Belwood Step Dancing …or Brain Training on the Edge!

The Community Hall was packed with people – mothers, fathers, kids everywhere – and the judge sat front and centre, ready to assess the steps of each participant. We were numbers 205 and 206, and I was sooooooo nervous. I hoped that when the music started, my feet would just do what I have trained them to do, but I had no idea if they would.

What am I talking about? My step dancing competition from last week!

There’s lots of research that tells us that as we age, our brains get smaller. Nerves die off, losing their connections, and that leads to a thinned out network feeding our thinking functions. But brain shrinkage isn’t inevitable, and that research also tells us that picking up a challenging new hobby makes a huge difference. I’ve successfully managed to ignore this fact until my friend Marlene sprang into my kitchen after her first step dancing lesson, loudly announcing that I would be joining her from now on. (I actually don’t recall having any part in that decision, by the way.)

Marlene picked me up the following week, and dragged me to Chanda Leahy’s studio. Fast forward about 7 months, and you find the two of us in the Belwood Community Hall, ready to dance a reel at the Spring Rain Feis 2017, while Chanda’s son Xavier accompanied us on his fiddle.

I’m a musician, and I thought that learning the steps to some jigs and reels would be easy. NOPE! Despite having the most remarkable teacher in the world, it was quite a few months before I made the switch from looking like I was stomping cockroaches skittering across the hardwood floor to something vaguely resembling dancing.

Which brings me to last Saturday when Marlene and I got ready to perform. We were in the Pre-Beginner Category (seriously), and our “competition” ranged in age from 5 – 12 years old – we were the only adults!!! The kids took their performing seriously; they had clearly practiced more regularly that the two of us, who had those silly day jobs to keep us occupied.

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Our competition…with Xavier accompanying them, and Chanda looking hopeful!

None of that mattered, of course. All that mattered was the certainty that my heart was about to explode in my chest while I waited to perform. There was anxious banter between the two of us and Xavier while he tuned his fiddle, and I wondered how I was ever going to remember all the steps. With mild panic setting in, I realized that I might crash and burn in front of all those parents and kids.

How may times do we, as adults, really experience that feeling of risk, of fear of failure? When was the last time you felt your heart jack hammering with uncertainty? Do you take risks? Are you prepared to try and fail? And what happens when you do?

I think many of us adults coast through our days doing things that are safe and secure. We don’t step to the edge of our comfort zones, because that’s un-comfortable. It takes extra effort that, in our busy, crazy and chaotic lives, we don’t want to expend. It’s easier (and safer) to just do the same old / same old. So we do.

Who knew step dancing was going to take me to the edge? But when Xavier started to play (at warp speed, I might add), my adrenaline-infused feet began to dance, and I was carried away with delight that I was actually doing this crazy thing!

And the risk was so worth it!IMG_4472 2

I’d love to tell you that we won our Pre-Beginner Category…but that is not the case. I can tell you that we grinned through the entire sequence, and by the time we were done, everyone in the audience was grinning with us. We got a huge round of applause and one little girl told me she thought we were very brave.

Our Saturday morning was a clear reminder to me that I need to make myself less comfortable now and then, and that a little risk – of failure, of embarrassment, of a mis-step – bring a sense of accomplishment and pride when it’s done. Just try it. I’ll be here, grinning and clapping for you!

Hoodies and Happiness

Imagine you went for a hike with your dogs in a local Conservation Area. As you wander

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Part of the trail.

along the wood-chipped trail in the sunny weather, you hear voices up ahead. You can’t see anyone, but the voices you hear are deep, and there seems to be three separate voices, so you conclude perhaps there are 3 men ahead of you. As you wind your way through the bends of the trail, you can just make out the men up ahead, standing together near a small viewing bench.

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The Bench, from a distance.

There are actually 4 of them, and they are all large men, with one distinguishing characteristic: they are each wearing dark hoodies with the hoods up, hiding their faces. They are clustered together, lowering their voices and quietly laughing.

What is your first reaction?

Do you feel a bit of anxiety? Do you slow down? Do you want to turn in the other direction before they see you, or before your dogs see them and start to bark? What is the first thing you think about?

