on hiring an assistant: I’ll take a vowel

Recently someone asked me what was most important to me in an assistant.  Great question. A drama-free soul who is committed to making me as productive as possible is worth his or her weight in gold. That person who keeps my professional world spinning makes me twice (you read that right) as effective.

Hiring an assistant calls for self-awareness on my part about what works for me.  Start with the obvious stuff: He or she must

  • draft a warm and grammatically correct thank you note;
  • understand the relevant software that I and my company use;
  • sound (and be) friendly and efficient on the phone;
  • and never schedule me into two places at once.

But the rest of it lies in the vowels. I’m looking for someone who anticipates my needs, has empathy for me and for the team, operates with integrity, is open to opportunities to make things better, and shares my sense of urgency.

I want a scout who anticipates my needs, sets priorities and breaks down the voluminous onslaught of demands into actionable items. Oh, and remind me about what’s coming up and what we left behind that needs follow-up. Free me up to get the big stuff done. (To be clear, I’m not talking about having someone fetch me coffee or my dry-cleaning or buy my partner’s birthday gifts.)

True anticipation is intentional looking and listening: empathy. My complex schedule requires a conscious imagining of my experience. From the first day, I plead: “Put yourself in my shoes. Does this schedule make sense? Does it put me up-town, then down-town and back up-town in short succession? Will it exhaust my introverted self? Have we planned enough time to get from this meeting to the next? Imagine what it’s like to head into these meetings unprepared. Or getting to the airport and not having ticket information.”

It is comforting to work with someone who is of high principle, can keep my confidences and has my back. I also use the word integrity in the sense that a safe bridge has integrity; it is intact and sound. It means that there aren’t short cuts taken in construction (no missing rivets, no shoddy girders, no lowest-bidder nonsense) that lead to panic or disaster. Integrity makes sure the task is done impeccably before it’s handed to me. Too much time spent correcting small mistakes or editing a sloppy draft and I’ll get pulled off mission.

Be open for opportunity. Open to new approaches, open to moments of connections and open to praising others. Help me make connections and celebrate moments we can all delight in. To be open is an active state of alertness. Be on the look-out for opportunities of all kinds, to connect, to suggest, to make us all better. Be open to engaging others appropriately and chiming in at the right moment.

I’ll admit that my calm affect is sometimes a facade. Underneath I’m often a seething mass of impatience, so a sense of shared urgency is critical. Part of the job is to share my concerns and alleviate my anxiety by moving intentionally and with focus to solve the challenges that surface. And if I ask for a project to be handled, get ‘er done or let me know about the obstacles.

On just moving your chair

Picture me sitting in the back row of a packed faculty workshop. Every time I tilt my head to see the speaker, the guy in the front row leans directly into my line of vision. Frustrated with the back and forth of my completely-non-malicious, big-headed, good-listener colleague, I keep angling my head to work with his unpredictable rhythm. After several minutes of this back and forth, I realize that my shoulders are tight, my breathing is shallow and I’m completely distracted from the speaker by the urge to….wait! I can just move my chair. I shift my chair, take a deep breath and calm down, view restored.*

Sometimes reality is too intractable and a chair moving option is not available. (What if I didn’t have to see the speaker? What if I closed my eyes and just listened?)

It seems like we are often required to manage our frustration and spikes of adrenalin, whether it’s coping with the news or colleagues or commuters. (It’s not just me, is it?)  I often make it a game, imagining that the guy who just cut me off is worried about being late to his daughter’s chemo appointment. Or that the woman who rammed me with her backpack in the subway car is late to a critical job interview.

Sometimes the internal exercise doesn’t work. So I just speak directly to the kid on the subway with the earphones reading his phone when a pregnant woman is standing in front of him. If he doesn’t respond, I enjoy a well-deserved moment of connection with my fellow-commuters about our shared disgust. I treat the national news in the same way.

Self-awareness demands that we check in with ourselves about our own frustration. The options are limited.

Change the situation where possible. Or change the response.

Boy, I feel both silly and elated when I’ve had a personal epiphany about something wise philosophers have been talking about for years.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.**

Duh.

*The same thing has happened to me in movie theaters, by the way, where once I ended up trading places with the large fellow sitting in front of me. Another time, the curly-haired monster in front of me very kindly agreed to scrunch down a little so I could see all of The Bourne Identity. Amazing what happens when I am brave enough to take action.

**Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951.

on being nice

On a flight from Houston to Salt Lake City, I felt lucky to have been assigned an aisle seat on an exit row after a harrowing travel schedule.  As I was about to be seated, the young woman on the inside seat said, “Would you be willing to trade seats with my dearly beloved so we can sit together?” Dearly beloved? Wow. That’s hard to resist, indeed. My instant reply is almost always to be accommodating, to be nice, to say yes. But something gave me pause and in that pause was an enormous growth moment for me.  “Where is your beloved seated right now?” I asked her gently.  She pointed to a man–waving and smiling–wedged into a middle seat near the back.  “Oh, no wonder he wants to trade!” I thought.

