A Dream Deferred.

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In the late 1990s and early 2000s I went to San Francisco for the first time with my dear friend Caitlin from college, and we returned several years in a row thereafter. I fell deeply in love with the city and its diversity, culture, trees, water, horizon, and healthy food on every corner and we vowed to move there together at age 23. Life happened... she moved and I did not.

Fast forward to sixteen years later where I've spent the past three years scheming to get out West, inching ever so slowly closer to fulfilling my dream deferred to move to the Bay Area. I first heard this concept of a dream deferred studying Martin Luther King Jr.'s work, a deeply influential leader in my life. I was honored to hear his son speak in Arizona, and on the third Monday of each January I take time to reflect on his legacy and how I can be a more engaged citizen of my community.

In his sermon delivered on April 5, 1959 he shared the disappointment that can come from dreams not being realized: “Very few people are privileged to live life with all of their dreams realized and all of their hopes fulfilled. Who here this morning has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” A more direct statement: “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”

He took influence from Langston Hughes' 1951 poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

It's a heavy piece that rings true for many, connected to the pervasive and painful political unrest and societal injustice still raging on today, sixty years after Hughes and King Jr.'s time.

My personal use of the term is on a different plane and parallels the themes of consciousness and social change starting at the individual level, daring to bravely own our stories and who we are (thank you Brené Brown), no matter how long it may take or how the crooked path leading us to pursue our truest desires and calling.

There's a quote I love from E.E. Cummings that says, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." One of those life lessons not taught in school, and hard won. They say time is a great healer, and I would add that it is also a great clarifier and filter. Years pass, mental clutter falls away, and what's Important surfaces.

The word defer means to put off to a later time, postpone. It doesn't mean die or never. There have been people in my life who didn't understand why this old dream was still beating for me. It took time and patience and lots and lots of baby steps to block out the outside chatter, listen to my inner voice, and clear away the things that were keeping me from moving forward.

I'm grateful for another Hughes poem Dreams:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.


I recently watched the 1984 film adaptation of the novel The Natural starring Robert Redford. One of the few baseball movies I hadn't yet seen, something about it really resonated with me. It came to me a few days later- the main character Roy also had a sixteen year deferment of fulfilling his dream to be the best player of all time because life intervened. The story is bittersweet- towards the end we discover he doesn't have much time left to live out his dream once he finally "arrives," and I think that sense of urgency is starting to come up for me as well. Our days are not promised.

So on this very rainy Sunday morning in January, close to the MLK Jr. Holiday, I sit at a table with eight other women writers at a literary writing and coffee drinking club in Berkeley with a feeling of arrival washing over me. I am indeed privileged to have an opportunity to live out a dream. I'm ready to learn, grow in my new habitat, and take these broken wings and learn to fly.

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My first trip to San Francisco circa 1999 (pre-cell phone selfie), and shirts I made for Caitlin and I for our "unwreckable journey"
(complete with misspelling of Francisco!) - I wore mine yesterday Happy.

Little Fish, Big Pond: Growing Pains.

I moved to the Bay Area last week. Exactly one week ago today, in fact. And by move I mean drive endlessly and relentlessly across the country following the California Trail from North Carolina to Missouri, across all of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and the fresh hell that is Nevada (sorry, Nevadans).

2,800 miles, 3 nights/time zones, 4 days, and many potato chips later I landed safely at a dear friend's house who is graciously allowing me to set up shop in her home for the next several months until I find a place. All while managing a healthy workload and expanding my consulting business.

Needless to say it's been a bit of a whirlwind and I've been craving a status check and some much needed processing. One week in, here's what I know:

• I'm experiencing a bit of culture shock (in addition to the expected but still surprising sticker shock). People are well-coiffed, hip, savvy, and all seem to be doing Important Things with their very big brains. I've been out of the academic environment for a long time where this was more or less the scene in general, and in the real world I've been living in based out of humble Greensboro, NC, the pace of life has been just a wee bit slower.

