What Newton Taught Me about Living: Inertia

My senior year in college I found myself in an unusual place. After three years focused on classes in literature, history, philosophy and theatre, I was sitting in a science class. And not just any science class, but lab physics. My lab partner, a brilliant woman who would later attend Johns Hopkins medical school and go on to become a pediatric surgeon at the University of Michigan, didn’t quite know what to expect. Truthfully, neither did I. It was my first science class since high school.

I did fine in the class, but my mind was always miles away thinking about what was next in my life — planning for marriage and starting grad school. Strangely, it was the fact that I was focused on other things that helped me get the most out of the class. Because even though I couldn’t do a physics equation today, I still think about what I learned that year from Newton and how it translates into life:

  • Newton’s First Law: Inertia. A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion.
  • Newton’s Second Law: Force. Force is equal to mass times acceleration.
  • Newton’s Third Law: Action & Reaction. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Inertia

I don’t know about you, but my most productive days start with a fast morning. Up, showered and out the door with a plan and a mission. On those days I am damn near unstoppable, running from one task or obstacle to another. I am a ‘go hard’, ‘go fast’ machine, regardless of what I should or could do to slow down and take time to recharge.

The days when I struggle to gain traction are the ones where I have a slow start. I wake with my iPad, leisurely reading posts in bed while the minutes slip away and turn into hours. Sometimes, I am avoiding a hard task, but mostly I am just stuck. Stuck in the comfort of a warm bed or a sedentary state of mind. I am a two-ton statue that is unable to shift off its base, much less climb big mountains, regardless of the important work that needs doing.

For me, it is a constant fight against inertia: 

  • I just can’t slow down when in Mack Truck mode. 
  • I just can’t start up when stuck in park.

It’s easy to feel that my challenge in dealing with inertia is a personal failing. But physics taught me it’s not. Inertia is just a part of the world, as simple and predictable as a sunrise. Newton taught me it takes energy and force to influence a body at rest or a body at motion — some outside effort is needed.

Knowing that gives me the ability to ask for help and to build systems and mechanisms to deal with the inherent inertia everywhere. It caused me to create ‘no cook Fridays’ as a commitment to slow heading into the weekend and guarantee a meal with my family. It made me appreciate my first year in grad school when I had the ‘worst’ schedule (8am-12pm Monday-Friday) because the structure of class got me going and inertia gave me the focus to study long into the night.

Maybe I would have found a way to understand being stuck — and getting out of it — without learning Newton’s first law. After all, people dealt with inertia before Newton had even written the word down. People have leaned in and pushed hard and heave hoed not thinking much about it, just doing what was necessary. Formulas explain the world, the don’t make it.

But like Newton, I just like knowing why it works.

Be Curious

Every time my husband asks me “Why?” I have a visceral reaction. I can’t help it, I dive down into my defensive place ready to explain the five excellent reasons why I made a certain decision or took a certain action. Unless I’m tired and then I can’t even get to explaining because I’m angry or hurt and I just react.

It’s not my best routine.

And then today, I saw this Walt Whitman quote on my Facebook feed:

Be curious, not judgemental.

Ahhh, there’s the rub. Any ‘why’ question can come from one of two places: a place of judgement or a place of curiousity. And it can be received assuming judgement or curiousity. So, as I see it, there are four possible ways for any interaction to play out.

  • Asked: Curiosity | Assumption: Curiosity
    This is where the magic happens. Real learning is capable of emerging on both sides when people listen with wonder and speak openly about their whys. I love being here, it’s why I enjoyed college so much and why I gravitate to people who are open to possibility. This is my sweet spot.
  • Asked: Curiosity | Assumption: Judgement
    This is a hard place to be stuck in. When the question is asked with sincere curiosity but it is perceived to come with judgement. Tension rises quickly here as the receiver feels threatrened, meanwhile the asker wonders, “How did this escalate? I was just curious.” If this happens too many times, it becomes a self-fulfulling cycle — I’ve been there, and it takes the receiver giving the asker the benefit of the doubt to start over and listen to the question differently.
  • Asked: Judgement | Assumption: Curiosity
    This is a hard place to get to. Being willing to respond with curiosity when someone comes with judgement takes courage and a positivity that I can rarely get to. When I think about people and groups that are subject to judgement regularly, I have so much appreciation for those who consistently respond with grace. Honestly, I am not very good at this; maybe that is why I have so much respect for the people I know who are.
  • Asked: Judgement | Assumption: Judgement
    No relationship can live long in this place. Anger, frustration, hurt — they all live in this place. If every why comes from judgement and is received as judgement, there is no possibility of learning, no magic of growth. The few times in my life when I have found myself here, I have worked to pull myself out. Sometimes I’ve fixed it through hard communication and sometimes by walking away. I just can’t live in a world without why — or with constant judgement.

