on thinking about what comes next

Lots of key strokes have been pounded over the need to be mindful. We live in the eternal present tense, but we forget that when we are ruminating over something from the past or–as I do–pitching feverishly toward what comes next. Most of what I drag my mind back from when I’m meditating is what I’ve got to do when I’m done meditating.  I tend not to be a grudge-bearer, but that’s only because I squint hard at what’s in the rear view mirror and…then move on, intent on the future.

It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the way I’m configured.

Adam Morgan and Mark Bard talk about the beautiful constraint in their book* (read it, it’s great!), which is a business application to making lemonades when life tosses you our favorite citrus. I’ve heard it called selling what sucks. We can also think of it as leveraging a perceived failing into a serious up-side. It’s taking the hand you’ve been dealt and marketing it as a happy plus. One of my constraints is a constant pull toward “what’s next?” This steady gearing toward the future is a limitation that often imbues my present moments with anxiety and exhaustion. That means, yes, I have to pay attention, be mindful, and take naps. But it also generates a planful state, an orderly household and a pretty constant to-do list that keeps things moving along and ship-shape.

Given your set of skills, characteristics, limitations, how do you leverage them positively?

 

*A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business

on leadership books for boys (and other humans)

Someone recently asked me to prepare a little list of books for their high school boys to read about leadership. I was surprisingly stumped, since my focus is often on girls and women. I figured that the first order of business was that it had to be gripping stuff. And then it had to be about leadership in some way. So, after some thought, here’s my list, and I figure these books are worth reading by more than “just” high school boys.

Consider this a call for your suggestions.

Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, because it explores alternatives ways to solve problems and it shows that the girl can take charge.

Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer, because it is not a typical take on business and can be applied to everything outside the restaurant world.

Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Golman, because yeah, it’s important to be reminded that EQ is critical for leadership when you’re in a world that so expressly values IQ and doesn’t always understand the difference between the two.

Leadership 2.0, by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, because there are behavior-sharpening skills that really work if you deploy them. 

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, because it’s about a six-year old who saves the world with his inadvertent leadership and who can’t secretly relate/aspire to that?

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, because if you don’t read this in high school, you might never read it and it’s a classic, productive start to getting along with people.

Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins, because the author survived a hideous childhood into a thriving adulthood with a knack for teaching some profoundly worthy skills.

on dropping the mask

Recently, I had a conversation with a client about her experience of dropping her I’m-in-charge-mask with her team. She joyfully reported that they all rose to the occasion when she asked for help problem-solving. In fact, she reported, they seemed to trust her more when she told the truth about what was going on in her organization than when she tried to gloss over obvious challenges with good cheer.

There is something remarkable about our game faces; there is something valuable about being able to suck it up and be a good sport and carry the load alone. We admire stoics, but constant stoicism veers into victimhood; a daily thin veneer of stoicism is pure exhausting fakery. Other people usually know it for what it is.

Years ago, when I was in college I had housemates who talked about their criteria for girlfriends. Some of those vigorous beer-fueled discussions have stayed with me and shaped my thinking for decades.* High on their list (granted, they were young straight guys, so I’ve long ago forgiven the slightly sexual overtones), was that they wanted someone who “looked good wet.” When pressed, they explained they just wanted to be with someone who looked good without make-up, someone who looked just as good fresh out of the shower as she did going out to a party.

Artifice is lovely and useful, as long as we fully understand that it’s artifice. I once had a boss tell me to go get a make-over (that was thinly veiled code for “start wearing make-up”) and another, years later, tell me to “consider wearing lipstick,” which wasn’t coded at all. Make-up is fun and even useful. There’s a reason that so much real estate is devoted to this department in major stores. But what happens when you take off all your makeup? At least metaphorically.

From a management perspective, we are trained to be in charge and, perhaps even more importantly, to look like we’re in charge. Being vulnerable is perhaps the most terrifying position to be in while in the Boss (or parent or friend) Chair, but there is something valuable and useful about being able to share the load and partner in problem-solving.

