Find Your Normal

This spring I had lunch at a pub in Harvard Square, a trendy spot that bragged about being founded in 1991. There it was, 1991, listed like it was a date in ancient history and not the year I became an adult, graduated from high school and headed off to college. You know, recent history.

But, I digress.

Despite the fact that it was a cold, wet, miserable day, I was in high spirits to be spending time with my daughter and a great friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I was so excited that when the waiter came over to ask for our drink order I gave him my classic 1,000 watt smile and asked whether they served Coke or Pepsi products. After his answer (Coke) I replied that it would be fabulous if I could get a Diet Coke. He gave me a bemused smile and asked if I would like a lime in it. A lime? Wow! I was even more enthusiastic about accepting the unexpected possibility of a lime. After he left I glanced over at my daughter and noted that she was giving me the look. “What,” I asked? She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Mom, I think you just take people by surprise. You’re a bit much and no one really knows how to deal with it.”

I shook it off the best I could, but the feeling that I wasn’t quite normal in my daughter’s eyes hung over me. It had the paralyzing weigh of a rain-drenched sweatshirt, its moisture sticking to you like you might never be dry again. In that moment all of the self-acceptance and growth I had gained through my 40’s felt flushed away. If I couldn’t be my authentic self with my own child, what did that mean for my odds with the teeming masses?

There is a human tendency to try to figure out the boundaries of normal. Sometime in childhood we recognize that there is a range of expected behaviors defined by cultural history and experiences. Kids are smart, they learn that conformance results in tangible benefits — friends, love, and appreciation. Peer pressure is nothing more than the enforcement of those boundaries through both inclusion and exclusion. In that moment my daughter was simply observing that wild enthusiasm over a drink order was well outside of that line. It wasn’t normal, not by a long shot.

And, I might have let that moment bring me down, flatted by the indignity of being called out by my flesh and blood, except that I remembered that there is one thing even stronger than the human tendency to define normal: the tendency for human teenagers to see their ancestors as square. So, I shared a look of parental camaraderie with my friend and we chatted about lighter topics: what we planned to do with the summer, memories of our college escapades, the weather. It wasn’t too many Diet Cokes later (all with a lime) that I was back to my normal over-the-top self, wishing our waiter a rousing good afternoon as we headed back into the rain.

This week, I found myself heading down to the convenience store in my building just a few minutes before closing to grab something caffeinated to help me through the day. As I took my three bottles to the register I smiled another 1,000 watt smile. With wild enthusiasm I congratulated the woman behind the counter on making it to the end of another day. She gave me a bemused glance and said, “You are entirely too energetic.” I deflated, lowered my volume and told her that although it was hard I could dial it back just a bit. “No,” she smiled, “don’t do that.”

Ok, I won’t.

Why Mentoring Matters

My daughter is struggling with the enormity of deciding what she wants to do with her life. She’s sixteen years old and no matter how many times I tell her that I had no idea what opportunities the world held for me at her age she’s convinced that everyone else knows. In her mind future success is only possible if she figures it out. Now. No data will sway her from her point of view and her assertion that I just don’t understand. “Mom, things have changed since you were my age.” Yes, they have. And, I guess it’s theoretically possible that in the 27 years since I was her age teenagers have evolved to grasp that level of future certainty.

It’s possible, but unlikely.

After all, it was only a few years ago when I had to call in a lifeline about my own future. I had reached out to my mentor because I was at a career crossroads and I knew that he would have important perspective on which path to take. So I picked up the phone and told him that I had come to the sudden, surprising conclusion that I was an amazing chief of staff. I admitted to him that after years of data and experience I had finally recognized my unique ability to understand a leader’s vision and to use influence, collaboration and judgement to bring that vision to life. I can do it better than just about anyone, I asserted, so should I stop gunning for the corner office and just embrace being a best-in-class right-hand man? 

There was silence on the other end and then his voice came back, quiet but firm. “Mel,” he said, “It sounds like you’re asking whether you should be Ed McMahon. The problem is you’re already Johnny Carson. You just haven’t admitted it yet.”

When I was sixteen I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I thought I wanted to be stage manager. Then a lighting designer. Then an architect. By the time I realized that business was where I belonged and entered my MBA, I still didn’t know what that meant for a specific job. I got a double concentration in Finance and Marketing because I figured that all the power was in following the money and generating top-line revenue. Still not precise, but more thoughtful than anything my sixteen year old self could have created.

