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Archive for July, 2008

Play

Monday Morning, July 28, 2008

I know California well enough to consider Monterey/Carmel to be the perfect place for a retirement age physician who is also a psychiatrist to establish a non-profit organization called the National Institute for Play. 

It may well have been the inspiration for Google’s upper management, who make play an integral part of the work day.  The theory is that when people play, they are more creative, energetic and productive.  Tour the offices of Google, and it will look more like a scene from Tom Hanks’ movie BIG than the shades of gray traditional cubicle arrangement we usually associate with the work day.  Google is a giant, colorful, noisy play room.  And it’s likely the primary reason the internet company was named the best place to work in 2007 by Fortune magazine.

What better place to play than Monterey/Carmel?  Dr. Stuart Brown had a fascinating career.  It began when the young psychiatrist was assigned to probe the twisted minds of homicide convicts.  He brought a new question to them.  Did they engage in purposeless, creative, physical play as a child?  He worked on an unlikely theory – that rough and tumble play in boys during their childhood actually decreased the likelihood that they would become violent criminals.  Research emerged, suggesting that physical play has a profound effect in the healthy development of children.  It positively impacts socialization.  Problem-solving.  Decision-making.  Play maps out the brain’s network of connections; “hard wires” itself for useful purposes in other activities.  As his research developed, he also studied the effects of “play-deprivation.”  It can be devastating.

The young doctor interviewed cold-blooded murderers.  He reached a startling conclusion.  None of these incarcerated, convicted criminals engaged in the type of tempestuous wrestling and chasing common in healthy families.  The doctor understood that this was only one of many contributors to malicious behavior.  But, he concluded, it’s a significant one.

It prompted more research.  We might call it the physiology of play.  He encountered other colleagues with a similar ambition; some who studied play in the wild.  We humans are not the only species who play.  Dr. Brown associated with field researchers who observed the behaviors of chimpanzees and wolves and bears.  Play is commonplace, and essential to learning, and surviving.

So now, Dr. Stuart Brown has become an articulate and energized advocate of play.  He richly illustrates the point.  He is convinced that we humans are wired to benefit from open, strenuous, free play.  It’s not only a need for children in development.  It’s essential at every life stage.  And at every level, play-deprivation, as he calls it, has consequences.

Dr. Brown connects lack of play to anti-social behaviors.  Depression, obesity, and sedentary living are symptoms of the play-deprived life.  All the diseases associated with those disorders follow.  If the good doctor is right, play-avoidance is costly.

He expresses concerned about our safety obsession.  Over-protective parenting keeps children from the kind of play they need.  He calls some of our new, over-designed playgrounds sterile.  Boring.  Eliminate all the risks, and the kids have no fun.

Play is, by definition, risky.  The good doctor suggests that a broken bone, a cut that requires stitching, play that requires a first aid kit, well, all this is good healthy stuff.  This is how kids learn.  (All that, the doctor will say, is in the context of a host of disclaimers and qualifiers.  Ha!)

Kids need play.  Parents need it, too.  Seniors need it.  Dr. Brown advocates play at every life stage.  “That’s the way were are wired,” he says.

So I think about our son and sons-in-law wrestling on the floor with their rascals, chasing them around the corners, tossing them up in the air or into the pool, squealing with delight – and it makes me smile.

No wonder these kids are so happy and smart and fun.

So here we are in the middle of summer.  We are leaders.  We know a somber, grim outlook is no way to inspire.

Maybe we need to let it go for awhile and engage in what might otherwise be considered purposeless play.  Take a risk.  Push it to the edge.  Laugh out loud.

And follow the good doctor’s advice.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

Thanks to Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith, for introducing me to the work of Dr. Brown

Play in the Wild

 

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Monday Morning, July 21, 2008

It seems to me that we’ve crossed over some mysterious boundary into a new world of change.  I’m no prophet.  I certainly do not qualify to be called any sort of futurist.  Or a seer.  But the winds of change are blowing and leave me to wonder if the philosopher poet/sage of my youth, Bob Dylan, may have been right about where the answer lies.

When I sat down for lunch with a good friend, a high school English teacher, I caught him reading a little book with a provocative title.  Clint was half way through Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (1985).  The book is more than twenty years old now, but is enjoying a sort of resurrection these days, particularly among English teachers who have the unenviable task of convincing adolescents to put aside their iPods and cell phones and portable gaming handsets and text-messaging devices just long enough to sit in a quiet corner and read.  I was intrigued by the thesis of Postman’s book.  And Clint is one of those bright guys who can always be counted on for energetic, informative, stimulating conversation.  I got my hands on a copy.

