The Keys to Your Life

In April, I found myself in a situation I felt wholly unprepared to handle. In mere hours I found myself whipsawed from vague concern for an employee to the sad certainty of loss as I was told that she had passed away. At the time I felt too raw to share the moment in this blog. No matter how I considered it, it felt wrong.

It wasn’t my story to tell.

The biggest grief wasn’t mine.

It wasn’t about me.

Instead, I sought comfort from my mother, tucked her support around me like a blanket, and focused outward. I shared the heartbreaking news within my organization and quietly connected with the members of my team to make sure they were ok. I wrote a letter to her family, expressing my condolences and sharing how highly their daughter / sister / niece / cousin had been regarded for her capabilities and her kindness. I tried to ignore the meme that popped on my Facebook feed that said, “Don’t work yourself to death, your company will have you replaced in a week if you die.” I choked down the resentment and took a deep breath knowing it wasn’t personal. They couldn’t know that the woman who had smiled at me over lunch a week earlier would never be replaced.

I just kept living, understanding acutely that my life was a gift that not everyone had.

It went on like that until yesterday when I found myself sitting in a martial arts dojo. The warm wood under my feet and mats and punching bags were a backdrop as we watched a life in slide show. The pictures that flashed were of the woman that I had known only briefly in business shown living her real life: smiling with friends around a table, traveling the world, fiercely determined in a crisp white karate gi.

One by one friends and family shared their authentic moments of love. I could see the woman I knew reflected in each story and I felt each piece of a complex puzzle falling into place. Her uncle spoke of a family created beyond blood and his joy in knowing she had been loved in her adopted home. Her closest friends talked about trips taken, holiday gatherings, house hunting and movies — the day-in-day out trappings of lives gratefully inter-twined over many years. Individuals who had trained with her talked about the strength of her jab and the comfort of her hugs.

It struck me in that moment, and throughout the night, that it is rare to be given a glimpse of a whole person. It is much more common to see only a part of someone: the worker, the mother, the athlete, the student, the boss, the blog writer. Our lives are like a house with many locked rooms. The people that we know start with one key — the key given them by shared circumstances — while we move throughout the house interacting in one room at a time. Sometimes, we give a key to a person and allow them to walk with us into another room. The employee who is also a friend. The teammate we invite to a family reunion. The blogger who is also a classmate from college. Those keys are a gift of trust and the people we trust the most often have the heaviest key rings.

As I have moved up in my career it has felt harder and harder to open the doors of my house to others. I struggle to find the right balance between being open and engaged without being intrusive. The relative ease with which we open doors when we are young and on a level playing field is challenged when hierarchy emerges. Now, I don’t ask people at work to connect via social media, not because I don’t care about them as whole people, but because I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to say yes because of my role. It feels safer for everyone to keep the door locked.

It might have been that way with my colleague, locked together in the white-walled drop/ceilinged work room, if she hadn’t offered me a few keys to her house. She let me peak into her karate and self-defense room. We sat for long talks in the Michigan room, cheering and consoling over the Detroit Lions. She invited me into her career aspirations room for lunch chats about where she wanted to go and how we could work together to get her there. In the moments after her passing I wondered whether I had made a difference in her life. I cried grateful tears when a colleague shared in an instant message that she had often spoken of how much she loved our talks.

We all hold the spare keys to our life on a key chain, choosing each day to keep them to ourselves or stick our fingernails in the split ring and push the key around until it falls off into our hand. I hope that I’m making the right choices, choices that reflect the truest measure of my respect, admiration, and caring for the people who I am fortunate enough to meet.

Sibling Rivalry

Earlier this week I put a call out to Facebook asking for editorial help. I found myself stuck with 47 ideas in various stages of disarray — from hastily recorded quotes to nearly complete but only seasonally appropriate posts. The responses were all encouraging (variations of “Just get it out there, Mel!”) except for one. Visiting with my mom for Memorial Day weekend she summoned me urgently letting me know that my brother wanted to talk to me. “If you want something light,” he said, “write about Warcraft.”

But before I go there, you need to know why that moment matters.

My brother is three years my junior, wicked smart, and the nicest guy you will ever meet. When he was born, I immediately took on the role of wise elder, committed to both teaching and protecting the little guy I felt my parents had given me. Now, I know he could have easily rejected my mini-mothering, but he didn’t. Whether by nature or nurture, I’ve never met anyone in my life as comfortable as he is with going with the flow. And everyone who knows me knows I like to direct the flow.

We continued down that path — with me comfortably in the role of prototypical know-it-all bossy big sister — until my dad brought home an Atari.

The timeline is fuzzy, but as the golden age of video games smacked into our family, a new reality emerged. While I had an ability to quickly grasp the key elements of a game in the first handful of plays, my brother had the patience to soak in the patterns of the games. He would memorize the long arcs of the game, while I was only interested on what was on the screen in the moment. So, I would win the early games and then a switch would flip and I would never win again.

It happened head-to-head with Combat and Indy 500. It happened in solo games like Frogger and Pitfall. I was playing the game with my eyes and he was playing the game with his memory. Sometimes my window of opportunity would last for days, others for only hours, but no matter what, if I gave him time to understand the strategy and patterns of a game, it was all over. In 2019 it will be 30 years since the day I wrote “I will never play chess with him again” on a napkin, dating it and hanging it on the fridge. I haven’t.

Flash forward to a day in the late 90’s. We were both attending Michigan State at the time, me to get my MBA, him to get his undergrad in Computer Science. I’d recently done a presentation on the business principles of a game called Warcraft II and suggested that he might like it. We fired up the computers and I gave him the gameplay basics and we kicked off the game.

