like conjoined twins. This is why we cannot kill off, deny or avoid fear. Instead, we need to thank it for doing its job (which is to keep us alive) but then recognize that creativity is not (99% of the time) going to kill us. We must make space for fear – Gilbert describes going on a road trip with creativity and fear. Both are invited on the trip, but fear is not allowed to drive. Our fear can manifest itself in excuses, guilt (mom guilt), procrastination, and perfectionism. And it can prevent us from taking the leap towards creativity. IT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO BE CREATIVE.
  2. Be open to ideas. IDEAS ARE LOOKING FOR HOSTS. That which we are seeking is seeking us. When we are relaxed enough to notice and receive clues, information, and connections, then ideas will come to us. When we let our defenses down and ease our anxiety, creativity will come to us. When we are open, we can receive the physical and emotional signals of inspiration (chills on your arm, hair standing up on your neck, feeling like you’re falling in love). When you’re about to have a big idea, there will be coincidences, signs, everything will remind you of the idea, you may wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it (like I did with my comedy script).
  3. Become partners with your idea. When an idea finds us (because it is chasing us, we are not chasing our ideas), we have the choice to join up with it or let it go. Our creative inspiration can also be called our GENIUS. Gilbert makes the distinction between HAVING A GENIUS VS. BEING A GENIUS. Gilbert describes how the Greeks and Romans both believed in an eternal spirit of creativity – like a house elf from Harry Potter, who lives inside your house and sometimes assists you. The Romans called this your “genius.”
  4. Work hard. This may seem self explanatory, but when it comes to creativity working hard is also about being creative even when you don’t feel inspired. Gilbert emphasizes that our inspiration doesn’t owe us anything. She doesn’t romanticizing quitting your day job and running off to open a night club or kayak shack. She says if we decide to take a leap of faith it should be for the ride not the landing, because we can never guarantee the landing. She also says every creative endeavor has the bits we don’t enjoy. So if you want to pursue something you must choose a pursuit that you enjoy so much that you’re willing to put up with the unpleasant parts. She asks, what do you want to do? What would you do even if you failed? What do you want to do because doing nothing is unacceptable? We must also be patient and compassionate with ourselves when we engage in creative work. People don’t stop being creative because of lack of discipline or willpower. They often stop because of disappointment or judgement. Getting back to work requires forgiving ourselves and having empathy for ourselves.
  5. Be courageous. Gilbert says, “Your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. That’s what we all want for ourselves.” She says, “You have hidden treasures in you – everyone does – and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion.” I strongly believe that statement. Many years ago I created a presentation on time management. The whole reason I created it was because my mom was diagnosed with kidney failure. I wanted to make the most of my time with my family from that day forwarded, and I then I wanted to share that message with everyone. Because life is precious. And we don’t have time to wait.
  6. Channel your inner trickster. SUFFERING IS NOT A PREREQUISITE. Elizabeth talks about the martyr vs. the trickster. There are many artists and writers who are martyrs. In academia there are many martyrs who feel we must suffer and labor, putting in miserably long hours to get published or tenured. Maybe some of us feel like martyrs in our jobs in Student Affairs. The trickster is the opposite of the martyr.

In conclusion, these are the major themes of her book:

  • Everyone is creative
  • Your creativity does not have to be revolutionary or serve a purpose
  • It doesn’t matter if it has been done before
  • You don’t need permission to be creative
  • Ideas are looking for hosts
  • Having a genius vs. being a genius
  • Suffering is not a prerequisite

Try this activity to tap into your creativity:

Fold a piece of paper into four squares.

In the first square, answer the following questions: What do you love to create? What are you curious about? How do you express yourself? What kind of maker are you? What’s worth doing even if you fail?

In the second square,  name any fears or barriers (or guilt) that may keep you from pursuing this interest. Acknowledge them. Thank them and invite them along for the ride but tell them they will not be driving.

In the third square, answer the following questions: What does curiosity want you to do? What would it say to you?

In the fourth square, name one small idea you have for creating what you want to create. Give yourself a deadline.

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Why Diversity Matters

Diversity is a representation of racial and ethnic identity, age, cultural identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical and mental ability, nationality, social and economic status, and political and ideological perspectives.* Diversity in higher education is important in order for our institutions to reflect our changing demographics, to increase access to higher education for greater numbers of students, and to prepare all students to contribute to a global society. However, the highest purpose of diversity in our institutions is related to our civic mission.

