letting the light in

I had a relational meeting today with another organizer, someone who, like me, had just started a position in a new context. We had set up a time and a place, and we had found each other in the crowded cafe. Now we were sitting, coffees in hand, phones turned upside down on the table. 

Now, what?

So, tell me about yourself. What drew you to this work? How long have you been involved?

I have been brainstorming, writing, practicing, testing out different “stories of self” for the last month. Different narratives I could keep in my back pocket, bring out as needed. I pulled on a couple, shared them. Asked some questions and the organizer shared, too. But it didn’t quite feel right. It was a little too . . . scripted.

So I took a risk. I went off script. I took the conversation meta. “I’ve been working this month on further developing personal narratives, and I’ve found that reflective process really rewarding,” I said. “And honestly, I’m also still struggling with how to not have that preparation for conversations turn the conversations stale, commodified.” 

A look of relief crossed his face. “I’ve been feeling that same way!”

It was a turning point. We shared with each other for another hour before I remembered the clock, that I had a 2:30 and needed to go, that we should we should define our next steps and wrap up.

——-

This story represents a continual tension and challenge for me, namely how to hold a balance between preparation and openness, presentation and vulnerability. It often feels all too easy to tip too far, in either direction. There can be consequences, too. I’ve been called out for being “too confident in my assertions.” I have been told I should take more of a stand. I have left meetings elated at the quality of the connection and the enthusiasm with which we’d set next steps, and I’ve left others with a pit in my stomach, worried I shared too little, or too much. For women, the lines we walk can be particularly thin. How do I, how do we, navigate all this?

I’ll take it meta again – that last paragraph, was that too much? There’s a voice in my head, right now, that is telling me I have a feminist imperative to not display signs of self-doubt. If I do, people will shred judgment into me, and as a result will not take me seriously, and then they will take that out on all women, forever. Ah! Better to pretend I’m infallibly strong, confident, quick-witted, perfect. 

And then there’s another voice piping up to weight the other side of the seesaw. “Pretending” to be someone I’m not –  trying too hard to put forward and protect a particular image – does not make me strong, says that voice. Trying to live up to the unrealistic and frankly over-individualistic, masculine expectations implicit in much of society does not make me infallible. My true strength, confidence, and quick-witted perfection exist in the constant rebalancing. Even when I mess up. Especially when I mess up! It’s how we learn. It’s how we connect. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this work, no rule of thumb applicable to every situation. We need tools in our tool box, and we need to stay open enough to know when to chuck the toolbox out the window. Sometimes, we goof. We all do it, and we all know this, I think, on some level. Yet, writing this today has got me wondering: what would it mean to really fully live life as though we know that even our goofs are openings for connection? How much more present and whole would that allow us to be? That’s when I remembered the scratchy and immortal words of Leonard Cohen: “forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Author: carrieswatkins

Carrie is pursuing her Master's degree in City Planning at MIT

8 thoughts on “letting the light in”

  1. Yeah canned ‘stories of self’ aren’t vulnerable at all – they’re canned! I struggle to keep the stories I tell about my values fresh. It helps that the stories I tell feel a bit scary. They hit on personal stuff that I’m still dealing with (e.g., expressions of the patriarchy in my family). That forces me to stay authentic in how I talk about what I care about.

    One thing I’m working on is weaving stories through conversation. That’s not as easy for me to as to structure a conversation with stories first, ask second, or vice versa. The structured convo can feel stilted. I’ve always admired people who can have a full conversation about something and then drop in a deep, brief personal history that’s related, or a funny anecdote about their childhood in a way that’s fluid and heartfelt. That’s 1:1 401. It’s also just being an emotionally alive person, and a good story teller. I’m working on it.

    Even when I don’t do either thing very well, and I tell a story that feel prepared in the context of a highly structured conversation, I’m amazed at how 15 minutes of personal story telling opens up whole fields of conversations in new ways. People almost always match my level of sharing. That feel real and it’s a lot more fun that conversations where I don’t share deliberate, personal, value-based information about myself.

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  2. I love your beautiful post, Carrie. And I really admire your ability to translate your visceral experiences as they are happening into words that flow through your fingers.
    I, too, prefer, to not have a script. My experience is that it’s a much more meaningful conversation and even when it goes south and maybe gets uncomfortable if I’m able to stay grounded in my core, that’s the opening for turning something difficult into a place of raw, honest connection.
    It sounds like you already know how to let that experience happen. What do you think it will take for you to be comfortable with letting these moments happen more frequently? I know this is a question you are already asking yourself and it sure seems like you are well on your way to it.
    I have learned a lot from your post and it inspires me to try to dig deeper into my own experience and own my truths. Thank you.
    I have found that even though I have experienced the pay-off from taking risks, I still need to have a conversation with myself when I am faced with taking a risk. I find it helpful to ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” And if that happens, then what? This helps me realize that there is so much more to gain, than to lose and that even if I lose, it’s not the end of the world. Hopefully I will learn from the experience and be a little bit the wiser for next time.
    As I write this, I feel my jittery insides and know that I have so much to learn in terms of getting skilled at what Felipe is encouraging us to do in terms of increasing our effectiveness as leaders. I am learning by observing and going through this experience with our team. So again, thank you for modeling what this can be.

