Getting Sick Is the First Step In Getting Well

Giving up a habit, even such a small one as that morning cup of tea, can lead to a re-evaluation of our very habits of being. It’s a process that requires deciding who you want to be, paying attention, and getting help.

I had no idea I could learn so much from a cup of tea.

For decades, I’ve started my day with several cups of black tea so strong my friends consider it coffee. The tea, doused with creamy local milk, has been my kick start. I’ve also had, unpredictably and without any direct relationship to the tea, chest pains, vertigo and diminished energy. I blamed it on allergies (allergists outnumber mosquitoes in this town). But in December a test result prompted a call from my doctor who received a dose of reality: I inherited my father’s heart condition.

“Remember, getting sick is the first step in getting well.”

My friend Jessica Buckley

The fatty milk I loved to put in my tea had to go; in fact, the entire dairy section had to go. I dithered. I rationalized. I delayed. It took hours in waiting rooms full of people with their next-of-kin and a litany of tests costing as much as a Tesla, to convince me my morning tea habit was not worth the price.

One habit leads to another, and pretty soon you have yourself

Which got me thinking: If I don’t need the milk in my tea, what else do I no longer need? Why do I have a storage unit full of the past? Social obligations that are a duty, not a boost? Why have I let misunderstandings fester with siblings, friends and colleagues?

The easy fix would be to reduce the milk and clear out the storage unit, but the point is much bigger. If this collection of habits define me, which ones do I actually need to move forward? Is this the me I want to be? And do I have the guts to change?

The rule is to start small. I’m starting with — and I know it sounds silly — my fear of not getting my morning tea and milk. If I can give up my milky tea, will it give me the courage to examine those other habits crouching behind fortresses of defensiveness, vanity and just plain ole fear.

“We’re at our worst when we’re in fear.”

Brene Brown, On Being with Krista Tippett

To be undone by fear is a sad thing. Why not try something different?

Is the habit worth the price?

Pay attention and re-evaluate

We don’t pay attention, particularly to ourselves.

Again, the rule is start small. The first step is to pay attention to our bodies, so that when they falter, as the will, we can take corrective action. Consider my friend Sherida. We met for an early dinner, in the late afternoon when the blue-hairs gather. I asked her how she was able to leave work so early, and she told me she was taking iron infusions for severe iron anemia. She’d missed her annual check up for “two or three years,” which required her body to steadily adjust to lower and lower levels of iron.

“I didn’t notice anything,” she explained. But then there was that daily nap, constant nibbling and those shadows under her eyes. She didn’t have the time to pay attention until she was pulled up short by her doctor. “You’re a go-go woman,” she reported, “all go and no pause.” No quibble there. Sherida works a full-time job, takes care of a bi-polar son, is active socially and sings in her church choir.

But if we aren’t paying attention to the bodies we live in, how can we pay attention to our habitual reactions to angry colleagues or, heaven forbid, family members. Absent facts collected through observation, we can’t draw conclusions. We can’t get help, and we can’t change.

“Paying attention …makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them — and more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our own awareness …It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something.”

Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

Caregiver alert!

If you take care of someone else, as almost every woman I know does in some capacity, you are in the danger zone. Caregiving is the gold standard of absenting oneself from oneself. It is a selfless act and a necessary one. But unmonitored, it also extols a high price. Caregivers, particularly family members who care for elderly relatives, can find their own lives diminished financially, socially and physically.

The typical family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman caring for her widowed 69-year-old mother who does not live with her. She is married and employed. Approximately 66% of family caregivers are women. More than 37% have children or grandchildren under 18 years old living with them.

Caregiver Action Network

I learned this the hard way. I put my life on hold for over a decade to take care of first my dad and then my mom. When my mom died and it was time to return to the job market, I was paralyzed. The habits and routines I’d built around caregiving left me unprepared to resume my own life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I hadn’t been paying attention.

How can we build creative lives?

“You have to lead yourself. It’s your work.”

Jerrry Colonna, On Being with Krista Tippett

I’m a big fan of Reboot’s Jerry Colonna. I met Jerry when he was an editor of one of the leading technology magazines in New York. He later became a successful venture capitalist, burned out and is now an executive coach who helps the CEOS of start ups chart their path through “radical self inquiry.” His message is foundational to anyone who wants to lead a successful life: “Who have I been all my life? Who do I want to become?”

“The notion is to recognize that if things are not okay, if you’re struggling, you stop pretending and allow yourself to get help. Even more, it’s the process by which you work hard to know yourself — your strengths, your struggles, your true intentions, your true motivations, the characteristics of the character known as ‘you’.”

“How do we get the things out of the way that are barriers to being productive?”

