Storytelling at Work
December 25, 2018
Gandhi and the Professor

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I just received this wonderful fake, urban legend story from Craig Klawuhn. Even if never happened, it's a great little story to read, especially if you ever find yourself being dismissed or diminished by "people in power."

When Gandhi was studying law at University College, London, a Caucasian professor, whose last name was Peter, disliked him intensely and always displayed prejudice and animosity towards him.

Also, because Gandhi never lowered his head when addressing his professor, as assumed, there were always arguments and confrontations.

One day, Mr. Peters was having lunch at the dining room of the University, and Gandhi came along with his tray and sat next to the professor.

The professor said, "Mr. Gandhi, you do not understand. A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat."

Gandhi looked at him as a parent would a rude child and calmly replied, "You do not worry professor. I'll fly away," and he went and sat at another table.

Mr. Peters, reddened with rage, decided to take revenge on the next test paper, but Gandhi responded brilliantly to all questions.

Mr. Peters, unhappy and frustrated, asked him the following question. "Mr. Gandhi, if you were walking down the street and found a package and within was a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?"

Without hesitating, Gandhi responded, "The one with the money, of course."

Mr. Peters, smiling sarcastically, said, "I, in your place, would have taken wisdom."

Gandhi shrugged indifferently and responded, "Each one takes what he doesn't have."

Mr. Peters, by this time, was beside himself and so great was his anger that he wrote on Gandhi's exam sheet the word "IDIOT" and gave it to Gandhi.

Gandhi took the exam sheet and sat down at his desk trying very hard to remain calm while he contemplated his next move.

A few minutes later, Gandhi got up, went to the professor and said to him in a dignified but sarcastically polite tone, "Mr. Peters, you signed the sheet, but you did not give me the grade."

My book on storytelling
MitchDitkoff.com
Another story about resolving differences

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2018
The Dark Side of Storytelling

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Storytelling is like water. It can quench your thirst or it can drown you. Or maybe storytelling is like a knife. It can slice open an orange or it can poke your eye out. Simply put, storytelling is a two-sided coin. One side gives life, the other takes. One side is authentic, the other is counterfeit. And this is, precisely, where the plot thickens, because story, the most effective communication tool human beings have at their disposal, has been used in both ways since the beginning of time.

Yes, some people use it to heal, inspire, and enlighten. But others use it to deceive, control, and manipulate. Storytelling for the Revolution has been written for the first group, the group, I imagine, you identify with. But no how much you identify with the first group, there's always a chance you might, without knowing it, find your way, subconsciously, into the second group, especially during times of stress, fear, or anger.

Let's take a brief tour of the dark side by looking, first, at advertising. Technically speaking, advertising is nothing more than the practice of calling public attention to a product or service. Is that an inherently bad thing? No, it isn't. Unless, of course, the way in which our attention is being called is ruled by manipulation, control, or deception.

Advertisers, for the most part, are motivated by one driving force -- to get you to buy what they're selling, whether or not what they're selling is actually something you need. They need to sell it, but you may not need to buy it -- that is, until your choices have been shaped by your psychological responses to the ads they keep sending your way. Do you know what story advertisers communicated in the 1950's? That smoking was actually good for your health. Tell that to my mother, who died of emphysema, at 83, after six decades years of smoking unfiltered Chesterfields.

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Political spin doctors also walk on the dark side of storytelling. Along with thousands of others watching the news, they listen to the words of the President or the politician du jour, but before the viewing audience has had the time to form their own opinions, the spin doctors do the forming for them. And how they do that is by quickly telling a new story about the story the viewing audience just heard. They interpret what's just been said in whatever way is most likely to sway opinion. The Big Bad Wolf wasn't really all that bad, you see, he was just sleep-deprived or maybe his eyesight was failing. Donald Trump wasn't lying, he was just presenting "alternative facts."

