One Letter at a Time

I write letters. Most weekends I lift my grandmother’s 1949 Royal typewriter off its stand and place it on my desk, an unlikely partner to my high-tech iMac. I select two sheets of color-coordinated oragami paper, run them through the guides, and feel the resistence as I push hard on the round keys. I compose letters full of all the emotion, candor, and typos that come with authenticity. Every one is as different as the individual who gets it, the unreadable impressions on the ribbon and platen the only record of my effort. Early on I tried to capture my words by taking a picture of each letter. I hoped I could bottle the warm feelings that I tucked into each envelope, but it didn’t last.

The words belong to the reader, not to me.

There is something uniquely vulnerable about a heartfelt letter. An email leaves a copy in your sent items folder. A text message has back-and-forth context. A conversation allows the opportunity for real-time clarification of misunderstandings, offers non-verbal cues, and has no permanence. But, a letter is physical and only the recipient can decide what happens next. They can choose to throw it away or carry it around forever. They can keep it to themselves or put it online for everyone to see. When you send it, you give up the right to choose how it will be used and cede power to the other person.

I worry sometimes that my letters are weird but I send them anyway, I push past the uncomfortable feeling that whoever I am sending it to will misinterpret my intent. I hadn’t given much thought to the feelings I was facing until a diversity and inclusion facilitator recommended a TEDx talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. In her talk, she shared her personal story about studying vulnerabilty and learning about its role in creating connections and living a whole-hearted life. Listening to her speak, it was like the pieces of my life philosophy were clicking into place. It was a master class on being TooMuch, sharing how vulnerable people…

…let themselves be seen, deeply seen.
…love with their whole hearts.
…practice gratitude and joy.
…believe that they are enough.

My letters, like these blog posts, are my way of living those ideals. And that’s why this weekend I sent three more letters off to an eclectic group of people. One to my grandmother, one of the first people to love me for the full and flawed person I am. A second to a former colleague, a young woman I worked with briefly and who is now shining her light through her own business. The third went to a woman who I looked to network with earlier in the year — my apology for not following up after her offer to share her insight.

Each one holds a little bit of me that I will not be able to protect.

Earlier this fall I sent a letter to a colleague. I had to work the system to get an address and, because the individual is private, when I put it in the mailbox I wasn’t certain whether it would be welcome or an intrusion. But I knew they were going through a difficult time and I thought that if I was in their position I would want to know I was supported and not alone. So I wrote it and sent it away, letting my fear of overreach dissipate as soon as the blue box gobbled it up. It would be ok or it wouldn’t — all I could control was my sincerity.

I had forgotten completely about the letter, spending a week battling my own demons, when I got a message from my colleague. They had neglected their mail for a while and when they opened their box at a truly low point my letter had been sitting on top of the pile. The entire message was warm and grateful, but I felt my heart tighten as my eyes stopped on one phrase: your words meant everything to me.

I would love to say that my vulnerability hasn’t harmed me, but it has. I have had letters used against me, my own words twisted into daggers to harm both me and the people I love. Those moments hurt, forcing me to question the wisdom of giving others weapons for their hate. But, I am buoyed by the many more times when my words have created true love and possibility. Friendships rekindled. Hope created. Trust built. No, vulnerability isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable but I know one thing.

It is worth it.

How Can I Help?

I saw a great cartoon earlier this year, providing perspective on the different effort expended by parents in “running the house.” As the spouse of a stay-at-home parent, I quickly saw myself in the parent who does much less and yet protests “but I help…” Everyone who has come into contact with me and my husband knows one well-established fact: I carry very little of the administrative burden of our home, sitting back content in the certainty that the vast majority of everyday tasks will just happen. I help, but not nearly enough.

As my brain wandered to what I could do to balance my ‘at home’ scales I pondered a bigger question: If I truly want to help, why am I not helping more?

