MacArthur “Genius Grants” Favor the Mobile

Well, it’s official. The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows who received the so-called “Genius Grants” and I was not among them.

Drat.

The cast of Fellows this year range from a social psychologist who studied racial bias and how it affects criminals’ sentencing to a poet, a playwright and a saxophonist. Also present among the winners are people dealing in cryptology, nanomaterials and black carbon emissions. A civil rights attorney, a labor organizer and a documentary filmmaker are among the winners, too. What, I ask myself somewhat querulously, do these 21 people have that I do not (besides, of course, the $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend they’ll be receiving over the course of the next five years)?

To answer this question, I turned to “Five myths about the MacArthur ‘genius grants‘”written by Cecilia Conrad and posted on the Washington Post‘s website on Sept. 20. I wanted to find out more about the people, the process and how I might ingratiate myself into someone’s favor enough to be nominated. Here’s what I learned:

  • You don’t really have to be a “genius” to win. Turns out that nickname was coined by the media in 1981 when the MacArthur Foundation announced its first class of fellows and like all good nicknames, it stuck. Rather than genius, “We are looking for individuals who are engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or in connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways,” writes Ms. Conrad. “We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.”
  • The process for selecting the Fellows isn’t really a secret. I had heard that you can’t curry a nomination, that it’s a secret process and the winners just get tapped on the shoulder and told “You’ve won!” The people who do the nominating are chosen by the MacArthur Foundation and invited to put forward names of the most creative people they know. Those names and information about their accomplishments are then evaluated by an independent selection committee. The nominators, evaluators and selectors are kept anonymous, though. Even after a Fellow has won the grant, he or she will not know who nominated them.
  • The winners are not just artists and academics. According to the article, between 2001 and 2012 36% of the Fellows came from the fields of arts and humanities, 36% from science or social science and 26 % worked on issues related to social problems like healthcare, homelessness and food security. If there’s a common theme among the diversity of these professionals it would have to be the ability to see, think and act creatively.

Color Outside the Lines Tyler Lewke officeOne other thing I learned from another article written by the same author on the MacArthur Fellows website is that MacArthur Fellows are more mobile than the general population. “This pattern of mobility of MacArthur Fellows resembles that of exceptionally creative and innovative people throughout history,” Ms. Conrad writes. Fellows tend to be drawn to cultural centers, live outside the states in which they were born and some even have more than one residence. Nearly a quarter of them were born outside the United States. The conclusion seems to be that these creative folk are drawn to centers of diversity and seek that diversity to nurture their creativity.

That last point–that the Fellows are more mobile than most–gives me hope. As someone who has lived in places all over the country and who is drawn to cultural centers like Chicago, New York, Paris and Rome, I’m well-suited for this grant. I’m bursting with projects and ideas that need only the injection of some cash ($625,000 to be precise) to flourish. Oh please, MacArthur Foundation, won’t you pick me next year?

[Photo credits: Masthead–“Man Dealing the Four Elements” by Robert Heinecken, 1998, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Inset–from the offices of Keller Williams Success Realty, Barrington, IL]

 

C’mon in, the Water’s Fine

No one could ever accuse me of being athletic. My idea of a sport is speed-reading. And perhaps because I read too much, I had to wear glasses by the time I was ten. Around that same time I joined the swim team, nudged by my parents who no doubt wanted me to do something constructive with my summer. So I swam, albeit tentatively. Without my glasses and hampered by a lack of depth perception, I was never quite sure whether I would glide in or finish a lap with a resounding whack as my head butted up against the wall of the pool.

Cut to the present: I recently joined a gym. Part of the lure of membership was the beautiful Olympic-sized pool even though I hadn’t been in a pool in years. I spent the first few months watching wistfully from the sidelines–I couldn’t bring myself to go in. For one thing, I wanted to look good in a swimsuit before going swimming (circuitous logic, I know). But a few weeks ago, I took the plunge.

