Our First Laddership Pod
Alchemy of Uncertainty
After many years of holding immersive 6-week Laddership Circles, with hundreds of alumni from around the globe, we heard many clamors of a daily “Laddership Pod”. So we piloted an ad-hoc experiment. We didn’t even have the backend technology ready, but we figured that while the “road builds us, we would build the road.” What we didn’t anticipate were 260 applicants from 25 countries, but we kept rolling with it.
The Pod is set up as a month-long challenge. As you complete each day, you advance to the next day. Every day lays out a core value that is explored through readings, videos and personal practices. Then you reflect on a penetrating question and learn from each other’s responses.
Having just finished the first Laddership Pod, what we saw might rank as the most textured virtual learning journeys within our ecosystem -- a rather unique confluence of content, context and design.
The essence of the content was around ServiceSpace values. The textbook, however, was a living one. Collectively, Pod Fellows wrote a whopping 2836 pages of content! Although we had daily prompts with insightful articulation on various ends of the spectrum, what made it come alive were practical insights from each other.
Week 1 centered on “occupying the grey”. Where mainstream narratives tend to frame the world in simplified binaries -- protagonist vs. villain, victim vs. perpetrator, haves vs. have-nots -- in our complex systems, who do we have to be to see the spectrum of value in a pandemic? We dove into spectrums across love and fear, hope and false solidity, content and context. In Week 2, we dug deeper into a spectrum of virtues: how can the nuances of timeless values like generosity, humility, and courage serve as a foundation for our efforts? Spectrums of sincerity and authenticity, grit and surrender, safety and vulnerability realigned our frameworks of seeing and engaging in the world.
After the halfway point, in Week 3, we entered a spectrum of project designs. Everyone articulated a project intent, large or small -- whether a passionate community vision or introspective personal practice. Each day, our prompts looked at design topics like speed (“emergency and emergence”), technology (“internet and inner-net”), pricing (transaction and trust), scale (“universal and contextual”) and power (“leadership and laddership”). By this point we were divvied up into smaller “pods” and synergistic dialogues unfolded across timezones in our pod feeds. Finally, in Week 4, the spectrums looked at systems designs -- from intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to othering and belonging to serendipity and structure. We regrouped into project pods, crowdsourced ideas for each others’ visions, and closed out our final call with a few project presentations, reflections and a creative invitation to offer to each other in non-monetary forms of wealth.
At the end of each week, we also had virtual calls -- technically, two, to catch all the time zones. It’s one thing to have a Zoom call, but imagine having a call after the context of rich stories of people’s deepest vulnerabilities, inspirations and aspirations. Imagine that you knew why Steve was a car mechanic, or how horses saved Kerri’s life, or how Brian experienced the Philippines as a blind person, or why Neha woke up with her Pod homework, or why Karuna changed her name. Pod anchors -- and angels! -- Bonnie, Yuko (past midnight Japan time!), and Rohit would summarize stories we heard. Thea, a young musician in France, sang songs twice. Srishti offered movement exercise. Myron drummed. It starts to feel like a joyous reunion of old friends.
“I fix cars and I have never given a damn about cars except that they get us around. Before fixing cars I worked in a dysfunctional school system so I quit. I opened a shop in my house and in a month I was so busy I had two employees. 15 years later, there are 8 employees, 7 bays, the shop moved into town from my garage and even in this economy, is growing. I still don't care about cars nor do I care about business. I named the shop Metro Garage because people should take public transportation. I'm still at it, although less than in the past because it has become a talent magnet and the best talent in town works. It took six months to figure out what I did that made the job doable: "It's about people. We don't work on cars, we work for people." Ten years since discovering service was my calling, I can laugh about it being an absolute truth from somewhere far beyond me.”
Our overarching context was service. Not just service that “changes the world”, but service that leads with inner transformation, that changes us as its impact ripples into the world. Whether personal practices of small acts or sustained projects, that shared context of transformation-led service alters the field of social emergence.
On Day 15, everyone filled out a project canvas -- an intention to practice these values through external acts of service. For some, a personal practice itself was a project. With hundreds of new comments every day, everyone was feeling held and supported in their intent. We split into smaller thematic Pods, where each fellow could ask questions of others. For many, this engagement remained a highlight of the whole experience.
