The power of reflection…and “what” returns

My throat went on vacation…and brought me along for the ride…well that’s my description for the laryngitis I’ve been experiencing.

This state of existence has led me to expand my periods of silence—to give regular periods of rest to my vocal chords over the past days. While these rest periods could have just been stretches of mindless silence, I’ve taken these as periods for intentional reflection.

I’m big on self-reflection. It’s been critical for my personal and professional growth. Prior to the current coronavirus-associated pandemic & a disruption to my travel, I had regular retreats that included reflection time as a core tenet—or in some cases the entire agenda.

These times of intense self-reflection allow me to pause and ask myself—How are you? How did you arrive at this place and time (literally and figuratively)? What will you leave behind when you move forward and what will you purposefully take with you? All critically important interrogations for myself, the last question in particular is about what returns from the period of reflection when I emerge to move forward.

The impact of stopping to reflect—a critically important practice that we too often fail to engage as we exist in cycles of endless busyness—is amplified by the ACTION of intentionally shedding some things that are not serving me well to increase time, as well as mental and physical capacity, to move forward with other things.

While my current ability to sit in silence and spend some intense time in reflection has arisen due to a physical challenge rather than a planned pause, I fully embrace the opportunity. It reminds of the need to plan for such periods with intention and anticipation rather than waiting on a “forced” period of pause. The importance of anticipating change and preparing for it is a lesson that I usually draw from plants in the season of autumn that is rapidly coming to a close. A period when deciduous trees degrade their green chlorophyll and drop their leaves in an active period of preparation for rest during winter.

Many of us resist planning for and fully embracing intentional quiet, pause, engaged reflection. As I have stated before, it “goes against all the incessant action that too many of us value – i.e., the illusion of busyness as evidence of commitment and productivity.”

Yet, I recognize that to embrace the ability to reflect and ask “where am I now and how and with what (and sometimes the pertinent question is with whom?) do I move forward?” is needed for sustained commitment, impact and productivity.

So while I didn’t (this time) plan for the current periods of reflection and invitation to deeper self-awareness, I welcome them…and I will certainly move forward with purposeful commitment to plan for the next period to understand, engage and support myself—so that I can also understand, engage and support others.

If you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM

I’m freedom dreaming…actively plotting & planning

The ultimate full-time work for me sits at the intersection of work I can do (I possess the basic capabilities), work I want to do (passion- and mission-driven work), and work that is needed (both acknowledged & unacknowledged, but absolutely critical, needs). Ultimately, this overlap is the embodiment of my freedom dreaming.

I have a vision for the work I can do, want to do, and that the world needs me to do. I also have a plan for measuring the impact of this work – my B-Index.

Unfortunately…for the current moment…it’s not the totality of my full-time paying gig, even as I have actively crafted my “day job” into more and more of “the dream” every chance and opportunity that I get.

There’s a lot of work that I can do, and do very well.

There’s also a lot of work that I want to do, some of that I can do well and other aspects I just like to do and so it feeds the wellness of my being.

There’s also work that the world needs me to do. In that regard, I’m special (aren’t we all?! – That’s what the fortunate among us are told by our mothers at least). Yet, I believe that to be true of each of us! I genuinely believe that there’s a place that our gifts, passions, abilities align with the needs of the universe – as well as our places of vocation and places of living.

Freedom dreaming – and yes I mean in the Black radical tradition as espoused by Robin D.G. Kelly in “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” – takes me to the intersection of what I can, want, and the world needs me to do.

Figure 1. Venn diagram with intersecting circles: blue circle labelled “Work I can do” (upper left) ; purple circle labelled “Work I want to do” (upper right); and, green circle labelled “Work the world needs me to do” (lower center). Labels: description “things I’m most commonly asked to do” in upper left with black arrow point to blue circle; description “What I often do now as consulting” pointing to overlap between blue and green circles (what I can do and what is needed); description “What I would do full time if independently wealthy” pointing to overlap between purple and green circles (what I want to do and what is needed); description “My dream full-time job & what I cultivate when, where & how I can in my current work” pointing to overlap of all three circles.

