How Can I Help?

I saw a great cartoon earlier this year, providing perspective on the different effort expended by parents in “running the house.” As the spouse of a stay-at-home parent, I quickly saw myself in the parent who does much less and yet protests “but I help…” Everyone who has come into contact with me and my husband knows one well-established fact: I carry very little of the administrative burden of our home, sitting back content in the certainty that the vast majority of everyday tasks will just happen. I help, but not nearly enough.

As my brain wandered to what I could do to balance my ‘at home’ scales I pondered a bigger question: If I truly want to help, why am I not helping more?

In my experience, most people are ready and eager to help. Personally, I have one of the strongest and most supportive networks, filled with people who I know will help without hesitation if I asked. In the last month I’ve faced some challenges that I never anticipated — at home and at work — and at some point or another every person that I consider important to me has offered help. But, even with that help offered I haven’t done a great job of turning their eagerness into action, instead sending them away with the throwaway, “Thank you for the offer, I’ll let you know when there is something that you can do.”

And then I don’t call them because I don’t have a clue what they can do.

Here’s the problem, when I’m buried in work or a complex project, it feels like I’m drowning swimmer two feet over my head and wildly flailing my arms. Although I look cool and calm as a cucumber on the outside — years of practice — inside I’m in panic mode, my body frantically trying to stay above the water. My brain is focusing on only one thing: do not drown. And, it is in that very moment that someone shows up in a boat, pulls up along side me, and asks, “How can I help?”

Now in a calmer moment I could absolutely assess the right next steps and ask them for a rope, a buoy, a life jacket — anything that would prevent me from sinking to oblivion. But with my brain fully focused on the immediate need of not drowning, I can’t. Instead I say something stupid like, “Nothing right now, I’ll let you know.”

The boat pulls away leaving two people no better for the moment of connection.

We’ve all been there, stuck on one side or another of a failed help conversation. Sometimes we’re the swimmer, sometimes we’re the boat. No matter which side we’re on, every single moment when it happens feeling inherently unsatisfying.

As I think through when help has worked and when it hasn’t the first thing that comes to mind is the power of specific help instead of generic help. Imagine if the person on the boat didn’t ask, “How can I help?” and instead said, “I’m throwing you a life ring, grab it.” It takes a lot less mental gymnastics to understand a command and respond than to run through a laundry list of possibilities and pick the one right-sized task out of 100’s. Faced with simply clarity of action, most people can accept offered help and support.

And that would work great except that I’ve seen the direct approach fails as well. Sometimes, declarative help comes in the form of an unwanted casserole or a push down an unwelcome path. There have been times when I’ve rushed into a situation with the very best intentions of helping only to harm the people I meant to help, either by identifying the wrong solution or simply by stealing the person’s self-determination.

So what the heck is the helpful person to do?

It seems to me that the right answer is to spend more time listening and less time acting. In the cases when I have helped the most, it is because I have taken the time to listen to the person struggling so I can hear in their story and identify places where they might need help. With reflective listening and good questions, it is possible to let the person share what they choose about the situation and once more is learned, I can offer the better things. Recently, I was talking to someone and learned they no longer felt comfortable driving at night because of vision loss. Later that week we were heading together to the same event. Armed with my new intel, I was able to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if I drove?” My offer of help was specific, targeted, and still something that could be refused. It was imminently better than the open ended, “What can I do?’

I’ve found that the same technique works when someone does offer generic help. Lately I was feeling overwhelmed with a big task. Instead of going into my struggle cave, I took the time to walk a colleague through the challenges and big steps. He asked questions and together we broke the work down, eventually identifying a couple of building block items that could be easily delegated. Once I could see those tasks, I asked if he could own those and of course he said yes.

In both cases, both the helper and the helped felt exceedingly better than if we had stalled, without help.

And that’s the hard thing, really. Everyone understand that finding yourself alone and without help is isolating and horrible, but it can be just as difficult to be surrounded by help and not know how to activate it or to want to give help and not know how to do it. Our  real opportunity is to find better ways to channel good will to good action, to turn possibility into outcomes.