Colleen started a “Little Free Pantry” on a patio table in her front porch. “Love is not charity. Take what you need, leave what you can.” Soon her husband built her a wooden pantry that could be used any time of the day. One fine day, someone left her $20 note with a note in Spanish. She was going to return it, but then Lawrence posted a comment. Now, Lawrence, after an incredibly difficult personal journey that spanned substance abuse and suicide attempts, runs a bike shop in London where all labor is offered without a pricetag. “I would humbly ask, consider how voiding/returning that $20 check may feel to the giver. I did something similar before with a 'pay it forward' desire. I realised I hadn't fully received the gift.” Inspired, Colleen sent the check back, but with a note (in her broken Spanish) that explained how she doesn’t have a formal entity to cash the check. Couple days later, she got a response -- now with a $40 personal check!
In her canvas, she pondered: should I build relationships with those who use the pantry, or should I just stay behind-the-scenes? It forced her to reflect on whether her project was about delivering food or building community, whether she wanted short-term impact or a longer term ripple.
The wide-ranging diversity of projects filled us with hope. Yanti lost a friend to domestic violence, and wondered “How can I keep her story alive, and support other such women?” Krishnan was working on a technology project that makes theatre and storytelling come alive. Kerri’s project engages horses as facilitators of harmony, particularly in contexts of trauma, addiction, or abuse. Mandy is working on a book on existential loneliness and asked, “How can I make sure that my writing process isn’t lonely?” Kristy started an event website that would offer tickets with multiple forms of wealth.
Very quickly, conversations deepened. In Du Uyen’s eloquent words: “What will keep going long after my project is gone?”
Khang’s project involved a “wish to listen to the world.” Jennie articulated: “So, what do you do? I'm a verb, not a noun. May I ask -- who are you becoming?” Janessa described a new metric: “Does this act strengthen my ego or diminish it?” Cassandra recollected the invisible impact of a stranger paying for her toll: “By effective altruism logic, paying toll for the car behind is a joke. In my experience however, its effect is really compounding because it touched my heart and I will be paying it forward for the rest of my life.”
“I have about 1% of my vision remaining but I have been blessed beyond description. One question limited me for many years: "Why am I so blessed while others in our world are not?" Then one day I realized how dumb that question was.It was like asking my neighbor, "Why is your house on fire while mine isn't?" So I grabbed a bucket and shared my water.”
“We have a friend living in Syria, who lives in trauma from the current Syrian Civil War and the constant fear of being beaten or worse. The buildings around them are bombed out to rubble. Last year, they were entering their building when, amidst the rubble, they discovered a diamond studded gold ring. Knowing its value ($12,000), they placed a flyer at the entrance to their apartment building indicating that they had found a ring. A woman contacted them and described the ring perfectly. They returned it to her. She was overcome with joy and disbelief that they had made the effort to find the ring’s rightful owner. The owner asked, "Why would you do this?" And our friend replied, "Life gave me faith and the purpose. Someone unexpected came from nowhere to help me. This is what I can do in return to help you."
On our last call, few folks presented their projects. We turned them into videos, where everyone else left “offering in multiple forms of wealth”. Take a look at Yuko’s remarkable intention of serving pregnant women in Japan:
After a similar presentation, Mandy shared what everyone else also felt: “I feel so overwhelmed by all your support! And I find myself paying it forward everyday. Reaching out to other writers and offering whatever form of wealth I can. How can I be of service to you all?”
The Pod is designed on the very simple principle, that we know all too well in ServiceSpace: kindness begets more kindness. We nurture the initial conditions and trust that people’s intrinsic propensity towards generosity will guide the rest.