Postman’s warning was issued in the Reagan era.  This would be pre-world-wide-web; pre-chat-rooms and pre-virtual-communities and pre-EBay and pre-Web-2.0 and the new reliance on all things digital.  Postman’s primary concern was not the ever-present PC.   (The bulky desktops and “luggables” primarily served as whiz-bang typewriters and number crunchers back then).  It was, rather, the TV.  The domination of the flickering television and the people who programmed them were Postman’s targets.  He complained that they were, by necessity, turning everything into entertainment – especially the producers of “news.”  To gain ratings that would justify the high cost of advertising, programming became a mind numbing succession of gotcha sound-bites and look-at-me eye-candy.  Rapid fire transitions and attention-grabbing setups made turning the darn thing off a near impossibility.

Postman’s analysis is heady stuff.  He’s a philosopher at heart, and makes the strong case that the age-old habit of reading forms the foundation of an intelligence that is a fundamental pre-requisite to meaningful discourse in the public square.  He bemoans the slow but sure demise of the discipline and joy of reading and writing in the electronic age.  There is something irreplaceable in the process of constructing sentences and paragraphs, carefully edited and thoughtfully crafted in the forming of ideas and collaborating on projects and making a persuasive case.  His argument is dead on and perhaps more relevant today than when he wrote it.

He wrote just after the passing of a watershed year for readers – 1984.  It’s the year George Orwell’s chilling predictions were to come to pass.  But didn’t.  In his novel by that title (published in 1949), he warned of a stark world controlled by a world-wide totalitarian regime that would monitor everything – even our thoughts.  Big Brother would be an ever-present guardian, Orwell warned, if the social engineers were allowed to take control.  But in 1985, Postman announced that 1984 passed and Orwell’s prophecy did not come to fruition.  (Maybe Orwell’s warning worked.)  But, as Postman makes clear, Huxley’s had.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was the prophetic winner.  Where Orwell imagined a world threatened from the outside, Huxley identified the threat from the inside, says Postman.  It’s not an oppressive, totalitarian regime suffocating the human spirit.  It’s our addiction to comfort and pleasure that’s killing us.

So Clint is bucking the trend.  It’s no easy task.  With a quick wit and a sense of humor and a love for his students, he opens up a world of learning that would otherwise be out of reach for this generation of students equipped with gadgets that distract and shorten attention span.  He’s teaching them to turn off the power switch, and open a book.  It’s a gift that will keep on giving for a life time.

This culture of accelerating change is taking us to a Brave New World.  There are many unknowns.  The answer, well, I guess it’s blowin’ in the wind.

Old ways of assessing, analyzing, planning, well, they don’t work anymore.  Even George Barna has given up on the idea that God can be reduced to a statistical model.  (See Unplugged.)

Where’s it all going?  I wish I knew.  One thing I know for sure.  I’m taking my cue from Postman.  And my friend Clint.

On this Monday morning, as a leader, I need to make time to turn off the digital machines, find a quiet corner, and get lost in a good book.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Monday, July 14, 2008

One of the unpleasant realities of the onset of aging is that truckload of errors and omissions that you think were properly buried and forgotten long ago.  They’re not, really.  They come back and haunt us old guys; sometimes unexpectedly.  Usually with some degree of pain.

Robert Boyd Munger wrote a little book way back in 1956 and called it “My Heart Christ’s Home.” It suggested that we take Paul’s letter to the Ephesians seriously, and let Christ “dwell in our hearts.”  The original language suggests “making his home” right there in our innermost being.  Munger took the metaphor and worked it, as we writers do.  The book is a little house tour, taking us through the entry-way into the living room, and the dining room and the bedroom and the kitchen and the den and the library.  He helped us imagine Jesus there with us in each room.  We listened to what he might say in the context of those very personal living spaces; where we find rest and nourishment and conversation and renewal.

When Munger wrote back in the fifties, there were no computer rooms connected to the world wide web, and most television sets were black and white flickering screens, rarely larger than twelve or fourteen inches.  The music was high fidelity; two-track stereo would come later.  But there were closets – those dark, foreboding, cluttered, hidden corners in the very back of the house.  One of Munger’s most penetrating and haunting questions – would we let Jesus open the door of those hidden enclosures at the back of the house?  Up there in the attic?  Down there in the metaphorical basement?  Or would we ask him to stay there on the sofa in the living room where everything is in place?  Where it’s safe.

