My novel-writing month, days 1-10

In December, I pledged to work on my novel every day for a month. On the theory that you value what you measure, whenever I write something major I maintain an Excel spreadsheet to track my progress. However, I decided to up my game by posting my daily word counts on Facebook. This turned out to be a great practice. It kept me going and opened me up to lots of supportive and funny comments from friends nearby and far away.

The title of the novel in question is a secret for now. Suffice to say I've had it knocking around for a few years and it's time to get it done. Partly for the satisfaction of finishing, and partly to free myself to do other interesting things. I'm still kind of in love with it, so I know now is the time to make the best use of my time. (You never want to work on a creative project where your love has faded.)  

I was happily surprised that many people found inspiration in what I did. The girl who lived across the street from me in Anaheim in junior high and high school is now a reading teacher in Washington Stateand wanted to know if she could excerpt my posts to help her students.  "Of course!" I thought.  "I'll do it for you!"  

Here are days 1-10. They are more fun with the Facebook comments and "likes" that accompany them but they will at least give you an idea of the flow and ebbs of my creative process.

Novel-writing month, day 1.  December is my month for hunkering down and making BIG PROGRESS on my novel. I've marked 60 hours on the calendar and am going to write every day — using the powers of potential group shame to keep me going! Since, as I have discovered, it's not that hard to write a lot of content if you put in the time on a regular basis.

Today's report: at Elmer's Store in Ashfield for morning coffee, wrote 1331 words, approx 45 minutes.

Novel-writing month, day 2. Did 1525 words on UA ORD-SAN flight, on my way to my mom's 80th bday party.

Novel-writing month, day 3. Wrote 2615 words at the Starbucks in San Marcos , CA near my mom's house. Around 90+ minutes of work. Not one of your A-list Starbucks, which just goes to show that you can write anywhere, especially if you have a good noise-cancelling headset!

Novel-writing month, day 4. At Starbucks in the Carlsbad outlet mall, wrote 1648 words. Around an hour, surrounded by a zillion shoppers. Also, to reward myself for being a good son and coming to my mom's bday, bought myself some nice jeans and a cool belt.

Novel-writing month, day 5. 1500 words on UA from LAX-JFK. I'm gettin' into the rhythm. I repeat to myself, "My novel is my friend. My FUN friend."

Novel-writing month, day 6. Wrote 1411 words, even though my neck hurts from yesterday's flight and I just want to sleep. Possibility of FB public failure to keep my vows is highly motivating!

Novel-writing month, day 7. This is the critical time. Starting to feel like I can blow off a day (especially when it's 10:30 pm and I haven't started). Must … fight … back … and … keep … writing. Wrote 1277 words at 11:15 pm. Time for bed!

Novel-writing month, day 8. After total space-out nap, came to Joe the Art of Coffee and despite my initial crabbiness and exhaustion, wrote 1792 words of amazing genius, if I do say so myself. Keep the tough love coming, folks! I feel all alive and stuff.

Novel-writing month, day 9. Wrote 780 words (in the lobby of my gym). Not very inspired but I will just keep on truckin'!

Novel-writing month, day 10. Wrote 1147 words at Joe the Art of Coffee, pre-Xmas party. Trudge, trudge, trudge.



Modern Family MBTI

Modern Family is my favorite show on TV.  It is very well written and the characters are in most cases amazingly well drawn. They’re exaggerations that ring entirely true.  Given that I think about Myers-Briggs every day and constantly wonder about the types of people I know, it is perhaps not surprising to my faithful readers that I also sometimes ponder the MBTI types of fictional people. So let’s assess the extended Dunphy clan. 

 Let’s start with the easy ones. Claire Dunphy, the family mom played by Julie Bowen, is an ESTJ. She’s organized, decisive and action-oriented.  Her judgments are grounded in facts and experience, not theory.  Her largely P family views her as un-fun (sad!). ESTJ’s, used to getting things done in a no-nonsense manner, are perhaps used to this kind of judgment. If the rest of the world would get with the program and not leave it to them to manage every detail, they could chillax a bit. 

