Thu, May 23 2013
Filed under: Personal •
Many, many years ago I ran the 4 X 400 relay on my track team. I was no star, but I loved the race. It’s a long, tough sprint that leaves you completely spent yet strangely exhilarated. The coach used to tell me to leave nothing behind on the track. The trick at the end was to finish with only enough strength to raise an arm and pass the baton.
I started this blog nearly seven years ago. For the first few years, I posted several times a week. Then I got serious on January 1, 2011, when I started posting every single weekday. Go big or go home, I figured. If I was going to blog, I should throw my full self into it and truly sprint. I didn’t miss a day for nearly two and a half years, and that’s when this blog really took off. I think the daily posting forced me to be a more disciplined thinker and writer, and as the quality of my posts grew, so did the community around the blog. It’s been a good lesson to me in the power of concentrated commitment in the face of discomfort (which daily posting can be!).
But now it’s time for me to pass the proverbial baton, for several reasons. First, I am striking out on a new adventure. After eight wonderful years at Network for Good, I’m moving on to take a job as CEO at ePals, an education media company that connects learners around the world. That will be my new sprint. Second, I’m more than a little winded. After nearly 1,500 posts, I’ve said nearly all I could ever imagine saying. And so I am passing the blog baton to the Network for Good team. Network for Good will host the blog and all the archives and add posts content regularly, starting now.
This is the perfect handoff, because Network for Good’s mission is the same as mine has been with this blog: to give you, the amazing person doing good in the world, a little information, insight or inspiration to help you along the way. The Network for Good team will be lucky to have you, and they know it and will serve you well.
I said in my book that writing advice for others is an act both vain and humbling. Vain, because to sit down and write you must believe yourself an expert. Humbling, because in writing you discover there is so much you don’t know. I’m grateful to you for being with me as I learned along the way. Thanks for reading this blog over the years - and for continuing to read it in the future. And even more important, thank you for the incredible work you do, day in and day out, to make a difference for someone or something that matters. The world needs you and your concentrated commitment in the face of discomfort. How fortunate we all are that you chose to be a sprinter for good.
Fri, May 10 2013
Filed under: Personal •
I posted this on LinkedIn this week and thought I would share it with you. I was asked to write about what inspires me. I think “inspire” is perhaps not the right word given the tragedy I describe here. It was unspeakable. This is how it has shaped me, ever since. It held the fundamental lesson of life - one I should have known but just didn’t quite get till then.
I used to have a recurring nightmare: I was a passenger on a plane that plunged downward in a sudden death-spin. I would awake from the dream breathless and stare at glow of the bedside clock till I was certain I wasn’t dying. The nightmare repeated with haunting regularity.
Then a crash really happened – but I wasn’t on board.
Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 crashed at Phnom Penh airport on September 3, 1997. I was a correspondent for Reuters in Cambodia at the time, and I covered the story.
It was monsoon season, and the pilot tried to land during heavy rain and low cloud cover. The plane missed the runway, struck a stand of palm trees just beyond the airport and exploded in a rice paddy. Everyone on board – 66 people – was killed except for one child pulled from the wreckage.
There wasn’t much left of the plane except the tail, which stuck up straight in the field like a monument. The rest was shattered into smaller, unrecognizable fragments. An ambulance had slid into the mud at the crash site, its front tire submerged among the electric green of new rice shoots. There was no one left to rush to the hospital. Bodies were scattered, one nearly completely covered by a cloth. All that was visible was a hand, the fingernails neatly trimmed, clean and white like half-moons. I will never forget it.
I have thought of the poor souls on that flight ever since.
As I stood among their remains, something fundamentally shifted. There was sorrow, and there was also solidarity. I would be among the dead someday, and I saw that time would come as sudden and unstoppable and complete as the events of that rainy afternoon. Why bother fearing it in a dream? It would be my reality, just as it was theirs. But that last moment would matter little in the end. The preceding ones deserved the attention. Because every person on that flight would be remembered for how they lived, not how they died. As will we all.
Someone once told me that recurring dreams cease when you’ve finally received the message they are sending. After the horror of the real plane crash, I never again dreamed of an imaginary one. Perhaps I had finally gotten the point of the dream. It was not to wake up and realize I wasn’t dead. It was to wake up to the fact I was very much alive and to do something about that fortune with the unknowable but numbered hours left on the clock.
Steve Jobs said in his exquisite commencement speech:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Nothing is more inspiring to me than that thought. The fact of our inevitable end is not a nightmare. It is a wake-up call, as bracing and emboldening as a billion-bugle rendition of reveille. Rise and shine, it blares. Do that big thing in your heart now, right now, this minute, because you are alive and able.
