Finding the Staircase

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

I love taking the train. I love that it’s spacious. I love that it glides out of the station. I love the views of landscapes and particular details, like the man in the red shirt on his smoke break outside the restaurant kitchen’s back door.


One of the things I love the most about the train is being able to walk between the train cars. At the end of each train car, the glass doors sense your presence and automatically open. Yes! I can wander freely about, and even go down to the dining car. Once I played Gin Rummy for two hours in the dining car with a retired librarian while we enjoyed spectacular views along the water.


I remember one particular train trip a few years ago. It was a typical departure day scenario. I had spent the last 24 hours sped up trying to get everything done around here, plus getting packed up for my weekend trip to Portland. I also had a couple of cups of strong coffee.


Now I am someone who can tend towards excitement and its close cousin, anxiety. The good news is that I’ve learned lots of ways to manage it, like drinking decaf on the morning of a trip and learning to let go. However, on that particular morning I hadn’t remembered either of those and I was a bit more anxious than on an average day.

When I boarded the train and turned to go down the aisle, I looked up and instead of seeing those clear glass doors that sense my presence, I saw a solid wall! I turned around and looked at the other end of the train car. Another solid wall! Remember I was already sped up, tired, caffeinated, and anxious. And now here I am: stuck. If any of you reading here suffer from anxiety, you may know that when the limbic brain takes the reigns, even if you aren’t really under threat, you’re logical mind goes offline. So, I sat down and took some deep breaths. The train started moving. And at some point, I just decided to get up and walk down the aisle.


And here’s what I discovered: lo and behold there was a staircase!


I'm also not sure how I missed the tuba players. : )

I climbed the tight stairway, and to my great delight I discovered the second floor of the train! I must have missed this “detail” as I was boarding. And, yes, you guessed it; the second floor had those wonderful doors, passageways, portals to many other train cars to the north and the south! Immediately I felt relief from the cycle-of-mind I had become stuck in.

And I had a wonderful trip to Portland.


This experience has become a useful metaphor for me. Whenever I feel anxious/stuck/trapped I can remind myself to Breathe Deep. Explore. Be curious. Look for the staircase to another world, another way of being.


When we are in the cycle of fear or anxiety our vision narrows, our ability for creativity diminishes. And our ability to be present to each other goes down as well.


Often what is needed is not to do the tasks, or solve the problems that are before us, but rather to explore and discover a new way of being that makes us more resilient to face the complexities of work and our wider life.


Recently I read an article on the Seattle Foundation website. The author was writing about addressing homelessness, a topic of interest to me. A particular sentence caught my attention, “Local government, nonprofit providers and partner organizations are working hard every day to do more with the limited resources available.” In particular, “working hard every day to do more with…limited resources” stuck out to me. It’s so true.


For 14 of the past 21 years, after receiving my degree in Industrial Engineering, I’ve worked in the nonprofit world. I have observed and felt this dynamic of working hard with limited resources. Yes, it is a recipe for stress and sometimes burnout. Often people work for nonprofits because of greater mission and passion that drives them.


And while this is the common experience of many, I keep wondering: does it have to be that way?


In the midst of our stress and anxiety in our work, are we missing the staircase that takes us into another way of being?


I have found such a staircase. I find great joy in leading workplace staff teams into a new way of being together, that actually catalyzes and multiplies resources that are present. These resources are yet to be tapped into, yet present within us, and our organizations.


I lead innovative workshops using improv, because the foundational tenets of improv and the structure of my workshops cultivate this new way of being together. Over the past decade, an increasing number of companies have been using improv with great success that lead to optimally performing teams. I’d love to see this more fully expand into the nonprofit world as well.


Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of working with the 20-person development/fundraising team at United Way of King County (Seattle). Here’s what Erica Wiley, their VP of Development, said afterwards:


"At United Way, we work to build communities where people have homes, students graduate, and families break the cycle of poverty. With a vision this big, we need massive resources – and a focused team ready to harness them. Fundraising is a team sport anchored in trust and my team had recently been through some tough transitions resulting in high turnover, territorial behavior, and needless conflicts. At the end of David’s improv workshop though I looked around and saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time – one joyous team! Many staffers came up to me the next day and said it was one of the best days at work ever. Ever! I attribute this transformation to David’s improv workshop. It was a perfect way to embody this joyous way of being that is critical to have in this work – being present to each other and discovering what we can accomplish together. I gladly recommend him and his workshops as a great way to bring a fresh dose of joy and collaborative energy to your organization!”

I have a deep passion for supporting the work of teams doing meaningful work. Whether that’s with a nonprofit, a business, a school, faith community, or other organization. If you are willing to step into something innovative that cultivates the presence, trust, joy, and resilience of your team, I would love to talk with you.

©2019 by David Westerlund. Photo credits: Ramona Laird, Alvin Shim, and David Westerlund.