Allison: Shaping the world with stories

This July, I’m sharing stories of firecrackers: women I know working different paths to speak up and light up the world.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” ~ Joan Didion

Allison is my oldest friend. Not in terms of age, but our shared history. We go way back – all the way to early elementary Sunday School in Dallas, Texas. Choir together in junior and senior high school, shared friends, church youth group, discussing the merits of Scarlett vs Melanie, Rhett vs Ashley…

Allison is the person woven throughout all the facets of my childhood. With all that history (and some dirt, if we’re honest), I feel uniquely positioned to confirm that Allison has always been a storyteller, performer and 100% herself. I mean, she once got a high school beau to reenact the gazebo scene from The Sound of Music – complete with leaping from bench-to-bench while singing “I Am Sixteen”. That is impressive.

After we both left Texas to go to separate colleges, we settled down in new (and northern!) cities. Allison in Chicago, me near Boston. Yet our friendship benefited from the rise of social media, and we have been able to stay in touch over the years. While our friendship has roots in our early, more innocent days, Allison’s sharing of her own stories has cemented our connection as grown-ups.

“Everybody is a hero in their own story.” ~Maeve Binchy

Allison’s honesty and humor shine through in her annual Christmas cards – which have become a highlight to my family’s holiday season. My wife texted me last year that “Allison’s card arrived today!” and that she had already opened it. Rather than a Norman Rockwell-esque photo shoot each year, Allison pulls back the curtain and shares her real life, laughing through the challenges life with four kids can bring. My favorite so far?

A picture of her newborn son, “Sleep in Heavenly Peace” printed the front. The honesty? Well, this was this picture of her son. Not sleeping. And not so peaceful. But so honest and real to what was happening in Allison’s life that year. IMG_4137.jpegI think about that every year, while the pretty holiday cards come in, and everyone’s life seems picture perfect. Once I had my own baby, it became a reminder that no matter what it may seem like, everyone’s gorgeous baby cries and doesn’t sleep sometimes.

When one of Allison’s sons was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), she looked for stories from other families in similar circumstances. She searched for books reflecting the experiences and daily life her son was experiencing. And she couldn’t find any. As she says, they just hadn’t been written. Yet.

She is now writing these stories into existence for her children and for others with similar experiences. A boy named Peter is the central character these stories, loosely based on her own son and other children she’s met with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I know that once those stories are published, they will help families having similar experiences just as much as that Christmas card continues to help me. (If anyone is or knows of a publisher, send them to Allison’s website!)

“We must all become storytellers of a future we want to share…” ~Bono at the UN

Allison’s stories are always entertaining, and she is now using her own stories to change the world around her. In addition to her children’s book series, her longer blog entries are hopeful, positive and always keep it real. In one of my favorite pieces, Tomorrow, Shine On, she challenges us to each “To be a light. I dare you.” And while that particular essay is a heavier subject matter, Allison is telling the stories of a future she wants to bring into being.

* * *

The July Firecracker series is inspired by the question “Why aren’t more people speaking up?” in response to the more recent news headlines. A somewhat simple question with complex and complicated answers for each of us. It sparked me to think about how I contribute to the world I want to live in, whether it be sharing my voice online, volunteering, or continuing my own political activism. As I reflected on the ways I choose to speak up, I noticed that almost everyone I know is using their unique voice and passion to be of service to others. It also gave me the idea to spotlight the powerhouse women I know who are changing the world from where they are. People and purpose are part of the fuel helping each of us lead meaningful, and happy, lives. If you know of someone speaking up with their own unique voice, please share their story with me at workyourhappy@gmail.com.

Becky: Answering the call to help others

“Why aren’t more people speaking up?”

A peer recently asked this question on an active discussion board in response to the more recent news headlines. This somewhat simple question has complex and complicated answers for each of us. It also sparked my own reflections on how I’m contributing, whether it be sharing my voice online, volunteering, or continuing my own political activism. As I reflected on the ways I choose to speak up, I noticed that almost everyone I know is using their unique voice and passion to be of service to others. It also gave me the idea to spotlight the powerhouse women I know who are changing the world from where they are. People and purpose are part of the fuel helping each of us lead meaningful, and happy, lives. And, we all speak up in different ways.

This July, I will share stories of different paths to service, starting with my cousin Becky, and her family.

Some of us don’t choose how we will be of service  – the path chooses us.

When Becky and her husband, Chris, welcomed their third son, Luke, into their family, they realized quickly that something wasn’t right. Luke was struggling to breathe, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on. I remember getting updates from Becky’s mom that Chris and Becky were commuting between their New Jersey home to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, trying to find out what was happening and what they could do – for weeks. For weeks, they did a juggling act between home, hospital, work and rest that seemed just about impossible as an outsider. A few years later, Becky told me she just switched into one-day-at-a-time mode and was so glad her family and friends were close enough to help with everything at home that she and Chris just couldn’t get to.

