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.

Sugar’s not the problem.

I recently did a workshop in Cochrane called The Sugar Fix: 4 Easy Steps to Curb your Cravings. It went really well, likely because that particular topic lies at the intersection of my diagnosis with diabetes, and my work in the addiction sector. We’ve known for awhile now that sugar is addictive. What we haven’t done a great job of (and what I’m trying to do), is use some of the proven methodologies behind addiction treatment and behaviour change and apply them to “sugar”, helping people reduce or eliminate their consumption. I’ve got another one lined up for November 27th in Calary

 

One of the first, and probably most important, things to realize is that sugar is a solution. It is rarely, if ever, the problem. If we consider sugar to be an addictive, mood-altering substance (which it is), then the problem becomes “why do I need my mood altered?”. Stress. Boredom. Depression. Anxiety. Just having a bad day in general. All great reasons to reach for a bag of chips or bowl of ice cream for a little pick me up.

One of the first steps in really tackling a sugar addiction is not to rush out and buy some new cookbooks. It’s to notice. Notice when you’re reaching for the next hit and asking yourself, “why do I feel like sugar right now?”. And if the answer isn’t “I’ve got low blood sugar and need to eat something before I pass out”, then you’re trying to fix a different problem…and I’m going to suggest that sugar isn’t the best solution to try.

There’s something wrong with charitable giving. It’s not the #ALSIceBucketChallenge.

If, like myself, you’ve been fascinated by the viral marketing sensation that is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge…you might also have some wonderings about whether it’s good, bad or neutral for the charitable sector. Having spent a fair bit of time thinking about these kinds of issues, I’m going to offer some thoughts.

First, if you haven’t read this article from Maclean’s, I recommend it. The Cole’s notes are that the author makes some great points about why we should rationally allocate our limited charitable dollars to the causes that have the greatest needs, where our dollars can do the most good, and for what is most urgent. Hard points to argue with. Of course we want to act rationally, which is why you can buy a 700 horsepower Dodge Challenger. The free market caters to the rational.

Why shouldn’t someone donate based on emotion? Or having a bit of fun? Or because a friend or family member challenged them? The simple reality is that the entire charitable sector, when you think about the enormity of the challenges they’re facing, is pitifully underfunded. The issue at hand isn’t whether heart disease is gathering 90$/patient vs. ALS pulling in 3000$. The issue is that neither of those numbers are big enough to solve the respective problem. Instead of lamenting that the small pie isn’t being sliced in the most rational way…why the hell aren’t we trying to make the pie bigger?

Fundamentally, the author (and other “small pie” thinkers) are correct. In a world with fixed levels of charitable giving, the best approach would be a rational one. I don’t believe that we live in that world (both rational and one of fixed giving potential). A good place to start might be a 20% luxury tax on things like 700 horsepower muscle cars, a tax that went directly to charitable organizations. That might even help some people make more rational decisions in general.

Incidentally, the author of the Maclean’s article works hard to help build free markets in developing countries through his nonprofit organization Building Markets. One of the fundamental tenets of a free market? Driving purchasing decisions through emotion-based advertising. Which is why, in 2010, internet and tv advertising was a 76 billion (that’s billion with a b) dollar industry. How, then, is the charitable sector going to compete with that?

How about a couple of viral slacktavist challenges and celebrity videos…obviously not the ultimate solution to a small-pie problem, but not the end of the fundraising world as some would make it out to be.

Is there something wrong with how much money society allocates to solving poverty? Cancer? Environmental decline? Yes. Does the #ALSIceBucketChallenge make that problem worse? I’d say doubtful.

 

 

 

 

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.

Every single moment.

What better time to reflect a bit on the journey of parenthood than on Mother’s Day? My wife and I are 2.5 years into raising a wonderful little person, and are due to welcome our second into the world in September. It’s quite the trip, this parenthood thing, especially considering that between my wife (an elementary teacher) and myself (someone who works with youth with addictions), we’ve got some pretty strong ideas about parenthood and rearing little people. Combine that with a relatively keen interest in brain development and neuroscience, and you get a perfect storm of theory meets practice, laboratory meets the real world.

Did you know that a newborn’s brain is 25% of of it’s adult weight? And by the age of 3 it will have produced billions of new cells and hundreds of trillions of connections? The growth of young people’s brains is absolutely incredible, and fundamental to developing so many important life skills…from counting to 10 and singing the ABC’s, to learning how to regulate emotions and share toys. And how does this learning happen? We teach them, of course.

Every single moment, we’re teaching our children something. We’re teaching them to love…or hate. We’re teaching them to judge or accept. We’re teaching them to laugh or cry.

Every single moment, our children learn how to handle frustration or get overwhelmed. How to comfort someone who’s sad, or ignore them. How to use their imagination or play angry birds.

Our children learn from us whether they can trust people, or whether they need to fear them.

We teach them whether the world is full of possibility and wonder, or disappointment and scepticism.

Sometimes I hear people lamenting the “coming generation”. They’re lazy. Entitled. Disrespectful. They lack work ethic and social skills. And so I ask, “who taught them to be this way?”. Or perhaps, “who didn’t teach them something better?”.

If you interact with children, be it through your job or as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or neighbour… the single best thing that I can think of for you to do is become familiar with even the basics of brain development. From “serve and return” to the effects of “toxic stress”, knowing how young brains develop, and what they need to develop effectively, might just be the most important and powerful gift that you can give to the young people in your life.

Take 4 minutes and watch this great video, compliments of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. And remember…children will become what we are. So let’s be what we want them to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Addicted to everything.

15% of adults in the United States are addicted to cigarettes. 7.7% are alcoholics. 5% are regular marijuana smokers or illicit drug users. 2% have an eating addiction. 2% are problem gamblers. 2% are addicted to the Internet. Up to 6% of adults in the Unites States have a love/sex addiction. 10% of Americans are workaholics. 3% are “exercise dependent”. 6% have a shopping addiction. 12.5% are addicted to social media.

We’re up to 71% of the population and we haven’t even talked about tanorexia yet (addiction to tanning beds). Or sugar. Or refined carbohydrates. Or caffeine.

Of course, a lot of people have co-occurring addictions, so we should take into account that there are the odd people who shop on the internet, while jogging on a treadmill, gin and tonic in hand, cigarette hanging out of their mouth and tweeting all about it. But it would seem that, even counting those folks, that having an addiction of one stripe or another is more common than not having an addiction.

I’d highly recommend you take 20 minutes and listen to Dr. Gabor Mate discuss addiction at a TEDx event in Rio.

 

And if you haven’t yet, check out the book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, it’s probably the most informative read on the complexities of addiction that I’ve come across.

And remember, it’s not “why the addiction?” that we should be asking ourselves. It’s “why the pain?”.

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.