When I grow up

208247_5887814934_3245_nWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

How many times were you asked that question as a child? How many times have you asked it? Do you know the answer?

It’s a tough question, mostly because we feel limited by the labels in some mythic index of occupations. Besides that, things change. Technology changes. Society changes. Needs change. People change. Very few people carry that same dream forward and can actually present a business card bearing the label they casually (or passionately, in some cases) spouted.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be an insurance salesperson! But I do know people who sell insurance–and even reinsurance–who absolutely love their jobs. They love helping people feel secure and protecting their assets.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a be a logistics manager! But I do know logistics managers who find tremendous satisfaction in putting together intricate delivery plans to ensure that their customers have what they need, when they need it. They love knowing that their work keeps factories running.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a customer service rep! But I do know plenty of customer service reps who become energized by helping people get what they need. They love solving problems, fulfilling orders, and making connections.

*Cut to real life.*

One of my friends is looking for a job. His life path has removed him from the corporate frenzy for several years, and now he’s looking to rejoin the fray. When we talked about this, I found myself asking, What do you want to do? Of course, I was looking for a label to slap on his forehead so I could drop him into a category. Then I’d know which direction to point him.

He didn’t give me a clear answer, probably because he didn’t have one. Instead, our conversation digressed into the verbal pinpricks we like to inflict on each other. Slightly annoyed, I finally said, “You need to find a way to get paid for exasperating people.”

Boom.

I thought I had landed a jab and we’d move on. Then I started thinking about it. What if he could find a way to get paid for exasperating people? I concocted a plan and pitched it to him:

You could totally sell it. Call yourself a change agent and get hired for short-term gigs by companies that are having a hard time changing “the way they’ve always done it.” Your entire job would be to sit in meetings and be contrary. Force people to think differently by answering your pain-in-the-a$$ questions.

Maybe it sounds like a crazy idea, but I know lots of companies who could use this kind of thing. (And if you label yourself a consultant, they might even buy it.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about how we limit ourselves with labels. Crazy ideas like this don’t come from trying to fit someone in a box–and we need more crazy ideas so we can come up with some good ones in the process. We have to think bigger than labels.

Instead of asking what someone wants to be, maybe the better questions are What do you like to do? What problems do you want to solve? What is your passion? It might be hard to give that destination a name, but I’ll bet you find the journey more fulfilling.

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. (Attributed to John Lennon)

Youthful ideals

IMG_6233A thought struck me early this morning, and I haven’t been able to let it go. As a rule (there are always exceptions), people’s aspirations tend to diminish with age, and I don’t think it’s because they’ve accomplished everything on their list. Seriously, if you’re over 40, I’ll bet you’ve at least once rolled your eyes or chuckled to yourself when you heard some college student talk about some grandiose idea that would change the world.

I remember when I used to be like that, you think to yourself. Ah, to be young and idealistic again.

But WHY? Why, why, why do we let ourselves get so jaded and “realistic” that we give up reaching for the impossible? I guarantee you that nothing has been invented, written, changed, or accomplished by someone who thought oh, that’ll never happen.

Before I go on, let me make one thing clear. I am the guiltiest of the guilty. At 40-something, I often think my life is practically over. I catch myself thinking that my latest, greatest hope now is to prepare my kids to do great things. That’s just BS.

So anyway, here’s how I see our aspirations progressing over time:

First, we think of our lives in terms of “I want to be a/an…” [astronaut, teacher, scientist, basketball star]

Then we progress to “I want to be…” [happy, successful, rich, fulfilled, content]

Eventually we change it to “I want to…” [travel, retire, lose weight, have kids]

Finally, we finish with “I want…” [a new car, a lake house, more time]

Straight up, we settle. We give up our dreams in favor of comfort. If our old dream doesn’t work out, our new dream becomes just a little bit less. We make it something we think we can accomplish instead of aiming for what lies beyond our reach. I have a secret to tell you, chickadees.

Nothing really important ever got done that way.

And if you think this post is for you, great. I hope it inspires and recharges you. But truth be told, it’s for the girl who used to shelve books in the junior high library during her study hall. The girl who once upon a time put away an armload of biographies and thought to herself, I want to do something important someday. I want to be the kind of person who is in a biography. It’s for the girl who grew up and forgot that. It’s for me.

