Wednesday, October 22, 2014

If Only vs. Thank You

This post also appears on LinkedIn.

"Just say Thank You, Gilbert!" - What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Jeff Haden shared a piece he wrote for INC. His claim is that no one is rich and no one is happy. He asked people who most us would consider rich and possibly happy if they thought of themselves that way. None of them did. I have a suspicion that most of these people "forget their thank yous,” as my five-year-old daughter puts it.
Instead of looking for people who should be happy and rich, the people Jeff may wish to interview are people who are grateful. Gratitude reminds us of the good in our world. This is the good that surrounds us and the good we create – by choice.
What I noticed the people all had in common was that they were thinking about the next thing, or what they didn't have. I call this “If Only” syndrome. “If Only” are toxic words for the human spirit. "If Only" kills happiness by making us feel powerless and forced to make choices. Those aren't choices; they are self-blackmail.
“Thank You” to others, yourself and whatever higher power you may believe in is like a growth hormone for happiness. "Thank You" inspires us to do more good works and to help others. When we help others, we feel better and richer and happier. And so on until we’re not a nation on anti-depressants. "Thank You" makes the workplace and the world better. It even drives up employee engagement scores.
So here’s my request:
For five days, when you wake up, say “Thank You” for 3 things. Don’t think too hard – you’d be surprised how easy this is. The thank you can be directed at whomever or whatever you wish. Then, have your children do it. It changes your day.
I’ll start:
  1. Thank you for the amazing feeling of sun on my shoulders.
  2. Thank you for my healthy family.
  3. Thank you for time to do what I love.

Let me know how it goes. Respond here with some of your own gratitude or on twitter with #thankyoufor.
Thank you for reading.

photo credit:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Think you chose your career? Better Make Sure

This post also appears on LinkedIn

My husband worked for a leader who started an all-staff by saying that he only wanted people on his team who were, "there by choice." I've always loved that idea - it gave me power. Whenever I had a rough day at the office, I would remind myself, "I am here by choice, when that isn't true anymore, I will leave." But, I was afraid of this power, so I stayed.

So many of us follow paths carved out for us by the expectations of our families, our superiors and ourselves. This path is dangerous because it masquerades as a "a choice." I chose a certain college, a certain career, a certain brand of shoes, a spouse. Life is the sum total of the choices you make, or so I was often told.

In reality, for many of us, life is the result of the choices we didn't make. We took the easy, socially acceptable (not to mention lucrative) path that was offered, but we never took the extra step. The extra step would be to look at what choices aren't explicitly on the table - and conceive of and consider them. Know the whole decision set.

We ask ourselves questions like, "Does this get me to the next step? What will this job/path teach me?" These are valid an important questions but they leave out, "Is this going to make me happy? Will my life, right now, be better for having taken this road?" Too often, the answer is "No." Our collective Puritan work ethic tells us, "pain now, gain later." It is a powerful force.

That is how I found myself, sitting in a beautiful office, at an amazing company, surrounded by crazy-smart people, doing exciting and meaningful work, looking at a picture of my beautiful family, asking myself, "Why does this still feel like it's fake, like I'm waiting for something? I have everything I ever wanted. I chose this." Scratch that. I had everything I thought I should want and it chose me.

So, I sat down and imagined my dream day. It was so clear, yet I was afraid. From the time I was in second grade, I wanted to be a writer. I had to be a writer. Even in my years as an industry consultant, I wrote late at night in hotel rooms. I wrote short stories, bad poetry, short plays, anonymous blogs and memoir. It came so easily.  I needed it.

My dream day was to get up in the morning, take my daughter school and not rush the entire morning. Then, I would exercise. After that, I would write and write. I would eat lunch and go for walks. I would visit museums and remember why Edward Hopper paintings can make me cry in public. I would pick up my daughter from school. We would have unstructured time. I would make real dinners. I would sing my daughter to sleep. When the day was over, I would sip single malt scotch while talking and laughing on the couch with my husband.

I took a deep breath. I said, "I choose to be somewhere else. This is not my choice anymore. I want to use my time in another way. My life is now and my time is more valuable to me than to anyone else." When I resigned from my job a few weeks later, I was actually choosing for the first time in my life. Now my life looks exactly like my dream life, minus the cooking.

When my father died at 44, he had undergone an operation with a very low success rate, but he chose life. One of my father's partners told me that he chose his family. He didn't linger at the office in the evenings to shoot the breeze. He didn't invent work for himself to make himself seem important. He rushed back from business trips on late night flights. He rose to spend Saturdays with my sister and me exploring New York City. It makes so sad to think that I didn't realize the lesson he'd taught me. Happiness doesn't come out of nowhere, you have to help it along and make space for it with the choices you make about your time.

