What Experience Teaches Us

When I was 22 years old I went to buy my first car. Actually, I was buying my fiancée’s car. Actually it wasn’t a car, it was a stripped down Ford Ranger pick-up, silver with a blue pinstripe. We were both so young, kids really. But, months away from getting married we knew it had to be done so we walked into the dealership and did the best we could.

We thought we had negotiated pretty well, navigating good figures for both trade-in and rebates. We felt good about the overall deal until we found ourselves sitting across the desk from the “finance guy”. Then, looking at the paperwork thrust in front of our wide-eyed faces, I saw a number that didn’t make sense. I pointed to the figure and stated confidently that something wasn’t right — that wasn’t what we had agreed.

I still remember the feeling when he laughed.

He calmly and patronizingly told me that I didn’t understand. No, the discount or rebate (I don’t remember which) was there, I just couldn’t see it. It’s a common error that most first time buyer make, he said assuring us that it was there. It was garden variety razzle-dazzle ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ that I would never fall for now, but that was more than 20 years ago. Then, I was just a young woman figuring out what my role in my forever relationship, uncertain in how much was too much. My stomach twisted but I accepted the slick words and let the moment go. My fiancée signed the papers.

Having lived through that experience, I can empathize with people who find themselves on the wrong side of a scammer. I’m a smart capable person, I have good judgement and confidence in asserting what I believe to be true. And yet, I can think back to that moment where none of that mattered. Someone with more experience and less gumption took advantage of us to make a sale and likely put a few more dollars in his pocket. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

Many years later when I was in management at an automotive company I was attending a women’s leadership event and we were talking about the dealership experience. All of the people talking — myself included — had long since moved beyond buying cars as “normal people.” By that time I was eligible for two management lease cars a year, cars that I custom ordered online and picked up in a special employee garage. My car payments were deducted automatically from my paycheck, insurance was included, and maintenance was as simple as a showing up 30 minutes early to work and hanging over my keys. But, I remembered that young woman and that feeling; I raised my hand and asked whether we could really understand the dealer experience when we no longer purchased cars from dealers.

Every experience that I have gives me another opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes. The early married years when we drank Kool-Aid and ate Kraft Mac & Cheese, when a “luxurious” week would be Hamburger Helper and the cheapest pound of ground beef we could find. The time I held my infant son in my arms when the anesthesiologist put him under and he went limp in my arms and I panicked a little, even knowing what was going to happen. The confusion when a group of men in Australia asked me if I owned a gun, the joy each time the nurses placed my new born babies in my arms.

There are so many experiences I will never have, experiences that are missing for me because of the fickleness of my birth. Those limitations make it harder for me to appreciate the unique opportunities and challenges others have faced, my ignorance makes it harder for me to empathize with them. So, I keep my ears open to their stories, whether it is across the lunch table or through a podcast. I try to imagine what it would feel like to believe that my father rejected my kidney because I was gay or to lose my husband to an avalanche and feel responsible.

What if that was me?

Throughout the government shutdown, I have wondered how each person’s lived experience has informed their perception of situation. Have you lived paycheck to paycheck or have you always had access to savings and credit? Have you struggled with child care or do you have a strong support network? Have you been furloughed or laid off or have you had secure income? Have you ever been declared an “essential” employee and had to work regardless of pay?

For my part, I know that I saw the whole thing play out through my filter. One year, as part of a cost savings effort in my public sector job, we all had to take 10 furlough days — unpaid time off. With reasonable financial security at that time, I was able to mostly enjoy the extra time off with my family but I knew others who couldn’t absorb it as easily. Even with decent notice and the ability to space the days out, some people were acutely impacted. And that was about half as long as the federal employees experienced — all at once, unplanned, after the biggest shopping holiday of the year.

I am thankful for each of my experiences, both the good and the bad, because they connect me to my humanity. Talking with others I am reminded that I am not alone, that my experiences may be mine, but they are not only mine. I laugh sometimes when I realize how common my experiences are, like just yesterday when I saw an Old El Paso commercial about two taco shells making sexy talk in front of their teenage daughter. We do that and our daughter responds exactly the same way.

Exactly.

This is the part of each post where I usually bring it all together with some quiptastic turn of phase. I don’t have that tonight. All I know is that I am truly grateful today — and every day — for the variety of experiences that I have been able to have, for the friends that have let me into their lives, and for the strangers that share their experiences through their stories.

Tell me another one.

