Are You Flatlined?

In the mid-1990s I went on a cruise and I loved standing on the top deck and looking out at the sea. There was a particular deck location I would visit because I could look out into the vast ocean without peripheral vision of other people or objects….not “I’m flying, Jack, I’m flying!” like Rose in Titanic, but similar — I could see nothing but this vast, open, blue ocean. Unfortunately, my hopeful photographs didn’t come close to truly capturing the sight, but they were a good reminder. I carried this picture around for years. Why did I do that? I had seen the ocean several other times in my life.

For whatever reason, the beauty and endlessness of that scene was inspiring to me at that time. I felt perfect, whole, brand new and at peace. I took those pictures so I could feel perfect, whole, brand new and at peace whenever I needed to!

In work, relationships, whatever we do, don’t we just want to feel inspired? What inspires you? Where do you go looking for inspiration?

Inspired activities have many benefits:

  • You get happily lost in what you’re doing.
  • You talk about it with others, thus spreading your inspired energy.
  • Inspiration drives effort: You try harder, do more than you thought you could. Maybe even inspire others to follow.
  • When a hill becomes a valley, you have a “happy place” to go (i.e. my vast ocean view).

The smallest things inspire me sometimes, and by writing this I’m inspired to nail down more specifically what inspires me so I can make it a less passive and unpredictable endeavor. For example, days can go by and I’m totally uninspired. Uninspired begets uninspired. A friend of mine wrote a blog post titled, “What the Funk?” about random, uncontrollable funks that come and go. Maybe the cure for The Funk is to get inspired (https://keepaskingthequestions.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/what-the-funk/).

Let’s start with work. Unfortunately, the workplace is at the bottom of my list in terms of places to get inspired. That’s my fault. Shame on me for not trying harder to stay inspired in the face of so much non-inspiration. But, looking back I can think of a few things:

  • A talented woman who cared for and developed her people procured a coveted and statistically male-dominated Business Unit Leader role. She had many supporters, but wasn’t a suck up.
  • Whenever the people who reported to me seemed happy, laughed and/or had accomplished something they were proud of.
  • People who spoke their minds against the status quo and weren’t relinquished to meaningless roles.
  • Employee groups that did BHAGs (Big Hairy Aggressive Goals). I couldn’t believe what these people came up with sometimes, and how they dared to dream!

Notice the common thread above: Initiatives, financial goals, big banners with catchy phrases don’t inspire. PEOPLE inspire.

What about at home? Here are a few examples of things that have inspired me lately:

  • When I pick up my kids at school, that moment they see me and run to my arms. I’m inspired to try hard again at being a good mom today. With that kind of greeting, they deserve it.
  • A beautiful photograph. The Capture Minnesota photo community (www.captureminnesota.com) has been such an inspiration to me, to really “see” beauty and surprise when I’m out and about and strive to capture it, and engaging with a large community of people with a similar passion.
  • A good run or walk. I’m pleasant, eat healthy and have energy for the rest of the day.
  • Doing something, anything new. Some things of late: joining the board of a theater, learning to knit and fundraising.
  • Ideas for improvement: Maybe this is tied to Bottomless Pit of External Validation (BPEV, see my earlier blog post, “The Secret Behind Your Kids’ Grades”), but I thrive on anything that leads to improvement.
  • New recipes. After all, I have to cook for the rest of my life.
  • Movies: Many movies have inspired me, such as, The Insider (I’m a sucker for whistleblower stories) and Moneyball (real leadership and tough choices).
  • An epiphany that gets me writing, like now.
  • Random quotes. I heard someone say recently, “You can’t change those people, you can only change yourself.” I’ve been inspired to live that way ever since.

Maybe for you it’s a museum visit, Bible verse, person, idea, random place you visited or an insightful comment from a friend. Try and think of the last thing that inspired you, REALLY inspired you.

And before I close, let’s go back to that inspiring ocean scene. Things sure have changed! Now that I have kids, I imagine being in this same place, death grip on their little arms, terrified someone will plunge over side and how horrible would that be, look how far down that is…you get the point. It serves to illustrate that you have to keep looking for inspiration because things change and what inspires you one day may not the next.

I wish you joy in getting and staying inspired!

Advertisements

The Secret Behind Your Kids’ Grades

I apologize in advance if you leave this blog thinking I have neurosis. Perhaps I do! I was successful in several corporate environments, where I think they should require and test for neurosis to predict success.

At any rate, late last summer when we got the school calendar for my twin first-graders, I entered every event and milestone in iCal and created alarms. There is no calendar entry I more anxiously await than the quarterly “report card” entry. I set two alarms for that one. Their teacher also sends a reminder the week before. I tell the ladies, “Hey! Report cards are coming next week!” “T minus two for report cards!” The girls just hang their heads and sighhhh with such dread, not even closely matching my obvious “I just won the lottery” excitement.

Why such dread? These girls get really good grades, and our individual chats on how well they did, and plans for keeping up the good work, feel quite effective.

However, the greater question I had for myself is not why the girls dread getting their report cards. It’s why I’m so pre-occupied with them. I decided it was a question worth processing.

Well, it didn’t take much processing. It’s because THEIR report cards are MY report cards. It’s my performance review. Their little first grade reading, writing, math, science, computers, music, Spanish, social studies, gym, homework and other grades are my grades. I have replaced achieved goals in the workplace: completed projects, cultural turnarounds, restructurings, whatever, with… with…

Sigh. My seven-year-olds’ grades.

This is a real problem! My daughters are Future Neurotic Extraordinaires in training!

I left the workplace to spend more time with my children: volunteer in their school, get to know them better, be there for problems and have the mental energy to not only listen, but to guide. To not bicker with my husband about who emptied the dishwasher last, or who has to stay home with a sick kid. To not view replacing the butter in the butter dish as a monumental task.

I did not leave the workplace to make my children my new professional project, my “developing team members” key result area.  But left unchecked, that is what’s happening. I guess you can take the professional out of the workplace, but you can’t take the professional out of the person.

I’ve also gotten to know better my long-lost friend, “Bottomless Pit of External Validation” with the vanishing of big projects, performance reviews, developing people, getting paid, all these intangible “markers” with which to judge myself and the value I’m contributing.  There is reward to that, even when I didn’t receive the recognition I desired.

The next phase of this “leave the workplace” journey is to get out of creating neurotic mini-mes and put my energy into serving on boards and volunteering and setting some big goals. Tasky to-do lists aren’t cutting it.

But I have feeling that won’t be enough. I need that report card!

Or, maybe I should just “unfriend” Bottomless Pit of External Validation.

The Angel in My Hospital Room

My kids’ teacher sent home a notice that they need to create a Nativity scene by December 5. It’s to be entirely homemade and a “family” project. I begged the rest of the family to let me make the angels. I love angels: angel figurines, angel tree toppers, stories about angels, anything angels.

Are angels real? Some people say they’ve seen angels. Some claim they’ve even taken pictures of angels. My “angelic” experience was different.

Thirteen years ago almost to the day, my life was literally in others’ hands. I was very young, very ill, and very unaware. At the same time, my grandmother in Iowa was also in others’ hands. She was very old, very ill, and also very unaware. We seemed to be on a parallel journey. As I teetered on the edge of life from a deadly E. coli and bone infection, my grandmother teetered on the edge of life after a decade of dementia. Suddenly, she worsened by the day, and so did I. From my mother’s perspective, her daughter and her mother were both edging toward death at the same time, with only days remaining.

And then Grandma Carmen died. After so many years of lying in a bed completely dependent on others and not obviously aware of her surroundings, her eyes opened wide. She looked at my grandpa, my mom, and my uncle, meeting their eyes in turn. And then she passed.