Phil Dunphy, the happy, sensitive dad played by Ty Burrell, is an obvious extravert – you can’t really imagine Phil gathering energy by being alone with his thoughts. Phil’s also clearly a perceiving type – deadlines are reminders, to-do lists are not to be taken too seriously, and why be pinned down to a given plan if something else comes along? Sensitive and harmony-seeking, he’s a feeler, able to connect as much with the ladies in the Korean nail salon as with his buds at the Realtors convention. Phil has pretty developed sensing side. He’s not an intellectual and likes physical things, like tightrope walking in his front yard and fixing things. But his love of possibilities and childlike enthusiasm for new things puts him in the N camp. Therefore, ENFP. 

Cameron, Claire’s large and in charge brother-in-law, is clearly an extraverted intuitive feeler. Out, loud and proud, expressive and creative, he prizes passion and authenticity. When Mitchell asks him to turn down the volume, and Cam says, “I can’t!” he’s speaking from the heart of an NF. Cam also has a lot of S in him, as evidenced by the hours he spends creating pop-up books for adoption applications, planning his outfits for Oscar Wilde-themed lunches, and, in his youth, fishin’, clownin’ and playing football at the University of Illinois. But his love of language and addiction to self-expression suggests NF rather SF. Finally, P vs. J.  Cam seems like a P, in that he has a flexible relationship with time and routines. But he is also a dominant feeler – expressing his values and value-based decisions to the world on a constant basis – as opposed to a dominant intuitive who would keep the feeling part more inside.  An ENFJ is a dominant feeler type, so I pick that over ENFP. 

His partner Mitchell is an introvert. While chatty, Mitchell seems to get his energy from himself or his own space (or his personal computer, which he is constantly consulting when others speak to him). He is borderline uncomfortable in social situations that require chitchat. He is a thinker, in that he makes his decisions based on logic rather than the effect on other people. In this regard, Mitchell illustrates a sometimes forgotten point:  thinkers have feelings, too. Mitchell has lots of feelings – but he doesn’t make key decisions based on personal values the way Cam does. Mitchell is also obviously a J, finding comfort in decisions and schedules. 

But is Mitchell intuitive or sensing? It’s hard to judge. Mitchell has an inconsistent relationship with details – it’s hard to imagine a true ISTJ forgetting to send out invitations to his partner’s concert. But to me Mitchell lacks the self-containment that I see in INTJ's, who tend to be more still-waters-run-deep.  And Mitchell does have the fondness for tradition that David Keirsey ascribes to SJ’s in his classic book, Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types: nice job, nice house, nice family. In Mitchell’s case, it’s a gay version of tradition, but it’s tradition nonetheless. So I vote ISTJ, although I could be dissuaded.

What’s interesting about both siblings’ marriages is that they involved opposite type pairings. It’s said that sensing and intuitive types in marriage have communication problems, and thinking and feeling types in marriage have relationship problems. So ESTJ Claire and ENFP Phil are bound to run into conflict, as are ISTJ Mitchell and ENFJ Cameron. This makes sense, because the result is television hilarity, which is surely intended by the writers.

My friend Rob Toomey, a creative lawyer and coach who happens to be a super-expert in type theory, gave me his quick opinions on the rest of the major player. Fiery, sexy Gloria, played by Sophia Vergara, is an ESFJ, another extraverted feeler who expresses her passions in every interaction. Husband Jay is an ISTP, a dominant thinker who has the mordant word economy often associated with that type. Gloria’s son, Manny, is another NFJ romantic who is obsessed by purpose, authenticity and calling:  drinking French press coffee isn’t just a junior high preference, it defines who is he as a person. Though somewhat friendless and misunderstood, I would argue that Manny is an ENFJ who hasn’t yet found his social rhythm – he’s an extravert waiting to express himself on a broader stage (sort of how I was).  According to my same expert source Mr. Toomey, Luke is another ENFP (like father like son), and party girl, rebel and bon vivant Haley is an ESTP. 

Which leaves Alex, the Dunphy’s brainy, ambitious daughter. I’d say INTJ or INFJ, and Rob says ISTJ or ISFJ. 

