Why Staring at the Sky Isn’t Just for Wise Men

I’ve been staring at the sky a lot this month.  I think it’s because it’s been unseasonably warm, and I am usually way too cold when I’m outside in Dec. to amble and look up.  It’s not only the stars that inspire.  The cloud formations, the bluish light of the winter sun, the oversized pearly moon lurking above the horizon at 4 in the afternoon have all been sources of wonder this month.

Did you ever learn in music class to look up when you sang in order to amplify your voice?  I think looking up when I think elevates my thoughts.  Makes me rise above my petty little obsessions:

“why is the supermarket out of pine nuts?”

“when is that publisher going to get back to me?”

“did that waiter really call me M’am last night?  What’s the good of that wrinkle cream?”

When I look at the sky more, I obsess less.  I remember that these aren’t the live-or-die issues; that there a lot of us living under this sky who’d give a ransom to be concerned with the inavailability of pine nuts.  Or actually, they’d be singing hosannahs if pine nuts were their only worry.

I volunteer in a nonprofit that helps folks in our community avoid eviction and keep the power on.  We don’t have a lot of money, can’t do much more than that, can’t even do just that for everyone who asks.  Yesterday I worked with 2 women, equally worthy, equally desperate.  I was able to help one and not the other.  I took the applications and told each what was needed to push their request through.  One complied and was able to provide all the info I needed within the 90 minutes before my shift ended, the other couldn’t.  For at least the rest of this month, I know when I look at the sky, I’ll be wondering about the woman I couldn’t help; wondering if she still has shelter, wondering if she’s safe.  Praying that someone could help her when I couldn’t.

I’ve provided services to people in poverty on the behalf of non-profits and government agencies for about a third of my career.  I am both hardened and softened by the experience.  The hardened part allows me to cut through the complicated presentations of chaotic lives and find the match points for the help that’s available.  It allows me to summarize these stories so that whover needs to approve their benefits can say yes.  It also allows me to let go when we can’t help.  Usually.  Unless the softened part is saying “there but for fortune…” or “she sounds like my daughter” or “we’ve all made these mistakes and he’s really trying to set things right.”

It’s when the hardened and softened parts of me collide that I am reminded for the thousandth time how many crying needs the world has and how many roles are open.  I find myself looking at the sky a lot.  Feeling small and insignificant, searching for clues, as men always have, but also wondering how many others are staring at the sky.

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Ready, Fire, Aim

2011 was my first year of trying to combine coaching and writing and living more fully in the present. So, I’ve set aside the month of December for reflection and planning.   “Ready Fire, Aim” was advice from a Tom Peters book that I read many years ago that urged managers not to delay action until their plan was perfect.  I’ve always felt that we gain confidence and learn an awful lot from taking action that can feedback into our plans. I’ve seen again and again how planning too long without acting can cause a kind of planning paralysis that can actually prevent us from living our dreams (isn’t there always more we should learn first?).

I did jump into both coaching and writing this year.  People I coached discovered new career paths, could articulate their transferable skills with new confidence and enthusiasm, got new jobs and found satisfying outlets for their creativity.  I wrote enough to feel like I have the base of a portfolio.  I completed a few short products, started a bunch of new formats like personal essays, entered contests and actually sent query letters to publications I’d like to have relationships with.   I’m no longer talking about writing–I’m doing the work a writer does!  Through jumping in, I’ve discovered some of the things I’ve learned about coaching will make my writing stronger and some of the creativity strategies I’ve learned through writing foster out-of-the-box thinking in coaching relationships.

If one of my goals for my change focus life is living fully in the present, I have a ways to go.  I can see that I need to shut down the “shoulds” more often, allowing myself to “be”.  (Who said we are “human beings” not “human doings”?)  Important to remind myself that I didn’t change focus in my own life just to be as harried as I was before.  This is surely my tendency–one I need to guard against.  But looking at the year as a whole, I’ve made progress.   We did make 4 trips to see the grandchildren and had 2 weeks of vacation, one week with the family and one on our own.  We made time for lunches with friends and planning the re-landscaping of the yard.  All of those have been joyous opportunities to seize “right here, right now” and squeeze it hard.