In my experience, most people are ready and eager to help. Personally, I have one of the strongest and most supportive networks, filled with people who I know will help without hesitation if I asked. In the last month I’ve faced some challenges that I never anticipated — at home and at work — and at some point or another every person that I consider important to me has offered help. But, even with that help offered I haven’t done a great job of turning their eagerness into action, instead sending them away with the throwaway, “Thank you for the offer, I’ll let you know when there is something that you can do.”

And then I don’t call them because I don’t have a clue what they can do.

Here’s the problem, when I’m buried in work or a complex project, it feels like I’m a drowning swimmer two feet over my head and wildly flailing my arms. Although I look cool and calm as a cucumber on the outside — years of practice — inside I’m in panic mode, my body frantically trying to stay above the water. My brain is focusing on only one thing: do not drown. And, it is in that very moment that someone shows up in a boat, pulls up along side me, and asks, “How can I help?”

Now in a calmer moment I could absolutely assess the right next steps and ask them for a rope, a buoy, a life jacket — anything that would prevent me from sinking to oblivion. But with my brain fully focused on the immediate need of not drowning, I can’t. Instead I say something stupid like, “Nothing right now, I’ll let you know.”

The boat pulls away leaving two people no better for the moment of connection.

We’ve all been there, stuck on one side or another of a failed help conversation. Sometimes we’re the swimmer, sometimes we’re the boat. No matter which side we’re on, every single moment when it happens feeling inherently unsatisfying.

As I think through when help has worked and when it hasn’t the first thing that comes to mind is the power of specific help instead of generic help. Imagine if the person on the boat didn’t ask, “How can I help?” and instead said, “I’m throwing you a life ring, grab it.” It takes a lot less mental gymnastics to understand a command and respond than to run through a laundry list of possibilities and pick the one right-sized task out of 100’s. Faced with simply clarity of action, most people can accept offered help and support.

And that would work great except that I’ve seen the direct approach fail as well. Sometimes, declarative help comes in the form of an unwanted casserole or a push down an unwelcome path. There have been times when I’ve rushed into a situation with the very best intentions of helping only to harm, either by identifying the wrong solution or simply by stealing the person’s self-determination.

So what the heck is the helpful person to do?

It seems to me that the right answer is to spend more time listening and less time acting. In the cases when I have helped the most, it is because I have taken the time to listen to the person struggling so I can hear in their story and identify places where they might need help. With reflective listening and good questions, it is possible to let the person share what they choose about the situation and once more is learned, I can offer the better things. Recently, I was talking to someone and learned they no longer felt comfortable driving at night because of vision loss. Later that week we were heading together to the same event. Armed with my new intel, I was able to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if I drove?” My offer of help was specific, targeted, and still something that could be refused. It was imminently better than the open ended, “What can I do?’

I’ve found that the same technique works when someone does offer generic help. Lately I was feeling overwhelmed with a big task. Instead of going into my struggle cave, I took the time to walk a colleague through the challenges and big steps. He asked questions and together we broke the work down, eventually identifying a couple of building block items that could be easily delegated. Once I could see those tasks, I asked if he could own those and of course he said yes.

In both cases, both the helper and the helped felt exceedingly better than if we had stalled, without help.

And that’s the hard thing, really. Everyone understand that finding yourself alone and without help is isolating and horrible, but it can be just as difficult to be surrounded by help and not know how to activate it or to want to give help and not know how to do it. Our  real opportunity is to find better ways to channel good will to good action, to turn possibility into outcomes.

I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me that when you start with listening you have a chance to get there. When we build real empathy and understanding and we tie that tightly to empowerment we can keep everyone above the water line. By simply defining intent and offering options we can create the kind of help that benefits our friends and family. The words may seem simple — “I want to help you. Would this help you?” — but the power is immense. They may accept or not, but either way we can take a concrete step closer to doing something.

And the right something is better than nothing.

Six Degrees of Separation

At least once every few months I’ll see an unexpected cross-connection of friends on Facebook. You know, my brother-in-law will comment on a post from a coworker or my mother’s close friend will comment on a post from the mom of one of my kids’ friends. When I see it I tend to blurt out, “how do you guys KNOW each other?” as if I own the rights to the weird bonds of connectivity in this world. These six degrees of separation moments always make me laugh.

