2021 Can Be a Do-Over Year

We can just start over. And over. And over. Photo by Matthew Landers on Unsplash

I had a rough 2019. No, you read that right. 2019. Some changes happened in my organization that required a ton of time and energy to be spent on tactical logistics that we had not planned for. The second half of the year got derailed and as I got to about November I was feeling exhausted and depleted. But I also felt that all the work had actually set us up for a better future and I was eager to get started on a big plan for 2020. 

I’m guessing you know what happened next. 

We navigated 2020 and got through it. In fact, 2020 ended for us with some real bright spots in a way that seemed to auger a better future in 2021. 

Despite that I found myself again feeling a bit depleted at the end of the year. And while good news at the end of 2020 was giving me some renewed energy and hope, there was still a lot of trepidation coming into January. And grief. The holidays marked a year since we’ve seen my parents. My kids were particularly distressed about that. 

I usually love making plans at the end of the year. In 2019 I bought the Big Life Journal New Year kit and we even brought our printouts to Florida to plan as a family. I bought the 2021 version but they sat, untouched, throughout the two-week holiday as the four of us sat at home, one day melting into the next. What was the point?! My 2020 goals and resolutions were still sitting there, taunting me. 

And then, of course, the first three weeks of January 2021 felt like 2020 had not left us. I kept joking that it felt like December 38th. (I’m sure that’s not original.) 

But as we come to the end of what is, normally, a go-away week for us, I feel the darkness lifting, just a little. I feel a new burst of energy coming. 

So as I head into the last week of February I’m reminding myself of three things:

1. 2021 can be a do-over. We didn’t make progress in 2020. THERE WAS A PANDEMIC. It’s okay. (And we did make progress, despite that.) We can pull out the plans, goals, resolutions and whatnot from 2020 and make that the 2021 plan. It’s okay.

2. We can begin now. There is no magic to January anyway. The year can start now. Or on March 1. 

3. And if the plans we make on next week or next month go sideways, as they so often do, we can, as Brad Feld regularly writes, Simply Begin Again. And again. And again. 

What It Means to Have Empathy

Sometimes it’s enough to just be there. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

This editorial in today’s WSJ (subscription required) really resonated with me. For those not willing to pay to read, I’ll summarize: The classic for formula of responding to someone’s sadness (over just about anything) is to say “At least,{insert much, much worse thing they could be suffering}.”

The author allows that while this sentiment is often well-intentioned it is never comforting. Being reminded that others are worse off than you are is the opposite of empathy.

I take a less generous view. I think too often the “At least” construction is, if not quite malintentioned, often a bit of one-upsmanship. “Oh yeah, well I know someone who has it much worse than you do.” That goes triple if the example of the worse thing is being experienced by the speaker. “But what about my pain?”

But even if the intentions are good, it’s worth thinking about why empathy is so hard. It’s very difficult to know how to comfort someone in distress. Telling them it could be worse seems like it might obviously be helpful. But it’s actually the VERY opposite thing that is helpful — acknowledging that the thing that sucks for them really does suck.

Before I had my daughter I lost a pregnancy. It was very early, which is the thing you are supposed to tell everyone so they know it wasn’t “that bad.” In fact I’m sure I’d had that very thought many times when I heard about an early loss — “At least she wasn’t further along.” I hope I wasn’t dumb enough to say that to anyone but I may have been. But after my loss I learned the right thing to say. “Oh my gosh, that really sucks. I’m so sorry for you.”

That’s it. That sucks. It sucks for you and so it just sucks. Period.

Believe me, I don’t need to be told that it could have been much worse. I’ve read stories about women losing babies in their fifth month — one such story almost made me pass out on a train. I get how much worse — physically and emotionally — it could have been. But it was still awful.

There are so many awful things now. My 12-year-old daughter may not go to summer camp — she’s been looking forward to it and will be crushed if it’s canceled. My 10-year-old son is unlikely to go back to school — it will be his last year in this school building so he may never see his teachers again. These are such tiny, tiny tragedies against the backdrop of so much human misery. And yet, to them, and to the mom who allows these little pieces of her heart to walk around on the outside, they are devastating.

No one wins the contest of “who has it worse.” Yes, many of us are very lucky right now — free from virus, in safe homes with plenty of food and incomes to support all of those things. And sure there may be times when there is a need to remind someone of their privilege relative to others. But it doesn’t need to be a contest.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s emotions. The “at least” construction tries to put the other person in someone else’s emotions. This is the lesson I learned from my loss: Having empathy doesn’t require you to understand an experience. It requires precisely the opposite, the understanding that the other person’s experience is what matters to them.

The months to come will give us lots of chances to practice empathy. If we collectively get better at it that would be a remarkable upside to a situation that has so many downsides.

