Finding Inspiration

One night during the dark of winter I found myself with a complete lack of inspiration. Sitting there with my iPad on my lap I desperately wanted to write something witty and instead was stalled. Normally when that happens I cop out and scroll through social media or flip over to a word game, but that night I did something else.

I begged the internet for inspiration.

Earlier that week I had listened to an episode of This American Life focusing on a technology designed by two guys in Oslo, Norway called Inspirobot. The software uses a huge library of phrases and pictures (and clearly a fabulous algorithm) to come up with the equivalent of on-demand inspirational posters. The developers have tried to explain to incredulous users that no human being is behind the pictures — but they just can’t believe in mechanized meaning.

I must have clicked the “generate” button 30 times and I quickly understood why people want to believe in it. Some of the results were gibberish, but there were some that had a sliver of truth, just enough to make a connection. The one that I pulled for the graphic on this blog is a good example. It shows a picture of a stylish and happy woman with the phrase “You are capable of making it so that your brother gets scared.” When it popped up I laughed out loud. I am a happy woman who aspires to be stylish and both of my brothers are (in one degree or another) scared of me.

It felt like someone was writing a joke just for me.

Of course, Inspirobot wasn’t doing anything for me. I had simply clicked a button that kicked off a stored routine on a server somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. It wasn’t Inspirobot that was making a joke, it was me. It was my more than forty years as a bossy big sister and my love for my brothers that had made meaning out of a inherently meaningless sentence and picture.

Listening to the podcast and laughing at Inspirobot reminded me that I have a lot of power to create meaning in the world. I am exposed to thousands of words, images, and actions every single day and I run those things through the filter of my lived experiences. How many other people would have seen the image I did and grimaced or cried or felt completely unmoved? What about the woman who lost a brother to a tragic accident? Or the man who had been abused by his sister?

I went back out to Inspirobot today as I was finishing this post and decided to see what witticisms it had for me, what I could learn from its coded crystal ball. I got…

…a prognostication…

…a cautionary tale…

…an inspirational question…

…a rally cry…

…and a truism…

I could read something into each and every one of those pictures, find some way to bring meaning into the story they never intended to tell. Inspirobot reminds me that I need to be careful in my assignment of meaning to the signs and symbols and to be open to the unintended signals I am sending out into the world. And if I’m not sure whether or not I’m manufacturing meaning from the meaningless, I can ask myself a question.

What would Inspirobot say?

Not A Resolution

Once a year people all around the world take a collective look in the mirror, assess their faults and failings, and make resolutions. It’s not a modern concept — the ancient Babylonians celebrated the new year more than 4,000 years ago making pledges to their king and gods for the year to come. There is something powerful in not just identifying the things you want to change, but in making a visible and public commitment to do so. I hereby assert that I will be a better person. Eat better. Exercise more. Appreciate life.

Write more blog posts.

Personally, I have a pretty shoddy track record for making and keeping resolutions. One year, taking a hard look at my couch potato lifestyle and my family’s history of heart disease, I committed to exercising four days a week. I went out and got a gym membership and dutifully pushed myself beyond the emotional and physical struggle for two weeks. But, as soon as my work schedule, family needs, or an illness upset the delicate balance my commitment was over.

I’ve always felt a little lame about acknowleding how crappy I am at delvering on a resolution, but last year I got a little humor boost from the folks at Allstate insurance. I have long enjoyed the “Mayhem” commercials, but none have made me laugh more than the ones where Mayhem is trying to turn over a new leaf. Standing on the roof (“I’m a lightning rod”), laying in the road (“I’m a road flare”), and hanging from the garage ceiling (“I’m a fuzzy tennis ball”) his New Year’s Resolution was to keep us safe instead of creating his namesake carnage. I found the irony hilarious and I waited for the other shoe to drop.

It didn’t take long.

Watching the college football playoff, I sat bemused as Mayhem explained that while being safe was boring, “if you can stick to your New Year’s Resolution that I can stick to mine…” Then, in a quick moment the camera did a close up. “What? You couldn’t even last two weeks? Consider Mayhem back.”