Trial lawyers are masters of this dark art, especially when they deliver their closing arguments. Armed with exactly the same information that has been presented to the jury for weeks, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney tell completely different stories. They pick and choose from the facts that most support the conclusion they want others to believe and they string them together in a way that makes their conclusions seem like fact, when they may not be. And the masters of the trade distill the new story down to as few words as possible. "If the glove don't fit, you gotta acquit" was the eight word story Johnny Cochrane told the jury in defense of OJ Simpson '' and we all know how that turned out.

Perhaps the grossest example of storytelling gone south is "revisionist history" -- what happens when people, with an ulterior motive, attempt to rewrite the past to suit their own needs. The history of early America, for example, is primarily a narrative crafted by white colonialists who specialized in killing Native Americans and stealing their land. "Westward ho!" was the plot line. "The pioneering spirit" was the leading man's motivation. And the back story? "The early settlers quest for religious freedom." Murder? Rape? Plunder? Barely mentioned.

Do you think the Apache, Cherokee, and Oneida are telling the early settlers' version of American history around the tribal fire? No way. Their story, the real story of what happened, goes unheard in public schools. "Those who tell the story, rule the world," explain the Hopis from their underfunded reservation in Oklahoma.

None of my family died in the holocaust, but I have many friends whose family did. Six million Jews died in concentration camps. But the tale tellers of the Holocaust denial movement communicate a very different story these days. They claim, with great passion and "proof," that Nazi Germany's final solution was aimed only at deporting Jews and had nothing to do with exterminating them -- that gas chambers and concentration camps never existed. And they figure if they tell it that story enough times to enough people, popular opinion will change. And it has. There are now thousands of people around world who actually believe the holocaust was a hoax.

Closer to home, the dark side of storytelling (or at least the grey side of storytelling) plays out in just about every marriage in the world. Here's how it works: A conversation begins between husband and wife, one that quickly polarizes both partners. He sees it one way and she sees it another. Buttons get pushed. Old wounds surface. He said/she said rules the day. Which quickly leads to the husband and the wife crafting their own stories about the contentious topic at hand. Each spouse blurts their story to the other, but because feelings are running so high, neither story is heard and, even if it is, it is not believed.

Which leads, of course, to the husband and wife each seeking out their own friends to tell their stories to -- the sole purpose being to get validation. The stories make sense. They are told with great passion. Heads nod. Comforting gestures are made. The wife's friends conclude the husband is a jerk and the husband's friends conclude the wife is a bitch. And on and on it goes. 50% of the time this saga ends up in divorce court, an extraordinary stage where lawyers, far better tale tellers than their embroiled clients, get paid big bucks to concoct the most convincing stories possible for the judge.

Does anyone live happily ever after? Rarely. But a lot of money exchanges hands. And a lot of children will have sad stories to tell, years later, to their own children.

In the end, it all comes down to this: we have two choices. One choice is to be of service to our fellow man -- to uplift, inspire, and awaken. The other choice is to serve ourselves, ruled only by the need for attention, approval, validation, power, control, money, fame, ratings, or our lifelong addiction to hearing ourselves talk.

What choice will you make?

Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling at Work
MitchDitkoff.com

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 07:52 PM | Comments (0)

December 13, 2018
CONNECTING THE DOTS

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I remember, as a small child, playing a game called "Connect the Dots." In front of me was an activities book composed of sheets of paper with nothing on them but numbered dots. My task was a simple one -- to draw lines between the dots, connecting each dot sequentially. #1 would get connected to #2. #2 would get connected to #3 and so on until each of the dots were connected, resulting in the creation of some kind of picture -- a hat, a house, a boat, or whatever the book publisher had in mind.

I found this fascinating, thrilled that I could make something, that out of nothing something would emerge -- something I could recognize, name, and later, talk about. And while I did not grow up to become an artist, I did develop an interest in the phenomenon of pattern recognition, pattern making, and the various ways in which human beings construct their own reality.

