Compassionate Strangers

One of my favorite questions to ask strangers is some form of, what do you love about life?

A week’ish ago I pulled out this question just a few minutes into a conversation with the woman behind me in line for the bus to Albany.

I love asking this same, simple question is because the answers are always varied and often surprising, in the best of ways.

Her answer? It came pretty quick and was quite clear:

People’s ability to care and to show compassion for other people even if they have no relationship with them.

The second reason I love asking this same, simple question is because the conversation then usually heads off into uncharted territory.

This uncharted territory is both for me (which, with a stranger, everything is pretty much uncharted), and – more importantly – for them.

She’s a new teacher in the NYC public school system and she told me about her challenging week.

One major question that confounds her:

How does one balance the need to control the classroom and garner respect from all students, while also knowing that some students who show disrespect to her or to others may know no other way to call out for help?

I don’t feel right sharing some of the details of this story, but one thing that I do feel comfortable sharing that truly blew me away was when she said this:

The worst thing about being a teacher is about encountering parents who don’t care. Parents who will save your number specifically so they won’t pick up when you call because they don’t want to hear about their child.

We talked a bit about experience we had abroad. When she learned I had spent quite some time living in China she immediately wondered aloud, I read something about how Chinese teachers spend a lot of time discussing strategies for classes, much more so than in America. Is this true?

Our conversation extended from the line, through the bus delay, and all the way to Albany. Teaching in New York, China, Cuba, Pakistan, relationships, love, Humans of New York, and more were the topics of the evening.

She told me at one point that she doesn’t usually talk to strangers.

What was it that lead to a stranger conversation that day?

Did she just need someone to talk to?

Was it a conversation that took an unfamiliar twist after a short warm-up of regular chit-chat?

Something else?

Maybe if the result was so excellent for everyone involved, the reason’s not all that important?

Do you think it’s possible to find compassion – and comfort – in an interaction with a stranger?

Maybe you’ve experienced it before?

When was the last time?

What was it like?

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Authentic Sustainability

There is a lot to unpack from one of the quickest 3 hour workshops I’ve been to in recent memory.

And though I can’t break down all of my takeaways from this afternoon at Yale FES, I wanted to start with where we started and where I ended.

As usual, it was a question:

What does it mean to be authentic?

I worked at a hotel in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province for 2+ years. At The Linden Centre, there was always talk of “the Real China” and/or experiences that were authentic.

This was always hard for me. Because of this same question:

What does it mean to be authentic?

Well, today I may have advanced my thoughts on this just a little bit.

By considering another question:

What does it mean to be inauthentic?

Many of us have ideas of what it means to be authentic. Based on my experience in Yunnan it’s a taste or a feeling of something that seems to be quite real.

Perhaps it’s something we haven’t experienced before.

Because, when you have had something “authentic” before, it sure feels hard to have something equally authentic again.

And so I have been exposed to more people thinking of authenticity as something exotic or fantastic rather than something as real as what’s in front of them on a regular basis. How could everyday life be authentic?

In my former case – how is everyday life in Beijing or Shanghai any less authentic than everyday life in Yunnan?

But when you re-frame the question to explore what is inauthentic, it’s very hard to argue one place being more or less authentic than the other. Provided everyone is being themselves.

I don’t exactly see Beijing pretending to be Shanghai any more than it would pretend to be Yunnan.

So when we re-frame that question to explore what’s inauthentic, it brings something quite different to me to the question of what is authentic.

Perhaps these opposites provide balance to the conversation. If we are to define what something is, then we need to define what it’s not. And by defining both, it enables us to come to greater clarity on what something is.

Given that our conversation was about authentic sustainability and now that we’ve established that definitions are good, one definition of sustainability used today was that attributed to John Ehrenfeld:

“Sustainability is the possibility of human and other life flourishing on earth forever.”

Sounds a bit hippy-esque, but essential it boils down to how people and other life forms can be awesome and at their best all the time and for all of time.

Stated in another way, sustainability is a pathway to planetary, organizational, and human flourishing.

As the conversation warmed up about how we understand and perceive authentic sustainability, we discussed as a group about conversations between people we labeled either as “effective” or “stuck” conversations.

 

And as we listed takeaway soundbites from the conversations around effective and stuck conversations we had with our neighbors, as a group we started to see the patterns where effective conversations were often when both sides focused on the mutual benefits.

Whereas in stuck conversations, there were always feelings and background conversations in our own heads that we were not dealing with openly that seemed to halt progress – often on both sides.

What really started to come out for me from there on out is that it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about sustainability or something else. The type of thinking we’re talking about with authenticity comes down to whether or not we’re ready to get real with ourselves because this has a major influence on how we relate to and interact with others.

My thinking started to drift into thinking about my authentic self. My relationships with others. How things were working and how things were not? What mattered to me and what mattered to another in this moment or that? I tried to bring a balance to both sides, both arguments, both thoughts, feelings, and words, in order to bring greater clarity to a particular situation from days gone by that was never resolved.

And I considered how I could have chosen to act – or react – differently.

One thing I realized over the course of today is that I can be quite emotional about the people and things I care most about.

And when it comes to those people and about those things, I am probably the least vocal about expressing my emotions.

I’ve never really admitted this to myself before.

And when I think of what I actually want out of life. It’s not to not communicate what I’m thinking and feeling, especially when it matters most.

This is an important part of who I am. When something matters, it matters. Holding that in doesn’t appropriately enable me to communicate to the people I care about or to others about the things I care about. And that was lost during my time in the dark.

