Sep 19 2009

Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

May 21 2009

Not my Problem

She stands expectantly at the kitchen island. “I’m thirsty,” she says, regressing by at least three years using her baby voice. I tell Buddy-roo how I’m sorry to hear about it, cuz geez, I’ve been thirsty before and I know how uncomfortable that can be.

“But I’m really thirsty,” she says it again, adding a whine. I tell her it sounds like a serious problem she’s got on her hands.

“Yeah,” she answers, waiting for me to offer her a drink. But I don’t.

When somebody tells you their problem, it can feel like they’ve tossed a bowling ball in your lap. There’s a weight to it, an expectation that by telling you, they’ve somehow handed it off, and you’ll do some thinking on it and put things right. Some people are better than others at deflecting this. (I also know people who have radars so ill-attuned that it doesn’t even occur to them to step in and offer a solution.) Most mothers, I would argue, given our instinctive and learned propensity to be of help, may go too far in the let-me-fix-it-for-you department.

This is what I’m trying to avoid.

A problem, simply stated, is just a complaint. But if you phrase it as an open-ended question, its nature changes immediately. It becomes a quest for solutions, or request for help. I think it’s a more productive way to look at problems, and a more responsible way to invite other people to help you solve them.

Anybody who’s been in one of my workshops or meetings has heard me say this: “How might you put that in the form of a question?” Short-pants and Buddy-roo have heard it ad nauseam, too, and yet – as this thirst incident demonstrates – they still need reminders.

“What’s the question you mean to ask me?” I say to Buddy-roo. A look of recognition on her face, it all comes back to her now. “May I have some apple juice… please?” (At least she adds the magic word without being prompted.)
I’d like to take credit for this little nugget of wisdom, but I can’t. It’s something I picked up while attending CPSI, the Creative Problem Solving Institute, a conference about creativity.

Until I went to CPSI, I thought of creativity as something uncontrollable, some unbridled spark that comes or doesn’t come, related to an innate, natural talent. What I learned at CPSI is that everyone is, in some way, creative – and that we can be creative on command if necessary, by using a creative process to enhance or disrupt habitual thinking. CPSI was my introduction to deliberate creativity.

If this is all sounding a bit like an advertisement for CPSI, well, it is. Today is a CPSI blog party and I’ve joined a few colleagues to help get the word out about the conference, coming up in Boston, on June 21-24. Check out what other CPSI friends and fans are saying:

New & Improved
Gregg Fraley
Filed Under Missylaneous
The Artist Within
Pablo Muños Román

I attended my first CPSI twenty years ago – and for many years it was an event I wouldn’t think of missing. Now, with school-aged kids, it’s harder to manage the trip to the states every June. So unfortunately, I won’t be at CPSI this year. (I did get to go to CREA, a European spin-off of CPSI, in April.) But here’s a really good reason to consider signing up for CPSI in June: if you go, you’ll get to see De-facto!

I’ve learned a lot from going to CPSI, but one of the most powerful take-aways, for me, was this idea of re-phrasing problems as questions. Instead of “I’m thirsty,” it’s “how might I get a drink?” Instead of “I don’t have any work,” it becomes “how might I find new jobs?” or “how to get more work from current clients?” or “how might I enjoy the newly-found free time I have as a result of having less work?” What ends up happening is that you realize there are a number of questions embedded in any given problem, and answering one of them that you hadn’t thought about before might actually solve the damn thing.

Of all the crappy wisdom I try to shove down my daughters’ throats, I hope that this is one thing they’ll remember. Well, and then there’s always this, phrased – of course – as a question: in what ways might you be sure to wear clean underwear just in case you’re in an accident and you end up at the hospital?