As I got older, it became clear to me that this same children's game of connecting the dots had played itself out, in human history, in many fascinating ways. What were the constellations, if not bigger kids -- the ancient Greeks and Babylonians -- connecting non-numbered dots in the night sky -- the product of their need to make sense out of what they saw.

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And so Orion, Canis Major, the Big Dipper, and 84 other configurations of stars came into being -- points of light that were clustered and named by the earth's first farmers as a way to help them figure out when to plant and when to harvest. And to help them remember the constellations they had configured, the farmers made up myths -- wild stories to remind them of the patterns in the sky so they could pass on what they had discovered to next generation.

But it wasn't only farmers who benefited from this connect-the-dots myth-making phenomenon. Ancient sailors did, too, adventurers whose long journeys across unchartered waters were navigated by watching man-made constellations in the skies to mark their position.

This is what human beings do. We connect the dots. We make patterns. And then we translate what we see into stories as a way to remember and communicate to others what we have conjured.

That's what stories are. First there is a point -- an isolated moment in time and space when something becomes perceivable -- a leaf falling, perhaps, a dog barking, a thief, a speck of light. In and of itself, this perceptible thing is just an isolated dot. In the first instant when it becomes known to the observer, it is freestanding, independent, and unrelated to anything else in the universe. It is not connected to the past or the future. It is not the beginning of something or the end of something. There is no plot, no unfolding of events, no Act One, Scene Two. No nothing.

It just is.

But soon the story-making part of ourselves kicks in -- the constellation maker. Ruled by a primal need for meaning and knowing, it begins to connect the dots, to make sense of what it sees. It draws invisible lines through time and space until it sees a picture in its mind, a recognizable shape that helps make sense of experience. Standing beneath the infinite sky of possibilities, this innate pattern-making tendency brings orientation, comfort, and a newfound ability to communicate our subjective experience to others.

Some become movies. Some become books. Some become jokes. Some are told around the kitchen table or never at all.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of creation myths -- the symbolic narratives of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it. Every culture has their own -- elaborate cosmological stories with plots, sub-plots, characters, settings, obstacles and, more often than not, a whole bunch of deities.

Deconstruct any scripture or holy book and you will discover that its DNA is story -- parables, allegories, and tales that have become the human shorthand for delivering meaningful, memorable messages upon which we base our lives.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. When the dots are numbered, and we proceed to connect them in the same, sequential progression, we always arrive at the same picture -- conclusions that everyone can agree on. But when the dots are not numbered and the dot connectors (that's us, folks) realize we have a choice about how we connect the dots and whether to make the lines wiggly, wavy, bold, invisible, or straight, a very different picture emerges and a very different story gets told.

The simplest example of this is a husband and wife arguing. While the same dots may be marked on the paper (or in the sky), the way in which the husband and wife connect the dots is very different, resulting in two very different and, often, conflicting stories. He sees it one way. She sees it the other. The result? The plot of many a modern day sitcom and a 50% divorce rate.

This phenomenon plays out on many other stages, as well. The Israelis, for example, connect the dots differently than the Palestinians. Virgos connect the dots differently than Leos. And the Native Americans connect the dots differently than America's Founding Fathers.

Psychologists attribute our dot connecting behavior to a cognitive principle they have reduced to three words: Motivation affects perception. In other words, we see, they say, what we are primed to see, filtered through our need or desire of the moment -- a phenomenon which Eastern pundits have translated in their own, more metaphorical way, "When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets."

Done well, storytelling is a force for good, an extraordinary way to energize, inspire, and transmit wisdom. Abused, storytelling has an entirely different result. Con artists, for example, tell believable stories, but only with the intention to deceive. The same holds true for corrupt politicians, spin doctors, cheating spouses, warmongers, the sensationalist media, gossipers, most of the advertising world, and anyone else attempting to bend the truth for their own personal gain.

The fact that human beings are story-making machines is undebateable. From the first Paleolithic cave paintings to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, that's what we do.

What's up for grabs is this: the kind of stories we choose to tell.