PAUSE for a moment…and consider what your own reaction might have been. 

That happened to me last week. It was one of those exquisitely lovely, sunny spring days and I was hiking along the Gorge Loop Trail at the Belfountain Conservation Area. That when I heard the voices. Roxy and Lucy were too busy sniffing to notice the men, and had I wanted to, I could have turned around and headed in another direction to avoid them. But I was not going to be intimidated by a few guys with hoodies on a sunny day! So on I forged, anxiety at bay, to firmly walk past the Bench and the hoodies.

And as I rounded the bend and the men could see me, the largest of them quickly pulled off his hoodie…and grinned at me! The other others did the same, and they all smiled and yelled out hello. I thought of all the things that had gone around in my head, and the first words out of my mouth were “You know, you 4 look like a bunch of thugs out here with your hoodies on!”

They all roared with laughter and the first young man said “I know! I didn’t want to scare you with my hood, but it is so windy that I waited till you came close”. His face was full of concern and humour, and before we knew it, we were all laughing so hard two of them had to sit down on the bench!

As I wiped my eyes, said my goodbyes and headed back on the trail, I realized I had actually made myself feel anxious about what might have happened. And yet, what actually happened – unplanned shared laughter – was wonderful. How often do I think something is going to happen, and then pre-empt my own activities to prevent something that MIGHT happen from happening?

I literally stopped walking to consider whether I do that in my personal life, and what the implications are. I know I sometimes imagine all sorts of crazy outcomes, but like the day on the trail, I tend to forge on and take the “risk” of the unknown. But when I consider my work life, I  am not certain that I am the same kind of risk taker with my business. I have been known to not look at the horizon for growth opportunities and instead, focus on the potential negative things that might happen. I envision the challenges rather than the benefits.

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Me, clearly envisioning the challenges.

Erika Anderson, writing in Harvard Business Review, talks about changing your inner narrative.  So rather than first being negative, be curious, and motivated to find the positive.This requires a willingness to experiment, to be confident and to trust…your business, yourself and others. I know I need to do more of this in my work life.

If I had turned around and walked the other way on the trail, I would have been fine. The dogs would have had a good walk, and I would have made it home safe and sound. But I was willing to be curious, and to risk just a little. The rewards of the risk – the laughter and the smiles, and the incredibly delightful change in my mood, was well worth it. I think about my business and I am determined to risk a bit more, and to not just be safe and sound.

I challenge you to do the same, in business and in personal life. You may find hoodies, but you’re also sure to find happiness!

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My girls, at the Bench, wondering why I even think about this kind of thing!

Stuff That Really Matters

“And I felt a change
Time meant nothing
Never would again.”

From “Time Warp”, by Richard O’Brien

I saw a picture of my friend Kathleen today. Kathleen is the Executive Director, Chief Pooba and heart and soul of the Cleveland Restoration Society. If memory serves me correctly, we entered the world 24 days apart, so we are the same age….just youngsters, by my count!

Kath’s photo was taken during Cleveland’s 2015 Community Luncheon. She looks outstanding, with cool glasses, great hair and passion simply emanating from her being. I was so proud of her!

Kathleen, the President!

Kathleen, the President!

Then I looked at a few other pictures of folks attending this luncheon. Boy, there were lots of grey haired people, and folks who looked their age, if you know what I mean. Not my Kath, though. She looked younger and cooler than anyone else I could see in the photos.

Was she? I mean, given the demographic of the group who were made up of representatives of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, perhaps she was. Or was it what I saw when I looked at her? Did I see Ms. Crowther, power professional from Shaker Heights, Ohio? Or did I see Kathy Hackman, who biked across southern Ontario with me one summer (from youth hostel to pub, etc), and then the next summer, hiked Assateague and Chinctoteague Islands with me (waking up to the wild ponies at the door of our tent in the morning!).

These guys would show up near the tent in the morning!

These guys would poke their noses near the tent in the morning!

