Hi, everyone, my name is Elizabeth, and I work on the trading floor. But I'm still pretty new to it. I graduated from college about a year and a half ago, and to be quite honest, I'm still recovering from the recruiting process I had to go through to get here.
Now, I don't know about you, but this is the most ridiculous thing that I still remember about the whole process, was asking insecure college students what their biggest passion was. Like, do you expect me to have an answer for that?
Of course I did. And to be quite honest, I really showed those recruiters just how passionate I was by telling them all about my early interest in the global economy, which, conveniently, stemmed from the conversations that I would overhear my immigrant parents having about money and the fluctuating value of the Mexican peso. They love a good personal story.
But you know what? I lied.
And not because the things I said weren't true—I mean, my parents were talking about this stuff. But that's not really why I decided to jump into finance. I just really wanted to pay my rent.
And here's the thing. The reality of having to pay my rent and do real adult things is something that we're rarely willing to admit to employers, to others and even to ourselves. I know I wasn't about to tell my recruiters that I was there for the money. And that's because for the most part, we want to see ourselves as idealists and as people who do what they believe in and pursue the things that they find the most exciting. But the reality is very few of us actually have the privilege to do that.
Now, I can't speak for everyone, but this is especially true for young immigrant professionals like me. And the reason this is true has something to do with the narratives that society has kept hitting us with in the news, in the workplace and even by those annoyingly self-critical voices in our heads. So what narratives am I referring to? Well, there's two that come to mind when it comes to immigrants. The first is the idea of the immigrant worker. You know, people that come to the US in search of jobs as laborers, or field workers, dish washers. You know, things that we might consider low-wage jobs but the immigrants? That's a good opportunity.
The news nowadays has convoluted that whole thing quite a bit. You could say that it's made America's relationship with immigrants complicated. And as immigrant expert George Borjas would have put it, it's kind of like America wanted workers, but then, they got confused when we got people instead.
I mean, it's natural that people want to strive to put a roof over their heads and live a normal life, right? So, for obvious reasons, this narrative has been driving me a little bit crazy. But it's not the only one.
The other narrative that I'm going to talk about is the idea of the super-immigrant. In America, we love to idolize super-immigrants as the ideal symbols of American success. I grew up admiring super-immigrants, because their existence fueled my dreams and it gave me hope. The problem with this narrative is that it also seems to cast a shadow on those that don't succeed or that don't make it in that way, as less than. And for years, I got caught up in the ways in which it seemed to celebrate one type of immigrant while villainizing the other. I mean, were my parents’ sacrifices not enough? Was the fact that my dad came home from the metal factory covered in corrosive dust, was that not super?
Don't get me wrong, I've internalized both of these narratives to some degree, and in many ways, seeing my heroes succeed, it has pushed me to do the same. But both of these narratives are flawed in the ways in which they dehumanize people if they don't fit within a certain mold or succeed in a certain way. And this really affected my self-image, because I started to question these ideas for who my parents were and who I was, and I started to wonder, "Am I doing enough to protect my family and my community from the injustices that we felt every day?" So why did I choose to "sell out" while watching tragedies unfold right in front of me?
Now, it took me a long time to come to terms with my decisions. And I really have to thank the people running the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, or HSF, for validating this process early on. And the way that HSF—an organization that strives to help students achieve higher education through mentorship and scholarships—the way that they helped calm my anxiety, it was by telling me something super familiar. Something that you all probably have heard before in the first few minutes after boarding a flight. In case of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before helping those around you.
Now I understand that this means different things to different people. But for me, it meant that immigrants couldn't and would never be able to fit into any one narrative, because most of us are actually just traveling along a spectrum, trying to survive. And although there may be people that are further along in life with their oxygen mask on and secured in place, there are undoubtedly going to be others that are still struggling to put theirs on before they can even think about helping those around them.
Now, this lesson really hit home for me, because my parents, while they wanted us to be able to take advantage of opportunities in a way that we wouldn't have been able to do so anywhere else—I mean, we were in America, and so as a child, this made me have these crazy, ambitious and elaborate dreams for what my future could look like.
But the ways in which the world sees immigrants, it affects more than just the narratives in which they live. It also impacts the ways laws and systems can affect communities, families and individuals. I know this firsthand, because these laws and systems, well, they broke up my family, and they led my parents to return to Mexico. And at 15, my eight-year-old brother and I, we found ourselves alone and without the guidance that our parents had always provided us with. Despite being American citizens, we both felt defeated by what we had always known to be the land of opportunity.
Now, in the weeks that followed my parents' return to Mexico, when it became clear that they wouldn't be able to come back, I had to watch as my eight-year-old brother was pulled out of school to be with his family. And during this same time, I wondered if going back would be validating my parents' sacrifices. And so I somehow convinced my parents to let me stay, without being able to guarantee them that I'd find somewhere to live or that I'd be OK. But to this day, I will never forget how hard it was having to say goodbye. And I will never forget how hard it was watching my little brother crumble in their arms as I waved goodbye from the other side of steel grates.
Now, it would be naive to credit grit as the sole reason for why I've been able to take advantage of so many opportunities since that day. I mean, I was really lucky, and I want you to know that. Because statistically speaking, students that are homeless or that have unstable living conditions, well, they rarely complete high school. But I do think that it was because my parents had the trust in letting me go that I somehow found the courage and strength to take on opportunities even when I felt unsure or unqualified.
Now, there's no denying that there is a cost to living the American dream. You do not have to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants to know that. But I do know that now, today, I am living something close to what my parents saw as their American dream. Because as soon as I graduated from college, I flew my younger brother to the United States to live with me, so that he, too, could pursue his education. Still, I knew that it would be hard flying my little brother back. I knew that it would be hard having to balance the demands and professionalism required of an entry-level job while being responsible for a child with dreams and ambitions of his own. But you can imagine how fun it is to be 24 years old, at the peak of my youth, living in New York, with an angsty teenage roommate who hates doing the dishes.
But when I see my brother learning how to advocate for himself, and when I see him get excited about his classes and school, I do not doubt anything. Because I know that this bizarre, beautiful and privileged life that I now live is the true reason for why I decided to pursue a career that would help me and my family find financial stability.
I did not know it back then, but during those eight years that I lived without my family, I had my oxygen mask on and I focused on survival. And during those same eight years, I had to watch helplessly the pain and hurt that it caused my family to be apart. What airlines don't tell you is that putting your oxygen mask on first while seeing those around you struggle—it takes a lot of courage. But being able to have that self-control is sometimes the only way that we are able to help those around us. Now I'm super lucky to be in a place where I can be there for my little brother so that he feels confident and prepared to take on whatever he chooses to do next. But I also know that because I am in this position of privilege, I also have the responsibility to make sure that my community finds spaces where they can find guidance, access and support.
I can't claim to know where each and every one of you are on your journey through life, but I do know that our world is one that flourishes when different voices come together. My hope is that you will find the courage to put your oxygen mask on when you need to, and that you will find the strength to help those around you when you can.
Stress—we all know what it is and we all handle it differently. Whether it's our thoughts speeding up or slowing down, eating our emotions or not at all, difficulty sleeping or just getting out of bed. Frankly, it sucks.
But there's good stress too, you know, like preparing for the biggest public speaking event you've ever given.
On a global platform.
No, even the good stress can mess with you, but it's the bad stress that I came to talk about. And probably not for the reason you'd expect.
I'm a relationship manager for affluent individuals. Meaning, I work with wealthy folks and their families, hip to hip, helping them achieve their financial goals. I like to keep the economy in mind, because I know that whatever impacts the economy, impacts my clients, and it turns out stress is impacting the economy in a massive way. What if I told you that by some estimates, the cost of work-related stress in the US is close to 300 billion dollars annually?
Workplace stress, the stress causing this massive impact, is related to productivity and wellness. Today, that's what we're here to talk about. And by the way, it's linked to employee disengagement, chronic diseases that impact your work and work-related injuries and illnesses. And when you add up the cost of all five factors, it's an estimated 2.2 trillion dollars annually. That represents 12 percent of our GDP.
Now I know what you're thinking, "That is a lot of money, and how?" Stress is this deeply personal thing, it's crazy to think it can have such a massive impact. But consider this thought experiment to explain how. Imagine a single mother working a stressful job, in a stress-filled environment, where she sits 90 percent of the time. Maybe she doesn't have time to cook, so she chooses meals based off of convenience, which usually means what? Overly processed, high-sugar foods. Over time, this poor diet, mixed with stress from work, leads to a chronic disease. Let's call it diabetes. Medical care cost her and the company more money, which means more stress. Now, she's worried about her health and making ends meet, so she's probably distracted and less productive. But she can't be, remember? She's a single mother. Now she's thinking, "What if something happens to me? Who is going to take care of my child? Who is going to take care of my baby?" More stress. Now take that scenario, tweak it whichever way you'd like, and lay it over the nation, and you might start to see how we run up against that multitrillion dollar cost.
This all hits very close to home for me. My father's one of the hardest-working and most intelligent people that I know. Don't get me wrong, mom worked and provided too, but he definitely embraced the role of being the primary breadwinner. And I'm sure most of us can understand the stress and pressure that comes with taking care of our families. But when you combine that with workplace stress, do you know what could happen? Developing irreversible high blood pressure, eventually losing function of your kidneys and spending a decade on dialysis—his fate. Now I'm happy to report that he did get a kidney transplant just last year. However—
However, for nearly a decade, neither the economy nor my family got the benefit from his work ethic or his intelligence, and as he would say, that's just really sad commentary. All I'm saying is, I think stress impacts the economy by reducing productivity and increasing health care costs. Makes sense? Right? But here's what doesn't.
Current research from the World Health Organization puts global spending on health at 7.8 trillion dollars. Research from the Global Wellness Institute suggests that the 4.5-trillion-dollar global wellness industry grew from 3.7 to 4.2 trillion between 2015 and 2017 and sees that growth into 2022. So what, why do you care? Because that growth is nearly twice as fast as the global economy, averaging about 3.3 percent in the same period. So what does all that mean? Every year, we're spending more per year on health, and the industries all about developing overall well-being and living a healthier lifestyle are growing almost twice as fast as the global economy, and yet, we're losing trillions of dollars per year in output. So what's up?
Well, stress levels are up, and I believe that needs to change. I also believe the way we think about stress needs to change. So let's try by reframing how we view it. See, we tend to think about stress as a consequence, but I see it as a culture. Where do most of us spend our time? At work, right? Where we face that scale of finding that work-life balance. So the bonds between work, stress, health and wellness have never been closer. And yet, there's a massive disconnect in how we approach stress and well-being in the workplace. And we could blame many things, right? New tech, laser focus on shareholder returns, or my favorite, keeping up with the Joneses and taking pictures while we try. But at the end of the day, I'm afraid that we've created a culture where personal care and overall well-being are given the back seat. So how do we move forward?
