Ripples (Or How to Remember You’re Not an Island)

One of my talents is a gift of conversation. I didn’t always think of it as a gift, but now I know that being able to chain together seemingly unrelated topics is unique. It means that I rarely leave a table feeling like the flow of ideas is exhausted and that for me there is no such thing as an effective 30-minute meeting. Unless I’m not there. Or I’m sick.

Last night, I spent three and a half hours with a fellow conversationalist. Over that time, while food was prepared and consumed, we talked about all matter of things: public affairs, personal matters, this blog. The conversation didn’t stall once.

Toward the end of the night, when I was lamenting learning of another person who had been diagnosed with cancer, she refused to take the bait. She didn’t dive into ‘the world is going to hell in a handbasket’ thinking. No. She is fighting her own cancer battle and instead she said to me, “I’ve been thinking more and more about the concept of ripples. Just imagine, perhaps coming into contact with me or others with cancer may cause someone to become a doctor or find a cure. Ripples, Mel. Write a post about that.”

When I think about ripples, the idea is both empowering and scary. It means that the actions you take, although they feel small and insignificant, can have weight in the broader world. Little things, good or bad actions, can influence the world well beyond you. It also means that the law of unintended consequences can roar out of nowhere, and an action that you believed to be for good can harm someone.

Unfortunately, I realized long ago that I am not capable of understanding the reach of the ripples I cause. Like most people, I’m inclined to see my ripples as small, both in size and impact. Sure, I cast pretty heavy ripples at my kids, but beyond that? Hmmmm. Not so much. After all, my view is that of the rock tossed into the pond. All I see is my action: me flying through the air, me plunking into the pond, me sinking to the bottom. Me, me, me. But the ripples are happening outside me, above me and beyond me. Of course I can’t understand my ripples.

Then I thought maybe the trick would be to watch other people’s ripples. And maybe not just to watch them, but to reflect them. When was the last time I thanked someone for their influence or inspiration? When did I last notice the ripple and acknowledge its influence? I tried but I couldn’t think of a time recently. The problem is that ripples feel tiny by the time they get to us. It just feels like the world happening, life happening. If you can’t see the original rock, you can’t trace the ripples back to their origin.

So right now, this is all I have. I believe in ripples. I believe in their presence and their power. I try to live my life gently, positively so that any ripples I cast are likely to help, not harm.

And maybe that’s enough to start the next conversation.

Unlikely Trailblazers

I’ve taken three stabs at this one, and I just can’t seem to get it right. It’s hard because it’s not just about me. It’s also about my husband and our decision nearly 15 years ago to bend normal gender roles. For me to double down on my career and for him to walk away from his so that we could build a solid foundation for our children.

When I was pregnant with our first child we really had no idea how we would handle child care after she arrived. Both of us had been raised by stay-at-home mothers and truly appreciated the experience, but it wasn’t quite as clear to us. I had just finished my MBA and was a year into a great start in corporate America. He had worked his entire life, since before it was legal. We considered (and rejected) asking our mothers to provide daycare. We settled into being unsure.

And then my daughter was born. Everything changed.

We spent the first few weeks like all new parents do, in over our heads and trying to figure it out. The first night we were home she wouldn’t stop crying and we drove to the emergency room. She stopped crying when we got to the parking lot, so we turned home. She started crying again on that drive and so after several tense words back and forth we turned back around and went to the emergency room. The medical staff was helpful as they checked everything out and announced that it was gas. They were kind and caring, even though I could see the shared glances and the knowing looks.

“Ahhh, first time parents. How cute.”

We continued on that way for a couple of weeks while I was on maternity leave and he was on first paid and then unpaid leave. We didn’t talk about the ticking time bomb that was our lack of any child care plan. I’m a planner and a solver but we just focused on the everyday tasks of living with a baby. Feeding. Diapering. Trying to grab sleep in 45 minute increments. He went back to work and my own six week leave got closer and closer to being over. Still, no plan.

Everything came to a head when we were in our last week. I remember the moment clearly: my daughter was sitting in her car carrier on the kitchen counter and we were looking down at her, loving and silent. Out of the quiet my husband, a protector by nature, looked down at her small face and said, “No one will ever care for her like I will. She’s so little. I just can’t hand her off to someone who makes six dollars an hour.”

It was as simple as that.

In that moment that we began our adventure as a one income family with a stay-at-home father. No lengthy discussions about what people would think or say or whether we were ready for the massive change it would bring. There were no fists raised about how we would be blazing trails in gender equality. We had no plan and no process for success — all we had was the certainty that she needed him.

And that is how we have moved forward for 15 years.

People who know me and have watched my career understand this fact. They know that it has helped me work longer hours and make trade-offs that women in two income families may not be able to do. It has removed the worry because I know that my children are well. I know that he will take the calls from the school, make the appointments, and deal with all the other unexpected surprises that are just part of parenting. I leave in the morning and come back at night knowing that everything is ok.

