A Slice of Unity

This is piece #2 of 21 in 21, a collaborative publishing project by husband-and-wife team Matthew D. Futter and Meredith Silverman, as we write about a series of 21 things we look forward to being different in 2021. (Read parts #1 here and also here if you missed them.) Throughout the year, we will publish pieces on the same subject, but from our own unique perspectives. You can find us both at the links above.

 

It’s hard to think of what else to say about our new President and Vice President that people haven’t already said for the last several weeks.

Since the election, which was called on November 7th (never mind that it was contested until January 6th), a lot of people have been writing their thoughts on the President, and I am far from the first to bring mine. There’s no need to rehash how his COVID-19 actions and plans date back to January of 2020. Or that a moderate President can be a truly transformative one. Or why I am much more confident about his experience than I am concerned about his age. Or that even if President Biden had to leave office after one term, due to health concerns – and he is transparent about his health and shows no significant signs of any decline – he chose a Vice President to accompany him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who is also experienced and impressive in her own right.

As the United States of America is (almost by definition) a patchwork of incredible diversity, so too has President Biden begun to build his own Cabinet and other leadership teams from a cross-section that represents more of this country than has any President who has gone before him.   

Many Presidents, and certainly our previous one, built their inner circles and installed department heads, almost entirely of white men. This is a new day. Joe Biden knows that we need something better. He stepped into office and immediately spoke of uniting the country. Sure, easier said than done. But he still stated his goal, and he’s working to build this team with transparency and diversity, and that is a plan that we can all get behind, and a team of which we can all be proud to be a part.

I am relieved and excited to have a President in office who speaks of the good of the country, not at the expense of the world, but as part of our global community. I am delighted that, in his first hours in office, he began to rescind some of the more alienating policies that his predecessor had implemented. America does not stand alone. We shouldn’t need to, and we shouldn’t want to.

The Americas, in fact, make up less than 30% of the planet’s landmass, and they only host around 13% of the world’s population on those two continents. For the United States of America, an even smaller piece of only one continent, to claim to stand above or apart from the rest of our planet, is arrogance of the highest order and unrealistic in the extreme.

The office of the POTUS has long been known as the most powerful leadership position in the world. So it brings me joy, hope, and no small degree of comfort, when the latest holder of that office sees leadership as a responsibility to those who follow, and not a mantle of might to wear at the expense of those around him.

Our President was never meant to be a dictator. He is, as Dave Kovic put it so well, only a temporary employee of the people. As the Chief Executive Officer of a company may have to answer to a Board of Directors, so does the President have to answer to the citizens. And if you install the right kind of person in that office for four (or eight) years, then you can have every reason to expect that they will serve the needs of the many and not just the one.

Joe Biden’s record of public service is long and transparent. I’m not saying the man is a saint — and as a good Catholic, he would never assume that title, either! He knows he is fallible, and so we can accept him as a man who is still learning at the age of 78 and will continue to learn throughout the remainder of his career in public service. That’s a sign of an excellent leader. Knowing what you don’t know is a sign of wisdom, too. Socrates famously said this centuries ago, and it remains true today.

Vice President Harris has not been in public service for as long as President Biden has, but that means she has even more years to learn and grow and help people. Help guide us to a better place. Help us build a better country than we have now. The work has already begun! And if we all keep an eye on this North Star together, we are far more likely to stay on course.

equality, equity, dignity, honesty, truth, transparency, courage, kindness
They all point us in the right direction.

A better world is well worth the work it takes to make it real. I’m honored to pick up all the tools I have and follow these two through the trenches to help build it.

Curbside Pickup Is Here to Stay… Right??

Welcome to 21 in 21: a collaborative publishing project by Matthew D. Futter and Meredith Silverman! This is the first in a series of 21 things we look forward to being different in 2021. From the mundane to the profound, whether global or local in nature, we will write about each item (same subject, separate pieces) and publish on our blogs throughout the year. You can find us both at the links above.

 

One of the simpler things that joined our common parlance in 2020 is the concept of curbside pickup at stores. I doubt anyone reading this in the United States even had to consider what that phrase means now. A year ago, it might have drawn frowns of disbelief or even confusion, but now this service is offered more places than it’s not.

Not long ago, I saw a meme about Aldi, pointing out ways that they have been “working in the future” for years now. Five points were listed, including renting carts (for a quarter you get back when you return it) to keep employees from having to chase them down all day and night, to giving cashiers a stool to sit on while they ring up groceries (industry studies have actually shown that cashiers are more efficient while seated). While of course Aldi has also introduced curbside pickup as a safety measure, it’s no wonder why they waited until there was a solid need for this update.

Curbside pickup undoubtedly costs retailers plenty (in upfront costs and lost business from impulse buys, at least). But the overall advantages may keep it around for the long term.

Let’s consider five points of our own about why curbside pickup is SUCH a good idea, hopefully one that remains in the new equilibrium we are all still working to find.

  1. Shopper safety

Obviously physical distancing, along with some new in-store practices, helps limit everyone’s exposure to each other, limiting the spread of common infections as well as a novel one that has dominated headlines for nearly a year now. Taking this to the next level — preventing shoppers from needing to enter the store at all — naturally extends this gain even further.

Employees have less contact with shoppers this way, so they benefit, too. Healthy employees can continue to work, and healthy shoppers can continue to buy. Everyone wins!

  1. Disabled shoppers are on more equal footing now.

Almost every storefront I have seen, large or small, has extra parking close to the doors, designated for people with limited mobility. This is a design feature with which I grew up, and it just makes sense.

Curbside pickup, where shoppers need not exit their vehicles at all to receive their purchases, brings even more equity to this process.

My father suffered ten years of continually-declining mobility at the end of his life, due to a disease that slowly and inexorably atrophied his muscles. He kept a balanced view of this at most times, simply adapting to whatever new cautions or limitations were necessary to keep going.

Long before the current pandemic developed, my father LOVED curbside pickup! Not all of the stores he once frequented offered it, but those that did earned ever more of his business, because they made it so fast and easy for him to get whatever he needed.

Between better digital ordering and pickup in their own cars, I hope that more shoppers are able to access a wider variety of stores these days, and more easily, too.

  1. A little more exercise is good for staff, especially in a country where we don’t usually let cashiers even have a stool (except at Aldi, of course, on their well-researched European model).

This one might sound strange, but I have a reason for it. Really.

I have been in the workforce for decades. During that time, I have worked in a grocery store (on my feet all day), in an office (seated all day), in a warehouse (moving 75%, driving/sitting 25%), and in the office of a factory (sitting 80%, moving 20%). In those four positions, I learned that standing still all day can be difficult and dissatisfying, while sitting all day is exhausting for other reasons.

My best balance comes with less sitting and more walking. Happily, I have this at my current company, with a convertible standing desk and lots of zipping about in my work (almost all on foot). This keeps me limber while avoiding fatigue, and I imagine the best case for most retail employees probably falls along the same lines.

Moving in and out of the store, either with carts or carrying only lightweight packages, helps keep the heart and lungs in shape. In decent weather, sharing time between conditioned air (and comfort) to natural air (and health) is probably beneficial overall. And in worse weather? Well, that’s what coats, hats, and umbrellas are for… and every curbside employee is probably wearing some sort of gloves these days already, so there’s that, too!

  1. Introverts win!

Okay, now you MUST think I’m joking. Unless you are an introvert yourself, in which case you know I am completely serious, and you’re probably grateful someone else gets it.

Introverts, by their nature, are drained of energy by interacting with other people. Going to a store might involve a greeter, countless other shoppers, employees asking if they can help you, a cashier, a bagger, and even security personnel. That is a LOT of interactions for just a single shopping trip, and it can wipe out an introvert for hours if not all day.

Extroverts may not understand this at all, feeling energized by engaging with more people. But introverts have the opposite experience.

Limiting contact to just one store employee, maybe through a car window and a smartphone app, can save an enormous amount of energy for introverts, giving them more to use on the rest of their day. Yes, I know, humans are social creatures by nature, and we do need each other. But certain patterns are draining for some people, and this is one shift where introverts are more likely to celebrate the new format than to mourn the time and energy that was once lost with a simple shopping excursion.

