Today’s corporate culture places a high value on continuous improvement, which generally means learning how to question existing practices and determine whether something else might be more effective. To gain some experience with it, I am currently doing a beginner-level continuous improvement project that involves gathering and analyzing data on how my coworkers track their time and fill in the weekly timesheet. The objective is to find ways of making the process easier and quicker, which may save the company a little money if there is wasted time that can instead be used to get more work done.

While this is just a small-scale project and won’t bring about any major changes, it’s useful anyway as part of a cultural shift toward questioning why we do things in particular ways. Before I started the project, I never gave any thought to time-tracking and whether the process was as efficient as it could be. I simply jotted down my work hours on a notepad that I keep in my desk drawer, entered those hours on the timesheet at the end of the week, and took for granted that was just the way it was.

Small spiral notepad in desk drawer with pen.

This cultural shift goes far beyond the workplace. Because today’s world gives us far more access to information than at any time in history, we’re always encountering facts that suggest our old familiar assumptions are likely to be incomplete. Expanding our worldview takes time and a considerable amount of mental effort. After all, our ancestors evolved in a world where things changed very little from one year to another, so they had no need to work continuously on redrawing their mental maps. The human brain’s decision-making process, still rooted in those primitive origins, relies on subconscious assumptions to a much greater extent than we generally realize.

Whether in the workplace or in the broader culture, it all starts with questioning. Diversity programs, for example, give the participants more familiarity with other cultures, which in turn leads to reflecting on the factual basis of assumptions and developing a better-informed perspective. For some groups, such as the LGBTQ community, questioning is expressly seen as an early step in forming one’s identity—although Q can mean queer, it also stands for questioning. The field of Disability Studies has to do with critically examining society’s assumptions about disability in the light of real people’s experiences. In April of every year, the Autistic community celebrates Autism Acceptance Month, which involves questioning cultural myths about autism and seeking to create a more informed and accepting society.

Because the complexity of the modern world requires so much effort to understand and adjust to what’s going on around us, sometimes it gets overwhelming. We need enough simplicity and comfortable routines to keep our stress levels manageable, but that’s not easy when we always have to deal with something new. Questioning our assumptions, whatever they may be, can get uncomfortable because we’re afraid others will judge us harshly if we have been wrong about anything.

Continuous improvement seeks to streamline the process by using familiar and well-defined methods, while looking at the data objectively and avoiding criticism of ideas as bad or existing workplace practices as wrong. We tend not to take it too personally when these projects identify more efficient ways of doing our work based on analyzing the data. In general, we don’t feel emotionally invested in small workplace details such as whether we use a notepad or something else to track our hours.

When our cultural assumptions are challenged, however, we don’t have a clearly defined process for updating them and are far more likely to get anxious and defensive about being judged. No matter what side we may take in today’s political conflicts, we often feel that our culture and worldview are under attack. Global corporate leaders, by contrast, generally look upon information about cultural differences in the neutral light of the continuous-improvement framework. Like other kinds of information, they’re seen as useful data points to inform efficient practices and higher profits.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should cultivate in our personal lives the emotional detachment of the corporate mindset. On the contrary, it is natural and reasonable that in these stressful times, many of us feel strongly motivated to preserve our cultures and traditions. We can, however, benefit from occasionally reflecting on our personal views and how they relate to society, within a calm, non-confrontational setting such as a discussion group. After all, cultural differences do not necessarily have to result in conflict; there are many possible ways of framing and addressing the issues, and in general, questioning is the first step toward discovering what might be possible.

Today’s world is far busier than at any time in the past. Everywhere we look, we’re faced with many choices to make and complicated details to track and organize. It’s no wonder that so many people lead lives of constant stress, always worrying that there’s too much going on and no good ways to keep up with it all. Making wrong choices, losing track of things, and not getting enough done seem inevitable.

Of course, anxiety only makes everything worse; but if we don’t feel in control of our daily lives, then how can we get those worries to go away? And until the worries go away, how can we feel more confident? Many of us struggle with this dilemma. It can be especially challenging for people with disabilities, whose needs are by definition (under the social model of disability) not adequately supported in present-day society.

Autism, in particular, often is associated with anxiety. Definitions of autism generally mention self-calming repetitive behaviors. Many people view such behaviors not as an intrinsic part of their autism, however, but as symptoms of anxiety caused by living in a world that can feel overwhelming and extremely difficult to navigate, with information often coming too fast to process.

