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368: Chester Elton, part 1: Asking and listening across color lines
You're about to hear a conversation post-George Floyd by two leadership writers. Normally we write for mostly business audiences. this conversation felt more personal.
Normally when a friend introduces a potential podcast guest, we start by talking each other's work and figure out scheduling. With Chester---maybe given his openness and, I think, mine, as well as the protests raging---we jumped into talking about race and our interactions with people of different color. We spoke for a couple hours about a topic that polite conversation often avoids, let alone makes it the first thing two people meeting for the first time discuss.
Those past conversations set the tone for the conversation you're about to hear, also the continued protests, media discussion, and our growing friendship to keep speaking more openly.
I posted last week, 2020 in 9 words: “Everybody wants to be heard and nobody is listening.” I think my conversations with Chester helped prompt that insight. By contrast, he listens. I'm trying to learn from him.
Do you know of people in authority showing the world that they are listening and making others feel understood? In fairness, can someone with a national voice, with all the protests from different angles, make a group or bunch of groups feel understood? . . . or even feel listened to?
When I teach leading groups, I use Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail as an example of someone making others feel understood, where his sharing his vulnerability as a father probably made his audience of protesters feel more understood and listened to than the ministers whose letter to the editor he responded to. It's the best historical example I can think of and I don't see renowned leaders following or matching him.
Here are the notes I read from for this episode:
Stand up comedians
Growing up in 70s
I thought everyone would want to lead, to give I Have A Dream speech of their generation
Felt so natural, though universal
So until recently felt others could do better, wouldn't want to compete
Dawning on my almost nobody wants to
Nobody seems to want to change
I expect they'll be happy to change if they don't have to do work
After all world has changed. Seems easy to change with it
Maybe people are waiting for someone and I can or should be it
Crazy for me to think nobody wants it
Question I've asked lately: Genie Mandela choice
I thought all the people competing to be leadership gurus want to lead
Or people competing to reach top of corporate ladder want to lead
They want to manage companies and organizations, maybe lead small groups
But taking risks, maybe not
I'm coming to terms with stepping up, or figuring out what that means
Years ago before starting podcast I thought about taking leadership role, realizing success meant challenging Koch brothers. Scary. I could be attacked. King, Gandhi, and others killed.
Realized when opportunity to speak on Washington Mall came up, King probably didn't want to give I Have A Dream Speech. Probably thought, “Can anyone else? I guess I have to do it.”
Is it crazy for me to think of taking on role like theirs. Does anyone else want to?
Still figuring out how, but deciding to act more assertively. If you see ideas or opportunities I don't, please tell me.
In the meantime, I see why I'm unique in finding joy in not flying by choice. Still nearly incomprehensible that people can learn how their behavior hurts others and still prefer to justify and imagine their pollution isn't.
Is it so outlandish to try, and take my word that you'll be glad you changed?
Is it so crazy to imagine that economists all misunderstand what finite planet means and that growth has to end, so their theories don't apply?
Here are the notes I wrote and read this podcast from:
It's no secret the tension between police and protesters in this country. I've talked to a lot of protesters in my day, having protested myself many times, especially in college.
In grad school a post-doc once worked as auxiliary policeman
Recently listened to Jocko Willink on Joe Rogan's podcast. I won't explain who they are because they're both big public figures and you can look them up.
Except Jocko is a former Navy SEAL and Joe hosts the world's top podcast. As a martial artist, he speaks Jocko's language and they both talk about cops and uniformed people.
I'm going to play about a minute from their conversation that inspired me.
<play clip here>
After hearing that part, I walked down 10th Street to the 6th precinct to ask if they did drive-alongs.
I'd never heard of such a thing and doubted they did, but I knew if I didn't ask the answer was no, if I called or emailed, the answer would be no. But I'm pretty good in person.
What will come of it? I don't know. I mentioned it to a friend and he suggested not bringing ID, maybe bringing a witness. People and cops mistrust each other a lot.
I want to make a difference. I at least want to understand.
Guy there didn't know (wasn't wearing mask).
Didn't know if anyone inside would know but suggested attending monthly community meeting.
Started checking community feed. One is coming up.
Don't know if it will work, but will try.
Maybe a few words about jury duty.
Here are the notes I read from:
Yesterday two things, I'll start with second because more poignant.
Ran into old friend a few weeks ago, clubbing, Submedia.
