Sociopolitical systems

Why I won’t teach my children to “not hate”

A few years ago I wrote a post in the aftermath of the Newton, Connecticut shooting. I’ve been trying to avoid blogging about the news as a general rule of thumb, but the recent attack in Orlando has me all fired up.

My son is now almost five, and he’s got a two year old sister.

And neither of them are going to be taught by my wife and I to not hate other people.

“Not hating” someone is a pretty *$%!ing low bar to set for ourselves. Because “not hating” them still implies that there’s a damn good reason you could hate them. They’re different. They’re weird. They believe in something you don’t. They act in ways you don’t.

“Not hating” someone is awfully close to tolerating them, which in and of itself is loaded with a superiority complex that we have no desire in bequeathing to the next generation.

Before you can shoot up a nightclub full of people, you have to find a reason to hate them. You have to judge them as immoral, alien, other.

And in order to judge them as such, someone needs to have taught you that. Someone needs to impress upon your young brain that homosexuality is a sin. That Muslim’s are terrorists. That poor people are lazy. (____________ insert your judgment here).

So we’re not going to teach our kids to not hate.

We’re going to teach them to love.

Same, same….but very different.

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.

All politics aside.

A few weeks ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek, rather sarcastic post detailing the Top 10 Reasons to Vote Conservative.

This week I’d like you to try something. I’d like you to completely forget that the Conservative, Liberal and NDP parties exist. I want you to throw away your ideas of what is “right” or “wrong” for a government to do. From taxation to the environment, niquabs to the economy.

I want you to think from a strictly rational place, and answer the following question:

Would I rather have a Member of Parliament representing my riding who is a highly competent, well renowned leader in both business and non-profit, who has a strong chance of being heavily involved in the new government?

Or would I rather have a Member of Parliament who is the third most expensive in Canada, accomplished very little in the 8 years he’s represented me, was fined for robo-calling, doesn’t show up to half the debates in his riding, regularly spams my mailbox with propaganda, and will at best be a backbencher in the opposition?

Seems like a pretty damn clear choice to me, all politics aside.

Scarcity; Why Having Too Little Means So Much

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a book review. Probably because I have a 3 1/2 year old and a 6-month old, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading (for pleasure, anyway). And writing open letters has kept my blogging brain busy.

Luckily we managed to sneak away for a week in Mexico recently, and as usual a vacation offered up the chance to catch up on the reading list. First up, Scarcity; Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

If you’re only interested in the “read or don’t read” commentary, this one is a must read. Part behavioural economics, part cognitive psychology and all useful, I found it to be a compelling read filled with insightful commentary on the human condition and the pervasiveness (and consequences!) of a scarcity mindset.

From time management to finances, depression to poverty, this book takes a wide ranging look at why having too little means so much, for organizations and for individuals. The authors don’t only point out the impacts of scarcity (particularly on our cognitive bandwidth), but offer up useful and practical tips to work within it. Why are we so much more productive as a deadline is looming? Why does poverty persist? Why are sugar cane farmers in India smarter after the harvest than before? The emerging science of scarcity explains all of these phenomena (and more), and the authors, through a combination of stories and experiments, do an excellent job of conveying this to the reader.

So grab a copy and find some time in your scarcity-filled day to read it!
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Dear Albertans; an Open Letter to Everyone

Dear Albertans,

A few weeks ago I wrote an open letter to Jim Prentice. It generated a lot of conversation, both from people agreeing with my sentiments and others who hold the opposite view. That’s exactly what it was supposed to do.

The more I thought about the letter and the response to it, the more I realized that we needed to be sparking a different conversation. Not a conversation about Jim Prentice and what he should or shouldn’t do. He is, after all, one man (albeit a powerful one) at the pointy end of the stick. Easy to blame the stick when it whacks the wrong thing, harder to have a conversation with the hand that’s wielding the stick.

And fellow Albertans…we need to have that conversation. We need to ask ourselves if we’re truly pointing that stick in the right direction, and, more importantly, if we even have our hands on it any more. I suggest that we don’t, because if we did we wouldn’t have seen half of the scandals, financial abuses and bad policy decisions that have plagued this province in the past few years and seem to be continuing.

So, in the spirit of the previous letter, here are my Top 5 pieces of advice for Albertans to help get us back on track.