So I said no. I said it kindly and firmly, but I said no. I couldn’t resist a small explanation (“I actually paid extra to have this seat, so I hope a couple hours apart will make your dearly beloved’s heart grow even fonder.”) It was all I could do not to apologize, especially when my row-mate huffed and sulked for the remainder of the trip.

When the word “nice” was first being used five hundred years ago, it meant foolish or stupid. It’s rooted in the Latin “nescius”, meaning “ignorant or unaware,” so I have chosen to seek other characteristics to aspire to these days. (I can’t help think of the boyfriend I had years ago who openly admitted that he “just wanted to be with a nice girl” and how grateful I am to have parted ways.)

Our work and personal lives often demand diplomacy and grace, but nothing works when we’re ignorant and unaware. Clarity, firm and friendly communication, accurate relaying of facts…those all serve us well. Any time you’re tempted to just be “nice,” remember the root word and opt for a more nuanced approach.

 

on open roads and open hearts

 

 

Thirteen hours in a car with an old friend, from Houston to Mission, Texas. And back.

Our lives have taken us in such different directions since we grew up like two peas in a pod. We were best friends through grade school, reading Harriet the Spy and climbing trees. She was my maid of honor. I was hers. We used to mail our kids’ school pictures to each other; now we follow the grandkid photos on Instagram.  But because our lives and views have diverged so much through the years, it felt like a potential peril be in the car together for that long.

However.

We…

…talk about our worries and heartbreak and failures and successes as parents;

…discuss whether or not we should ever manipulate our husbands (and decide yes, with love);

…chat about money and sex and Hassidic Jews and travel plans and Mormons;

…meander through the topics of family dynamics and favorite movies and childhood memories and sex and death.

…share tactics for holding our tongues instead of speaking out of turn;

…talk through the grief and mourning that comes from the loss of dear friends;

…congratulate each other on finding professional paths that suit our respective interests;

…celebrate our respective work accomplishments;

…natter about our hopes and dreams for the future;

…wonder aloud about which battles to fight and which to walk away from;

…admire the bluebonnets on the embankment and the blooming mesquite alongside the road;

…agonize over what we fear and dread;

…comfort each other about the seemingly intractable problems of aging tummies and thighs;

…sigh over how our self-deprecating ways have affected our daughters;

…muse about grandkids and their eating habits;

…wonder how they will turn out when they’re all grown up;

…talk about coping skills in times of duress, in the face of difference;

…laugh about how hard it is to find someone to talk honestly with about serious issues like sex and death.

 

And we are friends. Differences fade in the face of our humanity. We find solace in sisterhood.

May we all be so fortunate.

 

 

 

 

on your funny bone

What if you didn’t know what was happening when you whacked that tender spot on your elbow? If you didn’t know that it was just a temporary jolt of searing, agonizing pain, wouldn’t you freak out? Maybe want to call 9-1-1?

We are often mystified about our own pain or confusion or fear, convinced that it will last forever, in spite of all the evidence surrounding us that all experience shifts and changes, even the good stuff.

What if we treated it all as temporary? Just breathe through it.

on the burden of the unnecessary

Waiting for a friend in a restaurant, I watched another guest came through the door.  Bulging gym bag, open briefcase with papers sprouting out of it, hat, overcoat and umbrella (it wasn’t raining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky). Smiling, the host reached for the man’s gear. “May I take…?” Brusquely, the burdened guest said, “No, I want to keep it all.”

How many times I have said this? “No, I want to keep it all.”

Or “I think I can do it all.”

I watched this guy wend his way through tables, attractively garbed, but heavily laden. He narrowly missed whacking another guest upside the head with his bag; he wrestled his umbrella under the chair and draped his coat and hat over the back of his chair.  The server looked a little bewildered. “Sir, can I check any of this for you?” The man sat down immediately and pulled out his phone. He looked up. “No, I want to keep it all.”

Robert Frost’s poem, Armful, came to mind.

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns-
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

Keeping it all is such hard work, isn’t it? What if we set some of it down?

 

 

 

 

on “Fine, then!”

Have you ever pulled a “fine, then” on someone?

A friend tells you that maybe you shouldn’t have taken so much oxygen at the party.  Fine, then, I won’t talk at all next time!

This meatloaf isn’t my favorite.  Fine, then, I won’t cook dinner anymore!

I think I’ll go to the movies with my friends tonight.  Fine, then, I’ll go play poker and won’t be back until late!

Could you edit these documents a little more carefully in the future?  Fine, then, you can do them yourself next time!

How easy it is to retaliate harshly in the face of almost anything that snags your emotions, especially feedback. Catching yourself in the face of a small slight (even when it hurts), or criticism, (even when it’s useful), is part of emotional intelligence.

You sure were really, really chatty at the party tonight. Sometimes when I get nervous I talk too much and I want to work on that.

This meatloaf isn’t my favorite.  Hmm, yeah, I could tweak it or take it off my repertoire.

I think I’ll go to the movies with my friends tonight.  Maybe I’ll seize this chance to set up a poker game while you’re out.

