Thou Shalt Not “Should” on Thyself

Some people look to their business or career coach for the kind of conditioning they might receive from a drill sergeant: “Drop and give me 20!” That isn’t my style: I’m a kinder, gentler coach. However, I do have one hard and fast rule when working with my clients. I insist they follow this commandment: “Thou shalt not ‘should’ on thyself.”

I received my inspiration for this rule from my friend Linn Billingsley, an accomplished healthcare executive who shared a patch of my career journey with me when we both worked for Humana Hospital-Phoenix. One day I came into Linn’s office to share (read: vent), bemoaning some foolish choice I’d made. “I should have done this! I should have done that!” I wailed. Linn stopped me cold. “Vickie,” she said. “It sounds to me like you’re ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.”

The double entendre is what makes this so funny, of course. But there’s nothing funny about living in the Land of I Should Have. Here are just a few observations about why we need to catch ourselves from using the word “should” whenever possible:

  • “Should” is usually based in the past. Maybe we should have done something differently, but we didn’t. There’s nothing we can do about it now other than learn from our mistake. If we focus instead on what we could have done, next time we’ll know better.
  • I’m no etymologist (that’s someone who studies words, not bugs) but I think “should” somehow is closely linked to the word “shame.” Whenever we “should on ourselves,” we’re usually beating ourselves up for either doing or not doing something that we now know would have been a better idea. There’s shame around our decision and it’s a fruitless, wistful kind of longing for having had better judgment. Sometimes the only way we learn to make better decisions is the memory of having made some bad ones. Or, when the “should” is coming from someone else, as in “You should have done this…” there’s judgment and blame. Never a great way to build a relationship.
  • There’s no grace or forgiveness when we “should all over ourselves.” In business and in our careers we need a huge amount of grace, both for ourselves and for the people we work with. Yeah, maybe you should have… but you didn’t. Forgive yourself and move on.

OK, I admit, there are a few hard and fast “shoulds” and “should nots” in the world. Example: You should NOT stick a knife in the toaster to stab your toast while the toaster is still plugged in. For issues related to safety and health, “should” is there to protect us. But listen to yourself this week: how many times have you used the word “should” when you’re either berating yourself or someone else?

Language is powerful. Once I heard my friend Linn say “Quit ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” I never heard the word “should” in quite the same way. I invite you to substitute the word “should” whenever you can with the word “could.” The word “could” is future-based, filled with opportunity, possibility and grace. You deserve that grace, and so do the people who work with you.

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]

Create Your Own Sabbatical

This month I celebrate the four-year anniversary of fulfilling a life-long dream that I’ve come to think of as my sabbatical: I lived in Paris during the month of August 2010.

As the daughter of a university professor, I understood early that the word “sabbatical” means time off granted to tenured professors in order for them to rest, recharge and do research in their area of study. My own sabbatical was inspired by the death of my mother the previous year. There’s something about sitting by the bedside of a loved one who is dying that inspires us to look at our own lives and think about the things we’ve left undone. One of those things, for me, was living in Paris.

In college I studied French, fell in love with the language and the culture and was determined to someday study in  Paris. I also fell in love with my husband-to-be and instead of taking my junior year abroad, I got married. No regrets… I just told myself, “Oh, I’ll get to Paris someday,” never imagining that “someday” would be more than thirty years later.

During those last few weeks of my mother’s life, I was visited by an urgency to accomplish my dream of living in Paris because I was painfully aware of how short and precious our lives are. In the absence of a university committee, I granted myself a sabbatical–and you can, too. Here’s how:

  • Make a declaration. Even university professors have to lobby for time off–and so will you. But it won’t happen unless you give yourself permission and the power to declare your sabbatical to the world. Like any big goal worth achieving, your commitment comes first–then you can figure out how to make it happen. I began my sabbatical by declaring, first to myself and then to anyone who would listen, “I’m going to Paris!”
  • Talk it up. When I first began talking up my Paris sabbatical, I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. I had some money saved: check. I had some frequent flier miles to cash in: check. I had the blessing of my husband (once I invited him to come visit for a week): check. And I had an idea of the time frame: I wanted to stay a full month, and I wanted it to happen within the year. That was about as far as my planning had gotten. However, by sharing with everyone I knew, I began generating resources. My business coach Jackie Sloane connected me with a friend who owns an apartment in Paris. (Please contact me if you, too, are looking for an apartment in Paris and I’ll hook you up.) The dates of the apartment’s availability aligned with my calendar. Things began falling into place.
  • Determine your goal. Why do you want or need a sabbatical? For some, it’s to fulfill a lifelong dream as it was for me. My goal was simple: I wanted to live in Paris and experience daily life and all that implies: shop for groceries, visit the laundromat, practice my French and just be. Others might look to a sabbatical to volunteer, learn a new skill or pursue a creative endeavor like writing, painting or photography. Figure out how you want to spend your time and how that will enrich your life going forward.
  • Cover your bases. There are, of course, practical concerns to consider when you’re taking a sabbatical. There are companies that now understand the value of sabbaticals–click here for a list of companies that provide sabbaticals (some paid, some unpaid) to their employees. I have a dear friend who worked for Intel and she received a sabbatical while working there. If you are employed you may have to cook up your own sabbatical policy, demonstrating a clear plan to your employer about why they should grant you the time off and how it will benefit the firm. If you are self-employed, you’ll need to shore up your business, communicate with clients and arrange your schedule to accommodate the time away. And if you choose, you can keep a tether to your business from afar, thanks to technology. Just make sure it doesn’t interfere with your goal.
  • Pull the trigger–then enjoy the ride. Taking a sabbatical is scary. You’re disrupting your life and the status quo, suspending time in search of something bigger than yourself, and there are no guarantees. In a Forbes article called “How to Take a Sabbatical from Work,” writer Helen Coster quotes author Dan Clements as saying “The best sabbaticals are taken with a dose of faith.” Mr. Clements, who wrote the book Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Easy, added “Learn to trust that things will work out.” Once you’ve declared the commitment, determined your goal and covered your bases, all there is to do is pull the trigger and actually do it. Then, be prepared for surprises.

Moi aussiLiving in Paris was nothing like I imagined–yet it was everything I dreamed of. My rusty French came back–at least enough to stimulate my brain and amuse the natives. I learned about the history of Paris in spite of my own appalling lack of study or preparation. And best of all, I immersed myself in art and culture in a way that has sustained me these last four years. That month in Paris reminded me that I live in a world-class city that, just like Paris, is steeped in history and culture. So I’ve made a concerted effort to enjoy the arts here in Chicago in a way I never would have without having taken that sabbatical.

What’s your dream? And when will you be taking your sabbatical in order to fulfill it? I can’t wait to hear from you.  

Postscript: During my month in Paris I revived my first blog, Quotidian Adventureswhich documented my first trip to Paris and then my August 2010 sabbatical. The blog is like a diary in reverse chronological order… please feel free to read and enjoy.]

[Photo credits: Masthead–my photo, Le Jardin de Luxembourg; Inset–livin’ the dream, across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral, compliments of friend Leanne Wallisch.]

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]

“Mise en Place” at Work

Jill FoucreOne of my beloved clients, Jill Foucré, proprietress of Marcel’s Culinary Experience in Glen Ellyn, IL, was just featured in the Wall Street Journal in “A Little Spice After a Career in Health Insurance: Former Executive Answered Call of the Food Business.” How proud I am of Jill and all she has accomplished–and I have to admit I was thrilled to read her reference to the “executive coach” who helped her on her journey (c’est moi!). Jill is a force of nature, one of the smartest and shrewdest business women I know, and every time I walk or drive by Marcel’s I get a little misty-eyed, thinking of the work we did together. She is the poster girl for Dreams + Strategic Planning = Success.

In this week’s “Chef Talk” blog on Marcel‘s website, Chef Paul Lindemuth discusses the concept of “mise en place,” a French phrase meaning “putting in place” or “setting up.” I learned this phrase while my son Will was studying in the culinary program at our local community college… and Chef Paul’s reminder of how important it is to prepare the kitchen before beginning to cook made me think of how mise en place applies to other areas of our lives, including our work lives and our careers.

Continue reading ““Mise en Place” at Work”

Paying Your Dues

Whether you’re building a business or moving up the ladder (or, for some, the “lattice”) of your career, you’ve probably heard that term: “You’ve gotta pay your dues.”

Literally, it means allocating the money to be part of your professional association, trade union or any other organization that supports you in your endeavors. Maybe it’s your annual dues to belong to your local chamber of commerce. Or perhaps it’s the cost of being a member of your association so you have access to certification, training and a network of other professionals from whom to learn. Your dues are a line item in your budget, and you can expect to pay that as an annual fee as long as you want to stay in that organization.

But “paying your dues” has another definition. The phrase implies a long-term investment in order to someday reap the rewards. And it has a kind of ominous tone to it, doesn’t it?

Anyone who is successful has a story to tell about “paying their dues.” It may mean taking on an unpaid internship in order to learn the business you’re interested in. You may have started out in the copy room or the mail room. You may have schlepped to get coffee for the higher-ups in order to be in the sphere of those you admire and whose careers you want to emulate. For you, paying your dues may have been working in a low-level and low-paying job in order to get your foot in the door, to learn the fundamentals. Paying your dues implies you are willing to forego ego, prestige and pay because you have your eyes set on a bigger prize, and you know experience is the only thing missing between you and that prize.

