Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Excuse

I had lunch recently with my friends Jane and Larry Graham. Their granddaughter Caroline Richards died in January from osteocarcenoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  She was 12 years old. Caroline was a sunny day kind of child: She favored dancing over walking and singing over whispering.  She had over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She embraced her disease by giving people presents, making them laugh, and celebrating her favorite pop band One Direction. Caroline refused to forfeit her time to fear, self-pity or regret.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

I’ve thought of Caroline many times since the Saturday afternoon I squeezed into her funeral, a standing-room only affair packed with people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom had big bows in their hair like the kind Caroline wore – when she had hair. There was dancing in the aisles and a great deal of singing to honor Caroline’s philosophy: If life throws you a bum rap, put a bow on it and throw a party.

Easier said than done, we say. Some of us are tragedians; we tend to look at the quieter, sad aspect of life. But the lesson Caroline leaves us is to not be undone by mere predisposition. No indeed. Do not let fear be the excuse.

Most of us are blessed. We don’t face major life-and-death situations.  But fear is an insidious life-stealer.  Ever since I can remember I’ve suffered from paralyzing stage fright. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of my eighth grade speech class and leaning on a chair because my knees were shaking so hard. Stints in community theater and Toastmasters have alleviated it, but I’m still terrified when I face an audience. My task is to prepare, open my mouth and say my piece. Telephone calls have always had the same effect on me, an odd twist for someone in my profession.

Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.

Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation recognizes children who show courage.

Caroline’s mother, Lauren, gets it. Caroline didn’t live to do what she’d wanted to do, help raise money as an ambassador for research to help save other children from the cancer that caused her so much suffering.  So her mom has taken the bull by the horns in Caroline’s honor. Lauren is starting the Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation that, among other things, awards a (stuffed) bunny to children who show their own particular brand of courage.

The award — a bunny with “Brave” embroidered on one ear and the child’s name on the other — recognizes courage, not winning. The victory lies in moving through the fear, be it finishing school, or mastering a particular skill. Whatever it may be. Fear is a very personal crippler.

So remember Caroline and the Brave Bunny next time you pick up the phone to make that cold call. Or take a job you don’t think you can do. Scale your guts, and think about the time you have on this planet. Let’s not let fear be our excuse.

Pauline van Dongen's solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

SXSW Interactive: Can design change the way we think about healthcare delivery?

Can we use the creativity and rigors of the design process to change how we deliver health care?  After a week of SXSW Interactive, I’d say yes, it makes sense and certainly couldn’t hurt. After over a decade seeing two parents through the Kafka-esque twists and turns of the health care system, I consider the American approach to delivering medical (and elder-) care on par with Chinese water torture, only more expensive.

Pauline van Dongen's solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Pauline van Dongen’s solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Here in Austin, The University of Texas announced a radical-sounding partnership between the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas Dept. of Art called The Design Institute for Health. The newly-formed group, led by two veterans from IDEO, the design firm famous for its longstanding relationship with Apple, are part of a push to figure out how to deliver community-based health care funded based on the “value it creates.”  The medical school’s charismatic dean, Dr. Clay Johnston, is inviting hospitals, doctors, nonprofits and the community as a whole to help re-think what the farm animals in the movie “Babe called “the way things are.”  I can’t imagine many things more challenging, or exciting.

If you have any doubts about the mind-unleashing power of design, I refer you to Paola Antonelli’s SXSW keynote, “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future.”  Antonelli, the curator of architecture for the Museum of Modern Art, guides us through a series of examples of design that provokes us to re-think the “way things are.”  Examples include a belt that simulates menstruation (to, one presumes, produce empathy in the opposite sex) and wearable clothing made with 3D printers that simulates the body’s movement created by Pauline van Dongen, who wore a sweater made of flattened solar cells during her session later that day. Think about it, technology-based clothing that’s comfortable, practical and adaptable.