When I look at her now, I see etched in her face those memories of the times we laughed so hard we cried, danced to Time Warp a zillion times, sang Emmy Lou Harris songs while drinking Rolling Rock from the can…you get the drift. I suppose I don’t see the 58 year old professional who singlehandedly defines the urban gentrification of downtown Cleveland. Nope, I see a young woman lying on a bunk bed outside of Stratford, Ontario, trying to convince herself to get up and on her bike after a very long night at the pub!

Shared experiences bring richness and a unique perspective to our vision. We peel away those things that are apparent at first glance, like laugh lines or a new hair colour, and see what the individual really represents to us. It can be a gift or a curse, depending on the nature of those experiences. I look into the faces of those I love or respect, and I see beauty, ability and potential. In others, I often see something very different, just what is on the surface.

Can you recognize and use this phenomenon in your working life? When I consider the change management activities that I help shape, I realize that sharing positive experiences between and among change agents, leaders and all impacted by the change makes a huge difference to success. When we are undergoing change, if we can “see” the people who help us with the change in a positive light (much like how I “see” Kathleen), perhaps we can create more successful outcomes during the actual change process.

There are about 23 gazillion change management continuums/processes/activities, give or take a few, that you can find online.

Just some of the "change" literature

Just some of the “change” literature.

But thinking about how I see Kathleen reminds me that those real life, positive experiences MUST be a central part of helping people through change. I must build in the opportunity for those actual experiences into my plans. Sure, I can create briefing notes, build slide decks, host senior management information meetings, town halls and deliver internal videos till the cows come home. But until all people affected by that change share experiences that allows them to really see the good side of the change…and of each other…the change will be in name only. It won’t be anchored in your organization. Or your heart.

Change impacts us all. And the spectre of change, the fear of change, can loam large. But managing change means figuring out how to navigate those fears, recognize the obstacles and move forward with a light heart. It means recognizing a multitude of positive shared experiences that includes everything from grabbing a cup of coffee to dancing to the Time Warp, again, that will allow you to see past the grey hair and the uncertainties, and find the stuff that really matters.

NOthing like a good distance shot so you can't see the grey in my hair1

Nothing like a good distance shot so you can’t see the grey in my hair! (photo by R. Rodden)

 

Failure and its teachings

Failure has its place in the career of a consultant. I learn a lot from failure, even if it doesn’t feel good at the time. Responding to “Request for Proposals” often means putting my heart and soul into something, waiting for a response, and then crashing down because I come second. Again.

The past 3 weeks have seen me on the receiving end of three failed projects. I can handle one or two with aplomb, but three is a bit much. It is time to do some serious thinking about the why and how of what happened, and find the good in these rather difficult experiences.

Janey "failing" to actually grab one of her beverages. So sad.

Janey “failing” to actually grab one of her beverages. So sad.

The kind of happy money can't buy - my amazing friend Marj and her Bobbie.

The kind of happy money can’t buy – my amazing friend Marj and her Bobbie.

Each “failure”, if you allow me to call them that, was unique:

  • I was invited to let my name stand to be a member of a Board of Directors.
  • Bart and I partnered on a proposal for facilitation activities related to First Nations and the provincial Growth Plan.
  • Nicole, Lisa and I bid on a HUGE contract with a national not for profit organization. (We wanted this one. Big Time.)

You know the end of the story for each of these already. I didn’t get the position on the Board, we didn’t get the provincial contract and we didn’t win the huge contract. That’s the life of a consultant, and the risk we take. So what’s to learn?

It’s all in the details, I often remind myself. I need to reflect on my personal and professional priorities, look closely and learn from the experiences. And determine why I don’t feel quite so bad about losing these contracts.

Member of the Board? I wanted the position because I would be paid to sit on the Board! How cool is that! That’s a big upside. Downside? I wasn’t passionate about the organization. I was in it for the money. In fact, during my member interview, I asked them what they really needed in a Board Member. They told me someone with financial expertise. I said don’t select me.

They took my advice.

Small provincial contract? We worked hard on the proposal. BUT (is there always a but?) neither of us was enamored with working with the particular client team assigned to the project. We had worked with them previously, and the personalities were more challenging than satisfying. When I found out we didn’t win the contract, my reaction was “Oh well”.