Met at bar, first time since March, ready to walk away, wasn't going to order doof. But distant, outdoor, nearly empty.
Talking for about an hour, a lot on how I transitioned.
Talking about TV show.
As an aside, he remarked knowing my regular background made stewardship more compelling and interesting than just tree hugger.
While talking, some guy starts rooting through trash can on street, throwing trash everywhere. I remark, almost act.
Then he starts yelling at us, threatening.
Dave, fresh from kickboxing stands and advances toward.
Guy points at me! throws bottle, shatters, leaves.
Five minutes later comes back, hauls off and throws bottle hard, shatters huge, all eyes are on situation.
Dave advances, I back him up. Gut yells at Dave, hard to understand since mostly Spanish, threatening, fists up, mostly at Dave, partly me.
Guy crosses street, Dave pursues, guy has lost advantage.
Dave crosses street, in guy's face, less threatening physically, but aggressive.
Through broken Spanish while still threatening Dave and me becomes clear.
He felt we were putting him down for having to eat from trash.
Instead of resolving or trying to reach understanding, throws bottles, so still crazy but different, not just malevolent or hurtful, defending.
Dave and I walk away feeling compassion, sad that he's in that situation, and sad that his resolution involves assaulting us.
Coming back workmen curious, cop asks a few questions.
You may have heard that I swam across Hudson River two weeks ago today for first time since 2008, twelve years ago. At nearly 50 years old, sort of risky.
Major life achievement. Why am I holding back on posting it? Because I wanted the video. Here's that story.
Two years ago
Last year, friend commits, backs out for reason he could have known.
Invite other friend, he loves it, life goal for him too I knew he was swim instructor, life guard too. Says he'll bring equipment.
I say, so I don't need to bring a camera. No, he has one.
Before swimming, I interview Joe De Sena and get invited to Vermont.
I invite friend, who is overjoyed, another life achievement.
He's marketing his coaching, sees huge benefit to webcasting from Spartan Race farm.
Joe and I have hit if off, hence the invitation to an invitation-only event, plus as I've shared, my carrying my rowing machine and kettle bell to roof. I offer to introduce him to Spartan community. As long as I'm there, I intend to share friends with friends.
We swim across, I'll share in post about swimming.
Ferry approaching us, scary. He jokes, good to have white person in facing authority.
After we reach shore, I hold on to his swimming equipment so ferry people don't identify him as swimmer they thought breaking lawn Before Friday, he says he can't drive. Family needs car.
I feel disappointed, but contact Spartan Up people. We go into overdrive finding someone I can ride with.
Many potential options, but only one works. I have to take train to.
Connecticut early next morning, but I make sure space for my friend.
Turns out he can't make early ride.
After we get back I text him how he would have liked it but next time, and ask him about video. No response.
Read text trail.
Our mutual friend defends him. Says I'm making a big deal about nothing, but sends twenty texts. What's going on?
I give up. Confused about what to do as weeks pass that I can't share about life event without explanation.
Finally yesterday he emails me. Read email.
My read of situation: I didn't bring camera because he said he would create. Never discussed charging.
Now I have huge interest in something he has uniquely and holds it ransom, having said he would take care of it so I didn't try, as I would have.
So I figure I'll write him and remind, when I offered, it sounded like major life event. I invited as friend. No thought to charge for conceiving or planning, but what price would he consider fair?
No thought of introducing him to Joe and Spartan community, happy to help him make that invitation into making him look great to his community.
Now, of course, I see I dodged a bullet as if he started nickel and diming them, it would have made me look bad.
But no thought of charging him for introduction. On the contrary, put in extra work to make sure he would be welcome and could get a ride.
All he had to do was send a link to a file. Instead he holds it ransom for two weeks, maybe indefinitely, and tries to make money off me.
Cheap nickel and dime stuff. I don't make money on my blog. I don't know where he's coming from, but taking advantage of my huge demand and scarcity he created, whether intentional or not, deceptively.
When I asked him if I said anything offensive, I knew I hadn't. I was giving him an out from behavior anyone I know would feel embarrassed and ashamed to be doing.
Race and gender seemed to play roles in these interactions. Would the guy have thrown a bottle at us if we were female? He was definitely racist toward Dave. Would friend have tried to scam me if female? Comment on race while swimming would have been called micro aggression or macro if reversed.
Was I targeted because I am white or male? I can't say because I don't know their hearts and minds.
But I know this. When I share how I suffer, people consistently tell me how others suffer more. Nobody ever asks my experience.