Design was the subtext of a fascinating but sparsely-attended talk by Eric Topol’s called “Democratizing Health Care.” Here is a doctor, researcher and (I have to assume) AMA member, who understands that people want healthcare to be simple, affordable and effective. After opening his talk by citing medication errors as the fourth cause of death in the United States, Topol showed a portfolio of on-demand tools — a wrist band to detect seizures, an app to measure arrhythmia, or using a smartphone to digitize the heart — technology moving at the pace of Moore’s Law to troubleshoot, coordinate and identify illness — without causing the patient to go broke or die.  I don’t think any of the devices Dr. Topol showed were ready for prime time, but they they — or improved versions — will be, and they will advance the revolution.

Why not?  If we can cast off stilettos and create sympathy for PMS, why not re-think health care as a human service for real people?

Appreciate the process

I am firmly convinced there are no straight lines. The goal may be clear – a speech, successful meeting, signed contract — but the path rarely maps with the project plan. A colleague once told me she kept on course by reminding herself to enjoy the process.  These days, I try hard to apply that formula to both my work and my life.

There are no straight lines in life or in work. (Photo courtesy of

There are no straight lines in life or in work. (Photo courtesy of

A friend whose long career includes a Fulbright at age 67, assignments on four continents, a tenured professorship and a close network of fascinating friends told me recently that he realizes now that he was just “stumbling along,” working hard, yes, but seizing opportunities and accepting setbacks as they appeared.

Another term for “stumbling along” might be innovation. A client of mine sells small-batch Irish whiskey, and as I listened to one of his distillers talk about merging technology (containers, process) with the centuries-old tradition of whiskey making, I thought, “no straight lines, ” rather a series of trials with error and the occasional stellar success. How many times have we heard the homily: many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

As much as I think I would like a “happily ever after” plot line, admittedly, it’s been the bumps in the road that have taught me the most and made the trip interesting.  I certainly didn’t plan to take a career hiatus in my 50’s to care for my parents, but I did, dialing back my professional activities and focusing on managing their finances, medical care and stops at more “care continuums” than I care to count.  It didn’t make me rich, but it gave me a sense of compassion that I never would have gained in the corporate world.

Remembering this, I remind myself not to panic if the plane is cancelled or a stray dog appears on the doorstep just as the project is due. It’ll be okay; there are no straight lines.

Small Successes

I’ve been thinking a lot about small successes.  The ones that encourage us to take the next step. It all started when a group of friends and I took in a dog whose owner, also a friend, died. A trainer recommended rotating the dog, Indie, through four foster homes over a month’s time. The goal was to make her more confident.  I’m not sure if she went into shock or truly became more adaptable, but by the end of the month, she seemed ready for anything.

Or maybe she just figured out that whatever it was she feared losing wasn’t worth it.

It’s become very popular to tout innovation and risk taking, but Indie’s experience seems to be the case more frequently than not. We take one step, a project, a cold call, a blog post. It doesn’t kill us, so we try another.  As time passes, we get bigger, hopefully in our hearts as well as our ambitions. Somehow it all works out, though maybe not as we planned. But hey, that can be good. Remember the Post It?

Orphan cattle dog Indie's experience showed me that small successes change us for the better.

Orphan cattle dog Indie’s experience showed me that small successes change us for the better.

Most useful was the push back I received from people who thought we were doing the wrong thing.  After all, it’s very possible she would have arrived at the same point had she been in one, much less confusing, spot.

But the passionate people brought to their protest drove me nuts. I had to go back to Eisenhower’s famous back-up note he crafted as a statement should the D-Day landing have failed (yes, a bit dramatic but whenever you can call on greatness, do it!)

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Back to Indie. She’s still an orphan. Cattle dogs aren’t trendy these days.  Loyal, attentive, protective, they have their faults. But also their strengths: absolute devotion to their owners, the ability to break away from a momentum (eating, growling at another dog) to attend to their person. In other words, they’re imperfect, just like us.  So I know she’ll keep trying.