I believe the answer lies in three fundamental pillars. And if you find yourselves thinking, "Rob, I've heard this before, tell me something I don't know," ask yourself, if we already know what to do, then what have we been doing?
First, corporations. Specifically, how a corporation's culture and communication style play a pivotal role in the stress and well-being of a workplace. The DNA of a company is its culture, right? It sets the tone, even goes as far as defining the company. But I think companies should invest in the overall mental, physical and emotional well-being of their employees the way they invest in innovation, R and D, right? And do I think that this would increase productivity and reduce stress? I really do. But for it to really stick, a company has to figure out a way to measure the overall well-being of its employees with the same accuracy and precision that they project growth and earnings. And if this sounds like a tall order, ask yourself what really is a company's most competitive advantage. Its people. We know this. And just like anything in a company, it has to start at the top. So if you're a leader, openly showing how you care for your mental health and overall well-being is a huge catalyst.
It's no secret I'm a soccer fan, so growing up, I had a couple of coaches. And I always had one who would lead the heavy cardio workouts. He would not stand on the side and spectate. He would participate. And that did three things. It made it difficult for me to complain.
I always made sure to keep up, and I always felt more dialed into the exercise. It's the same idea.
And finally, communication. In order for me to really help my clients achieve their financial goals, requires that I actively listen and then respond. Let your employees tell you what stresses them out. Let them tell you what wellness benefits they need. And then act. And acting on what they tell you will show how serious you take that feedback, and I can't help but feel the company will win in the long run. Why? Because properly equipped employees will be more productive and less stressed.
Next, I'd like to ask help from everyone's favorite uncle. That's right, the government has to play a role in this. The World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that from 2011 to 2030, major chronic diseases and mental illnesses will cost the global economy 47 trillion dollars. And it's 2020. Now I'm not saying stress causes all major chronic diseases, or all mental illnesses, but even if a portion of it is, imagine how much lower that number could be if the government did what it does best—serve as the enforcer. But in this case, for higher workplace standards. I don't know, maybe even corporate tax-incentive programs to help raise those standards, but the best wellness corporate policies and initiatives backed by a forward-thinking government won't matter much without help from the most crucial pillar. You.
That's right, stress and managing it is so dynamic, you have to play your part. And it's going to benefit you and the economy. Look folks, I'm not a psychologist, OK? But I have taken steps to develop my own mental health and overall well-being, so here's my last two cents.
I think a crucial first step is for everyone is to be honest with themselves. About what? About putting your mental, physical and emotional well-being in the rear view and the damage it has caused. Honest about placing public opinion above self-preservation. Think social media. Honest about how we define ourselves and what actually does. Sure, your career contributes to a portion of who you are. But are we allowing it to define us just a little too much? And ask, "Is this bringing me the value I saw with what it costs me?" And I don't just mean the dollars.
For me, being honest meant to get a good, hard look at my relationship with my thoughts, courage and failure. Started years ago in this tournament championship game, coach comes to me and says, "Rob Cooke, you step up, we can't lose today." So I stepped up. Failed. We lost.
Thanks for laughing.
Feels good. No, but...You know, after that, it stayed with me for a while, to the point where any opportunity to step up, grow, develop, I'd quietly bow my head, step back. And then I discovered mindfulness. And I continued to develop it in my daily life to this day. To live in the present, the now.
Now I get it, mindfulness may not be for everyone, but when I think of some of the most successful and impactful people, I see a common trend. Mastery of their mental game. Which includes stress management. It's all about developing awareness, acknowledgment and acceptance of your current thoughts, emotions, environment and physical state. Right? Now I didn't say never facing stress. But the management of that stress—that's the benefit, again, for you and the economy. I'll leave you with this thought.
We all know that retirement is all about saving more now for later. What if we treated our mental health and overall well-being in the same capacity? Develop and save more of you now for later in life. Doing nothing means more cost, and worse, less time. And of the two, which can't you get back? So let's start moving this culture of stress forward, and start living happier, healthier and hopefully, more productive lives.
I'm an immigrant from Venezuela, and I've lived in the US for six years. If you ask me about my life as an expatriate, I would say that I've been lucky. But it hasn't been easy.
Growing up, I never thought that I was going to leave my homeland. I participated in my first student protest in 2007, when the president shut down one of the most important news networks. I was getting my bachelor's degree in communications, and that was the first time I realized I couldn't take free speech for granted.
We knew things were getting bad, but we never saw what was coming: an economic crisis, infrastructure breaking down, citywide electrical blackouts, the decline of public health care and shortage of medicines, disease outbreaks and starvation. I moved to Canada with my husband in 2013, and we always thought we'd move back home when the crisis improved. But we never did. Nearly all my childhood friends have left the country, but my parents are still there. There have been moments where I've called my mom, and I could hear people screaming and crying in the background as teargas bombs exploded in the streets. And my mom, as if I couldn't hear it, would always tell me,
(Speaking Spanish) "We're fine, don't worry." But of course, I worry. It's my parents, and I'm 4,000 miles away.
Today, I'm just one of more than four million Venezuelans who have left their home country. A lot of my friends are Venezuelan immigrants, and in the last few years, we've begun talking about how we could make a difference when we live so far away. That is how Code for Venezuela was born in 2019.
It began with a hackathon, because we are experts in tech, and we thought we could use our tech skills to create solutions for people on the ground. But first, we needed to find some experts actually living inside Venezuela to guide us. We'd see so many other hackathons that came up with wily, ambitious, incredible technological solutions that sounded great in theory but ultimately failed to work in the actual countries they were intended to help. Many of us have been living abroad for years, and we are detached from the day-to-day problems that people are facing in Venezuela. So we turned to the experts actually living inside of the country.
For example, Julio Castro, a doctor and one of the leaders of Médicos por la Salud. When the government stopped publishing official health care data in 2015, Dr. Julio began collecting information himself, using an informal but coordinated system of cell phone communications. They track available personnel, medical supplies, mortality data, disease outbreaks; compile it into a report; and then share that on Twitter. He became our go-to expert on health care in Venezuela.
Luis Carlos Díaz, a widely recognized journalist who reports acts of censorship and human rights violations suffered by the people of Venezuela, he helps us make sense of what is happening there, since the news is controlled by the government.
We call these people our heroes on the ground. With their expert advice, we came up with a series of challenges for hackathon participants. In that first hackathon, we had 300 participants from seven countries come up with 16 different project submissions. We picked the projects with the most potential and continued working on them after the event. Today, I'll share two of our most successful projects to give you a taste of the impact we are having so far. They're called MediTweet and Blackout Tracker.
MediTweet is an intelligent Twitter bot that helps Venezuelans find the medicine they need. Right now in Venezuela, if you get sick and you go to a hospital, there is a good chance they won't have the right medical supplies to treat you. The situation is so bad that patients often get a "shopping list" from the doctor instead of a prescription.
I live the need for this firsthand. My mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. She needed to have a lumbar puncture to get a final diagnosis and treatment plan. But the needle for this procedure wasn't available. I was in Venezuela at that time, and I was seeing my mom getting worse in front of me every day. After looking everywhere, we found the needle in a site that is like the eBay of Latin America. I met the seller in a local bakery, and it was like buying something on the black market. My mom brought the needle to her doctor, and he did the procedure. Without this, she could have died.
But it's not just medical supplies, it's medicines, too. When she was first diagnosed, we bought her treatment in a state pharmacy, and it was, like, practically free. But then the state pharmacy ran out, and we still had six months of treatment ahead. Six months of treatment ahead. We bought some medicines online and the rest in Mexico. Now she's in her third year of remission, and every time that I call, she tells me, "I'm fine, don't worry."
But not everyone can afford to leave the country, and many aren't healthy enough to travel. That is why people turn to Twitter, buying and selling medicines using the hashtag #ServicioPublico, meaning "public service." Our Twitter bot scans Twitter for the hashtag #ServicioPublico and connects users who are asking for specific medicines with those who are selling their private leftovers. We also pool the location data of those Twitter users and use it for a visualization tool. It gives local organizations like Médicos por la Salud a sense of where they have a shortage. We can also apply machine learning algorithms to detect clusters of disease. If they've received humanitarian aid, this could help them to make better decisions about the distributions of the supplies.
Our second project, is called Blackout Tracker. Venezuela is currently going through an electricity crisis. Last year, Venezuela suffered what some people consider the worst power failures in Venezuelan history. I had two long days without communication with my parents. Some cities experienced blackouts every day. But you only know about this on social media. The government won't report blackouts on the news. When the power goes out, many Venezuelans, we quickly tweet out the location with the hashtag #SinLuz, meaning "without electricity," before their phones ran out of battery, so people around the country know what is happening. Like MediTweet, Blackout Tracker scans Twitter for the hashtag #SinLuz and creates a map using the location data of those users. You can quickly see where the blackouts are happening today and how many blackouts have happened over time.
People want to know what is happening, and this is our answer. But it's also a way of holding the government accountable. It's easy for them to deny that the problem exists or make excuses, because there is no official data on it. Blackout Tracker shows how bad the problem really is.
Now, some people in Silicon Valley may look at these projects and say that there are no major technological innovations. But that is the point. These projects are not insanely advanced, but it's what the people of Venezuela need, and they can have a tremendous impact. Beyond these projects, perhaps our most significant accomplishment is that a movement has been created, one where people around the world are coming together to use their professional skills to create solutions for the people of Venezuela. And because we are partnering with locals, we are creating the solutions that people want and need.
What is so great about this is that we are using our professional skills, so it comes easily and naturally. It's not that hard for us to make a difference. If someone from San Francisco were to hire professionals to create solutions like MediTweet or Blackout Tracker, it would cost a small fortune. By donating our services, we are making a bigger impact than if we were just to donate money.
And you can do the same thing—not in Venezuela, necessarily, but in your own community. In a world that is more connected than ever, we still see how specialized communities can be living isolated or in silos. There are so many great ways to help, but I believe that you can use your professional skills to connect diverse communities and create effective solutions through those relationships.
Anyone with knowledge and professional skills has a powerful force to bring hope to a community. For us at Code for Venezuela, this is just the beginning.
It seems we have been measured almost all of our lives, when we are infants, with our height and our weight, and as we grew it became our speed and our strength. And even in school there are test scores and today with our salaries and job performance. It seems as if those personal averages are almost always used to measure where we are in comparison to our peers. And I think we should look at that a little differently. That personal average is just that, it's something very personal and it's for you, and I think if you focus on that and work to build that, you can really start to accomplish some really amazing things.
