Uphill both ways

When I was a kid my dad used to tell me a story about how when he was my age he had to “walk uphill both ways to school”. Occasionally this was combined with an aggressive slamming of his baseball mitt sized hand to his chest with a sidebar of “..and the snow was this high! You don’t know how good you’ve got it.”

As an adult I know that he meant this as a story that would motivate me. What I’ve since realised is that often the way we interpret things can be dark and scary OR overwhelmingly motivating. It is all about how we chose to take it.

The words he was saying were about how life could be hard and that likely someone nearby had it worse than I did. In hindsight this isn’t a bad lesson, though I wish he had placed a little focus on what I could be doing to make that other person’s life a little bit better, but he wasn’t that type of guy. Most of his stories roll up to being about looking out for number one.

What troubles me is what the kid in me heard when he told that story. I heard that life is always going to be a struggle. I heard that nobody was going to help you find a shorter, easier way. I heard that you should not complain and just trudge through.

This lesson served to damage a little seed inside me that was trying to grow into something soft and kind and it has taken a long time for me to release that outlook. Today I hear a very different message from his words and this is the one I want to share with you.

If the road in front of you is hard, do not be afraid, be brave and optimistic. The laws of physics are on your side. No route should be uphill both ways. That is not to say that your path will be an easy one to travel. Life is only as hard as you make it. If the track you are on says that you should suffer, stop and question everything about it.

Ask yourself if there is a different way over, under, around, or through. Ask yourself if this was the way you wanted to go in the first place because sometimes a left turn takes you to where you should have been heading all along.

Do not accept the status quo. Learn from things that do not go your way and choose not to allow things not going in your favour to stop you on your journey to greatness. 

Make the decision that you are the only one who can change the rules for you and those who come after you.

One choice, one decision, one mistake, one obstacle will not make or break you, but sitting down and letting the world crush the seeds of awesome inside you will. Sometimes plans don’t go our way. Sometimes we need a better plan, or better yet we need to collaborate with awesome people to create a new way forward all together.

My dad told me a story that was supposed to lift me up and it crushed me for a while. That is a reality of how each of us interprets the things we hear and see. It took longer than it otherwise might have for my little seed to push past these obstacles and bloom.

I consider myself lucky that I was able to hear it differently today because so many hopes and dreams are lost in these situations of misinterpretation.

In light of our global political climate, I want to remind everyone that this single setback should not serve to crush the seeds of hope that have been planted. It may delay the blooms the way a late frost might, but I am here to remind you that summer is coming and together we can make a more beautiful world.

Join me in a left turn towards greatness.

The art of Procrastivity

People talk about how bad procrastination is, but I think that there is a way to procrastinate productively. I dub this effort PROCRASTIVITY and it helps me to do #ALLTHETHINGS!

Yes, that is a made up word…mind you if we look at the way language evolves it might be a real word soon enough. I digress, but really it’s just the synergy of how my avoidance of particular tasks can actually match up with my goals and deliver more outcomes in less time than you might expect.

To be honest I have a lot of things on the go at any one time. Collaborative projects, writing commitments, grad school, work for clients, hobbies, etc. etc. I do a lot of things in my quest to be a polymath and when I procrastinate I have discovered that I often avoid one work effort by doing another.

What? I decide that I don’t want to do my expenses and say…uhm…spend the time instead of doing my expenses writing a blog or doing research for a client. I’m not unproductive, just producing differently. You might be familiar with the feeling of being struck by a powerful need to clean out your closet when you should be doing your homework, or maybe the urgent need to squeeze in that week of meal prep before you can contemplate going to the gym. If you use your desire to avoid a task as fuel to complete another you can be abundantly productive.

While I have to admit that sometimes I do avoid tasks with the help of my couch and Netflix (I’m human people!) when I am avoiding one thing I am primarily working on something else that adds value to one of my goals.

So often we hear about the downfalls of procrastination. We hear stories of how people struggle to accomplish their basic life tasks and rarely hear positive stories. I’m here to tell you about how the act of deferring one task in favour of another can actually help people to deliver more than they thought possible.

Strategic diversity

In order to master procrastivity you need to make some choices about how you want to grow as a person. From making space to develop a creative skill, growing your career, or investing in a dream, your alternate projects need to deliver value to your life plan or personal goals. By doing this you will be assembling items that regardless of what you pick will be doing something good for you.

