My survival secret: more from the other side of hell

On the evening of Sunday, March 23, I was wandering around campus, looking for a place to eat before class. I knew where everything was, but I still felt lost. Over the course of the semester, I had made a habit of carrying food and books with me wherever I went, but all of the spaces that allowed for both eating and studying were occupied. I had planned to do work with my extra time, but instead I spent at least half an hour trekking all over, scouting spaces. Eventually I gave up, settling onto an antique bench in an empty hallway. I spread my assortment of packaged foods over the deteriorating fern-colored velvet cushion. I stared at it for a few minutes. Upstairs, a chamber choir had started rehearsal. The music came drifting faintly down the stairwell. I felt so, so alone. I reached for my phone. I opened the Facebook app. I scrolled through my news feed. I saw a beautiful tribute that Nicole wrote to her brother.

That’s when the breakdown came.

See, aside from the losses Nicole already wrote about, we also lost two colleagues in the first few months of 2014. This was on top of the dear friend and role model that she mentioned, who we had also had the joy to work with for many years. What’s more, I suddenly lost a business I had had for almost seven years in January. Meanwhile, I was writing a thesis and working full-time. I commuted to campus four nights a week, and I ate almost all of my meals in my office, in my car, or in a public space on campus. And financially, I was completely strapped.

The first four months of 2014 were unequivocally the hardest months of my life.

Yet, here we are. I made it through the semester. I wrote an eight-month thesis in three months, and did a damn solid job. Nothing blew up at work. I stayed healthy. I didn’t even catch a cold from the undergrads.

But how?

You’ve probably heard about the importance of having an emergency fund. I have a small one. It grants an invaluable degree of peace of mind. But a financial emergency fund isn’t the only kind of fund you need. I didn’t realize it when I set out this semester, but I also kept an emergency fund for time. That is what really got me through, and it’s a practice I intend to continue.

You might remember that I had developed a pretty intense schedule for the semester – 9am – 10pm on weekdays, and 10am – 1opm on weekends. This was designed to include a cushion, and I used every bit of it. I also set some serious limitations on outside demands on my time. Fridays were my only “free” nights that could be used for social events (with very few exceptions). I probably used a third of them to catch up on cable TV teen dramas on while doing my laundry, and another third for big-batch cooking. I got really, really good at saying no.

All of those time blocks and limitations created an expanse of time specifically for studying – more than I theoretically needed. The trick was not letting that excess time fill up. Here’s why: I spent a ton of time studying and writing, but I spent more time trying to study and write. If you’re going through something (and you’re human, so you’re probably going through something), then you never know when you’ll actually be able to do the work. Sometimes this is due to outside influences, and sometimes it’s our own brains. We can’t predict when we’ll be able to focus, or which days we’ll be brilliant and which days we’ll be kind of dumb. Having that extra space in my schedule meant that I was able to grieve when I needed to grieve and work when I was able to work, without falling too far behind. When I had a mini-breakdown, I didn’t make it worse by feeling guilty for not working. When I slipped a little behind after another blow, I just caught up the next week. And so it went.

That’s my secret: space.  I made other kinds of space, too – emotional space, physical space, intellectual space – but by far, the most important kind was time space (not to be confused with the space-time continuum). As Nicole wrote, “badasses know that every single thing that comes their way is survivable.” It’s true, but you’ve probably heard that you need to breathe to survive.

Going through a rough time? Make the space. Breathe. You’ve got this.

Notes from the other side of hell

You might have been wondering why we were quiet for a good chunk of 2014. Short answer: the beginning of 2014 was not good to the Badass Public Health duo. Here’s a little of what happened and what I learned. Next time we’ll hear from Briana about how she survived and thrived during tough times, while dealing with a schedule from hell.

 

“When you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

The title may sound a bit dramatic or dark in a Black Sabbath kind of way, but sometimes we have to get dark to get right.

