What Made You, You

Let’s face it, last year was rough. Rough for our country, rough for story tellers exposing the truths no one wanted to hear and rough for the world we live in as we continue to face climate change, war, poverty, etc. Not to mention suffering through several tough Mercury in retrograde transitions! I had a particularly challenging year myself – personally and professionally – and was ecstatic to put 2017 behind me.

But just like our current president is SO BAD that our country is working towards finding its democratic voice again, and the stories that have been told (and will continue to be told #metoo) are teaching us to listen and act, we each face challenges that can transform who we are. These challenges inevitably make us, us – good, bad or perhaps just more enlightened. This became very apparent to me in 2017.

What made me, me….

Just over a year ago, a work colleague and I were hanging out in the office chatting about life. It was pretty routine for us to wrap up an intense week by unwinding with a short glass of whiskey and story telling. It was a great way for us to continue to foster the strong working relationship we had developed. After over a year of this routine, we had gotten to know each other pretty well and trusted each other to tell some very personal stories about our lives, families and hopes of the future.

That particular evening, I shared a story about something I experienced at a retreat I had recently attended. I won’t get into all the details about the experience, but the short story was that during one of the group sessions at the retreat, I had decided to let go of a toxic relationship with someone in my immediate family(*). I have always carried guilt, sadness and anger about that relationship  – hoping some day it would be different, but knowing in my soul that it would never be what I hoped for nor could I forgive for things said and done. The exercise at the retreat was to let go of something that no longer served us. At that time, I felt that the relationship with that family member no longer served me. (there was a burning ceremony…. it was super intense…)

I shared that experience with my colleague and his immediate response was “you must forgive that person and maintain that relationship because they made you, you.”. I was a little annoyed with that response because I was so damn proud of myself for letting go of a bad relationship that no longer served me, but he continued to push me to consider how even the negative aspects of that relationship undoubtedly had a positive impact on me (motivated me to improve my relationships with other members of my family, developed some of my better traits which were the weaker traits of this family member, etc.). It was pretty profound and hard to argue with.

Even though the conversation that evening was very impactful, it didn’t immediately change my mind and cause me to call the family member up the next day to forgive them. However, the conversation stuck with me. That person, no matter how toxic the relationship was, made me, me. It’s been echoing in my head ever since that conversation with my colleague.

In the past few months, I have created some space in my life to allow me to revisit this topic and consider how this family member made me, me. I have been made aware from other family members that this family member is suffering from age-related health and financial issues and lacks a good support system. They live in a subsidized housing facility with very little access to in-house services or transportation for services elsewhere. While I don’t have unlimited resources, I decided I could help this person have a more comfortable end of life then they would otherwise enjoy. It’s been a huge emotional leap for me to move forward and have compassion for this person and appreciate how they contributed to making me, me. I have also done some family research to develop a deeper understanding of what made them, them and have far more empathy for this person than I have ever had.

We’ve still got a ways to go to figure out how to forge a better, more positive, relationship, but I am confident I am moving in the right direction and both of us will be better for it. I am helping to arrange for better housing and services, helping them with health issues (driving to MD appointments, etc.) and I have started to reengage them in my own family’s lives. This, by the way, is also a huge opportunity to serve as a role model for my kids who are keenly aware of the hardships I endured with this family member. It is healthy to forgive.

I am not suggesting you should maintain a relationship with everyone in your life who made you, you. There are certainly some people in your life who truly put you at emotional and/or physical risk and regardless of whether they made you, you, may not be appropriate to restart or be in a relationship with. In my case, there was abuse in the past, but because it was family and I know how to establish boundaries, this one was safe.

So despite everything, I found my silver lining in 2017 and 2018 is looking good! To the colleague who pushed me on this (you know who you are!), thank you. I am forever grateful for having the time and the means to revisit this relationship and make things better while there is still time.

(*) Intentionally keeping this family member generic to protect their privacy.


Do you have less than positive life experiences that have made you stronger or give more positive experiences to others? Who made you, you? Please share in the comments!

