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Stumbling Over My Words

Learning a new language opens a world of opportunities to experience vulnerability, especially if navigating your every day life depends on it.

Arabic writing

Just over a year ago, my wife and I relocated to Jordan in order to learn Arabic. In the future we want to work with Syrian refugees, and we know that speaking the language will open up a world of opportunities to connect with those who are most vulnerable.

We live in an area made up of refugees from different eras. There are the Palestinians who began arriving during the 1940s, the Iraqis who arrived during the 1990s and 2000s, and now the Syrians who arrived here during the last 5 years.

Everything from ordering drinking water, taking a taxi or buying vegetables depends on us finding the right combination of words, tone and pronunciation.

Each day in school, we take classes in formal Arabic grammar (Modern Standard), and the Jordanian spoken dialect (known as Ammiya).

Out of our many experiences of facing vulnerability through language learning, our reading class is the one I find the most humbling (humiliating).

In these classes we take it in turns to read out loud to a group of 8 people, while the teacher corrects mistakes and assists with pronunciation. When we’re finished reading, we summarise what we’ve just read in formal Arabic into spoken Arabic.

During the class I sit there anticipating my next turn to read. I feel tense, I mentally assess the abilities of my fellow students (comparing them with my own). The closer it gets to my turn, the more agitated I get and the less my mind focusses.

It’s exhausting.

The main source of tension during these classes comes from the fact that I really want to be good at reading.

I want to excel at the language and for others to recognise that I am good.

But the pressure to be good hinders my performance.

I so badly want to perform well that I psych myself out and end up stumbling over my words. When the teacher corrects a mistake, instead of absorbing the feedback and jumping right back into the passage, I waver and my mind jumps around the page. I start second guessing and totally lose my flow.

The problem with pretending is that with it comes the fear of being found out.

It requires maintaining a facade of competence, that requires a great deal of energy.

Learning to Let Go

So I’ve decided to work on my vulnerability issue. Instead of pretending that I’m good at reading Arabic, I’m admitting that I find it hard.

I’m accepting the fact that in order for my language to blossom, I need to take myself less seriously.

And I’m trusting that, as Brene Brown discovered in her research on the subject, vulnerability is the pathway to creativity and wholeheartedness.

By giving up worrying about what other people think of my abilities, I might just have the space to begin improving.

(Image credit: Neil Hester)

Change Maker’s Manifesto

change-makers-manifesto-coverLast week I finished work on my new eBook, Change Maker’s Manifesto: Simple Steps Toward Making a Difference.

This quick start guide is for you if you want to get started in making a difference in the world, but don’t quite know where to begin.

For those of you are already on this journey of change, I’ve added a section on sustaining change. It’s all about developing the habits of long term change makers.

It’s a short book that one of my friends finished during a lunch break at work.

You can download it for free by joining my (weekly) email list below*

*You’ll receive an email with a download link once you complete the sign up process.

The Upside of ISIS

The Imam and The PastorYou know how sometimes something really horribly grotesque somehow ends up having a positive, unintended byproduct?

Like when you see someone who has faced the worst kinds of abuse find their way out the other side. And they’re not just the same person they started out being. They’re stronger. They somehow turn the utter shit-that-should-never-have-happened situation into something that gives hope to others?

I think something of a similar ilk might be happening in the sphere of East-West relationships. Let me explain…

I think that most of us agree that ISIS/ISIL/داعش (DAESH) is not a good thing.

In fact, if we took a vote, we’d be close to unanimous in saying that they seem, much of the time, to incarnate evil. They behead, kill, rape, drown, burn, shock, force convert and displace people.

It’s very hard to imagine anything good coming from them.

But I’ve noticed a strange byproduct of their unholy rampage: people who didn’t used to talk to each other are starting to.

And it’s not just that they’re talking that’s interesting. It’s what they’re talking about.

There was a time not so long ago when Christians and Muslims didn’t have very much to do with each other. Especially Evangelical Christians.

At best, Christians pretended Muslims didn’t exist. At worst, they regarded Islam with deep suspicion.

In fact, back in the 80s and early 90s, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to come across Christians who, if you got them talking about the subject, would echo the sentiment of what Franklin Graham said just last month:

“We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad…we should stop all immigration of Muslims to the US until this threat with Islam has been settled.”

But recently the church, or at least many within it, have begun asking “if we say we are following the teachings of Jesus, and he says ‘love your neighbour’, and even ‘love your enemies’, what should we do about our Muslim neighbours?”

And, at the same time, Muslims have started asking: “if our Holy Qu’ran teaches us to love and respect Christians, how can we practically do that?”