But here’s the thing that both Alex and Manny illustrate:  the difficulties for children who are MBTI minorities within their own families. Alex is an introvert in a household of extraverts. She feels misunderstood and foreign, and in fact her family makes fun of her. They don’t really get what she’s about, and don’t try all that hard to figure it out. Manny is an intuitive with parents who are both sensing types. They don’t know what to do with his dreaminess and love of possibilities. The parents love their kids, but love isn’t always enough:  sometimes you need to take the extra step and try to see the world through your own children’s eyes.

Next:  Modern Family and the Enneagram 



Life- and career-changing books for different MBTI types

Recently, my capable virtual assistant, Emily Morgan (founder of Delegate Virtual Business Solutions and savior of my mental health) asked for book recommendations on the general topics of organizing, setting priorities, time management – the basic getting-it-together topics.  I gave her several recommendations but secretly thought that, as an ISFJ, she'd most like a book called "Coach Yourself to Success" by Talane Miedaner.  

The subtitle of the book includes the phrase "101 Tips" and most SJ's are all about the practical tips. As it turns out, Emily loves the book and has been in a state of kindle-euphoria for several days.

Our willingness to read and enjoy books, and self-help books in particular, seems to have a lot to do with our type. For example, though my S friends tend to love practical books that give useful tips, your basic NF (intuitive feeler) type is less excited about such things. Getting organized and making to-do lists don't feed the soul or promise the paroxysms of joy that we NF's like. We also place a high value on how language is used. Metaphors we like; standard business-speak we don't. (It's unlikely that an NF would find anything of interest in an airport bookstore.) The definitional book for NF's is Julia Cameron's zillion-copy masterwork, "The Artist's Way."


NFs are also into identity. We spend a good part of our conscious life wondering what we are truly meant to do, and what we should be doing about that today. A more career-focused book in this vein is by former HBS professor Herminia Ibarra, "Working Identity."

NTs (intuitive thinkers) are interested in big-picture ideas, but they are less interested in identity and more interested in theories and how the puzzle fits together. They prefer straightforward, compact language. They like Ibarra's book, but tend to find it repetitive, and you won't find a lot of them doing the Morning Pages prescribed by Julia Cameron.

NTs like books that make solid arguments, ideally defining a coherent system. At the same time, they seem quite skeptical by nature and are distrustful that anyone's new conceptualization of how human beings operate will be true. So you get an odd cleavage between the NTs who find MBTI and the Enneagram immensely powerful, and those who find them to be over-general and unprovable abstractions that are not really worthy of serious thought. (It took me 10 years to persuade my partner, an INTJ, to actually take the Myers-Briggs assessment.)

If you're interested in the Enneagram, the best overall book on the subject is "The Wisdom of the Enneagram," by Russ Hudson


If that 400 page book is too big a pill to swallow, try Elizabeth Wagele's cartoon-filled, checklist-y "The Enneagram Made Easy"

My visit to Haiti, and my new thoughts about introverted thinkers

Haiti culligan

(The Culligan water truck in Port-au-Prince.  A popular company!)

A few weeks ago I went to Haiti for three days.  One of my coaching engagements is with a global health organization, and I went to do work with the Haiti country director and her senior team. 

This was not my first time in a developing country.  As some of you know, my first real job was as a Foreign Service officer. When I was 24 I spent a year living in Calcutta and working for the U.S. Information Service, which is now part of the State Department. 

Living in Calcutta was both interesting and somewhat traumatic, although not for the reasons you might think.  My main problem was that I was lonely and living in a foreign culture and was not sure most of the time what my job actually was.  This was in a pre-email period of existence, so living overseas could be quite isolating.  It took 6 weeks for letters to go back and forth, and phone calls cost 3 dollars a minute—and this was more than 20 years ago.

There is a level of poverty in parts of the world that is hard for most people even to fathom, but when you are living in Calcutta you learn not to say, “there’s lots of poverty,” because (1) it’s obvious and (2) as an American expatriate you are not suffering from that particular problem. 

You also learn that in a poor, stressed, developing country, it is a bit of a cheap shot to declaim what terrible shape it is in.  Describing a country solely in terms of poverty, pollution and corruption to a certain degree denies the humanity and creativity of the people who live there.  They did not choose their problems, but they are finding ways to cope with them. And once you get beyond the obvious, there are often wonderful things to notice and learn from.

