Sunday, April 18, 2010


Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………….”

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According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, a recent study published in Psychological Science found that those with more optimistic attitudes had better-functioning immune systems which, in turn, helped them ward off illnesses. Might the same be true of organizations? According to the story, far too many of us assume that optimism is an inborn trait bestowed on a lucky few. That's a completely wrong assumption, says James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University. Can people (and by implication organizations) learn to be optimists? "The answer is an indisputable yes," says Maddux. He recommends the following:

1. Reframe those "disasters." Maddux recommends that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that there's only one job (or one funding model) for us. "You may think that if you lose your job (or a funding source dries up) that you may never find another, but that's probably not the case," he says. We need to acknowledge that there will probably be other professional (and funding) opportunities that, after a period of adjustment, could potentially be as (rewarding) and satisfying, he says.

2. Take control. Pessimists tend to think bad things happen to them because they simply have bad luck or because they don't have what it takes to be successful, says Maddux, when often it is circumstances beyond one's control. Maddux recommends aiming for a balance between accepting responsibility for some of the bad circumstances and taking action (i.e., looking for another job or finding funding from another source). Allow yourself to acknowledge those things that were beyond your control, and then focus on what you can control.

3. Pay attention to what makes you feel optimistic. "Try to really tune in to what you're thinking and feeling in the moment," suggests Maddux. "If you're feeling good, try to understand what brought you there and how to get there again." You can also try to bank those positive feelings to draw on when you're feeling the darkness creep in (or you have to cut yet another program)." Remind yourself that winter is transient, that in just a short amount of time the flowers will be blooming," says Maddux. True for you as a leader and true for your organization.

4. Strive for real conversations. While making small talk is good for fostering social connections, having substantive interactions actually gives people a greater sense of well being, according to a March study from the University of Arizona. As Maddux points out, "The goal is to get people talking about things that really matter." Get your organization to focus on that and move away from useless trivial matters.

5. Do look at that glass as half full. Cultivating optimism is about breaking old thought patterns and establishing new ones, says Maddux. If you're truly looking at a glass that's filled to the halfway mark, why not see it as half full? Choosing to focus on those "half-full" things might help you to realize that you don't need your cup to runneth over in order to feel optimistic. 

To which I would add:

6. Network, network, network. The best way to deal with both personal job and organization vulnerability is to network with your peers. Knowing how others are coping may provide clues to how you can cope. New ideas and new results can often start with sharing with your colleagues what is and what isn’t working. Isolation breeds unreasonable fears and conclusions. Connect with the field.

7. Re-Prioritize: During extraordinarily challenging times, figure out what you absolutely need to survive and cut away as much of what is currently a luxury in terms of your thinking as you possibly can. You can’t have it all, you can’t do it all. But you may be able to gain more control over your situation by narrowing your focus on the basics of survival. The goal is to get through these time and emerge as whole as possible. That’s easier to do if you aren’t trying to maintain everything as it was. Reminding yourself what your real goals are may help you to find ways to realize those key objectives. Be Realistic.

8. Think long term / Act short term. Remember: This too shall pass. Don’t get caught up thinking all your strategies need to be forever altered. You need to put things in perspective and acknowledge the cyclical – 'peaks and valleys' nature of both your personal career and the organizational dynamics at play. You need to survive the crisis, but you also need to plan for the longer term. Don’t panic.

9. Balance new ideas with the tried and true. You don’t have to completely re-invent the wheel, nor should you rely exclusively on what worked in the past. Somewhere there is a middle ground of thinking outside the box and refining what has worked before. Seek that middle ground.

10. Don’t Quit. It has been said many times that a lot of success is simply showing up. Hanging in there and knowing that the odds are in your favor that you (and your organization) will survive can be empowering. Even if the glass of water is, in fact, half empty, don’t stop looking for the water pitcher.

In the final analysis, success depends to a large degree on attitude – yours as a leader and the organization’s as a whole. Try to grow a positive attitude of those about you and maybe you can improve your organization’s immune system in the process.


It was just a year or so ago, not long after Obama’s inauguration, that many in the sector were talking about a Cabinet level Secretary of Arts & Culture, or at least some person in the White House that might raise our visibility and gain us a seat at the policy making tables of the West Wing. That idea purportedly found its expression in the appointment of Kal Penn (nee Kalpen Modi - the young Hollywood actor that starred in the Harold & Kumar movies) to the post of one of the Associate Directors of the Office of Public Engagement (Reminds me of my music business days and the Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man gig). But while some didn’t think this was an auspicious beginning to us having an opening to the West Wing, others noted the newly named office was headed by long time Obama friend and confidante Valerie Jarrett who most certainly did, and does, have the President’s ear.

Kal Penn’s resignation a couple of weeks ago to return to moviemaking was probably predictable. I suspect he found out that being a White House liaison wasn’t what he imagined it might be. Rather than walking the corridors of power like in the TV show West Wing, he doubtless ended up one of scores of such appointments who never saw much of the White House interior and probably had absolutely no face time with the President or his senior advisors - including Ms. Jarrett. Moviemaking is a whole lot more fun and pays way better than being a faceless White House staffer way down on the totem pole.

It was an unusual appointment anyway. His charge, if I remember correctly, was to be a liaison with not only the Arts & Culture sector, but with the Asian / Pacific Islander community too. Strange pairing, and was, I thought at the time, an indication that the White House didn’t fully get what we in the arts were talking about. The whole idea of having one person as the “go-to” administration person – who could facilitate giving one voice to those disparate arts & culture appointees ranging from the NEA and the NEH, to the Smithsonian, to the Museums to the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities and help to build bridges to a host of government agencies and put the issues of our community in front of the decision makers seems to have gotten lost along the way. Although it may never have been part of any agenda in the first place.

The President in creating the Office of Public Engagement said: "This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country."

The Press release on the launch of Office of Engagement went on to say: “OPE will help build relationships with Americans by increasing their meaningful engagement with the federal government. Serving as the front door to the White House, OPE will allow ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concern them and share their views on important topics such as health care, energy and education.

In addition to its traditional White House operations, OPE will now also focus on getting information from the American people outside the Washington beltway through special public events as well as activities on the web site. The office will have a strong on-line presence, including blog postings from OPE staff and other interactive elements.”

Really? As relates to the arts, I must have missed all that.

Perhaps Mr. Penn’s real charge was to liaison to the Hollywood creative community (bigger donors than in our neck of the woods), and not really the nonprofit arts. I am not aware of any specific outreach Mr. Penn did to the arts & culture sector, nor of any meetings and conversations he or his office launched with us or the public. Perhaps it was all behind the scenes – more the back door than the front door as stated in the press release. I don’t blame Mr. Penn – but the result was not much real representation or voice for the arts in the White House – at least as far I can see. Perhaps the Yosi Sargant fiasco scared them off using the arts to change the country.

So is the issue of the arts being seated at policy making tables in the West Wing now dead again? Or, more accurately, was it actually ever alive? Would it do any good to bring it up anew?

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit!