Cheering the Cheerleaders

We headed out today for a pleasant jaunt in our speed boat. Our family, and every other family in Northern Illinois, thought it would be a great day to get out on the water. But, there was a ton of algae in the water and our intake got plugged up. Twice. The channels were crazy crowded and at least three boats came barreling into no wake zones in full throttle. So, I had been finding the bright side of every complaint, looking for something to be happy about, when my husband caught me with a knowing glance.

“Why are you always so positive?” he joked, “It’s irritating.”

I’m not sure when I realized that there was something unique about my blend of energy and positivity, something quintessentially too much Mel. The first glimmer of it came during a late night my first year in college. I was struggling trying to write a standard 3-5 page lit paper and I had sought help from a woman one year older than me. In the course of the work we got to discussing our high school experiences and she asked me, completely seriously, if I had been a cheerleader. I was shocked. Beyond shocked. It must have shown in my face because she clarified. “You’re so energetic and perky; you have a great smile. You would have been an awesome cheerleader.”

On that night, in that room, I came up with many reasons why that wasn’t true. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t popular enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I tried to help her understand why I could never have been a cheerleader, why she was wrong. I wanted her to be wrong because I had built strong images of both myself and cheerleaders and I knew that they couldn’t co-exist. I knew it like I knew the sun rises in the East and a rock thrown into a pond will sink.

And as much as my eighteen year old self knew it was wrong, my forty-something self knows it is right: I am a cheerleader.

At some point I realized that people count on my energy and positivity to push through hard moments. My friends rely on me to stand on the sidelines of their life and remind them that they are strong and capable and good. My co-workers rely on me to come into the office each day with the certainty that problems can be solved and to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. My family relies on me to take the ups and downs of life in stride and find a way to smile and power through it. I don’t resent that reliance, I understand it. They aren’t expecting me to be anything but me, an Energizer bunny with a unique capacity to find the good in life.

Most of the time it works out great.

And once in a while, once in a very great while, I just can’t put on my cheerleading outfit. I look at a situation and I really don’t know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed by a hard relationship. I feel hopeless and not hopeful — against all facts to the contrary I feel alone in my failure to figure it out. Depending on the depth of the problem, it might be enough to get a good night’s sleep or sing loud and off key to my motivational playlist. But sometimes that doesn’t work and I am wracked with sobs that echo from deep in my chest, with snot and tears everywhere.

It’s not a pretty picture, the emotionally capsized cheerleader.

But, I’m lucky. I have a great network of people who are watching out for me. When I send out warning signals people offer me chocolate or a hug. When I just tell my network I’m on rickety ground the support is overwhelming. People who would never consider themselves cheerleaders stand on the sidelines of my life with shaking pompoms chanting, “Give me an M! Give me an E! Give me an L! What’s that spell? Mel, Mel, Mel!” And it’s enough for me to dust myself off and get back into position.

I get it now. I understand that my contribution in this life isn’t just about what I can accomplish, but about what I can inspire other people to accomplish. Years ago I rebelled against the cheerleader moniker, but today I embrace it. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to support others achieving their best self? And if there is something in my DNA that makes it just part of the way I’m wired, well, it would be unexcuseable not to leverage it. I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m here on the sidelines of your life ready to cheer you on.

Just don’t ask me to wear the outfit.

Last Step to Adulthood

I’ve never really understood the fascination with a formal age of maturity. It seems to me that regardless of the age we set many individuals will fail to fit that standard. I’ve know wise and thoughtful teenagers and reckless and imprudent people of middle age. No matter what rights of passage we create to try to prove we’ve reached adulthood, each is a poor attempt to codify something that can’t be easily defined.

Consider me for example.

According to any objective standard I reached adulthood long ago. Take your pick from:

  • When I celebrated my 18th birthday.
  • When I celebrated my 21st birthday.
  • When I got married and started my first full-time job at 22.
  • When I started my “real” career at 26.
  • When I bought my first home and had my first child at 27.

No matter how you look at it, I’ve been a certified adult for +/- 20 years. And yet I will tell you that I had a stark realization last weekend that I had finally taken the final step into adulthood.

This crazy idea of midlife adulthood came courtesy of my 25th high school reunion. Most people carry some baggage from their time in high school and as I was approaching reunion I decided that I wasn’t going to let my 18-year old self go. I was adamant that if I was going to go at all, it was going as the me of today, the person who can walk into any room and engage with anyone about something. I was going to hang out with a group of adults and try to forget that I had spent my most awkward years in their company.

