Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Whom Am I in Your Head?

Who Am I in Your Head?  
A voice of reason? A seed of doubt? A season passing on route?  All reflections are a fun-house mirror of sorts. Grains of truth and sands of surprises wrapped up in the warped adobe abode we build of our lives. Our own reflection the most distorted of all. Seeing ourselves for ourselves only through others' memories of our images. Squinting gilded or glided eyes,
thus interpreted and rationalized, often obscured in the heady haze of emotions and the beady blaze of the varied beliefs that protect our individual primordial mists. But nonetheless, our real reflection remains always unknowable. Seen only through others’ eyes, back translations, we see our assorted distortions multiplied and miniaturized, compounded in spider eyes. This one that trait, that characteristic, those behaviors, in the past, this time, tomorrow and again, each difference stacked and piled. Green, ripe, putrid all at once like a boat of bananas. Out of season but returning flash frozen, on sale, in stores nearby, at random. Who Am I in Your Head? Always complex, but only an illusion of complete. Ever evolving, never resolving to one clear sliver of light. Unknown in the spider-eyed myriad mirrors of our reflections upon reflections on reflections rationalized. Ultimately unknowable in any life time, but hopefully, not forgotten. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

11 Lessons Learned from Extreme Environment Work

I have had the honor and the privilege of observing (and sometimes participating) in a lot of training for living and working in extreme environments. I've learned a lot, but I 'd like to share some of the things that are common in training for extreme environments.
What makes an environment extreme? Existing in it is dangerous because of constant physical, emotional, and/ or mental threats to your presence (e.g. Space, the Arctic Tundra, a war zone, a fire scene). An environment might also be extreme because it requires an ultra-high level of performance and even small errors can be deadly (e.g. emergency rooms, fighter jets). Training to perform in any one such environment or job reveals many interesting lessons. However, I think what astronauts, special forces operators, first-responders, law enforcement agents, Antarctic expeditionary members, divers, pilots, off-shore rig crews, and ER and ICU staff all learn in common may make great lessons for life in general...
  1. If we're all breathing, then we've got enough time to handle the other problems. This is a difficult perspective to keep, but absolutely necessary. NASA has an additional way of framing it: The first over-arching, non-negotiable mission objective is to keep everyone alive. For that objective, failure is not an option. The second objective can be the mission goals (i.e. what you, your team, your organization, your country, your planet wants); but everything is subservient to and depends on that first objective of making sure every one is and can continue breathing.
  2. Craft your work and your job to honor your own meaning of life or you will die inside (or burnout). What is the meaning of life? Like Albert Camus wisely witted, "The meaning of life is whatever keeps you from killing yourself." You define it. It can be love and family, rugby and roller derby, ballroom dancing and tacos, hope and learning and anything at all in the universe that makes your life your adventure. What matters is that you define it, reassess how well you are honoring it for yourself, and redefine it as needed to keep your meaning alive and use it to shape your work. All work can be shaped to fit your meaning, but first you must know your meaning.
  3. Hell is exciting, but boredom is heavenly. Pray for boredom. Use it wisely. The fate of the world depends on each one of us doing so. Boredom is when self-reflection and self-care happen.
  4. You must do self-care well before you can do team-care. It's very tempting to go all out and "sleep when I'm dead" and eat like every meal is your last and over-caffeinated and on and on and on. We're good at pushing ourselves and each other, but if you make a habit out of living and working like that then you will die 15 to 50 years earlier than you could have. Take a lesson from flying, you have to put your oxygen mask on first in the airplane or you will pass out before you can help your children put theirs on. 
  5. Meet others where they are at right now unless you want to be miserable. A mother afraid that her baby is about to drown will not listen to any advice on potty-training or managing her own diabetes. It doesn't matter how big of an expert you are, or how well-educated you are, or how good your intentions are. Inevitably, some people are not in a comfortable enough position to listen and hear certain things. Pay attention to others' situation and their current ability to hear and process information before you speak.  By the way, this requires that you find out about their current situation and capacity first (e.g. do a situation assessment in firefighter speak).
  6. Get comfortable with repeating yourself. You really will have to convince everyone of everything all of the time, and the sooner you accept that and learn to communicate persuasively the happier and more successful you will be. The key here is in knowing what must always be communicated repeatedly: your goal, the reasons for your goal, and how achieving your goal impacts the future (i.e. your recommendation, your rationale, and the intended/ anticipated impact).
  7. Make decisions, not judgements. Reserve your judgement as long as possible. Make and share decisions as far in advance as possible so that you have time to explicitly and repeatedly invite others to critique and improve those decisions.
  8. All criticism is scary and constructive if you mine it right. There is always a diamond hidden in even the cheapest coal, and even a diamond given to you on a satin pillow is shocking. Accepting, appreciating, and using criticism well takes a life-long dedication and lots of practice. Even bad, offensive criticism helps us learn what we don't want to do ourselves when others ask us for feedback (like not snapping and yelling at young students). Bad or unnecessarily harsh criticism should also be a bold reminder to remember to ask for feedback on what you are getting right and doing well (even more important than what you could do better). You wouldn't try to coach yourself to run a marathon by asking only what is wrong with your running...you want to pull information from others about what you're doing right too. It is far easier to leverage your strengths to overcome or work around weaknesses than it is to fix a weakness out right.
  9. You can't do it long for the money, fame, or status, but you can do it forever because you care. Extreme environment workers, often care-takers like first-responders, quickly learn that it is a gray, gray, gray world. A big, fuzzy, chaotic bad-with-the-good mess. And we are not really a thin blue, red, green, or black line of dedicated helpers standing between everyone else and danger or harm (as advertised and idealized). We are at best, a candle light in the murk. We learn that we can't stop doing it, even when we're tired and frustrated, because we care so damn much. And we also learn that we feed our own and each others' souls and resilience by appreciating each other for caring so damn much. We learn to express our gratitude daily and eventually, our gratitude make us brighter, bolder, stronger, and keeps the gray at bay.
  10. Plan your planning and plan to review your plans. It sounds silly and obsessive, especially once you realize that 95% of your plans will get trashed in the first 5 minutes on scene or in action. However, it isn't about the plan per se, but rather the act of planning as a team that ensures great results. Agree on objectives, SMART goals, and milestones so that everyone involved can quickly see when things aren't going to plan and decide how to adapt before failure is imminent. Agree on checkpoints, safe-words (i.e. everyone stop all action and pay attention words), and normal communication expectations (i.e. who will tell who what, how, and when under normal conditions and under stress). Finally, take a moment during planning to ask what is the most-likely, worst-case obstacle or challenge you can expect. Make a plan for surviving that and then when your plan inevitably gets screwed up you will stress less because you already have a plan for adapting to your worst nightmare.
  11. Curiosity is what cultivates nirvana. When all you want is to learn, then failure becomes expected and tolerable.  Curiosity also crowds out the other less-meaningful wants and your fears. Real, lasting success of any kind requires many creative and fortuitous failures (also known as iterations)...that is innovation.
There are many more, I'm sure. What others have you seen hold true in extreme environments or under stressful living and working conditions? Sharing is caring!
Cacti grow strong in extreme environments. Why not us too?

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