Finding Inspiration

One night during the dark of winter I found myself with a complete lack of inspiration. Sitting there with my iPad on my lap I desperately wanted to write something witty and instead was stalled. Normally when that happens I cop out and scroll through social media or flip over to a word game, but that night I did something else.

I begged the internet for inspiration.

Earlier that week I had listened to an episode of This American Life focusing on a technology designed by two guys in Oslo, Norway called Inspirobot. The software uses a huge library of phrases and pictures (and clearly a fabulous algorithm) to come up with the equivalent of on-demand inspirational posters. The developers have tried to explain to incredulous users that no human being is behind the pictures — but they just can’t believe in mechanized meaning.

I must have clicked the “generate” button 30 times and I quickly understood why people want to believe in it. Some of the results were gibberish, but there were some that had a sliver of truth, just enough to make a connection. The one that I pulled for the graphic on this blog is a good example. It shows a picture of a stylish and happy woman with the phrase “You are capable of making it so that your brother gets scared.” When it popped up I laughed out loud. I am a happy woman who aspires to be stylish and both of my brothers are (in one degree or another) scared of me.

It felt like someone was writing a joke just for me.

Of course, Inspirobot wasn’t doing anything for me. I had simply clicked a button that kicked off a stored routine on a server somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. It wasn’t Inspirobot that was making a joke, it was me. It was my more than forty years as a bossy big sister and my love for my brothers that had made meaning out of a inherently meaningless sentence and picture.

Listening to the podcast and laughing at Inspirobot reminded me that I have a lot of power to create meaning in the world. I am exposed to thousands of words, images, and actions every single day and I run those things through the filter of my lived experiences. How many other people would have seen the image I did and grimaced or cried or felt completely unmoved? What about the woman who lost a brother to a tragic accident? Or the man who had been abused by his sister?

I went back out to Inspirobot today as I was finishing this post and decided to see what witticisms it had for me, what I could learn from its coded crystal ball. I got…

…a prognostication…

…a cautionary tale…

…an inspirational question…

…a rally cry…

…and a truism…

I could read something into each and every one of those pictures, find some way to bring meaning into the story they never intended to tell. Inspirobot reminds me that I need to be careful in my assignment of meaning to the signs and symbols and to be open to the unintended signals I am sending out into the world. And if I’m not sure whether or not I’m manufacturing meaning from the meaningless, I can ask myself a question.

What would Inspirobot say?

Intimidating

Everyone has hot buttons. Some people can’t stand it when people merge last minute at a lane closure, while others are annoyed when people get over too soon. Some people like to arrive just in time at the airport while others panic if they aren’t there early, preferring to sit quietly at the gate. People have emotional reactions to mannerisms, manners, or moments. Personally, I struggle to remain composed in situations where I feel that others are talking down to me, especially when sales people swivel their heads away from me to talk to my husband.

But, as hard as that situation is I’ve learned to get through it. My husband and I have worked hard to show up as partners and there are even times when we’ve used society’s tendency for male decision rights in our favor. The one thing I haven’t found a way past is being described by a single, simple word: intimidating.

The first time it happened, I thought it was a mistake. I’m just a bit over five feet tall and the idea that anyone could feel threatened or afraid of me was laughable. But the person sharing the feedback was a close colleague and quite sincere and I quickly went from amused to shaken. I rationalized it away (it’s not you, it’s them) but that only worked for so long. Over the years that crappy word kept popping up and when something won’t go away you have to acknowledge its reality, whether you like it or not.

Last month it reared its ugly head. I was wrapping up my time at a women’s leadership development conference and I had asked a colleague for feedback. Specifically, I shared that this year I had swiveled from my own development to focusing on supporting the needs other women at my company. I asked, “How did I do? What more could I do to support them?”

The early feedback was encouraging and positive. They highlighted my energy and positivity and the fact that I seemed to be omni-present. And then they noted that the junior-level women seeing me might compare themselves and determine that they couldn’t aspire to my level. The dagger plunged in as they said, “I worry that you are a bit intimidating.”

