Be Curious

Every time my husband asks me “Why?” I have a visceral reaction. I can’t help it, I dive down into my defensive place ready to explain the five excellent reasons why I made a certain decision or took a certain action. Unless I’m tired and then I can’t even get to explaining because I’m angry or hurt and I just react.

It’s not my best routine.

And then today, I saw this Walt Whitman quote on my Facebook feed:

Be curious, not judgemental.

Ahhh, there’s the rub. Any ‘why’ question can come from one of two places: a place of judgement or a place of curiousity. And it can be received assuming judgement or curiousity. So, as I see it, there are four possible ways for any interaction to play out.

  • Asked: Curiosity | Assumption: Curiosity
    This is where the magic happens. Real learning is capable of emerging on both sides when people listen with wonder and speak openly about their whys. I love being here, it’s why I enjoyed college so much and why I gravitate to people who are open to possibility. This is my sweet spot.
  • Asked: Curiosity | Assumption: Judgement
    This is a hard place to be stuck in. When the question is asked with sincere curiosity but it is perceived to come with judgement. Tension rises quickly here as the receiver feels threatrened, meanwhile the asker wonders, “How did this escalate? I was just curious.” If this happens too many times, it becomes a self-fulfulling cycle — I’ve been there, and it takes the receiver giving the asker the benefit of the doubt to start over and listen to the question differently.
  • Asked: Judgement | Assumption: Curiosity
    This is a hard place to get to. Being willing to respond with curiosity when someone comes with judgement takes courage and a positivity that I can rarely get to. When I think about people and groups that are subject to judgement regularly, I have so much appreciation for those who consistently respond with grace. Honestly, I am not very good at this; maybe that is why I have so much respect for the people I know who are.
  • Asked: Judgement | Assumption: Judgement
    No relationship can live long in this place. Anger, frustration, hurt — they all live in this place. If every why comes from judgement and is received as judgement, there is no possibility of learning, no magic of growth. The few times in my life when I have found myself here, I have worked to pull myself out. Sometimes I’ve fixed it through hard communication and sometimes by walking away. I just can’t live in a world without why — or with constant judgement.

Today, reading that simple quote, it reminded me that even when judgement is intended, it is only through remaining curious that we are capable of learning. It reminded me that starting with the assumption of curiosity will keep me open to growth.

Especially when I’m tired.

A Vision 

Over the years, I have been asked one question many times and in many ways. The question is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every time I’ve struggled to answer it. The question feels too definitive and simplistic. As if there is some single answer rather than a hundred different things at a hundred different times in a hundred different places. Like a period instead of a sunburst.

A couple of years ago when I wrote my personal vision statement the question was different. It asked me to, “Create a vision for your life.” All of a sudden, things changed. I had a framework for thinking about my life that was no longer linear, but limitless. Without limits I crafted a picture of my future — or at least the future I wanted for myself. I wrote this:

The oracle is hard to find — she may be bobbing in a sailboat, sitting in a hammock or walking on a forest path. She’s a tiny, energetic, white-haired pixie, so your best bet is to find the tall, quiet man always by her side. Many seek her out with questions, for her motto is “It is harder to ask the right question than to find the wrong answer.” She has the uncanny ability to listen, to reflect her own perspective and to help each visitor sort out his or her messy burden. Just don’t come in a hurry, sorting takes time and there is nothing the oracle likes better than a good chat.

Thinking about everything and putting it to paper, I didn’t come up with a fancy job title or a big paycheck or worldwide fame. In my future, I’m not living in a massive house or jet-setting around the globe. Nope, in the end when I put it down on paper I chose to be an oracle. When it was all said and done what I longed for was three things: longevity, wisdom and relationships.

Growing old is not something that scares me. Each new year and each new series of experiences has given me courage and strength. I don’t miss the young me and I am not nostalgic for times that are past. I get that I don’t understand yet what aging does to the body or the mind or the spirit. I embrace the fact that I may learn to dread the years that come as too hard or too painful, but I really hope not. For me, the power is in longevity, and I want to see the me that is more, even more me, than I am now.

And I hope that as I grow older I can continue to gain wisdom. I hope that I am open to the new possibilities of the world and that I don’t cling to the knowledge of the past. I hope that I continue to stretch my brain to think bigger so that I maintain relevance to those of my generation as well as those who are many years my junior. I hope I learn every day and turn that learning into the kind of relevant wisdom that can be harnessed.

