How a Simple Bus Ride Helped Me be Successful (#4 of 6 – Lessons That Impact Life)

This is fourth in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to just being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

In the first post of the series, I wrote about the power of reading that my grandfather taught me. The books and reading were only the first aspects in his approach to never stop learning. This is one lesson that has stayed with me to this day. Constant learning is definitely already in my nature, but Pops certainly encouraged this in my siblings and me. Part of this ever present desire to learn he encouraged was also to explore and observe the world around us.

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Many nights, once dinner was done and dishes were cleared from the table, I’d hop next door to my grandfather’s house and we would watch Jeopardy! together. One day I commented how impressed I was with the frequency of right responses that he came up with. Pops laughed at me and exclaimed, “Of course I know the answers. I lived through most of it!” I was a little embarrassed at how obvious the answer was, but it was a funny moment. It was obvious that Pops had, his whole life, had a keen sense of what was going on around him, watching, even if he wasn’t talking. The correct answers didn’t explain how he knew Revolutionary-era American literature or obscure elements on the Periodic Table. There are only so many times that a question might repeat on the show, and it must have been that he was picking up bits (or large chunks!) of knowledge everywhere he went.

But going beyond Jeopardy!, and going beyond books and newspapers, Pops always was ACTIVELY encouraging exploring through doing and observing. One of the biggest ways I always saw him encouraging that principle was through watching everything that went by in the neighborhood. Pops learned about the function and routine of people and animals on our little collection of streets. He knew every time a bus went by, who got on, and where it was headed. He sat in a green plastic chair on his porch, sometimes had conversations with passerby, and it always felt that, with his house the last on that side of the street, which had a slightly higher elevation at his end of it, he was a little bit a king of the neighborhood.

One of my favorite lessons from Pops about exploring had me the most nervous the summer before middle school. Knowing that I would be interested in after school activities and with a potential risk that my parents may not always be available to pick me up after school across the city, he felt I should learn to take the bus home. I had at that point never taken a city bus, and why should I ever need to if Mom and Dad would come get me? It was concerning thinking about the prospect of being unintentionally left alone, so taking the city bus represented some deep feelings and uncertain scenarios about why I might be left alone after school. Now, at this point in history, we had a city bus that ran down our side street right past our houses. He showed me the schedule that was stored on the fridge and we made a plan one summer day to explore taking the bus to and from school.

Pops taught me where to transfer, how to know where to catch the next bus, what to look for in catching the bus, and that if I had any questions to just ask a bus driver. He even brought me to the little convenience store and introduced me to the cashier so I knew where to buy my tickets. Pops even bought my my first multi-pack book of bus passes. We grabbed the next bus back home and had a nice day exploring the 5 Route on the WRTA.

A few years later, all of this came in handy because my parents were inexplicably held up after we were finished with some after school activities, and therefore our daily school bus was not an option. We could have visited some friends instead, but my younger sister and I were eager to go home. By some miracle, I still had the passes and they were surprisingly valid. We hopped on the bus and headed our way home. I was grateful to have known what to do and had the resources in hand to execute. Upon returning home, we went straight to Pops to tell him about our successful adventure, and of course he was pleased that his training had helped us out.

Even though Pops went through every detail, this was one of my first major lessons in planning and learning how to get myself around public transportation in much larger cities (first Boston, and occasionally New York). While Google and smartphones are certainly a convenience we have to help now, I was more comfortable with understanding transportation systems, and in the grander scheme, figuring things out in unfamiliar environments. I can evaluate the alternatives, know when I need to ask a question, and figure out what it will take to get where I need to go or what I need to do. It is amazing that a small bus trip some summer morning had such lasting impacts, but it provided immense confidence and a sense of self-reliance and independence.