Today, reading that simple quote, it reminded me that even when judgement is intended, it is only through remaining curious that we are capable of learning. It reminded me that starting with the assumption of curiosity will keep me open to growth.

Especially when I’m tired.

A Vision 

Over the years, I have been asked one question many times and in many ways. The question is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every time I’ve struggled to answer it. The question feels too definitive and simplistic. As if there is some single answer rather than a hundred different things at a hundred different times in a hundred different places. Like a period instead of a sunburst.

A couple of years ago when I wrote my personal vision statement the question was different. It asked me to, “Create a vision for your life.” All of a sudden, things changed. I had a framework for thinking about my life that was no longer linear, but limitless. Without limits I crafted a picture of my future — or at least the future I wanted for myself. I wrote this:

The oracle is hard to find — she may be bobbing in a sailboat, sitting in a hammock or walking on a forest path. She’s a tiny, energetic, white-haired pixie, so your best bet is to find the tall, quiet man always by her side. Many seek her out with questions, for her motto is “It is harder to ask the right question than to find the wrong answer.” She has the uncanny ability to listen, to reflect her own perspective and to help each visitor sort out his or her messy burden. Just don’t come in a hurry, sorting takes time and there is nothing the oracle likes better than a good chat.

Thinking about everything and putting it to paper, I didn’t come up with a fancy job title or a big paycheck or worldwide fame. In my future, I’m not living in a massive house or jet-setting around the globe. Nope, in the end when I put it down on paper I chose to be an oracle. When it was all said and done what I longed for was three things: longevity, wisdom and relationships.

Growing old is not something that scares me. Each new year and each new series of experiences has given me courage and strength. I don’t miss the young me and I am not nostalgic for times that are past. I get that I don’t understand yet what aging does to the body or the mind or the spirit. I embrace the fact that I may learn to dread the years that come as too hard or too painful, but I really hope not. For me, the power is in longevity, and I want to see the me that is more, even more me, than I am now.

And I hope that as I grow older I can continue to gain wisdom. I hope that I am open to the new possibilities of the world and that I don’t cling to the knowledge of the past. I hope that I continue to stretch my brain to think bigger so that I maintain relevance to those of my generation as well as those who are many years my junior. I hope I learn every day and turn that learning into the kind of relevant wisdom that can be harnessed.

I have stopped pretending that relationships are unimportant to me and I have embraced the fact that they are everything to me. Believing that there are people who know me and value me for who I am is at my core. Showing up every single day — reliably and sincerely — and investing the time and energy in family, friends and colleagues gives me purpose. The occasional points when it has given me pain, well, it’s a price worth paying.

So, if those three things are important to me — if they are central to how I see myself and what I want to accomplish with my life — is it any wonder that writing this blog has become such an integral part of my experience?  Although the digital world can get wiped clean with a bolt of lightning or a electromagnetic pulse, each feels incredibly permanent when I hit ‘post.’ Although I know I have much to learn, I try to channel little bits of wisdom into each page, and writing each post makes me think, really think, about a piece of my life. And, although I hope that someday my musings may reach a broader audience, these posts are all about building more bridges of connection between me and the people who read them — people not afraid to get Too Much Mel.

Now you know what the end game is. You know that someday, many many years from now I’ll be waiting. I’ll be waiting for your call, your email or your visit. I’ll be ready to listen for a minute or an hour or an afternoon. Someday after another 50 or 500 blog posts maybe I’ll be famous or maybe I’ll still be known only in my small circles. Either way, you’ll always be welcome.

Don’t disappoint me.

Too Much Good Stuff

I’ve spent the last two days at an IT Leadership Conference. I have a love hate relationship with these events. I love learning all the ways that I can move my team forward — and I hate that I only have 24-hours in the day.

