Musings from Sunday Shopping

Sunday mornings provide me with a weekly conundrum. On one hand, I want to luxuriate in my warm, comfortable bed, taking advantage of relaxing on the one day that I don’t have any real commitments. On the other hand, I want to get up and get to the grocery store before it becomes jammed with all of the other people who (like me) need to stock their pantries and refrigerators for the week ahead. I’ve considered it and there is a single optimal hour when I can wake, shower and get out the door in order to be both lazy and productive.

I rarely hit that window — I did today.

Getting up and out of the house at the perfect time opened my mood up to positives and possibility. I walked down the aisles without feeling guilty or anxious, with my ears open to interesting conversations and my mind open to winding thoughts. I heard a grown daughter say to her father, “Do you want applesauce, dad? Wow, there are so many kinds.” I watched a father alone with two young sons, one running in circles around a display the other begging to be taken out of the cart. I smiled at a young couple discussing out loud whether to go vegan or  vegetarian in the frozen food aisle.

Along the way I piled things I needed and things that struck my fancy into the cart, nonplussed when I missed a couple of items and had to circle back to the beginning.  For once, the inconvenience wasn’t a big deal; the extra steps weren’t a crisis. And, when I stood in the line at the checkout and was waved over to an empty lane it was a pleasantry — I wouldn’t have been bothered to wait but I was happy to move. It was in that frame of mind that I heard the young male clerk say quietly to the middle-aged woman who was bagging my groceries, “You’re the best bagger I’ve worked with. You’re really good.”

She smiled and so did I.

To me bagging groceries is as much art as it is science. In my many years shopping for groceries I’ve seen my share of baggers, some amazing and some challenged. I’m polite to all of them but I’ve definitely formed an opinion about what constitutes quality work. In my opinion, the best baggers are able to work speedily, pack so as to prevent damage and group things in an intuitive way. They inherently understand that their work is temporary and yet they don’t let that stop them from doing it right. The very best baggers seem to channel the needs of shoppers, mentally standing with them in a kitchen as they put the groceries away.

I was delighted but not entirely surprised to see that the National Grocers Association hosts an annual Best Bagger Championship. Started in 1987, the 2017 event will feature 25 contestants in Las Vegas, recognizing employees who “have pursued long and rewarding careers in the grocery industry.” I kind of wish I could be there to cheer on the representative from Illinois, Heidi Jacobson. I think we have a tendency as a culture to downplay some jobs and careers because there aren’t extensive barriers to entry. There’s this crazy idea that if anyone could do something that anyone could do it well. That is patently untrue.  In every job family there are people who exemplify high standards of performance and excellence. We all get that intuitively, but we seem to forget it as we watch the Oscars or the All-Star game and pretend that only some jobs have people who are truly outstanding.

As I left the grocery store today I gave a momentary thought to bagging groceries after I retire. I can imagine myself standing at the end of the conveyor, smiling my outrageous smile and doing my best to make it just a bit easier for someone to complete the never-ending chore of shopping for food. I started mentally putting the boxes and cans and produce into the bags, thinking about strategy and speed and how I could do it better. True, I may or may not convince someone to take me on years from now, but I think I could. I’m pretty persuasive.

There’s only one question: Do you think they’ll still have the Best Bagger competition then?

Lucky

More than a year ago I walked into a colleague’s office to talk about work and ended up talking about life. I told him that I was lucky, that my unique combination of circumstances had given me the opportunity to have a fulfilling career, a loving family and a happy life. I contemplated out loud the thousands of other women just like me who were born in the early 70’s and who hadn’t had my lucky breaks. We talked for a long time and he rejected my entire premise, telling me time and time again that luck had nothing to do with it. He assured me that my capabilities alone had led to my success.

