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.

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.

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.

Four-legged Love

I woke up yesterday morning to an interesting pair of sensations. I heard the jingle of tiny bells and I felt the pressure of small paws darting across my chest. More effective than any alarm clock, our two four-month old kittens were letting me know with high-speed urgency that they were awake and ready for the day.

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

When I gave up hoping they would settle down, I opened my eyes and pulled out my iPad. Eager to see what had happened in the world while I slept, I checked my Facebook feed. And there, looking back at me with chocolate eyes filled with love, was my beautiful yellow lab Sandy. Facebook was reminding me that it had been a year since we had said good-bye to our girl.

It felt like the universe was telling me that I needed to write about pets — and even I don’t say no to the universe.

Pets have always been an important part of my life. When I was born my parents had a curly-haired mutt named Pooky. She was constantly there in my dad’s slides, standing near me toddling or manhandled into an awkward family photo. I thought of her as dad’s dog, but he always claimed she was mom’s dog. I just knew she wasn’t my dog, not in the way that kids claim ownership of dogs.

In elementary school, a neighbor’s purebred beagle had an unexpected litter after a crafty cocker spaniel had gotten into her pen one spring night. The resulting puppies were free to a good home and I was at the perfect age to relentlessly nag my mother about it, old enough to reason and young enough not to care about being annoying. She looked me in the eye and told me that it was a big responsibility —  that it wouldn’t all be fun. I was sincere and solemn as I promised that I would feed, water, walk and train it.

It was love at first sight when I picked out a floppy-eared tan beauty, more cocker than beagle. I named her Tippy and as mom pulled us home in our big yellow wagon I held her knowing she was my dog. She slept in my room, she followed me around, she wore the collar I wanted and played with toys I picked out. I was too young to realize that she was only my dog for the fun stuff. She was mom’s dog for the hard stuff. Mom potty trained her. Mom made sure she had food and water. Mom took her to the vet. And when Tippy woke up one morning and her back legs wouldn’t work, it was Mom that had to say good-bye. I know now that calling me at college to let me know she was gone was one of the hardest things Mom ever had to do.

By the time I was a mom myself, bundling up my daughter to go pick up a puppy, I understood what it meant to deal with the hard stuff. Life had taught me that lesson through nursing an elderly cat with subcutaneous fluid treatments and watching a kitten die of a painful terminal disease. I thought I knew, when we walked off that farm with a new member of our family, what it meant.

I still didn’t understand, not completely.

It is only now that I understand that four-legged love is a special kind of love, burdened from the beginning with impending loss. Most people do not have to consider the likelihood that they will outlive a romantic partner. Parents rarely have to consider the likelihood that they will outlive their children. But in the vast majority of pet relationships life expectancy means that you will watch them go through their entire life in a blink of an eye — from being a baby and learning basic tasks to aging and finally passing away.

After losing Sandy and Patch last year we weren’t sure when we would be ready to bring a new pet into our lives. We didn’t have a concrete timeline, but when my brother called and told me he had rescued a litter of feral kittens in his barn it seemed like a sign to me. I’m not sure my husband was ready for one kitten when I announced we would be adopting two feline brothers. But, ready or not we did it. We named them Thor and Loki and we settled into figuring it out.

Last year I said good-bye to two wonderful pets whose entire lives I had been lucky enough to share. This year, I am watching two more begin their journey as they find their place in our home and build a home in our hearts. A part of me wants to tuck a little chunk of my heart away so that it doesn’t hurt so much when I have to say good-bye. But they won’t let me, the connections are already too strong. I know them now and I can’t imagine what our family would be like without them.

And I guess that’s the power of four-legged love.

Talk Less, Smile More

When rap was first popular I didn’t really get into it. I was more of a sappy love song/top 100 kind of gal mixed with a bit of heavy metal from my pool hall nights and some folk from my girl power days. Looking back the rural white suburban kid I was just wasn’t ready to understand the power of rap lyrics — they were too far from my experience. Over the years I have spent a lot of time wondering if I could like (even love) rap under the right circumstances.

The answer is yes, absolutely yes. I don’t like to jump on any bandwagon but I just can’t help it with Hamilton, the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It turns out that historical rap is my gateway drug.

