Belonging to the World

There are times when I feel like I belong nowhere, like I’ll never fit in. And then there are times when I feel like I belong everywhere all at once. When I sense the pulsing thread of humanity connecting me to every person on Earth. Those moments when I know our commonality is more powerful than any difference between us.

An experience from my recent trip to Europe epitomizes this feeling.

While in Bled, Slovenia I went on a tour through the Julian Alps. Our group of 17 consisted of families from Australia and Malta, couples from Malaysia and Britain, female friends from Singapore, our Slovenian guides, and me. We piled into two vans for a full day of hiking, waterfalls, and white-water rafting.

In hour eleven of our twelve-hour tour we shared a round of beer and loaded the vans onto a car train to return to our starting point in Bled.

I was in a van with the family from Malta (two college-aged daughters and their parents) and the couple from Malaysia. While our van chugged along the railroad tracks through the mountains, I started to ask questions about Malta, a place I knew nothing about. Soon one of the daughters was singing an old Maltese folk song about a pastry. It was recommended that I eat this pastry if I visit Malta, but I was warned to be careful how I asked for it because the word for the pastry also meant a certain body part it resembled.

We had a few laughs over that one. And that’s when the riddles, jokes, and one-minute mysteries started.

A few didn’t quite cross the language barrier.

“What has ears, but can’t hear?” one of the girls from Malta asked.

I paused. Nothing came to mind. “I give up. What is it?”

“A pot!”

No hint of recognition from me or the Malaysian couple. “Huh?”

Lesson learned – the Maltese word for the handles on a pot also means “ears.”

But most of them translated impeccably well. I had even told some to my students in the US when I taught environmental education years ago.

“What goes around the world but stays in a corner?” – A postage stamp!

“What has a head and a tail, but no body?” – A coin!

“You’re lost in the woods and you come upon a cabin with a candle, dry wood for a fire, and a kerosene lamp. You only have one match. What do you light first?” – The match!

The Maltese family and I also shared “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Whoops” with the Malaysian couple. Who knew this silly game was played the same way in two countries 5,000 miles apart that spoke different languages?

There was so much laughter. It was the laughter of children playing child’s games even though there were no kids in the van. It was the joy of people from different corners of the globe recognizing similarity in each other. The freedom of being fully present, enjoying the company of strangers that felt like friends for a moment.

Two nights later I was sitting in a café in the small capital city of Ljubljana chatting with a couple from Texas while my waiter brought me his favorite Slovenian craft beers. The family from Malta happened to walk by and stopped to say hello. I stood up and gave each of them a hug. In that moment I felt like I could belong anywhere.

And so, in those times when I feel like the odd person out, like I’m weird and different and don’t fit in, or when it feels like division has more power than unity, I remind myself of the riddles in the back of the van. Of the collective belonging felt through laughter shared equally across continents, the simplicity of human connection, and the strength in our commonality.

 

NOTE: This blog post was equally inspired by my experiences in Slovenia and Brené Brown’s new book on true belonging, Braving the Wilderness and, in particular, the Maya Angelou quote she shared: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.”

Keeping the Faith

Slovenia Coast

On my last day in Slovenia I decided to do what I enjoy most: walk. I had walked all over Slovenia during my 10-day trip – on mountain paths to waterfalls, down country lanes past herds of sheep and cows, on boardwalks through gorges. This last trek was along the coast from Piran, where I was staying. I planned to follow a designated walking route north, do a short loop at the end of the trail, and walk back to Piran.

I missed the turn back. I saw it. I paused to consider whether I should turn there, but the trail markers I had been following for two and a half hours kept going down the coast. So I also kept going.

After a while I realized my mistake. I wasn’t lost. I knew I could turn around, but at that point turning around would mean walking for at least six hours. I could do it, but it didn’t sound fun.

So I kept walking forward. I could soon see a town in the distance on the coast. I was pretty sure it was Izola. We had stopped in Izola on my bus from Ljubljana to Piran, which meant if I could get there, then I would eventually be able to find my way back to Piran without having to walk for hours on end.

Hiking in Slovenia

I continued to follow the path along the ridge over the sea. Eventually the trail ended at a road. I kept walking down and forward. The road led to a park (with a much needed bathroom!). From the park there was a promenade along the ocean to a marina. From the marina I walked to the first road I saw and followed the signs pointing to the center of town (it was now clear that I was actually in Izola – yeah!). I walked a few blocks along the road and ran directly into the bus stop. I checked the schedule and the next bus for Piran was coming in 10 minutes.