Think of it like a menu from your favourite restaurant, no matter what you select, it is sure to be tasty and fill your belly. BUT…… you also cannot and should not live exclusively on junk food anymore than you should limit your goals.

Implementing procrastivity

Make the initial list of everything you want to do and prioritise it. Include all the things that you want to do personally, with your loved ones, and professionally. Do not skip concepts like relaxation, fitness, and time with your family as they need to fit in just as much as getting that new certification or promotion might.

Note: The items on your list do not need to add instant value, but MUST add long term value to YOU (nobody else needs to get anything from your goals). Make sure that you are thinking thoughtfully about the things you are adding to your to-do list and how they might contribute to your overall quality of life and personal goals.

An example of this strategic diversity might be goals like learning a language, educating yourself about your professional field, training for your first marathon, doing your day job, and spending time with your family. While this might seem like a big roster of items you can easily slot them all in if you are aware about what items you can be flexible with and what items you need to stick to a schedule with.

Something like education in your professional field could have complete flexibility because you are reading/listening to content about the topic or maybe taking part in a MOOC. These items can be done in the time you wait in a queue for coffee or when you have a few moments free waiting for transit. Comparatively, things like our day jobs can’t be quite as flexible so you have to slot the other items around them.

Most items sit in the middle zone. Training for a marathon for example might require a certain commitment of hours on the road so you need to find a block of time a few days a week before or after work, while family/partner time might be very flexible about the when and not about the how much so you block most of your weeknights to dedicate to your goals and spend your weekend adventuring with your loved ones.

You also have to accept that the priority must correlate to how much time you can invest in each item right now. Maybe that means that something is not going to get as much attention in the short term because of current demands, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t continue to progress as time allows and may become more focused when something else reduces in volume or effort.

Opportunity for connections

So often when we are in the middle of something specific we develop tunnel vision. We forget about other perspectives or options. It’s not our fault, it just happens.

Procrastivity allows us to see new links between seemingly disparate topics through reflection and new knowledge creation. Personal reflection is often powered by walking away from a task and provides us with chances to let our subconscious brain problem solve as it places the new knowledge into slots in our brains. More often than not something that I have been working on for one thing can serve to inform another when I least expect it.

Learn new things

I know this is a bit overly simplified, but doing more than one thing intentionally helps you to learn and grow as a person. We can never know how a passion to learn to play the guitar might result in finding your dream job because of a connection you make or a place you go. Creating a plan to extend your comfort zone will be sure to drive you forward in more ways than the single skill you are acquiring or developing in that moment.

So, now that you have realised that procrastivity is the way forward what are you going to do about it?

new-piktochart_block_2
#Procrastivity for the WIN!

There are also some great to-do lists that can help you to master procrastivity. I really like this one from That’s what she said.

Dear Sarcasm…..

Ah Sarcasm,

We have had a good run you and I. There have been some fun times, but it’s just not working anymore.

Love Erin

Dear Sarcasm

I read somewhere that sarcasm is the lowest form of discourse (literature scholars please offer a source for this truth). I had always thought that sarcasm was a gift. I didn’t realise that it was one of those gifts that might be best left behind for another to use.

For a long-time I took pride in my fast responses and enjoyed the impact of a well placed disdainful comment. I didn’t fully value the impact that these remarks might have on perceptions.

As a professional I do my best to keep my terminology crisp and clear as so much can be lost in the space between words read quickly on a screen. This has come from some tough lessons of items that have been misconstrued due to language or context being undeclared in the content.

Sarcasm can be a great tool in the right circumstance. When combined with wit or humour a sarcastic retort can be impactful. It can make a story land in a way that makes a listener remember it. Over time I have learned that unlike sarcasm both wit and humour can be used to great impact on their own. Sarcasm can too, but without humour or wit to soften the blow it tends to just sound bitchy.

You will notice in great literature sarcasm is a tool for the supporting characters. Rarely is it used by the hero of the story. Heroes are known to put the villains back in their places without the need for this crutch. So why does this matter?

If you want to be the hero instead of the sidekick, you better get some more effective weapons for your arsenal.

