Add a Pinch of Imperfection

There’s a fine line between passion and obsession, and I’m on the borderline when it comes to quilts. I am crazy about quilts… the colors, the texture, the names of the blocks, the loving care put into each stitch. I learned to quilt at the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson–my husband was a curator there many years ago and he gave me the gift of quilting classes as a Valentine’s Day present. In the process of learning to quilt, collecting quilts and becoming a “Quilt-Whisperer” (that’s someone who rescues old quilts from swap meets and flea markets for ridiculously low sums of money), I’ve learned one thing: The value is in the imperfection.

I’ve heard it said that some quilters, like Native American weavers, purposely include flaws in their designs. The deliberate placement of a “mistake” is said to be an homage to God, acknowledging that only God can create something that is perfect. This tradition seems like a useful reminder to anyone in who is working on a business or a career–it’s the flaws along the way that remind us we are human, and the mistakes that help us learn. Flaws keep us humble.

In Brené Brown‘s book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, the author makes the connection between loving ourselves and living our authentic lives by letting go of the need to be perfect.  “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life,” she writes. “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

Our fears around being imperfect can stop us in our tracks. We quit before we begin, fearing that our work, our product (our quilt, our rug) won’t be enough. Fearing that we won’t be enough. That’s one of the reasons I love Anne Lamott‘s discipline of creating what she calls “Shitty First Drafts.” In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott offers the idea that every first draft is imperfect–it’s supposed to be that way. Knowing that, and giving ourselves the grace to create something that falls short of our standards on the first pass, gives us the freedom to create. No grace, no action. No actions, no quilts. Or books. Or sculptures. Or amazing businesses, products, services, careers… need I go on? The key is to stay engaged with the creation, in spite of or maybe because of its flaws.

So at least for today, give yourself the gift of grace. Add a pinch of imperfection to your work, bowing to the Great Spirit who created us all. Just get going.

Network as if You’re a Talk Show Host

This past June I became the host of a new talk show, “Talk About Choices,” where I have the privilege of interviewing people who “love what they do and do what they love.” My purpose for the show is to provide powerful models for others to see, giving people permission to love their work.

What if we approached networking as if we were talk show hosts? Granted, networking is best when it’s give and take, a volleying back and forth between one person and another during a (live-and-hopefully-in-person) conversation. But when you’re out to build your network, your “Circles of Gold®,” the best way to build those relationships is to listen, really listen, to what someone else has to say. I recommend that you think of a networking meeting as if it’s a pie chart: 25% of the time is yours, the other 75% of the time is for your “guest.” That means that 75% of the time, you’re the host.

Here are some other things I’ve learned as a talk show host that might help you with your next “Circles of Gold” conversation:

  • Be prepared. Review the person’s biography and how you met them–was it a Chamber connection, an introduction via social media, an alumni buddy? If you have notes on them in your database, review those notes. You may see something that will not only add zing to your conversation but will let your “guest” know that you heard, and remembered, what they said. This can be both surprising and flattering to them, and it isn’t “cheating,” by the way–just good use of technology. Be sure to do a Google search and if they’ve written something, or they were profiled in a professional journal, have that reference available. Study their LinkedIn profile and scroll all the way to the bottom. That’s where people list their hobbies & volunteer activities, the groups or leaders they follow and the associations to which they may belong. This information is pure gold when building relationships, giving you insights into what’s important to them.
  • Have a great list of questions. Following the format of a podcast I love listening to, “The 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop,” I ask all my guests the same questions, including: “What was your first job? How did you get into the field you’re now in? What was a challenge or disappointment you overcame? What do you most love about your job?” These questions get wildly different responses because each person brings his or her unique history and experience to the interview. I’ve learned many things about my guests that I never would have learned had I not a) asked the question and b) kept my mouth shut long enough to hear the answer.
  • We can never be too appreciative. Whenever someone gives you the privilege of sharing with you in a conversation, whether they’re a guest on a talk show or sitting across from you at Starbuck’s, they are parting with something they will never get back: their precious time. I am humbled that the people I’ve invited to be on my show have agreed to take time out of their busy days to share about their career journeys with me and my viewers. I will never forget their kindness and consider that a debt of gratitude that will never be repaid.

Oprah would agree with me that the real job of a talk show host is not to talk, but rather to listen. While listening to my guests, each with fascinating stories about their own career trajectories, I am learning to discipline myself to calm that chatterbox inside my head, the one that wants interrupt and chime in, “Oh, yeah! I’ve had that experience too…”  Being a talk show host is teaching me a whole new level of connecting with others.

Next time you have the pleasure of meeting someone for coffee, lunch or a quick drink after work, put yourself into the role of a talk show host. Do your research. Write down a list of questions. Begin and end by expressing your appreciation for their time, that non-renewable resource, and see if you don’t come away with new perspectives on networking, your “guest” and yourself.

