Archive for February, 2011

Pausing to Reconsider

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Last night as I put the finishing touches on my Friday post, GAP and I got to talking about it.  As I told him of my topic and my perspective on it he furrowed his brow.  He didn’t like where I was going.  I’ve written many posts that GAP disagrees with, and I’m fine with that.  I don’t write with or for his approval.  But while I don’t care if our opinions on a topic differ, I care greatly what he thinks of my writing.

Last night, while he did disagree with my perspective, his larger objection was with my approach.  He felt that I was parroting a refrain that has been exhausted in the national media, without taking the time to consider it critically or to look at the other side.  He was right.  His criticism stung then (it still does) but I have a greater appreciation for it this morning.

So I come to you today with half a post, but not half a point.  We should all exercise careful judgment when choosing the people whom we allow to assert their influence over our beliefs and actions.  But once we’ve made those choices we should hear what our counterparts have to say, even when we don’t like it.  My conversation last night was certainly one of those times.

My original post will be published at some point, once I’ve researched it further, based it in fact rather than anecdote, and broadened my perspective to represent other views.  In the meantime I am thankful that GAP (a bit like Mrs. Elliott) reminded me that I am capable of more.  It seems that these are lessons we must learn more than once in our lives.

Challenges and Changes

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Do we need change even when we don’t want it?  If we avoid change now do we pay for it later?  How big does the potential payoff have to be before we will abandon a known quantity for the promise of something better?

I got to thinking about change and its repercussions yesterday in response to Aidan’s post.  Aidan wrote about being stuck; about how we all reach moments in our lives when we feel as though we are spinning our wheels to no avail; about the scarcity of change in the moments we seem to need it most.  Her post wasn’t about change exclusively, but that was the direction I went with the comment I left on her site.  By the time I finished typing my lengthy response I realized that perhaps this topic was worth exploring further on my own turf.

I wrote:

As children, teens, and young adults life provides us with near constant changes and opportunities for growth and evolution. We learn to walk and talk. We learn to ride a bike and play sports. We learn to write in cursive and to multiply. We learn to drive and to think critically. We vote. We go to college. We graduate. We get jobs. We get married. We have kids.

Then, for many of us, we get to our mid-thirties and realize that nothing big has changed in a while. Career is plugging along. Kids are plugging along. We look around and things are much the same as they were five years ago. And we think, “I’m stuck.”

The fact of the matter (I think, anyway) is not that we are stuck, but that we have arrived in a place where life is not doling out big changes all the time. It is now incumbant upon us to make those changes for ourselves. On one hand, this can be very empowering because we are in more control of the changes we experience. On the other hand, it is very easy to stick with the safety of what we know, continue to spin our wheels, and then deal with the frustration of a life that, in rare moments of real truth, perhaps doesn’t live up to its potential.

All change is stressful.  Obviously, bad change is stressful.  But good change is too.  I’m not quoting specific studies, but any good psychologist will tell you this is true.  Given this, I wonder if we are all hardwired with some base level of disinclination toward change.  This doesn’t necessarily ring true to me – that we are all change averse – because I’ve known people who always seem to be looking for change.  But I’ve never met a teenager or a 20-something with these same complaints; that life has stagnated, or that they feel stuck.  It strikes me as a problem unique to adults.

When we are young change is foisted upon us all the time.  And, for the most part, we embrace it.  The responsibility of a drivers license is welcomed because of the freedom it brings.  We may experience nerves and jitters before moving into our freshman dorm, but I think for most of us those nerves are outweighed by the excitement of a new place, new people, and new experiences.  The same holds true for marriage and the happy eagerness we feel awaiting the arrival of a first child.

So why, once life’s big changes have come and gone, do we settle into adulthood without stirring the proverbial pot every so often?  Aidan’s post indicates to me that this wheels-spinning frustration is something that many adults experience.  Why don’t we just make changes then?  If we are able to embrace change when it is barreling toward us regardless of how we might dodge or cower, why can’t we do the same when it is our choice?

I think the easy answer is that by the time we are older, settled into careers, with spouses and children depending on us, the aftershocks of our decisions reach much further.  We have to consider how big changes will affect our families.  But I also think it is easy to lean too heavily on that rationale, transforming it from a consideration into an excuse.

I wrestle with this conundrum too.  I get itchy and twitchy and feel a need to shake things up.  It’s hard.  Sometimes I chicken out.  But in none of the instances when I’ve been brave and made a change that was hard or intimidating, have I ever regretted it.  I need to bear this in mind the next time I want to let change pass me by.

On Third Chances

Monday, February 7th, 2011

There was much about my transition from public to private school at the start of eighth grade that challenged me.  Most of it was social and cultural in nature.  I joined the ranks of an eighth grade class with remarkably few girls, which cast a bright spotlight on my arrival.  I knew only  a few people and had to make new friends at an impossibly awkward age.  And perhaps most difficult, I saw dollar signs everywhere I went.  It is no secret that the demographics of the prep school set differ vastly from those of your local junior high, which took some getting used to.

