Are you human? You should read this book.

There are currently 12 books occupying space on or in the little 2-drawer nightstand beside my bed. Everything from Getting Things Done by David Allen (on stress free productivity) to The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (exactly as it sounds). Most of these books are in some state of “about to be read, partly read or nearly read”. At some point I’ll decide that I’ve soaked up what I can get from the pages of one of these books, and it’ll migrate to the bookshelf in the office downstairs, or often, onto a colleagues desk.

One of these books that has taken up residence on the nightstand, and doesn’t show any signs of going anywhere, is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Hands down, the most important and influential book I’ve ever read. 

Interchangeably called “A language of life”, “language of the heart” and “compassionate communication” , Non Violent Communication (hereafter NVC) is based in the premise that ALL human behaviour is driven by the underlying desire (conscious or unconscious) to meet the individuals needs. But not the kind of needs that we’re used to talking about, like “I need to go on that vacation” or “I need that promotion”, or “I need you to stop running around the house and go to bed!” (me to the 4-year old recently). Those “needs” are actually just strategies to meet the underyling needs. In the case of the vacation, the need might be to relax and celebrate with loved ones. The promotion might be a strategy to meet a need for recognition, contribution or a sense of meaning. Getting the 4-year old into bed meets a pretty real need to get some rest myself.

The problem with mistaking strategies for needs, of course, is that those strategies often bump up against the strategies of the people around us, who are also trying to meet their underlying needs. My 4-year old is getting his play & movement needs met. He’s not actually trying to exhaust his parents (not yet, I hope, anyway).

The power of NVC to transform conflict has been demonstrated in some of the hottest conflict zones on the planet, from Rwanda, to the streets of major cities rife with gangs, to the inside of federal prisons.  Deepak Chopra calls NVC “the missing element in what we do”. Jack Canfield (author and founder of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) “cannot recommend it highly enough.”

It’s a book that will fundamentally change your point of view, as it has mine, but it won’t be easy. Though simple in theory, the practical application of NVC concepts into your daily life, a life likely filled with subtle and unknowing violence, is incredibly hard. Just knowing that the 4-year old is trying to meet needs that are different from my own is a good start, but then what the hell do you do with that? Thankfully Dr. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication provides as much “how”, as it does why.

Hands down, the best 20$ and a few hours of reading time that you’ll spend on yourself…probably ever. Grab a copy.

Less is more. Really.

It’s been awhile since I put a blog post up. Probably because I’ve been “busy”. Work, raising a toddler, being a husband, rebuilding the deck, doing a little volunteering…before you know it the days bleed into weeks, the weeks into months. If you’re like me, you might find yourself stopping every once and awhile and looking back, wondering…”what have I REALLY accomplished?”. Did responding to all those emails at work REALLY move anything forward in a meaningful way? Did the meeting about how to solve our “meeting problem” actually DO anything?

Enter a recently acquired book, titled “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”. In it, author Greg McKeown argues that being stretched thin, overworked and under-utilized, busy but unproductive has become societies status quo, a type of badge of honour. How many times have I responded “busy, but good” to the question “How are you?”. Definitely too many.

The author makes a compelling case for learning how to say no to projects and requests that don’t fit a narrow set of priorities that keep your life (be it work or personal) headed in the direction you want it to.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

The book does a nice job of dispelling the myth that you can “have it all”, a symptom, I believe, of our deeper yearning for connection and validation in our 100 mile an hour culture. I can work on the weekend AND make the little league game. I can pull an all-nighter to get that presentation ready AND be in top form to present it. Of course, the reality is that we can’t have it all. We probably can’t have most of it, whatever “it” is. What we need to recognize is that everything has a trade off, that prioritizing one thing will automatically de-prioritize something else. And, ultimately, we need to be mindfully aware of these trade-offs, acknowledging the fact that putting our attention, energy, time, money or any other resource into the pursuit of something means that we can’t put that resource to use elsewhere.