  1. Opportunities for stores to show off improved service and win greater customer loyalty

Let’s bring this back to the first question of cost and benefit for a moment. Curbside costs stores more, at least up front, right? This is where we get to the stores’ less obvious gains.

In dealing with a large company or store chain, customers often feel like they must take the services offered or leave them, going someplace else if their needs are not being met. While some people like the challenge of getting a retailer or a service provider to accommodate their demands, plenty of people simply don’t have the energy for those battles, and they are used to accepting the offer or doing without, at least until they can find another company who does things differently.

Now every company is getting the chance to show people that shopper safety matters; that their convenience matters to the store in the form of dollars spent and time saved.

Stores that step up to the challenge, making online ordering easier and curbside pickup possible, are showing their customer base that they care about these things. And customers who appreciate being able to protect their own health (and that of those they may live with) AND shop more quickly, are customers who will keep coming back to those stores, virtually or physically.

Once the pandemic is under control (however long that takes), I am far more likely to remember the stores who made it possible for me to support them safely during these times. Those companies will get a lot more business from me for years to come!

One retailer I had hardly used for several months prior, transformed their game so completely in response to these challenges, that I now patronize them almost weekly. A number of my favorite stores have improved their responses, and so I always look there first for whatever I need. Of course there may be great deals elsewhere, and I do still comparison shop, but when I don’t have the time or energy to do that, I feel confident in supporting these companies that I know are spending their time and money to help keep ME safe and happy. This way of doing business can earn dividends that far outlast the troubled times we are working our way through right now.

In summary…

These points begin to show what a huge benefit curbside pickup is for many people with different preferences and needs. Why fight your way through a crowded store when you only have to go in for a few things? Why spend hours shopping when you could spend minutes instead?

Whether filling your car for a month or scooping up that one thing that you have to replace suddenly, a safe and easy pickup is good business for everyone involved. I do hope that curbside pickup is here to stay.

Musings on a Darkened Day

For several months now, I have lived my life in daylight (fortunate to have one of those day jobs that can sometimes be done from home), and I have hardly used my headlights at all, except as a safety precaution in early morning or late afternoon. But I have never once needed them to SEE.

So today, as I left work at the same time as always, but this time in the dead of night (by all appearances), my headlights hardly seemed enough. No gradual transition, this Daylight Saving Time conversion! No, this is throwing a switch that kills the circuit and turns off all the lights at once. The difference in one hour around noon can seem almost like nothing. One hour at night can seem almost eternal. But one hour around dusk? Day literally becomes night.

Swiftly I recalled one of the first lessons my mother taught me when she was showing me how to drive: if someone is driving toward you with lights so bright that you can barely see anything in front of you… focus on the line to your right. If you focus on that outer line, just for those last few seconds, it is easier to maintain your place in the lane and control your speed and your steering. Plus it helps to keep your night vision intact.

I was surprised at how easily that old lesson came back after months of disuse, though of course I’ve been practicing it as needed for decades now. Much how catching a baseball (for those coordinated enough to do so) involves complex physics and mathematical trajectories that we anticipate without having to calculate the actual numbers, this skill was suddenly at the forefront of my mind without any words. My eyes glanced slightly away from the onrushing vehicle and its blinding glare, and I focused on that dim little white line, softly illuminated by my own headlights.

Worked like a charm, of course! I found myself maintaining a perfectly still position in the lane; I continued slowly forward, until the other driver had passed; and suddenly, my own headlights mattered again, and I could once more see a little bit of the road in front of me.

How reassuring to have these rarely-needed skills rise back up so easily when the time is right.

My mother was an excellent defensive driver. She could make good time on long road trips, but she also taught me early on that you can only control what YOU do on the road, never what someone else does. So if you want to be safe, act as though everyone else is paying less attention than you are and might miss things like turn signals, red lights, stop signs, oncoming cars, drivers in a blind spot, debris in the road. And you leave a little extra room, and a little extra time to respond, if that happens.

Driver in front of you didn’t see that board in the road? Might be nothing. Might have nails in it. Might flip up as they drive over it and thump their car, or come at yours. If you see it before the other driver, though, you can slow down, space out the cars a little more, and be prepared to respond safely.

