Giving back

homestead girls xc 2015Remember that big trophy case in your high school? You know the one; it houses all the awards from sports and band and club competitions. It’s filled with statuettes and plaques and medals and team photos, and you always stop to look at it when you go back for a visit. Heck, my daughter’s school is big enough that it has a trophy case for each sport.

Except hers.

No matter how hard you look, you won’t find any awards on display for the girls’ cross country team, even though the team has historically been successful. Heck, this year alone they placed ninth at the state finals, piling up wins and places along the way. So where are the trophies? Where are the ribbons? Does the school hold girls’ xc in complete disdain?

Nope.

When I attended Awards Night, I saw all the hardware displayed in its shiny glory. One statuette must have been at least two feet high; it stood on the table like a beacon, luring the girls to come back for another season, another success. And that was only one of the awards. The spread on the table would have wowed anyone.

By the end of the night, it was gone.

That’s because the coaches felt that since the girls had earned them, they should keep them. They’ve made it a tradition to present each senior runner with one of the awards from the season, choosing according to some anecdote that matches each girl with a particular race.

These aren’t just the varsity runners; they’re ALL the senior runners. That includes seniors on JV who may never have earned an individual award in their high school careers. By the end of Awards Night, everyone had something to commemorate her contribution to the team.

That’s pretty selfless of the coaches, if you ask me.

After all, they’d have one impressive trophy case if they accumulated all that hardware in a single location. They could revel in their success every time they walked past. Look what we’ve accomplished! Don’t we produce great teams?! 

Instead, they tuck their successes away in their hearts and memories and give the credit to the girls who showed up every day and worked their tails off. To the girls who ran two and three and four hundred miles over the summer to stay in shape. To the girls who collapsed after crossing the finish line because they had nothing left.

Don’t get me wrong. The coaches worked their tails off, too. They poured hundreds of hours into the season–after teaching all day. They ran and biked alongside the girls. They gave up time with their families. They were the first ones there and the last ones to leave every practice and meet. They praised and prodded and encouraged, even when they were mentally exhausted. They earned those trophies, too.

That’s why giving those trophies to the girls means so much. The coaches taught the girls how to stretch, how to eat, how to race, how to persevere, but the most important thing they taught them was how to give back.

We gain so much more from giving credit than from taking it.

Thanks, Coach W and Coach B.

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Music to my ears

I’m not the world’s best parent. Truth be told, I’m not even close. Once in a while, though, I get something right.

With two teenagers and a dog in the house–and me as the antithesis of Suzy Homemaker–the messes and chores never end. I keep looking to my kids for relief. Their able bodies should be able to unload the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry, or even *gasp* hang up their coats.

And, grumbling notwithstanding, they usually do–when I ask.

Futilely, however, I keep hoping that they will notice what needs to be done and just do it. After all, the dishes don’t magically disappear. Without a list or a specific request, though, I’m convinced my kids have tunnel vision in the house. This panics me, because I wonder how they will ever manage on their own.

Note to self: continually dropping passive aggressive hints does not work.

Like putting all the clothes from the bathroom floor into the sink. (They just use a different one.)

Or wondering aloud if I am the only one who ever loads the dishwasher. (No reaction.)

Or asking why that coat is on the table, again. (I really had to go to the bathroom when I got home, so I just threw it down. [Yet there it remains.])

Note to self: nagging does not work.

Who is going to do this stuff when you live on your own?

You left your dishes in the sink–AGAIN.

Your bathroom is a disaster!

And if one of those tactics doesn’t work alone, neither does an alternating chorus of them, nor does repeating them over and over. And over. It just becomes the equivalent of shouting at a person who doesn’t understand the language.

Finally I smartened up and tried something new. When I leave the house, I don’t give them a specific list of chores anymore. They’re clearly not learning from that. Instead, I give them a number and vaguery.

Today I want you to do three meaningful things around the house. You get to pick what those are, but they have to have significance. (Folding three pieces of laundry in one load does NOT constitute three things.)

Holy moly. The results I got with that approach far outweighed anything else I had tried. It forced them to take note of their surroundings and self-evaluate (is it enough?). The first time, I got a clean toilet, a clean kitchen, and a vacuumed floor. Oh, joy of joys!