The huge contract? The three of us really wanted this one. We made it to the short list and landed an interview. I drove to Toronto with my formal consulting clothes on (read: real shoes, not my usual Blundstones, hair brushed, and the casual suit that even makes me look professional). Despite knowing ahead of time, the interview team had not prepared for a conference call, so I had to connect Nicole and Lisa with the 4 of us in the boardroom myself. I had that niggling feeling that the clients were not impressed that I was the only one there “in person” and it became evident that no matter what we said, we were not going to wow and amaze them.

I choose to work with people I like...like Bart!

I choose to work with people I like…like Bart!

I left the interview feeling like I didn’t really want to work with those folks.

And I won’t be.

Learning opportunities? I can always find them, no matter how distant or impossible they may be. Let’s explore each scenario.

The first one is clear – I need to be passionate about what I do. Whether it is fishing, running, or working – without being passionate about something, I get little joy from it. Being a Board member would have brought money, but without being passionate about their purpose, that was not enough for me. So I am not upset about not getting the Board position

The small provincial contract? Bart and I were both passionate about the project. But we had a previous experience with the clients and it wasn’t great one. Had we landed this contract, we would have done a great job and gotten well paid, but been unhappy. Money isn’t worth that amount of stress.

And finally, the huge contract that we wanted so much? Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. The clients weren’t interested in preparing for a conference call, and my instincts told me that they had made their minds up about us before we had even started.

You know all those websites on the Internet that tell you how to empower yourself to be the best; to recognize and manifest the laws of attraction; to be the fountainhead of information? This isn’t any of that stuff! This is simply me, an independent consultant, telling you what works for me:

  • Find your passion, and do things that relate to your passion. You may not make as much money as others, but you will be richer by far.
  • Work with people you like, and you will help to guarantee that you will be happy!
  • Trust your instincts. Challenge them, yes, but be informed by them.

I had a really great meeting today, with two people who work for an organization that does great environmental work that I am passionate about. I liked meeting with them, talking to them, and my instincts tell me that there might be some future opportunities working with them. Wish me luck!

Some of my passions...my children, nieces and nephews!

Some of my passions…my children, niece and nephews!

One moment, one person = Gratitude

I was driving home from the hospital after visiting my mother in law the other night. I was weary, traffic was brutal, and all I could find were nasty cover versions of Christmas songs on the radio. As I pulled up to a set of lights, I saw a bus next to me in the right lane. I glanced over, and the young driver was wearing a Santa hat and a smile. He waved, and mouthed “Hello and Merry Christmas!”. Then he pretended to reach out and shake my hand.

I started to laugh out loud, and I did the same. We “shook” hands and grinned.

One moment in time was all it took to move me from close to tears to delight. One moment and one person. That’s it.

In our personal lives, and our business lives, it often only takes one moment or one person to make a substantive difference. When my workload seems overwhelming, I just have to hear Bart’s voice or Rochelle’s laugh, and I am back on track. When I am worried about my mother in law’s health (she pulled through the heart surgery brilliantly, by the way), the world is better when I hear my cell phone make the ringtone of my son, or get a voice mail that makes me laugh.

I am one of the lucky ones who can find immense joy in the most inconsequential things: a Santa hat and a smile. I have learned that it takes a bit of effort to become that way, and thinking and planning about it sometimes helps shape the spontaneity of future events. As I was reading the Globe and Mail business section on the weekend, I came across an article entitled “What will your personal theme be for 2015?” It recognizes that in the rush of the busy-ness of this season, it is easy to get swept away, and lose track of those little things. The author poses some questions that can help focus thinking and perhaps help each of us to recognize and celebrate all those inconsequential things that 2014 held, and that 2015 will bring. Here are a few of my answers. Please share yours with me…the more we share the positive things, the more positive there is to go around!

What went well?

  • Duh! I had a great bike tour with Rory, Sigrid and Bill. Just look at us here!

    Post ride selfies!

    Post ride selfies!

  • My NRCan change management training workshops were OUTSTANDING!
  • A new business relationship with my friend
    Janey and I at the Dancing Goat!

    Janey and me at the Dancing Goat!

    Barton

What changed for the better?

