The imperfection in progress

In many ways, I am improving. I am more professional than ever. My values and principles are cemented. I deeply understand the importance of kindness, integrity, work ethic, honesty, charity, and thankfulness. I am proud of these aspects of myself and often feel like I’m measuring up to self-expectations.

However, this growth comes at an expense. It’s an early expense that I have faith will pay dividends in the future, but it is an expense nonetheless. That is, my daily experience is one of friction. It’s a constant grind.

This is a reoccurring theme in my life and therefore on this blog. The feeling has evolved over time. I’m learning to dance with the anxiety and responsibility, but it frequently still steps on my toes.

School, work, driving, preparing for graduate school, self-care, multiple weekly deadlines to hit, a constant compelling need to put my best foot forward and make the right decisions – these are omnipresent forces.

These things take time to adjust to. The key things I need to learn to do is keep a daily calendar of activities and update it as soon as a new meeting pops up and slow down and re-read everything before I send it.

The major things are taken care of, but the devil is in the details. Everything is in the details. I repeat: everything is in the details.

In the future, it is likely that I will be extremely well organized, an immensely kind, good man, and professional through and through. This is 10 to 15 years from now. 24-year-old Kyle until then, well, like I said, he dances. He dances with his own humanity. His own self-doubt. His own weaknesses. He is certainly getting better, but he has a long way to go before he is there.

One thing I said recently that I think adds up is, “One of the key things I’m doing right now is figuring out the balance between what’s an appropriate level of acceptance for human nature and what’s unprofessional.” To put it differently, what I should kick myself about and what’s being too hard on myself.

The response from one of the most professional and well-respected men I’ve met: “If you figure it out, you let me know.”

In truth, I don’t know if the grind ever stops for a leader. At least not for a long time.

I’ve been told I’m too hard on myself for a couple of years now. I’m likely a perfectionist. There’s a fine line between perfectionism and professionalism, between leading by example and being relatable. But I want to be the best role model. I want to be the greatest version of myself because that’s what the world needs. The world has enough people who are willing to settle for their lack of integrity because they’re only human.

I’m going through this – really, really, really giving it my best shot. Giving my work and school and life my best shot. I think self-help gurus will tell you that folks will notice. The thing is if they do, I don’t know. People seem too busy to notice or if they do, they notice quietly. They don’t express your reputation to you. They don’t let you know if you’re messing up.

A failure looks a lot like someone passing the buck because they don’t respect you. They’re too busy. They’re not the best person to help you out. People aren’t going to tell you that you’ve blown it. If they do, count yourself likely. You might save a knowingly failed opportunity if only you can become aware of it.

Success looks a lot like getting to the graduate school application process and at the end someone telling you that they’ve written you the best letter of recommendation they’ve ever drafted.

Trust takes years to build and just one instance to blow.

It’s super easy to slight others.

THIS is why I’m hard on myself.

Success and failure are nimble and nuanced, everyday occurrences, and these will likely depend on whether some person in power who probably doesn’t even know you that well thinks you can or should make it.

I can’t wait until I bypass all these doors, to prove to others that I’m worth their salt, and to be in a position to look back and help others find their paths.

The put together 35-year-old I will likely be won’t act like the noncaring, flippant authorities I’ve too often been forced to tolerate. If and when I make it, I will boldly declare that my peers, the students that I teach, and the children in my life matter. And I’ll demonstrate that by my actions. I’ll believe in them and give them hope. I will get to know them, their dreams, their passions, their stories. I will take the time because I know what it’s like to be disregarded. I know what it’s like to be the intern people call just “the intern”.

To be the server, the busboy, the dishwasher, the pizza maker, the delivery driver, the restaurant host, the burger flipper, the drive-thru guy, the loser, and the outcast most folks don’t give the time of day in a meaningful way.

I know, in other words, what it’s like to struggle, to work hard and have it seem like no one notices or appreciates it.

I just gotta keep going to be that person I know I can be. You keep going, too. We’re in this together.

Why your government doesn’t engage you

Here’s a paradox: people working for the government have a tendency to believe that citizens don’t care. They think citizens want an effective, efficient government that operates quietly in the background steadily adapting to deliver higher quality services more economically. Yet, at the same time, they like to avoid social media like the plague. They view it as a trap to not get caught into.

Don’t get me wrong, many governments are beginning to take part in one-way communication online. They post information like important public notices, event notifications, or service updates. But, when it comes to a substantive discussion they miss the mark.

They do this by not going to Facebook groups like “I lived in [insert city name] before there were stoplights” or “Concerned citizens of [insert city name]”. They say that these Facebook groups are just looking for trouble. They even extend this as far as saying Nextdoor isn’t a good resource.

“The public is misinformed, and all they want to do is complain. After all, they only show up to meetings when it’s negative.” This is something you might here offhandedly while out for dinner. It’d be no surprise.