Not too long ago I submitted some writing that I had done for a grad school assignment. One of the items had what I considered a cheeky dig at the opponent’s approach. While my work received a great grade, the point received a negative comment from my professor. At the time I thought that she was attacking my point which was well researched and valid. I was offended that she didn’t get me.

This weekend I went for a hike in the woods and was struck with an epiphany that she wasn’t actually attacking me. She was warning me that I might lose my argument because of the sarcastic delivery.

My work might not win the debate even though I had the better argument because my sarcasm would serve to make the reader stop listening.

People don’t hear your message when you attack them before you share it.

Persuasive arguments are fought on good data and sound logic. Sometimes they may include a witty or funny analogy in order to make the reader engage on a deeper level, but they have no need for bitchy digs.

It’s because of this realisation that over the next few months I am weaning myself off sarcastic comments. I work hard to build credible connections between different data points and should not serve to reduce their impact or risk losing the game by throwing foul balls at the batter.

I realise that it can be hard to change something that I used to take pride in. While I may mourn for the retorts never getting a chance to hit their mark, I will celebrate my ability to articulate an argument and win the debate as the hero of my story.

Resting Boss Face

Over the last few years we have been inundated with the phrase resting bitch face. This is often the label placed on any woman who isn’t smiling or crying. It is the face of them just being. Most of our lives happen in the middle. We can’t be up or down all the time or we will become a caricature of what humanity is supposed to be.

Images of men with a non-smiling face may be described as stern or stoic. These images are the definition of pensive and thoughtful and when our male leaders show this face we associate it with trust and respect.Erin Burrell

They become statues of gods and greatness, while women everywhere are a negative representation of a female dog?

What The? Fuck?

It is funny how words can impact how we feel about ourselves.

Throughout my career I have been encouraged to smile more so that I can be viewed as nice and endearing. The truth is, I have never really wanted to be defined as nice. I would prefer to be defined as effective or motivational, thank you very much.

When dealing with trying circumstances and situations I have been reminded that my face is impacting the feelings of those around me. They’ve told me that my team will know that we are facing something serious if I can’t manage to crack a smile. Good. Maybe they should be aware that we aren’t meeting goals and it is time to dig in because we are at war. Maybe just a tidbit of seriousness on the face of their leadership will remind them that we have a job to do.

I’ve had a pretty great career so far. I’ve accomplished some great things personally and more importantly I have mentored people who will continue to pay forward my lessons by continuing to be awesome.

On many occasions while these people were learning and growing they had to deal with my cold visage. It was likely the result of getting all the shit done in the first place since, as we know the business community isn’t exactly all puppies and freaking rainbows. Over time the people who found me scary and intimidating have come to see smiles and cheers as they pushed through their goals too. Life is about balance.

I’ve made tough calls. I’ve had to let good people go due to circumstances I couldn’t control, and I have had to manage people who weren’t delivering. This is the way of the business world, but the reality is that I couldn’t always smile through it.

More than once I have had to make hard decisions, many of them alone. When the only person you can tell about these terrible circumstances is your pet, sometimes the weight of your decisions shows on your face. I do my best not to place any of the pressure and responsibility on another person and that has a price.

Before you ask…No, I don’t cry at work. You won’t find me at my desk lamenting how hard things are. You will likely find me problem solving. In order to do that I need to use my brain to do stuff and there isn’t always room for a genuine smile.

A little while ago a photo was taken of me that I liked very much. I was not smiling, not frowning, not crying, I just was. What was special was the fact that I liked how I looked. As you do with a photo you feel good about I posted it on social media and the comments were mostly about how I should smile more. I am so much prettier when I smile they said. More than a few made Resting Bitch Face remarks.

This image of me that I had liked had actually served to make me feel lousy about myself. (Thank-you social media)

That was until someone I have been mentoring posted two words on the stream.

#BossLady

That single comment changed my mind. Today I like to call it my Resting Boss Face. I am a developer of awesome, and in order to do that I have to be serious most of the time. This habit of seriousness means that when I smile, I am really smiling. I am not going to fake joy to make you feel better because that would make my genuine emotions less impactful.

As of today I am now an enemy of every article telling me how “the struggle of resting bitch face is real”. My face is not a struggle and has very little to do with how I do a job.

Going forward I will celebrate my #RestingBossFace as the sign that I am getting shit done.