The last year of my life has been difficult. The last few months have been unbelievable. Within 5 weeks, one of my dearest friends and role models died, my house was burglarized, and my big brother died suddenly. I am still healing from the end of my 10+ year relationship, and figuring out how to live the life of a single working mom and share custody of my children. It has been the hardest year of my 38 years. I hope I never have a harder one, but figure I just might because life is unpredictable and I know better than to think I’m in control.

Life is suffering. But it is also beautiful and magical. In every moment you can choose to see the pain and darkness or you can see the light and the beauty.

I have had to keep making the choice to see the light, to feel grateful. Even in the moments of despair and extreme stress and confusion. I’m not going to bullshit you. I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes I self-medicated to make it through, whether that was a few beers or binge-watching Girls.

I am not a religious person. I’m an atheist; but I sure see the power and purpose of faith in human life. I wish I believed in a divine power, to help make sense of the incomprehensible. But my logic won’t let me. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave to the philosophers and theologians.

The one thing that has kept me going has been utter belief in myself to survive and even thrive in these difficult circumstances.

So that’s what I want to tell you all. When life is full of pain or confusion, just keep moving forward. Do what needs doing right now. Focus on the present moment and the task at hand. Know with all your heart that you will make it through. Sure, you are going to be sad, afraid, stressed out, and lonely at times; but you will survive.

Badasses know that every single thing that comes their way is survivable. Even the most ugly or traumatic. You have it all inside of you. Everything you need you already have. *

“When we meet real tragedy in life we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits or by using the challenges to find our inner strength.” – Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

 

*I recommend that any badass or wanna-be badass study Buddhism. What I have learned and put into practice has saved my life (and my sanity) on more than one occasion. Lama Surya Das is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers. He has written several great books. Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World is my favorite.

 

Who do you think you are?

“So you’re a writer, then.”

Five words, spoken to me six months ago, by one total stranger. A simple observation that’s been nagging me ever since.

Nag, nag, nag.

Let’s back up a little. First of all, I’m a little jealous of people with straightforward job titles that need zero explanation. Salespeople, accountants, web designers, scientists, and so on – I’m talking to you. Public health is messy, and most people don’t even know what the field is. What’s more, my title makes absolutely no sense to people who don’t know the field well. I know, I know – this is not a problem exclusive to public health. I’ve come to adapt my explanation to my audience, drawing out the most relatable aspects of my blended position. At a tech event? I play up what I do on the web. At a do-gooder event? I talk about social determinants. If the tailored approach isn’t an option, I mention the field and the specific disease area I work in. Most of the people I come across at happy hours are just looking for points of similarity, so that usually does it.  But not this one fateful December evening.

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Nobody cares you did it

“The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit.”

Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) English Clergyman, Educator & Classicist. Quoted in John Gross, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms

If you are in this work for the glory or money, you better pack it up. I mean, you and I might be able to name some public health heroes; but I bet most people never heard of them. Unless they invented something awesome like a vaccine. And even then, it’s probably just you and me. There is no glory in public health. There are barely any “thank you’s” or certificates of recognition suitable for framing.

I get frustrated pissed off by the people who barely lift a finger to do the hard work of good public health, and yet want to be the first to get any credit or accolades. These are the people who only do what is exactly in their job descriptions, and only if everyone is going to know they did it. They rarely, if ever, help out a colleague. Sometimes they even act like serving the public is too much to ask of them. I think you know at least one person who fits that description. Hopefully it isn’t you. Of course it isn’t. Those people don’t read this blog. They are too busy reading Perez Hilton or TMZ.

So my point?

It ain’t about you. It’s about the work. It’s about the people.

We public health folks need to stop being territorial about data, about clients, about programs, about ideas. Silos and ivory towers are holding us back. We could solve some big problems if we would just forget about credit and ownership. And really, so much of what we make and gather doesn’t belong to us anyway. It’s not mine or yours, it’s ours. It’s funded by the public, for the public.

