What is Smart?


Have you ever thought about what you mean when you say someone is smart?  As an executive search consultant clients usually ask me to find “A players” for their companies, in other words find the smart people.  Do you ever wonder what the expression “the smartest person in the room” means?  Why is being the smartest person in the room important?  What about the rest of us?

In my 20 years of experience recruiting talent I have found that many of the people we think of as “smart” (because they obtained a degree from an Ivy League school or because they are the CEO of a company) turn out to be like the rest of us … complex beings who are smart about some things and dumb about other things and everything in between.

In our educational system smartness is often defined as doing well at acquiring knowledge.  In the workplace it can mean that someone has done well at acquiring dollars.  Our culture teaches us that we should “reach our potential,” acquire a degree and then, when we enter the work force, we are expected to acquire an expertise in a particular field.  In the world of work the social aspect of human life is bifurcated into something called “emotional intelligence,” as though we can separate our emotions from our intelligence.  Creativity and relational activity – what and how we create with others, a critical component of learning, growth and development – is sadly not even part of the conversation (creativity seems to only be allowed into discussions about “innovation” or design).  Development doesn’t make it into most discussions about intelligence, learning and education.

Here’s a provocative and profound statement about education by Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the All Stars Project:

The issue is to recognize that who we all are is not simply our potential, which is somehow thought of in popular language as ‘inside us.’  But who we are is some complex combination of who we are and what we are becoming.  We’re not static individuals.  We are continuously changing, and we are continuously growing… This is philosophical, and it’s also the understanding of some of the most frontline 20th, 21st century critical thinkers about how to understand human growth and development.  And that has not been brought to our schools.  It has not been brought into the popular culture.

I would add that it has not been brought into the workplace either (with some exceptions, of course). Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most frontline 20th century thinkers.  He was a unique, eccentric and brilliant philosopher who took apart nearly every concept that underlies how psychology and education are done and examined some of our most basic assumptions like causality, essence, meaning, and the very nature of language and thought.  As my colleague, Dr. Lois Holzman pointed out in her recent class that I attended – Discovering Wittgenstein – “Psychologists and educators – not to mention, the rest of us – need to seriously examine, question and play with our assumptions and our language.”

Sounds like a smart idea to me!

If you’d like to read more on all of the above please refer to Holzman’s book “The Overweight Brain” which you can read online at http://loisholzman.org/books/latest-installment/

How Shall We Become? (Changing our careers and changing our lives)
Drs. Lois Holzman and Patch Adams at Performing the World 2014
Drs. Lois Holzman and Patch Adams at Performing the World 2014

Last weekend I was a participant, presenter and trainer at the biannual international conference – Performing the World (PTW) – which is co-sponsored by the All Stars Project and the East Side Institute.  This year’s theme was “How Shall We Become?” – a critical question for all of us.  I think this question has a particular resonance around the issue of changing careers.  It is heartwarming to know that in a world as chaotic as ours, there are so many people who are committed to using performance in various settings to help people grow and develop, to foster community-development and social change.

Everyday people in every part of the world are creating new ways of being together, breaking out of the constraints that we all encounter in our professional and personal lives – the “scripted” ways we all learn to be in the world – in favor of performing the world and our lives anew.

This was the second time that Patch Adams, radical humanist, physician, and clown, has attended PTW.  I had the pleasure of spending time in conversation with Patch, attending his wondrous workshop, and clowning around with him.  He is an inspiring man who has chosen to live his life as a performance of love.

So, what does all of this have to do with the workplace and my work as an executive search consultant and coach? What does it have to do with making a career change?Everything!

A number of years ago (after I first met Patch) I attended a training in the social therapeutic approach and talked about wanting to develop a new career path for myself.  I was just beginning to think about what I wanted to do professionally after spending 15 years at a boutique retained search firm. I was trying to weave together the many threads of my work (a professional career, the work over the last 30 years as a builder of the broad development community which I do as a volunteer, and a creative life as an actress, improvisational comedienne and teacher).  I talked about ultimately wanting to become a hospital clown.  Someone suggested that I consider becoming an “executive clown.”  That was an odd and wonderful idea and perhaps I’m getting closer to discovering what that means!

I’m writing this story because as a recruiter and executive coach how we approach and create our professional lives is of great interest and concern to me.  For example, I’m currently working on a project for a large non-profit that is looking to hire someone from the for-profit sector to lead finance and strategy for their organization.  People often say things like, “Well, I’d like to join a non-profit at the end of my career, but I never really thought about it as something I would do now.” The ways that we think about our career is often guided by financial concerns, for good reason – putting children through college, wanting career advancement, maintaining a certain lifestyle, etc.  It is also somewhat prescriptive (i.e., non-profit is something you do at the end of your career to “give back”). There comes a time, particularly after turning 50, that many people start to question what it is that we do professionally, given that we spend the largest portion of our time at work. Many people desire a change and want more than financial reward. Given the world we live in more and more of us want to play a part in changing the world.