Thu, April 25 2013
Filed under: Personal •
This week, I published a personal post on my LinkedIn blog. I thought I’d share it here. I was asked by LinkedIn to post on the theme of “my best career mistake.” You can view the original post here. I welcome your reactions and thoughts.
Eight years ago, I found myself scraping the tops off store-bought cupcakes in my kitchen at one in the morning. I was replacing the obviously baker-applied icing with hand-applied frosting so the cupcakes would look passably homemade when I brought them to my daughter’s school the next day to celebrate her birthday.
What would possess me to do such a bizarre thing? Shame. Or, to put it more fully, it was the mistake of trying to do it all well - and the fear of facing in myself that I could not.
Back then the icing switch-up seemed a better idea than turning up at school with obviously store-bought birthday cupcakes. After all, the school staff had made clear that home-made snacks were strongly preferred, and every other mother seemed capable of bringing lovingly hand-prepared, organic treats on birthdays. But I’d worked late that night, so the best I could do was cosmetic surgery on baked goods. My daughter didn’t care. A cupcake was a cupcake in her view, and we were going to bake a cake together that weekend when we celebrated as family. I was the one who cared. I was afraid of being The Bad Mom. Just as I feared being The Bad Worker when I was late to work because of school activities.
It wasn’t about what other people thought that was the problem. It was what I thought of myself.
Fast forward to last month, when I was on a panel discussing Women in Leadership. Every woman alongside me publicly admitted the same fleeting fears - and the same feelings of failure and fraudulence in their lives and careers. We know we can’t do it all, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling bad about that fact on any given day. It was an enormous relief to admit this - and talk about how we handle it.
This theme arises in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and hearing it from someone that accomplished was another revelation for me. I’m glad she admits her own similar moments - and irritated by dismissal of how important this admission is. I’ve read many negative reviews of the book. Most boil down to one or all of these statements:
- Shut up, Sheryl: This book is a solution in search of a problem, or it addresses the wrong problem. Women aren’t holding themselves back in the ways you say.
- Mind your own business, Sheryl: You shouldn’t be telling other women how to lean in.
- Easy for you to say, Sheryl: You are privileged and so leaning in works for you (you have lots of help). It won’t for the rest of us.
I’m distressed by these reactions because many of them miss the point and make quite clear the critics haven’t read the whole book. And because fear of this kind of judgment of a life is exactly what drove me into the kitchen to fake my cupcakes.
I feel it’s time for us to discuss, honor and learn from however we struggle or succeed - whether it’s from someone who has made it big or is making it day by day. To me, this is a major point of the book and the very purpose of this post. Having these conversations, openly, is good for everyone.
“We all want the same thing: to feel comfortable with our choices and to feel validated by those around us. So let’s start by validating one another. Mothers who work outside the home should regard women who work inside the home as real workers. And mothers who work inside the home should be equally respectful of those choosing another option.”
In addition to calling a truce in the gender wars, we should also find a peace with ourselves. By overcoming our own insecurities regarding our own paths, we can focus on something bigger and better: how all of us - men and women - can better support each other’s growth. We should find ourselves in fewer hidden cupcake moments and instead in more soul-searching, constructive reflection. As Sandberg notes: “We need to talk and listen and debate and refute and instruct and learn and evolve.”
I’ll share my choice: to work outside the home and be a mother, however imperfectly. I try to lean in as well as to stop hiding that it’s sometimes hard despite my relative fortune. So I’m fessing up about those silly fake cakes and sharing what I wish I’d known in the wee hours eight years ago: We all have paths to take, whoever we are, and those ways of living all have trade-offs. We gain, not lose, power by owning that imperfect reality, living it without shame and learning from whoever else is willing to share their experience.
To me, the real art of the lean-in is admitting the fear of falling short on my own path and pushing onward anyway. If I’d known it eight years ago, I would have showed up at school with plastic-encased, professionally frosted cupcakes in all their store-bought glory. And I would have known what mattered was that I was there, learning in to the experience of working motherhood and finding a way to be there to celebrate the most important of birthdays. After all, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Mon, February 18 2013
I love and hate to write. Here are three pieces of advice based on my daily struggle with blogging, fiction and work-related writing. I share these as a student, not a master. These are lessons I re-learn every day in the creative process. Writing is that way - casting you forever in the role of novice, whether you enjoy it or not.
1. Run toward uncomfortable. If you write something that makes you want to hide or erase, keep going straight to that feeling. You’re on to something.
2. Relentlessly live in that uncomfortable place as a way of life, ignoring every excuse and criticism. This is the work of writing. You pitch a tent in that awful, uncomfortable patch of land and spend time there every day, despite the harsh conditions, the many reasons you don’t have time to be there, and that loud inner critic who keeps distracting you.