• I wanted Inspiration, and I'm gonna get it. Of this I can be sure of. My friend reminds me to embrace this growth mindset and soak it all in... and after chatting with her I realize I'm experiencing the big fish in a small pond to small fish in a big pond leap. After these initial feelings of intimidation, I remember that there are very good reasons that I am exactly where I am at this moment in time. I remember that I grow when I'm being challenged and stimulated, and that I want to be around people who push me to be the best version of myself that I can be.

Marc Andreessen says the same thing in the context of career planning:

Never worry about being a small fish in a big pond. Being a big fish in a small pond sucks—you will hit the ceiling on what you can achieve quickly, and nobody will care. Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found.

Ah yes- this is why I do exponentially better playing tennis with someone more talented than me (and why all the pros recommend it too).

• Ideal Self versus Real Self: When I was in San Diego this spring I had a wonderful talk with a colleague who had spent a few years living where I did and then decided to move back to his home state of CA. I was expressing my regrets for not having done more in the community in my time there. He told me there was my Ideal Self and my Real Self. My Ideal self wishes she could have made more of a contribution to that community, while my Real Self needs to be in an environment in which I will thrive. That really resonated with me. He also told me that this move would feel like being on a roller coaster, blindfolded, and that I just needed to hang on and enjoy the ride. Happy

• Yet another friend shared how often big life transitions bring about other transitions and new things into our lives by virtue of us making a huge seismic shift, some of which I am excited to see already taking place for me.

Along side of these growing pains, I will learn to surf and ride the waves. I may be a little fish, but I am an excellent deep water swimmer.

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It all comes down to this: Self-Help Cliff Notes.

Self-help books. I sheepishly admit to spending a small fortune on them over the years (working at a bookstore in my twenties did not help matters).

If you ask how many I have actually read cover to cover, that number could be close to zero shockingly enough.

In preparation for a move, I’m drastically pairing down. To make a very long story short, this is the first move I’ve gotten to fully engage in this process. Because of many years of chronic illness my previous moves were heavily supported by others and I never really got to go through the cathartic experience of methodically pairing down and making deliberate choices about what I want to keep or toss.

Why self-help books? They were comforting friends and companions on my journey. I remember struggling with anxiety (unaware that it was caused by allergies until later on), despair, and general angsty soul searching post-college in my early twenties and turning to books as a source of reassurance and hope.

Knowledge has always been an essential core value of mine, and these books were sources of information to help me grapple with adulthood, just as young adult fiction helped carry me through my adolescence (including torturing myself regularly with tear jerkers like Six Months to Live). Some are still favorites today, like the Tillerman family series by Cynthia Voigt featuring the fiercely independent and brave character Dicey Tillerman.

Early on I read Succulent Wild Woman, You Can Heal Your Life, Quarterlife Crisis and daily readers like Time For Joy and Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. Knowing what I do now about how important words are to me, I think this was another reason I surrounded myself with books of all kinds. Over the tumultuous twenties my self-help collection continued to grow and expanded into relationship guides, workbooks, dream logs and journals. In the past decade it has become more about organizing, leadership, personality and assessments. They have been the companions, friends, cheerleaders and coaches I needed during the many phases of my life.

I have read, re-read, and cherished books like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, The Alchemist, and Tuesdays With Morrie. This is a certain offshoot of the self-help book with a more allegorical/parable style that appeals to me. I have purchased these books many times as gifts for loved ones as well.

These few aside, the bulk of my self-help collection has remained unread all these years. I can now say with confidence that they have worked by osmosis- all you have to do is keep them on your shelf for 10 years, and like magic, you know the answers and the books are no longer necessary! 😊 By getting rid of them, they "worked" and have come full circle.

With some major pieces of furniture recently gone in my house, most significantly two huge bookcases, my remaining items are instantly equalized in piles on the floor. I sort them into final stacks: to sell, donate, keep, and burn. The well loved and worn old friends will go into the fire and be offered up in the transition from old life to new.

