Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On Happiness: The people we "know"

I was scrolling through one of the blogs I check for work and came across an article about our on-line lives. Everyone is writing about this phenomenon these days – how we have re-invented ourselves through personal pages like Facebook or in virtual worlds like Second Life. I’m kind of tired of hearing about it in all honesty. I like my Facebook page because it helps long-lost friends find me and keeps me from creating long-lost friends in the first place. I’m not home in front of my computer pining away for my “avatar persona.”

I must have been feeling particularly less “know-it-all”-ey than usual because I kept reading the blog entry and stopped to consider its sentiment when the author said how much he appreciated these on-line personal tools because it allowed him to curate his life, the way museum designers curate the lives of famous, and sometimes not-so-famous, artists. I loved that idea. These sharing-tools allow you to create an on-line, multi-dimensional gallery celebrating you. I was feeling better already and kept reading.

The author of the entry then goes on to talk about how “being acquainted with” someone now has a completely different meaning as a result of these sharing platforms. My boss continually uses the line “Do you know (insert name of famous published innovator)?” I always thought this was a little odd – clearly Bob thinks I am a bigger fish than I actually am if he thinks I would know these people. Now I realize what he was saying is “are you acquainted with….”, meaning do you know what their interests and areas of research are? Have you read their books? Do you have a sense of who he or she is without ever meeting?

As a result of my job, I spend a lot of time on-line watching presentations from people like Chris Andersen and Malcolm Gladwell. Thanks to technology and the increasing desire to share insights with a wide audience, many presentations at conferences are not offered up for free after, and sometimes during, the events. Technology has allowed me to know Malcolm, without ever having met him.

This got me to wondering who knows me without ever meeting me. Who is acquainted with me because they read this blog or my facebook page or the other writing I do for some very small publications? What does it mean to know someone today? Or has there been a shift of the paradigm – is the goal now not to know someone, but to merely have an idea of how they think, what they think about, and what interests them? Is that enough?

When I think about curating a life and sharing it with others, the real art is in the edit, just like in writing. Knowing what to overlook and leave out is as valuable as the contents that remain because it gives those remaining a larger stage and greater emphasis. What remains is truly what our lives are about, the rest is just noise. It’s the cutting through that counts so that what’s left hangs together in a picture we can be proud of.

I also like this idea of curating life because it allows me to see where the holes are. For example if I step back from my life and look at what I’ve pasted up on this blog, and bucket the contents, I can immediately see what’s lacking. I’m not writing about volunteering in my community. If this blog truly reflects me, and the best of the insights I gain everyday, then I’m either not volunteering or the volunteer experiences I’m having are not fulfilling. This observation of my “museum of me” helps me start to consider whether volunteering is as important to me as it used to be, and if it is, it will encourage me to actively change my behavior to create fulfilling experiences in that realm.

This is the real benefit of these sharing technologies – to inspire us to action in “real life”. If we use them as a tool for self-reflection, to learn about ourselves the same way that we use them to learn about others, then they help us to step out into the world and build the collection of experiences and relationships that can truly lead us to happiness. These technologies allow us to step back and consider what it is we’re building with each passing day. As a result our lives on-line will have the added benefit of creating a richer lives out in the world.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Monday's new way of thinking - Barry Schwartz

I have been toying with the idea of putting themes to certain days I blog in an attempt to make sense of all these blog postings I create. I examine other blogs very closely everyday to see what they’re writing about, how they categorize their posts, etc. I’ve noticed that the ones I enjoy the most are the ones where I know what to expect. There’s a lot of this general on-line diary stuff happening in the blogosphere, though I get bored with that pretty quickly. I’d like to be more relevant than that.

I started to consider things I am most passionate about:
The creation and maintenance of happiness
Thought-provoking quotes
Green and sustainability, the environment
Relationships, etc.

If you google any on of these + blogs, hundreds will pop up. Thousands. I was worried that I may have nothing to contribute to these conversations. What do I have that would be unique or interesting or different? In a conversation via email with my friend, Dan, I realized what I could add, as well as one with my boss about a related topic, I stumbled on it. Action. I can add suggested to action to these conversations, and action, how we play out in our lives the information we take in, is always unique. It has to be because my life, examined holistically, is distinct from anyone else’s.

In going through this process, I was reminded again of a talk that Barry Schwartz, the author of a book entitled
The Paradox of Choice, gives at innovation conferences. He brings to light that all this choice we have in our society has increased our stress levels and made us less happy. He gives a multitude of examples, and at the end leaves us with the exact same sentiment he started with – more choices may intuitively lead us to believe that we can increase our happiness, though in actuality, it leaves us paralyzed.

I recently sent the link to Barry’s talk to my friend, Dan, who then wrote an email to me with the sentiment, “So what?” (said much nicer than that of course.) While it is good food for thought, what the heck do we DO about it? And that’s where I realized that writer give context to what’s happening around us. That’s my responsibility as a writer, and I have something to add here.

The “so what?” is that if the world is going to offer us limitless choices, then it is up to us to place our own boundaries in order to create happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of purpose. While I have known this for some time, it has taken me up until this moment to put the sentiment into action.

As an example, whenever someone asks me some question like, “If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?” I freeze completely. There’s so much I want to do with it that I don’t know where to start. Buy a house? Start a business? Pay off my school loans? Donate to charity? And if I donate to a charity, which one? And if I buy a house, where? If I start a business, what field would it be in? So much choice it makes my head hurt. And then I start to think, “a million dollars is not enough, I need at least 5 million!” And the ridiculousness goes on and on.

