My first gray hair showed up at age seventeen. That’s typical in my family, and I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised when my younger brother would come up behind me and pluck gray hairs from the back of my head, but not when I saw them in the mirror. I associated the salt-and-pepper look with maturity and gravitas.
People assumed I was much younger than I was through at least my mid-thirties. In my early twenties, I feel like it was a huge hindrance in my career. At forty-two, I was suggested as a mentor for another woman who protested that she was hoping for someone older. “How old do you think I am?” I asked her. “Thirty?” she guessed. “I’ll be forty-three next month,” I confided, at which point she accepted the match.
I’d been hanging onto my gray because I felt like it was my best hope for being heard and taken seriously. Apparently it wasn’t working.
I have a small frame and a high voice.
Inside me is a sword-swinging hairy beast of a warrior poet, unfortunately trapped in the body of a girl with doll hands.
First impressions are stupid. They’re usually wrong. I have had to correct my erroneous first impressions of other people many times, which is great, because they usually turn out to be much more competent, bright, and easy to work with than I had guessed. Do other people put in the thought and focus to revise their first impressions favorably? Hard to say.
I had a funny moment at a panel interview recently. They told me I could make an opening statement. “In that case,” I said, “let’s get started.” I stood up and took off my cardigan, revealing my arms, and - I am not joking - everyone sat back and a few people said WHOA. I’m not jacked like Madonna or anything, but I do have some muscle definition from boxing.
I guess nobody expects that small girl with doll hands and the high voice to have these triceps or these trapezius muscles.
There are other ways of carrying gravitas, it turns out, than just gray hair.
Three years ago I set out to master my stage fright and become a confident public speaker. Somewhere along the way, it started to work. Then it seems that it started to work everywhere in my life. When I walk into a room, I know why I’m there and I know what I want to accomplish. I’m not looking for permission.
Permission? Permission to go into a shop or a cafe or a restaurant, where they are seeking my custom? Permission to go into a conference room where I am an invited guest? Permission to run a meeting that I scheduled?
I can’t quite figure out why I used to be so shy and nervous. I remember that I was, but I don’t remember why.
People are grateful to have someone in charge who has a plan. Most people hate making decisions. They want nothing to do with being in the spotlight, speaking in front of groups, or being held accountable for budgets and deadlines. They actively run screaming from evaluations. They’ll tolerate taskmasters and harsh disciplinarians, so long as it’s clear what they need to do. If someone who is actually a nice person steps up and shoulders those burdens, they’ll cheerfully cooperate.
When I was younger, I never felt that anyone would listen to me. It drove me crazy. I would have a good idea and I would share it and everyone would ignore it. On rare occasions, I would say something and the person next to me would repeat it, word for word, only louder. That person would get the credit. My ex-husband used to repeat my jokes that way, but it happened at work, too. I couldn’t figure out what to do to get people to listen to me.
I set out to earn credentials. Dean’s List in college. Race medals. Best Speaker ribbons. I put on my profile that I’m a marathon runner, a Mensan, and I study two martial arts. What does it take to intimidate people, anyway?? It’s not so much that I need to be the best; I don’t. I’m not all that competitive. It’s a matter of people not assuming that I’m the receptionist or customer service everywhere I go.
What I was looking for was something called ‘executive presence.’
Some of this gravitas known as executive presence comes from formal authority. If you’re the boss, you get introduced as the boss. Some of it comes from earned authority, as you gradually earn the respect of the people who know you. That comes from how you behave and how you communicate. What I’ve started to realize is that a major component of executive presence comes from external appearance.
I might have been able to get my ideas across as a younger person if I had realized how much I was communicating (or miscommunicating) through my wardrobe and general grooming.
I thought it was my age, my voice, my small stature. Maybe that played a part, but most of those factors are still the same. I thought aging and graying would help, and maybe they did, but also maybe not as much as I used to wish.
I hung onto my gray hair until I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. I’m finally the age that I always wanted to be.
If all of your projects were cats, what would your house look like?
I have no idea, because I have a parrot and a dog, and that’s probably more along the lines of where my project list is right now. A bizarre menagerie that somehow manages to play together, however unlikely it might sound! Imagine, though, the muddy paw prints, the loose feathers, the shredded newspaper and chewed toys that come from these two curious beasties.
That’s the thing about projects, and why they are like pets. They are entities unto themselves, they deserve respect, they require constant care and feeding, and they... they generate unpredictable messes.
