Conversations with Interesting People

When I started listening to podcasts, it opened up a whole new world of information. I no longer needed to listen to shows when they were broadcast — I could listen to what I wanted when I was stuck commuting. For an information grazer it was transformative. Since signing up for Stitcher in January 2012, I’ve listened to nearly 4,000 episodes totaling 530 hours.

One of my favorite shows is Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, the NPR news quiz show. I listen to nearly every episode, usually on my Monday drive into the office. I even got tickets last year for my birthday and made the trek downtown to see it being taped. We had to get my parents to drive into town to stay overnight with the kids. We got a hotel room and made a date of it.

I really really like it.

One of the reasons I like the show so much is the Not My Job segment. The host, Peter Sagal, interviews someone interesting and then asks them three crazy multiple choice questions about something they know nothing about. Sometimes the individuals are famous — sometimes they are influential. Sometimes they are both. But the person is always interesting.

And, I am always a little jealous.

There is something wonderful about having a conversation with someone who sparks your interest. I am fascinated by the individual journeys that people have taken and by the things that they are capable of doing. The ideas that they have considered and embraced — or considered and rejected. I was reminded today that I have a rather unique ability to find the interesting in anybody.

I had two conversations recently where I remember feeling that sense of wonder. I was having lunch with a group of women from my company when it came out that one of them was a weight lifter and the other one was a black belt. I am not sure whether they felt my interest was endearing or psychotic, but I began to pepper both of them with questions. When had she started? What had brought her to that place? How did she keep passionate about it? What role did it play in her personal story?

For the hour we chatted, I couldn’t get enough exploring these aspects of their lives. My weight lifting experience had been limited to a few weeks each spring in high school before the weather was good enough to practice track outside. My husband tried to teach me some rudimentary self-defense, but I was a horrible student and he gave up. Every nuance they shared just brought more questions and then lunch was over and we went our own ways. I could have kept going.

My love of interesting conversations is why I don’t stress at dinner parties. It’s why I enjoy mixers and large group affairs. For every person I find to be a bore there are 100 that have done or learned something so wholly outside of my experience that it is an unlimited buffet of wow. So many conversations to have and interesting people to meet there’s only one problem.

I keep getting invited to 30 minute meetings and nothing interesting can be explored in 1,800 seconds.

The Wasted Weekend

Every Friday I drive home, exhausted, with a mental list of the amazing things that I will do with those two precious days. Saturday and Sunday are going to be phenomenal, packed full of catch-up around the house, resolution of open work assignments and quality time with the kids and husband. In my mind, I am super woman.

In reality, this weekend started with me asleep on the couch by 9:00pm and spiraled downhill from there.

That’s not fair, I guess. I did manage to go grocery shopping, make a tasty and healthy fruit salad bigger than my head and cook a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup. I dealt with the cell phone upgrade that I told my kids I would do two weekends ago. I took my son to lunch and a matinee showing of a play his best friend was in. I read the introduction to a new book and now I am writing a blog post.

And yet somehow that doesn’t feel like enough to call this a productive weekend. Not because it wasn’t enough objectively, but because compared to what my Friday self thought I would accomplish, it is way off the mark. I didn’t fail me, I failed my ridiculous expectations, and that’s somehow worse.

I think what I need to do, what we all need to do, is to be more measured in weekend expectations. I need to be okay being my weekend self and not my weekday self. I need to realize that only a handful of things will get done and not pretend for one minute that it will be totally productive. I need to assume that I will lose 30 minutes lounging in the shower. Take another hour for a lazy breakfast and coffee over my tablet. Put two hours in for catching up on Netflix binges or going to a movie. Give myself permission to sleep in or take a nap or meditate to achieve balance.

One of my best moments, a moment I plan to treasure for years to come, was sitting at lunch with my son. He looked at me as we talked and he said, “Mom, I brought my DS because I thought I would be bored. But this is really engaging.” (He says stuff like that, that things are engaging.) We chatted about the insanity of segregation, the Spider Man mural he had in his bedroom back in Michigan and how he is trying to be less annoying to his sister. We had a lively conversation all through lunch; I leaned into it and just enjoyed the moment.

It wasn’t part of my productive weekend plan, but thankfully I did it anyway. Because the work will get done, it always does. But my boy is only going to be 12 for another 348 days and if I don’t take a few moments to soak it in I’ll be stuck watching him head off to college wondering when the hell he became a man.