In the same hour of Grandma’s death, in the middle of the night, my now husband (we had just gotten engaged) discussed with the doctor on call to put me into intensive care, at that point they didn’t really know what was wrong or what else to do. There, a new infectious disease doctor took the case. I stabilized and, finally, with a clear diagnosis and new medications, began to improve.

According to a survey by the Pew Forum, 68 percent of you will get chills from this story. Was it a coincidence? Or in true angelic form, did Grandma die to save my life? Are you open to the possibility that there’s some force working in your life?

Whether you believe in them or not, angels sure are prolific. They sit atop Christmas trees, shimmer in stained-glass church windows, and make appearances in plays, books, and movies. CBS News reporter Tracy Smith asked Colleen Hughes, editor of Guideposts magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to angels,  “Why is it the majority of Americans believe in angels?”

“Because too much stuff happens to us that we can’t explain,” said Hughes. “There are coincidences that we’re willing to chalk up to coincidence, and there’s too much that we aren’t, because we have this feeling that it was something else.”

Now we’re talking! If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs personality test, you might relate to this concept of intuition. I am an INTJ. Very strong N (intuition) and very strong J (judgment). I trust my gut, and it’s always right, despite how often I actively try to persuade it otherwise with my T (thinking) tendencies. There is a time for I, and there is a time for T.

Angels are also culturally or religiously “neutral.” That’s another reason I like them. According to Ines Powell at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, angels exist in many cultures. “There are angels in Judaism and Islam, and winged figures in Buddhism and Hinduism.” One angel image in the Met came from a ninth-century palace in what is now Iraq.

The very word angel comes from the Greek word for messenger. Artists often depict Eros, the Greek god of love, as an angel. “Eros is also a little person who moves from heaven to earth, who kind of brings down to earth his mother’s wishes,” Powell said. “So this little figure is sometimes very good, brings love between people.”

But I have to say, (look out, here comes the T!) who cares about my E. coli infection? Where are angels when a child is beaten, abused, or otherwise mistreated? Where are angels for the 100,000 people dying of starvation in Somalia, while America continues to top the charts in obesity rates?

Why angels and not some other mystical figures? What about fairies? Gnomes? The Tooth Fairy? Santa? All make believe, of course. But we’re not so sure about angels—or demons, for that matter (after all, something good can’t exist without its opposite).

Robert Lawrence Kuhn from Science and Religion Today spoke with law professor Walter Sinnott-Armstong. According to Sinnott-Armstrong, naturalists reject the idea that angels and demons are real, citing personal illusion, mass delusion, and “cultural viruses”(or memes) as underlying causes.

Among his physical, psychological, and cultural explanations for why a false belief in angels and demons would arise in so many disparate human cultures, Sinnott-Armstrong blames people’s proclivity to use demons as scapegoats. Psychologists may say that because people do not want to believe that evil is perpetrated by themselves, their family, and their friends, they conjure up (fictitious) demons that (supposedly) lead humans astray. With demons as causative agents in the world, people can feel better about themselves.

“As I see it,” said Kuhn, “A starting fact is that, yes indeed, most human beings believe in angels and demons. Across diverse cultures, nonphysical beings, in great numbers and variety, fly freely in collective myth and individual imaginations. How to explain such robust, broad-based belief? It depends on your worldview.”

Well, I don’t claim to understand anyone else’s worldview. I just know my own. Was there some guardian angel force at work the night my Grandma Carmen died? Did she give her life for mine? I don’t know the answer for a fact. But it was an immediate, sure, sustained feeling I still can’t explain. So I’m going to stick with it.

Sources:

Smith, Tracy. “Do Angels Exists?” CBS Sunday Morning (Feb. 11, 2009). http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/12/21/sunday/main4680299.shtml.

Kuhn, Robert Lawrence. “Do Angels and Demons Exists?” Science and Religion Today (April 8, 2010). www.scienceandreligiontoday.com/2010/04/08/do-angels-and-demons-exist/.

Change Your Life, Starting with Your Funeral

Pretend you’re dead. I know, it’s a dark thought, but hang in there with me.