One cat. One cat can jump up on counters, claw furniture, tear up carpet, knock things over, wake everyone up in the middle of the night yowling for no discernible reason. One cat is always, always on the wrong side of the door. One cat makes sure everyone knows there IS a cat, a pouncing bouncing flouncing cat. One cat!
That’s your one project.
Two cats! Two cats either like or dislike one another. I had roommates, once upon a time, and they had two cats. One was a shy black cat and the other one was a drama queen tortoiseshell with an over-the-top silent meow. At some point, they were best friends and they would nap together and bathe each other. Then, they quit getting along. They managed to lock themselves into the upstairs bathroom in a chase game. One knocked the other’s front tooth out. That’s the kind of thing that can happen with two cats.
That’s also the kind of thing that can happen when you have two projects. You don’t foresee, when you adopt them both, that they might start to have conflicts. The presence of one irritates and annoys the other. They get in each other’s way. Then the fur starts to fly.
That’s when you have two projects.
They start to add up, don’t they? When there are two cats, there can just as easily be three. After that, the more porous the boundaries of the household, the more likely there are to be more and more.
More and more projects.
At a certain point, nobody can count them. Then you find a surprise basket of frail blind mewling baby projects hiding behind the dryer. Where did they come from??
Projects that demand food. Projects that knock things over. Projects that wake you up at all hours. Projects that make a mess. Projects that take over your entire house. Projects that somehow seem to reproduce behind your back. Projects that generate surprising expenses. Projects that may still be around 20 years from now!
This metaphor, cat = project, makes a lot of sense to me right now. That’s because I’ve become the neighborhood Crazy Project Lady.
What does this look like in action?
I’m constantly moving one on and off my desk.
They demand my attention at any time between 6:00 AM and 12:30 AM. Avoid making eye contact! Pretend to be asleep! Oh, yes, yes, you’re starving, you can’t possibly wait until breakfast time, I get it.
Every time I think I’ve found a home for one, another one shows up.
That’s how my parents wound up with their third cat several years ago. Suddenly this mysterious creature they had never seen was using the litter box. Their second cat befriended her and ushered her in. She and First Cat became inseparable, so what were they supposed to do? And a ten-year commitment was made.
That’s what happens with your projects when it doesn’t occur to you to say a clear and firm UM, NO.
What kinds of projects are going on, O Crazy Project Lady?
Volunteering for an office,
Which leads to
Joining a committee,
Which leads to
Chairing a committee,
Which leads to
Running an event
Which leads to
Being nominated for a higher-level office
Which leads to
Being volunteered for more committees
Which leads to...
Once upon a time, the projects were things like “knit booties before baby shower” and “plan vacation” and “plan Thanksgiving menu” and “send New Year’s cards.” Now most of those projects are STILL ON THE LIST and there’s another basket of little blinking new projects behind the dryer. The big one is carrying a little one by the scruff of the neck.
At a certain point, either you realize that your house is full of projects - striped projects, calico projects, orange projects and gray projects and black projects and white projects - or someone points it out to you. At some point, you either need to shut the door and quit bringing home new projects, or start finding homes for them. There has to be an exit strategy.
In my pet life, I learned early on that I needed to practice planned parrothood. I LOVE BIRDS and at least once a year, someone asks if I can give a “forever home” to another one. If I had said yes to all of these birds, parrots that can live for thirty years or more, I’d have to have a bird sanctuary out in the countryside. You’d be able to hear the squawking from five miles away. And I’d have to do it as a single woman because that’s an extremely specific life path, the kind of thing you don’t just sneak past a husband. My choice was one parrot, one husband, because the alternative would be infinite parrots, no husband.
It’s sort of that way with any tendency to collect projects. There has to be room for the rest of your life. An accounting has to be made of your schedule, your finances, your sleep, your housekeeping, the other projects you have already adopted, and, of course, the feelings and needs of the other members of your household.
That’s what’s crazy about the Crazy Cat Lady, just as with the Crazy Project Lady. We’re talking about a person who does not know how to say no. A person who does not know how to set boundaries, a Crazy Project Lady may be saying YES to adopting every cute project that shows up crying at the door, even at the expense of everything else in her life.
This is what I’m doing now. I’m standing at my threshold, peeking out the door and blocking it with my body. No, no, I can’t possibly take in any more, my house is already full of these darn things. Thanks for thinking of me!
“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
Ulterior motives are where I start. I’ve found that telling people directly about my plan, and my selfish reasons behind that plan, is a way of building trust. What you see is what you get. No guessing games with me.
I’ll go so far as to say, “My ulterior motive is to make myself indispensable so I can be where the action is happening.”