So, what does this all mean? For starters, it’s about embracing the “less is more” philosophy, something I’ve always known, but haven’t always been good at practising. 

Second, it means saying “no” to a few more things, and doing a better job of focusing on those things that are important, things that I’m not willing to trade off for something less consequential.

Finally, it means embracing this notion of essentialism in all areas of life, and realizing that to do so, I need to be mindfully present and aware, not only of what I’m doing, but what I’m not doing, and what’s not getting done because of what I’m choosing to do.

I encourage you to grab a copy of the book and put some time into reading it and considering the implication of what it offers for your own life.

And wish me luck.

On Complexity and Collective Impact

I think it’s safe to say that we live in an increasingly complex world. All of our really “big” problems are now safely out of reach of simple solutions. From poverty to climate change, financial systems to water shortages, it’s becoming obvious that individual people, institutions and even governments aren’t able to adequately address society’s greatest challenges. Why is this? Let’s start by examining problems, from simple to complex.

Simple problems are like cooking a meal. Find the right ingredients, do things in the right sequence (follow the same recipe), and you’re pretty much guaranteed to consistently get the same result.

Complicated problems are a bit trickier. Take building a plane and flying it from one destination to the next. There are a whole lot of different disciplines that come together to make that happen, along with bits and pieces of material from around the globe. A lot of math and physics involved. Yet, building planes and flying them around is now commonplace. Companies have figured out the formula for air travel.

Complex problems are different. They’re a chaotic and moving target. Often times they’re “wicked”, in the sense that the problem you’re seeing is actually the result of a different solution, applied to a different part of the same system. Greenhouse gasses are emitted by the very furnace that keeps me warm in the cold Canadian winter. Burning carbon is the current solution to my heating problem.

So how then, are we to tackle complex problems? For starters, we need to act collectively. As I previously wrote, the really big problems our world faces are way outside the scope of any one organization.

I was recently at a conference about the idea of collective impact. Pretty compelling stuff, but definitely outside of the realm of most problem-solving protocols we’ve developed thus far. First, it requires that we come to a common shared agenda. I’m not sure, and I hope I’m wrong, but it feels like we’re moving in the opposite direction of shared agenda. It seems that we’re becoming increasingly polarized, at least politically.

Second, collective impact requires a shared measurement system. Which means we need to agree on what “success” look like and how we might measure it. Again, not something that we’re great at. I do have a bit more hope on this particular problem, as more and more communities are developing indicators for the “health and wellbeing” of the community. Check out a local Albertan’s work on this (Mark Anielski). Some good stuff happening.

Third, collective impact demands that all parties are involved in mutually reinforcing activities. This kind of strikes at the heart of our competition driven system, but I suppose that if you do have authentic engagement in a common agenda, then it’s not out of the question to believe that people could adopt mutually beneficial behaviour.

Fourth, collective impact initiatives require continuous communication back and forth across the system to ensure that activities are aligned with the vision, and that data from shared measurement systems is being appropriately analysed and used for course-correction.

And finally, collective impact typically requires some sort of “backbone” organization to support the collective efforts.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences and workshops on this whole “change the world” thing. This last one, put on by the Tamarack Institute in Vancouver, was by far the best. I’d highly encourage you to look into the work they’re doing across the country with regards to collective impact, read the book “Deepening Community” by Paul Born, and start to shift your thinking about what the real problems in our world are, and what solving them will entail.

Why we needed a carbon tax yesterday.

For starters, I’m not a big fan of taxes. I don’t know anyone who is. But I am a rather big fan of logical approaches to solving problems, so I find myself supporting the notion of a carbon tax rather enthusiastically (which, in a province like Alberta certainly puts me in a minority). This post explains why a carbon tax (and other consumption taxes) are a great idea, from a couple of different angles. First, I’m going to make the assumption that you don’t belong to the small percentage of the population that still denies that climate change is a reality and that it’s human-caused. Still though, if you are a climate change skeptic, you probably would agree that using less fossil fuels would result in a net-benefit for humanity and the environment. If neither of those is true, feel free to go read this piece of journalistic drivel by a British columnist.

