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.

Find Your Normal

This spring I had lunch at a pub in Harvard Square, a trendy spot that bragged about being founded in 1991. There it was, 1991, listed like it was a date in ancient history and not the year I became an adult, graduated from high school and headed off to college. You know, recent history.

But, I digress.

Despite the fact that it was a cold, wet, miserable day, I was in high spirits to be spending time with my daughter and a great friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I was so excited that when the waiter came over to ask for our drink order I gave him my classic 1,000 watt smile and asked whether they served Coke or Pepsi products. After his answer (Coke) I replied that it would be fabulous if I could get a Diet Coke. He gave me a bemused smile and asked if I would like a lime in it. A lime? Wow! I was even more enthusiastic about accepting the unexpected possibility of a lime. After he left I glanced over at my daughter and noted that she was giving me the look. “What,” I asked? She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Mom, I think you just take people by surprise. You’re a bit much and no one really knows how to deal with it.”

I shook it off the best I could, but the feeling that I wasn’t quite normal in my daughter’s eyes hung over me. It had the paralyzing weigh of a rain-drenched sweatshirt, its moisture sticking to you like you might never be dry again. In that moment all of the self-acceptance and growth I had gained through my 40’s felt flushed away. If I couldn’t be my authentic self with my own child, what did that mean for my odds with the teeming masses?

 

There is a human tendency to try to figure out the boundaries of normal. Sometime in childhood we recognize that there is a range of expected behaviors defined by cultural history and experiences. Kids are smart, they learn that conformance results in tangible benefits — friends, love, and appreciation. Peer pressure is nothing more than the enforcement of those boundaries through both inclusion and exclusion. In that moment my daughter was simply observing that wild enthusiasm over a drink order was well outside of that line. It wasn’t normal, not by a long shot.

And, I might have let that moment bring me down, flatted by the indignity of being called out by my flesh and blood, except that I remembered that there is one thing even stronger than the human tendency to define normal: the tendency for human teenagers to see their ancestors as square. So, I shared a look of parental camaraderie with my friend and we chatted about lighter topics: what we planned to do with the summer, memories of our college escapades, the weather. It wasn’t too many Diet Cokes later (all with a lime) that I was back to my normal over-the-top self, wishing our waiter a rousing good afternoon as we headed back into the rain.

This week, I found myself heading down to the convenience store in my building just a few minutes before closing to grab something caffeinated to help me through the day. As I took my three bottles to the register I smiled another 1,000 watt smile. With wild enthusiasm I congratulated the woman behind the counter on making it to the end of another day. She gave me a bemused glance and said, “You are entirely too energetic.” I deflated, lowered my volume and told her that although it was hard I could dial it back just a bit. “No,” she smiled, “don’t do that.”

Ok, I won’t.

 

 

 A Driving Love Story

When I started driving I realized something — I was too small to be comfortable in most cars. People would comment that they thought they saw me driving down the street, but they weren’t sure; my head wasn’t visible over the seat back. I would have to adjust the seat to its farthest front position just to reach the pedals, and after air bags were invented I wondered what would happen if one deployed. But, I adapted and moved on. Years later I came home from work and told my husband about a car that had been mocked up to show a six foot tall man the experience of a short woman. I shared how funny it had been been that my male colleagues had been shocked to be unable to see the front of the car, a daily experience for me.

“Wait,” he said, “You can’t see the front of the car?”

Maybe that’s why I fell in love with the first Mazda MX-5 Miata when it was released. Sixteen years old and desperate for the freedom that comes with a set of car keys, the two door roadster immediately caused my heart to go pitter patter. I started telling my parents that it was the only car designed to fit me and ribbing my dad that if he truly loved me he would buy me one. It became a repeating gimmick — me making demands that were so outrageous that I knew they would never be met and my parents handing me keys to their practical sedans and hand-me-downs.

By the time I returned from a study abroad experience in Australia and saracastically asked my then boyfriend (now husband) if my dad had finally gotten around to buying me a Miata it was a well-practiced schtick. He laughed. “Why do you keep saying that? Who would possibility do that?”

Turns out, my parents.

It’s been nearly 24 years but I still remember the feeling of pulling into the driveway. I had been traveling for 36 hours straight and all thoughts of exhaustion were sucked away by the sight of that shiny red convertible with its top down on a sunny June day. The pictures show me bedraggled with a 1,000 watt smile, my bemused husband looking on stunned. My parents hadn’t told him of my plan — somehow they knew enough about the two of us that they thought I might ask and they knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the secret.

And guess what, I loved being behind the wheel of that car every bit as much as I thought I would.

I drove that car the day I got engaged, getting a horrible sunburn on every spot not covered by clothes or the seat belt. I drove it throughout my senior year in college, including a trip down the highway with an 8′ rug rolled up and sticking out the open top. I drove it with a 3′ tall stuffed Buster Bunny that I won at Cedar Point strapped into the passenger seat. That silly car could only fit one pathetic milk crate in the trunk, but I didn’t care — I was in love and everything else was just details.

