The Green Room

Fresh off the editing press, thanks to a retreat weekend with my Rouse group! The Green Room is about my awakening, when shit really began to happen. This was the genesis…

The Underage Traveler – Chapter 12: The Green Room

(For more of the memoir you can find it here)

Life Outside The Lines

When I was a kid, my mom would scold me for staying within the lines on my coloring books.

“Be bold, Mijo. Make your own lines!” she would exhort. Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 7.55.13 AM

As soon as she would walk away, I would return to the comfort of coloring within the lines and making my grass green and skies blue like my Ritchie Rich comic books. Perhaps this was the safe haven engineering offered early in my career. A vocation experienced, for the most part, within the lines. It was all about solving problems and getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, or at least faster than the next guy. It’s the American way as they say.

Funny how things change

The most meaningful experiences I have had have been the result of having strayed, sometimes by intention, but more times by accident outside the lines, and coloring the sky purple. New careers, public speaking, and Haiti mission trips to name a few.

The challenge has become that as I age, however, venturing outside the lines is more difficult. The complacency of routine undermines the yearn for new experiences. Recently a good friend of mine invited me to an improv acting class. I was surprised at my hesitancy to accept, wondering how much of an ass I would make of myself if I did. The class turned out to be a blast of course, and have since used one of the warm up exercises with a client.

Good stuff.

But I didn’t plan on it and wouldn’t have even thought of attending if I hadn’t been pushed outside the lines. Further, I noticed something important in the process. I am more present outside the lines. I am paying attention to the situation, what the other person is saying, how they are feeling, where we are standing, what the weather is like. On everything but me.

Better stuff.

Nowadays, when I see a coloring book I smile. I think of purple skies and coloring outside the lines. Because that is where life is.


Comfort Is A Killer

I used to write. A lot.

Starting from the time my parents died in 2002, through to 2010, I wrote three books and journaled a bunch more. Perhaps by Stephen King standards, that was hardly a walk in the park. But for me, is was substantial. Especially given that I had never been a writer previous to that time. Outside of the essays I wrote for my college english classes where the best I could muster was a C+ (I think the + was because I flirted with the pretty Canadian intern), I didn’t write.

From college until my parents died, I lived an engineer’s life; solving problems that sometimes needed solving, thinking logically and folding my underwear. Then came 2002; my dad died in April (April 1 actually; an irony that still pays dividends amongst the family) from alzheimer’s, and then my mom died in August. All this coming off the emotional events of 911. So I started writing. To start, more as something to do with my time because I kept waking up at 3 a.m. with my head full of thoughts and I had to get them down somehow, certain that I would go crazy if I didn’t. All this was helped by the fifteen year old mattress we had, causing me to wake early in the morning with backaches. Much like my dad, once I wake, it is very hard for me to fall back to sleep. Thus began my writing and it started out as long streams of conscious thought. Over time it evolved into story-telling and as I began to share it with others, I was encouraged to write more and I did because it was flowing and I woke up almost every morning between 3-4 a.m. to write.

Parallel to this was the start of my consulting business in 2005. I left engineering to start a leadership development consultancy. Yeah, I know. I hear the question all the time…”How did you go from engineering to leadership coach?” The easy answer is I just did. The expanded answer is, in the process of writing I discovered there was a larger purpose in my life than being an engineer, and it had to do with making an impact on people. There is much more to that story, but for now we’ll leave it at that.

All to say the first three years of starting the business about did us in until mid-2008. Hanging by a thread both financially and in my marriage, the phone finally began to ring and I began the long march out of the hole I had dug, until which around 2010 the business took off. All of a sudden we didn’t have to play smoke and mirrors with the bills anymore and my wife and I could look at each other and smile again. Simple pleasures.

By 2011, the business had reached a fever pitch and I hit the wall by the end of the year, having worked straight through the holidays and feeling every bit resentful for it. 2012 and 2013 settled into a more consistent rhythm, though contracts would come and go and we would have the inevitable cycles of flush months, then lean ones, but none were like the early years when I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the mortgage.

And yet, in all of this I began to realize there was a larger price I was paying for the success that I failed to recognize until the middle of this year. I was attempting to jump start the editing on my last book and feeling all too apathetic about the work when it dawned on me that the price I had paid for the comfort the business had provided, was the motivation and creative inspiration to write. Further, I no longer had the old mattress anymore. In an instant, I was sleeping through the night and waking refreshed, sans back pain. Both events had conspired to the same result–no writing.

