How Can I Help?

I saw a great cartoon earlier this year, providing perspective on the different effort expended by parents in “running the house.” As the spouse of a stay-at-home parent, I quickly saw myself in the parent who does much less and yet protests “but I help…” Everyone who has come into contact with me and my husband knows one well-established fact: I carry very little of the administrative burden of our home, sitting back content in the certainty that the vast majority of everyday tasks will just happen. I help, but not nearly enough.

As my brain wandered to what I could do to balance my ‘at home’ scales I pondered a bigger question: If I truly want to help, why am I not helping more?

In my experience, most people are ready and eager to help. Personally, I have one of the strongest and most supportive networks, filled with people who I know will help without hesitation if I asked. In the last month I’ve faced some challenges that I never anticipated — at home and at work — and at some point or another every person that I consider important to me has offered help. But, even with that help offered I haven’t done a great job of turning their eagerness into action, instead sending them away with the throwaway, “Thank you for the offer, I’ll let you know when there is something that you can do.”

And then I don’t call them because I don’t have a clue what they can do.

Here’s the problem, when I’m buried in work or a complex project, it feels like I’m drowning swimmer two feet over my head and wildly flailing my arms. Although I look cool and calm as a cucumber on the outside — years of practice — inside I’m in panic mode, my body frantically trying to stay above the water. My brain is focusing on only one thing: do not drown. And, it is in that very moment that someone shows up in a boat, pulls up along side me, and asks, “How can I help?”

Now in a calmer moment I could absolutely assess the right next steps and ask them for a rope, a buoy, a life jacket — anything that would prevent me from sinking to oblivion. But with my brain fully focused on the immediate need of not drowning, I can’t. Instead I say something stupid like, “Nothing right now, I’ll let you know.”

The boat pulls away leaving two people no better for the moment of connection.

We’ve all been there, stuck on one side or another of a failed help conversation. Sometimes we’re the swimmer, sometimes we’re the boat. No matter which side we’re on, every single moment when it happens feeling inherently unsatisfying.

As I think through when help has worked and when it hasn’t the first thing that comes to mind is the power of specific help instead of generic help. Imagine if the person on the boat didn’t ask, “How can I help?” and instead said, “I’m throwing you a life ring, grab it.” It takes a lot less mental gymnastics to understand a command and respond than to run through a laundry list of possibilities and pick the one right-sized task out of 100’s. Faced with simply clarity of action, most people can accept offered help and support.

And that would work great except that I’ve seen the direct approach fails as well. Sometimes, declarative help comes in the form of an unwanted casserole or a push down an unwelcome path. There have been times when I’ve rushed into a situation with the very best intentions of helping only to harm the people I meant to help, either by identifying the wrong solution or simply by stealing the person’s self-determination.

So what the heck is the helpful person to do?

It seems to me that the right answer is to spend more time listening and less time acting. In the cases when I have helped the most, it is because I have taken the time to listen to the person struggling so I can hear in their story and identify places where they might need help. With reflective listening and good questions, it is possible to let the person share what they choose about the situation and once more is learned, I can offer the better things. Recently, I was talking to someone and learned they no longer felt comfortable driving at night because of vision loss. Later that week we were heading together to the same event. Armed with my new intel, I was able to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if I drove?” My offer of help was specific, targeted, and still something that could be refused. It was imminently better than the open ended, “What can I do?’

I’ve found that the same technique works when someone does offer generic help. Lately I was feeling overwhelmed with a big task. Instead of going into my struggle cave, I took the time to walk a colleague through the challenges and big steps. He asked questions and together we broke the work down, eventually identifying a couple of building block items that could be easily delegated. Once I could see those tasks, I asked if he could own those and of course he said yes.

In both cases, both the helper and the helped felt exceedingly better than if we had stalled, without help.

And that’s the hard thing, really. Everyone understand that finding yourself alone and without help is isolating and horrible, but it can be just as difficult to be surrounded by help and not know how to activate it or to want to give help and not know how to do it. Our  real opportunity is to find better ways to channel good will to good action, to turn possibility into outcomes.