So it’s decided. I’m giving myself permission to waste weekends — and you can join me. Waste it on yourself. Waste it on your hobbies. Waste it on your family. Waste it on tv or tablets. Waste it on nothing at all.

But if you’re with me, just don’t waste the opportunity to waste it.

An Ally for Michael

When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. That may sound odd, but growing up everyone looked like an episode of Leave It to Beaver and pretty much every kid in my elementary school followed me from kindergarten through to sixth grade. In middle school, the four elementary schools came together, but most people had very similar lived experiences.

By the time I got to high school I had traveled overseas to Mexico and France and had started to appreciate the bigger world outside of my home town. I know I felt worldly, but calling my 14-year old self worldly is like calling a preschooler capable of reading Hop on Pop literate. Broadly accurate, but not precisely true.

And then I met Michael.

Michael was the best friend of my first boyfriend and he was unapologetically gay. I knew from the first time that I met him that we were kindred spirits. We both had a willingness to be our unique selves and an openness to the human experience. His was a striking honesty that came wrapped in love, self-deprecating humor and smiles – so many smiles. He was both funny and fun and he played off my practical rule-following nature in a way that made us hilarious from the outside. The fact that he was gay was just a part of the wholeness of his being.

Today, I was reminded of Michael while sitting in a seminar on Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender and Ally (LGBTA) inclusion in the workplace. I heard hard statistics around how LGBTA individuals still feel uncomfortable sharing their whole story in the office and being their authentic self in their work. It was hard to hear because I am the sort of person who actively shares and I can’t imagine what it would be like to tuck such a huge part of myself away in a box and only pull it out before 8:00am and after 5:00pm.

Michael would never stand for it.

It’s even harder because I believe that relationships are the corner stone of a life well-lived. I believe that finding a person who you love and who loves you in return is a gift. I believe in partnerships that support in hard times and celebrate in good times. I believe that when you find that person you need to nurture them, grow with them, and constantly appreciate your good fortune. I learned those lessons from my parents and I am trying to model them to my children.

None of those beliefs have anything to do with gender identity or sexual orientation. Not a single one.

I lost Michael in 2012. He died, like his mother, far too young from cancer. It is one of my greatest comforts that we connected in his last year of life and he knew that I loved him. It is one of my greatest regrets that I let him downplay his illness to me and I didn’t make it a priority to drive the two hours to see him before the end. In my wishes we talked for hours and my cheeks ache from smiling and my gut hurts from laughing. In my dreams I leave feeling like one of the luckiest people in the world.

Because I would have told him – one more time – that I am his ally as well as his friend.

Five Things I Learned at WFF 2016

There is something remarkable about being surrounded by smart talented people. It lifts your game and makes you want to be more and contribute more to the world. For me, being around smart talented women is especially empowering and it reminds me of arriving as a first year student at Smith College, realizing that I had only begun to tap my potential. No matter how old I get, every time I find myself in these groups I come back to one crystal clear thought:

Holy crap, there is so much more to be done.

I’ve spent three days (so far) at the Women’s Foodservice Forum annual leadership conference, and I could easily write a handful of blogs on any number of interesting topics. For now, I am going to draft my executive summary, or as I call it Five Things I Learned at WFF 2016:

Number 1. It’s good to share your story. When we were planning for the event, one of my colleagues asked me to sit on a panel of women leaders — she thought that sharing how I came to be the primary breadwinner in my family would resonate with our company’s women. I hesitated, because I felt there were better stories or more interesting people. I shouldn’t have hesitated. More than ten women have approached me throughout the conference sharing that their own story mirrored mine and thanking me for sharing. Turns out, we all thought we were special, but I found out in a later session (@laurenchivee) that we’re not. 38% of breadwinners are women. 

Number 2. Be fearless and embrace your competence. On the flight out to the conference, I wrote about my fears and how I am owning them and working to move beyond them. It was ironic to find myself in a session on Fearless Leadership where the speaker (@EricLBoles) seemed to look right at me when he said, “Why is it that extremely competent women look to incompetent men for approval?” There he was, an ex-NFL football player telling a room full of women that we needed to own our prior success and not diminish it as luck. He told us we had competence but not confidence. Later that day I got a text from a male colleague that said, “Very nice!!! You are awesome” and instead of my normal response (awww, shucks it was nothing) I texted back, “Yes I am!”

