Especially this time of year. So I need the meditative practice I began five years ago. It’s called Centering Prayer, and it’s been a life saver when my brain wants to begin ten things, right now!, or when I’m constantly re-enacting little life dramas that need to be quieted. Each year I make the pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Retreat House in Sewanee, Tennessee, high atop a mountain with nothing but views of the open sky and a few cows who graze peacefully nearby. I join fifteen or twenty others looking for the same thing as me: Silence. Solitude. Stillness. We sit in a circle in a prayer room in quiet, listening prayer. Centering Prayer is about listening, not blabbering away to God about all your aches and pains. This practice helps you to hear what’s important.
While this is a silent retreat—no talking with one another until departure day, there is always a new insight when I’m there. Here’s the one from last weekend. We start out as a speck, one of God’s bright ideas. We’re our own little Big Bang. We’re born innocent and pure and blissfully happy, feeling only love. Then the world invades. It hits us and bruises us and for some, crushes them. All the other little big bangs take our innocence away.
The irony is that we’re built for community. We’re not meant to live as solitary souls.
In moments of Centering Prayer we’re all united in one cause- restful, divine communion, so you only feel goodness and love. There are no masks. No pain. And with every sit together, the circle gets closer, tighter, more fiercely bound together in some indescribable way. In Centering Prayer, we’re all innocent again.
At our last session together before departing, each of us spoke of what we were going back to this holiday season. So many had stories that pulled at my heart. A young woman spoke of recently losing her sibling to suicide, and how she was going to support her parents this Christmas. A man spoke of losing his wife a few years back. He still wore his wedding ring. Another shared worries of rampant family addiction. So much pain. Yet in the circle, there is healing. We rise above the world’s dark edges. In Centering Prayer, we know we’re not alone.
There are many meditative practices out there. Some do it in yoga, others in a church, some quietly at home. Some, like me, come to a mountain top. It all works.
I hope your holidays are filled of peace and that 2016 shines brightly for you.
It’s hard to believe that in two weeks my book will be on bookshelves. It took three years, a lot more discipline than I wanted to have, and has provided great joy.
In one of my morning readings, it suggests that what we can give to the world are the gifts of wisdom, joy and love. I’ll hit the road the first week in February talking about the book, work culture, and leadership to groups around the U.S. I’ll talk to women’s groups about what gets in the way of our advancement. With all of this, I believe I can bring some wisdom to these topics. We’re all the product of our experiences. Mine has been varied enough, and – dare I say it! – I’ve been on this planet long enough to have accumulated some nuggets worth sharing.
As for joy, when I speak, I always talk about the importance of humor, laughter, and welcoming smiles. These things humanize us; they make us accessible to those around us. And there is plenty of benefit to you, as well. Medical research abounds on how laughter dissipates anxiety and stress. The physical act itself lessens your stress load. When we were building HGTV, I’d be in a meeting with my all-male colleagues and when a really tough issue would surface, invariably one of them would “leave the reservation” and tell a story they thought was just hilarious. The others would chime in, and before I knew it, the whole room was laughing. I found this very annoying at first. “Get back on topic!” my all-business brain would scream. But I began to see that this was how these guys released stress. I began to do it too, and what do you know, laughing really did help me to gain fresh perspective, connect with the team, and feel less anxious. Joy is found in laughter.
As for love, I see that in the practice of compassion, which is a connector when I speak. As the Buddhist nun Pema Choldron says: “Compassion practice is daring.” Real compassion is a relationship between equals, both having been wounded in some fashion along life’s path. For me, that means sharing my failures and mistakes in career, as well as my successes. I once read that one should never talk about failures when the audience is eating, for God’s sake! I don’t buy that. When we can share our roads wrongly taken in life and work, it’s learning for all. And there’s some healing that comes from sharing —airing — these experiences. The key is to always learn from them.
So here I go. Thanks for all the wisdom, joy and love you’ve sent to me along this road, rightly taken.
I thought back to the building days of HGTV, when the guys and I would be trying to figure out a complex point of strategy, and out of nowhere one of them could break out in laughter over some seemingly unrelated moment – a meeting with an advertiser, or some marketing campaign detail gone wrong. My very linear mind would get bothered by the distraction, until I sat back and realized what was really happening. We’d laugh, loosen up and restart the brainstorm with fresh thinking. I’m thankful for those moments, because they changed how I led teams. I donned a softer touch. A lighter one. I saw humor and laughter as great motivational tools instead of distractions.
