Balance (Or How I Can’t Seem to Get There)

I spent the morning at a women’s leadership event, fortunate to be invited to give a quick intro to the first speaker. As I sat at the reserved table with the others who were speaking, we were asked to do a quick table exercise. The questions we were asked to consider what this: “A year from now, what is one thing you will wish you had done today?”

My two colleagues provided their perspective. The woman noted that in a year she planned to do a triathlon and that she would likely wish that she had run that morning. The man shared that, when faced with the striking statistic that parity for women in the workplace would take 100 years to achieve, he would wish that he had done more in his work to improve things for his daughters and granddaughters. I thought it through and commented that a year from now I would look back at deteriorating metrics reflecting my lagging commitment to writing and wish that I had blogged.

My first year of blogging, I published 64 posts in six months. The following year I published 65 posts in twelve months. This year I’ve published 19 posts in eight months. I wish I could say it is because I’ve run out of things to say, but that would be untrue. What is more accurate is this: I’ve stopped giving myself either the time or the focus to write. Often exhausted and without the calm to center my own thinking, I have fallen into a habit of just not writing. And today, when faced with my year from now self, I knew I would wish I had done better.

My failure to find balance in my life appears to be a poorly kept secret. Just this week I had a dozen of my colleagues complete an anonymous assessment to support the Franklin Covey “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” training. The assessment includes 78 statements and asks responders to reply with a range of answers from strongly disagree (0%) to strongly agree (100%). As I paged through my results there it was, a black and white reminder of just how obvious my imbalance is. My highest score (at a unanimous 100%) was on the statement “is a hard worker.” My lowest score (with a 53%) was on the statement “balance all aspects of life (e.g., work, leisure, family) to maintain overall effectiveness.”

Everyone sees it, not just me.

I wish there was an easy answer, a switch I could flip or a pill I could take to make it easier for me to create balance and boundaries for myself. I am envious of the people I know who do that well, the ones who manage to create satisfying engagement in their work, their hobbies and their families. I have hard working colleagues who coach their kids soccer teams, who never miss golf league, who lead their church choirs or quilting clubs. I had a friend once who managed to write a novel while working a full-time leadership job in IT. But here I am, unable to prioritize sitting down for a couple of hours twice a week and embrace my passion for words.

It seems so ridiculous not to do something. Not to do something better.

So, I sat down in my library tonight. Even fighting a cold and fever I convinced myself to take the thoughts swirling in my head and push them into the keyboard. It may not be my best post — it may not be something that reflects the most astute thinking or the most universal theme — but it is a reflection that I am more than my work. It is a small reminder that I am a woman who enjoys the simple act of finding the right words and stories to convey slivers of life.

And, a year from now I won’t have to wish that I had done it, because I did.

 

My Why

Late last year, I caught a video on my Facebook feed called Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace. I rarely click video links because I tend to browse social media when I am around other people and the audio can be distracting and frankly I just prefer to read and add my own audio track. But, this video was posted by someone I respect and so I clicked.

Over the course of 15 minutes I listened as Mr. Sinek shared his point of view on the 75 million individuals born after 1984, including stating that they were troubled and hard to manage, mostly due to bad parenting and technology. It was interesting and thought-provoking; I recommend you watch it. But my biggest take away was not some new enlightenment around Millennials, it was something much simpler.

I decided I wouldn’t want to have a beer with Simon.

As someone who enjoys both interesting people and ideas that’s weird, right? There was a smart, articulate person — someone who I was certain could get an audience with nearly anyone and whose videos have generated millions of views — and my first thought was that I would turn down the chance to sit down with him one-on-one. To be honest it made me feel a bit awkward, but I couldn’t get past the fact that while I liked his ideas I didn’t much like his attitude. Listening to his words and watching his mannerism I came away thinking that he was the kind of person who thought he had everything figured out. And, frankly, I prefer to talk with people who believe they are still learning.

And that’s why I was bemused when, a few months later, I found myself on treadmill watching TED videos and there he was again. This time his name was attached to a talk called How great leaders inspire action and faced with three words that I love (leader, inspire and action) I clicked. I may not want to chat with the guy, I reasoned, but that was no reason to say no to good content.

I’m glad I clicked.

At the center of his talk was the idea that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In his version of the golden circle you start with a clear why, and then the how and what follow authentically and lead to great results. I loved it and immediately started articulating the importance of why with my team. As an idea, it fit nicely into my mental model of leadership and eventually I found the time to listen to Start with Why, the 2009 book he wrote around this idea. Perhaps not surprisingly, as I’ve listened to the book I found myself wondering, “What’s my why?”

(Note: It’s harder than you might imagine to answer that question without sounding like a self-important blowhard.)

But I managed to push that feeling aside and I’ve decided that my why is simple. I believe in the unique human possibility to grow and — through that growth — create something of value. I see it as my “why” to seek out and support that opportunity for growth in every aspect of my life. Nothing is more exciting for me that finding someone (myself included!) at a growth cross-roads and being able to give them a nudge of support to make it to the next level. Talking to someone days or even years later and hearing their growth story can put a smile on my face for hours — finding out that something I did helped them get there can last for days. My why comes through authentically in every part of my what — my fervor for academics, my approach to marriage and mothering, my non-linear career, my blog and my love of mentoring. I regularly get asked why I’m not a teacher; I answer that I teach every day, anyone who is willing to learn.

 

It may be one of my life’s ultimate ironies that someone who struck me as having nothing to learn gave me a framework to articulate my why — a why framed in the power of growth. But, I think it just reinforces the fact there is something to be learned from everyone and every situation if you can get past one small challenge.

You have to be willing to click the link — and listen long enough to hear it.

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.

 

 

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.

When Things Go Wrong

Earlier this summer I had a tough meeting with one of my work teams. We had a project that was giving us a lot of trouble. The technology was more complex than we originally thought, the requirements weren’t as clear as we would like. Most of the people around the table — including me — hadn’t been involved when the key decisions has been made. I had been asking for an updated timeline for at least a month and no one could give it to me.

Sitting in the room, with everyone telling me that it would take another six to eight weeks to just assess how long the project would take to deliver, I could feel the weight pulling the team down. They needed a way to put a win on the board and there I was, asking harder and harder questions. I took a deep breath and tried to give them a hand up.

“I hear you saying that you can’t do it any faster, but what if we took a new approach? If I could eliminate any other work from your calendar for 24 hours, what could you do?”

For me, one of the biggest challenges of leadership is not in leading in time of success, but rather leading in times of failure. When everything is going well, nearly any leader can motivate their teams and help them to do good work. Companies delivering big market share and profits can invest and provide generous benefits; sports teams who are the top of their league can easily recruit and create a legacy.

Success is self-fulfilling and empowering.

It’s harder when things go wrong. In his TED talk, Stanley McChrystal said something I really liked. “Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” No person or team that tries to do anything amazing ever gets there without stumbles. I’ve written in the past about my own misses and the fact that those moments have helped me grow into the leader that I am. I understand the sinking feeling in one’s center when you know that your talent, intent and focus isn’t enough. The feeling that you won’t be able to meet the expectations of those who count on you (or worse yet yourself) sucks. And if you aren’t careful it sucks you into a slime-filled pit without a handhold for escape.

Failure is exhausting.

Two days later, after putting aside all other work and focusing simply on the question of how long it would take to get to the finish line, we came back together. The answer was grim, the timeline was far longer (and the project far more expensive) than anyone had predicted. They were disappointed and they knew I would be disappointed. In my heart I knew that if I reacted with any of the fear, the frustration or the fury that I was feeling I could never expect them to tackle an assignment like that again. They would seek out easy assignments and — if they did take on hard work — I couldn’t count on them to tell me the whole truth when things were bleak. In a millisecond I knew there was only one thing I could do.

I thanked them for delivering a timeline that — only days earlier — they had told me couldn’t be done in less than six weeks.

What followed after that was a focus on the path forward. I reiterated that even though none of us were happy, we were in a better place with an aligned foundation for improvement. I asked them about their assumptions and what changes were possible to shorten the timeline. I reminded them of the business risk inherent in the timeline and our shared accountability to deliver the functionality. I asked for commitment on next steps, ownership, and our plan to communicate our status transparently to the broader team. And, I thanked them again for the good work they had done.

