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!

Drop, clean and move on

Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward. Victor Kiam

I have a curious habit of sitting at my desk and dropping things on the floor. I don’t mean randomly dropping things. Rather, when I am done a project, I simply drop whatever paper or items were critical to that effort on to the floor. I have no idea why I acquired this habit, I just do it. You can imagine that at the end of whatever I’m working on, the floor near my desk is littered with paper and other items of dross, and my office tends to look rather, um, messy. (read: fire hazard).

As if the cleaning staff (if I had any) had taken the garbage can and turned it upside down as some form of protest. At least a day or two will go by before I clean up the mess, which then satisfies my urge for closure on the project.

Because of melting ice – I won’t get into the details, but suffice it to say that my love affair with this cottage is officially over – I had to move my office into the living room.

The new office corner, within warming distance of wood stove, and close to piano/fiddle/guitar.

The new office corner, within warming distance of wood stove, and close to piano/fiddle/guitar.

For the first time since the winter started, my feet are warm while I am working. I can look out the window and see Roxy barking at birds, and I can easily get up and get her when she wants to come in. And go out. And come in. And go out. Ad nauseum.

Looking out the door at Roxy's footprints. She's inside the house now, waiting to go back out!

Looking out the door at Roxy’s footprints. She’s inside the house now, waiting to go back out!

This morning, I decided to deal with the remains of a project proposal that I did not win. Papers, paper clips, reference articles, pages torn from the Globe and Mail, and a host of other bits and bobs went flying onto the floor. My other dog Lucy lay under the desk, watching things fly by with a knowing glance, anticipating, I’m sure, my eventual cleaning of the mess. In a few days.

But I then did something unusual. Having spent the last 10 months focusing on change management appears to have made an impact on my psyche. I realized a change in my behaviour was necessary. Don’t jump to conclusions and think I managed to restrain myself from throwing things on the floor. No, no, nothing that significant or monumental. What I did was congruent with my behaviour; I just sped up the process a bit.

Because I am now working in the living room, I didn’t like the idea of having such a mess in a room that I use for fun. My fiddle and guitars are perched near my desk, and the thought of having to traipse through the paper to get to my instruments wasn’t sitting well with me. What do I do? Um, clean up the mess sooner rather than later? So I did.

Why have I spent this entire blog writing about cleaning up under my desk? Because the very act of cleaning up work from a project I didn’t win has made a difference in my spirit that I didn’t even know I needed. When I found out I didn’t get the contract, I felt blue and sad for a while. The act of throwing pieces of that spent project on the floor was a process that made me stop and think about the efforts of my team, who worked with me to put the proposal together. It made me cherish them even more for their energy and commitment to my efforts. The act of cleaning up of the mess helped me to put that in perspective (even though I thought I already had). It allowed me to reflect, accept, and move on.

My strange exercise of “processing” works for me. Throwing things on the floor helps distill the things that are important, and be mindful of what something means to me. I learned that, perhaps, I spend a bit too much time thinking and re-thinking about what I mis-judged, or what might have gone wrong in my work. I learned that there are reasons to speed up the process now and then, even if it is simply to have a cleaner living space so I can get back to doing those things I love…like playing the fiddle, playing the guitar, or bidding on other, more wonderful projects. I may have fallen on my face, but I’m still moving forward…with a cleaner office and happier heart!

Capitol Experiences!

A person can learn a lot from three days in the nation’s capitol. I’m doing some interesting but unusual work for Natural Resources Canada, and it will take me to Ottawa fairly regularly for the next while. 2 mornings of running along the canal and 3 days of meetings generated a lot of learning opportunities for me. I’ve distilled them below, for your reading and learning pleasure. Enjoy!

Cab drivers can be amazing! Rory asked me if being in Ottawa improved my sense of nationalism. I told him it did, all because of a conversation I had with a cab driver. My driver was originally from Lebanon, hadn’t been home in years and missed it terribly. But his son is going to graduate from med school this summer, and his daughter is already a lawyer. He told me that coming to Canada gave his children a future, and he is so proud to live here. Chatting with him made me proud to be Canadian.

Eating alone in a fancy restaurant can be fun. Too often those of us who travel a lot spend our time ordering room service and working while we eat. This visit, I ended up going out alone to a wonderful Italian restaurant, Mama Theresa’s. It was busy with couples and groups, and as I sat at my table, people looked at me with curiosity and a perhaps a dash of pity. That is, until the waiter brought me a free glass of chianti, and waited on me as if I was the most important patron in the entire place. And as I sat sipping my wine, I couldn’t help but listen to the woman sitting behind me talk to her dining companion about her parents. They had moved from Budapest to Belleville in the 1950s, and she was so proud of their brave decision to leave home. It put tears in my eyes. I might have missed that had I been with other company.

Civil service working conditions are not glamorous. I spent one day moving from meeting to meeting, bouncing between cubicle to small, windowless boardrooms. The next day, I was in a government building that was built in the 1700s (I am only speculating here) and was filled with dust, darkness and mildew. The folks I am working with are vibrant, interesting and motivated people who have to do their work under these challenging conditions. If you work for private industry, you’d never have to work in conditions like that. These folks believe strongly in what they do to put up with those conditions.

Runners in Ottawa are TANKS! Either that, or I am one serious wimp. Each morning, I ran out to the canal and danced over the icy trails, wearing my IceBugs (http://icebugcanada.com/). I wore winter running tights, jacket, a wool cap and mitts. The Ottawa runners wore ¾ length spring tights, little ball caps and had bare hands! Perhaps living in the nation’s capital forces you to toughen up more than the rest of us. I was duly impressed.

Smiles are infectious.  Running along the canal, most runners keep their faces turned inward. Not me. My experiment involved smiling, no, beaming at everyone who dared make eye contact with me. Each and every runner I saw smiled back. Then the guards who work security in the government buildings? I grinned at all of them. Most of them now think I am certifiable. But by the end of my second day, I had a new friend behind the security desk who loved Stompin’ Tom and offered to be my escort in the building. Smiles are a valuable commodity. Use them well and use them often.

So when in Ottawa, listen to your cab drivers, eat alone, be vibrant, respect the toughness of runners and above all, smile!!!

This is the kind of grin that works!

This is the kind of grin that works!

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.