 

Cash cab

IMG_5768My little miss is heading to Germany for a month this summer. She’s super excited to stay with family friends who will “treat her like a person, not a kid.” And she wants to do it all by herself; Momma has been instructed not to fly over with her. This kiddo has something to prove: her independence.

She reminds me a lot of me, but better. Way better.

I hope so. Little Miss’s upcoming trip brings back memories of my own trips; in particular I’ve been thinking of my arrival for my second stint in Germania. I was 19 years old, and ready to take on the world–or so I thought.

After I landed at the Stuttgart airport, I needed to make my way to Tübingen, a town about 20 miles to the south where I would spend my junior year in college. That should have been a piece of cake. Airport-bus-train-destination. I had read and re-read every piece of information I had gotten from both colleges–my American one and its German partner–and even though there was no internet back then, they had very thoroughly laid out all the steps on volumes of paper.

But I froze. In spite of five years of German classes and a summer exchange program a few years earlier, my exhausted, jet-lagged self was afraid to open her mouth and ask to be pointed in the right direction. I was afraid to look like another American ingenue. Add to that my Midwestern lack of exposure to public transportation, and I felt utterly overwhelmed. So with a pocket full of the D-Marks I had already exchanged at home, I did the only thing that made sense to my addled brain: I hailed a cab.

Yep, I hailed a cab. To take me to a town about a half-hour’s drive away. A cab that had little chance of scoring a return fare–after all, who would be so stupid as to take a cab when all those beautiful, efficient trains were regularly rushing back and forth between the two cities? As you might imagine, I paid a pretty penny for that cab ride, close to $100 in 1989 money.

I laugh about it now, but you know what? I don’t think it was all bad. Sure, it was expensive, and people–especially my German friends–have laughed about it for years. But the thing is, I got it done. I didn’t know what to do and I still found a way to get it done. It may not have been the cheapest or the most efficient way, but I proved I could take care of myself.

Of course, I learned a couple of lessons along the way. Besides the obvious do-what-you-gotta-do exercise, there’s this: sometimes you just have to put yourself out there. You might get where you want to go without asking questions, but chances are, it’ll cost you. By asking for help along the way, not only will you move toward your goal, but you’ll also learn what you need to get you there the next time.

So, Little Miss, when you get to the other side of the pond, do what you gotta do to find your way. I just hope it costs less than cab fare.

Eating habits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot long ago, a friend and I were discussing where to go for dinner. We were still in a getting-acquainted phase, so we hadn’t gotten familiar with each other’s eating habits yet. In the course of the conversation, he gave me a wry grin and said:

I’m not a vegetarian, but sometimes I eat like one.

While that gave me a chuckle and helped us pick a restaurant, I liked the phrase so much that I tucked it away to chew on it later. I’ve been picking little morsels from its bones ever since.

Lately, the phrase has me thinking about labels. Vegetarian. Omnivore. Picky eater. Heck, you can take it way beyond food. Think of any label you’ve casually slapped on a person. Musician. Artist. Businesswoman. Foodie. Scholar. Curmudgeon.

What do they all have in common?

Although they may help paint a picture, they’re also confining. Usually we hear one of those labels and jump to conclusions–good or bad.

If I told you my friend is a meat-eater, a red-blooded, American dude whose favorite cheat food is hot wings, you’d probably never guess that he packs his lunch box with veggies and superfoods and sneaks flaxseed into his kids’ oatmeal, or that he might trip you so he can make it to the salad bar first.

If I told you I have a friend who is a musician, you might assume she has an artsy free spirit and miss that she has a head for details and numbers like you wouldn’t believe.

We have to be just as careful when we assign labels as when we hear them ourselves. There’s so much more to a person than the meaning–or assumed meaning–carried in a single category. Using a label to define someone confines our understanding of that person.

I’m a meat-eater, but I’ll usually choose a black bean cake or a lentil stew over a steak. One of my favorite solo meals consists of sautéed zucchini, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Eggplant parm? Sign me up.

You see, I’m not a vegetarian, but sometimes I eat like one.

Food fancies

IMG_5693I fancy myself to be a foodie. I like dishes that awaken my palate, juxtapose flavors, surprise my senses. Buttermilk basil sorbet. Brussels sprouts tossed in homemade pomegranate molasses. Duck meat loaf. Stinky cheeses. Anything with arugula. Latte art.

There’s not much I won’t try–unless it features goat cheese or a nasty orange vegetable–and in fact, I relish any chance to tickle my taste buds. I’ve tasted a lot of dishes, and I know my food.

Or so I thought.

Last week, to our surprise and delight, my brother and I stumbled across a multiethnic grocery store. We marveled over the unusual vegetables (would you believe that it was the first time I had ever seen a chickpea in its natural hull?) and ogled new species of fish. We piled our arms full of assorted Japanese mochi. We admired the rows of live frogs, sitting at attention like Kelly green soldiers waiting to meet their fate. We laughed at buckets of pig snouts.

The deeper we got into the store, the more items we found that we didn’t recognize. Puck cream. Freekeh. Basil seed drinks. Black silkie chickens, frozen whole and feathered.image2 We even found things we hadn’t considered food. Seagull meat. Beef blood. Beef bile. Goat heads.

We had a ball poking around; the colors and smells and packaging–and the items themselves–were fascinating. They were also humbling.

I may think I know a thing or two about food, but outside my comfort zone, I don’t know jack squat.

Twenty aisles in a Florida grocery store taught me that I still have a lot to learn. Even when I take pains to expand my horizons, the world around me stretches far beyond my field of sight. How arrogant of me to think I could master any subject.

 

Color me beautiful

Colouring_pencilsThe past several months have held quite a few losses for my family, and I’ve had several opportunities to observe and participate in our grieving rituals. As I joined my family yet again this past weekend, I learned something important.

You see, unlike the other recent funerals, this one had less elements of pre-planning. Most of the decisions about what to do and how to it were left to the survivors. And before I go any further, let me emphasize that it all came together beautifully. It was a very appropriate tribute to a life well-lived.

As a (long-term) step-relative and a bit of a sideline-sitter anyway, I spent the days leading up to the service taking in the family dynamics. Through lots of fun memories, laughter, and tears, I noticed tiny pricks of tension. Nothing big, just now and then, I’d sense a digging of heels or an undercurrent of friction. Everyone had an idea of how “it” should be, and though they were similar, they didn’t always align perfectly.

And then a couple of events started my gears whirling. In a private family moment, we shared adjectives and descriptors of our loved one. I was quite surprised that many of them didn’t seem to line up with the ones that popped into my head. I realized there were facets of our loved one that time, distance, and life phases hadn’t allowed me to see. As I listened, I also became aware that it wasn’t just me. Although there were common themes, everyone had different insights, saw her just a bit differently.

I chewed on that until the memorial service, where the feeling became even more pervasive. As a series of people took turns remembering our loved one with words and stories, I kept seeing different sides of her. Although her sweet, caring demeanor shone through everyone’s tributes, each one had a personal spin that left me thinking, “I never realized that” or “I didn’t think of it that way.”

On the trip home, I finally figured out what was going on–what is always going on, in life or in death. It’s so simple that it often eludes understanding: we see things through our own eyes. The traits and words and events that define a person come at us through our personal filter, and we translate accordingly. The tension I felt came from each of us struggling internally to defend our own memories.

My view of a person is unique; it has to be, since it comes through filters only I have. Everyone else’s view of that person is unique, too. It is only through the sharing of stories and remembrances that we can start to understand the wholeness of a person. Each person’s narrow view alone can’t encompass the richness of a life.

It took me awhile, but I finally realized that other people’s perspectives don’t erode my own. Rather than taking something away, they add richness and fullness and color.

Generationally speaking

young and oldI follow a blogger who writes about her challenges and opportunities as a 20-something in the workplace. Even though I’m not in her demographic (unless you count my 40-something as two of her 20-somethings), I generally find raw truth in her commentary.

When one of her posts popped up in my feed the other day, I noticed something.

Like me, she had taken  an unintended break from blogging.

Like me, she has made major life changes in the past year.

Like me, she has taken a new job in a completely new industry.

Like me, she is discovering the truly important elements of a career.

Sure, she’s half my age and sees life through a lens unclouded by experience and tradition. She’s fighting for recognition and I’ve got a long resume. She has future and I have history.

But you know what? We’re not all that different. In fact, deep down inside, we’re pretty much the same.

We want to make a difference.

We want to love what we do and where and with whom we do it.

We want people to judge us by our abilities and accomplishments, not our age, background, or gender.

