It’s Okay

img_8386I read because I love stories.  I love being transported into another person’s world and perspective.  Occasionally, reading helps me understand life.  Last week I was finding respite from the chaos of real life, reading Sarah Gailey’s new book When We Were Magic, when I came upon this gem:

Paulie pats my thigh.  “It’s okay,” she says, “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.”  I’m struck by the sentiment.  “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things,” I repeat, and Paulie taps her fingers on my knee in a pattern I don’t follow.

Anyone else had a rough couple of weeks?  Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in my left knee.  The constant ache and sharp pain waking me up in the middle of the night had a name.  My daughter didn’t make her middle school soccer team.  Last year when I asked her why she played soccer she told me, “Because I want to play in middle school.”  One dream crushed, she rebounded to play brilliantly in a club tournament , but lost in the finals.  This all happened before I knew it was okay to be upset at upsetting things.

Last week was finals week.  This was the first quarter in my almost three years of graduate school that I took two classes.  For ten weeks I’ve been a demon.  The pull of work, parenting, sports, pets, life, plus two graduate school classes – Geodatabases and Advanced Geospatial Statistics – was a grind.  I was awful to my friends.  I was negligent to my family.  I was a drag on my projects at work.  Everyone had been warned that this was going to be unpleasant, and it was on everyone.

If I finished successfully, I was going to celebrate.  With those two classes finished I would only have two more classes left before my degree was complete.  I was going to go have a drink with friends.  I was going to apologize to my family, maybe go get ice cream.  There were going to be donuts at work.  Pizza too.

I finished Saturday, March 14th.  No one went to the office on the 16th.  There was no one to celebrate with.  Getting ice cream with my family seemed irresponsible.  COVID-19 hit and social distancing had started and my ten horrible weeks was transitioning into a different unknown horrible with an unknown timeline, but by then I’d finished Gailey’s book.  I was angry and annoyed and frustrated, but I knew it’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.

Now, I sit in the same horrible chair I sat in for 10 weeks doing homework and I wish things were different.  I wish my knee didn’t hurt.  I wish my daughter had known the joy of making the team or winning the tournament – especially now when soccer looks unlikely until fall.  (Please, let there be soccer in the fall.)  I don’t wish I would have been kinder during my 10 weeks of school, because I just don’t work that way, but I do wish I could have had a moment of joy.  Sharing with others the accomplishment that I’d done something really hard really well:  99.4% average between both classes – a not humble brag.

I wish my kid could see her friends.  I wish I could see my friends.  I wish my dad took the health risk of this disease more seriously.  I hate that I have to keep sitting day in and day out in my homework chair, but now it’s my office chair, my school chair, my writing chair.  It’s the only chair my butt is going to reside in for weeks? Months?  But I am so grateful for the escape of books.  That I can go to world where life is different.  Where I can find wisdom from a bunch of magical teenagers:

“It’s okay,” she says, “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.”

It isn’t just about payday

I graduated from college almost 20 years ago with my degree in Chemical Engineering. Most of the open jobs were with oil companies drilling on the north shore of Alaska.  After having spent 3 years interning in renewable energy I didn’t want to go rape and pillage the Alaskan wilderness.  The other options were limited.  Caterpillar was hiring in Peoria, IL but that interview started with a large man with a large hat scanning my 22 year old self and slowly asking, “So little lady, why would…YOU…want to come work for Caterpillar?”  I didn’t get a second interview.  The other opportunity for me was to go work in the hugely growing world of computer programming.  I’d taken a few programming courses, I liked them, and I was offered a job with a huge consulting firm in Chicago.   They said I was smart and they would train me to code.  I’d be surrounded by people my own age.  It seemed like a great opportunity, but why?

Your first real job offer.  Do you remember it?  Did you spend a lot of time figuring out if your job was a good fit?  Did you wonder if the corporate culture fit your needs?  I didn’t, or I didn’t evaluate my opportunities consciously beyond “How much do they pay?”  Twenty years later, I know that for me, that’s one of the last questions I need to ask myself.

Last year I was invited to a women’s networking event where the featured speaker was going to present on “Women entering the C-suite.”  The presenter was a woman, 5 years younger than me, who was a career coach that charged between $15k – $45k per person to coach women into finding C level positions.  You know, for those of us dying to become a CIO, CFO, CEO, or COO.  Personally, I have no ambitions in this direction but I have friends who do, and there was free food and wine, so I went and what I learned was eye opening.

