Tag Archives: aging

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.

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.

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.”

Be Great

Each of us can be great — in our own way.  Great human beings don’t spring full-blown from Zeus’ head like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration.  The trick lies in uncovering, then nurturing its seed.

Thanks to technology (and I include publishing), we’ve no shortage of examples — in business, the arts and politics.  We can read, see and hear the stories of people who discovered their gift and then overcame their circumstances, doubts and fears to be bigger, broader and richer (if that’s what they wanted).

Work at being great -- in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Work at being great — in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Many of us have to dig to find our seed of greatness.  Maybe it’s writing, or developing great relationships or designing gardens.  But believing in ourselves — and our unique greatness — is pivotal.  Otherwise, our hands are tied.  We fail to act.  So we have to look for examples and learn from others.

Take entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are energizers.  They charge us up with their self-confidence and sheer drive.  Last week I sat in on a talk by John Arrow, the brilliant young CEO of Mutual Mobile.  Arrow told about his first entrepreneurial effort, a grammar school newsletter that was shut down for profiling students’ popularity.  (Sounds a little like a Facebook prototype, yes?) While his co-conspirators were punished by their parents, he was praised for his business acumen.  That chutzpah — and vision — has taken him far.

Or statesmen.  Nelson Mandela believed in a cause so great it dwarfed the failure and suffering he endured to become an icon of humanitarianism. Bill Keller‘s coverage drew from a 2007 interview.  Mandela was asked how he kept his hatred in check:  “… his answer was almost dismissive: “Hating clouds the mind.  It gets in the way of strategy.  Leaders cannot afford to hate.”  My sense is Mandela, although born the son of a tribal chief, was not always so adept a diplomat. I listened to a former colleague describe him as a “head knocker.”  If that’s the case, then Mandela had to master his anger to achieve his goals.

Or musicians.  A quote from the late, great Lou Reed, who as a young man had been through electroshock therapy, and in his music never seemed too concerned about popular opinion.  He followed his muse:

I’ve never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are.  You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful.  And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.

As we wind down another year, rushing madly along, let’s go for one thing:  Let’s try for greatness.  Or as Steven Pressfield puts it,  … Follow your unconventional, crazy heart.  Do the work.

Sitting is the new smoking

A friend gave me the news: Researchers have discovered there is no way to compensate for sitting.  Forget the morning run, yoga, walking the dog, weights. Sitting is the new smoking.

My back and shoulder had warned me. I felt long fingers of gravity pulling me down in the chair, tugging my thoughts and hopes down with them.  Down, down, down.  A change was in order.  A new $500 chair?  An iPad?  Everything investment is a risk.

So I did what any risk-aware 21st century American would do:  I posted my gorgeous Amisco computer desk on Craigslist and waited. I waited and forgot about the desk.  Weeks later, two emails popped up, out of the blue.  Lo and behold, there was a market for the desk.

What to do?  Go with the flow.  Linelle pulled out her $65. cash and took the desk away.  I think she’ll give it a good home.  And when I turned to look at the vacant spot, I had a rush of hope.  So many possibilities!  I could put a table in the middle of the room to use for cut outs and thinking.  I could type standing up (my back had been hurting anyway).  I could rethink my entire working life.

So here I am, in my new phase:  typing on the top of a tiny old bookcase my mother kept in her bathroom.  It’s the right height but a little teetery.  I’ll have to look for a larger surface. I’ll have to innovate.

Change is good. It never comes when we expect or even want it.  But it’s good.