  • My relationship with my mother in law!
  • My Information Management (IM) understanding (I had NONE before I started working with NRCan)
  • My level of patience

What were the gifts of 2014? (this one is hard because every day is a gift…but if I had to choose…)

  • The positive participation of the Rep Prep participants in the change management workshops…each interaction with those folks was a gift of joy and learning.
  • My annual fly fishing adventure made even more wonderful by being with people I love.
  • Working with Bart and Gerarda in creating our new company, SHiFT.

What and whom are your most grateful for right now?

  • My new house – I LOVE IT!
  • My business partner(s) – Nicole, Barton, Guy, Gail, Tony…the list goes on!
  • My personal partner(s) – you know who you are.
  • My children – they continue to amaze me

What is your theme for the year ahead?

  • Gratitude – for so many little and so many big things.

It’s Christmas Eve Day, and a new year is just around the corner. I know that in Seeley’s Bay, Whitehorse, Bragg Creek, Palgrave, Pictou, and other places far and wide, there is someone thinking about me, and I am grateful for that. I know that a bus driver in Mississauga is most likely remembering a happy interaction he had with some crazy lady a few days ago, and I am grateful for that. If you are still at work, or if you are already happily eating shortbread cookies and defrosting a turkey, please be grateful.

Over the next few days, I will be on the look out for all those moments and all those people who make a difference in my life. I hope you do the same.IMG_3477
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Estimates of Expectations

I am a scientist. Let me qualify that…the letters behind my name herald the fact that I studied science in university. Biology. As my pal Kathy MacDonald is quick to point out, biologists are different from other scientists…we estimate.

Kath, estimating how much single malt is in the glass...another skill set of biologists!

Kath, estimating how much single malt is in the glass…another skill set of biologists!

I’ve been a runner for almost 40 years, and though I don’t keep detailed records of my runs[1], I have a general idea of how many miles I’ve covered in my lifetime…TONS!!! I run next to cars, trucks, tractors, combines and all sorts of vehicles as they pass me coming and going. I have learned to run on the edge of the shoulder so that I’m not a) splashed b)veered at or c)pushed off the road. Last year, in a personal running “research project”, I estimated (because that’s what biologists do) that:

  • approximately 70% of drivers do not slow down near runners (Imagine!)
  • the remaining 30%, drivers slow down and often wave or smile (especially if I make eye contact and smile at them).

(Needless to say, I made it my goal to get as many people driving near me to smile…and consequently slow down. Happier people, and definitely happier and safer Susan.)SusanCheerMarathon-1

I’ve recently moved to bustling community of Belfountain, home of the Salamander Festival, Lobsterfest and a lot of traffic! Upon moving here, I based my expectations about safety and running on my previous scholarly estimations – so I had to be über careful because more traffic meant no one was going to slow down or move over in this fast-paced community.

WRONGO!!!!

The first time I noticed something different was shortly after I moved in. I was running on a busy road, and there were 2 cars coming towards me. Lucy, my constant running buddy, and I moved close to the ditch, just in case. But to my surprise, the first car pulled over into the next lane, away from me. The second car slowed and then did the same thing.

Well now.

How unusual.

The next day, I was out on another road. An old BMW comes rumbling up behind me, slows down and then waves as it passes me by.[2]

This morning, I was on Main Street during rush hour (or Belfountain’s version of rush hour…more like rush moment). Not one, not two, but four separate vehicles pulled into the other lane to give me lots of room. By the time the last car passed by, I was grinning like a fool. And the passenger in that last car grinned right back and waved.

As a runner, I am delighted that I’ve found a place where people are considerate. As a simple human, I am once more struck with the knowledge that what I expected was not what happened. My assumptions, no matter how strongly grounded in science they were (or weren’t!), were not at all accurate.

Traffic struggles in Belfountain!

Traffic struggles in Belfountain!

I’m sure there are countless reasons why these drivers seem nicer than others. Perhaps they are used to runners. Perhaps the town just has nicer, kinder drivers! Then again, when I head out again, someone might aim at me while I’m running and blow my theories all to smithereens.

