Behind the curtain

Photo of brick buildings in downtown Portland -- across the top of one of the buildings in tall block letters reads, "Long live the wildcards, misfits & dabblers"

The past month or so, I’ve been having tons of conversations with people formally and informally, short and long, structured and meandering. I talked with former clients, mentors, colleagues in various forms, faculty and classmates in my coaching training cohort, people I had just met at the conference I was attending, and longtime friends.

In some cases, I particularly sought advice from someone—whether I’d specifically reached out hoping for advice or simply asked in response to a topic of conversation. And, tactical questions aside (like, where should I eat in your city), the answer was almost always the same.

“There is no advice.”

That was what my extremely real, dear old junior high school friend said. But that’s basically what everyone else said, too. And these are brilliant people. People I respect and have learned from. People whom I saw as further ahead on the curve. Who perhaps, at most, shared what they did in a similar situation, and then that they really weren’t sure but it had seemed to work. And that they were still figuring it out.

One person I had intended to ask for advice actually opened the conversation by wondering out loud about something with me, and the conversation took a lovely turn I hadn’t expected.

In other cases, I observed someone do something in a particularly skillful manner (ways I wanted to be able to emulate)—only to hear them afterwards share that they had been very uncertain of themselves the entire time. I have taken mental notes of what someone did or how they handled a situation to squirrel away for future reference, and then heard them question how they could have done it better.

To be fair, I’ve also had my share of being on the other side. Getting complimented or having people think that I’ve got it all figured out feels…scary. Like they’re going to find out* that I’m just making it up as I go along. (Even if I have a pretty decent track record of figuring things out.) And yet.

The most valuable conversations were those where we let each other behind the curtain and reveal the rest of what’s really happening.** Where we let go of anyone having the answers—of there being right answers, of answers being some sort of magic passcode that unlocked the door to some secret garden. Where we could sit in those questions together. Be curious. Be real with each other. I am forever grateful to all the people who let and continue to let me behind the curtain. And I am grateful to have worked with a coach who taught me to ask whether there a right answer actually exists when I am exasperating myself in pursuit of one. (Not that this isn’t a lesson I continue to work on!)

No matter how much someone seems to have it all figured out – we’re all just figuring it out as we go along. And in my experience, the people who frequently wonder about how they could have done something better – those have been the people I’ve learned the most from, whom I’ve witnessed be the best at what they do. They are the people doing tremendous things, because they keep asking themselves that question. Because they care to question if they are doing the right thing, and if they are doing it in a way that they can feel good about. But they don’t let it stop them from doing the thing.

Are there people who are, perhaps, objectively better at a particular skill or more knowledgeable in a certain area? Sure. There are certainly service designers who are more skilled at designing digital services or knowledgeable about designing experiences. But I’ve actually implemented programs and services, and specifically within a nonprofit and community-focused context. There are more skilled instructional designers and teachers than me, but I’ve actually had to answer customer support questions and besides, people always come away learning something they can apply—and that’s my goal. Doesn’t mean I can’t get better, or that I won’t.

So I’m going to change tack.

Instead of asking for advice, I’m going to ask people how they would think about a situation. What are the questions they ask? What are the factors they consider? When do they take a particular type of action? Who are the people they learn from? To ask them what goes on behind the curtain in their brains as they work on a problem.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen time and again in coaching others – people know more than they realize. And that includes you and me. The trick is in clearing the other muck out of the way first so we can see it.

What do you think about this approach? Have you had similar experiences? Take a different approach entirely? I’m curious to learn more.

*While, yes, this feeling is the feeling of being an impostor, I no longer believe that impostor syndrome truly exists. Rather, after learning more (I suggest reading “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey), and after reflecting on multiple previous experiences where I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about—sometimes publicly—by people who had significantly more power in the relationship, and the ways in which I’ve seen others knocked down for similar reasons, I’ve come to see this feeling as a preemptive protective measure against the ways in which insecure people attempt to maintain superiority. At least, I know that in my head—but I still feel it!