I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me that when you start with listening you have a chance to get there. When we build real empathy and understanding and we tie that tightly to empowerment we can keep everyone above the water line. By simply defining intent and offering options we can create the kind of help that benefits our friends and family. The words may seem simple — “I want to help you. Would this help you?” — but the power is immense. They may accept or not, but either way we can take a concrete step closer to doing something.

And the right something is better than nothing.

What to Do When You’re Not a Doer Anymore

I’m a doer. I’ve spent my entire life seeing stuff that needs to be done and doing it. At this point it is more reaction than conscious thought. A gap opens up that needs to be closed and I feel myself being pulled into the void like a helpless astronaut through the airlock. The people around me find it both endearing and worrisome. When I say that I’ve got it handled, people know it will be handled. And yet there is a perpetual worry that I will take on too much and burn myself out.

No one ever worries about whether I can do it, the question is should I?

As I’ve moved into progressively more senior roles I’ve struggled to jettison or delegate enough of the doer work to give myself the time to lead. Earlier in the year I had a tough discussion with my boss about the importance of limiting my doing to those tasks that would benefit from my unique capabilities. He was continuing to expand the scope and scale of my work creating a situation where my survival would be based on prioritizing those critical tasks, investing in ways to monitor and manage my teams, and accepting that some things would not be “A” work. I took it to heart.

But, it hasn’t been easy giving up being a doer.

Just yesterday I was working on a task clearly not appropriate for my level, something I have been doing monthly for more than two years. I texted a colleague for a quick answer as he was leaving a leadership class. He was happy to help but in the course of the clarifying the information he noted, “I just finished class … delegation was a key topic. This seems like something you could delegate…”

“You’re right,” I said, “except…”

I proceeded to explain all of the reasons why I hadn’t done the right thing — why I was still doing and not delegating. None of it was legitimate and I knew it even as I typed. He could have let me off the hook, but he didn’t. Instead, he came back with his trademark wit, “I’ll share the section on addressing the reasons why not … just kidding…”

Of course he wasn’t kidding. He was shining a bright light on something I needed to hear and I’m very thankful he did. There are lots of people on our team who would be capable of doing the assignment if I simply prioritized the effort to transition it to them. Maybe I had been uniquely capable of leading the transformation years ago — for this small change my combination of accounting experience, big picture thinking, and process standards had made a difference. But now the process is completely stable and there is little value-add in my continued ownership. Every month I rationalize that I can do it faster, easier, and better and I’m probably right — I am a great doer. But, there’s a cost.

  • In those two hours I can’t do the work that only I can do.
  • In those two hours I can’t coach or support my team in tough challenges or new growth.
  • In those two hours I can’t invest in my relationships, health, or hobbies.

Guess what, the cost isn’t worth it.

Solving the challenge of doing less and delegating more is critical for any leader who hopes to deliver great outcomes. I know that my organization needs me to do the right work well so we can all be successful and I know that my family needs me to live a complete life that is bigger than my job. Even so, it is hard putting away the skills that have led to my success and to focus instead on growing my capability to help others be successful. Despite my intent to stay focused, I get pulled into the classic traps every day: a desire to help, an inability to let my team down, a willingess to give up my discretionary time for a cause that is bigger myself. Those are all good things. Except when they’re not.

It will take me time to change a lifetime of instinct, but it has to start somewhere. So, I made a commitment to the colleague who called me out. I agreed to transition the task to someone else before next month. I can’t go back in time and give it up any sooner, but I can own the fact that I won’t do it again.

Now, I just have to do that a few more times.

The Fight for Intentionality

When I worked on a university campus I was surrounded by the opportunity to engage with new people and new ideas. Every semester my calendar would bulge with the possibility of classes, speakers, and books filled with new perspectives to be considered. I didn’t take advantage of even 10% of what was possible, but somehow I managed to attend a presentation by Dr. Scott Stanley on the topic of sliding versus deciding.

