With the weather turning balmy I’ve been doing more walking in our neighborhood. A month or so ago our neighbors put in this beautiful new garden in front of their house, a lovely arrangement of plants, flowers, a stone path and a sculpture of this big turtle. Every time I walk by it I smile at the grin on the chill turtle’s face. Pretty soon after they’d planted it I would see my neighbor out in front taking care of it. Every time I walked by. It became the running joke that I needed a hobby and she was becoming garden obsessed.
By the third day I finally asked what it was that motivated to get out there each day. “The damn clover” she told me. Now – to be fair, I should have known that pretty much any answer she could have given would have met with my clueless stare. I have by all accounts a black thumb when it comes to plants. In fact, I’m pretty sure if they bottled me I’d be the world’s best weed – and plant – killer. When I was pregnant my neighbor at the time, who was a masterful gardener himself, asked, “Do you think you’ll be more successful keeping kids alive than you have been with your plants?” Considering my track record, it was a fair question.
So, I know nothing about clover. Except that it’s green. And to my uneducated eye, pretty. No, my neighbor informed me, it will take over if you don’t root it out. The roots take hold and … I’m not sure what else. But all I could think was, it was the perfect contrast against the rest of the garden. It looked nice and fit really well with all the other plants they’d chosen. She wasn’t sold – and each day she or someone else in the family was out in front weeding the clover out that had somehow magically made its way back in the moonlight. I couldn’t help but wonder – it’s my inclination to pull for the underdog no doubt – if there are benefits to clover, and apparently there are.
What struck me was how much of this ‘rooting out’ of the things that seem to belong – but we’d rather they didn’t – many of us do in our own lives. The things we’re good at or drawn to or feel strong doing – but don’t think they will do much for us. I remember going through one of the personality tests at work years ago – and what emerged from the color coded system was that my strength was “earth green” – caring, encouraging, sharing, patient and relaxed. But the company’s leaders were mostly ‘fiery red’ – competitive, demanding, determined, strong-willed and purposeful.
My green felt weak in comparison – so rather than tapping into how to make the most of who I am, I instead focused on being more “fiery red”. I wanted to be one of the people considered “high potential” who would be seen as a valued future leader – and my assumption was I simply couldn’t do so by leading with encouragement, compassion and patience.
It didn’t go all that well. Could I do it? Sure. Was it harder? You bet. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly. And what I lost in the process was the person people had come to know – the leader who created a great team by knowing people well enough to help them find their fit. Who created an environment where people smiled, laughed and went the extra mile for each other while exceeding the results they thought were possible. Who shared wins and struggles so everyone had the chance to learn from both.
Quick point here – what I’m not saying is to be oblivious to the team and organization you’re a part of – the norms, behaviors and “what good looks like” of your colleagues. Fitting in matters. And what each of us brings also matters. A garden full of clover isn’t what my neighbor is going for – and I don’t blame her. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if she let some of the clover remain sprinkled in there – since clearly it wants to be there. Maybe there’s more good that it can offer than is readily apparent.
I received a newsletter recently that spoke to me on a deep, existential level. The subject line? “I just want to give up and take a nap.” Naps aside (because we all probably need one), the feeling of wanting to give up is a strong one – and one that resonates with me.
The good news here is that I’m not alone. You see, this email from Girlboss spoke to a topic that’s gaining some unfortunate popularity: the quarter-life crisis.
Are we even allowed to feel crises when we’re so young? Often, the resounding advice from the world at large says “NO” – that millennials have it easy, we live in the land of opportunities, that we have so many resources and options within our grasp that we “should” have it made.
And yet, there’s that word. “Should.” We’ve talked about it a few times in this blog. The quarter-life crisis seems to come from all this pressure we feel stemming from what we hear we should do. Not whether we could or even want to; it feels so often like not only do we need to have it all figured out, but we also have to make it meaningful too.
But here’s the good news: just because you feel like you should doesn’t mean you have to. It’s absolutely OK to not have it figured out in your twenties, your thirties, or beyond – we’re allowed to make it up as we go along.
Here’s how I support myself when I’m feeling the pressure of the quarter life crisis:
Getting through the quarter life crisis isn’t really as simple as aging out of your quarter-life, unfortunately, but luckily the feeling doesn’t have to stick with you day in and day out. Remind yourself it’s 100% OK not to have it all figured out – I’ve yet to meet the person who does – and that it’s OK to make it up as you go along. I know I certainly am!
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Earlier this school year my daughters were tasked with an assignment to write about a famous person they admire. Before sending kids off to do the writing, the teacher spent weeks talking about the fundamentals of a good story – the plot, the story arc and the all-important character development. One of my daughters idolizes the soccer player Alex Morgan, so during her research phase she shared all sorts of fun facts at dinner, including Alex’s getting cut from an early soccer team she sought to join. We talked about the lessons she learned in the process: resilience, grit, and goal setting and how that changed the course of her soccer career.