How do we perform changing our career?  How do we begin to think about ways we can impact on the world – in small and big ways? I don’t have a turnkey solution to this question, as it depends on many factors. My training is in a methodology that is activistic and not cognitive.  The “answer” lies in what it is that we do.  That said, a good place to start is to give attention to “the how” of what we do.  Unfortunately we are taught to focus on “what” we do, which leaves out the important work of looking at how we are creating our lives, who we are creating our lives with and what it is that we want (how shall we become and who shall we become?).  Patch Adams had this to say in his workshop, “Wanting is the becoming.  Take charge of your wanting. Take charge of your belonging.” Ask yourself what it is that you want, who are you becoming, and where do you belong?  These are all good questions that can shape the performance of changing our professional and personal lives … and the world.

I’m always inspired by Drs. Lois Holzman (chief convener of PTW and the Director of the East Side Institute and dear friend and mentor) and Patch Adams -two “doctors of development.”  Check out their work and let them inspire you as well.



Trading Knowing for Creativity

A former colleague and client of mine forwarded a most interesting article to me, “Traders Beat Market Indexes Borrowing Tools from Sports” that recently appeared in Bloomberg News http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-11/traders-beat-market-indexes-borrowing-tools-from-sports.html 

Coaching, which decades ago migrated from the playing field to the executive suite, has been slow to penetrate high finance. That’s beginning to change as traders and fund managers scramble for any edge they can find following five years in which many actively managed funds failed to beat broad market indexes.

Having worked as a coach within a hedge fund, I know that simply having someone to talk to about the demands of a hard driving culture which highly values knowing is, in of itself, where much of a coach’s help lies.  Needless to say I was intrigued to read about hedge fund traders who are looking to coaches to help them with the ups and downs of being a trader — the subjective/emotional issues as well as the desire to beat the market:

“On a trading desk, there can be a lot of bravado,” he says. “We’ll sit around talking about trades but not airy-fairy stuff about how we are feeling.”  Through regular coaching sessions during which Goldstein used techniques adapted from psychology, Davidson says he began to regain his confidence.

The article got me thinking about the value of talking about “airy-fairy stuff about how we are feeling” without using psychology.  As a coach, I know how important it is to allow clients to bounce things off me, to say things that they might never say to a team member or manager, or to someone in HR.  My response would often be to “play” with what was been said between us — to create something together that reframes an experience or to craft a “new performance” for the next time a stressful situation arises.

Psychology, it seems to me, is another knowing paradigm.  For people like hedge fund traders who have to constantly “be in the know” having a space to do something other than knowing is what can be helpful.  Perhaps in that creative space the trader can find his/her “edge” or gain confidence.

My colleague and mentor, Dr. Lois Holzman, is writing a book called “The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession with Knowing Keeps Us from Being Smart Enough to Create a Better World.”  http://loisholzman.org/books/latest-installment/ Here’s a relevant quote from Lois’ book:

“We live in a mass culture obsessed with the need to know at a time of such instability and unpredictability that knowing is of little good.”

Obviously hedge fund traders engage in predicting and analyzing and coming to conclusions based on facts and data – they are professional knowers.  Nevertheless coaches are being sought out are to “help traders regulate their emotions” or biometrics are being used “to find correlations between, for example, a steady heart rate and astute investment decisions.”  It seems that even in an industry that is built upon knowing we may have reached the limit to what we can know.

By the time we’re adults, most of us know how to think, and for a big portion of our lives, that way works pretty well. But not always. And when it doesn’t, we need to let go of “I know what to do” and generate new ways of thinking about the situation. “I know” only keeps us dumb.

If “I know”, as Lois is saying, “keeps us dumb” than what can we do instead?  We can perform!

The way out of this predicament, as far as I can tell, is to grow beyond knowing. By that I mean to create environments in which people of all ages can do things without knowing how. These are environments for creativity, play, performance and becoming. These are the types of environments that we create for and with babies and toddlers. These are environments that have at their root a new conception of human development as becoming who we are by performing who we are not. – Holzman http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/conceptual-revolution/201401/why-knowing-keeps-us-dumb

I like to think of the possibilities if hedge fund traders, and the rest of us, develop our creative capacities!

Heard Any Offers Lately?

International class

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to train the International Class of the East Side Institute http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/Training.html.  The students are learning the Institute’s approach to human development and community building; the group included people from Bangladesh, Serbia, and Brazil, as well as the Director of the Institute, Lois Holzman (pictured above). 

We worked on applying the basic tool of improvisation – yes and – to two-person scenes, which helps strengthen listening skills and, most importantly, the ability to build relationships and intimacy.  Because these students are engaged in learning a performance-based methodology they were very eager to both experience and understand how to apply improvisation in their work.