 

[“Talk About Choices” is produced by Wheaton Cable TV (WCTV) and can be viewed on the city’s website as well as via Vimeo. My guests so far have included Kerry O’Brien,  executive director of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, Bob Carey, chief market strategist for First Trust Portfolios, Jerry Evans, founder of Jerry Evans School of Music, and the Honorable Bonnie Wheaton, judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit Court of DuPage County. Upcoming shows will feature Betsy Adamowski, executive director of the Wheaton Public Library, Tammy Pressley, director of government and community affairs from Northwestern Medicine and Pam Sharar-Stoppel, president & CEO of Wheaton Bank & Trust. Many thanks to Arin Thrower, Wheaton’s new public information officer, Rich Sagen and the production team at the City of Wheaton, for their support and assistance.]

Photo by Jan Gonzo, courtesy of Unsplash

Staying Relevant

Technology has me in its clutches. My smartphone, my laptop, the incessant braying of these devices for updates and the cost of doing business by investing in technology have me in a tizz.

At this moment I’m awaiting a transition from laptop to tablet, a thin sheet of amazing processing power that stands to make my work life, and my travel bag, lighter. This leap into the future was precipitated by an increasingly tired and sluggish processor in my current, beloved laptop which I’ve hung onto as long as I possibly could. I’m what they call a “late adopter.”

Hog-tied and ham-strung by the wait time between opening a program and having it actually kick into gear, I faced the brutal truth: it was time for an upgrade. The cost of the hardware and software is nothing compared to the cost of having to adapt to a whole new way of relating to my machine. No digital native, I. The re-wiring of my neural networks takes some doing. So why bother?

Because I–like you, I suspect–want to remain relevant. I don’t need to be on the cutting edge but I can’t afford to lag behind, either. Many of the books I read for my monthly program, Biz Books Review, refer to neuroplasticity, the capability of our brains to change, and I know that staying abreast of technology helps with that process of keeping mentally fit. I also can’t afford to be perceived as a dinosaur or, worse, a Luddite. That would hurt my brand.

Back Woman Computer KeysThis Baby Boomer appreciates all that technology has to offer, from reading the news on my phone to using a new app called “Marco Polo” to record short videos to share with my family across the miles. The miracle of talking to our daughter while she was in Africa this summer in real time via FaceTime still blows my mind. I feel fortunate to live in an age where there are so many ways to connect.

I do, however, object to what I call “technology snobbery,” that race to see who has the most state-of-the-art gadgets and then flaunting them with implicit disdain for the have-nots. I’m grateful for the brilliant people who have the knowledge and gifts to envision, to create, to code. But let’s never forget who is servant and who is master here. Technology is a means to an ends: let’s be civil and generous as we use it to better ourselves and the world.

Photos: Sculpture by Peter Austin, Burning Bush Gallery

What I Learned as an Obit Writer

Back in the early 1980s I began my writing career as a journalist, and I use that word loosely. I had just graduated with a degree in English literature so didn’t have the “J-school” chops, but with luck landed a job at the Lawton Constitution & Morning Press as a “swamper.” No one ever defined the term “swamper” but I think we can discern what it implies. The job included taking information from area morticians by telephone to create the obituaries. I typed up the facts of the deceased’s life on a clackety old typewriter, using a big roll of yellow newsprint that stayed tucked behind the typewriter, tore the hard copy off from the typewriter platten and swirled around to the brand-new computer just installed in the newsroom, reformatting the facts into a life story.

This week I flashed back on this obit experience while watching a TED Talk by Lakshmanan “Lux” Narayan, a self-described perpetual learner and founder of Unmetric, a social media intelligence firm. Mr. Narayan begins every day, he says, with scrambled eggs and a through review of the obituaries in the New York Times. His TED Talk, entitled “What I Learned from 2,000 Obituaries,” is an analysis of what makes a life well-lived, gleaned from 2,000 obits run in the Times over 20 months. Using the mojo of analytics, Mr. Narayan breaks down the famous and unfamous, sharing that in addition to a natural advantage from having the name “John,” the people whose deaths are worthy of the New York Times are more often artists, thinkers, scholars and those who make a lasting contribution to the world through their work. The highlighted word that jumped out of both word clouds, famous and unfamous alike: “Help.” The noteworthy among us did something to help others.

This TED Talk and the recent funeral of my friend, mentor and former publisher Chuck Lauer, made me think about my own experience as an obit writer. In Lawton, Oklahoma, the obit page was rarely filled with Pulitzer Prize-winning economists or gone-too-soon rock stars. The people whose lives I recorded and dutifully wrote up in a defined, obit-style formula were often farmers, housewives and just plain folks. Sometimes the deceased were babies which had me weep while typing up their obits; other times the person’s achievements included producing prize-winning pickles for the county fair. At the tender age of 24, I was moved by the dramas, big and small.