I take a deep breathe and give myself a small haven to say, “Christa, you make X amount of dollars in salary, and you have to prioritize what you want to do.” And I begin to calm down and consider what’s really important to me. Small goals, earned one day at a time through careful planning. Making less money than a million dollars actually eases my anxiety. The constraint, in this instance, at this point in my life, ironically helps. (And this is only because I do have enough money to pay my bills and have a bit of fun, too. If I couldn't make ends meet, then of course the constraint is too confining and I have to look at ways to incraese my earnings. This is exactly one of the big reasons I went to business school.)

This also happened to me when I was trying to decide what to do with my career after business school. I was a mess when given the line, “The world is your oyster.” In actuality, it’s not, and I am so grateful for that. I will never become a surgeon, a lawyer, or an astronaut. I am too selfish with my free time to be in banking or management consulting.
I really wanted to be in retail. I wanted to live in New York. I wanted a boss who was supportive of my growth and development. A turn-around would be preferable. And if my job was in the vein of creativity and innovation that would make my day. I got exactly what I asked for in my current job – it fits all of these criteria, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

Several years ago, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed that I couldn't keep up with all my friends from every period of my life. I felt like a bad friend, a bad person. And then a co-worker of mine at the time, much older, said to me that that's okay. People will cycle in and out of your life. Some you will always keep close, others are close now because you live in the same city or have the same job, and some will appear just exactly when you need them, or vice versa. Some will fall away all together. And this pattern has proven true. There are just so many hours in a day and choosing to whom to allocate those hours is critical to our happiness. The great thing about technology, like email, these personal blogs, Facebook, is that keeping in touch and staying close is made much easier, and in many ways richer.

In terms of my blog, there are a lot of things I could write about because I’m interested in many different topics. So each day of the week, I’ll post a piece on a specific interest of mine. (And maybe other random ones will sneak in as well if I'm feeling especially prolific!) You’ll know what to expect, I’ll have more of a context to write within, and hopefully this blog will become more useful.

From the title of this post, you’ll see that Mondays will be about innovation and trend, in other words "a new way of thinking". I am very lucky in that I am learning so much at my current job and it's proving so beneficial to me that I want to share it in the hope that it inspires people the way all of this knowledge inspires me. Today in particular focuses on Barry Schwartz, an innovation and trend expert. You can see his video from the TED conference at

So while there are a dizzying amount of choices out there no matter what concept we talk about, not all of the choices pertain to you. Carve out your priorities, what really matters to you, and then evaluate options based on those priorities. You’ll be amazed by the number of choices you will have to set aside for the sake of better options, and that limiting will increase your satisfaction with the end result.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where have all the honey bees gone?

I am a self-professed news junkie. I am one of those people that psychologists worry about – the ones who remain glued to their seats watching hour after hour of CNN or MSNBC, unable to tear themselves away from the screen depicting all of the misery and violence happening around the world. Some people may think this obsession, like most obsessions is unhealthy. I like to think of myself as abnormally aware of what’s happening in the world.

60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning are two of my favorite shows. It’s my dream to be one of the people that hunts around for obscure oddities in the world, reporting back to the rest of the world on how these seemingly unimportant events really have impact on our lives. For now, I’m just on the sidelines of my couch, feeding my inner nerd.

Tonight was no exception. Having my date cancel at the last minute, disappointing though sadly not surprising given his career choice that forces him to work insane hours, I was happily in my home watching 60 minutes over a bowl of comfort food.

Do you ever wonder exactly where your food comes from and all of the steps that went into getting it to your plate? Bees. That’s the answer in almost every case. 60 Minutes is reporting about the decimation of the honey bee population in America, and now I am as worried about that as I am about melting polar ice caps and the little penguins in South Africa who have had their population cut to 1/8 its size in 10 years. (This penguin story was reported early on the evening news with Lester Holt.)

Part of being an environmentalist is that you are a nervous wreck over the state of our planet. If you think about it too much, you truly could become paralyzed by the enormity of the problem. It turns out that there is a step-child industry of bee keepers who rent out their beehives all across the country. 40,000 bees to a hive. And they are the sole reason we even have fruits and vegetable in this country. It takes 30 trips by bees to a single flower per season to make a pumpkin grow. 30 per pumpkin! The unemployment rate of bees is a negative number. Probably a negative triple digit number.

60 Minutes interviewed a honey bee farmer who’s family has been in this business for 50 years. He’s been visiting his hives around the country and many of them have deserted their hives. Gone. Destroyed. There’s honey inside the hives, and even other bees not associated with the hive won’t come anywhere near it. The eggs and larve have been abandoned, a practice very atypical of honey bees. And there are no dead bees anywhere in sight. A scientist who studies honey bees says that the environment is contaminating the hives, driving the bees out. Normally honey bees can find their way back to their uniquely-scented hive within a two mile radius. They aren’t getting lost – they are running away.

This poor honey bee farmer has lost 80% of his bee population, and has spent $100’s of $1000’s of dollars replacing the bees. And he is not alone – honey bee farmers all over the country are experiencing the same problem. No one knows what’s going on and no one knows what to do.

So while we may be celebrating the mild weather we’ve had all fall, I am very worried. Our planet is going through an unnaturally frightening time. In a very real sense, if these bees go, our produce will be sky-high in cost, if not non-existent. So while we may think that the smallest creatures are unimportant when compared to us all-important humans, we need to be more thoughtful about our inter-dependency. In reality, we need the bees much more than they need us.

Innovation unleashed

There is a tendency in life, though particularly in business, to covet ideas, research, and innovations. R&D of any kind, personal or professional, is often kept under lock and key for fear someone may steal our brilliance. It's hard to make a counter argument, or at least it has been in the past. We are a people obsessed with patents and lawsuits.
However, there is a movement afoot, and there has been for a number of years, to make it passe to covet intellectual property. This movement takes the mantra that "information wants to be free." And the mantra is spreading. Put the New York Times on-line for everyone to see all of the content free, make wireless available for all, everywhere. And if you are working on an innovative concept, share it and you will be amazed by how much your concept will improve as a result of outside input. And your concept, will inspire the creativity of others.
My boss is bolted into the innovation and design worlds, having spent most of his life fiddling around with ideas, concepts, and cool "stuff". He has attended and spoken at innovation conferences with some of the greatest minds of our times, some you know and some you've never heard of. Their insights are too good to keep to myself and sadly aren't covered well by mainstream media. So I'm doing my part to spread the world.
Have a look at the following sites and the podcasts of speakers, and you'll have a tough time not be innovative, regardless of your field:

Are you incoming or post-peak?

There are a lot of ways to consider our careers, relationships, our financial situations. Because I work in the innovation and trend field, we are obsessed with the trend curve to study products and changes in the marketplace. Recently, my boss opened my eyes to using it to evaluate other ideas and states of being. You can place your career on the trend curve, and if you're post-peak, you better start thinking about how to re-invent yourself. The same can be said for your love life, for your finances, for where you make your home. And consider life in general - Am I jazzed about a new project I have going, be it professional, volunteer work, or a hobby? If all my projects are down-trending, it is time to start thinking about something new to get going.
The trend curve gives us a way to measure how life's going, and its greatest value is in giving us questions to ask ourselves to evaluate the current state of what we're trying to chart. I've been looking for a tool like this to think about the state of this very abstract idea of progress in life. It grounds the conversation for us, helps us make the choices more palpable, and gives us a historical context for consideration.
The piece it's missing in the reinvention arrow, the one that connects "post-peak" with "incoming". The curve makes it look as if there everything we are trying to chart will ultimately fade away into oblivion. This is not true so long as what we're charting can be remade, refreshed, or repurposed. Arguably, everything we are trying to chart has taken the roller-coaster ride of the trend curve many times before. Everything we have has already been.

Coffee remade

You've got hand it to Starbucks. Regardless of what anyone may think about the political corporate machine that made it okay to charge $2.50 for a cup of black coffee, they're incredible innovators.

I was waiting for my friend, Monika, so we could take a walk in the Central Park today (the weather has finally turned to autumn in NYC) and stopped into the Starbucks on the corner to grab a hot apply cider. Upon entering I saw a sign that intrigued me: "Embrace insomnia." This is what I've been saying all along to my fellow insomniacs! And to help you out, Starbucks has created a safe haven for us by being open 24 hours. Incredible. Genius.

In their recruiting efforts, Starbucks has placed posters of real baristas in windows who describe why they love working for Starbucks so much. If you've got a captive audience waiting in line, why not try to convince them to lend their expertise on the other side of the counter? Logical, yet innovative.

Starbucks has become known for their groovy tunes, and in partnership with itunes, they now help promote music in their shops by having baristas pick a song of the day, and making it possible to always know who's singing the song that's currently playing, and download it direct from itunes with the click of a button. Oh, and in cooperation with T-mobile, wireless Internet is free. Brilliant integration and partnership.

I'm waiting in line to get my cider, and the book The Kite Runner catches my eye. Attractively displayed, Starbucks is promoting the book and the movie. This is alongside their terrific gift assortment as well as the exclusive new release of Joni Mitchell's album.

Now that I've just spent close to $3 for a cup of heated up apply cider, I head over to what I'll call the accouterments bar to put some extra cinnamon in it and I have an array of well-designed literature in front of me: social responsibility pamphlet, t Mobile hotspot, Starbucks retail careers, and comment cards (mail it in without even having to put a stamp on it). Now I not only enjoy my beverage, I feel fantastic, even self-righteous, about having purchased it.

Why would you ever leave - hot drinks, food, books, music, a comfortable seat, a job, and a celebration of an illness that has kept me awake for most of my adult life. This is exactly the point....the longer you're here, the more you'll spend. Starbucks has laid waste to the idea that your core business is your only business. Arguably, they've switched the paradigm of retail. I'm not visiting for the product - I'm there for the atmosphere that only they can create for me. Talk about competitive advantage! I wonder how they'd feel about me setting up a cot in the corner.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Super(wo)man lives!

I had dinner last night with a friend of mine who introduced me to something new you can do in a cab: a quick change. She said to me "I did a superman in a cab today." I thought that meant she tripped and fell face first into the cab. Nope, it means changing your clothing while cabbing to your destination. I had never heard of such a thing.

You have to love NYC for these random acts of craziness. Would you ever, in any other city, consider undressing in front of a complete stranger in a moving vehicle? I personally think this is a fantastic idea to keep in your back pocket for the next time you need a good dare for someone.

My friend reasoned that it was dark and rainy, the driver was engrossed in his phone conversation (scary, I know), and she needed to get out of her suit and into something more comfortable quickly. You may be saying to yourself, "why didn't she just go to a Starbucks restroom to change - they're are plenty of those around." Now what fun would that be? Just goes to show you that NYC adds some flair to even the most mundane activities.

You find it when you're not looking...

a parking space in New York that is. I am amazed by how many times I can drive around for 20 minutes looking for a space, find one, literally one, that is 12 blocks from my apartment, and as I approach my building free spots multiply before my eyes. It's really incredible, and unexplainable.

I've also found this statement to be true recently for bicycle riders. I know that they are being better environmentalists than I by riding a bike instead of an SUV. I get that. I'm jealous of then. I'd love to pitch my car. However, why do they think riding a bike exempts them from every traffic law we have? They go the wrong direction, cut you off, run red lights, disobey stop signs, and the list goes on. I just don't get it...how do they justify that behavior and then get angry at motorists? I'm longing for the day when those police officers that lurk around my neighbordhood give a ticket to a bicyclist or a cab who thinks they're above the traffic laws.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cereal's like the future

I feel alone and overwhelmed by the enormousness of this indefinite time frame known as "the future". Even if I am perfectly happy, thinking about the future can turn me into a whirling dervish. This is why I do yoga, to calm my mind. This is why I stay as busy as possible, to keep myself in control. If I have a task at hand, then I can put my energy into that task. My mind is developing remarkable work-arounds to my distraction efforts. I'll all of a sudden be walking down the street, finishing doing something or thinking about something, and next in the cue is always, always thinking about the future. "Hi self, Glad you took care of buying milk at the corner store. Now back to the matter at hand: the future." "Good thing you worked out what you are going to say to Sleepy's when you have to call them again to straighten out your bill. Time to think about the future, again." And so it goes.

The funny thing about the future is that no matter how well you have it figured out, it just keeps coming. No such thing as a future tourniquet. If the future is coming, and it always is, then I'm worrying.

When I think about people from history that have exhibited calm, even in the face of great adversity, I think of the Dalai Lama, of Ghandi, and of Abraham Lincoln. It's no wonder then that Mr. Lincoln would have said, ""The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time." So even if I am worried about 5 years down the line, next year, or next week, I only have to deal with it one small piece, a day, at a time.

The task of the future is too heavy, too much to bear today. Of course it is - I am one person, in one moment of time. I started to think about all the things I'll do repetitively for the rest of my life and what it would be like to do them all in one moment. Let's take how many bowls of cereal I'm going to eat between now and the day I die. I am hoping to live to be an ancient woman - my palm reader, Miss Susan, says this is highly likely. Let's assume she is correct on that count. I also love cereal. I mean, really love cereal. If I could find a way to justify eating it for every meal, I would. So if I live 60 more years, that's roughly 3000 weeks. If I eat about 4 bowls of cereal a week, that's 12,000 bowls. Well, if ate all of those bowls RIGHT NOW, I'd probably die, or be very, very ill. Anything taken in such massive amounts is not good for us, and thinking about the future is no exception.

What Mr. Lincoln was saying is what we hear dietitians saying all of the time: the key is moderation. Take the future in tiny pieces, a bit at a time. Spoonful by delicious spoonful.

The above picture can be found at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/np/fnrb/cereal1004.jpg

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A place to call happy

The idea of happy-nomics is still lurking around in my mind. I consider it constantly. This week I looked back at my career kaleidoscope that I created from my friend Susan's book, the Right Job Right Now. (It's listed on my blog in "my favorite books" section). And I realized that everything I had been looking for in a job, I found in my current position, and then some. Today I received an email from a woman at company that had interested me while I was still at Darden. Just now, the perfect position at the company had opened up and she wanted to know if I would be interested. I politely declined and offered to send the posting to friends who may know of someone interested. I have never in my life declined an interview. Never. I had arrived at happiness.

So just when I have it all figured out, and I smiling very proud of myself of how well I'd chosen my current job, how wise I had become since my last full-time job, I read a quote by Sydney H. Harris. "Happiness is a direction, not a place." So while yes I am moving along the path of happiness, I will not actually ever get to some place called "Happy Land". I may be skipping down Happy Lane right now, though if there anything in this world that is certain, it is change. This was a far deeper discovery than I ever thought I'd find in 7 small words.

Though in some ways, this also takes the pressure off. I am always hoping to arrive at Happy Land, Inner Peace Land, Satisfaction Land. It's true in my relationships, in my career, even in my search for a home. Isn't it easier to discover a general direction rather than a specific place. The best we can hope for is to be on the road of happiness and where it's going is any one's guess. It could be going to many different places. There's no such thing as "I've arrived." What we should be thrilled to find is "I'm going the right way for me, right now."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Inspiration by image

I am most moved by beautiful words, though increasingly I am also impressed with images, especially when those images are taken to create a narrative. Last week, I watched Pop!Tech (http://www.poptech.com/) on-line as the conference was streamed completely free by Yahoo. One of the speakers was Jonathan Harris, a photographer who lives in New York City. He built a photographic narrative of a whale hunt in Alaska. The candence of his picture taking mirrored the level of excitement, energy, and the beat of his heart during the hunt. Quite an incredible idea, and the pictures tell the story better than I think any words could do.

His talk made me realize there is a time for tell and a time for show. That art and its creation can and should be inextricably linked to the body and to the world around us. Pictures can contain energy, they live, they breathe. There is something to be said for great story telling, for capturing moments in time and then paginating them to form a continuous stream.

In my lifetime, it is likely that I will never be able to experience a traditional, subsistence whale hunt, or any other countless journeys that Jonathan takes us on. I'm sure glad he has his camera so that I can relive pieces of those spectacular scenes.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Move Toward Sameness

For the first time in this blog, I am writing from a location other than my home in New York. I am in Portland, Maine, with my good friend, Dan, who will be guest-blogging within the next week. After driving 8 hours from New York, we arrived here very late - around 1:30am. We got up this morning, had some breakfast and headed out to downtown Portland to do some sight-seeing.

While there were quaint little shops, and some one-of-a-kind hand-made items here and there, Maine really had not struck us any different than New Jersey. It is so similar in fact that when we pulled into the Sunoco Station to get gas this morning. I hesitated for a split second before recognizing that I needed to get out of the car and pump my own gas. (In New Jersey, it is illegal to pump your own gas - an attendant always does it for you.)

In my mind this begs the question, "why travel?" Granted both New Jersey and Maine are in the Northeast, though you would imagine that 8 hours apart cultures would vary to some extent. This lack of change gave me pause; maybe travel isn't worth it unless we are traveling internationally, or into nature to place such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

There are many good reasons to travel with a companion; though I would say that in the past I have been much more successful traveling alone than with company. However, that has much more to do with the fact that I am truly lousy at picking travel partners. Dan, is a great exception. He's the perfect travel buddy - played DJ the entire trip, is a good conversationalist, is unfailingly optimistic, and tells me to knock it off in a very kind way when I lapse into my neuroses. As we were taking a rest back in the hotel before dinner, Dan reclined on his bed and said "the great thing about traveling is that it gives you permission to completely slack off." I would never have realized this on my own. I am by nature a manic traveler - I must see everything, do everything, try everything, or else I feel I've wasted my money. In on sentence, Dan gave me some food for thought.

I don't take time to slow down when I'm at home. If I did, I'd miss out. I write in my blog while I read a magazine, eat dinner, watch the news, and create yet another to-do list. It's maddening, and it's my fault that it's maddening. There is much to be said for slowing down, serial tasking rather than multi-tasking, and then choosing to not task at all for a bit. Travel, regardless of where we go, lets us step away from our lives and our responsibilities and just be in the world. It's a different lens through which to view living, even if that living looks similar to life at home.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The first 100 days of an MBA grad

I was recently asked to write an article for my alumni newspaper. The article had to be cut down quite a bit due to space constraints. Here is the article in its entirety.

"First off, a big hello from the other side to my second year friends and to those first years whom I had the pleasure to meet during Darden Days and various other “please come join our community” events where we tried our best to woo you into accepting at Darden. I’m glad you’re there, and in many ways I am very sorry I am not there with you. Darden is one of the most incredible places I have ever had the privilege to call home.

Can it really be 100 days since I graduated? How did the days get by me so quickly? I have done my best blocking and tackling job, and still time is slipping by at a dizzying pace. Such is the life of a retailer (me).

I graduated without a job – so if you are still in the hunt, don’t despair. I moved to NYC with no job, no money, and a desire to be in an industry that has zero interest in MBAs, or so I was told. And now I live in my favorite area of Manhattan on Riverside Park, work for the best boss I’ve ever had (he’s so brilliant, insightful, and unfailingly supportive and kind that I’m considering asking him, and his equally wonderful wife, to adopt me), and got a dream job at a toy company. I’m not kidding – sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

If you want the details of my job hunt, I’m glad to share them. (The story is a bit too long for the purposes of this article so if you want the full details or you need someone’s success story to keep you motivated, please email me. Seriously – I check my email obsessively.) You can also ask Kellogg Leliveld – without her, I wouldn’t have gotten to my current company. In short, I can tell you I squeezed every last drop of learning out of Darden that I could get, I researched and contacted companies like a mad woman, I kept smiling, even when I felt like crying (which was often), I refused to take a job that wasn’t perfect for me, and I had an absolutely miserable summer between my first and second years – the worst summer on record. And now I am so grateful for that miserable summer because it forced me to stop compromising in every area of my life, personal and professional. In these first 100 days, I have learned that comprising your happiness for what you think you should do and what others think you should do is a road that can only lead to a very unhappy life and a job that ultimately you will hate.

Joël graciously provided me with some talking points, which I am very appreciative of, so I am going to answer those now:

I had a lot of fears when going through Darden, when graduating, and when taking a job. I was really afraid that I wasn’t up to the challenge. Darden asked more from me than I ever asked from myself, and as a harsh self-critic, that is saying a lot. And what I learned through my interview process with my now boss is that we have to commit. It is incredible what developing a strong, true, deep sense of commitment will do – it will eradicate fear. I am someone completely obsessed with worry and fear. I know what you’re going through. And what I was missing all along was commitment to asking for and getting exactly what I wanted. Don’t do that. Take out a piece of paper, right now, and write out your perfect job, your perfect boss, your perfect whatever-you-want, and refuse to take anything less. Make a sealed promise to yourself to get exactly what is on that paper.

Fun at work:
I work for a retailer as the Senior Analyst Manager of Trend and Innovation, which is to say I am a nerdy version of Tom Hanks in Big. I have fun about 10 hours a day (and my boss is horrified by how much I work! Can you believe that?) We are charged with infusing the company with creativity, and then daily making the business case for innovation and re-invention. We are actively helping to turn the ship around. I run to work every morning, and have made shopping a scientific experiment and a sport (which is the only way I can stand to be in a store longer than 5 minutes. Secretly, I hate shopping, which I’m learning makes me a good retailer.)

Why Darden mattered:
I got a do-over by going to Darden. I was a job switcher in every sense of the word. I was so non-traditional that some people wondered what in the world I was doing at Darden and what in the world I would ever do after. That’s okay. And when I turned down a very lucrative job in a top-rate training program with one of the largest companies in the world, some people told me I was crazy. Absolutely nuts. And that’s okay, too. I knew me better than they did. There’s a great video on You Tube that gets me through criticism like this; it’s the 60-second ad that Apple ran in their “Think Different” campaign. It’s their salute to the Crazy Ones – have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dvn_Ied9t4M. This little clip keeps me going. Crazy ones are the ones who make a difference. “The right answer” is not always essential, and many times is counter-productive. Darden showed me that humility, creativity, and diligence will get you everywhere.

And finally a word about toy recalls:
My boss was recently put in charge of managing and communicating safety initiatives across the enterprise. Right now, he is up in Toronto walking our Canadian stores with the CEO and President, and preparing to address the Board tomorrow morning on the issue of toy safety. Because we are privately held, the Board is made up entirely of private equity investors. When they did their investment analysis, I can guarantee that they did not account for tens of millions of toys being recalled by the world’s largest toy manufacturer right before the Christmas shopping season. My boss and I have agonized over the presentation deck for weeks, and now it’s show time.

We will be a better company for going through this, even as every analyst on Wall Street speculates about what this will do to the holiday shopping season. We will have better relationships throughout our supply chain as a result. We will hold ourselves to higher standards of responsibility and accountability. I have had a front-row seat to the end of an era in this industry – the days of cheap product without consequences are over. Manufacturers can no longer squeeze overseas production facilities – there is nothing left for them to give. We thought we were in the toy business; we’re not. Fundamentally, we are in the trust business, and it will take some work to regain that trust and to use it to define who we are and what we mean to our guests. It’s about re-invention and re-purposing, and it is the most critical work a company can ever do. And we’re doing it.

Not bad for the first 100 days. We do 80% of our revenue between October 1st and December 31st so I am sure the next 100 will be just as eventful! Stay tuned – this is going to be exciting.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Running Toward Sunshine

I live in an apartment just off of Riverside Park. Every time I take a walk there, I see kids playing in one of the many playgrounds. The other day I saw one dashing away from her mom toward the sunny side of the jungle gym. It made me think of how often we go running toward light, toward something that will reveal to us some kind of warmth, comfort, and joy.

In this spirit, I went to see H.H. the Dalai Lama on Sunday with my friend, Rob. I have had a hard time writing this piece for this blog party because I am afraid that no words I am able to express will lend the kind of simplistic beauty that his message sends. However, after reading in the paper today about China's threat to destroy relations with the U.S. if H.H. is given the Congressional Gold Medal tomorrow at the White House made me realize I must spread his message. We all must. As he says, "dialogue is the only way."

His most incredible attribute is without doubt his unbridled humility. He sat center stage in lotus pose, with matching visor because the lights were so bright, and spoke to us for two hours. No notes, no teleprompter. It was as if we had been invited to his living room to ask our questions and tell him our fears. He made very clear that if we came to be fixed, to be enlightened, that we would be very disappointed. He could only tell us how he saw things. This was ironic because just as my friend, Rob, and I entered Radio City, I was thinking of the spiritual song whose verses end "oh lord, fix me."

H.H. made clear that he does not think prayer fixes anything. There is no magic in it. It will not stir change. The only way forward is effort, failure. More effort, more failure. And again, and again. The only way forward, quite simply, is to keep going.

Fundamentally, he believes we may all be non-believers because for most of our lives, including his own, we do not practice our faith at every moment. It is in the background. We are human.

His talk was entitled Peace and Prosperity. He explained to us that this awful gap between rich and poor in the world must be closed. We will never all have peace if we don't all have prosperity. It is almost as if the two must be achieved jointly. Not one before the other.

Despite his professing that he does not know the answers to most of our difficult situations in the world, people asked. They wanted to know how he felt about Burma. He replied, "This is very difficult. Very sad. The monks there wear robes similar in colors to mine. And I don't know how to help them. I don't know."

He does believe fervently that war is outdated. That while we see so much tragedy and hardship, the world is getting better. He says there is no cause for hopelessness. There are only pockets of distress. By and large, the world is vastly improved from when he was a young man.

Exactly two hours after he began he put up his hands and said, "well that's it. Until our next meeting, take care." And with that simple statement, he stood up, bowed with his hands in prayer position, and bid us farewell. No fanfare, no excess. Just, "until we see each other again." And I believe that moment will come. I really will see him again.

The thing I remember most about him is his rich deep laugh that enveloped all of us, took us into his comfort, and held us for a little while. A man who has suffered so much, who will undoubtedly never see his homeland again in this lifetime despite his constant effort to free his people, was by and large a happy, even joyful, man. And it made me think that regardless of my hardships in life, they are nothing compared to his. If he could laugh, and mean in, then so can I.

A few years ago I read H.H.'s book "Happiness at Work". And at the end of the book the author was looking for some piece of pure wisdom. He asked the Dalai Lama how he could get up every day and work so tirelessly with seemingly little results. What would he do if he was not able to free his people in his lifetime? "Well, we will do the best we can." And that was that. He would do his best. It's all he could promise. And that small phrase gave me freedom. No matter what terrible loss or sadness or disappointment I may suffer, I had to know in my heart that the most I could was my best. If H.H. asked no more of himself, and he is enlightened, then how could I ask more of myself.

There was the sunshine I was looking for. I didn't have to run toward it. It has been with me all along. It is with all of us, at every moment.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Knowing our strength

I couldn't help myself. A brand new Target store opened close to work, and my boss asked me to poke around at retail stores on Thursday afternoon for a project we're working on. It was pouring rain,but I didn't get wet. On top of being an absolutely gorgeous store, the new Target has a covered parking garage. I could hardly believe it. $144 later I left Target, and felt good about it. And I NEVER feel good about spending money.

Because of the rain, it took 2 hours for me to get home. And by a remarkable stroke of luck, there was a parking space right as I exited the West Side Highway, three blocks from my apartment. I pulled in, and was thrilled that I would not have to hunt for a space on the flooded streets. I bought a few groceries while at Target, including some perishables, and I wanted to get them inside. I had forgotten that I bought 9 bags worth of groceries, and that my apartment is not only 3 blocks away, but three blocks away - uphill. I struggled uphill, stopping every half block to switch arms and give myself a little break. Thankfully it was only drizzling. It wasn't until halfway home that I realized this was a very bad idea, and to turn back would be just as far as it would be to get home. So, I kept on toward home.

I am sure that I looked ridiculous. I got more than one strange look from the doormen that line Riverside Drive. Neighborhood folks regarded me suspiciously, even though I was wearing business casual clothing. I guess it was covered up by all the bags. At least they were Target bags so I looked like a stylish crazy person.

Once I got inside I let out a big side and fell on my couch laughing. I always think I am stronger than I am, and then through sheer stubbornness I push through to do what I should not have attempted in the first place. The first step to recovery is recognizing you have a problem. So I'm finally at step one.

When I do things like this, I tend to think that everyone in the world would never do anything so ridiculous. That's one of the reasons I moved to New York City. No matter how nuts you think you are, there's always someone just a little more nuts right around the corner.

Today on the subway, a woman entered the train with a giant planting pot. I could have taken a nap in it is was so large. When she entered the train, there were very few people so it wasn't too hard for her to manuveur. By the time she needed to exit the train, it was packed. So she gave fair warning that she would be getting off the train, and everyone just started to laugh outloud. A strapping man helped her lift the pot above everyone's heads and then off she went dragging the pot behind her. How she planned to get through the turnstile I wasn't sure. But I was grateful for the laugh.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How do we escape consumption?

I laugh when my friend Kelly says she'd like to find a boyfriend who doesn't suck her will to live. It's only funny because it's true - I know what she means. I have strange phases of love, regardless of whether or not my love is a man, a job, a hobby, a piece of writing. I become so enchanted with my love that I literally wear myself out. Then I fall over in exhaustion, and inevitable sadness and disappointment, only to repeat the process once I feel stronger again.

Today I felt a little bit better when I read that even Mother Teresa struggled with this idea when she said that "what we need is to love without getting tired." And she won the Nobel Peace Prize. If someone up for sainthood is having trouble figuring this out, then why am I so hard on myself for having difficulty with love?

The consideration of how to love without wearing out is something I catch myself thinking about very often as of late. I'll be walking along in my neighborhood or in the park or to meet friends, and all of a sudden I'll find myself thinking that I'm not ready again for love, of anything. I'm not ready again to be consumed by it. And then I remember how intoxicating and magical it can be.

I do love my job, though I manage to keep it in check. I think about how I can improve all the time. I stop in to competitors to check around. I mull over how what I'm learning will fit into my life down the road, into the big picture.

I love my neighborhood and my apartment, despite the fact that I'm spending so much on rent. It is a cozy, comfortable haven for me. It's quiet and beautiful, while also being filled with conveniences that make every day life easier.

I love my friends and family, though I am careful to take time for myself when I can because I know of my inability to turn down going out and having fun. Luckily my huge impending loan payments are making me mindful of how I spend my money, and more importantly how I save it.

The piece that still alludes me, that still has me wincing when I think of it, is starting another romantic relationship. Sometimes I think it's past disappointments or failures that have me running scared. And sometimes I think it's that all-too-memorable pain that my relationships have caused. Though these are only excuses, and not reasons. What really has me scared is that I really love my life, and my independence, and my ability to dream unencumbered by responsibility to someone else. I can go anywhere, doing anything, spend time with anyone, or completely alone if that's what I need. The question becomes not whether I can love without growing tired; it's can I learn how to love without losing who I am now that I've become a person I am really happy to be.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Did you say there's meat in my mojito?

Nuance is on my mind today. I had brunch with my friend, Dan, over the weekend and I was explaining to him that during dinner with my very sweet and handsome neighbor, I had sometimes had trouble with his accent. He would say a word like "axe" and I thought he was saying the letter "x". He would say phrases like "my brother is in the army" and I would here "my brother's my enemy". The more this happens the more embarrassing it gets.

Dan said he had a similar experience when he first met his friend, Giel, who is from France. Giel would say a phrase like "mojitos are great. They have "meat" in them." And Dan would look at him with a face of confusion. They would go back and forth for a little while until the reverted to spelling out words, or in my case, I would make hand motions to be understood, despite the fact that both people are speaking the same language. And invariably, these conversations end with the person coming out of the fog of confusion saying something like "oh, MINT in the mojitos." We seek to be understood.

I've noticed that this also happens to me lately with emails. I immediately assume all emails are hostile until I see them laden with smiley faces and xo's. I'm exaggerating here (slightly) though I have a really uncanny knack for assuming that anyone emailing me is actually yelling at me. Then I read a "decidedly" mean-spirited email to an unbiased friend, and that friend will say, "um, Christa, I think you're completely making up that tone of voice. It sounds fine to me." And I reply, "oh! Now I see."

I wonder how responsible nuance and mutual misunderstanding are for where our lives end up. Do we infer things that are not there, and in turn walk away from situations that we should have stayed in, or vice versa? How do we clear up this business of nuance? How do we hear what's really there, and really isn't there though it should be?

There's a case to be made for spelling out the world as we see it, and having the humility and grace to accept correction when we misstep. This is hard word, and it takes time and patience, on both sides. I'm making a pact to listen more completely and more openly, and making myself understood in the way I wish to be understood. Again I am reminded that constant, clear communication can make all the difference, or at the very least keep meat out of my mojito.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Truly awful

My natural culinary inclination is toward Italian cooking, mostly because I was raised with it and those ingredients make sense to me. They’re comforting, and they remind me of simpler times. I am a good cook because I love eating, and I have a need to eat ALL THE TIME! I have my regular dishes, what I consider my tried and true standards. Lately though I’ve become more adventurous in my tiny hovel of a kitchen. And the results have been, well, awful.

I’ve been experimenting with recipes that combine different cuisines and flavors, especially ones that on the surface sound counter-intuitive to me. Though in my efforts to keep an open mind and try new things, even if they sound strange, I have been giving the weirdest of combos a shot.

My mistakes have begun by thinking that every recipe that is published must be somewhat decent. After all, publishing is expensive (not to mention competitive) and supposedly these recipes have been tested before going to print. I am learning that these assumptions are complete fallacies, and my poor taste buds, not to mention my stomach, are paying the price. I am also realizing just now that I have been watching too many episodes of Iron Chef America. The other day a culinary master made ice cream out of – are you ready for this – asparagus. I’m not kidding. And the judges raved about how delicious it was. This has completely screwed up my sense of cooking logic.