Let’s consider something commonly known as “free market economics”. You know, supply and demand type stuff. Let’s start with a look at cigarettes, which for some time have been subjected to heavier and heavier taxation as society recognizes the high “externalized costs” (more on those in a minute) of tobacco smoking. In 2002, Alberta increased taxes on 25-packs of cigarettes by 2.25$, and smoking rates dropped 24%. Youth smoking rates dropped from 24% to 19% the following year. Pretty effective, no?

Externalized costs: No proper discussion on taxes and free markets is complete without recognizing that businesses that cause problems, be they cigarette manufacturers or oil producers, benefit immensely by externalizing many of the costs of production, consumption and the clean-up that ensues from their operations. If cigarette manufacturers were on the hook for every case of lung cancer, they would quickly go out of business. Oil companies pay nothing for the air pollution caused by the consumption of their product…society at large is on the hook for that. A related idea to externalized costs is the “tragedy of the commons”.

Let’s get back to the economics for a second, and look at something called the “marginal cost of abatement”. Basically what this means is that there is a certain level of pollution (for all pollution) that is most cost effective, for both society and polluters. Once you move beyond that most efficient point, each additional “unit” of pollution that you’ve prevented costs more to the producer than the damage that it causes. For example, if it was going to cost a company more to eliminate the pollution (through technological upgrades) then it was going to cost them to pay the fine for emitting the pollution, chances are they’d go the fine route. Wouldn’t you?

How do we decrease (abate) pollution? We can either increase efficiency (buy a prius) or, alternately, use less of the pollution-causing substance (ride our bike). Both of those scenarios (efficiency increases and usage reduction) are influenced most heavily by price. An increase to the price of carbon incentivizes manufacturers to make more efficient products, and would encourage a decrease in consumption among consumers. Won’t a carbon tax drive up the costs of everything else? Yes. Which will have an adverse effect most notably on people who can’t afford it, people who spend a high proportion of their income on non-discretionary things like heating their house and buying groceries. Which is why, for a carbon tax to be socially acceptable, it should be accompanied by changes to the tax structure as a whole to ensure that it’s not implemented in a regressive manner (good definition of regressive taxes here).

Regardless of your stance on the environment, it’s tough to make the argument that we don’t need to reduce the amount of carbon that we’re currently burning.

Because it turns out that the air we breathe might be the largest “commons” left in the world. And unless smog induced “nuclear winters” are part of your desired future, we should probably figure out a way to manage it.

A deafening response to a quiet crisis

Alberta was recently hit with the worst flooding in anyone’s memory. Much has been written (and much will be written) about the obvious things, the bridges that were washed out, the hippo’s at the zoo, the firefighter with the big smile and the “keep calm and Nenshi on” T-shirts (one of which I need to acquire).

Benchlands home destroyed in flood

What I thought would slip through the gaps are the quiet crises. The people living in lower Benchlands on Hwy. 40 that experienced utter destruction. The people on the Stoney Nakoda reserve that, although didn’t have the spectacular flooding, were cut off from their community when roads washed away, as the sewers backed up. Thankfully I was wrong.

Although it took a couple of days, Saturday night a tweet came out from Morley that caught the attention of a local CBC reporter. She tweeted it out and we started talking about organizing supplies coming out of Cochrane, at 10PM in the evening.