And then, as quietly as it had disappeared, the writing emerged again. September 26th of this year to be precise. Not to the level I was ten years ago, but I am writing, and I am more proficient at it these days, thankfully having learned a few things along the way. Why did the writing appear again? I ask myself. Discomfort. No, my mattress is still providing great sleep, however my mind is working over time these days for a couple of reasons: 1) I merged my business with another earlier this year and I am experiencing the growing pains of being in a partnership again. I hadn’t realized how much I took for granted being working solely for myself until I was in a partnership again. As much as I enjoy the new venture and appreciate what they bring to the table, it has knocked me out of my comfort zone. It takes energy to focus on how I am responding and contributing to the business. I also put a pressure on myself to contribute more than I am taking, which at times is a tall order. It is a challenge for me to rely on someone else and I am learning how to do that all over again. 2) My frustration over not writing has peaked to the point of writing again. As the saying goes, when the pain of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, exceeds the pain of change, then change will come.

All of this speaks of discomfort. Even so, beginning again was challenging. I had to set my judgment aside about why I have not written, how bad my writing is, how I cannot seem to follow a thought for more than a sentence or two, and write again.

I still struggle to start. But once I am rolling, it feels good to be here again. Like hearing an old Marvin Gaye song when driving in traffic and I don’t give a shit who is watching me sing along.

Discomfort has been my companion to write. This I have learned, and is my new challenge. As life goes, there will be times of discomfort, and times of comfort. How I will continue to write between the periods of discomfort is the next mountain to climb.

Wish me well.

You Are Not Responsible For Their Happiness

My wife and I recently celebrated our twenty fifth wedding anniversary, and I’ve been giving thought lately to the lessons I’ve learned in our marriage. Many of them were hard fought lessons, further complicated by the fact that my parents weren’t necessarily the ideal role models. Married just over twenty years (that actually doesn’t tell the whole story and probably for another time but suffice to say it was the second of three marriages for my dad, each lasting over twenty years), they never imparted any particular wisdom to prepare us for a lifelong commitment together. Further, now that our three kids are entering adulthood and will hopefully be finding lifelong companions for themselves, I am feeling compelled to do what my parents did not–provide advice on how to prepare for a life in relationship.

As such, following are the key lessons I’ve gained along the way that have helped me in sustaining our marriage thus far:

You are NOT responsible for your spouse’s happiness

Of all the lessons that would have helped me early on, this is the one that would have saved us a lot of angst. There is so much to say here that I am not even sure where to begin. Perhaps with the moment it became painfully aware to me… It was about five years ago a number of things conspired to bring things to a boil for us:

  1. The business I had started a couple of years prior was on life-support and the financial pressure it had created in our marriage was virtually unbearable. We were living off the equity in our home with no foreseeable change in the future. Further, I was the only income earner in the household.
  2. The menagerie of unfinished house building projects hit overload with my wife–especially after the latest equity loan was diverted from finishing the addition to paying for living expenses due to the aforementioned lack of business income.
  3. The impact of having lost my parents in 2002 was finally becoming apparent and I felt more alone than at any other time in my life.

I’m sure there were a few other things going on but they were not as central as these. At any rate, there was a clarifying moment while in marriage counseling when, after hearing my wife relate how many times I had promised her that things would get better, and after they never really turned out like I had assured they would, it became clear to me that the root of all this was my insecurity and need for her approval.

If, on the other hand, I had just simply believed that she would be happy and content to be with me as I was, accept me for who I was, it would have lifted an immense burden on our relationship. This was not her doing–it was mine. My own hyper-need for validation that created the space for over-compensation in the relationship. I realized at that moment in the therapist’s office that I could never, ever, achieve all that I had promised her because it was for all the wrong reasons.

It was what came next that was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever said to my wife. “I am not responsible for your happiness.” Truth be told, I’m not sure that is verbatim of how it went down and I am certain she would have a different version. But that is how I remember it.

My mom used to remind me of the refrain, “when the student is ready, the teachers will appear.” Certainly in this case, it was true. Subsequent to this confession, the resonant messages began to appear, essentially communicating the same thing: happiness is an inside job. I am responsible for my happiness. You are responsible for yours. We can rejoice in the other’s acceptance of responsibility for our own, but we cannot adopt the other’s. And like many things I have learned, it comes down to letting go. In acknowledging that I don’t have control over most things that happen to me, let alone to someone else.

From this place of owning your happiness, and not someone else’s, and your spouse doing the same, you will focus on the important things from a much more grounded, and pragmatic place. Just the simple act of asking yourself, “why am I doing this?” allows for a different conversation. One that, between two people that love each other, leads to mutual and beneficial outcomes.