1. You know when you’re driving and you go to merge or change lanes, and someone slows down to let you in? Give them a damn wave. Not only is it courteous, it’s an acknowledgement that there’s someone else on the road. And that someone did something nice for you. They weren’t so absorbed in their own self-importance that they couldn’t see your need to safely continue on your journey, and give their brakes a tap.

2. Speaking of acknowledging other people on the road…we need to talk about taxes. I know, that’s pretty much a 4-letter word in this province. The thing is, we’ve somehow gotten it stuck in our heads that the lower our taxes go, the better off we’ll all be. And although that’s probably true for higher income earners (who worry less about the costs of things like increasing school fees, expensive childcare, post-secondary tuition), Alberta’s 10% flat tax is actually making the poor and working class worse off. There are incredibly reasonable alternatives that would retain Alberta’s relatively low tax environment while providing stable revenues for things like education and healthcare. And yes, our spending can probably be better managed, and we can and should find efficiencies wherever possible. But 40 kids being taught in the gymnasium is not the kind of efficiencies we should be going for.

3. We’ve got a gambling problem. Let’s imagine for a while that Joe Albertan is looking to settle down, buy a house and raise some kids. He’s got a decent salary, but also has a bit of blackjack habit and stops in at the local casino regularly. He’s been on a winning streak for awhile, and starts to think that this winning streak is a permanent fixture in his financial picture. So he buys the biggest house he can, complete with a big truck, a boat, a pair of quads and an RV. Life is good. Of course, as all gambling streaks go, his starts to come to an end. And he’s not even losing money at this point, just not winning any more. Just breaking even. He can’t keep up with the bills, so he has to start making some tough choices. He doesn’t build any new schools. He blows up a hospital. He stops cutting the grass and fixing the little things around the house as they wear out and break down. This goes on for awhile until he starts to win again. Then, instead of fixing things up, he goes on a holiday. He gives all of his friends and relatives 400$ worth of “JoeBucks”. He starts to build a Sky Palace.

I think all of us can agree that Joe has a full-blown financial management problem on his hands, rooted in an over-reliance on speculative income (blackjack) and a penchant for extravagant spending. Sounds strangely familiar…

4. That PC super-majority? In the last provincial election we turned out 57% of eligible voters. The PC’s captured 44% of the popular vote, which is only 28.4% of eligible voters. Which means that Albertan’s either didn’t vote for the PC’s, or voted against them, by an almost 3-1 margin. Let’s talk about the 860,000 of us that didn’t bother to take a few minutes out of our lives to acknowledge that we live in a free and democratic society, and the price we pay for that is a few minutes of our time and some thought about the future, once every couple of years. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed the results. But one day it might.

5.  Politics and taxes aside, if you really want to make a difference in your own life and the lives of people around you, then just start. Do something. Volunteer for a local non-profit. Take your beer money and donate it to a worthwhile cause this month. Join a board of directors. Clean up a stream. Say hi to your neighbour and shovel their walk. Share and comment on this blog post.

And when people slow down to let you in, give them a wave.

Dear Jim; An Open Letter to Alberta’s Premier

Dear Jim,

I like you. I really do. I think that your first couple of months in office, after officially winning a seat in the legislature, have seen some movements in the right direction (#Bill10 notwithstanding). Of course, all you’ve really done is reverse or deal with a lot of the bad decisions made by your predecessors. From selling off the air fleet to reversing the decision on the Michener Center, you’ve had your hands full of messes to clean up.

Of course, along with cleaning up The Party’s act, there have been some political feathers in your cap. Winning the four by-elections and assisting Danielle Smith with the neutering of her own official opposition are certainly a testament to your growing political capital and obvious prowess.

I like you, so here’s some (obviously) unsolicited advice, in the form of a Top 5 Top 6 List.

Number 1: Stop calling me (and every other Albertan) a taxpayer. We’re not cows to be milked. I’m a taxpayer once every two weeks when my paycheque gets cut. Every other moment I’m a father, husband, employee, boss, son, neighbour, volunteer…and most importantly, a concerned citizen of this province. Concerned that every damn conversation boils down to what the “taxpayers” are going to think. Try asking me as a father instead sometime.

Number 2: Don’t just slaughter some sacred cows, fire up the grill. Progressive income tax, revenue neutral carbon taxes, provincial sales tax, oil & gas royalties…you name it, we better be moving on it. Alberta could, and Alberta should.

