A Focus on Tasks Does Not Make a Momentous Life

 At the height of the taskmaster years . . .

At the height of the taskmaster years . . .

A few years ago, I woke up and realized I had become a person I didn't want to be. Instead of feeling centered and alive, I had become a taskmaster over myself, over employees, over my family.

It began as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My husband, Craig, and I had been following a dream to farm. In collaboration with landowners on Bainbridge Island we founded Heyday Farm and gathered a community around us. It wasn't without trepidation that we left our employment, me a communications consultant collaborating with other skilled consultants to further the work of foundations and nonprofits, and Craig a landscape architect with a well-respected Seattle firm. On the farm, Craig applied his accumulated knowledge as a landscape architect and environmental scientist and designed the site and the systems. I applied my background in communications, branding, content creation, and community building to the cause of ethically raised food.

We, along with our partners, had a lot of know-how, rudder and sail. We created a brand together and named our creation, we planned, designed and built, a website, a following, a commercial kitchen, an event center, a dairy and creamery, a bed and breakfast, a farm store and ultimately, we provided meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables, and prepared meals to our growing community.

Doing what we were good at and passionate about was pure bliss. And then there was all the other work: construction management, bookkeeping, hiring, food safety, packaging, reporting, permitting, licensing, course correcting, quality control, training, people management, and on and on late into the night as we closed our American office and opened what we called the Singapore office. Instead of being married, my husband and I became co-workers. Meanwhile we also had small children who were growing up fast. Before we knew it, five years had passed.

We inspired others, but we were no longer inspired ourselves.

Frequently, as we progressed on this journey, people who came to the farm looked us deep in the eye and said, "This is my dream too."

I had been in their shoes, walking through the farmers' markets, wishing myself behind the booth. But now that I was here, something was amiss. At the heart of the dream, for me, was the magnetic pull of nostalgia for a time that was slower and richer in sensory connections through work, food and community. We tried to provide this experience to our customers and guests. It was also inherent in the farming, the cyclical systems for composting and managing pastures, animals and crops. But behind the scenes we also embraced busyness and modernity. As a farmer, it’s thrilling to use every scrap of technology and multi-disciplinary knowledge at your fingertips. Still, something gets lost when you can't go to bed when the sun goes down, when technology makes everything immediate and you're competing with the convenience and price of grocery stores.

We were ambitious, idealistic. Through our energetic collaboration with the landowners, we had a lot of freedom to create a place and experience for our community to relish. What we lacked was wisdom. We created more than we could comfortably handle and a way of life that led us away from what had originally attracted me. That's not to say that someone else embarking on this endeavor wouldn't succeed in achieving their dream. Knowing what I know now, I might be able to make it work for me and my family. That's the interesting thing about this journey called life. At some point you realize that it doesn't actually matter what path you take. What matters more is the mindset you bring to the journey. What would you create if given a similar opportunity?

At one point we hired a skilled human resources consultant to help us update our employee manual and also to lead us through some team building. She did an exercise where we matched our characteristics to colors. I don't remember many details now, except that I was brown. Brown was for the person that was focused on getting things done rather than relationships. At the time, I embraced the brown. I wore taskmaster as a badge of honor. Being too busy felt safe. Yet, there was this whole side to me that said it was all wrong. That the person I had become was a far cry from who I was and who I wanted to be and that this wasn't the life I wanted.

It was time to rethink everything.

So, after five years, we amicably departed (this makes it sound easy, but it was not). The farm was restructured in a way that would allow several businesses to take over and better mind the details of each complex enterprise. Why didn’t we choose to manage one of the enterprises? We had been running a marathon and reached a finish line. It was time to take the next step and we wanted to give the farm, and our family, the attention and energy they both deserved.

Happily, the farm legacy still exists and is continuing to evolve with new collaborations and leadership. On our end, we went back to doing what we had done before. But we were different. The journey, of course, wasn't over.

When I fell away from the busyness of the farm, I immediately got injured and faced a prolonged recovery--which is often the body's way of forcing us to learn something. I lined up work which felt great, but in every other area of my life I had to dismantle and rebuild. The slow process began of creating habits and scheduling my time in a way that brought a feeling of rightness to any given moment. I got up differently, cooked differently, and approached hobbies differently. That led to more centeredness and confidence which meant that I was running my consulting business differently, networking differently, writing and creating differently. I became more methodical and organized. After a good long time, I began to feel profoundly different. I could finally deeply focused on what was in front of me instead of trying to get things done.

