Finding Your Path

Today is the last day of June and all month my social media feed has been full of smiling faces — students and parents — celebrating the completion of schooling. There are fresh faced teenagers graduating from high school and heading off to life, trade school, or college. There are young adults (and in some cases, not so young adults) finishing degrees with varying levels of regalia, pomp, and circumstance. Sometimes the people in the pictures are certain about what the next step will bring, but not always.

And that’s ok.

Really.

This fall my daughter will be a senior in high school and there is this gnawing feeling amongst her and her classmates that the decision you make about what to do after graduation is pivotal. That somehow the course of your entire life is decided by picking the right career, school, or major when you can’t be trusted to legally drink alcohol. I don’t buy it. Maybe that’s because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was her age and I feel like I’m ok. I mean, my life turned out ok.

In fact, more than ok.

When I was applying to colleges all I knew was that I loved learning and I wanted to be around people who loved learning as much as I did. I didn’t even know how to articulate the idea of “a community of scholars” like I might be able to do now. I knew I wanted to be with people who worked hard seeking knowledge — I wanted to be pushed in a way I hadn’t been pushed before. I picked an elite liberal arts school and decided to study English because it felt like that would be a good foundation for a law degree someday, or something else. I had no idea what the something else would be — and there have been a lot of “something elses” over the last 28 years.

No one, not me or anyone who knew that young woman, would have guessed that at 45 I would be a technology executive. I had absolutely no idea of this outcome, no inkling of the path that has brought me here, because if I had I might have made different choices. I could have invested in more technical classes or chosen a college stronger in STEM. I might have taken that inside sales job at a company that makes surge protectors and battery back-ups or been more focused in pursuing a management consulting opportunity out of graduate school. But I didn’t know this is where I would end up and so I didn’t do any of those things.

And it didn’t matter because I still got here. I’m still ok.

One of the guys I went to school with took another path. He was a national merit scholar and got a degree in chemical engineering from a big public school. We’re connected on Facebook and as I watch his life unfolding I’m amused by how far off that path his life has gone. Somewhere along the way he ended up as a violinist in a rock band. And from the sidelines of his life, he seems really happy.

When I thought about writing this post, I reached out to him and asked if he’d be ok if I used our lives to illustrate the futility of teenage worry. He agreed right away typing back, “Like you, my life is an open book. I’m happy to help any way I can.” Maybe the two of us aren’t representative of the craziness in trying to find the right path instead of just taking one step at a time toward your future, but I doubt it. We’re two smart, happy people who ended up 180 degrees away from where we planned. I thought I would do something creative in the arts and ended up in a technology role in business. He thought he would have a technical role in engineering and ended up as a musician touring the country. We’re both ok.

More than okay.

So, here’s my ask. If you or someone you love is at a pivot point, ready to make a step toward the first day of the rest of your life, try not to let the worry consume you. Take a step toward your passion. Find your people. Learn something. Help someone. Wake up to a day filled with experiences that help you grow or bring you joy. Don’t try to do the one best thing, choose something and try to do it the best you can. Looking back over a lifetime of choices maybe you’ll recognize the path you set out on — but maybe you won’t. Both are ok.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s more than ok.

Incredible Fathers

Last night, I dragged my family to see Incredibles 2. I’ve been waiting for a sequel to the classic Pixar movie for years, wanting to go back to an animated world that seamlessly connected the super hero mythos with the everyday challenges of work, marriage, and parenthood. So many of us have been waiting so long that the director and stars did a pre-movie statement, acknowledging the hiatus and thanking the everyone for their patience.

When the first Incredibles was released in 2004 my life was in a very different place. I was a young professional with two kids four and under. We were just starting our journey as parents, struggling through what I recognize as the “little kids, little problems” stage. But there was something about the movie — as crazy as this sounds — that made it feel like someone understood the adulthood balancing act we were working through. We’ve watched it many times since and each time it feels like we catch another small point of connection, each time we feel a new kinship with Helen and Bob Parr.

Their conversations are our conversations.

Their challenges are our challenges.

So, as I headed into the movie theatre I was prepared to love whatever I saw; all I really wanted was another dose of the same. The only thing I was nervous to avoid was the incompetent father stereotype that is so common in pop culture today. Too many father centric movies, tv shows, and commercials cast dads as bumbling idiots who can’t complete even the most basic parenting and household tasks without either complaining or creating chaos.

Thankfully, Incredibles 2 was not that movie.

I won’t fill this post with spoilers, but the movie delivered everything I never thought to hope for, namely a loving mother’s joy in returning to a job at which she excels and a capable father taking on the primary parenting role so she can do it. It was like the movie gods got together and made my perfect Father’s Day release.

Look, I get it. Fatherhood has changed a lot since I was a kid and pop culture is still playing the old gags that fit when dads weren’t capable of parenting their own children for a night while their spouses went out with friends. Back in that era, dads weren’t really expected to have much to do with kids until they were old enough to carry on a conversation or catch a ball. Even then, many fathers were hands off, responsible for bringing in a steady paycheck and creating rules that everyone else worked hard to follow. Generally speaking, care-giving and nurturing were seen as a mother’s role. We acted like that was fine — and some people still long for that age — but as I talk to older men who were fathers during this time, they often regret that they weren’t expected to be an active part of their children’s lives. They weren’t expected to do it and it wasn’t normal to want to.