As I speed read and skim through the remaining books, here are a few of the overall highlights:

• Feel the fear and do it anyway
• It is time for joy
• There is only one you - the world needs your authentic self
• Reduce clutter to live better
• Let go
• Don't make assumptions
• Don't take anything personally
• Observe and not judge
• Understand yourself and your values 
• Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good
• You are the only one responsible for your life and choices
• Accept others exactly as they are- don't try and change them
• Learn about boundaries and how to use them 
• Embrace empathy and putting yourself in other's shoes
• Everyone else is making it up as they go along too
• Life is not a dress rehearsal ... 


Have you learned via osmosis from the self-help books on your shelf? Is the knowledge within you now so you can pass the books on? 

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I get by with a little help from my friends...

It's been a really long week. Something major that we've been working on for a long while - well over a year and in earnest for the past six months - has encountered a big glitch, big enough that it may trip up the whole plan and send us back to ground zero. It's one of those plot twists that shakes you to the core, and makes you rethink everything you've been working towards.

In these times, it can be really hard to stay on track because it can feel like life is on hold indefinitely while waiting to resolve the snag, broiling in a state of purgatory. For whatever reason this term is part of my lexicon, so I looked it up:

purgatory: 1:  an intermediate state after death for expiatory purification; specifically: a place or state of punishment wherein according to Roman Catholic doctrine the souls of those who die in God's grace may make satisfaction for past sins and so become fit for heaven 2:  a place or state of temporary suffering or misery

I suppose it feels more like definition #2 ... 😊

Despite experiencing this misery I have a parallel track running alongside this one, a wellspring of support from colleagues, mentors, coaches, and friends. 

My meditation for today is: What if we remembered it is OK to lean on others when our brains are fried and we feel like we can't go on? Remembered that it's OK to ask for help? Sometimes we think we have to be perfect and do it all as a leader, professional, parent, etc. I'm thinking about how much I appreciate discovering examples of successful people acting like the human beings they are, and that true authenticity means being Real, in whatever form that looks like. Our partners and collaborators appreciate it too, and guess what- it's an infinitely easier way to live!

I am a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist, and it still rears it's ugly head in stubborn places of stress and strain where old habits die hard. Throwing our hands up in defeat can be a good place to start actually. Eternal optimism, even from an eternal optimist, is not always the answer. One trusted colleague and friend reminded me today that true authenticity is about being real and speaking the truth. So, for today, I give up and I rest. I give in to frustration, gridlock, and disappointment. I give myself permission to feel grumpy. Tomorrow I fight on.

I will activate this tremendous support team when the time is right to do so, and for now they powerfully remind me that even in dark times, someone has my back and that is enough. The expression "believing in someone until they believe in themselves" means we get to heave a big sigh, celebrate being human, and let someone else carry us until we are ready to go again.

When we are head down and feeling alone in our struggles, so swamped it's hard to come up for air, it really helps to take a minute to reach out to someone and share a laugh, vent/rant, or ask them about their lives and listen to their stuff. 

I invite you to consider who's rooting for you in your corner when the chips are down in your lives. We don't always remember the good when things are bad. Take the time to really think about these people, maybe even thank them, and then pay it forward, so that someone thinks of you as a source of support when their life temporarily takes a trip to hell in a handbasket!

Thanks for the soundtrack Joe Cocker!

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here

Travel is good for the soul, but it's great to be back.

Research has shown that returning home after travel is the best time to implement changes, as our routines are disrupted and we have had new experiences to bring fresh perspectives. (Please let me know if you find this research, my quick search did not turn it up and I know I've read it many times!)

I have spent the past 31 days traveling across the country to Colorado, Vermont, Boston, and Florida. Three trips were to deliver work programs, and one was to Vermont for vacation in-between. For me, I seem to be returning with much mental energy and fresh ideas, but this mountain of work that awaits seems to have other plans! I am being pulled to write, which feels wonderful and I am striking while the iron is hot. 

I was privileged to help deliver 3 different types leadership development programs/workshops this past month, and I'm brimming with collected tidbits of tricks and wisdom from these experiences and inspiration osmosis from incredible leaders at each.

