Stop Asking How I Do It

It happened again last week. There I was in a normal business conversation talking about how we were doing 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.)

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.”

Learning from Failure

As we ended 2016, a 29-year old woman went to work and had a really bad night. A lot of people have bad shifts, but I’m willing to bet she was probably the only one that night who did it in front of more than 18,500 people with millions more watching live at home or bars. Traditional and social media covered it within minutes showing pictures and videos of her beaten face, describing her 48-second destruction and calling for her immediate retirement. Articles noted her previous suicide attempt and hoped that she would pull through the devastating loss.

I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts, but at the time my heart went out to Ronda Rousey.

At the time I started and abandoned a blog post. For more than a month she was silent in social media as everyone sat on the sidelines of her life and speculated about her next steps. Tonight I sat down to write and thought, hmmm, I wonder whether she has found her way out yet? A quick Google search revealed that just yesterday she emerged with a single quote on her Instagram account.

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I hope the post means that she’s finding a way to pull herself back up, to recognize that her worth as a human being will not be defined by a single night. I hope so.

Our culture is framed in a ridiculous binary where the people either win and get everything or lose and have nothing. I cringe every time I hear phrases like “second place is first loser” or “to the victor go the spoils” because they reinforce the idea that if you can’t win you shouldn’t play. It’s like every dystopian novel, filled with triumphant winners and cringing losers.

That’s a load of crap.

It’s not that I’m against winning. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a feisty competitor and I like a medal or an “A” as much as the next guy. It’s just that I haven’t learned a damn thing about living from my wins. Every single worthwhile story in my life is built around a loss. The time when I fell just yards from the line at states. The time when I swung for the fences applying to graduate school and got rejected. The time when I tried to do a no-win job and failed. Losing has helped me recognize the value of a life well-lived, relish my diversity of experiences and create a community of support. Winning I was a cocky entitled pain in the ass. Losing taught me grace.

We don’t celebrate failure (or more importantly the growth that comes from failure) often enough. Look, I get it. Success is sexy and failure is messy. Failure requires a good hard look inside yourself to ask painful questions. Did I try as hard as I could? Was I as prepared as I could have been? Was I in over my head? Who did I harm? Can I try again? Should I?

Some days I think it’s easier to just win, but easier isn’t better.

So, I’m pulling for Ms. Rousey. I hope that she’s finding a way to look inside herself and find a woman that she respects and loves. I hope she recognizes that whether she continues to fight or never steps into the arena again she has value and can contribute to the world. Sure, I’m an out of shape middle-aged desk jockey, but if I could I would sit down with her and assure her that nothing about her life is predetermined at 29. I would look into her eyes, thankful to be sitting with her and not the winner, and I would ask her one question.

What did you learn?

Musings from Sunday Shopping

Sunday mornings provide me with a weekly conundrum. On one hand, I want to luxuriate in my warm, comfortable bed, taking advantage of relaxing on the one day that I don’t have any real commitments. On the other hand, I want to get up and get to the grocery store before it becomes jammed with all of the other people who (like me) need to stock their pantries and refrigerators for the week ahead. I’ve considered it and there is a single optimal hour when I can wake, shower and get out the door in order to be both lazy and productive.

I rarely hit that window — I did today.

Getting up and out of the house at the perfect time opened my mood up to positives and possibility. I walked down the aisles without feeling guilty or anxious, with my ears open to interesting conversations and my mind open to winding thoughts. I heard a grown daughter say to her father, “Do you want applesauce, dad? Wow, there are so many kinds.” I watched a father alone with two young sons, one running in circles around a display the other begging to be taken out of the cart. I smiled at a young couple discussing out loud whether to go vegan or  vegetarian in the frozen food aisle.

Along the way I piled things I needed and things that struck my fancy into the cart, nonplussed when I missed a couple of items and had to circle back to the beginning.  For once, the inconvenience wasn’t a big deal; the extra steps weren’t a crisis. And, when I stood in the line at the checkout and was waved over to an empty lane it was a pleasantry — I wouldn’t have been bothered to wait but I was happy to move. It was in that frame of mind that I heard the young male clerk say quietly to the middle-aged woman who was bagging my groceries, “You’re the best bagger I’ve worked with. You’re really good.”