What befuddles and – at times – frustrates me is how often the requests for what I’m asked to do lie solely in the domain of what I can do without engaging what I truly want to do or aligning with what is needed of me. That is work that for me has great potential to lead to a lack of fulfillment and sure burnout.

Nearly equally frequent are requests for me to do what the world needs me to do, whether I have interest or commitment in doing so. In terms of my work in institutions, I’ve written of these phenomena before, and the limits that arise therefrom, in my discussion of “The limits of institutional imagination.”

I am also invited – mostly from individuals outside my “home” institution – to do work at the intersection of what I “can do” and what “the world needs me to do.” My work in this space can be extremely valuable for those individuals or institutions who need access to work that I am capable of doing. Because these are not necessarily “passion” projects, it is primarily work that I can effectively carry out as paid consulting.

Where I (indeed many of us) love to exist is in the intersection of work I “want” to do and work that the world “needs” me to do. There is a lot of motivation and passion at this interface. There is something very satisfying – that feeds individual motivation – when work you want to do satisfies the needs of a community. It can indeed be very affirming to offer your desired contributions in service to local needs. However, I have found that in some traditional spaces that my definition of what is needed differs from what institutions and their leaders defined as needed.

When such misalignment with traditional work expectations exists, efforts in this intersection can be overlooked, or worse yet seen as derailing you from expected action and progress. Key examples that I think of that often fall into these spaces are growth-based mentoring – both preparative and restorative -, service, and some aspects of leadership. These can be areas of work that are critical to the functioning of institutions or professional spaces; yet, are not those things recognized through traditional metrics of success and advancement.

The ultimate full-time work for me sits at the intersection of work I can do (I possess the basic capabilities), work I want to do (passion- and mission-driven work), and work that is needed (both acknowledged & unacknowledged, but absolutely critical, needs). Ultimately, this overlap is the embodiment of my freedom dreaming.

One of the most recent examples of this work for me personal is my recently released book Lessons from Plants that draws on my disciplinary knowledge of plants, scholarly expertise in mentoring and leadership, and my commitment to broadly foster and engage in conversations with a broader humanity…and in the process of doing so to call myself – and invite others – “higher.”

As I’ve stated before, in the absence of a personal commitment to work in ways that support my freedom dream NOW, this is work that would have been relegated to retirement. Yet even as most paying full-time jobs in academia for me sit outside the center of my freedom dreaming Venn diagram, I’ve learned over the years to advocate for parts of my formal work to encompass my freedom dreams…even as I continue to reflect on, actively plan for, and will into existence a space – in the academy or perhaps beyondthat allows me to exist more fully and regularly in the space of freedom dreaming as my life-sustaining vocation.

I know I’m closer today than I was yesterday to actualizing that dream.

Being clear about it is the first step, the next steps are reflecting regularly on it, being vulnerable and brave enough to share it openly to draw opportunities to further develop it and bring it into existence.

As with all the work I do, I’m not just about making such work possible just for me. I’m deeply committed to work and leadership that makes this possible for others.

What’s the work you can do? want to do? the world needs you to do? and how are you actualizing it?

I’d love to be in conversation with you about it. You can find me pontificating about mine here and eager to engage about mine or yours on Twitter @BerondaM.

The limits of institutional imagination

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. My poetry, my life, my work, my energies for struggle were not acceptable unless I pretended to match somebody else’s norm. I learned that not only couldn’t I succeed at that game, but the energy needed for that masquerade would be lost to my work.”
—Audre Lorde

Academia seemed to have a vision for me to be a Black woman version of all the white men and perhaps a few white women “superstars” who had come before me. The “mentoring” and advice I was offered always attempted to guide me down the “tried and true” path of success for scientists—focus on metrics (h-index, “high impact” venues for one’s work, large grants, and more).

This advice usually came before I’d even been asked why I chose to pursue a career in academic STEM, or what my goals were. I don’t recall a single academic “mentor” asking what my definition of success was.

