My Way, Not the Right Way

In the late fall of my first year at college I found myself sitting on the steps of the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. My first year at Smith had been everything that I had wanted it to be but the constant newness and mental stretching had worn me thin and I ached for something simple and easy. I recognize it now as being acutely homesick — I just wanted a moment when I could simply exist without working so hard, to be sitting in a place where things just fit.

It was a fleeting emotion and I’m convinced I wouldn’t recall it nearly thirty years later if I had been alone. But, I wasn’t alone. I was joined in that moment by a classmate, a Black woman who had come to Smith from the south. We sat there, two women from very different backgrounds quietly pining for the same thing: the familiarity of home.

I don’t remember much of that day. I don’t remember why I was there, why we were talking, or even her name. I just remember that at some point I blurted out that I needed to go home, that I longed for the anchor of Thanksgiving with my family and everything that felt normal.

She agreed.

Then, her eyes shined and she shared with an obvious love all of the dishes that her matriarchs would bring to dinner. She rattled off foods so comforting that just saying the words brought an immediate smile to her face: ham, sweet potato pie, collard greens, macaroni and cheese. For the rest of my life I will remember the look on her face and the yearning of her voice because they so completely matched mine. And I will never forget for as long as I live the shocking moment when I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, that my lived experience was not everyone’s lived experience.

It may sound naive, but until that moment I believed that everyone’s Thanksgiving table looked like mine — like the Normal Rockwell painting. Certainly everyone celebrated Thanksgiving with a huge, golden turkey accompanied by covered dishes of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberries. Everyone shared a slice of pumpkin or apple pie before adjourning to the family room couch for napping and conversation. I had not even contemplated that other families had different traditions, that their normal was different than mine. And, because I put myself (and Mr. Rockwell) at the center of the universe, my Thanksgiving table was the right way — the way Thanksgiving was supposed to be.

(Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want)

The whipsaw of being completely aligned to my classmate one moment and watching a deeply held assumption crumble in the next is why I remember it so clearly sitting here three decades later on a sunny June afternoon. It is the feeling of that moment — the painful, agonizing growth — that I hits me every time I feel the urge to turn my normal into everyone’s right. I think of the macaroni and cheese and remember that everyone has a normal, but only white majority culture has gotten to choose what is right.

One cannot underestimate the power inherent in defining the standard of rightness. Sure, there are some consistent ideas across countries and cultures, but there is a whole lot of gray space within that. I see them everyday in the world of work, things like:

  • The definition of professional business standards, including clothing and hair choices
  • The best way to lead people and communicate and collaborate within a group
  • The value and artistry of a painting, a song, a dance, a feature length film or a book

Looking back on the early moments in my career I can identify moments where I saw myself subtly nudging individuals with a different normal to the white majority standard. Usually, my intention was to provide them with support in advancing — in competing effectively in a world where knowing and following the unwritten rules can make the difference between getting and losing a promotion. Whether I realized it or not, there I was putting the turkey in the middle of the table and declaring it the right way to celebrate, regardless of how it felt to others. I wanted them to be successful, so I taught them how to play my game, instead of adapting to play theirs.

It was easier that way — for me at least.

And, I might have stayed in that zone if not for another personal experience many years after the steps. I was at an academic ceremony that included a pretty even balance of graduates from all races. I noticed that as the white candidates walked across the stage, their friends and family would clap quietly. And as the Black / African American graduates walked across the stage, their friends and family would offer riotous applause, shout the candidate’s name, and call out affirmations. Near me, as I sat in an all white group, I heard disparaging comments about the Black families — suggesting with rude words and offended looks that they were not behaving in the right way. I was deeply ashamed then, and I still am now thinking about it.

Here’s the thing, I was raised to see a ceremony (a graduation, church service or wedding) as a solemn thing. I was taught to sit quietly, clap politely and draw no attention to myself. That was my normal, the expectation of what was right. But what makes that right? Why was their way of celebrating any less right than mine? Isn’t a graduation cause for enthusiastic and excited revelry? What could be wrong about joyously expressing pride and support for the hard work, dedication and accomplishment of their loved one? If I’m honest with myself, my personality is much more aligned to that model of excited exuberance. I would much rather be loud than languid.

