Dear Facebook: Time Out

After the election, a funny thing happened on my way to the Facebook forum (for the millionth time): I declared I was taking some time off. And then I ended up on the front page of USA Today instead.

I didn’t plan to announce my resolve to shut down beyond my little sphere of connections. But now that it’s part of the record, I want provide an update for anyone out there who might, at some moment of weariness, be thinking about shutting down their Facebook, or Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or any other channel.

Here it is: I can still feel my pulse. And I think it’s actually stronger than before the FB blackout.

I was up the entire night of the election. As I reckoned with my disbelief and shock, the S vortex consuming my energy seemed simultaneously to inject just enough back into me to keep me posting and reading even after the new day dawned and life was, supposedly, resuming.

My kids, bless them, like most of their peers, continued to inhabit the world of physical objects, immediate needs, school, comfort and play. As they have many times in recent months, they pulled me back to an awareness of what’s essential. Although I’ll confess that it took several days within the vortex before I realized how far away from their reality my mind had wandered.

Look, it’s not lost on me that something momentous happened a few weeks ago. And I feel I’m just as responsible as everyone else is to make a difference and participate in society. But I realized something was wrong when, night after night, I put my kids to bed and then spent the rest of my conscious minutes wrapped up in my own comforter, tapping and swiping on my phone. I have business to drum up, people to actually see, in three dimensions, and children to raise. What the hell was I doing here until all hours of the a.m.?

So I posted my blackout declaration and figured that was that. Until the next morning at least: that’s when a friend in PR called — she’d seen my sign-off post — and connected me to a reporter on the path of a story about, well, what I’d just done.

Finding my picture on the front page of a national newspaper was a nice perk (Ha! One plug I didn’t have to make on my own!). But it reminded me that elections, causes large and small, and gossip all present seemingly legitimate reasons to take one’s eye off the proverbial ball. The one you can not afford to lose sight of when you and only you are charged with hitting that ball back out into the world. The bottom line is, you have to stay focused on your responsibility to others and your day-to-day business. One only has so much capacity. Your attention only spans a limited distance. How you spend your time is a matter of choice and it needs to be aligned with your true priorities. For me, time I spend on Facebook is time I now do not have to offer my business, my children, and my personal self care.

As for Facebook, I’m just staying quiet for now. Likely, it’s quiet before a new storm, but if and when that storm erupts, I hope I will feel a bit more fortified to fight it, with refreshed energy and my priorities back in order.

The path in and the path out: an interlude and an allegory

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Sometimes it takes persistence to find the perfect stretch of sand.

That’s what my children and I found out during a day trip to Tigertail Beach in Florida on our last vacation. We paid our eight bucks to park and lugged our backpack, chair, lunch and selves down to what we’d been told was one of the most delightful pieces of the Gulf Coast. Anticipation was riding high.

But not so fast. What we found looked more like a mud flat, with a water inlet on its far border and a mangrove thicket beyond that. The kids, pumped up on the prospect of unrivalled Floridian beach beauty, looked out at the muck, then up at me, and said, silently, ‘Is this it?’

It wasn’t. This wasn’t paradise on a plate. I asked a man lugging his own version of a baggage caravan where the real beach was. Ah, he said, to find that, you need to cross the inlet, march through the mangrove and then you’ll be rewarded with a view of the Gulf of Mexico.

That was enough to motivate my crew. We stomped through the muck — about an inch thick and squishy — onto a path traversed by crabs. At the end, we found a pristine white sand beach. We were delighted with the scene and pleased with ourselves.

Following a full day of swimming in sparkly water, building castles, collecting shells, burying each other in the white sand, bird watching and sun soaking, we began the trek back to the car, fully satisfied. Loaded up with our gear, we found our path through the mangrove thicket had disappeared. The tide waits for no family; it was in, and lapping my ankles (and the childrens’ shins) as we sloshed along. The crabs, who had scuttled out of our way on the way in, held their ground under water, and pinched at our feet.

The inlet had been erased, and the mucky cove was now covered by water that came up to my chest. Either of the kids would be submerged unless they swam, and my son hasn’t even had a lesson yet.

‘No looking down!’ I told them. ‘Just look straight ahead, to where the car is.’ Silently, I told myself the same thing to calm my nerves. I was awfully weighted down even before I picked up my son, who couldn’t cross any other way.

Staggering with him in my arms, the backpack and lunch bag draped over my shoulders. I had strapped the beach chair to my back and my daughter resolutely grabbed on and kicked for all she was worth. The crabs kept up their pinching, the mosquitos swooped in for their afternoon snacking, and for all we knew fish, frogs and other south-Florida beasties might be arriving at any moment to check us out under the surface. Did I mention we are from the urban jungle of Manhattan? Woah.

But we couldn’t let our imaginations go that far. We sang, laughed, and talked about ice cream. It was a long trip, but we made it, a little creeped out, but otherwise intact. The reward for our fortitude was in the ice cream truck in the parking lot. Never had black top looked so inviting.

So it took some persistence to get what we wanted. It took a great deal more to cope with the complications that arose from getting what we wanted. The unanticipated challenges that followed a trip to paradise were far tougher to handle. Yet with the right mindset, we overcame them, too.

This is a story I’ve been sharing with friends who — like me — are in a tough stretch after many good years. It’s been hard to accept that getting what you want can, sometimes, lead to disappointments and unforeseen complications.

But it’s part of the trip. The attitude counts for everything.

It’s another invaluable lesson my kids have helped me absorb. I’m sure we’ll all remind each other of that long post-paradise slog, wherever we trek in the future.

People Skills and the Art of Asking for Help

If you’re in one of those life patches where nothing is green and the riverbeds are parched you might live by simple, if unpleasant proposition: ask for help until you don’t need it anymore.

But even at wit’s end we need our wits about us. Because the human response to beseeching isn’t uniform: maybe we’re all alike when we feel vulnerable, but when we’re facing vulnerable people, we’re a little more diverse.

I’ve been studying this of late and here’s what I’ve learned: people-reading skills are really important when you’re asking for help.

Some of us really can’t handle vulnerability. I don’t assume something’s wrong when people can’t hack it: most of them are caring, understanding and inclined to do the right thing. But when another person implores or just asks, straight up, “can we talk? Life’s rough right now,” they freeze.

I think that’s a reflection of the culture at large. Collaboration is all the rage, but we’re taught to link to people with strength, confidence, and a winning track record. An open-book approach clashes with established exchange protocols: ‘How are you? I’m great. Yeah, me too!’ But throw in, ‘Well, actually I need work, and fast’, and the protocol is dropped. An exchange we could have in our sleep just got complicated.

It’s pretty simple identifying a negative reaction after you’ve effectively shut the other person down. The trick is to gauge what type of reaction you’re likely to receive if you lead with an ask.

You should be aware of the time of day, the context of the meeting, the other person’s appearance, anything that might help you figure how receptive she might be to candor. Mainly, though, it comes down to temperament. Lots of us want order in our lives. If you suspect your ask will disrupt order, it might make more sense to fake it ‘til ya make it.

But some people appreciate honesty, and are ready to listen. Those folks might, conversely, be turned off if you try convincing them you’re doing great before you reveal that well, actually, there are a few problems. In these cases, you might detect that they take things slower, weigh your words before responding, and resist glib overstatements. Generally, these people appreciate nuance. While accepting that you’re overall a steady, industrious person, they might recognize you’re on rocky terrain and offer help (or at least advice) before you can even ask.

If you’re meeting for the first time, it might be trial and error until you come to trust your instincts. I’ve shared my belief in abundance many times, and that approach might be the best. For every person that recoils from your vulnerable outreach, there will be one — the right one — who is eager to connect. And the connection is what sells.

But you might feel safer and wiser keeping up appearances until you’ve seen real evidence that you’ve found someone who can handle authenticity.

The connection is what sells. And even when times are tough, you likely have many helping hands around you. Stay strong and keep sharp. There’s an art to practice here and an opportunity to hone your intuition.

The Messenger on My Balcony

New Yorkers can live an insular kind of life, especially those of us living on the grid, in Manhattan. It’s easy to feel the city closing in and kind of shutting out the rest of the world. If it were not for the Instagram #lookingup, I don’t know that I would see the sky some days. Walking the streets here and you might get the sense of walking at the bottom of a canyon. Factor in the stress of survival and one can start to feel slightly mole-ish (is that a word?): almost blind, digging at what’s in front of you.

Dealing with my usual avalanche of responsibilities one recent morning, I caught a peripheral flash of movement. I looked up from all the papers on my desk and saw this:

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He was huge, and he was beautiful. His presence was arresting. We stared at each other for about two minutes, each wondering what the other was thinking. I somehow managed to snap this photo, through the raindrops on the glass door.

I posted the picture above to Facebook and asked if anyone could identify this bird. I had no luck until dinnertime, when I told my daughter the story and showed her the picture.

“I know what it is! It’s an American Kestrel,” she announced.

How, I asked, in the world, did she know that?

“It’s one of the pieces in my bird bingo game. The one you gave me.“

I didn’t have to check bird bingo pieces. Kids don’t make up stuff like this. It was just another moment when my daughter knew more than I did, because, well, kids aren’t moles. Their vision, particularly as it turns inward, isn’t restricted by the presence of canyon walls and daily hardship.

My daughter has gone on to other things, but the kestrel has stayed with me. I’ve read about the species – it’s a type of urban falcon and they are fond of the cornices on the buildings in my Upper East Side neighborhood. But the ornithology was less interesting to me than a question a dear friend posed over breakfast: Why do you think this bird showed up when he did?

Of course, there is the obvious, he was hunting and perched there to get the view of his prey. But, this kestrel sparked something in me, and ultimately that matters more than the practical answer.

So I told my friend that the kestrel perched on my balcony to remind me that there is a big, bountiful, natural world still churning beyond my canyon and crisis-mode tunnel vision. And that I’m still part of it. And maybe I have more agency and vision than I’ve relied on of late.

For those who are open to the intersection of symbols and nature, an animal can be a totem. A site my dear friend linked me to has this to say:

People who choose the kestrel as their totem animal should be willing and ready to sit in a place where they can have clear view of the world . . . When they want to make a decision concerning their goals, they tend to look for a perfect view of the final thing to be sure of. They need to try to get what they want. Such people may be reluctant in taking risks. This animal totem provides a clear picture of what one may wish to venture into next.

There’s nothing like ongoing crisis to make one risk-averse. A bigger, clearer picture suited me fine in that moment.

Make what you will of my visitor. Me, I’ve been thanking him for helping me regain a little of the vision I need to aspire to better things than I’ve had of late. You can say a bird is just a bird, but the kestrel almost dared me to dismiss him. And I won’t. I can’t. He showed up, just in time, to usher me towards what’s next for me and to remind me to take a wide view, when making my plans.

Just Say It

Everything has a price. No, I’m not being dramatic, cynical, or salty after paying too much for my vanilla latte. I’m stating a fact about professional services. They cost. And because most people who provide them have worked very hard to get where they are and care about excellence — instead of being just good enough — I’m quite OK with the cost structure.

Except when people seem embarrassed by it.

I’ve recently had to shop for some professional business services. It’s sensitive stuff, so it’s important that I find an attorney who is not just excellent, but in my comfort zone. I don’t expect to ‘click’ with everyone I meet.

But as a professional who knows her worth, and who knows about selling, it’s hard not to notice when another pro clearly hasn’t thought through the implications of sales in their practice.

Two lawyers I met recently had two things in common:

  1. Neither quoted their fee. They coughed it up when I asked, and attached a roundabout, and drawn out, explanation of why they charge it.
  2. Gender. Sadly, but not surprisingly, they both were women.

As you might guess, I sense a connection between these facts. Many female professionals — too many, I’d argue — engage prospective clients as if they’re hoping money just won’t get talked about.

Argh. Ladies (and gents), just say it: ‘I charge XX per hour/project/session’. Fill in the blanks and lay it out there. Practice in the mirror if that helps. But before the client leaves the first session, say it. It’s your job.

I’d argue that there is one imperative each for the professional and the prospective client regarding The Number. It’s the professional’s responsibility to quote the price without being asked.

