It’s Not A Priority

A Facebook friend of mine posted a great meme yesterday. It said,

Instead of saying, “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels.

Ouch.

I did a little searching, and the meme is actually a quote from an article by Laura Vanderkam called, “Are You As Busy As You Think?” It’s a great article, worth reading.

She makes the point that in our multi-tasking world, with our hyper-programmed children and constant distractions, we talk about being too busy. For example, in my job, people make the excuse for me all the time saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, I know how busy you are.” I feel like I’m running around all the time, rarely having a moment to sit down and just think, unable to stay focused enough to enjoy the depth of a good novel or a hobby.

But the truth is, as Laura points out, I have plenty of time. We all have 168 hours in the week, which allows us to work 50 hours per week, sleep 8 hours per night and still have 62 hours for everything else. That’s a lot of time for personal priorities. Time for making choices.

Right now, for example, I chose to sit down and write this blog post. It is time I could be dedicating to catching up on work emails or exercising or taking a class or crocheting an afghan. I am choosing to write, because writing feeds my soul and gives me a way to focus my thoughts productively. I am making a choice on how to use my scarce time — I am prioritizing what I want to do.

The reason the meme resonated so strongly with me is that when pushed, I have to admit to my choices. I am the one who spends an hour watching Netflix, decides not to meal plan or pre-pack a weeks worth of lunches, or hits the snooze bar four times in the morning. I say I need to exercise, but then don’t take the time to get up in the morning and do yoga or pack a bag so I can swing by the gym at night. I want to read more, but I haven’t managed to read a full novel since Gone Girl. I am struggling, like most people, with inertia and distraction.

Like many people, I want to use my time better. But, I don’t.

For me, it is a constant battle to move away from excuses and move to purpose. It is an on-going effort to be crystal clear to myself why I am doing something — or alternatively, doing nothing. There are times when I truly need to rest my brain or clean out my sock drawer. Sometimes it is the right time to play video games with my son or get a pedicure with my daughter. And sometimes I should be on Facebook.

What’s important is that I own my choices, my priorities and my time. That I recognize making a choice to prioritize something means making a choice to deprioritize something else. It’s not about not enough time, it’s about too many options and not enough discipline.

And, I have to be honest with myself about that, even if it hurts.

Political Correctness

Last night, I was sitting in Wrigley Field watching the Cubs grind out a win against the Giants, so I didn’t see either Jon Stewart’s last show or the GOP primary debate. But, thanks to the miracles of modern video recording, digital compression and instant replay — shazam! — I could still see the highlights.

I enjoyed the tribute that Stephen Colbert made to Jon Stewart as a boss, it reminded me of my best bosses and the way I want to be remembered by the people who I have been lucky enough to lead. And, I loved Jon Stewart’s final moment of zen about bullshit, where he ended by saying, “If you smell something, say something.”

So, here I am saying something.

During the GOP primary debate, Donald Trump was asked about derogatory public statements about women. He’s polling poorly with women, and it seemed reasonable (to me at least) to ask how he felt about that and how he would respond to concerns on the matter. I won’t put the entire quote here, but in short he asserted that he doesn’t have time to worry about political correctness and neither does America. He needs to get stuff done and can’t be bothered with us thin-skinned whiners.

Bullshit.

People generally consider me to be an effective and results-oriented professional. True, my net worth is not over a billion dollars, but I started out with privilege not a trust fund. And, while I recall a couple of times when my passion got the best of me, I have tried to be respectful of my colleagues, even when I struggled to find common ground. My grandfather once told me that his mother told him, “It doesn’t cost a penny to be polite.”

I believe that resorting to name calling and personal insults is not a reflection of expediency or results, it is good old fashioned laziness. If you have to use crass or demeaning language and personal threats to get stuff done, well, that’s not much of a toolkit.

And, the idea that language didn’t matter prior to the term ‘political correctness’ being coined is ridiculous, too. True, some terms become less respectful over time. Language is a living social construct, and it reflects the social norms of the day. A word that was used respectfully between individuals in 1890 might organically become distasteful by 1990. Or it might have been derogatory from its origin, but only be realized to have a negative impact much later.

It isn’t political correctness it is just fundamental respect.

So, I listen and I learn the words that have a negative impact on others. It may be obvious, or I may not understand why — but it doesn’t really matter if I do. Because respect isn’t about me, it’s about showing another person that I value them and their point of view through my words and actions. If I said I respected someone but then turned around and was knowingly rude with my language…

See, that just sounds stupid. You wouldn’t do it, not really. And if you did on accident, you probably would feel a little bit bad about it. Again, if you respected them.

When I add a word to my “do not use” list, I have a plethora of alternatives (also see variety, cornucopia, assortment, buffet, etc). And if I’m really stymied, I just ask. “Hey, what’s a better word to use?” Problem solved. It doesn’t take more than a minute and it speaks volumes.

So, Donald Trump (and anyone else) quit using the derogatory term ‘political correctness’ to cover up your lack of respect for your fellow humans. And stop pretending that in order to be efficient and expedient you have to be rude. Because that is just bullshit used to cover your laziness or the fact that you don’t feel them deserving of basic human consideration.

No disrespect intended to the bulls.

Measuring Success

I was talking today with my boss and he was sharing the experience of a very successful individual who — by 55 — had established enough professional and financial success to have an impressive network and a massive estate. I listened and then said, “I hear things like that and all of a sudden I don’t feel very successful.”

What ensued was a discussion about how you measure success. The person had:

  • Invested formative years in a career, but churned through multiple failed marriages. 
  • Conceived children, but relied on others to nurture them through their development.
  • Accumulated things, but ended up with no one to share life’s time, treasure and talent.

So, was that really more successful? Did I have anything to feel lacking about? Would I be happier if I was alone in a 40,000 square foot house sending my distant children and ex-spouses monthly checks and sipping $2,000 a bottle Chardonnay?

No. No. Hell no.

There have been times throughout my marriage when my husband has pointed out that, without him as a distraction, I would be more successful professionally. I would likely have ended up in a consulting or banking track where I would have willingly and eagerly said yes to every opportunity. I would have worked every hour that I didn’t have to sleep. I would have lived anywhere and traveled anytime. I would have acted exactly the way I do when we are apart. I would have been a frickin’ superstar.

And, I would have been a shell of myself. I would have worked myself to exhaustion, alone and single focused, suffering the physical and mental effects of that lifestyle. I would not know the joy of being a mother. I would not have learned the value of balance. I would not give myself the space to contemplate my existence until it was too late to change it.

Ok, it’s never too late. But, still.

So, maybe it is best not to compare one success to another. Maybe my ability to build connection, my ability to choose balance over material wealth, is more important. For me, maybe that is the right measure of success.

All I know is that I wake up pretty much every day satisfied with my trade-offs. I have enough of everything on Maslow’s hierarchy. If there’s a better definition of success, I’m not sure what it could be.

A Thankful Heart and Privilege

My 93-year old grandfather has a saying, “The key to happiness is having a thankful heart.” He believes that no matter what life has in store for you, there is something for which to be thankful. There are few people that I have met in my life who take those words more seriously than he does, and it is not as if he hasn’t had obstacles thrust in his way to thankfulness.

His family lost everything in the great depression, spent a summer living in a tent and years more in a summer house without heat or running water. He was on Guadalcanal in WWII and saw things I could never imagine. He lost his son tragically, and then nearly on the anniversary of that loss, his wife of 62 years died in his arms. And if you ask him about any of that, he will tell you that others have had it far worse than he has. He will focus on the good that has come out of adversity. He will tell you that he is blessed.

In short, he will demonstrate what it means to have a thankful heart.

I am not sure when I first realized that I wanted to be like him in that regard, I only know that for a very long time I have seen his attitude about life as something aspirational. It’s more than just optimism, or positivity, although both of those are true. I have seen it echoed in a recent article a friend referenced on Facebook called “The Structure of Gratitude” and in a book gifted to me by a colleague, “The Art of Possibility.” The words and concepts were not exactly the same, but they feel similar enough to ring true to his idea of the thankful heart. Both felt familiar, like walking into a town that is like your hometown, but not your hometown. Ahhh, I know this.

So, as I have been watching the recent dialogue on privilege, it has been influenced by my underlying desire to have a thankful heart. And, as I’ve been reading opinions by my Facebook friends or in the press about the theortical concept of privilege, I’ve chosen to leave the theoretical aside and to look inward at myself, my life and my experience. I’ve reflected and for me personally it is pretty simple: there is not an element of my existence that has not benefited from privilege.