Could you edit these documents a little more carefully in the future? I can see where I was a little sloppy on that project; editing isn’t my strong suit generally.

It may seem utterly corny but a simple pause (and deletion of the “Fine, then!”) brings a moment of calm, empathic awareness and a chance to frame an accountable reply.  That pause can save the relationship or stave off a conflict.

 

 

on control versus power

Because we were celebrating something lovely, a small group of us went out to eat at a very fancy restaurant this week. We had to make reservations two months in advance and in the intervening time between making the reservations and the day of the meal, I got seven email messages from the restaurant: confirming the reservation, nailing down an assurance that we would pay, telling us about the dress code (and how committed they are to enforcing it), or giving us friendly pointers on how to enjoy the menu. Those messages were followed by reminders. As we got closer to the date of our adventure, certain members of our party began to feel a little rebellious about the implied pressure–be on time or you’ll miss a course! Men, wear a jacket or we’ll turn you away!–and there developed in each of us a sense of mild resistance to all these rules and reminders.

On the day of our reservation, I got a call from the friendly folks at the restaurant reminding me–yet again–that we should be on time for our meal. I started to laugh. “Wow,” I said, “you guys are really intense! You better measure up to all this anticipation you’re building!”

They did measure up. The food was amazing, the service was excellent. And each of us carried within us–especially the guest who had sprinted for several blocks to make sure she was on time–a tiny little fragment of resentment because of the management’s steady onslaught of rules and reminders. There was certainly no confusion about the balance owed or the location of the restaurant. Plus, we showed up on time and we wore the right thing. However, I have a sneaky suspicion we would have done all that anyhow.

That restaurant is in full control.

As counter to that, this week I watched a child–about four years old–on my uncrowded train ride. He slid out of his seat and began a happy may-pole dance around the stainless steel grab bar in the middle of the subway car. Every single one of us was watching him. No exceptions. We all looked up from our cell phones, our books, our newspapers or our naps and smiled at his utterly joyful little face. “I love this pole,” he chortled to his bemused mother, “it’s great for my dance moves!” And–New York moment–the entire subway car of jaded commuters burst out laughing.

That, my darlings, is power.

I occasionally tell clients that making rules, sending memos and standing over someone to ensure that they go the right direction may give us a sense of control (not to mention exhaustion), but real power is the metaphorical equivalent of mixing up a batch of chocolate chip cookies* and sliding them into the oven. Then everyone wants to be in the kitchen with you.

 

*Cookie, as photographed, is a credit to my friend and master chef, Bruce White, who keeps us all wanting to be in his kitchen.

on walking slow with old men and little kids

Murray came into my life over twenty years ago as my accountant and then he got officially old and then he died and I still miss my friend. Now, oddly, I think of him when I walk with my grandkids because I hold their hands and walk slowly with them, too. When I’m with three-year olds, for instance, I don’t cross the street and think, “oh, I can make it!” because even though I can make it, they operate a little more slowly.

Being Murray’s sidekick as we walked down the street generated the most astounding sense of impatience in me and then a wry sense of acceptance and calm.  After all, he couldn’t go any faster, so why not accept my fate as his companion and enjoy the show?

The same thing happens when I’m in Nana role. The little kids are a quite a bit more bouncy than Murray was, but they are still pretty pokey. And even when other pedestrians are smiling at how cute the kids are, I notice they aren’t wasting any time scooting around us.

My pedestrian perspective is normally quick, striding and purposeful. When I walked with Murray, I saw the aggregate pattern of smashed gum on the cement and I anticipated every road hazard for him. When I walk with little kids, I steer around obstacles and am alert to all the potential dangers ahead. I feel time slow down a little.

Someone told me lately that his favorite thing about his manager was his manager’s patience. “I can ask him about some issue multiple times and he’ll just calmly explain it to me until I really understand it.” When he told me that, I thought of walking with Murray. I thought of walking with my grandkids. There is some deep value in the slowing down for me, not just for them. Sure, they might not be able to keep up, so I have to slow down. Sure, the guy in that office needs an explanation, and may even require a patient re-telling. But what a beautiful gift there is in the slowing down on the walk; what a lovely moment there is in the kindness of the teaching.

on starting

Have you ever watched the limo drivers parked in front of a hotel?  They often seize the moment to take a nap, but they also take those resting moments to polish their cars, to dust the interiors and buff out the doors.  

One thing (among many) I’ve learned from my brother and his Marine Corps buddies is to pick up a broom if I can’t think of anything else to do. Just start. In my old days as a therapist, I used to prescribe some kind of action for depression (in a world of pharmaceuticals, the response was often a puzzled look).

Work out, volunteer, just do something.  Mrs. Gummidge, the “lone lorn creetur” from David Copperfield, was transformed from her depression and isolation as soon as she just pitched herself into some acts that were helpful to others. As a coach, I often tell people to pick one tiny area of their lives (desk, car, underwear drawer) and clean it up thoroughly. At Landmark Education, they’d say, “Make it impeccable.”

There are lots of theories about getting things done, but every single trek starts with that first stumbling step.

 

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