NOTE: I wrote this in 2015. It was supposed to be included in Storytelling at Work. It wasn't. Why? I forgot I'd written it. D'oh! I just rediscovered it 10 minutes ago.

Storytelling for the Revolution
MitchDitkoff.com

Child on ladder photo: unsplash-logoSamuel Zeller

Night sky photo; unsplash-logoClint McKoy

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 05:41 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2018
Time to Catch My Bubbles?

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One morning, 20 years ago, I found myself standing in my closet, madly searching for clean clothes in a last minute attempt to pack before yet another business trip, when I noticed my 4-year old son, Jesse, standing in the entrance. In one hand he held a small plastic wand, in the other, a plastic bottle of soapy water.

"Dada," he said, looking up at me. "Do you have time to catch my bubbles?"

Time? Whoa! It stopped. And so did I. At that moment, it made absolutely no difference whether or not I caught my plane; I could barely catch my breath. The only thing that was happening in that moment was my son and the soulful look of longing in his eyes.

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For the next ten minutes, all we did was play -- him blowing bubbles, me catching. His need was completely satisfied -- his need for connection, his need for love, his need for knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his dada was THERE for him and everything was perfect just the way it was.

Jesse is 24 now. He works at YouTube. His bubbles are digital. But his deepest needs -- and mine -- are very much the same: love, connection, and enjoyment of the moment.

SO WHAT? This just in: The business of life is not a life of business. There is something going on beyond cash flow, profit margins, and fourth quarter projections that is worthy of our attention.

Like love, for example. Like kindness. Like caring, fun, forgiveness, and being totally present with the people in our lives -- especially those who live under the same roof we are working so hard to make sure remains over their head.

Somehow, along the way, we have forgotten that earning a living is not the same thing as simply LIVING -- that the people counting on us for survival are more interested in our interest in them than they are the compounded interest we are trying to earn for them.

This is tricky business, especially in an economy where it takes a whole lot more effort than ever to make the same amount of money we used to make.

On that memorable day in my closet, if you asked me what I was doing the moment before Jesse asked me to catch his bubbles, I would have given you a stock answer -- something like, "getting ready for a road trip" or "packing." If you'd pressed me, I might have said something like "building a house of bricks" for my family.

Jesse didn't want to play with bricks that day. He wanted to play with BUBBLES. Bubbles were not a part of his long-term strategy. They were, instead, a crystal clear invitation for me to stop doing what I was doing and BE with him in the moment -- the moment he was joyfully living in and I was planning for.

NOW WHAT? Who has been blowing bubbles your way recently? Have you acknowledged them? Given them your attention? Responded? If not, pause for a moment and ask yourself what you might do differently this week to catch their bubbles.

Excepted from this book

Not excerpted from this book
MitchDitkoff.com

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 05:13 PM | Comments (0)

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (and makes a great gift)

Stories can be told in many ways. Most are told in words, but there are other stories, equally as powerful, if not more so, that are told with images -- like the fabulous art of Evelyne Pouget.

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If you find yourself in San Miguel de Allende this holiday season, you are in luck. The artful Ms. Pouget is having a studio sale in her home: framed digital paintings, oil pastels, and oil paintings. Discounts of 40%. Price start from $30US. Lots of choices. Sets of four greeting cards are only 300 pesos.

STUDIO SALE DATES:
December 11 - 13: 10:00 am - 12:00pm
December 14: 2:00 pm - 4:00 pm

ADDRESS
Las Moras 61, Colonia Allende (between 5 de Mayo and Las Flores).

No worries if you are out of town. Evelyne can ship prints to you.

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NOTE: All of the above images are from San Miguel de Allende -- the Concheros and the architecture. Wow.

PougetDigital.com
EvelynePouget.com

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 01:02 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2018
The Dark Side of Storytelling

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All of us tell stories -- whether we speak them aloud or not. Our stories are our handy dandy way of interpreting reality. Often, however, the stories we tell are nothing more than ways to protect ourselves from reality -- our strategy to maintain our sense of self-worth even when "real life" has something else to say to us. In this spot on 11-minute TED talk, Suzanne Duncan, a thought leader in the investment management industry, elaborates on this phenomenon -- and it's downside for anyone in business.

