Finding your Rookie Groove….at any age!

Is it possible that we are at our best when we know the least? That is the question posed by Liz Wiseman in her book “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.”

I recently had the privilege of hearing Liz speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. As she spoke, I couldn’t help thinking that my life this past month has been a case study in what she terms “Rookie Smarts” (how we tend to think and act when we are mindful that we are doing something for the first time). And apparently, I am never too old to be a “Rookie.”

On August 1, I officially began my new “job” as part-time grant-writer for Alive and Well Women. On paper, I am completely unqualified for the role. I helped write one grant proposal in July. Period. On my first day of “work” I went to a community college class to learn what a grant-writer does (which I thought might be helpful). It didn’t seem too hard….after all, I researched companies and wrote tons of responses to RFPs during my corporate career. How different can it be? And since the nonprofit world is presumably kinder and gentler, I figured raising, say, $400,000 by the end of the month seemed totally reasonable. Rookie mistake!

I quickly learned there is just as much research required in finding grant money as there is in finding corporate project money. The go-to database for searching foundation grants is a paid subscription service, but available for free at certain local libraries. No longer having the deep pockets of (or paychecks from) a Fortune 500 company, I trudged off to the closest library site, which is in a particularly rough neighborhood of Pasadena. After fumbling around for a couple hours on the computer terminal, I signed up for a free one-on-one with a librarian the following Friday.

My new "office" building in Pasadena.

My new office building in Pasadena, also known as the public library.

That Friday, I put on make-up and my best shorts and showed up for my appointment with Darrell at the library. He was a very kind, soft-spoken African-American gentleman who met me in the non-profit research center room, and who I was fairly certain would not care a whit about Alive and Well Women. I was itching to get started on the training, but instead of turning on the computer, he leaned back, looked at me, and asked, “What are you trying to do?” I explained I am co-founder of a nonprofit and need to learn how to use the Foundation database to find grant money. “OK, what is your nonprofit all about?” “What are your goals?” “Who is your target audience?” “How do you expect to accomplish your objectives?” “Do you have a functioning Board?” “Have you received 501(c)(3) status?” Before we ever looked at the computer, we had a 45-minute in-depth discussion about organizational planning, goals, resources, and mission. “The reason I’m asking you these questions is that I want to see how far along you are in your nonprofit, and how well you are able to articulate your vision.” To my utter astonishment, Darrell then shared his positive assessment and detailed thoughts about where he saw the need for Alive and Well Women, which was a stunning confirmation that he actually tracked with my rambling presentation.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it was exactly what I needed. By the time we finally turned on the computer, we were ready to effectively search for foundations that shared goals with Alive and Well Women. After we compiled a list of hundreds of foundations that were potential matches, Darrell gave me the homework assignment of going through each one of them to narrow the list. “Then I start calling them?” I asked. “Nope, then you do more research,” Darrell said, pointing to the volumes of resources in the shelves behind him.

Since then, I’ve spent countless hours poring over records of foundations, looking for grant limitations that would exclude them from my list, finding their stated mission and goals to see if they align with ours, and then reviewing their Form 990s for additional financial and grant information. The work is tedious and time-consuming, and I haven’t been as efficient as I’d like, and I already know I’d love to hire a intern to help someday, but I also know it is necessary for me to learn. It is almost the end of August, and I haven’t raised a dollar. But, I have become familiar with hundreds of foundations, whittled my list down to 10-15 strong matches, and assembled a good profile of each. In the process, I’ve gained a better sense of how to do research and where to find information. And in spite of my occasional frustration with the pace of progress (I must remind myself that I’ve only committed two afternoons a week – God continues to work with me on patience) I do feel a sense of accomplishment.

According to Liz Wiseman, it’s not what you know, but how fast you can learn. The Inexperienced benefit by being unencumbered by assumptions. We (I’m putting myself firmly in the Inexperienced column) solicit information by asking questions and seeking information. Rookies have a steep learning curve, and often don’t know how hard the work is at the outset. We move in baby steps at first. But rookies achieve quickly because we learn fast (we are desperate!) and are resourceful.   Liz says the learner’s advantage is that we tend to do our best thinking when our challenge level goes up. And, importantly, our satisfaction also goes up.

