Mug Up

The equipment to make coffee was the one luxury I took into the field when I made my living outdoors. With space so tight I would limit the number of clean underwear I allowed myself to bring, a coffee press felt like an incredible indulgence. Even if the boat, and my students, were noisy and chaotic, or the weather cold and raining, if I took the time to boil the water, pour it in over the grounds, let it sit long enough to steep, press the plunger and pour, then wait long enough for it to be cool enough to taste…ahhh, that first sip… I would feel myself settle.

For a few minutes, I would be still. Cold hands wrapped around a warm beverage, intentionally taking a moment for myself. For a few minutes, my awareness of the discomforts I willingly took on in this beautiful and adventurous work– no showers for days, living on dehydrated and shelf stable food, constantly being on alert for dangers and ‘on’ to pick up on student needs, lack of any private space or time for me - fell away. Even while overseeing twelve teenagers who were constantly vying for each other’s and my attention and approval, I could feel the quiet moment. Sometimes one quiet moment each day to sit and reflect made every challenge that would come my way a little easier to meet and manage with grace and calm.

Brewing a cup of coffee or tea still feels like a luxury, an invitation to slow down. At times, I grab my coffee and drink it on the go, yet when possible I try to sit with it and invoke the sense of indulgence and stillness that I used to feel with salty, weather worn fingers wrapped around a beat-up metal mug, to use it as a space to pause, breathe and reflect.

As I have begun writing again, relaunching this blog as a space to explore ideas and questions that come my way in my coaching, facilitation and culture work, entering a reflective place, stories and memories are returning to me that I haven’t thought about in years. These stories feel as relevant to the work I do today as an executive coach, leadership coach, facilitator, and writer as they did when I wore the titles of captain, sailor, Outward Bound instructor and trainer. These stories, even when not consciously at the top of my mind, are a part of me. Living these experiences influenced who I am, continue to shape my perspective and my values, and continue to influence how I chart my professional and personal path.  

There are so many lessons for me to learn (and sometime learn again) in reflecting upon life and learnings from outside of my current profession – those from the years I made my living sailing, teaching and traveling, as well as stories I’m currently fully immersed in – of parenting, friendship, community and of partnerships in work and life. At times, interspersed with interviews with leaders, discussions of books I wish to share, ideas of how to approach leadership and workplace challenges I’ve witnessed clients tackle and overcome, I’ll use this blog to tell stories. These narratives are my Mug Ups, a name and concept I borrow from The Hungry Ocean, with the intention of paying homage to its author, Captain Linda Greenlaw,* as her story, her collection of stories, impacted me at a pivotal point in my life. Mug Up is also a nod to the time that it takes to brew, experience and enjoy a cup of coffee, time to reflect and breathe, and learn from what I’m living each day, this time that often seems like a luxury yet is a necessity, especially for those who wish to lead with intention.

*Linda Greenlaw captained the sister ship to the Andrea Gail, the boat that went down in the storm of 1991 off the coast of New England, about which The Perfect Storm was written by Sebastian Junger. Greenlaw has been hailed as one of the best fishing captains alive today on the east coast, maybe the whole US, maybe the whole world. Not one of the best female fishing captain, but one of the best captains. Period. She didn’t say that, Junger did.

last thoughts on...

I found my mind wandering in a less than positive way today and was inspired to put on Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie by Bob Dylan* as I remember loving it, learning of it from one of my first mentors when I first started working in outdoor ed, who described it as 'the nicest thing I've ever heard anyone say about anybody.'  All I wanted to do was sit and intently listen to the words. All I wanted to do after listening was read and read more, to consume information on this last day of Obama's presidency - the tributes, the reflections, the opinions from all sides, the facts as presented by different outlets, the stuff that I'm not sure where it falls. I feel a sense of mourning. I'm worried for what's next. I wanted to sit with my feelings of sadness and my worries, to sit with my thoughts. My little girl had other ideas.