I have stopped pretending that relationships are unimportant to me and I have embraced the fact that they are everything to me. Believing that there are people who know me and value me for who I am is at my core. Showing up every single day — reliably and sincerely — and investing the time and energy in family, friends and colleagues gives me purpose. The occasional points when it has given me pain, well, it’s a price worth paying.

So, if those three things are important to me — if they are central to how I see myself and what I want to accomplish with my life — is it any wonder that writing this blog has become such an integral part of my experience?  Although the digital world can get wiped clean with a bolt of lightning or a electromagnetic pulse, each feels incredibly permanent when I hit ‘post.’ Although I know I have much to learn, I try to channel little bits of wisdom into each page, and writing each post makes me think, really think, about a piece of my life. And, although I hope that someday my musings may reach a broader audience, these posts are all about building more bridges of connection between me and the people who read them — people not afraid to get Too Much Mel.

Now you know what the end game is. You know that someday, many many years from now I’ll be waiting. I’ll be waiting for your call, your email or your visit. I’ll be ready to listen for a minute or an hour or an afternoon. Someday after another 50 or 500 blog posts maybe I’ll be famous or maybe I’ll still be known only in my small circles. Either way, you’ll always be welcome.

Don’t disappoint me.

Too Much Good Stuff

I’ve spent the last two days at an IT Leadership Conference. I have a love hate relationship with these events. I love learning all the ways that I can move my team forward — and I hate that I only have 24-hours in the day.

The reality is, if you can execute one tangible improvement (and have it stick) after one a conference, you’re ahead of the game. Everyone has challenges with conferences. Here are the prototypes I’ve seen:

  • The Idea Vacuum. Someone who goes off and indiscriminately picks up every possible idea. They don’t put any idea through a filter, it is all good. And like an actual vacuum, the ideas are trapped in the bag unable to become progress.
  • The Unique Unicorn. Someone who hears everything and says, “We aren’t like that — we couldn’t do that.” Nothing is ever a good fit, because their team is bigger, smaller, more centralized, more decentralized, further along or behind. 
  • Mr. Already Perfect. Someone who seems to already be done with growing. Based on what they have to say, you can’t help but wonder what they do everyday and why they came in the first place.
  • Barely There Boredom. Someone who clearly would rather be elsewhere — although it is unclear whether that place is work or home. Whenever I see these guys, I want to ask them whether there boss made them come — and why they didn’t respectfully decline.

I’ll admit, I am a reformed Idea Vacuum. I have grown out of it, mostly because I know that I can’t possibly move the needle as far or as fast as I would like. So, if I can capture one or two things out of each session, that is my first filter.

After that, I try to determine who my allies might be in making progress. If I can’t think of at least one person who would be an obvious ally in change management, *poof* that gets eliminated, too.

What’s left — two to three concrete actionable ideas — is usually still a stretch, but it is enough return on the investment of my scarce time to keep me from feeling guilty for being away from the office. If I can show some tangible benefit to the team (something beyond an opportunity for ‘big thinks’ and networking) it feels right.

Not that there’s anything wrong with thinking big. But doing, that’s where the action is. And doing for the benefit of others — that’s the best there is.

The Pursuit of Happiness

At dinner last week I started a story by saying, “I was listening to a podcast today…” I hadn’t finished the sentence when my daughter cut me off and said, “We need to create a drinking game. Every time mom says ‘podcast’ you have to drink a shot.”

No, she’s not legal. Yes, I listen to a lot of podcasts.

The podcast I was listening to was TED Radio Hour Simply Happy. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of happiness for a long time and I spend a fair amount of time thinking about my own life and happiness. Like most of us, I expect.

When I think about happiness, I tend to focus on one line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And, because I have led my fair share of word smithing exercises with groups of people, I like to imagine what it must have been like in the room when they debated (as I am sure they did) one thing: Is it the inalienable right to Happiness or the pursuit of Happiness?

It’s a hard question, because if I had my way everyone would be happy. But the reality is that what makes individuals happy varies drastically. One person likes the busy city, another finds refuge in the country. One gets joy from solitude, another from the crush of family and friends. Some enjoy fast-paced work, others are happier sitting for hours on the business side of a fishing pole. Studies say you should eat more, eat less, run more, run less, stress more, stress less.

So, in the end I agree with the framers. Everyone has the right to pursue their happiness, whatever that is.

When I was younger, I thought differently. I naively thought that I knew best, I thought that what made me happy would or could make everyone happy. I considered it my job to try to convince people that they were not as happy as they could be. Even if they thought they were happy, I knew better. I finally realized that if I really cared about people being happy I needed to trust them to lead their own pursuits, take their own path. And although occasionally I see someone else’s path to happy and wonder about it (Would that make me happy? Why? Why not?) it is intrigue, not judgement.