Even further down the line, I realized that this exploration and adventure led to development of behaviors that help me be successful even today. A few key areas in my career I realized this lesson and adventure exploring the WRTA bus system taught me include:

  • The ability to grasp all of the options available to me, and to think that there might be other options than what is in front of me
  • A greater sense of independence and less reliance on others, and this extends to thinking critically about the best solutions without someone having to explicitly tell me
  • That it is important to have a contingency plan in place for occasions when the original plan may not work out
  • It is always okay to ask for help or guidance when you need direction, whether geographically or instructional
  • Practice can make perfect, as taking that test run resulted in a flawless and fearless ride and transfer home for my sister and me

It is amazing how one little exploration of something new to me, though I was fortunate to have a seasoned guide, could open up my world, my eyes, and my way of thinking for decades. Only one morning with my grandfather set the stage for so much other skill development, and that too is a powerful lesson. Sometimes what we need to learn is beyond the scope of what we are being taught. It might be days or years before it sinks in, but if we open ourselves to adventure and experimentation, a little risk can pay off in unexpected ways. Thinking about what we have learned can help us continue to learn, whether we choose to capitalize on past experience or open up with exploration of new experiences.

My husband is now my Jeopardy! Partner, and I realize that we’re better now than when we started dating. We’ve lived more life, explored more of what interests us and each other, and are able to successfully buzz in from home more often as the years go on. A sense to keep exploring, whether it results in obscure trivia knowledge or a valuable skill like navigating major transit systems, helps us to constantly grow and develop personally and professionally.

What have been some of your most fruitful explorations and adventures? What were the lessons that you learned?

 

The remaining two posts will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

Measure the Right Things (#3 of 6 – Lessons That Impact Life)

This is third in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to just being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

Report card time for any student is stressful. I was inquisitive and curious and worked to learn and apply my skills, even in kindergarten and especially in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. This meant in most cases I was headed for the honor roll, but stuck in a perfectionist mindset anything other than all A’s was disheartening and felt like failure.

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Yes, I acknowledge now as a “recovering perfectionist” that being in a perfectionist mindset was ridiculous. I’m more forgiving of myself and realize that mistakes are opportunities, not just a penalty.

In my last post, I shared a lesson from my grandfather to figure out what really matters in life. Do the grades in my classes really matter? They influenced where I could apply to and attend college and grad school, but otherwise, these grades were a measure of a moment in time of how I could use the information. It didn’t take into account how it was applied outside the contexts of a classroom, how it could be meaningful, or if I would even retain it past the point of measurement.

But if something on a report card did matter to my grandfather, it was conduct and effort. Pops valued how we presented ourselves not just at home but in public. He found it important that we try our best no matter what we did. Pops didn’t mind a lower subject grade coming home if you truly did everything in your power to learn. The learning process, interest, and focus mattered. If you brought home an A in conduct and an A in effort, a reward of $20 was yours to collect.

This attitude was helpful to me when I got to college at WPI and was surrounded by incredibly brilliant people who also worked hard. There were certainly some curve busters in the classes I took (and I definitely did NOT fill that role!). The hard earned B (differential equations) or rare C (intro to electrical engineering…for majors) were sometimes accomplishments with greater pride than the A’s that came more easily.  

I realized in those moments of pride that I understood what Pops wanted us to learn by his reward system. Maybe it wasn’t exactly more about the journey than the destination, but how you go about the process, how you are as a person, and how you respect other people. No one wants to be around a person who is centered on how funny they are (especially when they aren’t!) instead of the task at hand. Anyone who has ever worked on a team or group project knows the pain of that one partner who doesn’t ever pull their weight.

He was, without telling us, building our character. Pops was encouraging, by rewarding conduct and effort, traits that would help us in the long run. That report card with “A” plastered all over it in fifth grade is great, but even better is the ability to contribute to a meaningful cause.

Right now I am reading the book Grit by Angela Duckworth. The timing as I write this post couldn’t be any more serendipitous. While I still have room for improvement on the grittiness scale, I know the expectations on conduct and effort helped develop a work ethic and ability to grind when the going gets tough. Following through with commitments, either personally or to others, matters. It is sadly a point of differentiation in a world of instant gratification.

Over the past few years at my current company, I’ve said “yes” to assignments that were new experiences, including one with ambiguous pathways for how to achieve success. On this project, the important thing was to first establish what the expectations were with my leaders. Once that was understood, I had to rally my team toward goals that meant something to each team member. We made these declarations together in the same room, and each group’s contribution to the list of goals was posted, shared, and agreed to by everyone.