The prospective client, if so inclined, can ask for a cost breakdown. The professional has the office, license, practice and status, all earned. When asked, they should respectfully explain the breakdown. But there is no need to justify the price.

And there certainly is no cause for embarrassment. The evasiveness of those two attorneys would not be enough for me to disqualify them on its own. But the professional relationship is based in part on trust. I’m inclined to believe that both women are still fighting with old messaging that drones about the inappropriateness of asking for things, being too focused on money, yada yada. But other prospects might pick up on the money discomfort and interpret it as something more insidious; this undermines trust, which carries far more serious implications that plain old discomfort.

I’m still shopping. I might even choose one of these lawyers after all. But please, folks, don’t give me a five minute explanation (justification) of your prices. Just quote the fee already and leave it at that. If you’re really as good at your work as you say you are, the numbers can speak for themselves.

Hidden Talents Can Hide in Plain View

Carla Harris is a juggernaut. While climbing to the highest levels of Morgan Stanley, she’s also become a motivational speaker and author. And all the while, she was a gospel singer, an impassioned and successful one (she’s seen the Carnegie Hall stage from both sides of the proscenium). This is such an impressive an interesting combination of talents.

I especially appreciate that Carla’s persona had a gradual genesis. Once upon a time, she kept her singing a secret from her Morgan Stanley colleagues. It helps me to know that, because much as I hate to admit it, I’ve felt the urge to disappear some of my history, too. And it wasn’t just when I was up and coming either.

I have a music background of my own. I often find myself joking in front of an audience about how I am putting my prestigious degree in flute performance to “excellent use” in the field of retail financial services. I earned at BFA in flute playing, from Boston Conservatory of Music. I find myself wondering, with frequency, if it is downright odd to keep listing this degree in my online profiles. So I’m a classically trained flutist: what does that have to do with business development? Did I give up on my passion? Did I somehow lose my way, as a young person? Am I less of a player in my chosen field, because I pushed hard in another direction for so long?

After years of talking about niche marketing, the role of the personal in the professional, I should know better.

Occasional doubts aside, I’m proud of what I accomplished as a musician. The work ethic music fostered, the performances skills it demanded, the thrill of connecting with an audience it promised: these are all part of my repertoire today.

And it always means I have something to talk about besides my business. Sometimes I remember what I read about admissions at Harvard (Carla Harris’ alma mater) when I was in high school. Grades were not considered ‘too important’ (although — cough cough — successful applicants usually had great ones). What mattered were the interests, activities, and personal statements.

In other words, the will to be one’s authentic and complete self often made the difference.

There are brilliant people everywhere. But I think there always will be a premium on interesting people. These are the people who get things done, yes, but they do them with spark, innovation, humor, or from a distinct perspective. Who would you rather have handle the big account, the brilliant person who could tell you about singing in Carnegie Hall, or the brilliant person who had been planning for nothing but a business career since age 15?

I know whom I’d choose. And midnight worries be gone, I’m glad to own my BFA, and admit that I love to inspire a crowd and share a message. Early on, I used a flute. Now I use my insights on self-promotion and business. But in a fundamental sense, nothing has changed. I still love connecting with people, and I love putting on a show.

When you can be real about who you are, you open the door for others to reciprocate. So don’t hide your secret or abandoned talents. Let them shine, until they attract more of the very same people who inspired you once upon a time.

Call me old school, some deals are best closed in person

Selling is so tough that you can build a real argument for pushing to the finish whenever you have the chance. If you’re making progress, why slow down? Our culture is replete with examples of deals closed during random encounters, sitting on planes, or even on vacation. I applaud them all.

What I don’t like is the telephone: land, cellular, you name it. Unless you’re calling your family. As one of my first sales managers used to say “Great things happen, face to face”. It sounded so cheesy at the time, but now I understand what a simple truth this was. When you are closing someone on a complex concept, nothing beats looking them in the face.

It’s not just because I started in the financial services business as a cold caller. These days, I’m on the receiving end of some pretty serious sales pitches and you know what? When they’re delivered by a voice over a handful of plastic and metal, I cringe.

