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 significant 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, I have to admit 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.

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 build 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.