Getting Comfortable with Unknown Unknowns

Earlier this month I found myself commiserating with a fellow parent around the challenges of raising a teenager. We talked about battles over homework, our effective (and ineffective) carrots and sticks, and the ever present feeling that you aren’t going to successfully get your adolescent human to adulthood. As we shared our stories I suddenly realized why this stage of parenting is causing me so much stress.

Teenagers do not believe in the existence of the unknown unknown.

To be honest, I don’t blame them. I remember the feeling of absolute certainty that came with my teenage years. I entered every discussion and decision convinced that my extensive years on the planet had given me every experience needed to know the right answer. I was a cocky, arrogant know-it-all and the last thing I even considered was the risk that there were things I didn’t know I didn’t know. Matthew Squair in his blog post on the risk continuum calls it ontological uncertainty and compares it to a card game where you start without any knowledge and slowly pick up the rules as you play. You think you have it all figured out but what you don’t know is that the dealer has a single card that can be played against a rare situation, a black swan. You have no clue that it is waiting to change the rules yet again.

The only cure is more experience.

As we talked about the unknown unknown I shared that my own appreciation for how little I knew came from going off to college and being faced with hundreds of experiences that my younger self could not have predicted. Step-by-step I shifted from an incorrect certainty to a grudging curiosity and finally to a willing investigation of the world, recognizing that no matter how much I learned I wouldn’t ever be free of the not knowing. But, unlike many of the lessons I’ve learned from life, I couldn’t point to a single moment when I got it.

On the other side of the phone, I could hear him smiling. He told me he knew the exact moment when he had come to understand that he didn’t know. He told me it was a business meeting when he had laughed out loud at a funny sounding word — a technical term that his CFO had quietly corrected him over — that had jarred him to understanding how little he knew. He expressed, more than 20 years later, the embarrassment her had felt in the room of others who understood not only the topic but his ignorance. I felt for the younger version of my colleague, but the truth is that he wouldn’t be the leader I know him to be now without learning that hard lesson. In any given situation you probably know a whole lot less than you think.

What surprises me is how hard it is for individuals to accept the fact that there are things they don’t know and worse things they don’t know they don’t know. As leaders it gets harder and harder to acknowledge the gaps in your own knowledge and that of your team; the higher you get the more people expect you to have the answers. It takes real courage to say, “I don’t know” or “I haven’t seen that before” to your boss, your peers, or your team. You have to have confidence and bravery to believe that through discovery you can turn an unknown unknown into a known unknown — a gap in knowledge that can be closed through data gathering, research, and modeling.

This week I’ll turn 45 and I am officially declaring it my middle age. While I can’t know with certainty when I’ll hit my official middle, it feels right because I feel simultaneously young and old. Young because I’m (hopefully) only half way through this adventure we call life and old because I’m decades away from the teenager who knew that she had the whole damn world figured out. I have no idea how much it is I don’t know I don’t know and that’s ok. I plan to keep learning as long as I am able and isn’t that awesome?

(Post graphic created by Mike Clayton in his Four Types of Risk post on his blog “Shift Happens!“)

Going, Going…Stalled

Tuesday night I started to feel a little tickle in the back of my throat. I pushed it off, the week was already over committed with critical meetings and a ton of deliverables; I felt I didn’t have the luxury of slowing down. I woke up Wednesday feeling nauseous, but pushed through it because I had a training scheduled with a group that had traveled from across the country to get there, so I ate a bland piece of toast and got in my car. I made it through, but felt much worse after and, afraid I might lose my lunch around my colleagues, I drove home and took my last meeting from the chaise in my library.

Thursday, I wasn’t much better but I pushed it again. Same drill, except this time I found myself light-headed in my boss’ office with him looking at me like I was a lovable but misguided fool. “Go home,” he admonished. I took another meeting from my library that afternoon and after a sleepless night due to a throat on fire, I went to the doctor on Friday morning. No, I didn’t have strep. I just needed to drink fluids, rest and ride it out.

Those were not the words I wanted to hear.

When you’re a Type-A, always on personality, being told that you need to slow down and just rest is the ultimate punishment. Mentally, you can feel your to-do list growing longer and longer and you are powerless to take anything off it. For me it is like the I Love Lucy episode where the girls have to wrap chocolates on the conveyor belt, except in my “rest and fluids” version they have their hands tied behind their backs. The conveyer speeds up, the chocolates pile up, but there is nothing to do but sit idly by and watch the candy fly by, unwrapped.

Torture.

I suspect that is why I have a tendency to ignore the tell-tale signs of being sick under the misguided hope that if I fail to acknowledge it I might somehow avoid it. Forty-four years of experience in this world and I still persist in believing that I can will myself to be well. It might be a hereditary issue, my grandfather subscribed to the idea of mind over matter. If you told yourself you didn’t have a headache, you wouldn’t have a headache he told me disappointedly when I asked whether he had Tylenol.

He didn’t like to slow down either.

We’re both wrong, of course. The germs won and I spent all day yesterday wrapped in blankets on the couch, shivering and miserable. I missed a concert my husband and I had been planning to attend for months, my teenage son went instead. I expect to spend today and tomorrow doing the same thing, sitting as I am with my iPad, and the cold essentials: a box of tissues, a glass of water and a bag of cough drops. It isn’t any fun, but I’m trying to remind myself that it isn’t as bad as the time I had to spend five weeks on bed rest when I was pregnant with my first child. That was before tablets and streaming video and I watched hour after hour of Law and Order and Murder She Wrote on A&E, unable to get up to do anything but go to the bathroom. I only pulled it off because the doctor told me my daughter’s health was at stake — I’m not sure any other rationale would kept my butt on the sofa.

My husband, saddened to see me in this condition, pointed out that he can see a pattern. Once a year or so, I’ll push myself too hard and end up so run down that any little germ can find its way past my body’s normal defenses. It’s like my border patrol has been working too many double shifts and, asleep at post, they let the bad guys can just waltz right in and take over. I get it, I probably do this to myself. But I also believe it’s probably worth it. 360 days of super Mel might be worth five days of this.

Maybe, maybe not.

But, there’s always an upside. For the first time in the 27 days of 2018, I took the time to write. Being stuck flat on my keister has allowed me to focus my thoughts and put words on the digital page. And while I’m not sure it’s worth being sick, it’s better than nothing.

Every Minute Counts

Yesterday, I downloaded a time tracking app onto my phone. Lately I’ve had this gnawing feeling that I’m wasting time, letting social media or pure distraction steal minute after minute from my life. I figured that the least I could do is collect data, move from a gnawing feeling to a factual certainty. So, I downloaded an app for my phone (and its companion Apple Watch app) and proceeded today to start to track my time. While I was setting up categories and starting and stopping the counter, my family asked me what I was doing. I explained it and my daughter laughed. “It’ll last for a couple of days and then you’ll give it up,” she snarked.

She’s probably right. (For more on why, see my past post on the topic, Habitually Bad at Habits.)

But even though this time tracking thing is unlikely to stick, the idea of understanding and holding myself accountable to using my time well intrigues me. I’m not sure why, but I tend to feel the inherent limitations of time acutely. Every night when I put my head on the pillow, I’m reminded that I’ve lost another day. Every Sunday as I rush to finish the weekend, I panic over the finiteness of a week. And every August as the kids get ready to go back to school, I mourn the loss of a Midwestern summer. As much as I try to live a life filled with opportunity and possibility, the passage of time reminds me of the inevitable limitations of life.

I’ve never been happy with limitations.

Just tonight, I stood at my sink and listened to fireworks erupting as part of our community’s annual summer fair. It struck me, listening to them in the distance, that it would have been nice to be there watching. I knew it was happening (I had been in the exact place where they were going off earlier in the day) but instead I found myself completing the unremarkable, mundane task of washing dishes. Boom, boom, boom went the once-a-year fireworks while I scrubbed crusty mac-n-cheese off a Corelle bowl. Rat-a-tat-tat they echoed as I swished soapy water in a glass. I watched the fireworks in my imagination and silently cursed myself for a missed opportunity that I would never get back.

I might have wallowed in my “wasted moment” guilt except that I remembered that earlier in the summer I had watched fireworks on the Fourth of July, hanging out on the beach with my family. And that caused me to remember the many other times when I hadn’t been washing dishes when the fireworks had gone off. I remembered going downtown as a young woman, walking hand in hand with my boyfriend (now husband) sitting by the river on a blanket. I remembered another time when we took his speedboat out on the lake and watched from the bow, careful not to fall off the waxed paint. I remembered the times, more than I can count, when we had gathered with family and friends as our kids raced around the high school football field before full dark, begging for food and drink and cheap light up toys. I even remembered sitting on a picnic table in my backyard as a child watching big-eyed with a S’more in my hand as they went off above the field behind my school.

So, I stopped beating myself up and realized that there would probably be another opportunity to see fireworks.