This past month took me back to various times in my life and career when I was new to jobs or projects or roles. It wasn’t always enjoyable, in fact often stressful, but there was also excitement and contentment in meeting the challenges. Although I don’t have the same level of risk or anxiety associated with being a “Rookie” in my current situation (I’m not worried about losing a job or salary) it is still a sharp learning curve. Liz Wiseman reminds us of the benefits of re-igniting our “Rookie Smarts,” even as leaders or at advanced stages of career or life.  She warns us that when we plateau – when things are smooth, we have all the answers, we get positive feedback, when we’re busy but bored – we start to die. On a learning curve we find the divine, the satisfaction, our greatest joy. We can and should strive to be Rookies…no matter our phase of life!

Notes to self:

  1. Look for opportunities to be a Rookie again.  Put yourself at the bottom of a learning curve. Volunteer for things you’ve never done before or look at things you’ve done before with Rookie eyes. Sometimes backward is the best way forward.
  2. Be open to unexpected mentors (like Darrell at the public library) and learn all you can from them.
  3. Be willing to mentor other Rookies when they need help.
  4. Be aware that Rookie Smart Mode can be stressful, but look at the anxiety as a sign of growth.
  5. Don’t be afraid to think like a Rookie in any situation!

The Manic Self-Discovery Phase of Retirement, or Finding What I Was Born To Do

I haven’t had much time to write my blog posts, as I’ve been busy finding myself.   As you may recall, I recently experienced the first “adjustment anxiety” of my fledgling retirement, triggered by the prospect of extended time at home with (horror!) nothing specific to do.  That in turn sparked a flurry of activity designed to thrust myself into and through the next phase of retirement (the “re-orientation” phase) as quickly as humanly possible.  Being the goal-oriented girl I am, my objective is to get to the “completely comfortable and enjoying retirement to the hilt” stage in record time.  I am completely aware this may not be sound strategy and I may need to be patient and contemplative, but that’s not my strength and I can’t really help myself.

My partner Sandy and I with our Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew at my cooking class

My partner and I with our Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew at my cooking class

So, this week found me in a state of manic self-discovery.   I signed up for eight adult education classes over the next two months.  The first, last Saturday, was a seminar entitled “What Were You Born to Do?”  The second, a five-week series of golf lessons, began on Wednesday.  The third, a cooking class called “Winter Soups and Stews” was on Wednesday night.  I also scheduled exercise classes every morning at the local YMCA (including two yoga classes, which is new for me).  Last Saturday, before my adult education class, I met a friend at a Paint Your Own Pottery studio and painted a plate.  On Monday, I drove an hour to visit my college roommate who was in town visiting her mother.  On Tuesday, my husband and I had a dinner and theatre date with another couple.  On Friday night, I have my monthly Book Club meeting.  On Saturday morning, I’m driving to San Diego for the weekend to visit high school friends.   I fully recognize the overexcited, Energizer Bunny quality of my life right now, and I don’t think I can or should keep this up forever, but it has been invigorating!

Getting back to the seminar on Saturday (“What Were You Born to Do?”), I was intrigued by the description in the class catalogue, but wary it might be crackpot. “You were born to make a unique contribution to humanity.  Progressing toward this purpose brings joy and abundance. Straying from it causes stress and emptiness.  To accomplish this mission one of the 33 Natural Talents is wired into your DNA.  It’s so subtle, you rarely notice it; yet so powerful, it’s the source of your highest potential.”  I was hoping my Natural Talent was something lucrative.

The class proved to be surprisingly effective and energizing. The instructor, who reminded me of an older version of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, began by describing his own life story and how his recurring dissatisfaction with the jobs he’d held had spurred intense self-analysis. This led to recognition of his own “Natural Talent” and its under-utilization.   He eventually quit his job and began giving seminars, helping others to recognize their Natural Talents.  He has fine-tuned the process and the list of Natural Talents through extensive research and working with “thousands” of people at the seminars he’s conducted over the past twenty years.

Materials from the What Were You Born to Do?  class (coming to a community college near you!)

Materials from the class (and coming to a community college near you!)

