Monday, April 29, 2013

Empower Yourself: Lesson #5 - Play to Your Strengths, Handle Your Weaknesses

In this five-week series, we will look at what you can do to empower yourself and take control of your life. Remember, "If it's going to be, it's up to me!"

Math isn't my thing ... not at all. About the only things I can do mathematically are figure out how to double a recipe or halve it (and even then the thirds give me trouble) and figure out how much I'm getting off of a sale item in the store. Anything else, I can't do. In fact, if you look closely, I'm probably moving my lips or counting on my fingers if I can't find a calculator.

I am, however, a writer. I can sit down and write with no prompting. I don't have notes when I sit down to write these posts. I just think of a topic and start writing (excuse the grammar ... that too is not my thing!). Next to writing, I love performance and presentation. I like, dare I say, love public speaking. Whereas a lot of people dread it, I'm energized by it.

I've developed a career around what I love to do and what I'm good at. These are my strengths. As a corporate trainer and instructional designer, I write manuals, job aids and other documentation. Standing in front of a class to teach is a performance (and if you have been a student in one of my classes, you know what I am talking about!).

My degree is in broadcast journalism - a perfect combination of writing and performing. I've worked in corporate communications where I have written profusely. I've even written screenplays, done public speaking and even some acting. Of course, blogging is a major hobby of mine.

I have build a career around my strengths and I can truly say that I love what I do. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to spend my days and earn a paycheck by using my strengths. When it comes to professional and personal development, I choose to focus on things that will make my strengths stronger.

This is not to say that I ignore my weaknesses. I am realistic enough to know that math will never be a strength so I don't devote as much time to it as I do to my strengths. I build strengths and manage weaknesses. When I work on a project that involves math, I know which co-workers have that strength and I get their help. I am able to take care of some basic skills life skills that involve math (balancing a checkbook, determining how much change I should be getting back). For more complicated matters, I have friends that I turn to for help and advice on money matters and financial issues (an extension of my math weakness).

The important thing to remember is that time, talent and energy are resources that are not in an infinite supply. We have a certain amount of all of them. When it comes to my strengths, I want to invest the majority of my time and energy in those things. It wouldn't be a great use of my time or talents if I devoted myself to becoming a math whiz. I devote enough attention to my weaknesses that they do not become problems, and that is all.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Look Up! Look Down! Look Around!

Look up! Look down! Look around! Most of the time, we focus on what is directly in front of us - moving through the world with blinders on. We see only what is right ahead of us - the goal, the end game. Yet, when we do that, we miss a lot.

This concept is often taken metaphorically. Stop the singular focus on the goal long enough to experience life. Look up! Be grateful for all that you have (and you have a lot more than you think). Look down! See the little kids and enjoy your time with them because soon they won't be so little anymore. Look around! See your partner, your family and your friends. Savor the moment.

However, I'm also speaking in very literal terms. Look up! See the stars in the sky, a beautiful sunset, the funny shapes the clouds make. I have seen double rainbows and moon halos that others missed just because I looked up. I have seen some incredible things just by moving my neck in another direction.

Look down! See the flowers and the beautiful array of shells at the beach. Watch a raindrop as it spreads through a puddle. See the tire tracks and footprints in the fresh snow.

Look around! When you are driving to work or walking through a parking lot, when you are walking the dog or taking out the garbage, look around and be aware of your surroundings. Wave at a passing car, have a short conversation with a neighbor. Look around your living room at see the trinkets and keepsakes and furniture you've picked out.

Life in all of its glory is going on around us all the time. Stop. Look. Appreciate.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Empower Yourself: Lesson #4 - Lose the Excuses!

In this five-week series, we will look at what you can do to empower yourself and take control of your life. Remember, "If it's going to be, it's up to me!"

Last week, we looked at games people play. This week’s installment, Lose the Excuses could be called the games we play with ourselves. We make excuses for why we don’t take action and why we don’t do what we need to do. The scary part is that we often convince ourselves of the truth of these lies we tell ourselves. However, if you are going to get out of your own way and really go after the things you want, you’ll have to confront these lies (excuses) with some solid and sobering truths.