People are setting aside centuries of confusion and misunderstanding and are working together for the sake of peace.

And the thing that has added an urgency of life-or-death to this movement is the work of ISIS.

ISIS, in all their savagery, are polarising people. Some turn to violence (in the West against Muslims, in the East against Christians, Yazidis, Shi’a), but others turn to peace.

If you’re like me, this sounds like very good news.

It puts a smile on my face when I hear about Evangelical megachurch pastors standing up to Franklin Graham because he’s not being Jesus-like towards Muslims.

Not to mention when Muslims help to rebuild burned down churches.

And when I got to visit a mosque in the UK (in a city that has spawned several well-reported ISIS members) and I see Christians and Muslims sitting side-by-side, listening to each other attentively, answering questions in the spirit of peace, I feel optimistic that ISIS’ days are numbered.

Life Hacks for Successful Change

I’ve moved countries a few times in my life. First to Sweden, then South Africa, and now, just 6 months ago, to Jordan.

Change can be exhilarating, but it can also be a challenge, especially when the “honeymoon phase” begins wearing off.

home sickness

Here are a few things that have helped me to embrace change…

Decide to ignore the less appealing aspects of your new culture
Anyone can find things they don’t like in an unfamiliar culture. But if you take a closer look and step outside of your comfort zones, you can find beautiful things anywhere in the world.

Nest
One of the things that has helped me to feel more settled is to set up home in a place. Ask yourself: “would someone visiting my home when I’m not there know that I live there?” and work at making the answer “yes.”

Hang pictures. Grow plants. Do whatever it takes to make your house feel like a home.

Develop routines
It’s easy to feel at sea when you first arrive. Everything is new and unfamiliar and everyone except you has things to do and places to be.

Get into a rhythm.

For us this has been easy, because we have language school every day. Outside of language classes, we visit people for about 2 hours a day and we study our books and memorise vocabulary for at least another 2 hours a day.

Usually when you first arrive in a new place, life isn’t so structured. Do your best to build a routine.

Stay Thankful
I’ve blogged about this before, but make sure you notice the beautiful things about your host culture on a regular basis.

When I start to feel homesick I like to take a walk and look around at all the things that I don’t get to enjoy back home: falafel stands, friendly faces spontaneously inviting you to drink coffee, the way the city comes alive at night.

Make local friends
When faced with a foreign land, many people gravitate to those who share the same cultural background. This is definitely the easiest thing to do, but it’s not necessarily the one that will make you feel most at home. It’s important to make friends with local people as soon as you can.

To begin with, this might mean showing up on your neighbour’s doorstep with a plate of cookies, or making a bit more small talk than you usually would with a local shop owner.

How about you? What tips do you have for a successful transition into a new place?

(Image credit: Emile Krijgsman)

How To Handle Transition

We all go through times of transition, whether it’s changing jobs, moving cities or saying goodbye to friends. Here are some ways to handle transition well.

About a year ago I did a week-long debrief of my last 5 years.

One of the things I discovered from it was that I hadn’t done as good a job at handling change as I thought I had.

Instead of going through a healthy process of grieving loss and coming out the other side, I’d been avoiding it altogether.

This time, as we approached moving countries, and saying goodbye to a seriously amazing bunch of friends, I resolved to handle things differently.

Here’s how:

1. Plan
This time I sat down with my wife and we wrote a list of all of the people and places that we would miss and wanted to say goodbye to before we left. Then we planned out when to visit each of them.

2. Celebrate Friendships
In the past, it wasn’t until I would reach my new destination that I’d begin regretting the things I hadn’t told my friends. To transition well, it’s really important to make a point of doing this. If there were things that were hard to speak out, we wrote them down and gave them to our friends.

3. Express Emotions
Even though it might be culturally awkward, it’s really sad to be on your own when you begin to cry over the loss of a friendship. I made the point this time to be okay with crying in front of people, because I realised that I wanted them to see what they mean to me, and to be able to share the weight of the loss.

4. Tell Stories
My natural tendency is to focus on what’s next, but I’m learning the importance of looking at what has been. During our most recent transition, we reminded ourselves and those around us of the things we’ve experienced together. We told the story of our time there. We talked about what we learned and how we’d changed.

How You Can Stop Giving Forgettable Talks

Every teacher wants their students to remember what they’ve been taught. A recent study show’s that that’s rarely the case. Here’s how you can teach to be remembered…

6284181389_36af02b058_z
Photo by cybrarian77

I love that this blog is about change. Change is what humanises us.

Think about any narrative you have ever read, or watched. A truly captivating character is one that changes. At the the heart of every good story, whatever the surrounding circumstances, there is a person who changes.