The rewards of humor and laughter have been written up in Harvard case studies and medical journals. They’re stress reducers, for one. Just think about having a good laugh. Afterward you feel refreshed, looser. Some of the stress rolls off. Humor and laughter also help us to better relate to one another, especially self-effacing humor, if you are leading a team. Acknowledging your own mistakes and laughing at yourself makes you accessible as a leader. It shows your humility and humanity to others. I write about that in my book, with examples from leadership and likeability studies. The root words in humor, humanity, and humility are all the same. We cannot have one without having the others. They all bring us home to our human-ness. They all lead back to connection.
It’s trickier for women to rise into leadership roles because there is bias in the workplace around where we really belong – tending to babies or running companies? Using humor can help with that as it makes us more accessible to our colleagues. Smiling a lot helps too. Just think of how you react to a smile vs. a scowl. One says “come on in” and the other says “stay away.”
Lighten up at work. Look around to see the irony or silliness of a situation, and instead of tightening up and wanting to fix it, have a belly laugh over it. I promise you’ll feel a whole lot better.
I recently spoke to a group of Ohio women who were members of WELD, or Women for Economic and Leadership Development. I often feel like a hired hand when I speak, but in this case there was a real connection. I felt on top of the world; I owned the room.
Which reminded me that my ego is alive and well. I wasn’t happy about the news. In transitioning to work far afield of executive roles, one of my hopes was to dismantle that corporate ego.
Slowly, day-by-day, it falls away. But’s a process. I recall the last few years of work at Scripps Networks, when I left behind operating responsibilities to run a staff job — brand partnerships in social outreach. I was setting myself up to transition out of SNI. With the move, I no longer had a line of people wanting meetings and face time. I was no longer the popular girl at the dance. I felt the painful bruising to that corporate ego, despite wanting to begin a new life chapter.
Those of us who have lived in the high cotton of senior roles, and now want a new start apart from it all, know it is indeed a process to shed all the corporate armor and to quiet our ego. In my experience, women do a better job than men. It’s as if we’ve known all along that our worth is measured by the whole of us. That as women, there are many roles we take on and each of them enriches us. We’re hardwired to seek a sense of purpose that makes us whole.
I once read that retired male CEO’s have the greatest incidence of heart attacks on Mondays. Without their work identity, what, now, are they? There are probably a zillion consultants out there working in this field, trying to help senior business leaders transition from big job/big ego, to new beginnings. I hope so. It is indeed a process.
A couple of girlfriends recommended the book The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown. In her book Brown urges us to embrace self-love. She advocates “wholehearted living” which is facing each day with courage, compassion and worthiness.
These are beautiful concepts, but quite different from what I originally thought I’d find when I heard the book title. If I were to write a book about imperfection, I too would urge every woman to live a wholehearted life, and this includes your work life. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would urge imperfection at work. Let’s look at why:
In my experience, women work themselves to the bone being perfectionists. We take on a project and nothing short of absolute perfection can be delivered. Why? How many men do you know would jump through the hoops we do so we can get our A+ from our boss/colleagues/team? I can’t think of one. Men have figured out that 90% is not only the right approach, it’s actually better than 100%, because if you have something that’s good enough to deliver, you can then move onto the next thing – the next idea, project, or way of making money for your company. You can ask for forgiveness instead of permission on the small stuff, on that last 10%. (Note: certain professions like the medical field don’t have any small stuff, but most do.)
What does being a perfectionist do for us? It keeps us in the muck of a project, overthinking everything. Speed is such an imperative today to stay ahead of the competition, which includes those guys who’ve just run ahead of you while you’re making sure all of your columns are lined up perfectly, and while you’re re-examining every word that spellcheck just told you was fine.
Here’s another reason to be good with 90%: you make yourself, and everyone you work with crazy if you can’t let go of that last 10. You become the school marm. In your quest to be superhuman, you appear less human to those around you.
Lighten up. Lose the perfectionism. That’s my path to wholehearted living.
I was in Los Angeles last week to do some work, and had dinner with my old friend, Bridget. We’ve known each other for over 20 years, and became quick friends while both of us worked at CNBC. Most recently, Bridget was president of NBC cable network distribution, and had responsibility for several billion dollars in revenue each year. Big job. Bridget also has three kids that range from 7 to 16 years old, and a darling husband, Robert.
She shared that even with the raising of the kids, and all of the work stresses, she has kept her Thursday night book club date with her girlfriends. I thought about how I had let many girlfriends drift away during my heavy work years. It seemed I only had enough bandwidth for work and family. There was no third category of anything in my life.
I asked her how she managed to pull it off. “Habit and priorities,” she said. “It was so important. Now that I’m in this next phase of career, my friends have been tremendous support for me. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
As working women, we go through many phases of life and career. I fully admit that when I got to the phase of senior management, I didn’t take the time to prioritize female friendships. It was a big mistake. When I became chief operating officer of HGTV, I experienced how solitary a c-suite job is. Not having the love, support, and mutual understanding that only girlfriends can provide was sorely missed. DON’T MAKE THIS MISTAKE. Stay close to your female friends, whatever it takes, as you make your way with life and career.
