The Friday Poem ‘The Way It Is’ by William Stafford

“There’s a thread you follow.” opens this week’s Friday Poem, ‘The Way It Is’, from poet, writer, and photographer William Stafford.

As a conscientious objector during the second World War, Stafford worked in civilian public service camps for the U.S. Forest Service in Arkansas and California. In 1948 he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College.

In 1963 he was selected to receive the National Book Award from a group of nominees including William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970, a position that today carries the title of Poet Laureate.

In addition to his 65 volumes of poetry and prose, he left a collection of 16,000 photographic negatives to the archive at Lewis and Clark College. In a 2014 interview for Oregon Public Broadcasting, his son, Kim Stafford commented on his father’s discomfort with the spotlight. “When he became famous, the camera allowed him to leave the center of the circle and document the other writers.”

His lifetime spanned decades of dramatic change, and yet he stayed true to his values. His accomplishments and awards did not distract. “…You don’t ever let go of the thread”.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

William Stafford   ‘The Way It Is’   Graywolf Press, 1999

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Photo credit: Kim Stafford

The Friday Poem ‘The Familiar Has Taken Leave’

Why are we always surprised when national events veer from a predicted trajectory? Maybe we’ve been spending too much time with analytics and not enough time with the poets.

Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic last week about the role of poetry in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Campaign in poetry; govern in prose,” the old adage goes. This moment, though, has in many ways flipped that idea: The 2016 presidential campaign was decidedly lacking in poetry. Yet in its aftermath, as Americans consider the contours of their new government, they are, often, turning to poems…”

She interviewed Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine to discover why poetry was having a ‘moment’.

“Well, it’s always been speaking to people—and it’s always been speaking to people about the kinds of things they’re taking about now, because one of the things poetry is really good at is anticipating things that need discussion. Poets are kind of like—it’s a bad metaphor, but—canaries in a coal mine. They have a sense for things that are in the air. Partly because that’s what they do—they think about things that are going on—but partly because they take their own personal experience and see how that fits in with what they see in the world. A lot of people might think that poetry is very abstract, or that it has to do with having your head in the clouds, but poets, actually, walk on the earth. They’re grounded, feet-first, pointing forward. They’re moving around and paying attention at every moment.”

Perhaps next time, we should survey the poets, not the pollsters.

Until then, the events of the past 11 days brought me to a poem selected by Matthew Zapruder for the August 16, 2016 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

The poem, written by broadcaster, documentary filmmaker and poet, Richard O. Moore was part of a “sequence of sonnets about the consequences of losing his sight in old age”.

At its core, the poem is about change…and how we respond.

The Familiar Has Taken Leave

Responding to a world turned outside in
Requires a fresh agility of will
And a surreal mode of thought, both distant
When the world was visible and real.
The only carry-over is the sound:
The hollow clatter of the commonplace,
Ancestral voices, sepulchral complaints
From many sources now invisible.

This is the most dispassionate I can be.
The familiar has taken leave with all I know
And what is left is mostly echo fading,
Never to return. What takes shape then
Is virtual and is a world apart
Assembled half by memory, half by art.

Richard O. Moore (1920-2015) from ‘Particulars of Place’ April, 2015

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What if you lost 25% of your organization on one day?

When we talk about corporate culture today we talk about change. What would you do if you lost 25% of your population in one day? In three months you can expect replacements for the 25% to arrive at your doorstep. The only complication is that the newbies lack the experience of the folks who left. One more thing. An increasing number in this group will never visit a physical location of the organization, communicating solely online.

Shall we have a conversation about ‘disruption’? What resources would you require to manage the scale of change?

This is the continuous management challenge for colleges and universities. And yet, those on the corporate side often discount the ‘unreality’ of the campus workplace, while those working in academia are suspicious of those in ‘the real world’.

Today is a good day to imagine this scenario as thousands of freshman arrive on campus or sign in to their first online course.

It’s time for business schools to take a look at what’s happening on their campuses and take the lead to cross-pollinate the lessons learned across the great academic – corporate divide.

When we talk about the 25% we are talking students. It doesn’t include the annual turnover in faculty and staff.

How do you manage the expectations of this diverse group that the organization (college) is hesitant to refer to as customer, many of whom have a team of consultants (parents) directing every move? How do you create a culture that is sustained through significant population shifts?

Start with the leaders?

The academic career path that leads to the university ‘C Suite’ rarely includes leadership training. The more enlightened college presidents invite the feedback of consultants, but the majority rely on the belief that they have always been the smartest person in the room and lead accordingly.

The realities of economic viability challenge the most effective leader to balance donor pressures with cultural continuity.

The job description has changed. It’s not just faculty and students anymore. The leadership portfolio may include a multi-million dollar entertainment complex (football), a multi-billion dollar health care campus, major real estate redevelopment and significant political lobbying.

College presidents once occupied a place of influence in the national conversation. They have been replaced by political voices who view universities as the sanctuary of the elite.

University presidents are running cities within cities. They are the guarantors of our civic future with their link to generational and social change.

I have worked in both corporate and academic environments. I am aware of the wall of bias that separate the two worlds. No one benefits from this insularity. Each could gain from the leadership lessons of the other.

Quit Before You Disappear

It’s Thursday and those thoughts you had about leaving your job earlier in the week have faded, as you anticipate a weekend break from work. Maybe it’s a good time to rethink your position in the workplace, before another week ends and you disappear into world of someone else’s definition.

Researchers with Citizens Advice, a problem solving service in Great Britain found that “workers reach their happiest moment at 6:08 pm on a Friday afternoon, just as they are heading home.”

Inevitably the weekend will come to an end, and along with it the anxiety at the prospect of returning to workplace frustration.

Georgia Graham reported on an interview with Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice in The Telegraph.

“People really don’t like Mondays, as employment woes are at their worst and job stresses kick in after a few days away from the workplace.

Anxieties start building on the eve of returning to work and reach fever pitch by lunchtime on the following day, with more people looking for guidance then than at any other time.”

Jessica Brinton, writing in the Sunday Times, profiled women who took that Monday feeling and quit while they were at the top of their game. Quoting Liv, a marketing agency star, “Then, one Monday morning, I was on my way to a meeting at an industrial park in Slough. Suddenly, it came over me like a cloak of sadness. I thought, “This is not how I want my life to be. It’s heartless.”

Katherine Losse, was Mark Zuckerberg’s copywriter in the early days of Facebook. In her 2012 book, ‘The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network’ she shared her decision moment:

“It’s a form of crisis. You think ‘I’m smarter than this.’ You think you are working your way up, but, really, you’re just servicing someone else’s vision and it’s making you disappear. I was using all my intelligence to cope with the fact that I was in an environment that had nothing to do with who I was. So I left.” 

Daniel Gulati, a tech entrepreneur based in New York, recounts a Q&A session after a presentation at Parsons School for Design in a Harvard Business Review post. He was asked, ‘What do you most regret about your career?’ The question was a catalyst for additional research. He interviewed a diverse group of professionals and came up with the ‘The Top Five Career Regrets’ as a way to help folks minimize regret in their own career.

Number two on the list:

“I wish I had quit earlier. Almost uniformly, those who had actually quit their jobs to pursue their passions wished they had done so earlier. Variable reinforcement schedules prevalent in large corporations, the visibility of social media, and the desire to log incremental gains are three reasons that the 80% of people dissatisfied with their jobs don’t quit when they know they should. Said one sales executive, “Those years could have been spent working on problems that mattered to me. You can’t ever get those years back.”

Leaving a workplace is a difficult decision. Timing is unique to each situation. Quit when it’s time to move. Don’t wait until you lose yourself in someone else’s career.