Failing to learn

Bike

“On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

One of my favourite memories of when I was a kid was riding my bike around the neighbourhood with my friends.  It was freedom.  And when my family moved out into the middle of nowhere (a rural community), bicycling became my salvation.  I would ride for hours just to do something and be on my own.  I also fancied myself a bike mechanic , but in reality I probably just cleaned it, kept the chain in good shape, and watched for signs that things were off.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that about five years ago I decided to get my motorcycle license.  I was inspired and encouraged by my husband who has always had a motorcycle since he was in high school. I often thought about riding my own bike, but having young kids, dealing with shift work schedules, and just life in general put this low on my priority list.  But it WAS on the list. 

Fast forward to a time when the kids were old enough to be properly embarrassed by the idea of their mom riding a motorcycle…I knew it was time.  So I took the course, passed, got the first few stages of my graduated license and have been riding for the past few years.

But hanging over my shoulder was the fact that there was one more road test to getting my full license – something that can only be done once you have been riding for at least 18-24 months (it varies based on whether you took a formal training course or not).  Honestly, I was in no hurry to do this final test since there were no restrictions that impeded where or when I could ride.  So I just coasted along.

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This is the point where I should provide a bit of a sidebar to explain that we both ride vintage bikes (1973 & 1975).  They are awesome to get around for our Sunday-esque rides and often are conversation pieces. However, like many things from the 1970s, they suffer from the odd malfunction, leak and short.  I know this from personal experience, being of the same vintage.

My husband is our in-house mechanic.  He has no training or calling in the area – just a desire to tinker, a need to fix things, and the ability to listen to the most monotonous Youtube DIY videos on repeat.  So, he has taken care of oil changes, tire, and a range of other issues, including minor electrical stuff.   It’s not a lack of willingness on my part to learn – I just relied on him to manage things in this department.  I am actually interested and have some adeptness in learning mechanical things, but for whatever reason – I let this be his thing and didn’t bother.

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A few weeks back, I arranged for my final license test and showed up to the testing site.  My husband accompanied me, but we agreed that he would leave beforehand so that I wouldn`t be distracted while they prepped me and inspected my bike.

When the inspection part started, I had to demonstrate that all lights and bells worked and they all did.  Except one.  For whatever reasons, one of my brake lights was not working.  I tried again.  And again.  The tester let me turn my bike on and off, just in case.  No luck.  I was stunned and left standing there not knowing what to do.  They deemed the bike not road worthy and I never even left the parking lot.  Technically I didn’t fail, but in the moment it certainly felt that way.

I had a long 30 minutes to wait for my husband to return and in that time I went through a range of emotions: irritation, frustration, and above all, embarrassment.  When he finally made his way back and I told him what happened – he was shocked and disappointed.  He got me to start my bike and test the brake light.  I have to admit that I was somewhat relieved that it didn’t work.  He knelt down beside the bike and fidgeted with a wire.  The brake light worked.

My emotional state went straight to mad – mad at myself for not knowing how to fix that.  Mad at myself for not even thinking to fix it.  Mad at myself for not having checked it before my husband had left.  Mad at myself for letting myself be so fucking complacent and lazy with the excuse that someone else would take care of it, so why should I bother learning.

I processed all of this internally, but I am sure it showed on my face.  We got on our bikes and headed home; it was a much quieter ride (we have headsets) than the way out.  At some point, he must of thought it was safe to talk to me and said it was okay.  It sucked, but it was okay.

And I knew he was right and said so.  I also told him that as of that moment, he was not allowed to work on my bike unless I was with him and that I would learn as much as I could about the mechanics of maintaining my bike.

This situation  reminded me of when I read Robert M. Pirsig`s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values  about a year ago.  I had mixed thoughts about the book – on one hand it came across as a  pretentious pseudo-philosophical awakening journey.  On the other hand, there was something that struck a nerve with me – the idea that maintenance was a dying or lost art – and that it’s not enough to just go along hoping things will continue to run smoothly, or that someone else will fix it, but that you need to be prepared to try to solve the problem:

“And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”

I really wished that I had made the connection earlier and not taken for granted to importance of not only knowing how to maintained, but also the simple and basic idea that they need to be maintained.

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Warning: Introvert at Work

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We make a lot of assumptions about how people operate based on these neat labels that we apply: Boomers, Millennials, Introverts, Extroverts Quants, Techies…it saves us time – people know what we mean when we refer to them.  Their profiles are universal. How they act and react is predictable.

So, it stands to reason that we should be able to identify who is thriving and who is struggling at work in these weird pandemic times based on these finite characteristics.  Right?

Among my colleagues, the idea of me as the group`s resident Introvert has been greatly exaggerated to almost caricature level.  This label is used to explain why I don’t socialize, why I don’t talk much, why I am sarcastic, and why I don’t like physical contact.

I laughingly go along with this because those closest to me know better; however, I do see how this perception has spread beyond our immediate group and has actually influenced other`s perceptions of my ability to do certain work.  

I was once told that a senior executive questioned my ability to handle a situation because…“she’s an introvert“.  