If I hadn’t elected to be an English major I could have easily picked history. I love learning about the long arc of human experience and knowing that nothing is truly new. History is big, but at the base it is made up of people, people living their lives alone and in groups. So, even though I couldn’t pull off better than a B+ in any college-level history class (too many facts to memorize), I registered for one a year any way. I left the facts in the textbooks, what I brought with me were the big questions and answers.

Like why Aaron Burr would demand a duel from Alexander Hamilton, two members of the same political party who had known, respected and worked with each other for years?

Miranda does such a great job setting forth that big question that I’ve had four lines on a loop in my head since I started listening to the soundtrack.

Talk less, smile more

Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for

You wanna get ahead?

Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.

The stanza, coming in the early part of the musical, sets the stage for how two men with such similar politics could become lifelong rivals. Hamilton lived out loud, speaking and writing at length about his politics and opinions worrying little about the ramifications. Burr lived in privacy, choosing to keep his life and politics close and using his winning personality to gain influence.

As I’ve been singing those words over and over again, it struck me that I’m neither a Hamilton nor a Burr. Hamilton would certainly feel like I worry too much about how I express something and what the impact on those around me will be. Burr would certainly feel like I share too much and give too much ammunition to my enemies.  I’ve got a little bit of both Hamilton and Burr in me; I’m a Talk More / Smile More woman.

At various points in my life, I’ve worried about that. I’ve been counseled to be a bit more like Burr — closing myself off and protecting myself from those who would harm me. But, I don’t really know how to live that way. Instead, I decided to lean in and write a blog that is unapologetically like Hamilton, who wrote voraciously and likely would have enjoyed the idea of direct communication of ideas with anyone who would listen. But, Hamilton also notoriously wrote an open letter to the editor about his marital infidelity, giving his wife no warning and letting her face the brunt of the impact alone. I couldn’t do that. My story is my own, other people get shared only with their permission.

Talk more, smile more might not be a catchy slogan for a musical or a political campaign, but I like it.

Perhaps Miranda’s characters are not as archetypal as the story would suggest. None of us really are. But the historical truth is that they met each other on a field with pistols drawn because of some fundamental difference of opinion or character. They believed that the differences couldn’t be resolved without violence. I see a lot of that now, people believing that we can’t resolve differences of opinion or character without violence. It makes me sad. I cry every time I listen to the song as Hamilton dies, “The World Was Wide Enough.” We don’t need to create the false choices — us or them, you or me. Hamilton and Burr were on the same side and still they found a way to be on the opposite sides of a field at dawn. Our country lost two great minds, one to death and one to villainy. What a waste.

So, let’s talk more and smile more; instead of a duel, let’s have a picnic.

One Good Woman

I have a secret to tell you and I’m a bit embarrassed to bring it up. You may know me as a card-carrying feminist and a high-powered professional, but I’m something else…

I’m a romantic.

Tomorrow I will be celebrating my 21st wedding anniversary and after all that time I’m still sappy about it. I know that there are some couples who end up settling into warm friendship and some couples who end up souring, but that’s not me. I’m still googlie-eyed and star-struck. I’ve got it so bad that my daughter felt it necessary to give me some advice on our recent vacation.

“Limit the PDA, Mom. Nobody wants to see that.”

My husband, on the other hand, is the strong silent type. Outside of the occasional Hallmark card or drug store box of chocolates, he’s an action guy. He shows his love by keeping the lawn mowed, checking my tire pressure and texting me at the office when I’ve been working too hard, “You coming home soon?” And I’m ok with it, because his actions are really great.

But then one day my whole world view on the matter imploded. We were driving and I was singing a Journey song — loud and off-key —  feeling like it was our song and our moment. It made me think about the fact that every sappy song makes me think of us and that I didn’t have any idea what songs made him think of us. Of me. So I asked him the question even though I didn’t really expect an answer. Imagine my surprise when he said, completely sincerely, “Yeah, I’ve always thought of Peter Cetera’s One Good Woman. You know the one I’m talking about, right?”

Gulp, I had no idea.

As soon as we got home I ran to the computer and pulled up YouTube. I listened, transfixed and in awe, to every word. I realized in that moment that while I had 100’s of songs to remind me of our relationship, he picked one song. One song that reflected on the power of one good woman in a relationship. One good woman. Me.