The next piece of my plan is to always be willing to do the scutwork. I scrubbed a lot of toilets to put myself through school, and I changed a lot of diapers in high school to supplement my wardrobe. Nothing I do in the world of business is anywhere near that gross. I’m willing to do any amount of honest labor to get what I want.
Here’s an example:
I worked in an office with a director who was almost never there, because he spent the majority of his time getting grants for our program. Rainmaker extraordinaire! I didn’t know him well, but I did know that he’d built his department from himself plus one assistant, to a full staff of seventeen, in just a few years. I also knew how many people we were helping, and that almost all our funds came directly from his work. I admired him.
One day he asked if someone would help him carry his stuff out to the parking lot.
I leapt at the opportunity. Yay, scutwork!
What I did: carry a three-pound briefcase for ten minutes.
What I got out of it: a ten-minute conversation with the smartest person I knew. The chance to get face time, so this man could put my name with my face.
Finally, five years later: the best job reference I ever had. The hiring manager told me about it. He called to check my reference and talked to this director. As soon as he heard my name, he shouted into the phone: “HIRE HER!”
Bless that man, and his kindness, and his long memory, and his fundraising, and everything else he ever does.
I have used this strategy over and over again, to similar effect. It’s a signal.
Setting up and tearing down, when it’s not expressly your job, says a lot about you. It says you’re willing to work hard. It says you care about the event. It says that this window of time is your priority for the day.
If you do it right, it can also show that you get along with others, think quickly on your feet, that you have good ideas and that you can be trusted to oversee a team.
Cleaning up shows that you notice the details and that you have certain standards. If those standards are shared by even one higher-up, you’ve caught their attention.
I’m working on event planning right now, and I had a delicious opportunity to do scutwork for a speaker I admire. Menial tasks: handing out forms, making sure people had pens. Suddenly we found out that we had to switch rooms, with only a very short break to clear the space and bustle off across the building. Geez, thanks for the advance warning!
The moment I heard, I started going up and down the rows, picking up people’s abandoned water bottles and other detritus. I did a perimeter check and made sure we had everything we needed, and then helped coordinate getting everything down the hall. We were set up with minutes to spare.
Nobody could have done that alone. Good preparation for the day when I’m that great speaker! These are the sorts of details I need to know in order to be prepared and versatile. This is what helps me to build my mental checklist. It’s the difference between the experienced person and the blinking ingenue.
The result of this single day spent room-running is that I’m often the first person this speaker greets at events. He knows he can rely on me; therefore, I have his total attention. I’ve never asked him for anything, but one day I might. An introduction? A word of advice? A reference? Whether he’s willing or not depends on his impression of me, on the reputation I’ve built with him.
Others are watching, they always are. The reputation you build with one person, you often build with all the people.
Of course, I also benefited simply from being in the room with a very experienced speaker. How does he do what he does? Watching someone work from the perspective of a student, protege, or evaluator is completely different from the perspective of an audience member. I don’t have to pay attention to the material as much as the delivery.
Every transaction should be mutually beneficial in some way. Give a hug, get a hug. Be a friend, have a friend. What’s funny about doing scutwork for smart people is that it’s almost impossible to even out the balance. The trivial things I do are nothing compared to what I get from my mentors.
THEY DON’T EVEN NEED TO KNOW THAT I SEE THEM AS MENTORS.
Another thing I do that serves to get me noticed is to always say thank you. 1. Express gratitude. 2. Give a compliment, a highly specific compliment. Other people tend to talk about themselves, such as “I was so excited when I heard you were coming to town.” Um, that’s half a compliment and half talking about yourself. Say something like, “Thank you so much for visiting our city, your work is incredible,” and you’ve stood out.
When you surprise them, you get to see their faces light up. Selfish, selfish, I know.
You have the power to make a single statement that will be unforgettable, possibly even life-changing, for that person. People don’t always realize that they’re doing something impressive or that their work truly matters to someone. You can be the one to tell them.
When someone is really good at something, they might be able to give the gift of an incredible insight or piece of advice in just one sentence. One comment, one remark. Sometimes even one gesture or facial expression. AHA! So that’s the secret! This is why it’s worth doing the scutwork, to get close enough to pick up that one gesture or remark.
Productivity articles tend to sound alike, partly because there are a million ways to be unproductive and only a few ways to get things done. Or so they claim. The truth is that whenever you look at the specific habits of famously productive people, they’re always weird, offbeat, and often superstitious. Connect that with the obvious fact that sorting your office supplies probably is not a direct path to fame and cultural relevance. This is why there’s a lot of mainstream productivity advice that drives me up a tree.
