On chocolate and Tonka trucks

I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my life getting educated, trying to learn about how things (and minds) work, figuring out what’s what and generally just…knowing stuff.

But I find that I’m my very best self when I come into the conversation not knowing a damn thing. When I catch myself knowing in advance what someone is thinking or having a strong sense that I’ve heard this before, I’m in the danger zone. It establishes the bounds of the inquiry before I even hear the full scope of the conversation and pretty much ruins any shot I have at the beautiful intrigue of listening with a fresh perspective and curiosity.

One of the biggest challenges and potential landmines in management (and all relationships) is the fatal assumption that other people share your views and motivations. It’s a particularly key element of emotional intelligence to be socially aware enough to understand the distinction without frustration. Operating on the basis that he surely liked what I liked, I recently plopped a nice piece of chocolate in front of a friend for dessert. It was really good chocolate–the dark, peppery kind from Zurich–and I knew he would love it. I had a moment of mental fun imagining how blissful he’d be when that rich and flavorful chocolate melted on his tongue.

It turns out he’s deeply allergic to chocolate.

Truly, I wasn’t trying to feed him a deadly dessert, I just hadn’t bothered to really find out what he wanted.


Here’s another one. When my little brother was about eight years old, he saved his allowance for months so he could buy a special gift for Mom for her birthday. He was so proud of his selection skills and anticipated Mom’s excited reaction.  I’ll never forget her face when she opened the package–he’d wrapped it himself in the Sunday comics–to discover that he’d given her a Tonka truck.  She was clearly amused and very surprised. He eagerly agreed when she asked him if he would be willing to park “her” new truck with his other trucks and play with it now and then.


“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” presumes that others prefer, or even enjoy the same things you do. We know that’s often not quite right, however.  Giving me tickets to the football game or the opera you love might seem like just the right thing.  I’ll be game to go with you, but there are many things I’d rather do more. Giving my friend the piece of chocolate that will send him into anaphylactic shock? I’ll choose another treat to share. Promoting someone from sales because you want to honor their great work in finance?  How about asking them to join you in exploring the best way to honor their skills, interests and needs?  Do unto them as they would like to have done unto them.


On being right and the Hardy Boys

Hardy_boys_cover_19I learned about being wrong from the Hardy Boys, those famed teen-aged sleuths who starred in a series of sixty-eight books I started reading when I was in third grade. Actually, it was the Hardy boys’ girlfriends who were central to the experience. These characters–burned into my third grade brain indelibly–became as alive for me as my own family. Long after we had moved on to Nancy Drew, my best friend and I got into an argument about the names of Frank and Joe’s respective girlfriends. “Frank’s girlfriend,” I said adamantly, “is Iola. And Joe’s girlfriend is Callie.”

“No,” my reading buddy shook her head, “you have it backward. Frank’s girlfriend is Callie and Joe belongs with Iola.”

We wrangled. Since there were no smartphones in our lives and no computer in the living room, we resolved to go back to the library the next day. I felt smug. I knew I was right about this important detail. I was a prodigious reader and already known for being “smart,” so no way was I wrong about this critical fragment of Frank and Joe trivia!

There it was in writing. I was wrong. I felt a sinking, hot horror when I realized that my friend was right.  Frank’s girlfriend–there it was in black and white!–was clearly Callie Shaw. And a quick scramble through the pages gave further confirmation: Joe’s was Iola Morton. It was dizzying, this business of being wrong!

Reading the Hardy Boys series probably infused my future self with the urge that I have–yes, even now–to be a completist and a chronologist.*  But that moment of utter shock when I realized I was dead wrong about something where I was absolutely convinced of the opposite….well, that too has impacted my life.  I’m cautious about adamance. I’m wary of being absolutely right (and wary of others who are persuaded they are). There is always some possibility that I’ve gotten it wrong and there is either new information lurking like a hidden floorboard or some reason I’ve fixed on the wrong answer. Sometimes I take a little sleuth stance in my head and ask hard questions about the ideas I hold dear.  Is this true? Can you be absolutely sure that it is? Is it possible you’re missing some important information?