Later that week, I had a one-on-one discussion with a middle manager on the team. He had been part of the meeting and expressed surprise at how I had reacted to the news. Wasn’t I worried? He noted that I had actually seemed pleased in the meeting and he didn’t understand how that was possible. Looking across the desk between us I explained my thinking. I assured him yes, of course I was worried. But I was happy that we had arrived at an answer, even if I wasn’t happy with the answer itself. We had a start.

The best leaders that I have worked for, the ones I aspire to emulate, have reacted the same way. In the times when I found myself standing in the slime pit, dejected and without any clear path out, they have climbed in. Bracing their backs against the slippery wall, they have interlaced their fingers and formed a step for me to climb. Putting my feet in their hands I was able to grab the ledge and painstakingly pull myself out. It was never easy, but it was possible. That is what I want to give my team; not a way to avoid the pit, but a way to climb out of it.

And, if I’ve done it right they’ll pull me out, too.

Habitually Bad at Habits

My brother’s best friend during childhood ate dinner every night at 5:00pm. Every night. Weekdays and weekends. School days and summer break. Every single night. In contrast, my family lived by a kind of vagabond flexibility. True, some days the five of us gathered together around the table at 6:00pm but others we were fending for ourselves and eating at the picnic table at 8:00pm. We were as likely to go out for a linner (late lunch / early dinner) with the senior crowd at 3:00pm as we were to eat brunch at 11:00am and then gorge on snacks watching Love Boat.

As a child I remember being incredulous of his family’s consistency; as an adult, I am in awe.

I suck at building habits. My life is a cautionary tale of one failed attempt after another to build routine and standardization into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the power of positive habits, so much so that I’ve invested in more than a few models and techniques for building them. Here’s just a short list of things I’ve tried to build habits around that have been massive failures:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Doing 15 minutes of daily planning
  • Exercising 3-4 days per week
  • Reading every evening before bed
  • Taking maintenance medication
  • Blogging 2x per week
  • Creating an evening facial routine
  • Prepping meals for the following week
  • Writing regular correspondence
  • Keeping a journal

You get the idea. The failures range from work to personal and from things that will benefit me to things that benefit others. It doesn’t matter which aspect of my life it falls into, even when I want to build the consistency of structure, sooner or later it falls under its own weight because I just can’t hold it up.

Lately, I reassessed my Strengths Finder results and found that I was fairly consistent from the last time I took it about six years ago. My five dominant strengths are Strategic, Achiever, Input, Learner and Communicator. I’m willing to bet that Discipline — the strength of routine and structure — is non-existent in my pattern. And I can tell you this, it is truly annoying to know the power of positive habits (Strategic, Input, Learner), to be singly focused on leveraging those benefits (Achiever) and to still be unable to get it done.

Today, I listened to a TED Radio Hour podcast called A Better You that included a segment by Matt Cutts around the power of changing habits in 30 days. He argued that doing one thing every day for 30 days is long enough to build a new habit. After listening I was excited about the possibility of real change — imagine building TWELVE new habits in a year. My brain quickly identified not one but a handful of things I needed to conquer and (in typical Mel fashion) I decided I would do them all in the first month. If one is good than five is better, right? Right?

[Cue Mel’s inner voice: “Wrong you idiot, it’s one thing for a reason. One thing. One.”]

By the time I had walked from my car to my desk I had backed myself off fixing everything that is wrong with me and I had picked one thing. I won’t tell you what the thing is, but I will tell you that today I did it and I marked a big black X on my calendar to show that I had done it. Tomorrow I’ll do it. And Thursday. And Friday. And if I can do it for 26 days after that I’ll pat myself on the back and go onto the next thing and do THAT for 30 days.

So, how long do you suppose it takes to build a habit for building habits?