I have driven a great deal in my years so far, and I have long ago lost track of the number of times that her advice saved me trouble, saved me from damage, and may even have saved my life.

Years ago, The Moffatts wrote a charming, age-appropriate song called, “Mama Never Told Me ‘Bout You”, where the lead singer recites many good lessons that his mother had taught him, but he was still blindsided by falling for this cute girl. Well, mothers may not automatically know everything, of course, but the wisest ones continue to learn as they go and impart their distilled wisdom into their children’s minds and hearts whenever they can, to set the best examples they can possibly do, and – ideally – to raise thoughtful, attentive, curious, compassionate, and kind-hearted children who grow up to be the same kind of adults.

My mother made mistakes – everyone does – but she got a lot of things right, too. In tricky situations, with a lot of variables in play, like driving and so many other things, one wrong decision in one instant can mean the difference between life and death, or any stop in between.

Strong wisdom and good teachings provide no guarantee that anything will go right in one’s life, but it seems like they lean the odds just a little bit in your favor, and I am grateful to have them on my side. Might have made all the difference a few hours ago. I’m glad we’ll never know, but I’m glad to be able to tell you about it now.

You Deserve Better

Six months ago, and a year ago, things may have seemed simpler for a lot of us, for so many reasons. Today I considered a crucial one that we often overlook.

I have heard a number of friends lately struggle with this concept, as have I. Anyone who is trying to build a brand, or write a blog, or start a podcast, or anything that you are trying to do… you want people to listen. You want people to hear you. And on the surface – in the beginning – ANY reader, viewer, or follower seems important. And everyone IS important.

But.

If you walk one of these paths – indeed, if you strive to achieve any goal at all – you will find trolls. You will find people who want to tear you down. You will find people who always have something to say about what you said, or did, or wrote, or made. But it’s never uplifting; it’s never constructive; it’s never encouraging. It’s never even questioning. Some of these people just always want to tear you down.

I’m all about questioning. I love to have people challenge my ideas (most of the time, anyway). But challenge them with your own thoughts and your own ideas, not just some twisted dogma or vitriol, because you had a hard day, or a hard year, or even a hard life! I feel for you, if you have. Everyone has gone through struggles, but that’s one of the things that connects us.

Many of you will have heard this before, or one of its variations:

“Always be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you do not know.”

Struggles, challenges, courage, hope, overcoming, even grief! These are things that can bond us together. These are things that can help us find common ground, understanding, compassion, for each other. I don’t worry much when someone has a bad day and says one rude thing. (I’ve certainly done this! And no one is too big to apologize.)

Anyone can have a bad day, and anyone can say one hurtful thing. Accidentally, or even on purpose, by lashing out because of some emotional damage they didn’t realize was being externalized in the moment. And if that person realizes what happened and apologizes, the odds are very strong that I will forgive them and we will move on, as adults.

But some people just want to trash talk, and I don’t have time for those people anymore.

I have a tiny blog, with perhaps a handful of readers. But I already don’t have time for people who just want to hate. I have had to part company with some old friends, because while we once had spirited discussions, debates, and even disagreements, they became bitter over something. Anything! Often politics. Sometimes personal losses that weighed so heavily on them that, instead of leaning on their friends for support, they simply became sour, toward everything.

One of them, I had to separate from months ago. I saw him struggling, read what little he shared online, and reached out to him and asked him what I could do. I made sure to take it offline, so there would be no audience, and we could just be two adults who respected each other, having a discussion about our lives. He dismissed me; brushed away my offers, which is fine; that’s his right. But he continued to be extremely caustic in public, and whether that’s his brand, and he wants an audience, or whether he’s just become so filled with frustration that he hates everything most days… I don’t have time for that now.

That’s just one example. If you’re reading this now, you may have encountered what we call The Internet (!), and you can likely think of many more!

If you’re an artist, an engineer, a builder, a designer of any kind, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

You need to know this: shutting out destructive people, toxic people, bitter people, who have no room left for joy, encouragement, hope? Sometimes that is the only option you have, for your own survival.

If you have a strong foundation, if you’re in a good place, with lots of resources – time, energy, even money – and you want to help a lot of people… do so! I encourage that, too. If you want to start an organization that can reach people who are struggling in a community, in a sector, in a country… by all means, go for it! That can be a wonderful cause!

