You Can’t Climb Your Mountain of Personal Growth — Without Pulling Up the Stakes Holding You Down

You Can’t Climb Your Mountain of Personal Growth  — Without Pulling Up the Stakes Holding You Down

That fool stake

There was a person who lived on a mountain. He wasn’t a mountain climber per se. Yet he lived on the mountain and it seemed that it would be somehow better if he could get even a little higher up the mountain. It would seem like progress, like he was getting somewhere, and — he thought — the view would surely be better. He began every morning with the intent to make it higher up the mountain. Every morning he would look around, think about how great it would be to have a better view.

He put a good bit of effort into the project. He would push and pull on the tent to get it to move and sure enough he could get it moving and with enough effort keep it moving. There was one problem. Without realizing it, he was only pushing his tent around and around in a circle. He could not really understand why he wasn’t getting to a better place. People would walk by and sometimes he would ask them, why do you think I can’t seem to get higher up the mountain? “That’s easy,” they would say because the answer was so obvious to them. “You still have a stake in the ground. Your tent can’t move because you need to pull up that stake,” and they would walk on. “What are they talking about?” the mountain guy would ask himself. Finally, one of the passers-by walked over to the stake in the ground and pointed directly at it, “There. That stake. You cannot move your tent higher up the mountain until you pull up that stake. Otherwise, you will just spin and spin around that fool stake.” Do you know what the mountain person said? He said, “No fucking way. That’s my stake in the ground. No way am I pulling up that stake.”

“You cannot move your tent higher up the mountain until you pull up that stake. Otherwise, you will just spin and spin around that fool stake.”

Everyone has a mountain they are climbing, even if it is not very steep, we are all on our journey up our mountain. Everyone brings along his or her tent; we love our tent because it’s our comfort zone. When we want to rest, we pitch our tent.

To get anywhere, we have to be willing to pick up the tent and move on up the mountain. That sounds pretty easy. Just pack up and go. Unfortunately, picking up the tent is much harder than we realize.

Picture this: here’s a person at base camp and for whatever reason, maybe she’s been fired, or maybe she just had a baby, but the whole mountain seems to have changed around her and she has to move her tent. She picks up the stakes and gets moving. But guess what? There was that one stake in the ground that she refused to pull up, that one ‘has to be’ that she won’t move. She really won’t move up the mountain, she won’t grow, because she has that one core belief, that one value or standard that she believes is crucial to who she is. So she never really grows; she never really gets anywhere. In fact, she believes that she is doing all the right things to move forward and yet she is not growing up the mountain; her tent appears to be moving yet all it is doing is spinning around that one stake in the ground. In this case, her stake, her core belief, is that since she went to law school she has to be a lawyer. Perhaps she is not suited to be an attorney; perhaps she doesn’t even like the work or the working environment. She might grow more if she were willing to consider pulling up that stake.

What’s at Stake?

From where I sit on my mountain, it’s so easy for me to watch my fellow climbers and see when they are not making progress on their journey. I can see so clearly — they have that one stake in the ground that they refuse to give on. They are clinging to the one belief, the one truth they are not willing to give up. And as I talk with them about their frustration at not being able to on and move up, I think to myself, well she is stuck because she refuses to let go of anger at her mom. If she would just forgive her mom, she could move on to a new place. But that anger at her mom roots her; it’s a core belief: “My anger at my mother is justified and righteous and I should not have to let it go. So I am not going to. Ever.”

“Our beliefs and values are our stakes in the ground. Our perceptions are also our stakes, as are our grievances and resentments.”

Our beliefs and values are our stakes in the ground. Our perceptions are also our stakes, as are our grievances and resentments. The stories we tell ourselves about what happened in our lives and why those things happened, those are also our stakes. These stakes help us be stable and safe. They can pin us to our comfort zone bulletin board, or they can keep us pinned, like a wrestler, unable to escape; flailing ineffectually, wasting effort and going nowhere.

It not that easy for me to observe myself and see where I am pinned. I started asking people who knew me well: what is it that you see me doing that is obviously holding me back? “If the Orange Doorhinge could only see ____. If she would only _____.” How do you finish those sentences when you are talking behind my back? What do you think is holding me back from being happy, I asked, from growing, from being the most mature, mentally healthy person I could be? What is my stake in the ground, my blind spot holding me back, that I cannot see?   The stakes of the Comfort Zone tent must be in the ground pretty good, I thought.

While I knew exactly what I would tell them (maybe what they say behind my back is that I am always telling them about their blind spots?), they had nothing for me. Well. That either meant that I was perfect or that they were way too scared to tell me (maybe my blind spot is that other people are afraid to give me feedback).

The “But I have to’s”

The things we don’t want to change in our life become our tent stakes. My values, my standards, my vision of how my life should be are all the tent stakes anchoring me where I am. These core beliefs are my “have to’s” or my “should.” What are your ‘have to’s” or “shoulds?” Do any of these resonate with you?

“I have to live close to my family”

“I have to work for a corporation”

“I have to work for myself”

“I have to have children”

“I have to live in a certain neighborhood”

“I have to go to college”

Some of these ‘have to’s’ are important. They represent values and your goals. Sometimes I can look at other people and it’s so obvious that their ‘have to’s’ are making them miserable or holding them back from growth because they refuse to see that pulling up that stake will help them move their tent.

Someone close to me had this core belief: if I don’t have a love interest in my life, life is not worth living. I can see how strongly he believes that and I can see how deeply important that could be to someone’s feelings of self-worth. Yet, for him, it’s a debilitating core belief. I have watched as he has invested time into toxic relationships, time that he could have spent learning or giving.