I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me that when you start with listening you have a chance to get there. When we build real empathy and understanding and we tie that tightly to empowerment we can keep everyone above the water line. By simply defining intent and offering options we can create the kind of help that benefits our friends and family. The words may seem simple — “I want to help you. Would this help you?” — but the power is immense. They may accept or not, but either way we can take a concrete step closer to doing something.

And the right something is better than nothing.

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.

The Fight for Intentionality

When I worked on a university campus I was surrounded by the opportunity to engage with new people and new ideas. Every semester my calendar would bulge with the possibility of classes, speakers, and books filled with new perspectives to be considered. I didn’t take advantage of even 10% of what was possible, but somehow I managed to attend a presentation by Dr. Scott Stanley on the topic of sliding versus deciding.

If you type “sliding versus deciding” into a search engine, you’ll find a few things. You’ll learn that the term itself (Sliding vs. Deciding®) is a registered trademark. You’ll discover a blog focused on love, sex, and commitment and more links than you could explore on a Sunday afternoon. And, hopefully you’ll get the same gist I did from my time with Dr. Stanley more than ten years ago: relationships in our current generation are defined by sliding into the next level of relationship commitment (dating > cohabitation > marriage > children) as compared to the intentional deciding of past generations.

At the time, I found the idea intriguing simply as a way to assess my own relationship with my husband. Already married more than 10 years, I looked inward. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment at each of the stages when our relationship had deepened to the next level? Yes. Could I articulate that intentionality to myself or to him? Yes. Was I certain that I hadn’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logical step, the next thing expected as part of our social contract of relationship growth? Yes. Satisfied that I was on as solid footing as I could be, I tucked the idea away and waited for it to be useful again.

Like now.

Lately, I have had this gnawing feeling like my life is less intentional than I would like. More times than not I find myself sitting in a moment and wondering how I got there. Did I mean to focus on this task? How did I spend an hour working in this space? Why is my phone in my hand again? Looking at it through the lens of sliding versus deciding, it feels far more slide-like than decide-like. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment? No. Can I articulate the intentionality to myself or those near me? No. Am I certain that I haven’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logistical step? No.

Crap.

Now don’t get me wrong, not every step in life needs to be planned out. I’ve devoted many posts to my own exploration of the unplanned and unplannable experiences that create a full and meaningful life. But, in my mind that is different than being able to articulate the critical why of your own story. There is something powerful in deciding that what you are doing, why you are doing it, and who you are doing it with is your first best option and not just something that you stumbled into. It is true whether you are sitting at a business meeting, the dinner table, or chatting with someone via text — intentionality makes a huge difference in the value you can bring to the moment.

This weekend I knocked on my son’s bedroom door, rousing him from the weekend hibernation common to boys his age. A day earlier we had talked about going to a “you pick” farm and the weather hadn’t cooperated yet, but I let him know that there was a break in the thunderstorms. If he got up right now we should be able to get there and back before the skies opened up. He dragged himself out of bed and made it downstairs cleaned and brushed in record time and together we headed out. We spent three hours driving with the top down and tromping through muddy fields picking produce together, chatting about the handful of topics that are acceptable to both middle-aged women and teenage boys (and a few that aren’t.) Tied to intentionality, we were both living our first best option — in that brief shining moment I knew I was a better option than video games.

I’ll remember that moment for a long time.

And, the hard thing is this: Once you’ve lived a decide moment — or blessedly, a lot of decide moments — you feel wholly unsatisfied with a slide moments. You can see and sense the lack of engagement and commitment, both from yourself and others. You can sense and feel disquieted by the feeling that you’d rather be somewhere else, that something else would be a better use of your time. Even if you don’t have the feeling yourself, you can see the signs: you check your phone, flip over to email, create to-do lists, doodle, put yourself on mute.

When I find myself in those moments, it’s a signal that I need to create a change. I pull out my vision statement, my personal and professional goals and have a hard conversation with myself. How often is it happening? It is a temporary thing or a trend? What would it take to get back to intentionality? What can I do to put myself back in the driver’s seat of my life, to create more deciding and less sliding? Is there anyone who needs to help me? It’s rarely an easy inner dialogue, even if the adjustments are fairly simple. But, there’s one thing that I decided a long time ago that hasn’t changed: the life I live needs to be my first best choice.

