Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pohl - Making Room

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Pohl, 1999) began as a slow read but ended up being very compelling. Other readers may believe that Pohl’s ideas are too closely aligned with Christian beliefs and traditions but, from my point of view, all of us can use a bit more hospitality in our lives – both as providers and receivers. Having lived for seven years in an Islamic country in the Middle East, I know that many of the Arab and Islamic world hospitality traditions are very similar to what Pohl advocates.

Pohl starts her book by proposing that the “mystery of life is how often one senses God’s presence in the midst of very ordinary activities.” This mystery certainly confirms my experience and it draws me back to a 2010 post on my blog, “An ordinary Day.” This day in 2010 was one that I will never forget and it demonstrated that hospitality and care can come from very unexpected places and that the truest test of whether hospitality is authentic is that it crosses all sorts of boundaries and it expects nothing in return.

Making Room… looked at the historical precedents of hospitality in ancient times, when strangers depended on the generous help of others in order to survive. She says that the theological origin of this was Old Testament teachings related to Israel’s special relationship with God. Eventually this life-saving hospitality turned to life-giving and sustaining gestures of mutual sharing that revealed the depths of life experience. Pohl proposed that Christian hospitality is distinguished by the fact that it welcomes and serves the least among us without expectation of a benefit to the host. This type of hospitality historically included the three dimensions of 1) expression of respect and recognition, 2) meeting the other’s physical needs, and 3) hosting local and visiting groups of believers.

The hospitality custom eroded over time and resulted in John Wesley reviving the notion as a Christian responsibility in 18th century Europe. This type of hospitality was intended to draw strangers into a family or church household of reciprocal relations and commitments. This revival included treating all people as valued and respected and it often resulted in transformation for individuals, families, and communities.

In the modern day, much of what was previously offered through hospitality has been specialized and offered by designated caregivers rather than as an aspect of the life of all families and communities. The major problem with the professionalization of hospitality is that it results in those needing help being invisible, a condition that can only be corrected by putting ourselves in their position, becoming equally vulnerable and dependent. In fact, some of the “most transformative expressions of hospitality… are associated with hosts who are liminal, marginal, or at the lower end of the social order” itself. Those who have acquired wealth and influence often lose their empathy for those of marginal status, likely resulting in the reinforcement of social distinctions and the perpetuation of systemic injustices.

While the idea of adopting a more hospitable perspective might be daunting, the reality is that it usually emerges in small doses, builds on itself, and nourishes both giver and recipient. True hospitality requires that those who presume to serve accept that they can, and indeed need to be served as well. To expect a return on hospitality is to demean its transforming quality; hospitality comes from a grateful heart but can’t help but come back as a blessing to the host.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

South Africa - beautiful country struggling with its past

We recently traveled to South Africa for a combination of watching our daughter (Darbi) compete in IronMan South Africa as well as do some touring. South Africa was quite the surprise in terms of its natural beauty, history, variety of places to visit, and the nature of its people. We planned on a good visit but the trip far surpassed our expectations.

We started the trip in Capetown and then traveled to De Hoop nature reserve, Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Tsitsikamma National Park, and ended our eastern push at Port Elizabeth which is the end of the Garden Route across the southern end of the country.

The coastline is absolutely spectacular in so many places. The picture here is at De Hoop but this kind of vista was repeated many times. One of the biggest surprises was the course for the IronMan. The swim was in the Indian Ocean as the surf crested on Port Elizabeth beach. The bike was on a wonderful stretch of road mostly looking out to the Ocean. The run was on Marine Drive, a stretch of hotels, restaurants, and homes that ran the entire distance of the city of Port Elizabeth. This was the first time I was able to cheer Darbi on at an IronMan competition - an experience that resulted in enhanced appreciation and respect for the sport and Darbi's commitment to it. The sacrifice of IronMan competitors is amazing and the spirit among all was kind, welcoming and a real joy.

After the IronMan we toured Addo Elephant Park where we saw elephants in the wild along with zebra, monkeys, kudu, and other animals native to the area. It was incredible to drive through the park and see the animals completely undisturbed by our presence. Following Addo, we traveled to another beach town, Knysna, and then spent the last of our days in Stellenbosch visiting vineyards, Stellenbosch University, and more Capetown sights.