I don’t know why we (read: I) don’t look at our home lives like we look at our professional or social lives. We fall into ruts and don’t even think about changing them. People are people, and the same principles apply: if someone doesn’t get it, increasing the volume won’t help. Change the way you communicate.

Stop nagging and get creative.

Camp notes

jrobA little more than a week ago, I delivered my son to wrestling camp three states away. For a month. I know it sounds crazy, but unlike many moms, the idea of separating myself from my firstborn for a month never gave me pause, even for a second. Truthfully, I was just as excited about it as he was.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not looking to get rid of him. He’s actually a pretty cool kid–the kind I’d like to spend more time with, not less. But I digress.

This camp is pretty hard core. When my son didn’t check in with me as promptly as I thought he should have the first couple of days, I poked him a little via text message. His response? Sorry, Mom. I’ve been sleeping every possible chance. They work the kids hard. They teach them the real meaning of hard work, dedication to a cause. Alongside the intense physical sessions (running/lifting twice a day, four times a day on the mat), they also provide classroom instruction on topics ranging from goal setting to time management to handling money. And they expect the kids to learn life skills along the way by having to take care of themselves for a month sans parents. In fact, as my son and I approached the registration table, the parents were told we had to step aside. For the duration of the camp, the kids have to be responsible for themselves and their actions. *gulp*

So what’s my point?

Something the camp founder said during the incoming parent meeting really stuck with me and really explains everything. In a hoarse voice, he boiled 36 years of camp experience into this:

Everyone has a PowerPoint these days, but you don’t get tough sitting in a room talking about getting tough. To get hard, you have to live hard.

And that’s it. If you want to become something, you have to live it. You can talk about it and plan it all you want. You can learn the technique and study the experts, but you’ll never, ever master it until you do it yourself.

Forget the wrestling part. I’m excited to see the character changes in my son when he returns from camp. I expect to see a more confident, more capable, more wizened young man when he returns. I’m already seeing it in his communication with me after a week; how will he look after another three?

You don’t change by talking about something. To get hard, you have to live hard.

New clothes

new clothesAs I kid, I remember reading the story The Emperor’s New Clothes. If you don’t remember it–or even if you do–it’s worth clicking the link for a refresher. I always got a giggle from the tale as a kid, but lately I’ve been consumed by its wisdom.

Tricked by a couple of shrewd schemers, the vain emperor parades around naked, believing he is garbed in clothing so fine that only the wise and enlightened can see it. Afraid of being deemed stupid, his subjects shower him with cheers and compliments, and the farce continues.

That is, it continues until a child, uninhibited by pretext and social expectation, speaks the truth. The very plain, very apparent truth.

How often have I been in situations where people have been afraid to speak up for fear of looking stupid?

How often have I been one of those people?

It saddens me to think how much time has been squandered talking around an issue because everyone thought he was the only one who couldn’t see it. That feeling is unsettling; it erodes confidence and undermines productivity. Those things eat away at a person.

As I think about the people I respect the most, I realize they share a common trait. They have the eyes of a Hans Christian Andersen’s fabled child, who could only see things as his eyes showed them to him. They’re not afraid to call it like they see it, even if that strains against convention. They’re not afraid to ask questions to help them see something better. And they’re not afraid to speak up about it.

Be that child.

If you see someone running around naked, tell him it’s time to get new clothes.

One lucky girl

tvdThe best career advice I can give anyone is this: figure out what you love to do, then go after it. I firmly believe that there’s a job out there for everyone that will make her say, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!”

When I wrote my first article for publication, I danced on cloud nine. Not only did someone believe in my writing enough to put it in print, but it also came with a check–with my name on it. Even though that check wouldn’t have bought dinner, drinks, and dessert for a party of two, I didn’t care. Someone was paying me to do something I loved. It was the best feeling in the world. (Or at least one of the best two or three.)

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to figure out what that “thing” is that you love. It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness and generally a healthy dose of trial-and-error, as well. I’ve often thought it completely unfair that we have to make choices at young ages that determine the direction of our entire lives. I wish I had known myself at 18 the way I do now that I’m, er, 40-something. I wouldn’t have taken so long to get here.