Fast forward to my trip to Haiti.  When I came back, people said, “So how was that?”  I thought a moment and then responded, “It’s a nice country and it’s got some really tough problems and there are a lot of people doing good work.”   

I had two personal takeaways from this trip.  First, I felt confident that I was doing something useful.  The team I was coaching (almost all of whom are Haitian themselves) are promoting maternal and infant health, educating about STD-prevention, advocating family planning, and generally doing very direct things to make poor people’s lives better.  And since my job was to help them function more effectively as leaders and teams, I was making a contribution to something important.

Haiti workshop small

(One of the workshops I did. There are actually 30 people in this room.)

Second, I felt relieved that I quit the Foreign Service 20 years ago.  Because I realized that, while I believe very deeply in this kind on-the-ground work with the poorest of the poor, I’m pretty sure I lack the capacity to do it myself.  The very thing that draws me to work in developing countries—feeling an immediate connection to people who live there (based on the knowledge that there is no difference in who we are, just a difference in luck where we were born)—is also what makes it hard for me to actually do anything useful. 

I’ll express this in Myers-Briggs terms.  (For more on MBTI, see earlier posts “Hillary Clinton, Misunderstood INTJ”“P’s Have More Fun” and “Does Endlessly Searching Mean Never Satisfied”)  I’m an ENFJ, which means that my strongest function is extraverted feeling, followed by introverted intuition.  That means I’m always looking outward for connection, harmony and stimulation, and I’m always looking internally wondering what the story is—where do I fit in, what does this say about my purpose in the world, what does it all mean.

As an ENFJ, I’m great in the classroom, assessing how people are working together and what they need, and coming up with new ideas.  I’m not so good staring out the window of a LandRover in Port-au-Prince at poor people living in tents and shacks.  

My Haiti-based client, on the other hand, is an INTJ.  This means that she gets energy from herself and makes assessments and decisions based on logic rather than feeling.  She has a big job doing important things under difficult circumstances (for instance, she and her family were in a fifth floor apartment during a 7.0 earthquake).  But she’s also able to turn inward after work, focus on her family and home and detach.  These abilities in turn make her able to sustain this kind of work over the longer haul. 

Haiti ginger small

(Pretty ginger plant in Haiti)

I told her about my theories.  She found them reasonable.  She previously worked in refugee camps in Africa and said that the most idealistic people were the ones who burned out the fastest. 

So all you INTJ, INTP, ISTJ and ISTP types out there—consider a career in international development.  You will probably do a great job.  And I’ll be happy to come and give you succor and great ideas.  I’ll advocate your work to the world, since as an ENFJ I am good with words and full of enthusiasm. I do love to travel. But it’s probably better if I come back home afterwards. 

To learn more about MBTI, try Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type, written by the daughter of the mother-daughter team who developed MBTI over a 60-year period.

Back to Navajo

Last week, I traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona to attend my elementary school reunion.  Here I am in front of the school where I spent 4th through 7th grades.    Navajo school

I had a paper route and delivered newspapers every afternoon. I used to tally the number of days the temperature got up to 120.  I delivered to a place called "The Maya Apartments." Many of the inhabitants were "snow birds" – people from the midwest and east who came to Arizona for the winter. This seemed to me an extremely jet-setty thing to do, and I considered the Maya Apartments very swell and swank. I returned to the scene of my paper route and instantly recognized a mildewy smell from my childhood. I had associated it with retirees' apartments but probably it is just the mold that forms on the concrete walkways.  

I was a very ambitious paperboy and built my route from 37 to 164 clients at its peak. In fact, I was "Carrier-Salesman of the Year" in 1974, and attended a banquet in my honor where I got a U.S. Savings bond for $75 and a big trophy. 

Michael & mrs hartman

Mrs. Hartman was one of my most influential teachers. I was in her class for 5th and 6th grade.  She had all kinds of innovations in the classroom.  She was a great teacher to help unlock a smart kid's smartness while letting him still be a kid. She lived all over Latin America growing up and had interesting child-rearing techniques she would share. At the reunion, we discussed Myers-Briggs. Apparently she is an ENFP. I'm an ENFJ.   

I moved to Arizona because my mom went back to graduate school to earn her Ph.D. after my parents' divorce. She had gone to ASU undergrad so it seemed like a good place. She ended up being the first Hispanic woman in the U.S. to get a doctorate in accounting.