I’m not suggesting you mire yourself in indecision or ambivalence, especially since decisive action is prized for good reason, but I do suggest a healthy dose of self-doubt.  Especially when it comes to your prized convictions about something.


*I love reading a series, but I much prefer reading them all in perfect order and will wait for the final book in a trilogy to be published before I read the first one, just to make sure that I have the whole list appropriately stockpiled.

On getting through the winter

2014 January Ice on the Hudson 3Sometimes our hearts get broken in the long-short span of our lives. Sometimes we get busted up on the rocks of love and disappointment. Sometimes our knees get skinned and bashed around, along with our hopes. Sometimes winter seems long and cold, too sour and slushy to bear. And then we–astonishingly–begin to recover.  The gray slush and frozen chunks of the river begin to move again.

If you haven’t read Dan Albergotti’s beautiful prose poem, Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale, do that. And know that spring is coming, eventually. In the meantime, “listen for the sound of your heart.”

Photo of ice on the Hudson River by Robert di Vincenzo

On holiday letters and time travel

Sorting through the mail from the last month, there are lots of lovely cards with letters inserted–little one-page narratives recounting family adventures from the past year–and while I used to make fun of the annual holiday letter, I have really become a fan over recent years. These letters are like little time capsules. Capturing a thoughtful look back over the last year, they often are from proud parents, recounting activities, accomplishments and adventures of the children.

These letters make me think about how positioned we are in time and how tiny our little lives are in the vast arc of history.  Temporality makes us human.  Jerry Bruner talks about how we live through stories situated in the context (“once upon a time”) of order and chronology.  Looking back can be both comforting and unnerving; memories can steel our resolve to do better with whatever future resources we have available; recollecting the past allows us to grieve for what is lost; and a private retrospective opens up a space for regret, remorse and celebration (and sometimes all three at once).

I think it’s why we love books and movies about time travel. It’s the delicious speculation about what might have happened should we have not “just missed” that flight, or had we chosen to move to Des Moines instead of Dayton, or if we had turned that fling with the Brazilian guy into a full-fledged relationship.  When I looked into graduate schools over twenty years ago, I applied to and was accepted into Berkeley and NYU.  Berkeley was ever-so-much more convenient because it was closer to Salt Lake City where I lived at the time.  The Bay Area climate is temperate.  I was born in San Diego and I have a fundamentally western sensibility.  Tuition was more sensible there (barely).  A built-in community of friends awaited me on the west coast.  But I took a face-first flyer into New York City and my life has been forever altered.

The butterfly effect, an expression named for a speculation about the weather–the flutter of a butterfly’s wing potentially leads to a storm in another part of the world–has come to describe the enormous impact any tiny shift one action can have on the future.  It often freights my consciousness about daily behavior.  I’m still muddling around the edges of the impact we have on other people, apparently.  Read about Fig’s new alarm clock on Kickstarter, which greets you with several key bits of information, including how many days you have left to live, based on your lifestyle and actuarial charts.  Stark confrontation of the reality of your own limited time on the planet is meant to motivate you to a more meaningful use of what you have.  While I’m not sure I could bear to confront this much reality upon rising every morning, it’s a worthy notion to play with.  Mary Oliver, my beloved favorite poet, asks it differently in The Summer Day, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

So.  Welcome to 2014.  What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious year?  And on a more frivolous and infinitely more manageable note, what is your favorite time travel book or movie?

On how we impact others

I recently got absorbed by Doc Martin, a British television comedy drama about a socially awkward doctor in a small town.  While there is a lot to recommend the show (including homely and interesting characters), this is not an official endorsement (as I also often found it frustrating and silly).  In particular, one exchange really lingered with me.  Someone instructs Dr. Ellingham, at a point when he is about to get married, “Don’t ask if she will make you happy; instead ask if you will make her happy.”  Shades of that famous line from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address about asking not what your country can do for you, rather what you can do for your country, this suggests that it’s worth thinking about our impact on others as a genuine measure of success.  I often think about this issue on the way home because whether or not I get carsick during the commute depends on the bus driver.  My favorite bus driver is smooth in his stops and gradual in his starts.  He acts like he is delivering a carton of fragile eggs to a world class chef.  I swear it doesn’t take him any longer to make the trip than it does my least-favorite bus driver, who acts like she is the only one in the vehicle and the rest of us are just trailing along behind her like cans on string behind a car with a “just-married” sign on it.  She jams on the brakes, pulls up to stops abruptly and launches out into traffic, all but shouting, “Cowabunga!”  The only thing that keeps me from throwing up down her collar is imagining some vile thing happening to her, like she has to ride at the back of her own bus some time.