Luke was eventually diagnosed with a rare disease: Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS). With only one person in 6.3 million being diagnoses with CCHS, ‘rare’ may be a bit of an understatement. CCHS is a condition where everything is great when Luke is awake – but he stops breathing when he is asleep. At just a month old, he had a tracheostomy and needed a ventilator any time he fell asleep. Imagine that situation for a newborn – you know, since newborns sleep the majority of the day!

It’s also important to point out that not only was Luke’s diagnosis a rare one, he is also one of the lucky ones. CCHS has a range of symptoms, and while Luke is able to lead a mostly “typical” life when awake, some CCHSers need to be on a ventilator around the clock, may have learning disabilities, seizures, neuroblastoma (a rare cancer), blue spells, cardiac pauses – and more.

“Sometimes those who give the most are the ones with the least to spare.” 
― Mike McIntyreThe Kindness of Strangers

At a time when most of us might see success as making it through each day, one at a time, Becky and Chris started reaching out to help others. While it hadn’t even crossed my mind to think about the possible implications as my wife and I started our own families, they shared details with us (and my brother), so that we could be tested and prepared if the cause wacchs.s something genetic (it is) or hereditary (it wasn’t). And then they went big: Becky stepped up and co-founded of the CCHS Foundation. Through funding research, connecting CCHS families to one another, raising awareness, and sharing her story, Becky is changing – and saving – lives.

 

I’ve known Becky my whole life. She always wanted to be a nurse and has always been a caregiver. As I’ve had the privilege to witness Becky and Chris’ journey, the word that always comes to mind is “grace”.  In a situation when it would be completely justified to pull in and focus on her family, Becky chose to give to others. She is an advocate for the support and resources she wished she had. When I asked if I could write this and share her story, her response was that she did what any parent would do. I’m not sure that co-founding a foundation dedicated to medical research is what we’d each do in a similar situation, but I love that Becky thinks it is. She is speaking up for families who will find themselves with a newborn who needs additional care every time the fall asleep. An unexpected purpose found Becky, and Becky found people who she needed – and who needed her.

To learn more, please visit (and consider donating to) www.cchsnetwork.org.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.
It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate,
to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

#momsquad

“Most discussions of having it all” center on balancing work and children, but that definition of “all” is incomplete… Women also want to spend time on other aspects of their lives: art, politics, faith, experiencing the natural world. Left to pursue only two dimensions of our lives leaves other parts of who we are undercultivated.”
~Lynn Pasquerella

One of the top executives at my company was named as one of Working Mother’s The Most Powerful Moms of 2018. As a working mom myself, I am always on the lookout for hacks to make it easier to honor all the parts of who I am.

In search of the ever-elusive ‘how to have it all’, I’ve cultivated my own #momsquad: a group of 5 women who are my go-tos on all things parenting, both as a mom and as working mom with a Career. As in other areas of my life, my #momsquad is my board of directors. This committee of women – who don’t actually know each other – are my guides help me navigate the dimensions of who I am beyond just work or home.

Moms 1 & 2: My two best friends, each a stay-at-home mom of three kids. I turn to them when I need coaching on prioritization, patience and parenting. These experienced moms have been there when I thought my baby was coughing up blood (just transfer from me from breastfeeding, but still terrifying), telling me I should REALLY consider sleep training, and reminding me that my work is important, but maybe not THE most important thing in my life.  When my approach to parenting doesn’t line up as well as I’d like with my wife’s, I can ask for input without worrying they will be judging my relationship and my parenting. Each of these strong women made thoughtful and difficult decisions about whether or not continuing their pre-kid careers made sense while their children are young. They are now approaching the decision about going to work as their kids get older. And, since they’ve both known for more than 20 years, they can call me out on my sh!t like no one else. Friends first, moms second.

Moms #3 & 4: Those trusted office moms, mythical unicorns of work-people who become friends and who are at similar stages in both their career and personal lives. One mom had her second daughter after 40, while leaning in to her own Career  so much she stepped into a new team and new role after returning from maternity leave. She gives me hope that it’s not too late for my family and my career to grow together. To top that off, just also ran a half-marathon – and wrote about it! The other office mom unicorn is stepping in as stepmom. Being trusted to watch her navigate making deliberate decisions about co-parenting and family building is opening up new doors in how I think about my own family. These two women lift my guilt when I spend some of my free time on the weekend writing (like right now), get dinner for the family from the Whole Foods hot bar (again) and tell me when I have smeared banana on my clothes. Whether it is coaching on time-management, setting boundaries or reminding me that each week has enough hours to do what’s actually important, these coworkers know that for us, working works for us and our families.

