Being Good

“Outgoing” is a Skillset

Even people who think they know me quite well would be surprised to learn how introverted I really am.

I have adapted very well to my work environment, where I need to be out front, beating the drum and waving the flag. People no doubt think I live for that.

Well, I do sort of like it. :-)

But when I arrive back home, I collapse in on myself and rest.

Nearly all my pursuits are solitary, or include my husband and our dogs only. And my writer is a very solitary creature, and feeds off the energy that I only produce when I am alone.

Most of the people I interact with have no idea that I write novels in my spare time. I wouldn’t mind their interest, but I’d rather hold the spotlight than stand in it.

Over my career I have given a great deal to producing “success energy” and I sometimes wonder how much of what I really value has been sacrificed without my knowing it.

Lucky Girl, Lesson 2: Steer from the Back

Lesson Two

So if Lesson One was to trust myself, then Lesson Two was how to lead a group so that I am getting as much as possible out of an enthusiastic team without exhausting — or martyring — myself.

This is a lesson that I think a lot of women miss. We are normally taught sacrifice over strategy.

As I provided labor and administrative support for Doc’s gun range projects, he provided me with an opportunity to watch a skilled manager recruit and motivate changing bands of volunteers.

The first thing you have to do is separate your sense of self from the results that the group produces. Anything you are attached to, in the sense of you mentally committing to what you can “make” people do, is going to be a source of stress for you.

As the leader, your job is to encourage people to contribute something they want to give, and then channel all those little somethings into a coherent output that the group will be proud of. This means balancing the baseline of work that needs to get done with whatever pet projects or interests drew your volunteers in the first place.

For example, a pistol match requires scorecards, and there is no way around that. You often get volunteers who are really excited about building fancy props, and who find scorecards too mundane to be interesting. This gives you two challenges: (1) rein in the enthusiasm for wasted effort without blowing up their energy, and (2) find someone who either likes scorecards, or wants the approval that you and the group can provide for taking on this task. This balance is what makes leadership a valuable commodity.

Without cool props, no volunteers. Without volunteers, no match. But the energy of a group of people excited by the whole picture of what they’re creating… Even scorecards can become magical.

The secret as I interpret it, is to let the group be wonderful, and steer from behind. If you put some prep in upfront and invest in a little pizza, even the unpopular jobs get done. And once the group has achieved something they’re proud of… it’s that much easier next time.

So now I always try to be the magic element that coheres the plot and makes the group succeed.

Lucky Girl, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Come Out Shooting

It’s better to be lucky than good. If you’re not good enough you can always work harder… but if you’re not lucky, you’re pretty much cooked.

Lesson One

I feel I have been very lucky.

I have been very lucky in my friends, who taken all together are an odd lot! But when my heart and mind connect to someone else, I become better and smarter and faster — and often, so do they.

I think a meeting of true minds works like this for all of us, I’m not suggesting that friendship with me has magical side effects.

My most unusual — and in many ways most valuable — friend is Doc, a man twenty years older than I am, who taught me to shoot pistols. I don’t just mean he took me to the range a couple of times; we have formed a longstanding alliance based on mutual respect, affection and willingness to provide effort. I won two Ladies’ National Championships under his direction, and he is the happy proprietor of a web site built by me that has doubled the value of his business several times over the last decade.

Uncle_Murray

So, it’s easy to see that this was a mutually satisfactory arrangement. And it still is. But what I really owe Doc is what he taught me about how to trust myself.

A gun range is a great place to learn about yourself in relation to others, especially if you are a woman. There were other women shooters around the range, but they tended to be there with husbands or boyfriends. I have a husband, but I usually went to the range by myself — or with Doc. This gave rise to rumors, as you might imagine, which left me with two choices: face it out, or slink back home and take up knitting instead.

I’m a feminist (of course!) and would never welcome a choice pushed on me by old-fashioned thinking about my supposed place in the world. But I learned this: it’s easy to think that, if you know what’s true in your own heart, you can stare down anyone who thinks they know differently. But it’s much harder to do!