Mercury Retrograde and Other Uncontrollable Mysteries

Somehow in the hurry-scurry of the new year, I missed Kristin Dombek’s beautiful piece in last Sunday’s NYT, “Retrograde Beliefs, In defense of magical thinking.”  Read it if you haven’t because Mercury takes it first 2015 trip backward starting next week.  I know this because one of my A-priority New Year tasks is to block out on my calendar the four times a year it happens. I draw a thick yellow line through those 16 (give or take a couple of) weeks so I’ll know not to get frustrated, to finish incomplete projects and not start new ones. To neither sign contracts nor make big commitments.

The stars' secret influence is only one thing we try to control. Illustration by Javier Jaen, courtesy of The New York Times.

The stars’ secret influence is only one thing we try to control. Illustration by Javier Jaen, courtesy of The New York Times.

Dombek nudged me with her graceful, faintly scientific reminder: Jousting with Mercury is a mortal stab at codifying mystery. Forget it. Alas, for us planners and plotters, Mercury is just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2008, on the brink of the Great Recession, I buried a St. Joseph statue in the front yard of a house I wanted to sell. I bought the statue under false pretenses, telling the cashier at the religious supply store that it was for my mother, who collected Nativity sets. That was true, but I had a distinct feeling I would be punished for fudging on the larger truth.

There were specific instructions for burying the saint. I researched the procedure and measured the distances carefully – so many steps to the east of the front door, so many steps from the street. Even so, when the house sold and it was time to dig St. Joseph up, I couldn’t find him.

This worried my mother, the collector, who’d put Mary and baby Jesus on the shelf beside her chair, awaiting the carpenter’s arrival.

“Where’s Joseph,” she asked.

“He’s on a business trip,” I answered. “He’ll be back.”

But he never returned, and Mary remained a single mother, much to my mother’s distress.

I’ve wondered about the unintended consequences. The house I sold is still occupied by the family that bought it, but I’ve moved every couple of years since then.

Then there’s the blog I started following a series of family deaths. It was an exercise in catharsis, and when it was over, I’d had I enough. I deleted my connection to the content, but I couldn’t delete the content itself. It’s out there, like a piece of floating debris or an orphan planet. Sometimes I want to reclaim it, but I can’t. The posts dangle in the ether, that great celestial dumpster.

There’s a scary freedom in this lack of control, like releasing a captive wild thing, and a reminder that I’ve never been, nor will I ever be in control. Which is the point. It is a mystery.

Beyond likeability: Women leaders on issues that matter

Perhaps we’re getting over the likeability debate. This week, two women at the top of their games cut to the chase and point out a few elephants in the room.

Janet Yellen used her role as Fed chairman to start a conversation on economic opportunity. Why are more Americans locked into a vicious cycle of poverty? “I cannot offer any conclusions. (But) I do believe that these are important questions.”

You bet they are. And thank you, for having the guts to say so.

Janet Yellen inviting a discussion on the growing gap between rich and poor

Fed Chairman Janet Yellen stepping out of her role to invite a discussion on the gap between rich and poor

Then, last evening I watched Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson talk about, among other things, why we don’t seem to be able to have a civil conversation about anything that matters. I wish I had a transcript, so I’m paraphrasing, but in essence she marveled about our penchant for turning complex issues into a SNL skit. As above, so below: entertainment trumps facts and respectful debate.

Pulitzer Prize winning Marilynne Robinson on the dumbing down of our public conversations

Pulitzer Prize winning Marilynne Robinson on the dumbing down of our public conversations

Both Yellen and Robinson have white hair. If ever we wanted role models, here they are, juggling, multitasking their way through successful lives, showing the rest of us how it’s done. Both went to public schools; Robinson was a single mother. It’s interesting Yellen waited until she had the top job before speaking publicly about a topic outside of her mandate. She was a loyal vice chair. Unlike some of her colleagues, she supported her team.

My takeaway was this: “Don’t waste my time. Let’s get together to work on things that matter.”

Take a Moment to Be Quiet

It’s Sept. 11, which is now far enough in the past that many people don’t remember the horror of the day.

But there’s much to be said for pausing to remember that anything can happen at any moment.

Carve out a quiet moment.   (Courtesy of

Carve out a quiet moment.                                                                                                                                               (Photo courtesy of