The only problem is this: what happens when my pursuit of happiness crashes into your pursuit of happiness? What happens when I like to pinch you, but you don’t like to be pinched? Or if I like to drive 100mph down the expressway without stopping and you are scared to share the road? And what do you do when people’s happiness is connected to big world beliefs that are at odds: colonialism versus self-rule, shared ancestry versus white supremacy, patriarchy versus feminism. Michigan versus Ohio State.

Things can go bad pretty quickly when beliefs crash into each other.

But you know what I’ve observed? Beliefs alone can crash with very little collateral damage. I have different beliefs than many people and yet they still support my pursuit of happiness. It’s only when belief leads to action and action leads to attack that things go bad. And that is when it gets hard. When individuals and society have to make choices about whose happiness is more important. Those are pivotal  points in a person’s life or in a country’s history. Because sometimes it means leaning in and sometimes it means walking away. Sometimes you lose something or someone that matters.

Recently, I found myself in that situation. I found someone’s beliefs changing in ways I hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t imagine. Those beliefs led to action and the action turned into an attack. I’m not sure the attack was even intended, and I know that the beliefs are deeply held and sincere, but nonetheless it hurt me a lot. I was stunned and paralyzed. In my brain I tried to find an answer, something that would let us both continue our pursuit of happiness. I cried when I realized I was out of solutions and reminded myself of the framers and their words.

And then I chose the Pursuit of Happiness. I’m going to do my best to get there.

The Adversity Advantage

Yesterday, I had the great honor of listening to Erik Weihenmayer speak. If you don’t know who Erik is, he is the only blind person to climb the tallest peak on every continent, including Mount Everest. The core of this talk was that it is only through adversity that greatness is possible. That adversity is a catalyst whereby alchemists are able to transform the lead weights of life into gold. I was rapt as he shared his story, and the stories of other alchemists who have done just that. Inspiring people with inspiring stories.

Anyway, I knew as soon as he started speaking that I would write about the moment. That thought took up space in my brain that should have been reserved for listening, but I couldn’t help it. I knew that I needed to try to pass some part of that moment on. But it was like standing on the south face of the Grand Canyon wanting to take a picture to show the kids — some part of me knew it was a moment that just needed to be experienced.

But, I’ll try.

When I am faced with extraordinary people, like Erik, I struggle. I find myself both motivated and dismissed. Part of me wants to jump on board and figure out how I can do more, be more. And part of me says, “Don’t forget, you are just you. Ordinary. Normal. You are not like them.”

That damn voice is always there.

But when I got back to my hotel room, a copy of Erik’s book “The Adversity Advantage” was there. And right there was the subtitle: Turning everyday struggles into everyday greatness. And all of a sudden there was a new voice in my head, “So, you’re ordinary. So what. No excuses, kid. Grab an oar and paddle.”

The only serious adversity in my life happened in the first week. I’ve probably told the story before, and of course I only know it second hand, but at 7 months pregnant my mother started bleeding and was rushed to the hospital. I was born via emergency c-section, weighing in at a scant three pounds four ounces. My grandfather says he took one look at me, muttered, “I’ve shot rabbits bigger than that,” and couldn’t come back. My mother says the first thing that the doctor told her was that she was young and could have more kids. I wasn’t supposed to make it.

But, I suspect that type of adversity — no matter how real — is not what Erik meant. He meant conscious struggle with adversity, the face-to-face meeting of barriers. During his talk, he said that he believes that people fall into three categories: quitters, campers and climbers. All people face barriers, it’s what you do about it that matters. I’ve spent a lot of time talking in prior posts about quitting, but this idea of camping versus climbing was new. I liked it.

You see, campers used to be climbers. Campers got to a point where it just got too hard, took too long or hurt too bad, so they stopped. They have put down stakes, put up their tent and said, “I’m done. This is the place.” I’ve met campers. I even love some campers. And, occasionally I’ve driven campers crazy. Because I’m the first person to admit that I’m a climber.

Not in the literal sense. The last thing you will ever catch me doing is donning sub-zero gear and taking on a mountain or clawing my fingers into some 1″ crevice on a sheer rock wall. No, nothing that exciting. But there are dozens of people who have found themselves tied onto my rope line getting dragged along past “it’s good enough” or “people can’t do that” or “no one has done that”. It’s not sexy, and it won’t put me on the speaking circuit, but it has gotten me on some pretty damn good rope teams.

And, while my negative voice wants to remind me that persistence to change the status quo when surrounded by ‘no buts’ isn’t real, the voice of Erik tells me it is. And, my favorite barrier story is about a map. A parking map to be precise. 

I had just taken over the parking office on a university campus. Three layers of management had suddenly left and my boss was stuck with a leadership vacuum. She called me into her office and asked if I would be willing to step in to hold the space until she could hire the right team. I said sure. I usually say sure.

When I got there I found a group of people who desperately needed a climber. They were camped, entrenched after years and years of being the most disliked group on campus, and in fairness no one likes trying to park on a college campus. Nothing had changed in a long, long time and I think when I bounced into the office they were completely incredulous. I started asking question after question. Why do we do this? How does this work? What should we change? It was like I was metaphorically running around and pulling out tent spikes and rolling sleeping bags into packs. And nothing was a bigger metaphor for that then the parking map.

The parking map was the only map for the campus and it was a relic from a bygone age. It was difficult to read, hard to navigate with and covered on one side with obscure parking rules in ridiculously small font. I hated it immediately, but more importantly lots of people told me they didn’t like it. It didn’t fit with the great branding that was being done across campus, and it didn’t make the team proud to hand it over. When someone would get ticketed and the team had to point the rule broken on the map I could see their faces, “Yeah, I know it sucks but see it’s right here, section 14, paragraph 3, line 2. See?

And yet I have never heard ‘no’ as many times as I did when I was trying to get that map updated. Not in six years of post-secondary education, not in 20 years in industry. No one liked it but no one felt it could be any better. And if it could get better, there was no way it could get done before the start of the next semester. I just didn’t understand reality. Come sit by the campfire, it is super comfy, we’ll make you a s’more.

Not a chance.

I talked to everyone. And when they wouldn’t get as excited as me I backed off and scheduled another meeting and talked again. I wasn’t trying to climb a mountain, I just wanted one small symbol that we could climb — that we could make something the team was proud to be part of. I finally found a campus office that had a CAD drawing that had been created for a different purpose. They agreed to let me talk with the student employee who worked in their office. I convinced him to work overtime — nights, weekends — to make the changes. We dropped detail, added parking colors, tweaked it. I rewrote the parking rules, created a dummy mock-up. Sweet talked the team in the marketing office to make it pretty. We got it off to the printer and the finished maps made it in just in time for the fall semester.

I opened that first box like a five year old on Christmas. My team must have thought I was crazy.

That map went on to become the standard for all campus maps, and still is. And once we conquered the map, next came signage, uniforms, updated parking permits — a new office. Each shift was hard, each step was uncomfortable. The people from that team who have become friends were honest with me — it was a lot. Too much, some days. They were tired and they weren’t sure we would make it. Being on my rope line wasn’t easy.

But climbing isn’t supposed to be easy and when I think back to that effort I always smile. I smile because I helped a great group of people get back to great. It didn’t change the world, but it changed their world. It was just a map and it was so much more. It was proof of the possible. It was proof of value. It was proof of more. For me, it was being able to look into people’s faces and see the pride of accomplishment, to watch them put their own packs on their backs and say, hell yes, we’ve got this let’s climb.

It seems to me that is the adversity advantage.

Build a Circle of Support

When I was in eighth grade, I nearly got into my first and only fight. Not an argument (I do that all the time) but an honest to goodness fist fight. It started simply enough when a ninth grader spilled a glass of water on me in gym class. I am sure it was an accident, but I was having a bad day and I made a snarky comment under my breath. Everything would have been okay except that her friend heard me and she was seriously offended on her friend’s behalf.

With an uncharacteristic lack of judgement, I let it escalate. The next thing I knew they were following me to my next period (science), threatening me the whole time. They promised they would be waiting after school to beat the crap out of me in “the mud hole.” I was fresh out of snarky, I was just scared.

But I shouldn’t have worried. Word spread quickly and by the time science class ended two of my best friends were on either side of me, both taller and much more intimidating than me. They shadowed me the rest of the day and – if I remember it correctly – for as long as it took for the issue to blow over. The ninth grader got bored and went back to her friends. I was safe.

If building relationships in middle school kept me from getting beaten up physically, building a circle of support in my professional life has helped me keep from being bruised in my work. And, in the situations where bruising has been unavoidable, my support circle has helped me pick myself up, brush myself off, and carry on.

Early in my career, I don’t think I really understood how much building a ‘fan club’ would matter. I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was just focused on learning how to do my job, delivering good work, and staying in front of new opportunities. I didn’t realize that assignment after assignment I was leaving behind people who — when they were asked about me — were saying good things. They said they would have me on their team, and later, they would work for me again. Early on, I was too young and too naive to realize how significant that is. It’s one thing to give someone a good recommendation. It’s another to have a critical role to fill and say, “Get Mel, she can do it.”

Just today, I learned that a member of my team is leaving to pursue new opportunities. We talked about the whys (we had a recent reorganization and so we don’t have a long history), and I told him that I tend to support individual development, even when that means a person leaves my team. Some of that is ‘growing up’ in a professional culture where frequent rotations for employee development were considered more important than the deep knowledge that would benefit management ease. I learned that dealing with learning curves and smart but inexperienced people was not just normal, it was leadership’s job.

But I suppose that there is an equally significant amount that comes from the great role models that have shown me what it looks like to build a circle of support. People who have given me opportunities, trusted me to do right by them and caught me when I was on the edge of a cliff. I think of:

  • Two senior women who gave me a chance to create a mentoring program. I was green, but so confident I could make a difference. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a mentee, much less a mentor. I want to tell them I understand now.
  • The four men who treated me like a peer, even though I was their junior in years, position and experience. All of them have lifted me up over the years. One gave me a fresh start. I want to tell them talent gets my respect, regardless of title.
  • A strong woman with a very different background who I struggled to read. I was convinced for a long time that she didn’t value my contributions. After I learned her style and gained confidence in her respect, she became a stalwart ally and sounding board. I want to tell her I don’t hesitate to ask for feedback now.
  • The handful of former employees who were with me in the beginning and have stayed with me through the years since. They trusted me and they continue to invite me to their lives for support. I want to tell them they always have a place in my circle.

Of course that list isn’t even close to complete. I learned from some of the best and my circle of support is not one circle, but a series of interconnected rings. Those friends from eighth grade are still there, and they are joined by the people I’ve added at each school, job, and organization along the way. This summer, I added the HR leader who recruited me to my current job and just recently sought out her next great opportunity. I hated to see her go from my day-to-day work life, but she is still there, still available for support.

Because that’s a circle — one line that never starts and never stops, it just is.

Life Is Amazing, Awful & Ordinary

I have a Facebook friend who engages via memes. I rarely see a post from her that is a simple sentence, instead it is rapid fire memes — pop, pop, pop, pop — one right after the other. It can be weeks between postings or 20 in an hour in the middle of the night so that they are lined up like soup cans.

The other day, she was up and posting in the wee hours of the night. So many posts that I was worried and private messaged her to make sure she was ok. One of the memes caught my attention and I thought of it throughout the day and into the week. Straight through to now, when I am finally able to sit and write. It said:

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful. -LR Knost

I needed to read that, needed to see it, in the very moment it came onto my tablet screen. Because I was perilously close to forgetting the reality of balance. 

Here’s the thing. When things are awful, the awful slides across your life like a smog that can’t be cleared. Every awful memory lines up in front of you to remind you just how many awful moments have fallen upon you. One after another they paint your life with a pattern of angst and pain and heartache — as if the awful moments have majority rule over your life.

The same can be true of the amazing times, too. When endorphins are raging in your heart with love or joy, a promotion or a present, everything is great. Nostalgic for the good times, everyone’s in love, the world is a place of promise. Risks can be taken and bounty shared.

And, everyone has been stalled in the ordinary. When the boredom and the monotony lead to the feelings of, “Is this really it? Is this the promise of my life?” The quintessential midlife crisis is nothing more that a desperate need to claw out of the ordinary, to prove to oneself at least that there is more to life that waking up, persisting through the day-to-day and going to sleep to do it again.

What I love in what LR Knost said is that it reminds me, if I am open to listen, that none of those moments define me. Instead, like the four seasons of my Midwest home, I am defined by all of the moments. Yes, I am the glorious awesome of a sun-kissed sky, top down in my convertible. I am also buried in layers tromping through snow drifts up to my knees. And, I am the cool but pleasant fall and the green but wet spring. I am a full year.

And, I needed to remember that this week, because I found myself at risk of losing perspective. I found myself whip-sawing from ‘woe is me’ awful to ‘joy to the world’ awesome, trying to draw a trend through just two data points. Until, I saw the meme and reminded myself it’s a squiggle — that life is awesome and awful and ordinary.

Nothing wrong with a squiggle.