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 9.17.08 PMScreen Shot 2013-06-25 at 9.17.19 PMScreen Shot 2013-06-25 at 9.18.06 PMSo by 11PM on Saturday night, we had at least my truck and Base Camp’s trailer lined up to take supplies to Morley the next morning…assuming that we could fill it. The word went out via Facebook and Twitter, and Carla lined up her Dad and horse trailer to help. I woke up to a tweet from my favorite local coffee shop, offering up the first donation!Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 9.46.42 PM

The incredible outpouring of support from the Cochrane & Calgary community the next day was inspiring. So too was the level of interconnectedness (and the awesomeness of twitter!). Miss Night is actually renting our condo in Calgary, and Buzz Bishop’s son is in her kindergarten class. Absolutely wild that these connections turned into actual donations on the ground, overnight.

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I returned to Morley today with staff and clients from Base Camp. We shuttled a couple of loads from Cochrane, and then spent the day helping to sort through the massive piles of donations, build hampers, hand out dog food, run lunches to the elder’s lodge…generally being as useful as possible. The level of support that I witnessed, and the amount of donations that had arrived between leaving Sunday afternoon and arriving Tuesday morning was jaw-dropping.

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A few short months ago I wrote a post about the Newtown shootings, and how what’s wrong with the world is what’s wrong with us. That day my son was tucked into his bed sleeping soundly while I wrote of an unthinkable tragedy. Today, he’s also tucked into his bed…but I’m glad to be writing about the opposite. I’m glad to be writing about our blessings and our support for our neighbors; family, friends and strangers.

Today, what’s right with the world is all of you, and your deafening response to these quiet crises.

The End of Growth

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a book on here. Probably because I don’t have a helluva lot of time for reading these days.

I’m about half way through “The End of Growth” by Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC and author of “Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller”, and interested enough to blog about it prior to finishing it. He’s painting a pretty dire picture of the state of the world’s economy, with very compelling arguments. The combinations of triple digit prices on oil, the quadrupling of coal prices in recent years, combined with a general anti-nuclear stance around the world (particularly after the Fukushima incident), are flatlining growth in Europe and North America. Add to this mix a voracious appetite from China and India for fossil fuels, and it’s pretty apparent that the era of cheap energy is over.

And without cheap energy, our current system of globalization falls apart. It no longer makes sense to build cheap widgets in China, if the fuel for the boat costs more than the cargo is worth.

Why are we drilling in the arctic? Levelling the boreal forest in northern Alberta and boiling sand to extract bitumen? Because “conventional oil” (the kind that erupts out of a hole in the ground in Texas) is basically tapped out. As oil companies run out of cheap oil, we have to turn to oil that’s harder and harder to find, extract, refine and ship. Which means it’s never going to be cheaper. The price will fluctuate of course, but the days of using cheap energy to shock our economies out of recession are over.

So if growth is dependant on cheap energy (which Jeff makes a pretty clear argument for), and we no longer have access to cheap energy (also pretty evident)….it’s pretty safe to assume that no-growth or very slow growth is our new reality.

There are some pretty big consequences for society, if that’s indeed the new reality. From sovereign debt loads to youth unemployment, to the performance of my RRSP…a world with no growth looks very different than the one we currently inhabit, the one that’s been propped up by cheap energy for the last 200 years. Of course, we know that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) doesn’t influence the happiness and satisfaction of society…so maybe a “no-growth” economy might actually do us some good? I’m pretty sure that’s where the book’s headed.

Either way, it’s looking like it might be time to lock down some more grease suppliers for the ol’ veggie truck


Attachment is the root of all suffering.

Or so said the Buddha. I’ve been thinking a lot about that these days, from both the perspective of someone who works at an addictions treatment center for youth (where unhealthy attachment abounds), and from a “life in general” perspective of a husband and father.

Often we get attached to the negative experiences that have happened in our lives, holding on to the memories of hurt, anger and sadness…not realizing that it’s the very attachment we’ve created to these negative experiences that is the cause of our current suffering. At the addictions program, we work a lot on “letting go” of attachment to a story that no longer suits our reality.

Attachment comes in all forms, from being attached to ‘stuff’ (houses, cars, vacations, etc.), to ‘ideas’ (success, happiness, freedom), to people (family, friends, loved ones).