As a leader and an advocate for diversity, inclusion and belonging I seek to remain humble about the right way to do anything although I find myself fairly rooted in my nearly 50 years of lived experience. Even when I try to be open to new ways of seeing the world and manage to push myself off my anchor my human bias is to swing back. As hard as it is now to pivot, I suspect it will be even harder the older I get. So, I surround myself with people who live in the world differently than I do — good people with values and capabilities that I respect. I do little things like say “different” and not “weird” to remind myself (and signal to others) an openness to possibility. I accept the challenge I have to create a more inclusive standard and the failures that will come in that work. And every time I get to experience something different than what I would expect I am grateful for the chance to put a crack in my deeply held traditions and reveal them for what they are.

One way of living in the world — but not the right way.

Past, Present, and Future

Yesterday I celebrated my 47th birthday, a prime but otherwise unremarkable number in the aging pantheon. Normally this one wouldn’t be a “big birthday” but I’d looked ahead months ago and noticed that it fell on a Friday when the kids were out of school. Too good to pass up, I marked it as a vacation day and figured we could spend the day as family before my husband took off on a trip with his lifelong friends.

Perhaps you have already guessed that none of that happened as planned.

Instead, my birthday found me in my fourth week working from home, three weeks into our state’s stay-at-home mandate. Instead of taking a day trip to try a new restaurant, I hosted a virtual birthday party in my dining room. Instead of my husband walking around the Wyoming wilderness, he’s been sauntering around our subdivision. We’re both doing our best to navigate circumstances neither one of us gave any thought to last year.

When I find myself in stressful or unfamiliar territory, my mind struggles to focus on the present. I look back to the past, seeking comfort in the certainty that humanity has conquered similar challenges. I look forward to the future, seeking hope in the promise of better days on the other side of the obstacle. But, I find that my brain spins in overdrive when it thinks about today — unable to escape either the anxiety of ‘what ifs’ or the boredom of mundane tasks.

Thankfully, my husband is grounded in the present. For him, there is only the immediate need: groceries to be purchased, gas tanks to be filled, bills to pay, news to read. The present can either be handled or not handled, it can bring either satisfaction or disappointment. Why look beyond what is in front of you? Yesterday’s success could have been a fluke or a lucky break. Tomorrow’s opportunity cannot be safeguarded and is not promised. Today is all we have and all we can action.

It makes things interesting, even in the best of times.

I have never finished a meal and said, “That was great, time to do the dishes.” For me, dishes are a necessary evil that should be handled when you’re out of silverware or the sink is full, generally after you’ve recharged your batteries with something fun. By contrast, it took him more than ten years with me to go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. If they’re dirty they need to be cleaned. Waiting won’t make it any better.

When I was finishing grad school, I was burnt out. I knew it would be a long time before I could afford to take any time off work, and I desperately needed a vacation. But, grad school had taken its toll — we had no cash and my small signing bonus wouldn’t come until my first paycheck. I was ready to put the economy cruise I found on our credit card but that would still require carrying a balance for several months, paying minimum payments. I created a spreadsheet to prove out that the signing bonus would cover the cruise and the few months of interest charges we would incur so he felt comfortable saying yes.

No we don’t often look at life the same way, but the good news is this: we mostly we have both clean dishes and vacations.

Over the last month there have been many moments where we have barked at each other. In the stress of dealing with the uncertainty both of us have hunkered down into our own way of surviving, focusing on the stuff we’re good at. I have been fantasizing about the possibility of eating a nice dinner out for our anniversary in June and looking at sailboat listings dreaming of a time years from now when we might buy one again. He did some spring maintenance today, throwing a ladder up on the back of the house to clean a gutter and pulling the tarp off the air conditioner unit. We are living through the same moment, but as usual we’re experiencing it in very different ways.

I suppose there may be people who can balance the whole time arc effectively: holding onto the past, embracing the present, looking to the future. But, we’re not those people. We both have blind spots, things we can’t see or choose to look away from. Without him, I would neglect the present. Without me, he would forget the past and forgo the future. Neither of us can see it all.

So, every day we take a moment to hold each other, grateful for the fact that we’re in this together. He leans down and puts his forehead against mine and tells me that he can’t understand how I am able to stay positive, focused on my work and our family’s future. I tell him how much I appreciate what he is doing to keep our day-to-day life in order, everything sane and predictable so I don’t have to worry. We are both certain that we would not be able to handle this alone.

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.