Now, imagine you’re dead and you’re at your funeral. Where is it? Who’s there? A big crowd, or just a few people? Are they hugging? Smiling? Crying? Greeting each other? Or maybe they’re quietly arriving and taking a seat.

What are people saying? How are they remembering you? “Great doctor, great teacher, great pipefitter.” Hmm. Do you care what people say at your funeral about your career? Maybe.

What else? “He was a great person. Boy, Joe knew how to catch those fish.” Or, “She was such a dedicated volunteer, always there when you needed her.” Sure, those are nice things to hear.

Still, there must be more. Something more inspiring. Right?

Let’s go deeper. Do you hear anything about your relationships? “He had such an impact on my life.” “She taught me X, and I’ll never forget it.” “He had a way of making everyone feel included.” “She was the best mom.” “He was a great dad.” “She so loved her grandchildren.” “She had more courage in her little finger than most people have in…”

You get the picture. I think most people hope the conversations and stories shared at their funerals will be like the last examples. If you’re not one of those people, then don’t read on. No, actually do! No harm in trying to improve your funeral.

The point is this: How do you want to be remembered?

Many people, me included, spend so much of their time on activities that seem superficial in the context of a funeral. Most people would probably agree that what matters in life doesn’t differ much from what matters once you’re dead. But we don’t spend the bulk of our time focusing on what matters. And in the end, there’s no room for money, nice cars, or accolades—whatever seems to matter now—in a casket or especially an urn. It’s just you in there.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things or spending your time trying to get those things. But I don’t think it makes us very nice—or very happy. And it doesn’t give people a reason to say something meaningful or joyous about us at our funerals.

There’s also that pesky notion of time. How often do you say it? “I don’t have time.” I’ll bet you could come up with extra time if you knew you were going to die soon.

So if a gap exists between how you’re living and how you want to be remembered, what can you do?

Well, you could start by doing what I did: sob, sob, sob. I called the first person I could think of (my poor, dear husband) and sobbed. This is a true story.

You know the routine: Busy Important (BI) job, BI travel, BI meetings. And, of course, trying to ensure that my children ate well, attended the best preschool, and knew what I looked like. I tried hard. REALLY hard. I didn’t sleep much and was one crisis away from a total mental breakdown. And there was certainly no time in my BI life for a funeral!

Alas, my father phoned to tell me that my Aunt Gladys had passed and her funeral was the day after next in Iowa. I didn’t know Aunt Gladys very well, but I really liked her when I was little, and I wanted to support my dad. Thus commenced the scramble to rearrange several things in my BI job and BI life, and off I drove to Iowa.

I arrived to find a small town, a small church, and a BIG crowd. The place was packed. But it didn’t feel sad there, even though people of all ages were hugging and crying. Then the funeral started. One after another, loved ones, friends, and co-workers all got up and talked about Aunt Gladys. She was warm and welcoming. She made everyone feel special. I’m sure she had her faults, but Aunt Gladys was overwhelmingly loved and admired.

Wow. I sank into my chair in total despair. Here this woman has died and left a hole in so many lives, and all I can think is, “This is amazing. What a person she was, and what a person I’m NOT.” And how selfish is that?

Next comes the sobbing part. I get in the car for the drive to the burial and call my husband. “(Sob, sob, sob) I just left Aunt Gladys’s funeral, and everyone went on and on about how much she meant to them. What’ll they say about me? ‘She was a really good HR director?’” More sobbing.

It was a big “aha” moment in a long line of “aha” moments, one of many “you need to change your life now” experiences. But that was the day I realized that I needed to become the person that I wanted others to remember.

And so I began. My journey so far has produced some big, rewarding changes. I have a lot to tell you, but I’ll save those stories for another day.

Now, back to you. I have provided the “aha” and saved you a pathetic bout of sobbing. To get started on your own journey, think again about your funeral. Write down three things you hope people will say about you.

And then start living the way you want to be remembered.