My Way, Not the Right Way

In the late fall of my first year at college I found myself sitting on the steps of the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. My first year at Smith had been everything that I had wanted it to be but the constant newness and mental stretching had worn me thin and I ached for something simple and easy. I recognize it now as being acutely homesick — I just wanted a moment when I could simply exist without working so hard, to be sitting in a place where things just fit.

It was a fleeting emotion and I’m convinced I wouldn’t recall it nearly thirty years later if I had been alone. But, I wasn’t alone. I was joined in that moment by a classmate, a Black woman who had come to Smith from the south. We sat there, two women from very different backgrounds quietly pining for the same thing: the familiarity of home.

I don’t remember much of that day. I don’t remember why I was there, why we were talking, or even her name. I just remember that at some point I blurted out that I needed to go home, that I longed for the anchor of Thanksgiving with my family and everything that felt normal.

She agreed.

Then, her eyes shined and she shared with an obvious love all of the dishes that her matriarchs would bring to dinner. She rattled off foods so comforting that just saying the words brought an immediate smile to her face: ham, sweet potato pie, collard greens, macaroni and cheese. For the rest of my life I will remember the look on her face and the yearning of her voice because they so completely matched mine. And I will never forget for as long as I live the shocking moment when I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, that my lived experience was not everyone’s lived experience.

It may sound naive, but until that moment I believed that everyone’s Thanksgiving table looked like mine — like the Normal Rockwell painting. Certainly everyone celebrated Thanksgiving with a huge, golden turkey accompanied by covered dishes of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberries. Everyone shared a slice of pumpkin or apple pie before adjourning to the family room couch for napping and conversation. I had not even contemplated that other families had different traditions, that their normal was different than mine. And, because I put myself (and Mr. Rockwell) at the center of the universe, my Thanksgiving table was the right way — the way Thanksgiving was supposed to be.

(Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want)

The whipsaw of being completely aligned to my classmate one moment and watching a deeply held assumption crumble in the next is why I remember it so clearly sitting here three decades later on a sunny June afternoon. It is the feeling of that moment — the painful, agonizing growth — that I hits me every time I feel the urge to turn my normal into everyone’s right. I think of the macaroni and cheese and remember that everyone has a normal, but only white majority culture has gotten to choose what is right.

One cannot underestimate the power inherent in defining the standard of rightness. Sure, there are some consistent ideas across countries and cultures, but there is a whole lot of gray space within that. I see them everyday in the world of work, things like:

  • The definition of professional business standards, including clothing and hair choices
  • The best way to lead people and communicate and collaborate within a group
  • The value and artistry of a painting, a song, a dance, a feature length film or a book

Looking back on the early moments in my career I can identify moments where I saw myself subtly nudging individuals with a different normal to the white majority standard. Usually, my intention was to provide them with support in advancing — in competing effectively in a world where knowing and following the unwritten rules can make the difference between getting and losing a promotion. Whether I realized it or not, there I was putting the turkey in the middle of the table and declaring it the right way to celebrate, regardless of how it felt to others. I wanted them to be successful, so I taught them how to play my game, instead of adapting to play theirs.

It was easier that way — for me at least.

And, I might have stayed in that zone if not for another personal experience many years after the steps. I was at an academic ceremony that included a pretty even balance of graduates from all races. I noticed that as the White candidates walked across the stage, their friends and family would clap quietly. And as the Black / African American graduates walked across the stage, their friends and family would offer riotous applause, shout the candidate’s name, and call out affirmations. Near me, as I sat in an all White group, I heard disparaging comments about the Black families — suggesting with rude words and offended looks that they were not behaving in the right way. I was deeply ashamed then, and I still am now thinking about it.

Here’s the thing, I was raised to see a ceremony (a graduation, church service or wedding) as a solemn thing. I was taught to sit quietly, clap politely and draw no attention to myself. That was my normal, the expectation of what was right. But what makes that right? Why was their way of celebrating any less right than mine? Isn’t a graduation cause for enthusiastic and excited revelry? What could be wrong about joyously expressing pride and support for the hard work, dedication and accomplishment of their loved one? If I’m honest with myself, my personality is much more aligned to that model of excited exuberance. I would much rather be loud than languid.

