The Blog

Have any new parents on your Christmas list?

How about buying them a book?

Their child will thank you. Eventually!

When I worked in marketing for a big company shortly after graduating from college, my job description could’ve been summed up thusly: “Work opposite ends against the middle.” It still tickles me to look back on the way one manager summed me up: “She is really, really good at that.”

Any kid who’s ever played one parent against the other knows how rewarding the game can be. Corporate America is a more sophisticated game than you played as a kid, but it’s still a game. In the job I just told you about, headquarters sent out direct mail that generated telephone inquiries from potential customers. I worked as a program manager at the call center. I was the liaison between the sales managers in the call center and the advertising managers at headquarters.

When our third-quarter sales results threatened to fall below the previous year’s, headquarters blamed the call center. They’d accuse the people answering the phones of not being trained well enough, for example, to close what were obviously qualified leads. The call center managers were having none of that. They’d blame the wording of a direct mail piece for inspiring people to call when they had no interest in buying.

My job was to referee the ensuing lively discussions. Something had to change, but what? It was my job to pitch ideas and keep them afloat until someone agreed to change. I was twenty-four, working with seasoned professionals on both sides. To say I had to earn my spot at the conference table is a little bit of an understatement.

But I did it. I’d had some experience working opposite ends against the middle, as it turns out -- carving out pockets of solitude in a big family, working construction and being afraid of bugs, winning over telephone company technicians in the job before this one despite zero aptitude or experience with that.

I knew instinctively two people can hold opposing ideas and both be right. It isn’t one or the other. “Yes, and…” As opposed to, “Yes, but…” Really believing that and being able to inspire the possibility in others was much of the reason I got promoted again. Which only renewed my determination to embrace paradox early and often.

You can hold opposite ideas in your brain without your head blowing up. You can be two different people at once -- strong and soft, silly and serious, so much fun to live with and not fun at all.

You might find it easier to live with yourself and others if you cut everyone that slack.

If there’s one word we hesitate to use in our family it’s “should.” Look it up. It smacks of obligation, of expectation.

How you live is none of our business. Oh, sure. We’re in the business of researching what works, but whether you want to experiment with it is up to you.

I love how a career consultant once described my work. “Maureen isn’t saying you should do this or that,” she told a client. “She’s saying you could…” There’s a world of difference, isn’t there? One leaves you feeling bossed around. The other tickles your imagination.

That’s what we want to do. We want to tickle your imagination.

Are you ticklish?

stick woman“I am very aggressive.”

That’s my friend Rhea Campbell, the commercial real estate agent I told you about in my last post. What strikes me about her comment, the one she shared on the show recently, was how matter-of-fact it was. She said it straight out, without apology or bravado. It was as if this was as okay as the color of her hair (red) or her city of residence (Chicago).

You know. Just whatever.

What would that be like? To be so okay with yourself you don’t hesitate to describe yourself with an adjective most women I know wouldn’t consider flattering?
“My clients don’t hire me to be quiet and unassuming,” Rhea explains. “They want someone to lead them, to keep things moving on time and within their budget.” Being aggressive can be a good thing. You want your advocate to be at least as aggressive as the person advocating for the other guy.

Rhea doesn’t court conflict but she isn’t afraid of it. She’ll speak up even if she thinks the other person will be, at best, annoyed. Conflict’s part of life. The lengths some of us go to in an attempt to avoid it is silly.

Rhea calls herself a late bloomer because she didn’t start coming into her own until her thirties. I wonder what that makes me. My thirties are well behind me and I’ve yet to come into my own, to feel like I’m really delivering on my potential.

Admitting that is the first step, though.

Surrounding myself with more people like Rhea is the next one!


photo courtesy of Katie Anderson

Did you marry well?
October 21, 2015

When our friend Rhea Campbell was dating our other friend, Alex Lickerman -- now her husband, by the way -- he helped her with a career transition.

First he asked her what she really wanted to do. “I want to be a trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange,” she said! He looked at her the way you’d look at anyone with such a specific, interesting wish. Then he told her to go for it.

