What I Learned as an Obit Writer

What I Learned as an Obit Writer

Back in the early 1980s I began my writing career as a journalist, and I use that word loosely. I had just graduated with a degree in English literature so didn’t have the “J-school” chops, but with luck landed a job at the Lawton Constitution & Morning Press as a “swamper.” No one ever defined the term “swamper” but I think we can discern what it implies. The job included taking information from area morticians by telephone to create the obituaries. I typed up the facts of the deceased’s life on a clackety old typewriter, using a big roll of yellow newsprint that stayed tucked behind the typewriter, tore the hard copy off from the typewriter platten and swirled around to the brand-new computer just installed in the newsroom, reformatting the facts into a life story.

This week I flashed back on this obit experience while watching a TED Talk by Lakshmanan “Lux” Narayan, a self-described perpetual learner and founder of Unmetric, a social media intelligence firm. Mr. Narayan begins every day, he says, with scrambled eggs and a through review of the obituaries in the New York Times. His TED Talk, entitled “What I Learned from 2,000 Obituaries,” is an analysis of what makes a life well-lived, gleaned from 2,000 obits run in the Times over 20 months. Using the mojo of analytics, Mr. Narayan breaks down the famous and unfamous, sharing that in addition to a natural advantage from having the name “John,” the people whose deaths are worthy of the New York Times are more often artists, thinkers, scholars and those who make a lasting contribution to the world through their work. The highlighted word that jumped out of both word clouds, famous and unfamous alike: “Help.” The noteworthy among us did something to help others.

This TED Talk and the recent funeral of my friend, mentor and former publisher Chuck Lauer, made me think about my own experience as an obit writer. In Lawton, Oklahoma, the obit page was rarely filled with Pulitzer Prize-winning economists or gone-too-soon rock stars. The people whose lives I recorded and dutifully wrote up in a defined, obit-style formula were often farmers, housewives and just plain folks. Sometimes the deceased were babies which had me weep while typing up their obits; other times the person’s achievements included producing prize-winning pickles for the county fair. At the tender age of 24, I was moved by the dramas, big and small.

What I learned as an obit writer is that all of us, at some point, will have our lives distilled to a few column inches or, if we’re lucky, a big story in the New York Times. Wherever your obit shows up you can be sure it will include the facts–birth, death, next of kin–as well as any highlights you’ve achieved along the way or, as one poet has alluded to, what happened “between the dash.” Whether we win an Academy Award or the blue ribbon at the county fair, the sum of our achievements most likely will be defined by how we helped others. Whatever our contributions, we can be sure it really had nothing to do with us, but rather, with whom we chose to make a difference. Who do you want to make a difference with today? How do you want to be remembered?

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Serving Ladies and Gentleman

Ladies and Gentlemen, Serving Ladies and Gentleman

Back when my kids were small, they loved watching the movie “Goonies,” circa 1985. I’ll never forget the sound of Sloth, the monster-looking character, calling out to the gang of young boys, “Hey, you GUY-UYYYYYYS!” I think of this whenever I hear a leader, trainer or professional speaker call an audience “you guys…”

First of all, I’m not a guy. When I’m in the audience and I hear someone in authority, a leader speaking from the front of the room or from the stage or at the head of a boardroom table, call us “you guys” it makes me think of a gang of little boys (much like the one in “Goonies”) huddled out back in a homemade fort, the one that says “Girls Keep Out!” There’s a familiarity about the expression that seems at odds with the message.

While I know the phrase is meant to represent the collective audience, “you” or “you all” in the plural, there’s something about addressing a group of professionals as “you guys” that seems off. Call me old-fashioned (go ahead, I dare you) but language matters. When we are speaking to an audience, unless they are under the age of 13 I think it’s important to address them as “ladies and gentlemen.”

My former boss Chuck Lauer, taught me that. He was publisher of Modern Healthcare magazine for more than 30 years and he was vigilant about the importance of etiquette in business. He used to refer to the tagline of the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels and resorts: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” That’s also how he referred to his audiences whenever he gave a speech and I learned to do the same. He was the consummate speaker, a leader and a powerful connector of people. Chuck, affectionately referred to as “Chuckles” by those of us on his sales and marketing team, died April 30 at the age of 86, leaving a legacy of wisdom in his famous Modern Healthcare columns, his books and the many friendships that will live on.