**(Spoiler alert!) The phrase “behind the curtain” comes from The Wizard of Oz, in which there is a scene where they find the big, scary wizard, and it turns out to be just a regular human guy behind a curtain operating a machine for special effects. While in the case of the movie (I don’t recall if that scene is in the original novel), the curtain is used for deception, I’m not talking about people putting up facades intentionally—although that happens, too, of course, and is simply human. But what I’m referring to here in terms of “what’s really happening” is that it’s easy for any of us to see things on social media or hear fragments of what’s going on with someone in a short, passing chat and come up with an image in our heads that is at best incomplete and, at worst, very skewed or completely misreading a situation. It’s natural to fill in any blanks and to want to connect the dots we can see—but important to remember that there’s always a lot that we can’t see and don’t have access to.

Highlights and takeaways from #24NTC

Notebook with colorful stickers (doughnut, rose, logo, 24NTC powered by NTEN) and a bookmark about "Planning welcoming and inclusive projects" with 10 strategies: 1. Determine your
inclusivity metrics, set
goals, and track success
to start. 2. Made for you 3. Create safer
spaces 4. Virtual
accessibility is
the new normal 5. Access,
access, access. 6. Plan for
multiple ways
for people to
process and
participate. 7. People are
more than data. 8. Name the
power dynamics
and account for
impact. 9. Stay flexible
and pivot. 10. Name the
labor and
celebrate
successes.
While I don’t pick up much swag when flying internationally, I do always love stickers, and small things like this bookmark courtesy of Big Duck from their great presentation about inclusive project management.

There are still many things I am processing from NTEN’s 2024 Nonprofit Technology Conference (and all the wonderful, expansive conversations I had before, during, and after). However, writing is a good way to process learning and reflect on things so, here we go…

As I walked into the Oregon Convention Center to pick up my badge, there were signs of the ways in which NTEN is intentional about supporting the community (e.g., local vendors from the craft market) and making sure the conference is inclusive and supports us humans attending as our full selves (e.g., designated spaces for lactation and prayer and racial affinity, a table at lunchtime for those fasting for Ramadan).

Hallway that shows 3 rooms with signs outside of them: prayer and meditation room, lactation room, racial affinity lounge

While I unfortunately missed Sabrina Hersi Issa’s keynote (and am hoping I can watch a recording later), the other two keynotes really shifted the lens for me, even in topics that I thought I knew a little something about.

Though I’ve been mulling for a while on the dominance of English online, in academia, and generally in traveling the world (even though I benefit from it daily), Anasuya Gupta (Whose Knowledge?) somehow managed to elucidate the depth and vastness of this – tracing its roots back to colonization and somehow, lest we feel overwhelmed, also sharing very tactical ways we might go about decolonizing the internet. I am still mulling over her questions:

  • Whose internet?
  • Whose knowledge?
  • Who owns and controls the infrastructure?
  • Whose structures and classifications? (e.g., in structured data)
  • Who and what is invisible?
  • Whom do we learn from, listen to, cite, and speak of?

(See my sketchnotes of Anasuya Gupta’s talk on “The Internets of Liberation”)

Actually, invisibility tied into Amber Case’s keynote as well, which made the case for calm technology – and for invisible technology, which allows you to focus on the task rather than the tool. For example, a window is invisible technology. Mind already blown. How did I not see that before?! (Pun not originally intended but now I feel compelled to leave it in there.) And bananas – their peels change color to indicate when they’re become ripe and when they’re going bad. It made me feel hopeful that we’re not doomed to drown in the proliferation of noxious features and products clamoring for our attention—that feels like the water we are currently swimming in. While I am uncertain if a seal of approval is a strong enough incentive, it was a good reminder that all design is governance, and I will be thinking about how to apply the clear, compelling, and practical principles of calm technology that Case has laid out.