My husband wasn’t sure I could pull it off. He reminded me about how unhappy I had been after my 10th reunion as he looked me in the eye and said, “Are you sure this is a good idea? You don’t have to go.” In a heartbeat I knew that I could spend a night surrounded by my family, safe and loved and comfortable. I had a hundred excuses I could use to make a graceful exit and I knew there would be no judgement or worry. But I also knew something else. Every single time my husband has given me permission to give up it’s been a signal that I’m doing something hard and important. And so I looked at him and said, “Nope, I’m going to go. I think I need to go.”

I got in the car and I drove, by myself with no back-up plan and no safety net. I walked in and found the first person I recognized. I got a drink, had some dinner and then circled the room. I knew in minutes that I shouldn’t have worried — my classmates are fabulous people who have unique and inspiring stories.

I talked with a woman about adopting a puppy that her aunt had found in the middle of the road, a puppy who by alerting a passing car had saved her litter and mother who were off the road in a ditch. I talked with a man who told me about his journey to find a true home in the mountains of Tennessee and I saw his pride as he shared the apirations of his daughter who would someday be a pediatric surgeon. I talked to many mothers, including women who had children soon after graduation, women navigating the challenging waters of being a stepmother, and even a woman with toddlers she considered an unexpected gift. I talked with people about working too hard, medical challenges, websites, dissertations, and hobbies. I was never bored.

Over the course of four hours I felt the last vestiges of my 18-year old self drift away. She had no place in that bar, moving among the tables of interesting and engaging people. When I left that night, after a prolonged good-bye with a woman who I hadn’t known in high school and but who now made me promise to visit her home, I felt truly comfortable. I stepped out the door and into the night with one idea in head.

“This,” I thought, “is what it feels like to know you’re an adult.”

Alone

I don’t have much practice being alone.

When I was eighteen I left my parents’ house to go to college. Over the next four years I lived with three roommates on as many campuses. Even after I had a single room midway through my junior year I rarely spent time there, gravitating more to the common spaces where the people were. And then, barely a month after graduation, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my newlywed husband.

Last weekend I was traveling by myself and I considered all the times when I was on my own. I recalled two times, both during job transitions, totaling five months. That’s five months out of lifetime-to-date of 520 months. Less than 1% of my life has been lived alone — and that’s crazy.

I’m not sure what got me thinking about the idea of being alone. Maybe it’s the blog posts from 20-somethings about the pressure they feel to find a life partner. Maybe it’s the news of middle-aged people heading into divorce. Maybe it’s older friends and family learning to live alone after an unexpected death. Maybe it’s just the fact that, as a woman married to a man four years my senior, I’m statistically likely to be alone someday.

And I have no idea how I’ll pull that off.

In the rare moments when I find myself alone in a temporary apartment, a hotel room or my own home I go through a strange cycle. It starts with a feeling of euphoria, the freedom of choosing from an infinite set of options. I binge eat foods that should be eaten in small quantities. I walk from room to room leaving lights on and blaring the radio.  I leave dirty dishes in the sink and empty wrappers on any flat surface. Basically, I act like a teenager.

But, after an hour the oppressive weight of the quiet becomes unbearable. No matter how many tv shows I turn on or how loud I turn up the radio nothing can cover the fact that no one is asking for anything. No one is there to share an important part of their day or a problem that needs to be solved. Faced with an empty home and no one who needs me, it doesn’t take long before I crawl into bed.

And that’s what I’m worried about.

I know a lot of people who are absolutely amazing at living alone. Somehow, they seem to strike a perfect balance between solitary activities and engaging with others. I’m jealous, really. I want to believe that I have the potential to be amazing at living alone — but of course I’m in no hurry to find out. I have a sneaking suspicion that even though I could do an adequate job living alone, I’m only at my best when I’m with people.

And that means someone is stuck with me.

I’m Biased & That’s Ok

Soon after I started my first professional job the team that had recruited me asked for help. They thought I would be a good ‘recent hire’ and they brought me into the recruiting effort. At the time it felt like a nice compliment; many years later I realized it was one of those crucial moments that helped develop me into the person and leader I am now.

Let me explain.

In order to to recruit, I was required to take mandatory interviewer training. At the time I remember thinking the day or two that I was away from my desk was a very long time, a serious interruption from the “real work” they were paying me to do. I embraced it, but I thought of it as more perfunctory than profound.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The training was broken into two parts, theory and skills. The skills section focused on how to take effective notes, how to solicit responses, and things that could and couldn’t be said. It was all very good, I learned fundamentals that have served me well for many years. But the bigger piece of it for me (as it always is!) was around the theory of talent acquisition. How can organizations find the best talent for any given role? What stops talent from coming to the top?