So the next time you’re in front of a group, think about who they are and choose your words carefully. How you address people impacts how they see themselves and how they behave as well as how they perceive and respond to you. Chuck was fond of saying that good manners never go out of style.

Photo: Chuck Lauer addressing the sales teams of all of Crain’s publications based in the Los Angeles office in 2007 during a sales boot camp he and I designed with Teri Louden and delivered in LA, New York, Akron, Detroit and Chicago.

 

Help! I’ve Been Hijacked!

Help! I’ve Been Hijacked!

Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve been hijacked? No, not literally hijacked on an airplane bound for Boston, then suddenly headed to Havana. But maybe you’ve been hijacked by someone else’s agenda. Perhaps you know the feeling of moving forward resolutely toward your own goals and objectives when suddenly, you find yourself writing copy for someone else’s campaign or you’re volunteering for a cause just because you couldn’t say “no” to that persuasive friend. Everywhere we turn we’re faced with opportunities, decisions and invitations, most of them well-meaning but with the potential to distract us from our own powerful missions.

Recently I wrote, in dry-erase marker on my bathroom mirror, “Don’t get hijacked by someone else’s agenda.” This reminds me, daily, to consider the invitations that come my way. Do they support the mission I’m on, to create a world where people love what they do and do what they love? Are they part of my strategic marketing plan? Is the opportunity one that aligns with my commitments, passions and brand? Or am I just caught up in the moment, swept away by someone else’s (well-meaning) enthusiasm for their own project? The writing on my bathroom mirror cautions me to take the time to stop, think, and reflect before saying “yes.”

A while ago I read this quotation by Warren Buffett, the famous business magnate, investor and philanthropist:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

 

This quotation initially shocked me. For many years, I had lived by the credo, “Just say yes!” For someone who “smells” opportunity everywhere, I was convinced that staying open to the world, and saying “yes,” would move me closer to my goals. The wisdom of Warren Buffett turned my thinking upside down and made me very uncomfortable–it seemed so ungenerous! But after much reflection, I think I understand. Successful people stay committed to what they say they are committed to. Reluctantly, we can’t do everything. The “really successful people” maintain a laser-beam focus, resist being distracted and refuse to get hijacked by other people’s agendas. We can wish them well, and stay open to possibility. But in order to make a really big “dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs famously said, we must maintain our own mission, purpose and direction. We have to practice discernment. When in doubt, refer to your strategic plan. If you don’t have a strategic plan, let’s talk.

Author, author!

Author, author!

Last month we launched Circles of Gold: Honoring Your Network for Business and Career Success, a book I’ve been working on for, oh, about 10 years in one form or another. I wrote this version of the manuscript nearly two-and-a-half years ago while a guest at a fabulous brownstone in Brooklyn, NY. I tied myself to a chair with a daily word count quota for a week while my hosts, Colleen & Dwight, were in California. I admit I took some strolls down those beautiful Brooklyn streets to clear my head and enjoy the energy of that chic New York borough. I felt like I was in an episode of “Sex and the City” (sans the sex), working at my laptop and peering out the window just like Carrie Bradshaw, enjoying the comings and goings of the neighborhood. That idyllic week was followed by months of editing (thank you, Jennifer Grant), design (thank you, Becky Lemna of Lloyd Lemna Design) and proofreading until my eyes fell out. There are many more people to acknowledge–you’ll have to read the book!

Circles of Gold is a culmination of my nearly twenty years of coaching, laying out a blueprint I designed for networking with joy and ease. The bottom line: start with the network you already have. That was probably the most surprising thing I’ve learned as a career coach: most people hate networking because they misunderstand the process. They ignore their real network and go straight to the Internet. Ugh. Keith Ferrazzi said it best in his best-seller, Never Eat Alone: “Cold calls are for suckers.”

Start with who you know, I urge my clients. Create a database of all the people you know, without making assumptions about whether or not they are “worthy” or qualified to help you with your campaign (and yes, it is a campaign). We often stay within the silo of our professional networks, the people we’ve worked with or who share our industry interests. What about all those other people you know, the people at your gym, the folks you worship with, your nail tech or barber? Those people have their own networks, and can make introductions once you’ve honored them with your interest and appreciation. They have their own “Circles of Gold(R).” And so do you.