But what about all that stuff about how great attachment is, particularly when it comes to children being attached to their parents (and vice versa)? If we take a look back at what the Buddha was talking about, he said the root of suffering, not the cause of it. Of course we attach, we’re biologically hard wired to do so after all. It’s when we remain attached to something that no longer exists (or meets our needs at the current moment), that suffering starts.

When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I suffered for awhile. I remained attached to a version of myself that no longer existed. I was angry. I was in denial. I was PO’d for sure. And now I consider it to be one of life’s greatest gifts. It’s provided me with a new paradigm on what it means to be healthy. It’s a daily reminder of the need to take care of myself.

Most importantly, it reminds me of my own mortality…a thought that drives my actions both as a person and a professional.

So perhaps the answer is more about being flexible with your attachments. Recognizing when what you’re attached to is causing more pain than joy, and be open to letting it go when it no longer suits your needs.

Ask yourself, “how’s that working for me now?“. Is my attachment to (thing, idea, person) causing me joy or suffering?

Relationship is an action.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of facilitating a workshop at the Calgary City Teacher’s Convention. The workshop was The Resilient Classroom, and the conversation that flowed around the room for 3 hours was awesome, and a little frightening.

Working with teenage addicts, I all to often get to see the dark side of being a youth these days, and the challenges that some of our young people face. I’ve always assumed that I get to work with the anomalies, the kids who’ve been severely traumatized, abused, neglected, bullied, etc. After spending the morning with a bunch of teachers I realized that what I see in treatment is but the tip of the iceberg.

Teachers were describing kids being diagnosed with anxiety disorders at the age of 8. SERIOUSLY? What is there to be anxious about at the age of 8?

Not just anxiety, but isolation, depression, bullying, anger, ADD/ADHD, promiscuity…the list of challenges our young people face appeared to be endless and universal, with different areas of the city experiencing slightly different challenges based on the demographics of the families that lived there.

We talked an awful lot about the importance of belonging. How and why do students belong in their school and classroom? Do they belong because they score well on tests? Because they can memorize some facts and regurgitate them to the teacher? Because they do as they’re told and never challenge the establishment?

We came up with 6 ideas to implement the idea of “belonging” into the classroom. The first of these ideas is that relationship is an action, not a feeling. We tend to assume that students will feel a sense of belonging to their school, regardless of what we do to foster or discourage it. Because nothing screams “you belong” more than a building full of cliques, standardized testing and the opportunity to feel inadequate when you don’t know the answer to the out-dated question.

Of course relationship is an action… why else do we go on dates with someone while falling in love? Love is an emotion, relationship is a set of interactions. And how can you possibly feel like you belong to something, if you don’t have a relationship with it?

And how exactly do you foster a strong relationship with your students? I don’t know, because I’m not you, nor am I one of your students. But here’s a few things to think about:

  1. Authenticity. Be real. It’s ok. Talk about real issues, set aside your “expert” hat for a few minutes everyday and connect with a couple of students in a human way. 
  2. Share space and time. And by this, I mean really SHARE the space. Sit down for lunch together.
  3. Invite participation. Yes, students are forced to be in your classroom. Being forced to do anything sucks, whether you’re 14 or 40. The least you can do is invite them to be a part of creating a shared vision of what your time together is going to look like.

A pretty common theme among the young people that I work with is that they “hate school”. I’m sure if I polled their teachers over the years, there’d be some pretty strong feelings about the young person and their effort/attitude/behavior as well. Underlying it though, is a sense that they don’t “belong” in the school. I’m not the only one who believes this, and thankfully more and more schools are looking at this idea. For the first 10-days of the 90-day treatment program, all we do is invite belonging….by building relationship.

Which leaves me with a final thought to wrap up this blog post. I’ll tackle the other 5 ideas to create belonging in the classroom soon.

Does a child need to belong, in order to be loved? Or be loved in order to belong?