The civic mission of higher education speaks to the content in the curricular and co-curricular experience that challenges students to think about their role and responsibilities in society. Historically, education was seen as the key to creating the informed citizenry required for active democracy. Institutions were founded in part with a civic focus to cultivate future leaders to be civically engaged citizens.  Presently, diversity, namely interactions among different groups, is essential to fostering the academic and social growth necessary to promote civic engagement.

Research supports that diversity creates the best possible learning conditions for all students – majority and minority students. Diversity creates conditions critical to identity construction and cognitive growth  which are essential to achieving educational and civic outcomes. The success of our communities and country depends on citizens who can engage in civic innovation, address issues of public concern, and promote the quality of life in our communities through political and nonpolitical processes.

The link between diversity and learning outcomes is well-established. Research shows that students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills. Research also supports that students educated in diverse classrooms learn to think in deeper and more complex ways, and are better prepared to become active participants in a pluralistic, democratic society (Gurin, Day, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2001).

Diversity improves the learning experience and contributes to the central goals of the university. However, students must have meaningful intergroup interactions. An increase in diversity may improve the probability that these interactions will occur, but this is not enough to create a significant difference in a student’s learning experience. In order to see significant benefits from diversity, there must be an increased quality and quantity of intergroup interactions.

College is a time and place for students to explore their identities as well as their relationship to the sociopolitical world. When students enter into diverse environments, they can either attempt to retreat to the familiar or seek new information. By seeking new information, they enter a state of disequilibrium – a temporary state where one must either develop a new schema or modify an existing schema. Developmental theorists explain that creating disequilibrium is key to promoting cognitive growth. Situations that create disequilibrium can include encounters with people who are unfamiliar to them or people who challenge them to act or think in new ways. Navigating these situations increases one’s sense of identity and their understanding of the social world.

As an educator, I have witnessed the cognitive changes that occur when students experience interactions with people who have had different life experiences and when students are confronted with the limitation of their point of view. In these interactions, they must do difficult cognitive and emotional work to understand how other people think and feel. These experiences encouraged critical thinking, helped students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds, and prepared students to become good citizens in an increasingly complex, pluralistic society.

In 2006, I founded the Alternative Breaks program at Cal Poly, which has taken students to New Orleans, New York, Jamaica, and United Arab Emirates. I witnessed these students transformed by their experiences doing service in communities different from their own. The differences in culture, language, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more, created opportunities for reflection and cognitive growth that changed these students in short periods.

Now, more than ever, universities must prepare students to contribute to society. Students need an understanding of diversity and social responsibility to be knowledgeable and ethical leaders. For these reasons and more, it is important to cultivate a campus community that represents and celebrates diversity. We need reflective spaces, intentional interactions, and formal and informal opportunities for students to engage in frequent, high-quality intergroup interactions.

* adapted from Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G.  (2002) Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes, Harvard Educational Review, 72 (3), 330-366.

Experience more happiness


It’s tempting to feel disappointment when things don’t go our way. It could be work, a relationship, or financial, but when we experience bad luck or unfair treatment it can feel debilitating. However, our perception of these situations is largely shaped by our circumstances and expectations.

There are two great stories that demonstrate how a situation can be perceived as both good or bad.

This is a Jewish folktale.

A poor man lived with his wife and six children in a very small one-room house. They were always getting in each other’s way and there was so little space they could hardly breathe!

Finally the man could stand it no more. He talked to his wife and asked her what to do. “Go see the rabbi,” she told him, and after arguing a while, he went. 

The rabbi greeted him and said, “I see something is troubling you. Whatever it is, you can tell me.” 

And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with him, his wife, and the six children all eating and living and sleeping in one room. The poor man told the rabbi, “We’re even starting to yell and fight with each other. Life couldn’t be worse.” 

The rabbi thought very deeply about the poor man’s problem. Then he said, “Do exactly as I tell you and things will get better. Do you promise?” 

“I promise,” the poor man said. 

The rabbi then asked the poor man a strange question. “Do you own any animals?” 

“Yes,” he said. “I have one cow, one goat, and some chickens.” 

“Good,” the rabbi said. “When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you.” 

The poor man was astonished to hear this advice from the rabbi, but he had promised to do exactly what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house. 

The next day the poor man ran back to see the rabbi. “What have you done to me, Rabbi?” he cried. “It’s awful. I did what you told me and the animals are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!” 