The paradox is that they say citizens don’t care while acknowledging that, actually, some do. Some really, really do. They just don’t care in a way that leaders like. They care loudly. They care from a place of misinformation or from a differing perspective. In short, they care in a way that governments don’t want them to care.

An inconvenient truth that I predict will become paramount in my career as it advances is that democracy in practice looks a lot like: some very active residents we might disagree with complaining regularly at meetings (the thorns in our side), some vague general frustration among the general public about some public policy issue (the mass that just complains and doesn’t do anything), and generally speaking, a mess. Human beings are messy. We’re emotional. We’re too busy to get all the facts. And all we know is we are worried about [insert issue].

It’s an unpopular opinion to say that governments should go head first into these public debates. It’s likely going to upset the apple cart, make it hard to execute policy efforts, and get as much done. However, we MUST do so if we are to adapt properly to changing demographics, if we are to adapt equitably to increased life demands and media distractions.

 

The power of appreciation and being a good person

Most people don’t have access to the kind of power that money brings or great connections. So, in these typical circumstances how do you gain influence?

According to Tom Peters in his book The Pursuit of Wow and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, perhaps unexpectedly, the answer seems to be to just act with genuine care, generosity, forgiveness, and empathy

By doing things like demonstrating you care through thank-you notes, voicing appreciation, sharing credit abundantly, and being sincerely interested in others, people who interact with us will experience a psychological affinity. We gravitate toward the good, and we want to follow people who seem to sincerely be seeking our best interests.

Commercial and authentic art

If you dreamed of being a great documentary filmmaker, but you ended up developing trailers for movies, you’ve sold out.

But what if you develop movies on the side?

Are you discounting the dream?

If you dreamed of being a great writer, but you’ve taken a job as a local journalist, or worse, a manager at a local bank, are you truly living or are you getting by?

The distinction between commercial and authentic art isn’t easy to determine.

In the end, create what brings you joy.

Data and government

I’ve just wrapped up working on some data collection for a new research project that assesses what Illinois governments are taking the initiative on open data. Unsurprisingly, only three of the top 30 municipalities in the state have a substantial amount of their data publicly available.

Well, I guess some have highly detailed financial documents available, but what’s the use if it’s uninterpretable to the average person?

Shout out to Naperville, Evanston, and Chicago for their data portals.

In the spirit of government’s lack of transparency, here is a cartoon by Chris Lysy at Fresh Spectrum. Chris is a visual designer and consultant and his illustrations are about engaging stakeholders, presenting data, and more. Also, he seems like good people.

Can-I-peruse-our-data-1024x768

Intentionality

Will is a force that can be used to construct if one is not guided by blind desire.

Thoughts lead to words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits become character. These are powerful statements from Margaret Thatcher, which are further carried by James Allen in As a Man Thinketh.

Men and women, he writes, are makers of themselves – “by virtue of the thoughts which they choose and encourage; that mind is the master-weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance, and that, as they may have hitherto woven in ignorance and pain they may now weave in enlightenment and happiness.”

Figuring out how to be and behaving as a good person is hard. You can try to follow the dictates of your conscience, to make the decisions you wish to, and to be confident about them. But it’s still a struggle.

You can try to treat strangers with friendliness; verbally thank those who conduct thankless jobs; be honest with yourself and others; convey empathy and thoughtfulness about another’s perspective or feelings; cultivate mutual respect and understanding; recycle when you can; count your blessings; and take time for people who you care about, the few folks who really care about you, the rare to find, genuine carers.

Notably, it’s difficult in part to be good because these are the rare ones. A community establishes cultural norms, and if there were more it would set a new standard. They shouldn’t be rare. It is an injustice.

One morally useful religious quote is Ecclesiastes 1:18: For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. 

There are so many major problems facing the world, and people mostly seem to be concerned with themselves, how they compare or how well-liked they are; or sports; or some movie or show; or their own small problems.

There needs to be so much more urgency. Its lacking might be caused by the spirit of capitalism, poor education, a lack of community, or something else – people seem so content with vanity and insincerity. The world needs to offer greater acknowledgment of the struggle billions face. People say this a lot, but it still isn’t said enough. It must be stated daily. Goodness must be championed.

Over a billion human beings don’t have clean drinking water. People are living on cents a day. Minorities in America face intense discrimination. Rich people are hoarding their money and strive for it greedily to maintain their power and status. Women and people in poverty are directly and indirectly denied educations. We are experiencing a massive extinction of species. People are refusing to try to listen to different perspectives.

There are no teams. There is only us, getting together to try to figure things out, and we’re doing a really bad job at it.

Yes, it’s hard to be a good person. It’s uncomfortable to place expectations on yourself and to admit when you might need to change your actions or your ideas. The proverb, it is stated in Plato’s Republic, “holds that hard is the good.”

You must try. We are failing the next generation.

Democracy can work better

It isn’t that people are apathetic, that they don’t care about what’s going on at city hall and just want to live their lives with the government operating in the background.