Note To Parents: When The Helicopter Flies Too Close To Work

Last week I had the pleasure of co-hosting an event with the wonderful team from Inteligent.ly. Our goal was to pull together local Chief People Officer types from startups (COOs and CFOs included) to get a conversation going around scaling organizations. It was a wonderful dialogue centered around talent acquisition, development and retention as companies scale. I think most of the attendees would agree, we could have talked for hours if we had the time. One striking take-away from the evening, however, was the topic of parents involvement in the hiring process.

Yes, you heard me, parents are flying their helicopters too close to the work place.helicopter_PNG5313

The topic on the table was “hiring and working with millennials” and the question was how far to go to cater to this demographic. One attendee told a story of a recent job candidate with approximately 5 years of experience who was shopping his offer from his company around to others to see what kind of deal he could get. The experienced, C-level, leader telling the story had given this candidate a short window to make a decision – he either wanted the job or he didn’t. When the candidate didn’t respond by the deadline, he was informed via email that the offer had been rescinded. The candidate responded with a detailed email on why he needed more time. When the leader questioned the rationale for needing more time, the candidate responded with “that’s what my parents told me to say”.

Most of the group hearing this story were not surprised. Many of them have been in hiring or manager roles of some sort in the past ten years and reported that it is becoming more common for those helicopter parents who harassed teachers about grades or college professors about assignments to continue on to the workplace and be over involved.

Another dinner attendee asked the group how many of them have received a phone call from an irate parent about the salary or benefits their child was being offered. I was aghast at how many nodding heads there were around the table. Seriously?

Every summer, my daughters attend an all-girls, sleep away camp in the Berkshires that develops young women to be independent thinkers and leaders. When the girls “age out” of camper status, they have the option of applying for a Leader in Training (LIT) program. There are only ~30 positions available for this coveted program and an average of 2-3 times that number of former campers apply. Each year, the camp director sends a very stern email to parents that explains the selection process and the competitive nature of the few spots in comparison to the number of applicants. She makes it clear to parents that she welcomes a call “from your child” if she is not selected and wants feedback or guidance on other leadership pursuits that summer. Yet, the camp director says that every year, without fail, parents continue to call on behalf of their daughters.

Certainly it is a big disappointment when your child doesn’t get what they want or you want for them. When one of my daughters did not get into the camp LIT program it was a very mournful day (more like a week) in the Austin household, but my daughter grew tremendously from the experience. She not only learned how to accept rejection, but she became more aware of who she was and what she really wanted to pursue. It was a pivotal moment in her life and one I am so grateful for her to have experienced at such a formative age. She has since applied to programs more thoughtfully (she ended up spending that summer doing a program with NYFA and is now a sophomore in NYU-Tisch‘s Film and Television program) and is now experiencing the job application process with mixed results (“how does one get their first barista job if they all require prior barista experience??”). It has been entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking to watch her trip and fall as she gains her legs as an adult, but hey, we watched her learn to toddle a long time ago. We never did the walking for her.

One of my favorite parenting books read when my girls were very young is The Blessing of A Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD. She writes of over-indulgence in today’s society (too much stuff, over-nurturing and soft structure) and how it leads to bless_knee_coverchildren actually feeling unlovable, needing constant affirmation, lack skills and lack self-sufficiency. Many managers of young professionals today, express frustration with these characteristics of their work force – needing constant affirmation and lacking that self-starting grit that comes from many a skinned knee.

Our job as parents is to provide our children with tools to handle what life brings them. To be empathetic and good listeners when they’re thrown a curve ball and to make suggestions and offer guidance when things are tough. If we do it all for them or augment their work, how will they ever be self reliant, confident, members of society?

So, put that phone down and delete that draft email ,moms and dads! Go fly that helicopter over the Grand Canyon or some other joyful place. Let your kids skin their knees, get rejection and suffer the consequences. My bet is, most of you did that when you were their age and you became capable adults through the process.