I’ve thought a lot about this walk. What amazes me most is that I felt no fear. Here I was, walking alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, not entirely sure where I was or where I was going and yet I had complete confidence that it would work out.

We could use a fancy corporate term, like managing ambiguity, to describe my attitude that day, but it really comes down to one thing: faith.

How many times do we need to be reminded of keeping the faith? When the final job interview yet again doesn’t lead to an offer. When you want to be in a relationship and put yourself out there only to be rejected. When the pregnancy test comes back negative. When you’re launching a business, but haven’t landed your first client.

And yet I am reminded of the walk to Izola. Not only did faith lead me to the end I wanted, but it was a beautiful journey. The Adriatic Sea sparkled into infinity. Soft pale green olive trees twisted their branches creating artistic shadows in the grass. The sun shone brilliantly above me. I felt like I was walking in a Van Gogh painting.

Olive grove in Slovenia

I know the journey doesn’t always feel beautiful. Sometimes it’s heart wrenching. It is vulnerable being out there on a ridge, knowing what you want, but unsure when and how it’s going to happen.

But keep the faith. One foot in front of the other. You (and I) will get there eventually.

The Leap to Entrepreneurship

Torres del Paine, Chile

This week marks the official start to a major change in my life – the move from full-time corporate employee to entrepreneur. I say official because I started the transition months ago when I began seriously considering striking out on my own. But now it is real. Thursday is my last day as a full-time employee. Friday I leave for a month in Europe. When I return I’ll work part-time until February when I’m really on my own.

If you had asked me a year ago if I would be starting my own business I would have shaken my head. Despite coming from a line of entrepreneurs on my mom’s side of the family, I never considered being a small business owner. It seemed too risky, too unstable.

Today what seems risky is leaving all the ideas bubbling inside of me undeveloped. Risky to keep my creativity constrained. Risky to never take the chance to know what my life might be.

What am I going to do? Write a book on getting the most out of development experiences and times of change and learning in our lives. Seek out contract work while writing the book and build a business running leadership development programs, coaching, and doing speaking engagements.

It sounds so clear when I put it down in words. The reality feels more like the photo at the top of the page. I can see the path right in front of me. The destination in the background is visible, but not exact. The path forward fades quickly, the twists and turns unknown.

In many ways I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’ve never felt more sure that I’m headed in the right direction. The path will become visible as I continue to walk.

There are days when I’m terrified. Moments when the fear of failure and embracing the unknown induces a mild panic attack (more on that in a future blog post!). But excitement about the possibilities overpowers the fear every time.

I will be documenting my journey from employee to entrepreneur through this blog – the joys and successes along with the frustration, fear, and setbacks. I’ll start with a post or two during my trip to Europe over the next month.

I recently re-read the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. In it, Mrs. Whatsit compares our lives to a sonnet saying, “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.” Yesterday, colleagues gave me a journal for my trip.  In it they had written, “Live your poetry.”

Here I go, ready to write the sonnet and live my poetry.

 

 

 

La Viajera (The Woman Traveler)

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Note: A few months ago I posted a story called The Traveler. The experiences in the article were mine, but I wrote the traveler as a man. A friend that has traveled with me around the world questioned this and challenged me to write a second piece as a woman traveler. What a fun challenge it has been! Here she is, La Viajera.

The sun emerges between passing clouds and transforms la viajera’s auburn hair into a fiery red. The wind carries her hair in nonsensical patterns of dancing flames. She does not try to contain it. She lifts her face to the sun and her heart to the sky. A smile rises from her chest and gently appears on her lips.

La viajera sees a clearing along the path where a large flat rock juts over the river, beckoning for her to rest. She sits and quickly tugs off her hiking boots, peels away her socks, and plunges her feet into the icy river. The pristine waters of Patagonia rush around the contours of her feet and between her toes. Cold penetrates her bones and provides relief against the miles of trails la viajera has covered today. A thundering roar catches her attention and she turns with just enough time to see a glacier calving upstream.

Her legs are depleted, but her soul is replenished. She feels the energy of the earth and the glory of being alive in the world. Here, thousands of miles south of her home and surrounded by unfamiliar landscapes, she is free.

