Four Lessons for Contributing Without Selling Your Soul

Several weeks ago I was asked to make a presentation at the Women's Business Center of North Alabama (WBCNA) for a networking series called Strong Women, Strong Coffee.  Amazingly, a room full of women and a few stalwart men got up at the crack of dawn and came out to hear me speak.  I was both amazed and humbled.  I was asked to share some of my "keys to success." 

When I received the invitation, I cringed (and do so even now as I write this) - success?  OK, I have had many terrific life and career opportunities.  These opportunities included serving in the U.S. Army for 34 years on both active duty and in the reserves.  My last four years of service were on active duty as a General Officer in U.S. Special Operations Command.   In that setting, not only was I the only female general, I was serving with men who were incredibly accomplished, courageous, serious-minded, and smart.  It was an incomparable honor to be in their midst, behind the closed doors where plain speech and unwavering integrity of word and action were the norm and expectation.  Yes, there were politics and personalities, but those inevitabilities were trumped by the seriousness of the mission and the magnitude of the stakes.  

As I had so many times in my military career, I found myself as the only woman and the junior person at the table.  The difference was that this time I had 30 years of experience and I had learned several practical lessons about how to contribute while remaining true to myself.  I would like to share four of these lessons.

Lesson One:  Pick Your Battles (and Time)

  • Not every battle is worth fighting
  • Ask yourself, is this something I can control or influence
  • If  yes, and it is worth the battle, take it on, if not, set it aside
  • If you take on a battle, pick the time and place

One of the critical learnings of my life and one of the recommendations I share with those who come to me for mentoring or advice is to "pick your battle."  Anyone who has been married or has raised children realizes that not every battle is worth fighting.  Unfortunately, we often have to make this decision to engage or not in "the heat of the moment."  A model described in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has proven an invaluable tool for making these decisions under pressure. 

Covey said that the activities or experiences of our lives fall into three "circles."  Those we can control, those we influence, or those over which we have no or minimal control or influence and are only areas of concern or interest.  I call this last category "world hunger issues."  When faced with the choice of engaging on some issue or topic, you can do a quick self-assessment.  Can I control or influence this situation?  If not, refrain.  If so, engage.  Yes, there are "world hunger issues," typically moral and ethical in nature, where I recognize that I cannot control or influence but on which I simply cannot sit back and say or do nothing without betraying my values.  I recognize that the probability of success is very low, but I simply must engage, for the price of not doing so is too high.

IF you decide to engage, pick your time and place.  In the military, we have two types of tactics - direct and indirect.   Often in the "heat of the moment," when emotions are high, when power has trumped content, when yours is definitely the minority opinion, or when you are in the minority position in the discussion, the indirect approach may be more effective.  So often, I was able to have quiet, calm, one-on-one discussion outside of the "battle ground" that would result in more thoughtful decisions and outcomes.

Lesson Two:  Don't Try to be "One of the Boys"

  •  Respect your unique, God-given role as a woman 
  •  Learn to articulate the female sensibilities in the language of the profession
  • If operating in a "gender-dominated" environment, accept that social isolation is sometimes the price of admission

Late in my military career, my husband made a comment that stayed with me.  He said one of the reasons he thought I was successful was that I didn't "try to be one of the boys."  In my early years, when someone would say "you think like a man" I took it as a compliment and indeed it was meant that way.  

However, over time, my understanding of my role as a woman matured and I started to gain a sense of the value my unique perspectives could contribute to decisions, plans, and strategies.  However, a critical learning was that to be heard and to help shape the decisions, I had to be able to express my perspectives in the lexicon that was acceptable to culture of the profession.  As an example, in the military, if I was concerned about the human impact of a decision, I learned to express that concern in terms of readiness or mission impact, rather than the morale of the troops. 