For me, there is a tender balance to be had in sucking the marrow out of life. Somehow we’re supposed to squeeze life hard enough to extract the great moments, but not so hard they break. Live focused on every day but recognize the value of the past and the possibility of the future. Let some things go and hold tight to others. It must be something about being middle age that makes me feel like every single decision is about finding (and holding) the right middle ground. It’s excruciating, standing on the knife edge of a well-lived life where fifteen minutes one way or another can throw off my equilibrium. But I can’t help it, that’s where my mind is now — every minute counts.

My husband just came downstairs wondering when I would be coming to bed. The time tracker on my watch shows that I’ve been writing for nearly an hour and a half and by the time I proof and hit publish in the morning these 800 or so words will have taken two hours to create. Sitting here in the dark I’m not sure whether I am proud of my progress or frustrated at my folly.

Maybe I’ll let you decide.

Stuff That Matters

Like most kids growing up along the coast of Lake Erie, I spent a lot of time at Cedar Point. Before I could drive there were family outings and school trips; after I carpooled with packs of friends or on double dates. I remember the excitement of being tall enough to ride the coasters and the disappointment of being too tall to follow my brothers into kiddie land. But my strongest memory was my inability to win a life-sized stuffed animal.

Believe me, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Cedar Point has a huge section of carnival games and I had a talent for weaseling money out of my father. Getting him to hand over bills for the promise of glory was easy, but winning a game designed to favor the house was hard. A couple of years I ended up with a charity prize, but most years I ended up with nothing.

Until one summer during college when I went with my mother.

Brimming with the positivity of a sunny day and great company I smooth-talked mom to the front of the park. We walked along the booths and after carefully assessing the options I decided on the game: shoot an oversized, lightweight ball at three plastic cups stacked in a pyramid, knock all three cups out of the red circle and you win. Sure, I’d lost a boatload of money playing that same game over the years. Sure, it was a sucker’s game with a $2 buy-in and no prize for second place. I didn’t care, I looked up at the huge prizes hanging there and decided — like every sucker since the dawn of time — that this time was going to be different. I paid my money and fired.

And watched, stunned, as all the cups fell.

Over the years I have enjoyed my fair share of accomplishment and every single one has come after more effort, time and sacrifice. But the crazy thing is that none of them has brought me the palpable excitement that I felt when a young man handed me an oversized Buster Bunny for knocking over a bunch of plastic cups. Carrying that huge stuffed animal around — a bright blue three-foot tall sign that I had done something so few others had done — was thrilling. I didn’t even mind leaving earlier than usual when we realized we couldn’t ride anything with Buster in tow.

I felt a little of that last weekend when I discovered Buster buried under the junk of four generations.

Stuff is complicated. Our society whipsaws us with inconsistent messages. Everywhere we look there are signals that we need to buy more, upgrade more and have more. We measure our success by the size of our homes, the make of our car and the brand of our clothes. But, keep your eyes open long enough and you’ll also see evidence that we should abandon our stuff. Buy a tiny house, donate your old books, and purge your junk drawer.

My stuff is complicated. From my vantage point at my writing desk I can see the pottery my kids made in art class and a child’s rocking chair that my grandmother bought for us kids but managed to sit in as an octogenarian. There’s the box of my grandfather’s marine pins, the custom coaster I made for one of our pinball tournaments and a chalk drawing a friend made of my daughter as a toddler. It’s all so random and yet each and every thing I can see has a story, each item a square in the patchwork of my life.

Over the years these bits and pieces of me have moved from drawer to box, from one room to another. Each time I move them I wonder if I am doing the right thing. Is now the time to let go? I ask myself is this flotsam and jetsam good stuff or bad stuff? Is it sentimentality or scrap? Am I caring or crazy? Will it matter some day when I’m gone and my kids and grandkids try to make sense of it?

Damn if I know.

All I know is that I’m writing this blog on an iPad Pro within inches of a 1949 Royal typewriter. It is one of two my grandmother used in bygone years and I rescued it from the barn the same day I found Buster. We put it in the back of the truck and drove home, more useless stuff that we didn’t need. After cleaning it up and buying a new ribbon I sat down in front of it and my heart swelled thinking of my grandmother. My fingers took on a life of their own, words appearing in ink through the physical force of my love. When it was done I looked down at the bright yellow paper and, eyes blurring with unshed tears, I made a decision.

I’m going to keep it; I’m going to keep all of it.

My Tank Is Empty

After a relaxing and enjoyable weekend I came into a challenging Monday. I left several meetings with disappointments or backslides, some small and some serious. On Tuesday I found myself texting as my car dropped me at the airport and giving quick updates via phone after I cleared security. I’ve been in “fight or flight” mode for what feels like months due to the sheer amount of stuff that needs to get done and the higher-than-normal number of obstacles that keep popping up.  In a moment of transparency I texted a colleague, “Help me stay positive. I’m feeling a bit beaten down.” Her response was classic:

“That is scary. You’re the most positive person I know.”

Minutes later I shared that anecdote with my husband and we just sat there with a moment of silence between us on the phone. And then instead of lecturing me about taking on too much (we both know that is true) or reminding me that I don’t have the world on my shoulders (we both agree that I don’t) he simply told me that I’m a rock star and that he wishes he could do more to help. And then we talked about the time when I leave industry and throw out my shingle as a motivational life coach — you know, some day when the kids are grown and on their own. I smiled knowing even without seeing him that he was smiling back and that we would be ok.

It’s a pattern we’ve repeated many times over the years.

But, I’ll be honest, it hasn’t always been this easy. There was a time when I was younger and our relationship was still finding its way when we weren’t as understanding of each other. I remember moments where my admissions of being overwhelmed by my work turned into anxious questions like, “Are you going to get fired?” or “If it’s so hard why do you keep doing it?” There was a period of time when I tried to keep my stress to myself because it just wasn’t worth the further stress of having a conversation. It felt easier to pretend to be the Mel who was always happy, always under control, always ok. 

But it didn’t feel good

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of Too Much Mel that I’m a sharer. I share victories and defeats, I share ups and downs, and there is no one that I share more with than my husband. If you’ve been on the receiving side of a conversation with me, you know it can be exhausting. So, now imagine that you live with me. Imagine the chatter while getting ready in the morning, while packing up my laptop bag, while watching a movie, while driving to the store, while shopping and while sitting at dinner. Imagine the nearly never-ending podcast references, work anecdotes, self-reflection and story-telling. And now imagine me not sharing at the times when I just didn’t feel like I had enough *oomph* to persevere. Not sharing when my Mel tank was empty and what I desperately needed was a fill up.

Not only did it feel bad, it was bad.

I don’t remember when it changed. There wasn’t some eureka moment where all of a sudden I came to understand that it was inherent in his nature to try to protect me from any and all harm or when he came to understand that it was inherent in my nature to push harder and do more. I read an article recently about marriage longevity and it said that the key is to understand and appreciate the other person’s crazy — because we are all crazy. It’s crazy how much he worries. It’s crazy how hard I work and how much I take on myself. We’re crazy, but we’re crazy together. So, now we can acknowledge quickly when my Mel tank is empty and we know exactly how this particular chapter of our story is going to end: I’ll be exhausted and laying on the bottom of a pit and he’ll pick up the pieces. And thankfully at this point he won’t even tell me I told you so.

Even though we both know he could.

Stop Asking How I Do It

It happened again last week. There I was in a normal business conversation talking about how we were going to take a project to the next level when my colleague looked at me with both admiration and dismay.  She paused, as if wondering how best to proceed and then let the words slide out, “I don’t know how you do it.” I burbled a response and tried to get out of the conversation quickly. Because as I’ve heard versions of that comment over the last couple of years I have one request:

Not to sound ungrateful, but please, stop.

Each time I hear those words I feel a series of strong and generally negative reactions, including:

  • Guilt. Thinking of all of the things that have been sacrificed to do what I have done
  • Humility. Knowing that I have only done what was required and what I am capable of doing
  • Worry. For the work that remains undone and at risk of failure

The woman who said this to me never intended to make me feel bad. Neither did my brother when he asked the same question a couple months ago or my sister when I connected with her online on Friday. Each and every time the words come up they are in the context of thoughtful inquiry; coming from individuals who respect me expressing sincere appreciation. Strangely, I think that makes it even harder for me to respond the right way.

Because the truth is I don’t know how I do it. And worse yet I don’t know if I should.

More and more I am coming to the conclusion that it really isn’t a choice. As long as I can remember I’ve been wired to have a unique combination of never-ending energy, compulsion to achieve and ridiculous positivity. So much so that a colleague once described me as ‘a six pack of Jolt.’ I’ve used the description recently, but now I tend to talk in terms of Red Bull — it makes more sense to Millennials.