I believe that it’s helpful for any of us, whether or not we have a disability, to keep in mind that we do have the power to change our personal environment. Even though we can’t control much of what happens in the world, we can create peaceful, nurturing homes and workspaces that lovingly support us as we go through our days. We can awaken our power by making small positive changes to our routines and surroundings, which reinforce and build on each other as time passes.

When I feel stressed about something I’m trying to do, I stop and ask myself: Does this need to be done now, or at all? Are there more comfortable ways to do it? Should I ask for help instead of trying to do it myself? Sometimes anxiety makes us forget that we have other options; but in reality, there are almost always better alternatives, if we take enough time to discover them. Rather than letting ourselves get overwhelmed, we can step back from the situation for a moment and consider ways to simplify it.

April is Autism Acceptance Month. Visit for more information.

Although one wouldn’t know it from the sensational news headlines, both war and violent crime are at historically low rates and are still falling across the globe. For the first time since our ancestors emerged from caves and got organized enough to raise armies, most of the world’s population has never seen the horrors of war firsthand.

Yet battlefield metaphors and imagery are commonplace in modern life. Our cultural narratives lag behind our modern realities. The stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our world are drawn largely from our ancestors’ everyday lives, as well as their customary word choices. We still have many folk sayings that refer to horses, for instance, even though people have been driving cars for more than a century. Our history shapes our thoughts much more than we realize it does.

Put another way, the world’s long history of war has left us with the cultural expectation of going to war. Subconsciously, we think of ourselves as soldiers, even though most of us haven’t actually served. We watch popular movies full of epic battles, read sword-and-sorcery novels, and play war games on our computers. Public policy decisions often are characterized as going to war, such as “war on drugs.” If we have a medical condition (or a family member does), we’re likely to think of it as an evil monster we must fight bravely to slay. Today’s political factions are always battling over one thing or another. Social advocacy is commonly described as fighting for a cause.

Last week I visited the blog Rambling Woods, an amateur naturalist’s site, and read a post about monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate annually, and they lay their eggs only on milkweed, which no longer grows in cornfields because of herbicide use made possible by genetically modified corn. An article referenced in the blog post encouraged people to fight to save the monarch migration by planting milkweed.

There’s an area in my backyard where I would like to plant native wildflowers, and I commented on the blog that I’ll make sure to include milkweed. It’s certainly a worthwhile project, helping to restore the monarch population while also planting attractive landscaping. But if I had to pick one word to describe this image, “fight” would not be the first one that came to mind.


monarch on milkweed

(photo credit:

Six years ago, I began doing volunteer work for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), a nonprofit organization that teaches leadership and self-advocacy skills, publishes educational materials, and addresses public policy issues relating to autism from a disability rights perspective. I serve in the position of board secretary, which consists of preparing agendas for board meetings, keeping the minutes, and generally keeping the board’s documents organized. It’s a mundane job, but every corporate board needs a secretary; and I see it as a way to do some good in the world.

Although one might think an educational charity wouldn’t be controversial, ASAN, like many other groups, has had to deal with the unpleasant reality of today’s battle-primed social environment. People who fight for causes naturally expect to find enemies; it’s implied in the metaphor. There are many causes relating to autism—research, services, education, disability rights, and more. So it’s not surprising that people would have strong feelings about particular issues and that there would be arguments.

But there was some major ugliness online a few years ago that went way beyond ordinary arguments, turning into virtual scorched-earth warfare among the supporters of various factions. Rambling conspiracy theories, nasty gossip from the gutter, et cetera. No doubt the people responsible for that stuff saw it as perfectly justified—after all, they were at war and fighting to destroy their enemies, and war isn’t supposed to be pretty.

The situation calmed down after a while. I’m still reflecting on the broader issues, though—all the negativity we take for granted in society, and the addictive nature of the resulting drama. War is exciting; that’s why it plays a central role in so many of our stories. But when we constantly feel that we’re at war, it becomes exhausting and harmful. After all, war is scary and people get killed; so having one’s thoughts full of battlefield images naturally leads to feeling that one’s life is in danger, with all the resulting anxiety.

At first, it’s empowering to imagine ourselves as righteous soldiers fighting valiantly for our causes. We feel strong and motivated. We pour our energy into the fight, and we get things done. It may take years before we realize how depleted we’ve become—both mentally and physically. Even when we’re not actively battling against our perceived enemies, we still have those old arguments replaying themselves in our heads, uselessly sucking up even more energy. Then we’re left with chronic run-down feelings, and possibly more serious health problems besides. When we reach that point, we end up not getting much done at all, either for our causes or in our personal lives. Joy becomes a distant memory.