The rabbi listened and said calmly, “Now go home and take the chickens back outside.” 

The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back again the next day. “The chickens are gone, but Rabbi, the goat!” he moaned. “The goat is smashing up all the furniture and eating everything in sight!”

Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame.  Now your only horse is gone.  How unfortunate you are!. You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see”.

Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering in the mountainsides while eating the wild grasses. He came back with twelve new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral. 

Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck.  “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. You must be very happy!”  Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”

At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg.  One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune.  “Oh, what a tragedy!  Your son won’t be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You’ll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad”.  they said.  Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, “Who knows? We shall see”

Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army.  As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg.  “What very good fortune you have!!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Who knows? We shall see!”, replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you”!  But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy”, to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!”

Last night, I read the story of The Farmer’s Luck with my daughter. I asked her to think of bad things that have happened which turned out to be good. It took her a while to think of something, but after a few minutes she was able to quickly think of several examples. When she split her chin open and got stitches, she learned how to stay calm and that stitches weren’t so scary. When she was stung by wasps, she felt she secured her status as a real cowgirl (don’t ask me what that means). When a boy at school made fun of her and her girlfriends, they stuck together and formed a cheerleading club. Often our bad luck can lead us to something better.

I can think of my own examples as well. When I was scheduled to return from my maternity leave and broke my foot, I suddenly had six more months to spend at home with my daughter. When I was furloughed due to state budget cuts, I was able to use the much needed time to work on my dissertation. When I was overwhelmed with a sexual assault investigation and then fell sick with pneumonia, I returned to work feeling grateful to have my health and be able to finish the investigation.

Growing up, my mom used to tell me, “Que sera, sera.” It was a way of saying “accept it.” There are things beyond our control (other people’s actions, budget cuts, the weather, the shape of our bodies), which can cause us frustration and anger. But, refusing to accept what is keeps us stuck in the past and prevents us from experiencing happiness in the present.

Often our interpretation of the situation is the cause of our pain and suffering. The problem we assign to the situation is the story we create – “I have lost all my independence because I’m injured,” “I will not be able to pay my bills,” “I can’t get all my work done.” These were the worries and fears which caused me disappointment, frustration, and anger. One way to eliminate suffering is to reframe the problem by asking if the story could possibly be the opposite. Is it possible that I could remain independent even though I’m injured? Is it possible that I could pay all my bills? Is it possible that I could get it all done? Often, the answer is yes!

Therefore, we can reduce our pain and experience more happiness by:

  • Acknowledging that our circumstances and expectations shape our interpretation of situations
  • Adapting our interpretation to recognize that bad and good are relative
  • Practicing acceptance of what is
  • Reframing our interpretation of the problem

Life Lessons Learned from Doing Rock Work

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This summer I taught a leadership class in the backcountry while visiting a California Conservation Corps trail crew in Shasta-Trinity. The crew is spending the summer building and maintaining trails. Although I brought some information about leadership to the crew, I learned a lot from them and the experience. I only spent two days doing rock work, but it was long enough to observe that we have something to learn from these heavy, dense, massive, chunks of earth.

Rocks come in different shapes and sizes, which make them challenging to work with. When building rock walls and steps, it takes many rocks to complete the trail. This can also be said about the challenges and obstacles we face in life.

Here are some lessons I learned about life from doing rock work.

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Ian (USFS sponsor) consulting with Kim and Trevor

1. Working with rocks is emotionally draining. I learned this from our cook and camp manager after my first day. Workers were voicing frustration over working all day only to have their work undone or break apart from a final blow…and isn’t that the way of life? Our life’s work is sometimes taken from us in an instant. We build our lives – careers, families, estates- rock by rock, but we are not invincible. It serves us well to build with care and take risks with caution, but we must also appreciate that it can always be taken away. And we must be prepared to build again tomorrow.