Number 3. Before I die I want to… It is hard to take the time for self-reflection, and harder still to reflect about the finite nature of human existence. And even though I had heard the speaker’s TED Talk before (@candychang), listening to her in person one clear idea emerged: I desperately want to show my daughter the ropes and take her on a trip to Paris. Now I also know that it feels right because in some ways it meets all five of the categories of responses people generally put on the “before I die” walls: Love, Travel, Helping Others, Family and Personal Well-Being.

Number 4. It matters who is in the top job. Sophie Bellon, Chairwoman of the Board of Sodexo, spoke about her experience stepping into the operations of the global company and being surrounded by men. She shared that she asked where all the women were and was told, of hearing,”it just isn’t a woman’s job.” Perhaps it would have remained acceptable to act as if that were true if Ms. Bellon had not been poised to take the top job, but she did take the top job and now Sodexo is recognized not only for top results but also for gender diversity in leadership.

Number 5. I’m brilliant. I’ve always been brilliant. In fact, I am “oh brilliant one.” I know this because the speaker (@SimonTBailey) assured me of this fact as we were talking about ways to shift dialogue and experiences to bring out the brilliant in everyone. It reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility and the chapter on giving everyone an A. I know it sounds hokey — believe me, I know it — but I was reminded because I truly believe that if you start with assuming someone is capable and engaged it is much easier to leave with a real success.

So that’s it — five new thinks I learned. And, on top of that I learned this week that as an engaged and enthusiastic leader I have a rare opportunity to build up strong teams and deliver results for myself and my business. 

And that is something I can’t be reminded of enough.

Struggling to Listen

This morning, I was sitting at a women’s leadership conference listening to a panel of older white men explain how women will get ahead. It was a champions panel and the intention was great. Really, I could tell the intention was to show the importance of having male champions for women leaders. I get that.

But, I struggled.

As a successful driven woman, sitting in an audience of other successful driven women, the feeling of being patronized started upon hearing that I should own development and built as they shared example after example. I felt myself shutting down as I got more and more uncomfortable. I was not feeling inspired, I was feeling the gnawing irritation that I was in the wrong place.

And reflecting on that hurts because the male champions who have shaped and guided my career are some of the best people I know. It makes me feel awful because I know that the men on stage have been a champion for someone else. The men are successful leaders and they wouldn’t have been on the panel if they didn’t care about women. I don’t doubt their sincerity. I don’t doubt their support.

But here’s the thing, if they had framed the discussion as a conversation between a pair — one successful woman and the male leader who had championed her — I know I would have been engaged. I would have been at the edge of my chair. I would have been passionately interested to hear the woman’s experience in her own voice — not translated through a man, but direct from her. She could have spoken about how having a champion and supportive organization had helped her grow into leadership.

Instead, I heard a man answering a question about whether he believed that successful women, as a group, did not support future woman leaders.

Ultimately, I want to be the person who is capable of hearing an important message from whoever it is coming from, however it is coming. But I’m not there yet. Optics matter. The voice matters.

And when it comes to women, I want to hear a woman’s voice.

What Are You Afraid of?

Everyone is afraid of something. The human race has been able to survive based on a primal instinct to assess risk, not through careful and deliberative thinking but through the grasping gnawing emotions of fear. Everyone has felt that pulse-quickening, stomach-dropping feeling of panic. And no one likes it.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about fear because I am remarkably lucky. I’m not afraid of spiders or snakes, heights or caves, flying or water. I’m pretty comfortable with going to new places, meeting new people and learning new things. I find the dark disorienting and I don’t enjoy being unable to communicate or move freely, but compared to most, I feel like my ambient level of fear is pretty low.

This week, I listened to a podcast about fear. And listening to other people talk about fear — what it is and how they have addressed it — got me thinking. What am I afraid of and how does it impact my life?

My most tangible moment of fear was when my son was quite young, maybe three years old. I was alone with him in the house and he was still sleeping. I sat down on the bed and in a moment of exhaustion closed my eyes. I woke up 30 minutes later immediately worried that I had given my toddler too long by himself. I jumped up to confirm that he was tucked in bed.

He wasn’t in his bed. He wasn’t playing in the playroom. He hadn’t turned on the tv or gotten on the computer. The panic rose and I started running through the house, first calling, then shouting, then screaming his name. Upstairs, downstairs, basement, garage, backyard. My voice started to break and I found myself in tears trying desperately to calm down enough to think of a plan. What do you do when your toddler wanders off? Who do you call? Would my husband ever forgive me for losing our son?

