Humble and Kind

Last spring I took over a new work team. A virtual team, they came together in real-life to integrate the systems of a newly acquired company. I had been connecting them into our team meetings using technology, but I worried that it would be hard to meet them face-to-face. So, I was ecstatic when I learned that the next site they would be integrating was only an hour and a half away from my home. I made plans to meet them for lunch and then work with them for the afternoon.

When the day came I jumped in my car and headed off. I got turned around once or twice in construction, but still managed to pull into the parking lot just as everyone was arriving. Popping out of my car, I caught the confused looks in their eyes. “What,” I asked, “you didn’t expect me to drive a Ford Focus?” The group chuckled and then someone explained that there had been active speculation about which luxury sedan or SUV I would pull up in. No one had guessed the corporate executive would drive a car loved by college students.

Walking toward the restaurant I shared my story. I told them that after working for seven years at Ford I didn’t know how to buy another brand of car. I told them that my husband and I had been nervous moving to Chicago because of the higher cost of living and I wanted to keep our expenses low. I told them that I like small cars and high fuel economy. It’s hard to say how they felt hearing me prattle on but in that moment I didn’t feel like an executive, I just felt like a person.

I’ve had a hard time articulating my desire to stay true to my roots as I’ve progressed through my career. There is this balancing act to appreciate what you’ve earned while pushing back against unnecessary trappings and unearned privileges. I worry incessantly that I’ll start to feel entitled to special check-in lines or upgrades or perks. I don’t want to forget the little girl who was happy trudging barefoot through a woodland path to swim in a community pool or sleeping on a ratty couch in someone’s basement. The young woman that was happy in a crappy one bedroom apartment eating Hamburger Helper and seeing second run movies at the dollar theater.

After all, she’s the one that got me here.

Recently, I heard Humble and Kind for the first time. Tim McGraw identified my struggles so well that I found myself singing along and remembering the lyrics, especially the chorus.

Hold the door, say please, say thank you
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie
I know you got mountains to climb but
Always stay humble and kind
When the dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind

Of course that is easier sung than done. Our culture is ready and willing to put people who have climbed mountains upon a pedestal, telling them they are more deserving of respect and admiration. In the face of messages that equate financial success with goodness, I remind myself that humility and kindness are the currency of a well-functioning society. I remember that I drive a Focus.

Or at least I used to drive a Focus. 

Last weekend my teenage daughter got her driver’s license and the Focus passed to her. For two months I have been trying to find a new car, oscillating between feeling like I deserve a really nice car and feeling like it is a wonton luxury. The night after we bought the most expensive car we have ever owned I lay in bed worried about what I had done. Was this the tipping point? What if it changed me? And then I realized something.

As long as I am worrying about it I am probably going to be ok — no matter which car I drive.

Thinking Critically Is Hard

There has been a lot of writing about the downside of the digital echo chamber, the tendency for the Internet (social media, search engines, etc.) to feed us information that reinforces our natural views. I’ve tried to fight it by staying connected with individuals from across as many spectrums as I can think of: politics, economic status, geography, race and religious practice. It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s my small attempt to pop my own bubble — to remind myself that my lived experiences are unique and have created a belief structure that is all my own.

An individualized world of what’s right, just like everyone else.

But lately I have felt that passive awareness is just not enough. I’ve been compelled and challenged to try to push beyond uncomfortable statements and assertions to try to understand where the thinking is coming from and to find the grain of truth that lives inside it. Not necessary an objective truth, like gravity, but the subjective truth of a lived perspective.

It hasn’t been easy.

The hardest article I have read in a long time is How to Make Women Happy: Uninvent the Washing Machine and the Pill. Written by a young man named Milo Yiannopoulos the central argument is that women were happier before technical innovation offered choices that inherently made women less happy. He concludes that when women had to focus on homemaking and childrearing they were able to do those things well and that the simplicity in goals led them to be more content. Hearing another person systematically invalidate my life and each of my carefully considered choices was painful and as I read his treatise I wondered aloud how he could possibly write such wide and sweeping statements with so little life experience and none of it as a woman.

I could lay out those points and counter points in an attempt to try convince you that I am right, but that is not the point of this post.

The point of this post is reinforce the idea that it is possible to hear ideas that are personally repugnant, to push beyond the visceral feeling and to think critically about them. And putting myself in that frame I took a deep breath and thought about it again. I considered the basic tenant of the argument that he was making — namely that fewer choices and a simpler definition of good would lead women to be happier — and asked two questions: Would I be happier if my life choices had been constrained? Would other women?

I am a naturally optimistic person and if I am honest with myself I have to agree that there are a great many circumstances in which I could be happy. However, my greatest moments of joy have come from weighing the opportunities and options available to me and making the choice best matched to my capabilities. Pursuing my academic goals, marrying my husband, having my children and choosing the various steps on my career path have each brought struggles, but in every struggle I have been reminded of the choice that got me there. I hear the voice in my head say, “this is what you signed up for” and I have the strength to persevere or in some cases to make a new choice.

No, I don’t think that I would be happier in a world of constrained choices.

But the harder question is what about other women? Some people of both genders believe that supporting women how have career aspirations means rejecting women who want to focus on family. In that framework it is possible that some women feel that there is no real choice to forgo a career — that they feel forced to do it all? And faced with that pressure would some women long for a simpler time when there was only one path for women to take? Yes, I have to admit that is possible.

