Milestones

When I was a kid, my parents had this card game called Mille Bornes. It’s a classic driving game from the 50’s where everyone is racing to be the first person to get 1,000 miles. Get it? Mille Bornes? But, while each person’s primary goal is to rack up 1,000 miles you have to focus on keeping everyone else from getting there, too. So when you play a “go” card, they throw a flat tire. You play a “spare tire” and they throw a speed limit. It’s the first strategy game I really remember playing with my parents where I felt like I had a shot. Luck and skill, it took a little bit of both to get a win.

Looking back, I think I liked it because there was a clear milestone to be achieved and you had to scrap and claw to get there. One moment you could be cruising along throwing down 100 mile cards like mad and then *boom* out of gas. Or, you get cocky and think you’ve got someone right in the cross-hairs with an accident hazard and then, *shazam* they have the Driving Ace safety and you gave them big points instead. The goal was simple, but it was rarely simple to get there. My parents had no tolerance for whining — if I couldn’t handle the ups and downs of the game with good sportsmanship, I wasn’t old enough to play.

I hid my frustration and learned to deal with it. I wanted to play and I wanted to win.

I was thinking about that game today because this post marks another milestone, my 100th blog post. In the eleven months it has taken me to get this far, I’ve had moments of elation where I truly felt that my words have had a positive impact in the universe. And, I’ve also had more than I couple moments where felt like those hands in Mille Bornes where I had seven cards I couldn’t use — when I would just draw and discard, draw and discard, draw and discard. It’s hard not to feel dejected, to throw your cards down and walk away.

But the thing about milestones is that they represent progress, a tangible reflection of progress even when your emotions feel that nothing has changed. I know that even though my latest post (Why Even Workaholics Should Take Vacation) has garnered only 17 views that is only one data point. The real milestone is this: 100 posts, 4,300 views and 2,300 visitors. It doesn’t matter right at this moment that my biggest fans are people who know me in real-life. It doesn’t matter that even those people feel like some of my posts are duds. It doesn’t even matter that I’m not sure whether my audience wants me to be silly or serious or sincere. What does matter is that I made it to 100 posts, because that is a milestone.

I’ll figure the rest out on my way to 200.

Why Even Workaholics Should Take Vacation

“Hi, my name is Mel and I’m a workaholic.”

“Hi, Mel.”

I don’t mean to make light of addiction, but work is pretty much the only thing I’m addicted to. There’s something so inherently rewarding to me in doing work well that I get a bit of a high when it happens. I work so hard to get that feeling that I succeed, which results in me being assigned more challenging tasks. Then I have to work harder to feel the same sense of accomplishment, the same high. It’s a cycle that can drag you downward into a spiral, until you’re burnt out and a frazzled shell of your former self.

Thank goodness for vacation.

I’ve been working for more than 20 years and I don’t think I’ve left a single day of vacation on the table. Not when I started as an administrative assistant and not now as I’ve moved into leadership. Left to my own devices, I very well might have. I can see myself finding reason after reason for why the work had to be done, why I couldn’t walk away for even a day. I’m an addict and I’m better at rationalizing work than most other people I know. Like most addicts, when I am explaining why the work has to be done — and why only I can do it — I am passionate, articulate and compelling. I am confident I would convince you.

But I can’t convince my husband.

It’s yet another thing in life that I stumbled into without any sort of planning. I didn’t pick a husband by intellectually saying, “Oh, he’ll provide great balance. He’ll make sure I ratchet back from 5th gear every once in a while. He’ll make sure I take my vacation.” Nope, I just got lucky.

Somehow over the 20 years we’ve been figuring out life together, I moved from just doing it because he made me to realizing that I don’t just like vacation, I need it. I need a chunk of time when the alarm doesn’t go off, when the responsibilities of driving progress is on someone else’s list. Not mine. It helps me recharge my weakened batteries and fight off the addiction cycle. I am fairly certain that if I hadn’t taken all my vacation when I was a newbie in my career I wouldn’t be taking it now as a leader. And in a country where they say people take half of the paid vacation they are entitled to that is a real problem.

Teams where leaders don’t take vacation set a tone that you can’t take time off and get ahead. It leads to burnt out teams and decisions not to invest in the systems and processes that reward cross-training and back-ups. If the world comes to a blazing stop when a leader is out of the office — if all paths go to one and only one person — then a team really isn’t a team. One of the reasons I love vacation is because I can send the message to my team that I trust them to take care of things without me. That I believe they have the training, judgement and competence to make decisions without me. And I believe that if they really do need me they will interrupt me quickly for a bounce or confirmation.