Number 3: Stick to the laws your own government enacted, particularly the one about the next election being held sometime in the spring of 2016. I (and many fellow Albertans) are pretty much done with your party playing political games and running this place like it’s a little #PCCA fiefdom. It’s not like there’s a shortage of work to be done in the next year.

Number 4: The Environment. You know, that big ol’ place that provides food, water, air, etcetera…it’s suffering. In a big way. For far too long we’ve sacrificed our relationship with our natural spaces in the name of frenetic and unsustainable economic growth. From fracking to clear-cutting, rampant off-highway vehicle use in our headwaters to the oil sands, turning the corner on environmental issues and bringing some reverence back into our relationship with the earth should be a top priority.

Number 5: Last, but definitely not least, get out a little bit more. And I don’t mean down to the Superbowl to stump for the Keystone XL pipeline. Get out of your party’s vested interest in the status quo. Get out of the mindset that Albertan’s won’t tolerate some needed change around here. Get out and talk to people who haven’t spent their entire careers amplifying the issues that we now face.

Number 6: Finally, if you’re hell-bent on balancing the budget through spending cuts, which you seem to be (as opposed to the very good advice in Number 2), don’t do it on the backs of vulnerable people and children. Our educational system is already maxed out. I visited a local elementary school earlier this year and there were classrooms in the hallways. Classrooms in the staff room. Classrooms in the gym. I’ve got a 3 1/2 year old son and I’m more than a little anxious about the quality of his education in the coming years. As for the vulnerable, if there’s one thing that Albertan’s will tolerate less than a tax-system overhaul, it’s the further dismantling and degrading of an already fragmented and incomplete support system for vulnerable people. Albertan’s, as you know, are the kind of people that do what it takes to make sure their neighbours are cared for…look no further than the overwhelming response to the floods of 2013. Speaking of the floods, if you’re looking for something to cut, let’s start with golf courses.

I like you, Jim. I really do. I think you’ve got what it takes to help create a true Alberta Advantage…not one that’s been built on years of over-spending, under-saving and pillaging our natural resources.

I like you…but I’m probably not going to vote for you.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me for 40 years?

5 Reasons why Albertan’s shouldn’t be consulted on Bill 10 (or GSA’s for that matter)

You probably heard a lot about the controversial “Bill 10” that was due to be passed in the Alberta Legislature last week, but was pulled by the Premier before the third reading due to significant public backlash. Good thing too, besides being a bad piece of legislation it was destined to reinforce the Alberta hillbilly complex, according to Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi.

The bill has been put on indefinite hold, “pending further consultation with Albertans”. Here’s a few reasons why that consultation should never happen.

Reason #1. People should be consulted on things that both impact them and they have either an informed opinion about or lived experience with. Being an LGBTQ youth in high school is a pretty niche experience. The formation of Gay-Straight Alliances in high school does not impact me, I don’t have lived experience with, nor (until I took the time to do some research), is a topic that I had an informed opinion about. Which leads me to…

Reason #2. If you DID take the time to get informed, you’d learn that, among many other startling statistics;

  1. LGBTQ youth are up to 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.
  2. Students who are harassed due to sexual orientation are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide than a student who has not been harassed.
  3. An estimated 28% of completed suicides are by LGBTQ people.
  4. Substance abuse is estimated at 2-4 times higher in LGBTQ populations than the normal.
  5. 86% of surveyed gay and lesbian students in one study reported being verbally harassed and abused at their high school.

Reason #3. The first two weren’t enough? How about the government’s record on doing timely, meaningful and engaging consultation processes that result in significant action on social issues? Oh. Right. We’ve done so well with, say, child poverty.

Reason #4. Assuming that the government decides to ignore reason #1 and actually does “consult Albertans”…what exactly is that going to look like? What kind of questions would you ask? Below are a few samples.

Q1. True or False: LGBTQ teenagers are people with rights and freedoms. (Hmm. They’re definitely people, but I’m not so sure about them having rights and freedoms. Is there a “Not Sure” option?)

Q2. On a scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), please rate the following statements;

  • That Alberta’s high schools are safe and inclusive environments for all students.
  • That we take reasonable and effective actions to protect LGBTQ youth from harm associated with discrimination.
  • That the Alberta Progressive Conservative party can continue to deny that it is, in fact, 2014.