Unthinkable, Unbearable, Unacceptable

I had just wrapped up some marketing contract work that had not gone so well. It was a troubling experience. The CEO was a good friend, but, somehow, I was not a fit and the Exec team was not interested in extending my contract. What did I do wrong, I wondered? More broadly, I wondered: Am I doing the right things, in general, in my life? To get to the next level in my life, what could I be doing differently? How could I be thinking differently? What, if anything, is holding me back?

“I really questioned every aspect of my life. Especially the things I took for granted, like my marriage and my kids going to college.”

I asked myself the Tent Stakes question. What are the things in my life that, to me, it would be unthinkable, unbearable or unacceptable to give up? I began my list on a scrap of paper.


“I have to ignore my health”

“I have to lose weight”

“I have to please my bosses”

“I have to give up on my dream of a second home”

“I have to put up with my skin conditions”

“I have to keep all my stuff”

“I have to be a prisoner of my habits”

“I have to feel bad about my career”

“I have to be afraid I don’t really add value or know what I am doing

“I have to be marginalized

“I have to be married.

“My kids have to stay at their private schools”

“My kids have to go to college”

“We have to stay in this house.”

“We have to live in Atlanta.”

“We have to have cars.”

“We have to have a certain amount of money for retirement.”

I really questioned every aspect of my life. Especially the things I took for granted, like my marriage and my kids going to college. I questioned aspects of my life I had never questioned before to discover what might be keeping me stuck. I stowed the list in the top drawer of my vanity so that I could look at it frequently. My vanity drawer, ha ha ha.

As time went on, I would pull out my list of Tent Stakes and contemplate it. Was there anything I needed to add? I added:

“I have to work at my current job.”

“I have to work.”

“I have to work in my current field.”

Which of these were holding me back? Which of these were inviolate to me? In other words, no way, no how, would I let go.

As I looked at the list, I would imagine letting go of each item. What if we needed to leave Atlanta? Was I willing to pull up that Tent Stake? Yes, I told myself. I pictured myself pulling up that stake and flinging it aside. Okay, what if my son didn’t go to college? What then? This one was harder. I really wanted my son to go to college. I pulled that one up and laid it down gently in case I felt I needed it back.

I went through the list. There was one that I said to myself, no how, no way, absolutely not giving it up — my marriage. That is my one “must have.” All my values, all my sense of character and integrity, dictated that my marriage was the one thing I would never toss aside. It was the one certainty in my life, worthy of my giving up any opportunity or managing through any calamity. My marriage, I felt, was my opportunity for self fulfilment and growth. It was my treasure and where I needed to invest.

This list helped me put my life in perspective and freed me from silly notions. I freed myself of core beliefs that were not necessary. I made different decisions free from unnecessary constraints.

Some of these changed my perspective:

I have to lose weight – Nope. Fuck it. My body would never be perfect anyway. Let go. I put that burden down and stayed about the same weight.

I have to be a prisoner of my bad habits – This one got my attention immediately after I wrote it. I definitely wanted to get rid of this Tent Stake. Thinking about myself as a prisoner of my habits made me want to escape versus willingly dragging this nasty Tent Stake along behind me day after day.

Some of the Tent Stakes made me think, re-evaluate. Some made me act: Picked up the dang phone and made an appointment with a dermatologist; accepted a new job; bought a bike and started cycling to work.

Then What Happened

I don’t know how much you know about String Theory. My understanding is that if String Theory is true, there is not a Universe, “uni” meaning single. There are parallel multi-verses, each Verse a version resulting from every possible permeation of every last thing.

If String Theory is true, maybe there is a Verse out there where my husband loves and cherishes me. Maybe one where he never fell in love with someone else. Maybe one where he kicked her to the curb instead of me.

Without my permission, life yanked up all the stakes. My Tent, the stakes, even the extra weight – all gone now.

I took out my list from my vanity drawer and added:

“I have to be alone”

“I have to be financially insecure”

“I have to hate him”

“I have to settle”

How to go for a run at 6AM when you hate running and you hate 6AM

How to go for a run at 6AM when you hate running and you hate 6AM
Sometimes you have to lose ten pounds. And the quickest way between you today and you a few pounds lighter is a formidable cocktail of vegetables, exercise, and good sleep. Six months after the birth of my second child, I told myself I had to lose ten pounds. I’m a short person and ten pounds makes a big difference on my frame. Plus, I was always worried that at just a little over five feet, it would not take too many pizza pies for things to get out of hand.

Restricting my diet to reasonable choices and smaller portion sizes was depressing but doable. If you don’t eat it, it can’t make you fat, right?

As a mom, getting good sleep was not as doable. Good uninterrupted sleep? Probably not happening. That meant the exercise component was crucial. I needed a fast, cheap and sustainable exercise choice. Running was clearly the most efficient option. Of course, I hated running. Running, itself, was depressing to me. I’m slow. It made my knees hurt. I had no wind and no natural faculty for running. As I said, I’m short, and my stride is pitifully short too. Running, however, does not require a gym membership or special equipment. You don’t need a trainer. It’s not expensive. The time required is minimal – no time expended getting to and from a class. Just thirty minutes, shoes and legs. And motivation.

Now twenty years later, I still run. Every week I consistently put in a dozen miles. My knees, surprisingly, have held on. And somehow, I’ve managed to restart the running habit after every intermittent breakdown in routine that comes with sickness, work, travel or life changes — and despite never growing to even like it.

Here’s My 10-step process for how I did it.