Even if you have limited resources, but you’re still in a position to help someone else, and you want to, that’s terrific. But if you’re in a troubled place right now, maybe you should start with yourself. Maybe you should get yourself on steady footing before you try to throw a line to others.

Of course I don’t mean to be rude, or heartless; not ever! Sometimes we find new strength and energy in the very act of helping other people. And that can make us stronger, help bring us more focus, and more confidence. Even fulfillment.

All these aspects of human emotion and psychology and character are real. But if you’re struggling, whatever your work hustle is, or even if you’re just trying to survive this moment, don’t give anyone who wants to hurt you the time of day. Don’t give anyone who has nothing useful to say to you, a minute of your time, or one spark of your energy.

I’ve long said that you can only truly love another person once you love yourself. You can’t appreciate respect from another person until you respect yourself. Plenty of people struggle with these aspects, too. In fact, I wrote another entire blog about my own journey from self-loathing to self-respect, and it has literally turned my life around.

You must help yourself first. If you don’t put some of your energy into yourself first, you will very quickly feel spent dealing with other people, even people you love, even people you’re trying to help. Thankless work may be fine for saints, but most of us walk a line somewhere in the middle! Most of us want to feel appreciated, at least from time to time. Most of us want to know that we’re doing the right thing, as often as possible.

If you know your path well, you have an excellent start. But if you can filter out some of these people who have nothing to add to your life, and who only take things away, then the struggles won’t be as hard. And your successes just might feel every bit as sweet as you deserve.

Regular pruning helps trees and other plants to thrive, because life is about growth, and growth is messy. How many people do you know whose life has followed exactly the course that they charted for it? At best, I know people who have accomplished one or two major goals that they set when they were younger. But most of us are finding our way every day, and it’s okay to change that course.

If you’ve found your North Star, and you can follow it firmly, so much the better. If you’re still looking for it, that’s fine, too! Some people know what they want in life at age 20; some people are still seeking it at age 50.

Grandma Moses always loved art and preferred embroidery until her late 70s, when her arthritis made that craft too difficult. She took up painting again, and we all know that turned out well. But she found joy in it, and sold paintings for just a few dollars at first, and later for thousands of dollars. Quite the success story, though she started off doing something else.

So there’s plenty of hope for all of us.

Prune your life of people, places, and things that hold nothing but ill will or bad memories for you. If you need to give away something from an old relationship so that you can let it go and finally move on with your life, give it away. And if it was a bad relationship, break it. Burn it. Consecrate it and bury it in the ground. Whatever you need to do.

If there’s a place you can no longer stand to be, consider a move. I know that’s a huge step! I don’t pretend that’s easy or simple. But it is possible. It’s possible, and it can give you the fresh start you need. It can give you a fresh outlook, new energy, and a clean slate.

And if it’s people that are holding you back, or holding you down, or always trying to discourage everything you do, you can change that, too. If you’re brave and they’re reasonable, bring it up. Frankly, honestly, simply. Plan a time, plan a place, make it over a meal, make it in a public place, make it at home – wherever it needs to be – and talk. Tell them what’s bothering you. And if that’s not possible, you can simply break off contact, with or without an explanation. Whatever is appropriate for you.

You deserve to have people around you who support you, who lift you up. My best friend says that you become like the five people that you spend the most time around and invest the most time in. And so he makes sure that those five people are good for him. He feels that I enrich his life and that he can learn from me, and that I help him strive for better things. And I feel exactly the same way about him.

Maybe it’s time you start choosing the top five people in your life. And if you have a close family of twenty or more people, maybe some of your top five will be in that family. Maybe they all will. Maybe none of them will. That’s okay! I’m not telling you to abandon your family if they’re not in your top five. I’m just saying, find the people who lift you up, and make sure to invest your time and energy in those relationships.

It doesn’t have to be five. It can be three, or ten, or whatever you have the time and energy for. Extroverts will have more energy to deal with more people. Introverts may only be able to handle two or three people.

You CAN do this.

You deserve strong, supportive relationships in your life.

Carve out some time to start thinking about this. It could be in your commute. It could be while you’re washing dishes, or sewing, or working out, or cleaning your house or apartment, or sunbathing, or on the beach, or at the library, or hiking through trees, or in any place where you can hear your own thoughts. Write these things out if you need to, and be honest. No one else ever has to see it. But you’ll appreciate figuring this out, and you may have more energy than you ever dreamed possible once you do.

You can do this. Find a safe space and start now. You can thank yourself in six months.

My Californiversary

Moving across the country in 2019 changed everything, overwhelmingly for the better. Thinking about my Californiversary, I also looked back and considered my career to date.

I had a lot of odd jobs when I was young, and I learned a lot of skills, had a little fun, learned about a thankless grind in places, and at one point I worked FOUR different jobs: two during the week – both part-time – and two on weekends only. It was crazy, I was very young, and I almost never slept.

For the record? I don’t recommend that. To anyone. But moving ahead:

I’ve had three important segments in my career as an adult. The first was when I was just starting out, and I was hired at a small, family business, directly by the owner, who was ready to retire and sell the company. She wanted two reliable people she knew would help keep things safe. She had one – he’d been there for 2 or 3 years when I signed on. But she wanted a second sharp one to come in, pick things up quickly… and then she could move on with a clear conscience, knowing she left her customers (many of whom she had known for decades) in good hands.

She tried me out, found out I had the perfect blend of broad skills and adaptability (plus a dynamite learning curve) that she needed, and she hired me as a temp. She’d finally turned to a temp agency to let them pre-screen, because hiring straight in had brought more headaches than help for a while. As it happened, I came highly recommended by both my short-term clients to date and my agency, so when she asked them, they had someone promising on tap and sent me over.

On the job, I picked everything up quickly, and she was so pleased that she soon asked me when my contract was up. After confirming with the agency to be sure, I told her 90 days after hire. She said, “You put that on the calendar, and you tell me on the last day, because I want to put you on payroll!” That was encouraging (and welcome!) news when I was just starting out at a new job.

When that day came, she sat me down and said, in short, “Obviously you’re doing very well. I’m delighted to have you, I’m very tired, and I want out of this business that I’ve built. But before I sell it, I’m gonna put you on payroll, and I’m writing you and Jeff into the sale contract, where you cannot be turned over as a disposable asset. You will both be hired in and kept on.” (Unless, of course, one of us were to be fired for cause, but neither of us ever was.)

Of course I was delighted with that news as well! She asked me what I was making from the agency, and since this was the payroll conversation, we were direct with each other. I was making X; she was paying them Y. She took $0.50/hour off the higher number and made that my new wage, effective the next day! I thanked her for her generosity, and she replied, “You’re a young man who’s working to build his life. I’m in a position to give you some solid footing, and I’d like to help.” It was far more than the minimum wage at the time, and we were both satisfied with the arrangement.

Once the contract additions were in place, the owner promptly sold the company, having already negotiated most of the details with a buyer once she saw that I was working out so well. It was then sold two more times, but I stayed with the company – or rather, with that group of people, performing the same roles – for twelve years.

A few years after I began, it was acquired by a large company with an international footprint and a worldwide presence. They had systems for doing everything, and people were just numbers. We were all cogs in a wheel, but at least there were rules.

I learned the rules, I fit in very well, and I was promoted a couple of times. But then the company stalled out; they saturated their market, they eliminated ALL the growth opportunities and the available position I was applying for next, and they literally told me, “You’ve maxed out your pay scale, and you’ll never get another raise, unless you take another job.” And of course, they had just eliminated all of the other jobs in the company at large, with that contraction. So unless someone above me quit, I was stuck.

Needless to say, I started looking and training my successors, just in case. When I found a role elsewhere, I had also found someone sharp who could step into my shoes rather easily. I finished up the project I was leading (giving three weeks’ notice instead of two) and stepped into my new company: a small, family-run business once more.

Now, I had just completed nine years at this international mega-corporation, so the idea of being a more important part of a smaller group again held enormous appeal.

What I didn’t realize was this: at a large company, you can sometimes change roles (unless they decide they’re too big and they must eliminate their open roles instead of streamlining their operations); at a small company, you may wear more hats, but there’s no room for advancement.