 

 

 

*Thanks, Chris and Darren, who went on to become busy family medical practitioners, for sharing their life-shaping list with me. It helped me stay out of the make-up wearing world and I like to think I’m recognizable, even when I do not wear lipstick, metaphorically and otherwise.

This post was ready to publish before Harvey blew through Houston, which doesn’t look so good wet. If you’re inclined–and please be inclined–support those folks in getting their lives back in order. Please think especially about vulnerable populations. Portlight Strategies helps people with disabilities, older adults, and their families recover after disasters. To help with something as commonsensical as diapers, check out The National Diaper Bank.  To help animals, a Best Friends disaster response team is in place. 

 

on clouds (and Sam Shepard)

I refuse to admit I had a crush on Sam Shepard. I kept a distant eye on him over the years, mostly because I was mistaken–twice–for Jessica Lange.

Once, in 1996 a women with a strong Korean accent followed me down Broadway until I finally stopped and explained that I wasn’t who she thought I was and when she refused to be deterred (“My husband very big fan! Very big!”), I panicked and signed the slip of paper she thrust into my hands. With my own signature.

And the second time, more recently, at the top of Union Square Park, I responded with a friendly New Yorker I’m-happy-to-direct-you-poor-lost-souls-from-Minnesota smile to a middle-aged couple who flagged me down with their subway map. The women told me that her husband (apparently the guy sheepishly toeing the ground next to us) was a big fan and asked me give them an autograph. I demurred instantly. “I’m not sure who you think I am, but I’m not anyone,” and I started to put my ear buds back in. When they told me they thought I was Jessica Lange, I laughed–we ended up all laughing–since I bear no real resemblance to the remarkable Ms. Lange.

Mostly I’m telling you this because it occurs to me that I’ve been musing quite a bit about change and death and transition, so I’m worried that maybe you’ll think I only have morbid thoughts. The title about clouds could be a bit of a bait and switch. Except that they are part of this musing of mine, in that they are part of the fascinating landscape of change, and Sam and Jessica are part of it because he wrote, on the start of his nearly-thirty-year relationship with her, “I know even this will change.” How much I resist that! How I dig in my heels at the very thought! How I want to savor and hang on to the good stuff!

On days when I’m supposed to be writing, I’m sometimes sitting around watching the clouds. Since I haven’t done that since I was a little kid, it’s taken on a whole new meaning. The clouds gather up in bundles, they stack up into storms, they clear out; they are completely impervious to me. When the conditions are right–also having nothing to do with me–it rains. Those clouds carry a great reminder about experience generally. When the conditions are right, the sky is clear or it’s stormy. I cannot take the weather personally.

What is it with these reminders of transience that I seem to be pondering so much lately? Even stories–was it really so long ago that woman chased me down the street for an autograph?–are made more precious by their fleeting place in our history. My joints creak a little, the seasons change again, my kids’ noses nuzzling into my neck have become my grandkids’ noses and then when I was I was determined to never make another memorial commentary, Sam Shepard died, damnit.

 

“If you love something, know that it will leave on a day that you are far from ready.” –From Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney

 

 

On doing one thing at a time

As is often the case, I recruited someone who grew up deftly playing video games to help me with a tech-heavy installation this week. Where I had gotten frustrated with an old-school read-the-manual approach (i.e. eventually toss the inscrutable instructions into the recycle bin), he tried and erred and patiently unraveled the problem one tiny fragment at a time.  In addition he taught me–astonishingly– how to do it myself with apparently boundless patience.

Once I had figured out the basics, I immediately leapt ahead into what was possible and started chattering excitedly about what we could do next. Stop, he said, smiling gently.

It’s always better to do one thing at a time. You’ll enjoy it more. Plus, you’ll get it right.

Gotta love those tech-savvy Buddhas.

