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 pimpmycom.com)

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

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 apps.carlton.edu)

Carve out a quiet moment.                                                                                                                                               (Photo courtesy of apps.carlton.edu)

 

 

 

 

 

Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of

It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.

The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?

University student-designed solar cars show a path to the future

Finding myself fretting about the future of mockingbirds in a changing climate, I ventured over to the Circuit of the Americas to see what the American Solar Challenge was all about.

University students, these from Michigan State, use competition to learn more about solar.

University students, these from Michigan State, use competition to learn more about solar.

The weather had thrown a curveball, or to race aficionados, a chicane.  It was overcast and about 20 degrees cooler than your average July day in Texas.  No sun at a solar race makes for  a very slow pace.  But the crowd at the giant F1 track was coping gamely with long gaps between competitors. Student observers suspended high above the track were doing chin-ups in their  cages, on the lookout for approaching cars.  Enthusiasm remained high.

I wandered over to an open garage (pit?) to talk with the Michigan State team, which was engaged in some show-and-tell. Although they’d been disqualified, you’d never know it. “Don’t touch the arrays,” they patiently reminded the children who wanted to figure it all out by feel.

“It’s all about learning,” said Sean, a soon-to-be junior.  “Winning is icing on the cake, but it’s what you learn. We can’t wait til next year.”

I was curious how the team worked together.  Sean said they just figured out how to collaborate, but needed to do more of it.  “We need more ideas.”  A teammate chimed in, “Yeah, if you don’t have ideas, you’re frozen in place.”

Next year they plan to use a lighter material for the frame (it’s steel) and four- instead of a three-wheel design.  I don’t see these young people frozen in place. The team is losing three seniors to PhD. programs – Stanford and Michigan State.

We’re banking on these young people and those lucky enough to be like them.  We need the keys to trapping and commercializing photovoltaic energy; fortunately, the world seems to be kneeling at their feet.  Flash notice: The Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge will be held on an F1 track in January 2015, with financial support and partnerships available on a first-come, first-serve basis for 20-25 qualified university teams.

In the meantime, I’m channeling their attitude – about learning, failing and engaging.  I hope that’s the future.