Elbow room

256px-Chinese_banquet_in_a_banquet_hallI fell in love with a metaphor a few months ago. I’m not sure where it originated and I don’t remember where I heard it, but it goes something like this:

Once there was a man who died and found himself at the entrance to the afterlife. On one side of him, he saw a huge banquet hall labeled Hell. On the other side, he saw an equally huge banquet hall labeled Heaven. Both teemed with people, and the noise was deafening. When he went to investigate, he noticed something peculiar: no one in either hall could bend his elbows. Every single person’s arms were locked into a stick-straight position.

Upon closer investigation, the man noticed that the people in Hell were emaciated and furious. They kept trying to feed themselves, but their locked elbows wouldn’t allow it. The people in Heaven, on the other hand [see what I did there?], laughed and ate to their hearts’ content. You see, since their elbows wouldn’t bend to their own mouths, they had decided to feed each other.

You can call the banquet halls whatever you want if you don’t like the Heaven and Hell labels, but the point remains the same. You’ll starve if you go through life trying to fill your own needs, but once you get the focus off yourself, you’ll end up stuffed. Business or personal life, it works the same.

Try it. I dare you.

 

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You have the power

Eva KorIn recent years, I’ve noticed how often life throws at me exactly the thing I need at exactly the time I need it. Every time that happens, I’m awed when I finally make the connection.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a road trip and stopped for lunch in Terre Haute, IN. As we drove through town, I noticed a small church-like building with a sign that said CANDLES, Holocaust Museum. Intrigued as to why such a place would be in a dingy town along I-70, I filed it in my head for later exploration.

A day or so later, when we were settled at our destination, I googled the place and found that Eva Kor, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Josef Mengele’s heinous medical experiments, owns and operates that museum. She also gives talks there every Wednesday and Saturday at 1pm.

I’ve nursed an intense fascination with the events of World War II since childhood. Although it has come in phases, I was headlong in the middle of another one when I passed that building. My recent activity had included watching several documentaries, many of which included interviews with Eva Kor herself. Of course I adjusted our travel plans and made sure to hit Terre Haute on the way home on Wednesday, just in time for Ms. Kor’s talk. I was eager to hear what she had to say–a real live survivor!–and for my daughter to hear it, too.

When the time came, we found ourselves face to face with the same diminutive woman I had seen in my living room, courtesy of Netflix. It felt very intimate, almost like a private conversation, as fewer than ten people showed up to hear her. I was crazy with excitement.

And Ms. Kor did not disappoint. We heard what it was like for her to grow up persecuted as a Jew. To be hurt at school. To be rounded up with her family and loaded up in cattle cars. To arrive in Auschwitz for the selection. To have her mother’s outstretched arms reaching for her and her twin sister etched in her brain as the last time she saw her. To endure the unspeakable horrors of being part of Mengele’s experiments on twins. And finally, to be liberated from hell on earth as a ten-year-old girl. It was intense, emotional, and moving.

But there was more.

What Ms. Kor really wanted to talk about was forgiveness. Through a variety of circumstances over the course of her life (read her book, or better yet, go see her in person–PLEASE), she decided she had to forgive the Nazis. Every single one of them. Hate was eating her alive, and forgiveness was her only way out.

Many people can’t understand how or why she did it. They say that there was no repentance, no remorse. They say that the crimes were too huge. They say that her family would be ashamed. After hearing Ms. Kor talk, I respectfully disagree.

Here’s why.

Forgiveness, says Ms. Kor, isn’t about the person who did wrong. It’s about freeing oneself from the pain and burden of the transgression and not letting it define your life. It’s about taking away the power it has to control you. Only the forgiver can decide whether to forgive; if she waits for remorse or atonement, then the power still rests with the transgressor. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning the action or even having a relationship with the person; it means letting it go and moving on.

In Ms. Kor’s words, “From the moment you forgive, they no longer control your life.”

You may not understand how she could forgive, and I’m sure I’ve not done her explanation justice. Go visit her, or at least poke around her website [http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/], to hear it from her point of view.

All I know is this: only days after I heard Ms. Kor speak, I find myself faced with a choice in a painful situation. I can let the anger and hurt take over my being, or I can forgive. I haven’t worked through all of the emotion just yet, but I know what choice I will make as I set my path.

Forgive and heal. Humbling words from someone who has suffered more than most of us–divinely, fortuitously just when I needed to hear them.