At the time I was surprised how forcefully he rejected the entire conversation, but I’m not anymore. This week I’ve been listening to a five part podcast called Busted: America’s Poverty Myths. I’ve enjoyed the thoughtful discussion, the interviews and the facts, but what struck me most was a quote by author E.B. White embedded within the third episode:

“Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

It seems to me that The American Dream requires an unwavering belief in the equal possibility of meritorious success regardless of circumstances. If you reject that idea and accept instead that two equally intelligent, hard-working and virtuous individuals may not achieve success simply because of the fickle finger of fate where does that leave you? Are you a defeatist? A whiner? A ne’er do well who expects life handed to you on a platter?

I don’t think so.

We have all met individuals who have had every lucky break fortune can provide and somehow failed to build a life they consider successful. We have also met individuals who seem to be stalked by a dark storm cloud and yet fight through it to achieve greatness. After all, if you spend enough time keeping your eyes open you’ll see examples of just about every possible experience. But the data is pretty compelling — most people, including me, need a combination of good fortune and skill to achieve their potential. In most cases you need to be both lucky and good.

I tend to focus a lot on the lucky half of my success; I look back at circumstances not of my own making and attribute my outcomes to that. I downplay my own hard work, commitment and perseverance because I tend to see those attributes as table stakes, just the things that need to be done and done well. When I think about being “self-made” I choke on the very premise. I recall instead:

  • My luck at being born to two college-educated parents who relished the idea of a smart and driven daughter.
  • My luck at finding friends who supported me for the person I was.
  • My luck at emerging from my teenage years without an unplanned pregnancy or tragic accident.
  • My luck at having a father who said, “we’ll make sure you can go to whatever college you can get into” and meant it.
  • My luck at finding a man who understands me, my potential and what we can be as a team.
  • My luck at choosing a graduate program that put me in the path of a mentor who has supported me professionally ever since.
  • My luck at giving birth to two healthy kids at a time in human history when medical intervention meant I could survive the experience.

Yes, I like to think that I have made the most of the luck that I have been given, but to suggest that those moments didn’t impact my current happiness and situation is patently false. Erase any of those moments — not one of which has anything to do with my character or capabilities — and I would not be the person I am today, living the life I am living. I am lucky, very lucky.

My grandfather liked to say that the secret to life was a thankful heart. Like many self-made men he could point to the many instances of hard-work, risk-taking and perseverance that helped him throughout his life. But unlike many self-made men he also freely acknowledged the many people and twists of fate that helped him along the way. He was quick to point to them in his life and his stories and I am convinced it was one of the reasons that he was so well-liked. His friends knew that he was remarkable and they knew that they were part of the reason why. He passed a simple truth onto me that has framed my entire life view.

There is no such thing as a self-made man — none of us that find happiness and success truly find it alone.

Show up and Play

Years ago I was talking to a good friend of mine over lunch. A professional musician, he was telling me about being asked to sit in with the local symphony orchestra at a summer performance. I was immediately intrigued and started asking questions. How long have you been practicing? What is the music like? Are you doing a technical rehearsal? He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “I’m getting there a bit before the show and we might go through some of the pieces once.” Some? Once? I was stunned and my face telegraphed it.

“Mel,” he said, “It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

When I graduated with my MBA in my mid-20’s I came out brainwashed. I thought I was capable of doing just about any job and my early experiences reinforced my thoughts. I would go into the assignment knowing exactly nothing about what needed to be done and come out understanding the critical tasks and risks. Years passed and the data points added up, each one confirming my simplistic view that I could make any job work.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Yes, I still believe in the power of the learning generalist. I would still pick leadership skills over deep technical knowledge every time. But while I’ve been dodging from one business and function to another other people have made their craft a lifetime journey. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I started sitting across from those folks in meetings. I started listening closely to their clear articulation, started hearing the obvious depth of knowledge within their words. Over time my thinking shifted from, “Hell, I could do that!” to “Holy crap, how do they do that?” I am not sure when it happened, I only know it happened.

