Remembering from You

Yesterday, I found myself sitting beside my husband on the metal bench of a ferry. Like I had countless times before, I was taking the short ride from the shore of Ohio out to one of the Lake Erie islands. We had moved up to the top deck so we could look out over the water and enjoy the crisp blue sky and I had settled down to wait for the tell-tale engine rumbling that would signal our departure. And then a sparkle of motion and crackle of sound alerted me to a small girl.

“Daddy, when will we get to the island? How big is the ocean? Mommy, when will we be on land again?” Her mother told her it wouldn’t be long and that it was a lake and not an ocean, to which the girl replied, “I am going to call it an ocean. Okay?” I smiled and turned around to see a pixie with her face painted with an elaborate turquoise and green peacock feather.

“Is this your first trip to the island?” I asked. She nodded shyly and leaned back in her bench. I lowered my voice and put every bit of smile I could into my conspiratorial tone, “My little girl is 17 now, but we brought her here for the first time when she was about your age. It’s an awesome place and I bet you’ll have a really fun time.”

I realized, in that moment, that there comes a time when your memories are triggered not by your own experiences, but by watching the experiences of others.

My daughter had been five, her brother two, when we had decided to take our first family trip to the islands. Even growing up on boats this was a new adventure. Going on our boat didn’t require buying tickets or standing in lines. Our boat didn’t have three levels with stairs and so many people. Why did it have tables like a restaurant and chairs like a movie theatre? Did they really NOT have to wear a “boat coat”? How long will the trip take? What will we do when we get there? They had wanted to see every inch, rushing from area to area to pick the perfect place to sit.

At the time, I had experienced the moment with a mix of worry and wonder. Every time my heart widened because my children were seeing something for the first time I had to fight off less positive feelings. There was nervousness that they would hurt themselves, from a mundane skinned knee or a catastrophic fall over the ship’s rail. There was embarrassment that other parents would find my children poorly behaved and judge my parenting skills. There was anxiousness that the trip wouldn’t live up to the hype and they would be disappointed.

But now, watching someone else’s child dash about I could fully enjoy her excitement. I understood completely what her parents were feeling as they said quietly, “Alright, let’s find a place and settle down” but I also wished they could be better than I had been and enjoy the moment. Sure, I knew that bad things were possible, but in retrospect I was able to see what they couldn’t. My husband and I had our eyes open and would ward their children like our own. We felt no judgement for their daughter’s exuberance, only joy for her and nostalgia for our own times gone to never be reclaimed. And that anxiousness? Wasted. She would love every minute of it.

Sitting at the end of our day at a picnic table, I flipped through the photos I had captured of our own first trip. My son, standing and clutching the rail of the ferry with my husband’s entire arm wrapped around him. Both kids standing on the shoreline throwing pebbles into the water, my husband arms crossed watching for danger. My daughter, arms thrown triumphantly out, ready to start (or perhaps finish) a glorious spin.

Looking back I’m sure of two things: we were so young and we didn’t realize what we had.

I have friends now with young children. Some are people my age who entered parenthood later than I did. Some are a generation younger than me following a path like mine just 15 years later. I don’t want to come off as preachy or a know-it-all — goodness knows I don’t know anything except my own history — but I desperately want to help them understand what I didn’t know or couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, parenting small children is trying and tiring. Yes, you have the constant worry that something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to prevent it. Yes, it is an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility that hits you like a ton of bricks the minute you pull away from the hospital with the car seat strapped down behind you. Yes, yes, yes. But, it is also a chance to see the real honest-to-goodness joy of a new experience lived for the first time. Over and over and over again.

Until it’s gone.

I have a friend that I’ve lost touch with, a woman who had two children when she was young and then a third after a long gap. I asked her, sincerely, what that had been like. She told me it was amazing because she knew from experience how useless the worry was, how much it took away from enjoying childhood. My kids were young then, so I didn’t really understand.

I do now.

Pivot Points

I love to play strategic board games. Not party games like Pictionary or Apples to Apples, but the kind of games that come with a 30-page rule book and take several frustrating rounds just to understand. When my kids were little our weekends were filled with game nights when we would invite like-minded people over to play until the wee hours of the night. Hunched over my dining room table we would lean into a favorite or tackle something new, wisecracking and trash-talking until someone was victorious.