And yet, despite being captivated by the idea of change, most of us feel the futility, or at least the slowness, of change in our own lives and those around us.

Forgetting is the norm

According to a recent study the highest performing pupils in the UK forget around 60% of the basic concepts taught in the months between taking the entrance exam and arriving to class.

I think this is the sign of a deep seated misunderstanding in our culture and our age about learning and knowledge.

Imagine this: the brightest doctors, teachers, government leaders and scientists of our next generation being taught to re-call information but not being given the skill of integrating that information into anything deeper than rote repetition.

In a culture obsessed with information, we are perpetually informed, but we have lost of virtue of allowing knowledge to transform us.

So how do you teach people in a way that they transcend being simply informed, to being transformed?

1) Make A Connection

Your paper qualifications are just that: pieces of paper. They might gather you a room full of people, but it takes true human emotion, relational connection, to truly impact people at the deepest of levels. Put simply, you have to be more than smart, you have to be likeable.

2) Listen To The Learner’s Need

Often teachers arrive with a pre-conceived notion of what the learner needs. Instead, start by assuming that the learner is the expert in her own scenario, and provide only the tools that assist her in fulfilling the need she has defined.

3) Encourage Participation

Inviting the learner to be part of the discovery, is the most transformative experience you can offer someone in a learning environment. That is why good science teachers don’t just tell you what happens when you throw potassium into water, they let you do it and watch the glass bowl explode! When we invite people into the experience of discovery we ignite their imaginations that the world is bigger than 2D concepts.

 If you want to be someone who teaches to be remembered, be sure to listen hard and engage your students’ imaginations in the learning process.

Why it’s good to read people you disagree with

If you want to cultivate and refine your understanding of your own worldview, it’s important to study the worldview of others.

Why you should read people you disagree with
Photo by Tarik Browne

I discovered this when I first began studying political philosophy. Reading the likes of John Locke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault I would ask myself: what similarities and what differences do we have in how we see the world?

I was surprised to find out that there was always something I could agree or empathise with in another person’s perspective (a lesson I learned from Atticus Finch, Mr Gove!).

There was usually an aspect of each perspective that troubled me or caused tension, and that tension helped me to develop a sense of what I believe in, who I really am.

For example, when I began looking at conservatism: the idea of the small state and political pragmatism, I could see glimmers of value in that point of view. Though I’m far from conservative, politically, being exposed to this worldview has enhanced and sharpened my thinking.

Today I find this practise invaluable. When I read the perspective of others, however different from my own, they help me to harness my focus, or remind me of blind spots I should pay more attention to.

In Writing and Music

This idea applies to any medium that is used to carry a message.

Another example for me is Douglas Coupland, the novelist and artist. I don’t see the world entirely as he does, but the way he weaves his love for the environment into many of his novels compels me not to forget its importance (see Generation A or Shampoo Planet).

I wouldn’t necessarily choose to back the same causes as Ani Difranco, but her songwriting stirs up inside me anger at the way women are often treated in this world.

Frans Kafka wrote:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to.

(via Brainpickings)

Writing that merely affirms our perspective of the world is meaningless.

If we want to be change makers, we need to hone our thinking and refine our ideas.

Exposure to conflicting and contrasting values helps us in this process.

It also helps us to avoid demonising people just because they have a different outlook on life.

It’s why I sometimes choose to read books I know I will find irritating, like The Fountainhead.

How about you? Are there people you read or listen to who you disagree with, but who help to refine your worldview?

6 Compelling Reasons to Get Yourself a Coach

A coach is someone who can act as a sounding board for your ideas, helping you stick to commitments and championing your progress as you pursue your goals.

6 Compelling Reasons to Get Yourself A Coach
Photo by Ed Uthman

Here are some reasons why you need a coach:

  1. They help you focus

    One of the things I love about meeting my coach is that he helps me refine my ideas and get down to the one or two practical things that I can begin taking action on.

  2. They hold you accountable

    A good coach will ask you how you’re doing with the targets you’ve set yourself. Living in a world full of distractions and voices competing for your attention, it’s so helpful to have someone helping you to stay on track.

  3. They give feedback

    Although the role of a coach isn’t to tell you what to do, they are listening to your process and can mirror back what they see. This can be key in identifying inconsistencies and blind spots.

  4. They help you carry your load

    Going after a dream is hard enough. Why would you choose to do it alone?
    Having one other person checking in with how you’re doing really helps to ease the load and prevent you feeling isolated, or like you’re the only person who cares about what you’re doing.

  5. They share their connections

    Most of the people who have coached me have connected me with resources or people who have helped me get unstuck from problems I’m having.