Networking Isn’t Mentoring

Months ago I had noticed with appreciation how well an executive woman in my industry utilized Twitter — her posts seemed to consistently and seamlessly reflect both her personal and professional personas. Having met her once briefly in the real world I sent her a message on Twitter and told her I was looking to get better at my own social media balance. Would she be willing to invest 15 minutes in helping me get better? It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off. She connected me to her administrative assistant and after comparing challenging calendars we landed on a date a month in the future. Yesterday.

She was kind enough to offer me nearly an hour; I only took 25 minutes.

As we talked she shared the intentionality of her social media presence, her engagement with corporate communications, and the importance of aligning values. She told me I was a great writer and offered to connect me with another blogger who she felt spoke with a similar voice. I gained more from our brief discussion than I would have from reading hundreds of pages in self-help books or listening to hours of podcasts. It was a major accelerator in maturing my thinking about how I show up online and how I need to adapt my own approach.

As we closed and I thanked her for giving up her time — an executive’s scarcest resource — she shared that getting my request had made her day. She told me about others who had given her similar guidance when, like me, she was looking to improve her social presence. We shared a conspiratorial chuckle over the very human response one has to being told that something we do is admired and how it creates a willingness to give others a hand.

It was a wonderful, and classic, example of the power of networking.

At the same time I was preparing to connect with her, I was reaching out to my closest mentees to ask them to characterize our relationship. I told them all the same thing: “I’m thinking of writing a blog post about the difference between networking and mentoring and our relationship is important to me personally and professionally. How would you characterize it and what do you think has helped it be as beneficial as it is?”

Their responses were touching and quickly illuminated that while both types of connections are important for development, there are important differences between building a network and building mentorship.

Mentorship Is Personal

To a person, the people I checked in with noted that although our relationships may have started as professional — connecting with me in the work world and valuing me for my skills and ability to deliver results — all of them shared that they viewed our relationship as a friendship. They expressed numerous ways that our friendships emerged including things like having access to my cell number, seeing and treating them as a whole person, and feeling comfortable going out for dinner. We have all been to each others’ homes, met each others’ family. Somewhere along the way I went from being someone who could help them navigate their career and become someone who could help them find happiness in life.

One person made it explicit. “I have needed you for mentoring, but I honestly just like you as a human. If you had been an English teacher, we would have had less in common to talk about in terms of work shared experiences, but I’d still love to have been your friend. I value you for your very Mel-ness.” Maybe that is why great mentoring relationships transcend employers, industry changes, and retirement. It has to do with the sincere belief that the other person has both the capacity and the capability to help, not because they have to but because they want to.

That is far different than a networking relationship. Sure you might exchange the comfortable pleasantries of your personal life at a networking event, but it is only within a mentoring relationship that you will open up about a significant other struggling with your career success, how a new child is forcing you to make tough trade-offs that you hadn’t considered would be needed, or whether you should take a risky new position or promotion. You have to be vulnerable to share those truths with a mentor and that doesn’t happen if they don’t believe you care about them as a person. You know, a friendship.

Mentoring Is Long-Term

When I think about my most successful mentee relationships, they span years and supersede whatever circumstances brought us together. What I’ve noticed is that networking and mentoring look similar at the beginning — one person reaches out to another person (or is connected with another person) because they have something to offer. I get a lot of mentor recommendations where a colleague of mine says, “So-and-so could really use a mentor and I think you would be great.” We’ll meet, have a great dialogue, the individual will ask a series of specific questions and then…

Poof. Gone.

And while that single great discussion is a great example of networking, it isn’t mentoring. Maybe the person didn’t gel with my personality. Maybe the insights I offered weren’t on point. Maybe they were on point but they didn’t feel there was anything else to be learned. No matter what the reason, in order for a networking moment to shift to mentoring, they must have longevity. Every successful mentoring relationship I have been in (on either side) critically depends on shared history to provide future guidance. Sure, there are moments of significant lean-in and times when the parties take long breaks from connecting, but they are never one and done. For me, the moments that come later in the journey are the most rewarding, offering both parties a much needed chance to gain energy from an important empowering relationship.