We struggled a number of times when the legacy of apartheid was so visible in poor housing and obvious separation between the Blacks who are native to South Africa and the White immigrants and visitors. We asked several people about the conditions for Blacks and were told that much of the problem that persists today is the result of immigration from other African countries that do not have the breadth of employment opportunity available in South Africa. The result of the influx of others is sprawling slums and high unemployment for many Blacks. We were also told that numerous efforts have been undertaken to improve education and housing but that change is slow, especially with the current government. Many spoke of their disappointment with the current President of South Africa and the hope is that elections will result in his removal soon.

A number of other pictures are posted in my Picassa albums if you would like to see more of South Africa. The pictures provide a way to remember but the people made a more indelible impact on me - generous, hopeful, welcoming, and eager for a better life. South Africa is a promising country seeking to provide ways for its people to pursue their dreams.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Grant - Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Adam Grant, author of Originals (2016), is described in the forward as an “informed optimist who offers insights and advice about how anyone – at home, at work, in the community – can make the world a better place.” (p. ix) Grant’s perspective complements another book I recently read/reviewed, The RationalOptimist (Ridley, 2010). The two books make good companions in a 21st century environment where innovation is so important.

Sometimes we think of innovation as mastery or expertise. By contrast, Grant invites us into a world where change is nurtured through breadth of perspective. The book is filled with examples of how new ideas bubbled up and became useful and marketable. One example is Warby Parker, a business that offers on-line eyewear. The creators of Warby Parker knew that the typical response to something like the expense of eyewear is resignation – an unwillingness to question, challenge, or do anything to address the problem of prohibitive cost. Although many saw their venture as doomed from the start, the creators found ways to overcome the blocks to the very personal and necessary purchase of eyewear – and doing it on-line for both convenience and cost purposes.

In order to overcome the resignation or acquiescence that discourages taking action, Grant proposes that innovation is borne of curiosity, a vuju de that allows us to see something familiar but with a fresh perspective (p.6). An example of vuju de drawn from social change is the women’s suffrage movement. For decades and generations women had accepted their diminished position in life as “just how it is” but suffrage brought the fresh perspective that the role ascribed to women was simply man-made and that it could be changed.

The problem with cultivating originality is that it is inconvenient – to teachers, peers, bosses, or anyone who prefers the comfort of accepted protocol or routine. Especially when achievement is placed as a high value, originality is thwarted because our desire to succeed encourages us to seek the easy and predictable way of looking good to those around us. Originality doesn’t require extreme risk taking but, instead, a comfort with some doubt that pushes us to work harder and be persistent in creating something that will be successful and lasting. In fact, “The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment.” (p. 53)

What are the things that are most often associated with people who are original in their thoughts and actions? The first is that they are more involved in the arts – music, sculpting, writing, performing (p. 46). The second characteristic of originals is that they lived abroad for an extended period – not traveled, not short-term study, but lived abroad in a culture very different than their own (p. 48). Originals tend also to be later or last-born children, a result of the impact of sibling rivalry and differences in the ways parents raise later-borns. In an organization setting, originals are people who not only champion new ideas but also they are people who have earned their stripes as being somewhat eccentric and idiosyncratic. A counter-intuitive pattern among originals is that they sometimes procrastinate; strangely enough, procrastinating allows the original to consider a wider range of approaches through daydreaming, questioning, and experimenting. Lastly, originals are more likely to be experimental rather than conceptual innovators, meaning that it isn’t just about the “up in the clouds” ideas but more about trying something, learning from mistakes, and working toward a better solution. Rather than leave you hanging, Grant provides a number of helpful ideas about how to attract, interview, and hire originals.

Originals debunks a number of myths about how to make original contributions in a variety of ways – business, social justice, political innovation, and others. That we need originals in the modern day is indisputable; it’s a matter of looking within ourselves to see if we have or can cultivate a perspective that brings that special originality to various problems that yearn for solutions. If any group or organization seeks to support originality, leaders will need to understand that originals or “’shapers’ are independent thinkers; curious, non-conforming, and rebellious” (p. 208).  Rather than leaders succumbing to fear of failure when an original pushes the organization to do something different, realize that “Fear forces you to prepare more rigorously and see potential problems more quickly” (p. 214), an insurance plan that most organizations would love to acquire.