After the game was over — when the guests had left and I’d cleaned up the snack carnage — I would fall asleep thinking back on the game and trying to remember the moment when the winner had locked it up. What was their strategy? What was the decisive move that shifted the pattern and made their win the likely outcome?

Sometimes that move was obvious, and in hindsight I could see it as the first step in a long and stealthy arc to the end. But sometimes it felt less intentional and more accidental, like the winner had started out trying for one plan but then shifted as circumstances had required it. Thinking about it now, it has the feel of a football coach calling plays from the sidelines. A coach might call a play to set the team up for a last minute field goal, hoping to squeak out the win. But the players on the field might see holes, improving on the field to get a touchdown. In both scenarios the team wins, but only one matches the plan.

My last blog post was focused on the idea that our paths don’t always form the way we anticipate they will and so it was with a bit of irony that this weekend I was reminded about one of those pivot points in my own life. Eight years ago I posted that is was “Facebook official” that I had accepted a new job and my words were dripping with the kind of unbridled optimism that is my hallmark. I was so excited by the opportunity I was being given and completely unaware of the significance my decision would have for the rest of my life.

At the time, I had been at the mid-major university for nearly four years. It was the longest I had ever been in a single job, but I had adapted to this new version of my life in order to provide a stable foundation for my family, allowing them to have strong roots and my time and attention. In “Mel 2.0” I accepted that my work would become more routine and it would be up to me to find other challenges and variety to keep me energized. So, I took classes, sought out student organizations to support, wrote for and edited an association magazine, and won a position on their board. I was happy.

Then an unexpected possibility emerged. There was a new opening posted in another department, a senior position that would provide a potential next step for my career. It felt like an opportunity to grow while also leveraging my knowledge, skills, and experiences to benefit the organization. People I trusted at all levels asked me if I planned to apply and I seriously considered it. In the end, I didn’t see a down side to applying. If I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t be embarassed by someone who was a better fit. If I did get it, I would have found a way to support my family with stability while feeding my own need for new challenges in my work.

I applied. They offered me the job. I took it. I announced it on Facebook.

If life had worked according to my strategy, I would be telling you about how that moment helped me accomplish all of the things that I had planned for myself and my employer. That would have been a great story. But that is not what happened. Everything I had hoped to get out of that plan — an ability to grow within an organization where I had a long-term future, a desire to learn and expand my capabilities and contributions, the ability to invest in a career that would allow me to stay close to family and friends — none of that happened as planned. Instead, the decision would lead, in less than two years, to my returning to industry, shifting from finance to information technology, and moving my family 230 miles away from everyone we love.

Sitting on my deck this morning, I was struck by the fact that everything I have today could be traced back to that decision. Everything I have now, and everything I have accomplished in the last six years, comes from that decision whether I planned it or not.

And that’s the rub, really. Whether you’re playing a strategy board game or living your life you’re making a series of moves. If you’re good, you try to take into consideration controllable and uncontrollable factors, what you can do and what others can do. You try to make the best choices you can and play the long arc, hoping to finish with a win. But sometimes, no matter how good you are, circumstances shift and you have to adjust. If you’re lucky, even when it doesn’t work out the way you planned you can still pull out a win.

Finding Your Path

Today is the last day of June and all month my social media feed has been full of smiling faces — students and parents — celebrating the completion of schooling. There are fresh faced teenagers graduating from high school and heading off to life, trade school, or college. There are young adults (and in some cases, not so young adults) finishing degrees with varying levels of regalia, pomp, and circumstance. Sometimes the people in the pictures are certain about what the next step will bring, but not always.

And that’s ok.

Really.

This fall my daughter will be a senior in high school and there is this gnawing feeling amongst her and her classmates that the decision you make about what to do after graduation is pivotal. That somehow the course of your entire life is decided by picking the right career, school, or major when you can’t be trusted to legally drink alcohol. I don’t buy it. Maybe that’s because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was her age and I feel like I’m ok. I mean, my life turned out ok.

In fact, more than ok.