Mentoring Is an Investment

Although I know all too well the value of 25 minutes of any executive’s time, it is a small drop in the bucket compared to the time and energy someone dedicates to a successful mentoring relationship. A networking conversation will find its way onto my calendar only when it doesn’t impact either my work results or family commitments. By contrast, a mentoring relationship might intrude into either, depending on the urgency of the need. I’ve been know to step out of family movie night to take a call or apologize to my husband for being on my phone with a mentee. When I say, “It’s so-and-so, they are considering a new position and want my perspective” he knows who it is and why it matters to me. He understands and gives me the space I need.

Beyond time, the investment can also come in the form of giving people a vision for themselves before they have the courage to see it. One truly talented person — someone I believe has the potential to change the world — told me that my investment in her was surprising, that she was unprepared for someone successful to take the time to open doors and give of my time. “At first it was mainly that I looked up to you. [I] saw you as a very strong, educated, successful woman…I wanted to be that and you seemed to think there was something in me that would help me do that one day.”

Investment also comes from taking risk. Another newer relationship started with a simple networking call. I had opened the door to more, but communications went silent. In that case the individual pushed beyond the discomfort because a trusted person “encouraged me to look past the embarrassment I felt in not following through the first time and suggested that I just go for it.” They were willing to put themselves out there because there was a promise of a real opportunity to grow. Only time will tell whether the relationship will blossom and persist.

I value each and every authentic connection I make in the world, from an amazing conversation at a conference lunch to a friendship that spans decades. I try to treat each interaction I have with someone as an opportunity to learn more about the world and in turn myself. Although they are very different experiences, I would’t give up either networking or mentorship.

Fortunately, there’s no reason I have to.

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.

Who Do I Admire?

My head hurts. Not from a classic, garden-variety headache but from the feeling of too many ideas elbowing each other for space in the clown car that is my brain. I’ve spent the last four days with talented, capable women who (like me) are focusing on their professional development and it has been all I can do to furiously jot notes down for future consumption. I’ve probably got fodder for 10 future blog posts, but my head is stuck on one question:

Why can’t I name someone I admire when the question pops up?

Here’s the thing, facilitators and speakers love to ask this question. I’m sure my psychology major friends could provide a scientifically framed explanation, but I have a suspicion. I bet it’s a great way to generate positive feelings and a list of worthy attributes based on one’s lived experience. But, no matter why it is successful, I will tell you that it is so common that it has happened three times at this conference alone, not to mention the myriad of times over my lifetime. And every time I am asked, I pause frustrated as my brain goes foggy. And I guess that would be fine if a shiny hero walked out of the fog with her sword ablaze — but she doesn’t.

What is wrong with me?

I’ve always had a mental gap in idolizing famous people. The weird thing is that it is not for a lack of respect. I have an abundance of respect for the mega-talented, but it has never translated into a desire to put those individuals above others in my pantheon of admiration. If I’m honest with myself, I think it’s because of my need to know someone, in a “sit down and chat” kind of way, before I can see them as a person worthy of admiration. Yes, I can observe someone’s capabilities from a distance (acting performance, sports accomplishment, company’s stock price, singing voice) and be in awe of their skill in their craft, but a question pops up in the back of my head.

“Yes, but is she a good person? How do I know she is a good person?”

On the other hand, the people I know in real life are like flowers flourishing in a garden of admiration. Each one is unique and beautiful, no two admirable for exactly the same reason. If you were to walk through my garden and point at each one, I would be able to share a story or a moment that would bring their petals and color to life.

  • That one, she’s resilient — life has knocked her down over and over again and she simply rises up again with grace.
  • That one, he’s brilliant and witty with a self-deprecating humor — he struggled to find his confidence and took his insecurities out on people when we were younger, but grew through it and now is an ally for the outsider.
  • That one, she will make you work to be worthy of your friendship, she wants to know you will stick — but once you do, she will be your shield mate and support for the long haul.

When I scroll through my Facebook feed they all make me smile, each of them so worthy of my admiration, whether they believe it or not.

Tuesday night, as the conference was coming to a close, I chose to skip the big celebration. Mentally exhausted, I gifted myself the solitude to let my brain quiet and try to process the big learnings. I called the hotel salon and grabbed the last manicure appointment of the day, walking quietly in the dark across to their building.