To be fair, I have been making tiny substitutions – kosher salt for sea salt, soy milk for cow’s milk. Nothing drastic. Grocery shopping in NYC is challenging to say the least so if I can keep from making an extra trip and making due with what I have on hand, I cheat a bit. Still, that is no excuse for the simply horrible things I have turned out from my stove top and oven in the past two weeks.

An example: I found a recipe in one of my favorite magazines for sweet and sour chicken with a twist. Using apricots for the sweet part, and onion soup mix and vinegar for the salty and sour. I winced a little when I saw it but thought I should give it a shot. If asparagus could be made into ice cream, then surely this odd mélange of flavors could create a sweet and sour chicken. Nope. I’m sad to say that it may have just been the most disgusting chicken dish on record. Straight from the oven and into the trash.

The other additive into this situation is that I absolutely refuse to ever be discouraged by anything. I was determined not to lose my battle for home-grown food adventure because of one little silly chicken recipe. So this week I found another odd-on-the-surface recipe in yet another one of my favorite magazines. This one for warm red cabbage salad. It looked lovely in the photograph. A beautiful purple color. Very autumnal. And I hate cabbage (another side effect of growing up in an Italian household), so maybe this recipe will make me like this good for you vegetable. Give me a new outlook on it.

I packed up a serving for lunch today and my stomach is furious. It’s actually screaming at me right now. “How could you do this to me AGAIN???? Didn’t you learn your lesson from that chicken? Are you trying to kill me???” I’m feeling bad. Very, very bad. Red cabbage is not my friend. I have developed a new disdain for it. I am nearly through my small travel pack of Tums.

There are times and places meant for adventure. My kitchen is not one of them. It’s back to my Italian mavens, Giada and Rachel Ray, for me. I will leave the combining of strange and exotic flavors to the experts in New York’s fantastic restaurants that I love to frequent.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What do we not see?

I am now engrossed in a book about vampires. A side effect of working at a toy company is that I have become quite interested in all things kids and tweens. And that includes young adult fiction. Stephanie Meyer has written a trilogy of books, the last of which is Eclipse. I did not read the first two books - I actually didn't know it was a trilogy until about 100 pages in. And now, I'm hooked. Yes, I should be reading books like "Leading Minds" and "The Innovator's Dilemma" which actually relate to my everyday work. Instead, I'm spending my time wondering why vampires sometimes kill humans or turn them into other vampires, all with a bite. I don't get it - why does the same action produce two different results?

Maybe it's just my Halloween state-of-mind. (I actually adore the holiday). While I don't believe in vampires and werewolves, I do know that there are energies around us all the time. There are systems operating in our world which we cannot detect with even the most sophisticated technology. So once I get frustrated thinking about the whole vampire conundrum, I begin thinking about what might be around me every day that I don't see.

When we talk about serendipity, what is it that's really causing these wonderful coincidences? And when we seem to be able to do nothing but get in our own way, so much so that we think we may have been better off just staying in bed some days, what invisible hand is actually responsible? And I think these same energies may serve to connect us to those who have gone before us, those who we will never have the opportunity to meet in this life, though we may have met them on some other plane.

My friend, Ken, told me a story about two beautiful huskies who literally just showed up at his door one morning, as if they belonged there. He had never seen them before in his neighborhood and he has not seen them since. He called me to say he thinks he may be crazy, but he had this overwhelming feeling that they had been there before.

I have most certainly felt this way about people. There are times when I meet someone and instantly there is a connection, as if I have known these people my whole life. Or many times I have visited places for what I think is the first time, and then I somehow am able to navigate them with the greatest of ease, despite my terrible sense of direction. I know these places, I have walked these streets, it all makes sense to me. The same has happened to me with books. I read some and it's as if I know this story so well, as if the author is writing my life for me. And it happens in writing all the time. These characters show up in your life, with their own story to tell, and you coax it out of them, and write it all down.

Despite the initial chill that these thoughts sometimes bring to me, I also experience a good amount of comfort in this. It makes me feel connected. It makes me believe in magic, and who doesn't need a little magic in their lives? Isn't that what keeps us all going?

The picture above can be found at http://7art-screensavers.com/screens/magic-tree-clock/magic-tree-clock.jpg

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What's in front of us

I've spent some time recently doing some long-range planning on my life. With so many people around me starting businesses, starting school, moving to far-flung locations, trading in one job for another, I cannot help but spend my long walks in the park imagining life. New York City, as exciting as it is, can be a distracting place. It seems that everywhere you look, there is something new and interesting going on. There is another road to take, another person to meet, another thing to do. And before I know it, I've completely forgotten where it is I'm going.

Last weekend I walked from Chinatown to the Upper West Side. For those of you who are not too familiar with New York, that's roughly seven miles. Most of it I walked with my friend, Dan, and we talked about direction and vision and taking advantage of being young and having the freedom to capitalize on possibility. And that's the thing about New York: possibility really is everywhere. It's so abundant that it's very difficult to discern exactly which possibility is the right one right now. And so, we wait. For inspiration, for a sign, for a directional arrow to get us going.

Paul Gauguin is one of my favorite painters and when asked about how he envisioned his paintings before putting brush to canvas, he said "I shut my eyes in order to see." There is too much fear in the world, too much intimidation, too much competition. If all we did was look out for direction, we'd never find our way.

So rather than evaluating possibilities, I am considering that really we just have to make our own. There are places I go to shut my eyes in order to see, which is to say places I go to imagine. And sometimes that's in a museum or Riverside or Central Park. Sometimes its on my yoga mat. Or snuggled up in my warm, comfy bed with a book that lights up my sense of wonder. Often it's to this computer screen to put together words that communicate what I'm thinking about, what I'm feeling, and what I'm wishing for. I shut my eyes, open my ears, and let my fingers dance in order to see life as I want it to be.
The picture above is "Tahitian Landscape" by Paul Gauguin, 1891.