This idea started for me on a December evening in 2011. I had just stepped outside to do our evening chores to feed our horses. I hopped into our tractor, and a few minutes later, a five-foot-tall, 700-pound bale of hay fell from the loader, crushing me in the seat of the tractor and in the process shattering my T5 and T6 vertebrae. I didn't lose consciousness, but I felt this buzz throughout my body, and I knew what had happened right away. My hands were reaching for my legs, but my legs didn't recognize anything touching them. And in fact, I couldn't feel anything from the center of my chest down.
So there I was, about 100 feet from the house, with my arms wrapped around the steering the wheel, trying to hold myself up, waiting for help. And unlike what you see in TV and the movies, as much as I tried to get the dogs to go to the house and get help—they just stared at me.
Well, 45 minutes later, my wife came home, and I heard her step out of the house and, like, normal, if I needed help, "Hey, do you need help?" And I said, "Yes." And there was a brief pause and then I heard her yell, "Do you need 9/11 help?" And again I yelled, "Yes." Well, not long after I was enjoying my very first helicopter ride all the way to the hospital.
Now, the injury wasn't very dramatic or graphic. I simply broke a bone or two. And in the process, I was told I'd probably never walk again. It became very normal for me to use a rope to sit up in bed, because my abdominal muscles no longer work. Or to use a board to slide out of bed into a wheelchair, or to even wait for people to reach things for me. Everything that I had learned and had known about my height and my strength and my balance and my mobility was blown away. My entire personal average had been reset.
Now you could be sure in those days I was being measured more than ever, by the doctors and nurses for sure but maybe more so in my own mind, and I found myself comparing what I thought I was going to be able to do going forward with what I once was able to do. And I became pretty frustrated. It took some very consistent prodding from my wife, who kept saying, "Get your eyes up," before I could get moving forward. And I soon realized that I almost had to forget about the person I was before and the things I was able to do before. I almost had to pretend it was never me. And I'm afraid if I had not made that realization, my frustration would have turned into something much harder to recover from.
Now, luckily, a few weeks later, I was transferred to a specialty spinal cord rehab hospital about 10 hours from home, and wouldn't you know, the first day of rehab and the first session we had something called fit class, and a group of us broke into teams to see which team could do the most reps in the weight machine. Now, we've all been there, haven't been to the gym in a year or two. Neither had I. And so what do you do? You try to do what you did a couple of years ago, and you do a couple of sets. And then what do you do? A couple more. And you're feeling even better, so you do more. And the next two weeks you complain to your family about how sore you are.
Well, my team went all out and we won, we won big, and for the next three days I could not straighten my arms, which isn't that big a deal except when you're in a wheelchair and that's really what you have to use to get around. And that proved to be a very important lesson for me. It was one thing that I couldn't compare myself to myself, but even around people in the same situation in that hospital, I found that I couldn't try to keep pace or set pace with them as well, and I was left with really only one choice and that was to focus on who I was at that point in time with where I needed to go and to get back to who I needed to be.
For the next six weeks, for seven to eight hours a day, that's what I did. I built little by little, and, as you might expect, when you're recovering from a spinal cord injury, you're going to have a bad day. You might have a few in a row. What I found out is that good and bad really didn't have a lot of meaning unless I had the context of knowing what my average was. It was really up to me to decide if something was bad or good based on where I was at that point in time, and it was in my control to determine if it really was a bad day. In fact, it was my decision on whether or not I could stop a streak of bad days. And what I found during that time away from home is I never had a bad day, even with everything going on. There were parts of my day that were certainly not as pleasant as they could be, but it was never an entirely bad day.
So, I'm guessing that all of you have been through a meeting that probably didn't go very well, or a commute that wasn't as great as you would like it, or even burned dinner at night. Did those things really ruin your entire day? What I found in those scenarios is the quicker you move on to what's next, the quicker you can start attacking things. And by moving on to next as fast as possible, you shrink the time you spend in those bad scenarios and it gives more time for the good. And, as a result, the good outweighs the bad, your average increases and that's just how the math works. It didn't matter to me if I'd spent the morning really struggling with my medication, or at lunch my legs being very spastic, or even if I had fallen out of my wheelchair. Ask my wife. It happens quite often. She's here. They were just small parts of my day and small parts of my average.
And so, in the months and years that followed, I continued to try to attack things in that way, and before I knew it I was being presented with some pretty incredible challenges, like completing a marathon in a wheelchair.
In early 2016, I met my physical therapist, and after a few really grueling sessions, she must have sensed something, because she pulled me aside and said, "You know, you should do a half marathon. In your wheelchair. And, oh yeah, it's in 10 weeks." And I thought in my mind, "You're crazy." I didn't have a workout plan. I didn't have any way of knowing how fast I needed to go or how far I was supposed to go. But I simply got to work, and I started tracking every workout, every day, and I simply wanted to be as good as or as fast as I was the prior day. And in the end, I really created that average for myself and I tried to build on that as much as I could. Well, I finished that race right in time with what my average should have been, and somewhere along the way I kind of closed the door on who I once was. That person who I was before and all those things I thought I was able to do really didn't matter. In fact, walking again really didn't matter. It became much less of a goal for me in terms of where I was going to go. And besides, like, you guys are so slow when you walk. In crowds like this, it is so difficult. I'm like, "Get out of the way. We're going places."
And all I wanted to do was go fast. And so I did what I thought I should do. I started researching wheelchair racing. And I went online and I found the best of the best, I learned their technique, I learned about the equipment, and I was lucky to have a coach that offered me a way to get started. And after talking with him and having him help me get those things underway, as I was leaving, he says, "You know, you should do the 2017 Chicago Marathon." And he's the coach, I can't tell him no.
So, with that guidance, I went back home, and I got to work, much like in the prior way. And I continued researching, but I had learned my lesson. I was really careful not to compare with how accomplished those people on the internet were and how fast they were, because if I had, I probably never would have continued going through with it.
Well, the weekend of the race arrived, and it was just like going to college for the first time. You're dumped off, there's a whole bunch of people around you, you don't really know very many of them, somebody's got the cool stereo and the cool TV and they're smart and they're pretty and they're cute and they're handsome and you don't know if you really belong. But then somebody says, "Hey, let's go get food." And all of a sudden, that friend group happens and you start to settle in. Well, that weekend of the race, we had a meeting called the Wheelers Meeting, and there were 60 wheelchairs in that room the night before the race. And wouldn't you know it, all of the people that I had been researching were there, the best in the world. There must have been over 50 Paralympic medals in the room that day. And I felt pretty small and I fell back into that trap of comparing myself. I knew that my averages that I had been tracking during my workouts were over 90 seconds slower per mile than theirs. And the coach was the only one there that I knew, and he reached out and noticed something, and I think he sensed my anxiety, and he invited me to get food with his team. And with that, everything settled down. I realized really quick that they didn't care about my average, surely, and I had forgotten about theirs.
Well that next day, I finished the race about 45 minutes after the person that won it. But as I was leaving, those new friends, who are very close today, challenged me to stay involved and to keep working through different races and competitions. And so I did what I knew how. I went home, and I got busy.
Now, as you can imagine, being in a wheelchair, let alone training for a marathon in a wheelchair, is a pretty lonely thing. I have an incredible group of friends that will ride bikes with me and keep track of pace and help me out. But in the end, it's still five to six days a week, it's 50 to 60 miles of effort, and it's a lot of alone time. And for the most part, you really have nothing to rely on but yourself in those times. It's my average, and I'm trying to get better little by little.
Well, this fall I was in Chicago for the third time. It was my seventh marathon, and just like going back to college for your junior year, you're anticipating catching up with friends and getting excited about rolling right back into things. Well, I attended the same pre-race meeting and the same pre-race meal and caught up with those friends. And we lined up for the race, and right at the start, my average kicked in, and before long I caught up with some of those friends and was able to keep pace with them and push together. But it wasn't long before I faded. It just happened, and I found myself all alone again with really nothing to rely on other than what I had worked so hard to be at. But we turned into the wind at the halfway point, and my average became a strong advantage, and it wasn't long before I caught some of those friends and passed them all the way to the finish. And while I didn't set a personal record that day, I did finish 30 seconds per mile faster than my prior Chicago times and just left myself pretty excited.
And so, this is me. This is my average. Seventy-five days from today, I'll be in Boston for my second time. I'm super excited about that. But keep in mind, this isn't really just about racing. I'm working really hard every day to be better in so many other ways, a better parent, a better husband, a better coach, teammate, friend, person. And I promise you, even though what you see here is very visible in terms of the challenges that I face, everybody here has something that they're fighting, and it may be visible, it may not be, but please, take some time and focus on you instead of others, and I bet you can win those challenges and really start accomplishing so many great things.
In 1969 the first man walked on the moon. To get there, he and his team flew in Apollo 11, which used a six-million-pound Saturn 5 booster rocket to launch them outside the Earth's atmosphere. By the time the astronauts had returned the entire rocket system been cut loose and discarded. It had done its vital job well, but it was now no longer of any use.
Flash forward to 2024, when one-quarter of the US workforce will be age 55 or older. Old enough to have been alive during that long-ago moonwalk — and many of them fear that they too are about to be discarded. They're not wrong. Too often American companies write off their older workers. Current popular perception is that all innovative risk takers are 20-year-olds wearing hoodies. At 30 you're edging towards irrelevance. At 35 you're over the hill. Over 45? You're first in line for the next axe swing. After all, as Mark Zuckerberg once famously said, "Young people are just smarter." So why should you listen to a 55-year-old woman tell you that's wrong?
Well, for the past 25 years I've led teams that launched new companies, opened up untapped markets and turned around projects gone terribly wrong. For the past 10 years I've studied how businesses successfully navigate through change. And I work in an industry that's undergoing seismic technologically-driven change as I speak so have a bit of a stake in the outcome.
And I'm telling you that we're wrong about how we look for answers. Now, over the past 30 years attitudes about the value of age and experience in business have changed. Older workers are marginalized as non-digital natives. Yet at the same time, many of them are stitching together frantically the fabric of a safety net that holds their families together, including their parents and even those adult children who like to boomerang back into the basement.
They're not leaving corporate America for startups any time soon, which is a good thing because most startup founders don't want them, because hey, they're old. And we over-50-year-olds, after being constantly told how irrelevant we are, we tend to say things like, "Been there, done that. It's not going to work." And we say that a lot especially to people wearing hoodies.
Meanwhile, companies desperately compete for younger graduates frantically revamping their corporates career landing pages to depict their widget making company as a dynamic hotbed of innovation. Unfortunately for them they too were seen as dinosaurs and they tend to be where those older workers hang out. So, not so good. So corporations and workers are locked in a soulless, vicious cycle, desperately waiting until some youthful innovator comes along with a better, faster, cheaper way to make the widgets.
