Through Sarah’s Eyes

Every Sunday, I get all my chores and errands done in the morning, then head down to Burlington to join my Dad for lunch. I swoop by Lakeshore Place, his Senior’s Residence, grab him and we’re out of there for the afternoon. Anyone who has spent time with my father knows he is quite special. My friend Bonnie tells me she has to study up on the news before she joins us for lunch, because my father’s grasp of politics, social issues and pretty much everything is beyond most of our current civilization’s capabilities. I am so very lucky to spend time with him.

Our tradition is to go to Quizno’s where our friend Sarah works. Sarah used to be a server at Lakeshore Place, but now works as a dental hygienist…except on Sundays when she works at Quizno’s. We walk in to the sandwich shop and Sarah greets us with a grin and a “Hi Mr. Gesner, Hi Sue!” regardless of how busy it might be. Other customers just stare at us, but we simply grin back.

If the shop isn’t too busy, Sarah will come from behind the counter and join us while we eat. She’s always interested in my father’s life, what he is reading, who he has talked to from the Senior’s Residence, and how he is doing. She makes our little lunch circle complete, and we love visiting with her.

Usually, I just accept that Sarah is part of our lives and Sunday tradition. But this Sunday, I looked at the situation through a different set of eyes. Sarah is 23, young enough to be my daughter. On Sundays, when she looks up from behind the counter, she sees me, an older woman the age of her mother, juggle with the heavy doors while assisting a tall, elderly, frail gentleman. She doesn’t know much about our history, she doesn’t know the rest of our family; she just sees the two of us when we are in her restaurant. She sees our joy at being together, and shares our comfortable conversation.

What is interesting is what she doesn’t see. She doesn’t see my father as an old, frail man. She sees him as someone who struck up conversation with her when she worked at Lakeshore Place and became her friend. She doesn’t see me as an older woman, but rather she sees me as a new friend. Through her eyes, we are not what we appear to others. We are just as special to her as she is to us.

What does that have to do with the business world? Everything. In business, in consulting, we too often look at things through eyes that have seen the same things over and over…been there, done that. New projects are not new, but rather retrofitted versions of the old. We look at things through the same set of eyes, and we forget to look beyond the obvious, or what we see at first glance. In doing so, we can miss so many little things…and so many big things as well.

Sarah has taught me to look past the obvious. I am sure she sees my Dad’s grey hair and cane, and the lines on my face. But she focuses on my father’s smile and feels the hug I give her. Those are more important to her than what we may appear to be. My challenge for myself will be to continually see the world through Sarah’s eyes. My 23-year-old mentor has taught me well.

Lovely Sarah, my Dad and my Olivia.

Lovely Sarah, my Dad and my Olivia.

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Can you use your passions to slow down?

Busy-ness and passion. Those are two things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m busy packing, storing, throwing out, doing all those things involved in moving. Oh yes, and then there’s my work, filled with projects and clients who need time and attention. I’m madly running from one place to another, trying to organize while my head is spinning around on my shoulders.

All I really want to do is indulge in my passions for a while – skiing, running, fishing, and music.

Because when I am involved in something I am passionate about, “it”, and not all the other “stuff”, captures my attention and focus. My mind, that is currently flitting from project to client to tape and packing crates, will slow down and focus on one thing instead of a gazillion. Here’s what I wrote to a friend last year about how I feel when I am fishing…

For me, there is a bizarre sense of urgency coupled with a peace of mind, body and soul that salmon fishing brings. A sense of urgency, because once I am near “the river” (which is any river where I might wet a fly), I want get out, walk around, make decisions about type of fly, where the best lies are, and how quickly can I get my waders and gear on to get out in the river. My heart just races, and I usually laugh out loud because I’m so anxious. Once I get geared up and I know where I want to cast, I step into the water. 

And that’s when time stands still.

Just one more cast?

Just one more cast?

The urgency stops. All the thoughts that seem to bang around in my head – about kids, money, relationships – everything leaves my mind. I feel the pull and push of the water, and focusing on balance becomes essential, and then second nature. The temperature of the water means my feet get cold, but it doesn’t matter. My heartbeat seems to slow down and as soon as I start to cast my line out, there is a peace the just embraces me. 