What I learned as an obit writer is that all of us, at some point, will have our lives distilled to a few column inches or, if we’re lucky, a big story in the New York Times. Wherever your obit shows up you can be sure it will include the facts–birth, death, next of kin–as well as any highlights you’ve achieved along the way or, as one poet has alluded to, what happened “between the dash.” Whether we win an Academy Award or the blue ribbon at the county fair, the sum of our achievements most likely will be defined by how we helped others. Whatever our contributions, we can be sure it really had nothing to do with us, but rather, with whom we chose to make a difference. Who do you want to make a difference with today? How do you want to be remembered?

Yearning for Order

There’s something about the beginning of a new year that has us focus on order–organizing, purging, out with the old and in with the new. My dear friend and Yoga Diva Lesley gifted me last year with the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, a best-selling book that reached nearly cult status. While I was wary of some of her assertions, including her admonition not to roll our socks in a ball because they (the socks) need to rest and relax while in our sock drawers, I grudgingly concede to the charm of her message. We are all, it seems, drowning in stuff.

I’ve written of this before, the staggering dollars we invest in storing our stuff. According to an article in Forbes, “The Real Cost of Your Shopping Habits” by Emma Johnson, American spend $24 million each year to store their stuff in 2.3 billion square feet of storage units. Quoting from the Self Storage Association, Ms. Johnson writes that storage units comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. Then there’s the $1 billion we now spend in professional organizers and the products required to stay organized, a number reported by the National Association of Professional Organizers.  I have invested some of my own hard-earned money on professional organizers (thank you, Linette George of Get Organized By George) and consider it some of the best money I ever spent.

What is it we’re really looking for when we get the urge to purge? “Focus, organization and productivity” are the promises of the professional organizer. The ability to breathe when we sit down to dinner, not haunted by the piles of paperwork that’s been sitting at the edge of the dining room table for months. The blessing of what graphic designers call “white space,” the absence of clutter or knick-knacks that dominate our vision and our imaginations. The peace that come with a place for everything and everything in its place.

A Paris apartment ad prior to curating

A Paris apartment ad prior to curating

I should talk. My home is a mélange of the interests of both my husband and me, a veritable assault on the senses. I mutter about his attachment to collections of musical instruments, bottles shaped like musical instruments, even the music itself, piling up on the dining room sideboard. No matter what system we (read: I) create, he morphs another one that spins out of control. He’s an artist: society gives him a pass. What about me?

My collection of vintage roosters, circa 1950s, grew alarmingly and I had to issue an edict to family and friends: NO MORE ROOSTERS. I thought they’d draw a fortune on eBay–wrong. I gave some away to a local restaurant, Egg Harbor, and now when I visit them I’m wistful and think about reclaiming them, even go so far as to reach over a startled diner to rearrange them, explaining without apology “This was mine, once.” I still have dozens of roosters tucked away in tissue in colorful hat boxes upstairs, a painful reminder of the money I didn’t invest in my 401K. “Wanted: a good home for antique roosters. Must appreciate irony.”

This week I broke a teacup from my teacup collection, bequeathed to me by my Aunt Marian. I remember sitting at her dining room table (the very dining room table from which I’m writing) and eyeing her teacups with a covetous glance. Now there they are, lined up and waiting for the occasional tea party which happens every decade or so. I think of my Aunt Marian and wish I had another luncheon with her instead. She used to invite me to lunch at her assisted living facility and I couldn’t bear the sight or smell of old people, so I made up a lame excuse and dashed off before the meal hour. This is what they mean by regret.

Other collections: Indian art, anything with the theme of El Dia de los Muertos and Our Lady of Guadalupe, vintage pottery, books, books and more books, quilts and religious kitsch, especially anything that illuminates. Think Jesus nightlights. We aren’t hoarders, but the idea of slogging through all this stuff to lighten our loads first inspires, then exhausts. I’d rather read a book.

But this year, we are downsizing. There, I’ve said it. Not sure where, not sure how, but it’s a commitment, like a New Year’s Resolution that is now in print. We will “curate,” a trendy word for a function that my husband once did as a museum curator of exhibits. We will handle every thing with the tenderness recommended by Marie Kondo and evaluate whether it’s a keeper or it belongs in the recycling pile or, last resort, the trash. With the reminder that we are not our things, a compassionate heart for our children who should not be burdened with our stuff and a joyful eye toward the future of streamlined, purposeful living, we will lighten our load. Wherever we end up–a smaller home, an apartment, a townhome or condo, maybe even, as my husband likes to say, “a trailer down by the river”–we will create this new space, together, surrounded only by the things and the people we love.

Photo: Close-up of my 2015 hatbox collage