Even Shakespeare had a writing circle

C’mon in, it’s free!

During a recent visit to the central branch of the Boston Public Library, I took a break to check out an exhibition, “Shakespeare Unauthorized,” on display through the end of the month. I’ve never been a big Shakespeare reader, watcher, or listener, but I readily recognize his brilliance and profound influence, and I’m a bit of an Anglophile to boot. Plus, I was procrastinating on reviewing student paper outlines and drafts.

It was an interesting exhibition, and here’s what specially caught my eye: Shakespeare was part of a writing circle — Elizabethan style! One of the panels told me so:

Whose turn is it to bring the coffee?

The motion picture “Shakespeare in Love” notwithstanding, I’ve thought of the Bard as this lone genius, writing away at his desk, lost in his plots and thoughts. After all, writing is mostly a solitary activity, right?

Nevertheless, it sure helps to have friends and buddies who help to prod us along in that oft-lonesome task of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Furthermore, if that process includes a mix of mutual encouragement, feedback, and suggestions, then the written products may be all the better for it. While the Shakespeares of the world may come around only once every thousand years or so, a supportive cohort can help to unearth the brilliance we do possess.

In November 2015, I wrote a post about the importance of tribes, borrowing from the work of writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin:

Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.

Shakespeare had his tribe! And quite a talented group they made. It may have been the writing circle of writing circles.

A Tale of Two Hamlets?

The other item grabbing my attention was the existence of at least two versions of Hamlet, significantly different in several major passages, including the iconic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Such literary detective stories are fascinating, but is nothing sacred? What’s next? Will a certain fast food chain now claim that in addition to “As You Like It,” there’s another version titled “Have It Your Way”?

Time to update the Cliffs Notes!

What does it mean to be “onto something”?

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

Say I’m at a conference, workshop, or seminar, and someone offers insights or ideas that appear to open a new door to understanding and solving challenges big or small. My usual thought bubble is, hey, you’re onto something here! And if I get a chance to share feedback during the session, that’s the gist of what I’ll say.

What does it mean to be “onto something”? Well, if you search “onto something meaning,” you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. 

Most of the discoveries in my realm tend to be solution-based approaches to challenges facing law & public policy, workers and workplaces, and so forth. Events such as periodic workshops on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, and the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop are among those that frequently prompt my “you’re onto something” responses.

For change agents in any field, and those who want to be, what does this mean? As I suggested in the close of my recent law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), it means finding “a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent.”

As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.

Work and solitude

If some of the trendy gurus in work and office design are to be believed, teams and open spaces are the keys to spurring creativity and innovation. But hold on a minute, maybe this is going too far. While complete isolation and always closed doors are not advisable, the other end of the spectrum may not be such a great idea, either.

In a piece for Fast Company, “How Solitude Can Change Your Brain in Profound Ways,” Jane Porter suggests that periods of solitude can fuel creativity, concentration, and wise setting of priorities. Here are a few passages:

What’s lost when we deny ourselves that time alone? From my own personal experience, I can tell you that stepping away from the routine and rowdiness of daily life allowed me to connect ideas I’d been wrestling with in new ways, follow creative impulses, and simply think about one thing at a time.

Thinking about one thing at a time. How often are you actually doing that? According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, our brains simply aren’t built to multitask well, which means we end up diluting the quality and efficiency of what we’re doing in the process.

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Time alone allows us to order our priorities according to what we need, rather than the needs of others. “The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people—a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental and physical activities,” write researchers Christopher Long and James Averill.

In other words, when you’re able to disengage from the demands of other people, you’ve suddenly freed up the mental space to focus on longer-term, bigger-picture projects and needs.

Porter also delves into the relevance of the extrovert-introvert paradigm in considering personal and work habits, citing Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). As someone with both extrovert and introvert qualities — “ambivert” is the term now being invoked — this discussion resonates with me. I can be both fueled and drained by social gatherings. And while I enjoy the social aspects of teaching, facilitating, and good conversation, my thoughts and ideas tend to sharpen and clarify in a state of solitude.

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“In My Solitude” may not be a perfect fit for this post, but I’ll take any excuse to paste in a Billie Holiday rendition of a great old standard.

 

The example of the Wright Brothers

wright-brothers-jacket-art

I’ve been absorbed in David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers (2015), the story of how brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright invented and flew the first successful airplane, starting with their historic flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

Although David McCullough is one of my favorite historians, I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d find the book all that compelling. True, I’ve been an airplane geek since I was a boy, and I had long been familiar with the iconic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. But I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story.

Last month, however, I went to a talk by David McCullough about his new book, and the stories he shared from it, with his characteristic enthusiasm for history, stimulated my interest. I started reading and soon became enthralled. I’ve been keeping at it, reading only a few pages at a time, because I find myself constantly putting the book down to reflect upon what a great story this is from so many perspectives.

Orville Wright (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Orville Wright, 2005 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

It was obvious that McCullough came to deeply admire his subjects. He talked about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who believed very strongly in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, especially, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough writes, they had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”

Wilbur Wright (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Wilbur Wright, 1905 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded inventors and scientists were also trying hard to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade them from their goal. In fact, they largely rewrote the book on the science of flying. and in the process refuted the previous findings of many “experts” on aviation.

There is so much more that I want to share about what I’m discovering in this book, and someday I want to write a longer piece that incorporates some of its stories with broader themes about self-education, innovation, individual character, resilience and determination, and bold, smart risk-taking.

Suffice it to say, however, that this is among McCullough’s most important books. He has written about great historical figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Harry Truman, but The Wright Brothers, as he noted during his book talk, is not about politics, conflict, and war. Rather, he compared the genius of the Wright Brothers to that of the Gershwins. Indeed, this is a different kind of historical story, one that may inform and inspire others who want to build, invent, create, and dream, without being cloaked in hazy mythology. We need more stories like that today.

