Written In the Stars

Don’t worry about the darkness for that is when stars shine the brightest.” – Napoleon Hill

Last weekend we were up on Whidbey Island at a beautiful place on Mutiny Bay. At 3am I woke up as documented in my The Whispers of My Failures post and none of my usual tricks helped me go back to sleep.

So I walked to the window and the sky was so beautiful, clear and filled with stars. It was a breathtaking view of which I never see when I’m in the city (nor do I usually look). Instead of going back to bed, I threw on some warm clothes and got my kids out of bed.

I wrapped them in blankets and helped them slip outside to sit on the break wall and look at the stars. Miss O saw two shooting stars, the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt right away. I pointed out the Milky Way galaxy and the Seven Sisters (Pleiades) and then Mr D asked what the noise was. It was a cruise ship all lit up (see featured photo) and heading south to dock in port in Seattle at sunrise. Then as we turned to go back inside, a second cruise ship steamed by.

I told the story of what I’d done to my mom when she came over for dinner this week, and she said, “You are a good mom. I would have never done that.”

Then she added, “But it’s stuff like that they’ll remember.”

I’m not claiming any parental award for this star gazing outing though. All I did was let my God voice outweigh my practical voice. I listened to that inner whisper that asked, “When will this night come again?”

It took a little work but my kids went back to sleep. As I settled back into bed I felt the full circle realization of the majority of why I try (and sometimes fail) these days – for these beautiful little lives that I’m responsible for. And for them to know beauty – like of the night sky.

Somehow, waking them up at 3am was the perfect cure for aligning me with what I value most. No surprise because when I honor that small God voice inside it usually does reward me with that alignment to what matters most.

As I fell back asleep, I did so with a little piece of the world’s beauty in my heart and proof of my most enduring efforts sleeping next door.

At the Core

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” – Henry Ford

Last weekend we drove about 15 minutes down to Shilshole Bay on Puget Sound to see a dock where sea lions like to congregate. It was packed with sea lions – usually a dozen on the dock and I counted a least a dozen more swimming in the water.

Every once in a while, a sea lion would launch itself out of the water in an attempt to land on the dock. The new weight would make the dock roll one way or the other causing all the sea lions to bark. But there was one sea lion in the center who was doing most of the work to keep the dock level. It would lift its head high and shift its weight this way or that to stabilize the dock again.

It made me think of how impactful what is at the center is. As I was pondering what was at my core, Life, in that beautiful way that sometimes happens, delivered the answers to the question I’d just uncovered. In this case it was through the latest the Unlocking Us podcast about living into our values. In it, Brené Brown had an exercise to determine our core values.

Her research shows that when in a tight spot, most people call on their one or two go-to values. So on her site, there is a pdf of about 120 values. Her recommended approach was to circle the ones that called to you and then distill them to the two values that encompass what is central for you. It may change over time but this exercise was to identify what is key for right now.

Doing the exercise, I came up with faith and usefulness. Faith, which for me encapsulates confidence, courage, adventure, integrity, spirituality, openness, love, optimism and gratitude. Usefulness I thought did a good job of rolling up my other values of reliability, learning, kindness, growth, family, and independence,.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of work to strengthen my physical core. It has enabled me to carry heavy loads up mountains and I feel it most now when I hoist my toddler onto my shoulders. But thinking about my core values, faith and usefulness, I realize that they are what I go to again and again to power me when I have to dig deep. Like with the sea lions, when I am living into my values, they are the center that brings me back to level when the world is rocking.

The Verdict

Integrity is the ability to listen to a place inside oneself that doesn’t change, even though the life that carries it may change.” – Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man

Elizabeth Holmes, the tech entrepreneur and founder of Theranos whose trial has fascinated me for the last 4 months, was found guilty on 4 counts of fraud and conspiracy for lying to investors and not guilty on 4 counts. The jury was hung on 3 counts.

As I’ve written about this, I realized that it’s triggered my past experiences with money in tech and the question of how to develop character when people are throwing money at you. Listening to the jury’s decision, I don’t disagree with their findings but I’m flooded with empathy for her.

That’s probably because I can relate in a very small way to her experiences. The specific incident I’m thinking of was in 2007 when my two business partners (one of whom was my husband) and I were buying a small office building for our little company of 19 people to use as an office.

On the Friday before the closing, the bank realized that we all had one more paper to sign – a personal guarantee of the bank loan. It had to be received by Monday and my husband and the other business partner were traveling to a client’s wine tasting weekend. My husband wanted me to forge our other business partner’s signature on the document. The other business partner wanted me to forge his signature on the document. Neither of them wanted to be bothered to find a FedEx office from which to overnight the document in question.

I felt immense pressure to do it. The two of them, my husband and our other partner had made many business and personnel decisions that I didn’t agree with and I thought I could insulate myself by just focusing on my part of the business. But this was over the top. I held my ground after repeated phone calls and texts and refused to do it. There was no way I was going to forge a signature on a personal guarantee for a bank loan.