(Which is a great place to be productive)
Here are a few of the most common bits of productivity advice that I find counterproductive.
Practice your negotiating skills by asking for a 10% discount on your coffee!
Ugh, really? There are two problems with this common advice. One, dozens or hundreds of people are going to try it, giving these benighted baristas a strong, deadpan NO reflex. Two, it’s a quick way to burn your social capital for pennies. I get free refills and extras at my cafe all the time, not because I ask but because I literally never would. I get freebies because THEY LIKE ME. I’m low-maintenance and cheerful. Once I put together a travel itinerary as a favor for one of my favorites, and now the entire staff knows my name.
Sure, you can get discounts when you ask for them. I’ve gotten a 10% discount on things in several ways many times. Pay in cash, pay in advance, order by the case, put together a group order... I don’t see the point of flexing for a couple of coins once per location, though. Build actual relationships with people you see all the time, give first, be generous, and not only do you get a sincere smile from people, you can get years of A-list service and the occasional free thing.
Pick up the phone instead of using email!
Nooooooo! Do not do that!
On my top-ten list of reasons I finally quit my day job and started working for myself was the tendency of people to call or come to my desk and say, “Did you get my email?” What, the one you sent forty-five seconds ago? This was even more obnoxious when I HAD already read it and was actively responding to it. One of the most annoying ways that one person’s behavior can impact the productivity of others is to constantly interrupt them, and another is to send the same signal through multiple channels. It takes extra time, it’s distracting, and it makes you look dumb.
True, most people are perpetually behind on their email. Therefore, never do anything that wastes other people’s time. If they’re not reading or responding to your email, it might be because they’re inefficient. It might also be because you’re asking for something that you shouldn’t be; that you have the wrong person; that your messages don’t make sense; that you’ve once again abused Reply All; that the recipient doesn’t realize you meant them specifically; that your headers are unclear; that they still have plenty of time and they’re planning on dealing with you tomorrow; or that seeing your name makes them cringe and they’re deliberately avoiding you.
As with most things, if you treat other people like friends and allies, they are more likely to do what you want. That’s because you’ve figured out how to consistently help them get what they want. Everything should be mutually beneficial. If you’re doing it right, people will actively look forward to hearing from you. Sometimes they’ll surprise you by taking the initiative to ask others to help out. Every now and then, they’ll really surprise you by asking if others can join your project, as a favor, because what you’re doing is cool and interesting.
In short, if nobody is responding to you with the alacrity that you desire, question your approach. Question your relationships and your communication style. Question whether your emails are longer than one or two sentences. Maybe even go to your reluctant correspondents and ask them for help in calibrating yourself.
Get up at 5:00 AM!
Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, upstairs neighbor who works at world-famous tech company and keeps waking me at up 4:30 AM.
I have grievances with this early-rising advice. The first is that it definitely won’t work for everyone. So many people who are successful in the corporate world wake up at that time because it’s the only way they can get two hours to themselves. They’re able to do it because they have hired help, because they can afford to set up their lives exactly the way they like, and because anyone who would complain is probably beholden to them financially.
They never talk about what these early-rising habits do to the productivity habits of the people around them.
My neighbor is up and around between 4:30 and 7:00 every day of the week. Ask me how I know. His stay-at-home wife does laundry every morning at 8:00 (ask me how I know) and that’s only because we complained when she was doing it at 6:00. Have you ever slept under a washing machine on spin cycle? Or a running vacuum cleaner, on Christmas morning?
The early-rising neighbor has next-door neighbors on two sides, and his plumbing runs down the walls between three downstairs units. His early habits are definitely affecting his wife’s productivity - rumor has it that he wants her to get a job and go back to work. His kid is in middle school; I dunno about her grades but I was chronically tired at that age. He’s also affecting the other five households that share his walls. That’s before he even gets out of the shower each morning! This is the power that one individual has to negatively impact [counting...] a minimum of ten family members and neighbors each and every single day, including weekends and holidays.
What time a person wakes up and what time someone accomplishes sixty minutes of work is completely and entirely neutral. If they’re effective, efficient, and keeping up on their production schedule, how could it possibly matter whether they’re doing something at 6 AM or at 3 PM? Why is it so impressive just to wake up very early? Bragging rights, that’s all. Nobody brags that “I personally exhaust and devastate the productivity of ten people a day.”
Thirty-five people report to me. I make it a point to let them do it on their own time. As a result, they’re responsive. They come to me when they have issues. I don’t feel the need to micromanage them or insist that they work at specific times of day; frankly, I don’t have the time for that and I don’t see how other people do. I also tend to sleep until 8 AM.