Of course it hasn’t always been easy. In the beginning, while we were not the only family with a stay-at-home parent we were the only family with a stay-at-home dad. It was unusual and because it was unusual there was judgement. Speculation about what it meant. Could it really be a choice? Wasn’t there something that must be wrong? With me? With him? We took questions at family events, hanging out with friends, waiting for the school bus, and taking the kids to the park. You can probably imagine the questions; you may have thought them to yourself. At their core, they are wrapped around two big themes: Why would a woman choose to leave her children? Why would a man choose not provide?

And if I’m honest, we have asked ourselves those same questions. Sometimes quietly in our own heads. Sometimes loudly in an argument. Always after a hard day when we both were broken down a bit by the challenges inherent in parenting, unable to see the bigger picture because we were wrapped around the moment. We have asked those questions many, many times.

I remember one day when we were forced to confront it. Our firstborn was two and a half and he called me at work around lunch time. He said there had been an accident. She had fallen and her arm looked weird. I was paralyzed for a minute, feeling hopeless and deficient in every possible way — I was a mother who couldn’t mother my child. He was paralyzed for a minute — worried what people would think when a 6’2″ man brought in a 30 pound pixie with a broken arm.

But none of that really mattered. What mattered was our baby was hurt and needed help. We mobilized beyond our paralysis. I closed down my work and drove a worried hour to meet him. He called our mothers and they joined him at the emergency room. We were all there for our little girl when the medical team confirmed that her fall from the kitchen table had fractured her arm. She would be ok, after getting a toddler-sized cast.

Throughout the years we have had other points of confirmation or questioning. Did we do the right thing, have we made the right choice? Even with a stay-at-home spouse, I’ve had to make job sacrifices to keep from being an absentee parent. I’ve had to make job sacrifices to support my family instead of expecting them to always put my career first. But, we remain convinced that taking an unlikely path 15 years ago has been right for us.

Whether or not we understood it at the time.

Losing the Filling

This morning, I read an article about Justin Wilson, the Indy driver who died after being struck in the head by debris in a race on Sunday. I’m not a fan of racing, and I had never heard Justin’s name prior to reading the article, but it struck me. Hard enough to spend time thinking about it today — hard enough to write this post.

The reason why is simple. Like me, Justin was in the ‘prime of life.’ Those years when you’ve gotten through your preliminary investment and you’re starting to see things pay off. You may have started a family, built your career past the entry level jobs or be in a home. Both Justin and I had met the key criteria:

  • Justin: Age 37, established as a credible driver and married with two kids, ages six and nine. 
  • Mel: Age 42, established as a business professional and married with two kids, ages fourteen and eleven.

And, at this point in my life, I can’t read articles about people like me without going through a self-reflection. What would it mean for my husband if I was taken suddenly through tragedy. How would my kids, still finding their way to a start point in adulthood, respond? What emotional heartbreak would my parents face, having to watch their first-born child leave this earth before them, only to hear people say,

“You lost her in her prime.”

In our prime we are sandwiched between young people, who still need our guidance and help to finish their roots, and our parents, who expect to leave us to care for our own grandchildren someday. Losing someone at that stage feels unnatural exactly because it is — leaving two slices of metaphorical bread without their filling.

So when I read the article, I felt empathy for Justin’s wife and children, for what it must be like to carry on alone. I felt sympathy for his parents, having watched my own grandparents mourn the loss of a child. But if I am really honest now, the strongest feeling I felt was fear. Fear that my assumption that I will someday be a short, over-energized white-haired 90-something pixie is unrealistic. Fear that I will be taken by some disease or accident or crazy circumstance in my prime. 

You know, when I’m the filling.

Tomorrow, I will wake up again confident in my certainty that I will be here for a long time to come. I will park the fear and focus on the things I control and make the best choices I can to increase the odds. Thankfully, my job doesn’t require me to drive an open race car hundreds of miles per hour, so that should help.

You Matter

My blog stats for this week aren’t good. I haven’t been making it a priority to write, and what I’ve put out there recently hasn’t gotten a lot of traction. On top of that, my work output has been feeling more like errors and pop flies than home runs, to use a metaphor fitting for this time of year. It has combined to leave me wallowing, just a bit.

And, I hate to wallow.

Most people who know me use words like high-energy, positive and persistent to describe me. So, wallowing is the very worst feeling. A good friend of mine once described it as having a “low elevator day”. I like that, because it recognizes that everyone has ups and downs — we all ride an elevator. For me, my elevator is highly influenced by how much value I bring to the world and as an extravert how much energy I get from others. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to be my own external voice — my own cheerleader.

So, today I was thinking that it would be helpful to remember that I matter. Regardless of the excel files I send (or don’t send) or the errands I complete (or forget) or the times I pick up (or ignore) the phone. I matter. And, I wrote myself a mantra for when I forget that.

