A Turning Point
Today marks my official last day at Microsoft, after being laid off on March 2nd. How are you thinking about this? That was a note I had stuck to my monitor at the end of 2019 to remind myself to always be working on building the thinking capacity of my team — not only what do you think, but also how are you doing that thinking. Are you able to observe your thinking as it happens? Or at least go back and reflect on that thinking later? What structures are you using to order and organize your thinking, so that you can remain both unattached and whole in your observations? When I was cleaning out my desk in March, I left the note, along with my collection of 折鶴 (orizuru), as a final invitation to my team — how are you thinking about this? Now, however, it’s time to answer how am I thinking about this? Before answering that, I’m going to take a moment to describe what I felt, because watching that journey unfold over the last two months provides a window into the other.
It began with shock. Is this really happening to me? I’ve worked here for nearly 22 years with a track record of individual excellence and a capability to grow high-performing teams. After shock came an anger that burned brightly but quickly subsided, replaced by disappointment — disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to continue with my team on our journey of growth and discovery, disappointment in people I thought were allies that allowed this to happen, and disappointment in myself that I wasn’t able to navigate towards a better outcome. By the end of that first week, Microsoft had shifted everyone to work from home and by the end of the second week, the Bay Area was under a shelter-in-place order due to the rising pandemic from COVID-19. Disappointment shifted towards gratitude that I didn’t have to deal with managing this new chaos (or the old chaos!) at work, that the privilege of a long career in tech provided me with ample resources to weather unemployment not afforded to the 30 million who would file for benefits in the coming weeks. Gratitude, too, for the dozens upon dozens of personal notes from colleagues of the difference I had made in their careers and lives. What a valuable resource to reconnect me to my true work! From gratitude rose a sadness that people I had worked with for years, some for decades, were struggling in this new reality of juggling work and home and kids and schooling and that I was powerless now to support them, a kind of inverted survivor’s guilt. The sadness became a low hum, attenuated but not eliminated, by a burst of determination to reclaim my role as an active player. But like water breaking through a dam, this determination was largely unfocused, although it quickly started to channel into the existing patterns that had dominated my working life. We are such creatures of habit! But, through two weeks of structured journaling the determination modulated, became more focused and pointed in a new direction. But, once the excitement of the new path started to diminish, the undertones of fear and unworthiness and doubt could be faintly heard in opposition. Like the sadness, they will remain, but resolve to bring forth my agency in service of awakening and re-awakening the potential in all living systems harmonizes them with the new work — they become the restraint to do the necessary work to develop myself as I seek be an agent in the development of others.
With the narrative set, I can go back to look at how I think about this using a framework from Carol Sanford on the Three Core Human Capacities1:
My first reaction, shock — is this really happening to me — shows a mindset, right from the start, of external locus of control, something is happening to me. From the shock, the disappointment of the end of the journey with my team is mixed, but aimed towards external considering; the disappointment in others is sourced from external agency — that it’s the role of others to act, to prevent this outcome; the disappointment in myself begins to reframe the external locus control from the initial shock into internal locus of control — to hold myself accountable for the role I played leading to this result. Gratitude for my newfound liberty from the chaos at work stems from internal considering — life might be hard for others, but thankfully I’m just fine; gratitude for my financial security still mostly reflects internal considering, but with the empathy to recognize that others are not and will not handle layoffs with the same equanimity. Gratitude for the personal notes from co-workers was sourced from external considering — such a powerful reminder of the caring I had for them and how they were impacted by that caring. The sadness began to reframe the internal considering of being grateful that I didn’t have to juggle working and a pandemic into external considering — wanting to improve outcomes for others — but coupled with external agency — feeling powerless to do so. But it was from external considering that the spark of determination to reclaim personal agency was sourced. I had to shift all three capacities — from external to internal locus of control, from internal considering to external considering, and from external agency to personal agency; only then could the next work begin. It’s fascinating how emotion was and could be orthogonal to this process. Gratitude, often considered a positive emotion, was a source of both internal and external considering, while sadness was how my scope of considering was transformed from internal to external.
I can look at the new work through the lens of another framework, the Law of Three2:
My setting of a new direction is the activating force. In opposition to it is the restraining force of my fear, doubt, and unworthiness that conspire to pull me back into the same patterns as before. With only two of the three forces identified, the work is unlikely to make progress. But with the third force — my resolve to develop the potential in living systems — the activating and restraining forces are reconciled towards a higher purpose. All three forces are present in any event of creation. And all three must be held in our mind as valuable for their dynamism to work.
If this all seems abstract and doesn’t make much sense, that’s understandable. Thinking about our thinking is an underappreciated practice that requires using language in ways that are unusual. And some things are simply not transmittable through language at all — they must be experienced and internalized to be understood. Or, maybe this engineering son of an English teacher hasn’t quite figured out how to wield a metaphorical pen as well as he wields a sword. (Sorry, Mom!) Either way, my purpose here is to make visible what is largely hidden — to perhaps hook your curiosity and invite you to begin (or resume!) your own developmental journey.
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time3
Oh, and if you want to chat about students, educators, and education systems, I’d love to engage with you. Or, you know, any of this stuff.
Originally published on Medium.
Sanford, Carol. No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. InterOctave. Kindle Edition. Excerpts from the book can be found on Medium: Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5. See also Why Psychological Safety is the Wrong Goal for Business. And bad for Democracy! for a summary of the three core capacities.
Time of Your Life (Good Riddance). Green Day.