Things that we are passionate about allow us to rest, or allow our minds to rest. For those of us who are busy doing those gazillion things, when we indulge in our passions, we let all the extraneous busy-ness float away, and we pause. Casting a fly rod, riding a horse, skiing down a mountain…it is all the same. Our minds, used to traveling at warp speed and changing directions at a moment’s notice, are quieted and focused.

For you, it may be the thrill of the steeps at Whistler. Or the calm and delight that comes from writing a new song. Perhaps it is walking in the woods, or playing a guitar. But that time when you are focused on your passion allows you to pause and rest.

When I really think about all the work I have ahead of me, I get so anxious my teeth chatter and I want to chain myself to my desk (or cover myself in packing tape!). But then all I do is focus on my ankles…where I can imagine the water coming up over my wading boots and the feel of the current pressing on my legs.  My passion allows me to pause and rest.

What is your passion? Can you use it, in these busy and hectic times, to pause and rest? Try it. Tell me how it works.

Pretty passionate about skiing as well. Peak to Peak Gondola with no one else but the two of us!

Pretty passionate about skiing as well. Peak to Peak Gondola with no one else but the two of us!

Packing for Change!

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Wayne Dyer

“I have to sell my house”.

That became my mantra after an autumn meeting with the mediator and the lawyers. I realized there was no way I could afford to continue living in this beautiful house on this beautiful property way out in the country. I was bitter, sad and upset every time I envisioned a For Sale sign out on the road. It was tearing me up, making both my personal and professional life challenging.

I have never been one to wallow in anything, but this was hard, especially when its reality fell on the heels of some other difficult news. It meant more change that was not of my choice or control. I had a brief “why me” episode that wrought more damage than relief.

But change means opportunity, if a person is willing to look for it. After my initial grief, it was time to transform my attitude and approach. I needed to truly accept this upcoming change, and then look for the opportunity it presents.

Easier said than done, but left with no other obvious choice, it made sense to try.

“I am going to sell my house” is what I now say when people ask why I am madly organizing and packing up my belongings, and why the house (temporarily, I am sure) looks like a bomb hit it. And the truth is that this change in attitude had made all the difference in the world.

In packing things up, I am taking time to look at what is really important in my life. I am finding that there are many things that I can let go, because I don’t need them anymore. There are other things that I’ve hidden away that I can take out, have a look at, and savor the joy they provide. This change in attitude allows me to look at things with a different perspective, focusing on the positive rather than the sad; finding joy where I didn’t think I’ve find anything other than loss.

A photo from the Frost Centre days...those were days to cherish. But why am I looking up and pointing down?

A photo from the Frost Centre days…those were days to cherish. But why am I looking up and pointing down?

Lao Tzu said that if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. I was heading in a direction that I didn’t want to go, but this beautiful house was keeping me there. Now, suddenly, I am freed up to change direction. How lucky can I be?

In my consulting business, change is constant. I am always working with new clients, working in different places and experiencing a multitude of project demands upon which I thrive. So I know I can learn and grow from change. And in truth, now that I have embraced the change that is thrust upon me, I can hardly wait to see what’s around the corner. What is that saying about not being able to discover new oceans unless you lose sight of the shore? I can still see the edge of the shore, but my sails are full and the wind is fresh.

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The “Packing for Change” begins!

I challenge all of you who are reading this to pause and reflect on your lives, personal and professional. What is changing that is out of your control? How can you alter your attitude to take advantage of that change? If you change the way you look at things, how will those things change?

Fiddle lessons from the Masters (Part 2)

I spent the next 4 weeks playing my loaner fiddle. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I spent the next 4 weeks falling hopelessly in love with my loaner fiddle. The tunes seemed to dance out of the instrument, enveloping my ears with a rich, deep almost chocolatey warmth that made me smile every time I touched the bow to string. I wasn’t a very good player, but this made me want to play more and more…which is how one learns, isn’t it?

Me and my true love!

Me and my true love!

After getting the dreaded phone call that my instrument was repaired and ready to go home, I arranged a lesson with Sandy with the loaner instrument. As I played a set of jigs, he stopped me to ask what was on my mind. “I have to give this back today, Sandy, and I am heartbroken about it! But I can’t come close to affording it!”