2. You may not need something as much as you think you do. After picking out a beautiful rock…a boulder, really… my team rolls it 50 feet to our work area. It looks like it will fit perfectly. It’s the largest step anyone on our team has put in. We use three rock bars for the better part of the morning to get it into position…only to realize it’s not as perfect as we thought it was. The face that seemed so beautiful when we were picking it out up the hill now looks lumpy. The ears that were going to be our points of contact, seem less symmetrical than they did at first glance. And overall, the rock is much too big for the modest space between the upper and lower step. In the end, the rock we thought we most wanted isn’t going to fit into our rock wall.
How many times have we done this in life? We see something – an object, a person, a job- we are sure will make us happy. We work hard and sacrifice to obtain it, only to realize it isn’t a fit or as perfect as we thought it was. But it isn’t time wasted…we learned something about ourselves in the process. We learned what we were capable of, what muscles were strong and which need to be developed. We gained a keener eye for what we really want. And we had a lot of laughs.

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Lucy removing a rock to use for her rock wall

3. When you think you made a mistake, you may end up with something better. While chipping away at a jagged edge to make it flatter, an entire piece of the rock wall breaks apart. A day spent putting this rock into place seems wasted. But after a few minutes of frustration, we realize that by flipping the rock on its other face it fits even more perfectly than before. Sometimes mistakes, accidents or strokes of bad luck can bring us to exactly where we need to be. By accepting our circumstances we may find ourselves in a better position than before.

4. You can’t always do it by yourself. Rocks are heavy. And they can crush you if you lose control. They don’t care if your tiny fingers are smashed and bloody. When we have big rocks in our lives, we need to call on others – others who have tools, strength, and expertise – to help us. We cannot always move every rock by ourselves, no matter how strong or experienced we are.

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Aaron supervising the crew

5. Persistence is necessary. You can hit a rock 100 times but it might not break until 101.

6. Work smarter not harder. Leverage, strategy, and the right tools are key to saving energy and your back.

7. Cursing your rock won’t make it move but humor makes the work easier. When you’re exhausted and about to lose your sanity, you may feel tempted to call your rock a dirty name and curse it for causing your frustration. The rock won’t care. Cursing it won’t make it move. But when you find humor in the situation, you can more easily accept the reality and release your frustration.


Ethan working on his step

8. We must take advantage of our unique perspectives and skill sets. Working with rocks is an art and a science. I learned this lesson from a worker named Ethan. There is a lot to learn about rock work, but at the end of the day each person has his/her own style – a unique perspective paired with an individualized skill set.

9. There is always more to learn.

The take away is…patience, acceptance, and loving the journey as much as the destination are the keys to happiness and success. We all have rocks in our lives. They present themselves in different ways, but we all struggle with them. We try to manipulate them daily. We strive to overcome and master them. But in letting go of our expectations and looking for the lesson, we become better rock workers. We build stronger walls. We work smarter and not harder. And we have more fun along the way!

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Thank you to Ian (the sponsor), Lucy, Janiece, and Ethan for your patience and instruction.

5 Strategies for Dealing with Disappointment


This weekend I watched my sister perform in the musical “Into the Woods.” And she did a great job, by the way! In the story, the woods is where the action happens – challenges, lessons, temptation, and loss.

I work with a lot of students who are in the woods. They are struggling with a challenge or disappointment and trying to navigate their way through it. Almost daily I find myself reminding students and parents that there are many paths to success.

Disappointment can come in many forms – low grades, loss of employment, ending of a relationship. We don’t always get the life we planned – and even when we do, it’s not always the way we expected it to be.

Here are 5 strategies for dealing with disappointment:

1. Don’t take it personally. This is not to say it doesn’t hurt. Rejection, criticism, and disappointment can be painful. It’s ok to be sad, upset, or angry. But don’t let your ego get you stuck there. Our ego tells us everything is personal, but many of life’s disappointments are not about us but rather about the way someone else sees the world.

2. Try again. The way you respond to rejection is a choice you make about who you want to be. You may be steps away from victory, but if you give up now you will never know. Let your disappointment fuel your creativity and drive. Focus on your strengths and look for opportunities to take another chance.

3. Be flexible.Disappointment is the result of reality not meeting our expectations. When we allow our expectations to be flexible, we create more possible acceptable outcomes. Look for another path that may lead in the same direction. Think of rejection as redirection.

4. Remember you are not alone. If you have been rejected, you are in good company. Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, Thomas Edison, and Marilyn Monroe were no strangers to rejection. If you aren’t getting rejected, you aren’t taking enough risks.

5. Have an awesome backup plan. We don’t always have control over getting what we want in life – having a baby, getting a job, meeting someone special – but there are still plenty of great options that are within our control. If plan A doesn’t work out, what is something awesome you can do that is within your control? Invest your time, money, and energy into yourself – plan a vacation, pamper yourself, or pick up a new hobby.