But the problem is that those characteristics are not something I’ve worked on or cultivated; it’s not like I read a self-help book to learn techniques or gain capabilities. In fact, I don’t even make a conscious decision to act on or embrace the tendencies. My husband calls me “a machine” and does his best to pull my plug or get me to shut down for periods of time worried that I will run myself right into the ground. But, to quote someone richer and more famous than me, “Baby I was born this way.” I can no more explain how it works than a bird could explain its ability to fly.

I don’t know how I do it, I just do.

Worse yet, every reminder about what has been done instantly brings to mind what hasn’t been done. With only 24 hours in a day, a choice to deliver for someone leaves someone else wanting. My family, my health, my hobbies they have all fallen behind at points in time. I haven’t cooked a decent meal for my family in a month. It’s been three weeks since I managed to prioritize the time and quiet mental energy to complete a new blog post. Three weeks during which other things got top billing in my life; three weeks of aborted attempts and distracted thoughts. No one can actually do it all and being reminded of it just brings that into stark reality. There they are like suspects in a lineup: Mr. Undone, Mr. Poorly Done, and Mr. Not Yet Done.

I don’t do it all, not even close.

Regardless, maybe it isn’t fair to make my discomfort the world’s issue. Next time I will take a deep breath, say thank-you and remind whoever asks that whatever I did, I didn’t do it alone. I have a talented team at work, a network filled with friends ready to step up and a family that is there no matter the cost. And if that isn’t gift enough, I have a true partner on my journey who lifts me up every day, running beside me to pick up what he can and to catch me when I fall. Recently I had an issue at work that required me to go in late at night — he drove me. The next morning I was exhausted from too little sleep and I forgot my laptop — he brought it to me. No critique, no condescending comments, just support in the moment so I could do what needed to be done.

And maybe that’s why I struggle so much with the words, “I don’t know how you do it.” I don’t do it, not really.

We do it.

(Special thanks to Idealist Mom — I snagged her graphic. And, if you want more on this topic, check out her great blog on the same topic with a mom twist here.)

Show up and Play

Years ago I was talking to a good friend of mine over lunch. A professional musician, he was telling me about being asked to sit in with the local symphony orchestra at a summer performance. I was immediately intrigued and started asking questions. How long have you been practicing? What is the music like? Are you doing a technical rehearsal? He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “I’m getting there a bit before the show and we might go through some of the pieces once.” Some? Once? I was stunned and my face telegraphed it.

“Mel,” he said, “It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

When I graduated with my MBA in my mid-20’s I came out brainwashed. I thought I was capable of doing just about any job and my early experiences reinforced my thoughts. I would go into the assignment knowing exactly nothing about what needed to be done and come out understanding the critical tasks and risks. Years passed and the data points added up, each one confirming my simplistic view that I could make any job work.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Yes, I still believe in the power of the learning generalist. I would still pick leadership skills over deep technical knowledge every time. But while I’ve been dodging from one business and function to another other people have made their craft a lifetime journey. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I started sitting across from those folks in meetings. I started listening closely to their clear articulation, started hearing the obvious depth of knowledge within their words. Over time my thinking shifted from, “Hell, I could do that!” to “Holy crap, how do they do that?” I am not sure when it happened, I only know it happened.

In fact, yesterday I listened to an executive peer present to a large group. She spoke simply and easily about a technically complex topic. She talked in a way that made it clear that the task she had taken on was hard and the pitfalls serious, but that the success was predictable. Ten years ago I would have listened with a hint of envy, envisioning how I might have tackled that challenge and what it would be like to stand there having been successful. Five years ago I might have said, “That could be me.” But in that moment I felt only two things: a certainty that I would not have been prepared to take it on and an appreciation that someone I deeply respected was.

Maybe my younger self didn’t realize it, but my today self knows that there is something affirming in recognizing that not every job is possible, that even as a smart and capable person you would struggle to be successful in some situations. Does it mean that I have given up on the big dreams? Does it mean that I am giving into limitations, that I am becoming practical and risk averse? No, it doesn’t. It means that although I am capable of many things in some situations other people are more capable than me. I don’t find that upsetting; I find it awesome.

If I stood on the same stage and talked about a topic that was framed seamlessly in my own experience, I suppose others might feel the same way that I did listening to my colleague. As crazy as it sounds, some people might listen stunned thinking, “Wow, she really knows her stuff. I could never do what she does.” And maybe, if I find myself answering mundane questions about my work across the lunch table I will be confused by their stunned expressions. Thankfully, I already know what to say.

“It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”