A Lesson from My Roommate

I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.

My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.

Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.

When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.

 

 

My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.

Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.

The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.

That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.

 

I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”

My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.

I believed her.

It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.

I try to believe them.

 

Claiming Leadership

Yesterday, my cousin posted a graphic on the characteristics of individuals based on birth order. Curious, I glanced at it and found myself reflected in the adjectives of the oldest child column: Natural leader, high achiever, organized, on-time, bossy, responsible, adult-pleaser, obeys the rules.

Chuckling under my breath I typed a quick response, “No comment ;-)”

Enjoying meme humor is one thing, but to be honest I’ve never liked the phrase “natural leader.” Personally, I have walked away from many challenges to lead so when a blanket term like “natural leader” is bandied around, I quietly reject it as too binary and simple. Yes, I do tend to lead but I don’t always lead. Yes, leadership feels consistent with my character but I consider myself a journeyman in the art of leadership, learning every day how to be more effective. But, I never had a more nuanced model to offer so I quietly accepted the moniker of “natural leader” and just left it alone.

At least, until now.

This week I listened to Why Everyone Should See Themselves As a Leader, an HBR IdeaCast conversation with Sue Ashford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. As a graduate of Michigan State University’s Eli Broad School of Business, I was naturally skeptical of the content [insert friendly in-state rivalry, years of alumni give and take here], but I came away believing in Dr. Ashford’s view. Her model on how leadership emerges was the first to fully explain my own experience and how I see leadership in the day-to-day world. Fundamentally, she states, leadership is not about position or formal authority but rather about whether someone wants to claim leadership and whether those in the group are willing to grant it them.

I liked the idea so much that I shared it three times that day and now I’m sharing it with you.

Looking back on my earliest experiences, I can see that my leadership emerged in situations where I felt willing and able to claim leadership. I easily claimed leadership in organizing chores and games with my two younger brothers, certain that they would grant it to me. Once I had a group of trusted friends, I confidently claimed leadership of our activities, at least those activities where I knew they would believe that I had the ability to help us do the right thing. In school, I recall formal and informal leadership roles over academic projects or extracurriculars, places where I was buoyed by past academic success to step in and claim leadership. They mostly granted it to me.

My craziest example of being granted leadership happened in my senior year of high school. I was competing on a creative problem-solving team and we were in deep trouble. We had been tasked to build a light-weight drivable vehicle and had spent most of the year committed to an approach. Now, less than a week away we were staring at a vehicle that was too heavy, could not support a driver, and would not move. We were doomed to fail and yet I claimed leadership, suggesting that we compete anyway and create a skit focused around the fact that our vehicle didn’t run. They granted my claim and we headed off to competition with a misguided sense of possibility. In the end we were trounced, but I remember it will an amount of nostalgia — I’m still honored and a bit stunned that they let me do it.

But for every moment that I’ve claimed and been granted leadership, there is another one where I haven’t claimed it at all. I never ran for student government, at any level. It took me years to seek out a leadership role on an affiliate group board when I was working in academic audit. I was elected on my first try, but abdicated before starting when I left my audit role. My senior class voted me “most likely to be president” — and many of my friends have indicated that they would vote for me for political office — and yet the very idea of claiming leadership by election is one I have soundly rejected. After reflection, I’m not sure if I am failing to claim it because I don’t want it or because I am worried it wouldn’t be granted. Maybe it’s both.

 

The truth is no one who routinely and regularly claims leadership gets through it without getting hurt. Not all leadership claims are supported and frankly not all should be supported. I reflect back warmly on the cases when — in a high trust group — other claims of leadership have been made and I have withdrawn in favor of a better approach or more ready resources to achieve success for all of us. Those times help to offset the other less positive experiences, worst among those when a group has rejected my claim for no other reason than I was an outsider.