Well, okay Boomer. You all need to get out. Well that's already been tried. In 2016 Harvard and the Rand Corporation did a study that predicted that 11% of the US GDP per capita was lost over the past decade due to older workers leaving the workforce. And predicted an additional 6% being lost over the next 10 years. Turns out the old geezers weren't just productive, they actually lifted the productivity of those around them. So that's not going to work, no matter how attractive it might be.
So, let's look back at the space program. By 1981 manned space travel had evolved to the space shuttle, which sported a different type of booster rocket. Once this job was done, two minutes into the launch it was jettisoned into the ocean where it was recovered, refurbished and reused. Now those of you that were 38 and older, you were around for that leap forward. So, I ask you instead of discarding today's existing workforce like the used-up booster rocket of 1969, why don't we refurbish and we use them?
Better yet why don't we tap some of that experience from their years of experience. And we haven't really begun to know what that looks like, but in our verve for startups many studies have shown that successful young startup founders often have a significant financial cushion from parents or other sources which means they're not gonna be on the street if they fail. And yet this innovation we see is not actually a product of youth.
The average age of a successful startup founder is 45 and prior industry experience is a key factor in that success. But we don't often hear that story, do we? Now back in the day before an app was the solution to all workplace woes, companies relied on their workers, their research and their customers to determine their next steps.
If we look at data and technology as the tools they are, and they're great tools, but not as the answer, we can come up with better solutions to our most challenging problems. Now to do this companies might convene micro teams of truly diverse workers with ages, ethnicities, educational backgrounds, personalities, work roles to set aside time and the work day to focus on obstacles, unmet customer needs or even the future direction of the business. Combining the experience of the older workers with the fresh perspectives of the younger workers.
Now, studies have shown that these teams are most effective when they focus on a single expansion or a single problem. You can even have five to ten teams working on the same issue and compete with each other. Corporate Hackathons have attempted to do this, but this needs to go deeper and become a more permanent part of the business fabric. Think of it as an ongoing innovation incubator. Some companies have even opted to take workers and put them on a specific project for a period of up to 12 weeks in order to generate ideas within a defined time frame. And that's smart because it takes a real commitment for leaders and for workers to set aside all the everyday business concerns and focus on the future. And there's a risk.
But consider this. Harvard professor Shikhar Ghosh found that 95% of venture capital backed start-ups failed to ever deliver their proposed return on investment. I believe companies could become those dynamic hotbeds of innovation they like to depict on their websites by redeploying their existing workforce and focusing on innovation, using entrepreneurial techniques inside the company.
First, we teach the dinosaurs how to dance, and then we remind them how to fly. It might mean changing the direction you're going in. It might even mean dismantling something you have spent your life's work building. And I say that as a girl who's not crazy about taking risks. When local restaurant cooks see me come around the corner, they slap my order on the grill. I am that predictable. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
But I don't want to stagnate at work. So about eight years ago I wanted to increase my technology skills and a friend suggested that I look at a local meetup in Atlanta where I live. So, I signed up for a meetup...in Brussels, Belgium. Now this technology meetup had several outstanding things going for it. Number one, it was in Brussels where I knew absolutely nobody so zero risk if I flamed out and was laughed out of the building. Number two, it was in English, big plus. And number three, it appeared to be near a metro stop, also a big plus.
So, the day came and I dutifully navigated to the address on the invitation, and when I got there I looked up and there was a long brick wall. No door, just a long brick wall on a long dark street. I rechecked my map and I debated. I was in a foreign country, not speaking either of their two major languages alone at dark in a neighborhood I wasn't too certain of. And just as I was about to leave a man came up and he also looked a little confused about the whole brick wall thing, he was looking for the meetup too, but he turned to me and said in English maybe there's a door around the side. Now I did that quick mental thing that all women do where we calculate out, is this guy the Belgium Jack the Ripper? Should I go? But he passed the test. So, I went around the side and sure enough there was a door.
Now inside this technology meetup were people much younger than I was, and far more technologically savvy than I was and most were speaking in Dutch or French. Our presenter was a very well known, extremely successful technology entrepreneur, who gave an amazing presentation. But at one point during the presentation a question came up that was right in my field of non-technical expertise, and so I answered it. And after that a long discussion came around, and it wound up in me being asked back to present on Intrapreneurship techniques in the Government sector the following year. And since then, those two events have resulted in ongoing exchange and partnership of ideas for the past eight years.
Being a non-digital native didn't mean I had nothing to offer, but if I had let my fear get to me that day what would I have missed. I nearly left that day. Working in unfamiliar territory in uncertain times it's scary, but embracing change is the way to go and one of the best ways to do that is on a team of intrapreneurs. So you might say what's in it for the company?
First of all the company gets an engaged workforce that's actively embracing change. If a curve ball comes from an external disruptor you have a team that is more flexible, better able to adapt and even be redeployed to other roles within the company because they have a broader, deeper, knowledge base. In addition, employees make relationships across the enterprise, which strengthens all future projects and can even help with retention. And you don't lose the wisdom gained in a company over time. Employers can do this and employees wind up writing their own future.
By grabbing innovation as a chance to get, do, and be better when a challenge arises. And just like with startups, there's a chance it might not work. But the teams will be better, the adaptability will be better, and the ideas will be better, which brings me to Space X.
About eight years ago Space X began launching the Falcon 9 rocket, which uses a reusable booster rocket which flies back to be reused. Now they've tested this in over half of their launches as of early 2020, and it's been successful the majority of those times. And it greatly reduces the cost of space travel as well as launches. We are all going to have to learn to fly like the Falcon 9. And then we can truly say because we'll be more adaptable and much more productive as we live longer.
Been there. Done that. Not done yet.
My name is Rebecca, and I'm a cyborg.
Specifically, I have 32 computer chips inside my head, which rebuild my sense of hearing. This is called a cochlear implant. You remember the Borg from Star Trek, those aliens who conquered and absorbed everything in sight? Well, that's me.
The good news is: I come for your technology and not for your human life-forms.
Actually, I've never seen an episode of Star Trek.
But there's a reason for that: television wasn't closed-captioned when I was a kid. I grew up profoundly deaf. I went to regular schools, and I had to lip-read. I didn't meet another deaf person until I was 20. Electronics were mostly audio back then. My alarm clock was my sister Barbara, who would set her alarm and then throw something at me to wake up.
My hearing aids were industrial-strength, sledgehammer volume, but they helped me more than they helped most people. With them, I could hear music and the sound of my own voice. I've always liked the idea that technology can help make the world more human. I used to watch the stereo flash color when the music shifted, and I knew it was just a matter of time before my watch could show me sound, too.
Did you know that hearing occurs in the brain? In your ear is a small organ called the cochlea, and the cochlea is lined with thousands of receptors called hair cells. When sound enters your ear, those hair cells, they send electric signals to your brain, and your brain then interprets that as sound. Hair-cell damage is really common: noise exposure, ordinary aging, illness. My hair cells were damaged before I was even born. My mother was exposed to German measles when she was pregnant with me. About five percent of the world has significant hearing loss. By 2050, that's expected to double to over 900 million people, or one in 10. For seniors, it's already one out of three.
With a cochlear implant, computer chips do the job for the damaged hair cells. Imagine a box of 16 crayons, and those 16 crayons, in combination, have to make all of the colors in the universe. Same with the cochlear implant. I have 16 electrodes in each of my cochleas. Those 16 electrodes, in combination, send signals to my brain, representing all of the sounds in the universe. I have electronics inside and outside of my head to make that happen, including a small processor, magnets inside my skull and a rechargeable power source. Radio waves transmit sound through the magnets. The number one question that I get about the cochlear implant when people hear about the magnets is whether my head sticks to the refrigerator.
No, it does not.
Thank you, thank you.
I know this, because I tried.
Hearing people assume that the Deaf live in a perpetual state of wanting to hear, because they can't imagine any other way. But I've never once wished to be hearing. I just wanted to be part of a community like me. I wanted everyone else to be deaf. I think that sense of belonging is what ultimately connects our stories, and mine felt incomplete.
When cochlear implants first got going, back in the '80s, the operation was Frankenstein-monster scary. By 2001, the procedure had evolved considerably, but it still wiped out any natural hearing that you had. The success rate then for speech comprehension was low, maybe 50 percent. So if it didn't work, you couldn't go back. At that time, implants were also controversial in the Deaf culture. Basically, it was considered the equivalent of changing the color of your skin.
I held off for a while, but my hearing was going downhill fast, and hearing aids were no longer helping. So in 2003, I made the tough decision to have the cochlear implant. I just needed to stop that soul-sucking cycle of loss, regardless of whether the operation worked, and I really didn't think that it would. I saw it as one last box to check off before I made the transition to being completely deaf, which a part of me wanted.
Complete silence is very addictive. Maybe you've spent time in a sensory deprivation tank, and you know what I mean. Silence has mind-expanding capabilities. In silence, I see sound. When I watch a music video without sound, I can hear music. In the absence of sound, my brain fills in the gaps based on the movement I see. My mind is no longer competing with the distraction of sound. It's freed up to think more creatively.
There are advantages to having bionic body parts as well. It's undeniably convenient to be able to hear, and I can turn it off any time I want.
I'm hearing when I need to be, and the rest of the time, I'm not. Bionic hearing doesn't age, although external parts sometimes need replacement. It would be so cool to just automatically regenerate a damaged part like a real cyborg, but I get mine FedExed from Advanced Bionics.
Oh, I get updates downloaded into my head.
It's not quite AirDrop—but close.
With the cochlear implant, I can stream music from my iPod into my head without earbuds. Recently, I went to a friend's long, tedious concert…and unknown to anyone else, I listened to the Beatles for three hours instead.
Technology has come so far so fast. The biggest obstacle I face as a deaf person is no longer a physical barrier. It's the way that people respond to my deafness, the outdated way people respond to my deafness—pity, patronization, even anger—because that just cancels out the human connection that technology achieves.
I once had a travel roommate who had a complete temper tantrum, because I didn't hear her knocking on the door when her key didn't work. If I hadn't been there, no problem, she could get another key, but when she saw that I was there, her anger boiled over. It was no longer about a key. It was about deafness not being a good enough reason for her inconvenience.
Or the commercial about the deaf man whose neighborhood surprised him with sign language messages from people on the street. Everyone who sent me the video told me they cried, so I asked them, "Well, what if he wasn't deaf? What if his first language was Spanish, and everyone learned Spanish instead? Would you have cried?" And they all said no. They weren't crying because of the communication barrier, they were crying because the man was deaf.