Maybe our landscaping project is the best symbol of this year–by year’s end the hardscaping was done, the ground was turned over, the new plantings were in.  Trees, shrubs and flowers were all dormant, so we’ll need to wait to see how they all come to blossom.  We may need to add some annuals to the bare spots, may even need to transplant some new residents that don’t do well where we’ve placed them, but there’s an outline, a direction that’s clear, even if the implementation isn’t perfect.  It combines dreams and visions with the good feel of earth in our hands and it’s always a work in progress.

What plans for change are you making for the new year?

What experiences have you had of”ready, fire, aim”?

Have you ever experienced planning paralysis?  What has it kept you from doing?

Seven Steps to Finding Your Niche

Wow! It’s been an amazingly busy week, but I promised the folks who attended my workshop I’d get to these tips before the week was out– and it’s out!  These are self-evident, but not the first things folks think about when they start their search for a wonderful new career– or a wonderful new volunteer position — that will give them the sense of creative fulfillment and soul-satisfying purpose that eludes so many of us.

For each one, I’ll explain a bit about the step and suggest an action step you can take. Practically, the action steps take time, so I’ll do 3 now and 4 more later.

1.  Know your passion and what you have you offer

Notice this doesn’t start with “see what’s available, and settle for the least disagreeable alternative.”  Even in this crazy, terrible economy, there are opportunities, but there are fewer good ones if we wait for others to define them for us.  When someone posts a want ad, they’ve already narrowed our possibilities.  If we know both what we are excited and passionate about doing– what we would even do for free, if someone would just let us, our energy and enthusiasm and fire can be very persuasive.  If we add to that a real confidence in our skills and what we have to offer, based on a proven track record, we become pretty desirable.  (More about that when we get to #7.)

To start, we need to assess specifically what we want and what our skills and knowledge bases are.  This assessment gives us the ability to be articulate, flexible and elegant in how we market ourselves

Action: Take some time to fully assess yourself.  Write down your accomplishments and specifically what you did to be successful.  Brainstorm your skills.  Look eyond the roles you’ve played at work.  Take in all of your life’s accomplishments.  Ask friends and colleagues what they think your skills are.  Let that fire inside ignite!  Use that excitement to energize your search and help you be more proactive in finding the opportunities that promise more “AHH”  than “BLAH”

2.  Talk to people who are doing what you want to do. 

We tend to keep these dreams to ourselves and this doesn’t serve us well.  One of the first steps to finding ways to “road test” your dream is to ask people who are doing what you’d like to do how they got there — and what the real ups and downs of it are.  If you could sit down with someone who epitomizes what you want to do, and you had 20 minutes to pick their brain, with no pride, no ego, no defensiveness or competition to concern you, what would you like to know?  This makes many of us cringe, I know!   It exposes our tender dream to potential ridicule.  It points out that we’re not in the club yet.  We imagine that the insiders will jealously guard the real story to prevent us from competing with them.  But the secret is, most folks are amazingly generous when asked to provide information and perspective!  If they love what they do, they love to talk about it.  Most truly smart people know that their fields need to encourage new professionals and they’re flattered to be asked.

Action:  Once you have 3-6 good, meaty questions, figure out who in your city or town does work close to your dream work, and call and ask for a few minutes of their time.  It can be an in-person interview or over the phone.  Make it clear that you’re doing some research and that you’re looking for information.  This is not a sneaky way to get a job interview– you need to focus on people doing the work you want to do–not necessarily the executives who make hiring decisions.  Make sure you talk to at least 3-5 people who do some version of your dream position in different arenas or settings, so you get a wide perspective.

3.  Find a way to “test drive” your skills in the environment you want to work in

This might be volunteering, or interning or doing temp work, but it’s really helpful to have some real work experience– either using your strong suit skills in an new field or using new skills ina familiar environment —  before you start your search in earnest.

Action:  This might be one of your informational interview questions for #2!  It’s also helpful to talk to lots of peopple–friends, family, colleagues– and let them know you’re looking for the opportunity to test out your interest in a particular field or organization.  Say it more than once,  Practice saying it clearly and concisely and specifically ask them if they have any suggestions of who you might talk to or where you might look for these opportunities.

What’s the biggest challenge in taking these 3 actions?  What keeps you from finding your perfect niche?

When is a Boomer Like an Albatross-3

“I don’t believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates.” – T.S. Eliot


More than a few organizations are confronting volunteer and job applicants with decades of wisdom and nowhere to put it. They worry that highly enthusiastic boomers may lead them headlong into the 20th century. One nonprofit tech firm executive visited the local Small Business Administration, staffed by retired executives who told her in no uncertain terms that virtual employees couldn’t be adequately supervised because you couldn’t watch them. Another hired a boomer project manager who needed extra file cabinets for the print copies of all her e-mails. Aside from technology, many worry about our keeping pace and ability to learn new systems quickly. Stereotypes about our limitations frequently trump organizations’ need for smart and reliable professionals when opportunities to become personally acquainted are not available. So the push-me-pull-you escalates; “Contribute. Work—but not here.” Is the message boomers frequently confront.

Organizations that want us frequently lack the challenging tasks and flexibility that we envision. Despite more than 10 years of discussion, community organizations still believe they can use retired CEO’s to stuff envelopes, and push library carts. Individualized work plans for volunteers or flexible schedules for part-time employees are deemed too labor intensive for our lean and mean culture. The perceived mismatch between available person-power, skills and societal needs persists. As long as elders appear to offer no edge, no advantage, institutions have no reason to dig deeper to accommodate us.

“The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything. — Oscar Wilde

How did we come to this? In my career, I’ve learned that whenever we create divisions, some group falls into the crevasse and we all hover shakily at the fault line.
When we were young, we exalted the beauty, the cleverness and the superiority of our youth. We touted distrust of anyone over 30. We created the culture that sucked young people into the economy and shoveled out the old. We were at the forefront of a generation that advocated that respect for elders was passé. Irrelevant. We revved up success and achievement. We broke with tradition. We were the generation of “the times they are a changin’”.  And now, we’re having trouble finding places to contribute to the new order. Surprise!

We’re unwilling to see ourselves as the old guard. We reject the label “senior.” We’re whitening our teeth, botoxing our wrinkles, boflexing our weary bodies and scurrying into as many social media networks as our kids can set up for us with the hope that we can mainstream with the young—or at least the unclassified middle—for a while longer. The deal we make with the devil is as old as the portrait in Dorian Grey’s attic. If we can avoid the label of “old,” we won’t claim our roles as elders. It’s a role that’s devalued, after all. We should know—we devalued it.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the young people who resist supporting us for the next 30 years of their lives don’t see any benefit to derive from the burden. As things stand, there is none. What the next generation sees is oldsters who over-spend, over-use, and over-extend to satisfy our sense of entitlement. In large part, they don’t see the ways in which we give back –or the potential for us to contribute powerfully to a wide variety of enterprises. We gave them no example of respect for the generation that came before us.   Our parents migrated to Florida and Arizona and lived out their lives in segregated communities. We cleared them out of progress’ path. With few exceptions, we didn’t mine their experience to create the future. Families were dispersed. Our children didn’t see a positive role for elders in their personal lives and seldom had mentors in their work lives.

In US culture, ageism is one of the discriminations we still tacitly permit. We create performance measures and budget realignments that allow us to say our oldest (and most highly paid) employees are less valuable than their younger (cheaper) colleagues. The average number of age discrimination complaints filed with EEO has burgeoned to 23,541 – a 26% increase between 2008-2010, when compared with 2005-2007. And incidentally it is “we” who do this to “us”. In most US industry, boomers still hold key leadership positions. We could save each other, but we can’t risk reminding the young that we’re part of the same generation, so we turn our heads while members of our cohort are shown the door.

Reviewing this sorry tale, recalled to me “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The metaphor is simple and apt. Initially, an albatross that followed a ship was good luck. As societies that honor and make meaningful roles for elders have always believed, there are blessings in multi-generational life. We have played a significant role in killing the albatross by segregating our own elders and devaluing their contribution. We created this discrediting societal norm which is now threatening our own viability. The curse that comes from killing the albatross is felt by the whole crew of the ship just as the enormous financial burden is shouldered by the next generation in meeting the needs of the boomers. The mariner wore the albatross around his neck until death as a reminder of the harm his actions had caused. We are the albatross society will have to carry because we have wasted our elders, and we are the mariner who will drag around this useless weight because we won’t assume the elder’s role that we left in tatters.

“We have before us breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” – John Gardner

Organizations’ and businesses’ reluctance to extend our useful roles in innovative ways coupled with our ambivalence about embracing new life purposes has brought us to what the media call “boomergeddon”. The good news is the next chapter is still to be written. The declining birth rate may force US businesses and nonprofits to seek out older workers to fill their vacancies. But we can’t wait for that. Many boomers are still debating their encore careers second chapter activities. Everyone will gain by us stepping up.

When is a Boomer Like an Albatross -2

OK –See I’m bad at this part 1 and 2 stuff-I’ve gotten busy with my workshop and forgot to post the rest of my essay–here’s a few more bites!!

“For the unlearned, old age is winter;
for the learned it is the season of the harvest.”

The Talmud

Not all of us leave the workplace
licking our wounds.  Many of us have played the game long and hard with the tacit understanding that if we did it all right, the pay-off was we could STOP.   We have many avocations that we have been looking forward to pursuing.  For awhile, we may be content in the whirl of long-delayed pleasures and deferred family needs we now have time to fulfill.  Some Boomers find, however, that the novelty of an open schedule and pleasurable activities— like a steady diet of nothing but ice cream – becomes boring.  We become nostalgic for the social interaction of our working lives.  We miss being depended upon and recognized for our talent.  We become acutely aware that our e-mail boxes are empty and our phones ring less frequently. While we may not miss our work, we miss our roles.

Boomers came of age amidst the idealistic calls for change, revolution, equality, social justice.  There may be issues we’ve spent a career or a lifetime advocating and supporting.  Or our careers may have left us passive bystanders to our most  passionate causes.  Retirement can re-kindle old passions.  We tentatively scan the volunteeropportunities available.  We might even glance at the want ads.  Maybe now’s the time we can create change, leave our mark, we think.  In our hearts, there is the little voice that nibbles away at our idealism: “did I work long and hard to ultimately be saddled with time and energy commitments again?”  Our ambivalence may end our quest.

We start our retirement journey with mixed emotions about our identities and what we have to offer, some of us discouraged, others supremely confident.  Some of us are content to withdraw.  Others seek paid or volunteer work that has meaning; that feeds our passion to make a difference, but doesn’t consume all of our time.  We don’t want the worry and responsibility we once had, but we want assignments that use our unique skills.  If we imagined we’d be welcomed with open arms by the community loathe to support us, we may have a rude awakening.

When is a Boomer like an Albatross?

I have been stewing with some thoughts and observations about being a “boomer” for months now–finally found an essay contest to help me focus my thoughts–it’s a little long, so I’ll share it in sections.  Wonder if others feel this way too–

Isn’t it funny how we don’t call ourselves “Boomers” but everyone else puts us in that slot? Actually, to read about us in the media, I increasingly feel that I’m an albatross. Whether we’re a curse or blessing depends, as our community organizer heroes used to say, on “who is asked what by whom”.

To the next generation, we are the economic albatross; the weight they carry, trying to meet the promises government made to seniors in radically different times. Living longer, we ravage the Social Security system, leaving our children to fend for themselves with a murky future dependent upon their private investments. Actuaries predict our health care needs will bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid, leaving onerous specters of an aged apocalypse. The refrain we hear from the doomsday chorus: “they didn’t save enough. They expect the government to cover for their lack of planning.” Many see us as the antithesis of our parents, “The Greatest Generation,” whose stolid frugality and self-sacrifice paved the way for our feelings of entitlement. Some in the media have even labeled us the “Greedy Generation”.

Whether or not we feel especially greedy, we do threaten to consume the lion’s share of available resources. According to the US Census, our over-65 population will grow from 35 million now to 70 million between 2020 and 2030. Based on actuarial tables, for those individuals who live to age 65, more than half, 53%, of single females and 41% of single males will still be alive at age 85. For married couples, 72% will have at least one spouse alive at age 85. If 75% percent of workers file for Social Security at 65, many of us will need resources for 20 years of retirement. How can any culture afford to support 21% of its adult population for 20 years?

Clinicians have had to redefine categories of aging: the young-old (65-74), the old-old (75-84) and the oldest-old (85+). Although this redefinition is two decades old, we have been slow to re-define roles for ourselves for these stages of life. Yet, clearly the old roles either “working” or “retired”, don’t serve us well. The lack of defined usefulness to society that comes with the “retirement” mantle creates a schism between us and younger generations.

The financial experts’ battle cry “Work longer, retire later” is hard to hear. The current system is set up to let us go and many of us are more than ready to leave.  In past generations, elders were a blessing to their societies.  How do we again become a blessing to our society?