Each team member committed to all of the goals, not just the ones they contributed. This built a mutual respect and understanding for what each member of the team needed to be successful. Doing a list of joint goals allowed trust and respect to be earned by everyone. If something didn’t go perfectly, we were more willing to go with the flow and work towards resolution than live with frustration. Mutual trust and respect being already established helped. This is the conduct and effort from the report card in action in a real work situation. When we measured goals that mattered to everyone, the whole team gelled and committed. The result was a level of success that went beyond any expectation.

My grandfather was a savvy guy. He knew the motivations that would result in helping his grandchildren become the best people they could be in school or in society, on top of what my parents were already doing. Pops recognized that if you measured (and rewarded) the right things, you could get the desired results. The lesson was clear to us that acing a test was only part of the equation, we had to be model citizens and represent the family well. And to do that, conduct and effort were measured and rewarded.

Have you noticed when you alter what or how you measure, that outcomes change? Did you learned any lessons from measuring the wrong thing? How do you know you are measuring the right things in your own life?

The remaining three posts will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

Focus On What Matters (#2 of 6 – Lessons That Impact Life)

This is second in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to just being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

In middle school and high school, I spent countless hours playing basketball with my siblings and the neighborhood kids. There was seemingly no significant improvement over the years. But for me, it was fun anyway: an excuse to be social, play, and exercise. In seventh grade, my skills compared to the other girls were obviously lacking. So to help compensate, I worked hard and hustled every practice. In high school, I was last on the bench, but at least on a team with girls who were fun to play with and cheer on from that front row in the bleachers. I lived for practice; games were not as fun for me.

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Though effort was frequently rewarded, my grandfather saw very early on that my siblings and I were not going to have even a chance at competing for lucrative college scholarships. Forget playing at a professional level. In a way only a grandparent can say without bruising a teenager’s ego, Pops stopped by the driveway game one day to remind us that there were other ways to spend our time than playing basketball. If we weren’t going to make it to the pros, shouldn’t we concentrate our efforts on other things?

This moment, though I can’t exactly place it at a certain age or specific date, has stayed with me. Why do we spend so much time on what isn’t going to matter, and not enough on what does matter?

Figuring out what matters takes time and mistakes. We are not born so smart to know everything that matters instinctively. Priorities can change over time. What mattered to me at 10 and at 20 is inconsistent with what matters to me most now. Certainly, the same is largely true for you. We have to learn through getting to know ourselves better, and we have to learn from those around us who are also on the journey or even confident in knowing what matters to them.

Setting goals is another area where I often confront if something matters, and especially consider the why of it mattering. Is it important to me, or to someone else? Will the goal get me to where I want to be? A goal without a meaningful reason behind it is a recipe for failure. It must matter to me. And, it may even have to matter to the world around me depending on the size of the the problem I am working to solve. What does it matter if I am never a “40 Under 40” recipient? It is wonderful for those who are winners, but that award doesn’t change my mission and what I want to accomplish in this life.

Problems by their very nature are not easy. When I become frustrated, whether by lack of weight loss or missing communication by others, I am often reminded by others of the Serenity Prayer, which contains an ever insightful request “to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Usually after I have settled down from whatever rattled me to react and remembering the Serenity Prayer, I think of that driveway moment with Pops, wondering about what does and doesn’t matter.

Intense soul searching often helps me reflect and focus on what matters. I can journal during morning coffee or take a long walk on a weekend morning. Sometimes I will talk it out with my husband or a friend. Ultimately, you need to make a decision or nothing gets done. Take reflective time and opportunities to have those deep conversations, internally and with others, to narrow down what you should focus on. Not everything can be a priority all the time. 

Lately, I’ve had to do some prioritizing of my time. It means I need to say “no” to more, and focus on only what is important. I was honored to be asked to fill some prestigious and inventive roles for the Alpha Gamma Delta Volunteer Service Team, including opportunities to work directly for some of my mentors and role models in the organization. I ultimately put myself forward for the Philanthropy Committee so I could focus my time on making a difference on a team guiding the organization’s fight against hunger. That was what mattered to me – to impact the work thousands of women will do to help even more people affected by hunger.

Who do you want to be in life? Where do you want to go? Understanding the journey you want to have in life has incredibly impact in determining what you should to do head toward the destination. Whichever direction you choose at the fork in the road, keep reminding yourself to focus on what matters.