Here’s my productivity advice:
Build relationships and treat people with respect and dignity, like allies and colleagues.
Give what you wish to receive.
Make sure you’re working on the right things. If your vision is clear and appealing, others will want to get in on it. You yourself will only need the occasional refresh on your vision, and that will be enough to keep you going.
I got a makeover. A pretty major one, this is a makeover of such a scale that it’s really messing with my head.
How is it that changing something about your external appearance can make such a huge difference in how other people see you, and in how you see yourself?
“You look thirty years younger!” cries the cosmetics artist. Thirty, really? I’m forty-three! That would imply that I’ve been going around looking older than my chronological age. Either that, or I now look like a middle-schooler, in which case I’m going to have to start listening to much peppier music.
I relish my privacy and, as a writer, I like to think of myself as invisible. I’ve felt that it pays to be modest, maybe even inconspicuous. I can walk around the city and get a free pass from panhandlers, who nod courteously as I go by.
Invisibility, though, isn’t our choice.
My friend and mentor tells me, in no uncertain terms, that just because I feel invisible does not mean I am. “People notice you and make judgments about you, whether you realize it or not.”
This is a harsh truth, but I am a proponent of radical honesty and I take it in.
Whatever was true for me at other stages of life, today I am forty-three. I have aspirations that will not be met at my current level. If my goal is to perform in front of an audience, then I need to look suited to the task. I need to be stage-ready, and, arguably, I am not.
The whole point of my existence up to this point has been about avoiding attention and staying out of the spotlight. Changing my look is letting go of that sense I have had, that feeling that I have the option to hang out in the shadows and be a passive observer.
It’s been hard enough dealing with the physical changes I made as I became a midlife athlete. I went from a size fourteen to a size two. I can get away with wearing a bikini in public. When I do, I feel like I’m adopting a temporary persona: Vacation Pool Babe. Wearing a bikini in public in Las Vegas is not the same as wearing business casual at home.
That’s my avenue to adjusting to my new post-makeover look. I can pretend that I’m someone else. I need a stage-ready persona that helps me feel like these are mere surface-level changes, that I have gained rather than lost options.
I can still find privacy when I need it. I don’t have to physically be on stage and in front of people every minute of the day. There are no requirements to this new look other than maintenance a few times a year.
Well, that, and the not inconsiderable technical skills involved in applying cosmetics.
I remind myself that men wear stage makeup, too. Some men wear cosmetics every day, because they like it. I remind myself that a lot of people think this is fun!
Honestly, having fun and looking pretty both feel like work to me. That might sound sad. What I mean is that when these come down as external requirements, it becomes self-conscious. It’s supposed to be “fun” to go to nightclubs, or watch team sports, but neither of those fun things are my style. I find myself asking, “Am I doing this right?”
I’m more comfortable doing things that probably sound un-fun, like mud runs, martial arts, or public speaking. It’s definitely better not to wear makeup in martial arts, since it gets in your eyes, although I have worked out in a cocktail dress and a rhinestone bib necklace, and a stiletto heel can make a respectable improvised weapon. Not in the mat room, though.
I remind myself that I wasn’t comfortable when I started any of those things, either. Surely eyeliner is no worse than a real black eye! Hair color is no worse than surfacing out of a water obstacle, dripping with mud. Public speaking as a hobby is what got me into this whole mess.
The point of the first impression is that it carries so many unspoken messages. Did you show up prepared and on time? Do you look glad to be there? Do you know how to shake hands properly? Is your hair three colors of gray on top, but reddish at the tips for some unknown reason? Now I have to accept the reality that I’m also being evaluated on not just my clothes and shoes, but my hair and makeup as well.
The terrible thing about all this is that I look fantastic. Objectively. My husband loves it. My best friend started squealing and hugged me. Even my barista noticed.
Once upon a time, I was a chronically ill, broke, overweight, underemployed, divorced, sad brunette who lived in a cold, rainy climate.
Now I’m a successful, fit, happily married... attractive redhead? Does “auburn” make you a redhead?
Nearly twenty years later, I look younger than I did at twenty-five. This hair color makes my eyes look enormous, which is disconcerting, a feature that should properly have gone to an extreme extrovert who loves attention. My big blue eyes have always felt like something of an unfair burden, traits that I can’t put away or hide on demand. I myself can’t hide on demand, not really.