I recall being asked from time to time, “what do you want to be known for?” And whereas my answer would have been about building community and cultivating cultures of support over competition, as well as about honoring my own humanity and that of those whom I’d have privilege to advise or mentor, I knew the answer expected was about which scientific topic I hoped to be recognized for making groundbreaking contributions to.

Certainly, I’m in science to ask meaningful questions and to make impactful and meaningful advances. Yet, the process of arriving at those is as critical to me as the destination.

Despite failing to probe my personal commitments to my work, the absence of insight into my personal vision and professional purpose didn’t stop the advice from flowing. And across multiple individuals it was generally consistent—have a dogged commitment to advancing the science and pursuing the recognized (often quantitative) metrics of academic success.

From the very start of my career, I knew without a doubt that I had a greater vision for myself.

Not greater in the sense of hubris or conceit—that is being greater than those individual colleagues. Greater in the sense that my vision departed from the norm in ways that was bigger than anything traditionally conceived of as academic excellence worth aspiring to.

To ensure that I was able to stay focused, I early on established the Beronda index, or B-index, that guided my progress along a path dictated by my own vision of career and personal success.

My vision is one uniquely crafted for me, by me. A vision uniquely honoring my ancestors and family, my uniqueness, my distinctive purpose, my individual gifts, and the resulting unique contributions that I have to offer.

I’ve always tried to extend grace and assume that the intentions of those offering advice—and a version of institutional imagination—were well intended. And yet, it so frequently felt like attempts to put me in a “box”.

Despite having followed my own vision with some degree of success (fully understanding the context of being a professor at a university), the imagination of the institution and most of those within continues to feel more limiting than freeing. Especially for a career that idealizes academic freedom.

It feels like individuals are drawn with interest to the ways in which I’ve crafted a career finely tailored just for me. They see strengths that have contributed to my advancement and rather than asking the question of how I’d like to continue to use these skills and gifts for new challenges and contributions that I may see as meaningful—as central to my cultivated purpose, something else frequently happens to me and others.

It’s common that individuals’ strengths are viewed through the limiting lens of institutional imagination. The skills and strengths that have led to a uniquely crafted path that draws interest are teased apart, cataloged, and (shrewdly) assessed for their utility to contribute to traditional positions or roles that will serve the “institution” and its vision of success. It can feel like being invited to morph and fit oneself into a “box” – albeit many of these boxes are well-resourced and well-respected.

I’ve continued to operate from the principal that boxes turned on their head can become meaningful platforms.

This prioritizing the freedom of cultivating my own professional imagination has been critical for me to feel unbounded from the limits of institutional imagination.

The elders have long recognized this.

Audre Lorde declared: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. My poetry, my life, my work, my energies for struggle were not acceptable unless I pretended to match somebody else’s norm. I learned that not only couldn’t I succeed at that game, but the energy needed for that masquerade would be lost to my work.”

I’m actively pushing myself to continue to unapologetically feed my imagination, rather than consume (or be consumed by) the limits of the imagination of others.

However, my vision in this area is not just about me as an individual scholar in pursuit of her purpose. My greater vision in this regard is that academia may find the flexibility, agility, desire to cultivate the greater vision of many individuals who come to the space… individuals who come from diverse backgrounds.

Some of my work in mentoring, leadership, and considerations of institutional transformation is work that never would have occurred without my envisioning more for myself—my imagining greater. Certainly my book Lessons from Plants that is officially debuting would have been at best a retirement dream. Yet, Audre Lorde’s words have been not just inspiration—but a persistent and bright beacon to preserve my energy NOW for my unique work.

Cover of Lessons from Plants by author Beronda L. Montgomery, Harvard University Press

It’s my hope that institutions—and the leaders therein—will become more consumed with the work that may be going uncultivated, work that remains unavailable to change the institutions into better. I implore leaders to find ways to cultivate individual imagination rather than touting a singular version of their own limited imagination.

I have so many more thoughts about where my imagination will take me…as well as where the cultivated imagination of many could take institutions. You’ll find me on Twitter @BerondaM sharing them or the writings that come therefrom. I also would love to hear the life you’re imagining for yourselves, even if the “institutions” you’re in can’t yet co-envision them.