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.

On immersing yourself and finding the ground floors of positive change


For many years, I have counted Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984 orig ed.; now in a 25th ann. 2010 ed.) among my favorite books. It’s the story of the pioneers of personal computing, starting back in the late 50s and going into the heart of the 80s. It’s a wonderfully written book, full of personalities, discoveries, and innovations.

Nevertheless, from a distance this doesn’t look like the kind of book that would hold my affection. I’m not a tech geek. In fact, I am among a minority of professors at my law school who prohibit the use of laptops in my classrooms, and I have used PowerPoint only once in the many talks I’ve given at conferences and programs over the years.

So what’s the ongoing draw of this book?

For me, Hackers captures the great pull of immersing yourself in something that matters deeply to you; doing something positive, constructive, and/or creative; and being part of a group of people whose collective efforts exceed the sum of their parts. At times, it’s about being able to join something truly exciting on the ground floor.

Within the past decade or so, I’ve found those kinds of connections:

  • The workplace anti-bullying movement has become a core piece of my work and life. I feel very blessed that I discovered this movement early in its inception and am playing a meaningful role in growing it.
  • The emerging intern rights movement has also become deeply important to me. I’m delighted over my supportive, “senior” role to this predominantly younger cohort of activists.
  • The therapeutic jurisprudence network, only a quarter century old, is about to launch a global non-profit organization, and I am excited to be working closely with a small group of organizers.
  • Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, founded in the early 2000s, is poised to help shape dialogue, research, and practice toward a more dignified society. Last year I joined its board, and I am stoked about the possibilities for expanding the influence of this wonderful network.

Most of the crowd in Hackers found their passions early in life. For me, these pieces didn’t truly come together until my fifties. Call me a late bloomer, but it took me a long time to grow into and find this groove. Now, it feels right, and I’m very grateful for that.


You may read more about my work in these realms in my recently published law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice).



Workshopping workplace dignity


Yesterday and today, I had the deep privilege of facilitating a small group workshop on dignity at work, hosted at Suffolk University Law School.

Although I often feature and highlight speakers and participants from programs I host, because of the personal nature of some of our discussions, I will refrain from doing so here. Suffice it to say, however, that the ten participants — drawn largely from the Boston area — made for an extraordinary group, individually and collectively. Here are among the topics we discussed:

  • Framing dignity in relation to the experience of work;
  • Examining workplace dignity in the context of a specific employment sector, in this case, health care;
  • Discussing how participants are addressing workplace dignity issues in their own lives, while getting feedback from the group; and,
  • Looking at future advocacy efforts for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

When it came to describing their own workplace dignity activities, many of the participants offered stories of their own life experiences. It was a testament to the supportive atmosphere of the workshop that people felt sufficiently confident and safe to share their stories in this manner.

For me personally, here are among the lessons learned and reinforced by this workshop experience:

  • There is power in creating intentional communities of good people devoted to positive social and individual change.
  • With the right mix of people, gatherings such as this one can be both healing on an individual level and constructive on a social change level.
  • When you bring together folks from different backgrounds, professions, and areas of expertise, the exchange of experiences, ideas, and information can generate new insights and understandings.

The workshop was a trial balloon of sorts, with a loose structure that relied on the participants to provide the content — without a PowerPoint slide in sight! I realize that not every such program will be so rewarding, but I saw and heard more than enough to be able to proclaim the event a success, with designs on working with others to expand this circle.

Coming in 2017: An organization to advance therapeutic jurisprudence


Regular readers of this blog may know that I am associated with therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal philosophy and practice that “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being.” For some 25 years, TJ adherents have been creating a global network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. My own attraction to TJ arose out of my work on workplace bullying and my broader commitment to creating systems of employment law that embrace human dignity. TJ, I realized, was a natural match for those interests.

In fact, I am something of a full-on convert. I now believe that our legal system must, as a primary objective, embrace psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings and transactions, while honoring other important political and economic concerns and core notions of rights and responsibilities.

Accordingly, I am working closely with a group of TJ-affiliated professors, judges, and lawyers to create an international, non-profit membership society that will build the therapeutic jurisprudence community and expand TJ’s scope and influence. We are looking at a 2017 organizational launch. Here’s a passage from a piece describing this effort that we just posted to the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog:

For over a quarter of a century, the growing therapeutic jurisprudence movement has existed as an informal, multidisciplinary community of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. We are now ready to take things to the next level.

Plans are underway to create a new, international, learned society dedicated to TJ. This non-profit organization will consolidate many existing TJ activities, support new TJ initiatives and programs, and serve as a virtual gathering place for those interested in advancing TJ as an important school of legal philosophy and practice.

The new TJ society will be a lean operation, built on modest membership fees and a simple organizational structure, with its eyes trained on facilitating and supporting good works rather than getting overly caught up in internal machinations.

Many details have yet to be settled, and many individuals have yet to be contacted. However, the TJ society will hold its opening event at the July 2017 Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, to be held in Prague. This will include a substantial, participatory roundtable discussion about initial plans for the organization, followed by a luncheon for those who would like to commemorate this very promising new venture.

This is a very exciting development, and during the coming months I will be sharing occasional updates about this initiative.


Related posts

Here are three previous blog posts about therapeutic jurisprudence:

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law (2015)

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014)

Law review articles

I’ve written several law review articles that incorporate insights from TJ, and you may freely download pdf copies by clicking the links:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest LawSouthern California Review of Law and Social Justice (2016)

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship – University of Memphis Law Review (2010)

Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace — Florida Coastal Law Review (2010)

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review (2009)

Are we preaching wellness to wave off a closer look at core societal problems?