When I was applying to colleges all I knew was that I loved learning and I wanted to be around people who loved learning as much as I did. I didn’t even know how to articulate the idea of “a community of scholars” like I might be able to do now. I knew I wanted to be with people who worked hard seeking knowledge — I wanted to be pushed in a way I hadn’t been pushed before. I picked an elite liberal arts school and decided to study English because it felt like that would be a good foundation for a law degree someday, or something else. I had no idea what the something else would be — and there have been a lot of “something elses” over the last 28 years.

No one, not me or anyone who knew that young woman, would have guessed that at 45 I would be a technology executive. I had absolutely no idea of this outcome, no inkling of the path that has brought me here, because if I had I might have made different choices. I could have invested in more technical classes or chosen a college stronger in STEM. I might have taken that inside sales job at a company that makes surge protectors and battery back-ups or been more focused in pursuing a management consulting opportunity out of graduate school. But I didn’t know this is where I would end up and so I didn’t do any of those things.

And it didn’t matter because I still got here. I’m still ok.

One of the guys I went to school with took another path. He was a national merit scholar and got a degree in chemical engineering from a big public school. We’re connected on Facebook and as I watch his life unfolding I’m amused by how far off that path his life has gone. Somewhere along the way he ended up as a violinist in a rock band. And from the sidelines of his life, he seems really happy.

When I thought about writing this post, I reached out to him and asked if he’d be ok if I used our lives to illustrate the futility of teenage worry. He agreed right away typing back, “Like you, my life is an open book. I’m happy to help any way I can.” Maybe the two of us aren’t representative of the craziness in trying to find the right path instead of just taking one step at a time toward your future, but I doubt it. We’re two smart, happy people who ended up 180 degrees away from where we planned. I thought I would do something creative in the arts and ended up in a technology role in business. He thought he would have a technical role in engineering and ended up as a musician touring the country. We’re both ok.

More than okay.

So, here’s my ask. If you or someone you love is at a pivot point, ready to make a step toward the first day of the rest of your life, try not to let the worry consume you. Take a step toward your passion. Find your people. Learn something. Help someone. Wake up to a day filled with experiences that help you grow or bring you joy. Don’t try to do the one best thing, choose something and try to do it the best you can. Looking back over a lifetime of choices maybe you’ll recognize the path you set out on — but maybe you won’t. Both are ok.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s more than ok.

Incredible Fathers

Last night, I dragged my family to see Incredibles 2. I’ve been waiting for a sequel to the classic Pixar movie for years, wanting to go back to an animated world that seamlessly connected the super hero mythos with the everyday challenges of work, marriage, and parenthood. So many of us have been waiting so long that the director and stars did a pre-movie statement, acknowledging the hiatus and thanking the everyone for their patience.

When the first Incredibles was released in 2004 my life was in a very different place. I was a young professional with two kids four and under. We were just starting our journey as parents, struggling through what I recognize as the “little kids, little problems” stage. But there was something about the movie — as crazy as this sounds — that made it feel like someone understood the adulthood balancing act we were working through. We’ve watched it many times since and each time it feels like we catch another small point of connection, each time we feel a new kinship with Helen and Bob Parr.

Their conversations are our conversations.

Their challenges are our challenges.

So, as I headed into the movie theatre I was prepared to love whatever I saw; all I really wanted was another dose of the same. The only thing I was nervous to avoid was the incompetent father stereotype that is so common in pop culture today. Too many father centric movies, tv shows, and commercials cast dads as bumbling idiots who can’t complete even the most basic parenting and household tasks without either complaining or creating chaos.

Thankfully, Incredibles 2 was not that movie.

I won’t fill this post with spoilers, but the movie delivered everything I never thought to hope for, namely a loving mother’s joy in returning to a job at which she excels and a capable father taking on the primary parenting role so she can do it. It was like the movie gods got together and made my perfect Father’s Day release.

Look, I get it. Fatherhood has changed a lot since I was a kid and pop culture is still playing the old gags that fit when dads weren’t capable of parenting their own children for a night while their spouses went out with friends. Back in that era, dads weren’t really expected to have much to do with kids until they were old enough to carry on a conversation or catch a ball. Even then, many fathers were hands off, responsible for bringing in a steady paycheck and creating rules that everyone else worked hard to follow. Generally speaking, care-giving and nurturing were seen as a mother’s role. We acted like that was fine — and some people still long for that age — but as I talk to older men who were fathers during this time, they often regret that they weren’t expected to be an active part of their children’s lives. They weren’t expected to do it and it wasn’t normal to want to.