What I like best about the concept of claiming and granting leadership is that it rejects the idea of being born a leader and reminds us that all leadership is situational. Yes, oldest children are able to practice claiming leadership early in life, but that doesn’t grant them some unique capability or right to leadership. You can be the youngest child and claim leadership over a family matter that is important to you. You can be a junior analyst and claim leadership over developing a learning program for you and your peers. You can be a rookie on a sports team and claim leadership over a play or technique by investing in learning and teaching. Yes, it’s possible your claim may not be granted, but in my experience that is rarely the case. In fact, I see moments every day that are desperate for someone to see a need and claim their leadership by simply saying, “Hey, how about I take this on?”

At this stage in my life I have the title and the authority to confidently call myself a leader, but I know that my foundational opportunities to claim leadership came much earlier. The people who have come to value my “natural leadership” built me up, brick by brick, as they were willing to grant my claims. Looking back, I don’t regret any time when I claimed leadership, whether it was granted or not.

If fact, looking back I only have one leadership regret: The times when I was too scared to make a claim.

Balance (Or How I Can’t Seem to Get There)

I spent the morning at a women’s leadership event, fortunate to be invited to give a quick intro to the first speaker. As I sat at the reserved table with the others who were speaking, we were asked to do a quick table exercise. The questions we were asked to consider what this: “A year from now, what is one thing you will wish you had done today?”

My two colleagues provided their perspective. The woman noted that in a year she planned to do a triathlon and that she would likely wish that she had run that morning. The man shared that, when faced with the striking statistic that parity for women in the workplace would take 100 years to achieve, he would wish that he had done more in his work to improve things for his daughters and granddaughters. I thought it through and commented that a year from now I would look back at deteriorating metrics reflecting my lagging commitment to writing and wish that I had blogged.

My first year of blogging, I published 64 posts in six months. The following year I published 65 posts in twelve months. This year I’ve published 19 posts in eight months. I wish I could say it is because I’ve run out of things to say, but that would be untrue. What is more accurate is this: I’ve stopped giving myself either the time or the focus to write. Often exhausted and without the calm to center my own thinking, I have fallen into a habit of just not writing. And today, when faced with my year from now self, I knew I would wish I had done better.

My failure to find balance in my life appears to be a poorly kept secret. Just this week I had a dozen of my colleagues complete an anonymous assessment to support the Franklin Covey “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” training. The assessment includes 78 statements and asks responders to reply with a range of answers from strongly disagree (0%) to strongly agree (100%). As I paged through my results there it was, a black and white reminder of just how obvious my imbalance is. My highest score (at a unanimous 100%) was on the statement “is a hard worker.” My lowest score (with a 53%) was on the statement “balance all aspects of life (e.g., work, leisure, family) to maintain overall effectiveness.”

Everyone sees it, not just me.

I wish there was an easy answer, a switch I could flip or a pill I could take to make it easier for me to create balance and boundaries for myself. I am envious of the people I know who do that well, the ones who manage to create satisfying engagement in their work, their hobbies and their families. I have hard working colleagues who coach their kids soccer teams, who never miss golf league, who lead their church choirs or quilting clubs. I had a friend once who managed to write a novel while working a full-time leadership job in IT. But here I am, unable to prioritize sitting down for a couple of hours twice a week and embrace my passion for words.

It seems so ridiculous not to do something. Not to do something better.

So, I sat down in my library tonight. Even fighting a cold and fever I convinced myself to take the thoughts swirling in my head and push them into the keyboard. It may not be my best post — it may not be something that reflects the most astute thinking or the most universal theme — but it is a reflection that I am more than my work. It is a small reminder that I am a woman who enjoys the simple act of finding the right words and stories to convey slivers of life.

And, a year from now I won’t have to wish that I had done it, because I did.

 

My Why

Late last year, I caught a video on my Facebook feed called Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace. I rarely click video links because I tend to browse social media when I am around other people and the audio can be distracting and frankly I just prefer to read and add my own audio track. But, this video was posted by someone I respect and so I clicked.

Over the course of 15 minutes I listened as Mr. Sinek shared his point of view on the 75 million individuals born after 1984, including stating that they were troubled and hard to manage, mostly due to bad parenting and technology. It was interesting and thought-provoking; I recommend you watch it. But my biggest take away was not some new enlightenment around Millennials, it was something much simpler.