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On fear of missing out (FOMO)

I’ve taken to dumping the mail order catalogs right into the recycle bin without looking them over. I used to take them upstairs and they would pile up (often unread for weeks). Or I would succumb to purchasing something from the enticing spread, convinced I had to have whatever thingamajig I’d stumbled across. I’ve come to think that those catalogs are very much like everything else in my life that I crane my neck to see or cram my calendar full of or squish into my closet or stress over.  I didn’t even know it was important until it showed up in my in-box and someone told me it was on sale, urgent, or had some entertaining sparkles and twists. I’ve gotten so I can hardly sit still to read a book for fear that I’ll miss out on the next email or Instagram post. It’s a little mortifying that I have a twinge of anxiety when I can’t find my phone for ten minutes. On the weekend.

What if we don’t log onto FaceBook for the latest update or life hack? Or read every Tweet that flits across the transom? What if friends gather for drinks and gossip without us? What are we afraid of missing? What will happen if we don’t look, cram, squish, or stress?  I don’t have the answers. I’m just asking for a friend.

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on Norma Z. Paige (memento mori)

Norma was one of the many people over the last twenty years who gave me advice. She was born in 1922 and last week, she was laid to rest.

“Consider wearing lipstick,” she once told me. At first that might seem a little anti-feminist (oh, okay, it probably was), but she meant to make me more visible. She wanted me to show up. She wanted to make sure I did not, as she put it, “just blend in.” This advice about lipstick (usually disregarded) was closely followed by her firm injunction to “get up there and sit at the head table with the chairman of the board! You need to be visible in your new job.” I was reluctant, but because I trusted Norma, I did it. Many years later, when the board chair suffered from Parkinson’s symptoms and listed to port, I sat next to him and propped him up through the meetings. Then I silently lauded Norma’s wisdom.  Even she didn’t know how important that counsel would be that I sit with the chairman. It propped him up at the table. It propped me up in my life.

She bustled. She meddled. She nurtured. She sometimes actually wagged her finger at me. “You have a very challenging job and I have no doubt that you are finding a high level of chaos. Do not be discouraged by this level of turnover. This should not surprise you.”

She was pithy. And direct. “Discipline your staff to always respond to the substance of the inquiry.” And sensible. “Be prompt to maintain goodwill.”

She was empathetic and kind. She had insight into areas I had yet to explore. I took notes, realizing even then that she was giving me pearls. “Elderly people are sensitive about different matters. Some want help and others don’t need as much. We’re not helpless, so don’t render assistance unless it’s genuinely needed.” 

Norma fled to the United States from her native Poland in 1927 when she was five years old, a trip that almost surely saved her life. That little immigrant girl grew up to found a law firm with her husband, Samuel Paige, whom she wed in 1945.  They were married for over 60 years.  She also co-founded Astronautics Corporation of America, a company that still designs, develops, and manufactures sophisticated avionics and navigation equipment and systems. She was a dedicated mom and a generous mentor and philanthropist.

I was sometimes a little bit afraid of Norma because she was a badass, a fierce warrior businesswoman, and always quick to tell me just what to do next. These days, I still don’t wear lipstick very often. But, I am more willing to be visible.  At her memorial service, I sat there with with a heart so full of tenderness and gratitude. Norma’s daughters sang her favorite song — “Best of Times” from La Cage Aux Folles: “…hold this moment fast/and live and love/as hard as you know how/and make this moment last/because the best of times is now.” Those words guide my steps, even as her advice did for all those years.

Norma Page

On perspective shifting

I’ve been clearing out my office files at a transition point in a long career. Some of the intractable issues we were so incredibly frothed up about ten years ago have become …well, non-issues. I mourn again when I read my notes about catastrophes in the lives of the occasional student, but exult to know that most of them transcended the challenges they once faced.  I chuckle with pride when I read the scrawled notes that led to incipient programs that now are full-fledged centers and institutes and networks.

Our perspective can change in iterations over years or it can change in a flash.