As a leader and an advocate for diversity, inclusion and belonging I seek to remain humble about the right way to do anything although I find myself fairly rooted in my nearly 50 years of lived experience. Even when I try to be open to new ways of seeing the world and manage to push myself off my anchor my human bias is to swing back. As hard as it is now to pivot, I suspect it will be even harder the older I get. So, I surround myself with people who live in the world differently than I do — good people with values and capabilities that I respect. I do little things like say “different” and not “weird” to remind myself (and signal to others) an openness to possibility. I accept the challenge I have to create a more inclusive standard and the failures that will come in that work. And every time I get to experience something different than what I would expect I am grateful for the chance to put a crack in my deeply held traditions and reveal them for what they are.

One way of living in the world — but not the right way.

This Girl I Know

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about this girl I know. She just started the eighth grade and she’s struggling. She made a couple of bone-headed decisions in her classes, but that wasn’t so bad. What was really hard was navigating the turbulent waters as three streams of bobbing elementary kids came together into a new river. Long-standing friend groups drifted apart and when the current slowed she found herself floating alone. It hurt.

I feel for her because she’s always been a little awkward around people her own age. Confident and comfortable with adults and nurturing with little kids, she doesn’t quite know how to act with her peers. I’ve seen her retreating more and more into books, hiding with her flashlight under the blankets each night escaping into some fantasy. She won’t say it out loud, but I know it weighs on her, the worry that she will never be cool enough to be invited or pretty enough to attract a boy.

Fortunately, over the summer a couple of new girls moved into the neighborhood. She sought them out and tried to help them get settled. Maybe it was the small kindness she showed them — or maybe it was a lack of options — but they seemed to like her well enough. Despite her worst fears, she didn’t have to start eighth grade alone.

There is no way that I can convince her that middle school is not a foreshadowing of what her life will be. I can’t make her believe that the horrible hair, fashion faux pas, massive glasses, poor complexion, and braces will mean nothing in just a few years. I don’t have a way to tell her that the characteristics that make her stick out painfully at thirteen — intellect, drive, energy, and optimism — will help her build and keep a network later in life. That she will someday go from being snickered at to being well-liked and respected.

I know this girl because she’s me.

IMG_0945

For the longest time I thought I had tucked her into my past along with my poor sweater choices and my need for acne medicine. Not because I’m embarassed by her — I actually like her a lot — I simply believed that I had grown beyond her. She was nothing but a glimmer to be remembered in a funny annecdote or family slide night.

And then I started getting feedback through my coaching process that made me realize just how much she is still influencing me, especially in moments of stress. I was coming across as overly confident, even arrogant. I scored a nearly “perfect” 98 on the Bold attribute of the Hogan challenge assessment which “concerns having inflated views of one’s competency and worth.” I heard that my tendancy to storytelling could be overused, especially when the stories featured me as the victorious heroine. There was a feeling from those who knew me only from a distance that I was self-serving, singly focused on my own advancement and success.

It was her, not the forty-something executive, who cried coming to terms with what was being said. She reacted before I even knew how to handle it, telling me that I needed to pull back, be less, protect myself. She declared that she had been right all along and that I had dared too much, aimed too high. Mentally, she started to jettison the most obvious symbols of my confidence, the things I no longer deserved. Sitting across from my coach, I told her that maybe I needed to shut down my blog. My rebranding had intended to be self-deprecating and empowering, but seriously, Too Much Mel? What the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t shut down this blog. But I thought about it.