This woman, who had to make 3 times my salary, explained that in order to reach your career goals, you first have to understand what you want out of your career.  She then challenged us to make a list of things that we want out of a job.  I have no real notes from this discussion, because I have since lost the notes I took in my daughter’s notebook with her colored pencil, but I have a strong recollection of our list.  It looked like this:

  1. Money
  2. Flexibility
  3. Benefits
  4. Friends
  5. Learning opportunities
  6. The mission
  7. Mentors
  8. Potential for advancement
  9. Leadership opportunities

She then told us to pick the top three things we wanted out of a job and shared her choices.  She picked money, potential for advancement, and leadership opportunities.  She went on to tell us that she owned her own company because she wanted to be the leader of whatever she did, and her goal was to make enough money so that she could have three homes when she retired at 45: one in Aspen, one near her family, and one on the ocean.  She wanted to be able to use these homes to host her family and live out her days in luxury.  Those were her C-Suite career path values.

If the notepad with googly eyes wasn’t enough of a clue that I’m not destined for CTO, her list solidified my lack of interest.  Mine said: mission, flexibility, and friends.  I want a job where I can go every day and know that what I’m doing is making a difference in the world.  I need a job where I can go to my daughter’s Halloween party, or coach her soccer team.  I want to go to work everyday with people I really care about and who care about me.  Don’t tell my boss, but money and benefits aren’t even on the list.  Of course, I want to make enough money to support my family and keep our house, but our needs are pretty simple.  I don’t want three homes.  I don’t want to retire at 45.  In fact, I dream of a life where I can work into my 60s or 70s, but be able to take sabbaticals have opportunities to pursue other passions mid-career.

Okay, so what’s the point of all of this?  Well I’m a manager, and I have conversations with people who say things like:

“I need opportunities for advancement.   There is nowhere to go in this organization.”

“You don’t respect my skills here.  I am a great software developer, but I can’t move up without content knowledge.”

“It’s your fault that I don’t have enough work to do.  That’s a manager’s job.”

“I’m an expert.  I don’t need to change.”

“Just tell me what to do.”

The truth of the matter is that those are all valid opinions and statements and these people are really unhappy.  The other truth is that those complaints cannot be resolved at my company.  For example, in my job family there are six levels and I was hired at the third one.  In twelve years I’ve received one promotion.  I have grown and developed, but unless I want to get a PhD, I only have one more promotion I’ll ever get. The “I need opportunities for advancement” person is doomed for disappointment if they don’t leave. We aren’t going to create new promotion levels.  Sometimes you can’t make your needs match what your company provides.

The flip side are the people who say:

“I never want to work anywhere but here.”

“I don’t jump out of bed excited to come to work everyday, but I’m always happy to be here.”

“I really appreciate all the opportunities here.”

“This really is an amazing place.”

Same job, just different people.  What I find fascinating about management is that every person is different, and what is stifling to one person is invigorating to someone else.  The job isn’t bad and the person isn’t bad, there is just a mismatch.  Of course it’s hard to leave a job, but you spend at least 8 hours a day at work.  If you can, try to find somewhere that can give you what you need.   If you can’t leave at least there is some solace in understanding why you are unhappy.


Final Thoughts

List out your three must haves from your job and think about if your needs are being met. Then think about if it’s possible to make your needs met given the corporate culture.  If you don’t know how to answer that question, find someone you trust who you think might know and ask them.  If you can’t make your needs align, do you get enough out of the job to stay without being completely disgruntled, or is it time to find another job?

If it’s time to find another job make sure you are going somewhere that can meet your needs.  As a manager, I try to be very upfront when I hire people about the culture of our team and our organization.  I explain what success looks like and what we expect from teammates.  I am honest about what’s amazing and what sucks about the job.  I don’t want to hire someone who will hate their job, and no one wants to work at a job that they hate.  If you interview for a new job and don’t get that kind of feedback ask.

As a worker, I try to evaluate my values from time to time and make sure they align with where I see my company going.  If I do find my needs are no longer being met, I’m realistic about expecting wholesale changes to my workplace to make me happy.  For example, I hate bureaucracy, but my current position is awash in it.  However, I can take a step back and realize that my three key values are supported by my workplace and for now I can overlook the things that suck.  It’s empowering to know that you are putting up with something for a good reason.


Thoughts and comments on the new Monday Management posts are appreciated!

Spirit Animal

I work in a pretty conservative organization, so I was shocked at our strategic planning offiste when my new director recommended we start off sharing our “spirit animal.”  We were to write down our choice on an index card and then pass the cards to him so he could read aloud all of our spirit animals to the group.

I was delighted with this little task, but couldn’t decide if I should take it seriously, make a joke, or be an ass about the assignment.  A variety of options passed through my mind: owl, Loch Ness monster, cat.  Then someone in the room said, “We should have picked our patronus” and I wrote down unicorn.

The mixture of animals our leadership team picked was pretty cool and diverse:  fox, penguin, Canadian goose, sea lion, otter, turtle, mouse, deer, dolphin, desert sheep, baby robin and duck-billed platypus were all in the mix.  (I said we were a conservative organization, not lacking creativity.)  I was the only mythical creature and when asked to explain why I picked a unicorn I said:

  • “Because a unicorn seems like it might wear rose colored glasses.”