I didn’t want to wince, but I know I did.

I defensively shared my own story of growing into my confidence. I talked about my belief in each person deciding what success and happiness looks like for them. I expressed how often I feel like I don’t do enough for my company, for my family, and for myself. I had just heard Brene Brown talk about vulnerability and I wanted to plead, “How the heck can I be intimidating when I am so clearly flawed and failing myself?”

This blog post has been sitting in draft status for nearly a month as a contemplated what the heck is going on with this word. I have had “write the post on being intimidating” as a goal for the last four weeks and each week I have had to mark it as incomplete. Every time I found the time to sit down and write I would stare at the word, feel defeated, and play Wordscapes on my iPhone. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Yesterday I realized that the problem is that I have been intimidated by people and I have formed my own opinion about what that means. For me, intimidating people seek to overpower and demean. They are bullies that find the soft underbelly of another person and push. They wait for someone to be down and kick. The harder the better. They are the people who cause me to cringe, knowing that I will have to work with them to deliver some important outcome. I don’t let it stop me, but I do have to spend significant time psyching myself up to counter their “win at all costs” mentality and to formulate a solution that won’t mean carnage on either side.

I know those intimidating people and the last thing in the world I want to be is one of them.

Instead, I want to be the leader that people can count on to empower them. I want to be the kind of person who others can approach when they are vulnerable and need help. I want to be the kind of person who can see the weakness and say, “Your weakness does not define you — your strengths define you. Your growth defines you. Your future defines you.” But, no one goes to someone who intimates them with their weaknesses laid bare seeking help. No one.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with someone who had made a hard decision to leave a position they loved because they didn’t feel supported. Knowing their talent, contribution, and reputation I immediately felt guilty. Why didn’t they come to me? Why didn’t I see it? Could I have helped them find a path forward that would have allowed them to thrive? I told them how confident I was of their continued success, offered a few ideas on how to navigate transition challenges, and then shared how much I wished I had been more aware of the situation so at least they wouldn’t have felt alone. Inside my heart I wondered whether they had felt intimidated — whether that had created a barrier for reaching out.

I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

Over the years, I have accepted the fact that who I am and how I show up in the world will impact people. I try to express my values authentically, both in real life and in the virtual world of my blog. Each day I try to be transparent about my intent and to be open to adjust when my execution fails to meet that intent. I just hope that some day people will feel less intimidation and more admiration when they think if me — that they know if they come with a good heart hoping to grow that they have nothing to fear from me.

Getting the Jump on Time

I woke up this morning cursing daylight savings time. Now, you may be nodding your head in solidarity — who likes losing an hour of sleep? — but I actually love daylight savings time. For a person like me who loves sunshine and hates mornings the annual “spring forward” is a small price to pay for 239 more hours of enjoyable sunlight. So, it was weird when I woke up this morning and struggled to be excited.

Normally, I spend the Sunday morning after the big shift lazily waking up without an alarm. I open my eyes whenever it feels right and look around at the various clocks throughout my house unconcerned with which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I spend the whole day with chronological near misses, constantly asking, “Is this clock right?” but it actually doesn’t matter. I am weekend calm and the answer really isn’t all that big a deal — we have all day to figure it out.

This morning was different. I’m traveling for a women’s leadership development conference and today’s agenda starts at 7:00am. At last night’s event, the organizers were insistent that individuals should not miss our start time so I came back to my room and developed an elaborate scheme. I was going to ensure that I didn’t screw up by changing my phone from automatic sync to manual sync and I would set it forward before I fell asleep, just like in the olden days.

Take that, I thought. I’ve got this handled.

Well, when my alarm went off on my cell phone at 6:00am on the nose, I saw that the hotel’s alarm clock still showed 5:00am. No worries, that was to be expected because everyone knows that alarm clocks need a human being to update them. But, in an over abundance of caution (and because my Spidey sense was tinging) I thought I better confirm the time using one of a million “what time is it” websites. Site after site stated it was 5:00am, not 6:00am and I sat there befuddled, wondering which data was right.