I’m a writer transforming into a public performer. Many performers would like to go the other direction, developing their skills as lyricists, poets, playwrights, or memoirists. They can’t just put on glasses and some kind of special writer hat and make it happen. (If there were a special writer hat, I would definitely be wearing one, even in the shower). I remind myself that I’m lucky that all I really have left to do is to learn to live up to this made-over image.
With the image reset comes the attitude reset. Can I inhabit the body of an objectively attractive person? Can I learn to handle the constant 21st-century expectations of photography and video, the headshots and the spontaneous selfies?
We’re here to participate in the culture of our time. I want a meaningful existence in which I can contribute at the highest possible level. I want my legacy to be bigger than myself. If I have to be better-looking for that to happen, I suppose that’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make.
Your Creative Work Space is a magnetically attractive book. Desha Peacock showcases dozens of women and the places they have designed for the intersection of their art and work. The book is a captivating mixture of style and philosophy. Profiles of anything from workshop spaces and boutiques to children’s playrooms and home offices, and even a tiny desk in a closet, include advice from their designers on how to make time and space for it all.
I work with chronic disorganization and hoarding. Scarcity mindset is universal among my people, and they believe they Can’t Afford things. A room with one hundred items that cost $1 is a room where $100 was spent. If that room also has twenty $5 items and ten $10 items, then that was $300 that could have gone toward a piece of statement furniture! I’m constantly trying to encourage everyone to think of the SPACE, not the stuff, and the ACTIVITY, not the supplies. This is why we need books like Your Creative Work Space, so we have some images of what that looks like.
That’s why my favorite example from Your Creative Work Space is that of Stacey Blake. She has a desk in a former closet that “was being used to store items I was hoarding.” She got rid of all the stuff, had the shelves removed, and had a sheet of wood installed to use as a desk. This is a direct, tangible example of how to magically transform your clutter into a delicious art station. Wait until you see it!
Your Creative Work Space has practical tips and plenty of photographic examples on how to deal with paper clutter, cord clutter, children’s artwork, hiding ugly electronics, and storing supplies. One particularly useful sample is a family control center for consolidating mail, bills, the family calendar, and office supplies.
Don’t be discouraged, says Peacock, if the space you have right now doesn’t look like the gorgeous interiors in the book. If it’s something you want as part of your life, put it on your list as something to work toward. All of these creative work spaces began as a figment of someone’s imagination, so why should it be any different for you?
What would [work] be like if instead of dreading it, you ached for it? What if, instead of feeling depleted, you felt energized by it? What if you could not wait to get to it?
The two most important factors to opening up channels for your creative work to flow through you are your mental space and your physical space.
“Perfection is boring, let’s get weird.”
“I always love to remind folks that creative expression, doing what you love, and creating meaning in your life are all things that you deserve.”
Mysteries surround so much in the workplace. One of these is why certain people get promoted and others don’t. Why are certain people chosen for certain projects while others are not? I have some insight about this. There’s this thing that I call “the meeting after the meeting.” If you weren’t there, you’d have no way to know about it.
There’s also always a “meeting before the meeting,” and you only know about that if you’re on the setup crew.
The meeting before the meeting, and the meeting after the meeting, may or may not have some overlap.
The first and most important factor for both of these meta-meetings is that the people involved are available at the key time. This may be because it’s their main priority, it may be because they’re merely interested enough, or it may be because of total coincidence.
Any person who is cross-scheduled or too busy to come early/stay late is going to miss out, most likely through no fault of their own.
I started to become aware of these meta-meetings when I was a young office assistant. As the person tasked with setting up tables and chairs, laying out handouts, making coffee, bringing in trays of breakfast pastries, and setting up catered lunches, I saw a lot.
I saw that some people come to meetings early to stake out a favorite seat, review their notes, hide out, take calls, or set up presentations.
I saw that other people hung around after the meeting because they couldn’t stop talking about a project or because it was their only chance to compare notes during a busy day.
I had a broad awareness of who worked on which projects, because almost everyone on staff relied on me to help at various stages. I copy-edited and rewrote sections of technical documents. I collated giant stacks of binders. I ran packages up and downstairs, working to beat the clock before FedEx and UPS stopped by each afternoon. I took notes, interrupted meetings with phone message slips, and summoned people from their cubicles. I was everywhere.
In many ways, I was also the resident bartender. People of every rank from every department would lay out their burdens of resentment, frustration, and wishes on my non-threatening underling shoulders.
When you routinely bail people out on tight deadlines and do their scutwork, they either mistreat you or adore you. It takes about ten seconds to figure out who is in which group. The mean people never understand why the kind people get extra attention, or why their projects somehow wind up farther up the queue. (This also works at coffee shops, by the way).
