Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hosting One's Self at Midlife

In the last six years of teaching in the MPA program at the Humphrey School, current students always comment about how surprised they are that it involves so much personal reflection and deep introspective.  Sure, we teach technical skills – memo writing, interviewing & analysis, and descriptive statistics.  But these technical skills need to be used in service to something larger – things that we’ve called around here for a long time “the Common Good.” 

While that terminology has grandiose appeal, there is a paradox in that the Common Good can only really be pursued if a leader involved in such quests know herself. You have to know your personality, your emotional intelligence strengths and limitations.  And you have to know the context within which you are living: your stage in life course development; the communities you operate in; your organizational conditions; the larger policy field; what is happening in the world around you.

This seems to me to be something particularly important to do at midlife.  Parker Palmer writes about how we often spend the first half of our lives denying the gifts that we are given as our birthright.  Then, he writes, “…if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss – we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.“ (Let your Life Speak, 12).   Yet this task of being ‘awake, aware, and able to admit our loss’ is hard. 

In midlife, I believe we must claim the time and space to change the patterns of what we think and do.   Some do that through starting graduate school (like the Humphrey MPA program), others through taking on a hobby or finding a retreat center.  Some commit themselves to “self care” and do yoga, pottery, or gardening

However, as practitioner of the Art of Hosting, I’ve learned a deeper lesson.  In this work, where we create spaces and settings for conversations that matter, there is an important foundational principle: to learn, to host others, to create larger community, you must host yourself.  This call is more than just adding ‘self care’ into the small spaces of life, as an antidote to burn out.   Hosting yourself reflect a recognition that care for myself – for my body, soul and mind – is essential to being able to do the work needed of me in the world.  Just like my body needs exercise in midlife, my leadership capacity needs purposeful care.  Having daily practices that bring me present, open me up, make me pay attention to context is essential if I want to break out of replicating old patterns.  I don’t want to spend my life unthinkingly pushing too hard, burning too fast.  Instead, I need things that bring me present to what this day holds. 

Working to improve the Common Good is hard work;  one must be awake and engaged to touch the wisdom needed to know how you, yourself can contribute to it.

These thoughts are modification of an address given at the 2016 MPA Snowfall Soiree, February 5, 2016. 

By: Jodi Sandfort

Jodi Sandfort is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota and Chair of the school's Leadership & Management Area. She also is the academic director of the international collection of Public Affairs multi-media teaching tools, the Hubert project, focused on promoting interactive teaching and learning. Her own research, teaching, and practice focus on improving the implementation of social policy, particularly those policies designed to support low-income children and their families. As a result, she works with and studies the leaders, organizations, and networks of public, private, and philanthropic organizations that develop and deliver social programs. Jodi received her PhD from a multi-disciplinary program (University of Michigan, Political Science and Social Work) and has taken time away from the academy to build skills as a practitioner and develop firsthand knowledge of how foundations and other nonprofits operate.


  1. Thanks for this important piece. At the age of 52, I recently stepped down from eight years as a nonprofit executive director. I claimed to all who would listen that I'd be taking a sabbatical. For busy people, taking time off is a challenge so I used my MPA skills and wrote a strategic plan for myself. By creating a period of self-care, I also spurred a host of new opportunities (without trying) and a refreshed outlook. - Jocelyn Hale.

    1. Thank you for your reply, Jocelyn! We are glad this piece resonated with you, and best wishes in your sabbatical and new endeavors!

    2. Glad this was helpful. Your leadership continues to inspire!

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