I believe that effective work teams, like those in sports, have to be prepared for people to sub out. No one can play all 60 minutes of a hockey game, no matter how good they are. And even if they could, they can’t do it and stay great. The best teams are capable of having someone out for a play or a game or a season and winning anyway.

So, take your vacation. Make sure your people take their vacation. Build your team embracing those self-healing capabilities not fighting them. For you and for everyone on your team.

Especially if you’re a workaholic, too.

The Case for Collaboration

This week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had when I was working at the university. I was having lunch with the director of a center on campus, a nationally recognized researcher whose intellect and character I respected immensely. We were talking about how our courses of study — hers toward a PhD, mine toward an MBA — had prepared us differently for the task of collaboration.

She told me that as she advanced in academics she was expected to isolate herself more and more. Focusing on narrow research questions and specializing in unique areas, she became an island of one. Occasionally, it had been incredibly competitive to see who could get to the best answer quickest — only one person could win.

I shared with her that in my academic preparation, nearly every activity required group engagement. In fact, I was assigned to a 40-person cohort and a six-person team for my entire first year. I took every class with the same people and I completed nearly every assignment with them.

At the time, I can tell you it wasn’t easy and I didn’t like it much. My team was composed of a diverse group of people. We had two women and four men, four Americans and two international students, two people with technical degrees, three business degrees and a liberal arts major. But, the most challenging issue was that we had significantly different goals for being in the program in the first place.

I was laser-focused on proving that I could be a business leader — I was going to soak in and learn everything I could. I knew I needed to get a 4.0 to start my career without having to apologize for either my liberal arts degree or my two years working as an administrative assistant. I was pivoting and I knew what was at stake; I was more driven during those two years than I had been in any time before or even since.

My team was not.

I struggled, honestly, to build shared goals. I was so new to collaboration that I didn’t always go about it the right way. I talked too much and asked too few questions. I didn’t always embrace people where they were because I was so focused on where I was going. I asserted my own point so strongly that I broke relationships. I definitely overcompensated.

When I started grad school most people assumed I would be a weak link. There is a general perception that anyone capable of analytical thinking goes into either the STEM or business fields as an undergraduate. Only individuals without capability would select the liberal arts, right? That was where I started, writing papers and creating PowerPoint slides. Until I aced statistics.

By the time we started second semester and our core finance courses I had become the team go-to. Free rider syndrome got worse and I reacted poorly. I was so young that I just tried to do more and more, filling in every gap that got created because I honestly didn’t feel that I could afford to let any grade slip. Finally, when I was tapped out and couldn’t figure out how to manufacture any more time in the day I got desperate. I decided to show up late for a team meeting to see what they would do without me.

When I got there fifteen minutes late, I asked how they had decided to approach the case we had been assigned. There was a bit of looking around and then someone said, “Well, we’ve been talking and none of us has a good idea of how to tackle this one. So, we think it makes sense for you to do it on your own and we’ll handle the next one. You can sit that one out.”

Just typing it now it sounds fake, like I’m making that up. I remember being stunned. I remember making a spontaneous decision not to argue about it, not to try to convince them that they should contribute. Of all the things that I had considered might happen, that was not it. I’m not proud to admit it, but all I did was say, “Ok.”

I was just so tired that I retreated.

It was a hard case, probably one of the hardest I did during my time in grad school. There weren’t easy answers, the analysis was complicated and there was significant judgement involved. I struggled, but I was determined. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder or felt I had something to prove, but at the bottom of it all was my knowledge that I needed to do well so I could get a good internship, get a good job and blaze my trail. In the end, I turned in my best answer on time, with everyone’s name on it. I never told the professor that it was my individual work — it was a team assignment and the fact that we made a team decision to single source it didn’t matter.

We got the best grade in the class. All of us.

I tell that story a lot, especially to individuals early in their career. I tell it because I learned so much from it. I learned about the importance of building shared goals early on. I learned that collaboration isn’t easy and you have to invest in it as much or more than building skills. I learned that sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I would get it wrong. And, most importantly, I learned that when I got it wrong I would have to be willing to deal with the consequences to get results I wanted. I learned the consequences might not be fair.

At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.

It’s a good thing I learned what not to do when I was young.

