Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Work: Sometimes you have to pee in the pool

I had an eccentric Great Aunt Vida, who lived in a sprawling home that slinked around a prime piece of Hood Canal coastline in Washington state. She was a bit formal, had married well and widowed young, and was in no way comfortable around children. When my cousins came to visit, she gave them the standard speech as they prepared to jump into her indoor pool: "I have a special chemical in here that turns red when you urinate, so don't, or I'll know it's you."

The kids, in their elementary years, solemnly nodded and proceed to jump in the pool. After several minutes of splashing about, the youngest, Liam, yelled out, "Aunt Vida? That chemical? It's not working!"

I love this story because mostly when my Aunt Corinne (Liam's mom) tells it, it's really really funny, each and every time. But I also love it because it makes me think about how brave and bold Liam was as a little kid, completely unaware of his own vulnerability as he spoke a truth that he thought would be helpful. Not sure what Vida's reaction was, but it likely involved a thimble of sherry to soothe her nerves.

I recently watched this Brené Brown TED video on vulnerability, and it has made me think a lot about the offer-reception dynamic of ideas. In order to have a truly innovative idea, you need to risk failing, because it hasn't been done before. You are putting the work of your mind and heart in the hands of others who will help it succeed -- or not. How the idea is received is just as critical. Nearly every organization or manager will tell you that failure is treated as a learning opportunity ... but how that is actually handled will vary greatly. I've worked for some bosses who have been so enthusiastic and welcoming for my ideas that I couldn't wait to fail for them again, if it meant having excellent feedback and the chance to build an even better rocket ship. I've had bosses who've sent such cryptic, critical emails that I spent entire weekends downing Ativan to keep a panic attack at bay, certain I'd be fired Monday morning, but then nothing was ever mentioned again.

I've been fortunate enough to have a career based on ideas, where my creativity has funded my home and car and makes me look good on paper for government bureaucrats. I've also been lucky enough to help develop ideas from others and collaborate to make them into real things. Because of that, I offer this:

If you're proposing your idea -- whether its a better way to clean the coffee pots at the wait station, a rerouting of the entire metro transit system so it runs more effectively and efficiently, or handing over your life's work, laced with sweat, tears and a little merlot -- these approaches may help:
  1. Find a good time to propose your idea -- when the recipient has space to hear you, and is in a good mood. Also, think about your format. Is it scrawled on a napkin, or did you go to the trouble of making a trailer for it? 
  2. Preface your presentation with what you hope to accomplish, and how far along you are in your idea. If it's just an initial draft with lots of flexibility for change, or if it's pretty much baked as is, let the person know. 
  3. State exactly what you want. Is it an approval to take it to another level of management? Are you looking for collaboration? Do you just want some feedback on a particular angle?
  4. Really understand what the response is. So if the person said, "I love the idea but I'm wondering if you can make it puppets instead of real people," and you heard, "Your idea stinks, go away," you may miss an opportunity to make your idea happen ... just not exactly as you'd planned. Sometimes puppets are better. 
If you are on the receiving end of an idea:
  1. Realize the person offering may have invested a lot of hope and love in this. Treat it accordingly. It's hard to be creative, like handing over your fragile little heart in a paper cup, hoping someone else will help it keep beating.  
  2. Take a cue from improv: Don't shut down another actor. Say, "yes ... and ... ." As in: "Yes, I think you are really on to something, and I'm wondering if there's a way we can include puppets because I know that's what the network is looking for and we'll have a better chance of making this happen." 
  3. If you love the idea, be a champion for it. Be brave, it makes people like you better. If you don't like the idea, find a way to make it better. There might be a seed in there somewhere. 
Sometimes it pays to pee in the pool, just to see what happens.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Garbanzo bean quiche, preschool and entree envy

Grace is pretty much the TA at her daycare, which is run by our fabulous, big-hearted and beautiful neighbor, Valentin, out of her apartment. There are two smaller kids, and Grace "helps" to feed and change them. It's been the absolute perfect situation and Grace is madly in love with her daycare family, as they are with her. This summer Grace and I spent vacations and free moments in other people's yards and pools, and I noticed how much she needs to run around. I notice that she counts a lot of things ("one, two, fwee, five, eight!") and whenever we pass a school, she wants to go there. I suspect that the playground has a lot to do with it. So I asked her if she's ready to go to school, and she said yes. I told her that it would be a little different than daycare and that she'd have a teacher and she'd have a lot of other kids there. "OK Mom." Every time I followed up, her answer is the same. She wants to go to school.

So we looked at several nearby preschools that were willing to take 2-year-olds who were unmotivated in their potty training. One place was great but a little far. Another was horrific, with a 12:1 student/teacher ratio and an industrial bleachy odor ("We clean four times a day!" chirped the director as she toured us around the cavernous building). Out in the vast concrete prison yard that had a small area where they crammed a bunch of slides and swings under a small tarp, a kid closed the door on Gracie in the play house, and she ran to me screaming and crying. Scratch that one.

Finally we found a school a block away that's attached to an Episcopal church. There's a Noah's Ark mural on the outside. Lots of space to play. A charming director. Organized but not mean-spirited. They say prayers of gratitude for parents and play kitchens, and learn the Bible's greatest hits. For a spiritual but non-religious person, I am OK with that.

However. The kids have to  bring their lunch. That news sent me reeling back to childhood lunchtime trauma. We were raised by my dad, who, in the late 1970s, was in the process of writing what would become a New York Times best-selling diet book. Our food became limited to Pritikin Program low-fat, high-carb fare, which, living two blocks from Zabar's, was a unique kind of torture. Gone was the nightly ice cream, our babysitter's Southern fried chicken, the Oreos my dad reserved for "company." Instead, we made due with baked potatoes adorned with some plain yogurt my dad made himself. There were some passable oatmeal-raisin "cookies" sweetened with apple juice concentrate. And garbanzo bean quiche. Seriously. I am not making this up, nor would I be able to. Garbanzo-effing-bean quiche.

Lunches were less than creative. An endless stream of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat and maybe a brown banana shoved into a rumpled brown bag, or worse, a huge brown grocery bag. Day in and day out. (I remember one particularly heinous incident of a cheese and butter sandwich, which I brought home from day camp and insisted my dad try. He conceded that it was crap.) Lisa, my best friend, would get ham and cheese on Wonder bread with a Twinkie, a soda wrapped in foil to keep it cold, and a Thermos of soup all tucked neatly inside a Snoopy lunchbox. I so desperately had entree envy for Lisa's lunches, and also, the snacks her parents stocked at home, which was conveniently located one floor below us. Nutter Butter cookies. Yoo-hoo chocolate soda. Triscuits.

Something must have worked its way into my hard wiring, though. Today I get most of my food from the farmers' market, and then Trader Joe's for the milk and not-so-bad prepared food. We limit sugar and anything processed. I spent a good deal writing about food for many fine publishing outlets, and was even invited by Japan to come write about the incomparable food the country has to offer. I can work my way around a fridge and stove pretty well. Gracie and I sit down to a good breakfast and dinner every morning and evening. Lunch is whatever is happening over at daycare, and because the dad is a baker, I know it's going to be good.

BUT. Here's my point.

I sense an unforeseen issue with having to pack Gracie's lunches at her new school. I know my instinct will be to shove last night's leftover Trader Joe's pakoras in a baggie and call it good. I'm insecure that after three days I'll run out of ideas, and I won't be prepared. I don't want her to have entree envy with the kid who brings the bento box with all his favorites, and Grace will make a grab for it out of desperation. I'm feeling like I've already come in last in what's not even a competitive sport, lunch-making.

Pakoras can fit into a bento box, right?