Workshopping human dignity

Day 1 participants, HumanDHS workshop, Dec. 2014 (Photo: Anna Strout)

HumanDHS workshop, December 2014 (Photo: Anna Strout)

It’s not often that one can attend an academic/professional gathering that includes separate sessions on improvisational expression and the distinctions between shame and humiliation, but that’s one of the compelling qualities about the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, held in December by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network and hosted by Columbia University in New York City.

HumanDHS, as I’ve written before, is an international assemblage of educators, practitioners, activists, and students devoted to advancing human dignity. I’ve been devoting this week’s posts to the workshop held last Thursday and Friday. I’ve become a regular participant, and for various reasons, this year’s offerings really struck a chord with me.

Open “dignilogues”

Among the highlights for me were the open “dignilogues,” participant-driven breakout sessions on topics generated by the group. The two I participated in could not have been more different, and both were immensely rewarding.

On Thursday I joined a session on improvisation, led by music educator and performing artist Christine de Michele. I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure what Christine meant when she proposed this topic, but it sounded intriguing enough to give it a try. For the next hour or so, our small group jumped right in with improvisational exercises, mixing sounds, music, movements, storytelling, and drawing. It’s hard for me to describe in words just how freeing and “un-conference like” this was, but suffice it to say that it was a fun, creative, and energizing experience.

On Friday I joined a session devoted to exploring the differences between shame and humiliation in our society. It was an earnest, heartfelt exchange, mixing theoretical ideas with personal experiences. Although it wasn’t required that the group reach a consensus on such complex matters, it’s fair to say that many of us agreed that while the experience of shame can, at times, lead to personal growth, the experience of humiliation is more often a diminishing one.

Dignity at work

One of my contributions to this year’s workshop was a Thursday evening talk on advancing dignity at work. It gave me a chance to share many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I tied together these topics under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

I then asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

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Related post

For a closer look at the work of HumanDHS, here’s a post I wrote earlier this fall, “Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity.”

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Is your organization a “can do” or “can’t do” kind of workplace?

In assessing what makes for a good place to work, the contrast between a “can do” and a “can’t do” organizational culture is a major distinguishing factor.

The “can do” organization empowers and enables its workers to create, innovate, and initiate. While recognizing that resources aren’t limitless and that every new idea isn’t necessarily a good one, it nonetheless nurtures an ethic of support and encouragement. The “can do” organization can be an exciting, engaging place to work.

The “can’t do” organization, by contrast, makes it hard for even the best of projects to succeed and for new ideas to get off the ground. It sets up layers of bureaucracy, promotes people programmed to say “no,” and plants hedgerows at every stage of approval and implementation. It saps the morale and energy of some of its best people.

And then there’s a maddening hybrid variety, the dysfunctional, balkanized organization that readily supports ideas (good or bad, it doesn’t matter) coming from its inner core group, while instinctively blocking initiatives proposed by those it keeps on the outside.

I suggest that you’ll find a heavy concentration of “can’t do” and hybrid organizations in the lower ranks of their respective fields or vocations. This may seem self-evident, but obviously it isn’t so to a large cross-section of institutional leaders. Meanwhile, their more inclusive, secure peers at successful organizations are reaping the rewards of a culture that embraces innovation and quality.

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Related post

Great organizational leaders enable and empower others (2011)

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (2011)

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Bullying in the artistic sector

Recently I was contacted about a significant bullying situation in the organizing of a visual arts program. It confirmed for me how these behaviors are so universal, cutting across occupations and avocations.

The person who contacted me (let’s call him Walter) was teaming up with another arts enthusiast (let’s call her Eloise) to co-organize the event. Although Eloise initially exhibited great enthusiasm for the partnership, she soon began to push Walter to the side and took over key decision making and outreach for the event. Eloise’s behaviors began to look like a textbook list of common workplace bullying tactics:

  • Excluding Walter via behind-the-scenes machinations
  • Withholding necessary information from Walter
  • Refusing to reply to Walter’s requests and inquiries
  • Stealing credit from Walter
  • Wrongfully blaming Walter for overlooking details that were Eloise’s responsibility

Eloise’s persona suggests that she’s a classic narcissist, one of the most common descriptions for workplace aggressors.

More prevalent than in the military?

Walter’s experience is hardly unique. Lyn Gardner, in her theatre blog for The Guardian, wrote about bullying in the arts a year ago:

For many people working in theatre, bullying is a fact of life. The whispers about it are constant. One theatre chief is famous for the strops taken out on staff. People working in jobs seen (wrongly) as less “creative”, such as press or marketing, are frequently victims of this high-handed behaviour; but it can happen to anyone from stage hands to actors. Do the victims complain? Often not.

I’ve come across playwrights who have been bullied into silence and made to fear for their future careers by the very theatres who commissioned them. I’ve heard of producers throwing their weight about, and directors who treat theatre buildings as personal fiefdoms.

Gardner highlighted the work of Ann-Marie Quigg, author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (2011) :

When Anne-Marie Quigg investigated workplace bullying in the arts, her 2011 report revealed it was more prevalent in the arts than in the armed forces and the health service.

Whoa, that’s saying a lot…

Bullying of volunteers

This particular event was organized solely by volunteers, so technically it’s not a case of workplace bullying. On that note, last year I wrote that bullying of volunteers is a neglected subject that deserves to be studied more closely:

…(V)oluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

Expectations vs. reality

So there you have it: An artistic event fueled by a love of the arts, organized by passionate volunteers. It sounds incredibly appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in this case at least, not for Walter…and possibly for others bullied and manipulated by Eloise.

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