If you were to truly chose your life (not a future life, but right now, this very second) what changes would you make? It takes courage to look freedom in the eye and use it. Only when we use our courage to truly choose for ourselves can we know what it means to be free.

Special Thanks to @MikeGamson of LinkedIn for making me really think about what it means to choose.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Freedom is Useless without Courage

Life is a collection of moments. In some moments we transcend. Our ears hear our daughter's hysterical laughter of childhood, our mouths taste a Chateau Coutet Sauterne for the first time, our eyes see the sky turning blue-pink and we believe in God, if just for a second. These are the moments that make us alive, yet we tend to forget them almost as quickly as we experience them.

There are other moments. In those moments, we are humbled. Our hands wrap Toyotas around telephone poles, our mouths snap an insult at the person across the room, our lizard brains confuse a child who won't put on her flipping socks and shoes already with a cougar about to pounce. In short, we lose control.

Where does true control over the moment, or of life come from?

I think of interview from a few weeks ago. About my father, the person said, "He was honest. He didn't tolerate fools. If he thought you were an idiot, he told you you were an idiot." There's a kind of confidence implied by someone not only unwilling to suffer fools but also willing to tell the fool that they are, in fact, a fool. This is not something I can do, yet. I still have time.

I think the difference was that my father took a leap towards happiness when he met my mother and they started their family. He abandoned the expectations of his family, his church, and himself. He hurt others in the process.

Still, he gave himself the chance for the life he wanted. He chose the life that would make him happy. Once you risk who you and everyone else thinks you are, you begin to let go of what other people think of you. You are free from their expectations (and perhaps your own) to find your own life, in your own way, in your own time.

When I started to write this year, I took a leap towards a life I've always wanted but was simply too afraid to try. Fear governed me.

Back in the corporate world, whenever anyone asked me what I would do when I had enough money, I’d answer, “Move to New Orleans. Buy a B and B in the Garden District and write all afternoon.” Sometimes the B and B was in Quogue, NY. Over the years, I gave up saying that. “I’d be right where I am.” With that one cowardly lie, masquerading as a positive attitude, I reduced myself to living a life I didn't really want to live. The reason I felt like an imposter was not that I believed I was incompetent, it was that I really wanted to be somewhere else entirely.

The girl looking for approval and safety reminded me that I should want to be on that path. For another day, I would wait for that moment when what I want and what I should want become one and the same. And then, I took my own leap toward the life I've always wanted.

Freedom is useless without courage. It took me so long to hear that message, I just wish I'd listened earlier. Then again, the best lessons are often learned the hard way.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Perils of Augustine, Rousseau, Proust and A Fault In Our Stars - all in one week

Last night, I gave into the temptation to wallow. Brian and I watched, The Fault in Our Stars. From the first few minutes in, I found myself shocked at how different the experience of a camera, as a narrator, would make the entire story. My favorite device the author uses is a book within a book, where the characters encounter the phrase, “Pain demands to be felt.” What could be more true? Perhaps, the corollary that “Love demands to be given?”

When I read the book, on a transcontinental SFO to JFK United flight, I didn’t shed a single tear. Although I prefer to pretend otherwise, books and movies make me cry. I have been known to be the really unstable bawling and sniffling chick with the cashmere turtleneck pulled up to her eyes in 7B (more than once). What makes me different than the typical really unstable bawling and sniffling chick with the cashmere turtleneck pulled up to her eyes in 7B is that I am reading something Stiglitz wrote about income inequality and remain happily married.

There I sat, on my blue sofa, in a ratty t-shirt, shocked when the tears streamed down my face. I discovered one of the reasons I hate crying has nothing to do with losing control, fearing vulnerability, or being told that no one likes a cry baby. It’s that the physical sensation of crying is horrible.

My body heats up. I feel claustrophobic in my own skin. I sweat. This is not polite glowing. A salty stream of sweat stings my invariably slightly sunburned neck, creeping down my chest, where it becomes cold,  forcing me to notice that its reached my navel. My “rosy” face becomes purple and the whites of my eyes turn pinkish red. To complete the image, my nose runs a hot, clear, liquid and I never have a tissue.

The reaction I was having was not to watching two star crossed lovers, but to knowing that people die leaving things unfinished.  All those meals never eaten, songs left unsung, chances to choose kindness missed, sunsets unwatched, babies' laughter unheard. Yet, if we are there and eat those meals, sing those songs, watch the sunsets and make the babies laugh, we bring the lost along with us. We never stop loving people when they die. That is our privilege -  to live with their love. That remains. And it gives us hope.

My apologies, I re-read Augustine, Proust and Rousseau for a class over the past week – this can’t continue much longer. I can barely stand myself. God, forgive us our pretentiousness, we know not the boredom it causes.