On giving account

In leadership development circles, the word accountability has so smoothly melted into the vernacular that we almost don’t notice it anymore. Let’s notice it for a minute. Accountability is a characteristic that is highly prized when we think of it as the capacity to tell the story of a situation with the story teller at the center. It’s not uncommon to hear,  “Once upon a time there was this horrible disaster and it was all someone else’s fault.” But it is so much more compelling to hear the words, “….and I was responsible for what happened.”

An account is a story. How we tell ours is crucial to the world around us. To understand that we have choices about how we present that story is critical. (I had a boss who famously said once, “I never like to let the facts get in the way of the truth when I tell a story.” There are many ways to think about that line, but we’ll take that up on another day.)  In a conversation with a client, I recently recounted this story here, told here with the permission of those very kids.

Long ago, I came home from work one afternoon to find that my little latch-key kids had left something important broken in the sink.  It was our “magic wand”–one of those cheap acrylic rods filled with glittery goo that slides fascinatingly from one end of the tube to the other–that we used for family meetings.  It was cracked in half and the green glitter had oozed into a puddle in the sink basin.  Stricken, I yelled at them, “What happened to the magic wand?”

There was a terrible silence. Then they both started talking at once, blaming each other, pointing, accusing. The hot defense escalated into quite a ruckus and I’d had a long day. I lifted each of them up and plopped each of them down hard on the piano bench, side by side, and said, in my most ferocious mom-voice, “You tell the story like you’re the only one in the world responsible for what happened.” Silence. Then, quite meekly, out came, “I chased him around and spit on him and teased him until he hit me over the head and it broke.” More silence. Then the other kid,  “I hit her over the head with it and it broke.”

I said, “If I am the only person responsible for what happened here, I must admit that the magic wand is important to me. But I left it out instead of putting it on top of the fridge where it lives. And you played with it until it broke.”

Something astonishing happened that day when we each told the story, putting ourselves at the center of responsibility. It was like a poisonous vapor blew out of our house. The broken magic wand was still magic, as long as we were fully accountable.

The story–useful and true*—reminds me of the power of accountability and I often tell clients who are caught up in the drama of their own situation to “tell that story again as if you are the only person in the world responsible for what happened.”



*as approved by the veracity committee of both my kids, who are now adults.

On underage hero(ine)s

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the top three characters in literature we each identified with and felt sheepish to report that mine were Holden Caulfeld from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Scout Finch from To Catch a Mockingbird, and more recently, from George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice Series, Arya Stark.  I was dismayed initially to realize my heroes were all kids.  It wasn’t until I recognized that they had each been given, more or less, the responsibility of figuring out situations that were a bit beyond them, that I understood my connection to them.

Although I share (at least a little) Holden’s wry mockery about sharing too much about a “lousy childhood and all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” as a coach, I take comfort in the idea that we should all have some characteristics of these underage heroes, regardless of the realities or hardships of our younger selves. If we’re growing, we’re questing. We’re trying to figure things out, we’re trying to assess a world that is bigger than we are, and we’re asking the hard questions. We’re taking a look at the norms of our overlapping roles and wondering if they make sense at all and how they make sense for us. We’re also aware that we’re tenaciously (in Arya’s case), curiously (in Scout’s) or even resistingly (in Holden’s) taking on the next steps of, in their respective cases, adult awareness and responsibilities. Maybe in our modern day world, it’s a promotion, or any role that we feel as-yet ill-equipped to handle, or maybe we’re simply casting a keen eye on a situation that could benefit from a little naive-but-shrewd probing.

Even as I write this, it occurs to me how much I love Frannie Nolan from Maggie Smith’s timeless A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Her observations about the world she is growing up in, her capacity to see beauty in her somewhat grubby surroundings, and her willingness to walk into her future wide-eyed move me tremendously. And Ender! Orson Scott Card’s little hero from Ender’s Game will grab you by the throat with his resolute capacity for leadership under duress.

I refuse to think that my identification with these kids is about nothing other than a desire to stay in a constant state of willing not-knowing, which is immensely more powerful than having it all figured out.

On driving beyond your headlights

Right around this time of year, I hear from scared first-year law students after their grades are posted. Shocked and horrified, they question whether law school is the right place for them. “I’ve never gottten a B- in my life!” they tell me. It spirals from “I’ll never get a clerkship, I’ll never write onto Law Review” to “I’ll never pay off my student debt” to “I’ll be living in the street begging for change….”  and usually by then, they start to laugh a little.

I don’t know the outcome of a single grade on a student’s future. Neither do they. Chances are very good that they will live to forget this.

The New York Times told us a few years ago that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan got a B- in her first year torts class. She went on, as we see evidenced by her life, to get other good grades, to experience other successes, and now, by all accounts, her life is pleasant, satisfying and productive. When I ask clients what they were worried about this time last year, they often get very quiet with the effort of recall. And frequently they can’t quite remember what was flummoxing them twelve months ago. They know themselves well enough to know there was a crisis du jour, but can’t pull the old worry out of mothballs. Try it. Frequently I have to resort to the calendar or journal to refresh my anxiety, which has now receded into the swamp of yesterday. Sometimes when I’m really lucky, those troubles even seem a little laughable under the scrutiny of today.

It can be incredibly anxiety-provoking to imagine ourselves too far into the future, especially in the middle of a tough experience or time of uncertainty. If you live in an urban world the metaphor of driving beyond your headlights won’t work for you, but if you’ve ever driven down a dark country road at night, you’ll know the term. You can’t see beyond the light cast in front of the car; driving too quickly into the dark is dangerous. Pulling over to the side is silly and unproductive, so what is left? Just drive on with care.