Honestly, even today as I write this, my reaction is the same: what the actual fuck does my introversion have to do with my ability to do a job.  I was so irritated with this that I almost said something.

I hesitate to define myself as an introvert, mainly because I hate the whole labelling game (as I mentioned here and here before).  It’s lazy, allows people to make excuses and develops inaccurate assumptions. 

I am just someone who requires quiet and to be on my own to balance out the rest of my life.  I also happen to enjoy that quiet and alone time – it’s not a punitive time-out. If that makes me an introvert, so be it.

So let me dispel some of the above assumptions about me:

I can be quite social – I am just selective of with whom I socialize.  I don’t have patience for small talk, I am not particularly effective at striking up conversations with people I don`t know, and struggle with groups of people above 5 and below 100.  And yet, I have been know to tell people that  I don’t avoid people because I’m an introvert, I avoid people because I don’t like people.

I actually do talk a lot, but again it depends on with whom…I don`t interrupt, I don`t talk over people, I don’t tend to voice my opinions until I am sure that I know what I want to say, and I don’t like talking for the sake of talking.

As for the sarcasm, well that’s not introversion, everyone knows it`s an ineffective coping mechanism for unresolved anger or frustrations.  It`s my sense of humour, FFS.

And finally, the physical contact…this makes me laugh.  As someone who works in HR, it would make me nervous to hear that someone actually requires physical contact at work and that group hugs are vital to their productivity and engagement.  Suffice it to say, this falls into “it depends on with whom“.  Can we agree and shake hands on the fact that this has nothing to do with introversion.

In my mind, all those factors actually make me better at my job – I am quieter, I hear what’s being said or not being said, and I reflect before jumping into problem-solving mode. The challenge is that I need the time and space to do this and now that I am working exclusively from home, this challenge of time and space is even harder to come by.

The predictable idea that I would thrive in this time of lock-down is not holding water.

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Back in March it felt like we were suspended in mid-air, waiting to see whether we would continue to float along or whether gravity was going to kick back on and we would drop.  

In my home, the first month saw both of my adults kids return to the nest and we all acted like it was like an extended holiday time – we played a lot of board games, there were fireside chats about what was happening  globally and basically, we insulated ourselves from the rest of the world.  

I remember my colleagues saying to me over Skype calls that I must be in my element…no social interaction, staying at home, living the introvert life…

And to a certain extent it was true. Pre-Covid, we rarely went out for dinner, didn`t visit others frequently and hosted even less.  So, those initial weeks and even months were not too challenging (from a social aspect only).  However, as time went on, things got harder – I was missing going out for simple errands, missing going for coffee, missing the ability to pop in and see someone, missing the sound of silence and above all, I was missing being alone. Alone in my own home, alone among others that I didn’t have to interact with, alone in my thoughts.

So six months into our current situation and I am incredibly fortunate to be safe in my home, with my family; however, my energy levels remain very low.  I jokingly (not jokingly) tweeted the other day:

It was a good day. I will cherish August 30, 2020 with fond memories.

In light of this, my husband, who has the same struggles as I do, has even suggested that we should look for a bigger place…my response was that our home is the perfect size, what we need is less people in it.

I love my family, but we never really thought that we would have four adults living in this place. That was not the plan. I am certain it was not their plan either. Alas, here we are and finding an opportunity to be on your own is not easy. For four introverts, oh yes – all four of us, there are days when simply hearing someone in the next room clear their throat can send you into an internal rage that makes you retaliate by scraping the spoon across your bowl of yoghurt WAY more than necessary.

The silent and passive-aggressive wars that are waged in this home are brutal.

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So when discussing remote work and Zoom-overload, we have to realize that all the previous challenges that were in place are still there – whether you are extroverted or introverted. Technology allows to remain in contact, but doesn`t change who were are.

We have just added another layer of complexity to these by eliminating the respite that home used to be…whether that was to invite your family and friends over for dinner and drinks or whether it was to curl up in a chair in a silent room and stare out the window.

And continuing to rely on our assumptions about how people are coping is doing everyone a disservice.

(Note: Yes, I forgot GenX from the top list…might as well since EVERYONE forgets about GenX)

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Through a window or into a mirror?

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Maturity is that time when the mirrors in our mind turn to windows and instead of seeing the reflection of ourselves, we see others . Source unknown

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At work, we are on a path to developing a psychologically safe environment, characterized by concepts like  trust, openness, vulnerability and transparency.

These are not easy to achieve because it means getting out of your own head and being willing to consider the perspective of others.  It means putting the ego and defensiveness aside and making the moment about someone else, not just trying to see how it impacts or reflects on you.

It requires the ability to connect with a person and actually see them.  So that when they are across from you and start talking, there is a window between the two of you…you see them, hear what they are saying, and try to understand what they mean.

The trouble is that many people see a mirror.  They hear what the other is saying and then automatically fall into the thoughts of how does this make me feel, how can I relate to this, how is this similar to something I have been through, oh that reminds me of something that I want to talk about…and soon, they aren’t seeing the other person, they are seeing only themselves in relation to what the other person is saying.