What do we use as a measure for our lives’ success, if not how we impact other people?

Harville Hendricks is an influential marriage therapist who says “you must come to grips with the fact you are a person who affects others,” a thought that can be unnerving and discomfiting.  Sometimes I just hate that level of responsibility! But when I embrace and claim it, it shifts what I notice. There is an opportunity to be a positive force with every single person I encounter.  I can change their lives for good, even in a very small way.  It can be a cheerful greeting to the bus driver on the way to work (even the evil one), an attentive exchange with a colleague, or remembering someone’s birthday in advance enough to actually send a card.  None of this is difficult and the upside is worth the small effort, so toss this idea into the mix of your 2014 resolutions.

On the language(s) of love and work

Last week while facilitating a workshop, I said something surprising (even to me!): “I don’t really believe in work-life balance, I think it’s all life.” Several people commented about this afterward, not in the spirit of criticism, but in contemplation. They were pondering how that could be true for them, as well.

Normally I write about work issues here and it’s rare for me to write about love, but, given that I said “it’s all life,” I’m playing more with the notion that at least some of what applies in one area will apply to another. When it comes to love, I become a steely-eyed scientist, looking only for evidence and listening to the words as happy flourishes, not as true indicators. I’m the same way at work, giving not-nearly-as-much value to the affirmations and positive strokes of my colleagues as I do their expertise, commitment to meeting deadlines, problem-solving, and collaboratively working through a challenge. I am a woman for whom words are critically important. Most of my days are spent with them: reading, writing, talking, listening. But much as I appreciate words, I value the people in my life for what they do and how they do it, not what they say.

What I value may not be what they value, however. Tapping into this as though he was reading my mind, marriage therapist Gary Chapman posits that there are five languages of love (you might enjoy taking the fun on-line assessment of your own “love language”). His five categories of how we best receive and express love are:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch

Another way to assess your particular favorite is to note what you yourself do to express love, what you complain most about when you don’t get it, and what you ask for most in your relationships.  Given how I described myself earlier, it won’t surprise you to know that my two high scores, Quality Time and Acts of Service, suggest that I like people who show not just say. I’m a hugger and Physical Touch was right up there, too. The truth is that, by process of elimination, I could rank the five languages pretty well without the assessment too and I suspect you can, as well, but it’s fun to take and read about.

This concept is important both at work and at home–“it’s all life” after all–because not everyone values the same things, not everyone expresses and receives love and validation the same way. While I love gifts as memorable expressions of regard, for instance, they rank the lowest on my list.  Someone who jumps in to help me with fixing a broken door jam or takes over the formatting of a final proposal? Those are the people I really appreciate. If I work around someone who ranks Words of Affirmation as very important to them and I forget to praise them openly or tell them how much I value them, some crucial opportunity is missed. If I fail to bring little gifts to the people who rank Receiving Gifts first, our relationship might suffer. Attending to these concerns helps me ask more clearly for what I want and to make sure I’m looking for ways to support others in my life.

On your own Drake’s Passage

The only way to get to Antarctica from the southernmost tip of South America at Cape Horn is to cross Drake’s Passage. Although it is the shortest crossing from the rest of the world to Antarctica, it took us forty-five hours when I made the excursion a few years ago. Drake’s Passage is notorious for rough seas and unpredictable weather because it is a confluence of three big oceans, the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Antarctic. Seas can surprise you with their calm, but this passage is famous for flinging ships and passengers around capriciously and violently. For those of you who get sea-sick, I imagine that renders you immediately sympathetic!