Be Too Much

I went grocery shopping today. I know, I know…that is a completely normal Sunday activity that doesn’t merit a blog post, except that today I had the distinct pleasure of going with my son. Besides the chuckles I get from the things he sneaks into the cart (e.g. pineapple-flavored soda and frozen fruit bars) I have an opportunity to embarrass someone who can’t run away.

Bwaa, haa, haa.

So, it made my morning when (walking through heavy traffic in the center break of Aisle 17) I jumped ahead and played crossing guard for my 6’2″ son. “Mommmm,” he muttered under his breath, “that wasn’t necessary.” I laughed and looked over my glasses, “No, of course it wasn’t. But it was so me, wasn’t it?” He couldn’t argue, so he grimaced and agreed.

Look, I get it — I’m too much. I say things that need not be said. I do things that are embarrassing. I laugh too enthusiastically, smile too big, and talk too loud. I use hyperboles and metaphors, sometimes making provocative statements just to drive hard but important conversations. I share feelings and comments that are too personal.

For someone so small, I take up a lot of space.

I regularly and routinely recommend my blog when people are struggling with something that I’ve contemplated in one of my posts. It’s my way of sharing my stories without sharing my stories. But, it comes with a price. Over the holidays we were playing a new party game called Quiplash where everyone answers questions hoping their response will garner votes — the more votes the more points. One of the questions was, “What would be the worst thing about being stuck in a sleeping bag with Mel?” The winning answer? “She won’t STFU about her blog.”

It was the unanimous choice.

Everyone laughed — including me — because it was hilarious and so true. I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years and if I was stuck in a sleeping bag I probably would talk about it a lot. I’m willing to bet I would talk about it too much. Fortunately for all of us, the only person I am likely to be trapped in a sleeping bag with would be my husband and he knows what he signed up for. He once lovingly said, “There is no such thing as too much Mel.”

There is something incredibly freeing about living your authentic life out loud, bringing forth your personal too much. I believe that it is the part of each person that exists outside of the safety of the bell curve that make us unique. It is an interesting irony to me that what makes us most lovable in our closest relationships is what we work so hard to hide to feel comfortable in the world.

I spent too much of my life trying to dim my light, hoping that if I was a bit less I could fit in. I think many of us do that. It wasn’t until I hit my forties, about the time I started to write this blog, that I had the trust to let my “too much” come to life. I still worry but every day adds a bit more bluster to my luster, giving me the confidence to be me.

Here’s to a year of letting your too much shine. Whether you talk too loud or don’t talk at all. Whether you laugh like a hyena or have a permanent scowl. Whether you free climb mountains or are so scared of heights you won’t live in a two-story home. Live your truth. Find your tribe. Be too much.

I’ll be right there with you.

Not A Resolution

Once a year people all around the world take a collective look in the mirror, assess their faults and failings, and make resolutions. It’s not a modern concept — the ancient Babylonians celebrated the new year more than 4,000 years ago making pledges to their king and gods for the year to come. There is something powerful in not just identifying the things you want to change, but in making a visible and public commitment to do so. I hereby assert that I will be a better person. Eat better. Exercise more. Appreciate life.

Write more blog posts.

Personally, I have a pretty shoddy track record for making and keeping resolutions. One year, taking a hard look at my couch potato lifestyle and my family’s history of heart disease, I committed to exercising four days a week. I went out and got a gym membership and dutifully pushed myself beyond the emotional and physical struggle for two weeks. But, as soon as my work schedule, family needs, or an illness upset the delicate balance my commitment was over.

I’ve always felt a little lame about acknowleding how crappy I am at delvering on a resolution, but last year I got a little humor boost from the folks at Allstate insurance. I have long enjoyed the “Mayhem” commercials, but none have made me laugh more than the ones where Mayhem is trying to turn over a new leaf. Standing on the roof (“I’m a lightning rod”), laying in the road (“I’m a road flare”), and hanging from the garage ceiling (“I’m a fuzzy tennis ball”) his New Year’s Resolution was to keep us safe instead of creating his namesake carnage. I found the irony hilarious and I waited for the other shoe to drop.

It didn’t take long.

Watching the college football playoff, I sat bemused as Mayhem explained that while being safe was boring, “if you can stick to your New Year’s Resolution that I can stick to mine…” Then, in a quick moment the camera did a close up. “What? You couldn’t even last two weeks? Consider Mayhem back.”