MitchDitkoff.com
Storytelling at Work
A Storytelling Workshop for People in Business

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 08:53 AM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2018
More About Evelyne Pouget

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"When people ask me if I am an artist, I usually pause before answering. And the reason why is because, deep down, I believe that most of us are artists. Art, to me, is the ability to tune in, see beauty, and express it in a memorable way. I'm not talking about "beauty" in the traditional sense of the word. I'm talking about the recognition of what truly moves us as human beings. Artists are simply those people who find a way to capture this feeling and evoke it in others.

My early influences were places, not people. Born in Paris, I was surrounded by art. At 17, wanting to explore other cultures, I moved to Rome, alone, where my artist's journey began, creating posters for the Roman theater and working in a graphic design studio. From there, I traveled the world, then moved to New York City, started my own graphic design studio, and learned how to communicate a message that captured both attention and feeling.

Always, I was self-taught. It was feeling and fascination that were my teachers, not professors. It was only when I moved to Woodstock, New York -- pregnant with my first child -- that my artistic sensibilities fully opened up. I began with portraits, moved on to landscapes, then mosaics, oil pastels, photography, and now, 25 years later, digital painting.

Living in San Miguel de Allende has opened up my artistic palette to a whole new level. My first creations here were oil portraits of the people I encountered on my walks -- flower vendors, abuelas, and musicians -- people most tourists take for granted. And then one day, 16 years ago, sitting in a park, I heard, off in the distance, I heard the enchanting sound of drums, bells, and shakers. I looked up and was astonished at what I saw -- hundreds of dancers, dressed in outrageous costumes, walking in my direction.

These indigenous dancers were enacting a sacred tradition that had been going on for hundreds of years in Mexico. I photographed as many of them as I could -- not as a tourist taking pictures, but as a visual artist attempting to amplify beauty. These people inspired me -- the way they moved, what they stood for, their nobility, creativity, and commitment. Stunned by what they evoked in me, I kept searching for new ways to more fully express what I was seeing -- a way that would enable others to pause, reflect, and appreciate what these dancers were all about.

After a lot of experimentation, I realized, with my digital art, that I could amplify the moment, making more accessible, to others, the spirit and beauty of these amazing people.

As an artist, I am on a lifelong quest to find my voice -- what I have to say and how I want to say it. It's this voice I care about, true meaning, not art trends and style. And while I may never be as well-known as two of my earliest influences, Vermeer and Sargent, I trust that I will continue discovering my voice and the ever-changing forms of its expression, here in the beautiful town San Miguel."

Evelyne's digital art
Evelyne's pet portraits
Evelyne's people portraits
Evelyne's equine portraits

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 08:29 AM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2018
SOME THINGS TAKE A WHILE

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At last count, there were 7.6 billion people on planet Earth. The odds of any two people meeting, I believe, is something like 7.6 billion to one. And the odds of any two of those 7.6 billion people deciding to collaborate on a complicated, culture-changing project -- especially if one of them is an Australian Muslim born in Pakistan and the other is an American Jew born in New York -- is in the slim-to none-zone. But that's exactly what happened to me last year, a collaboration that took seven years to manifest, a classic span of years noted 700 times in the Bible and God knows how many times in the Quran.

Like any story, the one I am about to tell has a very juicy back story which, technically speaking, is part of the story, depending, of course, on how far back I decide to rewind the karmic tape -- the seemingly invisible, below-the-surface prelude to what I would only later discover to be one of the most fascinating collaborations of my life.

Ready? Here goes:

Seven years ago, Fazeel Arain, the Co-Founder and Principal of Al Siraat College, a K-12 Australian School in the Islamic tradition, located on the outskirts of Melbourne, found his way to my Heart of Innovation blog. Unbeknownst to me, he had become a big fan of my writing, point of view, and sense of humor. After three years of tuning in to my various articles, stories, videos, tools, techniques, and quotes, Fazeel decided to contact me, curious to know if my organization might be available to be of service to his.

