Author Archives: Deborah Vrabel

Weekly Reflection: A Full Notebook

On August 23, 2016, I picked up an 80-page journal and started recording ideas and taking notes for a book centered on an idea I had been playing with and talking about for quite a while. It was called the think pond.

This weekend, at a cabin by a river, I filled the last page.

Now what?

I now have 80 pages of thoughts and ideas that can be used in a book or in-depth essay. I think I have the makings of a model people can use as our world undergoes what some have said is a wave of change that is more profound than the Industrial Revolution and seems to be on the verge of breaking. Now it is time to pull it together into a work that has a distinct identity and that people can understand and use.

The two years it took to fill this notebook and write about some of the ideas have been tumultuous. I have lost my Dad and sister-in-law. My household has expanded, pushing me out of one office and then another. (I have been working at home since 1996.) In January 2017, my two little grandsons, now ages 6 and 4, came to live with us. Work in that year was mostly impossible because the promise of these two little lives was even more compelling to me. And of course, the consequences of the 2016 election invaded my thoughts, making me question much about human nature, the systems I thought I knew, and the future. Both the pressure of urgency and the inertia of despair have been present. Many times, I thought about quitting. Writing is hard. The children need so much from me. But this vision I have will not let me go.

So I am making a one-year plan for getting this project—the book and the organization needed to make it known—into a state of reality and off the ground. (Or should I say on the ground and out of the clouds?)

Weekly Reflection: Changes We’re Missing

As someone who spent much of the 90s writing about technological revolution, I was thinking about how that revolution was just the tip of the iceberg. So much attention was focused on that while all the structures of our society and how we think were being reconfigured.

I began to think about the ideas of the scientist Ilya Prigogine who many may remember was cited in Margaret J. Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe (1992, Berrett-Koehler). I pulled out my copy and read that while it makes sense to stabilize machines and structures as a way to prevent deterioration, living systems (organizations) need non-equilibrium to change and grow because they exchange energy with their environments. Prigogine said living systems are “dissipative structures.” As Wheatley, t explains it, they “dissipate their energy in order to recreate themselves into new forms of organizations” (88).

In ecosystems, for example, external fluctuations in the environment exert great pressure on the system and the system uses its energy very inefficiently, but “as the ecosystem matures, it develops an internal stability, a resiliency to the environment that, in turn, creates conditions that support more efficient use of energy and protection from environmental demands”(92).

Wheatley applies these ideas to organizations. In the factory model, she says, “managers watched for departures from the norm so they could “make corrections and preserve the system at its current levels of activity”(78). Systems that are organized around core competencies but open to information from outside are less vulnerable to environmental disturbances. Their more fluid structure ultimately leads to an internal stability. As expressed by one scientist she quotes (Jantsch), “the more freedom in self-organization, the more order.”

On other words, there is much more happening in education than a change in tools. Trying to impose the old factory model using new tools will not work. Openness, creativity and freedom to innovate are the system of learning that is being born as the old system of education dies.

Weekly Reflection: Fall 1918 Revisited

Exactly a century ago, the modernist poet Amy Lowell wrote a poem about walking down the street on a beautiful fall afternoon that was “the colour of water falling through sunlight.” Lowell says that all she can do with this beautiful day in September 1918 is put it in her lunchbox and save it for another day when there is no war.

“I have time for nothing,” says her last line, “but the endeavour to balance myself upon a broken world.”

I’ve always loved the imagery of that poem, as well as the little glimpse of the world into which my grandparents were born. Now, as I look at our politics, all the breakdowns in our society, all the violence and racism, the constant state of war,  I feel the poignancy of that last line so much more deeply.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42990/september-1918

Weekly Reflection: Wondering About Einstein

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

Albert Einstein

I am intrigued by the fact that Albert Einstein attributed his groundbreaking scientific theories to both mathematics and imagination, that he played his violin every day, and that he once said “I often think in music.”

I wonder: Did Einstein’s love of music and his interest in so many divergent streams of 20th century life play a role in his amazing ability to perform thought experiments about the mysteries of time, space, light, and energy?

We’ll never know. But few would discount the value of imagination and intuition in Einstein’s work. And shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that his genius was somehow interwoven with his music?

See some great Einstein quotes at the Think Pond Pinterest Board.

Weekly Reflection: Mentoring

Mentoring relationships can change lives. But does mentoring always have to follow the same pattern? What we need to learn and how we can best learn it changes throughout our lives, and often we find ourselves challenged in very different ways at the same time.

Although there is much to be said for the lifelong bonds that can form when a seasoned professional takes a young person under his or her wing, the younger generations also can mentor their elders. I believe everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Moreover, some people might benefit more from a series of mentors. At one age, we might need a mentor to build our confidence and help with how we present ourselves while later it might be a good thinker who can help us consider all the angles as we make big decisions. At various times, we may need one mentor to help us master a discipline or profession, another who has connections that will help us identify and get selected for opportunities, and another who helps us see the big picture. Some of us may need mentors to help us with relatively small and peripheral but still important area of our careers.