In one day two very different and very serious professionals rang to sell me on complex financial concepts. Both pulled hard. I’ll rate myself as pretty sophisticated financially, but I lost the thread of their arguments. Or should I say, they lost me, and fast. Within two minutes I knew there was no way in hell they could reel me in.

I’ve been carrying my share of emotional stress over the last year, and for awhile I thought that was why I couldn’t handle these calls. But then I realized: They were pitching services that required a large buy and serious thinking about my future.

So I got emotional? Duh. All big financial decisions are fraught with emotions.

Which is why the phone is so often a loser as a sales medium. There are just too many important signals you miss when you don’t have your eyes trained on the prospect. Especially if you’re following a script and piling on when there’s no response.

Because in most cases, silence doesn’t mean you’re winning. You’ve probably succeeded in overwhelming the prospect with information and either they’re checking out or checking their blood pressure.

So better yet:

Never just keep talking. If the phone is unavoidable, keep your sentences short. If you must delve into specifics, break them up with regular check-ins. A question that puts the burden on your communication skills (‘am I making sense?’) is superior to emphasizing their comprehension (‘do you understand?’).

Stick to easy action. Focus on a few achievable steps and wait until another day to bring the prospect to the close of your sales funnel.

Don’t shy from screen time. It’s the future anyway. Skype, iChat, WebX et. al may still rate lower than an in-person meeting. But, at the least you can read facial expressions and the prospect knows that you aren’t losing at Solitaire or checking your facebook in the background.

Wait until you can meet in person. A professional setting is fine, so long as you’re sure the prospect can relax and feel secure. But wherever you choose, let it be somewhere the humanity of the situation can be respected. Please don’t ask me to discuss my personal finances in a Starbucks. Too close to the blogger at the next table, for my comfort, at least.

Spoken words convey only so much messaging, and often they’re unreliable. Face to face, you can study a prospect’s body language for clues that can tell you to explain more, or less, or just take a break to breathe.

The phone isn’t going away, even if landlines are. You’ll be using yours for awhile. Nothing better for following up on prospects and asking for appointments.

But remember that money evokes opportunity and risk; the combination brings out the best and worst in most of us. Whatever side of the sales game I’m playing, I like to see the whites of their eyes. And not in pixels, if possible.

The Sound of Great Advice

I’ve found that advice is easiest to absorb when I am wide open and at my most emotionally vulnerable. In fact, I’ll bet the ‘quality’ of the advice I’ve received over the years has been in direct proportion to my ability to hear and not deflect it.

There’s risk involved, of course. Most people aren’t ready for the honest answer when they lob out a cheerful ‘how are you?’ You can end up feeling worse when you reveal genuine stress or fear and then realize you’ve just made the other person’s day a little uncomfortable.

Besides, most of us want to project strength and confidence. In my work, I’m often telling people how to pump themselves up, crack open the can of Superwoman jump-juice and believe in what they can do. It’s good advice, and I stand by it.

It’s just that some days, the only way through is confessing to the pain because there’s so much of it. Even in public, as I recently discovered.

It’s not the end-of-day depletion I worry about. That’s to be “expected” as a single earner, mother of two small children, in NYC. It’s the days I wake up depleted that are the hardest for me. When, I’m facing the whole day with a genuine question about how I will get through, that’s when I’m alarmed.

Most of us cope by relying on a mantra, or a rote activity. I make lists. The more overwhelming the wave is, the longer the list. Usually this keeps me sane and the day structured: bank deposits, permissions slips, phone calls to return, stats to confirm. I just keep checking the boxes.

But some days I realize there’s no way in hell I’m going to remember everything on this lifeline — er — list. And in the worst case, this truth occurs to me when I’m somewhere I can’t do a single thing to alter it, even in some pointless symbolic way.

If only MTA buses could use despair as an alternative fuel. The long waits on cold street corners, the wheezy, halting pace, crowding and the lack of smiles can make a bad day feel like the end of the world.

On my last crosstown trip, I was wound up so tightly I almost forgot to breathe. My list had spun out of control. I realized I was past my limit when a few random tears turned into the ugliest cry I remember having beyond the safety of home. I was just too exhausted to fight back the sadness. I knew people were watching, but I was about one breath away from being helpless to do anything about it.