But I have never laughed as hard as last week.

As a boater, I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the issue of plastic waste and how that waste is impacting our oceans. I’ve been driven to try bar shampoo (love it), drink all my soda from cans (holding steady), say no to straws (a real challenge), and take my own bags to the grocery store. On the bag front, I realized that I needed to organize my significant stash so that I could grab them easily on my way out the door.

And that’s how I found myself, at 9:30pm on a Sunday night, sorting through forty bags of various size, material, and condition.

Thirty minutes later, with bags spread out across the kitchen table and counter, I was nearly done. I was reaching into the last bag and pulled out a Duke blue devils t-shirt, size boys medium. Now, I’ve purchased a lot of t-shirts for my kids over the years and it’s hard to remember everything, but I was certain that I had never bought this one. So, I did what any mom would do — I looked for a name tag. And that’s when I saw that the shirt belong to Jack.

But I didn’t know Jack and neither did my kids.

I found this absolutely hilarious. Maybe it was the fact that I was punch drunk from being up and going all weekend. Maybe it was the crap I was getting from my family about the stupidity of organizing bags late on a Sunday night. Maybe I was just feeling for Jack’s mom, wondering wherever she was, what the heck happened to his shirt?Whatever it was, I was so amused that I popped off to Facebook and wrote a post.

Today’s totally random post. I was organizing reusable bags and found Jack’s Duke t-shirt. Only problem? I don’t know Jack.

I’ve had his shirt for quite awhile.

I hit “post” and thought I’d get my usual suspects reacting to the post and commenting.

Imagine my surprise when, Monday morning, I got a text from a woman who works with me. She told me that she knew Jack. His dad went to Duke. He was the right size. And, her son was meeting Jack that same day to hang out. We chuckled, what were the odds that my Jack was her Jack?

High, it turns out.

Later in the morning she confirmed that Jack had attended a camp with my son. They didn’t know each other, but somehow their clothes had gotten mixed up at the laundry and it was his shirt. I took it into work and handed it off, knowing that Jack and his family will have a story to tell for many years to come.

And so will I.

I’ve always enjoyed the idea of connections and the strange way that a life lived binds us all together. This experience has reinforced that idea in a very tangible way. A week ago, a gray t-shirt was living in obscurity in the back of my closet and I had no idea it was there. Now, it is back in the closet or laundry bin of a mother just like me who may or may not have known it was missing. In our interconnected world it took a picture and a post less than 24 hours to close the loop.

We’re not as alone as we might believe in a world of 7 billion people. Life has a curious way of connecting us, especially when we’re willing to live those connections. Accept the friend request. Post the weird observation. Lean in to the odd coincidence. None of us know how those connections will help us reunite things that have been separated — today it was a t-shirt, tomorrow it might be my misplaced class ring or friendships lost across miles and years. And I love that.

Networking Isn’t Mentoring

Months ago I had noticed with appreciation how well an executive woman in my industry utilized Twitter — her posts seemed to consistently and seamlessly reflect both her personal and professional personas. Having met her once briefly in the real world I sent her a message on Twitter and told her I was looking to get better at my own social media balance. Would she be willing to invest 15 minutes in helping me get better? It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off. She connected me to her administrative assistant and after comparing challenging calendars we landed on a date a month in the future. Yesterday.

She was kind enough to offer me nearly an hour; I only took 25 minutes.

As we talked she shared the intentionality of her social media presence, her engagement with corporate communications, and the importance of aligning values. She told me I was a great writer and offered to connect me with another blogger who she felt spoke with a similar voice. I gained more from our brief discussion than I would have from reading hundreds of pages in self-help books or listening to hours of podcasts. It was a major accelerator in maturing my thinking about how I show up online and how I need to adapt my own approach.