As I sat across from my nail technician, a woman many years my senior who had emigrated from Lebanon, I started to frame her flower in my head. Courage, for bringing her three boys to a foreign country. Nurturing, for holding her now grown sons together by cooking them dinner every Sunday. Patience, for absorbing the disappointment of customers without anger. At the end of the hour, her flower was as bright and beautiful as my shiny red nails.

Don’t get me wrong, I love heroes. I watch every super hero movie that comes out and my favorite books are high heroic fantasy where someone rises from a challenge to achieve greatness and save the world. But, in my real-world there are no long-stemmed roses that can be handed over as a perfect example of admiration. In my world, there is a bouquet where each flower adds its unique beauty to the vibrance of the whole. I know the question will come up again and I have just one request.

Ask me why I admire someone, don’t ask me who I admire.

Unexpected Inspiration

This week I was sitting in the airport in that experiential wasteland when it’s not time to stand up to board but there isn’t enough time to pull your laptop out and do any real work. I had already finished my moderately satisfying dinner, so I mentally considered what I could do keep my fingers from twitching.

I grabbed my phone and opened Facebook — don’t judge me.

As I looked at my feed, I was surprised to see a new friend recommendation for a woman that I had worked with in my past. Within minutes we were connected and I popped out to “chat” with her to let her I know I appreciated the relationship. I noticed her pictures had a theme and I tossed out a purely personal reflection, commenting on her dogs and noting that they were cute. It was the kind of small observation I make 100’s of times a week and I didn’t think too much about it until our conversation turned to the importance of pets in family. I shared with her that it had been two years since I lost my own dog and we hadn’t found our way yet to bring a new dog into our family. And, on a whim, I noted that if she wanted I would share the blog post I wrote when I realized that it was almost time for us to say good-bye to our beloved pet.

“Please,” she said.

Even with permission, I hesitated a bit to send the link. It may seem weird, with more than 150 posts completed, but I still cross my fingers every time I send my writing out into the world. As I press the “Publish Now” button I remind myself that great results only happen through action and I hope for the best. I hope that this time I have found a way to put some little piece of life into the right words, to compose something so universal that it captures the heart and so unique that it sparks the mind. That’s a tall order, one that great writers spend a lifetime trying to achieve, and I often find myself disappointed. Not with my readers who fail to shower my posts with love, but with myself for failing to create something lovable. But, Getting Ready to Say Good-bye is one of my most widely read and loved posts, so I copied the link and hit send.

A few minutes later, she came back and said, “That was so hard to read. Wow. I am so sad but you captured it.” I had warned her that it was a tear-jerker, but I worried that I might have overstepped; I don’t like to ambush someone with a Hallmark moment. I shouldn’t have worried, she came back and assured me that it was the right kind of emotion and then she said the words that amateur writers long to hear, “You should look into truly writing.”

It’s important to note that this woman knows me as a successful, accomplished business professional. So as we went back and forth negotiating between blue sky dreams and grassroots practicalities I couldn’t simply brush off her encouragement. “You’ve got a bigger purpose,” she insisted. In fifteen minutes she had gone from a respected colleague to an engaged fan rallying around my possibility. I listened, trying to stay balanced in the here and now, but before I boarded the plane I had made a promise to connect with her by my birthday. She wanted a plan to to bring my dream to life. I got the feeling that if I hadn’t she wouldn’t have let me go.

Inspiration can’t be controlled. Demand that it lift you up and support you through challenges and it scoffs and leaves you wanting. Give it up, thinking you’ve tapped every source dry and that you have to bear the weight of your dreams alone, and it barrels at you with fresh energy from an unexpected vector. You can no more summon inspiration than a weatherman can call rain to parched garden. You can’t count on it, but you also shouldn’t ignore it when the big drops are falling on your face.

It’s been a few days since that lightning strike and already I am sliding back into the familiar success: work that I know and a life I can predict. It would be easy to forget the words of inspiration and possibility and drop back into what is. But, I promised someone that I would create a plan that would let me be a writer. It might be a crappy plan that I never execute, but I’ve got six weeks to think through what it would take.

A promise is a promise.