There were five people who ran this family business, and everyone else was “floor level”. Either you were an owner/manager, or you were a foot soldier in the workflow. And that was all there was.

I learned this a little way in, but just a few months after I arrived, the Great Recession of 2008 shut everything else down, and everyone did a hiring freeze, so then there was no place else to go, either. Might I have gone and begged for my old job back? Perhaps. But stubbornness kept me where I was, convinced I could make a difference in this place, and knowing that in the smaller company, even with fewer resources, they had greater control over how those resources were allocated. So I thought if I could help the bottom line, surely I could improve my position.

However, small companies have their own issues, and I frequently found myself pigeonholed if I tried to step outside of my primary duties. When I taught myself some new skills, scooped up technical work from in-house, and kept us from having to outsource that (saving money and often time), that was a welcome change. When I learned a new technology for our website or some new device for our office, I could confidently troubleshoot it and bring everyone else who needed to use it, up to competence as well. Translating systems from one person’s lingo into that of another, has always been a strong suit of mine.

Well, these were suitable changes, but when the bottom line was suffering, and the owners told everyone, “We need to increase sales!” I considered this, found a few ways that I thought we could do so, brought them to the owners, and offered to take point, or even just to participate on the side without telling anyone. And the first time I heard, “But YOU can’t do that; you’re not in sales!” I was dumbfounded. It took a very long time for me to wrap my head around this, but I was an Executive Assistant; if I started doing more sales, I might be working with a different group of people in the company. And since I was the ONLY Executive Assistant for all of them, I think the CEO and a couple of others thought that I would be unavailable to handle their needs while I was busy helping us bring in enough money that everyone could keep getting paid on time. Either way, most of my ideas were shuttered, and when that happens often enough, most people will stop volunteering new ideas.

The company stagnated for a while, had a couple of changes in leadership (in and out of the family – not being sold like the other one), and eventually, I left them, too, although I had at least been preparing this change for several months. When that time came, I had built them a series of reference documents for tasks from the basic to the complex, and I taught a crash course for the successor they hired at the last moment, after cross-training as many of my colleagues as possible in the months prior. I kept my personal phone on their speed dial for a few weeks after my departure, and the company officers sent me with glowing letters of recommendation for my future roles.

I moved to California for love, not for employment, so of course I still needed an income. While I’ve done some freelance work here and there, most of my income for most of my life has come from a traditional job, and I am very good at what I do. While I applied at several places in and around my new hometown, and even walked in cold at a few more to find out what was going on, eventually I registered with an agency in the area, and much as had happened more than twenty years ago, I got a call. The agency told me that this great company with which they’ve worked for years needed an experienced Executive Assistant who can handle a lot of things at once while working for at least five different people, maybe more. I could not hide my smile on that phone call as I replied, “You’re in luck!” The recruiter laughed and asked me a few questions (she was not the same one who had completed my registration, so we were new to each other), and when she confirmed that I had in fact worked for five different executives at the same time, successfully and with glowing recommendations at my departure, she let her client company know that someone might just fit that bill perfectly.

Sidebar: her exact words were, “They basically read me your résumé in their job description!”

That Friday, I had a long, delightful conversation with the client’s in-house recruiter, who set me up an interview for the following Monday. That interview went well; I liked the first executive who interviewed me as a temporary addition, and we seemed like a clear professional match. As I got back into my car, I decided to send the in-house recruiter a simple but gracious email from my phone. I sent the thank-you note, and before I could start the car, I received an email back. She told me that the interviewer had been quite impressed and wanted to give me a shot. Could I start tomorrow, she asked? Of course I did so!

In the past year with this company, I have learned something important. Large companies that are very well-run understand the roles their people play, and that they must develop those people to invest in their teams. Investing well and wisely in your people is a tremendous incentive for them to explore new areas, master new skills, and generally add value every single day. This is reflected in the best attitudes and often the best teamwork, as enthusiastic groups of curious people with even decent communication skills among them, are incredibly productive! Add in an atmosphere of continuous improvement, and you can blow the game right out of the water.