As we closed and I thanked her for giving up her time — an executive’s scarcest resource — she shared that getting my request had made her day. She told me about others who had given her similar guidance when, like me, she was looking to improve her social presence. We shared a conspiratorial chuckle over the very human response one has to being told that something we do is admired and how it creates a willingness to give others a hand.

It was a wonderful, and classic, example of the power of networking.

At the same time I was preparing to connect with her, I was reaching out to my closest mentees to ask them to characterize our relationship. I told them all the same thing: “I’m thinking of writing a blog post about the difference between networking and mentoring and our relationship is important to me personally and professionally. How would you characterize it and what do you think has helped it be as beneficial as it is?”

Their responses were touching and quickly illuminated that while both types of connections are important for development, there are important differences between building a network and building mentorship.

Mentorship Is Personal

To a person, the people I checked in with noted that although our relationships may have started as professional — connecting with me in the work world and valuing me for my skills and ability to deliver results — all of them shared that they viewed our relationship as a friendship. They expressed numerous ways that our friendships emerged including things like having access to my cell number, seeing and treating them as a whole person, and feeling comfortable going out for dinner. We have all been to each others’ homes, met each others’ family. Somewhere along the way I went from being someone who could help them navigate their career and become someone who could help them find happiness in life.

One person made it explicit. “I have needed you for mentoring, but I honestly just like you as a human. If you had been an English teacher, we would have had less in common to talk about in terms of work shared experiences, but I’d still love to have been your friend. I value you for your very Mel-ness.” Maybe that is why great mentoring relationships transcend employers, industry changes, and retirement. It has to do with the sincere belief that the other person has both the capacity and the capability to help, not because they have to but because they want to.

That is far different than a networking relationship. Sure you might exchange the comfortable pleasantries of your personal life at a networking event, but it is only within a mentoring relationship that you will open up about a significant other struggling with your career success, how a new child is forcing you to make tough trade-offs that you hadn’t considered would be needed, or whether you should take a risky new position or promotion. You have to be vulnerable to share those truths with a mentor and that doesn’t happen if they don’t believe you care about them as a person. You know, a friendship.

Mentoring Is Long-Term

When I think about my most successful mentee relationships, they span years and supersede whatever circumstances brought us together. What I’ve noticed is that networking and mentoring look similar at the beginning — one person reaches out to another person (or is connected with another person) because they have something to offer. I get a lot of mentor recommendations where a colleague of mine says, “So-and-so could really use a mentor and I think you would be great.” We’ll meet, have a great dialogue, the individual will ask a series of specific questions and then…

Poof. Gone.

And while that single great discussion is a great example of networking, it isn’t mentoring. Maybe the person didn’t gel with my personality. Maybe the insights I offered weren’t on point. Maybe they were on point but they didn’t feel there was anything else to be learned. No matter what the reason, in order for a networking moment to shift to mentoring, they must have longevity. Every successful mentoring relationship I have been in (on either side) critically depends on shared history to provide future guidance. Sure, there are moments of significant lean-in and times when the parties take long breaks from connecting, but they are never one and done. For me, the moments that come later in the journey are the most rewarding, offering both parties a much needed chance to gain energy from an important empowering relationship.

Mentoring Is an Investment

Although I know all too well the value of 25 minutes of any executive’s time, it is a small drop in the bucket compared to the time and energy someone dedicates to a successful mentoring relationship. A networking conversation will find its way onto my calendar only when it doesn’t impact either my work results or family commitments. By contrast, a mentoring relationship might intrude into either, depending on the urgency of the need. I’ve been know to step out of family movie night to take a call or apologize to my husband for being on my phone with a mentee. When I say, “It’s so-and-so, they are considering a new position and want my perspective” he knows who it is and why it matters to me. He understands and gives me the space I need.

Beyond time, the investment can also come in the form of giving people a vision for themselves before they have the courage to see it. One truly talented person — someone I believe has the potential to change the world — told me that my investment in her was surprising, that she was unprepared for someone successful to take the time to open doors and give of my time. “At first it was mainly that I looked up to you. [I] saw you as a very strong, educated, successful woman…I wanted to be that and you seemed to think there was something in me that would help me do that one day.”