Thankfully for me, though, the academics came easily.  With two exceptions I was free from worry about the academic rigors of my new environment and able to throw myself fully into the social adjustments.  One of those exceptions was algebraic story problems, which I eventually mastered.  The other, interestingly enough, was writing.

Mrs. Elliott knew me pretty well at the start of eighth grade.  The previous spring she tutored me in Latin to help prepare me for the two years of it I’d missed in the sixth and seventh grades.  She knew I was smart.  She knew I was hardworking.  She knew what I was capable of.

Sometime in the first semester of that year her curriculum called for us to write an essay.  More than a book report and less than a senior thesis, we were assigned our first “paper.”  She expected us to use a thesis statement, and the A-B-B paragraph structure she’d taught us.  Our topic: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.  I wrote and submitted my paper without much concern.  English was one of my strengths and I had no performance anxiety.  So naturally I was filled with shock and dread when Mrs. Elliott returned our papers to us and mine bled red marks throughout and offered a comment at the end which read something along the lines of, “Gale, this is not an acceptable submission for this assignment.  Please see me to discuss your rewrite.”  She didn’t even offer a grade.

Quelle horreur! A punch in the gut, to be sure.

After class I walked, heavy with embarrassment, up to Mrs. Elliott’s desk.  She was firm, but also gentle.  We arranged a time to talk further, at which point she explained to me that my paper was so far off the mark she realized that I didn’t fully understand the assignment.  We discussed paragraph structure and topic sentences at length.  Then she dismissed me to lick my wounds and rewrite my paper.

She received my second submission with slightly more enthusiasm.  It, too, bled red, but less so than my first attempt.  I scanned through her edits and markups, scared to turn to the final page and read my letter grade.  Little did I know that the words awaiting me on that page would, on some level, change me forever.  The grade was a C+.  The comment that followed it was, “Want to try again?”

I didn’t realize at the time the magnitude of her comment.  I was burdened by my initial failure, and hardly buoyed by my C+ consolation prize.  An A student my entire life, I now walked through unfamiliar and unpleasant territory.  I knew that I would write a third paper because I had no intention of leaving well enough alone with a C.  What I didn’t know was that I would remember her words for the next 19 years, and that they would bolster me against all manner of failure in many arenas of my life.

Perhaps it will sound trite, and Mrs. Elliott would never be trite, but in offering me a third chance what she really said was, “Gale, I believe in you.  I believe you are capable of more.  I want to see what else you can do.”

Things could have turned out differently.  It would have been easy for her to fail my first paper and let me learn my lesson the hard way.  It would have been easy for her to take my C+ effort as evidence that I was getting back on track and be done with our little coaching exercise.  Had either of those things happened I think it might have shaken my confidence as “an English student” irreparably.  I might not have matriculated into sophomore English as a freshman.  I might not have journaled every day for the next eight years of my life.  And I might not be here today, blogging three times each week about my thoughts, and self-identifying (finally) for the first time in my life as a writer.

Although I haven’t thought consciously about it in those moments, I believe that Mrs. Elliott’s confidence has guided me through many hardships in my life.  The lesson I learned from her (in addition to the proper construction of a topic sentence) was that I don’t have to accept my first attempt.  If I try and fail that isn’t necessarily the end of it.  I can try again for better results.  And I can try again after that if I’m still not satisfied.  If I’m capable of more, I can work for more.

Since I started this blog a handful of people have complimented my writing and advised that I should consider writing a book.  A few book ideas sit neatly in a corner of my brain, waiting for the right time to be written.  When that time comes, if my words are to be published, I will owe a great debt to Mrs. Elliott.  Actually, I already do.

Photo of the Week #1

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Boardroom Bravery

Friday, February 4th, 2011

I’ll be honest – I’ve loved almost every TED talk that I’ve watched.  The topics are varied and interesting and beautifully expressed.  They are fertile ground for a girl hunting ten dollar thoughts.  So it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken me two months to finally watch Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk from December.  It’s been recommended to me by friends and bloggers alike, and now that I’ve finally watched it I can see what all the fuss is about.

As the COO of Facebook – by way of the US Treasury Department and Google – Ms. Sandberg knows a thing or two about playing in the boys’ sandbox.  So her thoughts on the topic of female business leaders are well founded.  In her talk (which is well worth 15 minutes of your time and can be found here) she cites one after another statistic about how underrepresented women are within the ranks of business and political leadership.

Listening to her litany of stats made me sad.  Yet even as I listened I didn’t find myself jumping up to volunteer for the sacrifices I’d almost surely have to make to reach her professional heights.  In her talk Ms. Sandberg highlights three steps that she believes working women should take to guard against our scant numbers in the leadership positions in this country.  They are worthwhile recommendations.  They are pieces of advice that I intend to heed as I move forward in my own career.  But still I wonder if they are enough.