A close, long time friend invited me to hear William Paul Young talk about his new book, The Shack.  Apparently, I’ve been living in some sort of isolation.  I’d not heard of the book.  It has taken off as a hit best seller – no marketing, no publisher.  The only explanation I could conjure up is that word-of-mouth buzz is carrying the book across the continent like a tsunami; between Facebook friends and bloggers and texting and conversations over a latté at Starbucks, the guys in the mail room are having a hard time keeping up with the orders.  I understand the latest count is two million in print.  That’s two million.  Whoa.  It got me curious.  (Maybe my book will do the same!)

When Craig and Carole invited Carolyn and me to hear the author speak to a crowd of well over a thousand folks, I thought I should do a little Google homework.  It didn’t take long.  A few keystrokes, and voilà.  More than I could absorb.  I learned that the book is a fictional, metaphorical account about a guy close to my age who is working through his stuff.  It’s somewhat auto-biographical, but that’s not the point.  I figured (from what I found online) that the shack must be the imaginary place he goes to do battle with his demons.  Now that I’ve heard him speak, and read the book, I know that I was close.  But it’s much more than that.

Young’s personal story is painful.  But it is also powerful.  It’s a story of healing and reconciliation and family and marriage and love and hope.  Healing doesn’t really happen unless there is some sort of malady that needs curing.  Reconciliation is only real against the backdrop of damaging alienation or betrayal or injury.  Family and marriage become rich and full and satisfying where there is adversity to overcome.  Love emerges strong in the presence of honesty and forgiveness and repentance and restoration.  Hope shines brightest when you’ve known the darkness of despair.

To hear Young speak is to hear a man who knows these things from experience.  So I was ready to read the book.

The other day, half way through, I sat reading in the shade by the pool.  A young mom walked by with her noisy little brood and said, “Hey, that’s the same book I’m reading!”  It’s everywhere.

When I finally put it down, having just read the very last page, this time in the privacy of my home office, I wept.  Deeply.  That moment took me by surprise, really.  I’m glad you weren’t there.  I would have been embarrassed.  But I think my journey to The Shack, along with Mac, enabled me in a new and striking way, to open up some of those old doors I prefer to keep closed.  And the fresh air was, well, an oasis.

Now, if you know how to Google search, you’ll find that the good author has stirred up the pot.  We Christians are ever on the crusade for Truth; quick to spot Error.  We think we’ve done God a favor when we Expose It.  I’ve gone through some of the screechy complaints about The Shack… and now that I’ve finished the book I believe that much of the criticism comes from people who haven’t read the novel or just plain don’t understand the nuances of metaphor or worse, just don’t like the idea of opening up those closet doors.  It’s not easy.

Munger’s book took off back in the fifties because people found out that Jesus wants the whole house.  Not to condemn, but to heal.  Not to judge, but to bring forgiveness and wholeness.  If Jesus has a problem with us, it’s because we keep him on the couch.  “Cream and sugar?”  That’s as far as we get.

When Mac overcomes his fear and his pride and even his common sense, and against all odds returns to The Shack, he’s given a surprise gift.  It’s the gift the Prodigal got.

My good friend, my colleague, on this Monday morning, you are a leader. 

That same gift is there for you.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

More on The Shack

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Olympic Magic

Monday July 7, 2008

One of the benefits of the discipline of writing week after week hits you when you realize, “Hey!  I wrote about that.”  Thanks to the marvel of the search engine, within seconds, I can find those long forgotten pieces, pull them up out of storage and relive the moment.  If you are a writer, and many of my readers are just that (not a few of you much more accomplished than I), you can appreciate the process.  You write.  And then you go back and read.  You edit.  You refine.  You reword.  And you read again.  And sometimes you wonder, where did that come from?  That’s pretty good.  You smile.

It’s a secret you keep, because it’s not particularly flattering to let your narcissism show.  Best just to ruminate on those sorts of things on your own, in the privacy of your own thoughts.  But song writers and poets and photographers and musicians and painters and crafts(wo)men and artists of all sorts know what I’m talking about.  The creative process is a delicate, mysterious thing.  First you’ve got to get started, set aside the distractions and demands and just do it (usually this is the most difficult part – deadlines help).  Then when it starts and the creativity flows you get into the zone.  And after it’s over, you look back at what was created; and if you’re reasonably good (and you probably are), you reflect back on the whole thing and savor it for a little while.  Sort of the way God did in those first couple of chapters of Genesis.