Taking Myself Less Seriously

It’s a Saturday in mid-May which means that students all across the northern hemisphere are busy graduating. Last year I celebrated my 20-year college reunion; this year I celebrate 25 years since I graduated from high school. Looking back, I have a lot of emotions and critique but only one major theme.

Boy, did that girl take herself seriously.

I spent most of my high school career pegged as the ‘smart kid’ and looking back at my top ten essay it is clear I carried it around as both a cross and a badge of honor. I picked the DesCartes quote “I think therefor I am” as my lead in and sanctimoniously described my enlighten point of view. I was so sure I had everything figured out. But don’t take my word for it, read it yourself.

  
The problem is that in high school I spent a lot of time wishing I was someone else. I wanted to be cute or popular. I wanted to be in student government or on the cheerleading team. I wanted boys to ask me out and girls to pick me first for Powderpuff football. Even when I graduated and went out into the world a part of me stayed stuck in the halls of high school desperately wanting to be someone else.

When we had our 10-year reunion I was still so focused on proving that I should have been something different that I let myself get sucked back into the drama. I showed up convinced I would be the prodigal daughter returned. Everyone would realize what a huge mistake they made because now I was pretty with a handsome husband and a beautiful baby. I’d graduated from two strong schools and had a great job. I was ready to be embraced and when I wasn’t I took it personally. I raged against imagined slights and rebelled against the very idea of reunion.

I’m not sure what happened or when, but at some point I realized that 13-18 year old kids all take themselves too seriously. Maybe it was having kids enter that age and seeing a bit of myself in them. Maybe it was finding some old artifacts of that time and looking at myself from a distance. Maybe it was just getting older and realizing that I like a lot of people now that I wouldn’t have been friends with then and asking the question: why?

Because I was taking myself too seriously, that’s why.

The girl I was then saw honest-to-God boundaries that couldn’t be crossed. In her mind they were as real as a wall or a barbed wire fence. There were consequences for wanting to be something you weren’t or stepping across a line where you didn’t belong. Serious consequences to reputation and happiness. In her mind at least, which was all that mattered.

Of course, that was all crap. It was manufactured seriousness to help kids get through the hard work of growing into adults. Now that I am taking myself less seriously, I’m open to reaching out to the women who had what I thought I wanted. They are warm, caring people. Strong fascinating women that I wish I had known better when we spent five days a week together. I am a better person now because of our friendships, even if it is limited to an IM chat or a phone call.

And taking myself less seriously is a lot more fun. I can laugh at myself and the silliness of the situations I find myself in. I’ve come to appreciate that empathy is more important than intellect. And, probably most important, I’ve learned to embrace the things that make me who I am and let go of wanting to be someone else.

I’m the smart girl who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to get it.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and I am reflective. Not just about my own experiences as a daughter and a mother, but of the wide range of experiences of daughterhood and motherhood that can exist.

When I was a child, I only had one data point around mothering — my mother. And, as I’ve shared before, I got super lucky in the mom lottery. Trained in early childhood education and with one of the kindest hearts I know, my mother was supportive, encouraging and never withheld love. She gave me a solid base of security to explore the rest of the world. She grounded me and gave me wings.

As I captured new data points, one friend at a time, I started to add to my personal understanding. Eventually, my data point as a mother myself was added. But my data set was limited by my own sphere, how much and how far I had journeyed into the world. And how much people were willing to share with me.

I’m not sure I really started to understand the range of mother-daughter experiences until Facebook. That sounds odd, but hear me out. Every Mother’s Day people I know, and people I don’t know, share personal reflections on the ways that Mother’s Day hurts them. How it reminds them of a broken, abusive relationship with their mother. How it reminds them of a child lost. How they struggle with the overwhelmingly positive feelings everyone seems to have but them. How friends and family struggle to say anything, not even the right thing.

I read as many of those articles and blog posts as I can. I weave as many of them as I can into the fabric of my experience. I try desperately to put myself in those situations and ask myself, “What would you have done? How would you have handled it?” For me, it is an exercise in building the muscles of empathy — making myself stronger and more capable to listen someday when someone confides in me that they did not have an easy relationship with their mother or that their experience as a mother was hard.

What I’ve learned is that the myth of natural mothering — the idea that the very act of carrying and birthing a child is guaranteed to create an unbreakable bond — is just that, a myth.

For those of us who have those bonds, it can be easy to assume that it is universally true. I know that I always felt it with my mother and I felt it the minute that my children were placed in my arms. I know that my attachment to my children has helped me push through frustration and stand up again when I stumble; I feel the pull of “you’re all they have, be better” and I roll up my figurative sleeves and try again. I know I will try again as many times as I have to until they are ok. Because that is my experience.