The remaining four posts will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

Six Lessons That Impact My Life – in Honor of Father’s Day

My grandfather always had a major influence on my life. His lessons still stay with me today, more than 10 years after his death.  On Father’s Day, I started a six part series to memorialize the lessons to share with you. The lessons are timeless and important to any stage. Click the links below to share in the value he added for both career and life.

  1. The Value of Reading
  2. Focus on What Matters
  3. Measure the Right Things
  4. Never Stop Exploring and Learning
  5. Stand Up for Yourself
  6. Working Hard (Plus a Lesson from My Dad)

The Emotional Reason Why Reading Has Added Value (#1 of 6 – Lessons That Impact My Life)

This is first in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

Most times when I walked into my grandfather’ house, next door to where I grew up, he was reading. The entertainment value of reading was important to my grandfather, who was retired for many years and lived on his own. My grandmother died the year before I was born, so he had spent many years without her. Reading filled the time, the loneliness, and gave ideas for discussion when visitors stopped by.

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My grandfather’s favorite book was Jack London’s Call of the Wild. At one point, he had bulk-bought copies so that he could hand out the book to people who hadn’t read it before. It seemed to be his mission to expose the world to this story. The summer I was heading into middle school, Pops decided that the time had come for me to read Call of the Wild.

At twelve years old, I loved reading, so it didn’t take too much prodding to have me do this. Nancy Drew had been my series of choice for years. The downside of my girl-detective obsession was a limited vocabulary (as was suggested to my parents by teachers), so to read Call of the Wild I needed to carry around a dictionary with me. Wasn’t I the coolest kid at camp, carrying around not just a book while everyone was on the playground, but a book accompanied by a dictionary.

While I often have to refer to Google to remind myself of the plot of Call of the Wild, (it clearly did not become one of my favorite books!) I do remember how accomplished I felt when I finally finished. I was more confident in what I could read, feeling like not book was truly out of reach. Referencing the dictionary slowed me down when I couldn’t figure out the “context clues,” but I was proud of the effort it took to finish and actually know what was going on. Looking back, I also realized that:

  • I was learning how to overcome small obstacles with my own initiative. In order to make Pops proud and complete the task, I had to assess options to get through the book. Carrying the dictionary around, so be it.
  • My capabilities would extend as far as I would let them. I could have struggled and given up, or I could resolve to find solutions and succeed.
  • My goals are my goals alone, for no one else to judge. While it was Pops’ idea to read the book, it was my decision to do it. I was teased for carrying a dictionary, but I’d bet I accomplished a few more personally meaningful things than other campers.

My grandfather had to drop out of school in the 8th grade, during the Depression, to help his family. Though he never attended high school, he understood the value of educating yourself both formally – he encouraged all three of his sons to go to college, and they graduated – and informally, by choosing your own adventure. He was a role model by both showing and telling the importance of reading outside of school assignments. It wasn’t just for show, and it set the stage for how important continuous improvement and constant learning can improve our lives and our careers.

While there were some strange times when he might have been reading the obituaries from an out of town newspaper (Dad would often bring him newspapers from other cities on his travels for work), it was clearly evident that reading could be both for learning and enjoyment.

One book Pops read in his later years was Devil in the White City, a novel-like historical non-fiction by Erik Larson, about the times leading up to and during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. When Pops suggested I read it, I was in college. My time was overwhelmed with a challenging engineering curriculum and all of my extracurricular activities, so it went unread for several years. In 2007, my grandfather died from an unexpected illness shortly before fall break of senior year. Over that following Thanksgiving, feeling devastated by his absence, I finally tore through Devil in the White City. Of course, Pops was right that I would love it.

Books are a powerful connector of people. Not only can they provide information, but also deep emotional associations. When you can share that raw feeling with another person, it opens you up not only emotionally, but intellectually and to the world beyond your own bubble. Books aren’t just an escape from our day-to-day; they are bigger than that. Reading serves as a bridge in relationships and our perceptions.

The value of reading helps to break up the monotony of business emails and technical reports that can drain us mentally. As communication has transformed to a greater digital focus and definitely more visual, reading can help keep the brain stimulated and primed to think differently. Imagine how much that can help with improving problem solving. What do you see in the value of reading? Did you learn to love any activities from a favorite family member?

The other five stories will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!