It’s not easy, but it is possible

Photo credit: Jared Soares for The New York Times

In the tributes to Cokie Robert there were many mentions of her pioneering work as a women in journalism. 

But I was struck by a comment from Mary Louise Kelly, a reporter for NPR on the Brian Lehrer Show:

What resonated with me here in the NPR newsroom yesterday was listening to all of the 20 and 30 something women who as I say many of whom did not know her or did not know her very well they were all talking about her as a mother and as a woman as much as her journalism. And how she did not make it look easy or effortless to do both, to be a great journalist and be a great mom, but she made it look possible. Which, when she was doing it, her kids were young, was revolutionary. And which is still really hard. Making it look possible is a very powerful way of kicking doors down.” 

Making it look possible is a very powerful way of kicking doors down.

I try to model this in my own life and career. No, it’s not always easy to be the CEO of a start-up nonprofit, with two kids, a husband with an equally demanding career. But it IS possible. And it’s also full of joy, at least for me. 

So, thank you, Cokie, and the many other amazing women who show us that it is possible to have a rich, full life full of professional accomplishments, warm family relationships and faith (she was a devout Catholic). When you focus on what matters to you and to those you love you can have it all, all at once.

Savor the small moments

The small moments are the big moments. Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

One of my favorite books 2018 was How to Be a Happier Parent by KJ Dell’Antonia. One reason I loved it so much was her gentle reminder that, for most of us, the stress and strain we are feeling are part of a life we chose. Her advice is to stop what you are doing from time to time to notice a moment — and ordinary, not-perfect-but-good-enough moment — and remind yourself “Oh yeah, this is it. This is what it’s all about.”

It can be a random Sunday night — sitting at the dining room table, reading the paper, listening to your daughter work out math problems with your husband, helping your son wipe up the juice he spilled on the table. Yup, this is it. It’s not even close to perfect, but it’s pretty darned good.

Quit Your Job When You Aren’t Getting Better At It

Growing in your career is like achieving new levels of fitness. When you stop getting better it’s time to move on to something new. Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

I am a huge fan of The New Yorker Radio Hour on WNYC. If you love the New Yorker and you love public radio, this show is ear candy. This week’s episode featured a clip from Chris Hayes speaking at the New Yorker Festival. I’m also a huge fan of Chris Hayes — I’ve watched his show since it debuted and love the podcast he recently launched, Why Is This Happening?

The interviewer asked Hayes how long he’ll keep doing his nightly MSNBC show, All In With Chris Hayes. He began by saying “definitely not forever” because there are other things he wants to do in his career, but also noted that he’ll for sure do it through 2020. But his explanation for how he’d know when to stop was so interesting to me. He said it was basically “a learning curve question.” It would depend, essentially, on how long he felt he was still getting better at it.

There are lots of ways to know when it’s time to quit a job. But lack of personal growth is probably one of the most important to recognize. When you stop getting better at what you are doing it’s time to go try something different. If you want to do big things, stay on the steep side of the learning curve.

“Buy it with your heart and then run it with your head.”

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

My friend Charlie O’Donnell writes a weekly newsletter for tech that I highly recommend subscribing to. An issue from a few week’s ago told the story of a man who wanted to buy a restaurant. A very specific restaurant that was not, as it happens, for sale. When he finally persuaded the owner to sell it to him the offer was insane. As he agonized over what to do his girlfriend told him “Buy it with your heart and then run it with your head.”

It’s such a great line. I get asked, pretty frequently, what made me quit my corporate marketing job at Return Path and start Path Forward. It was, without question, a “buy with your heart” decision. It wasn’t a completely illogical — it was a staff position that still afforded me the income and benefits I needed for my family. Matt, my Board chair, had secured a significant level of funding to get us started. (The guy buying the restaurant was simultaneously wrestling with the meaningless of all the stuff — including a Ferrari — he owned. Let’s be clear that it’s a lot easier to make a decision with your heart when you are starting in a place of material security.)

But it was a decision with a lot of risk, both generally (many new businesses, both for profit and nonprofit, fail) and specifically (I’d never run any kind of business and never even worked in a nonprofit).

And yet. I can’t explain fully why I was so convinced it was the right move, but it was one that was driven almost purely by heart.

But I’ve run it with my head. I’ve focused on building a great team, including finding an amazing VP who is good at all the things I suck at. I’ve focused on building our partnerships with employers as the engine of both short term revenue and long term growth. I’ve talked to literally hundreds of people seeking wisdom and advice so I can make good decisions and avoid obvious pitfalls. That isn’t to say I haven’t made mistakes. I’ve made PLENTY and I’ve made some really, really big ones. But I can honestly say that I haven’t made mistakes that were the result of running with my heart. The passion I have for our cause runs deep in me and it drives me in an intrinsic way. But the day-to-day decisions I make are driven by a clear-eyed sense of what I think will make our organization successful so that it can continue to fulfill its mission for years to come.