So what are you up to, and how can we help? Start with your mission to make a difference in the world and I promise you, doors will fly open. Share about your interests and passions and your vision for how you could contribute, and then ask people for their IOR: Ideas, Opinions and Recommendations. You’d be surprised at how eager people are to be of service to you, if only they knew how to help. Let them know and then… ask questions, shut up and listen. Don’t forget to take notes.

For those of you who would like to order the book, I offer you this website link. And please, use my “Friends and Family Discount” (7746JSGG) which will be available through Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day. That’s my way of saying thank you to all of you who have supported me through the years as I worked on this book. For those of you who already bought the book at full price, I can only say, “Thank you!” I owe you a lot–and a latte.

 

Photo credit: Joy Meredith

Pictured, my “Church Ladies,” L to R: Cathy Mousseau, Cindi Copeland, the author, Pam Keller, Shelley Kenyon and Renee Cogdell-Lewis

 

What Would Dolly Do?

What Would Dolly Do?

In a hotel room at the Sheraton-Nashville, I was surrounded by beautiful photos of musical instruments–Gibson guitars, mandolins, close-ups of frets, strings and Fender guitar picks–all reminders that Nashville is the home of country music. I’ve been in love with country music since I was a girl and I saw Dolly Parton on the “Porter Wagoner Show.” I’ll never forget being in the basement of our home in Bangor, Maine, watching our black-and-white TV and seeing the image of Dolly in rhinestone cowgirl attire, fringe swinging, her hair out to here, her bust not quite as prounounced as it would become later but still, she was a sight to behold. And that voice. So although I was brought up in a household filled with classical music and Broadway hits, I became a C&W fan thanks to Dolly.

What Would Dolly DoNow, decades later, I looked up above my bed in that hotel room in Nashville to a framed print that said, “What Would Dolly Do?” This was, of course, a parody of the popular “WWJD?” bracelets and paraphernalia popular in Christian circles, “What Would Jesus Do?” With no disrespect intended and without any hint of blasphemy, I nodded solemnly to myself. What would Dolly do, indeed? [Read more…]

“No” is a Complete Sentence

“No” is a Complete Sentence

If there’s a soundtrack to our lives, I favor Broadway hits. And one of the songs that I grew up singing was “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No” from the musical “Oklahoma!” With its charming twang and its double entrendres, this is a song that seems to summarize the plight of us card-carrying people-pleasers. When we’re invited to volunteer, participate or contribute, our first instinct is to say, “Yes!” And before we know it we’re committed, which is a hop, skip and a jump to being over-committed. [Read more…]

A Seat at the Table

A Seat at the Table

Years ago I was a cub reporter for a daily newspaper in Oklahoma, covering the health care beat. As part of my responsibilities I attended the board meetings of the local United Way, a group comprised of business leaders from around town. These experienced and mature business folks would meet monthly in a large board room around a big, shiny table. As the reporter covering the meeting I would sit in a chair against the wall, taking notes.

One day during a meeting a question came up about another local business leader who had changed jobs. Where had he gone? someone asked, and there was some speculation about where he now worked. I knew the gentleman they were referring to so I blurted out the answer from my chair against the wall. The conversation stopped and heads swiveled toward me as if I suddenly appeared from the ether or uttered an expletive into the air. I blushed deeply and understood for the first time that as a reporter, I was there only to observe and not to participate.

Something in me shifted–you could even say, crackled. I knew in that moment that this job as a reporter was a bad fit for me. I needed to be in a job where I had an active, vital role, where my voice could be heard, valued and acknowledged. In short, I needed a seat at the table.

I just finished reading a book called The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know by New York Times bestselling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. [Full disclosure: I “read” the book while driving, listening to the audio version on CD.] This book contains startling details about our gender’s collective lack of confidence, some genetic, some learned, along with amazing insights from high-level business women as impressive as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as basketball stars from the WNBA. Propped up by the results of studies from social scientists, deep research and a broad range of interviews, the book provides guidelines for women to actively exercise their confidence skills. Somewhere in the book they admonish us as women to take our seats at the table, to participate and be heard.

While The Confidence Code is written for women, it’s a good reminder to all of us–women and men–that in order to make a difference we have to communicate our point-of-view. I learned that lesson long ago in that boardroom in Lawton, OK. Before long I quit my job as a reporter and jumped into the business world as a communications professional, moving from spectator to an on-the-court participant. Now I’m thrilled to be in a role where I can express myself and influence others through the written and spoken word. I’ve not only found my seat at the table but in my role as a board member I’ve even found myself at the head of the table!

