A Joy of Storytelling

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in a grocery store cafe. As much as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on my writing for a few hours, weekend sleep-ins are my private luxury and I give them up begrudgingly. When I was a young over-eager analyst with little kids, my husband would get up at the first sign of activity and quietly sneak from bed. He would herd them both to the other side of the house with a soft, “Let’s let mommy sleep.” Now, more than ten years later it’s a chauffeur trip for my daughter that had me setting my alarm for 5:23am. “You’re a good mom,” my husband told me as I headed up to bed last night. Then he paused and corrected himself, “No, you’re a great mom.”

Sipping my chai tea latte, I’m not inclined to argue.

When I started this blog I made a conscious decision to stay away from writing about my kids. They were already in middle and high school, years when drawing attention to yourself is strongly discouraged. And as much as I wanted to interrogate my own journey through motherhood, any stories I would share were bound to put a spotlight on their own development. The more I thought about it, the more it felt wrong to share those thoughts: I signed up for the transparency of Too Much Mel, they didn’t.

No, I don’t write much about my kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the lead characters in the majority of my stories.

This week I was reminded about how important storytelling is to me and the way I show up in the world. We had an all day leadership meeting that included an exercise on how to give and receive feedback. I’ve written copiously about the importance of feedback so I won’t belabor that point. What was interesting was the appreciative feedback I got from one of my colleagues, a close friend who took the time to find me across the crowded hotel ballroom to pass on her thoughts.

She told me that I was one of the best she had seen at explaining the “why” of things, making ideas understandable for people no matter what their level. She shared that it was a struggle for her and she appreciated my natural ability to do it and the way I made it look easy. I thanked her and then told her that I believed she had as many if not more experiences than I had that could be packaged as stories — her personal and professional journey is inspiring to me and I knew it would be for others. The trick, I told her, was to reflect on those experiences and take the time to frame them so that they can be told and retold with authenticity and impact.

As I was sharing that perspective, I realized that I had followed my own advice earlier that week. I presented to a computer science class to support our campus recruiting efforts and was talking over dinner with recruiters and students. The talk turned, normally and naturally, to family. Did the students have siblings? Were they older or younger? How had going away to college impacted their family dynamics? My kids are just a few years away from college and the same age as their younger siblings, so I ended up contributing to some of the conversation. And when the dialogue shifted to the challenges of mothers and daughters, I pulled out one of my favorite stories.

When I was working on a college campus, I had an office in a residence hall. At the time, my daughter was just entering the pre-teen stage when kids begin to see their parents as human, starting to question their wisdom and capabilities. I suddenly found myself booted from hero to an unwelcome and unwanted part of my daughter’s life. I struggled with it mightily. One night, as I was walking to my car I overheard the young woman working at the residence hall front desk talking with her mother. The conversation sounded engaged, positive and, although I wasn’t listening to the words, she seemed eager to get advice and appreciative of the call. When she said good-bye, I thought I heard the same love in her words that I had always heard from my little girl, until I hadn’t.

I waited to the side until the call was over and then walked up to her. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop,” I said, “But I heard you talking with your mother and you seemed to be having a great conversation. I’m interested in getting your perspective: when did realize your mom wasn’t the dumbest person in the world?” She looked at me with a completely straight face and considered my question. With barely a pause, she stated factually and without any humor, “Second semester sophomore year.” We both smiled and I thanked her and wished her a good shift. As I walked away a thought went through my head — at least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

As I finished the story the table laughed. The students, wise juniors safely beyond their sophomore year, could appreciate their own growth to that point. Looking back at their younger siblings, struggling with their parents, they could see what they still had to learn. The mothers at the table were either struggling with or had survived evolving relationships with their own children. It’s one of my favorite stories because it encapsulates so simply a snapshot of the human experience and I remember with great vividness the feelings I had in the moment.

My daughter is still in high school and there are moments when I know she thinks I’m nutty as a fruitcake. The eye rolls are still there and she often says, “Things are different now, mom.” She’s right, the world is different than it used to be in many, many ways. And yet, I’m certain that there will be a time, about four years from now, when she will realize that what I know and what I’ve learned is a treasure trove that she can dig through anytime she wants. She doesn’t get it but I have faith that time will come.

And I’ll be ready to take the call, second semester sophomore year.

The More Things Change

This weekend I found myself on my hands and knees struggling around in my crawlspace. I’m short but it turns out not short enough to avoid the crossbeams of a space designed more for utility access and rarely used bric-a-brac than for human movement. The smart plan would have been to get in and get out focusing on the Christmas decorations that had sent me there in the first place.

But no, not me.

Instead, I navigated in the darkness looking for the box of books I was sure was there. Somehow in our last move I lost track of a stash of books I had from college and while I don’t have an inventory, I know that I wouldn’t have jettisoned my copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the Marketing textbook I researched a case for in graduate school. I didn’t find them, but instead I found a milk crate of my own history.

Nestled in a back corner I found it, filled with small remnants from my 20’s. I found the theatre portfolio I submitted to get placed into the right lighting design class, the binder that contained the artifacts of my journey to grad school (application, acceptance letter and letters from the Dean for grades) and a hodgepodge of stuff from my final desk cleaning when I left my first real job, starting the zig zag of my career.

At the top of that last pile, tossed carelessly in amongst the other miscellaneous desk contents, was a simple printed document. Titled “360 Development Feedback Report” and dated 2006, it contained anonymous comments on my strengths and opportunities for improvement from my direct reports and peers. I scanned the pages, eager to see how much I had changed since then.

My team then, both subordinates and peers, commented on my confidence, clarity of vision, willingness to share technical knowledge, ability to create team and support of my team’s work-life balance. And they noted that I needed to work on my delegation, communication, defensiveness when challenged and ability to manage my own work-life balance. When I finished reviewing the pages I flipped back to the beginning to make sure I was looking at the right thing. I was confused because, to be honest, those comments could have been written about me this week as easily as 10 years ago.

Maybe you’re not surprised. After all, it was in the 19th century that author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phased “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Maybe it’s not that surprising that someone who was described in 2006 as “one of the most relentless and energetic persons I have ever worked with” is still high-energy. Or that someone who “should sometimes put more faith in her employees, not only by delegating more, but also by trusting the work of the employee and not changing/altering everything that has to go up to senior management” still has a tendency to own the final version of a presentation before it hits prime time. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that at my core I’m the same person now that I was then. And, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised except for one basic thing:

I believe, in my heart, I have been living a growth mindset.

Our beliefs are tricky things and no beliefs are trickier to manage then those about ourselves. I just finished a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while Mark Manson’s shocking title (and prolific use of a word frowned upon in polite circles) might put people off, one of the key points of the book is that being open to being wrong, especially about deeply held beliefs, is a key to happiness. He notes that questioning your own values and whether you are living them is critical to determining what you care about (what you should give a f*ck about) and living a life of purpose.

For as long as I can remember, a huge part of my personal identity has been wrapped up in the value that every day is an opportunity to gain insight and develop new and better capabilities. And yet, faced with the fact of the 360 feedback I was given long ago, I can’t help but wonder if I truly value growth as much as I espouse. Ten years, two organizations and a handful of job titles later I appear to still be strong where I have been strong and weak where I have been weak. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Normally, I like to end these posts with some witty closing, some quip or quote or answer that will pull the whole thing together. I like to note what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown or what big question I’ve answered. I don’t have that tonight. Instead, I’ve got some more thinking to do, some more staring the facts in the eye and wondering what it means for my beliefs and my way of going after life. So, this one will have to be a cliffhanger, a two-parter that ends with more questions than answers.

When I know what I think, I’ll write it here.