It’s not hard to tell when someone is distracted by this kind of reflection – we have daily interactions with people unable to put down a smartphone or look away from a screen.  However, in those instances – there is visible proof that the person is distracted and focused on something else.  It’s not as obvious when they are looking at you and acting like they are listening to what you have to say, but clearly they are distracted by themselves.

I have often been described as a private person, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I am a selectively private person.  With some people, I will share almost anything about my life, my thoughts, my fears, my concerns, and even the most banal aspects of my life.  With others, I answer and share only what I feel I need to maintain the conversation and relationship.

It’s the person who takes whatever I share as a launch point for them – when they look at me, they don’t see me or what I am trying to express – they see a reflection of their own thoughts, as if I was holding up a mirror.

I am talking about barely acknowledging what a person says, throwing in just enough to show they are observing some of the rules of polite conversation, only to hijack the thread and use any prompt to go off in their own direction.

“I know exactly what you mean, it’s like that time I….“

`Interesting, this what I did today….“

“That’s nothing, let me tell you about…

“Oh, me too…“

I have tried modelling by acknowledging the other person, asking them follow-up questions, and showing interest.  The end result is that the conversation remains centered around them.. like a sink that’s  draining, the flow only goes inward towards them.

I have tried listening while they derail the conversation towards them, patiently waiting to resume what I was originally trying to share, only to frustrate them with the fact that I am not giving what they said the appropriate amount of attention (ironically).

The truth is, they don’t want openness and transparency, they want a reflection.  So I gradually stopped trying to share.

To these people, I listen, ask questions knowing that I am opening up the gates for them to talk as much as they want, about whatever they want to talk about.  This does work, for awhile, but eventually they know something is off.  Sometimes a comment is made that they don’t feel like I am being open with them, that I am so private, that I don’t share anything about what I am doing in my life with them…

Consider the possibility that then, next time you are wondering why someone seems so closed off to you, that might need to be the mirror aside and try to see them through a window.

 

Weeding through the chaos

I can’t believe it’s been a year.  Well, actually I can believe it because when I consider everything that has happened and continues to happen…it had to have been at least a 12-month period.  In fact, I can’t believe it’s only been a year.

I`m walking a lot these days and on the occasions when I find myself alone, blissfully alone, I noticed that I start to draft  blog posts in my head.  By the time I get home these ideas have faded and retreat into the back of mind, only to resurface  later on my next walk.

Today, I am trying to break that cycle.  (And no, I am not walking with my laptop)

There is no shortage of things to talk about…there’s working from home, wearing masks or railing against people not wearing masks, social distancing or railing against people not practicing social distancing,  Zoom fatigue, BLM protests, the state of the US, the state of Canada, the oppressive weather, Karens and cancel culture and… (*quickly scans what`s trending on Twitter*)… pretty much anything and everything.

What can I add to any of the above that hasn’t already been said, both factually or inaccurately, a million times by a million different people.  Adding my piddly thoughts at this point feels like that kid who always chimes in 30 seconds too late to a group rally cry.  I am really hoping that this won’t come across as apathy, it’s not.  It’s selective opining.

I am also hoping that my decision to blog about something other than any of the above is not perceived as avoidance.  The reality is that in spite of all the chaos that is circling us, life is still moving forward and there are still every day matters to tend.  Maybe they don’t feel as important, impactful or newsworthy, but they are still there.

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I am proud of my gardens – I have worked hard to ensure that the ratio of desirable plants to weeds works in my favour and that it’s a place that I enjoy.  Curbside appeal is a bonus, but it is meant for me and my family.

It’s taken almost 20 years for me to get it where it is.  Part of that was a learning curve…which plants do well and which don’t, which plants are basically deer food and which plants are weeds in disguise.  The gardens have evolved – they started with a simple and basic design, which was perfect for when my kids were younger and I didn’t really have the time or energy to maintain more.  As the kids grew, so did the garden…partially because I had more time, but also because I needed an outlet that would deter me from throwing my kids out the window (relax, I live in a bungalow…they would have just bounced a couple of times).

The gardens, and more specifically, the weeding of the gardens became therapeutic – an investment of time that I willingly made on a regular basis.  The gardens have evolved from a basic and “typical“ flower gardens, to more romantic (and completely unmanageable) country hillside gardens, to its present day mid-century modern inspired style (ugh, I feel pretentious just typing that).  These changes reflected what I wanted, needed and ultimately what worked.  I will admit that sometimes the changes were  more reactionary and the words “I am so sick of all this fucking thyme“ may have been uttered this past Spring (and yes, there was both a literal and symbolic element to that statement).

So it really irritated me when a neighbour recently commented that my gardens are so simple and low-maintenance.  He came to this brilliant assessment based on the fact that I have a limited range of  plants my gardens,  no weeds and he never sees me working in it.

For context, this neighbour is a weekend warrior.  He will tend to his lawn/weeds for 8 hours straight, every 3 weeks.  Watching him tackle his landscaping is both fascinating and stressful.  No focus, no plan, no direction and certainly no appreciation.  It’s clearly a chore and just something to check off his To Do list.

