Friday, February 27, 2009

To greater heights...

Today is my Aunt's 74th birthday. My truly beautiful and profoundly good hearted Aunt. She is the hybrid of family member and friend. Because of the age difference between she and my parents, her and my Uncle are also very similar to grandparents to me. I had no grandparent component growing up as most of them had passed when I was young. However, was I able to choose, my Aunt and Uncle are exactly what I would select. They are so loved, by so many. I know how lucky I am to have them. And my Aunt is someone I have always been able to talk to openly. In those conversations, she has shared some great advice and wisdom.

When her own mother passed, years ago, I asked her if she felt sad. She said no. While she would miss her mother terribly, she knew they had a great relationship so that alleviated some of the sadness. I thought it succinct, and very profound and obviously have never forgotten that dialogue. Taking from that I know that I have made marked effort to make it clear to the people I love how I feel.

Later in my life, I asked my Aunt when you know you are ready to marry someone. She (married over 50 years) told me at that time there would be days you simply could not lay your eyes on the other person but it is the commitment along with love that carries you through. When you know you can make that commitment, you know you should be getting married.

When I am 74, will I have a lifetime of lessons to share? I hope so. I think about my own son, and hope I have wise thoughts to impart, and more importantly, that he seeks my counsel and my "wisdom" may matter to him.

If I had to start a list now, although it might be short, in addition to things I have learned from my Aunt, I think of other great advice I have heard over the past few decades. So, as a tribute to her, here are some of the best bits of advice or lessons I have learned:

Stand up straight: This could not be any simpler. Slouching forward like you are carrying heavy sacks of chickens is not how to project yourself in the world. Elongate and put those shoulders back. You will automatically look more confident. Practice while sitting. You wont see any major figurehead with poor posture. It is no coincidence.

Pick your battles: Ahhh, this may be my lifelong work. My career and at certain points during that career it seemed important to pick 9 out of 10 battles. As was shared with me, you have to decide if this (issue) is the hill you want to die on. Oh, and lets be honest, my personal life had the same ratio. It has helped me, several times. Sorry college boyfriends, I didnt know this lesson then.

Gather your thoughts: Since I am more a reactive person, it can be safe to say that at times, words flew out of mouth faster than brain could process. Gather your thoughts is a great opportunity to do what you have been told since first grade: think before you speak. It also provides a great opportunity for you to make your message succinct. A professor in law school told me that sometime you only have a few minutes to make your case. If you can't do it in those few minutes you either don't know your case, or you are too close to it. Give the bottom line. If people want more details, they will ask. Not everyone wants to know where the watch was made and why you chose to buy it, they just want to know what time it is. Sorry college boyfriends, I didnt know this one either.

Know your worth: When I was in college, I was dating someone but admittedly still a bit puddly-eyed over some other boy. Current boyfriend sat me down one day and said "If you are hurting and need time or space, I will give it to you and I will wait. But if this is more than time or space, then we need to make other plans. I know I am a great guy, and a great boyfriend, and you don't recognize that, you are not the right girl for me." He was in college. How many college kids actually have their act together? Talk about someone with a self-concept that works. And he was right, he was a great guy. More importantly, I realized how essential it is to know your worth. This same concept helped me greatly when I was in a crossroads of a job. I am thankful for the lesson.

Don't be wrong by proxy: In essence, sometimes you can not be a passive witness to someone else's bad behavior. This does not umbrella obvious things like your friend trying to rob a bank. Its much simpler. One night in college at a bar, a group of people were discussing whether X was gay or not. Someone, knowing I was close to him, asked me outright. I said I didn't know and if he wanted people to discuss it, he probably would put it on the airwaves himself. I never thought more of the conversation until years later, X told me he heard the story from one of his old friends (who I didn't know) that was a few feet down the bar. He thanked me for not chiming in on something that it would take him years to be forthright about publicly. From his feedback, I realized I did not ever want to take part in a conversation, either actively or passively, that someone would later question my judgment. I know you can not change people's minds, about numerous topics, but you do have the right to ensure you are not part of certain types of detrimental conversations. You can refuse to take part. For some people, it takes a lot to publicly defend someone and if that is out of your comfort zone, you still have the option of excusing yourself. People still get the message.

Say you are sorry: Elton John, you are wrong. Sorry is NOT the hardest word to say. It is easy and it is necessary. Think of the impasses you could have avoided in life if someone would just apologize. It does not make you weak, but makes you better, and stronger. A guy I dated in grad school called me one day, years after we graduated, and totally out of the blue. The genesis for his call was to apologize for something he said about me at a friend's wedding. He went into his details and said a very close girlfriend of mine heard his comment, and turned to him in front of many others, and said "JennyMac is actually a good friend of mine and a lot of people here know her, so this probably isn't the right place for you to make these comments." (Not being wrong by proxy!). After he finished, he said he was sure I had heard about it and he knew he owed me an apology. I actually hadn't heard it. I asked him why he said it in the first place and he said because I broke it off with him. Awwwww sour little grape! The truth is, it took moxie for him to make the call, regardless of how much time had passed. And to own up to the source. Since his comment was just a touch of sour grape juice talking, we eventually laughed about it and are still friends to this day.

Sorry is powerful and it heals some of the smallest wounds. We have all been mad, and inflicted that emotion on someone else. Own that and if apologizing can rebuild that bridge, it seems so worth it to me. In college, I was a bad friend to someone who needed me to be nothing but a great friend to them at the time. I made a choice but that loss of friendship bothered me for over a decade. I could never locate her until recently and one of the first things I did was apologize. I did not assume she had ever thought twice about it, or that my regret would mean a thing but I owed it to her and finally, she has it. Truth is, she did think about it, for years. Hopefully it will mean turning a corner for us.

Diffuse: A wise mentor told me once that in any temperamental situation, his best option for diffusing other people's anger was to ask "How can I help?" He told me to adopt this policy. I might not have chosen to adopt it immediately ( I was still looking for 9 out of 10 battles then) but I have always taken it with me. On the occasion I have implemented, it has never failed me.

Confront Bullsh*t Head On: Now, this is the meat of the story and one of the best lessons I have learned. In early college, I was snarky about a girl in our sorority. I do not have a valid reason but I certainly had an audience and we frequently gave her a hard time. One day while grinding out a term paper she found me and asked to speak to me privately. In the tete a tete, she asked me to clarify the problem I had with her. I, never being one short on words, was actually short on words. You know why? Its called "Getting Called on the Carpet". And I had it coming. I told her I did not have a problem with her per se. Her response, "Well, then I expect you to shut your ***&@^!(^ mouth about me. People in this house look up to you, grow up." OUCH. But the value in that transaction was priceless. First, she had moxie. She earned tremendous respect from me for putting it down on record. I remember that vividly, and it came in very handy for me one time later in life. I hope I made the same impression she did.

These are some of the best lessons I have learned but certainly not all of them. I appreciate the people and the circumstances by which I learned them, and some of these people have no idea how this single point in time has resonated with me. I hope that when I am 74 I have wise things to share but thankfully, I am off to a good start. But I know these are mantras to live by, and I can certainly be practicing more. Always, a work in progress.

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