If you type “sliding versus deciding” into a search engine, you’ll find a few things. You’ll learn that the term itself (Sliding vs. Deciding®) is a registered trademark. You’ll discover a blog focused on love, sex, and commitment and more links than you could explore on a Sunday afternoon. And, hopefully you’ll get the same gist I did from my time with Dr. Stanley more than ten years ago: relationships in our current generation are defined by sliding into the next level of relationship commitment (dating > cohabitation > marriage > children) as compared to the intentional deciding of past generations.

At the time, I found the idea intriguing simply as a way to assess my own relationship with my husband. Already married more than 10 years, I looked inward. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment at each of the stages when our relationship had deepened to the next level? Yes. Could I articulate that intentionality to myself or to him? Yes. Was I certain that I hadn’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logical step, the next thing expected as part of our social contract of relationship growth? Yes. Satisfied that I was on as solid footing as I could be, I tucked the idea away and waited for it to be useful again.

Like now.

Lately, I have had this gnawing feeling like my life is less intentional than I would like. More times than not I find myself sitting in a moment and wondering how I got there. Did I mean to focus on this task? How did I spend an hour working in this space? Why is my phone in my hand again? Looking at it through the lens of sliding versus deciding, it feels far more slide-like than decide-like. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment? No. Can I articulate the intentionality to myself or those near me? No. Am I certain that I haven’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logistical step? No.

Crap.

Now don’t get me wrong, not every step in life needs to be planned out. I’ve devoted many posts to my own exploration of the unplanned and unplannable experiences that create a full and meaningful life. But, in my mind that is different than being able to articulate the critical why of your own story. There is something powerful in deciding that what you are doing, why you are doing it, and who you are doing it with is your first best option and not just something that you stumbled into. It is true whether you are sitting at a business meeting, the dinner table, or chatting with someone via text — intentionality makes a huge difference in the value you can bring to the moment.

This weekend I knocked on my son’s bedroom door, rousing him from the weekend hibernation common to boys his age. A day earlier we had talked about going to a “you pick” farm and the weather hadn’t cooperated yet, but I let him know that there was a break in the thunderstorms. If he got up right now we should be able to get there and back before the skies opened up. He dragged himself out of bed and made it downstairs cleaned and brushed in record time and together we headed out. We spent three hours driving with the top down and tromping through muddy fields picking produce together, chatting about the handful of topics that are acceptable to both middle-aged women and teenage boys (and a few that aren’t.) Tied to intentionality, we were both living our first best option — in that brief shining moment I knew I was a better option than video games.

I’ll remember that moment for a long time.

And, the hard thing is this: Once you’ve lived a decide moment — or blessedly, a lot of decide moments — you feel wholly unsatisfied with a slide moments. You can see and sense the lack of engagement and commitment, both from yourself and others. You can sense and feel disquieted by the feeling that you’d rather be somewhere else, that something else would be a better use of your time. Even if you don’t have the feeling yourself, you can see the signs: you check your phone, flip over to email, create to-do lists, doodle, put yourself on mute.

When I find myself in those moments, it’s a signal that I need to create a change. I pull out my vision statement, my personal and professional goals and have a hard conversation with myself. How often is it happening? It is a temporary thing or a trend? What would it take to get back to intentionality? What can I do to put myself back in the driver’s seat of my life, to create more deciding and less sliding? Is there anyone who needs to help me? It’s rarely an easy inner dialogue, even if the adjustments are fairly simple. But, there’s one thing that I decided a long time ago that hasn’t changed: the life I live needs to be my first best choice.

Six Degrees of Separation

At least once every few months I’ll see an unexpected cross-connection of friends on Facebook. You know, my brother-in-law will comment on a post from a coworker or my mother’s close friend will comment on a post from the mom of one of my kids’ friends. When I see it I tend to blurt out, “how do you guys KNOW each other?” as if I own the rights to the weird bonds of connectivity in this world. These six degrees of separation moments always make me laugh.

But I have never laughed as hard as last week.