I’m sure there were many elements in that section, but the one that was the most impactful to me was the idea of managing bias. The trainer explained that everyone has a series of experiences that frame their view of the world. Those frames are your personal bias — all of the things you know to be true just because you’ve been alive and breathing. You can’t avoid having biases, she said, so you need to work hard to be aware of them and build systems and processes that are designed to counter them. Without that, you won’t be open to all talent, you’ll just build organizations that look a lot like you.

It made immediate sense to me. I stopped thinking about a world where I either was or wasn’t biased and started thinking about a world where I would always be biased and I needed to own my assumptions constantly. It shifted me from a closed circle where I was everything I would ever be to an open sunburst, where all I needed to check and challenge my biases was a willingness to have new experiences and ask new questions.

Recently, I have been thinking back to that learning. I feel like I’m exposed to more and more in the digital world as my physical world is becoming increasingly homogenous and isolated. I look around and see a tendency to generalize based on anecdotes and experiences. I see unquestioned bias popping up left and right, and I see the tendency to self-reinforce those biases by clicking links and reading articles that support it.

And in case it sounds like preaching, I do it, too. It’s hard not to these days.

When I feel myself falling into that pattern I try to remember is that it isn’t possible to live without bias — bias is just as much a part of life as breathing. Instead, I try to be honest about my biases and how they lead me to act. Personally, I am biased toward strong, intelligent women. I tend to view a generalist leader as stronger than a specialist leader. I lean toward extroverts who like to brainstorm, who are comfortable with the rapid fire back and forth that gets my intellect going. In short, I like people like me and left to my own devices I would hire me, over and over again.

But because I know that, I haven’t. I have hired many talented men and worked for many more. I seek out individuals with deep linear technical career paths because they provided the expertise that every good team needs. My favorite project co-lead was an introvert who let me have the first word in conversations yet added the kind of thoughtful insight that took our conversation forward. Sure, I work with and mentor some Mels, but not just Mels.

I want to believe that if my life had taken a different path and I hadn’t been in that training in my mid-20’s I would still have gotten the point. It’s simple and obvious, and I hope I would have understood it intuitively. Unfortunately I have plenty of examples in my life where despite my focus I have completely missed my own bias. There are so many failure points: gender, race, accent, clothing, religion, occupation, education. Whether someone likes sports or the symphony. Whether they have kids or cats, or live in a city or suburb.

Admit it, you could profile any of those categories. Anyone could and we’d all be wrong.

So, I’m thankful that I had that experience. I’m thankful that when I was young, eager and ignorant about what it meant to lead people my company invested in me. They believed I was capable of rising above my bias to find talent and bring them into our organization. I hope I’ve proved them right.

Drinking from the Fire Hose

Years ago a colleague told me that starting a new job is a lot like drinking from a fire hose. You’re like a thirsty person desperately holding on as water pours out with a force and speed you can’t possibly direct into your mouth. There’s more water than you need or can consume, but you can’t drink it. Instead, you’re exhausted, drenched and still thirsty.

I know from experience that the metaphor is ridiculously accurate.

For the last 60 days I’ve been drinking from my own fire hose, learning what it takes to be effective at a new job. I haven’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks because I’m soaked to the bone and weary with stretching my brain and body. Every day there is some new experience to incorporate into my world view. Every day there is another idea to assess. Every day there is a new micro pattern to fit into the macro pattern I’ve built over a 20-year career. Every single day I add more to my to do list than I take away.

And even when I’m not working my brain stubbornly refuses to stop churning in the background. Every time I settled down to write my brain scatters. I get an idea — write one or two paragraphs — and then *bam* a new to do list will form or my thoughts start to segment things into the important or unimportant, urgent or unurgent. I’ve abandoned 10 or more posts including a touching tribute to fathers. (Sorry, dads, it would have been amazing.)

Yesterday, I finally came to the conclusion that the only thing I could write about was this — struggling with the fire hose and loving the fire hose.

Because as much as I am struggling, nothing is more fun to me than learning something new. Yes, I respect and admire people who invest whole careers in becoming the most capable and competent individuals in their field — the ones who make it look easy and are rewarded with lifetime achievement awards and revered as artists in residence. But, that isn’t me, I’m not a master. I’m a journeyman, someone who will never be an expert and will always have something to learn.

I have been fortunate in my career that leadership has supported my desire to learn — they have had faith in my ability to do stuff no matter what stuff it was. Over and over they have handed me the hose and wrenched the hydrant open, trusting that I could handle it and learn what needed to be learned. And this time, like all the others, I am able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can sense things getting a bit easier, I can feel the water slowing and my clothes drying. 

And I can imagine a time when I will be able to write again.