But I see it differently. What if the Borg showed up in that video, and the Borg said, "Deafness is irrelevant." Because that's what they say, right? Everything's "irrelevant." And then the Borg assimilated the deaf guy—not out of pity, not out of anger, but because he had a biological distinctiveness that the Borg wanted, including unique language capabilities. I would much rather see that commercial.
Why does thinking about ability make people so uncomfortable? You might know a play, later a movie, called "Children of a Lesser God," by Mark Medoff. That play, that title, actually comes from a poem by Alfred Tennyson, and I interpret both the play and title to say that humans who are perceived as defective were made by a lesser God and live an inferior existence, while those made by the real God are a superior class, because God doesn't make mistakes.
In World War II, an estimated 275,000 people with disabilities were murdered in special death camps, because they didn't fit Hitler's vision of a superior race. Hitler said that he was inspired by the United States, which had enacted involuntary sterilization laws for "the unfit" in the early 1900s. That practice continued in more than 30 states until the '70s, with the last law finally repealed in 2003. So the world is not that far removed from Tennyson's poem.
That tendency to make assumptions about people based on ability comes out in sentences like "You're so special," "I couldn't live like that" or "Thank God that's not me."
Changing how people think is like getting them to break a habit. Before the implant, I had stopped using the voice telephone and switched to email, but people kept leaving me voice mail. They were upset that I was unreachable by phone and not returning messages. I continued to tell them my situation. It took them months to adapt. Fast-forward 10 years, and you know who else hated voice mail? Millennials.
And you know what they did? They normalized texting for communication instead. Now, when it comes to ignoring voice mail, it no longer matters whether you're deaf or just self-absorbed.
Millennials changed how people think about messaging. They reset the default. Can I just tell you how much I love texting? Oh, and group texts. I have six siblings—they're all hearing, but I don't think any less of them.
And we all text. Do you know how thrilling it is to have a visual means of communication that everyone else actually uses?
So I am on a mission now. As a consumer of technology, I want visual options whenever there's audio. It doesn't matter whether I'm deaf or don't want to wake the baby. Both are equally valid. Smart designers include multiple ways to access technology, but segregating that access under "accessibility"—that's just hiding it from mainstream users. In order to change how people think, we need to be more than accessible, we need to be connected. Apple did this recently. On my iPhone, it automatically displays a visual transcript of my voice mail, right next to the audio button. I couldn't turn it off even if I wanted to. You know what else? Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime no longer say "Closed-captioned for the hearing impaired." They say "subtitles," "on" or "off," with a list of languages underneath, including English.
Technology has come so far. Our mindset just needs to catch up. "Resistance is futile."
You have been assimilated.
The identity theft resource center says that 1.3 million of children's records are stolen every year. You think stealing from little kids is bad? What about stealing from the dead people! Another study that I read from ID Analytic Labs says that nearly 2.5 million of deceased Americans' information is used improperly to apply for credit products and services every year.
Don't you find it strange that we carry around his arbitrary government assigned number or pieces of paper with our picture on it and some made-up password to prove we are who we say we are? When, in fact, the most rock-solid proof of our identity is something we carry around in our cells—our DNA.
Let's do a little thought experiment together and for the next few moments, I want you to imagine what it would be like if we could use our unique set of DNA as identity verification. Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. Yeah, using DNA as identity verification seems cool and all, but yikes, does that mean I have to draw blood every time I want to make a debit card purchase or buy something online? Surely, we don't have to go that far. Right? Well lucky for us, your hair, saliva and ear wax all contain your DNA, so as we think about this hypothetical possibility for the future, it doesn't have to involve too much blood!
You may also be asking, don't we already have biometric log-in and facial recognition? That's personal, why not just stop there? Well, even with our current latest and greatest technology it still isn't good enough. The researchers at the Fudan University were able to fool facial recognition by having someone wear a baseball cap that was wired with tiny infrared LED lights. And as long as the person who’s wearing the baseball cap looked vaguely like the real person, the lights could trick the software into thinking it was actually the person. Not good.
Then of course you have technology like vein authentication, which is a way to use a vascular pattern and your hand or your finger to identify who you are. We see this in movies all the time. The door to some super-secret lab can only be opened when the chief scientist scans his hand. This technology actually does exist, but, alas, a conference in Germany proved that vein authentication can be defeated by using a wax hand model.
So given all of that, I believe DNA authentication could be the answer to our identity theft problems.
Let’s imagine for a second what kind of problems this could solve. One study that was published in the International Journal of Science and Research by using a multilayer perceptron, the computer was able to classify three different types of skin disease. Let's take that same skin texture analyzing technology but instead of determining diseases, what if we can use that same technology to analyze and determine who is a person instead? Or maybe when you go to the doctor and they use the ear thermometer to check your temperature, what if that same device was able to collect some of your ear wax? It would be able to scan it to verify who you are.
I just keep thinking in the far, far future like the next millennium or so, when people were born, maybe their name, date of birth and DNA will be collected in an encrypted file and stored on a cloud-based server somewhere.
As I imagine what the future could look like using DNA as authentication, not just what kind of problem it could prevent, but also what kind of problem we could run into. For example, how would we responsibly store over 7 billion DNA samples of everyone from across the planet? And how do we really feel about collecting DNA from newborn children?
In 2022 it is estimated there will be 6 billion internet users, that's nearly double in comparison to 4 billion internet users back in 2018. With the ever-growing number of online activity will hackers come up with new and improved ways to use our unique DNA against us? Will your DNA be your best friend, or your worst enemy?
However, I still have high hopes for the future. It is still a fun idea to tinker with. Just think of all the possibility. Don’t we have the right to protect ourselves, our identity? I, for one, hope that the future of cybersecurity is literally coded in our DNA.
All right. I have a close, tight-knit circle of friends. We're all in different cities and we're all in different areas, from local news to city government to law, financial services ... And despite those different areas, we seem to share similar stories of workplace drama. Now, I define workplace drama as an annoyance that adds additional stress to the job. So again, it's when people get on your nerves, not the job itself. So, as we're going through these stories, I'm realizing there has to be a better way for us to coexist with our coworkers without this much drama. So, I created a few steps that have been working for me, and I'm happy to share them with you guys today.
Step 1: rewind and reflect, also known as, "What did I do?" I want you guys to all replay your most recent workplace drama situation in your head like a movie. Ignore all of the emotion and just focus on you. But for now, let's just think about this hypothetical: say you're on a group project, you each have your own individual assignments and then you all divide up the work. But then someone becomes unresponsive -- not answering calls, they go ghost. Then you or someone else has to now pick up that additional slack. So, in a brief, small, very tiny lapse in judgment, you vent to the nearby coworker. Then all of a sudden, your ghost comes back, and they surprisingly know everything you just said.
Now, what did I do in this situation? I vented to someone who was not my confidant. Why would I do that? Sometimes we create this unspoken bond with people that only exists in our heads. They don't owe me their discretion. I just assumed it was there. So, we're not going to go down a rabbit hole, trying to figure out why they did that. It doesn't matter. They did it. But the goal in this step is self-reflection. We need to focus on what did we do so we can avoid it in the future.
Step 2: come back to reality, also known as, "It needs to stop."
So, you guys ever think about problems before you get to work? Oh -- it's just me?
Well, I'm guilty of it. I think about all of these situations in my head, and then I get mad just thinking about it. So, I'm telling myself, "No, you're just being prepared, Stacy."
"You are just making sure that you can handle whatever they're about to throw at you." But you're not. What you're really doing is setting yourself up and creating this anxiety in your head that doesn't exist.
Then we also have to be careful about listening to other people's made-up scenarios. Here's what I mean. Let's say you're in the break room, and you're talking to some coworkers. Then, all of a sudden, another coworker comes in. Now, they seem to just be in deep thought -- not overly cheerful, but they're not rude. They come in, they walk out. Then the coworkers over here begin to diagnose what they feel is wrong with that person. They're saying things like, "Oh, they're just mad they didn't get the job." Or they're saying, "Oh, no, no, no -- during this season, they're just always upset." And you're sitting here like, yep, that must be it. You're listening to this as if this is facts. Meanwhile, this coworker can be in deep thought about literally anything. They could have just opened a pack of Starburst, got four yellows back-to-back, and they're just trying to figure out what happened.
But you're over here listening. And you're listening to their made-up scenario that now can impact how you choose to interact with that person throughout the day.
Whether we're creating fake stories in our head or listening to other people's made-up stories, it needs to stop. The goal in this step: stop stressing over things that haven't happened.
Alright. Step 3: vent and release. It's good to have a vent buddy. This is your coach, your cheerleader, your therapist, whatever you need them to be in the moment. This is not like that person in Step 1 that just happened to be in earshot. You have an established relationship with your vent buddy.
Now, here's another scenario. You're getting ready to tell a customer or a client something that they just don't want to hear. So, as you're in the middle of this spiel, up comes another coworker, and they interrupt you and then says the exact same thing you were saying. You can't make a scene in front of a customer. So, you just have to sit back, "Mm-hmm," and just listen as they do this. And you're burning up inside. So, what do we do? We go to our vent buddy. We talk about it. We get mad. And that's the time for that. Get mad. Get angry. Curse, scream, do whatever you need to do to get it out.
Now here's the hard part: you then have to switch that tone to positivity. I truly believe in positive and negative energy, and it has a way of controlling our moods throughout the day. You've got to think of things like, "OK, where do I go from here? What can I do differently?" And then, if you're the vent buddy, it's your responsibility to lead your friend back to the positive.
Now, the other hard part: you have to then apply those learnings to the situation. You can't carry that resentment around. If you do, that one-off situation now becomes a pattern. Pattern behavior is harder to ignore than a one-off situation. The goal in this step is, "Let's turn our vent session into a productive conversation."
Step 4: learn a new language, also known as, "We need to talk." Guys, I personally don't like to pick up the phone at work. I just don't. I feel like whatever you need to say to me can be an instant message or an email. That is my work language.
The only problem with that, you can't hear tone through an email. I read emails the same way I speak, so I'm pretty sure I've misinterpreted some tones before, unless I know you. So here's an example. I'm going to show you guys an email, and I want you to read it, and then I'm going to read it out loud. Alright, that was fast enough, you should have read it. "Stacy, Thank you for reading out about my group. At this time, we will not need any additional support. Going forward, if I feel we need help, I'll ask, you won't have to reach out. Per my last email (attached below), I've outlined what I do, and what you do, so we can avoid this in the future. As always, thank you for your partnership!!"
That's how you read it?
Guys, there are certain words in there that if you hear or if you see in an email, it is safe to assume they typed it with their middle fingers.
I didn't know it then. I know it now.
I think I messed up some people's emails. They're correcting them.
