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Beyond the Pale

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: Wed Jun 12 2019 09:58:38 GMT-0400 (Eastern Daylight Time)

Having a record year

Iím not at all sure how this happened, but I just looked up and it is the first week of June. The last twelve months have been a whirlwind of change, growth, fits and starts, and the varied experiences that make up a career and a life.

If you are anything like me, your days and years are a combination of joy, frustration, laughter, and tears. Sometimes we are ready to run marathons and other times wonder how we can take another step. We forget that with the laughter can come the pain, and with the successes can come the stresses of how to repeat last year's record-breaking volume, growth, or income.

Ah, yes, with the joy can come the hurt. With success can come failure. Sometimes things happen that we never saw coming, and yet we all have a choice in how we react. We have a choice about how we 'roll with the punches' that come our way. We can do our best to stay focused and on our feet, looking up to avoid the next punch, or, even trying to land one of our own (metaphorically speaking, naturally, and only in self-defense).

Of course, it is the unexpected events that remind us that we are alive. Much like our forebears being chased across the plains by lions, we find that a boost of adrenaline can be quite useful. We know we have choices when life doesn't go according to our carefully scripted plan. We can throw ourselves at the mercy of the lion (not recommended), or we can run, fight back, or retreat and hide until the danger passes. We can be open to new realities and possibilities, or we can stay in our protective zones and see ourselves as victims of our circumstances, our upbringing, or the whims of the universe.

The latest in my lifetime of 'aha' moments

I'm always curious about the choices people make to challenge themselves and change their circumstances. I was reading the local newspaper recently when an article about choice and change caught my eye. As I delved into the story, one of hope and perseverance, it struck me deeply in the 'feels' and I've been thinking about it for the last couple of weeks. Perhaps you read it, too. It was the story of a 56-year-old woman who has been taking classes toward her degree at Bowdoin College for the past 18 years. She has been working in dining services at the college and decided at some point to step out of her comfort zone, venture 'beyond the Pale' and enroll in a class. One class became eighteen years' worth of classes. She graduated at the end of May.

it is a wonderful human-interest story, but beyond that, there were a couple of parts that made me sit up and take notice. One is that she and I are about the same age, in our mid-fifties. The other is that she and I are now fellow Bowdoin alumni. Our experiences beyond that were a bit different. I don't know what she was doing in the fall of 1980 when I started my first year of college in Brunswick. I can tell you that I was outside of my comfort zone for a while in the elite small college environment. I wondered if I could keep up intellectually with my well-read and seemingly more privileged classmates.

During my first few weeks of college, this introvert was overwhelmed and uncomfortable both academically and socially. Some people were more welcoming than others, and it took time to find where I would fit. And yet, it was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating to be challenged in a way that I had not been challenged before. I wanted to be there, but I wanted to leave. There was laughter and there were tears. It was one of those opportunities to learn and grow beyond the life I had known growing up in a rural Maine town, if only I could look ahead and envision my future.

When I was in college, Bowdoin didnít have many non-traditional students. As I read the article, I wondered if this woman had to find her courage to show up and speak up in class sometimes, just as I occasionally did. I wondered if Bowdoin was the place where she found her voice and dismissed her doubts (and maybe some doubters), like I did, to realize that her dream was within her reach if she worked hard, was open to learning, and pushed beyond the nagging fears.

I don't know this woman who graduated recently. I can't tell you her name. What I can tell you is that her story made my heart soar for her and for every person pushing through something difficult. She followed her dream and pushed herself to stretch beyond barriers to realize her potential. It made me want to stand up and clap for her as she picked up her diploma. She could have given up long ago, but she chose to persevere. It all left me with a smile on my face and a lump in my throat. I was proud of her and any other person who struggles and does not give up. 

For all of us, while our stories and our paths are very different, we are not so different after all. All we need is someone who believes in us, is willing to invest in us, and will be there to hold on tightly when we start to lose our courage and want to give up. Our dreams are not impossible, they simply need a well-timed nudge, some encouragement along the way, and the discipline to see them through.

Time does not change us. It just unfolds us. -Max Frisch

Get smart

Do you ever think about what it means to be 'smart'? One of the things Iíve noticed over the years is that most of us have a fear of being the slow kid in the room. For some, it is the residual effect from some long-ago but never forgotten classroom experience of failure or embarrassment, and simply not knowing the answer when called upon. Sometimes we didn't even understand the question and didn't dare to say so. Someone may have shamed us with a "you should know that." or maybe a disappointed shake of the head, and we started to fear the shame and judgment of others. 