And I was not the only person affected by these particular rumors. When I realized what people were saying,the first thing I did was take Doc’s wife out for lunch, and offer to get lost. Like her husband, she shrugged off my concerns. I am very lucky.

Most of the people who were prepared to believe such a thing were not a worry to me anyway, but I did feel shock and distaste from some people who heard the rumors and weren’t able to discern the truth. Knowing I had the support of the people who mattered most to me, I learned to live with it.

I guess that the “courage” of my convictions developed over time, like any other kind of courage, and now I can face down anything at all.

Failure as a Win

“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”
― Thomas A. Edison

One of my first real jobs was as a teller with Bank of Montreal. On the application, I wrote that BMO had been “my” bank since I was a little girl. They were understandably charmed, and hired me at once.

Unfortunately, none of us knew the truth until afterward: I can’t count to ten thousand.

This is critical if you are a teller, because at the start of the shift they give you a drawer with ten thousand dollars in it, and at the end of the shift you have to say where it all went.

And I tried. Boy, did I try! But in four months of shifts, I balanced TWICE. I had succeeded at everything I had done previously, so it took me a while to believe that more effort wouldn’t help. I really, really, REALLY wanted to be good at this! And I just wasn’t.

We finally decided I had to go, and they let me resign rather than firing me, which was kind of them. And I moved on to something else.

What that taught me was, sometimes I just suck at things. And it’s OK. I’d rather be successful — we all would! — but in cases where I can’t win, things still turn out OK in the end.

So I found a field where I can succeed, and I work hard at that instead. Life’s critical lessons: sometimes if something is too hard, you’re not doing the thing wrong, you’re doing the wrong thing.

As a service to others, I now take deliberate and visible risks — and I demonstrate cheerful failure when the risk doesn’t pay off.

I don’t really enjoy public speaking, but I do it anyway, and then create opportunities for others to take similar risks. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs! And everyone knows eggs are good for you. :-)

Caritas II

I have made a strong effort to apply caritas (brotherly love) in the workplace. I believe in the value of humble work. Though I’d be hard-pressed to describe myself as humble, I am willing to provide the fundamental labor that creates a comfortable community environment.

For example, I spent eight years working at a start-up company where the hours were long and the work was hard. I got permission for a small freezer, and kept it stocked with frozen meals and other treats as part of a ‘cantina’ to keep staff from getting hungry as they missed dinner at home — again.

My experience was that the people who used the service were very respectful and grateful that I provided it. Nobody ever complained about any aspect, though they often thanked me when I had bought their favorites. We only charged enough to cover the cost of the purchases, and in five years, we were NEVER short. That kind of thing is only possible in small companies, but I like to think it also reflected a willingness on the part of all of us, to create a workplace that was somewhere we wanted to be.

In addition to my official workload, I made a concerted effort to provide comfort to my colleagues. I am not naturally outgoing, but it turns out that being personable can be learned as a skill. Now it feels natural to use people’s names, to smile and make eye contact, to assume a listening posture and provide my whole attention when someone is looking for connection.

By focusing on the interests of each individual, I kept everyone’s trust, and was therefore able to help us all get farther.

Twist Me and Turn Me

browniesAnother book I loved as a child was the Brownie Handbook, especially the story about Anne and Jenny, who discovered personal responsibility in terms suitable for a eight year old to grasp.

Even at that early age, I was a control freak. The idea that I could handle things by myself really appealed to me. I remember re-reading that story many times.

For those who haven’t read it, Anne and Jenny make friends by smiling at each other, and join Brownies together. They read a story about some thoughtless little girls who never help around the house, and they meet this talking owl… oh, never mind.

I can’t share the magic of this, you’ll have to trust me that I loved the idea of working “quietly and alone, without being told what to do.”

I still do.

Caritas I

What I ultimately took from the Bible, besides a better developed love of story, was the value of a lifelong struggle to be the right person and do the right thing, and a sense that I owed something to others.