With all of that said, you have to know when it is time to pick up the phone. You have to know when it is time to have a face-to-face. And these face-to-face conversations are not easy. They are difficult, but they are necessary. The goal is to try to understand the other person's perspective. So, you'll start the conversation with things like, "OK, you got upset when I ..." Or you'll say things like, "OK, you already had the situation handled, and then I ..." So that way, you can see exactly where they're coming from.
Also, don't try to make people like you. We all have our own upbringings. We all have our experiences. And we all have our own communication styles. As the new generations are entering the workforce, we're also adapting to it. Meetings are now emails. Emails are now texts. Off-sites are now Skype. So, as we're adjusting to that, we need to at least try to understand what type of style of communication they use. The goal in that step is to really understand their work language and accept the fact that it may be different than yours.
Step 5: recognize and protect, also known as, "We need to take a walk." So, here's my last scenario from one of my teacher friends. You're about to have a meeting with a parent, and prior to it, you and a coworker, you kind of discuss it, and the coworker tells you, "It's all right, I got your back. I'm going to agree with your recommendations." So, you're kind of side-eyeing them because they've burned you before, but you've had the "we need to talk," so you're like, "We're in sync now, I'm going to trust them." You go through the meeting, the parent disagrees with you, and like clockwork, the coworker agrees with the parent in front of you, making you look ridiculous. Again, we can't make a scene in front of people, right? So, you've got to hold it in. And then, after the meeting, that same coworker has all the audacity, comes up to you and says, "Crazy meeting, right?"
Yeah. They're testing you now. It's a test. (Laughs) So that's the perfect time to just go off, right? This is a repeat offender.
You walked away, and they came back with it.
But we're trying to avoid workplace drama, not take a cannonball leap into it, so we have to walk away. You lead that conversation by taking the first available exit. You're not doing this for them. You're doing this for you. You have to protect your energy. Don't try to figure out why they would do this, and no more coming-to-Jesus conversations. It is what it is, they did what they did, and given the opportunity, they'd probably do it again. But you now know that. You now recognize that. So that way, you can act accordingly.
We typically try to set expectations -- our expectations -- on other people, and then get disappointed when they don't follow through. We have to learn to accept people where they are and adjust ourselves to handle those situations. The goal in this step is to recognize when it is time to professionally walk away from someone.
Guys, I realize these steps may come off as saying, "Take the high road." And people always say it. "Just take the high road." And they describe it as some elegant path of righteousness filled with rainbows and unicorns. It's not that. It's embarrassing. It's humiliating. It leaves this knot of resentment in the pit of your stomach. And as you're traveling down this amazing high road, you see billboards of things you shoulda said and things you shoulda did. You go over there and you look at the easy road, and they're chillin', not worried about a thing.
But I have to admit, the more I travel down this road, it does get a little easier. Petty situations, they don't bother me as much. I learn little nuggets here and there. And as I continue down this path, there seem to be more opportunities waiting for me. I have like-minded people who want to connect with me, projects that people want me on, leaders reaching out because they heard about me through someone else. And the best part? The need to even look at the easy road is no longer there.
Guys, we're not going to change the way adults act in the workplace. We are not. And for that reason, there will always be workplace drama. But if we stick to these steps and put in the work that comes with it, we can learn to avoid it.
Guys, thank you for being my vent buddies.
And thank you so much for your time.
We live our lives based on a number of assumptions, in this highly connected and at the same time highly disconnected, extremely complex and increasingly turbulent world where there are only two certainties death and even more uncertainty, with change the only constant. And yet, we have professionals like Physicians, Priests, and Financial Advisors who claim to offer certainty. I call them "Certainty Merchants."
As a financial advisor, my clients expect me to offer them certainty when it comes to their financial life. Even though the economy is a complex adaptive system and the financial markets track millions of statistics and the government produces data on tens of thousands of economic indicators each year. The match of technology and democratization of knowledge has not made our life any easier. The way we deal with the turbulence in the current environment is very critical for both the individuals and institutions.
So, you might wonder, how do these certainty merchants do it? How can I find some semblance of certainty in my own life?
First, we must admit that there is no single right answer. We simply cannot predict the future with a certainty that our clients would like. The secret of this certainty merchant is in fact not certainty. It is better planning.
You see traditional planning is based on the assumption that there is one best idea. One best answer to any strategic question. And that the world of tomorrow is going to be very much like the world of today. But quite often that's not the case. It's akin to driving looking in the rearview mirror. Most strategic planning is done to relieve management anxiety. Most of them don't even work when you need them the most.
As that great boxer, philosopher Mike Tyson stated, "Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth."
That is why I use something called scenario-based planning. Scenarios are stories about how the future might turn out. Stories that help us to understand and adapt to the changing facets of the current environment. If you can imagine different futures, you can imagine how you're likely to act or react in those futures, what decisions you might make and how those decisions might play out. Think of it like a simulation exercise. Surgeons, athletes, and even those in the military, increasingly these days, practice and learn on real-time, interactive simulators too.
So, scenarios could be categorized as vehicles to rehearse the future and learn so that you make better decisions. It's all about imagining what if. Not, what is.
So, there are some fabulous cases of scenario-based planning and action in the business world. Perhaps the most famous one is that of the Royal Dutch Shell, the giant oil and gas company. Back in 1973, the Arab oil-producing nations had imposed an embargo on the West. As a result of which, the price of crude oil quadrupled. But, Shell saw this coming. Why? Because it was one of the many scenarios that they had already explored. As a result, they were able to deal with the oil shock to some extent. And from being one of the weakest among the seven largest global oil-producing companies, it became one of the strongest.
Yet another example of scenario-based planning in action is that of the New York Board of Trade, which is currently a division of the Intercontinental Exchange or ICE. Following the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, the New York Board of Trade decided to engage in scenario-based planning and decided to set up an alternate trading site in Queens, New York. They didn't exactly predict 9/11. But, as a result of the foresight that they had, they were able to continue their operations after the attacks of 9/11.
There are some individuals as well as some firms like JDS Uniphase as well as AutoNation that came out with reports after the great financial crisis and credited the scenario-based planning they had done to the speed and profitable manner with which they responded to the crisis. Most major corporations say they engage in scenario-based planning. But if that were the case, why is it that we saw so many individuals and major corporations totally blindsided by the great financial crisis? Why didn't they see this coming?
So, in my doctoral research I came up with three responses.
One: Ignored warnings.
Two: Blind confidence in probability.
And three: Reactive response to change.
Let me explain.
Ignored warnings. Prior to the Great Financial Crisis, some employees had alerted management about the impending changes. About the problems they foresaw. They dared speak truth to power. But, they were ignored or discounted. And what's worse, in some cases they were fired or disciplined or demoted or silenced in some other ways. For us to improve, we have to listen and make changes, even when it is uncomfortable and especially when we don't like it.
Second. Blind confidence in probability. We humans have blind confidence in probability, which is one of the main reasons why probability-based scenario planning fails most of the time. You see, when a leader asks for a forecast he is not looking for anything but the highest probability outcome. When provided the highest probability outcome, our brain has the tendency to latch onto it like a heat-seeking missile. So even if we provide multiple scenarios the tendency is to go for the most likely scenario for the illusion of certainty it offers. So, it's very important to understand what I started with.
There is no certainty beyond the fact of death and uncertainty. So it is very important to make sure that we refuse to fall victim to the seductive siren song of probability-based thinking and instead work hard on cultivating equally plausible scenarios in the hope of being approximately right rather than precisely wrong.
And number three. Reactive response to change. See, we humans are generally very reactive to change. And so are the leaders. They don't want to change unless they have to. Not because they want to. And as Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel Corporation, stated quite succinctly, when it comes to change, we managers loath change, especially if it involves us. Most leaders are too often too busy firefighting to think about fire prevention or future growth. Firefighters get promoted. Fire preventers get seldom noticed. I must remind you here that Noah built his ark before the rains began. Change is part of our life. We cannot plan for all eventualities. But, we can avoid a lot of unpleasant surprise if we use scenario-based planning to engage in mental rehearsal about the three or four events that are likely to turn your world upside down. Believe me, rehearsals make life less scary. But, life is not a dress rehearsal, we only live once.
So, if you feel you're living a life of indentured servitude, go do something about it! Engage in future-proofing your career using scenario-based planning. So, when you decide to buy a house, for example, you are thinking about, "do I want to buy a house with a fixed mortgage or a variable rate mortgage?" And that question depends upon the future direction of interest rates. So you might ask the question: "Is there a scenario in which the rates could go much lower in the next five to ten years?" The value of that scenario is you are engaging an exercise of looking into the future and looking at the factors that could affect the future interest rates and hence make an informed decision.
Uncertainty is never an ally of confidence. And confidence is critical for any commitment. So, to think clearly, feel confident, and act decisively, scenario-based planning could be the key. It is up to us to use it wisely. Not out of a sense of weakness or fear, but out of the strength and conviction that comes from knowing that we are prepared to play the hand that is dealt.
So, on May 6 of 2019, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, clouds were that puffy white. It was a perfect spring day.
I was walking back to my office, and my phone rang. And it was one of my lieutenants. I said, "Hey, John. How are you?" He said, "Sir, I'm good. But I've got some bad news." He said our executive officer died that weekend. We went back and forth, "What do you mean, what are you talking about?" I asked him what happened. He said, "Sir, he killed himself."
I walked around my office for a couple of hours in a complete fog, trying to understand what had happened, why. I had just communicated with him a few months earlier. And I had no idea that this officer was in trouble. And I fault myself as a leader for not having known that. I went on this process of trying to figure out why, what's happening in the veteran community, why are these things going on. I read reports from the Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Defense, I've read national studies on mental health and the issues associated with it. I'm going to share with you some of the things I found out.
Department of Veteran Affairs has taken the lead on veteran suicide, and it's actually their number one priority. Based on the reports they have and the numbers that I've calculated, between 2001 and 2019, during the time of the Global War on Terror, my approximation is there's 115,000 veterans who have died by their own hands. I also looked at the Department of Defense report that lists casualties. This particular report lists the casualties from October of 2001 specifically to November 18 of last year. During that time frame and the Global War on Terror, there have been 5,440 active duty members killed in action. So, by my numbers, 115,000 approximate suicides, 5,440 killed in action. What does that mean to me? We have approximately 21 veterans ending their lives by their own hand for every one that is killed by an enemy combatant. It's a staggering, staggering number.
These national studies that deal with mental health tell us that if you have any type of genetic mental health issue within your family that can be passed on, or if something has happened to you in your childhood that was traumatic, your ability to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, significantly decreases. They also tell us that if you want to have a full evaluation, determine if somebody has PTSD, you need to have a minimum of one-hour interview with a mental health expert that's trained to detect what PTSD is to determine if you suffer from it.