Excuse: This is just how I am
True. This (whatever this is) is how you are now. This (whatever this is) is not what you have to be. You can change … careers, relationships, weight, bad habits, financial situation but you have to want to change. And, wanting to change is just the start. You have to develop a plan and consistently work it. This is how change happens, slowly, deliberately and consistently. It isn’t going to be easy and it usually won’t be fun (if it were easy and/or fun) you would have done it by now. Changing yourself is possibly but it is hard work. In the end though, it’s work it,

Excuse: But you don’t know what happened to me
No, I don’t know your past and it could be bad. However, you are the one (and the only one) who will decide how that past is going to affect your future. Are you going to let the horrors of your past, taint your present and alter your future for the worst? We have no control over what happens to us as children. Even as adults, things can happen that leave us defeated and demoralized. However, as grown-ups we decide what will come next. Will we let this continue or will we get the help we need to move beyond what happened and reclaim our lives? My philosophy is simple. This is my life to live. I can win and I can lose but I will win or lose – no one else will win, lose or make the rules that I live my life by.

Excuse: I don’t have the ________________
Maybe you don’t have the education, come from the right side of the tracks or have enough money. Review your options. Does your job have tuition reimbursement? Can you get a certification? Are there classes you can take at a community college or online? Can you find a mentor to help you learn the ropes? In 2013, you can meet the right people. This is not a caste system where you are stuck in the group you were born into. You can change your circumstances. As far as money, be creative. Can you start your endeavor with what you have right now? Have you looked into loans, grants or even finding a partner? There are ways to get the things you need, sometimes you have to be creative, other times you have to be patient. Either way, you have to be persistent and consistent.

Excuse: I’m not the right ___________________
You could be Black (or Hispanic or Korean or something else). You could be gay (or straight or bi or transgendered). You could be Muslim (or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or an atheist). You could be blind (or deaf or paralyzed or otherwise disabled). Okay? Now what? Even if some people still have their  racist or homophobic or other prejudiced opinions, there are just as many people (if not more) who don’t. Refuse to let the narrow-minded among us keep you from your dream, Be resilient. Let their tactics roll right off of you. Be open. People who share your race, gender, faith or other quality aren’t always the ones who will be in your corner. Likewise, the ones who don’t share a trait aren’t always against you. See beyond these qualities and get to know the heart and mind of the person.

Excuse: I tried this before and it didn’t work
So try it again. Look at what didn’t work and see what you can do differently this time around. Learn from your mistakes and don’t let them stop you. While we are talking about failing, don’t let people’s reactions dissuade you either. The people who offer the most criticism, often are doing the least. It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines when you aren’t the one playing the game. The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t isn’t that the successful ones never experienced failure. They failed, often many times. The difference is that they kept getting back up.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

In Memoriam

I am still processing the tragedies that occurred this week at the Boston Marathon and the blast at the fertilizer plant outside of Waco, Texas. Lives were lost and others survived but face life with missing limbs and other injuries that have radically changed the trajectory of their lives.  The survivors and the families of all affected will face some very dark days ahead. Contrary to what some people think, grief is a lifelong process. It comes in waves. Things will eventually get better but the lost of a loved one creates a specific hole in the heart that can never be filled.

Waco was an accident, but the tragedy at the Boston Marathon was not. As we are left to ponder the nature of the terrorists and how anyone can ever see the deaths of innocents as a victory, there is one thing we shouldn't do - give into our fear.

In the post 9/11 world, we are all more aware and more vigilant. Security at events has been heightened but we cannot anticipate everything. In the past twelve months, we've had the movie theater massacre in Colorado and the unbelievable horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School. These events show that even without the specter of terrorism, these kinds of things can happen. All it takes is one unstable person.

Terrorism, accidents, unstable violent people, it is easy to feel like we can't be safe anywhere. Yet that is no way to live. We have to persevere and move on. One witness interviewed after the Boston Marathon made an amazing point. In the midst of the confusion and the madness, people right there, immediately and instinctively went into action mode - helping the wounded, reaching out to perfect strangers, doing everything they could to offer their assistance. In the midst of the hate and the violence, there was humanity. There was generosity. There was strength. There was bravery. There was love.

It is in that spirit that we must honor those who perished by living our best lives possible. By doing and being our very best and living the life we were given as fully as possible.

At the end of Saving Private Ryan, decades after so many men lost their lives to save one man, Private Ryan went to Arlington cemetery. With his family in tow, he wept and said, "I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me." That is all any of us can do, honor those who have gone before us by living the best live we can.


Surely, you deserve a pat on the back. What did you do? I really don't know. What I do know is that we are often so busy moving from one thing to the other that we don't stop to celebrate our successes. We are quick to state what's wrong, what we need to do better, what we wish we had worked out differently but we  aren't so quick to look at what is going right, what is working, and where things are on track or going towards plan.