In fact, yesterday I listened to an executive peer present to a large group. She spoke simply and easily about a technically complex topic. She talked in a way that made it clear that the task she had taken on was hard and the pitfalls serious, but that the success was predictable. Ten years ago I would have listened with a hint of envy, envisioning how I might have tackled that challenge and what it would be like to stand there having been successful. Five years ago I might have said, “That could be me.” But in that moment I felt only two things: a certainty that I would not have been prepared to take it on and an appreciation that someone I deeply respected was.

Maybe my younger self didn’t realize it, but my today self knows that there is something affirming in recognizing that not every job is possible, that even as a smart and capable person you would struggle to be successful in some situations. Does it mean that I have given up on the big dreams? Does it mean that I am giving into limitations, that I am becoming practical and risk averse? No, it doesn’t. It means that although I am capable of many things in some situations other people are more capable than me. I don’t find that upsetting; I find it awesome.

If I stood on the same stage and talked about a topic that was framed seamlessly in my own experience, I suppose others might feel the same way that I did listening to my colleague. As crazy as it sounds, some people might listen stunned thinking, “Wow, she really knows her stuff. I could never do what she does.” And maybe, if I find myself answering mundane questions about my work across the lunch table I will be confused by their stunned expressions. Thankfully, I already know what to say.

“It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

I’m Done with That

I’m not very good at Twitter. I’m a relationship builder and it feels like Twitter is more transitory — I might invest in reading 140 characters from your heart or I might not. It depends on my mood and whether you made me laugh last time. Follow. Unfollow. Like. Retweet. I’m not capable of bounding relationships that way.

I don’t have many followers.

When by some weird circumstance someone does choose to follow me I am immediately intrigued. How did they find me? What encouraged them to click the button? What are they looking for from me? I respond to any follow request with a quick personal message asking them their why…why did you follow me? No one ever replies which just reinforces the absurdity of my being on Twitter — it is not about building relationships it’s about building followers.

And yet this week a couple of my new followers led me to a great little article on Forbes that highlighted things that smart women are ‘done with’ for 2017. I like the idea of being ‘done with’ something. Although it starts a bit negative it ends with a strong accountability message: you can make choices to let things go in spite of evidence to the contrary. Like the older woman in the article who was ‘done with’ 7-inch platform shoes that are ‘more comfortable than they look’ we can all choose to be done with things that have outlived their usefulness.

So, in honor of 2017, here are three things that I am done with:

Not Being Good Enough

Every single person I know has moments when they feel like they aren’t good enough. Seriously, even people that I know who are at the top of their game, who live lives of grace and dignity and get up every day to do their best still sit in judgement of themselves and how they are not good enough. I do it to myself every time that I have to pull myself up, dust myself off and try something again. So, I’m done with feeling like I’m not good enough. I won’t give up the need for self-reflection and self-improvement, but I will try to allow myself to be imperfectly human and have that be good enough.

Escalating Negativity

There were points last year when I struggled to maintain my positivity, when I felt that the anger I saw would grow so hot it would burn people to char. I’ve learned that it is easy to reject something or someone that you disagree with, easy to turn their own words against them and focus on the fear. I felt myself getting that way, not just in big moments but with my own family. No, I may not agree with every opinion or action that people have or take, but more than opinions and actions I believe in people living authentic lives of purpose. So, I’m done with escalating the negative, there are enough people who do that. I’m going to try to escalate the possibility.

Weekend Thinking

I started to slip into a horrible habit last year, falling regularly into a countdown to the weekend. Five more days, four more days, three more days, two more days, one more day… like the gasping breaths of a swimmer desperately pulling their head above water in between flailing frantic dips below the waves. It’s a pattern I’ve seen followed by people for months, years and the length of a career. They watch the sand slip through the hourglass, never finding a way to enjoy the bulk of their days because they are filled with work. I’m going to remind myself that I have chosen my work from many things that I am capable of doing. I’m done with thinking that the only hours worth living are the hours from 5:00pm Friday through 5:00am Monday.

I’m sure there’s more to be done with but I’m only 43. As I get older I hope that I learn more about how to jettison what doesn’t bring happiness and fulfillment to my life. I’ll need to have something to save for later.

Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be done with Twitter.

Celebrating Stickiness

This time last year I sat down and set a goal for myself: write an average of 2.5 blog posts per week or 130 posts in 2016. I didn’t deliver, not even close. I only wrote 64 posts not even 50% of my goal. In fact, I tried and failed to write two posts yesterday and now I’m sitting here stymied.

I considered the possibility that this whole blogger experiment had run its course and that I’m out of thoughtful witticisms.

I countered my inner critic with the fact that 2016 was a complex year and my overactive brain was struggling to simplify the world into succinct posts. As my brain warred against itself I worried. I’m heading back to work soon and I wondered what it would mean if I couldn’t pull off a decent retrospective / kick-off post. What would happen to my legion of followers? My thousand dollar speaking engagements? The big book deal?

Ok, there is no book deal.

My life, like this blog, has never been about a book deal. It’s been about showing up every day, doing the best I can and hoping it is good enough. It doesn’t mean I don’t let people down — I do. It doesn’t mean I haven’t failed — I have. It doesn’t mean that I won’t ignore the world and play Candy Crush — I will. But after it all, I pull on my big girl pants and go back at it, mostly because I know people are counting on me to do it. It’s about being sticky.

Over the holidays I had breakfast with an old friend. A really old friend who I hadn’t seen in person for more that 20 years. We picked up right where we had left off and between the hug hello and the hug good-bye I told her how I met my husband and she told me her story of starting over. We talked about as much as we could stuff into an hour and as we stood to walk away she hugged me with tears in her eyes. She told me that I had been one of a handful of people who had helped her get through a really rough time. She thanked me for just being there even as I felt horribly inadequate. I hadn’t done anything. Heck, I had done less than nothing. I hadn’t helped her pack up her things and find a place to live or a new job. All I had done was ping her on Facebook, remind her that she was worth her own happiness and share the stories of other smart, strong women who had done what she was trying to do.

It felt like so little, it was just stickiness.

For me it’s simple — life brings people into your circle and sometimes their velcro sticks to your velcro. It’s quiet and sometimes you barely know it’s happening, but then later on you notice that they’re hanging on there and you wonder, hmmm, when did that happen? This year, I’ve added some people to my velcro. Their connections are new and they likely have no idea that they are stuck to me, no idea that I may pester them 20 years from now to squeeze me in for breakfast. After all, it’s not like friendship has a rating systems so they can learn what they are in for from those that came before: “She can’t party, but you can count on her to stick.” – 4/5 stars.

I think stickiness is a lost art. It doesn’t have the same epic nature as storybook love or the passion of firework lust. It doesn’t have the daily demonstration of best friend texts or next door neighbor porch sits. But stickiness is precious because it doesn’t care about distance or time or frequency; it’s the complete confidence that someone is there and will be there regardless of evidence. Stickiness is a lot like faith.

Of course not everyone sticks, not everyone wants to stick and some people don’t deserve to stick. This year I pulled some people off, painfully aware of that long, loud noise that velcro makes when it separates. I wasn’t the only one who made that hard decision this year, walking away from connections that have been in place for a long time. Pulling apart is hard and scary in the moment and if you’re wrong ‘people’ velcro doesn’t go back together again, not like the real stuff. And sometimes being sticky to the wrong person can hurt. It’s complicated.

Fortunately for me, Colbie Caillat laid it out well in her song, Never Gonna Let You Down. The song articulates the way I want to be to my friends and family, so well that it had me in tears the first time I sang the chorus aloud to my car radio:

I’m never gonna let you down
I’m always gonna build you up
And when you’re feeling lost
I will always find you love
I’m never gonna walk away
I’m always gonna have you back
And if nothing else you can always count on that
When you need me
I promise I will never let you down

As we head into another year, I’m reaffirming my commitment to be sticky. I’m going to keep showing up, on this blog and in real-life. You’re stuck with me and when you need me I promise I will never let you down.

Count on it.