 

 

Personal Reflection-increasing understanding by making space

The need to have time to reflect is critical to solidify learning theories for students and professionals alike. By acknowledging the space between what we read or hear and what we already know we are able to create links between the two. It is through these associations that new ideas and perspectives are born.

Making time

When I headed back to school to complete my MBA in 2012 I had an instructor (Kim Gunning-Mooney)  recommend we focus on taking the time to reflect. She explained what I think was some version of my description above (honestly I was mentally and physically exhausted for most of MBA so I can’t guarantee that I am totally accurate here, but she deserves credit), and rationalized that we would never imagine what this space could do for the development of our ideas.

Honestly, I thought it was crap. What would writing down my thoughts about what I had read, seen, or heard do for my ability to write an assignment or to do my job?

LOTS!

We often don’t realise how our brains create connections, but in many cases it is when we aren’t studying a topic that we begin to understand it. Have you ever had that moment in the shower or driving to work when everything suddenly makes sense?

That is the power of space to reflect.

Creating connections

I spend a lot of my professional time telling stories to clients and partners. Customising the story to each individual is critical to making it relevant to them and this is where I discovered how reflection helps us make connections.

Many of the early years of my career were spent in the home improvement industry. This causes me to tell a lot of stories about how computer software/employee engagement /management/ marketing/leadership is like the plumbing in your home.

Stay with me here….

You often don’t take the time to think about your plumbing or FILL IN THE BLANK business challenge until it is broken and find yourself in a hurry to get it fixed before you are covered in poop. In a really bad circumstance, it is being covered in poop that tells you the problem exists in the first place.

The importance of the analogy (or any analogy really) is the fact that people can suddenly see the connection between two ideas and just how urgent or serious the challenge they are facing has become.

Our ability as experts to connect the dots matters more than the dots themselves

By walking away from a challenge, literally or figuratively we are able to encourage our brains to connect these new concepts with the information that we have already internalised.

Build compelling arguments

I used to follow my gut on everything. Gut instinct is a powerful thing, to be sure, but honestly it is meaningless when you are pitching a multi-million dollar venture to the board for sign off. You need to have evidence (shown through the connections) in order to make a point.

You: “Hey board of experts I just know that this is a good idea so can I have some cash, please?”

Them: “Yeah, nah bro.”

But when we have some evidence (I consider all ideas evidence to create a compelling argument), and then we combine it with gut instinct and past experiences we are able to make connections that create a compelling and successful business case in many situations.

You: “Hi board of experts we have a challenge and it can be met by combining this times that. We believe it will work because of this idea X connection = result and this idea X connection = result.”

Them: “Well of course! Here are your millions of dollars”

Yes, this may be a bit of a simplified circumstance, but the likelihood of creating those connections is infinitely higher when take the time to reflect and internalise new information. A few steps that work for me are below, but feel free to reflect in whatever way you find effective.

  1. Write down what the content told you in your own words:
    1. Create a summary of what you read so that a fifth grader can understand it.
    2. Journal about the items you are reading. When you start telling the story you connect items without thinking about it.
    3. If you can’t summarise it yet, that’s ok move to step 2
  2. Brainstorm around the topic:
    1. Use a mind map or fishbone diagram to list concepts and create connections between them. The lines are the part that matters most
    2. Use a word blurb to see what concepts repeat most in the article. Tools like Wordle are awesome for this.
    3. Use your favourite method of brainstorming, the method is not as important as taking the time to do it
  3. Walk away
    1. Go for a run, take your kids to the park, binge watch some OITNB, read a trashy novel, it doesn’t matter what it is just get away from the work for a few minutes/hours/days as your timeline allows and let your brain do its thing.

What’s in it for you?

This is the age-old question when we put a task in front of someone. Why would you give up something you value (time, space, money) in exchange for this thing?

Reflecting makes connections faster than reading or listening to lectures alone. It helps us to find ways to internalise the idea and merge it with our personal expertise to make it valid and relevant. AND even if you don’t get anything special from it at that moment, we are raising our likelihood for shower Ah ha! moments exponentially just by trying something new.

 

References:

Reflection is the most important part of the learning process

Mind Tools Brainstorming

What I learned from doing my MBA

I recall back to when I was researching grad schools I was frantically trying to find content that would tell me about the experience. I searched forums, youtube, and websites all resulting in next to no content.