The reality is, if you can execute one tangible improvement (and have it stick) after one a conference, you’re ahead of the game. Everyone has challenges with conferences. Here are the prototypes I’ve seen:

  • The Idea Vacuum. Someone who goes off and indiscriminately picks up every possible idea. They don’t put any idea through a filter, it is all good. And like an actual vacuum, the ideas are trapped in the bag unable to become progress.
  • The Unique Unicorn. Someone who hears everything and says, “We aren’t like that — we couldn’t do that.” Nothing is ever a good fit, because their team is bigger, smaller, more centralized, more decentralized, further along or behind. 
  • Mr. Already Perfect. Someone who seems to already be done with growing. Based on what they have to say, you can’t help but wonder what they do everyday and why they came in the first place.
  • Barely There Boredom. Someone who clearly would rather be elsewhere — although it is unclear whether that place is work or home. Whenever I see these guys, I want to ask them whether there boss made them come — and why they didn’t respectfully decline.

I’ll admit, I am a reformed Idea Vacuum. I have grown out of it, mostly because I know that I can’t possibly move the needle as far or as fast as I would like. So, if I can capture one or two things out of each session, that is my first filter.

After that, I try to determine who my allies might be in making progress. If I can’t think of at least one person who would be an obvious ally in change management, *poof* that gets eliminated, too.

What’s left — two to three concrete actionable ideas — is usually still a stretch, but it is enough return on the investment of my scarce time to keep me from feeling guilty for being away from the office. If I can show some tangible benefit to the team (something beyond an opportunity for ‘big thinks’ and networking) it feels right.

Not that there’s anything wrong with thinking big. But doing, that’s where the action is. And doing for the benefit of others — that’s the best there is.

The Pursuit of Happiness

At dinner last week I started a story by saying, “I was listening to a podcast today…” I hadn’t finished the sentence when my daughter cut me off and said, “We need to create a drinking game. Every time mom says ‘podcast’ you have to drink a shot.”

No, she’s not legal. Yes, I listen to a lot of podcasts.

The podcast I was listening to was TED Radio Hour Simply Happy. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of happiness for a long time and I spend a fair amount of time thinking about my own life and happiness. Like most of us, I expect.

When I think about happiness, I tend to focus on one line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And, because I have led my fair share of word smithing exercises with groups of people, I like to imagine what it must have been like in the room when they debated (as I am sure they did) one thing: Is it the inalienable right to Happiness or the pursuit of Happiness?

It’s a hard question, because if I had my way everyone would be happy. But the reality is that what makes individuals happy varies drastically. One person likes the busy city, another finds refuge in the country. One gets joy from solitude, another from the crush of family and friends. Some enjoy fast-paced work, others are happier sitting for hours on the business side of a fishing pole. Studies say you should eat more, eat less, run more, run less, stress more, stress less.

So, in the end I agree with the framers. Everyone has the right to pursue their happiness, whatever that is.

When I was younger, I thought differently. I naively thought that I knew best, I thought that what made me happy would or could make everyone happy. I considered it my job to try to convince people that they were not as happy as they could be. Even if they thought they were happy, I knew better. I finally realized that if I really cared about people being happy I needed to trust them to lead their own pursuits, take their own path. And although occasionally I see someone else’s path to happy and wonder about it (Would that make me happy? Why? Why not?) it is intrigue, not judgement.

The only problem is this: what happens when my pursuit of happiness crashes into your pursuit of happiness? What happens when I like to pinch you, but you don’t like to be pinched? Or if I like to drive 100mph down the expressway without stopping and you are scared to share the road? And what do you do when people’s happiness is connected to big world beliefs that are at odds: colonialism versus self-rule, shared ancestry versus white supremacy, patriarchy versus feminism. Michigan versus Ohio State.

Things can go bad pretty quickly when beliefs crash into each other.

But you know what I’ve observed? Beliefs alone can crash with very little collateral damage. I have different beliefs than many people and yet they still support my pursuit of happiness. It’s only when belief leads to action and action leads to attack that things go bad. And that is when it gets hard. When individuals and society have to make choices about whose happiness is more important. Those are pivotal  points in a person’s life or in a country’s history. Because sometimes it means leaning in and sometimes it means walking away. Sometimes you lose something or someone that matters.

Recently, I found myself in that situation. I found someone’s beliefs changing in ways I hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t imagine. Those beliefs led to action and the action turned into an attack. I’m not sure the attack was even intended, and I know that the beliefs are deeply held and sincere, but nonetheless it hurt me a lot. I was stunned and paralyzed. In my brain I tried to find an answer, something that would let us both continue our pursuit of happiness. I cried when I realized I was out of solutions and reminded myself of the framers and their words.

And then I chose the Pursuit of Happiness. I’m going to do my best to get there.