August 15, 2018

I’ve heard a great backstory expert, Mark Levy, talk several times over multiple years; however, a light bulb didn’t go off regarding my backstory until a month ago, thanks to a conversation with Nancy Cramer.  Much appreciated Nancy (a colleague who has helped me with a few key concepts over the years)! 

Although my backstory is a bit longer than I’d like for this newsletter, I think I’ll post it anyway as I find it to be a good example of how skills are derived and it helps to explain where my talent for maximizing multiple variables came from.  What is your backstory?

Ice skating

tennis lessons part of backstoryTennis

pottery classes part of backstoryPottery classes

(None of these pictures are of me; however, I will share an ice-skating video of a competition from when I was in junior high once I ask my friend and colleague, Susan Brunasso to transfer it to a digital file)

My parents grew up during the depression.  Because my mom had to work various jobs since she was quite young and had an amazing daily schedule (taking multiple buses an hour into the city, going to school, going to work, taking buses back home, performing other jobs, studying into the middle of the night and starting all over again), she wanted us to have all the opportunities she didn’t.  Thus, I grew up with an amazing childhood of a wide variety of activities.

My mom signed me up for everything, and I grew up believing I could be good at whatever I put effort into – whether it was competitive ice skating, tennis, ballet, chess, pottery class, bowling, painting and many, many other activities.  My dad was also involved as I think he is the only parent who made games of catching stop lights at 5am while driving me to skating, swim team or somewhere else.

Some activities I enjoyed more than others; however, I gave everything a ‘go’.  For example, I finished out a few swim team seasons before deciding I really didn’t enjoy jumping into cold water at 6 or 7am and swimming countless laps.  With that said, I was glad I passed the most advanced swim test where you swim with your clothes on for survival training because I knew I could. 

On the other hand, I loved softball, and waited for my dad to get home to play catch every day (and even enticed my best friend into playing catch on countless occasions I’m sure she preferred to do something else); however, I eventually switched to other activities where I could succeed longer-term and carry them forward throughout life.  But, the bottom line is I knew I could try new things and eventually find a path to some sort of success – similar to business, there are always additional options and avenues for finding success.

I succeeded and failed many times over and learned to “keep going”, certainly a secret ingredient to business success as well!  Although I succeeded in winning several ice-skating competitions, I also fell in front of a row of judges – more than once. It was a great learning experience, and I enjoyed it. On the other end of the spectrum, I also played count Dracula in a Christmas ice show which stretched my creative powers (or lack thereof) to be sure.  No matter the challenge, my parents assumed I could do it – and so did I.

I ended up giving up skating as I went into high school as it is quite costly and requires an immense commitment which was no longer reasonable as I entered the new phase of life.  This happens in business as well where one of your most successful products or services runs its course and you need to know when to jump S curves.

In my case, I took on tennis so that I could play with the high school team and focus on an evergreen activity (of course, that was more my mom and aunts’ thinking at the time because what 13-year-old cares about when they turn 50).  My mom thought ahead and knew that for me to make the team, I’d have to speed up my improvement and so she signed me up for indoor tennis classes in the winter in Chicago – a great way to leap forward.  In Raleigh, she also signed me up for indoor tennis, and it worked!  I made the tennis team, played in the singles lineup and won “most improved” one year.    I see this as quite similar in business – those who find ways to improve while the competition is resting succeed.  Similar to chess, you have to think 3 moves ahead!  Also, my relatives’ long-term thinking paid off as I have been hanging out at the Claremont Club to take lessons and play with a group whenever I am in town. After all, you know what they say about all work and no play!

Fast-forward many years, and it turns out that my best talent is in maximizing multiple variables in businesses and seeing down-the-line impacts others don’t.  I have no doubt that this directly correlates to my unique activity filled childhood, and, clearly, my parents are to thank for my success today!

One tip to implement this week: 

As I said, it took me years, thinking off and on, about my backstory before the light bulb went on, and so I wouldn’t expect you to figure it out in a day (although I’m sure someone will, if nothing else to show me up:-)).  However, perhaps it would be a good place to start to think about your talents.  What are they?  How do you utilize them?  Or how could you utilize them?  Also, take some time to think about your employees, peers and leaders.  What are their talents?  There is no doubt that success occurs by building on strengths.  Perhaps you should think harder about yours….