Something is going right. It could be a relationship, work, friendships or family. Maybe you are getting close to paying off a bill or you resisted the urge to shop when you really wanted to. You could have lost five pounds. It's possibly that you were complimented on how well behaved your kids are. Or, maybe you finally stopped procrastinating and cleaned out your car.

It isn't bragging to acknowledge a job well done. Celebrate the five pounds you lost and you'll get the momentum to take on the next five. Maybe now that the car is clean you can move on to the closet (or the trunk of the car!).

After a while, cracking the whip and pushing yourself will stop working. Remember, the carrot and the stick? If you want to move the horse forward, you can crack the whip and the pain will propel the horse forward or you can hang that carrot in front of him and he'll move forward towards the pleasure of eating the carrot  You've cracked the whip, now it's time to try the carrot.

You have something to celebrate. Think about it and celebrate that success this weekend!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Empower Yourself: Lesson #3 - The Games People Play

In this five-week series, we will look at what you can do to empower yourself and take control of your life. Remember, "If it's going to be, it's up to me!"

Games are often associated with kids. There are a number of games that adults play. Knowing how to play and develop a winning strategy is essential if you plan to win at the biggest game of all: The Game of Life.

Pass the Buck
Objective: Similar to the children's game of hot potato, the point of this game is to take a situation (the buck) that is difficult, touchy, or otherwise hard to handle and give it to someone else as quickly as possible.

Rules: Distance yourself from the buck being passed by saying how it isn't your problem or in your job description. If someone attempts to pass the buck to you, step back, let it fall and suggest the name of someone else who can pick it up. If you do get stuck with the buck, explain why you are passing it to the next person. Make sure to add why you aren't the one who should have it and why the other person should. Worse case scenario: cry or throw a tantrum while passing the buck (this will make it less likely that someone   else will pass the buck back to you later on).

Winning Strategy: If the buck truly belongs to you, own it, handle it, deal with it. If the buck belongs to someone else, pass it to them. Do not accept the buck if it isn't yours. If you start accepting it, the person who passed it to you will continue to pass other bucks your way. Stand up for yourself.

Head in the Sand
Objective: Avoid handling a problem by pretending it doesn't exist. Ignore it. Pretend like it doesn't exist.

Rules: Throw the bills away that are piling up, stop answering the phone, avoid the person you need to speak to or deal with. Find activities you enjoy more and indulge in those instead of dealing with the negative situation that needs your attention.

Worse Case Scenario: Drink heavily, spend a lot of money, engage in a lot of meaningless relationships, play a lot of video games, surf the net obsessively. Do anything you enjoy to excess in a vain attempt to pretend your problem doesn't exist.

Winning Strategy: Get some emotional support and begin to gather the details of the issue. Your support system is there to get you to take action and to be there for you if it gets overwhelming. Seek help. Is there a person in your circle who can help or is there a professional whose expertise can help. Work with these people to develop a step-by-step plan. Use your support system to begin tackling your plan one step at a time. You'll find the feelings of helplessness often subside when you begin taking some action towards solving your problem.

The Blame Game
Objective: This game is played after a mistake has been made. The goal is to find someone to blame for what went wrong. A second objective is to make this person look bad while making yourself look good (it helps if you paint yourself as the victim).

Rules: When looking for a scapegoat, it helps if you find someone who is also involved in the situation. If you can make the scapegoat or the others involved in the situation feel bad, it helps. They should feel bad for you and readily agree that you couldn't win. If you can make someone else look like the villain, even better.

Winning Strategy: Similar to Passing the Buck, if you deserve the blame, own it. Take it a step further by dissecting what went wrong and what you can do to prevent it from happening again. In other words, learn your lesson. If someone is passing the blame to you, do not accept it. Have as many facts, not feelings, as you can for why you are not going to own something that isn't yours. Explain what you are responsible for (and how you are handling your responsibilities) as well as what you aren't responsible for and why.

What other games do people play and what's your winning strategy?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

After a long battle with cancer, film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. He, with his rival, then co-host and eventually best friend, Gene Siskel, redefined film criticism, making it accessible to every day people. For several decades, we combed the paper wanting to know whether the movie we wanted to see got 'two thumbs up.'
For years, I wrote movie reviews for my website I am in the process of redefining that site as a blog about movies and TV. I too share a passion for film and writing. With a degree in journalism, Roger Ebert was a role model, someone to look up to. Prior to he and Siskel, film reviewers were more high-brow ... almost too good for the average moviegoer. Ebert helped bring film criticism to the masses. He loved 'film' but he loved 'movies' too.