  1. The alarm goes off. I tell myself, I’m not really going to go for a run, I’m just trying to regain consciousness.
  2. I tell myself, I’m not really going to go for a run, I’m just sitting up.
  3. I tell myself, I’m not really going for a run, I’m just putting my feet on the ground.
  4. At this point, I say, I’m not really going to run, I’m just putting on some warm clothes
  5. And by the way, I’m not really going to go for a run, I’m just putting on my shoes.
  6. Etc
  7. Etc
  8. Etc
  9. Of course, I’m not really going for a run, I’m just stepping outside and walking to the mailbox.
  10. Well, I realize, now that I am headed up the driveway, I might as well go for a run.

I know that Tony Robbins says to achieve something you have to take massive action. I know he says that the only thing that will bring change to your life is to raise your standards; that you don’t get what you want to have, you get what you have to have. I believe him.

I also believe that if you have a big challenge, break it up into doable chunks. Even a small goal sometimes needs to be broken up. In my mind, I had to lose those ten pounds. I had to find a way. I started where I could. I started taking micro-actions. Putting on my shoes. Unlocking the door. Closing the door behind me. It still took effort and determination. I didn’t like it.

Twenty years later, those ten pounds have been lost and found over and over. Who cares? Who cares if you or I am thin or fat, or super fit, or just barely logging enough miles to get out from under the unhealthy black cloud of a sedentary life. What matters is standing outside, with the door closed behind you, with your running shoes on and taking a step toward the mailbox.
Is this the Hill I’m Going to Quit On?

Introducing:  The 17 out of 20 Rule

There are long hills, there are steep hills and there are damn hills. Each is a challenge in its own way.

The path I run has a section with a long low hill, followed by a steep hill. The steep hill levels off to cross a road and on the other side of the road the hill takes back over and climbs on. It’s that third section of the hill that makes me want to quit. With every step, I have to consciously tell my brain to think “Yes. Go,” instead of “No. Quit.”

“Yes! Go!”not-No! Quit!

When I come to the third hill,  the ‘damn’ hill, I am spent. My quads are oxygen depleted and complaining as vigorously as they can to get me to quit. Since I don’t want to give up, I’ll look around and if no one is coming up or down the trail, I’ll cheat: I turn my body sideways and grapevine up the hill. With this method, I use different muscles that are not in anarchy. I get the psychological benefit of not quitting and it’s not only less painful, it works out a new set of muscles.

On a hot day last week, I spun to my side and began grapevining up, twisting my hips and arms back and forth with each grapevine step, really going at it — if I’m going to grapevine, I’m going to get the most out of it. On this day, just as I swung my arms from pointing down the hill to up the hill, I smacked right into a man running downhill. “Sorry!” I gasped and offered a bit more explanation, “I didn’t see you, and was just, you know, grapevining because.” He ran past, apparently more interested in getting down hill than in my explanation.

At the top of the hill, I saw a good, old friend walking her dog and stopped to talk to her. A minute or two later along comes the same guy back up the hill. Right after he passed us at the top of the hill, he turned and picked his way back down the hill.

As my friend and I chatted and I continued to catch my breath, two more times he ran up, turned and skipped down.

On the fourth time, as he ran past me, I clapped my hands and yelled “Go! Go! Go!”

On the sixth time as he jogged down the hill, I shouted, “How about one more! You have one more in you, don’t you?”

Over his shoulder he said, “This is seventeen out of twenty.”


For a couple of years, I have been running this same track, struggling up the same hills and every hill was a struggle. Yet, I was determined. Even when I wanted to walk, was desperate to stop, I wouldn’t.  My mind would be pleading “No! Quit!” and I would correct it “Yes! Go!” I might grapevine, but I kept going. And still every time, with maybe one or two exceptions, that hill kicked my butt.

As I watched him run back down the hill I realized that I didn’t begin to know what it meant to run up that hill. I was just playing at it. He was committed.

Now when I want to be better at something I ask myself, are you going for 20? Have I put in 17 out of 20 effort? Or am I really just doing the equivalent of one trip up the hill every few days?

So now, I tell myself: that damn hill, in fact, any damn hill in my life, can kick my butt all it wants. But it’s going to have to kick my butt three times this run, and four reps each run next week. Until I get to twenty.

What else am I truly 17/20 committed to?

Pump Your Arms

Born to Run?

I think some people are born runners. They run and run and run. Running makes them feel calm and in control.

I run three miles three times a week on average. I never want to run. I never like it. I have never felt a runner’s high. So I run, but am not a runner. Unlike me, my daughter is a natural runner. There were a couple of years in junior high when she ran on the cross country track team. She told me her coach would tell her and her teammates, “Pump your arms!” Pump your arms?


“I never want to run. I never like it.”


I live in Atlanta which is much hillier than most people who have never been to the city, or beyond the infamous airport realize. If you run in Atlanta you are going to encounter hills.

One of the reasons I run is the simplicity of it. It’s not easy, but it is simple. All I need as my workout clothes and running shoes. And 30 minutes. Just those three things. I don’t need the gym to be open. I don’t need the class schedule. I don’t need any other equipment. I don’t even need good weather.

I have a three-mile loop that I run: out my back door, up my driveway, along my curb and across a winding street and from there I run up and down hills in a neighborhood that’s almost a forest. At the beginning, there is a glorious downhill stretch and at the end, there is a mile-long stretch that is up a low grade almost the entire way. Like anyone who consistently runs a path, I know every mailbox, every patch of poison ivy and every uphill, downhill or flat stretch. First comes the short hill to the brown mailbox, then the no-man’s land stretch that’s pretty flat with dirty beer bottles lazing around in the nearby grass, then there’s the stretch from here to the top of the street that’s basically uphill with the halfway point being the telephone pole with the laminated lost cat picture on it.

