Saturday, October 31, 2009

And then sometimes you're wrong (or at least I am)

Shortly after writing the last post about first impressions, I remembered a fairly recent time when my first impressions were dead wrong. I was at an event where I knew few people. I started talking with one woman at my table, because I thought she was the seatmate I'd probably have the most in common with. There was another woman at the table that I barely gave a second glance because she didn't look like someone I'd bond with. She was conservatively dressed, and, at first glance, she looked like she was a dutiful wife who let her husband take the lead. Boy was I wrong! When I started talking to her, I found out she was quite fascinating, was doing all kinds of interesting volunteer work in developing countries, and traveled a fair bit independently of her husband.

So there you go - as some suggested on the last post, first impressions can definitely be wrong!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Do you trust your first impressions?

I’m in the middle of hiring three new staff people for my team, so I’m doing a LOT of job interviews. (Approximately 6 first interviews for each position and then 2 or 3 second ones for each – that’s about 25 interviews in about 3 or 4 weeks!)

I’ve been in leadership positions for about 12 years, so I’ve sat through hoards of interviews and hired a lot of people. I’m happy to say that I have almost always hired people who end up being a joy to work with. I think I’m a fairly good judge of character. Or at least I know how to pick people who will fit well with my personality and the team I lead (which – truth be told – is often most critical).

Even though we (I usually do it as part of a panel) ask a lot of interview questions, and almost always interview people twice before hiring them, plus we check references carefully, the truth of the matter is, much of it boils down to first impressions or gut instinct. Yes, the person needs to be qualified to do the job, but when we've done the initial screening and we're faced with two or three candidates with fairly equal qualifications, I’ll go with the one that I have the best gut feeling about.

It’s not that my opinion is fully formed in the first 30 seconds after I meet a person, but it’s not unusual that the person who impresses me the most throughout the interview process is the one that I felt a connection with almost instantly. If I were to try to quantify what it is I’m trying to pick up in the moment I shake the person's hand (and if you're doing interviews, I highly recommend shaking hands and looking the interviewer in the eye), I’d say that I have to see some evidence that the person is likeable, flexible, relational, pliable, attuned to their surroundings, self aware, eager to learn, and has a sense of humour. I know it's a lot to try to pick up all at once, but it's often surprising how accurate those 30 seconds can be. (For some interesting reading on this subject, I’d recommend Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. He’s got some interesting evidence for the power of first impressions.)

What about you – do you trust your first impressions? Have they ever steered you wrong? (In the interests of full disclosure, I do remember once when I was wrong and the person I liked at the beginning turned out to be a bit of a con artist.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The three little girls that I'm raising and the one little girl that I was

On her second birthday, Nikki spent about an hour trying on all of the clothes she’d just gotten as gifts, while the toys got brushed aside. She rarely wanted to ride in the stroller if she had the option of running. She scoffed at anyone who wasted her time with fairy tales or made-up entities like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Now that she’s thirteen, her friends call her the “Tyra Banks” of her group because of her passion for fashion. She dreams of the day her knee heals so that she can run, run, and run some more. (She’s jealous of me when I run on the treadmill – can you imagine?) She’d rather read a biography than a work of fiction any day.

At two, Julie had a better command of the English language than most teenagers. She learned to negotiate (and sometimes manipulate) almost as quickly as she learned to talk, and before long, we couldn’t keep enough books in the house to keep her happy. Now that she’s twelve, she volunteers for every public speaking opportunity that’s available to her, she’s trying to get a student council set up in her school so that students have more of a voice, and she’s almost always lost in a book.

Some of Maddie’s first words were “can you imagine if…” She filled our house with her imaginary playmates and all of the stuffed toys and dolls her sisters had tossed aside. Her favourite game was a fanciful round of “would you rather?” Now that she’s seven, she still plays “would you rather”, writes story books, paints pictures, calls herself an artist, and creates elaborate play spaces for her dolls under tables or chairs. She loves 3D movies and insists that they’re much better when you reach out for the things that come flying at you.

I don’t know how these things will continue to manifest themselves in my daughters, but I suspect some of it will shape the way their lives unfold. I hope that we as their parents have instilled in them enough of a belief that those passions have worth.

In more than one book I’ve read recently, writers claim that “our youthful passions serve as a foreshadowing of our calling or life’s work.” I want to honour the foreshadowing I see in my children, and so (in my moments of attentive parenting) I buy books on fashion for one of them, help another one coax school leadership to consider a student council, and climb under the table with the third and help her spell out the words for her latest work of fiction.