Several things impressed me about Roger Ebert. First, he was a man who loved what he did and he built a life around something that he loved to do. Even after almost half of his face was removed and he had lost the ability to talk, eat or drink, he still wrote. He wrote and he also tweeted and became very proficient in social media.

He didn't just love movies. He was a student of movies. He watched them and the actors and directors and writers. He familiarized himself with their body of work. Many times, we didn't just get his opinion but we got a little bit of an education as well.

He left a positive mark on those closest to him. He was happily married for 20 years, he worked with and mentored an number of writers and influenced even more (myself included).

The world is a better place because he was in it. And at the end of the day, is there any better compliment that that you can give?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Empower Yourself: Lesson #2 - It Starts with You

In this five-week series, we will look at what you can do to empower yourself and take control of your life. Remember, "If it's going to be, it's up to me!"

A lot of the things that make life unfair are out of our control. The death of a loved one, the decision of someone you loved not to pursue a relationship with you, a potential employer choosing another candidate or an unexpected layoff. In these cases, even your best may not be good enough. Then there are the things that are completely unfair and arbitrary, childhood abuse, being the victim of a crime or of a terrible accident. You may not be responsible for the decisions or behavior of others but you are responsible for what happens next. It all starts with you.

This does not mean whatever happened was your fault. This does not mean you brought something horrific on yourself. What it does mean is that what happens next is yours. Victim or victor? It is up to you.

A very good friend was the victim of a crime. It was almost a decade ago and it has affected every area of her life. It changed the way she dresses down to the undergarments she wears. It changed her weight. It changed the way she approached men and even how she has approached life in general. She still dreams about it.

I know what happened was horrible. However, I think it is just as horrible the way it has changed her life since then. Confronting personal horror is never easy or fast. It is difficult, tine-consuming and it doesn’t happen overnight. Yet, it is necessary. I wonder how her life would be different if she had sought help earlier.

You cannot change what has happened but you can decide whether you live closely with it – making it an intimate part of your everyday life or you move beyond it – you don’t ignore it but it becomes an event of the past, something you have handled and dealt with.

Yes, it starts with you, but how do you start?

You admit the nature of your problem or challenge. Recent events led me to come to a very personal decision. I suffer from depression. Looking back, I’ve suffered from it for a while. It has affected my relationships with men, family and friends. It has held me back in a number of ways. I wasted a lot of time denying this. Yet, for me to make real change, I had to accept this reality. For you it might be confronting the affect that a past incidence has on your current life, maybe you need to admit you have a substance abuse problem or other detrimental issue. The first step to owning it is naming it.

Next, admit you need help and seek it. During one episode of major depression, I sought help from a therapist. A lot of people don’t take that step, they suffer because they few therapy as narcissistic, or something rich people do. In the worst case scenario, they believe that it is a sign of weakness. Therapy is nothing of the sort. First of all, whatever problem you have is impacting those around you. Seeking help helps you and those in your inner circles, so it isn’t narcissistic. A lot of health insurance includes mental health so it is affordable. There is also a lot of free and low cost services available. Finally, admitting weakness is a sign of strength. Hiding behind pain and not confronting your issues is really what is weak.

Then again, after you admit your problem you might not need help at all. What you need is a swift kick and a desire to make a real change. 

Whatever you decide to do, know that it is up to you to do it. If you came home from work and found that you had been robbed, what would you do? Would you just accept that you no longer have a television, a computer or any nice jewelry? Would you sit in the middle of the floor and wait for the thieves to have a change of heart and return your stuff? Would you call the police and the insurance company and file a report? Would you start thinking about what you have to do to replace your things?

Chances are you wouldn’t just accept the robbery and do nothing. You wouldn’t expect the robbers to change their minds. You would do something. You would put in the work and the time to replace what was stolen. Isn’t the quality of your life at least as important?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Play time is over! ... Or is it???

The average four-year old laughs around 300 times a day. By the time, that child turns forty, the number of laughs per day dwindles to a scant four. Yes, you read that right. The average forty year old laughs four times a day! Granted, as we get older, life gets more serious. Work, worries and the world-at-large don't usually provide a lot of laughs. But come one ... four times in one day?