3. Go there for no other reason than your own. Write what you want to read, say what must, lay down what matters to you. Don’t edit yet; just do what compels you. This isn’t about seeking love, approval or fame. They are rarely the results of writing anyway. Remember - you’re in a tent in the wilderness, not on a stage. This is about feeding yourself.
If you do these things, you will produce a work of writing. Keep going till you feel done or are truly stuck. Show it to smart people. Listen. It will be horrible to hear anything other than it is perfect. Listen anyway. Listen some more. Take it in and turn it back into your writing. It will get better, and you’ll be ready to run back to that rocky ground where your tent awaits.
Eventually, something will emerge. It will never match what you first imagined, but it will be something you can declare good enough. If you get that far, I applaud you. It’s not easy, and yet you stayed and worked and made it so. The rest of us are clapping, because we know how hard it is.
Fri, January 25 2013
Filed under: Personal •
I recently had drinks with a mentor of mine, and he was remarking on the fact I post so often (here and at my other, LinkedIn blog). I shared with him one of the honest, personal reasons why, and he said, “You should blog about that.” Since one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to venture beyond what’s easy into the territory of what is profoundly uncomfortable (see #3), here goes. Following are the real reasons I am compelled to blog.
1. To think as I could be, not as I am. I post about ways I want to think, ideas I should pursue and how I could do better work. Each post is at its essence personally aspirational. I write to remind myself of all the lessons I should be applying, not because I’ve mastered any of them, but because I want to try. I recently heard Seth Godin tell Mitch Joel that (even he!) shares his wisdom for himself as much as for the rest of us. Blogging at its best is the pursuit of a better self.
2.To step out of my own, tiny experience. Blogging makes me do two important mental exercises. First, it makes me work through my thoughts more fully. It’s one thing to have an idea - it’s much harder to explain it in a post. Or it’s one thing to read a book, quite another to publicly discuss what was important about it. The second mental exercise is that blogging forces me to apply those more fully formed thoughts beyond my little, silly, daily existence. I have to explore the larger significance of a concept, and that in turn broadens and betters my own experience. It helps me combat intellectual laziness.
3. To kick to the curb the shrill critic in my head. There’s an unkind and unimpressed judge who visits my mind, and she is at her most outspoken when I write, brainstorm or develop a daring idea. She tells me what I’m thinking is strange or stupid or shameful. Often, she gets in the way of my work—for example right now as I blog about blogging, which she yells that no one cares about. Perhaps you’ve met her on occasion. I know Brene Brown has met her, as has Anne Lamott, who points to her perfectionist tendencies. As Lamott puts it, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).” Each time I post something, however simple or small, it involves kicking this inner critic to the curb. It’s creation having to crush fear. Even if the shrill voice is right, if I hit Publish, at least I didn’t listen to her. At least I put something imperfect out there. At least I kept trying. We have to go to battle with this judge as often as we can, with as much force as we can muster. That - as far as I can tell - is the arduous but necessary road to invention.
4. To be in the act of creation. (This reason requires a lot of kicking to the curb.) I believe that if we’re in the act of creating something, we are living most fully in that moment. An act of creation is gloriously affirmative for ourselves and can be a gift to others. I wrote my book when I was going through my divorce from my first husband, and that generative act amid destruction taught me a thing or two about the power of making something. It’s really good for a person. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece and it doesn’t have to be the best thing we ever did. It just has to be something that is our own, that we put out there for others. It might be a book, an idea for a new product or a loaf of bread. As long as creation is happening, we are really living. Blogging makes me create, even at 11 pm when I really don’t feel like it, and that practice makes me more creative in everything else I do.
5. To make it better for someone else. You’ll notice that up to now, this is an entirely selfish list. That’s what makes this a confession. I blog with the dream of being a better person, and I write and share the kinds of things I most want to read. Honestly, that is what gives me the energy to do it every day. And yet… While it’s in many ways about me, it’s about you as well. It seems that when we share with others our aspirations, our interests and our passions, it helps other people connect with their own aspirations, interests and passions. It makes something bigger than just me or just you. I care deeply about that. If I didn’t, I would have a diary instead of a blog. My happiest blogging days aren’t when I’ve written a post I like (and believe me, I don’t have many of those given that judge in #3). They are when I created something that someone else said made a difference to them. Or when someone reacts in a way that advances my ideas in a fresh direction. By doing #1 through #4 in public, that is sometimes possible. And that is what makes thinking out loud, in type, ultimately worthwhile. It’s the hope that I might find a meeting of the minds, in the limitless and inspiring place that is far above and beyond the confines of my own head.