Then I heard a sleepy voice from upstairs. “Mom?”

I sprinted up the stairs two at a time, running into the computer room where he was laying on the futon. He looked surprised and still tired; he had clearly woken up at some point and fallen back asleep there. I grabbed him as hard as I had ever grabbed anyone, running my hands over him and smelling his hair. My brain understood that all was well, but the primal fear wanted confirmation that he was real, that he was whole.

Nothing in my life — before or after — has scared me as much as that moment.

But as I put the pattern together in my head I know I have felt that feeling other times. That horrible sickening feeling has almost always come when someone I care about has been put at risk by my action or inaction. It doesn’t matter if the risk is physical or emotional, professional or financial. It was just this week that I came to an understanding that my single biggest fear is that someone I love would be better off without me.

And that they might realize it.

Like any other phobia, I recognize the irrationality of my fear. In my intellectual core, I know that it is crazy. Most days I live miles away from that feeling, strong in my confidence that I am a good mom, a good wife, a good worker. That I am a good person. But it is always there, camping out in a corner of my brain waiting for a moment when it can remind me that it could happen.

And the hard thing is it does happen. Wrapped around every time when something doesn’t go to plan is the fear that rises up, invited and unwelcome. I imagine it is like the people who live contentedly with a fear of flying and then sit white-knuckled on a plane. I’m in the air now flying through turbulence. No biggie for me, but for those guys? It must stink. But, there must be some comfort in recognizing it for what it is and being able to deal with it then.

That’s why I enjoy podcasts. They give me new ways to think about the world, reframe my ideas and come out with new understanding. No, I don’t have a fear of tight spaces (claustrophobia) or a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or a fear of the foreign (xenophobia) — I have a fear of failing the ones I love.

I wonder if there’s a word for that?

Laugh at Me

I love comedians. None personally, but from a distance I enjoy the way that they can make the banal absolutely hilarious. I try to be funny, but most times I try I end up saying, “That was meant to be a joke…” which takes away from the overall effect.

I am not funny.

That said, when I was younger I inspired a lot of laughter. Outspoken and awkward, I was pathologically unable to identify and respond to the social niceties of my peers. Great with adults and magical with little kids, I was a fish out of water with my contemporaries. As an adult now, I’m not surprised that kids laughed. I am sure that I said and did things that were absurd.

And for a period of time that response lead to me having an aversion to laughter. Or more accurately to people laughing at me. Or near me. Because when it was near me, I was sure it was at me. And that was the way that things were from the time I was old enough to be aware of ridicule until I got over it.

I wish I could remember the moment, or series of moments, that helped me come to terms with my quirky individualism. All I know is that at some point I realized two things: 1) laughter is good for the soul and 2) I was good at creating moments for laughter. And as I thought about it, I also realized that laughter is good for you whether the joke is intentional or unintentional, whether the person is good-spirited or bad, whether it is “at” you or “with” you. So, I decided that although I would never be a comedian I was going to lean into my unique ability to make people smile and laugh — just by being me.

Now, I am not condoning for one moment mean-spiritedness and I hope that I would be one of the first people to stand up for someone else who is the butt of someone’s joke. It’s just that at this point in my life I believe that the humor people find in the good-hearted, well-intentioned things that I do and say is therapeutic. It lightens hard conversations and builds trust.

Recently, I pulled a presentation together for my boss to give to a large group. In it, he wanted to share a concept and asked for a dictionary definition. The definition from Google was useless, but I gave it to him anyway and told him, “You can use this as a way to get a laugh from the audience and springboard into the more important conceptual ideas.” He liked the idea and I sent him off to present the next day.

Soon after, I got a call from someone in the audience. She wanted to let me know that my name had come up during the presentation when my boss had explained the definition. He said something like, “I asked Mel to get me a definition and this is what she gave me. Not so helpful.” My colleague was worried — she knew me, but what would other people think? Was I ok?

I smiled. I told her how the presentation had come together and that the definition was my idea, even if I hadn’t planned on being the punch line. But only one thing mattered to me at that moment. “Did the group laugh?” I asked. Yes, she said, it was the biggest laugh of the day, rippling through the group. I could feel my smile widening.

Hmmm, maybe I’m a comedian after all.