When you become an adult you are encouraged to put away childish things. And you should. Think about it. You pay the bills and create the environment that allows that toddler to laugh the day away. Adulthood and parenthood are serious business!

But, could it be possible that we take things (including ourselves) too seriously? Even as adults we need to make room for fun. We live this life only once and while we are here, we need to make time to enjoy ourselves just a little bit more. Laughter is a good sign that we are doing just that. To me, the first sign that a relationship is dying is the lack of laughter.

Learning to laugh at yourself and your situation is not a sign of immaturity but a sign that you are keeping things in perspective. As I started to gain weight, I came to the horrific conclusion that I had to buy pants in a larger size. It was almost noon when a co-worker and friend came up behind me and pulled off the sticker that had repeated, at least seven or eight times the size of the pants I had on. I was mortified! Yet, I had to admit, it was also pretty funny.

Granted, it wasn't the kind of thing that would have ruined my entire day but I made the decision to make light of it and the embarrassment I felt was very short-lived. I am not invincible. I make mistakes. When possible I chose to laugh when I can because it makes these little snafus a little more bearable.

However, as adults, I think we should reclaim more than laughter. We need to reclaim a few pages from the children's play book and reconnect with our curiosity and sense of wonder as well. I've seen several shooting stars and about two or three double rainbows. Why? Because I often look up. The stars and the sky are wondrous  I often look at the shape of the clouds when I'm out walking the dog.

Google is my best friend because it is a quick way to satisfy my curiosity. Want to know how many times a day kid's laugh? Google it. Learning shouldn't stop just because school does.

Laugh more often, take the time for wonder and work to satisfy your curiosity. Playtime isn't over quite yet.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Empower Yourself: Lesson #1 - Life Is Not Fair

In this five-week series, we will look at what you can do to empower yourself and take control of your life. Remember, "If it's going to be, it's up to me!"

I have not read the classic best-seller. The Road Less Traveled. I have it but I've never gotten beyond the first page. That said, the first sentence, comprised of three-words contains a hard truth, "Life is hard." It is hard and it isn't fair. Recognizing this is the key to a happy life.

Life is not fair. The best person doesn't always win. Hard work doesn't always pay off. You don't always get what you deserve. What should work out often doesn't. Justice sometimes peeps from under its blindfold. The most caring, loving and hard-working person will be diagnosed with a painful, life-ending illness. The liar and cheater will find a loving a devoted spouse. Life is not fair.

Accept this and move on.

So what comes next? Does the utter unfairness of life mean that it is all meaningless and doing the right thing and being a decent person doesn't matter? Of course not. Hard work doesn't always pay off but sometimes it does. On occasion, you do get what you deserve. The key is to recognize that nothing works out all of the time and since you don't know when something will work out, you might as well go for it.

This lesson is a hard pill to swallow and when I look at my own life, I can see why. I never expected to be never-married and childless at 44. I've always wanted to be a wife and a mother and I think I would have been a good one. It is still possible for me to get married but having a child of my own is not going to happen. I've had to accept that and believe me, it was not easy. I deserved it. I worked hard for it. It should have happened for me ... but it didn't.

So to keep my sanity and not allow bitterness to overtake my life, I had to do four things.

I had to stop focusing on the outcome. For a long time, I had tunnel vision. If I didn't have a husband and child, I didn't have a family. I discounted the family and friends I did have because they didn't fit into this very small, perfect little box, I felt I should have. When I took the blinders off and looked at the life I created for myself, I realized that I had a life filled with people who loved me and things that I loved.

Related to Number 1, I decided to make it about the journey. Doing the right thing doesn't always pay off but I sleep well at night. I don't have a lot of guilt or regret. I don't spend time looking over my shoulder for people I've wronged who are looking to get back at me. I am becoming the woman of character that I was raised to be. No matter if things work out or not, I'm evolving and developing and whatever happens, I've decided to be a better person for it.

I had to stop beating myself up. Life isn't fair and I am not perfect. However, things not turning out as I thought they should have didn't mean I was a failure, or not good enough or any of the other things I would tell myself. It just meant that life wasn't fair. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't always about me.

Finally, I had to appreciate the things that were going right in my life and not always focus on the things that weren't. There is the theory of The Missing Puzzle Piece. No matter how beautiful the puzzle, you're eye is always drawn to the piece that isn't there. I didn't have the success I wanted in one area of my life, so I ignored all of the other areas and made myself very unhappy.