Remember them?

Many of us serve our funders, not the public. That shit has got to stop. Like last Tuesday.  Even the federal government talks about coordination and collaboration, but often doesn’t provide any real support or funding to go along with the initiatives. So no wonder they fail. We are also rewarded for what we do that can be counted (clients, tests, screenings, units, etc.). So who wants to do work that they can’t get paid to do? Not too many people. And not too many managers and Executive Directors can justify employees working on things that don’t get reimbursed or fall out of grant requirements. It’s bullshit, but it’s how it works. If nobody can pay for it, it rarely gets done. I don’t know how to fix that, but we should at least try.

If we change the system to look at macro-level outcomes, maybe we can get our heads out of this us v. them head space that serves no one. Once we measure progress at organizational, city-wide or some other system-level, I think we might see if we are actually doing anything worthwhile. We are so focused on protecting our own little tree that we can’t see the whole damn forest is burning around us.

So here’s my proposal: forget your job title, your job description, and your targets;  and just focus on the mission. What exactly are you hoping to accomplish? Answer that question and then make it happen. You will probably need to work with other people to get there; and along the way you’ll probably help them with their missions too. This is why superheroes hang out in gangs like the Justice League – way easier to save the world with a super friend or two.

I call Wonder Woman! Which superhero are you going to be?

My super hero buddies and me, 2012

 

 

Bold to Ship

Around the halls of Badass Public Health we have a saying:

Bold to Ship

Now this may seem familiar (but slightly wrong) if you know the awesome work of Seth Godin (one of our badass heroes). His call to action, Build to Ship was the foundation from which we derived Bold to Ship (by an auto-correct accident, as all brilliant slogans are made). Build to Ship means to make art (work) and to give it away to the world to enjoy, use, build upon, etc. Don’t get mired in perfectionism or fear of failure or designing by committee. It’s about creating and sharing. Make some art and then get it out there, so you can start making more art. And maybe, just maybe change the world. (You should go read Linchpin yourself because I hardly do Godin’s ideas justice here. Really, go!)

Now you might be thinking: I don’t make art, I write grants or manage a program or teach people to eat apples instead of Twinkies.

Guess what, friend? That is totally art, when it’s art and not work. Don’t go looking at me like I’m talking crazy. Think about it. What is the difference between work and art? Art comes from the deepest parts of the artist. It’s original, even if derivative. Art is a gift to the world. Work is shit you do to get a paycheck or to accomplish a task. Two totally different things.

If all you’re doing is your job, then you should probably go work for some corporation. Starbucks and Target have lots of jobs. But in the world of public health and social justice, we need artists. Artists know how to do more with less. Artists recycle the old to make the innovative. Artists ignore the rules. Artists build community. Artists harness creativity.  Artists don’t rest on their laurels. They treat their last like their first and their first like their last.

 

Artists save the world. Employees don’t.

Bold to Ship is a way of being. It’s the badass version of Build to Ship. It’s taking a damn risk already. It’s being human. It’s owning your mistakes. It’s not being a wimp.  It’s being BOLD. But being bold with a purpose, to make your art for the world.

Don’t think that all this is about swagger.  Swagger has its place. But you shouldn’t be all swagger and no substance. That’s just sad. It takes no courage or inner strength to swagger through the world, but it takes a great deal of courage to own a mistake or to put yourself fully into your art (work). That’s where the BOLD comes in.

Anybody can make stuff.  But only you can make your art. The world needs more artists.

Busy Season: Notes from the depths of scheduling hell

We public health workers are busy people.  Most of us don’t just work from nine to five, even if those are our scheduled hours.  Even when we’re not on the clock, we’re learning, hanging out in Twitter chats, reading blogs, going to public health book clubs, or informing some poor, unexpecting strangers at happy hour about alarming STD rates in their city.  We’re not in the highest-paid of fields, so many of us wind up with side gigs.  We work in a culture that places a heavy emphasis on continuing education and advanced degrees, so a lot of us wind up taking classes while working.  Given that we’re humans, we’re also trying to build and maintain friendships with families, friends, and partners.  And maybe have some fun every once in a while.