As I sat on my kitchen floor, trying to listen to Dylan's prose coming out of the speaker on the counter, my daughter wanted to play. She toddler-ran to the adjacent living room, flopped on a blanket, then ran back to me and kissed me. Back to the living room, flop and laugh, back for a kiss. Over and over. I smiled, still trying to stay engaged with the recording. Then I giggled. Then I laughed and nothing else existed except what she and I were doing and that moment.

When she got distracted by another activity (eating peas, remnants of a snack she had forgotten about) and I stepped out of the moment, a thought crossed my mind  - what if something bad were to happen? What if there was accident and my life is cut short? How would I have liked to spend one of my last days with my little girl? With her. Present. Steeped in this joy.

Present is how I want to spend every moment.

There is, undoubtedly, a fight ahead, even for me, who reflexively moves to diffuse and deescalate tense situations, who prefers to listen more than talk, prefers to challenge by asking questions instead of publicly proclaiming my views. I'll fight for her if needed, when needed. I'll fight for the people I love, to keep them safe. Yet, to do what I was trying to do - to try to imagine and then steel myself for scenarios where I may need to fight; to intentionally ruminate and feel sad; to actively worry about what's to come and feel fearful...I've lived in those head spaces before and it doesn't help, it doesn't work, it doesn't generate positive change, it doesn't prepare me for what will happen in future moments. To sit in those head spaces only invites depression and anxiety, which helps no one. It doesn't help me act now or later. It doesn't serve my values.

I'm here in moments. I'm here to help. I'm here to speak when needed. I'm here to listen even more. I'm here to write and share when I feel moved. I'm here to take action.

I'm not here to dwell, I'm not here to cower.

This life, lived in moments, is too important. These moments are too important. This moment is too important. This moment is the only one in which I can help and speak and listen and write and share. This moment is the only one in which I can act. I need to stay in this moment.

P.S. I've been recording three things I'm grateful for each day since the beginning of January. My three gratitudes for today: democracy, freedom of speech, the indomitable joy of the toddler spirit

 

*I'm finding myself drawn to the music of artists who served as voices of conscience or protest or inspiration during other tumultuous times.  I'd love to hear about what others are listening to - please drop me a note on the Contact page.

Nowhere But Here

Fifteen months ago I became a mom. My little one is my teacher as much as I am hers, reminding me of truths I’m sure I once knew. One of the ways she’s taught me is by being an emotional mirror - when I’m playful and happy she’s joyful, when I let myself get carried away by worries about the future, or sad thinking about the past, she will often reflect my emotions. She also picks up on when I've let my mind wander off someplace, and am mindlessly doing some household task. She’ll toddle over to me and I’ll feel her tiny, powerful fingers pinch my thigh, as if to say, ‘I’m right here, mama. Where else would you want to be?’

It was hard to always stay present this past year. It was a challenging year, as it was for many. At times I was desperately sleep deprived while managing professional and personal challenges that would have felt formidable with a fully rested brain and body. To be so tired and then have my internal state picked up and amplified by an infant felt crazy making. If I felt impatient and agitated, she was restless and sleepless; if I gave into emotion and cried, she wailed. Yet, it was also true for the opposite end of the emotional spectrum - when I smiled, she often smiled. If I slowed my breathing, cleared my head to focus on her and willed myself to feeling calm, no matter how I felt when I picked her up, and no matter how distressed she may have appeared, she would, in time, calm. As tired as I was in so many moments in the first half of this year, through the action of calming her and being present I was often able to shift how I was feeling. When I went onto whatever was next in my day or evening, I was mentally present and better prepared to do the next task.

I’ve since realized that this trick and personal parenting survival tool I stumbled upon is a form of meditation, a very short practice of mindfulness. The beneficial shift I felt while trying to calm my daughter has been studied and documented, and I’ve over the past few months I’ve added ten to fifteen minutes of mindfulness as a (almost) daily practice. 