Sandy is one of the most gracious, gentle and optimistic human beings I’ve ever met. He looked into my eyes, smiled, and this is what I remember him saying: “My dear, once in a lifetime, you find a fiddle that fits. You pick it up and it is as if it was made for you. You will spend years playing all sorts of instruments, but if this is yours, then don’t let it go. Do whatever you have to so that you can keep it. And trust me, I can tell that this is yours. Your face tells me that every time you pick it up”.

When I headed down to Heinl’s, I was in a complete conundrum. I walked into the store, and Ric was waiting for me on the stairs. He asked what was up, and I told him I had fallen in love with his loaner, but I was here to give it back. With two children in university and all my other commitments, there was no way I could scrape together that kind of money.

Ric slowly smiled. Actually, he beamed. He took the case from my hands and put it on the counter. And then he said we would work together so I could keep the instrument. He said “It is so rare when we find an instrument that fits your spirit, your body and your heart, and when you do, you need to keep it.”

How much money could I put down? I had $200 to pay for the repairs to my other fiddle, and I had budgeted for the month to cover that. But remember, Ric knew and trusted his clients. He stood at the counter, punching a calculator, finally pushing it aside and saying “The repairs on the home-built are $80, so put the other $120 down and hopefully in 6 months, we can complete the sale.”

6 months. I could do that. I handed him my cash, signed some paperwork, picked up the my repaired fiddle and said good-bye. “Not so fast, young lady! Aren’t you forgetting something?” This most wonderful business man insisted I take the loaner with me, despite the fact that I had barely paid for 10% of the instrument!

I learned so much from this adventure in my life. I learned that there are angels, in the form of fiddle teachers and music store owners, who shower us with grace. I learned that things we love are worth having in our lives, regardless of the costs, and there are people out there prepared to help us have them. There have been trade offs and compromises for that fiddle…I had to give up my private fiddle lessons, and Starbucks coffee is consumed only when I travel. But when I pick up that fiddle, the one that was made for me, it is worth it all.

My story is about my fiddle. But it could be about anything that is truly “yours”. As my reader, find whatever lessons in the story that you can, and then share them with others. I know both Sandy and Ric would be happy.

Fiddle lessons from the Masters (Part 1)

My hand-built beauty, complete with Clif Bar for a post-practise snack!

My hand-built beauty, complete with Clif Bar for a post-practise snack!

About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to play the fiddle. I was out on the French shore of Nova Scotia  and I bought a hand-built fiddle and an old beat up case. Through a mixture of genius, magic and good luck, I found Sandy MacIntyre, a Toronto based Cape Breton fiddler and my love affair with Cape Breton music started.

After a few months of lessons with Sandy, we both realized that my instrument needed a little work. Sandy, being the gentle man that he is, called the only violin repair shop he trusted, and told the owner, Ric Heinl, that I would be venturing down to see him. So off I trundled to Toronto, fiddle in hand.

George Heinl’s (http://www.georgeheinl.com/) is in an elegant old building on Church Street, with no sign that announces that this is actually a store. Ric Heinl and his team of luthiers are responsible for restoring and maintaining the instruments for The Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank…meaning this is no run of the mill instrument store. As I walked into the quiet front room, a woman was testing out new bows for her violin, and I heard Ric tell her quietly that “this one is about $1,000, but worth every penny”.

Panic set in. My instrument and case, if you included the Clif bar I had stashed inside, was worth about $85!!! For some reason, that didn’t matter to Ric. He had talked to Sandy, and I was as important to him as the woman in the front room (who I later learned played for TSO). Ric examined my instrument and told me what he would do. I just needed to find a loaner instrument so I could keep playing while he was repairing mine.

Loaner? Are you kidding? The only thing I could take from the shop that was close to the value of my fiddle was the door stop! But no, that was a Heinl’s tradition. If you leave an instrument, you borrow one, for free, until yours is done.

(Hello, cynics out there? Yes, one could choose to believe that this is a classic marketing ploy to buy an expensive fiddle. I however, choose to believe otherwise.)