You matter. You matter not because of what you do but because of your inherent personhood. When you feel that you could disappear *poof* and that nothing would change know that is just the fear talking. Ignore it. And if it won’t politely go away get in its face and tell it to ‘talk to the hand’ or ‘pound sand’ or ‘get lost’ or ‘f-off’ because it is not welcome. You matter because you woke up this morning and you took a deep breath and you chose to take up space. You matter because you are matter, just like the biggest things and smallest things in the universe. You matter…you matter.

I’m lucky. For me, reminders and a good night’s sleep have been enough to bring me out of a funk. And if not — and even though I shouldn’t need it — I have a strong fan club of people who love me and value me and aren’t beyond pressing my up button when they see me down. They may wonder why I need it, but they press it anyway.

Unfortunately, I know personally what it feels like when someone you love can’t get back up. It’s for that reason that I don’t make light of depression or mental illness — and it’s why I would never in a million years pretend that my wallowing is anything more than a day with too many tasks, not enough time and not enough sleep. Because I’m lucky enough to have a voice in my head that says, “You matter.”

And, because I believe her.

Why Real Beats Perfect

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine posted a meme that said:

Just Be Yourself. Let people see the Real, Imperfect, Flawed, Quirky, Weird, Beautiful & Magical person that you are.

I loved that.

But it got me thinking — is being real better than being perfect? After all, we don’t say “practice makes real” we say “practice makes perfect.”  Real is sold as status quo, simply what is, while perfect is aspirational. No one strives for real. And, I think that is a problem. In fact, I’d like to give three head-to-head reasons why real beats perfect every time.

Reason #1 – Being Real Stretches Everyone

Perfection is a cultural standard. A group of people decide what perfection looks like, based on objective or subjective measures. Perfection changes and what is perfect in one time and place can be vastly different  in another time and place. In contrast, real is an individual standard. Only the person themselves can define real, what is real to me is not necessarily real to you. And, although real can change through significant life events, real tends to hold fairly steady throughout a person’s lifetime.

Because of the fluidity of the perfect standard, the distance to perfect can be vastly different based on when and where someone is born, their genetics and the environmental that they are raised in. With perfect as an aspirational goal, some people get there easily, while others could work their whole lives and have no chance of achievement. And that assumes that perfect is a good standard, which frankly is not a great assumption.

On the other hand, striving toward real is a target for everyone. In any community, there is a magnetic pull to sameness that makes achieving the unique and real something that requires effort. We call that tendency to similarity peer pressure and pretend it is only something that impacts teenagers. But, that’s not true. Everyone struggles with being authentic and channeling their unique strengths to meet their potential. And it’s a lifelong effort —  something that can be improved upon at age 8 or 18 or 80.

Winner, real.

Reason #2 – Being Real Is Efficient

Because of the variability of achieving perfection, the cost to get everyone to a perfect standard is horribly asymmetrical. For all the reasons noted above, some people will get there quickly and easily (relatively speaking) and others will struggle.

For an example, let’s say the goal is to get everyone to make a perfect putt. Some combination of eye hand coordination, large muscle control, visual acuity and mental modeling would be the best for learning the art and science of putting. For the rest of the population, the absence of that combination of factors would make putting harder, and achieving the perfect putt less efficient. Investing the time and resources to get everyone up the curve would be inefficient.

When I was in high school I announced to my parents that I knew I was naturally good at some things and not good at others. I told them that I planned to quickly abdondon the things I wasn’t good at and focus on the things I was good at. I just didn’t understand why I should focus on those things when clearly someone else was talented in that space.

The book Good to Great makes the point that your best shot at success comes from finding what you are good at, what you love, and what the world needs — namely leveraging your realness where it can do good in the world. It isn’t lazy, it’s efficient.

Winner, real.

Reason #3 – Being Real Is Fun

Probably the most important advantage of working toward real over perfect is it is just more fun. More fun for the individuals and more fun for the world. When people are actualizing their real self, they are engaging without fear of missing some societal standard. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying to be better, but it does mean they aren’t trying to be something they’re not.

When I have to worry that I am too loud or too enthusiastic or too nerdy, it limits what I say and how I offer help. If I have to wonder if people will be accepting of my lack of make-up or my tendency to quote podcasts or my spontaneous offers of advice I just don’t give the world my best work. Yeah, there are times for turning down my real, but when I am real great things happen. Fun happens.

When I think about my best real moments, it is when I’ve been in a group where everyone can be real. Those are the moments that shaped me, where memories were made. If you are lucky enough to get there, you feel the real down to your core. And that never, ever happens when you’re trying to get to perfect. At least not in my experience.

Winner, real.

So, just be yourself. Stop practicing to be perfect — start practicing to be real.