Look for The Offers
A Resolution for 2017: Look for the Offers
I’m ready to put 2016 behind me.
Like many Americans, I’m still processing the results of the November Presidential Election and the disturbing transition choices that have followed. The election has elevated the deep divisions in our country, highlighting not only great divides in our political views but even deeper divisions in our fundamental understanding and respect for differences of race, ethnicity, gender and economic background.
In nearly every way you slice it, 2016 has been a rough year. My natural optimism for the future has often been overshadowed with intense feelings of worry, fear, anger, and anxiety.
But as a futurist, I am eager to envision a more productive path forward. As an educator, I am motivated to teach leaders and students how to use today’s uncertainty as a productive lever of positive change for the future. And as a parent, I feel a responsibility to model resilience and continued commitment to making choices that support a better tomorrow.
As we regroup for 2017, how can we move beyond our frustration, confusion and lingering shock to find useful learning and positive opportunities even at our most vulnerable and uncertain moments?
Here’s my answer so far: We need to look at this moment as an offer.
What is an Offer?
I first learned the concept of “offers” from the practice of improvisational theater.
While improv (as it’s known) may seem like spontaneous magic that only a select few can do, it’s based on a methodical discipline of listening and observing, accepting that ambiguity is part of the process, using conditions of uncertainty to spark creativity, and, most importantly, seeing everything as an offer to use on behalf of a greater purpose. Improvisers realize that their job is not to steal the show by trying to be overly brilliant or funny, but instead to be in service of what the scene (and therefore the audience) need most.
Robert Poynton is a leadership educator and advisor who helps executives learn how to be more intentional and collaborative in their work through the practices of improv. In his small but powerful book called “Do Improvise,” Poynton shares the foundation of his teaching through three simple practices that anyone can use at any time: Notice More, Use Everything, Let Go.
These practices not only help us become more creative and generative, they also help us become more resilient in times of extreme uncertainty. I think that’s exactly what we need right now.
Notice More About the World Around Us
The first practice, Notice More, sets the stage for us to see beyond our existing knowledge and preconceived biases. What’s available to us, but we can’t see? What are the important cues we might be missing? What’s the larger context or environment for the information we take in?
Let’s start by noticing more about our country — our whole country — not just the groups that we socialize or sympathize with.
While the election results clearly show that we are a deeply divided nation — across many different issues, geographies, and even beliefs about our country — we can use the data from the election to fuel curiosity and genuine empathy for those that hold different views than ours.
Let’s notice if we have knee-jerk reactions to or judgments about those that are different than us, and instead choose to engage in compassionate conversation about those differences in hopes of finding common ground.
Let’s notice the energy and passion that so many have displayed on all sides of the political spectrum as a sign that we all deeply care about our country and are willing to take action on our commitment to a different future.
Let’s notice where we got our “news” from — be it paid media pundits or our Facebook feeds — and what we choose to believe as fact, when it’s really just opinion or possibly completely fabricated all together. We can notice if we, ourselves, engaged in productive dialog and debate ahead of the election, or if we — knowingly or not — repeated or condoned unhelpful rhetoric and demagogy.
Let’s notice if our education system is doing everything it can to prepare future voters to be informed, prepared civic citizens, able to engage in civil discourse about complex and challenging issues.
Let’s also notice what isn’t working about our political system, and look for real opportunities to change it. Spending nearly $2 billion dollars on a multi-year campaign that leaves us feeling more divided as a nation, more cynical about our media and news coverage and more anxious about our future is something we might not want to ever do again.
And, finally, for those of us who remain disappointed that we didn’t see Hillary Rodham Clinton shatter the ultimate glass ceiling of the Oval Office, we can notice her valiant lifelong fight to break stereotypes of what women are capable of. I hope our girls still believe that it’s possible to run for office — even the highest office in the land.
Using Everything to Find New Solutions
The next practice, Use Everything, enables us to create something new from what’s already around us, including the constraints. When we use everything, we find that new ideas might come from recombining what’s already there. We stop waiting for a silver bullet solution or a magical outside intervention. Instead, this practice asks us to consider creating new connections from disparate items we wouldn’t have thought to put together, or to experiment with new inspirations from something that seems obvious. Using everything gives us agency to be creative, even if we feel like we’re surrounded by constraints or seemingly uninspiring inputs.
Let’s use everything available to us to make tomorrow better than today. In the aftermath of the election, many heads of schools and leaders in position of influence published courageous public messages of tolerance and courageously took a public stand on the side of human values to allow for healing and open conversation. Many allowed time for community connection and shared reflection. Can we see these efforts not as one-time exceptions but as new on-going practices to help build tolerant and caring cultures of diversity?
Let’s use our frustration over the media’s role in this past election to demand more accurate and unbiased reporting from our professional journalists, requiring them to objectively represent ideas and issues, free from the bias of self-interest. Let’s stop watching partisan networks and shows that use hate and anger as a way of increasing their own ratings and profitability.
Let’s use our disgust about the personal attacks made throughout the campaign to teach our children how to engage in productive and useful debate about ideas and differences. Let’s adopt a zero tolerance policy for hateful labeling, intimidation, dog whistle politics and violence.
Let’s use our worry and uncertainty for issues that we care deeply about as an invitation to get involved in an on-going way — not just during the election season — to make sure our voices are heard and our issues addressed.
Let’s continue to work towards a woman becoming president by doubling down on our support of our girls and young women, helping them build the capacity and courage to make that vision a reality. Let’s support progressive programs like Girls Leadership and Emerge America (link) and other established efforts that support women’s education and advancement into public office.
Let’s use the personal emotion we feel to start deeper, more connected and honest conversations with our families, foregoing screen time for more face-to-face family time.
Let’s use every day as an opportunity to show more compassion and care to individuals that are different than us, as well as to friends and neighbors that we take for granted.
Letting Go of Yesterday to Shape a Better Tomorrow
The final practice, Let Go, gives us permission to show up as authentic learners and contributors. When we let go, we shed our protective armor of status, or our need to be right, or our need to portray brilliance. Letting go frees up energy and emotional space to notice more and use everything in service of something totally new. Letting go, therefore, is the ultimate act of generative creativity and resilience.
As part of our collective healing, we must start by letting go of the hateful rhetoric, personal attacks and divisive energy that embodied much of 2016.
We must let go of the belief that there are single right answers or easy solutions to challenging issues, or that complex social problems can be solved by a single individual or policy.
We must let go of feeling entitled or smug if the candidate we voted for won, and of shame and judgment if our candidate of choice didn’t.
We must let go of the belief that one group of people is superior to another.
We must let go of the unproductive conversations of “what if” or our disengaged denial, and instead use our energy to create productive change on issues of importance to us.
There’s one thing, however, that we must never let go of: The foundational principles that this incredible country was founded on that proclaim that all men and women are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of gender, ethnic background, geography, and beliefs.
As Stewart Brand, futurist, humanist and author of The Whole Earth Catalog and The Clock of the Long Now, has so brilliantly said, “We can see the past, but we cannot influence it. We cannot see the future, but we can influence it.”
As we begin 2017, I invite you to join me in the true spirit of improv — to accept the offers of today to be in service of all of us committed to working together for a better future.
Special thanks to Robert Poynton for his inspiration and teaching, and for Denise Brosseau, Bonnie Kay and Nancy Murphy’s supportive collaboration on this reflection. And to my daughter, Samantha Solomon (11) for her help on the visual.