The Rule of Always and Never

As comfortable as I am with myself, my character, and my ethics, I’ve made peace with a basic fact: if I was put in a situation to protect my children, I honestly don’t know what I would be capable of doing. It’s my ethical Achilles heel. When I feel myself judging others I ask myself whether I would do something that bad to protect my children.

And of course I really don’t know.

That’s why when I was listening to a podcast this week called Why People Do Bad Things, it resonated with me. The podcast explores a specific fraud and the broader implications on business ethics. It makes the case that the world is not broken up into good people and bad people, but rather that good people placed in certain situations can make bad decisions. 

I spent a large part of my formative professional years in audit roles, and during those years we talked a lot about how to build effective process controls so that good people weren’t tempted or couldn’t make big mistakes. Basically, we were trying to make sure any one person couldn’t get away with something — we always knew that collusion was harder to protect against. And what really surprised me from the podcast was how easily groups of people can talk themselves into doing something unethical. How the rationalization can spread, like a disease.

Like most people, I want to believe the best about myself, that if I was the next link in a questionable chain I would be the voice of reason. I would speak out — I would act with integrity over self-Interest and peer pressure. But there are thousands of examples throughout human history where that hasn’t happened. And so I have one thing I do to keep aware of that; I call it “the rule of always and never.”

Whenever I hear my kids use the words always or never, I caution them. Those are strong words, I say. They reflect a level of certainty that humans are rarely capable of and should be used sparingly. For things like gravity. Or sunrises. They don’t get to be used for “you never let me have ice cream” or “I always brush my teeth”. Those statements don’t meet the standard. I want my kids to think about the power of those words and not throw them away on a trifle or pretend some superhuman ability to fight human nature.

I pull out the rule when I hear someone talking about another person’s actions in circumstances they haven’t faced. Or when I hear a political pundit. It’s the voice in the bad of my head that says, “Are you sure you really know, Mel? Never? Always?” It’s my ultimate reminder of empathy and that my span of experience, as wide as it might be for a girl from a small Midwest town, is still very narrow.

Once, my incredibly witty firstborn caught me saying, “we never use never and always,” which made me feel proud and sheepish at the same time. And that’s the point, isn’t it? That we’re all human and fallible — and we should remember that.


Thoughts on Friendship

Last year, I was reminded about the importance of being a constant friend. The kind of friend who is just there. Do you know that little dog in the Looney Tunes cartoons that bops along next to Spike? Like that. Annoyingly reliable, steady, eager to please. Almost a little pathetic, if you think about. Crap, is he still there? Really? Doesn’t he have anything better to do? 

Over a period of months I had been sending the equivalent of “ol’ buddy, ol’ pal” texts to a very good friend of mine. We met nearly ten years ago and over the years the stylish African American woman became a mentor, someone I trust explicitly to be honest and kind to me. She has helped me appreciate a bit about what it means to be an African American woman and the mother of a young black man — and she has never judged me for my ignorance or my privilege. And for that I am truly grateful.

So, she’s important to me, and every once in a while I send a check-in text just because I am reminded of her. I saw someone with a great necklace. I heard a story on the news. I scrolled past a picture on Facebook. And from April through July I sent her seven texts, none of which generated a reply. No response. Just crickets. It was weird and nerve racking.

Years ago, I would have fretted. I would have assumed that I had done something wrong. That something horrible had happened and that our friendship was ruined. My immediate reaction to situational failure my whole life has been, “Shit! What did I do?” followed quickly by the sinking guilty feeling that I wasn’t good enough. (I don’t know why I do this, I just know that I do.)

I won’t lie, I did believe that something had happened. But I took a deep breath and reminded myself of four things:

  • I was a good person. 
  • I was a good friend. 
  • I was trying. 
  • I would continue to try.

And so, last summer I dropped text number eight, “I’m in town for the weekend, would you like to get together tomorrow for coffee?”
And this time she said yes. Enthusiastically yes. Absolutely yes. The kind of yes that comes with a willing change of plans, a huge hug, an hour of non-stop conversation, pictures of the kids and all that comes with it. And, with that text, in that moment, I knew being a constant friend was worth it.