2019 Resolutions

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

In the New Year …

I want to learn new dinner recipes, especially vegetarian ones.

I want to go on relaxing vacations.

I want to do more writing.

I want to improve my morning routine(s).

I want to read more books.

I want to imagine new ways to advance Path Forward’s mission.

I want to try planning great weekends.

I want to be more patient.

I want to keep a daily diary.

I am going to continue exercising (almost) every day.

Maybe your to-do list isn’t ambitious enough

There’s a lot written about to-do lists. How to do them better, why you shouldn’t do them at all, ideas for taking stuff off them, ideas for adding things to them and so on. It’s a popular topic in the productivity literature.

I’ll admit, I’m a little obsessed with these articles and generally click on lots of them.

So, I couldn’t resist an article titled Leonardo’s To-Do List is Much Cooler Than Yours. It’s a fun read. And I think the takeaway is that the issue is not how much is on your list, but WHAT is on your list. Is your to-do list interesting enough? Do you look at it and think “Yeah, I can’t wait to do these things” or do you look at it and sigh?

Before you spend a lot of time writing down what you HAVE to do, think about what you want to do. Really, really want to do. Then write those things down. Now you will have a to-do list as cool, as interesting, as ambitious as Da Vinci. Try it.

Forget Resolutions: Focus on Habits and Projects

No matter how many articles get written about how resolutions don’t work, come January, everyone is making resolutions. And they keep making resolutions the same way, year after year.

This year I am going to try something different. I broke down what I want for myself in 2017 into two buckets — habits and projects.

Habits: I imagine you know what a habit is and these are what, for many people, would be traditional resolutions. Get to the gym, eat better — that sort of thing. For me, in 2017, I’ve decided to focus on a few habits that I want to cultivate this year. I have set goals for myself for each of them, but I’ve also decided that my real goal is to track myself against these habits. The idea is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that it can really become a habit — something I no longer need to think about and track because it just works. I’ve picked 5 habits that I want to track, which is probably too many. But since I’ve only committed to tracking them, at least for January, I think it’s okay. Also, they are habits across a few different dimensions that are aimed at, yes, getting me to the gym, but also reading more books, getting more massages (!), making more connections and planning better weekends with my family.

Projects: These are anything that have an end. Unlike habits, projects are not about making an ongoing change. Certain projects have a tendency to languish on my task lists forever. Generally projects that would be good to do (paint the apartment, declutter my wardrobe) but aren’t a must-do. Right now I have a list of seven projects, but that will change over the course of the year as I complete some, add others and choose to ditch some.

Next I need to set some timelines around the projects so they don’t just languish again. Some are timebound (my sister is getting married in June!) so those will happen. The ones I need to think about a bit are the ones that aren’t — like revamping my home office and seeing a dermatologist.

I’ll report back at the end of January on how it’s going, especially on the habits.

Must Reads from the New York Times

The Times has had a bunch of goodies recently, two from someone I know, which is a thrill in itself.

How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Workweek, and Why It Matters: This piece, which ran in the Upshot, is fascinating and something I’ve noticed, in different forms, for a long time. People (who are usually women) who ask for flexibility and other family-friendly accommodations get punished with lower performances reviews. Those who figure out how to get flexibility without asking for it (who tend to be men) are rewarded with flexibility AND higher performance scores. There’s lessons here for people who want to be high performers AND good parents, but I think there are business lessons here, too. Face time doesn’t count: say it with me. Yes, it’s actually harder to measure results than hours, but it’s better for everyone. And leads to overall higher performance.

80-Hour Work Week? This is How She (or He) Does It: KJ Dell’Antonia takes the Upshot piece and builds on it, connecting it to the upcoming book I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam. This book comes out on June 9 and it’s at the top of my dying-to-read list.

My friend Taffy Brodesser-Akner is an extraordinary talent. If you love great writing, follow her. Everything she writes is magical.

Two cases-in-point:

With Drybar, a Curly-Haired Girl Wages a Global War on Frizz: A really fun feature (and one of the few decent business stories I’ve seen in the Times in a LONG time) about the blowout-bar trend. Full of many delicious lines that I won’t ruin for you, but there’s also a great marketing lesson. The founder of Drybar aptly notes that she is NOT selling blowouts (the feature) but is actually selling “happiness and confidence” (the benefit). Genius.

Meanwhile, her profile of Kris Jenner in this weekend’s Magazine is just awesome. And a great lesson about looking around you, figuring out what your resources are and working them.