In our first call, Shyam shared his experience with one of the “hands” prompts: “Take a walk without a destination, and focus on the context in each moment.” Inspired by a call to embark on a walking pilgrimage without money, he decided to experiment with a mini-pilgrimage of a 22-kilometer walk on the streets of Delhi that day. Leaving his phone and wallet behind, he took two bananas and the clothes on his back for the journey. When he came across a man crying from not having food in two days, Shyam instantly gave him the two bananas, wishing he had more to offer. Later, he realized “it was the first time in my life that I had given everything I had.” Inspired by his spirit, and with the excuse of his 61st birthday, :) 30 fellows spontaneously decided to surprise him by doing random acts of kindness in his honor -- which quickly turned into this heart-opening video. :)
Shyam’s reply: “The best gift I've ever received. I am filled with tears of joy. I will pay forward your love with a dedicated act of kindness every single day of my 61st year.”
Every day, volunteers would turn fellow wisdom into graphical cards. “We can adjust the size of our dreams.” “I always thought change starts in the head, trickles to the heart and arrives at our hands. Now, I see that it’s not so linear.” “I’m a verb, not a noun.” “How do we scale compassion? My head says: ‘show proof,’ my heart says ‘leave evidence’.” “There are a thousand ways to think and one way to feel. Instead of arguing right and wrong, let’s work to uncover common ground.”
Kindness quickly became the culture of the Pod.
When Afsha described her love for Muhammad Ali in one reflection, it turned into a humorous video that coupled Ali’s quote with Afsha quotes! When one pod member posted a reflection that chronicled an experience loaning money to a friend who hadn’t returned it, another instantly messaged him: “How much was the sum? I’d love to pay it forward to you, and make things right on behalf of the universe.”
In the ever-widening circles of generosity, the start and endpoints become blurry. Lawrence, who ended up putting in 5 to 6 hours per day for the Pod, shared a customer service note he had written to We-Transfer:
Hi. I use ad blockers. I'm not going to change that. I f****ng hate the things. I also respect that this is how you earn money and keep your service going. I live a very weird life....I run a social enterprise that works within a gift economy...we gift everything we do...people gift us (the flat I live in is gifted...bonkers!)....as such, I 'earn' and use very little money..[the reason for this is deep and I won't bore you with it here]..but I've used WeTransfer quite a bit recently (probably 50-100 times in 2020 to send mp3's I've made to friends)....so...how can I chip in and pay you something?! Bank account and sort code? Paypal 'Donate' link? Do let me know so I can send a bit of cash your way and support your work :) Thanks, Lawrence Mohammed
And he enthusiastically shared their response: “Thank you so much for your desire to donate money to us! We genuinely appreciate the kindness but rather than accept money from you, we would love to extend the appreciation and offer you a free year!”
As a footnote, what also worked remarkably well was translation of our organizing principles into technology. Building an entirely new platform, we incorporated all learned wisdom into the technical design. For each person’s profile page, we asked five questions: what makes you come alive? What was a pivotal turning point in your life? What is an act of kindness you won’t forget? The whole course was self-driven -- fellows enter with a clear agreement to do daily homework, and without that, tech doesn’t let you proceed forward. Many small design decisions -- you could add hearts to posts but it would be anonymous to the group; you could send private messages to others, but only after two weeks of shared context. The simplicity of the user experience was also noteworthy. Technology is an amplifier of various human intents, and in our designs, the intent is a regenerative one.
By the end of our four weeks, we all felt like we knew each other -- what mattered to each of us. From the labor-of-love grew a depth of connection that gave rise to things of great beauty. Typically, retention rates for successful online courses hover around 5%. With the pod, 133 folks started out on the first day, and rather remarkably, more than 90 fellows continued through the incredible rigor and vulnerability into the last week.
Exploring our cherished virtues as tradeoffs can be quite unsettling. What is the fine line between humility and confidence, service and self-care, authenticity and sincerity, inclusion and boundaries? Do we conveniently champion values on both ends of the spectrum, and casually flip-flop between them as we are tested? What does it mean, as one of the day’s practices read, to speak like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong? How do we get familiar with the “third force” that resides in between dueling polarities?