But that’s not the case now.

Now, I see an openness to let fathers experience the full range of parenting no matter what the age of their children. More and more men are taking on primary parenting roles or actively supporting career-driven spouses. They aren’t shy or uncomfortable, they are proud and engaged. Just this week a friend of mine welcomed his third son into the world. The Facebook posts he shared were poignant and loving — and incredibly funny. Another friend adopted his daughter this year and is celebrating his first Father’s Day. I love seeing the pictures and knowing that he is fully present as a dad. Most of the dads I know on Facebook post regularly about their kids and their parenting adventures, generally in the same proportion to their spouses.

Outside of my network, I don’t see any of the stigma that would have been associated with the active participation of fathers, none of the “who wears the pants in your family” ribbing that was common in 80’s movies like Mr. Mom. In my office, fathers talk openly about commitments for their children, leave early for activities, and flex to support their spouse’s calendars. There’s a whole website and community for dads called Fatherly dedicated to providing resources to fathers at every part of their parenting journey. I have a hard time seeing something like that back when I was growing up. Would my dad have read an article called “How to Trick a Grade Schooler into Opening Up”? Did my dad even notice when I was quiet as a kid, much less suspect something was wrong?

So, today I honor the fathers of this generation who have stepped up to be a fully present parent. This is to the men who are as aware of the needs of their children as any mother from a generation ago. You are capable of feeding, diapering, bathing, and reading bedtime stories. You balance nurturing with discipline and advice with admonishment. You can throw balls and handle kids throwing tantrums. For all of the dads (including my wonderful husband) that I see stepping fully into a fatherhood that feels more complex to me than at any other time in history, I have something to say this: You may not be Mr. Incredible, but you’re incredible fathers.

Thank you.

The Keys to Your Life

In April, I found myself in a situation I felt wholly unprepared to handle. In mere hours I found myself whipsawed from vague concern for an employee to the sad certainty of loss as I was told that she had passed away. At the time I felt too raw to share the moment in this blog. No matter how I considered it, it felt wrong.

It wasn’t my story to tell.

The biggest grief wasn’t mine.

It wasn’t about me.

Instead, I sought comfort from my mother, tucked her support around me like a blanket, and focused outward. I shared the heartbreaking news within my organization and quietly connected with the members of my team to make sure they were ok. I wrote a letter to her family, expressing my condolences and sharing how highly their daughter / sister / niece / cousin had been regarded for her capabilities and her kindness. I tried to ignore the meme that popped on my Facebook feed that said, “Don’t work yourself to death, your company will have you replaced in a week if you die.” I choked down the resentment and took a deep breath knowing it wasn’t personal. They couldn’t know that the woman who had smiled at me over lunch a week earlier would never be replaced.

I just kept living, understanding acutely that my life was a gift that not everyone had.

It went on like that until yesterday when I found myself sitting in a martial arts dojo. The warm wood under my feet and mats and punching bags were a backdrop as we watched a life in slide show. The pictures that flashed were of the woman that I had known only briefly in business shown living her real life: smiling with friends around a table, traveling the world, fiercely determined in a crisp white karate gi.

One by one friends and family shared their authentic moments of love. I could see the woman I knew reflected in each story and I felt each piece of a complex puzzle falling into place. Her uncle spoke of a family created beyond blood and his joy in knowing she had been loved in her adopted home. Her closest friends talked about trips taken, holiday gatherings, house hunting and movies — the day-in-day out trappings of lives gratefully inter-twined over many years. Individuals who had trained with her talked about the strength of her jab and the comfort of her hugs.

It struck me in that moment, and throughout the night, that it is rare to be given a glimpse of a whole person. It is much more common to see only a part of someone: the worker, the mother, the athlete, the student, the boss, the blog writer. Our lives are like a house with many locked rooms. The people that we know start with one key — the key given them by shared circumstances — while we move throughout the house interacting in one room at a time. Sometimes, we give a key to a person and allow them to walk with us into another room. The employee who is also a friend. The teammate we invite to a family reunion. The blogger who is also a classmate from college. Those keys are a gift of trust and the people we trust the most often have the heaviest key rings.