Years have gone by, and now I see side meetings from a different perspective.
Inside groups are created because the people who always meet before the meeting have accumulated many extra hours together. They have more time to get to know each other. They have a longer track record of working together on mutually desirable goals. They have deeper trust and they feel more collegial. They share values along the lines of punctuality, organization, preparedness, and other qualities related to work ethic.
The rest of us probably share values related to other, competing projects; obedience to a taskmaster; or anything else unrelated to what the people who meet before the meeting are doing.
There is another inside group of people who meet after the meeting. Sometimes this group is created in reaction to the group that meets before the meeting. It can be like a rebel alliance. The post-meeting group lines up due to enthusiasm, but sometimes also to pushback against a new program. What are we going to do about this??
Sometimes the meeting after the meeting comes from ideation. Someone comes up with an appealing idea, someone else is on the same wavelength, and they can’t stop themselves from chattering about it. Others are drawn in by curiosity.
If there’s anything that should be encouraged and supported in any organization, it’s the spontaneous ideation meeting.
Unfortunately, the majority of people in the corporate world are not strong in ideation, and these are the people who tend to move into management. They regard spontaneous ideation meetings with suspicion, even disgust. Knock it off, you slackers. It’s been forty-five seconds and you should be back at your desks, grinding on predictable tasks in isolation.
There’s also something here about nominal authority versus earned authority. The true leader of a group, the thought leader, is probably a natural change agent. This is why this unrecognized and uncrowned leader is so threatening to the established order. This is also why this person draws the instinctual loyalty of anyone who cares about the organization and major projects.
What people want at work is to feel like their contribution matters in some way. They like hearing what happened as a result of their paper-pushing and grinding away at their task lists. They want to know that if they answered someone’s call or email, that response helped the other person to get something important accomplished. They want to know that the right things are getting done.
Weirdly, people are often out of the loop on this cost-free, simple and easy type of communication.
Tell people why they’re doing what they’re doing. It got made, it got pitched, it got bought, the company made money, the test worked, the prototype is up and running. Thanks, everyone, great job. Is that so hard?
A lot of what happens at the meeting after the meeting is communication that should properly have come from official channels. A lot of it is planning for projects that also deserves respect and recognition from higher-ups. Meeting after the meeting is a sign of a need for time, resources, and even an available conference room. If people are standing in the hallway or the parking lot, chattering away about company business, it’s either a very good sign, or it’s not.
What are people talking about in the meeting after the meeting? Stick around and you might find out.
If you call it a to-do list, you might be doing it wrong.
Might be working on the wrong stuff
For the wrong reasons
At the wrong times
For the wrong people.
This is something I’ve been wrestling with lately. My task list has grown lately to the point that I’m exploding out of a textbook-sized day planner with pages for twenty distinct projects. Unlike my pants, it even has pockets.
These are the problems of the multipotentialite. Everything sounds good and everything seems possible. It IS, it is, just maybe not all at the exact same minute.
Darn you anyway, Time Dimension.
I’m working on a particular project, something big. It’s the kind of thing that takes six months to plan. I’m doing it because it fits into a larger plan that is really important to me. I’m doing it because the skills involved are directly relevant to my interests. I’m doing it because it gives me the chance to work with a good friend. I’m doing it because that friend really needs my help and I want to be reliable for her.
Other than that, everything about it is driving me up the wall. The WHY is perfectly in place, the HOW is a continual stream of hassles and frustrations.
Meanwhile, I have another set of potentially extremely interesting projects that I really want to do instead.
Just like the frustrating project, these interesting projects involve a lot of steps that are the kind of task I don’t like.
Focusing on only one thing at a time!
Reading complicated instructions in fine print!
Filling out applications!
Putting dates in a calendar!
Choosing photographs of myself! *ugh*
Why can’t there be a super-interesting, super high-value project that involves me sleeping late, reading in the bathtub, and eating cookies?
What I’ve found out so far about GETTING WHAT I WANT is that it almost always involves my three least-favorite things:
Travel. Foot races. Trainings. Workshops. Hikes. Even a panel interview I did recently - yep, Saturday.
Why isn’t there more worthwhile stuff to do late in the afternoon??
Poor me, highly ambitious person, born into the body of a night owl. (Note: owls do not usually wear shoes) (Also note, not one minute after I wrote this, a child walked into my cafe wearing an OWL HAT and RAIN BOOTS)
I’m doing what I can to cope with all of this. Not the owl hat, the burgeoning project list. Try to stay focused.