So I took exception to his comment given that my “success“ with gardening is the result of trial and error (a lot of error), it came from trying things, admitting when they didn’t work, and a willingness to adapt.  It came from research and reading books – both old and new, it came from regular checking in on how things were doing, moving plants around when necessary, and doing what I could for those that were struggling.  And it came from applying sage advice.

I once went on a garden tour of a lovely country garden.  It was not my style at all – a little too flowery,  but I could appreciate the design, the planning, and coordination that had been made to pull it together.  One of the other participants asked the homeowner/gardener what was her secret to not having any weeds?

I remember that the gardener looks a bit irritated when she calmly answered: I pull them out.

That’s it.  It’s not complicated, just do the work.

And therein lies the problem – people just don’t want to do the work when it comes to  shitty things like weeds, whether they be of the flora or human variety.  However, the concept is the same – if you ignore them, they grow and they spread and then you are left with an unmanageable garden (or team) that will ultimately bury you or you will have to completely dig it up and start over.

People need to stop looking for some kind of magic soil or weed killer than will eliminate your problems – yes, they may provide short-term improvements, but it doesn`t replace regular tending and work.  Besides, the quick solutions might inadvertently kill off plants you didn’t intend to get rid off.

So the morale of this rambling story, and what I truly  wanted to say to my neighbour was (to paraphrase the lovely gardener above): just do the fucking work.  Truly, just do it and if you can`t (or don’t want to), then you should adjust your expectations around whether or not you should have a garden.

Stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, and be nice to everyone.

 

Summer of `86 Revisited

The summer of 1986 I was 14 and about to start high school in September.  I knew it was vital to take stock over the summer months because I was certain that something monumental was going to happen.

The year before I had moved from the suburbs to the country, but remained at the same school as my friends.  However, I was now beyond the reach of public transportation and at the mercy of whether my parents were available or in the mood to drive me into town again.

So the bulk of that summer before grade 9 was spent on my own.  I didn`t have a job, beyond the odd babysitting gig, and my only means of transportation was my bike.  I spent my days reading, watching tv, sun-tanning, riding my bike for hours (closest corner store was 10 km away), pretending to work on my bike (putting oil on the chain and washing it), playing softball a couple of nights a week, and trying to stay in the loop on what was happening among my friends in the city.  I did get in to see them once in awhile and some even came out for a visit.

Given that no one was there to pass judgement on what I did,  I watched countless episodes of You Can`t Do That on Television, The Little Rascals, and Australian rules football.  Don`t ask, we had a satellite and I had a lot of time on my hands.

I poured over the IKEA catalogue planning what my room, and eventually my first apartment could look like.  I listened to music, mainly Bowie and whatever Top 40 band I was into at the time (*cough* Platinum Blonde *cough*).

All the while, there was this feeling that I was missing something, that I should be doing something or be somewhere to prepare for that monumental thing called high school.  I mean, I had seen enough movies and read enough Seventeen magazines to know that high school was life-changing and it was critical that I made the right choices (hair, clothes, grades, the way you talked to boys, the way you acted). And I was certain the despite successfully navigating my way through the first fourteen years of my life, and being fairly content with it all, I needed to get in there, figure things out quick and change.

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The summer of 2019 and I am…well…(oh just do the math) and I am about to go back to work after taking five weeks off.  I knew that it was important that I take stock because I thought that something monumental was going to happen following this break.

I haven`t blogged in awhile, but a quick review of the past few posts might give an indication as to the challenging year and a half, both personally and professionally.  I was starting to wonder how long I would keep it together and then I started to not really care.

Maybe I just needed time off, maybe I need a new job, maybe I need a new career, maybe I should just suck it up.  This refrain ran through my head every day.  I searched for inspiration on what to do and I came across countless `find your passion`articles that told tales of people who left everything to bake artisanal bread, brew kombucha, and live in a tiny home.  Maybe I should do that.  What are my talents? What am I willing to give up?  How can I change?

And then there was a fantastic Twitter exchange sparked by a single question asking what people have read or done to re-evaluate their career mid-life.  I waited with baited breath to see what people would suggest and once it got started I essentially hijacked the thread (@janewatsonhr assures me I didn`t…but I did).  People talked about their experiences stepping off the path, taking time off, and exploring or learning new things.

I felt this came at a time when I needed to hear this and jumped all over it.  I started to consider taking 6-months off to learn something new.  Then I dropped it down to a more reasonable 3-month period…I could still discover who I should be in 3 months, couldn`t I?  And then I talked to my husband who asked some pointed, but good questions, like: `what do you really want to do right now?`

And the answer hit me: rest.  To rest and reset.

So, I cobbled together my vacation time and took five weeks off with the aim to rest, reset…and if I am being honest, still hoping to have some kind of epiphany about what I should be doing with the rest of my life.

I didn`t have big plans, I made lists of things to do, people to see, things to take care of and a few day trips.  I did a lot of gardening, baking bread (oh yes, I did), reading, and just trying to relax.