And, finally, Reason #5. The very fact that the topic of GSA’s is being debated in the legislature instead of…oh, just about anything else…. is a sad commentary on how far we have to travel (approximately 40 years, according to the above cartoon). Sending Bill 10 out for “consultation” reinforces the notion that there’s something to consult about, which, if you’ve been paying attention to reasons 1-4, you probably realize there isn’t. There is no balancing of right’s to be done here. The protection of vulnerable teenagers against suicide, mental illness, substance use, homelessness and discrimination IS NOT something that can be stacked up against a parent’s right to choose if their kid gets exposed to reality while in school, or for certain religious school boards to hold fast to a quickly sinking ship.

I’m not against consultation. In fact, I firmly believe we don’t do enough of it. And there should be a conversation on this issue, starting with students and then probably including their teachers.

Just not with me…or the average Albertan.

Lest we fail to act.

This time of year, when the snow starts to fall and the thermometer dips, when the red poppies start to appear, is the time to reflect on how much we owe to our fore-bearers for their tremendous sacrifices. For a week or two we pin a plastic flower on our jacket and, tomorrow, spend a few minutes in silence or an hour at a Remembrance Day service. All of this is good, and important. Lest we forget is a noble sentiment, an important nod to our past and a reminder to keep the horror of war at bay.

But it’s not enough.

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields. By far the most important line in John McRae’s famous poem, and perhaps the least appreciated and acted upon.

What is the torch? Of the many gifts that previous generations have blessed us with, from defending the world against genocide to laying down their lives for their countryman, I believe that democratic freedom, the ability for everyone to engage in building a free and civil society, is the greatest and longest lasting. I’m appalled when only 61% of eligible voters bother to take an hour out of their busy lives every 4 years to vote in the federal election. I’m even more appalled by the fact that only 33% of voters turned out for the last municipal election in Cochrane.

Lest we forget is important and noble. We need to be reminded of the sacrifices of our ancestors. That’s why I’ve got a poppy permanently pinned to the visor of my truck, and why November 11th, Remembrance Day, remains an important and sacred day for my family and I.

Lest we fail to act is a reminder for the other 364 days of the year.

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 you should question everything.

In the last few weeks I’ve written about how poorly the Conservative government is treating our veterans, what politics and forest fires have in common, and a bit about the subsidizing of private schools.

What all of these issues bring up is they highlight what people believe. I had some great Twitter and Facebook conversations with folks about all of these issues (particularly about private schools). A common theme from these conversations is that people are really good at articulating what they believe. The objective of this post is to help you consider why you believe whatever it is you believe. Join me in a thought experiment about a societal topic or two, and hopefully we can shed some light on our long-held opinions and beliefs.

Let’s consider crime & punishment. I’m going to play the role* of a firm conservative and suggest that I believe criminals should be punished to the full extent of the law, and that we should be pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda. That’s what I believe.

Now why might I believe that? Because my version of the world is one in which people are free to decide their fate, free to make choices. Obviously criminals are choosing a life of crime. My world is an individual one, where people make it or don’t based on their merit, grit and determination. I identify strongly with the notion of rugged individualism, and back in the day probably smoked Marlboro’s.

OK. Great, we’re a little bit closer to why my stance on crime is a tough one.

But why am I a staunch individualist? Maybe I’ve bought into the underlying premise of capitalism. Maybe I believe that people are inherently selfish. Maybe I believe whatever my parents/church/school taught me to believe. Maybe I have no clue as to why, it’s just the end result of my experiences in life. Maybe it’s something I’ve never really thought about.

I’m lucky enough to work in an industry (addiction treatment) where I get to constantly reflect on not only my values (what I believe), but also the roots of my values, the things that inform my beliefs. I have to question the things that I think I know on a daily basis, in order to help me see the world and the people in it as they truly are, not coloured by my perceptions of who or what they should be.

OK Jeff. Why does this matter? It matters because if all we do is hold onto our beliefs (whatever they are), and never question why they exist and what informs them, we run the real risk of not being able to adapt to changing realities, both as individuals and as societies at large. This is especially pertinent this week as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wraps up 4-years of bearing witness to the effects of Canada’s dark past, the legacy of Residential Schools. Remember, at one point in our not-so-distant past, societies’ view was that taking children from their parents and eradicating their cultural (through all kinds of traumatic experiences) was not only a fine thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.

I’m glad someone started to question that belief. Makes me wonder what else we might want to shed some light on.

*If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I wouldn’t identify strongly with a lot of conservative values and beliefs.