I was born to loving college-educated parents (married heterosexual white individuals) who chose to bring me into this world. Thanks to good genes and excellent medical care, I survived being born two months early and ended up in a comfortable home where my mother was able to exit the workforce and take care of me. I went to good schools, where I felt safe and encouraged to learn. I had great siblings and friends, participated in a variety of activities, and was taken on family vacations. I was well-fed, well-clothed, and I never questioned whether or not I would go to college. In fact, when the time came to apply I was confident in getting accepted and being able to afford it. I studied abroad, and later went to graduate school. As a cisgender heterosexual, I never felt uncomforable in my skin nor was I pressured to hide my relationships from the world. I am ridiculously average in height, weight, physical and communication ability, including a ‘midwestern’ presence that only a few people have ever placed from a specific region.

In short, I have every single thing going for me. I have every reason to have a thankful heart.

However, when I have tried to bring up my privilege or suggested to people who know me well that my success was surrounded by this significant privilege, there’s often a rejection. No, they say, you worked hard. You took advantage of opportunity. You earned it. It’s as if somehow admitting my privilege negates my personal effort in their mind. And frankly, I don’t understand it. Believe me, I know how hard I work — no one knows more than I do how much of me I leave on the floor every day.

But as an old track athlete, I think of it like this. Let’s assume that I’m running against someone in the 400m dash. And all of those advantages I talked about allowed me to start at the 100m mark. Sure, I could run a great 300m. Or, I could run a crappy 300m. But no matter what the quality of my run, if I couldn’t beat the person who started back at the starting line, you’d be surprised, wouldn’t you? I would. They would be a hell of a runner — better than best-in-class — to come back from that kind of deficit to beat me. It doesn’t mean I didn’t run a best-in-class 300m, it just means that 300m is easier than 400m. It takes nothing away from me and my race to acknowledge that basic fact.

At 42, I am still practicing having a thankful heart. I know there are days when I forget my privilege. I know there are days when I think that I got where I am in life through sheer strength of will and character. I know there are days when I forget the 100m head start I’ve had and the multitude of small and large things for which I should be thankful.

But you know what they say about practice…and if I can keep up with grandpa, I have a lot of years yet to get it right.

The 30 Day Check-in

A little over a month ago, I wrote Birth of the Accidental Blogger and I started to remember why I used to love writing. I remembered the joy in finding the right words and listening to the patterns in my head over and over again until they flow just right. I remembered what it felt like to have a handful of fragmented ideas suddenly come together, like iron shards pulled by a magnet. I remembered how it feels to hand a sheet of paper to someone, nervously, and say, “What do you think?”

I remembered, and it has been an absolute blast.

According to WordPress stats, today I reached 687 views, by more than 325 unique visitors. But that has to be wrong, I don’t even have that many friends on Facebook. Weekly stats make more sense with 86 visitors over 156 views, but still! That is way more than just my mom and dad. And my husband. I haven’t had that many people read my writing in a very long time.

There have been moments of concern, when I wondered if I went over some sharing line. There have been moments of connection, as friends from diverse parts of my history have reached out about one post or another, letting me know that I made them cry or smile or laugh. I was called remarkable. And, somehow I have managed to keep it going for fifteen posts, one of the only times in my life that I’ve built an actual habit.

An absolute blast of a habit.

I had a quick text interchange with my best friend. I told her how much fun I was having, and that I was trying not to get overwhelmed by whether people liked it. I knew that the writing needed to be about me, but I wasn’t sure I would have kept going if I hadn’t see some positive response. I’ve never been able to make a habit of journaling, I’m just not good at focusing on stuff because it’s good for me. I care too much about whether what I do has value to others.

She’s been by my side for a long time, so she knew exactly what to say:

It is good to care, that’s what drives you. The trick is finding a balance where it only bothers you enough to drive — not stop.

So, I’m going to take her advice. I’m going to keep having fun, and I’m going to care whether what I do resonates with people. I’m going to care enough to stay driven, but not so much that I let the worry stops me.

Thanks for being part of my journey. I promise it will be worth it to stick around.

The 20-year Year – Part 3

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 3 – Lucky in love

In the summer of 1993, I came home from college certain that I was done with men. Not forever, but for awhile. My plan was simple: play pool with my best friend, read great literature and help my parents renovate and move into my great-grandparents’ home. There really wasn’t time for men, anyway.

And then I walked into my aunt’s office and met the man who I would marry two years later. Another carefully laid plan blown to bits.