Ric insisted that I play the loaner violins that he had in a cabinet and select the one that felt the best. Being a beginner, I really had no idea how a fiddle was supposed to feel! But I pretended I did, and I bravely drew a bow over three instruments. They all felt the same.

Then came the fourth. Oh my. It was different, richer, fit under my chin, just felt like it was made for me. Ric didn’t even have to ask. He just said “well, I believe this is going home with you”.

I looked at the tag on the instrument. $1,500!!!! He was going to let me leave my instrument (and the Clif bar, as it turns out) and walk out of the store with $1,500 worth of violin in my old beat up case. The very notion was absurd! And yet I did leave with this incredible instrument and a bit of paper saying I would bring it back when mine was repaired.IMG_2145

And how, pray tell, does this relate to work, business, to my environmental consulting? Simple. Ric treated each of his clients with grace and dignity, like they were all equally important and valuable to him and to his business. His clients didn’t find him by looking on the street for a sign, but by being referred by someone Ric trusted. He had confidence, not only in his products and service, but in his client base. He was prepared to risk a lot to provide a superior quality of service. (I might not be able to buy the loaner instrument, but you can rest assured that I will never, ever go anywhere else for instrument repair.)

The lessons I learned from this experience were memorable:

  • Provide excellence in products and service, all the time, to everyone. Make that the very foundation of your business.
  • If you provide excellence, you can trust yourself, and others will trust you.
  • The more you trust yourself and your clients, the more you can risk.
  • Risk whatever it takes. If you fail, you will still have excellent products and service. And if you succeed, it only gets better.

(The end of Part 1. Part 2 of the story follows, however, it is less business based and more personal. Choose to read it, or let it go. But I’m willing to risk it anyway).

The Myth of Multi-tasking

(Spoiler alert: this blog involves serious injury to my foot, bum and pride. You have been warned).

My cell phone alarm was ringing, and that meant it was time for my eye drops. I was over at my neighbours, sitting outside enjoying their company, and that annoying sound went off. I pushed myself out of the comfy lawn chair and ventured into the kitchen to find my phone…and noticed a text message from a friend. As I headed towards the front room where my eye drops were, I started reading the text.

As I turned into the front room, I placed my left foot first, and it landed…in thin air! In my attempt to read the text, I hadn’t looked up, and had turned into the entry to the basement! I tumbled down, smashing my foot to keep from falling too hard, and I could hear the wee bones of my toes snap. Then bam, I careened onto my right hip and crashed down on my thigh and bum.

When I landed at the bottom of the (carpeted) stairs, I was grateful I hadn’t hit my head, and angry that I could be so stupid as to try to do two things at once!!! (I debated putting a picture of the bruise in here, but concluded that is was just too disgusting to include! Suffice it to say it took 4 months for the skin to return to its normal colour. It was nasty!) Surely I must learn something from this.

The brain has tremendous flexibility and plasticity, and its ability for spatial processing is remarkable. But it can only do so much. Think about when you are totally engrossed in a novel..it is as if you don’t even know what is going on around you, even when someone is calling your name. Your brain’s focus is on the book, not your surroundings. According to Prof. Nilli Lavie of University College of London, the brain has a limited processing capacity and when it’s flooded with information, it shuts out any other stimuli that is not task-relevant. That includes things like knowing where you are going when you are reading a text!

Dr. Colin MacLeod explains that “we think we’re multi-taskers and really we’re not. Our brain allows is to switch attention fairly quickly. But we don’t always realize we’re switching. We think we’re doing two things at once, so we get fooled”.

I do a lot of multi-tasking when I work. However, focusing on a single task at hand, whether it is writing a report, planning my schedule or talking on the phone to a client, should be a priority.  Planning my schedule WHILE talking to a client WHILE trying to research something fools me into thinking I am successful at all three. I often find out later that I have double booked myself in my schedule, I can’t even remember what my client said, and I have to do the research all over again.

I’ve got a very clear business task for my afternoon activities. I’m going to focus on that by turning off the ringer to the phone, closing my computer and giving it all my attention. I will stay clear of stairs and text messages for the duration as well!

The non-multi-tasking desk!

The non-multi-tasking desk!