Did I mention that we’re busy people?

That being said, we all have times that are busier than others.  I’m going through one of those times myself.  It’s probably the busiest I’ve ever been, so I’m going to share how I’m getting through it in hopes that it proves useful for your own busy seasons.  I’m not, however, going to lecture you on self-care.  After all, you know what they say about people in glass houses.

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You, too, can screw up in front of tons of people!

We’ve talked about why you need to take risks, and we’ve gone over how you might mess up.  The next step is to convince your supervisor or funder or whoever lets you do what you do.  This is not How to Win Friends and Influence People, although that’s a great book and you should read it if you haven’t already.  This post is also not a conversation guide.  Consider this more of a list of pre-requisites for public health risk-taking.  Without further ado:

1. Establish a track record of taking responsibility.  Everyone answers to someone, and the people you answer to don’t want to get stuck taking crap for things that you did.  I am quite sure that they’re already taking crap for a lot of other things they didn’t do.  If you have a tendency to assign blame for your mistakes to other people, then no one in their right mind will let you do anything new.  If possible, attach your name to the work you produce.  That way, complaints (and any accolades) go to you.  Take responsibility for the negatives, and share credit for the positives.

The people you answer to also want to know that you follow through on the projects you start, or they’re not interested.  You may be familiar with this concept in the form of conversations you had with a parent when you were a kid, or conversations you’re having with your own kids now.  They tend to start with the kids asking for a puppy and end with the adults pointing out that they’d wind up taking care of it themselves.  Especially if the kid has a track record of goldfish neglect.  Take care of your work-goldfish or no one will let you do anything.

2. Know that you will screw up.  Possibly royally.  The thing about taking risks is that, much of the time, your screw-ups become a lot more visible.  You will be embarrassed and worry about your professional reputation.  You’ll think you looked stupid in front of a ton of people, and maybe you did.  At least it will help you develop a sense of scale for your mistakes.  Make a their/they’re error in a guest blog post* where you’re meeting a new audience for the first time?  At least you didn’t accidentally send them all a flyer of an angry possum.

Please note that this does not mean that you should be careless.  It does mean that you have to accept that even you are not perfect.  It also means that you have to learn the difference between attention to detail and crippling perfectionism.   (Perfectionism is just a fear of failure anyway, and you’re over that now, right?)

3. Own your mistakes.  Anything else looks defensive or shady.  I don’t get to blame the two people who missed the their/they’re error in that guest blog, because I’m the one who typed it.  I’m the person that got so excited about open enrollment on the Marketplace that I forgot basic English grammar.  (I really don’t know how that happened, since we’re all really anal retentive about that kind of thing.)  The point is, you’ll find that people don’t get nearly as upset about your mistakes as long as you admit to them.  If you’ve ever had any kind of relationship with other humans, you’ve probably had at least one argument centered around this idea.

4. Do what you can to make it right. If it’s a typo, fix it.  If you caused an actual problem, try to make it right with the understanding that you might not be able to fix it.  That’s slightly easier in business where you can compensate with replacement, discounted, or free products/services.  In public health, you might only be able to listen and adjust your course.  Do what you can.

5.  Rinse and repeat.  If you own your screw-ups and try to make them right, then you get to cycle back to step #1.  People will let you take more risks.  You’ll get to mess up in front of a bigger and bigger audience in bigger and bigger ways.  Congratulations!

*Don’t bother looking for it – it’s not there anymore.  I saw it within a couple hours and had it fixed immediately.

Don’t be a wimp.

You have a choice, friends.

You can be a good worker bee, checking your boxes, doing your time, fulfilling all requirements

OR

You can take a damn risk, already. Do something more. Do something different. Do something bold.

Briana already schooled us on why risks are good. Now I’m going to talk about taking the risk of aiming for the head of the table (or the room). In other words, some times you need to take the risk of (maybe) being too big for your britches.

“Reject the tyranny of picked. Pick yourself.” 
― Seth GodinPoke the Box

But first here’s a story.

Picture it, Philadelphia November 2013….

I received an email from a national coalition of organizations (of which my organization/employer is a member) calling for nominations for the at-large seats on the convening group (of said national organization). Over the last couple of years I have been looking for ways to increase my impact on the public health world (part of the reason this blog exists) and have begun to work on my leadership skills. So this opportunity seemed like a step in the right direction.

A CRAZY step. First of all, I’m shy and an introvert. Don’t look so surprised. Sure I can write some blog posts, but actually talk to real people, people I admire and quite frankly, intimidate me?!  Holy hell, that’s a lot to ask of me. And then to think that I could be ONE OF THEM?! Crazy to the extreme. Or maybe crazy like a fox.

But then, a little voice popped into my head, maybe one that sounded an awful lot like Seth Godin, “Why can’t you be one of them? Don’t let your resistance (fear of change or standing out) rob you of the chance to be something you really want to be. Stop being a wimp. Are you more afraid of never trying or actually getting the chance to do something big?

I was more afraid of the chance to be one of the people who do big things than I was of failure. And that’s just stupid. Not badass at all. So I nominated myself. (Luckily the nomination process only required me to send an email that read: ‘I would like to be a nominee for the convening group’. Otherwise, I don’t know if I would have had the chutzpah to actually do it.)

I was pretty sure that I hadn’t a chance, because nobody has ever heard of me, not compared to the other nominees. Those people were “real experts”.  I asked my boss to cast the votes for our organizations because I felt stupid voting for myself.

Then one day in December Briana walks in my office (or maybe she yelled down the hall) to tell me that I got elected. And then I almost threw up. And then I felt so proud and happy. And then I was confused. How could I get elected? Maybe only two people voted and my boss was one of the two people. So I asked her and she said she never got around to voting. So that means that people who don’t know me in real life voted for me. So maybe they know my work. And that thought thrilled me. And terrified me.  Because now I have to do the work. I have to live up to expectations. I have to prove I belong.

Back to the present day….

Last week I attended my first meeting (via conference call) as a member of the convening group.  I was scared of being put on the spot or that I would find some way to embarrass myself. But mostly, I was terrified that they would find me out as an impostor who somehow tricked her way into the group. Apparently this impostor syndrome is common in successful women (well, really everyone except you).  But guess, what guys? I didn’t fart on the conference call, thinking I was on mute. (I didn’t fart at all. I was too nervous to fart.) I didn’t say anything stupid or forget my name. I survived it and now I’m not so scared anymore. Now, I think I can actually be in the same room as the other members and actually feel like I belong. Well, I’m not there yet, but I’ll get there.

You might feel like an impostor too. But you know what? You don’t have to be afraid of getting found out. People already know you and the work you do. I bet they like it, and like you too. I bet there’s an opportunity for you to throw your hat into the proverbial ring.  Don’t be more afraid of your success than your failure. Don’t waste your talents sitting in the audience. Get up there and lead, sister (or brother). Don’t be a wimp.

I’ll be sure to let you know how my adventures in ‘being one of the cool kids’ goes. No doubt there will be lessons learned worth sharing.

I’m also pretty sure someday I’ll forget to push ‘mute’ on a conference call and really make an ass out of myself. You guys will be the first to know. Pinkie swear.

What would Roscoe do?

Everything I ever needed to know about being badass I learned from Roscoe. No not that Roscoe. (Although….)

This Roscoe:

Roscoe, role model for us all.

Now you might look at Roscoe and just see a turkey, a butt of a joke or even a main course. But when I look at Roscoe I see a role model.

Roscoe the turkey (may he rest in peace) was beloved by hundreds, if not thousands of the residents and visitors of Lansdowne during our short couple of years together. Roscoe not only has a Facebook page with 975 likes, but the Animal Friends of Lansdowne sells bumper stickers in his honor. Why did people love a creature who caused traffic jams, pooped all over town, and made noise at all times of day ? Because Roscoe was ours. We knew what to expect from him, because he was always Roscoe.

Roscoe was a turkey, through and through. He didn’t try to be a crow or a bald eagle, those scoundrels. He was himself. If being unapologetically yourself isn’t badass, I don’t know what is.

So there’s the lesson for us all. In order to do good work and leave an impact on the world:

Be yourself.

Strut your stuff.

Take up space.

Command respect.

Be like Roscoe.

Don’t be a Jive Turkey.

The Angry Possum Incident: a risk-taking fail

Last time we met, I implored you to take a damn risk already.  This statement is all well and good for me, while I sit safely away from the consequences of your potential failures.  But I can assure you, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes too.  Possibly more than my fair share.  I’m encouraging you to take some calculated risks anyway.

Here’s a story for you.  Five years ago, the organization I work for had a pretty limited online presence.  One of my favorite projects has been the challenging work of expanding that presence with exactly zero extra budget.  (I really mean that – I love leveraging limited resources, which makes me a great fit for the non-profit world as well as a stellar shopping buddy.)  A little over two years ago, I managed to convince the necessary people that our organization should start an email newsletter.  It sounds small, but it was a bit of a perceived risk for us.  By providing extra information to a wider audience, rather than having our audience come to us, we were opening ourselves up to more public criticism.  Yet, we valued (and continue to value) transparency, and wanted to act in accordance with that.

I was grateful and excited when I got the approval to move forward.  With a great deal of enthusiasm, I drafted a template for our very first newsletter and sent it around the office.  After everyone agreed on the look, I filled it with some content on recent happenings in the organization and sent it around again.  I had two people proofread it.  I sent it to our email list.  Then, I got up and walked away.  If you’ve ever sent a marketing email and obsessively hit “refresh” on the analytics, you’ll understand why I left my desk.

Upon my return, I was pleased to see a high open rate and tons of clickthroughs.  Success!  I noticed that our readers were clicking on one link in particular – what was supposed to be a link to a post on our organization’s blog.  And then I realized that the link didn’t look familiar.  In fact, it was a link to an image.  More specifically, it was a link to this image.

Angry Possum

Scariest cat in the world.

I’ll let you guess what came out of my mouth next.  (Hint: It was very creative and would not be welcome language around the Thanksgiving dinner table.)  It was a minor mistake, but it was a pretty mortifying one for my kickoff newsletter.  What a first impression.  I resisted the urge to crawl under my desk, freaked out to a few friends on Gchat (they all laughed at both me and the possum), sent another email with “updated links,” and carried on with my day.

This was hardly my greatest professional failure, but it’s indicative of the types of mistakes you make when you’re trying new things.  I learned a lot from the Angry Possum Incident.  I learned that multitasking while copying links is not a great idea.  I learned that you have to specify if you want your proofreaders to double-check your links.  I learned that a LOT of people will click on a link to a blog post, find an angry possum in its place, and not bother to tell you about it – so you have to pay attention to your stuff even after it’s been disseminated.  And with all this learning, I got to start something new.  Over two years after the Incident, the newsletter is a popular endeavor.  The public criticism we were concerned about never happened.  Nobody talks about the possum, and the readers get surprisingly jazzed about a relatively dry newsletter on a pretty specific topic.  Why?  Because no one else is doing it.

This all points back to my original request that you take a damn risk already.  You might look stupid sometimes, but you’ll learn things that no one would think to tell you about.  You’ll get smarter faster.  You’ll set yourself apart from the other guys.  And you’ll get to feel like a badass.

Next up, I’ll tell you how to convince people to let you take those risks.  Catch you on the flip side.