As I have moved up in my career it has felt harder and harder to open the doors of my house to others. I struggle to find the right balance between being open and engaged without being intrusive. The relative ease with which we open doors when we are young and on a level playing field is challenged when hierarchy emerges. Now, I don’t ask people at work to connect via social media, not because I don’t care about them as whole people, but because I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to say yes because of my role. It feels safer for everyone to keep the door locked.

It might have been that way with my colleague, locked together in the white-walled drop/ceilinged work room, if she hadn’t offered me a few keys to her house. She let me peak into her karate and self-defense room. We sat for long talks in the Michigan room, cheering and consoling over the Detroit Lions. She invited me into her career aspirations room for lunch chats about where she wanted to go and how we could work together to get her there. In the moments after her passing I wondered whether I had made a difference in her life. I cried grateful tears when a colleague shared in an instant message that she had often spoken of how much she loved our talks.

We all hold the spare keys to our life on a key chain, choosing each day to keep them to ourselves or stick our fingernails in the split ring and push the key around until it falls off into our hand. I hope that I’m making the right choices, choices that reflect the truest measure of my respect, admiration, and caring for the people who I am fortunate enough to meet.

Sibling Rivalry

Earlier this week I put a call out to Facebook asking for editorial help. I found myself stuck with 47 ideas in various stages of disarray — from hastily recorded quotes to nearly complete but only seasonally appropriate posts. The responses were all encouraging (variations of “Just get it out there, Mel!”) except for one. Visiting with my mom for Memorial Day weekend she summoned me urgently letting me know that my brother wanted to talk to me. “If you want something light,” he said, “write about Warcraft.”

But before I go there, you need to know why that moment matters.

My brother is three years my junior, wicked smart, and the nicest guy you will ever meet. When he was born, I immediately took on the role of wise elder, committed to both teaching and protecting the little guy I felt my parents had given me. Now, I know he could have easily rejected my mini-mothering, but he didn’t. Whether by nature or nurture, I’ve never met anyone in my life as comfortable as he is with going with the flow. And everyone who knows me knows I like to direct the flow.

We continued down that path — with me comfortably in the role of prototypical know-it-all bossy big sister — until my dad brought home an Atari.

The timeline is fuzzy, but as the golden age of video games smacked into our family, a new reality emerged. While I had an ability to quickly grasp the key elements of a game in the first handful of plays, my brother had the patience to soak in the patterns of the games. He would memorize the long arcs of the game, while I was only interested on what was on the screen in the moment. So, I would win the early games and then a switch would flip and I would never win again.

It happened head-to-head with Combat and Indy 500. It happened in solo games like Frogger and Pitfall. I was playing the game with my eyes and he was playing the game with his memory. Sometimes my window of opportunity would last for days, others for only hours, but no matter what, if I gave him time to understand the strategy and patterns of a game, it was all over. In 2019 it will be 30 years since the day I wrote “I will never play chess with him again” on a napkin, dating it and hanging it on the fridge. I haven’t.

Flash forward to a day in the late 90’s. We were both attending Michigan State at the time, me to get my MBA, him to get his undergrad in Computer Science. I’d recently done a presentation on the business principles of a game called Warcraft II and suggested that he might like it. We fired up the computers and I gave him the gameplay basics and we kicked off the game.

I admit now that it was underhanded, but at the time I honestly don’t think I realized how much of a head start I had given myself. I had forgotten how many games I had played up to that point, how many pieces of knowledge I took for granted that he didn’t have. I left so much out of my tutorial that he had to ask questions every few minutes, piecing together the gameplay on the fly. Meanwhile, I built up my resources, constructed my defenses, trained my army, and prepared to attack his base. With my advantages, it should have been a rout. Not so much. He went down with good-humor, but he didn’t go down easy.

Later that day he asked whether we were playing Warcraft again. I said no, we both knew who would win and what’s the fun in that?

I still play games with my brother. He is one the smartest people that I know and I like a challenge. We both like deep games that mix strategy with chance and we’re usually well-matched. I have an advantage in randomized games that require quick assessment and spontaneity while he is best with deep patterns and long strategies. Our younger brother is the wild card — he’s the biggest player of us all and he can beat us both if he’s on his game. In my 40’s I recognize that win or lose it’s the time together that matters, not who wins.

But I still really love to win.

What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him to sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like an results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.