As a boater, I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the issue of plastic waste and how that waste is impacting our oceans. I’ve been driven to try bar shampoo (love it), drink all my soda from cans (holding steady), say no to straws (a real challenge), and take my own bags to the grocery store. On the bag front, I realized that I needed to organize my significant stash so that I could grab them easily on my way out the door.

And that’s how I found myself, at 9:30pm on a Sunday night, sorting through forty bags of various size, material, and condition.

Thirty minutes later, with bags spread out across the kitchen table and counter, I was nearly done. I was reaching into the last bag and pulled out a Duke blue devils t-shirt, size boys medium. Now, I’ve purchased a lot of t-shirts for my kids over the years and it’s hard to remember everything, but I was certain that I had never bought this one. So, I did what any mom would do — I looked for a name tag. And that’s when I saw that the shirt belong to Jack.

But I didn’t know Jack and neither did my kids.

I found this absolutely hilarious. Maybe it was the fact that I was punch drunk from being up and going all weekend. Maybe it was the crap I was getting from my family about the stupidity of organizing bags late on a Sunday night. Maybe I was just feeling for Jack’s mom, wondering wherever she was, what the heck happened to his shirt?Whatever it was, I was so amused that I popped off to Facebook and wrote a post.

Today’s totally random post. I was organizing reusable bags and found Jack’s Duke t-shirt. Only problem? I don’t know Jack.

I’ve had his shirt for quite awhile.

I hit “post” and thought I’d get my usual suspects reacting to the post and commenting.

Imagine my surprise when, Monday morning, I got a text from a woman who works with me. She told me that she knew Jack. His dad went to Duke. He was the right size. And, her son was meeting Jack that same day to hang out. We chuckled, what were the odds that my Jack was her Jack?

High, it turns out.

Later in the morning she confirmed that Jack had attended a camp with my son. They didn’t know each other, but somehow their clothes had gotten mixed up at the laundry and it was his shirt. I took it into work and handed it off, knowing that Jack and his family will have a story to tell for many years to come.

And so will I.

I’ve always enjoyed the idea of connections and the strange way that a life lived binds us all together. This experience has reinforced that idea in a very tangible way. A week ago, a gray t-shirt was living in obscurity in the back of my closet and I had no idea it was there. Now, it is back in the closet or laundry bin of a mother just like me who may or may not have known it was missing. In our interconnected world it took a picture and a post less than 24 hours to close the loop.

We’re not as alone as we might believe in a world of 7 billion people. Life has a curious way of connecting us, especially when we’re willing to live those connections. Accept the friend request. Post the weird observation. Lean in to the odd coincidence. None of us know how those connections will help us reunite things that have been separated — today it was a t-shirt, tomorrow it might be my misplaced class ring or friendships lost across miles and years. And I love that.

Networking Isn’t Mentoring

Months ago I had noticed with appreciation how well an executive woman in my industry utilized Twitter — her posts seemed to consistently and seamlessly reflect both her personal and professional personas. Having met her once briefly in the real world I sent her a message on Twitter and told her I was looking to get better at my own social media balance. Would she be willing to invest 15 minutes in helping me get better? It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off. She connected me to her administrative assistant and after comparing challenging calendars we landed on a date a month in the future. Yesterday.

She was kind enough to offer me nearly an hour; I only took 25 minutes.

As we talked she shared the intentionality of her social media presence, her engagement with corporate communications, and the importance of aligning values. She told me I was a great writer and offered to connect me with another blogger who she felt spoke with a similar voice. I gained more from our brief discussion than I would have from reading hundreds of pages in self-help books or listening to hours of podcasts. It was a major accelerator in maturing my thinking about how I show up online and how I need to adapt my own approach.

As we closed and I thanked her for giving up her time — an executive’s scarcest resource — she shared that getting my request had made her day. She told me about others who had given her similar guidance when, like me, she was looking to improve her social presence. We shared a conspiratorial chuckle over the very human response one has to being told that something we do is admired and how it creates a willingness to give others a hand.

It was a wonderful, and classic, example of the power of networking.