She smiled and so did I.

To me bagging groceries is as much art as it is science. In my many years shopping for groceries I’ve seen my share of baggers, some amazing and some challenged. I’m polite to all of them but I’ve definitely formed an opinion about what constitutes quality work. In my opinion, the best baggers are able to work speedily, pack so as to prevent damage and group things in an intuitive way. They inherently understand that their work is temporary and yet they don’t let that stop them from doing it right. The very best baggers seem to channel the needs of shoppers, mentally standing with them in a kitchen as they put the groceries away.

I was delighted but not entirely surprised to see that the National Grocers Association hosts an annual Best Bagger Championship. Started in 1987, the 2017 event will feature 25 contestants in Las Vegas, recognizing employees who “have pursued long and rewarding careers in the grocery industry.” I kind of wish I could be there to cheer on the representative from Illinois, Heidi Jacobson. I think we have a tendency as a culture to downplay some jobs and careers because there aren’t extensive barriers to entry. There’s this crazy idea that if anyone could do something that anyone could do it well. That is patently untrue.  In every job family there are people who exemplify high standards of performance and excellence. We all get that intuitively, but we seem to forget it as we watch the Oscars or the All-Star game and pretend that only some jobs have people who are truly outstanding.

As I left the grocery store today I gave a momentary thought to bagging groceries after I retire. I can imagine myself standing at the end of the conveyor, smiling my outrageous smile and doing my best to make it just a bit easier for someone to complete the never-ending chore of shopping for food. I started mentally putting the boxes and cans and produce into the bags, thinking about strategy and speed and how I could do it better. True, I may or may not convince someone to take me on years from now, but I think I could. I’m pretty persuasive.

There’s only one question: Do you think they’ll still have the Best Bagger competition then?

Lucky

More than a year ago I walked into a colleague’s office to talk about work and ended up talking about life. I told him that I was lucky, that my unique combination of circumstances had given me the opportunity to have a fulfilling career, a loving family and a happy life. I contemplated out loud the thousands of other women just like me who were born in the early 70’s and who hadn’t had my lucky breaks. We talked for a long time and he rejected my entire premise, telling me time and time again that luck had nothing to do with it. He assured me that my capabilities alone had led to my success.

At the time I was surprised how forcefully he rejected the entire conversation, but I’m not anymore. This week I’ve been listening to a five part podcast called Busted: America’s Poverty Myths. I’ve enjoyed the thoughtful discussion, the interviews and the facts, but what struck me most was a quote by author E.B. White embedded within the third episode:

“Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

It seems to me that The American Dream requires an unwavering belief in the equal possibility of meritorious success regardless of circumstances. If you reject that idea and accept instead that two equally intelligent, hard-working and virtuous individuals may not achieve success simply because of the fickle finger of fate where does that leave you? Are you a defeatist? A whiner? A ne’er do well who expects life handed to you on a platter?

I don’t think so.

We have all met individuals who have had every lucky break fortune can provide and somehow failed to build a life they consider successful. We have also met individuals who seem to be stalked by a dark storm cloud and yet fight through it to achieve greatness. After all, if you spend enough time keeping your eyes open you’ll see examples of just about every possible experience. But the data is pretty compelling — most people, including me, need a combination of good fortune and skill to achieve their potential. In most cases you need to be both lucky and good.

I tend to focus a lot on the lucky half of my success; I look back at circumstances not of my own making and attribute my outcomes to that. I downplay my own hard work, commitment and perseverance because I tend to see those attributes as table stakes, just the things that need to be done and done well. When I think about being “self-made” I choke on the very premise. I recall instead:

  • My luck at being born to two college-educated parents who relished the idea of a smart and driven daughter.
  • My luck at finding friends who supported me for the person I was.
  • My luck at emerging from my teenage years without an unplanned pregnancy or tragic accident.
  • My luck at having a father who said, “we’ll make sure you can go to whatever college you can get into” and meant it.
  • My luck at finding a man who understands me, my potential and what we can be as a team.
  • My luck at choosing a graduate program that put me in the path of a mentor who has supported me professionally ever since.
  • My luck at giving birth to two healthy kids at a time in human history when medical intervention meant I could survive the experience.