Right now I am kind of scared of Arizona because it is in an extremely conservative and seemingly anti-immigrant phase. As someone who is half-Mexican-American, I pay special attention to these things. Sometimes I wonder it is all a bit exaggerated but my Chicano relatives in Phoenix say, "it's terrible!" They know people personally who have been picked up by the police and coerced into doing "voluntary deportations." Here is my cousin Dolores, who lives in Phoenix. She is a force for justice.

Lola 2

It is hard to fathom, but I did attend elementary school quite some time ago. When I moved to Navajo in 4th grade, the Vietnam war was still going on and Nixon was president. My mom used to constantly watch the Watergate hearings on television. John Kennedy had been president just 10 years before. Still, we were quite modern in some ways. I went to a yoga class with my mom a few times, she was a single parent getting a Ph.D., and our school had a modular building called "The Quad" where you could open up panels between rooms and join classes for some kind of creative activity.  Once a week I took a bus to another school for "the gifted program" where we spent a lot of time making geodesic domes out of paper. I also used to make something called "God's Eyes," which were stick-yarn combinations that could be extremely elaborate. I was quite good at these.

Here is my boyhood best friend Eric and my neighbor, Caryn (and Caryn's mom).  Caryn and I lived in "The Townhouses," which were about a mile from school. I rode my bike to school every day, which is why I think I have good leg muscles.  Eric is also an ENFJ, and also had a paper route. Sometimes we substituted for each other when we were on our respective vacations. I have the vague recollection that Caryn might have succeeded me on my route when I moved to California in the middle of 7th grade.

Caryn and eric

We had a pool at the Townhouses. It seemed really huge. The back part of the "L" is where we'd play "Marco Polo." At the pool, I entertained my mom and her friends by acting out scenes from the Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur remake of the movie, "Mame."  


Here is our unit at The Townhouses. I believe it cost $28,900 in 1972. At the time, this was Central Scottsdale. Now it is a tiny old-fashioned corner of the city, and Scottsdale stretches for zillions of miles north.


My sister, Teresa, and I were very skilled at identifying useful castoffs. We regularly searched the dumpsters at the Townhouses for usable things that we'd put in our clubhouse, which was a storage shed behind our house, and for Betty Crocker points that were found on the tops of cereal and cake mix boxes. You could redeem them for stuff. We climbed all the way into the dumpster which is how you get the good stuff. We were way ahead on the Portland dumpster diving craze. 


All in all I had a very delightful childhood in Scottsdale.  I rode my bike all over the place, had my own income and bank account because of my paper route, and I had a lot of unsupervised time where I could do my thing. Plus I had teachers who knew cared about me and had great intuition for how to tap into my potential and interests.  So even though I am kind of scared of the red states, it turns out they can be perfectly good places for kids to grow up, including kids who do things like acting out scenes from Mame for their mothers at the pool. 

Go, Navajo!

Incidentally, my favorite sport was tetherball and we frequently made sun tea.

Why networking is not comfortable (and doesn’t have to be)

From my book

There are a number of books and networking experts who will tell you that networking is not difficult if you know certain secrets. They are wrong. Networking requires making efforts beyond what we would do unselfconsciously. Like watching your diet or starting an exercise program, it’s good for you but might not feel so fun the first day you try it.

Because networking is all about accessing your weak ties, it’s always about stretching out of your comfort zone. This can be tough. Says Lois Casaleggi, an advisor at the University of Chicago law school who is a lawyer herself, “When you mention networking to students, more than half of them visibly cringe.”  

What’s the benefit of networking? You access ideas, energies, perspectives, connections and possibilities that don’t exist within the bounds of your known life. You get a chance to learn about others and help them, and they get a chance to learn about and help you. You live more.

Great, Juicy Novels about College and its Aftermath

I just read a great novel, Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan.  It’s about the lives and post-college trajectories of four women who graduate from Smith College in 2002.  I was rapt from beginning to end.  Despite the age and gender difference, I related to the characters, the place they went to school and the whole litany of career/life/relationship issues they faced. 