As I skimmed along the water during a morning workout, I thought about my swimming breakthrough in the context of business and career success:

  • If we want to succeed, we gotta get into the water. Although I’m a strong swimmer, I had fears: How did I look? What’s the pool protocol? Would I have all the right gear? The terrain was unfamiliar and I felt awkward and self-conscious. Still, I jumped in. In business and in life, you gotta get into the water or, to use another sports analogy, you have to get onto the playing field if you’re going to make a difference.
  • It’s OK to be afraid. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was before using the pool. Everything from the pre-swim shower regimen to the etiquette of moving into someone’s lane seemed daunting. But the feeling of exhilaration I had after my first swim was as much about facing my fear head-on as it was from the aerobic activity. Anything worth doing is worth being terrified by—including making sales calls, speaking in public, and facing the rejection of interviews or of the marketplace. Do it anyway. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines, once said, “Do one thing that scares you every day.”
  • Practice the fundamentals. It’s been many years since that myopic young girl competed on a swim team but the minute I hit the water I remembered the fundamentals of swimming. Everything from the crisp cut of the water with my hands while doing the breaststroke to breathing into the crook of my arm while doing the Australian crawl came back to me. Whether we’re building a business or taking our careers to the next level, we first have to learn the fundamentals. Then, we have to practice, practice, practice.
  • The only way to grow is to be willing to be uncomfortable.  Barbara Stanny in her seminal work with people and money says that one of the first steps in overcoming underearning is to be willing to be uncomfortable. We love routine and yes, rituals and traditions are good for us. But we have to step outside our comfort zone in order to grow.

Last night I went for a late-night swim. As I did the backstroke I saw the reflection of a swimmer above me in the glass ceiling. I watched her skim along the lane, sometimes veering off a little to the right but always moving forward. Maybe not as lithe as she once was or as fast as she once swam. But at least she was in the water.

What will you do today to take you outside your comfort zone? C’mon in. The water’s fine.

[Photo credit: iStockphoto]

Is Anyone Out There?

A few months ago we were in New York to celebrate our daughter’s graduation, and while we were there, we saw Garrison Keillor at a little bookstore in Brooklyn. Mr. Keillor (“May I call you Garrison?”) was there allegedly to do a reading of his newest book, The Keillor Reader, but he never cracked the book. Instead, he delighted us with a monologue.

Garrison KeillorBeginning with how he wanted to be a writer in his early teens, Garrison wove a tale of how his career as a writer began. He used a narrator’s device, perhaps unconsciously, saying “you” instead of “I,” which pulled us into his stories as if we were there, as if we were Garrison himself.

I was most struck by a story he told about getting a job at his college radio station, a job for which he woke up at 4:00 each morning to labor away in the studio, a job that gave him not only a stipend but the satisfaction of making a contribution to the world and honing his craft which would later make him famous as the storyteller of the people who inhabit the fictitious Lake Wobegon. The news from the college radio station was supposed to be broadcast throughout the campus, inspiring early risers and informing all who listened. Nine months after beginning his gig, he learned that through some mistake of engineering, none of the speakers throughout the campus had been properly connected. For nearly a year, he had dragged himself out of bed, worked through an early morning shift at the radio station and given his heart and soul to an audience that wasn’t there.

After the initial shock of the punchline (Four in the morning! Nearly a year! No one was listening!), I thought more about the delicate contract between the writer and the audience. I wondered, does it really  matter that as Garrison met his obligations day after day, practicing the art of storytelling and refining his radio voice, no one was there to hear him? There’s something to be said for focusing on process vs. results. Granted, it’s great to have an audience. We write, speak, sing, to move people, to educate, illuminate, inspire. But is the creative act enough in itself? What if no one is out there–would we do it anyway?

Like many people, I keep a journal and with that exercise I write just for me. I no longer fancy myself as someone whose journals will be published upon her death, a literary legend whose quirky actions are explained by insights from her personal diary. In fact, I have an exit plan whereby a good friend will abscond with my diaries and burn them… there’s a lot of whining and complaining in those hand-written pages, a lot of drivel that I don’t want to be my legacy. But writing in a journal is like doing a radio show where the speakers aren’t attached to the studio. If there’s any audience at all that will appreciate my journal writings, it’s the older me, or maybe it’s just my daily letter to God.