Jerry Colonna, Reboot

Which takes me back to my friend Sherida. Sherida was raised her grandmother in Mississippi, and she laughs as she tells the story of how her grandmother taught her to make her own decisions. When she was about 10, Sherida decided to fake an illness to get her grandmother’s attention. The only pills she could find in the house were in a bottle of Midol. She poured them onto the table and waited for her grandmother to come home. When the door opened, Sherida grabbed a handful of pills and pretended she was going to swallow them.

“Go ahead, child, take those pills. They’ll either kill you or leave you deformed.” With that, her grandmother walked away. Sherida put the pills away.

So here I am, sitting with my cup of morning tea which today is black tea with soy milk. Tomorrow? Who knows. But this I know: the future is staring me in the face, and I better be prepared.

These amazing times and their cost

I fought my way through Friday night traffic to see my friend Shiva’s daughter perform in their Christmas play, “A Play in a Manger.”  I expected Mary, Joseph and a few shepherds.  What I saw was an hour-long rock-and-roll production built around a plot line of “bigger is not better.”  Mary and Joseph were supplanted by a production manager and a worried production crew and cast, some 20 kids in all.

Everybody got a speaking part, reaching up to the standing microphones like little gold fish getting their supper.).  Shaylee, whose family is from Iran, added what I learned later was an improvised dance number for her part.  The epilogue was this:  “Christmas is not about Walmart or Saks. ipads or iphones.”  That is, it’s not about stuff, because stuff costs a lot of money.

I thought about this when I stopped into my local Wal-Mart for socks and was astounded to find all of the cashiers were gone, erased.  In their place were scanners, waiting for a credit (or debit) card. When I asked the attendant where those workers — mostly women, mostly African-American, mostly over 40 — I got a shrug.

According Fortune, citing a McKinsey Global Institute report released in November, “between 400 million and 800 million workers around the world could be displaced by automation by 2030.”  By comparison, the 2016 population of Texas was 27.36 million.  Think about that — that’s 15 Texas’.

Most affected will be jobs that involve collecting and processing data – everything from accounting to fast food.  The report predicts the pace of displacement will be unprecedented, concluding  “There are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people.”

In a recent column, David Brooks had some suggestions for lawmakers to consider, a list that targets practical but oftentimes insurmountable barriers like making it easier for people to:

  • Get to work
  • Get a license
  • Enter fast-growing professions like health care
  • As ex-offenders, navigate the application process

It’s painful to experience the season as one of “haves” and “have nots,”  and easy to turn away we dash through the holiday fully armed.  But here’s hoping each of us has an opportunity to pause and reflect, not just on how very lucky we are, but how we can help those who are less so, navigate these times.

No time for blame

Each of us is tasked with playing the hand we’re dealt. Some of the cards are stacked in our favor; many are not. Nonetheless, it’s a package deal, and the better we understand those cards, the more we’ll be able to accomplish.

I thought about this after reading David Remnick’s sad portrait of Hillary Clinton, in which she blames her gender — among other things — for her loss.  Mrs. Clinton is a super-sized public figure and a role model of tremendous potential.  Perhaps it is a necessary catharsis, but I was disappointed to read that she chose to waste her time.

The New Yorker
What could have been: The cover The New Yorker Had Planned for Hillary Clinton’s victory in the 2016 election. Courtesy of The New Yorker, Sept. 24, 2017

It’s helpful to understand why we fail. But blame is time consuming.  This I know: the faster we lay it aside, the less time we waste. Contrasting the Clinton debacle with Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000, Remnick notes that Gore was 52 at the time; Clinton, 69. Gore had time to grieve, move on, make a fortune and win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Clinton is 69. “She will have a hard time finding a similar peace or place in public affairs.”

Oh, gosh I hope not.

The “genderizing’ conundrum

It’s always worrisome when a noun becomes a verb. So let’s step back. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. When I was in high school, girls weren’t allowed to learn small engine repair; we were shuffled off to home economics and white sauce. When I left school and took a temporary job with H.Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems, I was humiliated by a fellow (male) employee’s passing me a handwritten note warning me that my sleeveless dress was inappropriate because it revealed my arms. I left the job.

Mrs. Clinton, like Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson who presided in the 1920’s and 30’s, rose to power on the coattails of her husband. She, like Sherry Lansing in Hollywood, Toni Morrison in literature, and Indra Nooyi and others among the Fortune 50, carved their roles out of a male tradition  There was no can-do legacy. Unlike Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who sprang fully formed from Zeus’ head, confidence is earned, not awarded.

Focus on making the world a better place — starting where you are

So why not focus our time and energy on moving forward? The fields of law and medicine are being transformed by women. I look forward to seeing similar trends in education and politics (you go, Mrs. Clinton). But no question, it’s a slippery slope. Every day I see young women reverting to baby talk, tantrums, behavior that may have worked in middle school, but is cringe-making in the workplace.

