Today's Word: 6.09.14...Even When You Can't See The Path, Begin Walking!

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I think about some of the most incredible moments in my life, I must say that I do not know where I would be without faith.

Whether it has been packing my things and moving to New York when I felt my spiritual and creative development being stifled in my previous environment or taking on a role as a leader in a previously failing school, being able to say yes even when fear was yelling "hell no," has not only opened my mind to the infinite possibilities in this life, but it has allowed me to discover the courage that exists within me.

Some of the greatest moments in your life will come simply because you will have the courage to begin walking without knowing where the path may lead.

Don't Let Life Defer Your Dreams

As an artist it is insanely difficult to prioritize your craft amidst the hectic life of full-time employment at (INSERT COMPANY NAME HERE), where menial tasks take up all of your time and leave your gift unfulfilled.

Working in a dead end job feels foreign to you no matter how many years you do it, and you tell yourself it is worth it for the steady pay, especially in this economy and that you’ll do some writing, painting or sculpting this weekend or next.

I wouldn’t suggest that we all strip off our suits and throw our company ID badges in a river and live in a nudist colony. It’s tempting, but not the most practical solution. I would suggest that you take a moment to breathe and ask yourself if what you’re doing at your job makes you happy?

I have asked myself time and again if inputting data or helping a customer has brought me the kind of satisfaction that resonates at my core, and the answer is an emphatic NO! This has led me to ask not only what makes me happy, but what fulfills me and for me the answer is creative writing.

On a whim one day, I sat in front of my keyboard and found myself weaving a world of my own filled with desperation and insurmountable odds, (not unlike my reality) except that there were zombies in this world. When I finished, I had ten pages that I couldn’t believe I had written. I would later scrutinize my piece to high hell, but the satisfaction of having created something from raw emotion was world shaking.

Discovering what you are meant to be doing is only a small part of the equation. Once you have your passion and purpose in your Oprah embroidered spirit warrior holster, how do you make time to utilize it? The simple answer is anytime you can.

If you are a writer like myself, then write on the train or on your breaks. Get your technology in the mix and jot down any ideas you have in your cellphone notepad. Whatever it takes, don’t allow circumstances to defer your dreams.

I have seen the dreamless eyes of adults who prided themselves on staying with the same company for twenty years, and while being a diligent worker is an admirable endeavor it hardly causes that necessary resonance that reminds you that you’re worthy to experience wonder from within.

You must find the time for the work that your soul is calling you to do. The voice of God, the Void, your Ancestors or perhaps nature is calling you to realize something within yourself!

If you are a parent, practice your craft once the kids are asleep even if only for twenty minutes at a time. If you simply cannot muster sitting and working another hour after life has allowed you to slow down, then write while you are in the thick of existing in your chaos. Own your chaos!

As a writer, I try to take in the details and I keep a notebook and pen on me at all times, so that I can indulge my muse whenever it calls out to me. Inspiration and intuition speak to you all the time, and learning to listen to it with respect to your craft is essential.

Take stock of the energy you are allotting to things that don’t require the emotional investment. Don’t shirk the responsibilities of your employment, because that is a commitment you made, but realize that as an artist, you have a calling and if you neglect it, you are creating a future with regret and unanswered questions about opportunities that have long since slipped past your withered fingers.

Remind yourself daily that you will use your gift, whether it is for five minutes or twelve hours. Remind yourself that you and your gift are worthy of being acknowledged.

Utilizing your talent is an affirmation of your existence and you deserve to be here!

Written by Taj Shareef, 

Contributor and Thought Partner

Letting the Small be Small

When I attended church two Sundays ago I was disappointed to find that the executive pastor was out of town. While I have not been impressed by every sermon I've heard him deliver, I have at times appreciated his style and cannot say that I have ever left his church without receiving a meaningful lesson. In his absence, a student from the Princeton Theological Seminary read a sermon from an iPad that was less than moving. Though tired, I remained true to my belief that listeners have just as much responsibility as speakers and as a member of the audience I needed to have faith that if I listened carefully to what the minister was saying and what she was not saying, I would hear something powerful. Fortunately, I was right.