Brett and Kate McKay are Generation Y bloggers who wrote a blogpost about “The Importance of Paying Your Dues.”  In their collaborative blog “The Art of Manliness,” they admit their generation and the Millennials who follow have a certain sense of entitlement, perhaps inspired by growing up in a time when everyone on the soccer team got a trophy just for showing up. They’ve studied success through their “So You Want My Job” interviews and their advice to their readers is sound: “Be willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term goals.”

I think about the jobs I’ve had that contributed to what I’m doing today: my first service jobs as babysitter and counter girl at McDonald’s; being a clerk-typist at the university as I worked my way through school; my first job as a librarian, a job that gave me access to books and the time to write; and my days as a “swamper” in the newsroom, writing obituaries as the lowliest reporter working for a daily newspaper. Each and every job was an exercise in paying my dues. The twenty years of writing copy for hospital newsletters, ghost-writing the CEO’s column, cranking out press releases and poring over media lists, making presentations in front of the board of directors–every duty I ever performed was like practicing scales in the rehearsal room. All designed to refine and hone my skills so that today, I may serve my clients with purpose and passion.

So as I write a check for my own professional association this month, the National Speakers Association, I remind myself that membership has its privileges. The commercial transaction gives me support, context, access to all the things I need to be a successful speaker and coach. What I do with that access going forward, and my willingness to continue to pay my dues, is totally up to me.

[Photo credit: www.steadusers.org]

Having Lunch with Alexander Calder

I’m in Chicago today, having a late lunch on the mezzanine of the Formerly-Known-As-Sears-Tower, AKA “The Willis Tower” although no hard-core Chicagoan likes to call it that. And I’m looking out over the balcony to see the famous moving sculpture by Alexander Calder, “The Universe.” Unveiled in October of 1974, this huge sculpture has three distinct moving parts, all of them mesmerizing.

Calder mobile Sears TowerPublic art is a passion of mine and Chicago is a great city for people with a passion for public art. I see it everywhere and I always stop to admire, no matter how hurried I may be. This very lobby recently hosted a show featuring Donna Hapac, a local sculptor introduced to me by my own beloved coach Jackie Sloane. Donna was featured in a show with several other talented sculptors and I asked for an introduction to learn more about the world of art since I’ve recently taken on a new artist client–my husband, Bill.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about the artist community, thanks to insights from Donna and other artists I’ve interviewed:

  • Art, like any business, depends on relationships. To a person, each artist I’ve asked to interview has granted me their time and shared generously of their vision and experience. Mike Bauer, a sculptor who works in concrete and steel creating sculptures of considerable beauty and magnitude, opened his home and his studio to Bill and me and told us of his own journey as an artist. Lennée Eller, program manager of the Phoenix Airport Museum at Sky Harbor International Airport, joined us for lunch and gave us insights about marketing art in the Valley of the Sun. And Donna Hapac graciously invited us to another show featuring her delicate organic sculptural forms held at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago. (The show is up through June 8–go see if if you’re in the Chicago area!)
  • People love sharing their stories. Most people–not just artists–love to share their own stories of how they got from where they were to where they are, their challenges, triumphs and horror stories. If you’re interested in pursuing any niche–whether it’s sky-diving or swaps, haute cuisine or haute couture, find people who are in that niche and ask them to share their stories with you. For the price of a latté and an hour, they will share their stories with you if you’re respectful and they know you’re serious about learning.
  • “Stories sell art.” These are the wise words of wisdom from Ms. Eller, who not only runs an extensive collection of art at the Phoenix Airport Museum but is an artist herself. This is something I hear over and over again as a member of the National Speakers Association…stories sell everything.

I’ve only begun to research the business of art. In the meantime, I get to revel in the fruits of this world-class city of art, venturing to galleries, museums and institutes that hold a world unto itself. Like this Calder sculpture, there’s movement and grace, symmetry and mystery. There are secrets but also experts who are more than willing to share. I hope you find that in whatever world you’re exploring. All you have to do is ask.

Note: If you are eager for an “artist’s date” and you’re in the Chicago area, please join us for an artist’s reception, Then & Now: Paintings by Bill Austin,” at the DuPage Framing Center (DFC) from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. next Friday, May 9. Bob Greene, owner of DFC, kindly agreed to host this reception which is at 276 E. Geneva Road in the elbow of a shopping center at the southeast corner of Main Street and Geneva in Wheaton, IL. 

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]