For the record, trying to relax when you are anxious is like trying to fall asleep when you have insomnia.  So for a good two weeks, I did stuff, but kept feeling like I was wasting my time and opportunity.  I did not think about work at all, I did not check my emails or even look at my laptop once during the 5 weeks…and yet, I felt like I was constantly preparing for my performance evaluation.  What have I done during my time off, how will I demonstrate value, what have I learned, how will I show my colleagues who are covering for me that my time off was worth it? When will I start to see the Big Picture?

And then I finally had my epiphany.

Someone asked me whether I was dreading going back to work and I said no I wasn`t.  I like my job and the work I do. I like the people I work with.  I don`t really want to change any of that.  I realized that I am actually solid with what I am doing and who I am.  I am good with my quiet lifestyle away from the city, doing my own thing and reading what I want, watching what I want, and guess what, what I do on my vacation is nobody`s gd business.

So in September 1986, when I realized that almost everyone was the same as they were in June and were busy trying to figure it all while doing their trips, jobs and camps  over the summer, I realized that I had been given the opportunity to just chill out and be myself for awhile.

I am so grateful to have had the same opportunity this summer. After all, sometimes a rest is as good as a change.

 

Why vulnerability is so important

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It irks me that I am sitting down to write this post so early on in January  because I feel like this should either be a look back on 2018 (summary: professionally productive, personally it sucked eggs) or my goals for 2019 (make it out alive).

However, it`s purely a coincidence that I am posting at the start of year.

I am still struggling to get back into any kind of groove of writing about HR…not because there isn`t an abundance of things to talk about, but because there are others who are way better at discussing it.  So, I look at my own life for inspiration and I am overwhelmed and limited by things like what to say about PTSD, a challenging relationship with my son, and a growing unease that I will never be alone in my own home ever again.

These all sound depressing, and on certain days I would agree with you; however, I am actually doing well in spite of these…or maybe because of them.

Along with this reflection on topics, I have been re-thinking what platforms I want to continue interacting with and using…in 2018 I easily deleted my Facebook account and haven`t looked back, I continue to love/hate Twitter, and while it`s a bit dusty now, I will likely always have this blog.

Throughout all the struggles, I have had one of the most productive years of my career.  Many of the things that have held me back (my confidence, my “voice“, my lack of commitment) all clicked this year.

And while I may have done the leg work, I have to credit my colleagues and friends with making sure I got it done.  I don`t consider myself an overly proud person, but I certainly don`t ask for help unless I am really stuck.  And even then, it`s done grudgingly and not without giving my self an ass-kicking for needing it.

I am so over that – I had to be.  I was at a point where I could not move forward without help and I was too mentally and physically exhausted to care what it looked like or any judgement that I thought was going to come my way.  So I asked.  And I asked some more.  And not only did I get help, but I also got stronger. Not only did people not judge me, but they respected me for asking.

With respect to the “voice“ thing – I really hate the expression “finding your voice“ because I have never lost my voice – I hear it…ALL. THE. TIME in my head.  My issue is actually using my voice…I have a lot going on in my head and want to say so much, but I have this filter that prevents me from just saying what I think…it analyzes what I am about to say, considers how it will land, tries to predict what the response will be, anticipates what I will say next…gauges whether the conversation is worth the potential fall-out/ reaction/ value…and then allows a diluted version of what I really wanted to say out, if I actually decide to say something.

And it is because of this entire process that I have been coached to speak up more at meetings and to share my opinion.  It`s even been linked to my introverted personality.   The truth is, I never shut up.  The reality is that most people just can`t hear what I am saying. Seeing how it`s in my head.

So, being able to over-ride this filters means putting myself out there in an uncomfortable way, being vulnerable. This is something that sounds weak, but is actually very powerful.  Speaking up and sharing with people you concerns, your uncertainties, your worries, your struggles…once you start doing it…is actually quite liberating and connects you with people in ways that wouldn`t have otherwise.

At work, we talk to our managers about being more vulnerable at work.  This scares the shit out of a lot of people.  Truthfully, as an HR person, the thought of what “being more vulnerable“ might mean to some people at work scares the shit out me too.  And that`s the problem isn`t it? We associate being vulnerable with sharing our darkest secrets, about breaking down crying, or admitting to something that might not be workplace appropriate.  And so we shy away from it because it`s messy and we don`t want to get involved.

While there is always the potential for these situations, it is more often about admitting when you don`t know something or being honest about when you are struggling.  I have become pretty good at this – to the point where I actually hold myself back from over-sharing things rather than forcing myself to do it (because sometimes the best answer to “how are you doing?` is “fine, thank you.“).

Putting yourself out there is very hard – it was very painful for me to sit across from an employee and admit that my relationship with my son has deteriorated to a point that he no longer speaks to me.  Why would I admit this?  I did it because the person was struggling with their own personal challenges and was concerned about the impact it was having at work, that it was distracting and exhausting.  I wanted to let them know that they were not alone in feeling this way and that it was okay to admit things are not great and to accept support, if they need it.

Contrary to what many may think, this didn`t make future interactions awkward.  In fact, it improved them because we had a mutual understanding of what it feels like to struggle to build a better place at work while another part of your life is crumbling.  It allowed us to check in with one another in terms of how are things and be able to admit it was a rough weekend, without having to explain further.

I went through similar scenarios with my manager and my colleagues…each required a mentally draining admission of what I was dealing with and in each situation, I came out the other side with new resources and support.  I learned more about them as they shared their own experiences and I felt less alone.

And this is also why it was ridiculously easy for me to walk away from the wonderful world of Facebook.  I felt like I was experiencing life in Pleasantville every time I logged in…everyone had smiling, happy families that did awesome family related things like hay rides, trips to the beach, and singalongs that were just extra.  Even when people shared their trials and tribulations, it was always written like some fable where there was a lesson to be learned and shared with the rest of us.

Rarely did anyone post anything remotely “real“ and if they did, it was at their own peril.  Can you imagine if my status update reflected what actually was happening in my life…I might have been offered “constructive“ parenting advice, criticised for what I was or was not doing, or just as bad…no comments at all and completely ignored.

Somehow this is acceptable in social media – hiding behind a keyboard, whether you are anonymous or not, gives some people a platform from which to proclaim their judgement on others and decide who is deserving of praise, ridicule, or even acknowledgement.  And to this, many people will say, if you don`t like it, leave. Well, I did.

This is really not a viable option for the real world. It is important for people to feel supported and not alone. And to get there, you have to be ready to put yourself out there…trust that most people are good and will see what you are trying to do…and because no one is watching and judging, they may just respond in kind .

It took me some time to realize that what I have always been trying to do on my blog – share what I was going through – was what I needed to do with the people in my life.  I have never shied away from admitting that I make mistakes, that I suffer from uncertainty, or that my life is perfect.  But I was always able to do this with because I didn`t have to deal with the filter that stops me from saying what I am thinking.

That and the benefits of draft mode.

Making myself vulnerable, one spell-check at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking Up Now When I Should Have Then

This post has been sitting in draft mode for quite some time.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one was that I was having trouble deciding what I really was hoping to achieve by putting it out there.  Then, every time I thought I was ready to start, I would see a powerful and thoughtful post put out by others and I would think that I was just riding the coat tails of others.  Jumping on the band wagon, so to speak.

This is my contribution to the #metoo conversation and the toxicity that is often present in the workplace.

You will quickly realize it`s not an account of how I experienced what many, many, many others have in the workplace (at least nothing that is at the level that others have experienced),  but rather, how I played a role in allowing it, rather than be a victim of it.

That is incredibly tough to write and quite honestly, the reason why I didn’t feel worthy of weighing in on the subject.

Having mulled this over for months and months, I am not going to hash out the details – I don`t feel the need to use this post as a confessional to list out the specifics of my situation.  In fact, they would only detract from the bigger issue.  I am also not making excuses, but rather explaining why I did what I did. And also why I realized how wrong it was and how much it ultimately hurt me and others.

To start, I have to explain that I grew up not trusting women.  Much of my experiences through family and school lead me to believe that girls and women were ultimately in competition with each other and that helping them out meant you were only hurting yourself.

I was one of those kids who was quiet enough and didn`t react easily, so adults often  forgot or didn`t worry about me being around – I absorbed everything.  What I learned from the women in my family was that there are two types of women: girly, silly and useless or hard, serious and successful.  Ultimately you needed to fit in (read: act like a man) and not be associated with `flightly` female behaviour.  The women closest to me in my family rarely supported each other, never said what they really felt, and judged each other harshly on every aspect of their lives.  This became a cornerstone for all my future friendships with girls.

I did have girl friends, but they were always tinged with a worry about what they really thought of me (because surely they are saying something different behind my back) and waiting for some level of betrayal.  I was also highly judgemental of what I considered flakiness. When many of these friendships waned or broke off, I saw it as proof that I couldn`t rely on them.

I also had a lot of friends who were guys.  These, I felt were less complicated because I did not expect them to provide me what girl friends would, in both the good and bad sense.  There was certainly less drama, so easier on a day-to-day basis.  However, there was also less connection and support.

By the time I started working full-time, this was solidly entrenched in how I interacted with people – my lack of willingness to be vulnerable and share, along with a sharp sense of humour meant that I tended to get along better with my male colleagues than my female ones.  At this point in my life, I did not feel entirely comfortable with this, but it had worked for me up until then.

In my pre-HR days, I was working in a group that was predominantly male and just as it was when I was a kid, I was “quiet enough and didn`t react“ so the men I associated with often forgot that I was around and made comments about women, both general and specific, that they wouldn`t have said around others.  I was accepted as “one of the guys“ and enjoyed the privileges that this entailed.

I soon realized that men sometimes said things that they would never say to these women`s face and judged them harshly, but it was worse – it wasn`t pettiness or hurt, it was just mean and toxic.

I would like to write that I lost it on them when they made these comments or jokes, that I called them on the bullshit they were spouting and walked away.  I really would like to write that.  But the truth is that I often chuckled at the jokes, shook my head at the comments (but didn`t say anything), and sometimes just walked away, but with the excuse that I had to do something.