Now let me talk about what happens when you enter into the military. When you join the armed forces, you're going to go through a medical exam, you're going to take a physical fitness test, you're going to take a drug test, you're going to take a vocational test so they can figure out what you're good at and hopefully place you in that type of job category. But would you believe that with approximately 115,000 suicides over the last 20 years, and the data that we know from the national studies on how to determine if somebody is going to be able to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, we still don't have a standardized mental health evaluation for our recruits entering into the service. That's something I think that needs to change.
Number two, when you leave the service—When I left the service in 2003, I had to attend some mandatory classes, about two days' worth of classes, and then I was on my way. Today, it's a little different. Today you'll actually get a call if you're on what we call terminal leave or paid time off that you're trying to use up before you actually are fully discharged. I talked to one veteran who got a call. He was on his way home from work, and the only thing he could think of was, "How quick can I get off this?" And I think the call lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes. But yet the national studies tell us it needs to be an in-person, one-hour interview. I think that's something that we can improve upon.
There's another thing that the Department of Veteran Affairs talked about in the reports. They said that our service members that are self-medicating tend to be at a significantly higher risk of suicide. So those veterans that are self-medicating with alcohol, or drug abuse—and in fact, the Department of Veteran Affairs has classified opioid use disorder, OUD, as one of the epidemics. So, as I talked to marines from my unit and tried to learn more about it, I started to find out some really, really alarming things. I had a marine who came back from Iraq and he went to the hospital for a "back pain" and he was prescribed some opioids. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He became addicted to these painkillers, because not only did it mask the pain in his back, but it helped him to cope with some of the horrific things that he had to see, experience and do over in the Middle East. And he eventually overdosed.
Another challenge we have is that when you're on active duty, you are under the Department of Defense. And so all of your doctors, all your health care is in that category. When you leave the service, you are now part of the Department of Veteran Affairs. So these active duty members that seek help for their mental health issues and are diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health issues, when they leave the service, there's no transition to a doctor that's in the Department of Veteran Affairs or perhaps out in the civilian world because of privacy acts. Now there's some good news in this. Just recently, it was legislated that a database will be built that will house both Department of Defense health records and Department of Veteran Affairs health records.
But I want to take that thought a step further. My company was 204 marines and sailors strong. As I looked at and I talked to my marines from my unit, what we came up with is we are well in excess of a dozen of our members that committed suicide. When I talk to senior leadership in the battalion, and battalion is about six to seven hundred marines, they estimate that we're in the hundreds who have committed suicide. So, let's take this database that we're building, and let's go a little bit further with it. What if when a veteran passes away, whether it's natural causes, overdose or suicide, we're able to feed that into the Veteran Affairs who is then able to access Department of Defense records, identify what type of units they were in, what contingencies and operations did they participate in, and let's build the data points to try to figure out are there units that are more susceptible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder so that we can get them the mental health prior to going on deployment, prior to being in theater. If they're in theater, get them the mental health while they're in theater, and get them mental health counseling and help before they even come home out of theater.
And by the way, if we can build those sets of data points to be able to do that, we don't just apply them to the military, we can also use that for the general population. If we put our minds together and our resources together, and we openly talk about this, and try to find solutions for this epidemic that's going on in America, hopefully we can save a life.
Those are my thoughts, my ideas, I hope that this talk is not the end of this discussion but rather the beginning of it.
And I want to thank you for your time today.
So, our story started several years ago, when my wife and I got a complaint letter in the mail from an anonymous neighbor.
I'll never forget the way my wife transformed before my eyes from this graceful, peaceful, sweet woman into just an angry mother grizzly bear whose cubs needed to be protected. It was intense. So, here's what happened.
This is our family. This is my wife and I and our five awesome kids. We're pretty loud, we're pretty rambunctious, we're us. You'll notice, though, that two of our children look a little different than Mary and I, and that's because they came to us through adoption. Our neighbor, though, saw two different-looking children playing outside of our house every day and came to the conclusion that we must have been running an illegal day care out of our home.
We were really angry to have our children stereotyped like that, but I know that's a relatively minor example of racial profiling. But isn't it sometimes what we all tend to do with people who think differently, or believe differently or maybe even vote differently? Instead of engaging as true neighbors, we keep our distance and our actions towards those are guided by who we think sees the world as we do or who we think doesn't.
See, what my neighbor suffered from is a condition called agonism. And sometimes we all suffer from the same condition. It's not a medical condition, but it is contagious. So, let's talk a little bit about what agonism is. My favorite definition of agonism is taking a warlike stance in contexts that are not literally war. Agonism comes from the same Greek root word "agon" from which we get "agony." How very appropriate. We all tend to show symptoms of agonism when we hold on to two deeply held beliefs, first identified by author Rick Warren. The first one is that if love someone, we must agree with all they do or believe. And the second is the inverse, that if we disagree with someone, it must mean that we fear, or we hate them.
Not sure we really recognize the agony this way of thinking brings to us, when our relationships die because we think we have to agree or disagree no matter what. Think about the conversations we've had around Brexit, or Hong Kong, maybe Israeli settlements or perhaps impeachment. I bet we could all think of at least one personal relationship that's been strained or maybe even ended because of these topics, or tragically, over a topic much more trivial than those. The cure for agonism is not out of reach. The question is how.
So, might I suggest two strategies that my experience has taught me to start with. First, cultivate common ground, which means focusing on what we share. I want you to know I'm using my words very, very deliberately. By "cultivate," I mean we have to intentionally work to find common ground with someone. Just like a farmer works to cultivate the soil. And common ground is a common term, so let me at least explain what I don't mean, which is I don't mean by common ground that we were exact, or that we totally agree and approve. All I mean is that we find one unifying thing that we can have in a relationship in common with another person.
You know, sometimes that one thing is hard to find. So, I'd like to share a personal story, but before I do, let me tell you a little bit more about myself. I'm Caucasian, cisgender male, middle class, evangelical Christian. And I know, as soon as some of those words came out of my mouth, some of you had some perceptions about me. And it's OK, I know that not all those perceptions are positive. But for those who share my faith, know that I'm about to cut across the grain. And you may tune me out as well. So, as we go, if you're having a hard time hearing me, I just gently ask that you reflect and see if you're buying into agonism. If you're rejecting me simply because you think you see the world differently than I do, because isn't that what we're here talking about? Alright, ready?
So, I've been thinking a lot about how to find common ground in the area of gender fluidity, as an evangelical Christian. For Christians like me, we believe that God created us man and woman. So, what do I do? Do I throw up my hands and say, "I can't have a relationship with anybody who is transgender or LGBTQIA?" No. That would be giving into agonism.
So, I started looking at the foundational aspects of my faith, the first of which is that of the three billion genes that make us human -- and by the way, we share 99.9 percent of those genes -- that I believe those three billion genes are the result of an intelligent designer. And that immediately gives me common ground with anybody. What it also gives me ... is the belief that each and every one of us have been given the right to life by that same intelligent designer.
I dug deeper though. I found that my faith didn't teach me to start relationships by arguing with somebody until they believed what I believed, or I convinced them. No, it taught me to start relationships by loving them as a coequal member of the human race. Honestly though, some who share my faith draw a line and refuse to address somebody by their preferred gender pronoun. But isn't that believing the lie that in order for me to honor you, I have to give up what I believe?
Come back in time with me -- let's say it's 20 years ago, and Muhammad Ali comes to your doorstep. And you open the door. Would you address him as Muhammad Ali or his former name of Cassius Clay? I'm guessing that most of you would say Muhammad Ali. And I'm also guessing that most of you wouldn't think we'd have to immediately convert to Islam, just by using his name. To honor him would cost me, would cost any of us absolutely nothing, and it would give us the common ground to have a relationship. And it's the relationship that cures agonism, not giving up what we believe.
So, for me to honor my faith, it means rejecting these rigid symptoms of agonism. Meaning, I can and I will love you. I can and I will accept you, and I don't have to buy into the lie that if I do these things, I have to give up what I believe or chose to fear and hate you. Because I'm focusing on what we have in common.
When you can find even the smallest bit of common ground with somebody, it allows you to understand just the beautiful wonder and complexity and majesty of the other person.
Our second strategy gives us room to (Inhales) breathe. To pause. To calm down. To have the kind of relationships that cure agonism. And how to keep those relationships alive. Our second strategy is to exchange extravagant grace.
Once again, I'm not mincing words -- by grace, I don't mean we should all go sign up for ballet, that would be weird.
What I mean is not canceling everything over one mistake. Even if that mistake personally offended you. Maybe even deeply. Perhaps Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom put it best when she said, "To forgive is to set a prisoner free, only to realize that prisoner was me." My faith teaches me that we humans will never be perfect, myself very much included. So, we need the grace of a savior, who for me is Jesus. And while I define grace in the context of my faith, I know there's a lot of other people who have defined it differently and in different ways. One of my favorites is radio broadcaster Oswald Hoffmann, who said, "Grace is the love that loves the unlovely and the unlovable." And I just love that picture of grace. Because I know I am, and maybe a lot of you can think of a time when we're just pretty dadgum unlovable.
So, it would be the height of hypocrisy, dare I say repulsive to my faith, for me to accept the unconditional, unqualified grace and love from God and then turn around and put one precondition on the love I give you. What in the world would I be thinking? And by extravagant, I mean over the top, not just checking a box. We can all remember when we were kids and our parents forced us to apologize to somebody and we walked up to them and said, (Angrily) "I'm sorry." We just got it over with, right? That's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is not having to give someone grace but choosing to and wanting to. That's how we exchange extravagant grace.
Listen, I know this can sound really, really theoretical. So, I'd like to tell you about a hero of mine. A hero of grace. It's 2014. In Iran. And the mother of a murdered son is in a public square. The man who murdered her son is also in that square, by a gallows, on a chair of some kind, a noose around his neck and a blindfold over his eyes. Samereh Alinejad had been given the sole right under the laws of her country to either pardon this man or initiate his execution. Put another way, she could pardon him or literally push that chair out from underneath his feet.
I just ... I can't picture the agony going through both Samereh and this man at the time. Samereh with her choice to make, and this man, in the account that I read, was just weeping, just begging for forgiveness. And Samereh had a choice. And she chose in that moment to walk up to this man and to slap him right across the face. And that signaled her pardon. It gets better.
Right afterwards, somebody asked her, they interviewed her, and she was quoted as saying, "I felt as if rage vanished from within my heart and the blood in my veins began to flow again." Isn't that incredible? I mean, what a picture of grace, what a hero of grace. And there's a lesson in there for all of us. That as theologian John Piper said, "Grace is power, not just pardon." And if you think about it, grace is the gift we give someone else in a relationship that says our relationship is way more important than the things that separate us. And if you really think about it some more, we all have the power to execute in our relationships, or to pardon.