One participant in Romania candidly shared, “I feel like I’ve lived an unexamined life.” In one of our calls, Sallyann noted, “I have fewer answers, but deeper inquiries.” Kerri, similarly, described herself “basking in the unknown.” Lucas genuinely expressed, the questions were surfacing more “emergency” than “emergence” in his project. In passing, Bonnie remarked, "The unsettling nature of the Laddership Pods was rather unique. One might think that people would run from it, but perhaps the willingness to abide in the mystery was a paradoxical glue that held us together. Honestly, I think part of what we did was to normalize uncertainty, if not celebrate it."
Holding sacred complexity of our uniqueness with the elegant simplicity of our universality created an uncommon tensile strength to our inquiries. No one was trying to teach anyone, or debate the many differing views, or even arrive at a fixed conclusion. Yet, almost as if graced by osmosis of each other’s stories, we dug deep -- naturally hitting up at our formative roots:
“When I was in 9th grade my dad was unhappy with my poor performance in school and incentivized me towards improving my grades by telling me he’d give me $10 for every A I earned on my next report card, and $5 for every B. (Back in the early 80s this would have amounted to some valuable pocket change.) To him this market-driven plan was logical and made perfect sense. Only it backfired. My next report card was even worse. I felt that he cared about the grades and not me. In 10th grade my dad wrote me a letter. He typed it up on our computer and left it on the kitchen table before he went to work. I still cry when I read this letter over 35 years later. In the letter he explained to me why he worried about me and why he wanted me to get good grades and the poverty he had seen in his early days. He wrote that he loved me, and that he wanted me to have a happy life. My next report card was filled with As and Bs.”
"When I shot two people outside of our house at the age of 11, my mother took a plea deal that involved dropping any criminal charges against me, in exchange for two years in prison, 10 years parole, and a criminal conviction for the rest of her life. My mother would have done anything to protect me from entering the criminal justice system because she knew that would be the end of my life. So she gave up hers instead.”
When I was 15 I "ran away" from home. When my friend and I were picked up by the police 1000 miles away and flown back to our home city, our arrival experiences were very different. My friend’s father greeted him with anger and punishing restrictions. My father looked at me and said, "Well, what's been on your mind? I guess I missed something. We can talk about it once you get some food in you." At the time I saw the different greetings as significant but had no awareness of how greatly influenced I would be by my father's acceptance and curiosity.
“I had never heard the sound of birds till I was in my 50's. When I was six, my first lesson with a speech therapist, I would put my little hand on her throat to feel the vibration of the sound she was making. Then, another hand on my throat to try to match that resonance. I took that lesson to nature -- I would touch a tree and feel its resonance. I don't listen for sound, I listen for resonance.”
Without saying so, it reminded us that our actions today are roots for someone else’s future. That we are, as they say, ancestors in training.
For decades, Sharon has been journaling. And she leaves a couple pages blank at the end of her book, to write seemingly unrelated acts of serendipity to process later. On one of our calls she remarked, “Ever since we started this Pod, those serendipity pages are oddly overflowing like never before.” Every night Sharon would print out the day’s content and prompt, read it before bed and let it simmer. The pod certainly challenged her inner status-quo: “I found myself overwhelmed much of the time. However, without being pushed, I may not have had the dynamic and powerful experience I did have.” Then she would return on the other side of the churn, with wise insights, “Today I had this image of compost -- all this material of the Laddership Pod is compost. It catalyzes a kind of alchemy within us, and then lo-and-behold, a precious soil emerges as a bed for new life.”
An alchemy indeed. Held by the content of nuancing values, by the context of service to others, and by the design principle of a regenerative kindness, all kinds of gold revealed itself.
Mary’s close friend has been in prison for 20 years. Everyday, she would do her homework with her friend. Few days after the pod ended, she wrote a profound and poetic note of gratitude that articulated a trilogy of dreams she had. In the first dream, she found herself as the "dissolved liquid of a disintegrated caterpillar", learning to trust the process; the second night entailed "unfurling a butterfly's wings, not specific to me, of our shared humanity being strengthened to take flight"; and lastly, a "threshold experience" of a wondrous rainbow, a "simplicity on the other side of complexity that was close enough to touch."
Her concluding words echoed the resonance in so many of our hearts: "I thank you for holding the cocoon if you will, that allows such emergence to manifest. May they grace you all as they, and you, do me."
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