We’ve all had that experience of walking out the door in the morning and getting news during the day that changed us so completely that walking back in the door that night felt surreal. Hearing about the loss of a loved one while we were at work? Everything re-orients suddenly into junk mail. Or the doctor tosses a diagnosis into the conversation that changes all future prospects. A taxi careens through a crosswalk and narrowly misses us and we lean, heart pounding, against the newspaper box.

It certainly doesn’t have to be a disaster (or a near-disaster) to bring about a view-point shift. A brand-new alumna told me when she found out she was at the top of her graduating class, it instantly re-framed her perspective of her education, in retrospect, to something radically powerful: she saw her degree as a door-opener that she never anticipated while she was slogging through her studies. The wake-up moment can be as simple as a random slice of sunlight slashing through the clouds in just the right way, illuminating a doorway or it can be a comment overheard from a passing stranger.

In my file-weeding, I found a note from a long-dead friend telling me how much I was loved and I sat, blurry-eyed, lost in nostalgia. I also found many hilariously out-of-date to-do lists.  You know damn well that I’ll forget this experience in a week or a month or whenever (because that’s what we do) and I’ll go back to making my lists and fretting about whatever I fret about, but in the meantime, the prod is a good one. We can check our list of worries and ask the age-old question: will it matter in a year? in two? in ten? at the end of our lives?

There doesn’t have to be a lesson in every little thing, but it doesn’t hurt Today’s Jeannie to be reminded that Yesterday’s Jeannie was worried about things that she doesn’t much care about right now. That means Tomorrow’s Jeannie will likely look back on the list of Today’s Jeannie’s anxieties and have a little laugh.*

 

 

*By the way, the act of referring to oneself in the third person is one of my pet peeves–there’s actually a word for it, illeism, beside the rude one that tempts me–so please forgive me and rest assured that I am only doing this to make a point.

 

On the cost of hypervigilance

scared faceA psychological term for something that feels familiar to most of us, hypervigilance is technically what we experience when we’re extremely wary of danger. All our senses are charged up, alert to detect a potential assault. Imagine yourself in a B movie, walking back to your hotel room in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It’s gotten dark, the streets are deserted. A cat yowls and bolts across your path. A streetlight blinks out suddenly, leaving you in an even darker level of gloom. A scraping, dragging noise starts up behind you. You pause mid-stride, wanting to source the sound. You stop, the sound stops. You look behind you, but the street is empty. The sound inexplicably starts back up again when you start walking. It’s only when you make it back to your room unharmed that you relax, sorta. And you shake with a post-adrenal rush.

Our bodies are ready to spring into action when faced with a threat, whether it’s to defend ourselves or a make a mad dash away from an attack. The tense poised-for-action response of the body is entirely based on our anthropological history.  We get goose bumps, so our hair stands slightly erect (that makes us look a little bigger), our eyes widen (the better to scan the horizon for any surprises) and our fists clench (tightening around the ghost of the rock or spear our ancestors carried). Our senses are charged with noticing everything in the vicinity.

Hypervigilance is useful. We wouldn’t have survived as a species without the capacity to flip into this super wary mode. But being constantly on guard is exhausting. We’re not designed to stay in that mode without real physical detriments. The psychic costs are enormous when we always think the sky is falling, the muggers will get us or disaster will strike us down. As long as we are focused on a perceived threat, we cannot move forward without being distracted. If the danger is not immediate or physical, but we are consumed with dread about what might happen next, we have lost our capacity to plan and judge and focus and act. The paralysis prevents us from taking productive steps.

I’m hearing a lot of hypervigilant talk these days, the grinding anxiety of which can wear us down.

When there is no immediate or physical danger, this level of intense arousal is self-defeating. Calming self-talk, planning small and reasonable next moves (and making a commitment to take one of those moves every day), finding support in conversation, and developing a mindfulness meditation practice are all ways psychologists suggest we manage this experience. Take a minute for three slow simple breaths to calm yourself and notice what is working in your life. You’ll recognize that the roof is not on fire right now (and if it is, you better not be reading this) and you have some time to relax your shoulders and make a plan. Take one small productive action every day.