“But I could lose all my money!” she said. “So what?” he said. “You’re smart. You have an education. You’ll make it back.” So she went for it. She loved the work. And if I’ve had more fun on the radio listening to someone talk about a job, I’m having difficulty remembering when.

It’s like I keep saying: “Find someone who believes in you, and marry that person.”

Rhea did. I did. And I hope you did, too!

How are you wired?
October 20, 2015

Once upon a time Darrell and I entered into a business agreement with someone who challenged that agreement after the project was finished. He wasn’t successful, but for a while we didn’t know if we’d prevail. That’s because we’d left out a critical phrase in one of the documents we drafted and our partner signed.

When we realized that, I was surprised by Darrell’s reaction -- which I’m sharing with his permission. He was sure the omission was my fault.

This was one colossal screwup by the team, I knew right away. I was sick. And then I was blindsided. Was Darrell kidding?

He wasn’t. He set about to try to prove his point, which didn’t go very well. That’s because each of us proofreads almost every bit of correspondence that leaves this office. Whether he drafts it or I do, it doesn’t go anywhere until we both sign off on it. It had been long enough in this case that neither of us could remember who was the writer and who was the proofreader.

But considering we shared equal responsibility there was plenty of blame to go around.

I’ve thought about this for years. Darrell so readily admits his default reaction is blame I used to wonder if, at some level, he’s proud of it. I knew better than to blame myself in this situation, but that’s unusual. My default reaction is to blame myself.

I’m not proud of that -- but I’m not ashamed of it, either. It feels pragmatic. If I’m at fault, I’m the one proffering an apology -- which is fine. It’s no skin off. Not only that, but it falls to me to fix whatever it is -- and I’d always rather add something to my list than hope someone else will add it to his.

Why linger on this, when there’s always a new way to mess up? Because if you can learn from your mistakes you’ll be less likely to repeat them. You can make new ones!

But making the same mistakes over and over?

That’s boring.

If someone would’ve told me in my twenties or even thirties I’d write an award-winning book on Vietnam in my forties I would’ve wondered what he was smoking.

Looking back on the biggest writing challenge I’ve faced, I can tell you how I surmounted it. I’m good at knowing what I don’t know.

I knew very little about war, weapons, world history, world geography, and almost anything else that would’ve helped me tell this story. I didn’t want to write it. Darrell fought me on that. I lost! Well, that’s how it seemed for a while.

The interviews were hell. I’d ask a question and not understand the answer. I interrupted almost every exchange with a request for a definition, and I interrupted almost every definition with a request for more definitions. We spent so much time backing up I thought we’d never advance.

But we did it.

And more important to me than the Minnesota Book Award was the reaction we got from veterans. Their reactions were all some variation of, “You nailed it.” Even better? The book helped. It helped them process and make some degree of peace with what happened while serving their country.

I never served, not like they did. But saying yes to this book (thanks, Darrell) and doing a good job on it makes me a tiny bit less conflicted about that.

toddler KatieKatie was named after a babysitter I had as a child. She lived up the street from us, and she was only two years older than me. But with seven brothers and sisters younger than me, my parents knew better than to leave me alone with them without, shall we say, reinforcement from an outside authority.

I worshipped this Katie. She was smart and beautiful and poised. Everything a woman should be, I decided as a kid. And from then on I was predisposed to love anyone named Katie.

When Darrell and I contemplated names for our unborn child I offered it up right away if the baby was a girl. He loved it immediately. Game over! We couldn’t think of a name for a boy, and we didn’t -- if memory serves -- put that much thought into it. Everything about our little sweetheart felt predestined, and it still does.

Katie Couric had more of a presence on television when our Katie was a toddler -- and whenever she appeared on the screen I said, “It just goes to show how far you can go with a name like Katie!” My Dr. Seuss-like observation stuck. We invoked it only a couple of weeks before I wrote this post, that’s how front-and-center it is in our collective memories.

Katie sounds bouncy and sweet and good, don’t you think?

And she is!