Throughout, my daughter learned perhaps the most important aspect of any good story: without understanding what makes the protagonist tick – what they’re drawn to, what they care about, their flaws and what creates meaning for them – the story doesn’t hang together and usually isn’t all that interesting. Continue reading
I visited my mom over the weekend who’s now firmly in the grip of her Parkinson’s disease. As it’s continued its progression, my sister and I have reminded her, often, to exercise, since that’s been shown to have some benefit against the uphill battle she faces. She’s gone along reluctantly in an effort to slow down the rapid march of the disease. But as my sister says, she’s now in the twilight of her life. When we’re honest, we all realize that any change will have a limited impact.
At dinner I encouraged her to take one of the trainers from the gym up on his offer to help her use a special walker-type contraption to make water exercise easier, since that’s the one type she’s usually up for. She nodded that it would be a good idea… but something told me that she was just placating me. So I said to her, “Really? Do you honestly think it’s a good idea? And are you really going to do it?” And she looked at me, paused the couple of minutes it now takes her to respond, and said, “No.”
My initial reaction was to be annoyed. But I thought for a minute and realized that it took guts for her to claim what none of us wanted to hear. She wanted something different for herself than we did, and she was going to do what she wanted to do. I realized in that moment that to try to convince her otherwise would make me a hypocrite.
We talk to young adults regularly about the power of owning their own values, interests and skills and making decisions that align with them. Sometimes those decisions are in line with what others around them want them to pursue – and often they’re not. Their friends, family and bosses are largely well meaning – they want what they think is best for them.
Having the courage to own what’s important to you when it’s different than what those around you believe takes bravery, strength and clarity.
While listening to guidance and insight from those who care can be invaluable, sometimes it’s useful to remember that guidance and feedback is a gift – and comes with a gift receipt. For my mom, she’ll benefit from less nagging – which isn’t bad. But I think about what happens when all of us get to make decisions about jobs and careers that fit with us. When we balance listening to those we trust with putting at least as much trust in our own intuition. As Beyonce said: “Don’t try to lessen yourself for the world. Let the world catch up to you.”
At dinner recently, my husband asked about a workshop I’d facilitated, which led my daughter to ask about the specifics of what we’d talked about that day. My twins are now past the age where I can get away with a one-liner response they don’t understand. In true Elizabeth Warren fashion, “She persisted.” What exactly did we do in the workshop?
I shared that we were working with participants to uncover their values, and then capture them in the stories they tell about themselves. Stories she understood. Values, not so much. My daughter’s questions made me realize just how abstract personal values can be. Continue reading
Last week I reconnected with a former colleague who I always liked working with. She could take on almost anything sent her way. But she said it was getting to be a grind – with each project she was becoming more and more miserable. She COULD do the work but she didn’t WANT to. What’s more, she has a degree in biology, but couldn’t figure out what she would be “qualified” to do with it. Continue reading
I got together with a dear friend over the weekend. He’s someone who I admire greatly for his amazing insight into and knowledge about people, a skill which has proven invaluable to him and those of us fortunate enough to work with him. The talk eventually turned to current events and Wimbledon. Despite being an accomplished tennis player who played at an elite level throughout college, he said he now rarely watches the game on TV and scarcely knew who was in the tournament. A not-at-all accomplished tennis player myself, I said the same, remembering watching tennis on TV when I was much younger but not being able to mention players more recent than the Williams sisters.
Monday was the first day of summer camp at our house. My daughters returned to a camp they went to last year, one where they get to choose from an array of options on what they’re going to do each day. And I do mean an array – soccer, video games, cooking, sewing and lots of iterations in between.
I packed up my once a year winter coat as I got ready to leave the cold New Jersey weather and headed into Newark Airport to join the long winding line for security. Despite my ‘Premier’ status – which can only reasonably be explained by obstinance or being a glutton for punishment, the line appeared ridiculously long.
The man behind me was incredulous that this could be Premier. Despite the sign above his head confirming exactly that, he asked the agent whether this was the Premier line and pleaded his case to get to a faster line, being tight on time. The employee gave no ground and told him he’d have to wait. Uncharacteristically, I happened to have plenty of time so offered him the spot ahead of me, suggesting that perhaps others would do the same. This being New Jersey, he looked at me with a sort of half-smile and said, ‘Thanks, but one person really won’t make a difference.’ At that point, I insisted that he move ahead of me since I knew from the story I’d heard the night before that this simply wasn’t true.