Mom 5: One of my two sisters-in-law, a working mom of two amazing girls. Not only is she consistently getting ahead in her own Career, she is somehow also going back to school for her MBA. A working mom who also knows, understands and appreciates the unique dynamics of my extended family. She shares her thoughtful approach on how she makes time for what’s important to her, co-parents fully with my brother and knows that family is family, however we all get to the same holiday table. What’s not to appreciate and love?

My #momsquad members don’t all know each other. But they all know me, or know different facets of me, who I am now and who I want to be. These moms make me hope I really am an average of the 5 people with whom I spend the most time associating.

Tell me about your #momsquad… and if you have any of those magical hacks that makes finding that elusive balance to be your most fully recognized self.

A Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard

When was the last time you received a hand-written thank you note? A love letter? A holiday card that wasn’t a printed family newsletter? What about the last time you wrote a postcard from vacation? Or tucked a note into a family member’s lunch box?

Something experiential happens when we write with pen and paper that gets lost in our digital world. Your thoughts slow down when your hand, the ink and your brain need to get in sync. You are more deliberate and engaged in your writing, and less likely to become distracted. You are directing an activity with your own thoughts; bringing new ideas and information into existence. There is something tangible and tactile in writing longhand that just isn’t the same in the repetition of typing

I’ve always been a fan of journal and taking notes longhand. I collect blank notebooks, hoard stationary and keep a paper calendar. I write out goals and dreams in lists, plan vacation packing lists and activities with a clipboard and blank paper. Carving out the time to sit down, to think and engage with what you want to say elevates an activity from a task to something of importance.

How does this make a difference at work? Imagine a one line thank you email to a team compared to a handwritten note acknowledging your unique contributions to a specific piece of work. They might take about the same time, but have exponentially different impacts.

Not sure the lost art of cursive really matters? Try this simple exercise: think of a word you’d like others to use as a way to describe you. Compassionate. Adaptable. Strong. Badass. Now write it down, with a pen or pencil, on paper.

· I am compassionate.
· I am adaptable.
· I am strong.
· I am a badass.

Hopefully, you felt a confidence boost that comes from your brain telling your hand to write those sentences. Now imagine writing down your goals and dreams. There’s a commitment that comes from writing something in ink, a promise to yourself to take action, to think about how to go get what you want. The pen is mightier than the sword, and thinking about what you’re communicating – and how you do it – can have impacts lasting much longer than today’s typical group text messages.

Lessons on Work-Life Balance from the Harry Potter Series

I’ve jokingly said that all of life’s most important lessons can be found in the pages of the Harry Potter series. Since the series is a children’s series, examining the handling of full-time employment isn’t really what most fans spend time thinking about. However, one quote from my favorite character, Molly Weasley, frames a philosophy of work-life balance that is a great guidepost for anyone looking for that elusive “sway” between office and home life:

“Is Mr. Weasley still at work?” Harry asked.

“Yes, he is. As a matter of fact, he’s a tiny bit late. . . he said he’d be back around midnight. . .”

She turned to look at a large clock that was perched awkwardly on top of a pile of sheets in the washing basket at the end of the table. Harry recognized it at once: it had nine hands, each inscribed with the name of a family member, and usually hing on the Weasley’s sitting room wall, though it’s current position suggested that Mrs. Weasley had taken to carrying it around the house with her. Every single one of its nine hands was now pointing at “mortal peril”. 

“It’s been like that for a while now, ” said Mrs. Weasley, in an unconvincingly casual voice, ever since You-Know-Who came back in the open. I suppose everybody is in mortal danger now. . . I don’t think it can be just our family. . . but I don’t know anyone who’s got a clock like this, so I can’t check. Oh!”

With a sudden exclamation, she pointed at the clock’s face. Mr. Weasley’s hand had switched to “traveling”.*

It’s pretty straight forward: the only reason to work such late hours is if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back. It’s is an oversimplification: teachers grade on the weekends, catching up on email on a Sunday while the family is still sleeping helps keep the rest of the week running smoothly, and journalists report the news 24/7. And, of course, I was incredibly happy my doctor stayed past the end of his shift to deliver my son (Thanks, Doctor M!).

Yet it raises the question of how serious and important your work is that it should take you away from home more than a “typical” full-time job? Are you saving lives? Maybe. Do we all have situations that would be full-stop, all-in, work around the clock challenges? Of course. What I appreciate most in how Molly presents her husband working long hours and weekends is that: yes, it’s happened before and no, it’s not typical. This event in the Harry Potter series magically gave me permission to think about the times I was pulling long hours: did the reason why I was in the office on nights and weekends make sense? Was it because of a singular event like the Dark Lord returning? Or was it a habit and expectation that could be revised?