But it is not the only experience.

On this Mother’s Day I will cherish my experience, but I will also consider other experiences. I will be mentally offering my support to the individuals who grew up being told they were a burden and that it would have been better if they had never been born. I will be sending comfort to the individuals whose mothers put them into harm’s way by bringing a dangerous person into their lives and not listening when harm was done. I will be aware that there is a child out in the world right now whose mother is — for whatever reason — not capable of providing them with the foundation of love that I take for granted. And that child is going to have to find some way to survive and build a life of meaning on their own.

Every day, but especially on Mother’s Day.

Why You Won’t Find Me Skiing

It’s the first day of May and I have to admit something. I hate being cold. And the only thing I hate more than being cold is being wet and cold. Which makes it hard to be positive when you wake up to a forecast like I had yesterday: high of 48 degrees and 100% chance of rain. I tried to just go about my normal life and ignore it, but it didn’t work.

I spent the whole day cold to my bones, miserable and uncomfortable until I got home into my flannel pjs.

I’ve always been partial to warmer weather, but my hatred of the cold emerged during the summer I was a camp counselor. In the northern forest of Michigan, they were short of lifeguards and as a lifelong swimmer I thought it would be an easy way to make some extra money. So, I signed up for the required lifeguarding class and settled into a new training routine.

I was nineteen years old and had grown up loving the water. If our high school had had a swim team, I have no doubt I would have joined it. Absent that, a childhood of recreational swimming left me more than capable in the basics and I held my own with the class. I leaned into the hardest pieces — deadman drills, escaping from a panicked drowning victim — and focused on building my endurance.

It was fun, but it wasn’t easy.

By the time we got to our 500 yard stroke test, 100 yards of five different strokes, I was feeling more confident but still worried. I was so focused on showing the instructors I could do what they required that I didn’t pause to think about whether I should do what they required. I didn’t stop to ask any questions when we stepped into the water, one after another, and started swimming. It was cold, really cold. But I pushed myself to swim and managed to finished it, shaking uncontrollably by the time I pulled myself out of the lake.

I only started to worry when, wrapped in a towel on the dock, I heard a faint voice calling for me. One of my friends was standing in the knee deep water on the side of the dock physically unable to pull herself out. In my own weakened state I struggled to help, but together we managed to get her onto the dock. None of the instructors seemed to notice, so I just got us into the fire-warmed cabin. We huddled with everyone else in the blankets they had suggested we bring.

The whole class sat there, each of us working hard to warm back up. It felt like any other camping moment until I looked over and watched one of the male counsellors tip over. Literally, tip over. A buff African-American man, a body-builder with almost no body fat, he had passed out and almost fallen into the fire. The instructors, woken up to the situation, mobilized. Suddenly, one of them was hovering over me asking me questions. My teeth were chattering so badly I could hardly speak.

In a matter of moments, my friend and I were assessed as the worst afflicted of the women. We were driven on a golf cart to the first aid station where they took our temperatures. I argued that since I could walk and talk that I was fine — finer than my friend. But my temperature was lower and so they put me in the bathtub. In my memory they told me my temperature was 95 degrees, but that is so cold I must be remembering wrong. It was a long time ago.

I do remember that it took me awhile in that tub to get back to a safe temp. It took another long shower to feel human again. But the funny thing is that by the time I called my parents from the camp pay phone that night, I shared the story as nothing more than an amusing anecdote. Later, when our instructors shifted us out of the water and to classroom instruction it was just a sidebar — and the irony that we went into a section on hypothermia was hilarious.

It didn’t take us long to realize that it wasn’t funny. That we needed to understand the risks and signs of hypothermia. That leading 20 teenagers into 54 degree water for a prolonged swim test was not just an example of poor judgement, but that it could have had serious results. I think about it now as a parent, wondering how I would feel if I learned that something similar had happened to my daughter. Nope, not funny.

A long time ago, I read an article stating that there was a long-term impact of hypothermia and heat stroke trauma on individual’s ability to regulate their own temperature. It was the first time that I felt like my hatred of the cold wasn’t a complete cop out. Fortunately, at this point (whatever the science) I don’t feel the need to apologize for it. So, on the first day of May I wore long underwear and fleece and spent a big portion of the day on the couch under a blanket. It may be wimpy, but it is what it is.

And that’s why you’ll find me on the beach — not on the slopes.