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While I was tickled to be contacted by the very forthright Fazeel (a name, in Urdu, that translates as "knowledgeable"), I was also skeptical that anything much would come of it -- not because I didn't want anything to come of it, but because, historically speaking, educational institutions had proven to be highly unlikely clients of mine. Their budgets were low. Their risk aversion was high. And when you considered the fact that Fazeel's K-12 school was 10,000 miles away and was Islamic, to boot, the odds of anything real coming of this seemed microscopically small. So when, after our first conversation, Fazeel asked me to submit a proposal, my first reaction was to raise my metaphorical eyebrows and think "no way."

Having trained myself, however, for the past 28 years, to go beyond the knee-jerk, nay saying negativity that often accompanies the appearance of a seemingly long-shot possibility, I made my way over to my favorite cafe, ordered a cappuccino, and started to noodle. Four hours later, proposal done, I emailed it, fingers crossed, to the aforementioned Mr. Fazeel -- a man I had come to learn was a former Oracle IT consultant, father of five, and the husband of a brilliant woman named Rahat, a former civil engineer.

The plot thickens.

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Fazeel loved absolutely everything about my proposal except the fee, which, he explained, was "too rich for his blood" or whatever the equivalent Australian/Islamic phrase was for "Ouch, our budget just can't handle it." Unwilling to discount my already discounted fees any more, it was obvious we had come to an impasse. And so Fazeel went his way and I went mine.

Two years passed.

Then, very much out of the blue, in the midst of attempting to guide Al Siraat through yet another "change process," Fazeel contacted me again. The more I listened to him wax on about the school's many challenges, the dizzier I got. Although I was quite familiar with the phenomenon of "change management" (a second cousin to getting your teenage daughter to clean up her room), it was not, shall we say, my cup of tea. Three decades of consulting with a wide variety of forward thinking organizations had taught me that "change management" was often a euphemism for "How would you like to spend the next few years banging your head against a wall?" And besides, I had several other clients to serve, a marriage to nurture, two kids, and a huge need to write my next book in whatever spare time I didn't have.

And so, I asked the very dedicated Fazeel Arain if he would be open to two of my colleagues taking on the project. He was. And so began an inspired, four-month, dialogue between Lynnea, Michael, and Fazeel.

Other than me recognizing my own weird tendency to consider projects that had very little chance of materializing, nothing came of it. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Another year passed. (We are now six years into the process.)

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And then, one morning, while showering, I was hit upside the head with what I considered to be a brilliant idea. You see, Fazeel's school wasn't the only organization going through changes. Mine was, too. With the American economy in the toilet and my company's sales distressed, I decided to launch an online raffle -- a clever way, I thought, to drum up interest in our online, Conducting Genius training.

The offer was a simple one. Raffle tickets would be absolutely free. All a company had to do to was send us an email with "Conducting Genius" written in the subject line. That was it. And then, on index cards, we would write the names of the companies who had entered and randomly select three winners. The prize? A 75% discount on our training. Street value? $6,500. "Such a deal!" I could hear my grandfather saying from the Great Beyond.

One person entered. Guess who? That's right. The very bearded, tenacious, Allah-is-in-Control, Mr. Fazeel Arain.

Thrilled to learn he had won, Fazeel, understandably, assumed that I would be the one to deliver the training. I wasn't. Maxed with other responsibilities at the time, I handed the project over to one of my long-time colleagues, the very accomplished brainstorm facilitator, Valmore Joseph Vadeboncoeur.

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The first three sessions went quite well. After Session #3, Fazeel asked if I would lead the fourth.

My first response? Ummm... I'm not sure how to translate it into Arabic, but in Yiddish, it was "Oy vey," an abbreviation of the slightly longer phase, Oy vey ist mir, a well-known expression of dismay or exasperation whose English equivalent was "woe is me."