I want to go back to the child I once was and tell her the same things I try to say to my children. “Those hobbies you have? Those things that make you happy? They’re not just a waste of time. They have value. Don’t set them aside in pursuit of a more practical career. Trust them to direct you into your path. Don’t try to fit into the boxes you think you’re supposed to fit into.”

On the bus yesterday, I read “…just scribble your recollections of childhood passions in the margins here.” And so I did. This is what I wrote:

I loved to go places, either on my horse, my bike, or (on rare occasions when our family went on an adventure) in the car. I loved to wander all over the farm and thought of myself as an explorer in the woods. I had a special little hideaway in the middle of a bramble bush that you had to know how to navigate your way through to avoid the sharp thorns.

I was always creating something – macramé plant hangers, doll beds, decoupaged memory boxes - you name it. I learned to sew and was forever digging through my mom’s fabric closet for interesting scraps of fabric. I was happiest when I had a creative project on the go.

I wrote endless journals, stories, poems, one-act plays, or whatever tickled my fancy. My very first drama was a little play my friend Julie and I wrote and performed in our living room as a fundraiser for a mission organization. I wanted to speak and have people listen. I wanted to influence.

I would walk to the farthest field on the farm if I thought that Dad would give me a chance to drive the tractor. It felt like freedom to me, to be able to drive and to be trusted with something that was usually reserved for my big brothers. I thrilled at the little grin my Dad got when he was proud of my independence and determination.

I loved to be active. I would join almost any team or group activity that was available to me. I played ringette, soccer, volleyball, and baseball. I joined the drama club and the choir. I was never a star but I was always a joiner.

I gravitated toward positions of leadership and influence. I was student council president in grade 9. (After that, though, I had to go to the ‘big’ school in a much bigger town. I lost my confidence and didn’t run for student council again until college.)

What would that little girl tell me if only she could? What were the dreams she had that got set aside when bills had to be paid and careers had to be chosen?

I haven’t totally abandoned those things I loved to do. Even in the practicality of life, I’ve usually found some small way of honouring them. But sometimes we believe other voices rather than our own, we follow someone else’s idea of what our calling should be, and we set aside fanciful things for those that seem more pragmatic and realistic.

Somewhere along the line, most of the passions got relegated to “hobbies” rather than “life’s work”.

What about you?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween calls my name.

Okay, so what do a fried green egg (the Dr. Suess variety), a carton of milk, a box of oreo cookies, a tootsie roll, a can of Campbell’s soup, a punk rocker, a monkey, a sheep, a rabbit, an elephant, Einstein, a chef, a princess, M&M candy, and a couple of angels have in common? They’re all costumes that I have, at some past or current point, slaved over in the week leading up to Halloween. The first three in the list happen to be the ones I’ve given my life to this week.

Notice how much more complicated and obscure they are the beginning of the list then at the end? Yeah, it seems that three things have been happening over the years: a.) I like to challenge myself creatively and delight in sending my kids out in costumes nobody else on the block has, b.) I’m a sucker for punishment and every year I have a lapse in memory when I forget the stream of curse words that escaped my lips somewhere around midnight on the 30th, and c.) my kids have more confidence in my costume-making ability than I do and they’re bound and determined to come up with something that will stump me.

“Hello, my name is Heather Plett and I’m a Halloween costume (only the unique, hand-made variety - none of that cheap plastic crap) addict. It’s been 360 days since my last fix and last night I gave in to the little demon whispering in my ear once again. I’ve fallen off the wagon.”

I’ve spent way too much money this year (foam is frickin’ expensive!), I’ve over-promised again, I’ve already made one major blunder (gluing the fabric to the WRONG side of the foam – sigh), and… AND… (oh the shame!) I made the fatal blunder of agreeing to make a costume for my daughter’s friend!!! Because, well, if one is cookies and the other is milk, shouldn’t they kinda sorta match? Oh dear… what momentary madness told me it was a good idea to open THAT door? It was the flattery, I tell you… FLATTERY! To listen to my children rave about how “mom makes the BEST costumes”, well, it weakened my defenses and I gave in. Isn’t every mother weakened by the wiley charm of the offspring?

I just can’t help it! I'm weak! There's just something about hot glue guns, foam and fabric that makes me weak in the knees.

Truth is, I think it also has something to do with the fact that this is one small area that I can live up to my own expectations of "what makes a good mother". They may have to dig through laundry baskets for clean (or "gently used") socks, live through the humiliation of telling their teachers "my mom forgot to sign the form - AGAIN", put up with crappy meals (or make their own), but AT LEAST THEY'LL HAVE THE BEST DAMN HALLOWEEN COSTUMES ON THE BLOCK! Just give me that little thread to hang onto and I'll get through the failures that litter the rest of the year.