Do I need for the bottle to hit me and knock me out, for the guy with the knife to cut me for people to stop telling me to put it in perspective?
Can you imagine lecturing a woman victim or a black victim about distractions from their experience?
All this prelude to what I'm getting at People often send me to articles describing how inequality feels when you have less. When you start the race behind the starting line.
Many of these articles describe how you can never escape feeling of being outside, being other, not being understood.That's how I feel. Maybe there's a white male suburban culture blind to suffering, where cash is free and no one hurts. I don't know. It's as foreign to me as every description I've come across.
I'm aware of my sex and race every day, all the time, and how people see me as less than human, as fair targets for violence, as fair targets for scamming.
Twice in two weeks after deciding to open up on race. Do you think that's coincidence? Sorry, three times. No, it happens all the time, since my entire life. I could tell hundreds of stories like this.
I see marches full of whites saying how bad it is for blacks and other people of color. I see videos of white kneeling before blacks asking forgiveness for I guess ancestors' crimes, or system I am not an ally for equality. Nobody wants equality more than I do. People of other skin colors or sexes don't because of their skincolor and sex know racism or sexism or homophobia or pick your stereotype and I don't or can't because I'm white.
I know it. I live it. If you can't accept that, I hope you get over your stereotype and see me as a person who feels pain, who is attacked,who started behind the starting line too and then gets beat up along the race but gets told he had a head start and says he caused getting beat up or at best those assaults downplayed or ignored, then told if I really understood I would see my privilege.
All these whites and men saying how bad it is for others, are they really not suffering? If so, I'd like to learn what it is to be white and male like them because it is as far from my experience as anyone else described their distance.
I think more likely, they aren't comfortable sharing their troubles and are only postponing actual open, honest talk and action about equality. Everything I see seems consistent with white bad, male bad, but we aren't bad. We're just like everyone else.
There is racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
The path we are on will lead not to the end of these things, but to putting different groups on top or battling it out.
Anybody can see that when one group says the best thing you can do is shut up and listen, while also claiming diversity and inclusion, you can see who has the power in that relationship.
Everyone has their story. I'd like to say nobody got a free pass or automatically feels understood. Possibly many whites and males do, which is hard for me to grasp, but if so, their story is not my story, nor the story of many other whites or many other men and to paint me with their brush further beats me up on this privilege race track analogy I didn't make up but that people keep imposing on me. People who know me increasingly tell me that my story and experience are different, implying that maybe I do know suffering more than the average white or male. Most haven't felt such lifelong repeated assault from women and people of color. Either I'm a special case, in which case it would seem my voice has value and people should listen more to me. Or I'm not, in which case we should recognize that all whites and all men suffer too and the starting line analogy starts falling apart.
Or maybe you say I haven't really suffered, in which case what more do you need? How many more women need sexually assault me, what some would call rape, how many men do I need to know sexually assaulted and raped, how many whites victimized? What does it take?
I believe everyone has known this pain. If not, maybe my voice can help illuminate what by any definition except white bad male bad heterosexual bad is exclusionary, non-diverse, sexist, racist, and all the other stereotypes exactly when claiming the opposite and trying to achieve the opposite.
I believe it doesn't take much to pursue seeing equality of humanity in each person, but we aren't doing it. At least I don't see it in the protests nor the counter protests.
My issue is the environment. I believe working together on what ties us together and transcends skin color, sex, orientation, age, etc -- project-based learning -- can solve these problems more than marches.
Yes, there's police brutality, unequal access to resources, and more.
If you want to see suffering, as an American, look at what your system no matter your color or anything does to people everywhere for your comfort and convenience, to ourselves. It's not litter, it's sterilized, cancer, birth defects, war, famine on scales greater than the whole population of this country, and not just this country, even within the countries suffering most, people there contributing to this system.
Even greater suffering, look at future generations to make today look like a walk in the park IF WE DON'T ACT TOGETHER TODAY TO STOP POLLUTING and reverse this system that relies on pollution and treating others as inhuman independent of their skin color or anything else.
Beneath everything else, we breath the same air, drink the same water, and eat the same food from the same land and seas.
Focusing on those things, I believe, can bring us together in common humanity more than anything else. In the past, sports, military, arts, science, and other cultural activity has helped us overcome stereotypes.