“Is this clock right?” felt strangely urgent.

So, I jumped out of bed and called the hotel front desk where a nice woman confirmed that I had — in my over-engineered attempt to not screw up and miss my meeting — sprung forward two hours. My smart phone had refused to be dumb and regardless of my attempts to make the change proactively still adjusted to daylight savings at 2:00am as per the careful programming. Sheepishly, I hung up the phone and headed to the shower.

We’ve all been there, faced with a failed plan and stuck not knowing how to move on. If I wanted to, I could whip myself into a frenzy and spend the rest of the day disappointed. I could be angry about technology, frustrated with my plan, or embarrassed by my own incompetence. I could be, but I won’t.

Because in the end, instead of rushing down to the breakfast at 7:00am, I was dressed and ready to go at 6:00am. I pulled my iPad out and wrote this blog post. From one perspective I did lose an hour of sleep, but I gained an hour of reflection. And more importantly I gained another remarkable moment that makes my life not just a series of days, but a series of stories.

And I’ll gladly be sheepish (and sleepy) in exchange for that.

Surviving Midwestern Winter

Someday, spring will come. I feel compelled to remind myself of that as I trudge through the final weeks of our midwestern winter, sitting on my heated seats and wrapped in my massive “blarf” — an accessory that is part blanket, part scarf. Winter is my least favorite season and I haven’t warmed to it over time.

No pun intended.

The certainty of a new spring inspires me. No matter how depressing the graying piles of snow and constant overcast skies can be, I know deep in my heart that brighter days are ahead. Last week, I got out of the office at a decent time and actually pulled into my driveway before the sun set. I smiled, pleasantly surprised by the proof of lengthening days.

It seems odd that I’m still surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, by something as banal as beating a sunset home. After all, I have lived most of my life within the Great Lakes basin, watching the same pattern for nearly 46 years. The dark, cold months of winter finally drag everyone but the skiers, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen into a funk and then one day the college kids are wearing shorts with daffodils popping out of the ground.

Poof, spring.

I love the seasons, love the fact that our oblong orbit around the sun can create a pattern of life that takes me into cold darkness only to bring me out again. It’s like the universe is speaking just to me, “Don’t worry, Mel. Yes, we will make your day-to-day living miserable. Going anywhere will be a pain in the butt and you’ll feel constantly cold. All you will want to do is stay inside next to a roaring fire in your footie pjs under a fuzzy afghan wishing you had been born in Tampa instead of Toledo. But we promise that it will get better. One day, you’ll walk outside and the air won’t hurt your face.”

And sure enough one day I walk into my garage without my coat. Later, I get into my convertible for my commute. Then one weekend we put the boat in the water and the snow is just a fuzzy memory that Facebook will remind me of in the years to come.

I guess I could move somewhere where the seasons are less dramatic. If I really wanted to I could move to a place where the coldest days bring rain and an inch of snow is considered an oddity. A friend from high school moved to New Orleans. Several friends now live in North Carolina. Someone else just took a three-year gig in Fiji. No one is forcing me to stay here, a mere 300-miles northwest of where I was born. But, what would I look forward to? What would I do without a winter to survive?

Winter to me is a metaphor for every low, dark moment of my life. Every time that it feels too dark, too cold, and too exhausting I remember that spring will come. I find a quiet place and think about the way I feel when the grass starts to green up and I can sit out on the deck without a coat. I envision laying in the sun on the back of the boat, eyes closed against the bright until the heat is too much and I move into the slice of shade created by the bimini. I imagine the wind in my hair and tunes loud in my ears as I drive with the top down, mile after glorious mile.

And somehow, no matter how much snow is piling up in my life I know that spring will come.

So, I guess I’ll stay. Midwestern winters may be long and cold and brutal, but the summers are fabulous. I’m not sure I would appreciate just how fabulous if I didn’t have to survive one to get to the other. Philosophers and psychologists can explain it better, but for me it’s simple. Every year I put my blarf away I have another data point that proves without a doubt that I’ll make it.

But please, for the love of all that is good, let spring come soon.

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.