Despite assumptions and expectations, I have found, yet again, to expect the unexpected. In this world where we are deluged by stories about the horrors of Ebola, the tragedies in the Gaza, about the alarming unrest in the Ukraine…there are simple joys that manifest themselves all around us, if we are willing to take look for them; indeed, expect them. A driver pulling over for a runner isn’t really momentous occasion. But the frequency of its occurrence has made me happy. Which makes me smile. And if I smile when I run, people smile back and are happy. Which, in the bigger scheme of the world, Ebola and everything else not withstanding, is something we should all strive for and expect.

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[1] Unlike my friend Eleanor’s brother George Aitkin, who was recently featured in the July/August Canadian Running Magazine with all his journals of accurately measured distances!

[2] No, it wasn’t a LOLWBH (little old lady with blue hair); it was a young guy wearing a Jays cap and “wife beater” t shirt!

Don’t aim for the trees!

I was 38 years old when I started skiing. My then husband had skied all his life, and we wanted our family ski together. So Rory (5), Jaime (3) and Susan (38) started into lessons at the Mansfield Ski Club. 7 years later, we could all ski down anything, and had skied in Utah and all over Alberta and BC. In all those years of lessons, I am pretty confident that each and every ski instructor shared this lesson: don’t look at what you want to avoid…look at where you are going, and your skis will take you there. Trust your skis and your ability.

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

In 2007, we were skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with my most wonderful friend Kira and her family. Second to last day, lots of powder and great weather, I (stupidly) decided to follow Jaime down some steeps through the trees. I dodged the trees successfully…until I slowed down and came out into a clearing…and managed to catch a spruce tree that I was trying to avoid with my right ski. That ski released. The left ski did not. 

3 breaks in the lower left leg, a most memorable toboggan ride, emergency surgery, a rod, a plate and lots of screws, 7 months of intensive physiotherapy and I was back to skiing the next winter. Kira and I headed to Banff and skied Lake Louise. It was as if I hadn’t broken my leg. Except, I had developed a new and irrational fear of skiing in trees. If I even got close to them, I had an immediate and visceral reaction of panic.

I still love to ski, but I always stay away from trees. Those beautiful little glades with trails that beckon? I avoid them. Even the larger open tree areas in Whistler and Big White, I stay away from those. It limits the areas I can ski, but quells my panic. 

A bit of mountain to ski down...note the lack of trees here.

A bit of mountain to ski down…note the lack of trees here.

However, last week, the most miraculous thing happened. Kira and I were in Whistler, and after the first day of heavy, wet snow (and tired legs), Kira reminded me that we just have to trust our skis and our abilities…and make sure we look at where we want to go, not what we want to avoid. In other words, don’t aim for the trees.

We ended up in Symphony Bowl one morning, and down we skied. We took different routes and before I knew it, I found myself in some tight trees. I could feel the panic start to rise as my skis were turning. I found myself staring hard at the trees, turning past them and looking for the next one to get ready for my turn.

Then it happened. I heard Kira’s voice in my head, echoed by all those other ski instructors, and I actually listened. Then instead of looking at the trees, I looked at where I wanted to go.

Holy cow. 

It really worked! 

I was turning like a  ninja (or my version of an old lady ninja), gliding between the trees like I wasn’t afraid at all.

And you know what?

I wasn’t afraid at all!

I could end my story here, celebrating my brave and skillful skiing ability; how I learned to look at where I wanted to go, and not at what I needed to avoid – the trees. But that is not the purpose of this story. As we went up the chair lift, I shared my inspiration with my two ski buddies (who love and tolerate my relative insanity). In a moment of quiet contemplation, Remy turned and said something like this:

Three skiers focusing ahead...or at least on the camera!

Three skiers focusing ahead…or at least on the camera!

“That is a metaphor for life. Trust yourself, trust your abilities, and point yourself in the direction you want to go. Don’t look at what you want to avoid…look ahead at where you want to go.”

So, my friends, whether you are skiing, traveling, writing a policy document, developing a new learning program, or just trying to live a good life, remember to focus on where you want to go. Don’t focus on what you want or need to avoid. That will lead you astray, or at least into the next tree. Look ahead.

Trust me, it works.