We carried on that way, blissfully in love, until a freak snowstorm in upstate New York hit on my drive back to college over Thanksgiving break. I drove white-knuckled for the better part of seven hours and then spun out on an off ramp. With my headlights pointed toward oncoming traffic I got turned around by sliding back and forth into guardrails. I finally made it back to my dorm, parked illegally and collapsed on my bed. I don’t know whether I was more distraught by the accident or the fact that I realized that my car wasn’t perfect. All I know is that I started to wonder whether a 20-something who lived in the midwest could really own a Miata. Maybe our relationship couldn’t survive winter. Maybe the honeymoon was over. I agonized and then finally confessed to my parents.

Always pragmatic, they offered a solution. Mom had a practical, front-wheeled drive hatchback. We could swap cars and titles; I could have her car and she could take over the Miata. She didn’t have to drive when the weather was bad, and if she did, she could borrow any one of a number of other cars available to her. I felt the sadness of a break-up, but squared my shoulders and went to the Secretary of State office to process the paperwork. I had given up my perfect car for practicality, choosing dependable and reliable over fun. And for fifteen years I played the dutiful adult driving that car and then a series of sedans and sport utility vehicles, one right after another.

And then, I got a call. My mom had kept the Miata all those years eventually buying a second winter car. Now they had decided to upgrade and they wondered if I wanted to buy my car. I hemmed and hawed. By this time I had been married for fifteen years; I had two children and my driving life was designed for carpools and car seats, not convertibles. And yet my parents knew me, knew what I had given up those many years ago in a necessary moment of adulthood. They listened to my many practical reasons to say no and then paused a moment. “Ok, well what if we just gave it to you?”

Thankfully, I said yes.

No, it is not practical to own a 23-year old car. No, it is not practical to take up garage space for a car that only comes out six months a year. No, it is not practical to invest in a new top or tires or speakers. No, it is not practical to drive a car without modern safety features at 70 miles per hour down the freeway singing like a freak to 80’s rock and modern dance hits. But, I haven’t faced a moment yet that is so hard or so demoralizing that it can’t be made better by dropping the top, climbing behind the wheel and driving my little red convertible for 30 minutes. When I drive my Miata I feel like the sexiest woman in the world even though I passed into middle-aged frumpy years ago. No, it’s not practical, but I’ll tell you what — I plan to hold onto that steering wheel so hard that someone will have to pull it out of my cold dead fingers.

It may be impractical, but that’s love.

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.

Too Much Collaboration

Earlier this year I shared a post called The Case for Collaboration in which I described my early experiences with teamwork and argued that business today is all about being able to work effectively with others. I ended the post with an opinion framed not by facts but by my experience. I wrote:

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.

Today, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review that both validated my view and suggested a significant cost to my being right, costs to both to me and the organizations that rely on my abilities.

The article, Collaborative Overload (HBR, January 2016) notes several interesting facts from its research:

  • “…over the past two decades, time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”
  • At most companies, people spend 80% of time on collaborative tasks (meetings, phone, email)
  • “In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”
  • “…roughly 20% of organizational “stars” don’t help; they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don’t amplify the success of their colleagues.”
  • “The lion’s share of collaborative work tends to fall on women.”

As I read the article, I felt better and better about the way that I consistently work to share my information, social network and time and worse and worse about the negative impacts that the article said my collaborative overload was having on me and my teams. The article said that I was setting myself up for burnout and there was a risk I could become an institutional bottleneck and so overtaxed as to become ineffective.

It’s hard to look in a mirror and not like what you see.

So, what to do about it? Given my value system, there’s approximately 0% chance that I will turn into a ‘door closed, don’t ask me, say no to everything’ person. But, thankfully, the authors suggested some concrete ideas for responding that don’t involve me not being me.

First, it suggests shifting from being a personal resource (investing my own time and energy in solving) to being both an informational resource (sharing knowledge and skills) and social resource (providing access and network). Both of those collaborative resources are more efficient and the good news is that I already try to do both of those things. But, it’s a reminder that I need to do it more and to be consciously stingy about where I deploy the scarcest of my resources, my time and energy.

Second, it suggests changing how I respond to requests, by thoughtfully triaging emails and meeting requests. That’s always easier said than done. Strangely, I find that when I am most exhausted I retreat into the comfort of “cleaning my email box”. And, anytime I do try to set up barriers or limits (checking email twice a day, creating quick ways to delegate or ignore) it never lasts for long. The problem is doing those tasks is simple and I’m good at it — and I feel guilty ignoring the constant demands hiding there.

Lastly, the article suggested ways to increase awareness on the need to recognize and reward individuals who manage to deliver results and help others deliver. Those employees, the article and related studies suggest, have the potential to contribute substantially more than their teammates, driving organizational performance at a time when collaboration is critical to success.

But only if they don’t burn themselves out first.

Enough Is Enough

Today is a perfect summer day, not too hot with a pleasant breeze. Underneath the gazebo I can peek out and see a bright blue sky bordered by a lush canopy of green and a few fluffy clouds. Cicadas and birds are the only living things I can hear, except for my own breathing and tapping on the iPad screen. In my head, I am going through the list of projects that need to be done: the trim that needs to be painted, the siding that has seen better days, and the gazebo that is starting to rust. My brain moves inside and starts to go through outdated cabinets, ratty furniture and walls that we never painted after moving in. The list gets longer and longer.