My friend and master teacher Kevin O’Connor says, “When you’re writing a book, write it to just one person.” I think that is great advice. The act of communicating is, indeed, an act of faith. Assume someone’s listening. And even if there’s no one there, it’s good exercise for when you get a real audience. What about you… are you focused on process or results? And what have you noticed about the two?

Please comment below–I’d love to hear from you.

[Photo credits: Masthead– http://www.newyork-sights.net; Garrison Keillor–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garrison_Keillor]

An Homage to Mothers

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and like many women of my generation, I’ll be missing my own mom on this invented holiday. My mom, Geri Axford, passed away in 2009 and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. She left me with a wealth of memories, a valued practical streak that offsets the idealism I inherited from my dad, and a treasure trove of “Momisms.” (One of my favorites: “Anything’s good if it’s deep-fat fried.”).

I was startled to learn that as the tradition of Mother’s Day turns 100 years old, the founder–Anna Jarvis–was vehemently against the commercialism of the day. Originally, Mothers’ Day (then plural) was intended to inspire mothers who were mourning the loss of their soldier sons to fight for peace. According to an article in National Geographic Daily News by Brian Handwerk, Anna’s own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was her inspiration: Mrs. Jarvis rallied other mothers to work for sanitary conditions and later cared for wounded soldiers from the Civil War. In 1914, Mother’s Day (now singular) was hijacked by U.S. President Herbert Hoover and, in spite of Ms. Jarvis’ protestations, some of which got her thrown in jail, the holiday prevailed as an opportunity to up the profits of restaurants, flower shops and boutiques. According to Mr. Handwerk, Mother’s Day spending this year may top $19.9 billion.

A lot has changed since I became a mother back in 1979. When I entered the work world in earnest in 1981 as a hospital communications specialist, women were just starting to make inroads in the business world. We underplayed our roles as wives and mothers, hoping that we could fly under the radar so that the badge of motherhood wouldn’t handicap us. Even if it meant working that “second shift,” handling all our housework and domestic affairs between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., we didn’t want to be stereotyped. Our suits of armor–the ubiquitous navy blue suit and the ridiculous maroon bow tie–were a reflection of our desperate desire to fit into a man’s world. There was no maternity pay, no family leave law, no flex-time, no telecommuting. We hid our commitments to soccer games and school plays from our bosses lest they impede our climb up the career ladder. Now, of course, the rules have changed–thank God. Moms can be moms, fully integrated as workers committed to families and their jobs and careers.

Geri AxfordSo here’s to mothers, all of them–those who stay home and work the relentless cycle of childcare and homemaking, those who work outside the home in order to make a living and provide for their families and those who set an example in the workplace that we could, indeed, do both. I thank my own mother who, although sometimes befuddled by my relentless ambition, supported me all the way. And I thank my children, Kitty and William, who made me a mother, subject to all the joys, heartaches and satisfaction that role brings. I celebrate my sister and sisters-in-law who shared in those early years, providing maternity clothes, hand-me-downs for the kids and the trade secrets of motherhood that kept me sane. I’m grateful to have been on the receiving end of the many women in business who inspired me along the way, and thrilled that there are now so many more choices for our daughters.

Happy Mother’s day, Mom.

 

[Masthead photo: www.jewelryhottopics.blogspot.com]

In Pursuit of Mastery

Humility plays such a big role in the pursuit of mastery.

Several weeks ago I attended a Speaker Lab, sponsored by the National Speakers Association of Illinois (NSA-IL) of which I’m both a member and a board member. The lab was led by two veteran speakers, teachers and authors, Cyndi Maxey, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) and Kevin O’Connor, CSP. Both Cyndi and Kevin have given tirelessly to our chapter and that Saturday was yet another example of the generosity of NSA members who are committed to helping others in the profession of speaking.

Over and over I’ve heard the recommendation that in order for professional speakers [or any professional] to get better, we have to seek out and welcome feedback. Easier said than done, though. It’s scary to put yourself on the line to be critiqued, some of which may hurt. But asking for feedback is a critical component in the pursuit of mastery, isn’t it? Asking for a critique says your commitment to mastery is bigger than your ego, even if it smarts. So I was one of the first ones to sign up for the Speaker Lab, and that Saturday I trooped down to Chicago to National Louis University where the lab was held. My goal was to perfect my “signature story,” a story about my dad that I wanted to use in a presentation I was giving in Indianapolis the next week. And while I’d used the story before, I’d never scripted it, so the results were often shaky and unpredictable. This time, I wanted to nail the story or, as we say in the world of music, get it “flat.” No winging it.