Even for those of us who stay land-bound, that wild and chaotic confluence is not so unfamiliar if you think metaphorically. A few years ago I worked with a client who managed several million square feet of commercial/retail real estate. His Drake’s Passage was expressed as the pressure he felt to keep “all the audiences” happy. The owners wanted to keep costs down, the tenants wanted A+ (and expensive) services, and the contractors often had to be persuaded just to get the job done on time. Similarly, academic development officers straddle the needs of students, faculty and alumni fundraising pressures. What’re your competing commitments? Sometimes the specific push of pressures doesn’t seem obvious on the surface, but we all have them. Even the now-famous “work-life balance” conversation is all about these kinds of competing commitments. “How do I make it to my daughter’s soccer game and still meet the deadline my boss just handed me?” Try mixing in that yoga class you’ve been wanting to take. Or finding time to read the best-selling novel everyone is talking about. Hanging out with your friends to watch the game? Some of the people I work with say they just want to get a good night’s sleep!

The first step to navigating your own Drake’s Passage is to fully see and understand the competing pressures. Draw a circle on a page with you at the center and surround “you” with other little circles to represent all the the other needs you want/need to meet. The more important they are to you, the closer you move their little circle. Very often we put someone else in the middle and take only their point of view; it’s too easy to lose track of your own. It’s not hard to spot your own Drake’s Passage where the confluence of big competing oceans of pressures converge on little ol’ you in the middle of it all. Don’t capsize! Just naming and acknowledging the presence of the big oceanic pressures can help you stay the course, even if progress is slow, turbulent, and sometimes sideways.

On mixed feelings

One of my favorite things a friend, colleague and coach, Ann Fry, told me recently was that I can love my work and still feel tired. Her precise words were, “There are a lot of things you love about your job.  But it still makes you tired.” I realized that I often am exhausted and make myself (and the job) wrong for that.  The truth is, I’m just tired.  I am incredibly productive and it’s reasonable to be tired at the end of the day and especially at the end of the week!

This maps onto pretty much everything you’re committed to:  you can love your kids and still be incensed by their behavior or you can adore your partner and still wanna strangle him occasionally.  This thought isn’t new, but it’s helped me in a fresh way to examine the times when I feel really exhausted or angry.  One great emotional intelligence strategy is to “never trust a bad mood” because a bad mood, much like a good mood, passes like the weather.  Be genuinely aware of the specific source of whatever feelings you’re experiencing; it can be liberating. “I’m tired because I’ve been going non-stop since 7 AM” feels a lot better to me than “I’m tired and I can’t keep doing this job,” for instance.  It allows me to make different choices, like maybe go home a little earlier or take up a more energizing task.

I wish I could credit the author of this note, which I found in a collection of favorite images, so if someone knows the source, I’d be grateful for the information.  It magically and warmly captures my thinking on these issues.



On doing something just because you’re good at it.

When I was high school I had a friend who asked me to fill in for her at work one night when she was sick.  She sold Tupperware at home-hosted parties.   She was a fully-fledged grown up and I was sixteen so the whole idea that I could step into her role scared me breathless.  I demurred, she insisted and instructed, and I sold Tupperware that night like it was my job.  For one night, it was. It was fun–hilarious, actually–to take the lead with a living room full of women talking about kitchen storage.  We played games, we laughed, we talked.  And I sold a record-breaking amount of Tupperware.

At sixteen years old, I had my first adventure in resisting these words, “You should do this!  You’re really good at it!”  Looking back, I’m quite sure I could’ve kept breaking records for Tupperware.  I’m pretty sure that it would have been fun and had I followed that path, who knows where it would have taken me?  However, I was vaguely filled with a sense that I wanted to make money and spend my time differently.  The “vaguely” part was the problem; I couldn’t come up with really good answers for why I didn’t want to sell Tupperware.*  That the feeling is vague doesn’t make it less trivial, it just may not be strong enough to resist the enthusiasm of some “other” who has such great ideas about what direction you should take.  Over the years, many people have told me how either a skill or a relationship (with a romantic partner or parent) sent them down a path that they had very little heart to follow.

 “Once I figured out how to fix my dad’s computer, I had a reputation in the family as a wizard with electronics.  Throughout high school, I heard nothing but how my future was in computer science.  I don’t mind computers, but I think of them like, I don’t know…spatulas or something!  They’re just tools.  I don’t want to live my life working with computers!  I want to be on stage, I want to act!”