(Rather ironically – and somewhat ungratefully, I might add - my children complain every year about the rather pathetic lack of Halloween decorations at our house. It seems my creative expression hasn’t extended down that particular avenue.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mindfulness Monday #1

I'm starting to like Mondays. Wierd, right? I don't know why, but lately I've found myself to be quite productive and creative on Mondays (even though I often start off rather sleepy and grumpy). Maybe it's because it's the first day back into the routine after a couple of days off that gives my creative mind a little jolt. Maybe it's just because I tend to be better at beginnings than middles or even ends.

In that light, I think I'm going to start a new practice on Mondays. Mindfulness Mondays - in which I try to be mindful of the things that have inspired me, the people who have comforted me, and the moments that have energized me over the past week.

Today I am mindful of:
  • the delight in the eyes of my daughter and niece as they watched the fire jugglers last night at Boo at the Zoo
  • the pleasure it gave me to facilitate a creativity workshop and watch people give themselves permission to create
  • the delight it gives me each time I re-read the creation story and remember that the very first thing God asked of the people (s)he created was that they join in the act of creation - by naming the animals
  • the fun of creating one-of-a-kind costumes with Julie and her friend
  • the recognition of the struggle Julie was going through, trying to let her friend's work be "good enough" even though it wasn't quite as good as she knew she could do
  • the happiness in Nikki's face after spending time with a friend
  • the feeling of gratitude that, so far, my daughters have chosen really good friends who are positive influences in their lives (especially after hearing the story of heartache of a father whose daughter has chosen otherwise)
  • the glimpse of fire red leaves outside my kitchen window as I washed the dishes
  • the relatively gentle weather we've been enjoying lately
  • the comfort of a long hot bath after a day-long workshop
  • the deep knowing that I am meant to create and engage people in creativity and I will have more chances to do both, soon
  • the comfort of knowing that I have done the right thing by choosing this space (and a scaled-back online presence) over the other one.

What are you mindful of this Monday morning?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Your thoughts on creativity?

I have the great pleasure of facilitating a creativity workshop tomorrow. Oh the joy!

In preparation for this workshop, I went through the material I developed for an eight week creativity course several years ago and... OH MY GOSH! It brought back so many amazing memories! I was inspired all over again, thinking of the incredible discussions we had and the wonderful a-ha moments I had the pleasure of being part of, and reading the lovely, deeply personal thank you notes some of the participants gave me afterwards. I really, REALLY have to do this again. It was truly one of the greatest times of my life. I'm thinking I will try to find the time to do it again after Christmas.

In preparation for this class... what would you say was the greatest advice you ever received that helped foster your creativity? Or perhaps it was something non-verbal - something somebody modeled in their life or some way they supported you?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My blog(s) - A love story

Once upon a time I had a blog. It was a friendly little blog that was happy being just the way it was with no great aspirations of one day growing up and hangin’ with the big blogs. I did what I wanted on that blog – wrote what I wanted, posted pictures that made me feel good, spilled random lists that flowed from my scattered brain - because I wasn’t too concerned about who showed up or how popular it became.

I started that blog nearly 6 years ago, when I was preparing for my first trip to Africa. Because the trip was so full of excitement, yet carried some old cultural and religious baggage that I wanted to deal with, I thought a blog might be a good way of working through some of that, as well as documenting parts of the trip for future walks down memory lane.

At first, I told no one of the blog, but then I discovered my sister and sister-in-law had secretly started blogs of their own, so we bravely shared URLs and started commenting. Soon some close personal friends started blogging, and before long, strangers started showing up for one reason or another. It was all very lovely and cosy and soon I felt like I had a nice little community of supportive friends surrounding me in cyberspace. The odd time weird things happened (like someone claiming one of my readers was a fraud), but those were pretty rare, since my blog wasn’t really drawing much attention to itself.

About six months ago, my life started feeling really restless, stuff at my day job started falling apart bit by bit, and it occurred to me that maybe I should revive my old dream of becoming a serious writer. Maybe I should start putting myself out there in cyberspace as some kind of “expert” with wisdom to share that people would eventually want to pay me to share. Maybe I should try to build a more “serious” blog.

So, with great love and care, I created a new space. It was all very exciting and gave me so much joy and pleasure to be creating something new and to have something positive to get energy from when other things in my life were feeling more like energy-sucking black holes.

People started showing up in larger numbers than they’d ever shown up at my other humble little blog and it was quite thrilling… at first.

But then, sadly, a few things started happening that began to taint that initial excitement.