And that’s how it is for most of us. It’s appealing to buy into the annual promise of brute force transformation, but real change doesn’t happen that way. Our behaviors and habits are formed by years and years of experiences and are unlikely to be easily shifted just because the calendar says January. Mayhem can’t instantly go from creating chaos to supporting stability; I won’t go from the sturdy coach potato to a triathlete. It’s just not that simple.

For that reason, I’ve learned to be cautious about setting resolutions. I dislike making promises — even to myself — that I can’t keep. So, this year I’m not focusing on changing the person I am. This year, I’m going to love the person I am and think instead about what I bring to the world. I will:

  • Live my “too much” authenticity and push past the fear of rejection and ridicule when it seeks to dim me
  • Invest in my relationships and be the best [fill in role] that I can be, providing the support needed
  • Explore my deeply held beliefs and assumptions remaining true to my values while being open to new learning and growth
  • Forgive myself and those around me for their humanity and acknowledge and embrace the opportunities given to make amends

Maybe it is a copout to walk away from my failed efforts to make big and tangible changes. I should exercise more. I should give up diet pop. I should write more blog posts. But, if I can look back 365 days from now and reflect on a year that allowed me to grow as a person, perhaps it will be enough.

I can exercise next year.

What to Do When You’re Not a Doer Anymore

I’m a doer. I’ve spent my entire life seeing stuff that needs to be done and doing it. At this point it is more reaction than conscious thought. A gap opens up that needs to be closed and I feel myself being pulled into the void like a helpless astronaut through the airlock. The people around me find it both endearing and worrisome. When I say that I’ve got it handled, people know it will be handled. And yet there is a perpetual worry that I will take on too much and burn myself out.

No one ever worries about whether I can do it, the question is should I?

As I’ve moved into progressively more senior roles I’ve struggled to jettison or delegate enough of the doer work to give myself the time to lead. Earlier in the year I had a tough discussion with my boss about the importance of limiting my doing to those tasks that would benefit from my unique capabilities. He was continuing to expand the scope and scale of my work creating a situation where my survival would be based on prioritizing those critical tasks, investing in ways to monitor and manage my teams, and accepting that some things would not be “A” work. I took it to heart.

But, it hasn’t been easy giving up being a doer.

Just yesterday I was working on a task clearly not appropriate for my level, something I have been doing monthly for more than two years. I texted a colleague for a quick answer as he was leaving a leadership class. He was happy to help but in the course of the clarifying the information he noted, “I just finished class … delegation was a key topic. This seems like something you could delegate…”

“You’re right,” I said, “except…”

I proceeded to explain all of the reasons why I hadn’t done the right thing — why I was still doing and not delegating. None of it was legitimate and I knew it even as I typed. He could have let me off the hook, but he didn’t. Instead, he came back with his trademark wit, “I’ll share the section on addressing the reasons why not … just kidding…”

Of course he wasn’t kidding. He was shining a bright light on something I needed to hear and I’m very thankful he did. There are lots of people on our team who would be capable of doing the assignment if I simply prioritized the effort to transition it to them. Maybe I had been uniquely capable of leading the transformation years ago — for this small change my combination of accounting experience, big picture thinking, and process standards had made a difference. But now the process is completely stable and there is little value-add in my continued ownership. Every month I rationalize that I can do it faster, easier, and better and I’m probably right — I am a great doer. But, there’s a cost.

  • In those two hours I can’t do the work that only I can do.
  • In those two hours I can’t coach or support my team in tough challenges or new growth.
  • In those two hours I can’t invest in my relationships, health, or hobbies.

Guess what, the cost isn’t worth it.

Solving the challenge of doing less and delegating more is critical for any leader who hopes to deliver great outcomes. I know that my organization needs me to do the right work well so we can all be successful and I know that my family needs me to live a complete life that is bigger than my job. Even so, it is hard putting away the skills that have led to my success and to focus instead on growing my capability to help others be successful. Despite my intent to stay focused, I get pulled into the classic traps every day: a desire to help, an inability to let my team down, a willingess to give up my discretionary time for a cause that is bigger myself. Those are all good things. Except when they’re not.

