From Inspiration

Compassion After the Fall for Kids (and Moms)

My five year old son has been on ice, in skates, a total of three times. The first attempt occurred last more than a year ago, around Christmas, in the winter garden by the Freedom Tower. He was very pleased with himself, on the gleaming ice with Bing Crosby and a very cautious first few steps while gripping tightly to a plastic seal-shaped walker for balance. Within five minutes, a woman crashed into him at full speed, and cut his leg with the blade of her figure skate. That shut down his 2016-2017 skating season.

A year later, all healed and a few inches taller, he was willing to try again. 15 minutes into this session he abandoned the walker. Soon after that he was skating away from the wall. He wouldn’t even hold hands with me. He was free. Two weekends ago we hit the rink again, and now he was busting moves from his after school hip hop class. On the ice. The pride in his face was simply priceless.

Remarkable progress? Well, consider this: his first solo circulation of the rink took this little guy no less than 20 minutes. It was probably more, because he fell so many times I lost count. Contorted flips and falls punctuated those GIF-worthy hip-hopping sequences. His real triumph was the willingness to get back up after his legs had gone right out from under him, on the ice, on skates. Not easy for someone with only about five years’ experience walking upright on solid ground.

After each fall, I’d tell him: “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. It only matters that you get up one more time than the number of times you fall.”

We parents are supposed to provide positive messaging to our kids. You have to wonder, though, who really could use it. Kids don’t respond to our words so much as our presence and quiet, loving assurance. If we’re there, and game, they often summon the perseverance to stick with something they really want to do.

The fact is, the positive messaging might benefit other parties better. Like, say, parents. Working parents, working moms.

I recently was talking shop with a colleague who is a bit older than I am. She referred to my life stage as the ‘messy middle’, the time in life often defined by caring for children, parents or both. But there’s yet more mess to this middle: there are so many industries in upheaval, so much economic uncertainty, and a there’s new generation coming up fast, full of great ideas and ambition. So many of us are losing jobs, or changing careers, or evolving to stay relevant in the careers we have.

There are challenges to face every day, new realities to consider, all while managing life and the lives of the kids I love. But I have a lot of energy. I’m stronger than ever, not least because I’ve proven to myself, 100 times over, that I can follow at least one piece of my own advice: I can stand up one more time than I fall. Yet I don’t find that worth so much as a pat on the back, or even a nod of encouragement. I’m just supposed to do it.

As a mother, tender loving care and gentle nurturing come easily and naturally. But, when it come to me, my inner perfectionist is tough as nails and totally unforgiving. I speak to myself in ways I would never think to speak to my children or accept from anyone else. And right there is the contradiction – exposed.

When my son falls, I offer a hand, hug him and tell him I only expect him to keep trying. Yet when I fall during my most complicated routines, it’s humiliating and infuriating. What’s more, is that in my mind, I am supposed to reclaim my Gold Medal standard within three seconds of getting up.

Learning any new skill involves risk, trial and error and a lot of practice to never be perfect. The messy middle has been, for me, a test of grit and a game of perseverance.

In giving my little guy a hand up on the skates, I learned a valuable lesson in self-care. Because falling comes with the territory, especially, when you’re in the middle of messy. Maybe with my own more gentle hand, it will be me who hits a new stride on the ice rink of life.

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.

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.

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.

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.

True Grit: How to Keep Pushing For Professional Gains, Even When You Think You Can’t

There are cold streaks in sales. Every so often, there’s an ice age.

The pivotal prospect bails without warning. A steady client dumps you. A spouse or child gets sick — very sick — and the impulse to care for them frays your concentration. Important contacts or allies quit, or double-cross, or just stop calling. Sometimes it all happens at once.

How do you persevere through frigid and long days of professional life?

Times like these might come when you’re unknown and trying to break in. Or after massive layoffs leave you without a job. I’ve experienced hardship after each of the three times I transitioned from the security of a stifling yet steady gig to explore my next professional challenge – and the word challenge somehow doesn’t begin to capture how it felt.

Surviving painful circumstances requires grit, sweat, even behavior you probably wouldn’t confess to in mixed company. A colleague from the start of my career used to air-bench press while driving to cold calls. To my astonishment, I mimicked him during a recent bad stretch. It seemed appropriate, so I did it. I felt ridiculous. Afterwards, though, I rode the adrenaline and yet again contacted a prospect I’ve been chasing for three (painful) years.

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How Far Have Families Come? As a Breadwinner, I’m Still Selling Myself

I claim the title ‘breadwinner’ with trepidation. Funny, but I don’t know a single man who uses it. That’s because the word teases political sensibilities, and who wants to do that unnecessarily? Not me. But as a woman, I don’t have a choice.

You see, we female breadwinners still have to sell ourselves to the world. Even if you disagree with me there, we certainly have to sell ourselves to ourselves.

Sometimes the choice just seems wrong. When I’ve had a long week, and my husband, the at-home parent, has been home with our kids, I feel envy. And worry. Maybe even some resentment. By rights, a little voice tells me, that role should be mine. Why do I have to be content with 10 hours of face time during the working week? These are my babies!
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Charlie Parker

“Whatever you were after, you had to get up off your rusty dusty and do something to get noticed — something that was so much like you, it was nothing like anyone else.”

This quote jumped off the page at me, when I read it in Kansas City Lightning, the fabulous biography of saxophonist Charlie Parker, written by Stanley Crouch. Flying back from a business meeting, this book seemed like the right pick for a brain in need of rest. Pure entertainment en route to LaGuardia. Who knew? A book about a jazz great yielded business insight – double bang for my buck!

“The Yardbird’ was still a teenager when he created jazz phrasing so original it still goggles critics today. That’s what can happen when you spend 15 hours a day practicing for several years — and have the guts to put your rusty dusty and talents out there for all to see.

Musicians will know what I’m talking about. Technical proficiency is a requisite; if you want to entertain a crowd, you learn your part. But if you want to electrify the crowd, make them feel something, chops alone won’t do it. You need to give them something they haven’t had before to create a dynamic moment. In a world this big, that means going inside. You are the only thing going that for certain has never been seen before.

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