I got lucky when I found my mentor during my recruitment process for internships. He’s stuck with me since then, believing in me before I believed in myself. Before the Johnny Carson reference, he told me that I could accomplish anything but that I needed to decide what it was because, “you can’t blow an uncertain horn.” Before that he pulled me into his office and told me that he wasn’t sure what my parents had done raising me, but that I had ‘it’ — the non-technical behaviors necessary to make a difference, stuff that was really hard to develop. In the moment I thanked him, but later I called my parents incredulous about what had just happened. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was; I was just doing my job.

My dad just told me how proud he was of me.

I wish I could make my daughter understand that while there are some people who are born believing they will cure cancer, invent the next airplane or release a best-seller, the rest of us are inclined to dream just big enough. We don’t know exactly what we want to do and when it comes to aspirations we want to avoid being greedy or ending up disappointed. So, we tuck our successes away until we get to a point where we think we’ve gotten about what we deserve. Along the way, some people settle and others get bitter because it is a rare person who finds the ‘just right’ target for their goals.

And, what I’ve learned from listening to my mentors is that somewhere between confidence and arrogance is the magical place that big dreams happen. Very few of us can see that spot ourselves, we need someone to point it out. Someone who has our best interests at heart, who has both credibility and caring to say, “Hey, there it is. Right there. Can you see it? Look. No, look harder. Yeah, there it is.” 

I can’t be that person for my daughter. She knows that I will never be fully objective about her and her future, I can’t. But, I have confidence that she will find her own mentors, that someone will emerge in her life to pick up the phone when she needs guidance. Don’t get me wrong, I hope she calls me, too. But I know enough now to understand that my role will be that of the wise parent who just tells her how proud I am.

And since I can’t mentor my daughter I’ve found several people who have ‘it’ that I am proudly watching from the sidelines of their lives. They text me and call me out of the blue, eager for my feedback and thoughts on what to do. I connected with one of them last week and we talked about a great opportunity that she’s been given, something that I helped bring to light. I listened as she shared her experiences to date, confident in her accomplishments but still a little stunned that so many people think so highly of her. So, I took the time to share a story of a time when I didn’t get it, when someone pointed to the magical spot beyond my confidence and reminded me to dream bigger. I stole the words that helped me past the same fear and I told her the truth.

“You’re already Johnny.”

Strength in Weakness

This morning I pulled into a parking spot in the empty corporate garage. Instead of popping out of my car immediately I took a deep breath and typed a quick status update on Facebook. It said:

High stress today as I do my final readiness for a big presentation this afternoon. If you have a moment to think calming and supportive thoughts my way, it is appreciated. It is in these moments that every ‘I’m inadequate’ worry bead rears its ugly head — no matter how much work, thought, preparation, etc. I’ve gotten to the point where I know it is just the way I’m wired and I lean in through it — but it still sucks.

Staring at the screen of my phone, I paused again. I knew as I was writing it that it could be viewed as needy. What if someone thought I was fishing for compliments or wilting in the face of pressure? What if someone read it years from now and thought, ‘That’s not leadership behavior. We need someone confident.’ I considered and cross-referenced and contemplated how it would be interpreted…

…and then I clicked post.

Over and over I hear that social media is damaging because it only shows the best of us. The best pictures of our best families acting on their best behavior in the best circumstances. Young people, especially desperate to meet societal standards of milestones, stress themselves out because they haven’t checked some box, or they haven’t checked it as well as someone else who has a better marriage, more accomplished kids, a sexier job or a bigger house. I’m sure I’ve unintentionally contributed to that stress as people compare their lives to mine, especially on those rare nights when I head out on a date night and post happy, smiling pictures of Mel and husband on the town.

The problem is this: in any given year there are a handful of date nights, compared to 100’s of work days when I come home and collapse into bed without feeling anything but exhausted.

And that’s why this morning I chose to acknowledge that my life wasn’t perfect. I am a strong, intelligent, capable and prepared businesswoman and I was feeling stressed by a big presentation. In my head I knew it would be ok, but in my heart I wanted my support network to remind me that it would be ok. I needed to be strong enough to be weak, to own the stress, not just for me but for the others that I knew would read it.