A Home Rooted in Stories

Last weekend my brother and his wife moved into their new home. Well, new to them. The house itself is more than 70 years old, lovingly built and renovated by the same couple throughout their marriage. You can see their uniqueness throughout the character of the rooms: a great room off the entry perfect for entertaining; a large, private master suite with only a sliding glass door for escaping to the backyard; a central galley kitchen designed for efficiency; small private spaces for hobbies including a dark room, library, office and wine closet. It is the kind of house that leads to questions and wonder in every oddly shaped room, layer of plaster and bricked up window. It is a house begging to share its stories.

I know many of them — the owners were my grandparents.

My grandfather returned from World War II ready to marry his sweetheart and start his life. He told me once that there weren’t enough homes available for the returning GI’s — he just wasn’t able to find a home to purchase. So, being the resourceful person he was, my grandfather moved his new wife and infant son into his parents’ house, bought land from his father and proceeded to build his young family a home. Years later, he could articulate the thinking behind each of the design decisions and the practical evolution as his family grew and their savings made enhancement possible.

When I was growing up we visited their house every Sunday. It was a family ritual that needed no explanation and brooked no argument; few things overruled our 5:00pm trip down familiar roads to my father’s childhood home. I learned the little bit of patience I have from those visits, over the 2,500 hours of amusing myself and my brothers while the grown ups chatted. To be honest, I learned about life without even knowing it. Once during a job interview I was asked what interested me about the automotive industry. I answered, without embellishment, that listening to my father and grandfather “talk shop” had taught me about business before I even knew I cared about business. Family, loyalty, conflict resolution, straight talk — I learned all of that and more as a child at their feet. 

I remember that sometimes grandpa would fall asleep and we would all wait patiently for him to wake up knowing he would smile and assert that he was just reading his eyelids. I remember my grandmother disappearing into the kitchen to come out with plate after plate of snacks (cut fruit, cheese, chips, cheese balls) that we would eagerly devour. I remember getting old enough to be given permission to go off on my own into their bedroom (the only room with a tv) to sit on the bed and watch 21 Jump Street and Star Trek the Next Generation. I remember summers throwing lawn jarts, climbing trees and playing hide and seek under the massive willow tree — the one that was later struck by lightening. I remember one glorious summer afternoon (and only one) when we churned ice cream by hand — it was filled with chunks of Oreo and delicious.

As an adult I created new memories. I got dressed there for my wedding, journeying across the driveway to walk down ‘the aisle’ — a cobblestone path through the grass to my parents’ back deck. We brought our children as infants and toddlers, setting them on the carpet and pulling out familiar toys while grandma brought fresh baked cookies. I remember the warm feeling when my kids first asked if they could go over to “Old Papa’s” house, watching from the kitchen window as they ran across the driveway on their own. They would open the door and head straight to the back bedroom without any warning; grandma and grandpa didn’t mind, their door was always open.

My grandfather only admitted to one time when he and my grandmother had truly disagreed. It was when his business had been taking off and his peers in industry had suggested that he needed to move to an affluent town to ensure financial success. Achievement was important to grandpa and he thought they needed to do it. My grandmother was adamantly against it — she argued that they had to remember where they came from and stay true to their roots. More than 20 years into my own marriage I have a hard time seeing that argument in my mind’s eye. It must have gotten pretty heated, but my grandma was a strong woman and she loved her family more than anything. She won and they didn’t move.

I have a hard time imaging my life if she had lost.

There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my past, present and future would be lived within a few miles of that house. I thought I might be the one to live in their home. My parents were living in my great-grandparents house across the driveway and I had moved home to raise my own young children just a few miles away. I envisioned the changes I would make, how I would be true to the history while building a bright future for my own family. And then I moved away, pulling up roots four generations in the making to start over in a place where we had no history at all.

I would be inclined to be maudlin if not for my brother and his wife. I’ve watched as they have embraced the old while creating a new space totally their own. Walking into the front door brings a feeling of comfortable recognition tied to their own character. The house includes furniture that was my grandparents, pieces that were once mine and things all their own. They’re creating new stories, stories that the next generation will share. I can’t help but think that perhaps it has worked out the way it was meant to — that the house was always destined to come to them. I like that.

Grandma would have liked it, too.