There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and the line can be even thinner for women. I remember a time when I couldn’t have been described as either — I was a bottle thrown against rocks, breaking into pieces and washing out to sea. Many years of wonderful people and crazy experiences have polished my jagged, sharp edges buffing me into a piece of barely recognizable sea glass. Despite my own doubts, they have lifted me up and reminded me that I can make a difference in the world, if I only have the courage to show up and the humility to acknowledge that I can’t do anything alone. It is the smoothed shard that shows up now in conference rooms, sitting tall and speaking loudly, certain that together we will find a path to success. Others don’t see the broken pieces or the years of tumbling. They don’t see the girl who is still inside me.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this girl I know. She’s an executive who’s had her share of misfires and mistakes, but still finds a way to smile, pull herself up, and find a path forward. She’s grateful for her life, both the part she’s made and the part she was gifted through privilege, lucky breaks, and assists. She’s cool enough to be invited and pretty enough to attract the boy. She works too hard, sleeps too little, and talks more than she listens, but she’s a good person and I like her a lot. And she’s still got a lot to learn.

Coaching

A couple of weeks ago I got stopped in the hallway by a colleague. We chatted about work and as the topic was waning they commented, “It’s been a while since you blogged.” The tone was neither critical not expectant, just an observation of fact. They continued, “I thought maybe I missed something, so I went and looked. Nope, nothing for a while.”

To be clear, a while has been more than three months. My last post dropped in late April when Midwesterners were still desperately waiting for a real spring to arrive. Since then I have been buried by new job responsibilities, two great vacations, visits from family, and a dearth of time to sit quietly and write. I’ve been running like a mad fool, that’s the truth. But, that’s not the whole truth. If I’m honest the thing that has kept me from writing is this: soon after my last post I started working with an executive coach.

Just typing that feels weird.

Coaching is not something that people talk about openly. Like counseling, there seems to be a fear that investing to improve your capabilities signals some weakness; that competent leaders don’t need help. In my first meeting with my coach she went out of her way to articulate the confidentiality of the process — what would be shared and what would be just between the two of us. I recall laughing in the moment, knowing full well how much of what I learned about me would seep out into conversations. I get it, some people don’t talk about their journey with a coach and they don’t want the coach talking with others.

Some people don’t write a public-facing blog.

Frankly, I knew that once I started the coaching process it would come through my blog. How could it not? The coaching process is all about introspection, pattern-finding, and self-improvement — the things that are at the heart of nearly all of my posts. I expected that it would give me rich material and potentially jump start my rather lackluster production over the last year. Maybe it would give me enough content to get back to one post a week.

What I didn’t anticipate was that I would have too much material. I didn’t anticipate how challenging and difficult it would be to break down all of the new insights coming my way and parse them into succinct, well-constructed posts. In a fairly short timeframe I documented the key pivot points of my life, constructed mental models, completed a behavioral assessment, and reviewed 360 feedback. It was a lot and I’m still coming out of an Information coma. I’m like a kid on their first Halloween, sneaking candy along the route and then coming home and upending the bag, ripping into the bars two-fisted before an exhausted adult can stop them.

I was too overwhelmed to write in the moment and I’m not ready yet. But, three months is long enough between posts and just because I’m not ready to share what I’ve learned about myself, I can’t keep putting off writing while my brain settles down. It could be months because the thing I’ve learned about coaching is that one idea flips into another and another and another and another so that just when you think you’ve finally figured you out…

…flip.

And don’t get me wrong, I love it. I love thinking deeply about how I’m wired, where it has helped me and my team thrive and what I can do to be better for myself and others. What I’m learning is informing my personal and profession actions and decisions; it’s allowing me to create new and interesting ways of responding to the risks and opportunities I see every day. As I thought, I’m bringing snippets into conversations with everyone from my husband to my boss to my teams. Someday, I’ll bring it into here.

Just not yet.

A Room with a View

As I was boarding my plane yesterday I smiled at the woman merging in front of me and observed cheekily that people were nicer on Saturday. She looked uncertain so I clarified, “Absolutely. You should see people on Thursday at 4:00pm. It’s completely different.” She laughed then and noted that I must travel a lot. The irony was undeniable as we were standing in the group six cattle call and I was heading to a middle seat at the back of the plane. I looked at her wryly before retorting in good humor, “I travel a lot, but not enough to get status.”