Investment also comes from taking risk. Another newer relationship started with a simple networking call. I had opened the door to more, but communications went silent. In that case the individual pushed beyond the discomfort because a trusted person “encouraged me to look past the embarrassment I felt in not following through the first time and suggested that I just go for it.” They were willing to put themselves out there because there was a promise of a real opportunity to grow. Only time will tell whether the relationship will blossom and persist.

I value each and every authentic connection I make in the world, from an amazing conversation at a conference lunch to a friendship that spans decades. I try to treat each interaction I have with someone as an opportunity to learn more about the world and in turn myself. Although they are very different experiences, I would’t give up either networking or mentorship.

Fortunately, there’s no reason I have to.

Sibling Rivalry

Earlier this week I put a call out to Facebook asking for editorial help. I found myself stuck with 47 ideas in various stages of disarray — from hastily recorded quotes to nearly complete but only seasonally appropriate posts. The responses were all encouraging (variations of “Just get it out there, Mel!”) except for one. Visiting with my mom for Memorial Day weekend she summoned me urgently letting me know that my brother wanted to talk to me. “If you want something light,” he said, “write about Warcraft.”

But before I go there, you need to know why that moment matters.

My brother is three years my junior, wicked smart, and the nicest guy you will ever meet. When he was born, I immediately took on the role of wise elder, committed to both teaching and protecting the little guy I felt my parents had given me. Now, I know he could have easily rejected my mini-mothering, but he didn’t. Whether by nature or nurture, I’ve never met anyone in my life as comfortable as he is with going with the flow. And everyone who knows me knows I like to direct the flow.

We continued down that path — with me comfortably in the role of prototypical know-it-all bossy big sister — until my dad brought home an Atari.

The timeline is fuzzy, but as the golden age of video games smacked into our family, a new reality emerged. While I had an ability to quickly grasp the key elements of a game in the first handful of plays, my brother had the patience to soak in the patterns of the games. He would memorize the long arcs of the game, while I was only interested on what was on the screen in the moment. So, I would win the early games and then a switch would flip and I would never win again.

It happened head-to-head with Combat and Indy 500. It happened in solo games like Frogger and Pitfall. I was playing the game with my eyes and he was playing the game with his memory. Sometimes my window of opportunity would last for days, others for only hours, but no matter what, if I gave him time to understand the strategy and patterns of a game, it was all over. In 2019 it will be 30 years since the day I wrote “I will never play chess with him again” on a napkin, dating it and hanging it on the fridge. I haven’t.

Flash forward to a day in the late 90’s. We were both attending Michigan State at the time, me to get my MBA, him to get his undergrad in Computer Science. I’d recently done a presentation on the business principles of a game called Warcraft II and suggested that he might like it. We fired up the computers and I gave him the gameplay basics and we kicked off the game.

I admit now that it was underhanded, but at the time I honestly don’t think I realized how much of a head start I had given myself. I had forgotten how many games I had played up to that point, how many pieces of knowledge I took for granted that he didn’t have. I left so much out of my tutorial that he had to ask questions every few minutes, piecing together the gameplay on the fly. Meanwhile, I built up my resources, constructed my defenses, trained my army, and prepared to attack his base. With my advantages, it should have been a rout. Not so much. He went down with good-humor, but he didn’t go down easy.

Later that day he asked whether we were playing Warcraft again. I said no, we both knew who would win and what’s the fun in that?

I still play games with my brother. He is one the smartest people that I know and I like a challenge. We both like deep games that mix strategy with chance and we’re usually well-matched. I have an advantage in randomized games that require quick assessment and spontaneity while he is best with deep patterns and long strategies. Our younger brother is the wild card — he’s the biggest player of us all and he can beat us both if he’s on his game. In my 40’s I recognize that win or lose it’s the time together that matters, not who wins.

But I still really love to win.

What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him to sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like an results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.