1. It was beginning to feel like work to create an engaging, interesting space. I didn’t need more work – I was already up to my eyeballs in work. I needed pleasure and recreation, not strategy, marketing, and planning. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with those things, it’s just that I’ve already got plenty of that stuff in my day job.

2. I began to miss my old blog and my old friends because I had little time to spend with them anymore. At the new place, I felt like I was trying too hard to attract “readers” rather than “friends” and what I really needed was friends.

3. Before I knew it, partly because I’d had so many discouragements at work and was feeling vulnerable, I began to let myself wrap my self-worth in the numbers game. When the numbers dropped (and, sadly, the highest stats were on my very first day – I never went back up to that number), I wondered why I wasn’t as interesting as the other blogs that were drawing big numbers.

4. I was pouring too much energy into this new entity (and Twitter), and other things in my life were suffering – my family, my day job, my home, and the freelance writing and workshops I used to do occasionally (and get paid for now and then).

5. In my efforts to follow this “dream”, I was reading way too many “10 easy steps to making a living as a blogger” or “10 easy steps to a more fulfilled, successful YOU!” and though some of them inspired me at first, in the end, they mostly depressed me. Self help stuff has a way of doing that to me. I can only take it in small doses.

6. Partly because of the self help “follow your dream” stuff, I was allowing myself to paint a more bleak picture of my day job than was fair. It’s a job I was once quite passionate about, and though there have been some rough spots, it didn’t deserve to be pushed into a corner and ignored so much. I’m working for justice for people who are hungry, after all. For various reasons, I need to stay in this job for the time being, so I just HAVE to find a way of committing myself to it, or I’m cheating the people I serve. (Ironically, I had to give myself the same talking to I once gave a staff member when she’d developed a bad attitude.)

So, after a few tears shed on top of my growing pile of laundry, I just quit. Cold turkey. I walked away from all of my online spaces. I re-engaged in real life. I read more books, I poured more energy into my job, and I tried to be more present for my family. I refused to care if I was committing “blog suicide” or “Twitter suicide” by my walking away, I just knew that silence was what I needed for awhile.

Yes I missed it, and many times I caught myself thinking “oh – that would make a great blog post”, but overall, it’s been such a good thing to take a break and focus on my priorities. Even though I still eventually want to make a career change, my job is giving me pleasure and passion again. I have some fun things to look forward to (a couple of workshops to facilitate), I’ve had some really wonderful lunch conversations with friends, I’m worrying less about other people’s opinion of me, and more than anything, I’ve found some contentment again.

I’m ready to gradually re-insert myself into cyberspace, but it will be a scaled back version, at least for now. I’ll be setting aside the new site, and just being content with my little unassuming blog in my corner of cyberspace where I can play to my heart’s content, show off my kids, wrestle with a few demons now and then, dance in the rain if it feels right, share fun stories about the wonderful adventures I get to go on from time to time, and just be the authentic me that I feel like putting out into cyberspace whenever I feel like it.

I’ll leave the big blogs, the marketing strategies, the SEOs, the self-promotion, the strategic networking, and the numbers games to someone else.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A time for silence

For reasons I can't fully explain (not even to myself), I have decided that it's time for a little self-imposed online silence. I need to focus on a few other things right now, and I need to spend some time just being quiet and not caught up in the clutter that is the internet.

At this point, I don't know how long it will be, but I know that I will miss all of you so I expect that I will be back sooner or later.

(I'll still be checking email - those who wish to contact me are welcome to do so.)

"To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace."
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Making the best of it

Maddie dragged me outside this morning to "enjoy" the snow. I was bound and determined NOT to enjoy it, but her pleasure was rather infectious and soon I was smiling too.

Friday, October 09, 2009

How to make me happy (or how you've already made me happy)

1. If you live on the route where my daughters (and I) deliver flyers, PLEASE make sure your house number and mailbox are visible from the street. Come to think of it, do it anyway – even if you don’t live on our route. You’ll make some delivery person’s life a whole lot easier.

2. If you’re my dishwasher – smarten up already! We just fixed you in Spring – you don’t get to konk out twice in a year!

3. If you’re applying for a job and want to work for me, PLEASE don’t use fancy phrases on your cover letter to try to make yourself look smart. It almost always backfires and you look stupid. And because I can be a little mean sometimes (especially when I have to go through 100+ resumes for 3 jobs) I might just read your show-off sentence to somebody else in the office just for a chuckle. You don’t really want that, do you?

4. If you’re my friend – call, email, comment, whatever. I’ve been in a bit of a funk and feel a little lonely and dejected this week. Just sayin’.

