Building Connections

There’s a great infographic by Anna Vital on the Funders and Founders website. It shows that the average person will meet 80,000 people in a lifetime but truly impact only 200. But, to achieve real scale — to impact not hundreds but hundreds of millions of people — you need to create something.

I like the infographic, but I don’t completely agree. I’m not sure you can compare the impact of inventing a product or service with the impact of a close personal connection. I know when Steve Jobs died it was sad, but when my grandfather died it was transformative.

The difference is impact.

I’ve always been fueled more by depth of connection than by quantity of connections. For me, the knots that I’ve tied through slumber parties and family stories over lunch are stronger and more important to me than someone who appreciates my writing but doesn’t know me as a person. Maybe that’s why I’m ok with my blog being read mostly by people who know me in real-life and why the idea of writing the great American novel is just interesting.

Even so, building connections is hard. It takes time and effort and even if you really want to do it well it’s easy to make mistakes. In my own life there have been times when I’ve gotten lost in my own life, in the day-to-day business of going to work and feeding the kids and falling into bed exhausted. There are times when I played Candy Crush instead of writing that quick note or making that phone call. You know the call, right? You saw something and said, “Oh my goodness, that is so like Jane — I really should reach out and tell her how much she means to me,” but then the light turned green and you drove on and you forgot.

Don’t worry I forget, too.

Lately, I’ve been trying not to forget. I’ve been trying to tell people in the moment and in little ways that they are important to me. I announced at lunch that I loved how our family has hung together during hard times. I told my in-laws how thankful I am for them. I posted on a friend’s facebook post how much she would be missed if she was gone. I told my husband that he is the best thing that ever happened to me. Twice. I hugged my kids and took selfies, even though they act they don’t like it — like it’s weird.

Ok, it is weird.

It’s weird to sit down with someone and be open and honest about what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life. Sometimes people look at me a little strangely when I do it — like they aren’t sure it is sincere or they don’t know what to say. But more often than not there is a look of thanks and you can almost feel the braiding of line. Strand by strand a connection is made based on nothing more than the honest reflection of another person’s worth in the world and in your life.

Yesterday, I reminded a beautiful woman how inspirational she has been to me. As a child I watched her strength and courage as she struggled as a single mother. I just looked at her reiterated that she was my hero and that she had given me a lifelong appreciation for the challenging role faced by single parents. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me that the first time I told her that message it had given her the self-confidence to see herself differently, to think of herself as more. We hugged and I told her that I loved her.

So, I get it. I understand that if I made something that changed the life of millions of people it would be bigger. But I don’t care about bigger. I care about moments when people feel like they can be more. I care about knowing that when I send a note or text or an IM to tell someone that I was thinking of them that it can improve their mood or give them enough energy to take on a hard moment. I care that when someone thinks of me they smile. I care about tying knots that can hold a sail fast in a storm, real connections that are based not on the whims of circumstance but on intentional effort, respect and appreciation.

I care about building those connections, because in the end those are the only connections that matter.

Losing My Hero

It was a long, hard week so when I finally got to Friday at 4:00pm I thought it would be smooth sailing. I had one more quick task and then I could hit the road. I’d promised the family we could go out for tacos at our favorite hole-in-the-wall and after that I was committed to only two activities: changing into comfy pjs and falling asleep on the couch.

Hopefully in that order.

So, when I got a group text from my mother telling my brothers and I that my grandfather was unconscious and wasn’t expected to make it through the weekend I felt the blood drain from my face. Somehow, I managed to compartmentalize the news long enough to finish what needed to be done and drive home. I kept it tucked away when my parents and brother told me about their last visit with him. I kept it tucked away when my mother called this morning to tell me he had passed overnight. I kept it tucked away all day as I saw Facebook tributes and ran errands that needed to be run.

I kept it tucked away until now.

My grandfather was a constant in my life. He was there the day I was born and he spent the rest of his life telling the story of my birth and my unlikely survival. Growing up he was there every Sunday telling stories of business, while I sat on the floor playing with the toys my grandmother kept for us in the closet. When the time came, he was there packing me up in his Crown Victoria and driving thirteen hours to settle me in college. He was there to take the first picture of my husband and I, walking in his coveralls around the farm where he grew up looking for a picturesque spot for two young people in love. He was there when I put on my wedding dress in his house and he watched me say my vows from the front row. He was there to hold both my children when they were babies, and he was there to watch them grow to be taller than me.

He was a part of every significant moment of my life and many thoroughly ordinary ones.

In every single one of those moments my grandfather was my hero. He was smart and driven, wrestling with challenges and problems without letting it wear him down or wear him out. He was humble, giving credit for his success to fortunate circumstances and treating everyone with respect from the lowest busboy to the highest executive. He was authentic, proud of the community where he was born and the life he had lead. And he was grateful, amazingly and consistently grateful for the gifts he had been given and the people with whom he shared them.

For as long as I can remember I was desperate to be like him. I desperately wanted to be worthy of being liked by him.