Fortunately I came to realize that the only way for this to change is for me to more regularly express. Which is what this 60-days of writing has been about. Practicing expression. Being vulnerable with myself by opening myself up to these conversations with myself and with others.

But enough about me for the moment, how about you?

What is authenticity for you? What does it mean to be inauthentic?

What is the authenticity that you experience and appreciate?

Is there anything about your authentic self that you’re keeping locked away?

It might not be something you – or others close to you – even realize. But if you take some time to look, to listen to yourself, and to others, you may find something unexpected that might make you feel just a bit more sustainable i.e. fully and completely and extra alive.

i.e. an even better version of your best self.

Didn’t think it was possible?

Well, you’ll never know if you don’t take the time to look and listen.

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Interested in more on Authentic Sustainability? Learn about Gabriel and Jason’s work here.

Yelp-ing: How and for Whom?

I have a couple friends who are pretty excited about Yelp. They are regular contributors. One has even achieved the exceptional – elite status. And not just once. She’s a three-time champ.

Having watched from the sidelines for quite some time now, and using it regularly to make more informed dining-oriented decisions, I’ve started to feel like the right thing to do is to give back.

And given my foray into the restaurant business, I’m also quite interested in how it feels on both sides. While I’ve been in the seat of a diner more than my fair share of times, lately I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be behind the counter as someone who aims to serve.

I had a great conversation today with two gentlemen about how they use and think about Yelp. The question I thought to be most interesting – what do the stars mean?

Since there are various things that go into a review and much of it comes down to expectations:

Is it 5-stars for what it is or 5-stars compared to everyone else?

One of my conversation partners says for him it comes back to this one basic question. If somebody was to ask him, where should I go to eat in New Haven?

His answer would look a bit like this:

Answer = Food Quality + Experience + Service + Price

My other conversation partner then wondered back to the question of the number of stars “for what it is.” Let’s say that we’re eating at the only buffet in New Haven – no matter what type of food – does that change the numbers of stars you assign?

Are we comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges?

Now, I’ve had a bit of experience with the whole social media rating game having worked at The Linden Centre, a boutique hotel in rural China (Yunnan Province, Dali Prefecture), where hospitality meets a richer educational and/or immersion experience.

TripAdvisor was always on the owners minds, and rightfully so, so many people use it to inform their final decisions about where they will stay. Anything less than a 5-star review on some levels felt unacceptable.

But after a conversation with one of our guests one afternoon, my perspective changed.

Instead of reading the positive reviews, he actually likes to read the negative reviews first. For a place like The Linden Centre, and most places he would choose to stay, these reviews are few and far between.

The advantage to reading the negative reviews is that he can very quickly figure out how much he is or is not like the people writing. And whether the things they care about are the things he cares about.

Rather than reading all the good stuff, the “bad” stuff he finds to often be more useful and more telling. Of course the good stuff helps for some recommendations on how to spend his time. Or point him in the directions of things not to miss.

But the bad stuff could be the clincher, in a very good way, whether or not he thinks the hotel is a good fit for him and his lady.

In slightly more direct words, he told me, the negative reviews helps him decide if the people writing them are crazy. And, if so, he definitely wants to do the opposite of whatever their review says.

I thought back to that moment today because of this article we talked about at lunch.

It’s interesting what expectations we bring to the table when it comes to dining – and reviewing. And how some of us feel we have the liberty to comment on things – and desire to influence the decisions of others – without balancing the facts.

In the unhappy review highlighted in this article, the writer(s) expressed their displeasure that stemmed from a service that the restaurant did not offer. After following through on their promise to write a scathing review, someone from the restaurant wrote a direct and thoughtfully tongue and cheek reply.

But let’s zoom out for a moment.

While we may make many balanced and level-headed decisions on a regular basis, what sometimes makes us so resolute about our opinions, especially in those times when our opinion has not taken into account all the facts?

Why do we sometimes project ourselves – and our biases – into our on-line and off-line conversations with others? Do we realize it when we do this? Do we realize it when others are doing this to us?

These reviewers were so hell-bent on getting their food, they forgot to take into account that deliver is just not an option.

But, of course, they’re right. Aren’t they?

What has you feeling so resolute these days that you’re not willing to take other important facts into consideration during your next conversation about it?

When do you want to believe something so strongly that we’re willing to overlook the facts?

How does that influence our review(s)? And how does that affect others involved in that and future moments?

So, when we’re making comparisons, are we comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges?

And when we’re assigning ratings – is it 5-stars for what it is or 5-stars compared to everyone else?

Is it 5-stars for them or is it 5-stars for you?

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First thing’s first – the focus of the post written by Andy Isaac is a restaurant called Voltaire and I would absolutely love to go to Kansas City to eat there.

My conversation partners are working on a couple cool businesses these days.

The first, IQzic, a new music platform that just might provide a fun way for you to find your next favorite artist(s). Interested in getting in on the ground floor? Consider supporting their Indiegogo campaign and/or signing up for the beta launch.

The second, Chairigami. Think the furniture you need, that’s durable, but also easy to move, because it’s made of cardboard. Myself, I’m thinking about going for a standing desk, but you should see what might fit your life and your space here.

And by the way, you may have been wondering where we ate today – Sitar, Indian spot, buffet lunch. Hence the hypothetical “only buffet in New Haven” question.

As far as my review, I haven’t written my first one yet, though I’ve pretty much decided what I’ll give them. 3-stars. Food was fine. Service was good. Nothing to write home about. But the company was exceptional.

Though I wonder how I’ll feel while thinking more about the meal when I write my review. And how I’ll feel next week. I only had a few items today. But with an afternoon of work ahead of me, and since I’m planning on being a regular, I was pacing myself.