It will take me time to change a lifetime of instinct, but it has to start somewhere. So, I made a commitment to the colleague who called me out. I agreed to transition the task to someone else before next month. I can’t go back in time and give it up any sooner, but I can own the fact that I won’t do it again.

Now, I just have to do that a few more times.

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.

Pivot Points

I love to play strategic board games. Not party games like Pictionary or Apples to Apples, but the kind of games that come with a 30-page rule book and take several frustrating rounds just to understand. When my kids were little our weekends were filled with game nights when we would invite like-minded people over to play until the wee hours of the night. Hunched over my dining room table we would lean into a favorite or tackle something new, wisecracking and trash-talking until someone was victorious.

After the game was over — when the guests had left and I’d cleaned up the snack carnage — I would fall asleep thinking back on the game and trying to remember the moment when the winner had locked it up. What was their strategy? What was the decisive move that shifted the pattern and made their win the likely outcome?

Sometimes that move was obvious, and in hindsight I could see it as the first step in a long and stealthy arc to the end. But sometimes it felt less intentional and more accidental, like the winner had started out trying for one plan but then shifted as circumstances had required it. Thinking about it now, it has the feel of a football coach calling plays from the sidelines. A coach might call a play to set the team up for a last minute field goal, hoping to squeak out the win. But the players on the field might see holes, improving on the field to get a touchdown. In both scenarios the team wins, but only one matches the plan.

My last blog post was focused on the idea that our paths don’t always form the way we anticipate they will and so it was with a bit of irony that this weekend I was reminded about one of those pivot points in my own life. Eight years ago I posted that is was “Facebook official” that I had accepted a new job and my words were dripping with the kind of unbridled optimism that is my hallmark. I was so excited by the opportunity I was being given and completely unaware of the significance my decision would have for the rest of my life.

At the time, I had been at the mid-major university for nearly four years. It was the longest I had ever been in a single job, but I had adapted to this new version of my life in order to provide a stable foundation for my family, allowing them to have strong roots and my time and attention. In “Mel 2.0” I accepted that my work would become more routine and it would be up to me to find other challenges and variety to keep me energized. So, I took classes, sought out student organizations to support, wrote for and edited an association magazine, and won a position on their board. I was happy.

Then an unexpected possibility emerged. There was a new opening posted in another department, a senior position that would provide a potential next step for my career. It felt like an opportunity to grow while also leveraging my knowledge, skills, and experiences to benefit the organization. People I trusted at all levels asked me if I planned to apply and I seriously considered it. In the end, I didn’t see a down side to applying. If I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t be embarassed by someone who was a better fit. If I did get it, I would have found a way to support my family with stability while feeding my own need for new challenges in my work.

I applied. They offered me the job. I took it. I announced it on Facebook.

If life had worked according to my strategy, I would be telling you about how that moment helped me accomplish all of the things that I had planned for myself and my employer. That would have been a great story. But that is not what happened. Everything I had hoped to get out of that plan — an ability to grow within an organization where I had a long-term future, a desire to learn and expand my capabilities and contributions, the ability to invest in a career that would allow me to stay close to family and friends — none of that happened as planned. Instead, the decision would lead, in less than two years, to my returning to industry, shifting from finance to information technology, and moving my family 230 miles away from everyone we love.

Sitting on my deck this morning, I was struck by the fact that everything I have today could be traced back to that decision. Everything I have now, and everything I have accomplished in the last six years, comes from that decision whether I planned it or not.

And that’s the rub, really. Whether you’re playing a strategy board game or living your life you’re making a series of moves. If you’re good, you try to take into consideration controllable and uncontrollable factors, what you can do and what others can do. You try to make the best choices you can and play the long arc, hoping to finish with a win. But sometimes, no matter how good you are, circumstances shift and you have to adjust. If you’re lucky, even when it doesn’t work out the way you planned you can still pull out a win.

Finding Your Path

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

And that’s ok.

Really.

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

In fact, more than ok.

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

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

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

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

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

More than okay.

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

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

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 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 a 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.