How to fall apart and still be strong

Last month I sat in circle with women from my neighborhood. It is something we have been doing somewhat monthly since the results of the presidential elections. The circle had been called in order to create a safe space for women to share and process their thoughts – without fear of being judged, without fear of receiving unsolicited advice, without fear of being made wrong. My role that night was to hold and facilitate that space, and as we spoke, and as I felt myself wanting to speak, I found myself completing…and totally…FALLING…APART.

Just a few days before, my husband had been laid off from his job, and to top that off, just days after that he ended up in the hospital for kidney stone surgery. (Hey Universe, we are still wondering why you decided to send him a double whammy, but we trust you…) With the challenges hitting us at both the health and money level, I found the uncertainty, fear, confusion and despair of the week’s happenings starting to build and grow until it burst out of me in a rush of sadness, anger, many words of anger, many I-don’t-knows, tears, and f— f— f— f— f— this!

Truth be told, we had been through similar challenges before, and for days I had been handling the situation with an outwardly steady acceptance. However, the deep deep deep down inside decided that it was way past time to show up. At first it sounded like this: “I don’t think I can do this again.” And then like this: “I don’t want to do this again.” And behind that message, I realize I was also signaling “I don’t think I can be strong for you in this circle tonight.”

Strong. Why strong? Somehow, I had made up in my mind that to hold a circle, to even be in the role of coach, or wise woman, or leader, that I needed to be strong for everyone. That I needed to provide structure, safety, and some kind of assurance that the space was strong enough and safe enough – and me by extension — to hold whatever showed up.

But you know what? A circle doesn’t rely on one point. It is made up of the connectedness between an infinite number of points.

That night, in circle, I felt the power of that connection. In that moment of total weakness and vulnerability, I found myself incredibly heard, supported and loved. I found myself sharing the truth and depth of what I was feeling, and as the words came rushing out and revealing that tender vulnerable place I could no longer cover up, I also found myself being buoyed by the strength and vulnerability of the women in circle with me.

What did I learn? I learned a concept that I have understood at an intellectual level but never truly gotten at an emotional and very personal level. I learned how there is strength in me showing my vulnerability. I learned that I can both fall apart and still be strong at the same time. And I also learned that I don’t need to do this alone.

How are you allowing yourself to fall apart these days? And what is it that helps you still stay strong?

In love, gratitude and persistence,
Carolyn

Carolyn Ou is an Executive/Leadership Coach and founder of Sandbox Consulting, as well as Associate Director of Leadership Development at the Chicago Booth School of Business. She is passionate about coaching emerging and unsung leaders and believes strongly in the power of conversation to pave the way towards greater understanding and connection.

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Make good friends and keep them

Many years ago, in the days before I headed off to college, my father sat me down to give me advice on how to make my way in the world.

“Chia-lin,” he said, “Mommy and I have provided you with a good home and education. Now you’re going off to college and you’ll meet new people from all walks of life. When you’re there, I want you to be sure to make good friends and keep them. I’ve been watching and studying how things work here in America, and that’s how this world works. With good friends.”

My 18-year-old self really had no clue what Dad was talking about. However, over the years his words have come back to me over and over again, guiding me, challenging me and becoming clearer and clearer in their meaning.

I have watched my parents create and nurture community over the years. From helping to create a credit union that helped fellow Taiwanese with their financial needs, to monthly dinners with friends, to offering advice or comfort to ones in need – my parents have been making good friends for many years. Good friends they’ve managed to keep in a multitude of ways. Now in the Golden Years of their life they have an amazing group of friends to champion them, laugh with them, cry or celebrate with them.

It’s easy in a world full of terms like “networking,” “social networks,” and “relationship management” to lose track of the true value of friendships and connections in this world. Apparently, all these networks have great value in an economic sense. And that’s just lovely, but that’s not what I want to drive the way I create relationships.

Let’s not forget this simple truth — the good friends are the ones who can be there on your journey with you. They’ll help you make it through that job transition, that life milestone or those personal moments of triumph or crisis. The good friends are the ones who can truly champion you, see you for who you are and still love you regardless.

So yes, go forth and make good friends. Create meaningful relationships and nurture them. Because, as my wise Father said so many years ago, and lives so now, that’s the way the world works.

Still learning from my Dad,
Carolyn

Carolyn Ou

On the long and winding road to success, and being scooped

I hate being scooped.

The first time it happened was in 1989. I was 21 and Amy Tan had published the book that I always wanted to write. You might know it – it was The Joy Luck Club – and her portrayals of the Asian mother- Asian-American daughter relationships truly resonated with me.

“Damn! I thought. That was supposed to be MY magnum opus!”

At that time, a little voice in me said, “See? You’re too late! Try something else!”  At some level, I think that’s what I did. I let go of any literary ambitions I had to pursue a more practical, safer, less failure-guaranteeing path.

Now, more than 20 years later, it’s happened again! Just last week, in planning my next piece, I drew this diagram on a napkin:

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My goal in creating this piece was to ease your pain and reassure you that it isn’t always necessary or beneficial to barrel towards an often ill-defined notion of success — that sometimes taking the blinders off can result in greater opportunities to create the right path for yourself.

