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.

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

Love and Work

 

Today is Valentine’s Day, a holiday that reminds us of love. We mostly interpret that to mean “romantic love” or eros, which leaves the day fraught with peril for those who are between love interests. If you’re without a sweetheart, the day may be a stinging reminder that everywhere you look, someone else is getting a dozen roses.

I celebrate Valentine’s Day in a broader sense, focusing instead on a higher form of love, agape, a transcendent love, universal and unconditional. This is the love that I’m speaking of when I share the mission of my coaching practice: “To create a world where people love what they do and do what they love.” When we are in service to others through our work, that is a transcendent love. We are driven to make a difference and in spite of circumstances, in spite of the evidence (failure, disappointment, no results), we keep on working. We do it for love.

My coaching practice rose from the ashes of losing the job that brought us here to the Chicago area. After the shock and shame of getting fired, I lifted my head and asked myself, “What did I learn? Where was I responsible for this mess?” Truth was, I was not fit for that job. I ignored the signs, to my peril. Once I accepted that I was 100% responsible for what had happened, I made a powerful choice: I would never again stay in a job that didn’t fit. I committed myself from that time on to loving my work and helping others love theirs.

Sigmund Freud said “Love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness.” I would venture to say “Love of work is the cornerstone to our humanness.” Look at how much time we spend at work…most of our waking hours. I had a colleague once who complained daily about her job. When I gently offered to provide some career coaching to her, she sighed and said, “No, that’s all right. I only have eleven more years until retirement.”

ELEVEN MORE YEARS! I think of my friend Sheryl, who died at 56 of a brain aneurysm, unable to see her daughter graduate high school. I think of men who have heart attacks within months of retirement, having tolerated their work with the vision of golf courses in their heads, now too weak to walk. Plan for the future, yes, but don’t live for the future. The future is now. We have the right–and the responsibility–to love what we do so that we can make a difference in the world. There is urgency in this message! We must love what we do because as far as I know, this is our one shot. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “The Summer Day,” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I hope on this Valentine’s Day you’re surrounded by all types of love–love of friends and family, your pets, your home and your work. Most of all I hope you love the choices you’ve made. If not, you can make new choices. There’s still time but time, like your life, is precious. Act now. Let me know if I can help.

Let’s Go Window Shopping

On a recent trip to New York City I walked by Cartier, Louis Vuitton and other high-end shops with gorgeous window displays. I loved seeing the edgy fashions, the elegant accessories and the artful way in which they were featured. Even if the bling featured in the window was out of my price range, there was no harm in looking.

That’s exactly what I tell my coaching clients who are contemplating new careers. “Window shopping” is the first and perhaps one of the most important steps of a career transition. What is it that you want? What speaks to you? What makes your heart go pitter patter?

Continue reading “Let’s Go Window Shopping”

Does This Plane Make My Butt Look Big?

Recently I’ve begun to travel more, thanks to a new contract with a consulting and training firm. This wonderful opportunity often requires me to get on a plane, meeting a colleague from the firm in another city where we then serve clients. I love it–serving the clients, that is. The travel is something else again.

Continue reading “Does This Plane Make My Butt Look Big?”

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.

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]

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]