Yes, I like to think that I have made the most of the luck that I have been given, but to suggest that those moments didn’t impact my current happiness and situation is patently false. Erase any of those moments — not one of which has anything to do with my character or capabilities — and I would not be the person I am today, living the life I am living. I am lucky, very lucky.

My grandfather liked to say that the secret to life was a thankful heart. Like many self-made men he could point to the many instances of hard-work, risk-taking and perseverance that helped him throughout his life. But unlike many self-made men he also freely acknowledged the many people and twists of fate that helped him along the way. He was quick to point to them in his life and his stories and I am convinced it was one of the reasons that he was so well-liked. His friends knew that he was remarkable and they knew that they were part of the reason why. He passed a simple truth onto me that has framed my entire life view.

There is no such thing as a self-made man — none of us that find happiness and success truly find it alone.

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.”

I’m Done with That

I’m not very good at Twitter. I’m a relationship builder and it feels like Twitter is more transitory — I might invest in reading 140 characters from your heart or I might not. It depends on my mood and whether you made me laugh last time. Follow. Unfollow. Like. Retweet. I’m not capable of bounding relationships that way.

I don’t have many followers.

When by some weird circumstance someone does choose to follow me I am immediately intrigued. How did they find me? What encouraged them to click the button? What are they looking for from me? I respond to any follow request with a quick personal message asking them their why…why did you follow me? No one ever replies which just reinforces the absurdity of my being on Twitter — it is not about building relationships it’s about building followers.

And yet this week a couple of my new followers led me to a great little article on Forbes that highlighted things that smart women are ‘done with’ for 2017. I like the idea of being ‘done with’ something. Although it starts a bit negative it ends with a strong accountability message: you can make choices to let things go in spite of evidence to the contrary. Like the older woman in the article who was ‘done with’ 7-inch platform shoes that are ‘more comfortable than they look’ we can all choose to be done with things that have outlived their usefulness.

So, in honor of 2017, here are three things that I am done with:

Not Being Good Enough

Every single person I know has moments when they feel like they aren’t good enough. Seriously, even people that I know who are at the top of their game, who live lives of grace and dignity and get up every day to do their best still sit in judgement of themselves and how they are not good enough. I do it to myself every time that I have to pull myself up, dust myself off and try something again. So, I’m done with feeling like I’m not good enough. I won’t give up the need for self-reflection and self-improvement, but I will try to allow myself to be imperfectly human and have that be good enough.

Escalating Negativity

There were points last year when I struggled to maintain my positivity, when I felt that the anger I saw would grow so hot it would burn people to char. I’ve learned that it is easy to reject something or someone that you disagree with, easy to turn their own words against them and focus on the fear. I felt myself getting that way, not just in big moments but with my own family. No, I may not agree with every opinion or action that people have or take, but more than opinions and actions I believe in people living authentic lives of purpose. So, I’m done with escalating the negative, there are enough people who do that. I’m going to try to escalate the possibility.

Weekend Thinking

I started to slip into a horrible habit last year, falling regularly into a countdown to the weekend. Five more days, four more days, three more days, two more days, one more day… like the gasping breaths of a swimmer desperately pulling their head above water in between flailing frantic dips below the waves. It’s a pattern I’ve seen followed by people for months, years and the length of a career. They watch the sand slip through the hourglass, never finding a way to enjoy the bulk of their days because they are filled with work. I’m going to remind myself that I have chosen my work from many things that I am capable of doing. I’m done with thinking that the only hours worth living are the hours from 5:00pm Friday through 5:00am Monday.

I’m sure there’s more to be done with but I’m only 43. As I get older I hope that I learn more about how to jettison what doesn’t bring happiness and fulfillment to my life. I’ll need to have something to save for later.

Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be done with Twitter.