Check-in at the hotel was another remarkably predictable experience. Many years of business travel have conditioned me to have my ID and credit card out and to respond knowingly to the questions asked by the employees working the front desk. As the woman concluded my transaction I accepted my room keys without pause, shuffling off to the elevators. I was pressing the up button before I even realized that I’d been given a room on the lowest floor. My sinking feeling got worse as I exited the elevator and saw the sign for the room numbers. My room was closest to the elevators and once inside I walked to the window and grimaced at my view: a flat gray roof displaying its mechanical systems, pipes and a satellite dish. Before I could stop myself the self-pitying words framed in my head.

How did I end up with the worst hotel room here?

It’s amazing how quickly and easily the human mind can complete a comparison and find itself wanting. Within a minute I had gone from being excited to disappointed, forgetting all about the opportunity I had been given to develop my leadership capabilities among other talented women. Why? Because I would be spending a handful of hours over four nights sleeping in a room without a view. And, to be honest, I might have stayed in that frame of mind and grumbled about my sorry lot if it weren’t for a recent podcast I listened to this week that put what I was experiencing — envy — into perspective.

The podcast was Counting Other People’s Blessings on the show Hidden Brain. I’m a new listener, but the show positions itself as using science and storytelling to “help curious people understand the world — and themselves.” I found it to be a fascinating exploration of why individuals compare their lives to others and as I stared out the window I connected back to what I had heard. I realized that I wasn’t mad about getting a bad room, I was mad that I got a worse room than someone else. I was envious of the people on the higher floors with views of sunsets and skylines. I wanted what they had, because what they had was better.

Comparison can be positive, helping us identify role models and aspirations, leading us to be better people. I regularly feel inadequate at these type of leadership conferences because I am surrounded by talented, sucessful people who remind me of all of the things I can’t do and may never accomplish. I’m certain that I went to Smith for the same reason, to push myself to develop capabilities in an environment where it couldn’t be argued that I was already done. Surround yourself with enough amazing people and the idea that you are finished growing becomes more and more laughable. How could I think I was successful when she’s done that? I mean really, what the heck was I thinking?

But comparisons can also be toxic and disempowering, leading to victimization. I felt righteous indignation about being stuck in a poor room, but what was I complaining about really? The room was large, well-appointed, and comfortable — it had everything that I needed. If I had returned to the front desk and pleaded my case it was a certainty that someone else would have ended up with it. I was embarrassed to consider what that person would think and how they would react to my assumption that they were somehow less worthy of a great view and a quiet night than I was. Ultimately, I decided that the best thing I could do was accept the judgement of the hotel gods and take a swipe at envy by sharing it in a post of my own. I could laugh at myself and the feeling of being slighted by shining a light on my own experience.

In the grand scheme of things, feeling envious of a great hotel room is a small matter or a witty Facebook post. Maybe the bigger issues is that we talk so rarely about the ugly side of envy, how we look at the successes of others and instead of feeling warmth for them we use it as a measurement to diminish our own happiness. We don’t talk much about envy in our polite society, but maybe we should. Maybe we should shine a light on the many times each day that we compare our lives to others and find ourselves wanting because guess what, someone always has more. Μore money. More beauty. More success. More stuff. Someone is always getting ahead faster or easier or better. How many times do we ask ourselves, in the dark moments we don’t admit out loud, why can’t I have what they have?

I don’t have an easy answer; this blog isn’t about easy answers.

All I know is that I find I am happier and more able to tackle life’s inevitable obstacles when I start with supporting people in their successes and looking inward to create new opportunities for myself. So, I channeled that mindset this morning when I got up and headed to the bathroom to get ready for a day of learning and growth. Focused, I laughed out loud when I turned on the shower and found myself staring at the best water pressure ever in a hotel bathroom. Ok, I thought, message received. It is not the worst hotel room here.

For all it gave me, it might just be the best.

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.