One of these is the idea of being and having two informal mentors, one younger and one older. I love this idea! I realize I have already been practicing this but now will be more intentional about it. As my generation moves out of the "youngest" category, I find myself more and more around younger people at work, and though at first it was a bit strange, I now embrace it because I really do have much to offer in informal knowledge sharing that people have so generously taught me (and equally have so much to learn!). I have one younger friend, by about a decade, at the office that I have had loads of fun sharing my tips, tricks, and thoughts with. He in turn has done the same for me, and it's been enlightening and refreshing to have this type of no-stakes, mutually beneficial relationship with a colleague. I've done the same with role models who have paved the way, decades older... Remain open and seek these relationships out. We hear about "succession planning," but I don't hear much about practicing it on a daily basis. We need to teach others and pass on what we have learned, and the older I get the more I see the great importance of this.

The other concept behind this is that even the coach needs a coach! Every successful person has a coach, mentors, mentees, and a personal board of directors to bounce ideas off of and to motivate them. 

I'll stop there for now. What are your experiences with informal mentoring, both down and up?

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View from my balcony on Amelia Island, FL for an RWJF ENF Alumni Meeting last week

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The Importance of Young Women’s Leadership: Our Story with Girl Scouts

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Me, age 10 doing an extra credit assignment in my hometown

I was once, not too long ago, a little girl with big dreams. I wanted to be the first female president, then first female professional baseball player. Before long I wanted to live in a van down by the river as a motivational speaker, a la Chris Farley’s character on Saturday Night Live. Happy

I was a young, entrepreneurial Alex P. Keaton, standing behind my bookcase in our family room during birthday parties and holiday gatherings selling my painted rocks, homemade potholders, and other wares to my Grandmother (bless her heart!) and any other poor soul who walked by. I loved my nerdy life, intellectually curious about everything, a voracious reader who won a readathon one year and received a personal congratulatory letter from the NY State Governor for reading in the bookstore window for over 12 hours straight (I’m not at all bitter that the following year my best friend won the same contest and a trip to Disney World!).

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My friend Carrie and I at Girl Scout camp, and Alex P. Keaton in his element Happy

I attempted to concoct the cure for cancer out of corn starch and food coloring in tree stump holes in my backyard to help save my dying Uncle John, and started writing one of my great American novels at age 8. I loved the dorky clothes I wore, crazy and colorful and matchy. I loved school and learning, finding 4-leaf clovers, climbing trees, and going to camp. I was a happy, thriving young girl. Around age 11, things changed. It didn’t help that I got diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness (Crohn’s Disease) at that time too- I can still feel the pit in my stomach riding the school bus home after my best friends “dumped” me via a note.

Dejected and spirit dampened, I started pushing down my talents, not doing as excellently at school because I worried about what the boy behind me thought, and essentially “sold out” to become popular. I hid my true self to fit in. Despite the fact that I was afforded every opportunity with an incredible family and education, I still faltered, and it has taken a long time for me to reclaim my confidence in that awesome and unique young woman.

Psychologist JoAnn Deak, PhD and author of the books How Girls Thrive and Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, calls this phenomenon the “3o-year power outage,” where young women go from confident and strong to dimming their lights that may not emerge again for decades. Girls feel the biggest pull to conform during adolescence, referred to as camouflaging, a term Dr. Deak coined to describe the practice of tweaking how one looks and acts to fit in with peers.¹

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The Young Women’s Leadership Institute held at the Center for Creative Leadership

I share with you some of my personal journey because it illustrates the important work we are doing now for young women at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), work that I am passionate about because of my story and YOUR story, knowing we need to do much more to support our girls who are going through some of the same struggles or worse that I did. You or a woman close to you has a story like this, vividly recalled, many carried deep into adulthood- Rachel Simmons’s work Odd Girl Speaks Out documents this. We talk about bringing our whole selves to the work we do here, and through this program I have tapped into work and themes that are personally important for me to reinforce so I can be a role model for other young women, one that I wish I had had growing up.