In essence, I developed a coping mechanism of hiding in plain sight.  Somehow I felt that as long as I was sitting with them, I would not be a target, but the trade-off for this was that I couldn`t say anything that would bring attention to me.   I was absolutely conflicted about being a women and listening to how others were speaking about women.  To top it off, I now had a daughter and saw all of this through a completely new perspective.

Let`s be clear here, I was not a victim, I was part of the problem. Hard stop.

I let it happen unchallenged because I thought “at least it wasn`t me“.  (And that`s the messed up part – it probably was me at times when I wasn`t there).  I was more concerned about the impacts to my social and work situation than I was about defending that of others.  I rationalized it by saying that they would have said those things whether I was there or not and that if I made a fuss, I would then become one of those women who couldn`t take a joke.

Around this time, I realized that I did not want my daughter to grow up seeing women the way I did – that I wanted that part of her life to be more balanced.  I worked hard at modelling something that did not come naturally to me and in the end, it is she who actually broke down the barriers for me and helped me to see what was always there.  She has been part of a strong female community that celebrates rather than tears down each other. This has been life changing for me.

Getting to where I am now has taken a lot of work and shifting for me.  Part of that was leaving that work environment and finding myself in a new place where it was predominantly women (talk about culture shock!)  It was building new work and friend relationships with women unlike me or those I grew up with.  It was learning from my daughter and experiencing the powerful effect of women supporting women.

I have had to learn to trust, be vulnerable, defend others and be defended.  During this, I have been let down a few times, but I have also been lifted up, even when I didn`t think it was deserved.  I now belong to some great communities.

So back to what the purpose of sharing this could be…what I decided was that I wanted to put out there what women don`t like to talk about – the role that some women played in hurting or, as with my case, not helping each other.

I have hesitated putting this out there because of how it reflects on me and makes me look bad and then it hit me…THAT, that right there, is what I have been trying so hard to stop doing.

This is not just about me.  It`s about speaking up now, when I should have then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avoidance

There is an aspect of every job that we don’t like, some task or responsibility that we always push off because it seems pointless or worse, causes us stress. In the case of those stress-inducing items, there is a really good chance that is something you should do because, if handled properly, then it will improve things.

One thing I notice with people leaders is they tend put the difficult conversations on the side of the desk.  They are messy, unpredictable, and require time and energy (if you are going to do it right).

Let’s be clear, no one likes holding difficult conversations.  No one.  Some people may do better at it, some may understand the value of them more, and others may just have so little emotional connection to the people they are speaking to that they can just get to it.

I put myself firmly on Team Conflict Avoidance, which means that while difficult conversations may not come easy, it is actually the physical and mental impact that these have on me could make eligible for team captain. I know…and I am in HR.

On a personal note, I have dubbed the past 12 months as the “Year that has aged me horribly”.  Conflict – check, difficult conversations – check, emotional and physical toll – check, check.

And things just keep steamrolling…

Following a 2-week trip to Europe, which was a reprieve, I arrived home and things seem to be settling in.  In fact, I was just commenting to my husband that last November, the peak of our challenges, seems so far away…

And then this week that peace started to crumble a bit and today I ended up having an unplanned, ill-timed, yet long overdue difficult conversation with my son that has left me absolutely gutted.   It is a conversation that should have happened months ago, but I procrastinated.  And if I am being completely honest, it is a variation on conversations that I should have been having for quite some time.

It is terrible feeling to realize that avoiding conflict has only delayed the inevitable and maybe even made it more complex.  Almost as terrible a feeling as putting yourself out there for judgement as a person and, it would seem more easily targeted, as a parent.

So tonight, as I sit here with my wounds still raw, with my body revolting against the level of stress and my mind numb – the underlying feeling I have is that I let my son down and not because of what I had to tell him, but because I only got to telling him now.

It is with this in mind that I will be able to sit across the desk (or screen) from a people leader and insist, nay demand, that they have that conversation they have been putting off.  If necessary, I will show them my war wounds to prove my point.

Thinking about the future in reverse

It is no secret that I struggle for inspiration to write.  Or is motivation?  Maybe opportunity?  My head is full and I am overflowing with observations, but for some reason it doesn`t make it to my hands.

Is it possible to have carpal tunnel that blocks thoughts from the brain to fingers?  I am certain there is. I have it.

So here I find myself on a train for a work trip and I am ready to write.  It seems that all I needed was to get out of my space and be alone among others to get the itch to write.  I was totally born in the wrong era – I need a typewriter and a permanent seat on a train.

So I am sitting here, watching the scenery that has already passed by in my rear-facing seat, reflecting on how you can move forward when you are stuck facing backward.

There are quite a few food dishes that I swore I hated as a kid.  I grew up hating them, whether it was the taste, the smell or the texture.  Then I became an adult and had someone other than my mom cook these dishes and I was amazed to discover I really enjoyed them.  My mom made solid meals, far be it from me to complain about being fed, but they just never lived up to their potential.  Please don`t tell her.