She lays back on the rock. The warmth of the boulder seeps into her body while the icy water continues to barrel past her feet. She relaxes fully into the sunshine, breathing it in and radiating the light back out into the world around her.

This feeling of freedom and connection isn’t new for la viajera. It bubbled up when she explored a temple in Angkor Wat with a friend. A rickshaw driver waited somewhere on the other side of the temple, but he was patient and there was no hurry. They turned among ruins of sculptures and tumbling walls towards whatever captured their fancy. Curiosity drove their path forward.

And again when she cycled along one-lane farm roads through endless vineyards in Provence. La viajera got lost more times than she could count in that afternoon of biking, but it didn’t matter. The kindness of strangers and multifaceted communication of English, French, gestures and smiles reminded her of what is good in this world.

And the many times she packed up her Honda Civic and left for a week, a month, a year. The exhilaration of unknown destinations flooded every corner of her body as she drove away from home. Excitement, fear, and wonder merged to form an addictive elixir streaming through her veins. The open road temporarily satisfied this yearning, but it’s only a matter of time before the hunger for new lands flares up and demands attention.

But la viajera is not thinking about that today. Right now she is laying in the sun on a rock next to a river, eyes closed and heart beating in tune with the pulse of the earth beneath her.

The Traveler

Travel Photos

The traveler has a recognizable look. Hair in need of a trim, beard long enough that is doesn’t have to be shaved. The traveler wears a t-shirt, perhaps from a local brewery picked up in a small town along the way. Never one from Machu Picchu or the Eiffel Tower, although the traveler has certainly been to both of those places. His khaki’s hang on his hips, looking threadbare and comfortable; they could easily be slept in if needed. Well-worn but supportive sandals adorn the traveler’s feet; the type of shoes that would be equally comfortable hiking in Utah or meandering through Rome.

The backpack is a telltale sign of the traveler. But not just any pack. The traveler’s pack is frayed at the edge. The straps hang loosely from years of gravity pulling them towards the Earth. A carabineer dangles from one of those straps, ready to secure a water bottle, roll of duct tape, or a bag of snacks for the bus ride. The fabric, no matter the original color, is tinged with brown, the product of riding down dirt roads and through rainstorms on the roof of a bus.

When the traveler is faced with a delay in his travel plans, he calmly finds the quietest corner of the bus station, sets down his pack and uses it as a chair back, seat cushion, or pillow, depending on his preference that moment. He pulls out a worn paperback, maybe The Alchemist or Siddhartha, and reads in that corner, able to simultaneously blend in and ignore all of his surroundings. Hours may pass, but the traveler doesn’t get frustrated; it’s all part of the journey.

If the traveler finds himself in trouble, perhaps unexpectedly caught an airport in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the night, there’s no need for concern. He simply looks around for the other travelers and asks what they are planning to do. Together they ride in a $2 taxi to the only hostel in the city that still has available beds. The travelers share a room for the night, unconcerned with sleeping next to strangers. In the morning they may part ways or perhaps they will continue on together, for a day, a week, a month. No need to plan, the traveler take each day as it comes, making decisions along the way.

If you’re on the road and happen to see the traveler, buy him a beer and ask him for a story. You will hear about the teenage boy that appeared in the dunes while he was camel trekking in the Thar Desert in India or the woman in Honduras that invited him to eat with her family and taught him to make tortillas. It will be well worth the few dollars you spent on the beer. Maybe you will continue your vacation to the Holiday Inn and sit by the fenced-in pool. Or maybe his stories will inspire you to buy a backpack, grow a beard, and become a traveler yourself.

Life Lessons From a Taxi Driver

International portraits

I emerged from the airport terminal into brisk February air and accelerated my pace towards the open trunk of a minivan in the taxi queue. “Taxi?” the exceptionally tall driver asked rhetorically as I approached the van.

“Yes” I confirmed, lifting my suitcase into the trunk.

I climbed through the side door of the minivan and placed my backpack on the floor between the cargo seats. I sunk into the chair and took a deep breath to release the hurried pace of the airport. The soft scent of mint in the van seeped into my senses and triggered memories of a long-past trip to Morocco.

“Where to?”

“I live off 94 and Hennepin/Lyndale exit.” The door slid closed beside me and we pulled away from the airport. I instinctively reached for my phone. “How was your flight?” the driver asked as I texted my Mom to let her know I was back in Minnesota.