Two years later after the market crashed in 2008 and real estate prices dropped significantly so that the valuation of the building was under water, the bank put the loan into a special assets group. We had never missed a payment (and thankfully never did) but they felt the loan deserved additional scrutiny. Fortunately, my business partners had eventually figured out how to FedEx the personal guarantee document so it was on file.

By this time both the business partnership and my marriage had fallen apart so I was the one handling all the details. To say I was so relieved I didn’t forge that signature is an understatement. I shepherded the building through those tough years until we could sell it for what we bought it for and gratefully walked away.

But all this happened when I was almost 40-years-old and had almost 20 years of business experience both working for others and for myself. I doubted myself. I felt the huge pressure. I thought it would have been so much easier to not have the values I was raised with. I’m not so sure I would have been able to hold out to what these guys said was “business as usual” had I been in my 20’s like Elizabeth Holmes.

We don’t often get to see what we are able to avoid when we don’t do something risky. In this case I did and now with the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, I’m reminded of it again. If it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, don’t do it. It doesn’t matter if someone tells you it’s how it’s done or makes it seem like how sophisticated and experienced people act. Thanks for raising me with these values, Mom and Dad!

(featured photo by Pexels)

Know Your Audience

Integrity is the ability to listen to a place inside oneself that doesn’t change, even though the life that carries it may change.” – Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man

My 6-year-old daughter asked me yesterday if stealing was bad. I told her it was always wrong and then tried to illustrate it with the example of us going to the store to buy groceries and then coming out and finding our car was stolen. How would we feel? Would that be okay? She countered, “But then we could just walk home.”

I agreed with her resourcefulness and then tried another example. “What if someone stole our Halloween decorations we just put up this weekend?” “That”, she emphatically agreed, “would be so, so bad! You can’t just go around taking other people’s Halloween decorations!”

Which reminded me that while our values don’t change, stories need to be tailored to the audience. 😊

High-Tech Drama

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” – Mark Twain

I’ve been listening to The DropOut podcast about the trial of Elizabeth Holmes that is starting this week and it’s got me hooked. Elizabeth Holmes is the woman who dropped out of Stanford after one year and started Theranos, a company she said would revolutionize the blood testing industry because with just one drop of blood they could analyze for up to 200 factors. She raised billions of dollars of investor money, signed a huge deal with Walgreens, was on the cover of Fortune magazine, and lived a 5 star lifestyle. The technology never worked. Now she’s standing trial for 12 counts of fraud and facing 20 years in prison. She maintains her innocence saying this is the resistance you meet when you try to change the world.

This is not the uplifting, inspiring content that I usually listen to but I find it so reminiscent of my early career in tech that I can’t helped be taken in by the characters. When I graduated from college with my electrical engineering degree, I spent a lot of time working on projects as a consultant at Microsoft in its early days. They were growing so fast they gobbled up engineers. The narcissistic, massive egos, show-off-smart, bullying personalities they describe at Theranos remind me of some of the people I worked with back then.

Microsoft revolutionized the idea of giving stock to employees and they did it at all levels of the company so when the company did well, everyone made money. It was a big change from the old days when the engineers were paid a salary and when a company was successful, it was usually the sales people and the executives that got rich. At Microsoft in those early days when the stock went up so fast, everyone was getting rich. I remember working at a trade show with a Microsoft employee who just sat and watched the stock ticker all day so that they could calculate what “they made” during that day.

It made their employees very loyal and very proud but created a lot of arrogance and petty behavior.  I observed people who met with resistance to an idea and would throw a fit announcing that “they were going to retire.” Usually it was someone that was in their mid-30’s. <eye-roll> Once I working on a tech conference where we were practicing the keynote speech and a MS executive didn’t like the version of the script he was given. He shamed and bullied the person who had stayed up all night working on the recent revisions in such a loud and vocal way that it made me physically feel ill just to watch.

I probably learned more about human behavior, leadership and integrity in those days than all the rest of my career combined. I don’t work with those types of clients any more and other than the lessons that I’m grateful to have gleaned, I don’t miss those days. My 6-year-old daughter said something about someone in the news the other day – “Well, they are famous so they must be good.” We had to take a minute to talk about how character and values don’t necessarily come with fame and fortune.

In the coming months we’ll find out whether the jury will hold Elizabeth Holmes accountable for the billions of dollars she lost or whether that’s the price of doing business. In the years since Theranos went defunct in 2018, she’s started a relationship with a man from a wealthy hotelier family and they had a baby born just 6 weeks before the trial started. However it turns out, listening to the details as they are presented, being reminded of my days watching the power of money makes me so grateful for my life now in the slow lane where I earn my living with no drama attached.

Minding My Own Business

If what you believe does not impact how you behave than what you believe is not important.” – Shaykh Yassir Fazaga

This year I’m celebrating having my own business for 20 years. It’s hard to unpack all that means to me but my business was there before I got married and carried me through when I got divorced. It gave me the flexibility to trek to Everest Base Camp for 3 1/2 weeks when I was single and has given me the time and money to have kids as a single woman now. It’s held different structures like when I had business partners and employees and like now when I am a sole proprietor with subcontractors. There have been ups and downs that seemed so huge that they’d swallow me at the time but now in hindsight are now just good stories. While many of the things I’ve learned are specific to my company’s focus which is to provide consulting to businesses about how they can better implement computer collaboration like document sharing and approval processes, the three most key lessons are life lessons:

  • Always pay everyone else, including the government, before you pay yourself. I remember the first payment I got 20 years ago was for $5,000 and it seemed like so much money that I went out and bought a tile saw so I could tile the floor of my home office. But once I paid the state and city taxes, my start up costs and legal fees, my take home was about $1,200. I could still afford the tile saw but I learned not to look at any payment as my money. Instead I pay my expenses often before the client remits payment so that when I look at the bank account, I know how much I can pay myself.
  • Finish your projects and create relationships, and your reputation will take care of much of your marketing. After my business partner told me of my now ex-husband’s infidelities and it became clear we needed to all go our separate ways, I was left maintaining a small office building that we all still owned together. It was after the financial crisis of 2008 so the building was worth less than the mortgage and we couldn’t sell it. So I went to the local SBA office to talk with someone about how to restructure the loan. He gave me a series of things I had to do, accounting, legal and structural and told me if I did, we could restructure them. It took me five months of hard work and when I made an appointment with him and returned, he said, “Wow, you came back. Not many people do.” Which made me cry. And I also was able to reshape the loan to work until I could sell the building. That same tenacity in finishing projects and maintaining my reputation through all circumstances has worked to give me repeat business and referrals that have made the business easier to run over time.
  • Have faith. Every year at this time, my business slows down in late summer because people are on vacation. It doesn’t matter that it’s different customers on one year versus the next, it always happens. And I always worry. So the third lesson is have faith. I think of it like the story of Manna in the Bible. Enough manna would fall each day to feed the Israelites when they were in the desert. But they couldn’t store it from one day to the next. They had to have faith it would come again the next day.
    So I spend August doing my part – honing my skills and reaching out to people and sooner or later my pipeline fills and the business continues. Like with all problems, worrying only drains the energy out of what needs to be done so I’ve learned take a deep breath, focus on faith and keep working.

I’ve heard the phrase “it’s not personal, it’s business” many times. It seems often right before someone is unkind or unfair to someone else. I’m guessing whoever coined that phrase didn’t run a small business for 20 years because at some point it becomes indistinguishable. But when your values are infused in your business, it can be a beautiful thing.

The Core Message

If what you believe does not impact how you behave then what you believe is not important.” – Shaykh Yassir Fazaga

I was challenged by a question in Frederick Buechner’s meditation book Listening to Your Life: If you had to write a last message for the few people that you care about the most in 25 words or less, what would it be? I pondered this, tried it, revised it, slept on it, wrote it again. It’s hard. I never got it down to 25 words or less but here’s my favorite version in 45 words:

You are beautiful and precious, worthy of love. I am rooting for you in every endeavor, holding you in every tear, and standing tall beside you when you speak your truth. Cultivate silence. Stay rooted in learning and growth, leaning towards life. Never stop trying.

And you know what I liked best about this exercise? It’s like writing out my value statement about how I want to live. It seems like if I can distill that, it’ll tether me to my ground in the moments when I feel I’ve lost my way.

Counting What Counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and nothing everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

Yesterday I went to the store with my kids and my five-year-old daughter wanted to bring her own money to buy a new toy. She packed an entire backpack full of supplies for our 10 minute drive to the store so it wasn’t until after she picked out something that we realized that she hadn’t brought her wallet. I agreed to loan her the money to buy it and she would pay me back but the Barbie accessories she picked were more than she had saved up. Not wanting to make this a lesson in indebtedness I didn’t make much of a point that I was happy to spot the difference. But later when she was showing my mom what she’d gotten, Olivia said, “But I lost all my money.” Stifling a smile I urged her to explain further and she then amended her statement to be “I gave all my money to my mom.” (Like it was some charity thing). I chuckled about that for the rest of the afternoon because this follows on a conversation where I tried to get her to change five-1’s for a five dollar bill but she didn’t like that trade. She wanted to keep her ones and also have the five so she found five coins in her piggy bank and wanted to trade that.

Knowing that this is a common hurdle for kids, I’m not too worried that she’ll get it. But it strikes me that we all face similar lapses in thinking when it comes to counting and what we value. We use “likes” as measures of acceptance when it’s really one insightful comment that makes us feel heard. We count how many times the nanny has left us without extra diapers instead of celebrating how well-cared for the kids are. We count how many kids socks we have to pick up at night when we’re tired instead of the smiles and looks for reassurance we answered in the day. We count how many extra pounds are on our bodies because COVID has made it hard to go to the gym instead of feeling the one amazing beat of life our hearts give us to keep going. We count how many days until life changes instead of leaning in to enjoy the closeness of life now. We count how many friends we do or don’t have instead of realizing that it’s the wholeness of the Universe that can make us feel loved.

I’m an engineer so I love numbers. The only way I’ve found to come back to what matters is to sit in meditation. It’s the time when I do nothing while seated on my meditation cushion that makes the most difference about the quality of everything else I do.