At the same time I was preparing to connect with her, I was reaching out to my closest mentees to ask them to characterize our relationship. I told them all the same thing: “I’m thinking of writing a blog post about the difference between networking and mentoring and our relationship is important to me personally and professionally. How would you characterize it and what do you think has helped it be as beneficial as it is?”

Their responses were touching and quickly illuminated that while both types of connections are important for development, there are important differences between building a network and building mentorship.

Mentorship Is Personal

To a person, the people I checked in with noted that although our relationships may have started as professional — connecting with me in the work world and valuing me for my skills and ability to deliver results — all of them shared that they viewed our relationship as a friendship. They expressed numerous ways that our friendships emerged including things like having access to my cell number, seeing and treating them as a whole person, and feeling comfortable going out for dinner. We have all been to each others’ homes, met each others’ family. Somewhere along the way I went from being someone who could help them navigate their career and become someone who could help them find happiness in life.

One person made it explicit. “I have needed you for mentoring, but I honestly just like you as a human. If you had been an English teacher, we would have had less in common to talk about in terms of work shared experiences, but I’d still love to have been your friend. I value you for your very Mel-ness.” Maybe that is why great mentoring relationships transcend employers, industry changes, and retirement. It has to do with the sincere belief that the other person has both the capacity and the capability to help, not because they have to but because they want to.

That is far different than a networking relationship. Sure you might exchange the comfortable pleasantries of your personal life at a networking event, but it is only within a mentoring relationship that you will open up about a significant other struggling with your career success, how a new child is forcing you to make tough trade-offs that you hadn’t considered would be needed, or whether you should take a risky new position or promotion. You have to be vulnerable to share those truths with a mentor and that doesn’t happen if they don’t believe you care about them as a person. You know, a friendship.

Mentoring Is Long-Term

When I think about my most successful mentee relationships, they span years and supersede whatever circumstances brought us together. What I’ve noticed is that networking and mentoring look similar at the beginning — one person reaches out to another person (or is connected with another person) because they have something to offer. I get a lot of mentor recommendations where a colleague of mine says, “So-and-so could really use a mentor and I think you would be great.” We’ll meet, have a great dialogue, the individual will ask a series of specific questions and then…

Poof. Gone.

And while that single great discussion is a great example of networking, it isn’t mentoring. Maybe the person didn’t gel with my personality. Maybe the insights I offered weren’t on point. Maybe they were on point but they didn’t feel there was anything else to be learned. No matter what the reason, in order for a networking moment to shift to mentoring, they must have longevity. Every successful mentoring relationship I have been in (on either side) critically depends on shared history to provide future guidance. Sure, there are moments of significant lean-in and times when the parties take long breaks from connecting, but they are never one and done. For me, the moments that come later in the journey are the most rewarding, offering both parties a much needed chance to gain energy from an important empowering relationship.

Mentoring Is an Investment

Although I know all too well the value of 25 minutes of any executive’s time, it is a small drop in the bucket compared to the time and energy someone dedicates to a successful mentoring relationship. A networking conversation will find its way onto my calendar only when it doesn’t impact either my work results or family commitments. By contrast, a mentoring relationship might intrude into either, depending on the urgency of the need. I’ve been know to step out of family movie night to take a call or apologize to my husband for being on my phone with a mentee. When I say, “It’s so-and-so, they are considering a new position and want my perspective” he knows who it is and why it matters to me. He understands and gives me the space I need.

Beyond time, the investment can also come in the form of giving people a vision for themselves before they have the courage to see it. One truly talented person — someone I believe has the potential to change the world — told me that my investment in her was surprising, that she was unprepared for someone successful to take the time to open doors and give of my time. “At first it was mainly that I looked up to you. [I] saw you as a very strong, educated, successful woman…I wanted to be that and you seemed to think there was something in me that would help me do that one day.”