“Easy. We even landed early! There were 10 minutes of bad turbulence – one jolt was so bad that everyone gasped – but other than that everything was good.”

I opened Facebook and started to scroll. “Where did you go?” I looked up from the phone, fighting between the urge to be polite and the desire to stay in my own little world. Politeness won.  I turned off the screen and set the phone in my lap.

“I was in Florida visiting my parents. It was really nice – good weather, relaxing. It was great to get some sunshine and warm air! Although it feels pretty good here tonight. I’m hoping that the really cold weather is done for the winter.” My words echoed the common desire of every Minnesotan for an early spring.

I took a closer look at the man driving me home. Most of the taxi drivers I’d encountered in Minnesota were from Somalia or Ethiopia, but it was clear he wasn’t from eastern Africa. His perfect English was accented, so I knew he had started his life elsewhere. Intrigue over this man’s story quickly prevailed over the pull of my Facebook page. “Where are you from originally?

“Turkey.” His tone was warm and invited further conversation.

“I’ve never been, but I would love to visit Turkey! Where in Turkey are you from?” The country was near the top of my travel list.

“A small town near the coast 200 miles from Istanbul. We own a big house there and used to raise Arabian horses.” I had a vision of this broad man riding an equally broad horse in the Turkish countryside with a large white Mediterranean-style mansion in the background. My curiosity was piqued.

“What made you move to Minnesota?”

We veered right onto 35W and headed north towards downtown Minneapolis. “My brother is a doctor at the University of Minnesota and we came here 11 years ago for our kid’s education.”

Quite a selfless act to move to the other side of the world for your children’s education. I wondered what other sacrifices he had made.

“My oldest son is a professor at the University of Arizona,” he continued with pride in his voice. “My daughter is also in college and my youngest son studies soft computer engineering at the University of Minnesota.”

I noted his first mistake with English since starting the conversation. “Software engineering! That’s a great field.”

“Yes. My wife and I will be going back to Turkey when he is finished with school.” His resolution was clear.

“Do you like it here?” The Minneapolis skyline came into view through the windshield.

“Oh’ yes,” he assured me. “Minneapolis is a beautiful city. Clean and very friendly people.”

“Good. I’m glad that people have been nice to you.” I was relieved to hear his experience in my home state had been positive.

“Oh’ yes,” he repeated. “Beautiful people here.”

“Sometimes I think Minnesotans can be hard to get to know.”

“Well, all people are just people. They become your friends; your family.” His words lodged squarely in my heart. Goosebumps spread down my arms.

“I think you’re right. All people are just people. No matter where you are in the world.”

Our conversation turned mundane as we drove the last mile to my condo. I asked his favorite Turkish food. He responded that it was kebab and lamented the fact that there wasn’t anywhere in the Twin Cities to buy good kebab.

He stopped in front of my condo and took my suitcase from the trunk. We exchanged the suitcase for taxi payment. The tip I included didn’t come close to covering the worth of the ride.

The taxi driver and I were as different as you might imagine. Gender, age, nationality, profession, and probably a thousand other factors separated us. We may have been one Turk and one American, but, as he said, all people are just people. Connected by the simple state of being human.

Ginger

Redhead collage

One

Anne Shirley was the redheaded heroine of my childhood. She hated her titian hair and longed for the raven color of her bosom friend Diana, but I was envious of it. Her red hair was synonymous with accepting a dare to walk the ridgepole of a roof, tying for first place on the entrance exam to Queens College, and talking herself out of every possible awkward situation. She was outspoken, smart, ambitious, and she married the fictional man of my dreams, Gilbert Blythe. I wanted to be just like her, but, sadly, my natural hair color was plain brown – as far from fiery as you could get.

Have you ever heard a successful writer say she always knew she would grow up to write? Or a teacher who could look back and think of times she patiently helped kids her own age learn how to read? I had the same sentiments about being a redhead. On the outside I was your average brunette, but on the inside I was a raging ginger.

Two

I studied abroad in southern Spain for a semester in college. The mixed southern European and north African blood that inhabited Seville produced olive skin, brown eyes, and dark hair. I had a different look. People had to shield their eyes from the reflection of the sun off my gleaming white body if I dared to bare my arms on a warm winter day. Freckles spanned the bridge of my nose, covered my arms shoulder to fingertip, and multiplied in droves during a single afternoon at the beach. Anyone walking down the street in Seville immediately knew that I was an outsider.

During Easter break that semester I visited a friend studying in Ireland. I walked off the plane in Dublin, took one look around at the ruddy skin and auburn heads surrounding me, and thought I have found my people! I pictured myself wandering out on the moor, walking among the actual heather flowers that are my namesake, sheep grazing in the distance, hair blowing in the wind. My brown hair was magically transformed into a dark red, complementing the vibrant green hues of the countryside. Only with this slight alteration was the picturesque scene complete.

Three

I found my first gray hair in high school. By college friends commented on the surprisingly large number of silver strands woven within my still brown hair. At 27 my 80-plus year old grandfather commented that I should start dying my hair. That was all I needed to hear. The white streaks were dyed immediately to match the original average brown color.

Over the next few years I started asking the hairdresser to slowly add a little “warmth” to my hair. It evolved from a true brown to a mixture of hues, the perceived color dependent on the light. Then, three years ago, after seven long years of spending too much time and money to have my hair professionally dyed, I picked up a box of Garnier’s Medium Golden Brown Mahogany from the shelves at Target. I followed the instructions and 30 minutes later I was a true redhead for the first time in my life. The yearning that had been simmering inside of me all those years was finally expressed to the world!

Four

I’ve learned that red hair provokes regular commentary. A co-worker jokingly observed that I could be his granddaughter’s mother because of our matching locks. A doctor gave me a lecture about using sunscreen because my skin must burn easily “with all that red hair.” Strangers make references to my hair color at least once a week. They are positive comments casually slung into the conversation, but this never happened when I was a brunette. No doctor ever warned me to use sunscreen because of all the brown hair crowning my head.

Five

Two years ago I started working at a financial services company. One of the first compliance tasks was getting my fingerprints taken for the FBI. During the intake the administrator recorded my physical description. She looked me over. “Caucasian, blue eyes, red hair” she stated out loud as she entered the information into the computer.

“Wait.” I interjected. “I don’t really have red hair.”

“It doesn’t matter what it was originally, if it looks red now, that’s what we put into the computer.”

I smiled. If my red hair was on record with the FBI, then it must be real. My childhood dream had finally come true. I was officially a raging ginger.

Embracing Writer’s Block

Magnetic Poetry

“Often, in this poetry, we steal words, gather kindling, twist newspaper, circle rocks, and wait for the flame.” Sherman Alexie

I laid on my bed, journal open to a blank page, pen in my hand, ready to write. I waited for the words I knew were inside of me to come out. Nothing happened. Like Sherman Alexie in the quote above, I gathered kindling and twisted newspaper, but still, no flame. After several minutes of frustration staring at the empty page, I realized that this inability to find the words was the flame. The dizzying lexicon bouncing around in my mind was the sentiment to capture. I embraced the feeling and this little poem emerged.

Words fumbling,

Knocking against one another,

Never finding each other long enough,

To build a sentence.

The story is swirling,

Searching for structure,

In the dizzying lexicon.

Instead of fighting the frustration, I needed to embrace my thoughts and emotions with curiosity and create from what I felt inside. Expression came with little effort once my mindset shifted. The flame burned with ease. This is often the case. And if that doesn’t work, I close the journal, go to sleep, and try again tomorrow 🙂

The Punky Brewster Generation

Punky Brewster costume

To celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday I held a throwback party. Everyone was instructed to come dressed as a favorite character from childhood. An array of notable fictional figures from the Eighties showed up – Magnum PI, Maverick, the Hamburglur, Karate Kid, Mr. Rogers – even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Me? I was Punky Brewster. There was no question that she was my favorite. She was everything I wanted to be at six years old – quirky, outspoken, optimistic, creative, funny, and downright colorful. Her mismatched socks and sunshine hair binders spoke to me. She didn’t want to be a ballerina or a princess when she grew up; her goal was to be an astronaut. In the wake of the Challenger explosion, my clearest memories are not of the disaster itself, but the dismay that Punky felt when the shuttle fell. Punky gave permission to a generation of young girls to look, act, and want to be different.

A 26-year-old co-worker asked me about my birthday party the following week. I enthusiastically told her that I had been Punky Brewster. I received a blank stare in return. “You do know who Punky Brewster is, right?”

“I mean, I’ve heard of her, but I don’t really know who she is.”

I was surprised, shocked, appalled! I had assumed that Punky Brewster was an enduring cultural image, like The Brady Bunch. Everyone knows Marcia, Jan, and Cindy no matter when they were born. But I was wrong. Only the class of kids edged between Gen X and Gen Y, cuspers born in the late 70’s and early 80’s, identifies with Punky. For our mini-generation, Full House, My Two Dads, and the rest of the TGIF line-up consumed Friday nights. Saturday mornings meant The Muppet Babies, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Small Wonder, and Saved by the Bell (starring my first celebrity crush, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, aka Zach Morris). We watched The Real World on MTV before reality TV officially existed. We were influenced by a very specific set of television characters throughout our youth. And it all started when Punky Brewster debuted in 1985.

The Wonder Years premiered January 1988; four months before Punky took her final bow. It may have been set in the Sixties, but the emotions and awkward adolescent moments of Kevin, Paul, and Winnie were universal. My heart exploded at the end of the first episode when Kevin and Winnie kissed for the first time on a rock in the woods. Was it creepy that this moment came right after Winnie found out that her brother had been killed in Vietnam? Not in my eight-year-old mind. I wanted to be Winnie Cooper sitting on that rock, a pre-teen Kevin Arnold longing after me.

The Wonder Years continued for many seasons, but after a few years of will-they-or-won’t they between Kevin and Winnie, I grew bored and progressed to more exciting television. My Mom decided that Beverly Hills 90210 was too mature for my 12-year-old eyes, but in my greatest act of defiance to date, I watched it every week on the black and white television in my room. I saved my weekly allowance and meager babysitting earning for months to purchase that television. Knowing I was breaking the rules, I would close the door and turn down the volume to a practically inaudible level so that I wouldn’t make my mom suspicious. Week after week I listened to the extreme drama of Brenda, Dylan, and Kelly as they navigated sex, school, and diet pills. Despite my addiction to this soap opera, I viewed the characters from afar. The chaotic lives of rich teenagers in southern California never made the emotional dent of other shows.

That would come in ninth grade with My So-Called Life. The same girls that idolized Punky Brewster sat down every week to empathize with Angela Chase as she fell for Jordan Catalano. When he finally decided to date Angela halfway through the first and only season, Jordan fulfilled the dreams of freshman girls across the nation. It was suddenly possible that the hot, creative, cool guy could notice me! How much time did I waste in high school waiting for that fantasy to come true?

We seared with agony when Angela’s best friend Rayanne slept with Jordan after Angela decided she wasn’t ready to have sex. I felt Angela’s pain so completely that I wrote a poem about the betrayal and turned it in for an English assignment! (See below for that stellar piece of work.)

Despite its short tenure, My So-Called Life defined early high school for me. I even have a magazine clipping at the front of my photo album from these years that says “My So-Called Life. You Know How It Feels.” And I did know how it felt. We all did.

My So-Called Life

A few years later we took sides between Dawson and Pacey in the WB classic, Dawson’s Creek. There was no Team Dawson or Team Pacey, but everyone had a clear opinion on who should end up with Joey, the tomboy next door. Who can forget when Dawson ran around Capeside in a desperate search for Joey when he finally realized that he had feelings for his best friend? We all had a Dawson in our life that we were waiting to make that same realization. I watched Dawson’s Creek religiously for years. I would even record it on my VCR in the dorm so that my roommates and I could watch it together after we finished studying.

Then we became real adults. The cusper girls were no longer a target demographic for advertisers and we lost the shows and characters that defined our early years. We would soon fit into the sect of early to middle age women that watched Grey’s Anatomy. And while I watched that show with enthusiasm for many years, it will never be a part of who I am. That will be left to Winnie Cooper. And Angela Chase. And especially Punky Brewster.

 

Betrayal (written in 1995 after an episode of My So-Called Life)

Sometimes she does things

That nearly bring you to an end

She tears at all your insides

But she was supposed to be your friend

 

She didn’t know she’d hurt you,

She saw only her own pain,

Even with your tearful expression,

She thought only of her disdain.

 

For a while you’ll live in silence,

Only understanding your own brain

She’ll never think twice about you

So you’ll live with your thoughts and pain

 

But then one day she finally knows

What she has done to you

Now it’s her turn to live in the tears and pain

That she has put you through

 

One day you’ll get the courage

To ask for the truth through her lie

You’ll stare her in the face and ask

Why did you do it, why?

Start From Your Position of Impact

My ears perked up. I wrote the words in capital letters in my notebook and drew a large box around them.