I stress practice because that’s what I do - I practice being present, sometimes peacefully and sometimes while being pestered by the thoughts, ideas, memories and anxieties that seem unwilling to end the noisy party they’re throwing in my mind. Yet, even on the days when it’s been more party than peace, my mindfulness practice serves me. Outside of my formal mediation, I’m more mindful in accomplishing the goals of the day, and more grounded when faced with inevitable challenges, whether for work objectives, or in trying to understand the needs and wants of a strong willed toddler who doesn’t have many words yet.

Like many people, I have great hopes and big goals for 2017.  Also like many, I feel unfamiliar uneasiness and uncertainty when I look forward at the year to come. No matter the challenges that occur, whether opportunities or trials, I’ve been learning that the only moment I can affect is the one I’m currently in. Being and staying present is a choice. I don't always remember that it's a choice, yet I’m practicing, working to remember and to live it because it makes me better at all that I do. I've also noticed that I find more laughter each day.

So, when that small pain of my daughter’s pinch yanks me out of my head and into the present moment, I look down to that cheeky smile (or defiant expression) and, in gratitude, I pick her up for a hug. I want her to  know that no matter how easy and tempting it is to  worry about what's to come, or wonder about what-ifs from moments already past, I realize that there's nowhere else I should be, and nowhere I’d rather be, than where I am in this moment. ’Nowhere, baby girl,’ I let her know, ’I don't want to be anywhere but here.’

*For those who are looking into a mindfulness practice: There’s an app I’ve come to love as I continue to learn how to be present. It's great for beginners and the first ten sessions are free. I’ve found it helpful enough to become a subscriber.

A few books I've enjoyed this year and continue to learn from that touch on mindfulness and the power of being present:

The Power of Now which is as dense as it is interesting. I recommend small doses, and The Awakened Family, which touches upon elements of mindfulness in consciously parenting.

I’d love to hear about other book recommendations; please drop me a note in the contact form.

here's to failing publicly

I had coffee with a friend today & he said one of his goals this year is to fail publicly, not just privately. Failing privately is failing because of not executing the ideas, not trying, not putting the work out there. Failing publicly is putting the work out there and having it fall flat, or being criticized, or ridiculed. His desire to fail publicly resonated with me. I’ve been making notes of ideas, writing stories in my head and writing down parts of stories or essays with this medium in mind, yet I haven’t posted. I’ve been putting off the full execution until I have more time, until I have better clarity for why I’m writing a piece, until I figure out exactly where I’m going with this website, until there’s time to do better, more complete edits on my writing…basically, I’ve been making a lot of excuses.

While waiting for the right time and the opportunity to create the allusive and, if I’m honest with myself, nonexistent Perfect pieces, I’ve denied myself the opportunity to learn through doing, forgetting that not doing is also failure, and of the two types of failure, not doing is a worse failure than failing while trying.

So, here’s to failing publicly … to picking up my writing and storytelling again after too long a hiatus, to hoping that through the process of writing and posting I may fail publicly forward towards learning and deeper understanding, forward on this path wherever it leads.

how (not) to choose work

In spring 2005 I joined the crew of a 42-foot sailboat as it was departing the US for a round the world voyage. I met the boat and crew in Florida, and we aimed to arrive in Fiji within five months. Our journey required that we pass through the Panama Canal. Gaining passage through the canal requires payment, and the canal charges by the length of the vessel. At 42-feet long, we were far from the top of the list. Priority was given to the boats that commanded a higher fee, that were designed to take up the full 1050-foot long length of the canal locks. Small sailboats waited turn, hanging out in a marina misleadingly named The Panama Canal Yacht Club, right outside of Colon, Panama where guests were casually warned not to leave the guarded gates unless in a taxi, or risk being mugged and knifed. Its main draw was a restaurant where the burgers were tasty, the beer was cheap and cold, and the crawling insects outnumbered the paying clientele. It was a place to spend time because there was no place else to go.

During the three weeks we waited, I spent most of my free time walking the docks, looking at the boats and speaking with other waylaid sailors. Boats flew under the flags of many different countries. The occupants were families, retirees, bootstrap sailors finally embarking upon a deferred dream, paid crew working for wealthy, absent owners, big groups, single handlers, all. During the day they made busy with repairs, reading, helping each other diagnose this or that issue, or arguing about routes, recipes and best practices. Everyone was doing their best to make good use of the time and make friends, but were impatient to be given passage to move through.

A few weeks into our wait, while walking the docks, I came a cross a beautiful boat, unusual and striking enough to cause me to absentmindedly stop and stare. All wooden, meticulously maintained, the line drawn from bow to stern, where the water met the hull, seemed perfect.

There’s a reason boats are rarely called “it.” Boats have names. They are referred to with gendered pronouns (most often female), and are often lovingly taken care of. They are at once, home, work, means of transport, and refuge. For sailors, for anyone who takes the time to notice, whether or not they know anything of boats, the lines of a beautiful vessel invoke a visceral reaction. This boat did that to me; it made me stop and stare.

“You like her?”

A voice, thick with Catalan accent, came from the bow. Feeling a bit like I had gotten caught staring at someone else’s sweetheart, I must have turned red, but tried to recover. “Yeah. She’s beautiful.”

He invited me to step aboard, and I did. As he showed me around, every detail up close better than those glimpsed from the dock, we traded sailor basics—where are you coming from? Where are you going? How long have you been waiting to go through the canal? How long have you worked on boats? And more. He was a far more seasoned sailor than I, single-handling a boat over 60-feet long for an owner & employer he spoke of with affection as a good friend. In contrast, I was sailing along as a part of a dysfunctional crew of five on a seaworthy, yet ungraceful vessel. He had experienced multiple ocean crossings, while I anxiously anticipated my first. He represented so much of what I aspired to become at the time. As I was about to depart, I told him, “Thank you. She’s beautiful. This is the type of boat I want to work on one day.”

My new friend paused, then looked at me hard. In the same thick, Catalan accent he challenged me.

“No….no. You have it wrong. It is not the boat that is most important.” Confused, and a bit surprised by his change in tone, I listened.

“There are three things that matter in seeking, in choosing, work. First: people. Who do you work for? Who do you work with? This is what matters most. You could be on a beautiful boat, going some place incredible, but if you have a boss, or a captain, that makes your life miserable? If you are sailing for a captain who has bad judgment? Bad skills? This is a place you do not want to be. It won’t matter how beautiful the boat.”

He continued, “Second – second is the project. You have a good boss? Good crew? Great. Yet if you are stuck sailing places you have been, over and over….? If your role never changes, if nothing is challenging, nothing is new? You will be bored. When you are bored, you will not care how pretty the boat. You must be excited about the project, challenged by the project.

“Third…third is the boat. If you work with good people, and if you have a project that’s exciting to you, then as long as your boat is seaworthy, you will be happy and interested and enjoy what you do.”

He paused again, and then finished, “Do not choose a job because you think the boat is beautiful.”

***

Long after I left my sailing days behind, I still employ this three-step process in looking at work, and when I haven’t, I’ve made poor choices. Boats make the choice more clear-cut. On a boat, you can’t exit if things get messy, you can’t jump ship (yup – maritime roots on that overused phrase) in the middle of an ocean.

On choosing for people: Choosing a bad captain, or a bad crew, may not only make for an unhappy experience, it can be dangerous. Working in a company for an unethical boss, working alongside people who you don’t enjoy, having direct reports for whose work you are ultimately responsible, but who are found to be untrustworthy, are potentially dangerous as well. At the end of the day, our experiences and our reputation are our greatest assets. Like our physical safety, we should be cautious of putting them into the hands of unknown people too readily. And this is before considering whether or not they are people you enjoy or learn from; work is where we spend the majority of our time.

On choosing for the project: Does the day to day of the work make you excited? Are you learning knowledge or skills you can use in the future? Are you gaining experience that is valuable? Is it something you believe in? That you are proud to be a part of? If not, as my wise Catalan captain friend said, you will be bored. And it’s hard to do good work, work we are proud of, when we are bored.

On choosing for the boat: Boat can be replaced the organization you are joining. Like the boat, how these appear from the outside, is what matters least. Yes, it needs to float—have a working business model, be financially solvent, we all need to get paid to live – yet at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how impressive these seem if you don’t have the first two right.

The job that had led me to the mouth of the Panama Canal, where I met the Catalan captain: the boat was fine, the project was incredible–sailing around the world was a dream of mine, and then to get paid to do it?! I felt I had stumbled into something incredibly lucky. Yet the people I sailed with made it tough to enjoy. As a group we were a mess – different values, different communication styles, complete lack of trust and appointed leadership who insisted on power yet didn’t, wouldn’t, work to make the dysfunction better. I realized all of this one week into the journey and thought, “I should get off this boat,” but I had told everyone back home of my incredible, lucky, awesome adventure. I had given up another great opportunity for this one. I ignored my gut. I figured I could suck it up, tune it out, adapt.

I stuck with it, yet, I lived for time ashore. I grew to dread sailing, a lifelong love and passion, except when it was my turn to stand watch at night, when everyone else was asleep. When my contract was done and it was time to re-up, I declined. The opportunity wasn’t worth the day-to-day experience. In signing up I had neglected step one: work with people with shared values.

Without regrets, I flew home from Fiji and returned to Outward Bound, to work I believed in, to people who challenged me to be better at my work and made me believe I could do it, to a purpose I wanted to work hard for.

1. People, 2. Project 3. Boat. I’ve learned this lesson a few times. Yet, when I’ve gotten the order right? It’s been awesome. Work doesn’t feel like work, work is fun.

 

why the third mast

third mast: the backstory I worked as an Outward Bound instructor, sailing instructor and captain, for a number of years. At the time, all Outward Bound bases used Pulling Boats: old school, sparely rigged sailboats rigged with two masts.

Returning from expedition on a windless night, my boat was backlit by Boston, which is across the harbor from the island that served as my home base. As my students rowed, I was standing on the back deck, keeping watch for approaching boats and other obstacles. When added to the silhouette of the two-masted pulling boat with furled sails, my 6’1” profile made it appear as though the boat had three masts.

On the island, this boat that looked like an Outward Bound boat yet had three masts was causing confusion and debate amongst the Outward Bound instructors gathered ashore. When my boat got close enough for the group to realize that I was the third mast, there was a lot of laughter. The next morning when I stepped ashore, I was let in on the joke and dubbed Third Mast.

why I chose the name for my company

The metaphor. On traditional, big sailing vessels, the third mast is the mast that’s the furthest aft. It’s the shortest mast and the sail that it holds is the smallest and so generates the least power, least forward momentum, of the three. Yet, because of its position, it enables a vessel hold course when sailing close to the wind; it’s effectively a rudder sail. When it’s effectively employed, the boat reaches its destination more efficiently and feels more balanced. This is especially important when a boat is zigzagging to reach a destination upwind. To serve as a third mast describes the way I seek to coach, teach and lead - helping to keep course when it’s tough to keep, and ensuring that those I support, as well as those watching from afar, recognize that credit for the hard work and accomplishment does not rest with me.

It cracks me up. How many people get mistaken for a very tall, wooden pole that holds a sail? I’ve been given a few nicknames over time, and as a traveler, constantly meeting new people, the ones that make people smile, or better—laugh—that can disarm a stranger and help turn them into a friend? Those nicknames are gifts. Laugh with me.

why I write. I love stories: sea stories, travel stories; funny, tough, even sad stories; those memorable teaching stories, carefully retold by folks wise enough to risk being vulnerable so that others can make different, better, mistakes. Third Mast's blog is a place to record my stories and the lessons that I'm learning so that I remember them. Hopefully, through remembering, I'll avoid making some of the same errors (again).