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.

Extras in Your Movie

If my life were a movie, my co-stars would be my family. My closest friends and my colleagues would be a fantastic supporting cast. I haven’t decided if I’ll be played by Reese Witherspoon or Emma Watson, but in my mind the movie poster is pretty spectacular — I look great.

The coolest part of my movie, though, is the extras. People that have made a short but important contribution to my plot or character development but who disappear back into their own lives so fast you could blink and they would already be gone. You wouldn’t even remember their names. I don’t.

But, I do remember the moments. I remember how the plots shaped around them, how they made me feel and what they taught me. I remember:

  • The middle-aged manager of the self-storage facility who helped me divide up my great grandfather’s household after he passed away. She rode a motorcycle, was in AA and she treated me like an adult, even thought I barely felt like one. She told me how scary it was to be tailgated on her bike and shared her regrets around her addiction and years lost. She taught me that people take interesting paths in life and that it’s important to slow down and listen, even if you don’t understand.
  • The college football player who was a counselor with me one summer at Interlochen. He shattered all of my preconceptions about athletes; he was a tender, considerate giant who took me polka dancing and — when I couldn’t keep up — simply lifted me up like a rag doll and spun me around the floor. He shared stories of multiple knee surgeries and warnings that “one more injury and you won’t walk when you’re 50.” He wanted to play anyway; he couldn’t imagine not playing. He taught me that everyone should be judged on the quality of their character and that wide brushes should be reserved for painting fences, not people.
  • The young black woman from the South who sat with me one weekend before Thanksgiving, just two homesick freshmen desperate to get back to normal. She reminisced about what the day meant to her and her family, and told me about the feast her grandmother, mother, and aunts would prepare — mac and cheese, collard greens, sweet potatoe pie. She taught me that the love of tradition is universal, but that no one tradition is right.
  • The lighting design professors, polar opposites, who demonstrated the fickle nature of theatre. One, a thoughtful, encouraging man who forced us to take our notes in drafting script for a semester and pushed us to design far beyond our capabilities. The second, a mean-spirited woman who treated students with ridicule and anger. He taught me the importance of detail, taking one’s time and practice. She taught me that sometimes you fight the system and you lose. They both taught me the importance of creativity and perseverance, whether you have an ally or not.
  • The entrepeneur couple in the British Virgin Islands who shared how they left successful corporate careers to build a business for themselves and their children. The father shared how watching his young daughter grow had opened his eyes to the societal double standards around women in his culture and how he had developed a strong appreciation for the challenges faced by his single mother when he was a boy. He taught me that feminists can be found anywhere.

The faces are blurry and the names are long since lost, but the memories are soft and full like a brand new pillow just out of the plastic. The settings spin in a View Master carousel: a dingy office past a rickety gate, a dark polka hall in northwest Michigan, the concrete steps of a college hall, the drafting lab and back stage flies, and the hills and beaches of the Caribbean. Of course, my movie would have to be filmed on location — spare no expense.

Playing back those memories, I am certain of the impact they made on me, just as I am fairly certain I made a far smaller impact on them. In the years and months that have passed, do they recall the moments they shared with me? Do they have any idea how they touched my life, changed my perspective or filled out my life framework? Who knows? Frankly, I’m not sure I would even be an extra in their movie.

But, it’s fun to think I might be.

The Gift of Feedback

About a month ago, my leadership team agreed to invest in 360 feedback as a foundation for launching individual development plans across our entire organization. We felt that setting the tone by starting with ourselves was important. I couldn’t have agreed more.

I find feedback to be one of the most important things in my personal and professional life. I know I crave feedback more than some people, and probably at times more than is healthy. I reflect warmly on the times when friends and colleagues have taken the time to share their sincere thoughts about how I act and what I do, because:

  1. They value me enough to invest their scarce time in my performance and potential
  2. They trust me enough to tell me the truth, even if it is hard
  3. They believe that I am capable of using the feedback well

No matter what the feedback is, feedback is a gift. That is why it is called giving feedback.

Once in my career I found myself floundering. No one would give me any feedback. I went to the people who were signaling that things weren’t working, and I said, “I know things aren’t working. I am committed to doing better. What can I do differently?” I was putting myself out there — I was scared and I was hopeful. I waited to hear the feedback.

They said, “There’s nothing you can do.”

I was stunned. It felt like waking up on Christmas morning to find there were no presents. And, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t respond like the Who’s in Whoville. I stared. I asked again and got the same response. Behind the words, I heard something darker. You are not worth my time. I do not trust you with my honest feedback. You couldn’t use it anyway.

A little part of me died. Way more than I would have lost had I gotten a wheelbarrow full of constructive feedback, filled with pound after pound of failures and foibles. Being told that there was nothing I could do, that there was no feedback to be given, was the hardest thing I had ever heard. That day, I started planning to find a new team, a team that valued me — and feedback.

So, when I asked for feedback this time and fourteen of my peers, subordinates, and colleagues responded I was thrilled. Any feedback would have been great, but reading through it one comment stood out, a growth comment within the Adaptability performance area:

There’s so much there to unpack and reflect upon. It’s like a box within a box within a box within a box. Do I seek order and patterns? Yes. Are my values deeply held? Yes. Do I see grey spaces within the world? Yes. Do I, like the Vulcans, value the good of the many over the good of the one? Yes. Do I struggle to understand and sympathize with opposing points of view? Sometimes.

But, now I can try harder. I can use this feedback along with the rest. I can embrace it and learn from it.

And that’s a gift.

The Undo Button

I hate that moment. You know, the one where your stomach drops and you are sure you have made absolutely the wrong call. You zigged instead of zagging. You opened your mouth when it should have stayed closed, or closed it when you should have said something. You stepped out on the ledge, or stayed in the fort. You didn’t make that left turn at Albuquerque.

Whenever I find myself in those moments I mentally reach for an undo button, like the one I use so frequently in Excel. The button that allows me to quickly get back on track and leave that misguided moment behind. The button that lets me try things without consequences. To say, “well that didn’t work the way I thought” or “hmmm, maybe there’s a better way”. Click, click, click and you’re right back where you started, ready to try it over again. Do over — no harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have an undo button, it just has an “I’ll learn from it” button. The “I’ll learn from it” button feels crappy to press it because nothing really happens. You only feel better about pushing it years later with some time and tears behind you, when you’re talking to someone considering the same choice and you can say, “It’s up to you, but if I had it to do over again…”

But, I’ve found one thing I hate more than going through that moment: watching someone I love go through that moment.

Nothing prepares you for the out of body experience of watching someone you love make the wrong call. Seeing them realize they can’t change it and struggle with how to address it. Holding them through their tears and fears as their brain cycles through the what-ifs and the should’ve-beens trying to get everything back to where it was before. Reaching with them to try to click the undo button.

Click. Click. Click. But, the undo button doesn’t work any better when two people try to click it.

Harder still, I’m not sure you can give someone an “I’ll learn from it” button — I’m pretty sure you have to pick that one up for yourself. And, I recall that it took me several futile attempts to find an undo button before I bought into mine.

Of course, making the wrong call is a part of life. With time and space, I can’t think of any wrong calls in my life that haven’t turned into learning moments. I’m very comfortable with that. I just wasn’t prepared for the fact that I’m not comfortable yet watching the people I love struggle through it.

So, where’s the button for that?