And then in my head I sell it all and move us into a three-bedroom bungalow.

Lately, I’ve noticed that my thoughts are swinging erratically between two extremes. On one hand, I look at my home or my wardrobe or my possessions and I think, “You should have more / nicer things. You work hard, you deserve it.” And on the other hand, I look around and think, “You have more than any reasonable person should expect or can use. You don’t need anymore.”

I find it exhausting and maybe a little healthy.

Our society is flooded with consumerism. Everywhere you look are examples of beautiful things that promise a beautiful life. It feels like more and more we are tying the value of our lives to the value of our things. Maybe it has always been this way, but I am feeling it acutely now in my middle years. I have example after example coming to mind.  The friend who is building a new home and sharing her journey on Facebook, with every gleaming picture a comparison to my dated 1990’s medium oak. The cottages lined up along the lakefront, their boats on lifts or at docks as we go through the process of trailering our speedboat in and out each time. The new gazebo our neighbors built with custom screening, a ceiling fan and twinkly lights, when our deck has a hodgepodge of furniture including plastic tables with peeling spray-paint.

And each time my inner toddler pops out, “I want. I want. I want!”

And each time my middle-aged self reminds my inner toddler that we don’t always get what we want. That I should feel joy for the friend who is finally putting down roots in a home that is all her own. That I should feel appreciation for having a boat at all, and that we could hardly find the time or energy to keep up a second home. That we don’t spend enough time on our deck to invest in something better. That sometimes, enough is enough.

I think one of the reasons I am struggling is that it is hard to acknowledge that life is finite. There are only so many experiences you can pack into any hour, day, week, month or year. There are choices we make about how we spend our time and how we spend our money. A moment spent here, on my deck typing this reflection, is a moment I’m not spending driving my convertible or boating with my husband. Sleeping an extra hour this morning meant I didn’t get up and take a ride on my bike, one of my favorite purchases two years ago.

That’s why when I’m overwhelmed I make the mental leap into letting it all go. Living in a tiny house or studio apartment would mean I wouldn’t have to choose. I wouldn’t be able to add more and more, there would be less to keep up. It would mean that I wouldn’t feel conflicted, the space would prevent that from happening. Someday I hope to let go of these trappings and live a big part of my life on a sailboat. It’s the ‘tiny house’ that fits me best, where I can stow everything critical in cabinets that lock, shelves with rails and hanging nets. I can take pride in finding a way to pack everything we could possibly need for our adventures into a ridiculously compact space.

And, thankfully, iPads are really small.

J.U.L.Y. (Just Unlimited Love, Y’all)

I love the month of July more than any other month of the year. I love it more than the month of my birth and more than the big holiday months. I love it for the fabulous Great Lakes summer weather and boating under crisp blue skies. I love it for the rewards of vacation and relaxing without guilt. I love it for the simple joys of longer days and time with my family and driving around with the top down on my convertible. But the reason I love it more than any other month is simple.

No sports on tv.

Now, I hear what you’re saying. What about baseball and tennis and soccer and golf? Yes, all of those sports are actively on the tv during July. They just aren’t on my tv. To understand what I’m saying, you have to go back in time. Take a journey with me to my early years.

Growing up my house was — at best — ambivalent to sports. We didn’t watch them on tv and we didn’t throw balls around in the backyard. I ran track, but that was it. Occasionally my dad would flip past a Tiger’s game or college football, but he was equally content to listen on the radio or check a box score the next day. I only remember two times when we went to a venue to watch a sports event in person; sports never caused plans to be broken or got in the way of any other activity.

When I met my husband, it was a shock to my system. The first fall that we were dating, I was surprised that it was against protocol to do anything but watch college football on Saturday. We might miss “no meaning” games, but not his team. For his team, we watched and I learned to hope they would win. In later years when his team played against my team I started a tradition of having something to do for three hours and checking the score before I returned. I learned there were similar restrictions on NFL weekends and certainly for bowl games.

I adjusted, mentally noting that 20 weeks a year were out of bounds.

Then, at some point in our early married years I started to notice that NHL hockey was on tv more and more. An occasional game stretched to whenever something better wasn’t on (and if you ask him, there is never anything better on than hockey). Eventually it got to every regular season game of his team, 80 games or 3-4 per week from September to April. The playoffs stretch into June. Together, football and hockey occupy my life from August through June.

Which leaves us with July.

Sure there are other sports, but they don’t matter. I’ve never been asked why someone chose to get married on a day when a major golf tournament is scheduled. I’ve never had to take an alternative date to a concert because it was the Wimbleton finals. I’ve never been asked to check the score of one baseball game while watching another one in person. Only football and hockey require careful navigation.

But there’s no navigating in July.

There are only a couple more days in July. I’ve seen mentions of preseason football and the rookies are hanging out in hockey camps trying to get slots. Summer isn’t quite over, but my summer is almost done. It’s time to turn off my cooking shows, download the 2016-17 schedules and get ready for the daily check of scores. My month of relief is coming to an end.

And that will make it all the sweeter next year.