What Brings You Passion?

Before Christmas I found myself in a church auditorium enjoying a performance by the Agape Ringers, an elite handbell choir in the Chicagoland area. I didn’t grow up knowing a handbell from a doorbell, but I was lucky enough to get introduced to ringing by a good friend who attends handbell summer camp every year. She invited me to the concert one year and little by little I pulled the whole family into it. Now, it’s something we all look forward to each year.

Anyway as I was sitting waiting for the concert to start, I thumbed through the program and read the bios of the musicians. Reading through the snippets (family life, work life and tenure with the group) I was reminded just how much collected passion the performers had for thier craft. No matter who was important to them or what they did for employment, I’m willing to bet that ringing handbells brought them significant joy. In my opinion, it’s hard to be really good at something without a lifelong investment, and having seen the group before, and watched the adoration on my friend’s face, I knew they were really good.

I got to thinking about that — the idea of what brings people passion — as I was driving home. Culturally, we have a tremendous bias toward work and the idea that fulfilling work is the central tenant to a fulfilling life. We spend a lot of time at work, after all, so it feels good to believe that people are fulfilled by that activity. But, I know that isn’t true. For most people work is simply a necessary evil, something that needs to done to put food on the table and roof over their heads. And yet, like most people, I still persist in walking up to people at events and asking, “What do you do?” as if the question will bring a twinkle to their eye. I really should know better, because it’s one of the reasons my husband hates parties. He’s always trying to figure out how to answer that question, either apologetically or covertly, because saying that he is a stay-at-home dad carries such baggage.

Ask my husband about what he does and you’ll get a lukewarm answer, but if you ask him about what he’s passionate about, you will get an earful. Talk to him about the time he brought a 1971 pinball machine back to life or when we got stuck sailing on Lake Erie in a storm. Ask him about his family or the odds of the Red Wings making the NHL playoffs. Those are the things that matter.

I find that it’s the same with most people.

A good friend of mine from high school is a drummer, so in love with the art of drumming that he built a sound proof room in his basement. I know that when I want to see that fire in his eyes I should ask about his most recent drum kit or gig — not about the very successful, well-paying job he has had for over 20 years. Whenever I see a YouTube video of someone drumming like a mad fool I think of him and smile.

My brother has spent most of his adult life writing a musical about the origins of the video game industry. He was able to share the idea with one of his idols, Ralph Baer, and it made him happier than just about any other time I have seen him. I’m not sure I want to know how many hours he’s dedicated to taking it from a rough idea through the fine tuning necessary to make him proud. It’s amazing and even so I’m not sure he will ever think it is good enough. Artists can be pretty hard on their creations.

A guy my husband knows is really into pinball. When he and his wife decided to renovate their house, they dug out their basement to double the square footage and expand his collection. He even had a specialized elevator built to make it easy to get machines up and down. I used to think my husband was too into pinball — and then I went out to his friend’s house, looked around and rode the elevator. On the drive home I acknowledged that I was wrong, his pinball hobby was normal.

I’m a workaholic and I’ve spent most of my life a little in love with my jobs. Like any dysfunctional relationship, when things have gone poorly it’s hurt a lot because I’ve wrapped so much of my own happiness up in doing well. It’s like having a huge stock portfolio in only one stock — I haven’t been very diversified. Heck, if I didn’t have my family, and now this blog, I’d be at risk of putting all of my life eggs in my work basket. Happily.

So, I sometimes forget that the vast majority of individuals don’t get that kind of passion from their work — until I see a handbell concert.

A friend of mine from college just announced that she is leaving her job. She’s one of the most professionally successful people that I know and I am confident that people will look at her decision skeptically. They will wonder what the heck she is thinking. But, if they had truly listened to her, they wouldn’t have to wonder. They would know that after doing what she had to do, doing what was needed, she is giving herself the freedom to pursue her passion. Her passion isn’t in a paycheck or a fancy title, it’s somewhere else and she’s heading in that direction. And knowing her commitment and focus, I’m willing to bet she gets there.

Whether it be hobby, habit or happening, here’s hoping that you have a little bit of energy left over from doing what you have to do for whatever brings you passion. And remember, when you meet a stranger at a New Year’s Eve party don’t ask they what they do. Ask them what brings them joy.

Slow Down

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”

– Dave Barry

My work-life is filled with meetings. On an average day my calendar may have less than an hour of non-committed time, with the rest locked down in 30-minute and 1-hour blocks. I run to conference rooms scattered across two buildings and ten floors. No matter how hard I try to make sure I have time to live my “open door” leadership philosophy, no matter how hard I push to say “no” when I am not the right person for the dialogue, I have been unsuccessful in controlling the creeping ooze that is meetings.

And, that is why what happened this week was so surprising and delightful.

As I approached the end of year holidays (and the week I habitually take off between Christmas and New Years) a remarkable thing happened. I watched with giddiness as one by one meetings fell off my calendar, cancelled or rescheduled for next year. It felt like everyone took a collective breath and admitted, all at once, that their crisis wasn’t as urgent as they thought. Nothing catastrophic would happen if the discussion or decision or action happened a few business days later. We wouldn’t all turn into pumpkins if it didn’t happen before — bwahaahaa — the end of year.

In the course of a day, my calendar tipped from 90% meetings to 90% free time. And, faced with that unusual reality, I was able to act differently. I was able to lean into three transformative conversations and address each issue with my full capabilities, giving it not just 30-minutes of my thoughtful attention, but the amount of time the relationship or challenge needed to make true and real progress.

One of those examples started with a completely random event. Walking to the restroom, I saw a project manager from one of my big development efforts heading back to her desk. I paused and asked her how she was. She made a throwaway comment, the kind that says, “Not great, but I’m working it out.” In my normal life, faced with my normal calendar, I would have given her a conspiratorial wink and told her to keep at it.