Ok, I know there is a whole school of thought around protecting yourself from toxic friendships and that there is guidance about letting those people go. People who tear you down, or insult your life views, or take more emotionally that they give. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about understanding that your friends will sometimes not be in a place where that can feed your friendship. Or they might not have you on speed dial. Or they might not invest the same amount in you that you do in them. However you measure ‘good friends’. And let’s be honest, we do measure the quality of a friend, both ourselves and others. And sometimes in the fair dealing of friendships I’ve been a better friend than individuals have been to me.

And to that I say, so what? What is the cost of leaning in? The joy I got that day from hugging my friend and learning her story was well worth the few months of confusion. If I had written her off at the fifth text, I might not have known that she was going through a difficult surgery and rehabilitation. I might not have understood that the months of chronic pain took a huge toll, and that she had isolated herself from everything that wasn’t essential to just get through it. I might have assumed it was about ME and not about HER. I might have lost a truly remarkable relationship. 

But I didn’t. Instead, I learned that she had gotten my texts. I learned they had lightened her load. I learned that they helped, but it wasn’t enough support to give her the energy to respond. So, maybe I should have tried harder. Maybe she needed me even more.

I’m not the bravest person I know. I ride a desk for a living, I don’t work in an ER or climb into burning buildings or protect communities. I hate feeling vulnerable, too. There were times in my life when reaching out ended in heartbreak and just like everyone I have scars. A pack of pre-teen girls who iced me out. A set of colleagues who derailed my performance. A boyfriend who used me and then left me to have the biggest jag of my young life. Each one was a teaching moment, an opportunity for reflection — not one scar was painful enough to make me change.

In fact, when I look at myself and the person I am, I don’t regret a single time I gave more. I only regret the times when I gave less. I’m not perfect, and there are times when I am sure I have let others down. Before Facebook, staying connected was harder and there are people who have made an indelible mark in my character that I haven’t been able to thank. I keep trying to find them, to let them know, but I can’t always do it.  The reality is that someday I won’t be able to reach out at all and the fewer of those regrets I carry, the better. 

Because, ‘ol buddy, ‘ol pal, I’m a Chester*.

(*That’s his name, by the way…that annoying little dog that follows Spike.)

There’s Always a Scoreboard

Competition is a hard thing. Too much competition without compassion and you end up with a vicious ‘win at all costs’ mindset. Too little competition and no focus and you miss out on opportunities to excel. I googled “is competition good” and got pages of articles on the subject. I’ll be honest, didn’t look at any of them.

It doesn’t matter if it’s good — it just is. Like gravity.

Last night I was hanging out with family, sharing how I got two ‘good mom’ points for having a great frisbee toss with my son. (That probably sounds lame, but I’m pretty inactive on vacation and putting myself in motion was a big deal. And it was an even bigger deal that we had fun, and neither of us took it too seriously.) Anyway, my brother-in-law said, “You’re keeping score?” And I said, “There’s always a scoreboard.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, two things happened. First, I felt awful for saying it and second, I decided to write a post about it.

The reason it felt awful is because so often competition is about doing better than someone else. 

  • I ran faster than she did
  • I answered more questions right than he did
  • I sold more boxes of cookies than she did. 

It’s all me versus you, us versus them. And the next mental step is that doing better means being better. Like somehow a point in time result in an isolated activity equates to a person’s overall value. You know, I managed to have a bit of fun active time with my son therefor I’m a better mom than a mom somewhere who didn’t have the energy to get off the couch. Therefor I am a worse mom than a mom who went with her son on a 10-mile bike ride.
Which is crap.

The reality is that I did something that I’ve been trying to do more. However, tallying a couple of points in my mom column didn’t mean I pulled ahead of Sally Jones in Peoria (currently sitting at 3rd in her region due to a disappointing Sunday dinner), it just meant that I could feel good for a moment. And, I could bank those points, mentally at least, for the next 12 hour workday when my family has  to eat Chipotle without me.

I love the Harry Potter books. It’s no surprise that my favorite character is Hermione: she is unapologetic about her smarts, she comes up with great ideas and she isn’t afraid to get stuff done. But perhaps my favorite part of the overall universe is the battle for the House Cup. “Five points of Griffendor” makes me smile, every single time I hear it. Yeah, sometimes you have to save the world to get points, but most times you just have to work hard, apply yourself and support your team. I find myself saying it all the time when I see small wins and everybody knows what I mean.

What does your scoreboard look like? If it’s lower than you would like, today is a great day to give yourself some points. And if you’re struggling with it, here’s something…

Five points for Griffendor, just for reading this post.