The good news is to we can learn from our mistakes, if we pay attention! Upon leaving Scripps Networks Interactive two summers ago, I joined a senior women’s organization called Committee of 200. These women have quickly become dear friends and trusted advisors. I’ve travelled the world with them, and we have worked side by side as we’ve mentored young, aspiring business women. Once a month, about 8 of us get on the phone to talk about life and career. We help each other. We celebrate exciting news, like a big new job or a child getting engaged.
Stay close to your girlfriends as you travel the road of life. It pays huge dividends.
I am writing a book for women who are making their way in business. This comes from Chapter 1.
Your first two jobs
We sometimes wonder if we’ve learned anything at all from our first paying job. Sure, we earned some money, but did that first job teach us anything? To have perspective, you must have something to compare that first job to. Thus it’s more helpful to look at your first two jobs, to compare and contrast them and to unearth the bits of learning you got from them. By doing this you begin to know early on what drives your enjoyment at work, and what’s a grind. No one is lucky enough to enjoy every single task one does on a job.
Factories and boardrooms
Typically your first two jobs are very different. For me, during summers in high school I worked where my dad worked, which was a direct mail house in Detroit called Ad-Mail Services. I did various things but my main job was to work on the factory floor, assembling direct mail pieces for packets that we would mail for our clients. Many days it hit 90 degrees on the floor. There were enormous fans subtly placed around the shop so as not to blow all the paper askew and mess with our production. Even with the fans though, it was really hot. But those of us there were young, and didn’t know any better– this was where we worked. We chatted, assembled, and got through our day.
My college summers were spent at General Motors, where I worked as an office assistant. This was the golden age of GM and the corporate building was quite a wonder. There was deep, rich woodworking everywhere, plush carpets lined the hallways, and yes, there was indeed air conditioning. I worked for two secretaries who attended to the director of logistics (yes, he had two secretaries). He was a kind man, not prone to the arrogance of others who worked there. He had a secret button located somewhere on his desk, and if he wanted privacy for a meeting, he’d push it and his office door would quietly close behind the visitors. Clearly this was not the factory floor.
I nicknamed the two secretaries I worked for Cruella deVille and Mary Poppins. Cruella was almost 6 feet tall, thin as a rail, and liked looking down at you. She never cracked a smile and took her job far too seriously. Mary was a sweet, perky blond who was into natural foods. She talked about vegetables all the time. Being ethnic, I was raised on meat and starch and had never met a vegetable, except sometimes there were limp, mushy things that would pool around my meat and potatoes. Maybe those were vegetables. While her chatter wasn’t of great interest to me, I preferred her company to Cruella and was always grateful the days I was assigned to her.
One memorable day when I was assigned to Cruella, she slapped a checkbook on my desk and explained that I needed to balance the director’s monthly statement. Plus, I had to find a missing $1,000. How could he ‘lose’ $1,000? $1,000 was three months of rent and plenty of beers at the bar for me. The task seemed quite inane, but I found the blasted $1,000 in about ten minutes due to someone’s poor subtraction . Cruella barely nodded when I handed the checkbook back to her.
First jobs make deep impressions on us. We learn from these impressions. How do I handle myself in situations that are not physically ideal, for instance? Today it’s typical in buildings, even green ones, that we have too much or irregular air conditioning. Bring a sweater. We often get assignments we think are a waste of time. Do we have adequate context for why they are being assigned? Who knows, maybe with the checkbook task the director’s wife normally balanced it but she was busy taking care of some dying relative. Maybe Cruella was testing my math skills. As a college or early career employee, we truthfully don’t know enough about how business works to assume things are a waste of time.
The real interesting question to me is: was I happier at one place or the other? Did I enjoy the day more at job #1, or job #2? I genuinely liked the camaraderie of the factory floor. I had none of that at GM. I liked working in a small business environment where I could know everyone, and help to create the products that were being developed for customers, even if it was just direct mail. On the flip side, at GM I got to use my developing business brain to organize meetings, to summarize the notes after attending them, and to hear what the business issues were as a fly on the wall. I enjoyed hearing the banter between the guys. And sure, I liked that air conditioning and those secret buttons.
So it’s no surprise I ended up in jobs that were a hybrid of the two: creating new businesses within corporate settings. It was the ideal for me, a mix of small and large, entrepreneurial but with the deep pockets of a corporation so I didn’t have to impoverish myself or my family.
What were your first and second job experiences, and what did you learn? Let me know in the comments!