Hero worship is hard. No one is perfect and there were times when I failed to live up to his example. The feelings of inadequacy would weigh me down but somehow I would find the energy to drag myself through his front door, down the slate walkway and into his bedroom. I would sit across from him and confess imperfections, my heart filled with dread. He would sit across from me listening, providing wise and thoughtful counsel, his heart filled with love.

Over the years, those chats with my grandfather are some of my favorite memories. I would go over there for a quick task and come home three hours later because we got wrapped up in a conversation. There was never a topic too mundane — or too electric — for my grandfather. He reveled in sharing my trials and tribulations, my joys and celebrations, never getting enough of it. My heart is aching today because I won’t ever be able to sit across from him again and just chat.

I take solace in the one letter I have. He wrote it to me when I was seventeen and I’ve carried it around for 26 years. I pulled it out today so I could feel him and try to understand how I am going to find my way without him in my life. The scrawling unmistakeable handwriting offered two messages today that I needed to hear.

First, he reminded me of my endless potential and that I will never be alone.

Now I know you are wondering what brought all of this on? It started when you sent your beautiful card from Washington. This card was not written by an awestruck, flighty teenager. This card was written by a loving, perceptive and exciting young lady who has learned the meaning of essence. With your strength of character, soundness of mind and abundant energy the world will be your oyster. Never forgetting grandma and I are always with you, too.

Second, he asked me to keep pushing new thinking in a world of constant change.

There is one request I do have. Please, please don’t stop bouncing your ideas and thoughts off me. But when you do let me challenge them. I think it’s great to have give and take because Melissa I’m not always right. Also, change is always with us, things change, customs change, life changes. So don’t every stop questioning, exploring, and learning. Just remember the Ten Commandments, always!!!

As I was reading his letter it struck me that he is still a constant in my life. I’m smart because of the intellectual curiosity he passed onto me. I’m driven because he told me the world was my oyster. I’m humble because he showed me how to carry success without arrogance. I’m authentic because he didn’t need artifice to make friends. I’m grateful because he taught me the joy of a thankful heart. He may not be in this world, but he will always be within me, especially when I am at my best.

And he’ll always be my hero.

Check Your Blind Spot

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sitting in the kitchen of your house at 2:30am feeling like a complete moron. I know because I was just there dressed and ready to jump in my car to drive to the airport for a 5:00am flight with my husband asking reasonable and compelling questions:

  • Why would you want to be on the roads with the people leaving the bars at closing time?
  • Couldn’t you just call into the meeting, like you do most of the time?
  • You’ll be landing at 7:00am local time — do you really need to be there that early?

Basically, the questions were variations on the theme of “why didn’t you think of your sanity and your safety when you booked this flight?” And it reminded me for the 1,000th time in 23 years that I am wired completely differently than the person with whom I’ve chosen to share my life.

When I booked the flight, I was thinking about the challenging work week I had, including a long large group meeting first thing in the morning. I thought leaving on the first morning flight was better than leaving on an evening flight, less likely to be delayed and giving me an extra night with the family. It was the flight that would inconvenience both my family and my work colleagues the least and (I reasoned) if I got to bed early I could still get 5 hours of sleep before waking up on the middle of the night to start my next day. People do it and it was just one night.

It made so much sense when I hit ‘reserve’ on my travel itinerary. Sitting in my kitchen at 2:30am it made a lot less sense.

I’ve known for a long time that I have a blind spot when it comes to my sanity and my safety. I am a flexible and optimistic person, so when something unusual has to happen I tend to internalize the churn as much as I can to insulate others. I don’t know whether that is an instinctual or a learned behavior, it is just so ingrained in me that I hardly even know I do it anymore. I understand that I have a blind spot when it comes to protecting my sanity and my safety, but it’s a blind spot. Hidden right there in plain sight.

My husband, on the other hand, has his personal spotlight on sanity and safety. It’s like the opposite of a blind spot, with flashing neon lights blinking all the time. Especially at 2:30am when normal people are sleeping. I know this, I’ve blogged about it and articulated it in 100 ways. If I were to analyze it, I bet that at least 80% of the top ten fights my husband and I have had over the years revolve around this single blind spot. With that much data, you’d think I wouldn’t find myself repeating it like a scene from Groundhog Day.

And yet I do. I did. Today.

But that is the hard thing about blind spots.  Every single driver I know understands the risk of their blind spot when changing lanes, but people still change lanes into other cars. It’s a blind spot, not a “slightly visually impaired” spot. And that’s why automakers have put special mirrors on cars and are now adding sensors — they get that it’s hard to do the right thing when it comes to a blind spot.

In the end, with all the facts on the table I might have made the same choice about traveling this morning. I’m not the only person sitting in the gate at 4:30am, after all. But, considering my own sanity and safety in the decision making process would have helped. And, I’m lucky. I have someone in my life who can shine light into my blind spot and help me incorporate those factors into my decision-making.

But only if I remember to ask.