I decided I wouldn’t want to have a beer with Simon.

As someone who enjoys both interesting people and ideas that’s weird, right? There was a smart, articulate person — someone who I was certain could get an audience with nearly anyone and whose videos have generated millions of views — and my first thought was that I would turn down the chance to sit down with him one-on-one. To be honest it made me feel a bit awkward, but I couldn’t get past the fact that while I liked his ideas I didn’t much like his attitude. Listening to his words and watching his mannerism I came away thinking that he was the kind of person who thought he had everything figured out. And, frankly, I prefer to talk with people who believe they are still learning.

And that’s why I was bemused when, a few months later, I found myself on treadmill watching TED videos and there he was again. This time his name was attached to a talk called How great leaders inspire action and faced with three words that I love (leader, inspire and action) I clicked. I may not want to chat with the guy, I reasoned, but that was no reason to say no to good content.

I’m glad I clicked.

At the center of his talk was the idea that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In his version of the golden circle you start with a clear why, and then the how and what follow authentically and lead to great results. I loved it and immediately started articulating the importance of why with my team. As an idea, it fit nicely into my mental model of leadership and eventually I found the time to listen to Start with Why, the 2009 book he wrote around this idea. Perhaps not surprisingly, as I’ve listened to the book I found myself wondering, “What’s my why?”

(Note: It’s harder than you might imagine to answer that question without sounding like a self-important blowhard.)

But I managed to push that feeling aside and I’ve decided that my why is simple. I believe in the unique human possibility to grow and — through that growth — create something of value. I see it as my “why” to seek out and support that opportunity for growth in every aspect of my life. Nothing is more exciting for me that finding someone (myself included!) at a growth cross-roads and being able to give them a nudge of support to make it to the next level. Talking to someone days or even years later and hearing their growth story can put a smile on my face for hours — finding out that something I did helped them get there can last for days. My why comes through authentically in every part of my what — my fervor for academics, my approach to marriage and mothering, my non-linear career, my blog and my love of mentoring. I regularly get asked why I’m not a teacher; I answer that I teach every day, anyone who is willing to learn.

 

It may be one of my life’s ultimate ironies that someone who struck me as having nothing to learn gave me a framework to articulate my why — a why framed in the power of growth. But, I think it just reinforces the fact there is something to be learned from everyone and every situation if you can get past one small challenge.

You have to be willing to click the link — and listen long enough to hear it.

Find Your Normal

This spring I had lunch at a pub in Harvard Square, a trendy spot that bragged about being founded in 1991. There it was, 1991, listed like it was a date in ancient history and not the year I became an adult, graduated from high school and headed off to college. You know, recent history.

But, I digress.

Despite the fact that it was a cold, wet, miserable day, I was in high spirits to be spending time with my daughter and a great friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I was so excited that when the waiter came over to ask for our drink order I gave him my classic 1,000 watt smile and asked whether they served Coke or Pepsi products. After his answer (Coke) I replied that it would be fabulous if I could get a Diet Coke. He gave me a bemused smile and asked if I would like a lime in it. A lime? Wow! I was even more enthusiastic about accepting the unexpected possibility of a lime. After he left I glanced over at my daughter and noted that she was giving me the look. “What,” I asked? She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Mom, I think you just take people by surprise. You’re a bit much and no one really knows how to deal with it.”

I shook it off the best I could, but the feeling that I wasn’t quite normal in my daughter’s eyes hung over me. It had the paralyzing weigh of a rain-drenched sweatshirt, its moisture sticking to you like you might never be dry again. In that moment all of the self-acceptance and growth I had gained through my 40’s felt flushed away. If I couldn’t be my authentic self with my own child, what did that mean for my odds with the teeming masses?

 

There is a human tendency to try to figure out the boundaries of normal. Sometime in childhood we recognize that there is a range of expected behaviors defined by cultural history and experiences. Kids are smart, they learn that conformance results in tangible benefits — friends, love, and appreciation. Peer pressure is nothing more than the enforcement of those boundaries through both inclusion and exclusion. In that moment my daughter was simply observing that wild enthusiasm over a drink order was well outside of that line. It wasn’t normal, not by a long shot.