“I’ve been playing the piano since I was a little kid and there is no doubt that I can make a living at it.  People are always impressed with my skill and want me to play for them.  But when I get hired as an accompanist and I play all day, you know how I feel?  Bored. Like I’m typing someone else’s novel!”

“You know why I’m a lawyer?  Because of the Vietnam War.  I didn’t know what else to do other than stay in graduate school and I didn’t know what else to study, so I went to law school.  I never really wanted to be a lawyer, but I’ve made a good life for myself and my family.  I’ve just always wondered what else there might have been for me.  I have a sneaking feeling I could’ve been good in lots of other fields, but I wonder if it’s too late now.”

“I moved to Bozeman to be with this woman.  She was a professor, so that’s the work I saw every day.  I guess that’s how I became an academic.  We broke up and I just kept going down that path and here I am.  Oddly, I’m still in her field.  Maybe I’m actually in her debt, but I don’t know what I would’ve done otherwise.  Some part of me always wonders.”

There is no prescribed course of action in this post, just a question about your default status.  Just because “you’re really good at…” something might not mean you want to spend your life at it.  Just because the default setting overrode the vague sense of other possibilities, doesn’t mean the setting can’t be adjusted.  And if you’ve gone down a path that you’ve grown to love, that’s great, too!  Whatever skills I have that drove that odd success all those years ago when I sold Tupperware for one night are still flourishing in me, I just deploy them in other areas where I’m more connected to a sense of personal mission.

*I should make clear that I mean no disparagement of Tupperware products.  I sentimentally cherish a much-worn orange mixing bowl that I acquired the night of that infamous party and recently went to great lengths to replace the lid to it.

On talking to yourself

My southern California-bred mother used to be very calm during earthquakes. The house would rock and the dishes would rattle and she taught me–I was about five years old–to say, “Okay, earthquake, stop now. Just stop moving,” and as ridiculous as it sounds, it gave me the happy illusion that I had control over the uncontrollable. Since the earthquake did eventually stop, it was a reasonable supposition. Research has found that little kids do better when they talk to themselves in many circumstances, and that rather than squashing this external self-talk or considering it weird, it should be encouraged.

Recently I resorted to self-talk again. I am famous in my family for not being a “thrower-upper” and can say with confidence that the last time I lost my cookies was in 2008 when I went deep-sea fishing with my friends off the coast of Florida. But last week I fell prey to a flu bug and my entire being was swept up into a fierce vortex of being sick. All night. I was helpless against the force of my body’s shenanigans.  Pema Chödrön talks about cultivating unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises, but I wasn’t feeling very friendly toward what was arising.

Feeling completely out of control and miserable, I started talking myself through the long night of lonely misery. “Oh, honey, you’re doing so well…this will pass.” And “Don’t you feel better now? I think you’ll be on the other side of this soon.” And “Nope, looks like we’re going another round! How about a nice icy cold washcloth?” And “Really, you’re doing so well. You’re doing just what you’re supposed to right now.” And “How about a little nap now? Just rest here on the cold tile floor with your robe over you.” And, eventually, when it appeared I was getting dehydrated, “Y’know, I think you need a cup of tea. C’mon, just move slowly and you can do it!”

By morning I was exhausted and shaky, but the storm had passed. I was left with a new date for my record-keeping, throwing 2008 out with the night’s exertions (a five year streak of good tummy health!) and a renewed appreciation for the value of talking to myself. Sometimes the best person to comfort and guide you is …well, you. Hearing comforting words out loud was reassuring to me in some childlike way, even if they were my own words. There was some part of me observing the whole operation with common sense, humor and kindness.

Try it the next time you’re in misery of some kind. Or even when you have a project that demands your attention and you–like a little kid–want to wander off and do something else. On returning to the office this week, there were many competing commitments and a few important deadlines to cope with. I fought my terrible distraction by closing the door (no use promoting the idea that I’m crazy!) and talking myself through the next steps. I can’t guarantee it, but I suspect the power of hearing your own compassionate words focusing and guiding you might be a surprising source of calm empowerment. Give it a shot!