I’d been having dinner with my mom who lives in a retirement community. Her new neighbor, a kind, jovial and engaging 80-something widower, joined us for dinner. He beamed with pride talking about his four grandchildren and two sons, one an engineer and one in healthcare. And his wife of 42 years who went from, when they were first married ‘not even knowing how to cook a burger’ to being something of an accomplished chef. He worked for a precursor of a company merged many times since for – it seems impossible to believe these days – 37 years. He keeps at least three of his female friends (ratios being what they are after 80…) laughing and entertained most nights and is a regular at the community ping pong table.
His Hungarian-scented English made me wonder how his journey to becoming an American had come to be, so I asked, why America? He took a long drink of water and, eyebrows raised, began to share.
Both of his parents owned their own businesses outside of Budapest and he was brought up Christian. This was the mid-1950s with Communism on the rise so religious leanings and capitalism were no-nos that prevented him from being accepted to secondary school. Through an eventual loophole he managed to complete high school but by the time he was 21 his uncle was jailed for being part of the wrong party. So at 21 he decided to leave the country – and his family, as they all agreed there was no future there for him. Off he went to Austria where he worked for a few months and met two friends, who all decided to move to Switzerland. They’d packed one bag for all three of their belongings, and as the bus was packed up with travelers, his friends’ names had been called but his hadn’t. Upon checking with the man in charge, he learned there were 21 names on the list but only 20 seats on the bus. They boarded alphabetically. And his name starts with Z.
So off went his friends, his belongings, and his sense of a future to a country where he wasn’t headed. What must have seemed a heartbreaking setback forced him to figure out a Plan B. Which was to come to the US just a few months later, despite not knowing a word of English.
To see the pride of the life he created and how fully he’s living it is inspiring. It’s also a reminder that life, perhaps, happens for us rather than to us. And clearly it’s a reminder that just one person can in fact make all the difference in the world.
Over the long weekend we managed to slip in an extra movie night at home. As much as our kids love seeing movies, their preference is for seeing the same ones. Again. And again. And again.
So suggestions of new options are met with what could generously be called ‘reluctance’. My husband is in sales so he managed to convince them to give Seabiscuit a try a couple of months ago, and it stuck. I’ve now seen it a half dozen times but part of what I love about the story is that depending on what’s going on for me at the time, I take away something different each time.
For those who have seen it, you’ll recall that Seabiscuit is the horse that had all the right breeding without the apparent motivation. Despite others’ early efforts to develop him into a competitive racer, he hadn’t shown the right stuff, so most recently he’d been used as a competitor to top racehorses: he was the one designed to lose the race to give the other horses confidence. Tom, the trainer saw something in him but despite his early efforts wasn’t getting far. His lament: “I just can’t help feeling they’ve got him so screwed up running around in circles that he’s forgotten what he was born to do. He just needs to learn how to be a horse again.”
Amidst the annual performance review process at work, this resonates. Having navigated different versions of the process for 20 years across different companies, the process is roughly the same: rate and rank the person based on the job requirements and competencies based on their level. That requires a thorough assessment of the person’s on the job performance. Good managers will also know what motivates their people. But most of our colleagues and teams – and we ourselves – leave at least part of ourselves behind when we head to work every day. For many of us, it’s more than just our pajamas that get discarded when we head to work. We dust off the messiness that our hobbies and joys create – the dirt from fixing things, the leftover food bits from cooking up a storm, the brush strokes from painting outside of the lines, the thrill of coaching a team to success.
Which makes the recent HBR article authored by Facebook’s Head of People and description of its use of ‘entry’ interviews really interesting. In addition to the standard role orientation, onboarding includes an entry interview to understand not just a person’s skills but also their interests. Specifically, (there are) “three key ways that managers can customize experiences for their people: enable them to do work they enjoy, help them play to their strengths, and carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities.” This idea to support people in pursuing their interests isn’t new – it was one of the early goals behind offering employees sabbaticals. But what is new is the systematic effort to carve out part of an employee’s role that ties to what they enjoy doing. And clearly it’s needed based on Gallup’s data showing only 30% of the US working population is engaged at work.
Imagine a world where leaders encourage their teams to bring their whole selves to work – their skills yes, but also their interests and their values. Pulling in the manufacturing leader who loves to be the tech troubleshooter at home to man the IT desk at company meetings and help colleagues fix their computer issues. Giving the contract analyst who coaches her kids’ sports teams responsibility to coach and mentor new hires. Shifting the paralegal who’s a world traveler with a renowned travel blog to a role in corporate affairs with responsibility to also chronicle the company’s external presence in pictures.
Ernest Hemingway said it well: “When you stop doing things for fun, you may as well be dead.”
It takes a patient and talented leader to see the brilliance of each person on their team – which often requires looking beyond job competencies. And aligning roles with people’s interests won’t always be easy. But as we think about employee benefits that are truly meaningful, helping people connect the dots to align their values, interests and strengths with the work they do must be at the top of the list. After all, as leaders, who wouldn’t want a few Seabiscuits on their team?