(See my sketchnotes of Amber Case’s talk on “An Introduction to Calm Technology”)

On the theme of what’s visible/invisible and who controls what, The Glass Room had an exhibit about the journeys of the personal data that countless companies extract from us each day. The one about “The Real Life of Your Selfie” particularly stuck out as throughout my trip, I’d been through (at that point) 4 different airports 5 times within 6 days and I’d had my face scanned multiple times by both airlines and government agencies. Do I have the knowledge and privilege to say no? Yes. Did I have the energy resources to refuse after many hours of travel through multiple time zones and after having been jostled repeatedly by passengers who had shown they were capable of navigating around trashcans but not me, an actual human? Not really.

Poster of The Real Life of the Selfie showing and listing examples of the data that can be extracted from the picture of face and the ways in which it can be used

This year, I gave a talk on “Strategic Team Meetings for Teams of One.” True to the laws of technology, I ran into some technology issues at the start of my presentation. However, NTEN being the community that it is, I had three people jump out to help me trouble shoot (in front of a room full of people, no less). People even got up to help close door to the noisy hallway. And that’s not even including the friends and acquaintances who picked me up beforehand, when I expressed my nervousness, and during, when I was trying not to panic that I couldn’t actually show my slides to the audience. (Thank you, Brian, Adrienne, and Alexa for your help to fix that!)

Janice stands, speaking and gesturing with her hands, while standing next to a large screen with a slide about a Meeting with a partner activity. The first row of tables appears empty.
My dad’s initial comment when I sent him this picture per his request: “It looks like you’re speaking to an empty room, Janice.” I promise there were people! I also promise that my dad is actually very supportive of me even though it is very on brand that this would be the first thing he blurts out. (Thanks for the photo, Mark!)

If you missed my session, I also got the opportunity to talk about the topic on the Nonprofit Radio podcast, so stay tuned for when that episode comes out!

There is never enough time to talk with all of the people you want to nor attend all of the interesting sessions—and it wasn’t made easier by having 3 workshops for my coaching training that were overlapping with the conference. (But, oh, were they three transformative sessions!)

Here are some other highlights and things I’ll be continuing to think about (in no particular order):

  • Getting to meet many people in person whom I’d only ever spoken with online before
  • Catching up with old friends and meeting new ones – including someone else form Queens!
  • Mark Root-Wiley’s workshop on “DIY Accessibility Testing” – Every person who is responsible for a website should go through this, truly. It was very easy to do and very eye opening. If you’re attending the Washington State Nonprofit Conference in May, he’ll be presenting that workshop there!
  • Bettina Sferrino, Dani Faulkner, and Tristan Penn’s thoughtfully put together fireside chat on “Things We Wish Our White Colleagues Knew” (I have since shared these notes with a number of people not at the conference but whom I’ve had similar conversations with)
  • The way in which conference attendees challenged each other and made valid points while upholding community values in several specific conversations that could have easily turned into complaining or pre-decided arguments – windows rather than mirrors
  • A great session on proactive accountability and an intriguing session on sociocratic decision making
  • Brianna Collins’s amazing framing of being each other’s professional wingwomen – may each of you have someone like Brianna in your life! (But also, if you need a visual storyteller to help you communicate the change you’re making at your nonprofit, reach out to Brianna!)
  • A session that reminded me that language justice is not only about thinking about access for non-English speakers, but also for Limited English Proficient communities, access for D/deaf and hard of hearing communities, and access for Blind and visually impaired communities
  • The deliciousness I had while in Portland, OR, at Tusk, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Portland Cà Phê, GrindWitTryz, and Kachka
  • Stumbling across cherry trees in bloom at a riverside park – and someone I knew, making for a lovely walking catchup amidst the beautiful scenery
As seen from above, a park along the river with a winding path lined with blooming cherry trees, a bright blue sky and a bridge in the distance