And then I saw it, a very similar diagram in an article that carries some very similar messages to the one I was drafting:

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At first, I wanted to feel scooped again, just like the Amy Tan incident. A voice in me wanted to say, “See, look! What you’re doing is nothing new. Give it up! Climb back into your hole!”

But before that voice could even take over, a different one sounded out. This one said, “See? The ideas and insights you have are shared by many. Don’t stop sharing them. Don’t go silent.”

And I won’t go silent! I will persist in spreading the idea that you don’t need to buy into the old mindsets about what success looks like and how you are supposed to get there. I will persist in sharing my belief that there are simple, creative and alternative ways for you to design a life that works for you.

But being a wise and extremely efficient woman, I also know when it’s enough to share someone else’s wise words, which I share with you today in this valuable post from LinkedIN: Don’t Let a Good Plan Get In the Way.

Cool. That didn’t hurt one bit! And what a great feeling to know I’m not alone.

Smirking from the Sandbox,
Carolyn

 

Craziest Boss You’ll Ever Have!

Carolyn’s Update: I first wrote this piece last October, but ever since have had the nagging feeling that there was a role missing among the three listed — the Entrepreneur, the Manager and the Technician. Having worked with a number of Entrepreneurs who are in the trenches on a daily basis, and hearing them speak of their daily struggle to keep it all going and to stay sane, I realized that this model needs another entity mixed in, one that I’ll call “GURU.” 

Guru is the one that’s going to ask the tough questions or point out the simple answers that are right in front of you. Sometimes Guru is going to tell you to get really quiet and listen to what your gut is telling you. Very often, Guru is going to tell you to get some rest, because the Guru knows how to see beyond all the chaos. So as you read this piece, add in the role of GURU to the mix, and I think you’ll find it a much more complete team!

“Craziest Boss You’ll Ever Have”

You know the type – one moment envisioning a grand, bright and beautiful future, the next moment, having a panic attack because you’re not meeting your deadlines, and then the next, vanishing for the weekend, only to be found hiding in a café finishing that research … or simply reading a really good book!

That’s right. It’s that crazy boss of yours, and every day you wonder how on earth she ever got the job.

Well, I have a secret to share with you.

It’s your fault she has the job.

Because your crazy boss is YOU!

Think about it. Who is the dreamer who gets excited about each new vision for your life? Who is the manager who creates and lives by the plan to make it happen?  And who is the doer who just wants to focus on the business of living? What happens every time the dreamer in you comes up with something new? Does the manager flip out because now you’re off track? And the doer – does she just want to finish what she’s working on?

It’s your very own 3-headed monster, and it’s not so different from the three-way battle that Michael Gerber describes in his classic book, The E-Myth Revisited. In it, Gerber writes of a business owner’s classic conflict between The Entrepreneur, The Manager and The Technician. These three roles are critical to running a business, yet they are roles that are in perpetual conflict, and in many cases, roles that exist within the single entity of the business owner!

Here are some brief definitions from the text – as you read them, consider the parallels to your own work and life. Think about which role is your dominant one, as well as the situations that allow the other two to show up:

“The Entrepreneur is our creative personality – always at its best dealing with the unknown, prodding the future, creating probabilities out of possibilities, engineering chaos into harmony.”

“The Manager personality is pragmatic. Without the manager there would be no planning, no order, no predictability.”

“The Technician is the doer. The Technician loves to tinker. Things are supposed to be taken apart and put back together again. Things aren’t supposed to be dreamed about, they’re supposed to be done. ..As long as the Technician is working, he is happy.”

“Put another way, while the Entrepreneur dreams, The Manager frets, and The Technician ruminates.”

Source: The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael Gerber (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

So what can you do to start managing this multiplexity?? (Yes, I made that up…)

  1. Get your crazy boss out of the closet. Even admitting that it exists is a big step!
  2. Give your boss a voice. Consider journaling from the point of view of your entrepreneur, then manager, then technician. The point is to get to know your crazy boss in all its glory.
  3. Give your crazy boss a performance review.  If you feel like your boss has been making some questionable decisions on your behalf, make a list of those decisions, as well as which persona made each one. Rate each decision according to how well it has supported your greater work/life vision. See which persona has served you best and give it a raise!
  4. Give your boss a vacation. At the same time, if one persona has been running the show for too long, give it some time off so that you can explore how life works with the other two.

Give your boss time to grow on you. Remember that none of the personae are absolutely wrong. Identifying how they operate is the first step towards intentionally and effectively flexing between the different roles as you continue to steer the course of your crazy life!

Crazy with you,
Carolyn

Slow down, you move too fast!

Oh wow! 2013 has started off with quite a kick!

A quick look at headlines and emails received over the past month reveals an urgency, a need to do more more in a super-charged sort of way. There seems to be a collective need to overwrite the “sloth” of the holidays, punishing ourselves for even taking what was a well-deserved break.

Now it’s back to 100 mph, to make up for lost time, right?

Well, slow down!

It doesn’t help to be running in overdrive if there isn’t a clear destination.

I invite you to take your foot off that pedal and give yourself time to really ask yourself the following:

  • Where am I headed?
  • How am I going to there?
  • Who do I want to bring on this trip?
  • How much of this road map energizes me?
  • What can I take off the map?

You owe it to yourself to have a a year that works for you. And who knows? You might find that with a more intentional route in place, you won’t have to go so quickly after all!

With cheer from the Sandbox,
Carolyn