Building Your Brand

At dinner recently, I was chatting with the kids about going to a movie. The teenage girls (my daughter and her friend) were giggling over a rated R movie starring some good looking men. I commented that there was no way we could see that because, “Your mom would never forgive me.” They assured me that I could simply tell her mom that we saw something more acceptable — they said that I could lie. Then a sigh went around the table, “She would never do that, she doesn’t lie.” 

And that is what brand looks like, an instanteous certainty of who someone is and how they will act.

When I was studying branding basics in grad school, I didn’t think of it beyond its business applications. We talked about the research on brand recognition, we discussed the Tylenol scare and Johnson & Johnson’s response, and we did case study after case study on some of the strongest brands in the world. It was easy to see how important a company’s or product’s brand was to its success. I just didn’t realize until later that the concept of personal reputation is too simple — that looking at oneself as a brand is much more inclusive.

I spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about my brand. Like in business, at the end of the day that is all you really have. You can lose your possessions, your job and your looks, but the way you have acted and the impact you’ve had on others leaves an indelible aura in the world. Your brand creates a spontaneous reaction when someone hears your name. Brand is why people join communities and companies, or why they leave.

And yet there is no “good” brand — some people like Starbucks, some like McDonalds — what matters is consistency. Knowing that day after day, week after week, year after year you will get what you expect. The individuals who have the strongest brands are those who don’t shy away from who they are and how they act. Love them or hate them, their brand roars through and refuses to be compromised.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to rebrand myself. I picked a college so far away from where I grew up that there wouldn’t be a hint of the vapor trail I had created in my first 18 years. I set about creating new experiences with a new group of people. I started over with a white piece of paper. And a funny thing happened, the same brand re-emerged. So, I stopped thinking my brand sucked and leaned into it.

It’s a lot more fun that way. Trust me.

Retirement of the Accidental Blogger

This morning, I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I googled “Accidental Blogger” — I’ve had a whopping 87 visitors so far, and I wondered if someone could find it without being my friend on Facebook. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there were no fewer than five blogs listed, none of which were this one. Hmmm, my idea wasn’t very original.

Throughout the day, I put some backup cycles into thinking about a new name. One that is cool enough to be memorable but unique enough that it wasn’t already taken. That’s a stretch given the fact that Tumblr alone had 227 million blogs as of April. Anything I could think of was even less original than my initial attempt. It seemed hopeless.

And then I remembered an interaction I had with a good friend during my college years. After a late night chat fest, hours spent debating God knows what, it was time to call it a night. She looked at me as I walked out of her room and said, “I love you, but you know there is such a thing as too much Mel.”

At the time, I was still young enough that the statement hurt. My view of friendship was binary — great friend or not friend. I wasn’t capable of seeing that relationships have limits and that healthy relationships are honest about those limits. All I saw was that one of my newest and best friends thought that I was annoying or obnoxious or boorish or…something, but nothing good. I went back to my room and tried to figure out what I needed to change.

Of course I didn’t need to change anything. There wasn’t anything wrong with me then, just like there isn’t anything wrong with me now. She was exactly right that having a strong, hyper-energized, always on personality can be a bit much to take, especially for people who prefer quiet and solitude. Now, I can see the gift in her simple statement. I understand what ‘too much Mel’ looks like, and I can (and do) ratchet it back when needed.

I googled it, and guess what? No one else is calling their blog “Too Much Mel.”


Thinking about Thinking

Reading my blog, people might come to the conclusion that I spend a significant amount of time in quiet reflection.

Ahhh, quiet reflection. That reminds me of a story.

When I got my first promotion to a supervisory role my boss told me something. She said that her boss, while announcing her promotion had shared the guidance he had received at his promotion to that level. He said, “Before, you were expected to constantly be writing, typing or calculating — always in action doing tasks. Now, you’ve reached the level where you can spend a few moments of each day just thinking. Enjoy it.”

We had a conspiratorial chuckle, laughing at the times of old when big open floors were filled with table after table of analysts scribbling frantically on green bar paper. I accepted my promotion gratefully and ran back to my desk to pound out more work. I did not take a moment for quiet thought.

It was years later before I really thought about how bad I am at quiet reflection. Now, don’t get me wrong — I think. I think constantly, but it is always thought in motion:

  • I think while I am writing, like now.
  • I think while talking, the home turf of the true extrovert.
  • I think in edits, in version after version of a difficult spreadsheet, a multi-layered presentation or a sub-optimal process flow.