What we really want is to be relevant.

So even though her writing centers on generation gaps (I’ll see her Gen Y and raise it my Gen X), reading her commentary constantly reminds me that the only real generation gap is in our minds. People are people. Let’s stop making judgments based on the folds of our skin (I refuse to call those things around my eyes wrinkles) and focus on the folds of our brains and the chambers of our hearts. Age is irrelevant.

Thanks, Kayla.

**Want to read her blog? Here’s the recent post that had me vigorously nodding my head in agreement: 5 Reasons Why…

And if you just delete the word “older,” you’ll find a guide to interpersonal relations, regardless of gender, HERE.

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.

 

Coffee klatsch

creamerDoggone it. Why do my local grocery stores only carry plain-Jane flavors of coffee creamer? Vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, and a few seasonal concoctions are all that grace our shelves. I know from traveling and a few relevant trade shows that there are dozens of flavors we never see–flavors that appeal to me a whole lot more.

So here’s the dilemma. A store might say it is catering to the preferences of its clientele. Customers buy a lot of French vanilla, so they stock French vanilla. But how do customers (or the store) know whether they like cinnamon creme if they don’t even know it exists?

We limit ourselves by serving only current needs and desires. We look at what’s around us rather than looking ahead at what could be. Although we think we are meeting demand today, we’re actually limiting it in the long run. There’s a big difference between serving demand and creating it.

Forget coffee creamer. The point is that we have to think ahead. Where can we go? What can we accomplish? What new solutions can we offer? What can we do that no one has ever thought of? We move forward by looking beyond our current situation and reaching for more.

And lest you think my capitalistic heart has taken over, I’m talking about new ideas, not necessarily new products. Reach for the stars, friends. You might just find a planet.

Varsity blues

Varsity_LetterBefore I start with the “real” content of this post, I want to say that I am unbelievably proud of my son, who earned his varsity letter for wrestling this year–as a freshman. He worked really, really hard and took at least his fair share of bumps and bruises–to his body and his ego.

Now, onward.

Talking to my son’s wrestling coach the other day, I asked him his thoughts about the program. As much as he appreciated how hard those boys worked, he lamented the team’s lack of depth. Although there are 14 varsity weight classes, they could only fill 12 of them this season, and several of those spots only had one guy. That is, the guy who got the varsity spot took it by default; he didn’t have to wrestle off or prove he was better than anyone else.

Where I come from, said the coach, freshmen and sophomores wouldn’t even be sniffing at the varsity line-up. When I pushed for clarification, he went on to say that underclassmen would be working hard and paying their dues, getting better and stronger in the hope that they would be good enough to earn a varsity spot as a junior or senior.

Of course, as the mom of a freshman who had wrestled varsity almost all season, my initial (internal) reaction was to go all mama-bear and protect my son’s accomplishments. The more I thought about it, though, the more I respected the coach’s position.

After all, if no one is challenging those boys for their spots–if they don’t have to worry about others rising through the ranks and threatening their hold on them–what’s their incentive to get better? They’re already “good enough,” right?

I thought back to some of the opposing teams our kids had faced this year, and the toughest ones always had huge programs. In fact, one team we wrestled even had an A-team and a B-team–both considered varsity–with an even larger number of JV guys hungering for their spots. No wonder they were so good–they just naturally pushed each other upward and onward.

I’m not saying our kids didn’t work hard. Oh, they did–they really did–and I’m proud of them all. But I also know that things look different when you can see the forest beyond the trees, and for our guys, that forest was a long way off. No wonder the coach thinks that the secret to the success of the program is to get more kids interested and participating.

Some people have an incredible internal drive and push themselves to improve no matter what. Even those people, however, need to see where the bar sits. That’s why when I was running in a lot of races, I not only looked at my time and strove to improve it, but I also looked at the winners’ times to see where I needed to go.

Competition can be healthy for all of us. It helps us get better individually and as a team. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with one winner and one loser, either. After all, I might never make varsity but end up vastly better than where I started. Or I might lose my varsity spot to someone who has surpassed my ability–and I have to step it up to get it back.

Sure, there’s unhealthy competition, too. But when I look at this kind of situation, how does it make me a loser if I end up better than where I started? I shouldn’t be afraid of more people on “my” turf; I should use them to spur me on. The more the merrier.