Journalist Laurie Penny, in a terrific piece for the punchy journal The Baffler, takes aim at the messaging of self-care and wellness from Powers That Be that may obscure a closer look at deeper societal problems:

The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.

She posits that this “wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” one that renders us believing that we can improve our lives only on an individual level. Thus, we are conditioned to assume “that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted,” the problem is one not of our economic system, but rather of personal fault:

The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

Such a belief system may foreclose us “from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.”

Individual vs. social change

To her credit, Penny does not dismiss the benefits of self-care and healthy living choices, confessing “that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent.” But, at the very least, she’s asserting that the pendulum has swung away too far from societal perspectives on, and collective solutions to, conditions that stoke suffering, injustice, and deprivation.

Bingo. Especially here in the States, the wellness stuff may be a softer, gentler version of old fashioned American rugged individualism, embracing the myth that you make it or miss it on your own. Don’t get me wrong, being accountable to ourselves is a good thing. But all the personal responsibility in the world doesn’t make up for a stacked deck and abuses of power.

If we want to make the world a better place, we have to work on ourselves and our institutions and our communities, yes?

Applied to the workplace

This imbalanced focus on the individual captures why I have a problem with many workplace wellness programs. Standing in isolation, wellness programs are fine things. However, it is wholly ironic that these programs can pop up in workplaces that unnecessarily generate the very stressors and unhealthy living habits these programs are designed to address. Treating workers with dignity — including (at the very least) a living wage, fair employment practices, and a decent work environment — is the best employer-sponsored wellness program of all!

Of course, the individual vs. social change dichotomy can manifest itself in more dire workplace situations as well. For example, too many complaints about workplace bullying are dismissed as personality conflicts, and all too often the target of the mistreatment is blamed for somehow not adequately managing the situation.

This dismissive attitude ignores that workplace bullying has strong individual, organizational, and societal components. Of course, on an individual level, it involves perpetrators and targets, and those interpersonal dynamics can be complex. That said, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in the absence of an organizational culture that enables or even encourages it. On a broader societal level, abusive behaviors at work can be fueled by an absence of legal protections and the presence of a popular culture that accepts them as normal.

We need a reframe

So, folks, we need a reframe, one that looks at human problems at both the individual and societal levels, with responses and solutions shaped accordingly. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where we see individual change vs. social change as a false dichotomy, replaced by an understanding that we need both in order to create better lives, workplaces, and communities.

Published: “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”


I’m pleased to report that the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice has published my law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” It’s probably the closest thing to an academic autobiography that I’ll ever write, in that it recounts experiences and draws lessons from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general.

Here’s the posted abstract from my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page:

Intellectual activism is both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession. This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students.

This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) fostering the enactment of workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) participating in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists. This article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books that are broadly relevant to the topics discussed in the text.

I wrote the article for those who want to use research and analysis to inform and inspire positive social change work, with a special nod to those who work largely outside of the realm of highly elite educational and public policy institutions.

You may obtain a freely downloadable pdf copy of the article from my SSRN page.

Conversations and the construction of knowledge

(image courtesy of ClipArtBest.com)

(image courtesy of ClipArtBest.com)

Okay, dear readers, I’m about to get a little academic geeky on you, but please stick with me on this: In InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing (3rd ed. 2014), co-authors Steinar Kvale and Svend Brinkmann examine the notion of “conversation as a construction site of knowledge.” Invoking this phrase in the context of conducting formal research interviews, they posit that the interactive nature of good conversations can create new knowledge.

This brilliant turn of words was introduced to me by Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading authority on workplace mobbing and most recently co-author, with Dr. Len Sperry, of the deservedly praised Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). I’m probably guilty of oversimplifying, but in essence Drs. Kvale and Brinkmann are wrapping some theory around how conversations over ideas, information, insights, and experiences can build and expand our understanding of the human condition.

I have found this to be profoundly true when it comes to learning about the nature of work, workers, and workplaces.

The “new math” of conversation

I’m no math whiz, but I do understand that one plus one equals two. However, a good conversation may yield a different, more powerful equation, whereby one plus one may equal three…or five…or ten, at least when it comes to potential new understandings. And when even more people get into a good mix of conversation, then all bets are off.

My recent phone conversations with Maureen have centered on a book project (see below), but because we’re both immersed in the world of workplace bullying and mobbing, we sometimes discuss our work generally. I can attest that sharing our respective expertise has led to knowledge constructing moments for both us, with insights emerging from the back and forth of attentive conversation.

This is among the reasons why I have written in praise of conferences and workshops that allow for genuine exchanges during formal sessions, break times, and enrichment events. As frequent conference goers know well, there’s a huge difference between gatherings that are interactive, friendly, and engaging, and those that are stuffy, hierarchical, and pretentious. With the former, you wish it could go on for a few more days. With the latter, you can’t wait for it to be over. If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this stuff, here are several blog posts of possible interest:

Conferences as community builders (2015)

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Inspiration in Amsterdam (2013)

Why conferences? (2013)

Stay tuned: A cool book project is in the making

I’ve been on the phone with Maureen a lot in recent months because she invited me to join her as co-editor of an exciting book project on workplace bullying and mobbing. The two-volume book set will feature a comprehensive, multidisciplinary collection of chapters by leading and emerging U.S. experts on bullying and mobbing at work, with a focus on American employment relations. We have a very supportive publisher and a great team of chapter contributors, and we’re looking at a 2017 publication date. I’ll be sharing more news about the project in the coming months.

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