I was so frustrated. Nobody was there to really tell you what they felt like as a student. I couldn’t figure it out. There was information before they started and information after they finished, but hardly anything about life completing an MBA.

I would change this! I promised myself that I would document the experience. Boy was I wrong.

The reason that there was next to no content about how life really felt during an MBA was because: THEY WERE TOO BUSY DOING THEIR MBA’s. I too failed in my personal promise to document the journey. What little I wrote can be found here.

Taking on an Executive MBA program while balancing family, work, and life means that there will be sacrifices. It’s been a year since I finished, and I have only managed to just lose the weight I put on from sacrificing fitness during the degree so that my other commitments wouldn’t completely fall by the wayside.

I gave up a lot of things during my degree like my fitness, movies with my partner, evenings visiting with friends and family, and relaxing vacations. I also lost some things which may never recover like friends I wasn’t able to keep regular contact with that have all but faded away.

In exchange for my sacrifices I was given many things which I consider to be of higher value. Lessons like increased ability to problem solve and work with a team to think critically and deliver effectively. I also pride myself on my resiliency and ability to balance demands coming at me from all sides. Something I wasn’t aware of before I started in the degree.

In the end, my answer to those who ask is that it is a hard balance to take on a degree as a working professional. It requires you to be humble about what you can and cannot accomplish and forces you to make decisions about what matters most every day.

Sorry I wasn’t able to share these insights in real time, I was too busy doing the work, to write about how the work felt…. Now onward to another degree I’m just about to tackle an MA… maybe this time I will be able to better document the experience…. or maybe not.

Life Changing Septembers

I find it funny that my very favourite month of the year in Ontario (September) has become my month away from home.  For the last three years my September’s have been filled with life changing adventures, loaded with new ideas, given me new friends and sent me home to Ontario with fresh perspectives on life, work, and who I am.

Twenty Ten

Erin Burrell and Helene Fournier Lower Sackville
Last day of riding 2010 SNKCR

It all began in 2010 when I decided to ride my bike across Canada as a member of the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride (SNKCR).  I joined a group of strangers in Vancouver for a bike ride to raise funds for paediatric cancer causes and to drive awareness.  I had no idea that I would get so much back for my effort.  The group of volunteers and riders (approximately 100 people) come together for an amazing cause and became my family.

SNCKR 2011 Erin and Dan
Volunteers for a Cause

Twenty Eleven

In my quest to pay forward all that I experienced from the 2010 ride, I hopped on the bandwagon as a member of the support crew for SNKCR 2011.  Armed with the knowledge of what the riders were going through and the feeling of how much my volunteers gave to me, I headed across Canada again.  This time it was a different experience.  Many of the people there started as my family and each of the new riders and crew were a welcome addition to our world.

Twenty Twelve

Motivated by the last two years of giving back to my community I made the choice to give back to myself.  Enrolling in the Royal Roads MBA program was a big step for me in helping to move forward as a professional and as a person.  What I was not expecting was that this was another huge adventure.  School has been something I have thought about for quite some time, but not something that I was prepared to commit to.  I was sure that I would learn a lot, but I had no idea I would change as a person.  The program includes two residencies and a bunch of online learning and programs along the way.

I spent the last three weeks in Victoria BC on my first residency engaged in team projects, outstanding classes and absorbing as much content as I possibly could.  During all of this academic learning came a great deal of personal growth.  Being in a safe place to ask the question “how does my action effect another person?” was incredibly empowering.  It helped me to better understand my own choices and to listen before making a judgement about another person.

At least the weather was good for crutches

The Lessons

Each year I have taken a number of personal lessons away from my experiences.  These lessons were not easily earned and in many cases came with many obstacles that I had to overcome before I could get to the lesson at all.

In 2010 I learned how to feel genuine emotion again by learning how to cry after years of thinking that tears were a sign of weakness. I became liberated by understanding that emotion is what makes us whole.  In 2011 I learned that the little things you do for another person can make their lives better in big ways.

This year was the biggest personal lesson so far.  I learned that asking others to help you is sometimes more of a gift to them than to you. Navigating the campus on crutches was hard, but learning that I can ask for help will last a lot longer than a broken leg.

Now I find myself wondering what life changing adventures are ahead of me next September…..The world is full of lessons if you are willing to show up on time for class.