Addendum: Here is how Ms. Kor defines forgiveness:

Forgiveness is not a pardon to those who have caused the injury, nor does it excuse the acts they used to cause it. These things are no longer the problem for the person who forgives. Forgiveness is the release of bitterness and indignation for our own personal healing.

Forgiveness does not require forgetting. It only asks that we refuse to accept our pain as a part of ourselves.

 

The test of time

256px-Wooden_hourglass_3A few months ago, one chapter of my life closed, and as I prepared for the next one–whatever that would be–I found myself with time on my hands. While I looked for work, I punctuated my time off with a few freelance projects and being the stay-at-home mom (read: chauffeur) my kids never had.

And I had plans. Not necessarily big plans, but lots of little plans and maybe a handful of medium-sized plans. I would now have time to do all those things I could never seem to fit into my schedule. I would overhaul my house–give it a thorough cleaning, organize closets, empty the garage and attic of their extraneous junk. I would get back into prime shape, beating the streets on my bike and on foot. I would whip my landscaping into shape so my nosy neighbor would stop being embarrassed. I would teach my kids to cook. I would write more.

Now that my time at home has become finite–I’m thrilled to start a new job in just over a week–my to-do list is almost as long as when I started. My house looks only marginally better and I haven’t opened a closet except to take out the day’s clothes. I’ve made up for any extra running with extra eating. I haven’t been on my bike at all. I did pull weeds for a couple of hours one day, but only once. My kids think cooking is pouring milk over their cereal. And if you follow this blog, well, I don’t have to tell you what I didn’t do.

Here comes the epiphany.

This morning on the treadmill, I realized something that feels pretty profound: time won’t turn you into something you’re not; it can only highlight who you are. I’m not a great housekeeper, or even a good one. I hate yard work. I’m slowly crawling back into fitness, but that’s an attitude thing, not a calendar thing. So is pretty much everything.

The truth is, you make time for the things that are important to you, the ones you care about. It doesn’t matter if your schedule is packed or wide open, you’ll do what matters to you.

If I learned one thing these past months, it’s this: it’s worth way more to get to know yourself and figure out what’s important to you–not to your kids or your parents or your spouse or your friends or the ubiquitous “they”–than it is trying to do the things that you don’t care much about. It won’t always be easy to make them happen, but you’ll find that you’re driven to do it, and you’ll be a lot more fulfilled along the way. You should never ignore the things you have to do, but you should also never let them become your focal point.

If you don’t believe me, all I can say is time will tell.

Balancing act

Balancing actSome time ago, a colleague introduced me to a quote that goes something like this:

Balance, dare I say it, is vastly overrated. In the end, you might want to consider the benefits of imbalance, and the achievements that come with pursuing a passion with a single-minded devotion. –Colin Cowherd

I chewed on it at the time, “getting” it but still somewhat skeptical. After all, single-minded devotion to, well, anything means the rest of the stuff in your life will suffer, right?  It seems to me that there’s a trade-off between being okay–or even pretty good–at a lot of things and being really, really great at just one. I’ve got a family, after all. Single-minded devotion seems like a luxury when there are so many demands on my time.

Then I went to a football game. As usual, my team’s performance was wildly inconsistent. We had a great first drive, then we fell apart for a big chunk of the game. The reason? We’re really good at passing (the focus of the first drive) and struggle a lot at running (subsequent play series). It was pretty frustrating to watch.

My uncle and seatmate is blessed with the ability to always look for the silver lining. When the outcome looked hopeless, he turned to me and said, I’m glad to see we are trying the run. We need a balanced offense.

Without thinking, I shot back, Who cares about balance?! I want to win!

Light bulb moment. I finally got it, skepticism discarded.

Figure out what you do well. Practice it. Hone it. Perfect it. Do it better than anyone else and own it.

There’s another part of that quote that sums it all up: And if that means they sacrifice balance along the way, they don’t care. They’ve found something more important: results.

Thankfully, my team figured that out. We eventually went back to the passing plays that we do best–and staged an amazing comeback to win the game. Results.

Sally forth

not an optionYou can never go back. Ever. If I had a dollar for every time I learned that lesson the hard way…well, you know the saying.

It’s true. It’s impossible to recapture a moment, to reverse a mistake, to revisit the past. And it’s almost as difficult to pick up something where you left off and go on as if there had been no break. You can never go back.

But you can make a new start.