After some warm ups I had the students perform a series of two-person scenes beginning with the words, “It’s Tuesday and…”  As is often the case with improvisation, the scenes began with rather mundane comments and then, with my coaching, the students created relationships and, in some instances, a great deal of intimacy. How did that happen?  It happened by actively listening in order to hear the “offer” that was given and responding to that offer.  As both people feel heard by the other intimacy is slowly created, offer by offer.

My job as the coach was to stop the players to have a look at a missed offer or that someone negated an offer.  I gave the players my offer that they focus on deepening the relationship by accepting and building with each and every offer.

What matters In theatre and in life are relationships. Sadly in our culture we often end up thinking about the next thing to say, rather than actively listening to the other person and responding to them, not to the voice in our heads.

You might be reading this and wondering how this is applicable to a business setting.  As an executive coach who uses improvisation as a tool for growth and development, it is often the case that business people need and want to strengthen their ability to be active listeners.

Managers, in particular, want to develop these skills in order to further develop their team and thereby the team’s capabilities.  We work on creating conversation by slowly building with whatever “offers” are given.  If  team members are making “offers” and managers are negating them (by saying “no but” rather than “yes and”), relationships will suffer and demoralization can easily set in.

One of the interesting questions we explored in the International Class training is whether you can say “no” when you are playing a “yes and” game/scene.  As is often the case with rules, once you’ve mastered “yes and” it is possible to say “no” in a “yes and” manner.  In other words, if your team member makes a suggestion that you cannot accept, for whatever reason, there is a way to accept that offer without negating the suggestion and thereby the person who suggested it.

By working hard to have a positive “yes and” response – by virtue of putting your focus on the other – everyone feels appreciated and heard.

Social self – a contradiction?

Reading one of the more popular posts on the HBR website this week, The Must-Have Leadership Skill by Daniel Goleman — http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/the_must-have_leadership_skill.html — I was struck by Goleman’s notion of “social self”.

One of the social intelligence indicators: during a getting-to-know you conversation, does the candidate ask about the other person or engage in a self-centered monologue? At the same time, does she talk about herself in a natural way? At the end of the conversation, you should feel you know the person, not just the social self she tries to project.

I think “social intelligence” is a useful concept in management and I agree that a strong leader has to have a great deal of emotional or social intelligence.  And it seems to me that the “social self” we “project” is a performance that we create for ourselves in a particular setting. It’s hard to deny the importance of creating intimate conversations that are not “self-centered monologues”.  When we create performances that include talking about ourself in a “natural way” and focusing on “other” rather than on “self” we are creating intimacy.

Language makes us cateogrize and categories are static in a way that can prevent us from seeing human activity. The “social self” contains two words that contradict each other when you think about it! I like to contemplate this sentence that I previously quoted from a learning session with Dr. Lois Holzman:

Language prevents us from seeing that language prevents us from seeing.

So what does this have to do with my musings on business leadership and performance?

In conversations with executives who are working to further develop their performances in the workplace these issues come up all the time — how we are talking with each other, how we are listening and what we are istening for.  This is where improvisation is such a critical tool.  When we improvise a scene we learn to create intimate and socially intelligent conversations with others. How?  We keep our focus on the “we” (the social) and not on the self.  In this way we have the best shot at listening, communicating, persuading, and collaborating.

This post is my “yes and” to Goleman’s article.

How to ennoble the human spirit at work? Perform and play!

This morning I read a terrific article in the Sunday New York Times — Do Happier People Work Harder? by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer http://nyti.ms/pL6vbw

I can’t say that anything in this article surprised me, as I’ve had these experiences, many of which led me to become a freelance consultant.  I am confident that I’m not alone and certainly the research cited in the article sadly conveys the extent to which Americans suffer on the job:

The results were sobering. In one-third of the 12,000 diary entries, the diarist was unhappy, unmotivated or both. In fact, workers often expressed frustration, disdain or disgust. Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

I wholeheartedly agree with Amabile and Kramer’s statement:

Work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit.

The use of improvisation and play in the workplace is, of course, in my mind (and happily many others) a critical activity that can help the human spirit to thrive.  Reading the article this morning, my thoughts led to the brilliant work that my colleagues at Performance of A Lifetime do every day bringing improvisation and play into corporations http://www.performanceofalifetime.com/ — and the writings of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman.  Here’s a passage from Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play that I see as a response to Amabile and Steven’s article:

To the extent that business and organizations are structurally and functionally designed to relate to social units (work teams, units, themselves, their industry, their customers, the market, etc.) and not to individuals, they are potentially developmental environments.  To the extent that business and organizations need to (or believe they need to) innovative in order to be responsive to rapid and intense changes in the global culture, and bring the innovations and play and improvisational performance to the work-place, the people in organizations have opportunities to create developmental stages* even as they get the job done.

* The “stages” that Holzman refers to are the performatory stages that we create for our life performances, wherever they may be.