I am thankful for computers, because now I can churn through reams of ideas without a wastebasket full of evidence. I am an active out loud thinker.

I envy the friends I know who are inside thinkers, those steady waters that run deep. I’ve considered taking up meditation, but I’m not sure I am capable of sitting still that long or of completely calming my mind. The closest I get to that is the 15 minutes in bed at night before I collapse into sleep, and to be honest those are usually either shallow tactical thoughts (what are the three most important things I need to do tomorrow) or self-sabotaging thoughts (who did I let down today, what could go wrong tomorrow). I’m not sure I want to encourage more of that.

Besides, I’ve reached the point where I embrace who I am and how I work. The world needs the frantic energy of my vividly cycling thoughts as much as it needs those who reflect quietly.

It’s the thinking that matters.

The 20-year Year – Part 2

20 years ago, there was a three week period that would change my life in remarkable ways. I graduated from Smith College, a place that taught me how to grow into my authentic self, and I got married, the first decision on a tree that has informed every choice since. Every big anniversary of that time in 1995 makes me thoughtful. Ok, more thoughtful even than usual. How have I grown in those years? I am living up to my promise? Do I bring enough joy to the world to offset the inevitable pain? How am I contributing as a woman, as a wife, as a mother? If I could talk to that woman of 22, what would she think of her 42-year old self? Would she be satisfied or disappointed?

Part 2 – The power of closing doors

Last week, I sat down for a one-on-one with an intern. I could tell he had done his homework — he had read my on-line company profile and was connecting to me in thoughtful and useful ways. And then he asked me a question: What did I know now about achieving goals that I wish I had known at the beginning of my career? I paused for several seconds (a lifetime for me) and articulated a simple statement.

“I wish I had understood the opportunity inherent in closing doors.”

I went on to explain that the American culture of ‘stick-to-it-ness’ and persistence biases decision making toward motion — the only successful direction is onward and upward. I shared that when I was younger, the idea of limiting my options was not only unappealing, it was unimaginable. Every single decision I made was about opening doors, adding more and more options to my mental model of endless possibility. As I got older, I told him, I realized that sometimes opportunity only comes from closing doors. Sometimes you have to say no, not yes. Sometimes you have to walk away.

In short, opportunity cost is not just a financial concept and my 22-year old self didn’t get that.

At the end of my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to be an architect. I had no right to think that was reasonable — I hadn’t taken a math or science class since high school and my last two years had been working toward an English degree. But in my mental model of open doors there was only opportunity. I found a small niche Master’s program at the University of Michigan that didn’t require an undergraduate degree in architecture. I took Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Physics, Drawing and Design, mostly in my senior year. I applied, was wait-listed and then persisted to acceptance.

When I decided two weeks into the program that I had made a horrible mistake, it was a shock to my system. The only thing I had ever walked away from was my high school running career but that was different. (I had never had any illusions about running after high school, so I rationalized that it was only an acceleration of the inevitable.) I agonized about the idea of closing the door and what it would mean about my talent and future success. But the idea of investing three and a half years into the degree that would make me fit to practice in a career that was feeling less and less right was making my stomach ache. I spent a weekend agonizing about my future.

On Monday I withdrew from the program.

At the time, the only thing that felt good about it was getting a full refund. But looking back, I am capable of seeing the closing door as the first domino in a long run of opportunity. The next day, I negotiated to get back my summer administrative assistant job. That bought me time and space to pick the right direction, to get my MBA, to join Ford Finance, to build my fan club. To put myself in a position for new and greater opportunity.

One of my favorite podcasts ever is the Freakinomics episode called The Upside of Quitting. I’ve listened to it at least five times as a reminder about just how hard it is to fight the inherent momentum of onward and upward. And, I keep a memory book of little and big ‘quits’ as proof that you can not only survive but thrive when a door closes. The Upside of Qutting says when something is wrong quit fast. I believe it — now.

I’m not sure how my 22-year old self would see my philsophical transformation from a model of endless possibility to one of closed doors. Would she see it as giving in to the crusty bitterness of adulthood? Would she see it as the pragmatic realism of middle age? Or would she see it as I do: endless possibility focused with the insight of experience. Finding not any opportunity but the right opportunity. Picking not any path but the right path. Choosing not any door but the right door. And closing the rest.

I think she would be ok with it.