And that’s how it is for most of us. It’s appealing to buy into the annual promise of brute force transformation, but real change doesn’t happen that way. Our behaviors and habits are formed by years and years of experiences and are unlikely to be easily shifted just because the calendar says January. Mayhem can’t instantly go from creating chaos to supporting stability; I won’t go from the sturdy coach potato to a triathlete. It’s just not that simple.

For that reason, I’ve learned to be cautious about setting resolutions. I dislike making promises — even to myself — that I can’t keep. So, this year I’m not focusing on changing the person I am. This year, I’m going to love the person I am and think instead about what I bring to the world. I will:

  • Live my “too much” authenticity and push past the fear of rejection and ridicule when it seeks to dim me
  • Invest in my relationships and be the best [fill in role] that I can be, providing the support needed
  • Explore my deeply held beliefs and assumptions remaining true to my values while being open to new learning and growth
  • Forgive myself and those around me for their humanity and acknowledge and embrace the opportunities given to make amends

Maybe it is a copout to walk away from my failed efforts to make big and tangible changes. I should exercise more. I should give up diet pop. I should write more blog posts. But, if I can look back 365 days from now and reflect on a year that allowed me to grow as a person, perhaps it will be enough.

I can exercise next year.

One Letter at a Time

I write letters. Most weekends I lift my grandmother’s 1949 Royal typewriter off its stand and place it on my desk, an unlikely partner to my high-tech iMac. I select two sheets of color-coordinated oragami paper, run them through the guides, and feel the resistence as I push hard on the round keys. I compose letters full of all the emotion, candor, and typos that come with authenticity. Every one is as different as the individual who gets it, the unreadable impressions on the ribbon and platen the only record of my effort. Early on I tried to capture my words by taking a picture of each letter. I hoped I could bottle the warm feelings that I tucked into each envelope, but it didn’t last.

The words belong to the reader, not to me.

There is something uniquely vulnerable about a heartfelt letter. An email leaves a copy in your sent items folder. A text message has back-and-forth context. A conversation allows the opportunity for real-time clarification of misunderstandings, offers non-verbal cues, and has no permanence. But, a letter is physical and only the recipient can decide what happens next. They can choose to throw it away or carry it around forever. They can keep it to themselves or put it online for everyone to see. When you send it, you give up the right to choose how it will be used and cede power to the other person.

I worry sometimes that my letters are weird but I send them anyway, I push past the uncomfortable feeling that whoever I am sending it to will misinterpret my intent. I hadn’t given much thought to the feelings I was facing until a diversity and inclusion facilitator recommended a TEDx talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. In her talk, she shared her personal story about studying vulnerabilty and learning about its role in creating connections and living a whole-hearted life. Listening to her speak, it was like the pieces of my life philosophy were clicking into place. It was a master class on being TooMuch, sharing how vulnerable people…

…let themselves be seen, deeply seen.
…love with their whole hearts.
…practice gratitude and joy.
…believe that they are enough.

My letters, like these blog posts, are my way of living those ideals. And that’s why this weekend I sent three more letters off to an eclectic group of people. One to my grandmother, one of the first people to love me for the full and flawed person I am. A second to a former colleague, a young woman I worked with briefly and who is now shining her light through her own business. The third went to a woman who I looked to network with earlier in the year — my apology for not following up after her offer to share her insight.

Each one holds a little bit of me that I will not be able to protect.

Earlier this fall I sent a letter to a colleague. I had to work the system to get an address and, because the individual is private, when I put it in the mailbox I wasn’t certain whether it would be welcome or an intrusion. But I knew they were going through a difficult time and I thought that if I was in their position I would want to know I was supported and not alone. So I wrote it and sent it away, letting my fear of overreach dissipate as soon as the blue box gobbled it up. It would be ok or it wouldn’t — all I could control was my sincerity.

I had forgotten completely about the letter, spending a week battling my own demons, when I got a message from my colleague. They had neglected their mail for a while and when they opened their box at a truly low point my letter had been sitting on top of the pile. The entire message was warm and grateful, but I felt my heart tighten as my eyes stopped on one phrase: your words meant everything to me.

I would love to say that my vulnerability hasn’t harmed me, but it has. I have had letters used against me, my own words twisted into daggers to harm both me and the people I love. Those moments hurt, forcing me to question the wisdom of giving others weapons for their hate. But, I am buoyed by the many more times when my words have created true love and possibility. Friendships rekindled. Hope created. Trust built. No, vulnerability isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable but I know one thing.

It is worth it.

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 a 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 fail 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, 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.