I am a bit of a Pollyanna at work.  I think things are going to work out and that people are trying to do their best and in the end things will be okay.  This perspective is a bit unusual in my organization, so I wanted to pick something that conveyed that optimism.

  • “We could really use more magic at work”

Who can’t use more magic at work?  Pixie dust, Star Trek transporters, a pope who believes in climate change, and miracles all are welcome additions to my tool box.

  • “I wanted something different from everyone else.”

I am an individual.  I want to stand out and be noticed for the things that make me special and valuable.

By the end of the day I really liked this weird exercise.  We referred to our own and other’s spirit animals throughout the day.  We acknowledged the accuracy of choices and suggested modifications.  At one point my spirit animal morphed into unicorn mold.  Something about my growing and sticking to things, like mold.  So the final evolutionary step of my spirit animal is a magical sparkly rainbow mold with spiky horns.  Be careful not to step on me.

What’s your spirit animal?

Nightmare of a Working Mom

This Thursday it happened. I was walking from my office to my car reveling in my accomplishments of the day. I’d given a great presentation. I was creating a valuable partnership with our CIO. My curling offsite the day before had been a really great team bonding event. Kudos were flowing. Yep, I was pretty awesome. Then my phone rang. It was my husband asking if I had remembered to pick up our daughter. Our daughter who had finished play practice 15 minutes earlier at school, 40 minutes away from where I was. Our daughter who I hadn’t forgotten in 6 and a half years.

My stomach dropped as I realized what I had done. The other line rang. It was a friend of ours who’s daughter was in the same class. (We’ll call our friend E.) I clicked over. E was calling to tell me that another mom, S, had called her because S didn’t have my number. My daughter was with S, and S was willing to take her home, or E offered for my daughter to go to her husband’s classroom to wait for me. (His name is K.) I took her up on the offer of going to the classroom. I called S, thanked her for saving my daughter and asked her to take her up to K’s classroom. S agreed and said she was happy to help. I then called my husband who headed out to get our daughter from school. All this happened in less than 10 minutes, and by the time I was in my car, 30 minutes from school, I knew she was safe.

As I drove home I felt horrified at myself, awfulized what could have been (my own specialty), and then realized that it was all okay: really honestly okay. The village had made sure my kiddo was safe.

This is the schizophrenic life of a working mom. There are a lot of balls in the air. In one half of your life you are a rock star and in the other half you cut corners. Then you flip it. This week I missed my daughter’s weather presentation and forgot to pick her up. The week before that I skipped out of work two days to help take care of my sick brother. Two weeks from now I’m missing spring break for a work trip, but that Friday I’m skipping another work meeting to spend the last day of spring break at home. It’s constant negotiation, and I am so lucky to have a job and a family situation that gives me this kind of flexibility. My mantra is “You can have it all, but you can’t have all of it all the time.” That’s easy to say and hard to live. I make mistakes. I cut corners. Sometimes I totally mess up. I am way too hard on myself, but I’m working on it. Perfection just isn’t a reasonable expectation anymore.

I wouldn’t trade it though. I wouldn’t give up my job to ensure that I never missed a pick up from school. (Because the truth is, I probably would forget her at some point. My mom forgot my brother once and she stayed home with us.) I love my daughter, but I know if I was home all the time I would get sucked into her life. I’d become a helicopter parent because I wouldn’t be able to separate my life from the most important person in my life. I also know that one of the things that helps me be the best mom I can is my mom network and lots of those ladies are in the office. I couldn’t give up my deep, meaningful conversations about our families in the 2 minutes it takes to pee.

Stall 1: “My daughter was diagnosed with a severe learning disability.”
Stall 2: “Oh no, how did you find out?”
Stall 1: “Testing at school” FLUSH
Stall 2: “Do you have someone you can talk to?” FLUSH
Sink 1: “No. This really sucks.”
Sink 2: “I am so sorry. I have a friend who is a child therapist. Do you want her number?”
Sink 1: “That would be great.”
Sink 2: “I’ll send it before my next meeting starts.”
Sink 1: Drying her eyes with the wet paper towel, “Do I look okay.”
Sink 2: “A little red-eyed, but no one will notice.”

Being a mom is hard. I have harshly judged others for mistakes I then made. I strive to be patient with myself and all the other parents I know because all the choices are hard. All the decisions have upsides and downsides. We all do our best, and then help others when they aren’t doing their best. A working mom, a stay-at-home mom, another working mom, and two working dads all helped make sure my kid was safe this week. While I don’t EVER plan on doing that again I’ll sleep a little better knowing that my nightmare actually had an okay ending.