Why We Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For

If we look by ourselves, for ourselves alone, we miss the point. 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I was re-reading some essays by Toni Morrison recently. One starts, “I accepted this invitation to speak … with instant glee. I didn’t have a second thought about the opportunity to address such an extraordinary community … I believed I would find it relatively effortless to find something of consequence to say to you. Months later, however, I began to have grave reservations about my early, and unthinking enthusiasm.”

Grave reservations about my earlier, unthinking enthusiasm.

Yep, that pretty much captured how I felt just a few short weeks ago. Not that I’m equal to Toni, but I, too, had an address that I had signed up for ages ago, and the word glee totally captured my sense. It was to give a leadership talk at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The talk was pushed out when the shelter-in-place stuff started, and then rescheduled for, in fact, this week. Since 2020 is the 100th anniversary of (white) women's suffrage, they asked if I could integrate some thoughts on this particular moment in history as I talk about Onlyness. I had thoughts immediately. Voice and belonging are central to The Vote and to Onlyness and so, yes. 

But then, I started reading about suffrage, took pages and pages of notes. And I got lost in all that I was learning. I started to worry that anything I wrote would turn out like a badly-written history paper, simply recording some facts as what I learned by reading four books. 

Which is one reason why Paul and I wanted to take summer vacances from the column. I wanted to do that deeper work. To honor it.

So did Paul, so let’s hear from him for a moment:

Paul here. 

I had agreed to help Nilofer with her upcoming essay, even though it didn’t seem linked to our column, to help our lives @work suck less. Because I’ve always valued her work, and so said, sure, I’m honored to be that first reader for you. 

Her first sketch, I must share, had nothing of her own story. And absolutely nothing about Onlyness. She did, however, have about 8 questions for me, snippets of ideas that she was wondering about. And as she asked for my review, she was basically seeking permission to leave all those ideas out, but my advice was that it was all necessary, all important. 

And I want you to read it all. Not only because she’s managed to look back at history to help us all understand today. Not only because I think she absolutely nailed a huge idea with her writing. But because I think it explains why she cares about @work.

Here’s an excerpt:

Questions are like that toy wooden cube with shapes on all sides, the gizmo that toddlers play with as they learn how to match things up, to know what fits where. The triangle 3D wooden block goes into the triangle outline on the box, not the rectangle or circle shape. (And the sippy cup won’t fit at all.) 

Questions frame and shape a conversation, inform what possibilities are even considered, and so direct our attention to what comes next. Ask a limiting question and everyone’s attention is directed to limited ideas. Binary questions box us into false dichotomies. Yet, ask a generative question and the possibilities open up wide.

Questions, in that way, can direct destiny.

This section reminds me of a recent conversation with Nilofer. I had just left a senior role. And was starting to think about the next career jump. I had an idea of where I wanted to work next, and why. I could tell Nilofer disagreed, that my premise was flawed. That I was choosing “safe” because I was feeling burned. And that I actually wanted something more for myself. And when we were done tilling this soil, she didn’t give me an answer, but asked me, “So, what’s your question?” 

The question unnerved me at the time, but I thought it was just a parry in our conversation. Now, reading her essay (really, read it, it's her best work to date), it made me realize it’s a core part of her particular genius. So many of us try to figure out how to make things work as they are, to live within the box. But, if and when we can challenge the premise of old ways, we can craft whole new spaces, new ways of being, new ways of working. It explains why the column works. 

Back to you, Nilofer:

It’s all true. 

What Paul says. I did want him to say, “Hey, you can write this essay on how others struggled with power and voice, freedom, and belonging without having to share your own, parallel, struggles.” He always encourages me to go there and serve the topic by bringing all of me. 

Not only did we finish the assignment for Mount Mary, thanks to many people’s help, the experience clarified for me why this column has felt so important to do. We started it something like four months ago, in the middle of a pandemic of all things. Since then, we’ve produced something like 15 columns, nearly every one challenging the premise of the question being asked, and then offering a new way of thinking about it. 

We are not just making my inbox exchanges public. We want to publically think about the question. To ask...

  • How can we belong fully at work, without compromise and assimilation?

  • How can we feel good about how much of our lives work consumes?

  • How can we advocate for our own point of view without playing a zero sum game in the office?

  • And how do these questions intertwine? 

Paul and I had a chance to sit back and ask, “Hey, are we adding value here? And how?” 

And, we see that yes, this column is the way we explore new ways to be at work. Yes, we reject the binary. Yes, we reshape the lens so that belonging and becoming intertwined. Yes, we direct our attention to not just survive the specific situation at hand but so we start to do the healing work that our workplaces need.  

So we’re back from summer vacances. It wasn’t quite the break we were hoping for when we used that word. But it was a useful hiatus. We’re ready to take on new questions. Ready for what’s next. Ping us privately or share what you’re thinking about in the comments about the role of questions in your life. About the questions, you have at this time. Even, and also, what your summer was like.  :)