Along the way, I found Bliss More and started an effortless (seriously--that is the point of the whole book) meditation practice using only 20 minutes a day total. I also read the book, A Tale For the Time Being, written by Ruth Ozeki, a Buddhist nun. Strangely enough, my aunt recommended it to me, and then claimed she had not recommended it to me, and so I recommended it to her. A little bit of time bending there . . .

The book centers around the concept of time and the struggles of living a meaningful life. It's told through a gripping narrative about a young teenage girl and a middle-aged woman who form an unlikely, some would say, impossible, connection across time and space.

In the notes at the end, I encountered this passage:

The Zen nun Jiko Yasutani once told me in a dream that you can’t understand what it means to be alive on this earth until you understand the time being, and in order to understand the time being, she said, you have to understand what a moment is.

In my dream I asked her, What on earth is a moment?

A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.

In work and in life, this concept is my own personal lightning bolt. It's an idea that you are always in the center of this fantastic expansiveness. Something akin to infinity. And how you approach each moment matters more than anything else to what kind of life you will have.

A taskmaster is focused on tasks, but there's a smallness to it. When you achieve one thing, you move onto the next thing and feel like you never get anywhere. Embracing moments in time and putting your best into each moment? That creates possibility, a constant state of arriving.

I know at one point, I would have read this and totally not heard or understood it. I wouldn't have even had time to consider it.

Culturally, it feels like we're fast-tracked into the taskmaster mindset even though the results may be marginal at best. Not enough time? Therein lies regret.

My tortured relationship with time used to feel inevitable. Shifting that perspective took the courage to stop, listen and to begin again, and again, and again. It took more compassion, patience, and curiosity than I possessed.

Like everyone, I’m a work in progress. Thank goodness I have 6,400,099,980 moments each day to keep practicing.

That's my story for this moment. What's yours?

What’s the best approach to digital marketing and how do I make more meaning and less noise? Be human (rather than a squirrel).

 Feeling like a squirrel? It happens to all of us. 

Feeling like a squirrel? It happens to all of us. 

As a small business owner and communications professional, this question looms. The answer can be equally anxiety provoking with information, advice and sales reps coming at us from every direction: social media, the importance of video and images (got a designer and videographer handy?), the best digital marketing platforms, automation tools, inbound marketing, outbound marketing, organic reach, demand generation, segmenting, qualifying prospects, lead generation, nurturing campaigns, funnels, PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns, and more. Like an endless loop, digital marketing itself is trying to sell us on their products and integrations, hooking us with our worries and insecurities.

As a person, this question makes me want to throw up. How do I protect my information? How do I get this pop-up ad to stop playing while I’m working or trying to read a recipe? I wish this underwear ad was not “retargeting” me while I’m trying to look professional in a client meeting. Who is looking at my information and how are they using it? Is my Facebook feed showing that I like a business that I’ve never done business with? I’m pretty sure that my friend Amy isn’t endorsing Walmart today. How do I protect my privacy? How do I stop wasting time on social media? And the list goes on.

As a storyteller, a content creator and strategist, and a lover of authentic branding who collaborates with other businesses and professionals who want to make the world better, answering the question of how to stand out takes on a whole new urgency. 

In the face of that urgency and the noise, it’s best to take a step back and ask why do I want to stand out? How can I make a difference without making more noise? How can I make and sustain connections that will be transformative for me, the causes, and the people I work with and care about?

Fortunately, there are a number of human-friendly approaches that are keeping us values-driven people sane and in the game, and that are satisfying at both a personal and world-changing level. 

  1. Understanding the hearts and minds of the people we are trying to reach.
  2. Making a plan (this is not easy). Only 51 percent of companies operate with a long-term plan
  3. Building measurement into the plan (this is not easy either).
  4. Remembering that progress is incremental and takes time.
  5. If you’re feeling like a squirrel, you may be off the path and it’s probably time to revisit numbers 1, 2 and 3. 
  6. Not being creepy or annoying. 
  7. Learning more about the power of storytelling.
  8. Learning from the mistakes of others.
  9. Learning from the successes of others.
  10. Trial and error. Success is often the result of the failures.
  11. Not giving up.
  12. Allowing time for creativity.
  13. Building a culture that supports collaboration
  14. Being cautious of ready-made content and automation and using it judiciously and in a hands-on-way so it extends our reach and doesn’t undermine it.

While continuously getting a handle on all the digital marketing jargon, platforms, tools, and techniques, we have to keep reminding ourselves that ultimately everything comes back to offering something of value and building and nurturing the right relationships in a truly authentic and sustained way: #collaboration, #sharing, #givingback, #wordofmouth, and #referrals will always win over #advertising. Who are you? Who am I? Should we work together? How do we best work together to get to a place we both want to go?

What’s the biggest asset for those of us who truly want to connect and make positive change? We care, we’re human, we’re operating in our niche, and on a human scale. Should we keep a studious eye on the big players, the experts, the mega budgets, the bots and AI posing as humans? Absolutely, both personally and professionally! But the fact that we ARE human and keeping it real in our communities is a superpower of sorts. 

So, let’s back away from the concepts of B2B, B2C, C2B and C2C. Honestly? I hate being called a consumer as much as I hate the term “lifestyle.” We are humans and we’re living lives. So how about we embrace H2H. Human to human is where it’s at. The Year of the Human is already trending. Fist bump! Let’s keep it up and pass it on. 

Graphics Credit: Internet Archive Book Images

I’m convinced: learning to play an instrument as an adult is one of the best paths to personal and professional transformation.

Internet Archive Book Images

People often shy away from doing things that don’t create a tangible product. I know I do—or I used to. 

One dream that played in my head for years included a vision of our family gathered around a piano singing while I effortlessly accompanied them. The problem was that while I had taken piano for a few years as a teenager, and I knew the basics, I didn’t have an ear or any particular aptitude. I had no fluency with sight reading. Whenever I came to the end of a tune and asked my family if they liked it, they had no idea what song I was playing because I played so slowly and with so many mistakes. I couldn’t even sing Happy Birthday on key. Plus, we didn’t have room for a piano.

Still, the dream persisted. 

Internet Archive Book Images

Over time, I started to get more organized and routine-oriented. I have a home office and am very disciplined about work, but I became more consistent and intentional with my habits outside of work, like making my bed everyday, putting on an apron, and setting the table before I started cooking. After enough of these small changes, I was inspired to pull my piano playing dream out of my head and into the realm of possibility.  

To overcome the hurdle of not having a piano, we got a full-sized but relatively inexpensive and simple keyboard, with a similar feel and sound as a real piano. 

I secretly worried that “the new toy” would soon be gathering dust. 

I decided that I could fit 20 minutes a day of practice into my current routine. I didn’t sign up for lessons. I didn’t want to be pushed or pressured and I didn’t want any additional expenses. I wanted to guide my own learning and feed on my own motivation. 

My kids and my aunt had recently started taking lessons and I gleaned information. My kids’ teacher lent me The Piano Shop on the Left Bank and a book on theory, along with a couple of beginner sight reading books. At first I chose pieces that were too hard for me and worked on memorizing them bit by bit. The learning process was boring and laborious. Once memorized, they sounded good, but I felt the same frustration I had so many years earlier when I first tried to play the piano.

The problem? I was embracing the product, not the process and finding minimal reward and success.

Internet Archive Book Images

Over time, my approach to practice changed. My aunt told me about the Circle of Fifths and I studied that. I found a comprehensive scales book and a Hanon exercises book (with its hilariously old-fashioned and pretentious introduction for boarding school students). I had a couple of books full of easy Christmas songs on hand. My practice gained structure and consistency. Start with scales. Move to finger exercises. End with rhythm and sight reading. If working on a challenging piece, skill build for keyboard geography and rhythm rather than focusing on the music.

That was two years ago and over that time, with just twenty minutes a day, I’ve logged roughly 230 hours on the keyboard. It’s not 10,000 hours, but it’s also not zero. While the progress is slow, there is no doubt that things are starting to click as they never have before and my enjoyment has soared. I finally have a better appreciation for the instrument and a sense of context around all the individual notes. I even am starting to see many of the notes as “friendly faces,” something my kids’ piano teacher assures them will happen over time.

Maybe more importantly, it’s caused a complete mental shift in how I listen to the dreams in my head, and the value I put on process versus product. The process has me completely fired up and enjoying the moment and the results have become simple stepping stones for further growth.

Are you one of the seventy percent of adults who wish they played an instrument? Here are five reasons to make good on your own dream:

Internet Archive Book Images

"It took us 18 years to become an overnight success."

 Image courtesy of Churchmouse Yarns and Teas

Image courtesy of Churchmouse Yarns and Teas

So joked John Koval, one of the owners of our local knitting shop, Churchmouse Yarns and Teas, on Bainbridge Island. Recently, I had the pleasure of taking a behind-the-scenes tour and talking strategy with John and this comment continued to tap on my brain more than a week after. 

As Churchmouse approaches its 18-year anniversary, the business is a firmly established local icon, with an enormous and loyal following online. Regardless of where I stood, strolling the back offices with John, shopping online, or popping into the shop with a question, their endeavor felt seamless and effortless. 

John's comment, however, told another important story. As we race to maintain or establish ourselves in a loud and crowded marketplace, we should be neither overly impressed nor discouraged by the many rock stars among us. 

In his humble, humorous and delightfully wise way, John spoke an essential and pretty inspiring truth. Overnight success is a myth

A few days later I took a class, taught by his wife and co-owner Kit Hutchin, called, "Oops!" By the end of our time together, the group could fix an errant pearl in a sea of knits without ripping out our work. We could rescue stitches unraveling mid-work and on the edges. We could do forensics on our work to ferret out errors. 

It was a class, Kit said, about the essence of knitting. If she could impart one lesson to all knitters, this would be it: relax your death grip on your work and enter into a new zone of understanding where mistakes become no big deal. For me, someone whose main knitting strategy was not to make any mistakes, the class was a revelation.

During the class, Kit dramatically increased our chances of knitting success with simple life lessons. For example, don't try to fix a problem when you are tired, since our brains have a daily quota for decisions.  That's why people who eat the same thing for breakfast or wear a uniform may have a leg up. This from resources like The Organized MindPower of Habit and the Five Second Rule

After spending that little bit of time with John and taking that class with Kit, it wasn't hard to see why their business was doing so well. In knitting and in business, they have practiced long enough to become masters at their craft. 

Theirs is the inspired wisdom we don't hear enough these days: have a measured approach and take the long view while you strategically apply yourself to the tasks at hand. As for the prospect of making a mistake or heading in the wrong direction, don't be afraid. Being afraid stunts our potential. Plus, when we correct our mistakes with minimal fuss and worry, they speed us on our journey.

What's so appealing about the Accidental Icon?

Lyn Slater has an irresistible story. She's the over-sixty famous fashion model who fairly recently landed on the stage. At first glance we might be tempted to think that it's all about her or even that it's all about fashion. While those are the surface details, that is not the heart of what draws us to her. 

What makes Lyn Slater so attractive to so many people is the way her story and messaging embody the ways we want to change and grow on our journey of transformation. 

In her interviews and through her online presence, her message is clear: get to know yourself in an authentic way and then show that to the world. We believe her. She is clearly an authority on the subject and it's an approach that has made her more "visible" than ever at an age when she notes that many women feel invisible.

The satisfaction for her comes not from being visible, but from expanding the possibilities for those that follow her. She says that she has many young followers that tell her that she is making them unafraid of growing old.  

When I showed one of her interviews to my ten-year-old daughter, she said, "I like the part where she is wearing black and white and she is walking down the street like she owns it."

Exactly. It's not about fashion and it's not about Lyn. It's about us. Be it, wear it, own it.  

What #MeToo says about the power of storytelling

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The #MeToo story that touched me the most was one where she waited to tell her story. Her aggressor had already been brought down. She thought that she was healed. She thought that her story wasn’t necessary. But ultimately she couldn’t keep silent—the stories that came first were akin to a hero’s call. Those who heard the call knew that these ugly artifacts had been guarded and festering for too long.  

Salma Hayek’s story, Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too, is reflective, soul searching and heartfelt. She asks, “Why do so many of us as female artists have to go to war?” She describes her deep creative fire and drive. In her and in so many others, we see a hero. 

She is a strong woman at her core. But along her journey she had doubts like we all do, of her abilities and her worth. And right there beside her was a villain trying to take advantage of any sign of weakness, ready to exploit. 

She fought off the attempts repeatedly. No, no, no, no. Still, even while being exploited and undermined, her creative fire lived. When she finally gave in to doing a sex scene in Frida that she didn’t want to do, she told herself that she was doing it to save her creative vision, a compromise that would still allow her to realize her dream of finishing this movie. But she knew it was all wrong. That inner fire responded with an emphatic no, no, no, no. 

When she went against her inner wisdom, she says, “I had a nervous breakdown: My body began to shake uncontrollably, my breath was short and I began to cry and cry, unable to stop, as if I were throwing up tears.”

She is ill. And she continues to be ill for a long time. But she pretends she is well. She thinks the story is over. 

But no. Her inner fire knows differently. That ending is unfinished. Our hero is asleep. She’s asleep until a story wakes her up, and then another and another, until she realizes, “Me too, it’s my turn to speak.” Scary? Yes. But it’s a way forward and she isn’t alone. I imagine in this moment that she suddenly feels more power and support than she has in years because there is a tribe of wise women standing with her and supporting what her inner voice has been telling her all along. 

This is where her journey suddenly gains clarity. If sexual harassment is part of our cultural poison, and deathly silence part of the illness, then these stories are part of the cure. As women continue to share more stories, it effectively inoculates us from this sickness of silencing our own voices. It weakens the power of those that want to belittle us, objectify us, and bend us to their will.

A few years ago, my daughter made a mask (pictured above) at school during their Native American unit. She could follow a pattern or make her own design. She made her own design. The only word to describe it is fierce. She came home and immediately put it up on her wall where it remains today. She isn’t aware of #MeToo. Part of me loves that mask, loves that fierce quality in my daughter. But I like it better when she is relaxed, creative, confident and humming to herself. 

When I was her age, I had a mask but it was store bought, breakable, and, no joke, looked like a mime. Back then, the #MeToo stories were happening in real time, had been happening for ages, just as they continue to happen today. The struggle for respect, autonomy, independence, self-realization, and power is ongoing and uneven. Things seem to have changed and then suddenly it seems we’re back near where we started. But no. We are making progress on the journey and these stories give testament of personal and collective transformation. 

The simple fact is, we live and work in a marketplace and the stories we share, or don’t share, in this space really do matter if we are to transform both personally and collectively into our best and most powerful selves.

Star Wars is our story too

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When the first Star Wars movie came out forty(!) years ago did anyone know the magnitude of what was about to happen? George Lucas hooked us by following the age-old mythic story formula. We watched the main characters battle against evil and transform into the heroes we knew they could be--with help from their trusty guides. We eagerly awaited the next installment of the story and when each was released, we became more attached to the characters.

Those first movies dominated the childhoods of anyone growing up in the 1980s. As adults, we continued to be hungry and got a treat went out came a whole backstory filling in more heroic struggles and character development to enrich the characters we already knew. And then, we got even more installments that continued the story into the future. It was like bedtime when mom or dad reads story after story and never says, "Okay, time to go to bed."

Even now, it's not yet time to go to bed. Considering the ongoing bottomless marketing jackpot it might be tempting to feel like a sucker (see image above of the "highly accurate" collectible figure of Princess Leia with an installment payment plan option). But I prefer to see the magic. Stories invite us in, and Star Wars has done that on many levels. In addition to following the real-life stories of the actors that found instant fame with the first movie, so too the stories of our lives have become tangled into the timeline.

When the movies were re-released in the late 1990s, I had just started dating the man that would become my husband. We shared stories of seeing Star Wars for the first time. We were small and the story was mammoth. As we continued to date, we went to see every re-release together. And then we turned out for the new ones.

When we had children of our own, Star Wars captured the imaginations of our children. This made it even more fun than the first time. As our children get close to their teenage years, it continues. But now, there is an interwoven theme of sadness and loss. Mortality on and off screen with Han Solo and Carrie Fisher and an aging Luke Skywalker. We are getting older too. Our parents even more so. Our kids too.

For all the money that has been made (and that we've spent) on Star Wars over the years, it's a little heartening to realize that even though it's been a marketing blitz, the story comes first (and in fact that's why it's been so successful). While our own stories may not be quite as epic, they are as deeply woven into the saga as if we had been there fighting alongside Leia, Han and Luke. In fact, we've been there all along and the force is with us all.