And that’s where humility comes in. You can’t get better without knowing what’s missing. The feedback I received at the Speaker Lab was compassionate and spot on: I meandered with too many off-track details, and the listeners weren’t quite sure where I was going. Got it. I took the feedback, scripted the story, practiced it and used the story during my presentation in Indy as “bookends,” beginning with the introduction and later ending my presentation with the story’s punchline. For the first time, I felt like I was in control of where the story was going and how it would affect my audience. It worked.

I did another brave thing: I recorded my presentation on my iPhone. Conor Cunneen, fellow dean of NSA-IL Speakers Academy and a consummate professional himself, has said over and over that it’s imperative to record every presentation and then review it to see what worked, what didn’t work and how to improve. While I would nod my head in theory, I hadn’t yet practiced this technique. I don’t know if my resistance was based on fear or laziness. This time, in pursuit of mastery, I hit “record” and later listened to my presentation while driving back from Indianapolis, a very long drive.

I was deeply humbled by what I heard. When did I start saying “um” every other sentence? How could I not have heard that before? I didn’t stop to count the “ums” but I was horrified by this vocal tic that I wasn’t even aware I had–and one I never would have known about if I hadn’t hit “record.”  Back to being a student. Back to the beginner’s mind.

One other thing struck me during that trip to and from Indianapolis. I was listening to some CDs in the car while driving, recordings of presenters at our NSA convention last summer. One of them, a veteran speaker and coach to other superstars, Lou Heckler, told a story about coaching a new speaker. After Lou gave the young man his homework, this neophyte speaker said wearily, “Boy that sounds like a lot of work.” Big laugh from the crowd–and from me. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Discipline. Self-reflection. Practice. A hunger for feedback, a rigorous request for coaching and the ability to withstand the honest truth without flinching (or at least without dropping out) in order to get better.

In pursuit of mastery, there’s always something new to learn.

[Photo credit: “Maria Callas” by Marilyn Szabo, used with permission of the artist.]

On Models, Mentors and Asking for Help

Nearly five years ago, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States as an Associate Justice. As the first Hispanic justice and only the third female justice, she has an extraordinary story of succeeding because of, and in spite of, her humble beginnings. I recently read her memoir, My Beloved World, published in 2013, and was struck by her unflinching report of who she is, who she was and how she came to be.

Sonia SotomayorOne passage struck me in particular. While growing up in the Bronx and attending fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament Parish School, Ms. Sotomayor began to thrive at school when her teacher, Mrs. Reilly, began putting up gold stars each time a student did something well. This really brought out her competitive nature. “I was a sucker for those gold stars!” Ms. Sotomayor writes. She vowed to bring home report cards that would have at least one more “A” than the last one. But a vow, she said, wasn’t enough. She had to figure out how to achieve that goal.

Learning study skills was not something the nuns taught at Blessed Sacrament and Ms. Sotomayor knew instinctively that the kids who were getting the highest marks knew something she didn’t. “It was then, in Mrs. Reilly’s class, under the allure of those gold stars, that I did something very unusual for a child, though it seemed like common sense to me at the time. I decided to approach one of the smartest girls in the class and ask her how to study. Donna Renella looked surprised, maybe even flattered. In any case, she generously divulged her technique…” Ms. Sotomayor writes, skills that may seem obvious but “deriving them on my own would have been like trying to invent the wheel.” Armed with these new skills, she went on to become valedictorian of her high school class and graduated summa cum laude at Princeton, going on to law school at Yale.

But here’s the real nugget of wisdom this story revealed: “…the more critical lesson I learned that day is… don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in any friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.”

We learn through modeling others. Watching those who succeed where we yearn to succeed, seeking guidance from those who have been there before us and asking for help are critical to the learning process. Sometimes we remain stuck out of hubris, too proud for ask for directions. We think we have to look like we know what we’re doing! But that stops us from receiving the very instruction we need to get to the next step on our journey. Models, mentors, coaches, the buddy system–all of these relationships are strategies to help us on our road to success. And if it works for someone like Sonia Sotomayor, who says she continues to use this strategy even as she sits on the highest court in our land, it can work for us.