Investment also comes from taking risk. Another newer relationship started with a simple networking call. I had opened the door to more, but communications went silent. In that case the individual pushed beyond the discomfort because a trusted person “encouraged me to look past the embarrassment I felt in not following through the first time and suggested that I just go for it.” They were willing to put themselves out there because there was a promise of a real opportunity to grow. Only time will tell whether the relationship will blossom and persist.

I value each and every authentic connection I make in the world, from an amazing conversation at a conference lunch to a friendship that spans decades. I try to treat each interaction I have with someone as an opportunity to learn more about the world and in turn myself. Although they are very different experiences, I would’t give up either networking or mentorship.

Fortunately, there’s no reason I have to.

Remembering from You

Yesterday, I found myself sitting beside my husband on the metal bench of a ferry. Like I had countless times before, I was taking the short ride from the shore of Ohio out to one of the Lake Erie islands. We had moved up to the top deck so we could look out over the water and enjoy the crisp blue sky and I had settled down to wait for the tell-tale engine rumbling that would signal our departure. And then a sparkle of motion and crackle of sound alerted me to a small girl.

“Daddy, when will we get to the island? How big is the ocean? Mommy, when will we be on land again?” Her mother told her it wouldn’t be long and that it was a lake and not an ocean, to which the girl replied, “I am going to call it an ocean. Okay?” I smiled and turned around to see a pixie with her face painted with an elaborate turquoise and green peacock feather.

“Is this your first trip to the island?” I asked. She nodded shyly and leaned back in her bench. I lowered my voice and put every bit of smile I could into my conspiratorial tone, “My little girl is 17 now, but we brought her here for the first time when she was about your age. It’s an awesome place and I bet you’ll have a really fun time.”

I realized, in that moment, that there comes a time when your memories are triggered not by your own experiences, but by watching the experiences of others.

My daughter had been five, her brother two, when we had decided to take our first family trip to the islands. Even growing up on boats this was a new adventure. Going on our boat didn’t require buying tickets or standing in lines. Our boat didn’t have three levels with stairs and so many people. Why did it have tables like a restaurant and chairs like a movie theatre? Did they really NOT have to wear a “boat coat”? How long will the trip take? What will we do when we get there? They had wanted to see every inch, rushing from area to area to pick the perfect place to sit.

At the time, I had experienced the moment with a mix of worry and wonder. Every time my heart widened because my children were seeing something for the first time I had to fight off less positive feelings. There was nervousness that they would hurt themselves, from a mundane skinned knee or a catastrophic fall over the ship’s rail. There was embarrassment that other parents would find my children poorly behaved and judge my parenting skills. There was anxiousness that the trip wouldn’t live up to the hype and they would be disappointed.

But now, watching someone else’s child dash about I could fully enjoy her excitement. I understood completely what her parents were feeling as they said quietly, “Alright, let’s find a place and settle down” but I also wished they could be better than I had been and enjoy the moment. Sure, I knew that bad things were possible, but in retrospect I was able to see what they couldn’t. My husband and I had our eyes open and would ward their children like our own. We felt no judgement for their daughter’s exuberance, only joy for her and nostalgia for our own times gone to never be reclaimed. And that anxiousness? Wasted. She would love every minute of it.

Sitting at the end of our day at a picnic table, I flipped through the photos I had captured of our own first trip. My son, standing and clutching the rail of the ferry with my husband’s entire arm wrapped around him. Both kids standing on the shoreline throwing pebbles into the water, my husband arms crossed watching for danger. My daughter, arms thrown triumphantly out, ready to start (or perhaps finish) a glorious spin.

Looking back I’m sure of two things: we were so young and we didn’t realize what we had.

I have friends now with young children. Some are people my age who entered parenthood later than I did. Some are a generation younger than me following a path like mine just 15 years later. I don’t want to come off as preachy or a know-it-all — goodness knows I don’t know anything except my own history — but I desperately want to help them understand what I didn’t know or couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, parenting small children is trying and tiring. Yes, you have the constant worry that something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to prevent it. Yes, it is an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility that hits you like a ton of bricks the minute you pull away from the hospital with the car seat strapped down behind you. Yes, yes, yes. But, it is also a chance to see the real honest-to-goodness joy of a new experience lived for the first time. Over and over and over again.