Toward the end of her address, the guest pastor that day made one statement that put everything into perspective for me. In her calm and even tone she simply asserted that although "we are always busy we are seldom productive."

I'm a writer. If you leave me in a room with nothing more than paper and pen or a laptop, I will be at home. Writing however is one small part of my life when in reality, as I believe it's directly aligned to my purpose, it should be the biggest part of my life. The truth is, like many people artistic or not, I am very busy. I’m busy with emails, meetings, and phone calls. I’m busy designing projects and executing tasks I'm given regardless of how important I think they are because I am afraid that my fragile reputation might be tarnished if I turn out to be a terrible employee.

For nearly 25 years, my identity has been wrapped up in creating a story of success built on what can be said about my education, my intelligence, my network, my work, talents and career goals. What I'm seeing more and more is that all of these things are forms of external validation that are often misaligned with my internal purpose and self-perception. In many ways, I've been spending countless hours of my life investing in work and conversations I have been made to believe matter when actually their significance is miniscule.

Sometime last week, this reality hit me and I had to ask myself what would happen if I suddenly neglected to accomplish every item on my excessively long list of tasks and the gut reaction response was sad: probably nothing.

Does this mean I'm going to suddenly give up on the life I've established, quit my job and go out west to a secluded cabin where I can live under an alias and publish books? It’s tempting, but unlikely. What I am going to do though is make the big bigger and let the small things be small for the sake of my own emotional and spiritual health.

I'm going to zoom out more often to see the larger picture and pause before I go above and beyond to assess the potential impact of where I place my energy. I deserve, as we all do, to be my fullest and most joyful self and if I don't let the small things be small they'll continue to overshadow all of the glory that's within me.

Balanced Thinking, A Much Needed Commodity

In the space of education reform (my primary area of professional experience) there are new solutions to the needs of our nation's children every year which are both endorsed and attacked with great passion. These policies and practices are very political and often times personal for the thousands of men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving children in our country's most disadvantaged communities. Debates are infused with strong language and often extreme positions are espoused in efforts create a sense of excitement and sometimes fear. I suppose in many ways, education reform is not drastically different from other complicated political issues with respect to the sorts of behaviors it drives leaders to demonstrate.

In watching the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC), it is clear to me that economic and social issues are at the forefront of many of our nation's leaders. What doesn't always seem present though in the debates we hear in the political arena is a strong appreciation for balanced thinking.

While reading an article last week titled 15 Ways 20-Somethings Ruin Their Twenties  I was delighted to discover the author’s push for us to consider that being a "pessimistic, opinionated hater" likely means that we need to have a better pulse on reality. "Every movie out isn’t terrible, every song isn’t garbage.” Speaking to the kind of pessimistic character who is intent on taking extreme positions, the article suggests that “…this personality type is in for a reality check when eventually nobody wants anything to do with ‘em." Well it turns out that this kind of behavior isn’t exclusive to 20-somethings. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at American politics.

Meditating on the presence of the “pessimistic, opinionated hater” made me think of conversations I have had about my beliefs and opinions at ages twenty-two, twenty-three and now twenty-five. In reflecting on the shifts in my own views and the way I speak about what I observe, I found that I've learned to accept a higher level of ambiguity that is inherent in life while also finding a way to stand firm in my values and opinions without completely ignoring the reality that there's always a small chance I may be completely wrong. I’ve learned to see not just black and white but every color surrounding every issue I encounter.

Today I can fully admire the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives and to cite both affirming and dissenting evidence in forming an opinion. This does make sense, right? I mean what good is it for us to talk about our beliefs in a way that does not demonstrate our ability to fully assess a situation? Don’t we risk sounding authoritative and intellectually arrogant to the point that we neglect opportunities to see the forest for the trees? If balanced thinking makes sense (and I know it does) then why is there such a lack of it in the space of public affairs?