That’s the hard thing, isn’t it? Change and choice bring opportunity to some and loss to others. Considering that, the choice I make is to continue to reinforce the right for everyone to make the choices most likely to lead to their own happiness. I have and will continue to support women who choose to focus on creating a comfortable home and raising well-adjusted children.

And, just for the record, I support the men who choose to do it, too.

Be the Heroine

Over the last year I have struggled to watch the news reports of violence against women. Like many my heart cries a little bit each time. I cry both for the women who are the victims and for myself. For each and every one of the ordinary moments when — always smaller and weaker than the men and boys in my circle — I could have been harmed.

When I think about what could have been I try to ground myself. I take a deep breath and focus on being thankful. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the voices that criticize how she was dressed, question her alcohol level or observe how long it took her to come forward. I feel compelled to convince those voices that empathy and not blame is the right response when we listen to the women who come forward. That compulsion comes not from any generosity on my part, but from a certainty that those women could have been me and that it is not some strength of character that has saved me from harm but simple luck. Circumstances not skill.

I grew up as a strong-willed but physically unimpressive person. I was acutely aware of the fact that I would not get myself out of situations through brute force and that if I wanted to achieve my ambitions it would be through influence not imposition. I could boss around my two younger brothers, but if I tried to boss around the rest of the world they would surely laugh. You know, like the way people laugh at an angrily yipping chihuahua.

Awww how cute. Totally ineffective, but soooo cute.

And that awareness of my own inability to win in any physical fight frames my entire world view. It has led me to a leadership style that is collaborative and inclusive and not authoritarian and command and control. It has led me to reject the idea that power should lead to position and that bullying is just the law of the jungle. So when I read today about a 30-year old woman that was found chained in a shipping container my first thought was not, “Wow, how did she let that happen to her?” It was, “Crap, that could have been me. What if that was me? Why would any human being feel like it was their right to do that to her?”

I don’t have any answers. I do have two things that I do to move beyond the paralyzing fear and back to a life of possibility.

I listen to the stories of women who were not as lucky as I am. They do not apologize for the violence against them. Instead, they speak of their experiences as testimony to their capacity to survive and ultimately thrive. I listen to the stories of women I know personally and countless others who I will likely never meet. It is in their example that I find comfort. I choose to believe that yes it could happen to me but if it did I could find the strength to push beyond it.

I watch the actions of the men who live with respect for all. They reject the narrative of might as right and the idea that human nature means that the less powerful will always be victims of the more powerful. They don’t make wide-sweeping assertions, they ask questions. They listen to stories with interest not judgement. It is in their example that I find comfort. I choose to believe that yes it could happen to me but if it did I could trust that good men with power would reject the violence and not me.

As I get older the stories of violence are really less and less about me and more and more about the next generation. They are about young girls in high school and college growing up in a world of always on media. The stories are reflected in my amazing teenage daughter who is ready to head out into the world without the constant protection of her father and I. Unlike me, she has a classic beauty that some will see as an invitation — I worry that will increase the odds that she will be harmed. But I can’t lock her away any more than my parents could have locked me away; any more than I would lock myself away now. So instead I tell her the stories of strength and I show her what respect looks like. I am focused on making her as capable of surviving whatever the world throws at her as I can.

And someday when the time comes to pass the world onto her daughter I hope we can both worry less.

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.

Bad Exists

Tomorrow is the fifteen anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Every person reading this could add any number of other things wrong with the world today that lead them to despair. At moments like this even I have to acknowledge, objectively, that the world is not always a good and kind place. I’m an optimist, but I am no Pollyanna ignorant to the world in which I live.

I am fortunate that I did not lose someone personally in the attacks that day. But, I remember the feeling of incredulity as I huddled around a desktop watching CNN at my office. I remember the frantic phone trees to make sure our employees on travel status in NYC were safe. I remember the announcement that all employees were being sent home and I remember driving a colleague to her house because she had carpooled that morning with her husband. I talked non-stop the whole way, but the funny thing is I don’t remember who it was. Weird.

My strongest memory of the day was getting home and hugging my daughter, not yet a year old. I remember sitting with my husband, holding his hand and discussing what it would mean for her. I was strangely appreciative that she wasn’t old enough to understand it, even as I came to terms with the fact that it would change her life in ways I could not fathom. It was a clear and obvious example of bad in the world that no one could protect her from, not even me.

When you’re a glass three-quarters full kind of person, dealing with the bad stuff isn’t simple. To cope, I’ve learned to expand my framing of the world beyond my own experience, to add perspective of other times and places. In the long arc of human experience there are countless examples of worse evils and greater goods to remind me that I am not special. That my trials and triumphs are only remarkable in that they are remarkably human.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to recognize that not everyone deals with the bad in the world the same way and to ask what more we can do. I don’t have an easy answer, no magic wand to make the bad go away or to help people cope with the bad that is here. I wish I did. I wish anyone did, but I know that people who promise an easy way to deal with bad are delusional. Or worse.

Like many children of the 70’s, I remember watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. As an adult I have been impressed by him and was touched by a quote of his spread by the Internet. He said,

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

So, I don’t reject the idea of bad existing. I smile. I write a blog that focuses on real people making their way through the real world, celebrating the good and downplaying the bad. I believe, deeply in my heart, that living in the world today is a gift even when I am reminded that bad exists. Even on the eve of the shared moment that defined the young adulthood of my generation. I’m no Mr. Rogers, but he articulated so well what I believe. Yes, bad exists but so does good.

I try to remember the amazing good.