I’ve struggled to make a series of life adjustments over the past year. Instead of finding a new world order and taking charge, I’ve come pretty close to letting it take charge of me. Among (many) other things, I haven’t been running, and the last post I made to this blog was too many months ago to count.

But I can’t go back.

So here’s the deal. I’m recommitting to writing, but I won’t just pick up where I left off. Since this is a new start, I’ve given the blog a new look and I plan to freshen up the content, too. I’m not sure how yet, but if I wait till I figure it out completely, Wordsmatter will remain dormant. So I’m forging ahead and pounding the keyboard. I’ll figure it out as I go along. Suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, sally forth!

P.S. If you think this post applies to more than writing, you might be right.

More camp notes

jakeididitA couple of weeks ago, I made a return trip to Minnesota to pick up my son from wrestling camp. He made it through 28 days of hard, hard work in a boot camp style atmosphere that improved not only his wrestling skills, but also his dedication, discipline, and sense of responsibility. He came home physically exhausted but knowing he has the will to see any goal through to the end.

How did that happen?! After all, the kid is only fourteen.

The founder of the camp, J Robinson, took a few minutes to talk to the parents after the last practice. Much like when I deposited my teenaged wrestler into his charge four weeks earlier, the words he spoke have stuck with me since.

As J explained the kids’ daily activities, he emphasized that not one had been included thoughtlessly. Each activity, and its placement along the camp timeline, had been chosen intentionally in order to accomplish a specific outcome. All the campers, for example, had to do stadiums (running up and down the stadium steps) at 6:30am for the first three days of camp. They had to do them over and over and over, until there was not a single kid who wasn’t sore the next day. The goal, said J, was that when the alarm went off the next morning, each kid had to make a decision. He had to decide whether to get up and do the next drill, even though it didn’t feel good.

To reach a goal, you can’t be bound by how you feel, J said. You should only be bound by what you want.

Whoa. I’ve been thinking ever since about how many times I haven’t done something that would push me toward the achievement of a goal–simply because of how I felt. How many times I skipped my daily run because I didn’t want to go out in the heat or the cold, because I was tired, or because it was inconvenient. How many times I decided at the last minute not to attend an event that would have strengthened a friendship or furthered an interest because I was too comfortable where I was. How many times I didn’t speak up because I thought I might get embarrassed. I postponed the achievement of my goals–whether they revolved around fitness level, a relationship, my career, or personal fulfillment–because I was bound by how I felt.

I watched my son do something harder than I’ve ever done, and he did it successfully. He got past himself. He set a goal, and he did it.

Don’t be bound by how you feel. Be bound only by what you want. Powerful stuff.

Week one

You can probably tell that I’ve been busy. I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing my officefor a job change, making the job change, and trying to wrap my head around it all. New extracurricular activities have filled my time outside the office, and my head is spinning. But I love it.

I figure it’s a good time to step back and take stock of what I’ve learned, to let some of my first week observations coalesce into useful tidbits for moving forward. Here goes.

  1. There’s no such thing as too much communication. Just when I thought I had found something I’m good at, I find people who do it better. A lot better. Inside and outside the office, my life is suddenly full of terrific communicators. The more you talk, the more you share ideas, thoughts, and most of all expectations, the better your interactions–and the more you can get done, faster. And there’s always room for improvement–I’m a living, breathing example.
  2. Every minute is valuable. Time management, time management, time management. I thought I was busy, but I didn’t realize how much slack I had in my life until I started watching a great bunch of people get things done. They don’t block hours and days out of their calendars; they wedge things into minutes.
  3. Meetings suck. Over the course of my career, I’ve been in meetings, meetings about those meetings, pre-meeting meetings, and meetings to discuss whether having a meeting is necessary. We’d get a lot of smart people in a room to decide…to have another meeting. What we really should have been deciding is what to get done and how to do it–and then stop meeting so we could make it happen.
  4. Less process, more results. I love processes and standards that bring clarity and repeatability. I hate process that exists for its own sake. Sometimes, you just have to get things done.
  5. You can still have fun while you work hard. Yes, at the same time! This new gig just might feature the hardest working group of colleagues I’ve ever encountered, but it’s also the coolest, most fun working environment I’ve ever encountered. What was that? A smile? Woo hoo!
  6. Jump in with both feet. You’ll have a richer experience, no matter what you do. If you don’t like it you can always do something else. In my case, whether it’s OLG or BWW, I’m all in. This is pretty awesome.

What have you learned lately?