Use your vigilant energy wisely.

 

 

 

 

On the possibility of big change

printA group of us gathered yesterday in the office lounge. It felt important that we sit together to acknowledge the murders so prominently part of the news and the turmoil it stirred up in each of us. Our gathering was reminiscent of the Quaker-style Meetings I grew up with, complete with long stretches of silence, a certain solemnity, and an occasional sober speaking-up. We gathered because we were, among other things, outraged, sorrowful and perplexed about what else to do.

I’ve long been of the view that poets, rather than ordinary mortals, best describe feelings. James Richardson says, “Feelings are like that: choral, not single; mixed, never pure.”* To be human is to have mixed feelings; to be grown-up is to tolerate ambiguity.**  Part of our conversation is about the odd tension forced on us between supporting law enforcement while still deeply mourning the black motorists who had been murdered. We reassure each other that it is possible to do both. Even as we feel an urge to act, we express caution about doing or saying something wrong or worse, creating inadvertent offense. Fury tangles with sadness, condemnation with guilt over our own inaction. Fear features prominently in our reactions. When all lives matter, there is pull against “Black Lives Matter;” we wrangle with the question of how it took social media to bring some of these images to the forefront of our horrified awareness.

Even as we draw strength from each other, most of us are left a little disconsolate, with the murky sense that the racial fractures in our country are too long-held and deep to ever be repaired.

Pondering this intractable set of issues can steal our optimism. When I lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was an AIDS educator and activist. It’s hard to fully describe the trauma and drama of those early years in the HIV pandemic to someone who wasn’t on the front line. Only a comparative few of us seemed to be paying attention. It felt like the most impossible path to get policy changes in place. For many years the straight community seemed to turn their collective back. It seemed like everything was a fight: getting HIV education in the schools, building tolerance in the local churches; generating awareness in the mainstream voting block, getting money for AIDS research.

During the first six months of my time volunteering for the fledgling Utah AIDS Foundation, the five “buddies” I’d been partnered with all died. We worked with the local hospice community and could do little besides sit by deathbeds.  Before I moved to New York City in 1994, a colleague and I sat down and totted up the number of memorial services from the prior months.  There were seventeen of them in ninety days. We knew every single name.

Now, of course, it’s almost impossible to explain the profound pain of these years to the young gay men in my circle. They laugh at my panic when I hear about anyone being casual about safe sex. Our “old-school” experience as almost surreal in these days of speedy test results, preventative medication and maintenance drugs that make life with HIV nearly as manageable as diabetes. The churches that resisted us with self-righteous homophobia? They are proud supporters of HIV/AIDS programs today. Funding from the politicians we regarded as self-righteous and smug? HIV/AIDS research and education is almost a mainstream budget line in most states now.

This is a imperfect analogy, but thoughts of those years—hard times featuring outrage, tears, and dogged persistence against what felt like an impossible set of obstacles—give me strange comfort today. I was the wedding officiant at a joyful same-sex wedding in June, 2013, the same week that DOMA was repealed. I have several friends who treat their HIV with daily medication and they plan to live long, fruitful lives. Sometimes I’m simply stunned at the assumptions young people make about their health and bite my tongue lest I sound like a cranky old timer telling stories about the bad ol’ days. But I understand it and am grateful that they can afford this level of serene oblivion. While I’m aware that there is still much to do, much of what I see today would’ve seemed as far-fetched and unlikely as science fiction twenty-five years ago.

I’m wrestling with this point: We can change. We can do something about what seems like a disaster.  We can build a world where healing is possible. We can solve intractable problems. It will take hard work and action. It will take courage and mistakes and hopelessness and sorrow.  We will throw up and give up and complain and sob.

But we will get to work and fix this. Because we have to.  Lives depend on it.

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