Now I will say my ability to think in multiple dimensions has been stretched to its limits over the past month in listening to the Republican Party discuss their views on abortion as well as a number of other key issues. These are views that often neglect the practice of balanced thinking and while I can sit through an interview with just about any conservative who fundamentally believes in dismissing a woman's right to bodily integrity in pursuit of defending the rights of an unborn child or fetus (may I remind you often not discriminating on the basis of how that living being comes about) I do reserve my right to call such beliefs close-minded and replete with unbalanced thought. Still, my strong beliefs won't stop me from listening to others and really thinking critically about what they're saying and attempting to understand not just their positions but how they in fact arrived to those positions in an effort to more fully shape and understand my own.

Balanced thinking involves a willingness to listen carefully, instead of running away from or attacking views that don't immediately fit into our own brains. It's a commodity that is needed in political, professional and personal realms of life. We must strive to avoid the easier path toward forming concrete opinions rooted in what social scientists refer to as cognitive distortion—seeing things in black and white.

Unless we are willing to balance our thinking, chances are we'll seldom see the whole picture and quite frankly life and all of the many important issues we must resolve in the interest of our nation are far too colorful for that.

For more information on common barriers to balanced thinking and cognitive distortions visit 10 Negative Thinking Patters to Avoid

3 Ways To Own Your Email

I don't know about you, but the overwhelming email culture in both the non-profit and business sector (so I hear from friends) is out of control. Three weeks ago, I became ill and spent two days away from my email prior to returning to work after a weekend. Though I knew for sure that I would have some unread email to filter through, I did not expect my total unread emails to reach what I considered a depressing 387 on a Monday morning. Granted some of these messages were from the previous week, but too much damage had been done in my short absence for my own comfort. After spending more than half of my day responding to these messages I did something I've never done before. I courageously declared email bankruptcy.  Highlighting all of the messages in my inbox that had not yet been filed I calmly and cautiously pressed delete and held my breath for a few seconds waiting for a helicopter to suddenly appear outside of the window and a tactical team to sweep into the office and detain me for violating some complicated unknown law regarding national security. It never happened... To my surprise my world did not suddenly come crashing down and I exhaled releasing one of the heaviest work related burdens I carry, email overload.

Feeling good I then took my war against excessive  email one step further. I posted a permanent automatic email response  message with three fundamentally radical ideas that I hope will spread like wildfire among my colleagues.

Do you find yourself sometimes being owned by your email? Well you don't have to suffer anymore. Turn the tables around and begin your personal journey toward owning your email with three suggestions for all of those dear friends and colleagues who just can't seem to avoid reaching out to you.

1) Abandon the body and use the subject line. Suggest that task related messages focus solely on the task. Tell your colleagues to skip the inquiries into the quality of your weekend and get straight to the point by simply stating what they want from you in the subject line of the email. They don't need to write anything in the body of the email itself. When possible suggest they be as short as possible and simply state "Send updated project plan."

2) Phone a friend. Unless you're a part of that microscopic segment of our nation's population who don't believe in modern technology and suspect cell phones are just another way for the government to keep tabs on us (which they are by the way), you have a phone and that phone allows you to have quick conversations that avoid the back and forth steps one usually has to take to facilitate a conversation over email.  Ask that when feasible your colleagues simply pick up the damn phone and give you a ring.

3) The 200 Character Challenge. Twitter gives us 140 characters. Be nice and throw in an extra 60 characters. When the message can't be summed up in a subject line, ask your colleagues to be as short as possible and send you "tweet like" emails. To accomplish this they may need to cut out some words and write incomplete/improper sentence (Ex: need to analyze data for upcoming meeting. would like your assistance. send times of availability.) Come on! This is our chance as adults to keep it simple and stick it to that mean, rigid English teacher we had in high school.

These steps are easy and while they may not cure the problems you see with your own email culture, I can assure you that my own experience tells me that they're a step in the right direction. Best of luck!