Where are you? Are you seated against the wall, observing, or have you taken your rightful place at the table?

[Photo: Boardroom table at OfficeLinks, my Chicago office in the Willis (Formerly-Known-as-Sears) Tower]

Thou Shalt Not “Should” on Thyself

Thou Shalt Not “Should” on Thyself

Some people look to their business or career coach for the kind of conditioning they might receive from a drill sergeant: “Drop and give me 20!” That isn’t my style: I’m a kinder, gentler coach. However, I do have one hard and fast rule when working with my clients. I insist they follow this commandment: “Thou shalt not ‘should’ on thyself.”

I received my inspiration for this rule from my friend Linn Billingsley, an accomplished healthcare executive who shared a patch of my career journey with me when we both worked for Humana Hospital-Phoenix. One day I came into Linn’s office to share (read: vent), bemoaning some foolish choice I’d made. “I should have done this! I should have done that!” I wailed. Linn stopped me cold. “Vickie,” she said. “It sounds to me like you’re ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.”

The double entendre is what makes this so funny, of course. But there’s nothing funny about living in the Land of I Should Have. Here are just a few observations about why we need to catch ourselves from using the word “should” whenever possible:

  • “Should” is usually based in the past. Maybe we should have done something differently, but we didn’t. There’s nothing we can do about it now other than learn from our mistake. If we focus instead on what we could have done, next time we’ll know better.
  • I’m no etymologist (that’s someone who studies words, not bugs) but I think “should” somehow is closely linked to the word “shame.” Whenever we “should on ourselves,” we’re usually beating ourselves up for either doing or not doing something that we now know would have been a better idea. There’s shame around our decision and it’s a fruitless, wistful kind of longing for having had better judgment. Sometimes the only way we learn to make better decisions is the memory of having made some bad ones. Or, when the “should” is coming from someone else, as in “You should have done this…” there’s judgment and blame. Never a great way to build a relationship.
  • There’s no grace or forgiveness when we “should all over ourselves.” In business and in our careers we need a huge amount of grace, both for ourselves and for the people we work with. Yeah, maybe you should have… but you didn’t. Forgive yourself and move on.

OK, I admit, there are a few hard and fast “shoulds” and “should nots” in the world. Example: You should NOT stick a knife in the toaster to stab your toast while the toaster is still plugged in. For issues related to safety and health, “should” is there to protect us. But listen to yourself this week: how many times have you used the word “should” when you’re either berating yourself or someone else?

Language is powerful. Once I heard my friend Linn say “Quit ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” I never heard the word “should” in quite the same way. I invite you to substitute the word “should” whenever you can with the word “could.” The word “could” is future-based, filled with opportunity, possibility and grace. You deserve that grace, and so do the people who work with you.

MacArthur “Genius Grants” Favor the Mobile

MacArthur “Genius Grants” Favor the Mobile

Well, it’s official. The MacArthur Foundation announced the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows who received the so-called “Genius Grants” and I was not among them.

Drat.

The cast of Fellows this year range from a social psychologist who studied racial bias and how it affects criminals’ sentencing to a poet, a playwright and a saxophonist. Also present among the winners are people dealing in cryptology, nanomaterials and black carbon emissions. A civil rights attorney, a labor organizer and a documentary filmmaker are among the winners, too. What, I ask myself somewhat querulously, do these 21 people have that I do not (besides, of course, the $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend they’ll be receiving over the course of the next five years)?

To answer this question, I turned to “Five myths about the MacArthur ‘genius grants‘”written by Cecilia Conrad and posted on the Washington Post‘s website on Sept. 20. I wanted to find out more about the people, the process and how I might ingratiate myself into someone’s favor enough to be nominated. Here’s what I learned:

  • You don’t really have to be a “genius” to win. Turns out that nickname was coined by the media in 1981 when the MacArthur Foundation announced its first class of fellows and like all good nicknames, it stuck. Rather than genius, “We are looking for individuals who are engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or in connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways,” writes Ms. Conrad. “We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.”
  • The process for selecting the Fellows isn’t really a secret. I had heard that you can’t curry a nomination, that it’s a secret process and the winners just get tapped on the shoulder and told “You’ve won!” The people who do the nominating are chosen by the MacArthur Foundation and invited to put forward names of the most creative people they know. Those names and information about their accomplishments are then evaluated by an independent selection committee. The nominators, evaluators and selectors are kept anonymous, though. Even after a Fellow has won the grant, he or she will not know who nominated them.
  • The winners are not just artists and academics. According to the article, between 2001 and 2012 36% of the Fellows came from the fields of arts and humanities, 36% from science or social science and 26 % worked on issues related to social problems like healthcare, homelessness and food security. If there’s a common theme among the diversity of these professionals it would have to be the ability to see, think and act creatively.