And, I might have let that moment bring me down, flatted by the indignity of being called out by my flesh and blood, except that I remembered that there is one thing even stronger than the human tendency to define normal: the tendency for human teenagers to see their ancestors as square. So, I shared a look of parental camaraderie with my friend and we chatted about lighter topics: what we planned to do with the summer, memories of our college escapades, the weather. It wasn’t too many Diet Cokes later (all with a lime) that I was back to my normal over-the-top self, wishing our waiter a rousing good afternoon as we headed back into the rain.

This week, I found myself heading down to the convenience store in my building just a few minutes before closing to grab something caffeinated to help me through the day. As I took my three bottles to the register I smiled another 1,000 watt smile. With wild enthusiasm I congratulated the woman behind the counter on making it to the end of another day. She gave me a bemused glance and said, “You are entirely too energetic.” I deflated, lowered my volume and told her that although it was hard I could dial it back just a bit. “No,” she smiled, “don’t do that.”

Ok, I won’t.

 

 

Every Minute Counts

Yesterday, I downloaded a time tracking app onto my phone. Lately I’ve had this gnawing feeling that I’m wasting time, letting social media or pure distraction steal minute after minute from my life. I figured that the least I could do is collect data, move from a gnawing feeling to a factual certainty. So, I downloaded an app for my phone (and its companion Apple Watch app) and proceeded today to start to track my time. While I was setting up categories and starting and stopping the counter, my family asked me what I was doing. I explained it and my daughter laughed. “It’ll last for a couple of days and then you’ll give it up,” she snarked.

She’s probably right. (For more on why, see my past post on the topic, Habitually Bad at Habits.)

But even though this time tracking thing is unlikely to stick, the idea of understanding and holding myself accountable to using my time well intrigues me. I’m not sure why, but I tend to feel the inherent limitations of time acutely. Every night when I put my head on the pillow, I’m reminded that I’ve lost another day. Every Sunday as I rush to finish the weekend, I panic over the finiteness of a week. And every August as the kids get ready to go back to school, I mourn the loss of a Midwestern summer. As much as I try to live a life filled with opportunity and possibility, the passage of time reminds me of the inevitable limitations of life.

I’ve never been happy with limitations.

Just tonight, I stood at my sink and listened to fireworks erupting as part of our community’s annual summer fair. It struck me, listening to them in the distance, that it would have been nice to be there watching. I knew it was happening (I had been in the exact place where they were going off earlier in the day) but instead I found myself completing the unremarkable, mundane task of washing dishes. Boom, boom, boom went the once-a-year fireworks while I scrubbed crusty mac-n-cheese off a Corelle bowl. Rat-a-tat-tat they echoed as I swished soapy water in a glass. I watched the fireworks in my imagination and silently cursed myself for a missed opportunity that I would never get back.

I might have wallowed in my “wasted moment” guilt except that I remembered that earlier in the summer I had watched fireworks on the Fourth of July, hanging out on the beach with my family. And that caused me to remember the many other times when I hadn’t been washing dishes when the fireworks had gone off. I remembered going downtown as a young woman, walking hand in hand with my boyfriend (now husband) sitting by the river on a blanket. I remembered another time when we took his speedboat out on the lake and watched from the bow, careful not to fall off the waxed paint. I remembered the times, more than I can count, when we had gathered with family and friends as our kids raced around the high school football field before full dark, begging for food and drink and cheap light up toys. I even remembered sitting on a picnic table in my backyard as a child watching big-eyed with a S’more in my hand as they went off above the field behind my school.

So, I stopped beating myself up and realized that there would probably be another opportunity to see fireworks.

For me, there is a tender balance to be had in sucking the marrow out of life. Somehow we’re supposed to squeeze life hard enough to extract the great moments, but not so hard they break. Live focused on every day but recognize the value of the past and the possibility of the future. Let some things go and hold tight to others. It must be something about being middle age that makes me feel like every single decision is about finding (and holding) the right middle ground. It’s excruciating, standing on the knife edge of a well-lived life where fifteen minutes one way or another can throw off my equilibrium. But I can’t help it, that’s where my mind is now — every minute counts.