Image by Nicolas Raymond

Managing Your Boss Saves You Time


Today Paul Gordon Brown published a great post on What They Didn’t Teach You in Grad School: Managing Up. He is right on when he said, “learning to manage up entails a critical set of skills necessary to advance and be successful in your career.” I share the following tips on how to successfully manage your boss in my Time Management workshop. I have been presenting this information to groups of students and young professionals for years, long before I started working for my current boss. Regardless of your age or professional level, I think these tips are still helpful.

Why is it important to manage your boss?

•  An adversarial relationship with your boss can cause stress (which equals wasted time)

•  When your boss trusts you, you will be given more freedom to work independently (big time saver)

•  A positive relationship with your boss may result in additional resources or support (that may save you time)

9 Steps for Managing Your Boss

1. Bring solutions not excuses

Believe it or not, your boss doesn’t have all the answers. And if he/she does, it may not be the answer you want to hear. It is better to bring the solution you would like to see than to take a chance on the solution your boss may suggest.

2. Exude confidence

When your boss sees that you are confident, you are more likely to be trusted and given more autonomy. This creates more flexibility for you to do your work independently as well.

3. Prepare your “done” list

Be prepared to share your accomplishments with your boss. When you are asked “what have you been up to?” or “how’s it going?” you should have a positive response that demonstrates your contributions and productivity.

4. Clarify

Clear communication and expectations are paramount to your success. Be sure you understand what is being asked of you, who you can turn to for help, and how your success is being measured. If necessary, take notes in your meetings so you can refer back to conversations about these key expectations.

5. Approach your boss with honesty, respect, and empathy

Support your boss’s decisions. Do not bad-mouth your boss. Approach your boss in private if you disagree or have a concern.

6. Manage your meetings

Be sure you know when your next meeting is with your boss and what you need to have done by then. Be prepared with appropriate questions.

7. Avoid Interrupting

Your boss is a busy person. Do your best to find answers and resources independently before interrupting your boss.

8. Don’t draw attention to your mistakes

Avoid turning a mole hill into a mountain. Overall, your boss wants to hear your good news and positive stories. For every problem you bring to your boss, be sure you have shared 2-3 solutions or positive outcomes.

9. Learn to read social cues

Timing is crucial. Understanding how your boss behaves when he/she is working on a deadline vs. feeling sociable can increase your chances of gaining positive or negative attention. Do not attempt small talk if your boss appears stressed. On the other hand, if he/she is feeling sociable take the opportunity to share a few success stories.

Check out another great article on What Everyone Should Know About Managing Up at Harvard Business Review.

8 Steps for Leading Organizations


An effective leader needs to have fire – a passion, light, and ability to create change. Fire can transform, comfort, and make way for new life. Yet, too much fire can destroy and decimate our communities, structures, and assets. In order to understand how leaders can manage their own fire, I have applied the fire management practices below to leading organizations.

(Adapted from the Standard Firefighting Orders of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.*)

1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts. Know what is going on around campus – campus climate – and in the larger field of higher education. Read campus and higher education publications, attend campus programs and conferences, and follow social media to understand the current conditions.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times. Success in campus leadership requires an accurate assessment of the current situation. Lack of knowledge and information leaves leaders vulnerable and unprepared to respond. You may create unintended consequences if your fire starts burning out of control.

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. A leader must be able to interpret the existing conditions and predict changes based on reliable indicators.

4. Identify escape routes and safety zones, and make them known. Have a backup plan in the event that your fire takes an unpredicted direction. A contingency plan will be necessary if you are met with resistance or lack of resources.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger. Surround yourself with trusted advisors. Ask others to help you identify red flags, danger zones, and threats.

6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively. Risk-taking, living passionately, and being a change agent can be exhilarating and scary. Stay calm and clear-headed. Your team will feel your confidence and take your lead.

7. Maintain prompt communication with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces. Leadership is not just about providing direction, it requires two-way communication. Communicate and listen to those around you. Be prepared to change directions and use new information to correct your course.

8. Give clear instructions and be sure they are understood. Again, communication is crucial. Once you have assessed the conditions and identified threats, provide a clear direction for your team. Check for understand and answer questions. Create opportunities for your team to ask for clarification and encourage people to summarize what they think you said.


* Thanks to my partner Aaron for sharing his firefighting resources!