Color Outside the Lines Tyler Lewke officeOne other thing I learned from another article written by the same author on the MacArthur Fellows website is that MacArthur Fellows are more mobile than the general population. “This pattern of mobility of MacArthur Fellows resembles that of exceptionally creative and innovative people throughout history,” Ms. Conrad writes. Fellows tend to be drawn to cultural centers, live outside the states in which they were born and some even have more than one residence. Nearly a quarter of them were born outside the United States. The conclusion seems to be that these creative folk are drawn to centers of diversity and seek that diversity to nurture their creativity.

That last point–that the Fellows are more mobile than most–gives me hope. As someone who has lived in places all over the country and who is drawn to cultural centers like Chicago, New York, Paris and Rome, I’m well-suited for this grant. I’m bursting with projects and ideas that need only the injection of some cash ($625,000 to be precise) to flourish. Oh please, MacArthur Foundation, won’t you pick me next year?

[Photo credits: Masthead–“Man Dealing the Four Elements” by Robert Heinecken, 1998, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Inset–from the offices of Keller Williams Success Realty, Barrington, IL]

 

C’mon in, the Water’s Fine

C’mon in, the Water’s Fine

No one could ever accuse me of being athletic. My idea of a sport is speed-reading. And perhaps because I read too much, I had to wear glasses by the time I was ten. Around that same time I joined the swim team, nudged by my parents who no doubt wanted me to do something constructive with my summer. So I swam, albeit tentatively. Without my glasses and hampered by a lack of depth perception, I was never quite sure whether I would glide in or finish a lap with a resounding whack as my head butted up against the wall of the pool.

Cut to the present: I recently joined a gym. Part of the lure of membership was the beautiful Olympic-sized pool even though I hadn’t been in a pool in years. I spent the first few months watching wistfully from the sidelines–I couldn’t bring myself to go in. For one thing, I wanted to look good in a swimsuit before going swimming (circuitous logic, I know). But a few weeks ago, I took the plunge.

As I skimmed along the water during a morning workout, I thought about my swimming breakthrough in the context of business and career success:

  • If we want to succeed, we gotta get into the water. Although I’m a strong swimmer, I had fears: How did I look? What’s the pool protocol? Would I have all the right gear? The terrain was unfamiliar and I felt awkward and self-conscious. Still, I jumped in. In business and in life, you gotta get into the water or, to use another sports analogy, you have to get onto the playing field if you’re going to make a difference.
  • It’s OK to be afraid. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was before using the pool. Everything from the pre-swim shower regimen to the etiquette of moving into someone’s lane seemed daunting. But the feeling of exhilaration I had after my first swim was as much about facing my fear head-on as it was from the aerobic activity. Anything worth doing is worth being terrified by—including making sales calls, speaking in public, and facing the rejection of interviews or of the marketplace. Do it anyway. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines, once said, “Do one thing that scares you every day.”
  • Practice the fundamentals. It’s been many years since that myopic young girl competed on a swim team but the minute I hit the water I remembered the fundamentals of swimming. Everything from the crisp cut of the water with my hands while doing the breaststroke to breathing into the crook of my arm while doing the Australian crawl came back to me. Whether we’re building a business or taking our careers to the next level, we first have to learn the fundamentals. Then, we have to practice, practice, practice.
  • The only way to grow is to be willing to be uncomfortable.  Barbara Stanny in her seminal work with people and money says that one of the first steps in overcoming underearning is to be willing to be uncomfortable. We love routine and yes, rituals and traditions are good for us. But we have to step outside our comfort zone in order to grow.

Last night I went for a late-night swim. As I did the backstroke I saw the reflection of a swimmer above me in the glass ceiling. I watched her skim along the lane, sometimes veering off a little to the right but always moving forward. Maybe not as lithe as she once was or as fast as she once swam. But at least she was in the water.

What will you do today to take you outside your comfort zone? C’mon in. The water’s fine.

[Photo credit: iStockphoto]