It was a perfect song.

It took me many years to ask the question and I wish I had asked it sooner. I can listen to the song over and over and every stanza resonates with me. On days when I feel like anything but a good woman I put on my headphones and it reminds me that I am. It reminds me that my husband, who has listened to 1,000’s of songs over his 40+ years on this planet, picked one song and made it mine. He believes that I am one good woman.

And that is all the romance I could ever want.

 

 

The Case for Collaboration

This week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had when I was working at the university. I was having lunch with the director of a center on campus, a nationally recognized researcher whose intellect and character I respected immensely. We were talking about how our courses of study — hers toward a PhD, mine toward an MBA — had prepared us differently for the task of collaboration.

She told me that as she advanced in academics she was expected to isolate herself more and more. Focusing on narrow research questions and specializing in unique areas, she became an island of one. Occasionally, it had been incredibly competitive to see who could get to the best answer quickest — only one person could win.

I shared with her that in my academic preparation, nearly every activity required group engagement. In fact, I was assigned to a 40-person cohort and a six-person team for my entire first year. I took every class with the same people and I completed nearly every assignment with them.

At the time, I can tell you it wasn’t easy and I didn’t like it much. My team was composed of a diverse group of people. We had two women and four men, four Americans and two international students, two people with technical degrees, three business degrees and a liberal arts major. But, the most challenging issue was that we had significantly different goals for being in the program in the first place.

I was laser-focused on proving that I could be a business leader — I was going to soak in and learn everything I could. I knew I needed to get a 4.0 to start my career without having to apologize for either my liberal arts degree or my two years working as an administrative assistant. I was pivoting and I knew what was at stake; I was more driven during those two years than I had been in any time before or even since.

My team was not.

I struggled, honestly, to build shared goals. I was so new to collaboration that I didn’t always go about it the right way. I talked too much and asked too few questions. I didn’t always embrace people where they were because I was so focused on where I was going. I asserted my own point so strongly that I broke relationships. I definitely overcompensated.

When I started grad school most people assumed I would be a weak link. There is a general perception that anyone capable of analytical thinking goes into either the STEM or business fields as an undergraduate. Only individuals without capability would select the liberal arts, right? That was where I started, writing papers and creating PowerPoint slides. Until I aced statistics.

By the time we started second semester and our core finance courses I had become the team go-to. Free rider syndrome got worse and I reacted poorly. I was so young that I just tried to do more and more, filling in every gap that got created because I honestly didn’t feel that I could afford to let any grade slip. Finally, when I was tapped out and couldn’t figure out how to manufacture any more time in the day I got desperate. I decided to show up late for a team meeting to see what they would do without me.

When I got there fifteen minutes late, I asked how they had decided to approach the case we had been assigned. There was a bit of looking around and then someone said, “Well, we’ve been talking and none of us has a good idea of how to tackle this one. So, we think it makes sense for you to do it on your own and we’ll handle the next one. You can sit that one out.”

Just typing it now it sounds fake, like I’m making that up. I remember being stunned. I remember making a spontaneous decision not to argue about it, not to try to convince them that they should contribute. Of all the things that I had considered might happen, that was not it. I’m not proud to admit it, but all I did was say, “Ok.”

I was just so tired that I retreated.

It was a hard case, probably one of the hardest I did during my time in grad school. There weren’t easy answers, the analysis was complicated and there was significant judgement involved. I struggled, but I was determined. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder or felt I had something to prove, but at the bottom of it all was my knowledge that I needed to do well so I could get a good internship, get a good job and blaze my trail. In the end, I turned in my best answer on time, with everyone’s name on it. I never told the professor that it was my individual work — it was a team assignment and the fact that we made a team decision to single source it didn’t matter.

We got the best grade in the class. All of us.

I tell that story a lot, especially to individuals early in their career. I tell it because I learned so much from it. I learned about the importance of building shared goals early on. I learned that collaboration isn’t easy and you have to invest in it as much or more than building skills. I learned that sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I would get it wrong. And, most importantly, I learned that when I got it wrong I would have to be willing to deal with the consequences to get results I wanted. I learned the consequences might not be fair.

At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.

It’s a good thing I learned what not to do when I was young.