Today’s set-back can grow to be life-altering and catastrophic in my head, or even just worrisome. My best counsel to both you and me: Drive on! The surprise around the next bend is likely not as disastrous as we think.

On small talk: making it bigger

Upon meeting people, what face do you show them?  Do you tell the truth about yourself?  I find myself at events and dinner parties talking about the same old stuff.  Most people want to know what I do for a living.  Then I ask them what they do for a living.  What I really want to know about them is the stuff they don’t volunteer.  What’s your favorite part about how you spend your day?  What do you do for fun?  What have you learned about yourself in the last year?  What regrets do you have and how are you addressing them now? What scares you?

Those are tricky questions because the answers demand something from us, an authenticity usually masked by social convention.  Do we really want to share those things?  But think about  how much more interesting and memorable a conversation would be if people shared some genuine slice of themselves instead of the pro forma oatmeal we usually dish out.

What if you sat next to someone who engaged with you about this kind of stuff instead?

1. When I say that my kids have been and are my best teachers, I’m not kidding. Both Matt and Robyn have characteristics and attributes that I’ve been trying all my life to emulate.

2. I know that it’s not possible to be selfish and be happy at the same time. But I still try.

3. I love the fragrant tender crunch of a perfectly toasted grilled cheese sandwich.

4. When I was a teen-ager, I put iodine in baby oil, slathered it all over myself and baked in the sun wearing very little else. Even if I die tomorrow of completely unrelated causes, you should know it’s really the only thing I regret doing in my life.

5. I got married when I was 18 and divorced ten years later. I’m deeply grateful for my friendship with my ex-husband and for his influence on me.

6. Experience is what I got when I didn’t get what I wanted. Sometimes I just don’t want any more experience.

7. My mother died when I was 14 years old. My best friend died when I was 36 years old. I think when people tell you that you get over these things, they’re lying.

8. My favorite music is that really old corny wailin’ classic country stuff. And I’m mostly not embarrassed to admit it.

9. I get car sick. Once when I was seven, I tried to open the window of the car to throw up, but I sort of missed and it went down both the insides and the outsides of the window. I hate throwing up more than anything else I can think of right now.

10. The capacity to make me laugh is a more valuable trait in a man than being rich or good-looking.

11. Being demented scares me much more than being dead.

12. I’m impatient. I interrupt too much. And I’m working on it, okay?

13. After all the work I’ve done in therapy and in prayer and in my daily life, nothing really changed about any situation but the way I looked at it.

14. I travelled to all seven continents during the last decade and …well, I really like my apartment.

15. I’ve looked around some and figured out that you don’t have to be behind bars to die in prison.

I want everyone I come into contact with to genuinely feel like their lives have been changed for the better because of me, even in a small way. I know it’s a big mission and I probably shouldn’t take myself so seriously. But hey, why not give it a shot?

On saying good-bye

Tonight after dinner, my daughter Robyn and I headed to the subway, she to go to her place and I to mine. At the bottom of the stairs, my train was waiting and, when I hesitated for a minute, she cheerfully said, “Get on your train, Momma!” and so without much ado, I hopped on, blew her a kiss, and the doors closed. I stood at the window for a minute and watched her walk down the platform as my train pulled away and then it picked up speed until she was out of sight.

I was filled with bittersweet wonder at the moment, so much like life. And death. I should be so lucky that there will be that moment of mild surprise and then, quite cheerfully, she will remind me that it’s okay to go, we will blow each other a kiss and I will head for a new place, one that she won’t be headed to for awhile. Already there are intimations of my mortality in the soft flesh of my upper arm, the distance at which I hold the page to read it, the tiny moan in my joints when I rise from a long sitting spell. And soon, my train will pull up and I’ll think, “Oh, it’s really time to go? But wait, I think I have more to say!” But I’ll know with that swift sure knowing that it’s my train and I’ll hop on and head off.

I used to terrify myself with the thought that there is coming a day when one will be taken and other left. One hops on a train. The other stays behind for awhile. This is the way life is. Oddly comforting, I reckon. And not a bad reminder to enjoy what we have and remember to live by what we value.

On taking a compliment

I have a hard time posting “testimonials” about my work.  I’m pretty sure it’s a learned behavior from a family of undersung Quaker-ish sorts.  Self-promotion is suspect; bragging makes me queasy.  It’s probably the most generous move, in the face of a compliment (even one as simple as, “You look good in that shirt!”) to simply accept and be grateful.

Marianne Williamson said, in her famous prose-poem, “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” I run into this sometimes when people write to thank me after our work together. Someone I worked with in higher education wrote this to me.  I post it with trepidation about being regarded as a show-off (the worst sin!), so much so that it’s hard for me to absorb.

You have a curious spirit and an expansive mind, combined with an incredibly intuitive understanding of people and a practical, problem-solving bent.  This ability to move between vision and practice, and your comfort in being in “spaces” intellectually and emotionally that are unfamiliar makes you an extremely effective thought partner for motivated (if temporarily frustrated!) professionals who find themselves at crossroads in the development of their careers.  You rapidly absorb a wealth of information and swiftly cut to the core of an issue.  You can fearlessly challenge an assumption or wrongheaded perception without threatening a person’s sense that you respect them, and one leaves the interaction never feeling judged, even while having their thinking perhaps radically tested.  And your totally fun-loving and adventurous nature leads you to offer unconventional and sometimes surprisingly simple solutions to situations that seem initially mired in discouragement and impossibility.

I recognize that this scares me because it forces me to recognize my own power. What scares you?