My second response? "Sure, why not?"

Session #4 turned out to be an AHA moment for me -- the difference, as Mark Twain once put it, between lightning and a lightning bug. Until then, my relationship with Fazeel and Al Siraat had been mostly theoretical -- the concept of working together, but not the reality itself. In just 60 minutes all of that changed, me having the real-time experience of teaching five Islamic school Directors how to begin unlocking the creative genius of their workforce. These were not "Muslims halfway around the world." These were living, breathing, soulful human beings, each with a name, a face, a personality, and a sincere desire to expand their horizons -- Andrew, Shahzad, Esra, Rahat, and Fazeel

"Hey Mitch, how would you like to visit the school?" Fazeel asked me two weeks later.

A single image came to mind. Rocky. Fazeel, like Sylvester Stallone's iconic, street smart dreamer, was totally relentless -- a man on fire with purpose and possibility. He knew what he wanted and was going for it, against all odds. No matter how many times I ducked, dodged, or deflected, his invitations kept coming.

"Fazeel," I replied, "thank you so much for your kind invitation, but Melbourne... you see... is... uh.. a 22-hour flight away for me. We're talking two days of travel, three days on-site, and probably another three days to recuperate. I just don't have the time. Maybe next year."

Three months passed.

And then, as fate would have it (or was it Allah or Jehovah?), I was invited to attend a five-day conference, with my teacher, outside of Brisbane -- just a two hour flight from Melbourne. This news made Fazeel happy. He paid for my Brisbane to Melbourne flight, picked me up at the airport, took me to lunch, introduced me to his wife and children, made me chai tea (often), fed me chocolate, toured me around the school, asked me to teach a few classes, invited me to speak at the prayer hall, and proceeded to enter into an off-the-grid, non-stop, three-day dialogue about what our future collaboration might look like. He even offered me a full time position.

To quote Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Bottom line, my three-day introduction to Al Siraat was a total delight -- mind opening, heart opening, door opening, intriguing, inspiring, fun, soulful, endearing, encouraging, heartwarming, provocative, unforgettable, and very educational. Until then, I had never had a single conversation with a Muslim. Though I had many friends from a wide variety of religions and spiritual paths, I didn't know a single soul from the Islamic world. My only exposure to Islam had been the late night news.

For want of a better phrase, let's just say a Red Sea parted for me. I got to experience, first hand, during my three-day visit, what Fazeel, Rahat, their Directors, Teachers, and Staff were trying to do, against all odds -- to create a model for what Islamic education could be in the future -- a heart-centered, values-driven, learning community that built character and prepared the next generation of movers and shakers to make a real difference in the world.

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Beyond their hopes and aspirations, it was clear to me that Al Siraat had more than its share of problems, challenges, and disappointments. But so what? Life is not always easy. Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years. Noah had to build an ark. Muhammed lost all six of his children. And Jesus was crucified. Even baby chicks have to peck their way out of the shell.

What I found so compelling about Fazeel and many of his colleagues -- the mojo that moved me to spend three months of my life, last year, working at the school -- was the recognition of just how powerful an experience it is to be called. Clearly, Fazeel was being called. And so was Rahat, his wife. And Mufti Aasim, the school's Spiritual Director. And Esra, Shahzad, Sheikh Wasseem, Gulhan, Leah, Najma, Vis, Evla, Noori, Javed, Bilal, Naveed, Maqsood, Zev and so many others on staff who had come to a point in their life when it was time to take a stand.

The name of the force that calls a human being? It has many. And it was calling me, too, a Jewish man from Woodstock (with an Indian Guru) -- someone who didn't speak a word of Arabic and has never read the Quran. But peel away the superficial differences that seemed to be separating us and we were all on the exact same page -- the page of life -- no matter what language or tradition the words on that page originated from.

To be continued...

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Helping children understand the moral of a story
Fazeel's testimonial
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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 10:14 AM | Comments (0)

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