We never did find out the identity of our anonymous neighbor.
But if we did, I'd hope we'd simply say, "Can we have coffee?" And maybe there's somebody you need to have coffee with and find your common ground with them. Or maybe there's somebody you're in a relationship with and you need to exchange extravagant grace. Maybe go first.
These two strategies have taught me how to exchange extravagant grace in my relationships and to enjoy the beautiful design of my neighbors. I want to continue to choose relationships over agonism. Will you choose to join me?
I was an eight-year-old kid in the mid-1990s. I grew up in southern Philippines. At that age, you're young enough to be oblivious about what society expects from each of us but old enough to be aware of what's going on around you.
We lived in a one-bedroom house, all five of us. Our house was amongst clusters of houses made mostly of wood and corrugated metal sheets. These houses were built very close to each other along unpaved roads. There was little to no expectation of privacy. Whenever an argument broke out next door, you heard it all. Or, if there was a little...something something going on…
…you would probably hear that, too.
Like any other kid, I learned what a family looked like. It was a man, a woman, plus a child or children. But I also learned it wasn't always that way. There were other combinations that worked just as well. There was this family of three who lived down the street. The lady of the house was called Lenie. Lenie had long black hair, often in a ponytail, and manicured nails. She always went out with a little makeup on and her signature red lipstick. Lenie's other half, I don't remember much about him except that he had a thing for white sleeveless shirts and gold chains around his neck. Their daughter was a couple years younger than me. Now, everybody in the village knew Lenie. She owned and ran what was the most popular beauty salon in our side of town. Every time their family would walk down the roads, they would always be greeted with smiles and occasionally stopped for a little chitchat.
Now, the interesting thing about Lenie is that she also happened to be a transgender woman. She exemplified one of the Philippines' long-standing stories about gender diversity. Lenie was proof that oftentimes we think of something as strange only because we're not familiar with it, or we haven't taken enough time to try and understand.
In most cultures around the world, gender is this man-woman dichotomy. It's this immovable, nonnegotiable, distinct classes of individuals. We assign characteristics and expectations the moment a person's biological sex is determined. But not all cultures are like that. Not all cultures are as rigid. Many cultures don't look at genitalia primarily as basis for gender construction, and some communities in North America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Islands, including the Philippines, have a long history of cultural permissiveness and accommodation of gender variances.
As you may know, the people of the Philippines were under Spanish rule for over 300 years. That's from 1565 to 1898. This explains why everyday Filipino conversations are peppered with Spanish words and why so many of our last names, including mine, sound very Spanish. This also explains the firmly entrenched influence of Catholicism. But precolonial Philippine societies, they were mostly animists. They believed all things had a distinct spiritual essence: plants, animals, rocks, rivers, places. Power resided in the spirit. Whoever was able to harness that spiritual power was highly revered.
Now, scholars who have studied the Spanish colonial archives also tell us that these early societies were largely egalitarian. Men did not necessarily have an advantage over women. Wives were treated as companions, not slaves. And family contracts were not done without their presence and approval. In some ways, women had the upper hand. A woman could divorce her husband and own property under her own name, which she kept even after marriage. She had the prerogative to have a baby or not and then decide the baby's name.
But the real key to the power of the precolonial Filipino woman was in her role as "babaylan," a collective term for shamans of various ethnic groups. They were the community healers, specialists in herbal and divine lore. They delivered babies and communicated with the spirit world. They performed exorcisms and occasionally, and in defense of their community, they kicked some ass.
And while the babaylan was a female role, there were also, in fact, male practitioners in the spiritual realm. Reports from early Spanish chroniclers contain several references to male shamans who did not conform to normative Western masculine standards. They cross-dressed and appeared effeminate or sexually ambiguous. A Jesuit missionary named Francisco Alcina said that one man he believed to be a shaman was "so effeminate that in every way he was more a woman than a man. All the things the women did he performed, such as weaving blankets, sewing clothes and making pots. He danced also like they did, never like a man, whose dance is different. In all, he appeared more a woman than a man."
Well, any other juicy details in the colonial archives? Thought you'd never ask.
As you may have deduced by now, the manner in which these precolonial societies conducted themselves didn't go over so well. All the free-loving, gender-variant-permitting, gender equality wokeness clashed viciously with the European sensibilities at the time, so much so that the Spanish missionaries spent the next 300 years trying to enforce their two-sex, two-gender model. Many Spanish friars also thought that the cross-dressing babaylan were either celibates like themselves or had deficient or malformed genitals. But this was pure speculation. Documents compiled between 1679 and 1685, called "The Bolinao Manuscript," mentions male shamans marrying women. The Boxer Codex, circa 1590, provide clues on the nature of the male babaylan sexuality. It says, "Ordinarily they dress as women, act like prudes and are so effeminate that one who does know them would believe they are women. Almost all are impotent for the reproductive act, and thus they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife and have carnal knowledge." Carnal knowledge, of course, meaning sex.
Now, there's an ongoing debate in contemporary society about what constitutes gender and how it should be defined. My country is no exception. Some countries like Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Nepal and Canada have begun introducing nonbinary options in their legal documents, such as their passports and their permanent resident cards.
In all these discussions about gender, I think it's important to keep in mind that the prevailing notions of man and woman as static genders anchored strictly on biological sex are social constructs. In my people's case, this social construct is an imposition. It was hammered into their heads over hundreds of years until they were convinced that their way of thinking was erroneous. But the good thing about social constructs is they can be reconstructed to fit a time and age. They can be reconstructed to respond to communities that are becoming more diverse. And they can be reconstructed for a world that's starting to realize we have so much to gain from learning and working through our differences.
When I think about this subject, I think about the Filipino people and an almost forgotten but important legacy of gender equality and inclusivity.
I think about lovers who were some of the gentlest souls I had known but could not be fully open. I think about people who have made an impact in my life, who showed me that integrity, kindness and strength of character are far better measures of judgment, far better than things that are beyond a person's control such as their skin color, their age or their gender.
As I stand here today, on the shoulders of people like Lenie, I feel incredibly grateful for all who have come before me, the ones courageous enough to put themselves out there, who lived a life that was theirs and in the process, made it a little easier for us to live our lives now. Because being yourself is revolutionary. And to anyone reeling from forces trying to knock you down and cram you into these neat little boxes people have decided for you: don't break. I see you. My ancestors see you. Their blood runs through me as they run through so many of us. You are valid, and you deserve rights and recognition just like everyone else.
The other day I watched a YouTube video where a veteran came home to surprise his wife and young children. There were tears rolling down everyone's cheeks. The children were holding onto their father for dear life. Even the dogs were bouncing off the walls. There was so much compassion and love that I started crying too. And I don't even know these people.
Your energy and emotions are contagious. We transfer our energy to each other all the time. For better or for worse. Often without realizing it. Maybe you've seen how one grumpy co-worker can sink the mood of an entire conference room of people. Or how one energetic sports fan can get the whole table of people cheering for their team.
These are just three examples of what I call energy transference. And when I say energy I'm not talking about particles, radiation or thermodynamics. I'm talking about energy. Like your personal feelings, moods and attitudes. The people around you can feel your positive energy. And it can even shift their energy from negative to neutral, neutral to positive. And if you're upset your negative energy can make others upset.
I have seen how long-standing disputes have circled around the world endlessly. Leaving so much pain and suffering. So, I decided to go for my PhD in dispute resolution. I wondered if there were alternative ways to resolve conflict. So, in my research I interviewed 11 professional mediators and facilitators. They had decades of experience with major companies, governments and family counseling. They all agreed that positive energy transference is an innate ability and a learnable skill. One that you can use in your daily life.
Everyone can act as a mediator. Whether it's in a formal mediation or in a merger, a conflict with a co-worker, an argument between friends or strangers. Or even at home in the middle of the kitchen floor holding two children back as they throw punches at each other.
So today I'll tell you how to resolve conflicts transferring energy and using your positive energy. But first, a word of warning. To succeed, all parties of the conflict must want to work it out.
In my first marriage we went to a divorce counselor and the first question she asked was,
"Do you want to work this out?"
I said, "No, not really."
So, she said, "Well, sorry I can't help you."
So, we turned around and walked back out.
So, assuming that's not the case here are three simple steps to unstick a conflict move it forward using your positive energy and come away with a peaceful resolution.
Step one: Prepare. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a mediator is to jump right into a conflict when the emotions are high. Whenever possible, the best bet is to set a future date and time. When the emotions and energy can settle and deflate giving you the opportunity to get ready for the conflict. And to start shifting positive energy into the mediation. For example, say your daughter wants to go bungee jumping and dad says, "no way." So, she comes to you and asks you if you can help her talk to him. You think it's a crazy idea to tie a rope around your ankles and jump off a 500-foot bridge. But you can't say that because you're the mediator. So, this is what you do instead. You schedule a time that's convenient for everyone. You meet in the most comfortable room that has no distractions. You make sure that everyone has a glass of cold water. You meditate for a few minutes to eliminate outside distractions. This will allow you to focus, stay impartial, and bring your positive energy into the mediation.
Step two: Diffuse and move forward. In step two you want to observe, listen and ask questions to diffuse the conflict and move it towards a collaboration. Asking neutral questions will make people stop and think. During this pause, we'll allow negative energy to start diffusing. During that time the negative energy and emotions will start deflating and that'll give you time to shift positive energy into the conversation. For example, I was a project manager and we were installing a major software system for a payroll system. The contracts and schedules were finalized, and the client requested a major change in the vendors. And this caused a heated conflict between the groups doing the work. Once you've prepared for the conflict you have to sit down with all the major groups and start asking neutral and non-threatening questions. Ask questions like, "Well how much will this cost?" and "When can it get done?" This will give you the intent that you're suggesting a collaboration. And you're going to ask what do you think about this new change? This will help people diffuse and feel like they are validated. And also ask, "Are there other possibilities that we haven't considered?" This will refocus on new ideas rather than fixed points of view. So, when the smoke has cleared and the stone faces begin to melt, that's time to get a consensus. Once that's completed you have that positive energy going for you.
So, step three: Step three is to make an agreement. I was told in the interviews that the energy in the room is constantly moving and changing. And once the energy is neutral that's time to get a consensus. In a verbal or written agreement. That's true in business in interpersonal conflicts too. I co-mediated conflict between three college roommates. And we discussed everything from who would take out the trash on which days to how they would use the open living space. And even though this was a mediation between friends we still wrote up a written agreement with specific steps to make sure there was no misunderstandings.
I believe that there's a resolution to all conflicts. It just takes a willingness to try. Your positive energy. That comes from your compassion, empathy, and sincere intentions and it's your desire that sets it in motion. So, I believe that everyone can use their positive energy to resolve the next conflict in their life.