My husband just came downstairs wondering when I would be coming to bed. The time tracker on my watch shows that I’ve been writing for nearly an hour and a half and by the time I proof and hit publish in the morning these 800 or so words will have taken two hours to create. Sitting here in the dark I’m not sure whether I am proud of my progress or frustrated at my folly.

Maybe I’ll let you decide.

When Things Go Wrong

Earlier this summer I had a tough meeting with one of my work teams. We had a project that was giving us a lot of trouble. The technology was more complex than we originally thought, the requirements weren’t as clear as we would like. Most of the people around the table — including me — hadn’t been involved when the key decisions has been made. I had been asking for an updated timeline for at least a month and no one could give it to me.

Sitting in the room, with everyone telling me that it would take another six to eight weeks to just assess how long the project would take to deliver, I could feel the weight pulling the team down. They needed a way to put a win on the board and there I was, asking harder and harder questions. I took a deep breath and tried to give them a hand up.

“I hear you saying that you can’t do it any faster, but what if we took a new approach? If I could eliminate any other work from your calendar for 24 hours, what could you do?”

For me, one of the biggest challenges of leadership is not in leading in time of success, but rather leading in times of failure. When everything is going well, nearly any leader can motivate their teams and help them to do good work. Companies delivering big market share and profits can invest and provide generous benefits; sports teams who are the top of their league can easily recruit and create a legacy.

Success is self-fulfilling and empowering.

It’s harder when things go wrong. In his TED talk, Stanley McChrystal said something I really liked. “Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” No person or team that tries to do anything amazing ever gets there without stumbles. I’ve written in the past about my own misses and the fact that those moments have helped me grow into the leader that I am. I understand the sinking feeling in one’s center when you know that your talent, intent and focus isn’t enough. The feeling that you won’t be able to meet the expectations of those who count on you (or worse yet yourself) sucks. And if you aren’t careful it sucks you into a slime-filled pit without a handhold for escape.

Failure is exhausting.

Two days later, after putting aside all other work and focusing simply on the question of how long it would take to get to the finish line, we came back together. The answer was grim, the timeline was far longer (and the project far more expensive) than anyone had predicted. They were disappointed and they knew I would be disappointed. In my heart I knew that if I reacted with any of the fear, the frustration or the fury that I was feeling I could never expect them to tackle an assignment like that again. They would seek out easy assignments and — if they did take on hard work — I couldn’t count on them to tell me the whole truth when things were bleak. In a millisecond I knew there was only one thing I could do.

I thanked them for delivering a timeline that — only days earlier — they had told me couldn’t be done in less than six weeks.

What followed after that was a focus on the path forward. I reiterated that even though none of us were happy, we were in a better place with an aligned foundation for improvement. I asked them about their assumptions and what changes were possible to shorten the timeline. I reminded them of the business risk inherent in the timeline and our shared accountability to deliver the functionality. I asked for commitment on next steps, ownership, and our plan to communicate our status transparently to the broader team. And, I thanked them again for the good work they had done.

Later that week, I had a one-on-one discussion with a middle manager on the team. He had been part of the meeting and expressed surprise at how I had reacted to the news. Wasn’t I worried? He noted that I had actually seemed pleased in the meeting and he didn’t understand how that was possible. Looking across the desk between us I explained my thinking. I assured him yes, of course I was worried. But I was happy that we had arrived at an answer, even if I wasn’t happy with the answer itself. We had a start.

The best leaders that I have worked for, the ones I aspire to emulate, have reacted the same way. In the times when I found myself standing in the slime pit, dejected and without any clear path out, they have climbed in. Bracing their backs against the slippery wall, they have interlaced their fingers and formed a step for me to climb. Putting my feet in their hands I was able to grab the ledge and painstakingly pull myself out. It was never easy, but it was possible. That is what I want to give my team; not a way to avoid the pit, but a way to climb out of it.

And, if I’ve done it right they’ll pull me out, too.