We have a limited time to do what we want and need to do. Life tosses storm debris in our way.  I don’t know how many times I said, “I can’t find the job I want until after my mother dies.”  I didn’t want to face the conflict and ultimately wasted precious time blaming absent siblings, geography — and gender — for lost time and opportunity.

It was a waste of time.  Ultimately, we’re shaped by the battles we fight, and its our ability to accept our faults and failures that make us role models.

whining

Navigating Obligations: Keep Working

Rushing to work one morning last week, I listened to Mihir Desai talk about his new book The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Reward. The topic is bankruptcy; the lesson: Life is chaos, and our task is to navigate through the it.  He kicked off the interview with an anecdote about American Airline’s 2011 bankruptcy filing (when the stock fell 79%):

 The first CEO said for a long time he’ll never go bankrupt, because it was his duty to make sure every obligation gets paid off. Of course, he gets dragged into bankruptcy at the very end, they switch the CEO. The second CEO comes in, restructures all the obligations, guts the pensions. But American Airlines goes on to live another day. So the idea there is, you know, who’s the hero of that story? Is it the guy who said, “I have to stand by all my obligations,” but took the company down? Or the guy who said, “I actually got to manage these conflicting obligations”?

Employees, or many of them, kept their jobs, and shareholders came out way ahead. Maybe the lady wasn’t as advertised, but she was a better option than the tiger.  So it goes with the ways we manage not just our working lives, but our personal ones as well.

Conflicting obligations come at you from all directions  

If it weren't for you
“If it weren’t for you I would have conquered the world by now.”                  

Unexpected interruptions — kids, divorce, illness, death — not to mention layoffs, separations and unplanned early retirement intrude. Financial hardship complicates things.

Living longer + Putting yourself last = Poverty 

Women are particularly vulnerable to the call of obligations. We tend to put others’ needs before our own, although perhaps this trend will shift as we evolve and more men take on caregiving responsibilities.  But as it stands now, Kerry Hanson’s “Money Worries” column is a wake-up call:

Women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 or older while women age 75 to 79 were three times more likely to fall below the poverty level than men the same age.

When I turned around after taking time off to care for my parents, I fully expected to step back into a job comparable to the one I’d left. But someone had moved that career ladder. It’s taken years, and a few unplanned twists and turns to accept where I am professionally.  I realize now that if I’d been less focused on doing everything perfectly and more on my future, I’d be in a better position financially.

Health care expanses:  A ticking time bomb 

Changes to health care policy pose a real threat to anyone over the age of 65 who does not have robust retirement savings.  Today 60 percent of the elderly in nursing homes are on Medicaid. Many have spent their savings on assisted living and residential care. Getting old is expensive. According to Hanson, a healthy 65-year old woman retiring in 2016 will pay $300,000 on Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs for hearing dental and vision care by the time she reaches 89.  That, of course, is in addition to living and personal care expanses.

Stay in touch with your possibilities 

Do what you need to do to keep a firm footing on that career ladder. But don’t get rattled if something knocks you off.  Expand your thinking and your network.

Desai’s interview closed with a tip of the hat to Martha Nussbaum’s “The Fragility of Goodness” and the example set by the ancient Greeks:

Fundamentally, this is about undercutting the idea that you have to follow duty. Most Greek tragedies are about people who have these conflicting obligations, and it’s a mess, and you have to navigate them. And she says that’s a good life. If you don’t have conflicting obligations, you’re doing something wrong.

So, it is as it’s always been. Keep working. Do your best; take smart risks and most of all, take care of yourself.

 

*  Cartoon is courtesy of Harry Bliss and The New Yorker, March 18, 2016.

Skills are Our Best Renewable Strategy

I recently went to the IBM Amplify conference, which was built around IBM’s cognitive offering, Watson. It was, of course, all about knowledge and skills. Although technology majored, human skills were also a theme, and I raced around trying to keep up.

Girls who code and more

IBM Chairman Ginni Rometty closed her keynote by recognizing three young women from California who excelled in IBM P-Tech six-year high school schools, offering those lucky students jobs as IBM interns.  Skills were visible through partners:  CoffeeBean and its Soical-ID, BlueSky CloudCommerce, Bridge Solutions, Lightwell fulfillment. Rocket Fuel, and SapientRazorfish — all driving, extending, the cognitive technology into their respective sectors.

IBM has deep experience in getting the right skill sets from its people, and Marc Benioff of Salesforce was there to represent a new generation of companies that underscore the value-add of ongoing training and education.