Now I am in a workplace where everyone believes in development. I have been given the chance to explore numerous fields outside of my “generalist” areas as an Executive Assistant. While my primary role can encompass an unlimited breadth of challenges, I have been able to step into specific new roles as well.

Finally I can see a number of options for my future with this company, instead of just the one.

I only moved across the country, but it’s a whole new world where I landed.

We all need some little victories

Five months of quarantine, working at home or not working at all, and we have had good and bad days. But then wildfires grew from seasonal to terrible, and we’ve been stuck inside all day and night due to the pervasive smoke in the tiny backyard that was once our safety valve to the cabin fever that I know is challenging so many people these days.

Don’t get me wrong for a second: I know how lucky we are to HAVE a safe home at all, especially during wildfire season and this pandemic. It’s just that we had adapted fairly well to the temporary strictures of limited grocery shopping, extra cleaning and caution, and suspending literally everything else we wanted to do lately. We KNOW we’re lucky.

But when even the tiny bit of equilibrium we had maintained was spun off kilter, things started to break down again.

Last night, I realized that maybe what we need are some little victories. Even tiny little benchmarks can give you a sense of accomplishment, and when everything seems to be in stasis — when it seems like we are constantly holding our breath, all day, every day — having something to look toward and work toward, however small, might be the next rope we can cling to, to pull ourselves back toward solid footing again.

Months ago, I made a list of things I wanted to do each day, each week, and each month. The daily items were small: a few minutes of stretches in the morning, 4000 steps on my cheap pedometer (a relative measure, but one that made me feel sufficiently active), a free Duolingo lesson each day, and a personal goal to clear out my email newsletters whether I read them or not, so that I didn’t have even that miniscule burden piling up on me. The daily goals were fair, but even those slipped at times. My weekly and monthly targets didn’t even come close.

Fast-forward to the present, and we will have to see what tiny things we can do now, even all indoors if that’s what it takes. I don’t care how simple they are: anything we can work on and potentially check off a list, even a list of only one or two things at first, can be the difference between focus and floundering. And focusing on something that is possible, can make the difference between overwhelm and holding it all together.

Holding it all together for a few hours gives you hope. Doing so for a few days gives you momentum. And keeping up that momentum for a few weeks means you have formed a new habit, and THAT can bring you new equilibrium.

As people talk about “finding a new normal” in pandemic times, I prefer to talk about a new equilibrium. Things will never go “back to normal”, and with all of the challenges facing us as a country and a world today, that can only be a good thing. We don’t need to go BACK to how things were; we need to find a way to deal with life NOW, for today and tomorrow.

When we focus on the moment, things don’t always feel so overwhelming. Once we can manage today, we may find that we can spare some energy for new ideas, for tomorrow, and for our fellow humans everywhere. And that is a balance that we can use to help ourselves and each other, to make things a little better each day.

Big steps come after. Today, put a little victory or two in sight, and start with that.

Briefly: Code-Switching and Education

Humans are not generally wired to appreciate change; in many, novelty often seems to activate the same parts of the brain that generate fear, a largely obsolete reaction to unexpected encounters in prehistory that might have meant a new predator or a dangerous development was at hand. This fact makes it even more important to expose young people (especially) to as many new ideas and situations as possible, preferably at the side of a guiding adult who understands both science and social nuances. With some exposure and a broad education, such children can grow up to be confident citizens of the world, open-minded enough to handle change with care and kindness, and wise enough to learn from their ongoing experiences and become even better at dealing with various people and groups they meet, and even with paradigm shifts that they will undoubtedly witness in their lifetimes. (These thoughts came after reading a short piece in today’s NYTimes morning briefing; follow the link and search the page for “Code-switching” if you’d like to read a little more on the subject.)

Briefly: MUJI

Today I discovered MUJI, short for Mujirushi Ryohin, a Japanese company that specializes in “no-brand quality goods” and environmental responsibility. Unexpectedly delightful, they have spread across the globe since 1980 and bring fascinating products and some real excellence to boot. See their pens, their octagonal chopsticks, and their household goods (and more) right here, at https://www.muji.com/us/ – if you prefer another language, just visit https://www.muji.com/ and select your nation of choice there. Check it out today!