This “four college friends and what happens to them” genre is one that I am quite familiar with.  There are lots of novels that follow this conceit and since it’s summer, here are my top picks for those of you who are similarly entranced by these kinds of books. 

The Group, by Mary McCarthy, is the progenitor of the whole genre.  It describes seven women who went to Vassar in the 1930 and what becomes of them in the decades that follow.  It’s entertaining, witty, bleak – the whole shebang.  A classic! 

The next, in chronological terms, is Alice Adam’s  book, Superior Women, which describes a group of women who go to Radcliffe in the 1940s.  One of the characteristics of this genre, here very much in evidence, is the way that people from different, often incompatible geographic and social backgrounds end up becoming friends, changing each other, and then going their own way. 

Set in the 1950s is Erich Segal’s, The Class (he also wrote “Love Story”). Featuring a thinly disguised Henry Kissinger character among other leads, it’s a male take on these themes.  Also set at Harvard.

Rona Jaffe’s book, Class Reunion, also set at Harvard, focuses on women in the 1960s in college and their career and relationship ambitions and struggles. Among other plot developments, one of the women becomes obsessed by, and ends up marrying, a gay man.

The next book on my list, The Student Body, was co-authored by your very own creative lawyer, Michael Melcher! Three friends and I wrote this novel, published in 1998 under the pen-name, “Jane Harvard,” primarily because we figured someone would eventually write a book about going to Harvard in the 1980s, so we wanted to do it first. It’s about a secret student prostitution ring (we got the idea from an actual ring that occurred at Brown). 

The very best novel set at college, in my opinion, is Donna Tartt’s, The Secret History, which was published in the early 1990s. It’s set at a thinly disguised Bennington College. It’s about a group of students studying a special classics curriculum who end up murdering a classmate. Brilliantly written, gripping, witty – I want to read it again right now. Tartt is an amazing writer.

My final item is a book not about college, but since it’s about a prep school, it is pretty much the same cast of characters – Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a story about an ordinary middle class girl who ends up at an elite prep school. It’s a fascinating depiction of prep school as well as good a description as any of the tortures and pleasures of adolescence. 

Have you been cocooning?

This year winter endured.  I partly felt glad that we had at least one more year without the planet melting, and yet became tired, worn out and ground down.  “I’m ready for something else,” I thought.

Then, one day in April, I noticed some yellow forsythia blossoms as I entered Central Park with my dogs.  We circled around the hill that nestles into the corner of Central Park West and 85th Street and I saw a spray of daffodils.  And a tiny crocus or two. 

The trees were still barren, but I knew from past experience that in about five minutes Spring would arrive.  I looked up at the branches of the leafless trees and saw that they weren’t barren at all; tiny beginnings of buds had already emerged.  They were just bumps, nearly imperceptible, but clear in their promise.

Spring springs out of nothing.  It is so unexpected.  A month before all I saw on my morning trek to the subway were yard-high, frozen piles of snow, adorned by the dog poop.  All of a sudden, the snow was gone, the sidewalks were clean, the days were starting early and lasting long, Magnolias were blossoming, and pollen was bursting forth. 

I saw a starling with a mouthful of nesting straws.  What comes next?  Eggs, hatchlings, baby birds trying out their wings. 

The narrative of nature is:  Nothing, nothing, nothing . . . and then everything!  It’s so predictable but the predictability doesn’t make it any less dramatic. 

I didn’t pay much attention to nature when I was younger.  It just didn’t play much a role in my consciousness.  Maybe because I spent a good part of my youth in Arizona and California, where seasons blend into one another, and where I experienced them primarily through car windows and hot walks through parking lots.  But now, as a big, aging grown-up, I feel finely attuned to the change of seasons, and I think about what it all means.

The coaching program where I did my training, the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, uses a model for change that makes me think of the change of seasons. This model is described at length in Frederic Hudson’s book, The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal

The Hudson diagram has four quandrants:  “Going for It,” where life feels big, full and positive; “Doldrums,” where everything’s out of synch and the old ways don’t work; “Cocooning,” where life feels quiet and blank; and “Getting Ready,” where new possibilities emerge.  It’s a rich framework.  I won’t go into it in depth here, except to say that the model suggests that growth feels different at different times of your life.  Sometimes it feels great, sometimes it feels lousy, sometimes it feels submerged and hard-to-detect.  And sometimes it feels like spring.  And spring often comes when … well, when it feels like spring will never come.  

