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.

A Lesson from My Roommate

I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.

My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.

Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.

When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.

 

 

My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.

Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.

The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.

That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.

 

I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”

My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.

I believed her.

It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.

I try to believe them.