(word-art image courtesy of Bits of Positivity)

When I was nine years old, my grandma gave me a set of old Christian novels she had bought at a garage sale. Presumably she meant to instill good old-fashioned moral values in my impressionable young mind. I have to admit, I was more interested in Nancy Drew mysteries at that age; but I did read the books after a while. One of them, White Banners by Lloyd C. Douglas (1936), must have made more of an impression than I realized at the time. I’ve had it in my thoughts recently because it explored the practical benefits of avoiding battles in everyday life.

The author’s premise was that when we choose to walk away from disputes, we usually gain more than we lose. In addition to building character, it gives us more time and energy to put toward useful work. The title comes from a passage describing this approach to life as flying white banners, not white flags of surrender. Even though winning a dispute may feel like a great victory, chances are it’s not as productive as the work that might otherwise have been accomplished.

I would also say that avoiding unnecessary conflict promotes self-awareness. Often we don’t even notice all the battle metaphors in our thoughts. Because they’re everywhere in our society, they seem like the normal way to look at things. It takes a conscious effort to consider other perspectives and to shift our thoughts in more positive directions. Instead of fighting for our causes on an imagined gory battlefield, we can simply choose to put on our gardening gloves and get busy planting those seedlings. The work will get done just as effectively (and perhaps more so) without the drama; and it’s a much healthier way to go through life.

It’s in our nature as a storytelling species to filter our experiences through the narratives we create to explain them. As humans, we go through life full of self-talk, whether or not we do it consciously. When we plan an event we know will likely be stressful, such as traveling to a place we’ve never seen before, we rehearse it in our minds and tell ourselves why it will be okay.

Our culture goes through much the same process of creating new stories to explain advances in technology, changes to our traditional social structures, and greater diversity in our communities. Having to deal with so many unexpected changes can make us very anxious, just because life feels so unpredictable. We need simple, calming explanations that fit reasonably well within our existing mental maps and leave us confident of being able to manage the changes.

Now that we’re a half-century into the modern civil rights era, our culture has mostly gotten used to the idea that we shouldn’t expect everyone in our communities to look and behave exactly the same. Although we still have much work to do on clearing away old prejudices, our society has made much progress toward the goal of accepting diversity.

But many of us find it harder to accept ourselves for what we are. Mass-market advertising preys on our insecurities by suggesting that we won’t have any friends unless we wear the latest trendy fashion or drink the right brand of beer. Whatever our physical traits may be, there are cosmetic products or treatments aimed at improving them, along with ads that proclaim how embarrassing it is to look like our natural selves. If we don’t fit in with some clique at school or in the workplace, we could get bullied for being “weird.”

It’s not always easy to recognize such manipulation and bullying for what they really are. Often we blame ourselves, thinking that we’d have more friends and get along better if only we could be more like other people. Then we blame ourselves again for not doing a better job of dealing with our gloomy feelings and our anxiety. We don’t take enough time to consider all the factors involved.

Defining one’s personal identity and finding self-acceptance can be even trickier in the context of disabilities, mainly because our culture hasn’t yet fully accepted them as part of human diversity. Instead, our culture has created narratives about normality and what might happen to anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within its boundaries. As a result, anything outside those boundaries—wherever they may be at any particular time—can be hard to accept as part of one’s own identity.

Well-meaning people sometimes offer advice along the lines of “accept the condition, but don’t let it define you.” Such advice generally means not letting one’s potential be limited by low expectations. As with person-first language, the aim is to put less emphasis on the condition, in hopes of avoiding the negativity often associated with it. Put more simply, this advice is: Don’t settle for being defined by all the bad stuff our culture says.

Some may see this as acceptance—but it has the drawback of leaving all that bad stuff out there, unchallenged. And when we don’t actively challenge prejudices, we often end up internalizing them. That is why pride campaigns work toward reclaiming words and asserting control over their definitions. Whether we’re talking about disabilities or any other human characteristics, leading an authentic life requires acknowledging their place in defining our identity. We can’t truly accept ourselves as long as there is something we keep tucked away at the back of the closet, never mentioned above a whisper.

When we put acceptance into action we’re telling new stories, both to ourselves and to the world. We’re creating new definitions that embrace all of who we are, rather than just the parts that fit someone else’s idea of who we should be. This is how our culture grows and evolves. Seen in this light, the telling of authentic narratives is a gift to the world, broadening its boundaries and strengthening its diversity. No one should ever have to feel afraid or ashamed to speak a personal truth.

This article has been published on the Autism Acceptance Month site, which posts new articles and resources every April, with a focus on “sharing positive, respectful, and accurate information.”