Imagine an engineer, She works in casual clothes every day but may need someone with good fashion sense to help her look good for a professional presentation and someone else to give her tips for presenting. She may also need a mentor who helps her step out of her comfort zone in an area like writing for publication. She may need a mentor who helps her make her way when she is the only young person or the only female on a project team and another who helps her when the time comes to become a team leader—or to make the transition into upper management. She may need a mentor when she has her first child—someone who is an expert at balancing work and mothering or someone who is the kind of mother she wants to be.

No single individual could provide all those mentoring relationships.

Weekly Reflection: Defining Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a process that we use to arrive at a better understanding of what is true in situations that extend beyond verifying simple facts. The subject might be an artistic or literary work. It can be an assertion or claim made by a specific individual, such as a politician, activist, journalist, author, or teacher. Or it can be a whole philosophy, school of thought, or system.

When we use critical thinking, we observe, compare, contrast, and analyze. We interpret using our own knowledge and imagination (often supplemented by the knowledge or ideas of experts). Then we evaluate against accepted criteria to arrive at a claim about the qualities of the subject.

“Critical” is often interpreted as looking for and pointing out what’s wrong with someone’s actions or words. However, “critical” should be a neutral word. The enemies of critical thinking (other than laziness) are our assumptions, biases, and loyalties, as well as our self-interest.

Additional information on critical thinking.

Weekly Reflection: Defining Creativity & Innovation

I define creativity as a way of being in which we draw from the imagination, the intellect, and the world around us to bring something new into being. Innovation is the use of creative ideas (along with technical knowledge and practical thinking) to add new value to an existing idea, product, process, environment, or system. Purely creative action draws heavily from the intuition, maybe even the “collective unconscious,” while innovation combines a wider range of intelligences along with creativity. When we say that people, ideas, or work products are “creative,” usually we mean original, new, and unexpected. When we use the label “innovative,” we are acknowledging the creative characteristics of a person, idea, or product, but we are more focused on effectiveness or usefulness. Innovation has a connotation of advancing a genre or discipline forward.

Both creativity and innovation capture attention and make us see, think, and feel differently.
The terms are often used interchangeably. In a work of art, for example, one might describe the innovative aspects as the technical part—Van Gogh’s brushstrokes and colors and how they took the techniques of Impressionism a step further—while the creative part is how his unique psyche opened itself up to and responded to his emotions and the spiritual impulses that flowed into him. The Apple MacIntosh gave us the graphical user interface, the mouse, and other innovations, but it also gave us an experience and an aesthetic that were the products of creative work.

Creative geniuses receive the greatest acclaim in the arts and advertising, but innovators are the heroes in most other spheres. In the moment, investors, upper managers, and others who are seeking results value a program improvement or a new market-ready product more than they value a whole portfolio of creative ideas. That’s understandable. The impacts of innovation are more visible, immediate, and measurable, while the impact of a purely creative work is first an internal change that occurs in those who encounter the work, and then how that encounter shapes their thoughts and actions over time and often in concert with other stimuli, That means the original creative idea gets little or no credit for changing anything.

In other words, under the surface of every innovation is a network of creative thoughts, ideas, and artifacts that was humming and sparking and rippling and glinting and shimmering and whispering its magic into the minds and processes that created the thing of measurable value.

What Does It Mean to Thrive at Work?

To thrive at work is to provide for my family while doing work that aligns with my vision of life and of a better world. The work is meaningful to me and I am fully exercising the abilities I value. Thriving means I have an appropriate balance between stability and flexibility so that I am always able to foresee and adapt to changes in my field. It means I am able to contribute to the work of others and call upon a network of collaborators when an exciting opportunity opens. It means having the freedom to try new things and explore new ideas.

Think Pond Tools: Basic Rules for Sustaining New Endeavors

Entrepreneurial projects are most vulnerable in the early stages, when no one is yet earning money or public recognition. People see the possibilities. They are excited. They want to be part of the team. They are willing to contribute. Then a team member sees an opportunity to get immediate financial benefits or career advancement. The need to earn a living and achieve security is compelling. Thus they place the experiment on the back burner. The project loses momentum. The leader says nothing because he or she can’t pay anyone yet. The promising endeavor fizzles.

Similar problems arise in the world of nonprofits. A team with a promising new program idea may become quickly diverted when a new grant solicitation offers the opportunity for short-term gains.

Think Ponds sustain members’ experiments and projects by adhering to these ground rules:

  • We will communicate as a team every x weeks, even when nothing is going on.
  • For an active project, the project leader will update the team regularly (at an agreed-upon interval).
  • There will be at least one mechanism for sharing information as it emerges and keeping the whole group up-to-date on important developments.
  • We will make only commitments we can keep. Barring dire circumstances, we will keep our commitments even if it means making greater sacrifices than originally anticipated.
  • If we are having an unforeseen problem that could affect a project we have committed to, we will let the leader know immediately so that backup can be planned or schedule adjusted. In dire circumstances, we will do everything we can to make sure we can hand off the work in the best shape possible.

Inspiring Quotes for Think Ponds

“The future is not in building a new tower of Babel, but in cultivating well trodden paths from house to house.”
Raimundo Panikkar

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Howard Zinn

“Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope…These ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Robert F. Kennedy