The first thing is to always subvert the project in some way. That means I look at the desired results and ask, is what I’m being asked to do really the smartest way to achieve these results?
Surprisingly often, it isn’t! Perhaps more surprising, my ideas for ways that I’d prefer to do these things, my ways are often accepted or regarded as an upgrade. The trick to getting this across is first to explain that you want the same thing as everyone else, the highly valued end result. Also compliment specific things that are going well and thank everyone for hearing you out.
Each instance in which you save other people time, money, or resources is an opportunity to build a reputation as a solver of problems and an idea-generating machine. (Problem: then they bring you more of their problems to solve).
The second thing is that if you can’t subvert the project in tangible ways, you can still do it privately.
There might be a requirement to do certain things or take certain steps toward your desired end result, things that you have no interest in doing. There is not, however, a requirement that you refer to them as ‘tasks’ or ‘chores’ or ‘to-do’s’ or ‘honey-do’s’ or what-have-you. You can call them whatever you want.
You can also abandon ship and abdicate on the project, if you really hate it that much.
As an example, I simply would not do something if it “required” me to wear high heels, cancel my travel plans for my wedding anniversary, work in a room with cigar smoke, or probably a bunch of other things. Nope nope, that’s a big nope.
What I’ve been doing lately is to shift more and more of my focus to the desired end results, while I try to forget that I am often doing annoying things early in the morning when I’d rather be sleeping.
This is why I call my “to-do list”:
JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS!
There’s something that I do that most people don’t, and that is to remind myself that I have control over how I spend my time. It’s my choice whether to work on something or not. I didn’t feel that way when I worked at a convenience store, but I did start to feel that way as a young office temp. I was broke as could be, I didn’t have two nickels until I was thirty, but I always felt that I had the power to walk away from a truly cruddy job or a bad boss.
I often did!
I figured, if I was going to be broke one way or another, at least I could choose the job with the least-bad boss and the least-worst commute. So I did.
It’s my sense of power, control, and high agency that has brought me forward, onward and upward.
One of the saddest things in the world is untapped human potential. It’s deeply sad when someone with massive gifts feels trapped, forced into a power struggle with a bad boss for low pay. Sometimes, of course, that is literally true - modern slavery is one of the all-time biggest targets for people with great gifts to tackle, should anyone be looking for a worthy project. Mostly, though, we are dragged down by the power struggle, to the point that we utterly forget about our ability to imagine something better into being.
This is why it is so vital that we reimagine what we are doing. This is why we need more... JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS.
An Audience of One is a very intriguing book about the artistic process. Srinivas Rao clearly dwells in the other realms. There are plenty of inspirational books in the world on creativity. This one speaks with assurance on the untapped wellspring.
For those of us who do a lot of public-facing work, there can be a tendency to develop a sense of obligation and turn our output into a chore. Rao says this focus on external outcomes (such as profit) can make the work boring. We return to our involvement in the process when we let go of attempting to control the outcome. One way of doing this is to make something purely for ourselves, to remember why we first fell in love with this particular form.
A focus of An Audience of One is on people who do something creative only for themselves. No readers, no viewers, no customers, no followers or commenters, imagine! These examples of devoted creatives have a way of elevating more activities to the level of “art.” Maybe a home cook is more talented than a professional chef; how would anyone know?
On the one hand, this perspective should give courage to novices. Art is good for you! What you do matters! It’s fine to do it for yourself and nobody else! Rao cites something a lot of readers will want to know more about, which is Mindfulness Based Art Therapy. Apparently making art has measurable, positive health effects on everything from heart rate and blood pressure to cortisol levels and bodily pain.
On the other hand, the perspective that we should make our own art for ourselves alone, that’s a potent idea. What if we took it all the way? What if we really made every single last thing that’s been swimming in our fountains? What if we never held back, what if it all came out and kept coming out? What if we? Swam out full fathom?
These are the parts of An Audience of One that compelled me the most. Rituals, power questions, activation energy. Identifying and eliminating your tolerations. Dream work. Setting intentions before sleep. Wow! Some of these chapters maybe could be full-length books in their own right.
I loved An Audience of One. It pushed my barriers and made me feel that I can and should be doing more with my work. It reminded me that there is more potential in my craft and my process. Rao mentions having three books that you refer to at least once a month, and this may become one of mine.
When we focus on end results, we essentially defeat one of the main benefits of creative work: to derive joy from the work itself.
The work itself defeats resistance.
It’s rare for anybody to proudly state that they did “nothing.”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies