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.

Channel Your Inner Third Grader

This summer, I started a quest to create an informal support network for  junior level women at my company — I had benefited from the same thing myself and thought it was time to pay back. Along the way I enrolled a talented group of women leaders to my cause. We met this week and as we talked the conversation blended seamlessly between work and personal topics. 

Naturally we started sharing our parenting challenges — as mothers the three of us have six kids, ages 1-15. After a moment of shared angst for the teenage stage, we shared the  usual ‘every age has its own challenges’ comments. And then my colleague said, “I think 7-8 is the absolute best age.” Looking at the one with the little ones she said, “Look forward to that, hold onto that.”

Immediately, we started waxing philosophical about what makes that age so great. We noted how they have gained the independence to do basic things on their own (get a bowl of cereal, dress themselves) but are still open to the possibility of life. How they love and trust and engage with the world but don’t have the limitations kids put in place later. They can do things, but they aren’t jaded. 

And I said out loud (because they both subscribe to Too Much Mel), “Sounds like my next blog post — channeling your inner third grader.”

I mean, how great would that be?

  • A third grader will say yes to just about anything. Want to go to this place? Want to try this sport? Want to come play? Want to read a book? Yes, yes, yes! Ok, maybe broccoli is a no, but that is a small compromise.
  • A third grader will let anyone join their team. It’s pre-middle school awkwardness, so there isn’t the hard line between cool and geek, pretty or not. The bigger the pack the better. Best friend battles are common — but only until kids determine that ‘we’re all best friends!’
  • A third grader has love in their heart for friends AND family AND teachers AND pets AND everything. They have no problem with the fact different groups want different things at different times. It is all good.
  • A third grader may take clothes seriously, but doesn’t take other people’s clothes seriously. Every high school kid looks at pictures from third grade and says, “Why did you let me wear that??” Because you wanted to and it made you happy.

So, how much happier would we be if we channeled our inner third grader? If we said yes to fun opportunities, let everyone join, didn’t rank love and just wore what felt right? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to give it a try.

As long as we can skip multiplication tables.

The Messy Room

When I was a kid, I lived in a nearly constant state of mess. My brain and body were always going and the carnage would pile up in my room covering the floor and any horizontal surface. No matter how many ‘things that hold things’ I was given, stuff ended up on the floor.

It was epic.

Most of the time, my parents simply kept the door closed, content to leave it alone if they weren’t reminded of its existence. But, periodically, the ominous instruction would be uttered, “Melissa, go clean your room.” And I would head upstairs, the dutiful daughter, to put stuff away.

It rarely went well.

The reality is that I have always been better at creating the chaos than putting it to rights. No matter how many people see me as the practical planner with every detail neatly in its place, that really isn’t who I am. I am a Tasmania devil of energy — someone who would spin from one awesome idea to another if I could. It is hard work for me to create order, but when I do it, I do it well.

As a kid, though, I didn’t. Standing in the middle of a mess of my own making, I struggled. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t get a foothold or come up with any place to start. And so I did what so many people do when they are overwhelmed — I avoided the problem. Usually, I picked up a book off the floor, ostensibly to put it away, and ended sprawled on my bed reading.

One time my mom found me there, hours after she had sent me up. Nothing had been done. Nothing. As a parent myself, I can appreciate what she must have been thinking. I know that if I had walked into the same situation I would have yelled. Loudly.

But, my mom didn’t. She sat down on the bed and calmly started giving instructions. Put the clothes in the hamper. Take your dishes to the kitchen. Put the books on the shelf. Step-by-step she directed my energy to a productive outcome, helping me past my paralysis. She didn’t judge. She didn’t yell. And in watching her, I learned a series of techniques that have helped me become the organized problem solver that everyone knows me to be now.

  • Give yourself a moment. Unless you are a first responder, you usually have some time to triage.
  • Ask for help. You may be stuck, but someone else may see an obvious way forward.
  • Break the work into pieces. Incremental improvements can lead to big results, what’s important is progress.
  • Embrace the cycle. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself back in the same situation — but get better at dealing with it.

At the time, I doubt she had any idea she was giving me a roadmap to deal with the piled messes of life. She was just frustrated with the mess and she knew enough about me to know what I needed. Truth is, I didn’t get it either. It was years later when I was coaching a young employee through a complex problem that I found myself using the “messy room” analogy and the pieces came to light. I saw myself as that teenage girl surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, wanting to do the right thing but helpless to take action. And then I wasn’t.

Because I may still have the piles, but helpless? Not anymore.

Things on My Mind

I’ve started and abandoned many blog posts this week. Truth is, I’ve got too much on my mind that I’m not ready to write about. And since that stuff is all flopping around in my head, I can’t seem to find a clear path to anything else.

  • I tried to write a post about my work network.
  • I tried to write a post about pulling yourself out of the crap.
  • I tried to write a post about college football coaches as the new nobility.
  • I tried to write a post about the cathartic effects of traffic jams.

None of them got past the all important drafting, editing, posting stages necessary for them to come to life. They’re all stuck in draft mode. And draft mode is a lonely place for a written piece, whether it is the great American novel, a hit song or a blog.

So, I’m coming clean today. I’m admitting to myself, and to anyone reading this, that I’m stuck. I am finding it hard to bring any of the thousands of thoughts in my head to life in a way that I can be proud of. I don’t like it, but there it is.

It reminds me of an early time at Smith. I was struggling with a paper, one of hundreds of 3-5 page analysis papers I was assigned throughout my academic career. I had read the text, but for whatever reason no matter how many times I looked at the assignment I couldn’t come up with a hypothesis — I just couldn’t put the words on the page. The hours ticked away, and by 10:00pm, I was getting more and more frustrated, worried and nervous. 

And it was out of that mood that I found myself writing a Seussian narrative called The Valley of Vil. Stanza by stanza it poured out of me, completely unexpected. There I was, someone who had grown up in a business household, writing a cautionary tale about the linkage between industrial pollution and childhood illness. A morality poem. And, as each stanza was finished, I read it aloud to the friend whose room I was working in, looking for thoughts and validation.

By 2:00am, I had finished it. The longest rhyming couplet narrative poem I had ever written. I don’t remember whether I started the paper — the one that was due the next day — immediately or after a quick sleep. I only remember the feeling of relief that the logjam in my brain had broken free. Finally I was able to focus. Finally I could move on.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in my life is that it is futile to argue against your inherent nature. Of course it was a waste of time to write a poem that I misplaced years ago. The only thing I know for certain is that it would have been even worse to spend the entire night stuck in a loop, like Chevy Chase on the traffic circle in European Vacation. Sure, taking the detour and spending time to get back on the right road felt like a waste in the moment, but with perspective I realized that without it I might never have gotten back on the right road at all.

This post is not any of the posts I planned to write tonight. But it is the post I needed to write. The post that will help me clear a path for other more thoughtful, more engaged and more valuable posts to come.

And I’ve learned to appreciate the value in that — all by itself.