It helped that two nights ago I was up late chatting with a peer on social media. Somewhere amongst our back and forth he simply typed, “You’re an inspiration.” It reminded me of a blog post I wrote last year about being Inspired to Inspire and how difficult it has been for me to accept the fact that my words and actions matter. I may not understand completely why they matter, but I have to admit they do matter. So if you’re reading this looking for inspiration I hope you’ll take one thing away from this: it takes confidence to admit that you are struggling and it takes even more confidence to ask for help.

Do it.

No Passion for Fashion

Many years ago I found myself driving alone on a snow-covered highway. I was scheduled to interview candidates for an executive level position and even though the county had closed the road, it was strongly suggested that I find a way to get there. The journey was agonizing, I inched along white-knuckled in four-wheel drive watching the odometer show progress toward my destination 32 miles away. I was about halfway there when I realized that bundled in winter gear I had failed to bring a pair of dress shoes. Fortunately, there was a 24-hour big box superstore on my way so I pulled in, quickly found a $25 pair of black pumps and was out the door in minutes. Emergency solved.

Five years later I was still wearing those “emergency” shoes nearly every day.

Growing up I realized that I was supposed to enjoy the feminine arts of fashion and make-up. Movies and tv shows focused on girls on mall pilgrimages or in a pink bedroom oohing and aahing over a new outfit or eye shadow pallet. I understood it was supposed to be fun, but for me clothes shopping was a horrible excruciating event and the idea of spending any of my hard-earned money on fashion was crazy. I had books to buy.

But because I knew I was supposed to like it, I had hope that my switch would flip sometime later in life — maybe during college. I did have a brief stint when nail polish was fun, but it was quickly abandoned for other more useful pursuits. My wardrobe was a combination of jeans, sweats, t-shirts and a gray ‘interview appropriate’ pant suit from Petite Sophisticate. It changed a bit as I moved into the working world, but clothing was only a daily necessity and make-up was something for rare special events (like your wedding day). And that was how it went, day after day, week after week until a couple of years ago.

My company was in the midst of merger negotiations and the new leadership team was being vetted. I tried to consider myself from the outside, assessing years of feedback and taking a long, hard look at my candidacy. What characteristics did I need to work on? What might lead someone to evaluate me and then say, “Nah, not Mel. She’s not right for that.” I thought as critically as I could and the only thing I came up with was a sinking feeling that someone might say that I didn’t look like a leader. Unfortunately, I had made it to my forties without any magical fashion switch being flipped.

The idea of being passed over for an opportunity for which I was well-suited because I wasn’t well, well-suited, spurred me to action. I did some research and found a style consultant nearby. We talked for nearly an hour and scheduled a follow-up at my home. She assessed my best colors and over a three-hour period, looked at every piece of clothing I owned and rejected most of it because it was the wrong fit, wrong color or just too darn old and worn to be appropriate. She made me promise that if I was serious about this that I would give it to charity within the week. I took five large bags to goodwill and ended up with barely enough to cover my nakedness until our upcoming shopping session.

The eleven hour marathon that followed was everything that I dreaded it would be. Rack after rack of clothes, fitting rooms and awkwardness. But at least this time I wasn’t alone — I was with someone who knew her job, who pushed from store to store filling up a checklist of things I needed to have to hit the objectives I had given her. She knew I was hating every minute of it and yet she reminded me why we were here, she kept me focused on the goal. 

I survived and got stronger for it.

Since then, I’ve made incremental improvements. I’ve added pieces along the way, using the fundamentals I’ve gained to invest in the places I need to invest. I know I need to do another purge — there are things that I got that never fit right and I know I won’t take the time to get altered, shoes that I love that are now worn out. I understand it and I will take care of it. Last weekend I even went to the salon and had a real, honest conversation with the stylist about how incompetent I am about hair. She gave me a cut that has led to compliments all week, including from an executive that did a double take and called it ‘sassy’.

No, I will never love the idea of buying a new blazer, slipping on a designer pair of shoes or finding the perfect bronzer. That’s ok. I understand it now and I’ve built up enough capability, competence and support to do what has to be done. I can walk into a store and assess what is right for me — and for the harder asks I can make a phone call or send an email and get someone who really does love it to do it for me. But, switch or no switch, my lack of passion for fashion isn’t an obstacle anymore.