When you go through big life change, whether you want it or not, you often pass through a period of blankness and confusion.  You know who you used to be, but you don’t know who you are becoming.  You’d like to have more direction, but you don’t.  You’ve given up on clinging to the past, but you aren’t yet clear what you are reaching for.  

This is the “Cocooning” period.  Like winter this past year, it can last a really long time, and while it lasts you despair whether anything else will ever come.  You wonder what happened to the person you once were, that person full of energy and ideas.  For me, my cocooning period lasted from around 1999 to 2003.  That was a long winter.

But spring does come, and with it come new life and new possibilities.  Eventually, the cocoon is ready to open.  You can’t push it, you can’t rush it, and you can’t know what it will look like when it opens up.  But one day spring does come.


More chores, please

  IStock_000009558748XSmall man.wash.dishes

Did you have chores growing up? My main chore, which I shared with my elder sister, was doing the dishes every day.  We did this through most of my junior high and high school years. 

This chore involved putting food in the fridge, rinsing the plates and loading the dishwasher (we were a household that believed the purpose of the dishwasher was to sanitize the dishes, not to clean off food), washing pots and pans by hand, wiping down the table and counters, scrubbing the sink using Dutch Cleanser, and sweeping and washing the floor. Mopping was cheating; true washing of the floor, according to my mom, involved scrubbing on one's hands and knees. Luckily this part was not a daily requirement. 

My sister and I never washed dishes together. That seemed inefficient and led to arguments and recriminations about who was doing the easier parts. We negotiated who would be on tap, varying by day or week and once, ambitiously, by month.  As young children our allowances had been tied to our chore lists, but after my parents got divorced, the financial reward part kind of disappeared.  Chores constituted an accepted responsibility of family life, or alternately a kind of a tax on being a kid. But they didn't seem to be an unreasonable burden. 

I kind of hated doing chores but I also kind of liked the routine. I also liked doing things right. I sought the most measurably efficient ways of doing both chores and the pursuits I volunteered for: delivering newspapers on my paper route (clocking myself and experimenting with different ways of walking through the apartment complex); practicing the piano (dividing my 2-hour daily target into 30-minute segments that I timed with the oven timer and recorded in a spiral notebook); and preparing for debate tournaments (cutting and pasting pieces of evidence onto 3 x 5 index cards while listening to foreign language records I checked out from the library that theoretically might enable me to learn Spanish, German or whatever else in a completely passive manner).     

I didn’t consciously think much about chores for the next three decades until my father visited our Massachusetts house a couple of years ago. One afternoon I asked him, “do you want to see a movie or just go out to eat?” 

My dad said, “We have to finish our chores first.” 

He was referring to the various gardening, landscaping and basement insulation projects that he had undertaken – my dad grew up on a farm, so while he is somewhat of an absent-minded professor, he is also an expert gardener and quite handy around the house. (He is therefore the ideal person to visit a restored 1840 house with acreage during high summer.) 

I thought, “oh.” 

But after I joined him in said chores, which he apparently hadn’t planned on doing all on his own, I felt really great and no longer felt a need to see a movie or otherwise entertain us. 

Chores are satisfying because there is satisfaction in a job well done, and that satisfaction comes whether or not you actually feel like you’re going to enjoy the task. Chores are non-discretionary. You just do them because you’re supposed to. Chores are brilliant that way – your feelings don’t matter.

It seems self-evident that if you wait until you feel like doing something before you do it, you are not going to accomplish much. But this is ten times as true if you are trying to do something entrepreneurial or artistic – or if you’re trying to get out of your current routine (or job) and find something better. When no one imposes external structure on you, you have to find ways to create it – structure, not fun or fulfillment. 

Recently, I have been doing a lot of coaching related to business development. I just did a daylong workshop for new coaches at the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara (where did my coach training) as well as a business-development project for a corporate client. As it turns out, much of building a service business comes down to doing chores. You set out specific tasks each week, tasks that may be routine and not especially fulfilling – like reaching out to your contacts, or managing your database – and you just do them. 