What I’ve observed in my professional life is that few women are willing to do what Sheryl Sandberg does.  Few women are willing to spend the time away from their children that a career like hers demands.  We watch the commitment made by men – the long hours, the extensive travel, the constant attachment to laptops and BlackBerrys – and we decide that juxtaposed against our role as mothers it’s not worth it.  But for many of us, we’re making an uninformed decision.  We assume that the sacrifice is too big.  We assume that careers of that magnitude come at the detriment of our children.  We are sure that our roles in middle management are all that we want.  (Or at least we convince ourselves of that.)

If I’m being truthful, I’ll admit that Sheryl Sandberg freaks me out a bit.  Her life and career challenge much of what I believe about my own career.  But what if I’m wrong?  What if a more challenging, demanding, and rewarding career would be good for me and my family?  What if the gut-wrenching sacrifices I envision really wouldn’t be all that bad?

I don’t have the answers.  And while Ms. Sandberg claims at the start of her TED talk that she doesn’t either, her body of work implies otherwise.  But listening to her speak about the absence of women in leadership roles caused me a not insignificant amount of self-doubt.  Am I chicken?  Am I playing it safe because society embraces that decision?  Am I being governed by fear?  These questions continue to swirl in my head.

I know I am smart.  I know I am energetic.  I know that I have goals and ideas and initiative.  What I don’t know, however, is how to synthesize these things into something significant; something about which I am passionate and of which I can be proud.  I will let these questions continue to swirl.  I will probably watch Ms. Sandberg’s talk a few more times.  And perhaps before too long I’ll summon the gumption to do something big.

PS – Many thanks to my genius sister-in-law and blog designer, JPG, for TDT’s new graphics.  There will be a few further enhancements rolling out in the next couple of weeks, but the bulk of our redesign work is here.  JPG, you are smart, collaborative, creative, supportive, flexible, inspiring, stylish, and fun.  Working with you is a joy and I’m so grateful to have your support with this blog.  Thank you!

Snow Days and Hotel Stays

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Once upon a time I was a traveling salesman (woman).  A sales rep for a medical software company, I peddled my wares across the upper Midwest for two years.  I flew out on Monday mornings, and back on Thursdays, usually with a quick stopover at home on Tuesday nights for MBA classes.  There is a lot about those two years that I don’t miss.  The life of a frequent flyer is filled with headaches.  Time away from home and husband were draining.  Add part time graduate school to a full time job with regular travel and in retrospect I often wonder how I did it.  (I didn’t have kids then, is the answer.)

There was one thing I did love about all that time away, though: forced relaxation.  When you are in a hotel in Bismarck, North Dakota your to-do list is rendered irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter if your floors need sweeping, if you need to go to the grocery store, or if a thousand other things are hanging over your head.  When you are alone in a hotel in Bismarck (or Omaha or Dubuque or Oshkosh) there is not much option but to sit back and relax.

Yesterday was a similar day for us here in the Midwest.  We got ice overnight on Monday and it sleeted throughout the day on Tuesday.  My office was closed.  GAP’s office was closed.  Nanny stayed home.  And while there was regular checking of e-mail and the odd follow-up phone call, the day was, for the most part, quiet.

I do my best not to lead a life that is forever harried by an unending list of commitments and obligations.  But no amount of effort can fully compensate for the fact that the life of a working mother is a busy one.  If I want to pursue my career, be involved in my son’s life, devote time to my husband, and still have time for friends and hobbies the sacrifice that I make is my quiet time.  I don’t regret the way I’ve ranked these priorities, but I still appreciate the moments when unforeseen logistics step in and upend my little equilibrium, giving me fallow periods that I don’t usually get to enjoy.  There is value to quiet time, and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’ve forgotten what it is that you’re missing.

When Anne and I were kids quiet time was a regular part of our day.  During the summers when we were too old to nap, but too young to go a full day without my mother needing a break we had “quiet time” every afternoon.  Mom went back to her room to read or write or nap.  And Anne and I were also assigned to our respective rooms.  There was no agenda.  We could read.  We could sleep.  We could play with toys.  The only rules were that we couldn’t play together, we couldn’t leave our rooms, and we couldn’t bother Mom for an hour.

As I remember it I wasn’t a huge fan of quiet time.  I was an active and energetic kid and I imagine I found it boring.  But as an adult I see it in a different light.  One obvious benefit was that it gave my mother respite from my sister’s and my antics.  But more importantly it was the beginning of learning how to be alone.  It was when I first learned the value of pace and patience.  It was when I learned to stimulate my own mind without the influence of other people.  In retrospect I realize that it was an incredible gift.

I mentioned the other day that I’m reading The Not So Big Life by Sarah Susanka.  I’m not through it yet, so I can’t say where it will take me.  But I sense that it’s leading me down a path that will empower me to identify these aspects of my life that I value, but yet have somehow sacrificed (like quiet time).  And I hope that it will also help me better understand how to recalibrate my life to make room for these things, and perhaps trim away aspects of my life that have been improperly prioritized.

Perhaps one day I will look at my life and find it perfectly balanced.  In the meantime, though, I will relish in the snow days and hotel stays that force me to downshift a couple of gears.