I think of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Ping Pong diplomacy, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Marie Curie, countless men sharing the same foxhole in battle who learned to love each other I believe that stewardship, loving nature, battling the systems that pollute, impoverish, and separate us will bring us together like nothing before.
Beneath skin color, beneath genitals, beneath it all, we breath air, drink water, and eat food. Frankly I see almost no one seeing that starting point, nor fighting the systems taking away even that.
But I am. If you see me as a white who doesn't understand non-white or a male who doesn't understand non-male or heterosexual who doesn't understand the rest of that rainbow, then you don't understand me either.
Now let's restore the nature we all need to live together.
Joe DeSena founded the Spartan Race and hosts the Spartan Up podcast. For those who know about me and my burpees, cold showers, rowing a marathon, picking up garbage daily, and so on, you can imagine I love what he does.
Joe has made it his mission to bring the emotional rewards of joy, service, happiness, resilience, grit, toughness, and all those things to the world by creating a culture and community that works for it. Some people expect tough means suffering, but I hope you'll catch what I found at the root of Joe's message and life, which is emotional and physical growth.
I heard fun, connection, playfulness. Physical activity enables these things. It's not the goal. The meaning and purpose behind it and that it creates are. At least that's my read.
I happened to catch him while running a two-week program for kids including an event called the Death Race. You'll hear how the kids respond, how parents respond, and how kids in inner cities respond to similar programs.
As it happens, after we finished recording the audio, Joe picked up his laptop and started showing me around his team and farm. I hit record in time for him to find Henry, the kid he talked about. We're checking with Henry's parents for permission, to show the video of Henry's first-hand account of that struggle Joe described.
We all know that struggle. We can all learn from Henry and his innocence of what most of us have sadly learned, how to make better excuses. I shouldn't say better. Excuses that we believe from ourselves more.
Joe does things. Doing things teaches us to do more. We learn to initiate, take responsibility, find the pleasure in doing things, find the disgust and disappointment in watching life pass us by, and waiting for others to do for us.
Here are the notes I read from for this episode.
Following pattern of effective speeches and leadership to lead people to love doing things not obviously personally benefiting.
If you've seen movie Patton, George C Scott delivers a shorter, cleaner, but better acted version.
Compare what he's asking his men to do with what it takes to pollute less
What is required of us in environmental stewardship is almost nothing in comparison.
I'll read it, but translate while I'm reading it. The language is obviously of the time and would cause him to be canceled today except that he helped defeat Rommel and Hitler and save the free world from the Nazis taking over, which probably even the most offended person would value.
What's the same: the emotions that hold you back, the training that overcomes the fear, the reward in the moment of the physical challenge, and the reward after of satisfaction.
Different: zero risk to your health. On the contrary, improvement. The risk comes if you don't ask.
Okay, enough explanation. Time for the speech. I'll let you translate in your mind to motivate yourself to help your country, family, world, and self.
Listen through to the end, because the last analogy is what motivated those men most, I believe, and it applies to us as much as to any human.
We are free in part because of them. Can we honor their defending us from Hitler by doing some tiny fraction of what they did?
The actions we can take to preserve the environment are so simple anyone can do them. They improve our lives, connecting us to each other, freeing us from distraction of craving and separation.
Role models help. Nelson Mandela worked harder and faced risks greater than any of us need to---if we even face any, since eating more fruits and vegetables and spending time with people close to us improve our lives.
I bring to you the closing words of his speech at the close of his trial that led to the Apartheid government imprisoning him for 27 years:
I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
George and I talked about three big topics
My key takeaway: that he got more out of his challenges than he put into them, for serving others. He explained better than I why I act on leadership and the environment, probably because he's done so much more
Tell me if what he says doesn't make you feel that whatever you're doing, no matter how much people tell you it won't make a difference or is more than you have to, that you want to do more. A few years of not flying and avoiding eating unhealthy products that end up not tasting good anyway feel so small, partly because I can do so much more, but because I've barely scratched the surface of what I could get back.
George said what I've tried to but haven't succeeded in doing---communicating how much serving others brings to your life, expanding it, filling it with joy, community, connection, and emotions at the pinnacle of what humans experience.
I didn't want to say it to him, but knowing that he'll find more than he expects from acting on his environmental values, I bet he'll end up doing a lot more.
While some might think it could detract from his supporting veterans, I predict it will augment it.
Here are the notes I read from on recounting the potential I saw for the Spartan Race community and its founder, Joe De Sena, if they chose to prioritize environmental stewardship.