Until it’s gone.

I have a friend that I’ve lost touch with, a woman who had two children when she was young and then a third after a long gap. I asked her, sincerely, what that had been like. She told me it was amazing because she knew from experience how useless the worry was, how much it took away from enjoying childhood. My kids were young then, so I didn’t really understand.

I do now.

Pivot Points

I love to play strategic board games. Not party games like Pictionary or Apples to Apples, but the kind of games that come with a 30-page rule book and take several frustrating rounds just to understand. When my kids were little our weekends were filled with game nights when we would invite like-minded people over to play until the wee hours of the night. Hunched over my dining room table we would lean into a favorite or tackle something new, wisecracking and trash-talking until someone was victorious.

After the game was over — when the guests had left and I’d cleaned up the snack carnage — I would fall asleep thinking back on the game and trying to remember the moment when the winner had locked it up. What was their strategy? What was the decisive move that shifted the pattern and made their win the likely outcome?

Sometimes that move was obvious, and in hindsight I could see it as the first step in a long and stealthy arc to the end. But sometimes it felt less intentional and more accidental, like the winner had started out trying for one plan but then shifted as circumstances had required it. Thinking about it now, it has the feel of a football coach calling plays from the sidelines. A coach might call a play to set the team up for a last minute field goal, hoping to squeak out the win. But the players on the field might see holes, improving on the field to get a touchdown. In both scenarios the team wins, but only one matches the plan.

My last blog post was focused on the idea that our paths don’t always form the way we anticipate they will and so it was with a bit of irony that this weekend I was reminded about one of those pivot points in my own life. Eight years ago I posted that is was “Facebook official” that I had accepted a new job and my words were dripping with the kind of unbridled optimism that is my hallmark. I was so excited by the opportunity I was being given and completely unaware of the significant my decision would have for the rest of my life.

 

At the time, I had been at the mid-major university for nearly four years. It was the longest I had ever been in a single job, but I had adapted to this new version of my life in order to provide a stable foundation for my family, allowing them to have strong roots and my time and attention. In “Mel 2.0” I accepted that my work would become more routine and it would be up to me to find other challenges and variety to keep me energized. So, I took classes, sought out student organizations to support, wrote for and edited an association magazine, and won a position on their board. I was happy.

Then an unexpected possibility emerged. There was a new opening posted in another department, a senior position that would provide a potential next step for my career. It felt like an opportunity to grow while also leveraging my knowledge, skills, and experiences to benefit the organization. People I trusted at all levels asked me if I planned to apply and I seriously considered it. In the end, I didn’t see a down side to applying. If I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t be embarassed by someone who was a better fit. If I did get it, I would have found a way to support my family with stability while feeding my own need for new challenges in my work.

I applied. They offered me the job. I took it. I announced it on Facebook.

If life had worked according to my strategy, I would be telling you about how that moment helped me accomplish all of the things that I had planned for myself and my employer. That would have been a great story. But, I have to admit that is not what happened. Everything I had hoped to get out of that plan — an ability to grow within an organization where I had a long-term future, a desire to learn and expand my capabilities and contributions, the ability to invest in a career that would allow me to stay close to family and friends — none of that happened as planned. Instead, the decision would lead, in less than two years, to my returning to industry, shifting from finance to information technology, and moving my family 230 miles away from everyone we love.

Sitting on my deck this morning, I was struck by the fact that everything I have today could be traced back to that decision. Everything I have now, and everything I have accomplished in the last six years, comes from that decision whether I planned it or not.

And that’s the rub, really. Whether you’re playing a strategy board game or living your life, you’re making a series of moves. If you’re good, you try to take into consideration controllable and uncontrollable factors, what you can do and what others can do. You try to make the best choices you can and play the long arc, hoping to finish with a win. But sometimes, no matter how good you are, circumstances shift and you have to adjust. If you’re lucky, even when it doesn’t work out the way you planned you can still pull out a win.