But that’s not the case now.

Now, I see an openness to let fathers experience the full range of parenting no matter what the age of their children. More and more men are taking on primary parenting roles or actively supporting career-driven spouses. They aren’t shy or uncomfortable, they are proud and engaged. Just this week a friend of mine welcomed his third son into the world. The Facebook posts he shared were poignant and loving — and incredibly funny. Another friend adopted his daughter this year and is celebrating his first Father’s Day. I love seeing the pictures and knowing that he is fully present as a dad. Most of the dads I know on Facebook post regularly about their kids and their parenting adventures, generally in the same proportion to their spouses.

Outside of my network, I don’t see any of the stigma that would have been associated with the active participation of fathers, none of the “who wears the pants in your family” ribbing that was common in 80’s movies like Mr. Mom. In my office, fathers talk openly about commitments for their children, leave early for activities, and flex to support their spouse’s calendars. There’s a whole website and community for dads called Fatherly dedicated to providing resources to fathers at every part of their parenting journey. I have a hard time seeing something like that back when I was growing up. Would my dad have read an article called “How to Trick a Grade Schooler into Opening Up”? Did my dad even notice when I was quiet as a kid, much less suspect something was wrong?

So, today I honor the fathers of this generation who have stepped up to be a fully present parent. This is to the men who are as aware of the needs of their children as any mother from a generation ago. You are capable of feeding, diapering, bathing, and reading bedtime stories. You balance nurturing with discipline and advice with admonishment. You can throw balls and handle kids throwing tantrums. For all of the dads (including my wonderful husband) that I see stepping fully into a fatherhood that feels more complex to me than at any other time in history, I have something to say this: You may not be Mr. Incredible, but you’re incredible fathers.

Thank you.

The Keys to Your Life

In April, I found myself in a situation I felt wholly unprepared to handle. In mere hours I found myself whipsawed from vague concern for an employee to the sad certainty of loss as I was told that she had passed away. At the time I felt too raw to share the moment in this blog. No matter how I considered it, it felt wrong.

It wasn’t my story to tell.

The biggest grief wasn’t mine.

It wasn’t about me.

Instead, I sought comfort from my mother, tucked her support around me like a blanket, and focused outward. I shared the heartbreaking news within my organization and quietly connected with the members of my team to make sure they were ok. I wrote a letter to her family, expressing my condolences and sharing how highly their daughter / sister / niece / cousin had been regarded for her capabilities and her kindness. I tried to ignore the meme that popped on my Facebook feed that said, “Don’t work yourself to death, your company will have you replaced in a week if you die.” I choked down the resentment and took a deep breath knowing it wasn’t personal. They couldn’t know that the woman who had smiled at me over lunch a week earlier would never be replaced.

I just kept living, understanding acutely that my life was a gift that not everyone had.

It went on like that until yesterday when I found myself sitting in a martial arts dojo. The warm wood under my feet and mats and punching bags were a backdrop as we watched a life in slide show. The pictures that flashed were of the woman that I had known only briefly in business shown living her real life: smiling with friends around a table, traveling the world, fiercely determined in a crisp white karate gi.

One by one friends and family shared their authentic moments of love. I could see the woman I knew reflected in each story and I felt each piece of a complex puzzle falling into place. Her uncle spoke of a family created beyond blood and his joy in knowing she had been loved in her adopted home. Her closest friends talked about trips taken, holiday gatherings, house hunting and movies — the day-in-day out trappings of lives gratefully inter-twined over many years. Individuals who had trained with her talked about the strength of her jab and the comfort of her hugs.

It struck me in that moment, and throughout the night, that it is rare to be given a glimpse of a whole person. It is much more common to see only a part of someone: the worker, the mother, the athlete, the student, the boss, the blog writer. Our lives are like a house with many locked rooms. The people that we know start with one key — the key given them by shared circumstances — while we move throughout the house interacting in one room at a time. Sometimes, we give a key to a person and allow them to walk with us into another room. The employee who is also a friend. The teammate we invite to a family reunion. The blogger who is also a classmate from college. Those keys are a gift of trust and the people we trust the most often have the heaviest key rings.

As I have moved up in my career it has felt harder and harder to open the doors of my house to others. I struggle to find the right balance between being open and engaged without being intrusive. The relative ease with which we open doors when we are young and on a level playing field is challenged when hierarchy emerges. Now, I don’t ask people at work to connect via social media, not because I don’t care about them as whole people, but because I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to say yes because of my role. It feels safer for everyone to keep the door locked.

It might have been that way with my colleague, locked together in the white-walled drop/ceilinged work room, if she hadn’t offered me a few keys to her house. She let me peak into her karate and self-defense room. We sat for long talks in the Michigan room, cheering and consoling over the Detroit Lions. She invited me into her career aspirations room for lunch chats about where she wanted to go and how we could work together to get her there. In the moments after her passing I wondered whether I had made a difference in her life. I cried grateful tears when a colleague shared in an instant message that she had often spoken of how much she loved our talks.

We all hold the spare keys to our life on a key chain, choosing each day to keep them to ourselves or stick our fingernails in the split ring and push the key around until it falls off into our hand. I hope that I’m making the right choices, choices that reflect the truest measure of my respect, admiration, and caring for the people who I am fortunate enough to meet.