In particular, I was struck by the story of Cain, when God is asking him where his slain brother Abel is. Cain famously retorts, Am I my brother’s keeper?

Yes, I realized. (Even at twelve years old.)

Yes, we are supposed to look out for those around us. And it’s not enough to avoid slaying them, we are supposed to love them as far as we can.

It doesn’t mean you have to be a sucker, but I believe we are meant to look for the good in people, to try to understand their background and perspectives, and to draw out everyone’s best side when we can.

I have a lot of great interactions this way, with people I would never have expected to be able to offer me anything.

To me, caritas also means that you should keep your eyes open for the things you can do, large or small, to have a positive impact on the life of someone else. A willing ear and a helpful hint when a colleague needs to vent. Passing down things from high shelves, for the shorter lady who can’t reach, without making her ask you. Holding doors for people, even if they clearly know how to work a door for themselves. Making playful faces at babies in a line up. Returning stray dogs. Buying a sausage roll for a homeless guy.

When you see some small courtesy or gift that is in your grasp, you are supposed to take the trouble. And if someone offers you a favor or shows you consideration, take a half second to make eye contact and thank them sincerely with a smile.

I’ve noticed it feels great. And to me, it also feels like… You’re supposed to.

Good News

good_news_cover
For my twelfth birthday, I had chicken pox. I was on the cusp of puberty and they hit me very hard, right before my birthday. In an attempt to calm the scratching, my mother sat me in a bath of baking soda, which made my skin feel awful. I was as physically miserable as I had ever been. And there was almost nothing to read in the house!

So I picked up the Good News Bible. (Now stay with me, I promise I was not converted.)

You may remember this very popular 1973 edition, with its modern “newsprint” cover, orange highlights and Roman text. Inside there were clever little line drawings that I used to look for as a break from the long rivers of text. I had a rule that I had to read all the way to the picture before I could look at it — I have always been very big on rules.

goliathI don’t imagine I read every single word, as I was just barely 12. I’m sure I skipped anything I found boring, for example. But it takes a while to recover from chicken pox and I think I got through most of it.

All this reading did not engender a love of religion in me, but I did immediately love the stories. The House of Saul, troubled by an evil spirit. David, who struggled and triumphed and failed, and triumphed again, like all of us do, although he was a great king. How the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David. Queen Esther and Mordecai — and Haman, who was hanged on the scaffold he built for Mordecai. Goliath and Samson, whose great strengths were not enough to save them. Bathsheba, whose beauty led to murder and a royal curse. (Even then I could see none of that was her fault.) Judith, who cut the head off a man! Salome, who asked for the same thing!

I was astonished that my mother was letting me read about all this. Maybe anything was better than having me complain about the scratching.

david_saulAnd then, in the New Testament: Jesus. Coming to it fresh from the Old Testament, and with no particular religious training, I could immediately feel the power of the idea.

I was probably also feeling better by then.

Religion comes wrapped in so much context, and we all know you’re supposed to pick sides, but step back and just think about the life recorded for this man. The prostitutes and lepers, the moneylenders in the temple, the loaves and the fishes, the raising of Lazarus… the death flanked by thieves, in humiliation and terrible pain.

It did not make me a believer, but it did make me an English major and a lifelong lover of powerful stories. And the stories that come from that time and that place are humanity’s greatest stories, no matter which text you read them in.

Being Good

I think the issues which interest me most from a writing perspective tend to be areas of moral thought or discovery. I try to consciously live a good life and be a good person, but my own subjectivity makes it hard for me to judge whether I am successful.

I am only a philosopher in a very practical sense – abstract conclusions are only temporarily interesting, and I have never found a book on philosophy I could read all the way through. But I do agree that an unexamined life is not worth living, and that the best life for each of us to examine is our own.

So I will consider my influences: family, reading, life experiences, and so forth. I’ll see if I can discover what experiences and turning points have led me to the beliefs that I currently hold.