After 4 years of college and 22 years of a career with 3 years of grad school sprinkled on top, I finally know what gets me charged up and passionate. Heck, you probably do, too, since those are the things I write about. Making connections. Finding the meaning. Getting the details right. Learning lessons to make things better. Helping other people do it, too.

Now I get to do it and get paid for it. Officially.

On July 8, I’m starting a new adventure. After 18 years with the same company, changing jobs is kind of a big deal. I know the drill where I sit today. In fact, I know pretty much all the drills. There’s a certain comfort in that–but not enough to keep me from this new thrill.

I am so excited! I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to go to work there every day, to do what I love.

It makes no difference if you want to coach wrestling, crunch numbers, create video games, care for people, or call baseball games. If you love it, do it. Live your passion and find a way to make a living from it. Life’s too short to do anything else.

One Lucky Guitar, here I come. I am one lucky girl.

Just say yes

Kara80s-8My kids ask me for stuff all the time. I’m not talking about buying them things–they’re actually not too presumptuous in that area–no, my kids want to go places, have friends over, do things. For a long time, my immediate reaction was to say no: our schedule was always too busy, I needed to go for a run and didn’t have time to put myself back together, the house was a mess. Even if we eventually worked our way back to a yes or some modified version of it, everyone’s spirits sagged a bit from the process.

Somewhere along the way, I started saying yes more often. When I can’t give an unqualified assent, I offer a few alternatives.

“I want a tie dyed cake for my birthday.” — *gulp* “Okay.”

“Can I have a friend over on Friday, Mom?” — “I need to go to X place on Friday, but we probably have time on Saturday afternoon.” 

“Can I go to the mall and hang out with Noah?” — “I’m expecting someone to come over and can’t take you right now, but if his parents can pick you up on the way, I don’t see why not.”

At 12:45: “Can I go to Megan’s party at 1, Mom?” — “Sure.”

Not too long ago, I would have categorically said no to each of those requests. I had plans on Friday, I wasn’t available to play taxi at the needed hour, 15 minutes was not enough notice. I don’t know what changed my approach, but I’m amazed at how much more smoothly things go when I start with a how-can-I-make-this-work attitude rather than simply denying a request because that’s the easier thing to do.

We’ve had some of this going on at work, too. No, no, no, is turning into let’s think about this. We still can’t accommodate every request, but working toward a common solution builds a lot more cooperative atmosphere than drawing a clear line between yes and no, regardless of the explanation that may accompany the no.

Sure, I sometimes fall back into old habits, but I’m getting a lot better. The best part is that I’ve found that the more often I say yes, the bigger my world becomes. I meet new people, make new things, see someone smile.

The yeses make my life a lot richer than the nos. Try it yourself.

Vanity plate

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 8.15.38 AMCrossing the street to head into the office this morning, I waited for a car to pass. Although I didn’t recognize the car, I noticed that it sported a company logo’ed license plate on the front. When it got closer, I recognized the driver, waved, and continued across the street.

That got me thinking.

The person driving the car is relatively new to the company. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad he’s proudly waving our proverbial flag. I thought about how many people we’ve hired over the last several years and how each person changes the face of our company a little bit. After all, our brand is the sum of all the people (and their actions) behind it. I wonder if we’re thinking about that each time we have a position to fill.

I’ve got two open slots right now, and to do my job right, I not only need to think about the functions those people need to perform, but also about how those people will represent our brand. Whether they ever talk to a customer, their words and deeds have a part in shaping our company. They’ll affect coworkers, vendors, and even the community.

Think about it in terms of that car. What if the company license plate had been on an old beater, belching exhaust and dripping oil? Would it have made a difference if that guy had been blaring Megadeth or Jimmy Buffett or the Grateful Dead on the stereo? What would people have thought if they had seen the car run a red light and swerve around a pair of schoolchildren? What if it crawled down the street twenty miles under the speed limit at all times?

When I hire someone, I’m essentially hanging my logo on that person for better or for worse, just like that license plate. I need to put as much time into finding someone who will wear it well as I put into evaluating her functional skills. Every graphic designer, web developer, accountant, engineer, marketer, and technician is an investment in the company’s future.

Back in the day, we used “world class” as our deciding characteristic when it came to bringing people on board. Today more than ever, I understand why.