One thing I have learned that serves me well is that we are all smart in our own way. In my work life today, I am a strong advocate for learning and growth, both individually and organizationally. It is practical because a vibrant and growing organization needs an educated, engaged workforce. It is also personal, because lifelong learning is a passion of mine. This doesn't happen without a willingness to admit that there are a lot of things I don't know. There is way more in this world that I don't know about than I will ever have time to learn, but I am determined to close the gap, word by word. I keep buying books and asking questions because I love to read and think about new ideas. I think of it as chasing wisdom, and it is possible I will never, ever, catch it.

Stealing Fire

One of my recent reads is Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. While I had heard the phrase 'beyond the Pale' before, I never knew the meaning or origin. The premise of Stealing Fire is that we can dramatically change the way we live and work by recognizing and experiencing non-ordinary states of mind. To do this, we must be willing to see beyond what is right in front of us, think differently, and be open to new experiences that may scare us. We must be willing to venture beyond the Pale.

If you are not familiar, the Pale is an actual place as well as a figurative idea.

As a student of history and language, I was fascinated to learn that when the English (Normands) invaded Ireland in 1172, they built a large barrier between the land they controlled and the rest of Ireland. It became known as the English Pale (pale from the Latin palus, meaning stake or picket). Inside the Pale, existence was thought to be safe, true, and good. Inside the Pale life was civilized and controlled. Outside of the Pale was nothing but bad news. In the words of Kotler and Wheal, it was nothing but "murder, mayhem, and madness." Inside the boundaries of the Pale became synonymous with acceptable behavior and safety. Outside of those boundaries was danger and possibly death.


The concept is fascinating for humans. If we take risks, something terrible could happen. Instead of broadening our minds to possibilities, we often prefer our comfort zones where nothing changes, and nothing grows. We have an inherent bias for safety, and yet also an inherent desire to grow. What is really interesting to me is the notion that "this bias has obscured our view. Itís clouded our judgment and cut us off from vital parts of ourselves and our potential" (Stealing Fire, page 52).

Rub some dirt on it

I think of this in relation to raising children. As parents, our job is to protect our children from harm and raise them to become capable, caring members of society. Somewhere along the line, parenting seems to have evolved from the free-range version of my childhood, and to a lesser extent that of my own kids who are now in their 20ís, to some extremes of protection that do not allow children to experience disappointment, or failure, or freedom. I honestly do understand the desire to make our children's lives easier and less stressful. I also wonder, if that becomes the prevailing parenting practice, how our young people will ever develop resilience and determination to overcome obstacles, and to know that with joy can come pain. We cannot protect our children, or ourselves, from disappointment.

Recently I read a statistic stating that working mothers today spend more time with their children than non-working mothers did in previous generations. As a mother of young adults who has experienced my share of working mother guilt, I wonder if this is true.

What is true is that I could disappear for the entire day as a child without my mom being too concerned. I had to tell her if I was headed to the woods or a friend's house or to my grandparents' house next door, but I was free to roam. I learned how to interact with adults, neighborhood kids, and my siblings.

We fought our own battles and settled our own disagreements and got into a little trouble here and there. My childhood friends were no different. I have a distinct memory from the early 70s when I was about 11 of being at a friend's house with no parents around, and racing bikes down a hill. I flipped over the handlebars of my bike and broke my collarbone. My friend's older sister was in charge, called my mom, and eventually my parents showed up and debated if I needed an emergency room visit or not. I donít think 'rubbing some dirt on it' at that point was going to help and I'm glad it wasnít the final choice.

Wisdom isn't for everyone

Another premise from the book that has me curious is the idea that adding psychological dimensions and maturity beyond early adulthood is possible, but true wisdom is a leap that only about 5% of the population will ever reach. As the book says, "...not everyone gets to be wise."

Hey, don't look at me. Some days I struggle to speak a coherent sentence, let alone write anything brilliant. But, the potential that I have to self-transform, to reach my "upper limits" as a human, and to possibly help others do the same, drives me to keep trying every day. I hope it drives you, too.

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at

A busy year Lorraine, thanks for sharing...
Thank for for sharing Rainie. Well done. Glad you're on the mend!