It’s the way my legs feel when I get to the telephone pole with the cat sign that makes me want to quit. My thigh muscles need more oxygen than I can take in. I’m not too out of breath, but everything is awful. Why did I wear these longer leggings? I’m boiling up. Why didn’t I wear different socks? Why didn’t I run earlier today? Why couldn’t I have been a born runner? Why was I born?

Why am I thinking these thoughts? I have heard the TED talks about standing like a starfish, arms and legs spread out in order to create a different frame of mind. The research shows that obsessive thoughts can also be curbed and managed by changing your physical position. Your body impacts your mind.

Maybe that’s what the cross country coach was saying. Change your body’s position and change your mindset; change your will.

When I am running and it feels like I am drained of all energy reserves, I am ready to quit. I get those “I don’t think I can pick up my legs one more time'” thoughts. They are so heavy, thinking “just one more” quickly morphs to “no more.” But I hear the cross-country coach in my head saying, “Pump Your Arms! Pump Your Arms!”

My arms, miraculously, they are not so very tired. They are so much lighter and easier to move than my legs. In fact, it’s not hard to will my arms forward and back. Now I am pumping my arms because it’s so doable. I realize, along the way, that somehow my legs haven’t quit yet thanks to my arms.


The Biggest Loser?

If you have never been fired, you don’t know how painful it actually is. Even if the place and people and product were a remarkably horrible fit for you, it hurts. Even when you know it is coming, as the words come out of their mouth, it’s a shock. When it happens to you, it does not matter if you were about to quit or if you are one among dozens in a corporate layoff. Like a character in The Lottery, you are going; they are staying. All those other lousy people you have been working with are somehow better than you? It’s humiliating.

“This is your last day,” they said and with that, I shook hands and said I would be back for my things later.

It so happened that that same scene had played out for me, with variations, at least three times in seventeen months. In almost thirty years as a professional, I had never heard of that happening to anyone. It probably was not a record although I felt like it certainly qualified me for some kind of biggest loser competition.

Oddly, I had been heavily recruited for this most recent position. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I joined the team. Less than seven months later, I found myself, with my gathered things, headed to a Starbucks in the middle of the day to work on my resume.

I looked at my computer, at the resume on the screen, took a sip of tea. My career, I thought to myself, is a grease fire.

Pumping My Arms

About two days later the recruiter who had placed me at this most recent failure called. A recruiter often has to agree to partially forego his fee if the placed person is released after a few months. He probably wasn’t very happy at this outcome. Obviously I had to take the call: he was a recruiter, after all, and I needed a job. He asked me what happened and I explained what I thought had gone down and lead to my being fired. The last thing he said was, “You’re going to be okay. You’re resilient.”

Resilient? Resilience was what I had displayed getting hired after my last two firings. Surely, I now needed something much stronger than resilience. How do you recover from having multiple jobs in less than two years? In shock, I wrestled with the fear of trying to resilient my way through who knew how many interviews.

Some of those jobs I should not have taken. But I did take them, and mostly because I was afraid of not taking them. And that fear lead to what would look, to any observer, as serial failures. The recruiter said I was resilient and yet I was not certain I could do it again. Opening up my job search notebook, I again made my list of people I could call. With every iteration of job searches, my list was getting shorter.

Was I hireable?

The stories around those jobs and their respective outcomes were heavy — heavy like my legs when they were about to give out at the telephone pole. I knew I had to find a new job in spite of all that.  The prospect of answering questions about my work history was a 2,000-pound ball and chain, a weight that was hard to walk with, much less run. Heavy legs.

Light arms?

In addition to whatever internal or external factors lead me to my career grease fire, there was the heavy feeling that maybe I sucked at my job. I had a quip, “A marketer could spend a full 50 hours a week attempting to stay abreast of what was new and working in marketing — and you would still fall behind.”   I really wanted to run away from marketing and the never-ending task of feeding leads to sales. Breaking into a new career was a possibility, but not an immediate prospect. Could I become a better marketer?

I began to live out my quip and started spending just fifteen hours of each job-finding week on new marketing trends and technology, consuming podcasts and e-books and talking to other marketers about what they were learning and what was working for them.

It was transformational.

I did not suddenly become the most creative and successful marketer in Atlanta, but I gained confidence. Everything I learned became something I could talk about in an interview – and something I would be able to put into practice once I landed.

Learning was much easier than tracking down potential jobs and hacking my way through the interview gauntlet. And yet, everything I learned made interviewing easier. Pumping my arms made lifting my legs easier.


Dear New Parents: A Warning

Dear New Parents: A Warning

I was one of the few people I knew who didn’t find out the sex of my child before she was born. My rationale: humans have had to wait for the moment of birth for thousands of years, why not me? What is the benefit of knowing against a mystery that connects you to the very earliest parents buying a crib for their cave? Having the room painted the right color from the spectrum? A closet full of tiny pink dresses on tiny pink hangars? So people would ask if I knew whether I was having a boy or a girl and I would say, “Nope.” It was funny to watch their faces droop for that split second while they tried to make sense of my answer. “Well then,” they all said every time, “All that matters is that it’s healthy!”

Through all the amnios, and sonograms, and blood tests, and examinations of the contents of my growing belly, the question was silently asked and answered. Was my baby healthy? Lying in a hospital bed a few hundred miles from Atlanta after waking up in my hotel bed in a pool of blood: Was my baby healthy? I remember thinking, please just let this baby be delivered healthy, like it was a sailboat on a harrowing but exhilarating nine-month trip around the world and drifting into port.

And then I was sitting on the bed in her room, holding her swaddled body in my forearms. Her head cradled in my hands, her face was red and chubby under the hospital beanie. “I waited so long for you,” I husked at her scrunchy little face. “And you are finally here.” And in that same moment, in that nursery with the deep blue painted walls, I looked at her and the horrible truth came upon me. The whole “healthy baby” thing was a scam, a crock of shit. Was every human who had ever had a child in on the joke? I imagined all the people who had mock-assuringly said “all that matters is that its healthy” waiting until my back was turned to give each other a yuk-yuk vaudeville wink.

I looked at her and realized that I would never take another breath without the specter and terror of her death hanging over me. I knew then that in every breath – in my last breath – I would be worried about her fucking health. This was no wavy sailboat navigation around the world, I had just been placed in the command module of a spaceship hurtling into space on its way to Planet OMG with absolutely no knowledge of any of the dials or instruments.

All right all you parents-to-be out there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Theory of the Brown Couch

The Theory of the Brown Couch

The Brown Couch

“When you try to be everything to everyone, you get the brown couch.”

Growing up, I always believed our home was beautiful. My parents had lived in Japan early in their marriage and our living room was accented with Japanese chests and pottery, an old hibachi served as their coffee table. The hibachi could be partly disassembled: the rectangular wooden base included a set of three tiny black drawers on each of the long sides and the center cooking section was lined with copper. A thick wooden collar fit on top of the base like a serviceable shelf. The collar was remarkably heavy with each side about five inches square of solid wood. A removable glass top fit into the collar turning the cooking pit into a table.

My father’s grandfather was a rockhound, meaning he spent his spare time in the desert near his home searching out rocks and minerals. He had a rock saw and a polisher and when he found a rock with geode potential he would cut it open and polish it. His workshop overflowed with specimens of obsidian, malachite and quartz and dozens of geodes from his expeditions.

Under the glass of the hibachi coffee table, a small collection of Grandpa Harry’s rocks was arrayed making the hibachi coffee table even more unusual and exotic in its living room home on Chesterton Drive in 1970’s Dallas.

So, I thought my home was beautiful and fascinating. I took pride in the way my mom made our sets of Great Books and Encyclopedias and my dad’s collections of jazz and big band albums seem elegant, and admired the charming, cheery turquoise color she had selected for the kitchen. From the wall of the den, hanging kabuki masks looked down on our flower-power print couch, grimacing at the outlandish upholstery and smiling on my mother’s flair in pulling it off. We had taste and flair.

No one else had kabuki masks in the Ethan Allen world.

My father’s career had us leapfrogging across states, landing in this city for a few years, and that city for a few more before the next jump. Almost every move seemed to require a new family room couch, to suit the carpeting or the shape of the room, or the style at the time. The flower-power couch was overtaken by the blue and green plaid sleeper, which abdicated to the tufted pleather cigar-bar couch and love seat combination, in its turn ousted by a couch and love seat covered in a slightly dizzy pattern sampling the Country-with-a-K motif of the eighties.

Enter the next couch regime.

The most important thing about the next couch was that it be perfect. Maria and Larry had a long list of musts. It must have a skirt. The pillows had to be unattached. The arms had to be this big and not that big. The seat cushion had to wrap in front of the arm. The height, the firmness of the cushions, the trim; these were all precisely proscribed. The requirements were as exact as one of those sixty-page software requirements documents I was never good at writing.

The actual fabric to cover the couch, however, was uncertain. Swatches were ordered. Swatches were held up to the walls and the rugs and the framed Carl Gorman drawing. My brother and sister and I were called to frequent summits to examine photocopies of furniture catalogue pages exhibiting couch candidates and to opine on Swatch A versus Swatch B. Swatches were returned.

There were lots of summits. Sometimes all three of us would be required to attend. Sometimes, it would be just me and I would learn that my sister had already picked the stripes but they just weren’t sure. What did I think? Were the stripes too stripey, they wondered? And I would be advised: don’t tell your sister we asked you about the stripes. Okay, I would promise dubiously; we were a truth-loving family. Did I need to keep it on the down-low with my brother too?

This was getting out of hand.

I decided to close the sale. The next time I was called in for a consultation, in my most confident voice, I laid out the value prop for Couch #AB89873 in Fabric Category H, Tweed Surprise. I laid out the benefits and advantages while they nodded yes. When I heard them express in their own words a future incorporating Tweed Surprise into their daily life, I announced. “Great! It’s settled then! Glad to know that all this diligence and careful consideration has come to this glorious and final end. As in Final Final, right?” “Final!” they chorused.

Not So Fast

“Your father needs you to come up to the house tomorrow,” my mom said. This isn’t, I asked, about a couch is it? “Of course not,” she lied. The kabuki mask winked.

In the end, they bought a plain brown couch. It’s not that they couldn’t make up their combined mind between couches. It was that they had so many requirements and so many opinions that they couldn’t resolve to any choices. Nothing could fit all the requirements and encompass all of the options

The Theory of the Brown Couch: When you try to be everything to everyone, you get the brown couch.

The Brown Couch is in the room every time a group gets together to approve a new logo or write copy. When it comes time to select a tag line, everyone parks themselves on the couch.

If everyone can agree then I am confident that it will not be memorable. It will never be Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. If the new idea doesn’t make almost everyone a little uncomfortable, it’s will bore everyone down the road. It it doesn’t sting, it won’t sing.

When I work with a designer and they are showing me a few proposed options, whether it’s swatches for a couch or a website project, I listen to their pitch and at the end, I always ask which they like best. That helps me see the design from the designer’s viewpoint which is usually holistic and the purest one, the version least hampered by my long list of requirements.

And then I say, now show me the one you liked that you were afraid to show me; the one you loved but thought I would hate. That’s the goldmine. Even when you do hate it, there will be treasure in it. It wasn’t built to please you and your long list of must’s. I want to see what the designer dreamed up without pre-editing their idea to meet group taste. By the way, this is one of the best ways to educate yourself about design on the fly and will help you learn more about how to speak design and get the most out of your designers.

Be not afraid. Resist.

Go look at any B2B website and typically you will have no idea what they actually do. The final approval committee for the messaging is too afraid to narrow the scope. You would think they would have done their Moore’s Positioning homework and they probably did. But fear crept in. The fear of being too specific. The fear of leaving out a use case, or a revenue stream, or a product line; this tagline, this copy, this logo has to encompass everything we do. I call this the “But What Abouts.” But What Abouts kill creativity and specificity. Think of it this way: an Oreo cookie doesn’t have chocolate chips or macadamia nuts or peanut butter, which are all great cookie ingredients.

I’m just proposing that what you leave out of your design, your podcast, your portfolio, your couch or your cookie might be the most important thing about it. Everyone will be pushing you to fit more in, to make everyone happy, to meet everything on the checklist. Resist.

I once worked on a billboard campaign for a non-profit. The provocative idea we came up with was simple. Everyone hated it. It was hugely successful.

The Junior League is a well-known women’s service and leadership organization with 10,000 members internationally. Most towns in the US have a chapter founded in the last century by women of substance and social standing. In the following decades, League members invested their time and creativity into understanding and addressing issues that impacted the broader community outside of their families. Like most chapters, the League in my town actively partnered with other community groups, business leaders and non-profits to make good things happen in our town. Our organization had a sterling reputation; or maybe not. In fact, we found, we had image problems. As the head of marketing that year, I decided to re-brand our League and developed a multi-pronged plan, complete with a new, provocative tagline to remind the community of our positive impact over the years.  I presented the plan to the incoming president who had strong reservations. After all, our image, one of being an effective force in the community, was on the line; years of commitment, work and effort were being forgotten or discounted and being replaced with a less than impressive reputation and worse, we were being perceived as irrelevant. She was nervous and my idea was risky. Was I really going to plaster that tagline billboards? “No,” I said, “Not if you truly hate it. But if you are willing to take a risk, let’s get the Board’s approval and go forward.

It turns out that with that billboard campaign I single handedly destroyed the League in our community. “Did you know,” I was asked, “That my boyfriend and I were out to dinner with a group and everyone was saying that those Junior League billboards were awful. They make the League look terrible.” Really? I was intrigued: “Did you and a group of men and women really spend time at dinner talking about the Junior League? Let me ask you, did you passionately share with them the history of our League and what we have done and are doing in our town? Did you make sure they knew that the Junior League was much more than do-good snobby women wearing pearls? Yes, she emphatically had. “How many other times,” I asked her, “Has your dinner conversation centered on the League’s work?”

“None,” she replied.

If we had drawn up a list of requirements for how to get the League back in the conversation we would have failed. If our billboard campaign idea had been put to a vote by the membership, it would have been shot down. Two months after the first billboard went up, I was talking to the executive director of a fledgling non-profit in our community that was just on the brink of thriving, one that addressed the needs of children being emancipated from the child-services foster system. She looked me in the eye and said, “My goal is for our non-profit to be featured on one of those Junior League billboards.” The Junior League provided significant funding and leadership talent to found and support that organization. That’s So Junior League!

The Purple Cow Corollary: Boring Never Works

Seth Godin helped marketers everywhere when he wrote about the The Purple Cow: If you were driving down the road and saw cows, you might think “There’s a cow” But if you were driving down the road and saw a purple cow, you would say to your friend “Hey did you see that purple cow.” You might even take a picture, or talk about it at dinner later. A purple cow is remarkable; it’s something you would likely remark on.  Seth’s point is simply, if you want to people to talk about you, be remarkable.

You may be picking out a couch. You may be creating a new logo and website. You may be waking up a community to a new perspective; consider this: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth not boring everyone.

You really have to influence the “But What About” people. Show them examples of how weirdness, a big sloppy, flower-patterned couch or an out-of-place hibachi filled with rocks could make it beautiful. Talk to them. Say if you really hate it, we will kill the idea, but what if we gave it a chance. Sure, it may not work. But here’s something you can confidently say to get them on board with the purple couch: Boring Never Works.

But Wait

Something that is everything to everybody can never inspire wonder. It will never be wonderful. So does it follow that wonderful is always great? Is there a place for a Brown Couch?

That question brings around a word of caution on the Boring Never Works rule: it’s better to have one Wonderful Thing at a time. A truly remarkable couch may not need remarkable pillows.

I was working with a decorator on a room in my home and we were choosing paint colors. Should we go with something bold? Orange? Or my parent’s old faithful, Navajo White? She said, “You know, this room has a lot going on.” She was right. It’s not that everything must be wonderful, it’s that at least one piece of the whole must inspire.

Choose where you will invest and strike there with boldness. Every outfit, letter, room or garden; every project plan, project launch or sales pitch should have one focal piece that inspires. To inspire, it should not be everything to everyone. It should include a risky step out on its own.

How Not to Write a Crappy Thank You Note

How Not to Write a Crappy Thank You Note

Writing a Great Thank You Note is a Gift

My college boyfriend came from what is known in the South as a Good Family. It’s one of those things that does not need to be explained to Southerners we just all know what it means: a mix of factors including good taste, church-going, fraternity-joining, and appearances.

I was taking a summer school class in Tuscaloosa and so was he. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with a frequently absent roommate. It was a pitiful place held together by low-end paneling and shag carpeting. As bad as it was then, that old apartment building still stands, appallingly, more than thirty years later. Still, I had plenty of room to invite my then high-school aged brother over from Atlanta with his girlfriend. He would drive over; I would show him college life. Everything was all set.

Unhappily, a glitch in the plan emerged. My boyfriend was invited to a debutante ball in Big Town the same weekend. If I could get over to Big Town, I was invited as well and I thought the ball sounded fabulous. Could I go and leave Brother in Tuscaloosa? I mulled it over. It seemed creepy to invite and dash. What if they came to Big Town with us?

This was the plan: Brother and Girlfriend would come to Tuscaloosa; the next day we all four head to Big Town; drop them off at the house of Good Family; hit the Ball like some kind of preppy Cinderella and Prince; and crash at house before sweeping back to Tuscaloosa/Atlanta on Sunday. The secret sauce that made the plan brilliant – Mr. and Mrs. Good Family were out of town! In summary, I get to go to the Ball; high school brother still gets to spend the night with his girlfriend, etc. etc.

It’s a universal truth that all properly executed lies must be based in truth. Therefore, Brother and I colluded on our stories as our parents would undoubtedly want a recap of the weekend. We would tell the full truth with one tiny omission. Simple!

On his return, Sunday evening, my brother told our mother all about the weekend. As you would expect, all was well and good. No runs, no hits, no errors.

On Monday morning my mom called me with effusive gratitude. How nice of me to host my brother and how perfectly gracious of Mrs. Good Family to host, not just me, but also my brother and his girlfriend. It was on this act of gracious kindness that my horribly Southern mother anchored.

Mrs. Good Family must be properly thanked! Nothing would do, but mom must write a thank you note. Would I please provide her with the Good Family’s address? It was at this point that a dark blanket of terror began to smother me. If You-Know-Who received a thank you note from my mom, it would be a disaster. “Mom,” I appealed. “Why write a thank you note when you could send flowers?” And, not only that, I cannily suggested, Brother should have to be a gentleman and order them himself.

Flowers were duly ordered and charged to her credit card. I don’t remember now where they were sent.

The sad thing was that the next time I talked to my mom she again effused about Mrs. Good Family’s kindness and announced she would be absolutely sure to thank her in person.

Disaster loomed again. They would surely meet and I was certain my mom would never, never, never forget. What if my mom brought up the visit or the flowers to Mrs. Good Family? Should I come clean?

I’m sure he wondered at the time why I broke up with him.

Thank You’s On Earth

A friend of mine once said she was worried that when she got to heaven, she would be stuck in a heavenly waiting room having to catch up on all the thank you notes she was too lazy or too busy to write down on Earth. If that were true, I would be stuck there the longest, like some fraternity brother still hanging at the Omega Mu Gamma house in his fifth year. I’m not good about writing thank you notes, but I am good at writing them, the Good Family & Flower Disaster notwithstanding.  Thinking about it now, maybe I will find myself leading the Thank You Note Purgatists Club in a classroom just outside of heaven.

But here in this earthly life, I like to think that a thank you note is a tiny miracle letting a sometimes sad, often scared fellow human to feel warmed by their own goodness.  Here we go.

You have likely been party to a thank you note just like this one:

Dear Friend,

Thank you for the candy. It was delicious! My whole family loved it!

Your friend,


Most people read that thank you note and think, “That’s Nice.” as it flutters into the top of the trash can. Wouldn’t you rather the recipient of your note hold it in their hand and think, “Ahh.” What if your thank-ee read the note and instead tucked it into a drawer? I’m not sure if this is a note that would make it to the drawer, but I think it has a good shot.

Dear Friend,

Thank you for the candy. Only you would remember how much I love that candy and go to the effort to get me exactly what I love. I did let my family have a few pieces, but not that many. That’s because I have savored each piece; each one reminds me that I am so grateful to have someone in my life who doesn’t just take the time to treasure other people – you act on it! You are an inspiration to me.

With greatest love and admiration,



The Secret of the Drawer Thank You Note

Begin with quietly thinking, not about the gift or how much you like it. Instead, think about the person. What do they value about themselves? What standards do they hold themselves to? Who are they to themselves? Maybe they believe:

I am always honest

I am an empathetic person

I always have a fun time

I am always on time

I am artistic

I have great manners

The best thank you’s reinforce the reader’s best view of themselves. So once you have thought of the personal quality they care the most about, you still have more thinking to do.

Can you get even more specific?

You always find a way to be honest and authentic.

I never have an emotion that you don’t amplify back to me.

Every time we are together, you make me laugh.

You always show so much respect for other people, and even treat their time preciously.

Through your creativity, you help me see things I would not have seen before.

It’s not just that you always have wonderful manners, it’s that how you treat other people in the simplest ways shows that you care for and respect them, even the people you don’t know personally.

Now can you add how this amazing quality they possess especially enriches you?

You always find a way to be honest and authentic in the kindest and most helpful way. I always know I can trust you.

I never have an emotion that you don’t amplify back to me, making me feel understood.

Every time we are together, you make me laugh and do crazy things that become the best memories.

You always show so much respect for other people, and even treat their time preciously.

Through your creativity, you help me see things I would not have seen before and it nurtures my own creativity.

It’s not just that you always have wonderful manners, it’s that how you treat other people in the simplest ways shows that you care for and respect them, even the people you don’t know personally. You are a role model for me.

You can be thankful for the book, the gesture the hospitality – or you can be thankful for who they are. Which would you rather thank them for? Which would you rather be acknowledged for yourself?

The last twelve months have been particularly difficult ones for me. My sister has been there for countless hours on the phone, long walks and crying sessions. She was out of town for her husband’s birthday. I dropped off a gift basket for him with a short note. I do not remember the exact words, but my sentiments were: My sister has been a huge blessing to me this past year. She could not have been there for me without your support, without you giving her up for afternoons, or evenings that you could have been enjoying together. She has been my rock. She could not have done that without your constant support. I always knew you stood for loyalty to family, and now I, too, have been blessed by your steadfastness.

She told me he kept it.

One thing I can promise you, if you write a note that they keep, eventually they will tell you.


Does it have to be on paper?

A friend of mine stopped off in Atlanta for a business meeting and we spent the weekend exploring places I rarely visit alone: museums, gardens and the like. The day he left I texted him:

I am so grateful you are a spontaneous person who would just hop on a plane and let me show you Atlanta. And an authentic, mature human who would share your difficult experiences and also be truly interested in mine.

I am sure he liked getting that text. In my opinion, thought, it is not the same as a note and here’s why. The most important part of a meaningful thank you note is the other person savoring the validation. When the note “Goes Into The Drawer” it means that they accept and believe the compliment. It becomes part of their story and something wonderful they believe about themselves. You give them permission to love something about themselves.

While my friend may have appreciated the sentiments in my text, he cannot save it forever the same way you save a written sentence. Do you suppose he took a screen cap, emailed it to himself and printed it out? I just imagined myself grabbing a piece of paper, scribbling off the same note, mailing it and him getting the envelope a few days later. It’s been a long day. He pulls out the note. He reads it. Can you see him? Can you see him stop and lean against the counter and read it again? Can you seen him fold it in half? Can you see him as he tucks it in his journal? Can you see in his heart? It’s transformational.

Another friend once said when asked why she was such a fanatic about writing thank you’s, “If they went to the trouble to buy a gift and get it to me, the absolute least I can do is write and send a thank you note.”

So yes. Paper is best.

Writing? Ain’t nobody got time for writing

I was sharing my thank you note tips with a friend. She recoiled. “I’m not a good writer and frankly it’s intimidating. I don’t think I could write such a personal and detailed note.” What to do?

Quit whining and do it anyway. It’s not about you and your gifts, it’s about them and their gifts.  They will forgive crappy, sappy writing. I promise.


Can you recover from putting off sending a thank you note?

Sometimes I wonder anyway about the perceived value of thanking someone for something you have never used or experienced. How much more sincere and real would the thank you be if you thanked your friend six months later after you have gotten value out of the gift.

The delayed thank you would work even better for a service or for someone helping you. Let’s say you recommended me for a job. Six months later I write to you and share how much I have grown in the role.

Six months ago when you recommended me for this job, I appreciated the support and I’m sure it was a huge factor in them selecting me for the job. After being at the company six months, I have been challenged and have grown professionally in unexpected ways.

I am even more grateful to you now, knowing what a great fit I am for this role and what a true opportunity this role is for me. Not only do you have amazing connections and intuition, people trust you — and your role in this ‘match’ is a perfect example of why they do. Thank you for putting all of that on the line when you recommended me. I love it here!

I love the idea of someone sending me text photo of them using the gift I gave them several months ago followed up with a text that says “I feel like royalty every time I use these luxurious, crystal tumblers.” Or “I’m so glad I finally have a way to keep my jewelry organized.” So many gifts never get used. It’s wonderful to think that someone not only loved and truly used my gift, but that they thought of me when they were using it. Why does this work? Because it’s an acknowledgment of what an undeniably great gift selector your friend is.


Saying Thank You Out Loud

Great spoken thank you’s, given one-on-one are more difficult to believe and savor in the moment. The point is to reinforce something they believe is their strength and give them the opportunity to believe it. In person, it’s often too high in emotional content, maybe even too embarrassing, too difficult to savor. Thank you’s in public are different and have a different, important role. Spoken gratitude changes the dynamic of a group. Consistent expressions of sincere gratitude change the group’s identity to one of trust.

One company I worked at had a daily stand up meeting. If you are not familiar with the Stand-Up it’s meant to be a quick team check in that keeps everyone focused, on-track and accelerates team execution. For this particular team, every person had about 3 minutes to update the team on something positive that happened the day before, what they were going to crush that day and what obstacles or threats to success were they anticipating for that day? One guy, managed to thank a team member as part of his update every single day. Before long, another person came to the meeting and expressed gratitude for a team member’s help the day before. Interestingly, because the gratitude was contagious more than half of the updates became expressions of gratitude. As the gratitude grew, respect grew. As respect grew, trust grew. As trust grew, confidence grew. As confidence grew, belief and innovation and good risk taking and revenues grew.


The surprising benefit of writing a high-quality thank you note

Expressing gratitude puts you in a grateful state. It changes your brain chemistry. It changes you – even if it’s just for a moment. It’s a small meditation. It’s an act of service.

In his book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman shares his idea that people express and accept love in different ways and he was helpful enough to give us a few basic categories to keep us from being miserable in our relationships. He posits that different people have different ways of accepting and giving love: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.

Personally, I am an Acts of Service gal. For many years, my husband renewed my love for him every day by bringing me a cup of coffee when I woke up. That simple act filled me with delight.

A written and delivered thank you note either works or comes close on all five of the Love Languages. Writing a thank you note is an act of service that delivers words of affirmation. The note itself is a gift. Because the note can be touched, and held and smelled it’s is as close to a long-distance hug as we can get until we get to holograms and virtual reality. What about quality time? Maybe a note is not the same thing as spending quality time together, but when you write a This-Goes-in- the-Drawer quality note, it comes damn close.