Retirement of the Accidental Blogger

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thinking about Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the thinking that matters.

The 20-year Year – Part 2

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

Part 2 – The power of closing doors

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Monday I withdrew from the program.

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

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

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

I think she would be ok with it.

The 20-year Year – Part 1

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 1 – Thoughts on being “a Smithie”

I don’t think it is possible to be a Smithie and not think about whether or not you are enough. The tag line for their current alumnae giving campaign is “Women for the World” — they say for the world and they mean it. I’m not sure that when I headed off to Northampton that I understood that, but I think I did when I finished. During my three years there (like many I spent my junior year away to get new perspective) I found myself both buoyed and awed. Within the Grecourt Gates I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. Or the most driven. There I was just one of 2,500 women, and I knew that the other 2,499 were going to go out into the world and kick ass.

When I got to Smith in 1991, I was incredibly excited — more excited than my normal ambient level of excited, which is pretty high. I ran around unpacking the esssence of Mel for anyone to hear — anyone who would listen. (My sophomore roommate tells of meeting me, “I knew more about you in 15 minutes than I knew about most people I had known my whole life.”) I was so excited to be starting over in a new place without 18 years of insecurity weighing me down. I wanted to be my authentic self in a place where my authentic self would be good.

And Smith was that place. I thrived. I loved the people, the environment, the classes. I got involved in theatre and felt like part of a community. I connected with the women I lived with in my quirky century-old house. My classes were engaging and thought provoking. It was everything I had wanted.

The hardest part was that I just wasn’t good enough. I learned quickly that what got me A’s in a rural consolidated public school in Michigan was B- work at Smith. I went to office hours, I made friends with women who were ahead of me and asked for help. I peeked down into my center and reminded myself I was smart, I was capable, I would work for it. And so I scraped and clawed and found that I could do better — I could be good enough to be at Smith. I could deserve to be there. But, I also gave up the thought of being the best at Smith. And in the course of that time I learned five things that have framed me.

  1. I learned that I am good enough to be at the table. Any table.
  2. I learned that there will be times when I feel I don’t belong at the table — and that I am capable of overcoming it.
  3. I learned that being good enough to be at the table doesn’t mean you’ll be the best at the table, and that’s ok.
  4. I learned that surrounding yourself with talented people is fun, provided they aren’t jerks.
  5. I learned not surround myself with jerks.

I think my 22-year old self would believe that those lessons were truly learned and subsequently applied. And I think she would be proud of what I’ve done. But, is it enough for a Smithie?

Oh, who the heck cares? It’s enough for me.

Birth of the Accidental Blogger

This week I had breakfast with a young, talented woman. I had reached out to her because during our brief time working together I had been impressed by her intellect, the way she worked through challenging interactions and her attitude. She reminded me of a younger version of me. Anyway, I invited her to breakfast to focus on her potential and let her know I was in her fan club.

And then I spent 45 minutes talking about myself.

I told her about my musings around my “20-year year” — how 2015 is the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Smith and of my marriage. I talked about my love of writing, abandoned after failing to get into a creative writing class my first year in college. I shared my thoughts on the value of learning versus the value of a degree. I told her about golden shackles, leaving Ford and higher education and my dreams of getting a PhD someday. And after I had unpacked enough of me to fill a small steamer trunk she asked me an interesting question.

“So, do you blog?”

Huh. No, I don’t blog.

Bloggers have something important to say. They have adoring fans. They get retweeted, reblogged and quoted in the media. Bloggers are famous. I’m not a blogger, I’m just a woman who overshares on Facebook. But there she was, asking me with sincerity if I blogged. Like maybe I should blog. Like maybe she thought I had something interesting to share — or maybe she just thought it would be easier on the world if I typed my thoughts onto the World Wide Web instead of rambling on over toast and yogurt. Either way, I came home and opened a WordPress account and started typing.

Do I blog? I guess I do.