Milestones

When I was a kid, my parents had this card game called Mille Bornes. It’s a classic driving game from the 50’s where everyone is racing to be the first person to get 1,000 miles. Get it? Mille Bornes? But, while each person’s primary goal is to rack up 1,000 miles you have to focus on keeping everyone else from getting there, too. So when you play a “go” card, they throw a flat tire. You play a “spare tire” and they throw a speed limit. It’s the first strategy game I really remember playing with my parents where I felt like I had a shot. Luck and skill, it took a little bit of both to get a win.

Looking back, I think I liked it because there was a clear milestone to be achieved and you had to scrap and claw to get there. One moment you could be cruising along throwing down 100 mile cards like mad and then *boom* out of gas. Or, you get cocky and think you’ve got someone right in the cross-hairs with an accident hazard and then, *shazam* they have the Driving Ace safety and you gave them big points instead. The goal was simple, but it was rarely simple to get there. My parents had no tolerance for whining — if I couldn’t handle the ups and downs of the game with good sportsmanship, I wasn’t old enough to play.

I hid my frustration and learned to deal with it. I wanted to play and I wanted to win.

I was thinking about that game today because this post marks another milestone, my 100th blog post. In the eleven months it has taken me to get this far, I’ve had moments of elation where I truly felt that my words have had a positive impact in the universe. And, I’ve also had more than I couple moments where felt like those hands in Mille Bornes where I had seven cards I couldn’t use — when I would just draw and discard, draw and discard, draw and discard. It’s hard not to feel dejected, to throw your cards down and walk away.

But the thing about milestones is that they represent progress, a tangible reflection of progress even when your emotions feel that nothing has changed. I know that even though my latest post (Why Even Workaholics Should Take Vacation) has garnered only 17 views that is only one data point. The real milestone is this: 100 posts, 4,300 views and 2,300 visitors. It doesn’t matter right at this moment that my biggest fans are people who know me in real-life. It doesn’t matter that even those people feel like some of my posts are duds. It doesn’t even matter that I’m not sure whether my audience wants me to be silly or serious or sincere. What does matter is that I made it to 100 posts, because that is a milestone.

I’ll figure the rest out on my way to 200.

Why I Love Birthdays

I turned 43 today. I know there is some societal expectation that women don’t talk about aging, but I’ve never subscribed to it. When I was 25, I assumed it was because no one complains about being young and that at some point I would hit an age when I would fall in line and start being cryptic. Well, I’m 43 and I haven’t hit it yet so maybe I won’t.

I hope I don’t.

Because I honestly love birthdays. Everyone’s birthdays, but especially mine. My birthday represents the ultimate reminder of persistence, a time for reflection and a slowed down moment to be connected with the people who matter to me. And those are all things that bring me great joy.

You see, I wasn’t supposed to make it through my first week of life, much less 43 years. I’ve shared my origin story before so I’ll simplify it now: I was born too early and too small in a time when technology was less sophisticated to care for premie babies. My grandfather looked at me and said, “I’ve shot rabbits bigger than that.” The doctor told my mother she was young and could have more children.

So, while I don’t remember my first birthday, I imagine that it was quite the celebration.

The simple act of making it to another birthday is the first gift I open each year. I am here, upright, with breath in my lungs and beats in my heart. A close friend lost his wife to cancer before she reached her 45th birthday. Another close friend is living with stage four cancer now. Somehow, I am here living in what I believe is my prime. I love being in my 40’s when I am still strong and vibrant and capable — despite a few more wrinkles and jiggles. I don’t think I would go back, even if I could.

My second gift is taking a moment for reflection, giving myself time to consider what the last year given me. This year, I watched my teenage daughter find her own way in high school and she let me join her on the journey; I can see the shimmering outline of our adult relationship in the way we acted last year, and there isn’t much cooler than that. As my husband and I watched other marriages struggle, we doubled down on each other — talking intentionally about what our relationship meant to us, traveling more and going on dates. At work, I leaned into my leadership role by taking on new challenges and building new relationships. And then there’s Too Much Mel — last birthday, I was just Mel.

And, if those two gifts aren’t enough, all day I will get messages from friends and family across the globe telling me “Happy Birthday!” Sure, cynics will say that a Facebook birthday wish isn’t real, but I disagree. At 10:26am on my birthday, 65 people had taken time out of their busy day to write something to me. Sure, Facebook makes it easy, and it only takes 15 seconds to type a “Happy Birthday” in the box, but it was time and time is precious to us all. I respond to every single message I get, smiling each time about the memories it brings to light. From cousins to kindergarten classmates to people I worked with three jobs ago, it all means something.

So, I’m 43. I may get presents or cards today or I may not. Whether I do or don’t doesn’t really matter because I already opened my three most important gifts: persistence, reflection and connection.

Let’s hope I get the same things again next year.