5. If you’re one of the people who has been creating challenges for me lately – just stop it already! Trust me - kindness is WAY more fun than vindictiveness or passive aggression. I'll try it if you'll try it.

6. If you’re one of the people using a jack-hammer on the street – thank you for doing a necessary job so that those of us who are sensitive to excessive noise and vibration don’t have to do it.

7. If you’re the person who phoned me out of the blue just because I’ve been on your mind lately and you wanted to make sure I wasn't too stressed out – you are awesome! You can’t possibly know how much that phone call (and similar ones you’ve made in the past, ‘cause you’re classy that way) meant to me.

8. If you’re the person on our flyer route that only sort-of knows me but has been to my house for a certain launch party – thank for that little exchange on the street! It was lovely and it made me think I should just happen to pass your house more often when you’re outside! Maybe my kids could babysit your kids and we can go paint the town red together!

9. If you’re the guys who replaced our furnace yesterday – thank you for being some of the easiest, most pleasant contractors I’ve had to deal with to date.

10. If you’re the person on our flyer route who has such amazing wood carvings on your lawn (including that incredible totem pole) and what looks like a magical studio in the back of your garage, can you just happen to be outside one day when I’m passing with my wagon full of flyers? I'm pretty sure you're an interesting person and I’m curious to meet you.

11. If you’re my sister who is hosting BOTH families for Thanksgiving meals this weekend, you’re my hero. I wish I could be HALF the hostess you are.

12. If you’re my recently-hired assistant who bought me flowers out of the blue last week – you rock! You just set a new standard for “awesome ways to treat your boss”.

13. If you’re one of those gremlins in my head trying to tell me I’m failing, I’m not as interesting as other people, I shouldn’t bother trying – JUST SHUT UP ALREADY! You’re nasty and you don’t deserve such a comfy place in my head.

14. If you’re my oldest daughter – patience, my child. It will heal, I’m sure of it. And one day you’ll be running again.

15. If you’re my motivation – PLEASE show up already! I have work to do and you’re not helping.

16. If you're reading this, go out and make somebody happy today even if it's not me.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Where I'm at

I am still here, though I seem to be mostly silent on this blog these days. There are only so many hours in a day, and it seems that most of those hours get eaten up pretty quickly with laundry, grocery shopping, going to (and worrying about) work, driving kids to soccer games and art classes and play dates, helping my oldest 2 daughters deliver flyers so that they can afford cell phones and funky shoes that their parents won’t buy, trying to catch up on sleep, and once in awhile managing to eek out an interesting post over here.

Mostly I’m okay with the hub-bub of life, but these days, I just feel so very, very weary. Today especially, after spending too many hours on my feet this past weekend delivering flyers, catching up on grocery shopping in the mega-grocery-store-that-has-everything-but-requires-hours-of-pushing-a-cart-through-crowded-aisles, and then a rousing game of soccer in which Julie’s team played (and were beat by) their parents, I am feeling every one of the 43 years of this body’s age. My gosh – we just don’t spring back like we used to, do we?

I’m not quite sure what to report today. I’ve started to write this post a few times, but instead of the upbeat list of fun things going on in my life, my writing very quickly seems to spiral into a vortex of fears, challenges, complaints, and stresses that I’m dealing with at my day job these days. I can’t go there, for obvious reasons, so maybe I’ll just say this… I am burnt out. I need a break. I need to not be anybody’s boss for awhile.

Part of me desperately wants to “leap and trust that the net will appear” – just hand in my notice (I have to give 3 months, since I’m a director and it’s in my contract) and hope and pray that within 3 months (or probably longer as there are things going on I feel somewhat obligated to wrap up) I’ll be able to build enough of a freelance/consulting business to sustain our family. But there’s that practical side of me that wants to cry every time I go grocery shopping or the girls come home with yet another soccer fee, band fee, lunch fee, worn out sneakers… you name it.

(If you’re worried that I’m taking a risk by putting this on my blog, let me allay your fears by telling you that I’ve already warned my boss that I don’t intend to be in this position a year from now. It’s not really a secret that I have other ambitions and that I’m burnt out.)

If you are given to prayer, feel free to join those who have already wrapped their prayers around me and my family. I need some clarity, I need some focus, and I need a way out of this place I’m in. Mostly, I need to know whether I am wise or foolish to follow my passion into the land of the self-employed. (And if you're in the position to offer me contracts for writing/public speaking/workshop facilitation/communications planning, or offer my husband a teaching job, we could sure use that too!)

It seems to me that handing in my notice and making the leap would be the perfect way to wrap up this year of living more fearlessly. What do you think?