And that feels almost as good as finishing a new book. Almost.

Too Much Collaboration

Earlier this year I shared a post called The Case for Collaboration in which I described my early experiences with teamwork and argued that business today is all about being able to work effectively with others. I ended the post with an opinion framed not by facts but by my experience. I wrote:

At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.

Today, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review that both validated my view and suggested a significant cost to my being right, costs to both to me and the organizations that rely on my abilities.

The article, Collaborative Overload (HBR, January 2016) notes several interesting facts from its research:

  • “…over the past two decades, time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”
  • At most companies, people spend 80% of time on collaborative tasks (meetings, phone, email)
  • “In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”
  • “…roughly 20% of organizational “stars” don’t help; they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don’t amplify the success of their colleagues.”
  • “The lion’s share of collaborative work tends to fall on women.”

As I read the article, I felt better and better about the way that I consistently work to share my information, social network and time and worse and worse about the negative impacts that the article said my collaborative overload was having on me and my teams. The article said that I was setting myself up for burnout and there was a risk I could become an institutional bottleneck and so overtaxed as to become ineffective.

It’s hard to look in a mirror and not like what you see.

So, what to do about it? Given my value system, there’s approximately 0% chance that I will turn into a ‘door closed, don’t ask me, say no to everything’ person. But, thankfully, the authors suggested some concrete ideas for responding that don’t involve me not being me.

First, it suggests shifting from being a personal resource (investing my own time and energy in solving) to being both an informational resource (sharing knowledge and skills) and social resource (providing access and network). Both of those collaborative resources are more efficient and the good news is that I already try to do both of those things. But, it’s a reminder that I need to do it more and to be consciously stingy about where I deploy the scarcest of my resources, my time and energy.

Second, it suggests changing how I respond to requests, by thoughtfully triaging emails and meeting requests. That’s always easier said than done. Strangely, I find that when I am most exhausted I retreat into the comfort of “cleaning my email box”. And, anytime I do try to set up barriers or limits (checking email twice a day, creating quick ways to delegate or ignore) it never lasts for long. The problem is doing those tasks is simple and I’m good at it — and I feel guilty ignoring the constant demands hiding there.

Lastly, the article suggested ways to increase awareness on the need to recognize and reward individuals who manage to deliver results and help others deliver. Those employees, the article and related studies suggest, have the potential to contribute substantially more than their teammates, driving organizational performance at a time when collaboration is critical to success.

But only if they don’t burn themselves out first.

Broken Is Beautiful

I’m not sure who coined the phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A quick Google search generated at least five different alternatives and I’m not that enamored with the phrase to dedicate myself to finding a more satisfying answer. Someone said it sometime, a long time ago, and we’ve been parroting it ever since.

The problem is this: as good as that sounds and as much as most people like the idea most beholders have pretty narrow standards. Me, too. Brainwashing or human evolution, some characteristics just tend to rise to the top. I read somewhere that symmetry has been a constant sign of beauty throughout history. I thought that was interesting in its pure objectivity.

But, it’s not physical beauty that got me thinking today, it was inner beauty. Beauty of spirit that comes from not how one looks but how one lives. I was stunned by this quote:

She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

It struck me as true because the women that I know who have beautiful spirits didn’t get that way without facing hardship. And remarkably they proudly share the experiences that have broken them as proof of survival. They share what they learned and what they lost freely with friends and younger generations as testimony and inspiration.

Occasionally, I will reach out to one of these amazing, strong women and tell them how much I respect them and what they have accomplished. “The fact that you made it through _________ is a reflection of the strong, amazing woman you are.” I have typed a version of that in Facebook Messenger so many times. It is one of my favorite things to do, to tell people how awesome they look from the outside. How my eyes behold their inner beauty.

The hardest part for me though is that most times they are surprised to hear me say it. The most common responses are self-doubt, embarrassment and incredulity. Sometimes, they turn the compliment back to me. Which (ironically) causes me self-doubt, embarrassment and incredulity.

Rarely do they send me the 😏 emoticon and reply, “Thanks, I am pretty kick-ass.”