But, not this time.

In that moment, with a calendar unconstrained by another meeting, I slowed down. I listened past her words to see the tension in her eyes. I thought I could sense that, under the bravado, she was signaling that she needed help. My help. With a wide-open calendar the next day, I asked if she happened to be in and whether she could free up some time for chat. She was and could. She scheduled 30 minutes for us the next day.

We connected as planned and after our 30 minutes were up, she had barely had enough time to brief me on the knotty challenge she was facing. On a normal day, I would have whipped off a few witticisms and metaphorically shouted “next!” to whoever was in my waiting room. But, with the freedom of an open calendar, we had time to explore. I asked probing questions to gain understanding. I jotted down ideas on my white board. What about this? How would that be perceived? Are these ideas connected? Would this be understood?

Together we realized that we didn’t have one challenge, we had four. And that the challenges were not independent but tightly related to a single business trade-off that we could address on a continuum. With an aligned mindset, we modeled an approach that would allow our business leaders to explicitly respond the in an upcoming meeting; we defined a way that would allow us to enlist them in the deciding the answer instead of pushing something on them.

It was invigorating and I went home that night feeling that I had done less but delivered more.

The next morning as I was getting ready for the day’s activities I looked up to see her standing in my doorway. She was smiling and just wanted to let me know that after we talked she had connected with our business sponsor who had been just as excited about the direction we had identified. We talked a bit about the progress we had made the day before and what had made it possible: Approachability. Purpose. Listening. Time.

Later that morning I found myself with another executive and I shared the experience. I told him that we needed to find a way, as leaders, to create more opportunity to shift from activity to engagement. We needed to give ourselves the time to think deeply and help our teams pause long enough to understand the issues fully so we could really resolve them. I looked at him and asked rhetorically, “What happens if we can only count on those moments happening once a year when the vast majority of our team members are on vacation?”

I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that I have been as guilty as the next leader of incorrectly correlating productivity with activity and motion with progress. But this week I was faced with a striking example where real results were connected not with “time-boxing” and “efficient agendas” but with simply being open to listening and letting the conversation go where it needed to go, with letting connections happen not purposefully but organically. That example has led me to a goal for myself.

Next year, I will create an opportunity to do it more.

The More Things Change

This weekend I found myself on my hands and knees struggling around in my crawlspace. I’m short but it turns out not short enough to avoid the crossbeams of a space designed more for utility access and rarely used bric-a-brac than for human movement. The smart plan would have been to get in and get out focusing on the Christmas decorations that had sent me there in the first place.

But no, not me.

Instead, I navigated in the darkness looking for the box of books I was sure was there. Somehow in our last move I lost track of a stash of books I had from college and while I don’t have an inventory, I know that I wouldn’t have jettisoned my copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the Marketing textbook I researched a case for in graduate school. I didn’t find them, but instead I found a milk crate of my own history.

Nestled in a back corner I found it, filled with small remnants from my 20’s. I found the theatre portfolio I submitted to get placed into the right lighting design class, the binder that contained the artifacts of my journey to grad school (application, acceptance letter and letters from the Dean for grades) and a hodgepodge of stuff from my final desk cleaning when I left my first real job, starting the zig zag of my career.

At the top of that last pile, tossed carelessly in amongst the other miscellaneous desk contents, was a simple printed document. Titled “360 Development Feedback Report” and dated 2006, it contained anonymous comments on my strengths and opportunities for improvement from my direct reports and peers. I scanned the pages, eager to see how much I had changed since then.

My team then, both subordinates and peers, commented on my confidence, clarity of vision, willingness to share technical knowledge, ability to create team and support of my team’s work-life balance. And they noted that I needed to work on my delegation, communication, defensiveness when challenged and ability to manage my own work-life balance. When I finished reviewing the pages I flipped back to the beginning to make sure I was looking at the right thing. I was confused because, to be honest, those comments could have been written about me this week as easily as 10 years ago.

Maybe you’re not surprised. After all, it was in the 19th century that author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phased “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Maybe it’s not that surprising that someone who was described in 2006 as “one of the most relentless and energetic persons I have ever worked with” is still high-energy. Or that someone who “should sometimes put more faith in her employees, not only by delegating more, but also by trusting the work of the employee and not changing/altering everything that has to go up to senior management” still has a tendency to own the final version of a presentation before it hits prime time. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that at my core I’m the same person now that I was then. And, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised except for one basic thing:

I believe, in my heart, I have been living a growth mindset.

Our beliefs are tricky things and no beliefs are trickier to manage then those about ourselves. I just finished a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while Mark Manson’s shocking title (and prolific use of a word frowned upon in polite circles) might put people off, one of the key points of the book is that being open to being wrong, especially about deeply held beliefs, is a key to happiness. He notes that questioning your own values and whether you are living them is critical to determining what you care about (what you should give a f*ck about) and living a life of purpose.

For as long as I can remember, a huge part of my personal identity has been wrapped up in the value that every day is an opportunity to gain insight and develop new and better capabilities. And yet, faced with the fact of the 360 feedback I was given long ago, I can’t help but wonder if I truly value growth as much as I espouse. Ten years, two organizations and a handful of job titles later I appear to still be strong where I have been strong and weak where I have been weak. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Normally, I like to end these posts with some witty closing, some quip or quote or answer that will pull the whole thing together. I like to note what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown or what big question I’ve answered. I don’t have that tonight. Instead, I’ve got some more thinking to do, some more staring the facts in the eye and wondering what it means for my beliefs and my way of going after life. So, this one will have to be a cliffhanger, a two-parter that ends with more questions than answers.

When I know what I think, I’ll write it here.