In my career journey, I’ve experienced both. Working in event management in the early 2000s meant I was on call all the time. Calls about menu decisions at 7:15 AM on a Saturday didn’t seem as critical once it became a typical issue that could be solved during normal work hours but somehow only was a priority on the weekends. Working in financial services in 2007 – 2008 meant all hands on deck: to the point where I knew where the motion sensors were to make sure the lights stayed on past 8 PM. Being able to recognize when something was creeping into “how I work all the time” to “rise to the challenge for a short time” helps me keep perspective on my mindset about work.

Another way the wisdom of Harry Potter helps me frame challenges in my profession life is how J.K. Rowling presented villains and challenges. Lord Voldemort is the ultimate baddie, the problem to end all problems, the one that cannot be ignore and must be challenged. Delores Umbridge is a henchman, a dangerous person that must be managed yet will rise or fall in not on her own, but with the real problem of Voldy. Bellatrix Lestrange is flat-out crazy, and Draco Malfoy is a victim of his circumstances. Peeves is just that – an annoyance. The Dursleys can be escaped and overcome, eventually. And so on. When a situation or person pops up in my life as a challenge, it helps me to try to figure out if what I’m dealing with is on the order of magnitude of Lord Voldemort or perhaps Argus Filch, and adjust my reactions and energy accordingly. So far, I’ve definitely met an Umbridge or two, but have personally avoided a Dark Lord scenario.

And, in the interest of sharing lessons learned based on Harry Potter, here’s a pro-tip: If you do decide to draft your own casting list of all the major Harry Potter characters and who holds their equivalence in your real life, don’t do it on stationary with your name on it. And don’t lose the list. At least, not until you’ve figured out how to enchant that parchment a la Messrs Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs.

Note: June 26, 2017 was the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. Now would be a good time to reread the series: I recommend the illustrated versions now available or the amazing audiobooks read by Jim Dale.

 

*From Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Chapter: An Excess of Phelgm, page 85.

Purpose vs. a Paycheck

“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”
“Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“Make passion your paycheck.”

I’m all for inspirational quotes – but these three platitudes get me especially fired up. Because really, how many of us are in a financial position to only do work that calls out to our souls? To make passion your paycheck means it’s likely someone else is putting the food on the table – and we all have to eat. Looking at work separate from the rest of your life is a reductive perspective. I prefer to think of an entire life as a system; a mutually supportive ecosystem where what we do to create financial stability isn’t all we are.
Your purpose may not be your job at all.

How to know how close your job is to your purpose? I use The Lottery Question as my go-to question to get a reading on how someone is feeling about their work and purpose. It’s simple: What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow? 

There are three primary answers:

  1. Stay! I’d invest my winnings wisely, maybe go on a big trip, but at the end of the day I’d keep going in to work.
  2. Sashay! I’d be out that door so fast that hopefully I’d remember to take my family pictures off my desk.
  3. Delay! I’d give two weeks notice, wrap up my current work and transition things to the rest of my team before heading on to Disney World.

Stay! I am inspired by my friends who would keep working – but it’s a short list and frankly, not that common. If you fall into this category, share your story – how’d you get to do the work you love and earn the necessary money to support yourself? Ask yourself why you would stay and if those elements could change. If they did change, what would you do?

Sashay! If you’d you’d sashay out the door, calling out “Later, suckers!”, do you know why you’re in the job you’re in right now? It can be a lot easier to face Monday morning not going to your dream job if you know that it’s making travel, health care benefits, or living in a certain part of the country possible. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, do you know why? Is it the commute, a boss that micromanages, a boring project? If you can pin-point why you’re doing the work you’re doing and why you don’t enjoy it, you will start to see solutions for making smaller changes will have a positive impact without overhauling your career. Advocating for a new project assignment, negotiating a flex schedule to avoid the commute, learning how to manage your boss… now there are actions you can take to improve a less-than-ideal situation without giving up the reasons for why you need this specific job.

Delay! If you know what you’d do with your time after getting back from that amazing vacation following your two weeks’ notice, do more of whatever that is now. The issue I take with the saccharine “love your job, never work” advice is that it comes from a position of privilege implying we all have the choice to not worry about financial concerns. It would be fantastic if we all had work that we wouldn’t leave for lottery winnings – yet it’s aspirational. “Delay” is the sweet spot – work that doesn’t make Sunday nights miserable yet leaves room for our passions and purpose outside of the workplace.

In a past life, I worked in attorney recruitment at a DC-based law firm. One employee I spoke to a only handful of times taught me key lessons on how to think about what our “real work” can be. She is now a well-known author who ran the legal library after stepping out of a litigation career to focus on her writing. She had a solid, corporate 9-to-5 job with good benefits fueling her purpose, rather than being the purpose itself. To be fair, she is a full-time writer now.

Spend time on your purpose and your paycheck: both are critical, not mutually exclusive and certainly not necessary to fully integrate in order to be happier. If you want to keep reading about this topic, here are 5 Reasons to Ignore the Advice To Do What You Love.