I admit now that it was underhanded, but at the time I honestly don’t think I realized how much of a head start I had given myself. I had forgotten how many games I had played up to that point, how many pieces of knowledge I took for granted that he didn’t have. I left so much out of my tutorial that he had to ask questions every few minutes, piecing together the gameplay on the fly. Meanwhile, I build up my resources, constructed my defenses, trained my army, and prepared to attack his base. With my advantages, it should have been a rout. Not so much. He went down with good-humor, but he didn’t go down easy.

Later that day he asked whether we were playing Warcraft again. I said no, we both knew who would win and what’s the fun in that?

I still play games with my brother. He is one the smartest people that I know and I like a challenge. We both like deep games that mix strategy with chance and we’re usually well-matched. I have an advantage in randomized games that require quick assessment and spontaneity while he is best with deep patterns and long strategies. Our younger brother is the wild card — he’s the biggest player of us all and he can beat us both if he’s on his game. In my 40’s I recognize that win or lose it’s the time together that matters, not who wins.

But I still really love to win.

What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him to sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like an results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.

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 he 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!“)

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.

A Room with a View

As I was boarding my plane yesterday I smiled at the woman merging in front of me and observed cheekily that people were nicer on Saturday. She looked uncertain so I clarified, “Absolutely. You should see people on Thursday at 4:00pm. It’s completely different.” She laughed then and noted that I must travel a lot. The irony was undeniable as we were standing in the group six cattle call and I was heading to a middle seat at the back of the plane. I looked at her wryly before retorting in good humor, “I travel a lot, but not enough to get status.”

Check-in at the hotel was another remarkably predictable experience. Many years of business travel have conditioned me to have my ID and credit card out and to respond knowingly to the questions asked by the employees working the front desk. As the woman concluded my transaction I accepted my room keys without pause, shuffling off to the elevators. I was pressing the up button before I even realized that I’d been given a room on the lowest floor. My sinking feeling got worse as I exited the elevator and saw the sign for the room numbers. My room was closest to the elevators and once inside I walked to the window and grimaced at my view: a flat gray roof displaying in mechanical systems, pipes and a satellite dish. Before I could stop myself the self-pitying words framed in my head.

How did I end up with the worst hotel room here?

It’s amazing how quickly and easily the human mind can complete a comparison and find itself wanting. Within a minute I had gone from being excited to disappointed, forgetting all about the opportunity I had been given to develop my leadership capabilities among other talented women. Why? Because I would be spending a handful of hours over four nights sleeping in a room without a view. And, to be honest, I might have stayed in that frame of mind and grumbled about my sorry lot if it weren’t for a recent podcast I listened to this week that put what I was experiencing — envy — into perspective.

The podcast was Counting Other People’s Blessings on the show Hidden Brain. I’m a new listener, but the show positions itself as using science and storytelling to “help curious people understand the world — and themselves.” I found it to be a fascinating exploration of why individuals compare their lives to others and as I stared out the window I connected back to what I had heard. I realized that I wasn’t mad about getting a bad room, I was mad that I got a worse room than someone else. I was envious of the people on the higher floors with views of sunsets and skylines. I wanted what they had, because what they had was better.

Comparison can be positive, helping us identify role models and aspirations, leading us to be better people. I regularly feel inadequate at these type of leadership conferences because I am surrounded by talented, sucessful people who remind me of all of the things I can’t do and may never accomplish. I’m certain that I went to Smith for the same reason, to push myself to develop capabilities in an environment where it couldn’t be argued that I was already done. Surround yourself with enough amazing people and the idea that you are finished growing becomes more and more laughable. How could I think I was successful when she’s done that? I mean really, what the heck was I thinking?

But comparisons can also be toxic and disempowering, leading to victimization. I felt righteous indignation about being stuck in a poor room, but what was I complaining about really? The room was large, well-appointed, and comfortable — it had everything that I needed. If I had returned to the front desk and pleaded my case it was a certainty that someone else would have ended up with it. I was embarrassed to consider what that person would think and how they would react to my assumption that they were somehow less worthy of a great view and a quiet night than I was. Ultimately, I decided that the best thing I could do was accept the judgement of the hotel gods and take a swipe at envy by sharing it in a post of my own. I could laugh at myself and the feeling of being slighted by shining a light on my own experience.

In the grand scheme of things, feeling envious of a great hotel room is a small matter or a witty Facebook post. Maybe the bigger issues is that we talk so rarely about the ugly side of envy, how we look at the successes of others and instead of feeling warmth for them we use it as a measurement to diminish our own happiness. We don’t talk much about envy in our polite society, but maybe we should. Maybe we should shine a light on the many times each day that we compare our lives to others and find ourselves wanting because guess what, someone always has more. Μore money. More beauty. More success. More stuff. Someone is always getting ahead faster or easier or better. How many times do we ask ourselves, in the dark moments we don’t admit out loud, why can’t I have what they have?

I don’t have an easy answer; this blog isn’t about easy answers.

All I know is that I find I am happier and more able to tackle life’s inevitable obstacles when I start with supporting people in their successes and looking inward to create new opportunities for myself. So, I channeled that mindset this morning when I got up and headed to the bathroom to get ready for a day of learning and growth. Focused, I laughed out loud when I turned on the shower and found myself staring at the best water pressure ever in a hotel bathroom. Ok, I thought, message received. It is not the worst hotel room here.

For all it gave me, it might just be the best.

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.