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Dave Stangis, a Corporate Responsibility Leader for Campbell Soup Company, made this statement at the Net Impact Conference in 2014. I decided to attend the conference because of an ongoing interest in the environment and international development. I was toying with the idea of moving from my established career in human resources into corporate social responsibility.

It quickly became a non-decision. Prior to attending the Net Impact Conference I felt that I needed a job title to make a real difference. I learned, however, that many people driving change were experts in something completely unrelated to sustainability or community relations. They were supply chain managers, engineers, and entrepreneurs that layered sustainability on top of their expertise to create an impact in an area where they had influence.

Last week I heard a story on NPR about Carmen Bachmann, a professor of tax and finance in Germany. She saw that the 6,000 refugees living in shelters in her town spent most of their time just sitting and waiting. Carmen felt this was a waste of human capital; a loss for the individuals that couldn’t use their knowledge and a loss for society that wouldn’t benefit from their work. She called the unemployment office and discovered there were no jobs available for highly skilled workers in science and academia. She thought to herself, “My contribution to this problem is what my profession is. I know the special need for the people who have an academic background and I thought, this is what I can contribute.” In other words, Carmen Bachmann decided to act from her position of impact. Carmen worked with a grad student to build a website that matches refugees with a science background to jobs in academia. The website had a slow start, but after Carmen visited shelters and made personal connections with refugees, people began to sign up. Now over 100 refugees have registered on the site and European Union officials have asked Carmen to speak about her work.

I cried as I listened to this story in my car. I cried again while replaying it in Spyhouse Coffee to write this post. I shed tears partly for the stories of the refugees that had held respected positions in their home countries and were now waiting to be recognized and utilized in a new country. I also cried from inspiration. Carmen Bachmann is an ordinary person. Is she solving the refugee crisis? No. But instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of the crisis as a whole, she looked at what she could influence, how her skills and connections could make a difference, and she acted. Imagine the total impact if everyone behaved in the same way as Carmen.

Perhaps you already know your position of impact and are affecting positive change in your community. If so, I would love to hear your stories. If you’re reading this post and wondering what difference you can make, reflect and ask yourself:

  • What skills and talents do I bring to the table?
  • What are my connections to people and organizations in my community? Who is within my sphere of influence?
  • What causes or organizations align with my values? What am I motivated to work on?

I believe your position of impact comes from the overlap of these three areas: skills, connections, and values. Determine this sweet spot for you and then look for – or create – opportunities to act.Position of ImpactThis perspective has shifted how I pursue community service. For years I volunteered with kids programs in organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Perspectives, and CLUES. They are doing excellent work in the Twin Cities and were great experiences for me, but I knew I had skills that many nonprofits couldn’t afford – someone to facilitate team development, coach employees, or provide an HR perspective. I also wanted to learn more about how I could connect employee development in my organization to community service. Exploring these overlapping areas led me to a meeting with HandsOn Twin Cities, an organization that seeks to increase the impact of volunteerism through working with individuals, companies, and nonprofits. I joined the Board at HandsOn six months ago and it has already been a great opportunity to utilize my skills and experiences to help the organization achieve their mission. Additionally, I connected with members of the community relations team at my company to co-create a leadership development program for individuals that lead our employee networks and community councils. I will never invent a life-saving vaccine, provide pro-bono legal work, or donate billions of dollars to anything. My position of impact is with people – developing and training others so they can fully utilize their talents to build and transform their teams and communities.

Your position of impact may be entirely unrelated to your occupation. I now know that I want my writing to reach someone or something beyond myself. I reflected while composing this post and realized that I have already been doing this for many years. In high school I wrote an absurdly long letter to the editor of the local newspaper speaking out against moving to a four-period school day (it happened anyway). As a college intern for the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) I volunteered to write an article about the history of Earth Day and opportunities for involvement in local Earth Day events. To my surprise it was published in the Wisconsin State Journal. I had no degree, title, or experience that qualified me to write an op-ed in a newspaper. But my connections to WISPIRG, a personal value to protect the environment, and a little skill in writing allowed it to happen. If only one person participated in Earth Day events because of that article, there was impact. If one of you considers your position of impact and takes action after reading this post, there will be change.

We are limited in our time and energy. Acting from our strengths and values guarantees that we can make the greatest difference with our resources. Start from your position of impact and the battle is already halfway won.