[Masthead: David Dyment, “One Billion Years (Past and Future)” color print, 2010, used with permission from the artist]

Promise Made, Promise Kept

My morning ritual consists of several important ingredients, the most critical of which is coffee. Armed with some strong Eight O’Clock Dark Italian Roast coffee, I retreat to my corner of the couch and curl up, ready to begin my day. I read a daily devotional, a faux-leather bound edition of Jesus Calling by Sarah Young (a gift from my friend Katy McDonough), and I usually read it twice because that’s how slow I am. I let the words wash over me and sometimes I even read it aloud. Then I pull out Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach. This book caused quite a sensation when it came out and made Ms. Breathnach a fortune, which she later lost due to an errant and ne’er-do-well husband. That story is detailed in Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity by the same author. I read that next, a chapter or so at a time, to support my own rocky love affair with finances. And I recently I’ve been topping this morning ritual off with a chapter from Tim Sanders’ book Today We Are Rich: Harnessing the Power of Total Confidence. Oh, and then I pray. I guess that’s really the most important ingredient of my morning ritual.

Yes, I admit it, I’m a self-help book addict. I love beginning my day with not only Scripture but with messages from people who have been there, done that, faced adversity and won and who have a story to tell. In Tim Sanders’ book, he lists seven principles of confidence, and the last is “Promise Made, Promise Kept.” He tells a story of a woman who kept a promise not just to herself but to her boss and her physician–to quit smoking. Then she lost a significant amount of weight. She began keeping her promises and as she did so, she built that muscle and got better and better at it. That made me think, what promises am I keeping? And which ones am I failing to keep that, if I just paid more attention, would contribute to my life, my work and my relationships?

Each year I update my strategic marketing plan for my coaching and speaking business, and my first strategy for success is to “maintain and enhance client service.” One of the tactics supporting that strategy, a tactic I include each year, is to “return phone calls within 24 hours.” That’s a promise made but not always a promise kept. Whether it’s a client, a prospective client or a business associate, a family member or a friend, the value of returning that call can make the difference between success and failure. When I don’t return those calls–when I don’t keep my promises–I tend to see myself as a failure.

So today, I’m recommitting to that promise and (gulp) telling the world–that is, YOU. I invite you to hold me accountable to that promise and remind me when I’m breaking it (be gentle with me, I’m still learning). I know that by exercising my promise muscle, I will get stronger and stronger and there’s no tellin’ what might happen.

What promise will you make today, a promise you’re willing to keep?

[Photo: Hummingbird locket, available on Etsy]

Becoming a Positive Deviant

One of my author-speaker heroes is a physician named Atul Gawande, a surgeon based in Boston who is also a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Best known for his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things RightDr.Gawande wrote an earlier book called Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. The audiobook was on sale at my favorite Tempe, AZ, bookstore, Changing Hands, so I bought it thinking I could listen to it in my car. And in spite of the many clinical stories he told, some of which made me a bit queasy–after all, the guy is a doctor–I enjoyed the book. In the afterword, the author provided five tips for improving performance by becoming a “positive deviant.”

First, let me share the definition of “positive deviant.” People who do things outside the norm (often unknowingly) that have a good outcome are “positive deviants,” and they change the world, whether by improving the nutritional health of children in a village or stopping an epidemic. The book Better can be applied to all of us, though, not just physicians and healthcare workers. Here are those five tips on performance improvement and how they can apply to you and your business or career:

  1. Ask an unscripted question. Whether you’re in business or excelling at your job, you’re called upon to educate, inform and ultimately, to persuade (some call it “selling”). The best way to engage people to think is to ask an unscripted question, one they weren’t expecting. I know I’ve hit a chord when I ask an unscripted question and the person across from me pauses, looks up at the ceiling and takes some time to think before responding. Unscripted questions open up a whole range of possibilities that weren’t there before.
  2. Don’t complain. What a great piece of advice for us all! No one wants to hear our litany of concerns, petty or otherwise, and besides, complaining is bad for your brand. I’m not suggesting you be a phony or a Pollyanna; just have something substantive to say. Today, catch yourself before you complain and substitute a conversation that will really make a difference with the person you’re speaking to.
  3. Count something. “What gets measured gets managed,” according to the late great management guru Peter Drucker. Setting up metrics, whether its in the form of sales calls, revenue or client/customer satisfaction data, is critical to moving the needle. Without data, there is no needle. What can you count today that will move you toward your goal?
  4. Write something. My dad used to say that to me whenever we talked about my vision to become a writer. “Don’t just sit there–write something!” he would bellow with a grin. Writing is an act of courage, whether it’s keeping a journal, launching a blog, writing a poem or contributing a letter to the editor of a news organization. Writing is also a powerful way to connect with your audience, whoever that is. “The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it,” says Dr. Gawande in his afterword. What will you write today to contribute to your audience?
  5. Change. Try something new. Become an early adopter. Recognize that there are gaps in your performance and seek ways to bridge those gaps. Our work lives are filled with uncertainties and failures, so it may seem best to keep doing things the way you’ve been doing them. Resist that impulse. What one thing will you change today in your business or your job that will fill a gap in your performance?

I love sharing my thoughts with you via this blog and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section, below. What are you counting, writing, changing? What complaints will you give up to strengthen your brand? What’s a great unscripted question you’ve created to get your clients or employees to open up to you? “Ask people what they think,” Dr. Gawande recommends at the end of his book. “See if you can keep the conversation going.”

So, what do you think?

[Photo: An elevator sign, taken at Taipei 101, formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center, a landmark skyscraper in Taipei, Taiwan]

The Energy of Ensembles

Last Sunday at my church the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus joined to sing a complicated medley of old gospel tunes, ending on a chord of voices that nearly knocked the stained glass out of the windows and the folks in the balcony out of their pews. The joy of singing this song, which I compared to white-water rafting (and a couple of times I nearly fell out of the raft), reminded me of the energy of being in an ensemble.

My coaching business is a solo practice and while I am a member of many “teams,” including the Ambassadors Club at the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, a band and chorus at church and the board of directors of the National Speakers Association of Illinois, I operate mostly as a single unit. When I go to the office, unless I bring my dog Peanut, I’m there by myself. No water-cooler banter, no one to distract me from the work at hand. I do have an office mate across the hall and we occasionally stop to catch up between our respective clients but for the most part, I’m alone until I meet with clients or head off to a meeting. For someone like me who enjoys being with people, this sometimes can prove to be a challenge. That’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about our combined choirs’ performance. Here are just a few of my observations about the benefits of being in an ensemble:

  • People are working together toward a common goal. In the case of our medley, which was not an easy piece of music, we had to rehearse together. Dan Keck, our irrepressible music director who leads the men’s chorus, worked patiently with the women on learning our parts. We knew we had to pull off the song by the next week, so there was a pleasant pressure to get the vocal parts worked out and we all gave up time we otherwise would have spent on our families, our work or other commitments related to self to practice the piece together.
  • The sum is greater than the parts of the whole. Did I get that right? Singing a solo, or even a duet or trio, is fun but when you put all those men’s and women’s voices together, you get an amazing sound that you could never get alone. I like to say that good music “rearranges your molecules,” and that last note of our song certainly did just that.
  • The “you” disappears and you become a “we.” As fascinating as we may find ourselves, sometimes it’s exhausting to be us. Being in an ensemble means you set aside your focus on self, your issues and concerns, to work with others on the task at hand. Being a “we” has a completely different agenda and it can provide relief from that circular logic that often comes from working by ourselves.

Whether you’re working on a team or working by yourself, I think it’s important to recognize the power of being in a group. For those of you who work in corporations and get frustrated with the need to always negotiate, and sometimes capitulate, perhaps you can take a new look at the value of being part of a team. And for those of you who, like me, work primarily in solitude, you may want to look for ways to engage in ensembles to tap into that energy source. Whether it’s sitting together with other Chamber members, working on a project or an event, or adding your voice to a mighty chorus, there’s a singular joy in working with others.