So, when I saw one of the strongest, most awe-inspiringly amazing women that I know post this quote on her page to inspire others, I just had to do something. I had to say something. And here it is, what I want to say to every woman who has pulled her life out of some horrible cesspool of ugliness. Who has faced down a bad choice or a letdown or a lost dream. For every single one of you that looks in the mirror at a life that isn’t what you thought it would be and feels broken, I have this to say.

You may be broken, but that doesn’t make you ugly. It makes you beautiful and it makes you strong. You inspire me every day and you remind me that I too am capable of being both broken and beautiful.  I promise to wear my wings not apologetically but fully aware that I built them through living. If you will embrace the strength of your beauty, so will I.

No matter who’s looking or what they see.

Why Real Beats Perfect

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine posted a meme that said:

Just Be Yourself. Let people see the Real, Imperfect, Flawed, Quirky, Weird, Beautiful & Magical person that you are.

I loved that.

But it got me thinking — is being real better than being perfect? After all, we don’t say “practice makes real” we say “practice makes perfect.”  Real is sold as status quo, simply what is, while perfect is aspirational. No one strives for real. And, I think that is a problem. In fact, I’d like to give three head-to-head reasons why real beats perfect every time.

Reason #1 – Being Real Stretches Everyone

Perfection is a cultural standard. A group of people decide what perfection looks like, based on objective or subjective measures. Perfection changes and what is perfect in one time and place can be vastly different  in another time and place. In contrast, real is an individual standard. Only the person themselves can define real, what is real to me is not necessarily real to you. And, although real can change through significant life events, real tends to hold fairly steady throughout a person’s lifetime.

Because of the fluidity of the perfect standard, the distance to perfect can be vastly different based on when and where someone is born, their genetics and the environmental that they are raised in. With perfect as an aspirational goal, some people get there easily, while others could work their whole lives and have no chance of achievement. And that assumes that perfect is a good standard, which frankly is not a great assumption.

On the other hand, striving toward real is a target for everyone. In any community, there is a magnetic pull to sameness that makes achieving the unique and real something that requires effort. We call that tendency to similarity peer pressure and pretend it is only something that impacts teenagers. But, that’s not true. Everyone struggles with being authentic and channeling their unique strengths to meet their potential. And it’s a lifelong effort —  something that can be improved upon at age 8 or 18 or 80.

Winner, real.

Reason #2 – Being Real Is Efficient

Because of the variability of achieving perfection, the cost to get everyone to a perfect standard is horribly asymmetrical. For all the reasons noted above, some people will get there quickly and easily (relatively speaking) and others will struggle.

For an example, let’s say the goal is to get everyone to make a perfect putt. Some combination of eye hand coordination, large muscle control, visual acuity and mental modeling would be the best for learning the art and science of putting. For the rest of the population, the absence of that combination of factors would make putting harder, and achieving the perfect putt less efficient. Investing the time and resources to get everyone up the curve would be inefficient.

When I was in high school I announced to my parents that I knew I was naturally good at some things and not good at others. I told them that I planned to quickly abdondon the things I wasn’t good at and focus on the things I was good at. I just didn’t understand why I should focus on those things when clearly someone else was talented in that space.

The book Good to Great makes the point that your best shot at success comes from finding what you are good at, what you love, and what the world needs — namely leveraging your realness where it can do good in the world. It isn’t lazy, it’s efficient.

Winner, real.

Reason #3 – Being Real Is Fun

Probably the most important advantage of working toward real over perfect is it is just more fun. More fun for the individuals and more fun for the world. When people are actualizing their real self, they are engaging without fear of missing some societal standard. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying to be better, but it does mean they aren’t trying to be something they’re not.

When I have to worry that I am too loud or too enthusiastic or too nerdy, it limits what I say and how I offer help. If I have to wonder if people will be accepting of my lack of make-up or my tendency to quote podcasts or my spontaneous offers of advice I just don’t give the world my best work. Yeah, there are times for turning down my real, but when I am real great things happen. Fun happens.

When I think about my best real moments, it is when I’ve been in a group where everyone can be real. Those are the moments that shaped me, where memories were made. If you are lucky enough to get there, you feel the real down to your core. And that never, ever happens when you’re trying to get to perfect. At least not in my experience.

Winner, real.

So, just be yourself. Stop practicing to be perfect — start practicing to be real.