And then there are quite a few books that I swore I hated.  I loathed discussing them in high school – felt they were the obligatory Pablum we were supposed to read.  Then I became an adult and realized that there was a reason to read these books and that maybe with fewer distractions (ahumph…boys) and more actual discussions, I would have liked them more back then. Except The Stone Angel, that remains on par with canned peas.

One of these books is The Great Gatsby.  This is one that people like or hate.  I like it.  I like pretty much everything about it, and the ending in particular always stays with me:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.“

It is the idea that as much as we think we want to move forward, and make attempts to stride into the future,  we are always drawn back to our past – something that both defines who we are and that we feel compelled to try to re-write.

This is both an individual and collective compulsion.  As individuals we get older, we have new experiences, we have goals, we reach milestones, and then we hit a loop that brings us back to some part of our past that forces us to realize that as much as we thought we had moved forward, it wasn`t quite as far as we thought.  Two steps forward, one step back.

As organizations, we live to re-define what we have already done, but as we run forward, it is hard not to feel like you have seen that tree before….and that rock, I am sure we passed that rock already…wait a minute, we have DEFINITELY passed that blue house.  And we are asked to trust that this new path, while familiar, is new and better.  It will lead us to new paths, smoother path…it will be uncomfortable and yet, this feels so familiar. Organizational déja-vu.

When change becomes the usual state, then is it really change?  Or is it like walking into a mirrored room and seeing one thing reflected in multiple surfaces, leading us to believe we are seeing a number of different things.

One of the most dreaded war cries of long-term employees is: `that won`t work, we have tried it before`.   We have all heard it.  Hell, I am certain we have all said it.  (Admit it, you did).  And it`s true.  We have tried it before, and it didn`t work, but to quote Fitzgerald, “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther“ and hope that this is the time that it will work, that this time we will crest the wave and move closer to the green light.

My expectations for 2018 (and why last year can suck eggs)

I recently said that 2017 could end any day now because I was done with it.  As if on January 1st everything would re-set and we would be starting fresh.  That would be nice, but the reality is far from that.

Last year was one of the most difficult years both professionally and personally.  And to ensure that I could be confident with that claim – it went out with a bang.  Or at least my car did…while my son was driving it.  Anyone want a 2008 Honda Civic, needs some work. What about a 17-year old boy, also needs some work.

Screw you 2017.

And so the new year started and things became even more challenging.  I don’t want this post to sound like a pity party, I am keenly aware that others are struggling with harder circumstances than mine, but allow me to take a minute to acknowledge the recent death of a really great guy, my father-in-law.  Although he had been ill since the summer, we expected more time than we had with him and he died quickly and peacefully early in the new year.

I am not sure what I expected of the start of 2018, but that was not it.  Nor was it the curve balls that my son feels compelled to throw at us on a daily basis.  And it certainly was not the feelings of being completely overwhelmed and exhausted that required me to take off more time than I am comfortable with taking.  It left me feeling disappointed with my ability to deal with things and with life in general at this moment.

Disappointment.

That seems to be a constant refrain in my brain…disappointment with how things are going, how people are reacting or not reacting, how I am coping or not coping, and pretty much any outcome that is not in line with my expectations.

Over the holidays I read a book that was referred to my husband called Unfu*ck Yourself by Gary John Bishop and while it was a quick and repetitive read, there were a few points that really stuck with me.  One of these is about disappointment, which it essentially defines as the gap between expectations and reality.  The bigger the gap, the greater the disappointment.

The simplicity of this explanation smacked me right between the eyes.  If I am constantly expecting things to be something that I am acutely aware that they will not be…I am ultimately setting myself up for a letdown.

And I am not alone, I started to see how many people do this to themselves (and others)…like say my mother with Christmas.  No matter how much she plans and expects that this is the year we will be that family in the idyllic Christmas dinner scene in a magazine or Christmas special, the reality always falls spectacularly short.  And thus the annual traditional of maternal disappointment is upheld.

Of course I can relate this to work…you knew I would.  Employees expecting significant recognition or higher than usual bonuses for doing their job and the ultimate letdown, when all they get is a bi-weekly pay…for doing their job.  Managers who hire that spitfire who will push the boundaries, challenge the norms, and lead the team to greatness are disappointed when the person turns out to be a disruptive pain in the ass that no one wants to work with and is putting the business at risk.

My challenges lay more within the personal domain.  I need to recalibrate my expectations…not lower them…just make them more realistic.  Of course, the idea would be that as things progress, your expectations can evolve and ultimately get to where you would like them to be.  However, this isn’t going to happen without awareness and work.

I am a hopeful person, but also a practical one, so I am often looking for the best outcome, but not overly surprised (and ultimately disappointed) when it doesn’t happen.  Forget work-life, this is the real imbalance that I struggle with.

So what does all of this mean? It means that I am going into situations asking myself, what are my expectations of what will happen?  And what do I realistically think will happen?  Now how far apart are these?  And I am adjusting my expectations as required, but still hoping for the best.

So from the ashes of 2017,  I am emerging with a better sense of what needs to happen, more realistic expectations and less disappointment.

And hope.  Always hope.