It’s that the government’s communication strategy is terrible.

We live in a hectic world where we’re constantly interrupted, and they are publishing 150-page documents filled with jargon and without any sense of context or narrative to their websites then just posting it in the newspaper because they’re legally obligated.

People tend to only show up to complain or be negative because they’ve only just been explained how policy impacts their daily lives.

The government needs to be dedicating more resources to tell their stories – in media besides the newspaper. No one reads newspapers.

Invest in good video communications, relatable tweets, and creative engagement.

Show up to churches and schools and let students know how your policy will impact their lives.

They’ll care if you explain it right.

Get past busy by creating better content, showing up, and adapting the medium.

If we evolve our mediums, we can start healing our broken communities.

The failures and successes witnessed

My first internship with the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce terrified me. I walked away so dismayed about professional life I emailed Northern Illinois University’s College of Business, telling them I was terrified. Here is how I ended the email:

I feel like college and the real world is going to crush my twenty year old dreams, and I’ll end up like everyone else – hoping – letting competition crush them and letting their distant dreams fade into what could have been.
I’m writing this to you after being less than 8 months to transfer feeling an impending sense of concern in that the next few years I’ll be scraping by, flipping burgers trying to find a decent part-time entry job making nothing hoping I might have an element of leadership (which I’ve read up on extensively) to put me somewhere where maybe I might live an okay life. I’m scrambling to learn any skill I can e.g. excel, free certification of project management, SWOT analysis, business plan development so that hopefully life doesn’t kick me down.
In short and in absolute, sincere honesty I am absolutely terrified.
That was just over four years ago. I felt I wasn’t ready because I had studied classes such as Contemporary Social Problem, Marriage and Family, and Abnormal Psychology rather than ones like Managerial Accounting.
In addition, I was deeply concerned that so many people settle for an average life, are disingenuous and only act kind because they want a connection, or get a little success and think they’re big man (or woman) on campus.
Here’s a great tip: If you want to see how someone really is, see how they treat people they can’t get anything from.
Professionals get so caught up playing their “game” or trying to advance their careers that they forgot to take enough time to listen and provide mentorship to the next generation.
I saw them mock citizens on social media, take pride in their ability to slam the public who were against the policies they were pursuing, look down on their colleagues, and not follow-up with me or treat me well because I didn’t serve their interests.
But not everyone will count you out. I have also received mentorship, and people did meet with me sometimes.
While there are those selfish folks, as Mister Rogers says, there are also the helpers – the ones who believe in you and give you a hand up if you’re really trying.
It’s true that time, patience, and perseverance will accomplish all things.
Try and try again – fail often. Eventually, despite the non-believers, you’ll make it.

The emotional labor of professionalism

Seth Godin in his book This is Marketing advances the idea that a professional puts aside their authenticity using emotional labor to do a job that is useful to others.

Emotional labor, he writes, is “The work of doing what we don’t necessarily feel like doing, the work of being a professional, the work of engaging with others in a way that leads to the best long-term outcome.”

He suggests people don’t care about the bad day you’re having or the details about your personal life, and if you have a job that allows you to be your most honest self, you’re just an amateur with a good gig.

It makes sense. As a professional, you have a duty to perform the work you’ve promised, and work does tend to be utilitarian or impersonal transactions.

Notwithstanding the idea’s commonsensicalness, it’s dangerous.

Human beings are not services or products to be simply useful in a society of kind of accepted systems of thinking.

Sure, you do your job. But we are more than institutions.

We are people, with complex personalities, each trying to find our way along these made up systems that we kind of agree on, each with a social responsibility to our communities – to our neighbors, and cashiers, and the kids we hire to mow our lawns.

You have a duty to do your part in creating an accepting, caring, appreciative, and helpful world.

The kind of impersonality that has become accepted during the rise of industrialism is a large contributor to the many problems we see in the world – the abundance of mental health issues, the lack of fairness in our democratic processes, and increasing inequities.

You are more than just a person doing your job. You are a person, who is busy and trying to survive in a hypercompetitive environment.

But understand this: If you abandon good-naturedness, empathy, and the love necessary to create a better world, you might be more productive, but you have failed the next generation because you’ve created one more small divide in the common humanity that unites us.

If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably doing something right

Seth Godin says that it’s dangerous to be average, to appeal to the masses. You look just like everyone else. You’re just another individual. This idea is conveyed in this TED talk.

Platitudes that hold up: 1. A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there. 2. Fortune favors the bold.

Authenticity often feels a lot like discomfort, like insecurity that something you do won’t be accepted.

So you have to cultivate social courage.

It can be hard, especially while you’re navigating your identity in your 20s. But you have to step out. You can’t go along to get along. That’s how we remain mired in the same problems. That’s how systems fail.

Make the move. Wake up each day and ask yourself how you can live a little more true to your conviction. Each day is a small step until eventually you realize you’ve created something genius.

Here’s a great Janelle Monae song in case you need some inspiration: