Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Quotes

A gift of quotes

This is my last post until January 10, 2011. I wish you a wonderful Holiday Season filled with happy memories like:
  • Watching the twinkling eyes of a child on Christmas morning;
  • Getting a big bear hug from a loved one;
  • Smacking you lips with delight after savouring your favourite dish - your sister's tourtière, you friend's latkes or your colleague's homemade chocolate truffles;
  • Receiving a homemade gift
  • Enjoying the sensation of big fat snowflakes landing on your face;
  • Feeling a deep sense of gratitude as you acknowledge the abundance around you.
Peace and love be with you always.

I love to collect quotes. All kinds of quotes. Quotes can convey powerful wisdom in just a few little sentences. Words that pull at heart strings. Words that are springboards to new understanding. Words that feed the soul.

Here are some of my favourite quotes about Christmas:

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ~Norman Vincent Peale

Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen. ~Author unknown, attributed to a 7-year-old named Bobby

When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things - not the great occasions - give off the greatest glow of happiness. ~Bob Hope

It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas when its mighty Founder was a child Himself. ~Charles Dickens

Christmas gift suggestions: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect. ~Oren Arnold

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr Seuss

>Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!
~Francis P. Church
From the New York Sun, September 21, 1897.

Here is the integral letter to Virginia written by Francis P. Church for your reading pleasure.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A ring - a symbol of young love and a symbol of enduring love

My daughter was the first and only grand child in my in-laws family for the first four years of her life, until her little sister Maya was born. Needless to say, Nadia was the apple of everyone's eyes during those years. For her grandmother Luella, Nadia was even more special because Mom had four boys and she was thrilled to have a little girl in her life. A special bond developed instantly. That bond is even stronger now, eighteen years later.

Every Christmas, since Nadia has been seven years old, she and gramma spend an afternoon Christmas shopping together. Over the years, many traditions have evolved around this yearly event. For example, there is always a stop at the Cinnabon shop for a decadent cinnamon roll (that tradition is so ingrained that where they do their shopping is determined by whether or not that shopping centre has a Cinnabon store)! Nadia and gramma cap off their day of shopping by going out for supper at a restaurant. After the meal, they come back home and hide in Nadia's room to wrap all the gifts before maman sneaks a peek... (I have a bad reputation as someone who can't wait until Christmas to find out what she got, which I have overplayed over the years because the girls get such a kick out of it. One year, the girls rigged some of their "spy gear" around the Christmas gifts stash and an alarm would ring every time I would go near it. They laughed so hard thinking that they had outsmarted their mom. I would go near the stash on purpose so that they could "catch me in the act")

Last year was a sad year for all of us. Mom was battling cancer and having chemo treatments which left her weak and ill. For the first time in ten years, gramma could not go Christmas shopping with Nadia. So I took Nadia shopping for an afternoon and drove her over to gramma's house with her stash of newly bought presents, wrapping paper and of course, cinnamon buns from Cinnabon. I left Nadia with her gramma for a couple of hours of quality time for a modified annual Christmas tradition.

This year, mom is much healthier so the Christmas shopping extravaganza was back on. Nadia and gramma went shopping yesterday afternoon and came back home tired but happy with their purchases. Gramma remarks at how every year she notices how their conversations change. When Nadia was a little girl she talked about her friends at school and her favourite toys. This year, much of their conversation centered on Nadia's boyfriend and her love life. Nadia and her boyfriend will celebrate one year together this January. Nadia is in love and wanted to buy something extra special for her boyfriend this Christmas, a gold ring. Nadia and her gramma went from one jewellery shop to another until they found the best deal. Gramma will always be part of Nadia's story of "the day I got my boyfriend a ring". Nadia and her grandmother have a privileged relationship. How many young adults to do you know that would spend hours with their grandparent sharing their feelings, happy and sad, and bring them into their most intimate world?

A ring was also at the centre of a celebration last night. Instead of going out for supper at a restaurant like they usually do, I invited Nadia and gramma back to our house for a festive meal. Just to set the context, last October 8th, Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Mom did not want a big celebration and so the important milestone passed very quietly. Around that same time, I had noticed that Mom was not wearing her wedding ring and asked her about it. She said that the ring was broken and she had to put it away so that it would not get damaged any further. I asked her if I could have the ring repaired for her as a gift for their 50th wedding anniversary.

During supper last night we toasted Mom and Dad on their fifty years of married life and I gave her back the ring that a talented jeweller had brought back to its original beauty. She was touched. We were all touched when she slipped the ring back on her finger and told us the story of how she proposed to Dad. Dad's Alzheimer is slowly erasing his memories. He did not remember that story but his eyes still shone with love for his wife as she took us all down for a walk down memory lane.

Mom and Dad have collected over fifty years of memories together. Those stories will endure and still be told at family gatherings for many years to come. New stories are being created with the new generation. The Christmas shopping tradition has generated many happy memories for Nadia and gramma. And those stories will also be told. Time spent with loved ones and the memories they create is timeless...

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Island of Misfit Toys

As a child, one of my favourite Christmas animated movie was the 1964 version of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer

I have always had a soft spot for Rudolph. I guess I could relate to him. I too was "different" from the other kids. I had two strikes against me. I was overweight and I was a nerd. I tried to fit in. I really did. But tried as I might, I always was an outcast.

Like me, Rudolph was teased and even ridiculed. After a while Rudolph started to believe that he was not as good as the other reindeers. He stopped trying to fit in and decided to leave his birthplace in search of a place where he would really belong.

Along the way, Rudolph meets a Christmas elf named Hermey who, like Rudolph, is a misfit. Hermey is not well liked by other elves because he would rather be a dentist than a toymaker. They decide to travel together accompanied by a prospector named Yukon Cornelius. On their journey, they come upon the Island of the Misfit Toys, a dumping ground for all the toys that are unloved because they are not up to standards. Some of the Misfit Toys are a "Charlie-in-the-box" (rather than a Jack-in-the-box) a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels, a bird that doesn't fly (but swims), a cowboy who rides an ostrich and a boat that sinks.

On the Island of Misfit Toys, Rudolph's difference is the one thing that allows him to belong. Everyone on that island stands out from the crowd. They are unified by their differences.

It took a wise old soul; Santa Claus himself, to recognize that Rudolph's difference was actually a blessing. On a stormy Christmas Eve night, Rudolph's red nose led the way. In that instant Rudolph's difference became his best asset.

As a child, I longed for someone to appreciate my differences. I longed for a place where I could belong, like the Island of Misfit Toys. Eventually, I found that place but first, I had to accept my differences.

I think that we have all experienced a Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer moment in our lives. For some, the "moment" lasted longer than for others. Be proud of your differences, your own personal "Santa" is waiting to recognize you and celebrate your uniqueness.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas: a job or a joy?

"OK girls, I thought that this year since you are both teenagers we could skip the Christmas tree thing and save ourselves a bit of work. What do you think?"
The girls looked at me in horror. How could their mother be such a "Grinch"?
"What do you mean no Christmas tree?" they said in unison with an incredulous look on their face.
"Well, I didn't think you would mind because you don't help me decorate the tree or to take the tree down after the holidays so I thought you didn't care one way or the other" I said in my defence.
"Oh no, you are wrong! We do care. It would not be Christmas without a traditional Christmas tree in our family room"
Maya was the most passionate of the two. She said "Nadia had Christmases with all the trimmings every year of her life. She is now eighteen. You have to keep decorating the house for Christmas and get me an Advent chocolate calendar for at least another four years until I am also eighteen just to be fair!"
"What about a small artificial tree on stand instead?" I bargained.
"No. It's got to be a regular tree with all the trimmings." they insisted
"Are you going to help me decorate it then?" I asked.
"Of course we will!" they said. (We'll see about that...)

There seems to be two experiences of Christmas in our household: mine and theirs. My experience of Christmas is a mile long "To Do" list, dish pan hands from cooking and cleaning, blistered feet from shopping which leads to exhaustion by the time the big day arrives (a bit like planning a Wedding every year and looking back at the end of the day and saying to yourself "that was great but I can't believe it is already over after all those months of preparation". Their experience (I'm referring here to my husband and my two daughters) is one of Eggnog sipping, desert sampling, and afternoons of relaxing watching Christmas shows on TV.

I don't know how I have inherited the job of Christmas master decorator, baker, shopper, gift wrapper, and all around Christmas cheer maker. And to be perfectly frank, I resent it most times.

To be truthful, I am fully responsible for this state of affair. Something has got to change... I don't want to dread all the work ahead of me to prepare for Christmas. I want to have a happy Christmas this year. I want to enjoy the whole experience and make choices with my eyes wide open.

Is decorating the house an obligation or a fun activity? It is a matter of perspective wouldn't you say? Aside from the Christmas tree (which is a non-negotiable apparently) I don't think the girls really care which Christmas knick knack I take out of the boxes in the basement. I know that my husband won't even notice if I decorate the house or not.

There are no rules that say that if you are a good mother you bake several batches of Christmas cookies and stock your freezer full of brightly coloured tins filled with million calories worth of sugary treats. (Is there?)

And for the longest time I believed that a gift was an indication of how much you loved someone therefore I would put myself under huge pressure to find the "perfect" thing to express my feelings. By the time Christmas rolls around I am so tired from all the preparations and so anxious to get everything just right that I have to admit I am not much fun to be around. What if I reframed my thinking? What if I chose a new belief: a gift is just a gift and what makes someone feel special and loved is the quality time you spent with them.

As they say "If it is meant to be, it is up to me". So I started "Operation Happy Christmas 2010" this very day. I asked each of my daughter what was their favourite Christmas decoration and took those out. I went through all the boxes of decorations and only took out my favourite ones and I enjoyed finding special spots for those decorations throughout the house. The house looks festive and I am not missing the decorations from Christmas past that remain packed away in boxes.

As for the baking, I've earmarked a Saturday in mid-December and we will make it a family affair. We will each bake our favourite Christmas cookie while listening to Christmas music and drinking eggnog. We will only be making four recipes this year - one recipe per person. That should be plenty! And, it will be fun too!

This year, I want to give experiences to the people I love rather than store bought gifts. I will buy tickets for concerts, plays, or sports events and enjoy an evening in the company of my loved ones. Making memories together is better than a gift card from a big box store any day!

What about you? Are you an overworked Christmas elf or a cheery Mrs Claus at Christmas time? Will you do anything differently this year at Christmas time?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Our Deepest Fear

This week I want to share with you my favourite poem. Whenever I read it I am reminded of how amazing we humans are. If only we would let our light shine more often and more brightly, what a different world this would be...

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is
within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson
Note: I am travelling on business for the next two weeks. My next blog will be posted on November 28.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Need to schedule your down time?

I woke up with a start in the middle of the night remembering that I had forgotten to change time on the clocks to Standard Time. Before I went to bed, I had set my alarm for 8:00 am so that would have time to get ready to teach my 9:00 am yoga class but did not remember to change the time on the clock. Here I am wide awake at 5:30 am confused and a bit panicked. Do we move back the time one hour or move it forward? "We move the time back an hour" said my husband drowsily as I nudged him awake at 5:30 am. "Oh yeah" I thought, "I get to have an extra hour of sleep". I tried to go back to sleep but I tossed and turned, my subconscious still worried that I would somehow mess up and miss my yoga class. I woke up every half hour or so until I finally gave up and got up for good at 7:30 am. I got immersed in household tasks and ran out of time. I left home in a hurry at 8:45 cutting it much too close even though the fitness club is only 5 minutes away (if I am lucky and get all the green lights). I got to the club with just a couple minutes to spare before the start of my yoga class, out of breath and feeling stressed. Kind of ironic isn't it that I have to rush to go to a yoga class? Finding time to relax seems to be a stressful proposition for me.

According to an article entitled "The Time Crunch Takes its Toll" in the Globe and Mail, this Tuesday (November 2, 2010), I am part of a growing number of Canadians who are in a perpetual time crunch. The authors, Tralee Peace and Siri Agrell asked busy Canadian professionals to share their stories and opinions about on coping (or not) with the work-life juggle.

Asked what one thing we would like to change to improve work-life balance:

  • 17.2% said they would like to do less work followed by more money (Wouldn't that be the very best scenario? Surprising that this number is not much higher!)
  • 15.1% said they want more vacation (Again, how come this number is not any higher?)
  • 8.1% said they wanted a different job
  • 8.0% want a more interesting job (Maybe it is the same 8.1% who want a different job!)
Some 33% of Canadians have come to the same realization I did (almost 9 years ago) when I decided to work part time, four days a week rather than the usual 5 days of week, which reduced my pay cheque by 20%. Granted, I did the equivalent of 5 days work in four (often skipping lunches and staying late) but I had the luxury of having my Fridays off to do a workout and take care of some household duties which freed up my weekends to spend more quality time with my family.

Now that I work for myself, I rarely have a day "off". I actually work much longer hours, weekdays, evenings and most weekends. Since my office is in my home, there is no time off unless I am disciplined enough to put aside work for a period of time. It is very tempting to check emails, catch up on paperwork, prepare for the meetings and workshops of the following week, all in an effort to get organized and save time in the long run (very ironic!) Now what am I going to do about that? I will need to set some clear boundaries and schedule some "relax time. I hope that one day it will become part of my weekly routine to set aside some days of rest (weekends would be a good start!)

According to this article, 20% of leisure time has shrunk between 1998 and 2005. Vacations (and leisure time) take some planning and it appears we do not even have time to schedule down time either. Instead we let the vacation leave we are entitled to lay unclaimed. In Canada in 2009, a staggering 36.5 million vacation days have been unclaimed!

Our employers have a good thing going here because not only do we not take all of our vacation leave, but millions of us work unpaid overtime. Up to 2.6 million employees over the age of 15 worked unpaid overtime every week in 2007 and I am sure that this number has grown significantly over the last three years judging by what I see and hear when I visit workplaces these days.

To be fair, we cause much of that stress ourselves. Whether you like to admit it or not, it is the choices you make and the attitude you adopt that cause you stress. I had more than enough time to leisurely get ready for my yoga class this morning and leave in plenty of time but somehow, I missed the mark. I would agree with Mary Jane Copps who is quoted as saying "I often don't pay close enough attention to the time needed and then suddenly I'm overwhelmed or off-balance."

The article cites that when asked who most frequently cause us stress, Canadians admit that they themselves are their biggest cause of stress.
  • Themselves: 3 times per week
  • Spouse or partner: 2.1 times
  • Kids: 2 times
  • Colleagues: 1.9 times
It would seem that geography and culture has an impact on our work-life balance. According to the authors of this article, Pearce and Agrell, if you live in Quebec 50 to 54% of the population says that they are "very happy". Ontario is the bottom third with 40 to 44% and British Columbia is the very least likely to say they are "very happy" with 35 to 39%.

Francophones are often described as "bon vivant". A "bon vivant" is someone who is jovial and takes life in stride. A "bon vivant" enjoys the good things in life like good food and wine and socializing with friends. Maybe there is some truth to the saying "choose your attitude, choose your life"? I would think that Quebecers have very similar time pressures and responsibilities as their British Columbia counterparts but perhaps they manage it differently.

As a Franco-Ontarian with Quebec roots, some would call me a "bon vivant". Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the impromptu kitchen parties at Christmas time (especially) and other family gatherings. My aunt or my grandmother would get on the piano cranking out traditional "chansons à répondre". Someone would pull out the spoons and tap out the rhythm, someone else would take out the violin and everybody, adults and children, would sing and dance. If these kitchen parties are any indication of the French culture's aptitude of celebrating life and enjoying each other's company, then maybe this explains why, given similar life circumstances as other Canadians, Quebecers seem to find more ways to be happy.

But you know, this ability to find happiness throughout life's ups and downs is within everyone's is simply a matter of choice.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Masters of Disguise

Funny how Halloween has become such a big deal. As soon as the "Back to School" signs were taken down in stores in early September, the Halloween theme was in full swing. Some people decorate their houses with as much passion as for the Christmas season. I've heard it said that Halloween is the second biggest boon for retailers after Christmas! Halloween has surpassed Valentine's Day and Easter in terms of our favourite holidays. Go figure. My daughter, who is fourteen, says that after Christmas, Halloween is her second most favourite time of the year and judging by all the hoopla in stores and businesses, I think she may belong to a growing group of people.

I must say that I have fond childhood memories of Halloween. Plentiful candies (that often lasted till Christmas) sure had something to do with it although, in the sixties and seventies, when I went door to door yelling "Trick or Treat" apples were one of the most common treats we would receive (and boy did they ever weigh down our bags!) Those were the days of the razor blade scandals so my mother would go through the trouble of sorting through all the apples and make apple sauce.

Second most common treat was those hard Halloween taffy (that I am sure brought profitable business to many dentists). Personally I did not like those either. The ultimate treat though, at least where us kids were concerned, was a chocolate bar. Those were keepers for sure. Candy Rockets and Tootsie Rolls were also up there on our top ten lists of favourite candies.

In the olden days (as my teenage daughters like to term it), there was also a big push for UNICEF. Remember those little black and orange cardboard boxes that we tied around our necks like a necklace to collect money for the poor? What happened to that more altruistic side of Halloween?

Yesterday I was sitting in the food court under a big government department building and watched people go by. Many people were dressed up in full Halloween costume regalia. I was surprised actually that so many people dared to dress up in their workplace. The Federal Government is a very conservative place to work (at least in my experience) but yet, here were hundreds of Public Servants walking around as sleazy serving wenches, sexy cats or Playboy bunnies, head bangers, and motorcycle dudes. Maybe putting on those kind of costumes are kind of a rebellion against the stifling bureaucratic climate in the workplace?

Some of us may revel in the opportunity to put on a new persona at least one day out of the year. Halloween gives us a socially accepted excuse to dress up and push the envelope. It can be so much fun finding or making a costume and pretend to be someone (or something) we are not. Putting on a costume is a way to express yourself. Your costume sends a message to the world. "Here I am!" Did you know that I have a creative side? A humorous side? A sexy side? A rebellious side? A dangerous side?

What prevents us from showing our authentic self at work? Maybe it is the suit and ties or the skirts and high heels that we wear at work that are the real costumes? I certainly feel like I need to dress the part when I am visiting my government clients. What would they say if I showed up for my appointments dressed in my weekend "real me" much more comfortable clothes. What would they say if they saw my more "granola" side with flowing dresses, beaded necklaces, and yoga wear? I would probably be judged as non-professional and touchy-feely. As long as I dress the part, they seem to be more receptive to what I have to say. Interesting huh?

I am kind of disappointed that I did not have an opportunity to put on a Halloween costume this year. So I am going to make up an excuse to at least wear Halloween themed clothes. We are invited at a friend's place for a brunch on Halloween so that is a perfect reason to wear my black shirt that says "Spooky" and orange stripped black socks. Better than nothing right? You gotta seize the opportunities to have fun wherever and whenever you can.

Why can't we be more like kids? They don't pretend to be someone they are not to please others. They seem to live to have fun. As I was backing out my car out of the parking lot of a shopping centre today, I noticed a mother and her son rushing to get to their car. It was raining hard outside. The mother had a grim look on her face and had pushed the hood of her coat low over her eyes to shield herself from the rain. She was holding the hand of her little boy who was a picture in contrast. He had his face turned up to sky and had stuck his tongue out to catch the raindrops. He seemed elated. He was having fun...and it's not even Halloween yet.

Let's not wait until next Halloween to reveal parts of who we are to the world. Let's not wait until next Halloween to let loose a little and have fun.What do you say?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Difficult conversations: We need to talk, but I don't want to

I was unwittingly sending "stay away from me" signals to my family members yesterday. A little nothing would set me off. Something is weighing on me and I don't know how to resolve it so my frustration seeps into my everyday life. My husband who has known me for over 30 years clued in that something was wrong. We went for a long bike ride together and he got me to fess up. I need to have a difficult conversation with a client about their unrealistic expectations and inadequate financial compensation for work done. I have tried all the good old tricks like denial, or putting on a brave face hoping that things will resolve themselves if I wait long enough, to finally come to the realization that I need to take the bull by the horns so to speak and confront this client.

I think that most people become procrastinators when it comes to having an emotionally charged conversation about a difficult topic, but in my case, I practically run away from it. I have this type of personality that craves harmony and I am willing to twist myself emotionally into a pretzel to suppress my feelings and keep the peace. But that only lasts so long and, much like a presto pot, the steam has to come out at some point or else the whole thing explodes. Not the best way to manage relationships I must agree.

Ironically, I taught a class on "How to Have Difficult Conversations" this week to a group of senior executives. I think that I need to practice what I preach.

Judy Ringer wrote an article entitled We Have to Talk: A Step-by-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations that I found very useful.

Ringer wisely suggests that the very first step to prepare for a difficult conversation is to work on you.

Step 1: What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you want to accomplish? What would success look like?

Be honest with yourself. Do you have a win-win or a win-lose mindset? Do you want to give that irritating person a piece of your mind so you can feel better or do you actually want to come to a positive resolution? Think of a parent sitting his teenager down to have a talk because things have gotten a bit out of hand. The parent tells himself that it is for the good of the child and ends up preaching and even chastising his teen's behavior in the hopes that he or she will do the right thing the next time. That is not a conversation, it is a monologue. It is a one-way conversation where the parent says you will listen to me because I am right about this.

Another approach would be to ask yourself how can I guide a two-way conversation between my teenager and I that would result in both of us feeling understood, respected and more positive about our relationship?

Step 2: What are the assumptions you are making about this person's intentions? You might be feeling undermined, ignored, ridiculed, or disrespected but do you know for sure that is what they intended? Remember that impact does not necessarily equal intent.

The other day I handed my husband a post card of a house listing that we had received in the mail from a Real Estate Agent. I exclaimed "this will be my house one day!" It was a large old fashion house surrounded by acres of wooded land. My husband immediately got onto the computer and researched the listing. "Sylvie" he said, "this is much too expensive and too far from where we live. You can't be serious?" His words were like a pin bursting the little happy balloon that I had allowed to float around in my mind.

I was not actually serious about buying this house but I liked playing with the idea. I am a perpetual dreamer. My husband, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense black and white kind of guy. I felt deflated and a bit angry at his reaction. It was as if he wanted to rain on my parade on purpose. But that was not his intention. Being a researcher, he went into research mode to evaluate the feasibility of my dream and to see if we could practically make it happen. He came to the same conclusion that I had - we could not afford that house. His way of helping was to give me objective data to make a decision while all I wanted was to pretend that it was possible just for the fun of it for a little while longer.

Step 3: What hot buttons are being pushed? Are your emotions all related to this specific situation or is there some history here that muddies your senses and thwarts your perception?

I have a friend that I adore who has boundless energy and hundreds of projects on the go. She is almost always over-committed socially and professionally. For a period of time (until I finally had a difficult conversation with her) she would make dates with me to chat on the phone or have a coffee and cancelled at the last minute, sometimes not even giving me a heads up if she could not make it and leave me waiting. After a while I started feeling quite resentful and hurt. I pretended like everything was OK between us but it wasn't. I started weaving a story in my head that she did not want to be my friend anymore but did know how to tell me. The more I thought about it, the more it became like a soap opera type of story in my mind.

The truth is that I have some childhood experiences about friendships (or lack thereof) that colored my feelings in this situation. As a child, I loved school. I read voraciously and loved doing school projects. I guess you could call me a nerd and nerds are not popular kids at school. I was also very overweight and I remember (still painfully) how it felt to be left standing alone against the wall at gym class because no one wanted me on their team.

If I was perfectly honest, some of those old emotional wounds were being triggered in this situation and I needed to be aware of that when I had the difficult conversation with my friend.

Step 4: How is your attitude towards this conversation influencing your perception of it? Your thoughts create reality. If you think that this conversation will be confrontational and painful, chances are it will be. On the other hand, if you can imagine that some good will come out of the conversation then your attitude and behavior will change accordingly.

For example, I knew that having a conversation with my friend about how hurt I felt about all the missed appointments would be difficult, but I felt it was important to tell her if we were going to continue to be friends. I had enough trust in her and our friendship to believe that the conversation would have a positive impact on our relationship in the long term.

Step 5: What about the person with whom you are having the difficulty? If you could step into their shoes for a moment to see the problem from their perspective what would you see and feel? Are they even aware that there is a problem?

Rather than seeing this person as an opponent, see him or her as a partner.

I had a boss once who was the exact opposite of me in Personality Type. I am a creative big-picture thinker and she was a down-to-earth meticulous kind of person. She insisted on reviewing all my work and made many changes (that I considered picky and inconsequential). I felt micro-managed and resented her need to know everything at all times. I felt like she did not trust my abilities to do a professional job. I tried to adapt to her style of management but I grew more and more indignant. One day, I gathered my courage and broached the subject. We were both leading a ground-breaking approach to change-management and we knew that there was much to gain from its success. That is the card I played - our strong commitment to the principles and purpose of the change project. In order for the project to succeed, we had to find a way to work together that would capitalize on both our strengths and skills. Detailed routine paperwork did not bring the best out of me. I needed some leeway to create and implement a way forward that would best serve the organization.

Step 6: Identify what are your needs and fears? Are there any common concerns? Could there be?

In this situation with my boss, we had a common concern. We wanted to demonstrate that our novel approach to change management would yield strong commitment to change at every level of the organization. In order to feel like she was on the right track to deliver on this promise, my boss felt like she had to control every aspect of the work. I, on the contrary, felt that we needed to allow ourselves to experiment, to innovate, to take calculated risks and learn from our mistakes and most the process.

Step 7: How have you contributed to the problem? How have they?

That is probably the most difficult and the most important question. When there is a communication break-down, both parties have a responsibility. We each need to own up to our mistakes.

What role did you play in this difficult situation? What would you do differently if you could turn back the clock? Acknowledge this to the other person.

When I spoke to my friend about how hurt I had been when she kept cancelling our appointments, I also admitted that I should have spoken up a lot sooner than I did. Because I was afraid of her reaction, I perpetuated the problem by pretending that everything was fine between us. It was not. And she did not know because I did not tell her.

Judy Ringer concludes her article by saying that "a successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (centered, supportive, curious, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say."

Having written this article, I feel better prepared for having a difficult conversation with my client and my family will attest that my mood has vastly improved over yesterday. It's pretty amazing what a little time out to reflect and prepare will do to your moral!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Notice what is Right With Your World

What would happen if you gave your over-exercised problem spotting and problem solving muscle a little break? Instead, use your gratitude binoculars to spot what is working well. You may not realize it right now, submerged in the dark thoughts of the "if only" or the "poor me" or your life, but there are many sun rays to brighten your day. Acknowledge all the things in your life that are going smoothly and even, dare I say it, spectacularly! It is just a matter of looking at your life with a different attitude. Love what is in your life. All of it. And if it is not there, love what can be. Love the possibilities. Feel them intensely as if your future was already here.

If you are anything like me, this will take some practice. (Lot's of practice in my case!) You have to retrain your brain and your heart, day to day, minute to minute. You need to go out in the world seeking the bright spots and intensifying the light they shed so that joy permeates your being. And, you have to catch yourself thinking dark thoughts, the "awfulizing" and all the drama that comes with it. Notice when the negative voice in your head pipes up, and say "thank you for sharing but I am choosing a different thought right now, one that will bring me more happiness." Rayona Sharpnack, a professional coach, with whom I took a one week intensive training course said something that always stuck with me "Your mind is a dangerous neighbourhood, don't go there alone." Your heart and your intuition (which taps into your higher self) are much more reliable sources of wisdom. Just trust what you know with a capital "K". As Oprah would say, "What do you know for sure?"

What I know for sure is that we are meant to be happy and fulfilled. Maybe we have everything we need to be happy already but we just don't see it... On this 10th day of the 10th month of 2010, I invite you to "trade up" your worn old eyeglasses and choose a more high tech pair that can radar in the good things of life. Catch people doing things right. More importantly, catch yourself doing things right. You will be surprised at how much there is to be grateful for!

How about it? Can you resolve to consciously and systematically notice the good things in your life for the next week? Too hard? Start with just one day then. How about today? It is Thanksgiving after all!

May you be happy on this Thanksgiving Day. I leave you with this poem by John O'Donahue.

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be large enough for the dreams of your soul.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart
...something good is going to happen to you.
May you find harmony between your soul and your life.
May the mansion of your soul never become a haunted place.
May you know the eternal longing that lies at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you be set free from the prisons of guilt, fear, disappointment and despair.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you,
mind you, and embrace you in belonging.
- John O'Donahue

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rules for happiness

Happiness is a state of being that has been elusive to me all my life. I don't know why. I am not wired properly perhaps?

I have so much to be grateful for in my life. Intellectually I know that. But my heart does not feel the happiness. Instead, of appreciating what is, I focus on what is missing in my life. I can't help it seems.

Lately, I have been trying to remedy this. There is hope for people like me. In an article in Time Magazine entitled The New Science of Happiness (2004) by Claudia Wallis the work of Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology is showcased. According to Seligman, we can raise our level of happiness. Happiness can be learned.

This involves working on the three components of happiness— getting more pleasure out of life (which can be done by savoring sensory experiences, although, he warns, “you’re never going to make a curmudgeon into a giggly person”), becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful.

Gratitude exercises can do more than lift one’s mood. I have kept a Gratitude Journal for over seven years. Every night before bed I pulled out my journal and wrote down five things I was grateful for in my day. I went to sleep thinking happy. As I look back on my journals now I notice that it is the small things that make me happy: the fresh cup of coffee in the morning, the compliment I got on a job well done, the hug from my husband when I get home from work, spending quality time with my daughters or the leaves changing colors in fall. I stopped writing in my journal a year or so ago when it began to feel like just another task on my "To do" list. Instead, I have gotten into the habit of doing a gratitude prayer just before I go to bed, rhyming off in my head all the things that made me happy during the day. (These days I can easily list over 10 things - it used to be hard to find five!)

Another happiness booster, say positive psychologists, is performing acts of altruism or kindness—visiting a nursing home, helping a friend’s child with homework, mowing a neighbour’s lawn, writing a letter to a grandparent.

I had dinner with my dear friend Bob this week. He was in town for a week-long meeting. He lives in Halifax and I live in Ottawa. We don't see each other much but we keep in touch by email and phone. This summer, when my family and I travelled to Cape Breton, we made a detour to Halifax to visit with my friend Bob and his wife Jill. We had a great evening together feasting on seafood at a local restaurant and enjoying the acts in the Buskers Festival in the port of Halifax. When I got back home I printed off some of the pictures I took during that evening and mailed them to Bob with a heartfelt note of thanks on a handmade card. Bob said that it was so nice to receive this card with mementoes of our evening together. He and his wife Jill were reflecting on how it used to be good manners to send a Thank You note to hosts after a dinner and that this tradition is being lost. They really appreciated the thoughtfulness.

The single most effective way to turbo-charge your joy, according to Seligman, is to make a “gratitude visit.” That means writing a testimonial thanking a teacher, pastor or grandparent—anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude—and then visiting that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation. “The remarkable thing,” says Seligman, “is that people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later. But it’s gone by three months.”

Karen was my boss at the Health Department. She was leading an innovative health promotion initiative and hired me on the spot to be a Special Events Coordinator. I had no previous job experience in that field but she saw my potential right away. I am a creative and energetic person and I had a ball coming up with novel ways of promoting heart health in our community. Our pilot project was a huge success and maybe my most rewarding job as a public servant. Twenty years later Karen and I are still friends. A couple of years ago, I announced to Karen my intention of leaving my job with the federal government to start my own business. I seized that moment to thank her for helping me believe in myself. I told her that I had learned so much from her. She was a visionary leader with a can do attitude. She made her staff feel like they part of her family. We were so proud of what we accomplished together. Karen became a bit emotional when I told her this. I felt so good about giving something back to her.

Less powerful but more lasting, says Seligman, is an exercise he calls three blessings—taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. “People are less depressed and happier three months later and six months later.” according to Seligman's research.

So you see happiness can be learned.

Rubin Gretchen's book entitled The Happiness Project inspired me one beautiful summer day this July sitting on the deck of my mother`s cottage to write my own list of what makes me happy.

I listed every letter of the alphabet on the left margin of a page and found at least one word for each letter that represented something that makes me happy. Some letters were a challenge like X and Z but surprisingly, I easily came up with words for each letter and in some cases, many many words.

"A": art, angels, antiques, Australia
"B": biking, Buddhism, warm baths
"C": chocolate, candles, canoeing, fresh ground coffee

Gretchen Rubin developed a list of Twelve Commandments for her year-long experiment on happiness.

Some of her commandments are:
  • Let it go
  • Act the way I want to feel
  • Do it now
  • Lighten up
I decided that in the interest of learning to be happy, I would develop my own set of rules for happiness (15 rules so far and counting)
  • Be me (be Sylvie!)
  • Dance and sing
  • Ask myself: "Do I really want this?" and make a conscious choice
  • Move my body
  • Spend time in nature
  • Say "thank you" often
  • Give LOVE freely
  • My body is my temple: eat and drink accordingly
  • Breathe deeply
  • Get rid of clutter: mental and physical
  • See the world through a child's eyes
  • I am not alone...
  • Live life to the fullest
  • Don't sweat the small stuff
  • Imagine and create
One of the things that kept coming up on my lists of happiness was dancing. So I wondered, if I love dancing so much, how come I am content waiting for the next wedding or conference formal dinner to have a chance to dance? How could I make dancing a bigger part of my life? I could sign up for flamenco or tango classes but that would just add to my already jam packed schedule. Then it dawned on me. The fitness club where I teach yoga has Zumba classes twice a week that I do not have to pay or sign up for since I am an instructor there! I can just go when I have the time and the urge. Zumba is a mix of Latin inspired high energy dances. The first Zumba class I did I had a smile on my face the whole time. I loved it. Getting a real workout and having fun at the same time. It sure beats running my usual route in the neighbourhood to tally up the kilometres in preparation for my next race!

This week, I challenge you to think about happiness and more specifically to make your own "A to Z" list of what makes you happy.

Please share it with me and my readers. Maybe I will be inspired (or reminded) to add something else to my growing list of happy things.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Golden Buddha - Your Golden Core

I went for a long bike ride in the countryside yesterday and I marvelled at how nature had changed since my last ride in that area. There were unmistakable signs of autumn everywhere. The summer just flew by!

There were acres after acres of corn - yellowing stalks of corn standing proud in the field, swaying gently in the wind. This scene reminded me of a corn feast I had a few weeks ago. I was at the local grocery store picking up some food for supper in a small town to the west of Ottawa when a farmer drove up to the front of the store with a truck full of freshly picked Peaches and Cream corn. They were a real bargain, eight ears of corn for $1.99. I just had to pick some up.

That night we ate our meal outside (the last picnic of the summer). Was it a combination of the beautiful scenery as the sun set over the lake, the good company, or the hearty appetite after an active day spent playing outside that made the meal so tasty? The corn was so good: crisp, juicy and sweet.The children slathered the corn with gobs of butter and ate with gusto. In my opinion, corn is one of the true joys of late summer days.

If you look at nature with a child's eyes, it is a world of wonder. Like corn. Perfect rows of creamy ivory and bright yellow kernels promising a tasty treat. A small treasure revealed underneath a husk.

Come to think of it, there are many things in nature that offer real delights under ordinary and banal exteriors. A deep red rose sprouting from a tiny non-descript seed. A baby bird emerging from a fragile shell. A pearl born from a grain of sand in an oyster shell.

What is the message? "Do not judge a book by its cover" as the saying goes. Be willing to seek for treasures lying deep inside ordinary exteriors?

This reminds me of a story that my friend Janice Parviainen included in her book Courage to Love Yourself.

In 1957, a group of Tibetan monks were informed that a highway was being built and the highway would have to go through the location where the shrine for which they were responsible was currently located. A huge clay Buddha, would have to be moved.

On the day of the move, a crane began lifting the clay Buddha. The Buddha, as it rose off of its block resting place, began to crack. It was far heavier than all the engineers had estimated. A storm was brewing so the work had to be interrupted until the next day. The statue was covered up with tarp to protect it from the elements.

During the night, the head monk awoke and decided to check on the Buddha. With a flashlight, the monk carefully checked the condition of the Buddha. As he walked around the huge clay figure shining his light on the cracks, something caught his eye. He returned to the spot on which he had just shined his light. He peered into the crack. What he saw he did not understand. He needed to see more. He went back to his quarters, found a chisel and a hammer and returned to the Buddha. He began carefully chipping at the clay around the crack. As the crack widened, he could not believe his eyes. He ran to wake the other monks and instructed each to bring a hammer and chisel.

By lantern light the monks carefully chipped all the clay from the Buddha. After hours of chiselling, the monks stepped back and stared in awe at the sight before them. There, in front of the monks, stood a solid gold Buddha. When the moving crew arrived later that morning to complete the job of moving the Buddha to its new location, there was much confusion and excitement. Where had the clay Buddha gone? From where had the Golden Buddha come?

After much research, the pieces of the story were put together. The Golden Buddha was the cherished responsibility of a group of monks several centuries earlier. These monks received word that the Burmese army was headed their way. Concerned that the invading army would loot the shrine for its Golden Buddha, the monks covered their Buddha with 8 to 12 inches of clay. When they were finished the Golden Buddha appeared to be a Buddha of clay. The invading army would surely have no interest. The monks were correct. The invading army had no interest in the Buddha. They did, however, kill all the monks before they moved on. The Golden Buddha was lost in history until 1957.

There is a Golden Buddha inside each of us. Hidden away and covered with layers and layers of clay. We start out life as a true Golden Buddha. Then life pulls us away from our true self. In an effort to fit in we start hiding our authentic self for of fear not being enough, for shame of how we might be perceived or for a misplaced desire to please.

Life's trials and tribulations compel us to superimpose layers of mud onto or inner brilliance to protect ourselves from further hurt and disappointment. We get busy creating the face we want to present to the world, smoothing the clay here, enhancing the covering there. Pretty soon we get so comfortable under those layers of mud that we lose sight of our true drive. We cannot acknowledge our golden core. And because everyone else walks around covered with mud we also forget to look beneath the muddy casing for the gifts that others might have to offer.

This is your chance to shine a flashlight onto your inner core, your authentic self. What could shine brilliantly if you aimed a light at it? If you allowed it to see the light of day? What gifts are you hiding from others...yourself even?

What are the difficult life experiences that became layers of mud onto your inner core? Name them. Those experiences belong to the past. You are no longer the person of yesterday. You are the you of the "Now", this present moment. Much wiser and much stronger for having lived through those experiences. In this moment, you can choose to keep the painful memories alive or let them go. Let the pain vanish with the memory. Uncover your golden Buddha by chiselling away the ancient mud, one sorrowful memory at a time.

Revel in your untapped potential. Resolve to present your true self to the world. Be bold. Present your glorious golden face to the world. We will all reap the rewards.

I think that Marianne Williamson says it best in her poem "Our Deepest Fear"

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Birthdays - A Chance to Say "I Love You"

September is a busy month of celebrations for us. On the same day, September 17, we celebrate the birthday of my husband's grandfather (my adopted grandfather is now 103 years old!!!); my sister's husband Roly (who just turned 50), and my sister-in-law (who lives in Australia). Two days later, it is my nephew's birthday. (He sent us an email earlier this week asking us to come over for a birthday dinner because, as he put it "turning 12 years old is a big deal and I want to make sure all my family is there to celebrate".) A few days after that, it is my husband's birthday (who is impossible to buy for - he never needs or wants anything), my younger sister is the following day and my best friend is three days later.

This morning I was grumbling a bit. Twice this week I went out shopping for my long list of presents (almost felt like a Christmas list!) but still had not found the perfect gift for my brother-in-law. I wanted to get something extra special to commemorate his fiftieth birthday (maybe it is even more meaningful to me than most because I am just 9 months away from celebrating my 50th birthday too.) Roly, my brother-in-law loves blue herons. He has a growing collection of sculptures of herons in his home; he even has a heron tattooed on his back. During my travels in BC I saw many depictions of herons in Haida art and admired the raw energy of that type of art. I was determined to find either a Haida print or a stylized sculpture of a heron as a gift for Roly. I visited many stores but no luck. This morning I got up early and convinced my husband to have breakfast downtown as an excuse to make a special trip to Snow Goose, a store near the Parliament Building that specializes in Inuit and Native Canadian art. And there I found it, the perfect gift, a framed print of a heron perched on a Haida canoe by a BC artist. Eureka!

Now to put this little escapade to find the "perfect" gift in context, you need to know that I clocked 12-14 hour days this week working feverishly to meet ridiculously short deadlines on several projects and dealing with the many unexpected twists and turns that come from working with government departments these days. I did not have time to shop. Let alone dedicate half a day to driving downtown, search for an elusive parking spot and traipse over to this hard to get to store. But I am very happy I did. I can't wait to see Roly's reaction when he opens his gift at the big party tonight.

You see, turning 50 is a momentous occasion for Roly and because I care for him, his birthday is important to me as well. What gives significance to a birthday is not only a matter of how old you are becoming. Grandfather appreciated our visit yesterday but he did not want us to make a big fuss "I've had 103 birthdays. Too many if you ask me." Grandfather's birthday was more important to us, his family, than it was to him... On the other hand, my nephew can't wait to turn twelve. In his short life, 12 years old seems like a big milestone. Maybe it is significant because at twelve years old he can babysit for money and go to bed later than his brother and sister. Or maybe being twelve is important to my nephew because he decided that it was going to be a special year no matter what. Who knows? If it is important to him, it is important to us.

On your birthday you get to be the center of attention in your little circle of family and friends. It is the one day in the year that you can call your own. As I grow older, the ritual of marking the passing of one more year of life becomes more meaningful. It is not so much about the birthday cake and the gifts (although those are very nice), but about the opportunity a birthday provides to reflect on the year that has passed and make wishes for the year to come.

Every year on my birthday, I take the day off and spend time on my own (preferably outside, somewhere in nature) meditating on who I am becoming. I look back at the proud moments I've had during the year and the trials I have surmounted. What did I have to let go of? Limiting Ideas about myself or others? Old patterns? Personality traits that are tripping me up (see last week's post on perfectionism). Perhaps I even had to let go of dreams that had become stale or just did not fit me anymore. What do I choose to do now? Will I finally make some time to take dance lessons to bring a bit more fun and joy into my life? Will I find my way through my daughters' difficult teenage years? Will my husband and I finally book that trip to Greece we've been talking about for so many years? Will I spend more time nurturing my friendships?

I think that birthdays are the perfect time to do a bit of personal strategic planning. Where have I been? What are the values I hold dear? And where am I going? How will I unlock my potential and continue to grow?

Of course, birthdays are an ideal time to say "I love you" to your loved ones (we never say it enough) and... to say "I love you" to yourself.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Praise of Simple

I admit it. I am a perfectionist. I want things to be just so and I drive myself crazy trying to achieve the impossible - perfection! Perfectionism has been a lifelong curse. I can see that now.

I never have a moment's peace. There is always something more I need to do to get things just right. There is always something else I have to do to attain the next goal. Perfectionism is a cruel task master. The quest for perfection is an endless quest.

As I grow older, I can I look at myself with more objective eyes. I know intellectually that perfectionism is a choice that I keep making day after day, moment after moment. Yes, I did say it is a choice that I make. A choice implies that there are other options. I have the option of downgrading my impossible standards and accepting something that is good enough rather than perfect.

So what is good enough? I did a bit of research and was surprised that there are actual theories out there about "good enough" such as:
  • Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule): the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
  • KISS principle: KISS is an acronym for the design principle "Keep it simple, Stupid". Other variations include "keep it short and simple" or keep it simple and straightforward. The KISS principle states that simplicity should be a key goal in and that unnecessary complexity should be avoided.
  • Occam's Razor principle: The popular interpretation of this principle is that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Simplest is not defined by the time or number of words it takes to express the theory; "simplest is really referring to the theory with the fewest new assumptions."
How can I apply these principles in my life? How can I learn to let go? How can I accept something that is less than perfect in my eyes for my own good and... for my own sanity.

For me, I think the easiest way to get to "good enough" is through simplicity. Simplicity is easy and effortless. In the name of simplicity, I might be more willing to let go of the long list of "shoulds" I impose on myself to realize the unattainable image of perfection I carry in my mind. Rather than channelling Martha Stewart for my next dinner party, maybe I could take a page from Jamie Oliver's, the Naked Chef, song book (or should I say "recipe" book!).

Some of my best dinner parties were impromptu get together with friends and neighbours, eating take-out pizza and a quick salad I concocted with the veggies we had in the fridge. The fun did not depend on crisp linen table clothes, fresh bouquet of flowers, my good china and sparkling cutlery. I had fun because I had no time to think about what perfection would look like if I was to orchestrate it so I just went with the flow.

And while we are on the topic of food, I have to put in a good word for Dairy Queen and grocery store bakeries. As my daughters were growing up, one the highlights of their birthday party was the birthday cake of course. Every year I would try to outdo myself. Cutting and icing the cake in the shape of Barney the purple dinosaur, a Barbie doll, or a Disney princess. As they grew older, they started requesting grocery store cakes with garish blue and purple icing and little toys stuck in the cake. Now that they are teens, they politely decline my offer to make a cake and ask that I pick up and ice cream cake at Dairy Queen instead. One less thing to do on my perfect birthday party "to do" list. Much easier that way.

This summer when we travelled to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, we rented a cottage by the beach for a few days. While we were there, I had us running from one activity to another like a tour guide on Red Bull. I wanted our vacation to be perfect so I made sure that we didn't miss out on anything that the region had to offer: sea kayaking, hiking, biking, souvenir shopping and sea food sampling. As it turns out, one of my favourite memories of that trip was on the day we were leaving the cottage. I got up early in the morning, made some coffee and sat the balcony looking out at the ocean. My husband came to join me. We just sat there quietly enjoying the sun warming our faces and listening to the waves. I was content doing nothing...not a thing!

The little black dress is another ode to simplicity. More than once I have stressed over what to wear for a special occasion. I have spent countless hours shopping for just the right outfit, the right shoes, the right stockings, and the right jewellery just to have last minute doubts as I am dressing an hour before the event. That is why every woman needs a flattering "go everywhere" little black dress in her closet. A dress you can slip on in the spur of the moment and feel beautiful. No agonizing over fashion do's and dont's. Just put the dress on and go.

Dinner parties, vacation and fashion are one thing but seeking simplicity at work is another thing altogether for a staunch perfectionist. However, to my surprise, I actually can think of examples when simplicity gave better results than attempts at perfection.

The first strategic planning session I ever facilitated was a daunting task. The group was working towards getting ISO certified and had three recent failed attempts at getting consensus on a mission statement. They called me in to help. I felt unnerved, how could I possibly get them to consensus when they had failed to do so three times already?

So I did what the facilitation books say you should do in these situations: prepare, prepare and prepare. I spent a lot of time fact-finding, researching, planning, designing and redesigning, and came up with what I thought was a good process. But then the voice of doubt crept into my head "These people are all scientists, they will expect you to be logical, analytical and serious. They will expect you to have fancy overheads with bar graphs and pie charts. Your design is not good enough. You need to work harder at it." Thankfully reason prevailed in the end. I didn’t give a theoretical presentation of the organizational benefits of having a Strategic Plan and I did not rely on stats and graphs to make my point. Instead, I decided to be myself.

I came up with a design that would deliver the goods but also allowed me to be me: use of metaphors, storytelling, humour and lots of dialogue. My approach worked beautifully. People laughed, they started to relax with each other and we built enough trust in the group to hold frank and somewhat contentious conversations. Once every one had a chance to be heard, we were able to draft a mission statement that everyone could support.

I think that sometimes perfectionism masks a fear of not being enough. I hold a deep seated belief that if I just myself, it simply won't be good enough. So I throw myself into preparation, planning and doing in hope that I will not disappoint...others and myself!

Maybe the real answer to what is enough is "just be yourself." No artifice. No pretence. Just being. It is pretty simple after all.

Simplicity is freeing. Simplicity is the road out of the perfectionism jungle. Simplicity will bring me more happiness.

My mission for the next few months (before I officially enter my 50th year) is to seek simplicity anywhere and everywhere I go as I banish the perfectionist monster from my life.

Can you help me? How do you simplify your life?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What Kind of Fun Are You Having?

"Maman! Maman! Guess what I am doing with my new friends this Friday. We are going to dress in our favourite Manga characters and go the shopping centre!" said my daughter Maya excitedly one late afternoon when she came back from school. This week was her first week back to school, officially starting secondary in grade 9. On the first day of school, the city bus that is hired to take the kids to a downtown school didn't show (I was told by the School Board that it was a pressure tactic from the union of bus drivers who are upset with the current contract negotiations - can you believe it?). Maya was stranded at the transit station having to make her way to school using the regular bus routes. That is when she met her new friend; Jan. Maya had noticed Jan right away when she got on the bus that took them to the transit station because she was wearing Manga / Anime themed clothes and accessories. (Maya is obsessed with Manga: she watches Manga on the Internet, she draws the characters,her room is papered with Manga posters and her shelves are stuffed with Manga books and toys.) As it turns out, Jan goes to the same school as Maya and is a bit older than her. She took Maya under a wing and they made it school (although they had to transfer buses three times and did quite a bit of walking).

That chance encounter in a tricky situation was serendipity. Maya looked forward to going to school every day to spend lunch time and recess with her new friend and Jan's group of friends...all obsessed about Manga. This led to their grand plan to do Cosplay at the local shopping centre on a Friday night. Cosplay is short for "costume play". It is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character from popular fiction in Japan such as Manga and Anime.

Given that all these girls go to a special school for the arts and have a natural knack for performance, I guess it makes sense that parading in cartoon character costumes in public places (when it is not even Halloween) is their idea of fun. Personally, Cosplay is not my idea of fun, but as a parent who is trying to "grow" with her children and expand my horizons, the least I can do is encourage my daughter to dare doing what appeals to her heart.

I am good at encouraging other to have fun but not so good at allowing me to have fun (see last week's blog about "play".)

Gretchen Rubin, who wrote the book The Happiness Project, says that "fun" falls into three categories: challenging fun; accommodating fun and relaxing fun. I like her descriptions of fun. They resonate with me.

Challenging fun is the most rewarding but also the most demanding. It takes time and energy to organize these types of fun activities and often requires running errands. Examples of challenging fun activities are organizing a baby shower for your best friend; coordinating the United Way campaign fund raising activities for your office; putting together a vacation memories binder with photos, maps and ticket stubs; or learning a new skill like playing a musical instrument.

Accommodating fun is less challenging but still requires a bit of effort. It is the kind of fun that you do to build relationships. Some examples of accommodating fun might be going to a family holiday dinner; spending a day at the Amusement Park with the kids; or going to the neighbour's 50th birthday party. For the longest time I felt guilty to admit publicly that building sand castles in the sand box with my young daughters was not something I had particularly enjoyed. Yes, it was pleasant, but I did it mostly because my daughters liked it. Now I can fess up and say that I was having some "accommodating fun" to strengthen my relationship with my daughter's and to create good memories.

Relaxing fun is the easiest kind of fun. You do not have to improve skills or even take action. There is no need to coordinate with other people or to prepare anything. Relaxing fun is passive. Relaxing fun is the art of just being. The most popular form of relaxing fun is watching TV. For me, reading a book; watching the waves of the ocean crash on the beach; stargazing or biking in the countryside are way more fun than watching TV.

Research shows that
challenging fun and accommodating fun bring the most happiness over the long run because tap into what makes people the happiest: strong personal bonds, mastery and personal growth.

Yesterday, I had some
relaxing fun just sitting on the porch of my mother's cottage overlooking a lake. I felt the warm breeze on my face, listened to the leaves of the trees dancing in the wind, watched the waves on the water. I had some challenging fun working on a PowerPoint presentation for a client using the Wizard of Oz as a backdrop to talk about leadership. I finished my day of fun with a bit of accommodating fun when I treated my daughter's friends to an impromptu pizza supper after they got drenched in the rain and had to stop their Cosplay adventure prematurely.

Recognizing that there are different types of fun - some that require time and effort and others that require that you put the needs of others ahead of yours - helps me get a healthy perspective on fun. Fun is not just fun and games. (Ha!) Fun is not necessarily effortless. Sometimes, having fun requires a bit of energy and dedication. Maybe there is hope for me yet. I already know how to work hard so maybe I can work not so hard and have fun in the process.

Can you come up with your own list of types of fun? I would love it if you could inspire me to have fun by sharing with me your own list of fun things to do. At this stage, learning about fun is still challenging fun for me...