It works for business development, it works for fitness (ask any personal trainer), and it works for creativity. I've been working on a novel for a couple of years, and my greatest period of progress was last May and June, when I made it daily chore to write for 45 minutes, and jotted down my start-time, end-time and daily word count in an excel spreadsheet. If I considered this blog more of a chore than something dependent on inspiration or the feedback I get (whether positive or negative), I’d do a lot more blogging, and I’m pretty sure I would like the result. 

Could turning some desired goal into a set of chores actually inspire you?  Is one of the missing elements of your life or career something as unglamorous . . . as a chore? 

Sorry for saying this … (well, not really)

Here’s a really effective way to diminish your credibility in the workplace and reduce your own confidence:  say “I’m sorry” a lot. 

People – and by “people” I mean “women” – say "sorry" all the time. Most professional women say it far more than they are aware.  It creeps into all kinds of conversations:

“Sorry for interrupting . . .”

“Sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner.”

“I’m sorry you didn't have time to finish this.”

“I’m so sorry that [train delay, argument, spill] happened to you!”

In addition to actually speaking the word “sorry,” it’s possible to communicate “sorry” with many nonverbal behaviors, the embarrassed shoulder shrug (usually accompanied by closed-mouth exaggerated smile) being the most prominent. 

“I’m sorry” can mean lots of things.  It can mean “I did something bad” like cutting you off, cheating on my taxes, or not leaving a final muffin on the communal plate. Mostly sorry-as-apology seems to apply to non-tragic situations where it's not clear that anything has even happened. It has the meaning, “Maybe I should have been more considerate, but I wasn’t, so I want you to know that I’m aware of my shortcomings.” 

“Sorry!” can also mean, “I think you just criticized me, and I feel awkward and embarrassed being criticized, and I'm not sure what to say, but I need to say something, so I'll say I'm sorry.”  Example:  “Joan, there were a few typos on the prospectus.”  “Sorry!”

"I'm sorry that you …" can be an expression of disapproval. "I'm sorry that you didn't have time to review the documents" is an example. Most listeners would find this to be a pretty clear criticism (albeit a passive-aggressive one); yet my impression is that many speakers of such words are quite sure that they mean nothing of the sort. 

“Sorry” can also be fishing for appreciation or expressing a complaint.  “Here's the draft of the offering memorandum; I worked on it until 6 am but then had to go to an 8 am doctor's appointment, sorry I wasn't able to reschedule it.” 

“I’m sorry” has a totally different use, as an expression of sympathy.  It shows that you understand that an unfortunate thing that happened to a fellow human being, whether that’s an annoying conversation or something actually serious, and you want to show your sympathy.  It’s a bridge expression, combining a feeling of “that sucks” with “I am concerned.” The problem is that it is vastly overused, and in my own experience, tends to add a distracting emotional element to things I think are pretty trivial.  If I say, "I got totally wet in the one-block walk from the subway stop to my office" and a colleague responds, "I'm sorry!" I think, "huh?"

Men, by the way, use “sorry” approximately one-zillionth the frequency women do, at least in the professional world.  Barbara Annis, who wrote an interesting book on gender differences in the workforce called Leadership and the Sexes, says that women use “sorry” as a way of bonding and creating harmony.  She says further that women don’t always mean they are actually sorry when they say it – it’s just an accepted nice thing to say.  

One of my professional goals is the empowerment of all women (especially those in the developing world, but that’s another story).  So I will just lay out my opinion:  women, you’ve got to STOP saying “sorry.”  Just get rid of it.  It’s holding you back, especially because most of the time you use it you are probably not even aware of it. For the time-being, our work norms are male-dominated, so if you say "sorry” a lot in professional settings your words are going to make you seem ineffectual, uncertain, and frequently wrong. 

Do a “sorry” audit and figure out how often you are using it, and in what situations.  If what you really mean is, “I apologize for something significant” then it might be okay.  But if it doesn’t rise to that level, don’t say it.  Second, save your “I’m sorry about your _____” expression of sympathy for things that actually matter.  Saying “I’m sorry” when a colleague complains, “the traffic sucked,” doesn’t count.  And if you hear female colleagues, especially younger ones, boarding the sorry express, clue them in. There are better uses for their energy than being sorry.