So you can’t say, strictly, that I asked for the advice of the disheveled man in the wheelchair next to me. Apparently though, he knew genuine distress when he saw it, and didn’t turn away.

“It will be OK,” he said kindly.

There was no need for me to explain. “I hope so,” I replied. “It’s just a hard day today.”

“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t always peaches and cream, but it does get better. Stay strong and have faith. Keep going. Don’t stop.”

I sensed he often strung these old phrases together. Clearly not in the best of circumstances himself, I guessed he relied on his mantra like I rely on my lists.

On another day, I might have heard a string of platitudes. But in that vulnerable moment I could take his words to heart. Faith, indeed. That day I showed up for a lot of people and for myself, thanks to the kindness of a stranger and the right words I could actually hear at the exact right moment.

Waiting For the Bus — And the Crazy Ride that Followed

IMG_6498Recently I traveled to Boston to give a talk to a room full of female financial advisors. This is a regular gig for me these days; I’ve worked with advisors all over the country. But there was something exceptional about this seminar. The rooms all look the same, but the view? This one was unforgettable.

The conference room windows looked out on a corner bus stop. Whooee, right? But of all the bus stops in all the towns in all the world, I didn’t figure to see this one again. Yet I could never forget it, either. Once upon a time it was mine, and I hated it.

When I landed my first job — a temp assignment, but still, a job — out of college, I couldn’t afford a car. So I relied on the Summer Street bus to get me back and forth from work and the South Boston apartment I was sharing with a roommate. The joke was on me: this bus wasn’t reliable at all. I probably spent as much time waiting for it, freezing my ass of that winter, as I did riding it.

FullSizeRenderThe job wasn’t much either. I earned $12 an hour to handle paperwork in a wholesale commercial furniture showroom. The day’s work my boss handed down took about five minutes to finish; I spent the other seven hours, 55 minutes studying my Series 7 manuals, hoping to up my game with a cold calling job at American Express Financial Advisors. I had to hide the manuals in desk drawers so the showroom boss would think I was doing my all for his operation. A crystal ball, through which I could see some kind of payoff, would have been a warm comfort as I made the daily schlep out the bus stop, in snow, sleet and hail.

So I stood in a cozy, climate-controlled auditorium, earning a nice fee for dishing out motivation and self-promotion tactics, and tried hard not to stare out the window. The juxtaposition was striking, you might say. If only I somehow could have overlapped an image of my earlier self out on the corner, waiting for a bus that seemed to hobble along just to help remind me how insignificant I was. If only the attendees could have seen and felt what I did.

That would have been worth as much as the insights into prospecting and successful presentation I was providing. Today I’m here — back then I was out there, about fifty feet away. You know how far I’ve traveled to complete this circle? That would have been a seminar for the ages.

Yes, self-promotion comes easier as you develop your chops, experience and contacts. But it begins with the determination to believe you can do better, that it’s worth it to freeze while waiting for a bus to take you to a crummy job that offers one single perk you can leverage – in my case, free time to sneak/study. And it’s sustained by remembering that you’re only on the Bus to Nowhere if you stop trying.

Connect to the Dream: Theirs, Not Yours (at Least at First)

Magic words. Every salesperson knows an ‘open sesame’ or some equivalent won’t close a deal. But that doesn’t mean we stop wishing it would. How much easier would our lives be if we could rely on a few powerful phrases to at least get people’s attention, if not their commitment?

‘Magic words’ also happens to be the name of a recent ‘This American Life’ podcast. Ira Glass didn’t talk about sales. But while listening to his reporting on caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients, people who struggle daily to communicate with someone who has passed into another place, I made a connection.

For years, the MO for these caregivers was ‘keep them with you’. Remind them what day it is, where they’re living, who will come to visit, and which granddaughter just had a baby. Doesn’t work, though. Alzheimer patients seem to be living vivid lives in other times and places. One interviewee, with a background in comedy improv, made a valid parallel. In comedy or care, she said, the other person is never wrong. You need to follow them, and keep close to their feelings, thoughts, and mental pictures. The patients utter the ‘magic words’, not the caregivers.

Salespeople: please note a parallel!

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