This isn’t a origin story, but suffice it to say that it was not the most likely outcome. I rarely saw my aunt at her place of work and had only popped in because I needed to waste a half hour and didn’t have cash for a Coke. He never worked in the office and was only there fixing a computer issue. Without my aunt, both of us would have walked away from our first meeting embarrassed and never even considered that the other person might be interested. A lot of nested ‘if then’ statements had to have the right result to make us happen. And when I’m feeling thoughtful, I line them up and feel very lucky indeed.

Yes, lucky. I believe that finding a life partner and staying happily together is not just a game of skill, a lot of it is luck. I read a study from CDC/NCHS that states that a white woman, like me, has a 54% probability of a first marriage staying intact for 20 years. That means that for other women like me who got married in 1995, nearly half are no longer in those relationships. Were they less capable of being in a successful relationship? Did they fail in some way, while I was successful? 

No, I don’t think so.

I say that because I know many women who are divorced. They are strong, wonderful, beautiful and talented women. They could have been me and I could have been them. They all have a story and no two are the same.

I got lucky finding someone uniquely compatible with my values and my life goals. Someone who was capable of letting me reach my potential and of not being threatened by it. Someone who knows how to listen, and how to speak, with respect and compassion. Someone who, like me, makes mistakes but doesn’t shy away from admitting them, learning from them and getting stronger. And, even though I couldn’t have articulated any of that at 22, I jumped in anyway. I made a big bet and it looks like I might have won.

I think my younger self would be appreciative of the relationship I have now, but I’m not sure she would really understand the combination of effort and advantage it took to get here. I thought I knew what I was stepping into then, but of course I had no idea. That’s how it is with big bets, if you knew the real odds you might never gamble. Thank god I was oblivious.

Recently, my guy was catching up with these posts, binge reading. It was late at night and we were both tired. I told him that he could stop — he could read the rest of the posts tomorrow.

He smiled, “For me, there’s no such thing as too much Mel.”

Lucky me.

Intent vs. Execution

Everyone screws up. There are too many people counting on us and too many things to do to assume that everything can go off without a hitch. Things are bound to fall apart, that’s just life.

Years ago, I started observing the reactions people had when they felt someone else had failed to deliver. I started listening to the words they used about how they felt. And, I created a hypothesis — I call it “intent versus execution”. It argues that people use one question to make their assessment: did the person intend to let me down or did the person mean well but just fail to execute?

If the failure is viewed as one of intent, the words used are those of attack and betrayal. The individual is described as a jerk, a backstabber or an egomaniac. The storyline is that of a Bond villain hiding out in a dark cave, engineering the person’s downfall. Occasionally, they are less evil mastermind and more self-centered climber, but in either case letting the other person down was no accident. The event results in a quick downward spiral — intentional acts cannot be forgiven or ignored. There are few relationships that survive a failure of intent.

A failure of execution is different. There is usually a soaking period while both the person and the situation is considered.

  • How big was the failure?
  • What other balls was the person juggling?
  • Did they give me a heads up?
  • Did they take responsibility?
  • Will they make it right?

Whether a relationship survives a failure of execution is all about the word ‘how’. How much? How bad? How big? How hard? How many times? With an execution failure you have a chance to fix it and keep the relationship intact. That is what separates it so clearly from a failure of intent. If intent is a digital switch with only two answers (yes/no), execution is a mixing board of analog dials with an infinite range of answers.

I haven’t done any research, but I bet the percentage of true intent failures is very small compared to execution, maybe 5% of the total. But, when you don’t have a strong relationship with someone, it is easier to assume intent, so intent is perceived to be more frequent. It takes an investment in someone, a benefit of the doubt, to work through the hows meticulously adjusting the dials. Without that investment, it’s easier to just flip the switch.

After I created the intent versus execution mindset, two things happened.

  • I realized how important it was to build relationships, to spend the time giving people insight into who I am. I reasoned that someday I would let them down, and when I did I wanted there to be no question about my motives. I wanted to avoid the assumption of intent. 
  • I also started to be slower to judge, to assume intent in others. Slower to assume that someone who fails me is evil. Instead, I am likely to assume they were human and fallible. I try to ask what I could have done to improve their success.

I may have been cut from that cloth anyway, relationships have always been important to me, as has empathy. And, even then, I don’t always succeed. I’m not a doormat.

But, I am happier assuming my waitress is having a bad day, or my colleague is fighting competing deadlines, or my kids are over stressed about school, than that they are actively pushing against me. They don’t mean to let me down, any more than I mean to let them down.

Frankly, it feels better to believe that. I feel better believing that.