March: Calibrating your compass

The first challenge for this year was to consider our strengths – who we are and how we function when we are at our best. The second challenge involved mapping out how significant life events, as well as our socio-political networks more generally, have shaped our sense of self. This month’s challenge incorporates those insights in gaining clarity in terms of why we do what we do, and who we do it for. You’ve probably read a lot about the power of storytelling, and these two elements are key to crafting the story you can tell yourself when you need to calibrate your personal compass.


Part 1: Whose rights are we rooting for?

In last month’s challenge, we sketched out the bones of our ‘life narrative’ through life events as well as a sense of our cultural and political geographies. If we are trying to tell the story (or stories) of ourselves, this is the place to start.

Ultimately, it was a moment to think about how others, whether close to us or not, shaped our sense of self. What we didn’t discuss was how the opportunities available to us, or the choices we make, affect others in turn. This is just as important, because quite often, an awareness of privilege or lack is the impetus for the way we choose to change the world.

For this challenge (which continues to be inspired by Karen Salt), consider your cultural and political maps and take note of the connections between them. Ask yourself about where your rights and those of others make themselves apparent in these maps. Which ones matter most to you? Are there competing or conflicting rights at play, and how do you address these?

For example, I became aware of the politics of citizenship and belonging as young as age four, when my colour was an influencing factor for who wanted be my friend. The languages I speak (and my command over them), the schools I attended, the support I’ve received from my community in pursuing unconventional choices – all of these affect other people. These all influence my concern with the right to belong, to be heard, and to partake in discussions where your opinion is respected. What rights get you fired up?

Part 2: Where does our power reside?

I admitted at the end of the last challenge that drawing out how your networks shape you can leave you feeling a bit like a puppet pulled by strings, or a fly caught in an intricate web. The important thing to remember, though, is that just as we are part of other people’s networks, they are also a part of ours. Filippo Artoni of UpRising, who partner with QYL to provide some excellent programming for the group, created an empowering exercise that can be neatly meshed with the exploring we’ve done so far.

Look at your maps, as well as the strengths that emerged in your Reflected Best Self Portrait. Ask yourself, what kinds of power do you already have? How can your network support you, and in turn, how do you support your network? In short, where does your power lie to create change and how can it be made stronger through collaboration? This power can take the form of sheer numbers, or be institutional, economic, cultural, or geographic in scope.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my love of English, and how powerful it is to be able to communicate with ease in a language that holds power in the world. I’m also a citizen of, and have lived in, multiple countries in diverse parts of the world. As a result, I’ve often found myself operating as a cultural translator, and that people view me very differently depending on what hat I choose to wear. An understanding of my particular sources of power has given me more of a reason to share what I know as quickly as I can with as many people as possible (and helps me push past my perfectionist tendencies) in service of my concern with the right to equal opportunity.

Part 3: What do we value?

It’s quite likely that you’ve read a great deal about the importance of starting with your why. I disagree. While I am completely on board with the idea that sharing why you do what you do immediately draws people in, I believe it’s vital to do all this other work first – understanding who you are, in your environment, and how you operate at your best – before you can get clear on your why. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, to have the space to articulate your why at all is a privilege (and I’ve included some links at the end for a longer discussion on this), and secondly, hammering down why is not in and of itself a moral compass (and I’m big on moral compasses).

Furthermore, you want to be able to define yourself in ways that extend beyond your work. You are not only your work – you’re a living, loving human being, you’re shaped and placed in a network of institutions large and small, and your actions affect many people around you.

This last exercise is the closest I’ll come to asking anyone to articulate their why, and draws in part from an introductory exercise given to the QYLs at the beginning of the year.

Consider your beliefs – your assumptions about the world. Think about your attitudes – your frames of mind towards others or certain situations that inform your decisions and actions. Your maps will illuminate where they come from. Ask yourself, what are the things you deem important in your life, whether personally or professionally? (It might help to make a series of lists, charting what is always/sometimes/rarely/never important.) In short, what are your values? How are they influenced by your strengths, sense of self, and obligations to your community? How do they shape how you live your life at present, and how will they shape your future decisions?

I hope that your answers to the questions posed in this month’s challenge can serve to calibrate your personal compass. Think on your strengths and your power when your energy is flagging, on your sense of self as you articulate your story of what sets you apart, and on your community as you chart your leadership path and leverage all you’ve got, for doing good better. Go out and be fabulous. xo

Now that you’ve seen this three-month arc of understanding yourself, what do you think? What were you expecting, what surprised you, and what do you want more of? I look forwar to hearing it all.
My personal challenge

Too often, I focus on the obstacles in my path. Writing this month’s post made me think more about what superpowers I may have missed, and how I can start using them as quickly as possible.
Rabbit-holes and further reading

  • If you resonate with this approach to articulating your sense of purpose, you might find the writing of art historian Miya Tokumitsu interesting. She articulates at length the hidden politics of following your passions. In an article for Jacobin, which she later turned into a book, she observed that “being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class.” In another piece on Chronicle Vitae, she talked about how the philosophy of doing what you love focuses solely on the individual, rather than on community.
  • I can’t quite remember when I discovered Tokumitsu’s work, but I think that fairly separately I found Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, to be extremely troubling. I wrote a blog post on what I found problematic about the book, as well as a companion post on certain key points I wish he had made clear. The problems I describe tie in to the challenges set forth in this post.

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