I’ve got nearly ten years worth of these weekly essays all stacked away on some little digital shelf on a hard drive up in the cloud.  Sometimes I think the index might well be as telling as the table of contents.  When you are free to write about whatever strikes your fancy, in time, you cover a lot of ground. 

Every four years, the Summer Olympics come around.  This week, we tuned in to the qualifiers.  At least three familiar names hit the headlines.  And once again, they captured our attention. In past LeaderFOCUS essays, in separate weeks, I wrote about all three.

When you take the time to tell one’s story, it’s as though you become a friend.  You listen harder.  You work to get the facts straight.  You research.  You think context.  You connect the dots.  A Gold Medal never happens in isolation.  It is the apex of a perfect storm; a compilation of training, dreaming, coaching, mental preparedness, recovery, acceptance of monotony combined with terrifying moments of high risk, overcoming obstacles – all of it.  The stories inspire us.  For some, they inspire imitation.  Some on-lookers will take the feat as a calling… and spend the next few years pursuing the same high level performance.  For the rest of us, the inspiration takes on a different form.  It becomes motivation to focus on our own unique hopes and dreams – to take them seriously and to push our opportunities up to the next level.

I first met Allyson Felix when she was about three years old.  Her mom, a school teacher, liked to braid her hair and dress her in bright colors.  I remember her chasing her brother around the living room.  Her dad, a high level businessman turned pastor, loved his family.  Never did I imagine this little girl might become one of the fastest women in the world.  I wrote about her (LeaderFOCUS – July 19, 2004) four years ago.  And now, after a college career excelling at USC, she’s back in the headlines.  She handily dominates the 200 meter sprint.  Last night, she cruised to the number one position, and officially won a ticket to Beijing.  She is to sprinting what Tiger Woods is to golf.  She’s a finely tuned, running machine.  She makes extraordinary high speed seem effortless.

Felix | Phelps | Wilkinson

Felix Phelps Wilkinson

Michael Phelps (LF – August 23, 2004) became a household name last time around (in Athens).  His dominance in the pool was legendary then.  I was taken by the head-to-head combat with a swimmer I then called his “nemesis,” Ian Crocker.  Phelps gets the headlines.  Crocker is only a shade (we’re talking hundredths of a second) behind.  Their friendship is the stuff of legend.  Now, Phelps is back.  Crocker, too.  Four years ago, I described the finish of the 100 meter butterfly that gave Phelps one more Gold Metal in a photo-finish over Crocker.  It knocked Crocker out of contention for the relay event.  But Phelps understood the gift Crocker gave him.  So in return, he voluntarily relinquished his place on the team, opening the door for Crocker to compete.  And it worked.  Crocker got his Gold.

And after the qualifiers this week, they are together again.  On their way to Beijing.

Laura Wilkinson (LF – October 2, 2000) first stepped into our world of awareness in the 2000 Games in Sydney when someone put a microphone in her face just after she, well, here’s what I wrote…

On her final dive, Laura said later, “I thought I had nothing to lose. I didn’t want to hold back.”  Like every dive in the competition, she turned once more to her family and smiled, drawing on their strength.  And this time, she stuck her most difficult dive – a two and a half somersault with a two and a half twist in the pike position.  The judges rewarded her with the highest score of the day – 75.6 points.

And a Gold Medal.

Through tears of joy, Laura acknowledged the congratulations of the NBC reporter, waiting at the edge of the pool.  “Laura, you are the first woman to defeat the Chinese in sixteen years.  You are an American hero.”

And her response to that question is what got us.  With the world watching she said simply, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  The stunned reporter didn’t know what to say.  We replayed it a couple times just to be sure we heard it right.

That line got me writing about Laura and her journey.  And thinking about the question – does authentic faith enhance or inhibit high performance?  Now, she’s back… eight years later.  Older.  Wiser.  A team leader.  A mentor.  A coach.  An Olympian.

So here we are on another Monday, you and me.  You are a leader.  Me, too.  We’ll be watching the Games again, this time in high definition.

Pick your favorites.  Learn their stories.  Back in 2000, I found Laura’s web site.  I sent her my little essay (Peak Performance) and to my delight, she wrote back.  She liked it.  She thanked me.  Her web site tells me that her commitment to faith remains strong.

So I’ll be writing again.  I can’t help myself.  Allyson.  Michael.  Laura.  And probably others.

Let the Games begin.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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