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Sarah and I with our newly birthed baby, I mean paper Happy

We are so proud to release this new paper zooming in on our work with Girl Scouts in North Carolina these past few years. In it we outline the importance of young women’s leadership in supporting girls and strengthening our communities and world. Studies have shown that girls experience a dramatic drop in confidence at the onset of adolescence. CCL has demonstrated powerful results with our research-driven early leadership development work for young women.

In 2014 and 2015, CCL collaborated with local Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont council to develop customized programming for 100 middle and high school-aged young women called the Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI). The programs are focused on our four themes of authenticity, self-clarity, connection, and agency, which help girls to understand themselves and others, learn how to handle difficult situations, and build courage and confidence in themselves as leaders. We hear directly from the girls on the impact of this work and make a strong case for robust growth and support of this initiative and others like it.

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Thanks for your support of this work and the young women in your life! Click here to read the full white paper.

¹Henriquez, Jessica Ciencin (Jan. 8, 2016). The Strange Phenomenon That’s Preventing Girls From Reaching Their Dreams. Teen Vogue.

A Leadership Mentor Reflects

Below is an end of year reflection written by a mentor participating in the YMCA Black & Latino Achievers Leadership & Mentoring program, a collaborative project by the Hayes-Taylor YMCA of Greensboro and the Center for Creative Leadership.

I’ve worked for two great organizations that empower and support youth, the YMCA, and now CCL—both places to earn a living just like anywhere else. Over the years I’ve discovered that the real magic lies in what their teachings and philosophies have the capacity to DO inside of people.

I was drawn to this program because I have experienced firsthand the impact that mentor(s) (or lack thereof) can have on a person’s trajectory in life. I have had many role models and mentors, but two who have left indelible footprints on my young soul and inspired me to do the same in any capacity I can while we are together for such a fleeting time on this planet. Both passed away, too soon, and suffered great illness at the end of their short lives.

Their lives first spurred my passion for improving health care one person at a time, in a time when AIDS and cancer were new and scary unknowns. Their leadership and mentoring brought out the best in me, challenged me, believed in me, and through their trials I learned a depth of empathy and connection with others that continues as a bittersweet gift. I have also seen the lack of mentoring on people’s lives. This too has reminded me of my dedication to this service, because without support to dream, grow, and encouragement for development, life can seem insurmountably tough.

This program consists of one half day each month during the school year, delivering remarkable impact and unexpected beneficial ripple effects for months and years to come for its participants. The curriculum is leadership essentials, aimed at high school youth, and creates a safe space where being your truest best self is refreshingly encouraged. We learn about Direction/Alignment/Commitment, head, heart and feet, learning curves, goals, social identity, our vision, and our “spark”- what makes us feel truly alive.

As a mentor you go through the experience of learning and doing just as the Achievers in the program do, the synergy flowing both ways from mentor to mentee as time progresses, and the sessions fly by in a blur. I am in awe of how this program has touched me. The Achievers have coached me through some really challenging times in my life and checked in with me, leading and mirroring back the gentle spirit and values of the program. They have given me direct unsolicited feedback that has led to career decisions, reminding me what I excel at when in the busyness of adulthood I had forgotten.

Many Saturday afternoons, motivated after sessions, I researched some of the leaders that were conversation starters, pulling my Nelson Mandela autobiography off the shelf, watching a Spike Lee film or notes from my African American studies. I dusted off my guitar and sang again. The most telling impact this program has had is the peaceful joy that comes from the alignment of head, heart and feet into a living, breathing authentic self. The process of allowing for direct practice of these principles is transformative, and arguably more powerful than any other program I’ve been a part of.

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Val's Visual Explorer (TM) pictures help her describe her own leadership journey

This year we chose images or words that represented where we were on our leadership journey, and one for where we are headed. A perfect example of the simple yet profound work we do in this program. I am humbled and honored to walk in the path of my mentors, and so privileged to witness your extraordinary leadership journeys along the way.

Namaste!
Val

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Additional impact data about mentoring from this program

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Val with her "family group"

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Mentor recognition at annual end of year program banquet

Rainbow Wonders (formerly titled Mystery of the Noise in the Bushes)

My early imagination... Happy

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