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  3. I love so much about your post, Carrie, including the beautiful ending quote! I can hear the iterative learning that you so openly allow yourself to witness and actively engage in as you share your thoughts and vulnerability with us. One challenge I have often had in being “meta” and self aware is holding myself accountable to whatever lesson I learned in that occasion. Frequently, I find myself basking in an epiphany of what I just learned, reciting would like to do differently in the future – and when the future arrives, I question my ability to put my lesson to work. Sometimes I apply it partially, many times not at all. I’m not sure if I’ve ever executed completely to knock it out of the park! (Or how sad if I did, and forgot!) When you describe living life “fully,” do you have a sense of what the beginning actions to do this are (though different scenarios may call for different actions), and if you’ve tested them, how did it feel?

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  4. Carrie,

    I loved your post. How did it feel to go off script? What can you learn from that experience? What parts will you prep for? Will you anticipate that some elements will develop more organically (and being okay with that)?

    I constantly feel the same tension. There are spaces where I am never vulnerable because I know that a sign of weakness will be perceived as incompetence. There are some spaces where I simply can’t afford to be perceived as incompetent or weak. Yet, I have also learned that sharing stories about me have created a bridge of communication with most. Have you thought about what personal stories you can share that show your values, experience, etc, without feeling that you are giving up power?

    I’m particularly intrigued by your question, “How do I, how do we [as women], navigate all this?” In a society where patriarchy is upheld, how do we reclaim and hold our space without sacrificing progress? How do we create an environment where the next generation of women can believe that they can be vulnerable and will not be judged or defined by that? Is us “pretending” to be strong doing a disservice to other women and men?

    Thank you for your beautiful post!

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  5. Carrie,
    Do you think you might be breaking through from the stage of — I don’t really know what any of this is so, I have to make sure I do it right — to… — this is all the same stuff I’ve been learning my whole life just reinterpreted and in dressed up in different clothes?

    As I reflect on our conversation today, the group call last week, and your post here… I want to encourage you to be fully yourself. I think you’re in an interesting transition period here… but I think you’re breaking through into a more powerful mode…. this post reflects the Carrie I’m most excited about… and it’s the one everybody you meet will be most excited about to.

    thanks for risking so much to be here… and thanks for risking so much to be yourself & claim what you know and bring the fullness of that to the work. This authenticity is what’s exciting and compelling. I’m sorry for ways I have doubted and not given you enough benefit of the doubt.

    onward — you’re going to build something more interesting than I can imagine right now… but I’m ready to trust and believe in you to build it.
    go for it.

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  6. HAHA! I laughed out loud during the exchange with you and the other organizer admitting how scripted conversations can get. I can’t say I’ve found myself in a similar situation before, but it sounds almost parodical.

    My experience of you Carrie is that you don’t need to let the light in. You ARE the light. And while I would generally follow this up with questions that involve me zooming out to ask meta-questions, I realize I’ll have to zoom away and ask something that goes beyond your discourse today:

    What role does your ego play in organizing work? How have you seen it show up and how would you like to see it show up? How does it look like when your ego takes over? And who is in charge of crafting your canned stories of self (your ego or your authentic self)? And if we start from this notion that you ARE the light, then what possibilities open up for you? What does it look like when you’ve genuinely connected with someone? How does it feel and how do you make it happen beyond the algorithm?

    I ask these particular questions, being intentionally vague about what I mean by ego because your image and what you project onto other people are also part of your toolbox. But like any tool, you need to know how and when to use it.

    Looking forward to next week!

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  7. Hi Carrie! Another insightful, beautifully written post that articulate tensions that many of us understand or have experienced ourselves without necessarily pausing to reflect on and reflect back through language. As we said last week, some things you sense but just don’t or can’t put into words; you just carry the weight of it with you. How liberating language can be!
    I wasn’t going to leave a reply, feeling that I had no new perspective to offer for this post other than what I shared above. However, I did think it might be re-posting what I shared with Jonathan in response to his post. I think it’s relevant to some of the questions and tensions with which you grapple in these meetings:

    “My personal reaction is that it would probably be helpful to be flexible with your model, though. So much will depend on who/how Sister Smith is! If she’s a busy, “I don’t really have time but I’m sparing a few minutes for you so please cut to the chase” kind of person, the best way to make the connection may be to start with the vision/the mission and then move into what you think the value proposition is for her (this might include asking her questions about her/the church’s goals, the questions you list about church expenses and talking about how what you’re doing could align with and help facilitate her goals).
    Once you’ve built a little rapport by showing interest in her and outlining a vision that she may/may not find compelling and in alignment with her goals, that might be the point at which you establish your credibility/trustworthiness by talking about your interest in the matter. A personal connection and an authentic opportunity to share your “why” (the pieces that might resonate most with her), your story.”

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  8. RS. Lots going on in all these thoughtful responses. Thank you.
    This whole web of conversations this week has stirred up this challenge and stickiness for me, of being tactical and authentic. Juan your question about “ego” adds an interesting lens.

    It’s leading me to want to reframe the question, from thinking of relational meetings as a tool for doing our systems-bending work to understanding it as PART OF the work. This is something I hold on a deep level, and sometimes still lose track of it in the intellectual process of writing and dialogue. Adrienne maree brown says it well when she says that, “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.” For me, each new person I get to meet and engage in active listening and collaboration with is not a tool for building the work, it is itself a fractal-small pattern of the larger work. In this framing, there’s no script to go off, there is no inauthenticity. It’s all part of the work, part of the process. It’s fun, too!

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