Finally, when we find ourselves the "only"  - woman, man, person of color, youngest, oldest, or disabled, we can feel isolated.  I have no "helpful hint" for this.  It is a reality.  In America, we all have choices about where we situate ourselves in society.  We can choose not to be the "only" person in the work place or social setting.  Oh yes, there are personal consequences for choosing the familiar, safe, and cozy.  However, there are also consequences for our society and organizations when we do not bring our unique voice to the dialogue and decision space - choosing our  time, space, and words  -  so we can be heard.

Lesson 3: Learn Continually

  • Read (and/or listen) constantly
  • Be an educated person
  • Learn broadly 
  • Stay up with, stay ahead of...
  • Become the "go to" person for fresh ideas and latest thinking
  • Stay engaged
  • Use your technology

One of the things that has enabled me to live a productive professional and personal life is that I am an insatiable learner.  I read widely.  Today, I also listen to podcasts, and given my travel schedule, I have been listening to audio books.  I am never without my Kindle library - and a couple of books. 

I don't just read, but I seek to make my new learning useful for my life and for my work.  This habit enables me to have new and fresh ideas to bring to the table.  Also it shows that I am not sitting on my porch just getting old (oh yes, I am sitting on my porch but it is a glass of wine, a great book, one dog in my lap and one at my feet). 

I also am a huge advocate of formal education - not just degrees but certifications.  These force you to keep your mind scanning, your skills up, your life engaged, and position you for career twists and turns.  As I have gotten older, I have continued to take classes - I received a second masters in 2012 and finished a web-design certification in 2014.  This gives people some degree of confidence that when I am offering them advice, it is based on something solid and something current.

Lesson 4:  Reflect Daily

  • Set aside personal “think time” – everyday
  • Journal – get your thoughts out of your head and on to paper or electrons
  • Look for the patterns, assess, change or sustain
  •  Pray, if that is your tradition

 For over three decades, the early morning hours have been my time of quiet, reflection, and journaling.   I love this time of the day.  It is a sacred space, but not always a quiet space.  I bring to these hours the cares, concerns, mixed emotions, ups and downs of being a flawed human being living in a complex world.   One of the key components of this daily personal time is writing in my journal.   

I have kept a journal for years.  When I was younger I turned to my journal in times of crisis, confusion, and craziness.   It was where I turned when I needed to clarify my thinking, express my emotions without risk of hurting someone or making a difficult situation worse.  Over the last dozen years, I have kept an almost daily journal.  In his Life Hack blog, Ericson Ay Mires does a great job of articulating the value of keeping a journal.   

  1. Journals help you have a better connection with your values, emotions, and goals
  2. Journals improve mental clarity/help solve problems/ improve overall focus
  3. Journals improve insight and understanding
  4. Journals track your overall development
  5. Journals facilitate personal growth

One of my favorite authors, Julia Cameron, advocates in The Artist's Way, that we free-write three pages long hand "morning pages" every day.   She suggests (no, directs) - just write, don't edit, don't share, don't censor.  Her reasoning? 

 When people ask, "Why do we write morning pages?" I joke "To get to the other side."  They think I am kidding, but I'm not. Morning pages do get us to the other side: the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods.  Above all, they get us beyond our Censor.  Beyond the reach of the Censor's babble we find in our own quiet center, the place where we hear the still, small voice that is at once our creator's and our own. (p. 12). 

 My own experience is similar, just getting the thoughts out of my head and onto paper (or electrons) every day, improves the quality of my thinking, my experiencing, and my life.  Relationships, motivations, aspirations, emotions, dream analysis, and planning are all common content.   A year ago, my morning ritual became even more meaningful when I began to incorporate my prayers into my journal writing.  Over time, I noticed that I had started to address Jesus in the first person - the personal "you" not the conceptual out-there God.   While this faith-based perspective enriches my life, I recognize that not everyone shares a spiritual world view. As Brian Koppelman recently observed in his interview with Todd Henry on the Accidental Creative podcast (April 30, 2015), spirituality is not a requirement to reap  the many benefits of "morning pages."  Write.  Just write.  Everyday.