  6. They can track your long term progress

    Because your relationship has an element of commitment to it, you can be assured that your investment of time and energy explaining what’s going on in your life isn’t wasted. They’re invested in your journey, often more than friends will be.

So how do you go about getting a coach?

Many people out there pay to be coached by Strengths Coaches, or Life Coaches, or even Counsellors. These professionals are helpful, but if you don’t have the budget, don’t worry.

Look for someone who you respect and who you know is a good listener. Consider someone who has expertise in an area you wish to grow (although this isn’t essential).

Then ask them if they’d be willing to coach you, clearly defining your expectations (How often do you want to meet? What will your times together look like? What types of questions would you like them to ask?)

Have you been coached? Did you find the experience helpful?

Change Makers Avoid Insulation

If you want to stay alive to the world, it’s important to avoid becoming segregated from the needs around you. Wholeheartedly embracing a life of change means opening your eyes to the pain of the world and letting it shape you.

Homeless Afghan Refugees by Zoriah
Image by Zoriah

That’s one of the reasons travelling can be so good. It helps us to break out of our normal habits of who we usually talk to and where we usually go. Surrounded by a world we don’t recognise, we do things that are outside of our ‘comfort zones’ and we feel great because of it.

A recent study showed that the 20% most wealthy Americans give away an average of 1.3% of their income, while the poorest 20% give away 3.2%.

What is it that makes the wealthy so stingy?

According to the researchers, it has to do with being insulated from need:

“when both groups were exposed to a sympathy-eliciting video on child poverty, the compassion of the wealthier group began to rise, and the groups’ willingness to help others became almost identical…insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.”

This is an important lesson for us wannabe Change Makers.

If we want to be the kind of people who cause change, we must expose ourselves to need and pain. Once we know people who are suffering, we’re more inclined to identify their needs, and to make decisions about what we should do about them.

I live in South Africa, a place that has turned segregation into an art form. Back in the days of Apartheid, cities were designed to keep the different racial groups separated and to make civic areas predominantly white. A recent article in The Guardian describes Cape Town’s original planning strategy:

“Cape Town was conceived with a white-only centre, surrounded by contained settlements for the black and coloured labour forces to the east, each hemmed in by highways and rail lines, rivers and valleys, and separated from the affluent white suburbs by protective buffer zones of scrubland”

Boys during Apartheid
Image by UN Photo

Although this segregation is no longer vested in the law, the infrastructures remain the same. Black people live in black settlements, mixed race people in mixed race settlements, and white people in areas of prime real estate inhabited mainly by whites.

It’s rare for white people to have relationships of equality (real friendships) with people of other races. The black people they encounter are gardeners or domestic workers, cashiers or waste collectors. They are relationships with an unequal balance of power, in which the black person is subservient to the white person.

This setup fosters insulation, and works against the progress of change. The design of the city encourages and enables the rich to turn a blind eye to the day-to-day realities of the poor. They don’t see their pain, and therefore don’t feel motivated to do anything about it.

Of course South Africa is just an extreme example of a natural habit of the human condition. We push those on the margin out of sight, and those with power and riches to centre stage. We naturally choose the path of least resistance, where we won’t be inconvenienced by someone asking us for change, or expressing their pain.

We close our eyes and hope that someone ‘higher up’ will do something about it, forgetting that those ‘higher up’ are elected as our representatives and will only focus on things they believe matter to us.

Do you find yourself insulated from the needs around you?

Is there a small step you could take to connect more with the world’s pain?

5 Totally Selfish Reasons To Become A Change Maker

You may think that you have to be a self-sacrificing saint to become a Change Maker. That’s not true!

Here are 5 good reasons for selfish people to pursue change:

  1. You meet amazing people
    I’ve met some of my favourite people in the course of pursuing change. These people have courage, determination and amazing stories. They live all over the world, so I have somewhere to stay wherever I go!
  2. You gain a sense of purpose
    I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying “it’s better to give than to receive”, but you might not know that research shows it to be true. Focussing on something bigger than yourself is really good for your outlook on life.
  3. You find belonging
    When you start going after change, you discover others who carry the same desire. You realise that you’re not alone in the world but actually belong to a likeminded tribe of people.
  4. You learn to turn your dissatisfaction into action
    A healthy sign of maturity is being able to convert your frustrations into action. Being a change maker means learning to do this well and to communicate it effectively to others.
  5. You leave a legacy
    When you invest in something bigger than yourself, and connect with others who share the same passions, you ensure that your investment isn’t wasted, that you will leave your mark on the world.

That’s my list. Can you think of any other selfish reasons for becoming a Change Maker?