Business and jobs policy 

Benioff — an innovation evangelist — referenced a meeting he and Rometty (among others) recently attended with President Trump:

“I want to thank all the business leaders that have joined us to discuss a subject that’s very important to me: Training our workforce for the 21st century, especially in respect to manufacturing jobs,” CNN quotes Trump as having said during that meeting. “Here in the United States, companies have created revolutionary high tech and online courses.”

More to come in this area, no doubt.

H-1B visa applications out tomorrow

H-1B visa applications are due out tomorrow. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced quotas will remain the same despite proposed changes, and some 85,000 applications will be available to tech companies. In the past, the visas have primarily been gone to professionals from India for IT jobs, and although data shows there has been a small impact on tech sectors wages, overall the program has demonstrated it enhances innovation, lowers consumer prices and boosts company profits.

It’s good to know there’s a larger discussion on jobs and skills.  But in the end, each of us is responsible for keeping our own skills up-to-snuff, and making sure elected officials and our professional communities help in any and all ways they can.  Skills are the best renewable strategy we have.  None of us should be sitting on our hands (or laurels).

Stuck in a Habit: Is Predictive Adaptation Possible?

Editor’s Note:  I was thinking about this post in terms of a session on Predictive Adaptation I sat in on last month. Dr. Liz Alexander moderated. She is considering a book on the subject which boils down to:

Can we stay tuned in enough to adapt prior to a change in our marketplace?

As the shelf life of companies grows shorter and shorter, the ability to adapt is on the short list of survival strategies. How do we cultivate it? One way is to not be stuck in our habits.

I’m a tea drinker, I have a teapot with an infuser, numerous immersion devices and a cabinet stuffed full of teas – black, herbal, medicinal, green. When I drank coffee, it was the same scenario, with different props. My freezer was full of Peets’ (now, alas, part of Starbucks) Major Dickinson blend and my cabinet, coffee brewers — drip, stovetop, percolator, French and Italian press – you get the drift.

Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing.
Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing. The solution?  Try something new.

Two weeks ago I ran out of tea. I reordered in a such a panic that I used an old address.  My tea — a special blend I’d grown to depend on to get me out of the door in the morning — never arrived. The tea blender refused to fix the delivery snafu.  So I didn’t reorder.

That’s how one habit (getting in a snit when things didn’t go my way) forced me to re-evaluate another (my tea drinking compulsions).  I was forced to rethink that morning ritual. Now I’m brewing tea bags (Choice) I buy at the grocery store.  I don’t enjoy my tea nearly as much, but it’s saving me time. Unintended consequence:  I’m actually getting to work on time.

Habits can be helpful, but they can also lock us into position. I’ve noticed that whatever it is hoard is a habit – wine, ice cream, tea, coffee, graham crackers. In the same way, my response to the tea blender was a habit — he chided me about my carelessness, I felt like a bad child, and I didn’t want anything more to do with him.  Other habits I’ve flagged since my tea disruption:

  • Who I greet in the morning
  • Where I walk the dog
  • What I do with my spare time
  • Who I telephone to spend time with
  • How I think about my abilities (and shortcomings)
  • The books I read
  • How I view people with ideas that are different from mine

A search on “habits” took my to former Googler Matt Cutts’ Ted Talk, “Try Something New for 30 Days.” (Editorial note:  Why is the guys can look like slobs and the women have to look like they’re ready for the Academy Awards?)  Regardless, I’ve resolved, for at least 30 days (when Choice tea bags will probably already be my new habit), not to reorder tea.  We’ll see what happens.

Who knows what I’ll discover.

 

 

 

Can We Adapt Before Change Happens?

If a lifelong attraction to fortune tellers has taught me anything, it’s that the future never turns out according to plan. And a planner I’ve always been.

So I was fascinated when Dr. Liz Alexander posed the question:  Can we adapt predictively?  That is, can we read trends wisely enough to see what will be required for a future that’s still around the corner?

Liz, who among other things, guides thought leaders through the process of articulating and packaging their theories, pointed out that if:

  • The past is a predictor of the future
  • Corporate shelf life continues to drop (it’s now in the low double digits)
  • We remain flexible professionally, accepting that each of us will have multiple professions during our working life
  • Then, if we pay attention to mega trends, we can determine where our professional strengths can best be applied

So much depends on seeing opportunity when it presents itself.  I pulled myself away from watching the Democratic National Convention to write this. Al Franken, former comedian, current U.S. senator spoke, and I was struck by Gail Collins’ oped piece pointing out that Hillary Clinton is running for president at a time when most women are thinking about gardening, grandchildren and the occasional cruise.

These are remarkable people, obviously, but they are also tips of an iceberg of change, reminding us to stay flexible, pay attention and don’t be afraid of opportunity.  Maybe that in itself is predictive adaptation.