Why Mentoring Matters

My daughter is struggling with the enormity of deciding what she wants to do with her life. She’s sixteen years old and no matter how many times I tell her that I had no idea what opportunities the world held for me at her age she’s convinced that everyone else knows. In her mind future success is only possible if she figures it out. Now. No data will sway her from her point of view and her assertion that I just don’t understand. “Mom, things have changed since you were my age.” Yes, they have. And, I guess it’s theoretically possible that in the 27 years since I was her age teenagers have evolved to grasp that level of future certainty.

It’s possible, but unlikely.

After all, it was only a few years ago when I had to call in a lifeline about my own future. I had reached out to my mentor because I was at a career crossroads and I knew that he would have important perspective on which path to take. So I picked up the phone and told him that I had come to the sudden, surprising conclusion that I was an amazing chief of staff. I admitted to him that after years of data and experience I had finally recognized my unique ability to understand a leader’s vision and to use influence, collaboration and judgement to bring that vision to life. I can do it better than just about anyone, I asserted, so should I stop gunning for the corner office and just embrace being a best-in-class right-hand man? 

There was silence on the other end and then his voice came back, quiet but firm. “Mel,” he said, “It sounds like you’re asking whether you should be Ed McMahon. The problem is you’re already Johnny Carson. You just haven’t admitted it yet.”

When I was sixteen I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I thought I wanted to be stage manager. Then a lighting designer. Then an architect. By the time I realized that business was where I belonged and entered my MBA, I still didn’t know what that meant for a specific job. I got a double concentration in Finance and Marketing because I figured that all the power was in following the money and generating top-line revenue. Still not precise, but more thoughtful than anything my sixteen year old self could have created.

I got lucky when I found my mentor during my recruitment process for internships. He’s stuck with me since then, believing in me before I believed in myself. Before the Johnny Carson reference, he told me that I could accomplish anything but that I needed to decide what it was because, “you can’t blow an uncertain horn.” Before that he pulled me into his office and told me that he wasn’t sure what my parents had done raising me, but that I had ‘it’ — the non-technical behaviors necessary to make a difference, stuff that was really hard to develop. In the moment I thanked him, but later I called my parents incredulous about what had just happened. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was; I was just doing my job.

My dad just told me how proud he was of me.

I wish I could make my daughter understand that while there are some people who are born believing they will cure cancer, invent the next airplane or release a best-seller, the rest of us are inclined to dream just big enough. We don’t know exactly what we want to do and when it comes to aspirations we want to avoid being greedy or ending up disappointed. So, we tuck our successes away until we get to a point where we think we’ve gotten about what we deserve. Along the way, some people settle and others get bitter because it is a rare person who finds the ‘just right’ target for their goals.

And, what I’ve learned from listening to my mentors is that somewhere between confidence and arrogance is the magical place that big dreams happen. Very few of us can see that spot ourselves, we need someone to point it out. Someone who has our best interests at heart, who has both credibility and caring to say, “Hey, there it is. Right there. Can you see it? Look. No, look harder. Yeah, there it is.” 

I can’t be that person for my daughter. She knows that I will never be fully objective about her and her future, I can’t. But, I have confidence that she will find her own mentors, that someone will emerge in her life to pick up the phone when she needs guidance. Don’t get me wrong, I hope she calls me, too. But I know enough now to understand that my role will be that of the wise parent who just tells her how proud I am.

And since I can’t mentor my daughter I’ve found several people who have ‘it’ that I am proudly watching from the sidelines of their lives. They text me and call me out of the blue, eager for my feedback and thoughts on what to do. I connected with one of them last week and we talked about a great opportunity that she’s been given, something that I helped bring to light. I listened as she shared her experiences to date, confident in her accomplishments but still a little stunned that so many people think so highly of her. So, I took the time to share a story of a time when I didn’t get it, when someone pointed to the magical spot beyond my confidence and reminded me to dream bigger. I stole the words that helped me past the same fear and I told her the truth.

“You’re already Johnny.”