[Photo: Dan Keck leads the Men’s Chorus at Gary United Methodist Church, Wheaton, IL.]

The Importance of Ritual

While driving through town on a summer’s day, I was struck by the front lawn of a business near the center of town. In front of the office there was a crowd of plastic pink flamingos with a sign that read “Happy Flockin’ 50th, Cindi! Love, Your CST Buddies.”

I circled back around the block and pulled over. I had to take a photo. There was something about the humor in the sign, the mildly naughty play on words (“Happy Flockin’ 50th”), the flamingos, even the word “love,” that touched me. Maybe it’s because I work as a solo business owner and miss the camaraderie of a team… the idea of a group of co-workers happily conspiring to celebrate Cindi’s birthday moved me. Although I’ve never met her, I imagined this Cindi coming to work, startled by the signs, blushing, laughing and enjoying her special day, made all the more special by the people at work.

We underestimate the importance of ritual. Whether it’s something major, like a 50th birthday or graduating from college, or a smaller victory like finishing a project or completing a task, we often forget to observe the rituals that get us from here to there. Rituals imply celebration, completion, the end of something and the beginning of something else.

I heard Gretchen Rubin speak at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, AZ, last week, talking about the sequel to her best-selling book The Happiness Project. Her new book, Happier at Home, delves more deeply into some of the choices we make that either add to our happiness or deplete our joy. One of the rituals she took on was “Give warm greetings and farewells.” I’ve adopted this small ritual of stopping what I’m doing to enthusiastically greet my family when they come through the door, and making sure that I give more than a perfunctory kiss as I say goodbye to my husband Bill. For years I’ve complained that Bill greets our dog, Peanut, with more energy and affection than he greets me. But why not? Peanut goes into paroxysms of joy every time she sees my husband, wagging her tail, going in circles and (he assures me) grinning that big terrier smile… is it any wonder he responds in kind?

Ignoring rituals robs us of the chance to celebrate. I have a beloved client who, after years of a very successful career in finance, chose to go back to school to get her master’s degree. Her undergraduate record was spotty so she was thrilled to be admitted to a prestigious program at a top-rated university based on her stellar work performance and her drive. She admitted that she often suffered from “imposter syndrome” and was waiting for the campus police to bust her, exposing her as a fraud. When she graduated, I insisted that she throw herself a HUGE party to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment. The ritual of celebrating milestones like graduations, birthdays, retirements, quinceañeras, new babies and weddings is critical to our need for acknowledgement, closure and new beginnings.

My friend Lesley is the Queen of Ritual. When Lesley traded in her role as a specialty advertising marketer for a new life as a yoga instructor, she confided that she was having trouble making the break. Old clients were still calling her to place orders for specialty ad items and, as lucrative as that business was, she wanted to complete that chapter and begin her new one. I had an idea: “Let’s throw a party to announce your new life as a yoga diva!” I said. Together, we cooked up the guest list and I hosted a party at a local restaurant to celebrate her new role and announce to the world that she was now a full-time yoga teacher. It worked. Later, when Lesley was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, she threw herself a “Half-Way Through Chemo” party at a local Mexican restaurant. Not only did we celebrate her victory of surviving and buoy her through the next half of her treatments, but she received many, many gifts–a great by-product of ritual! (Who doesn’t like gifts?)

Gretchen Rubin recommends throwing holiday breakfasts for “minor holidays” like Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day… with little investment in paper plates and napkins from the party store, you can gussy up the breakfast table and enjoy the day before it begins. What holiday traditions can you continue, invent or create? At our house, we have a tradition of hanging crêpe paper in the dining room, twisting it through the arms of the chandelier and anchoring it against the walls, to honor a birthday. Then we throw curly multi-colored serpentine party throws over the paper to give the room a crazy, festive look. Without the crêpe paper and the serpentines, it just wouldn’t be a birthday.

So what rituals are you going to celebrate? Maybe you’ve completed your root canal treatment–celebrate! (But not with caramels.) Completing a degree? Throw yourself a party! Changing jobs? Celebrate with some good friends and a bottle of champagne or sparkling juice. Write a comment below to let us know what milestones you’ll be celebrating as you look for opportunities to acknowledge others and yourself.

Bring on the flamingos.