During the course of the 3-1/2 hour class, through listening to descriptions of the Natural Talents, completing questionnaires and quizzes, class discussions, and reflection on my life and activities, recurring behaviors, likes and dislikes, I concluded that my Natural Talent fell under the general category of Creative Arts, and more specifically, Writing.   During one class exercise, I recalled that some of my favorite activities as a young girl were reading, especially biographies of famous women; writing stories, letters and diaries; and making up elaborate stories regarding my dolls and other toys.  I also remember winning writing contests, especially short story fiction. In college, unlike almost every other classmate I knew, I loved writing research papers.  In law school, I made Law Review based on the strength of my “Comment” (a research paper on a topic never before published).  In fact, I was named Law Review Comments Editor, and the next year edited others’ Comments.  As I reflected on my favorite part of my business career, it was the writing – letters, presentations, reports – that I enjoyed the most, and it was always important to me to “tell the story” in my writing.  And most recently, writing my blog since retiring has been a source of great satisfaction for me.

It all seemed to resonate, and gave me a sense of both calm and excitement.  Calm because it provides a direction to focus on.  The endless possibilities for the rest of my life can seem overwhelming, and having a narrowed focus feels more manageable. It is also exciting to think of doing something I truly enjoy and that will utilize my God-given talents.  Of course, I immediately flew into What Exactly Can I Do With This and How Can I Make Money Writing mode.  The instructor gently reminded us that making a change into a new field or activity is a process and will not happen overnight.  He advised us to always take steps in the direction of our Natural Talent, but to also let it simmer internally and let our subconscious work on the exact fit for ourselves. Another indicator I’m on the right track was the list of other classes I’d registered for, before the seminar on Natural Talents.  It was interesting to see I’d chosen “Writing Your First Book,” “Publishing Your First Book,” “How to Give Seminars and Workshops,” and “Blogging for Fun and Profit.”

The beautiful thing about retirement is that I no longer need to consider earnings potential when picking an activity.  I would love to parlay writing into an enjoyable AND lucrative second career but there is no rush or imperative.  In the meantime, I can dream about the possibilities.  Novel?  Humor?  Travelogue? Researched nonfiction pieces on politics, or history?  A biography?  An expanded blog?  All I can say is, now I’m down with the re-orientation phase!

A Quarter Century is a Long Time

An increasingly unusual part of my career was that I spent 25 years at one company.  By and large, people just don’t stay at one job that long anymore.  When the executive assistant who was organizing my office-wide retirement reception was putting together the email invite, she quizzed me about what life was like at my company 25 years ago when I was hired in April 1988.  As I described to her the working environment — no desktop computers, no email, no voice mail, no cell phones, letters typed in triplicate with carbon copies on typewriters, it made me realize how much has happened, both in the world and in my personal life, in 25 years.

When the email invite went out describing the primitive conditions of my early days, it sounded like I was some creature from the Cretaceous Period, or that we sat around throwing coal on the fire during the cold winter months.   Case in point, the summer intern in our department is 20 years old, which meant that she was BORN five years AFTER I started at the company.  And just to rub things in, she told me all about a cruise she was going on to celebrate her mother’s 50th birthday.  After putting this all in context,  it was horrifying to realize that the intern’s MOTHER is younger than me….and that she and many of the analysts in our office missed, for example, the entire disco era.

Just for fun, and to embrace my artifact-ness, I decided to do some research on the internet (which also wasn’t around when I started) to see what was happening in early 1988:

  • Ronald Reagan was President. Since then, we’ve had 4 more presidents, 3 of them 2-term Presidents
  • In 1988, the average cost of a new home was $91,000, new car $10,400, gas 91¢/gallon, movie tickets $3.50, postage stamp 24¢, The Cosby Show (TV) and The Rain Man (movie) were most popular that year.
  • For Sports Fans: the Dodgers won the World Series that year and the Lakers won the NBA title (it was a good year for LA fans).  [Maybe the Dodgers will do it again this year?!] Since then, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won 6 championships, and Kobe and the Lakers won 5 championships
  • Some of the world events and inventions that occurred during my corporate career:
Break-up of USSR Rodney King riots World Wide Web Cell phones
Tiananmen Square Space shuttle Columbia disaster Digital Cameras iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad
3 wars: Gulf War in Kuwait, War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan 9/11Hurricane Katrina TVO, HDTV WiFi
Northridge Quake Great Recession Google Maps/GPS Laser Eye Surgery

Not to mention all that happened to me personally in 25 years.  My husband and I got married two months after my hire date.  My son was born my fourth year and he’s now almost 21 and halfway through college.   All four of our parents and my stepson passed away. I broke my foot TWICE.  I learned the Macarena (not related to the broken foot). I had been an employee of my company almost half my life.  This was the period when almost every major event of my adult life took place, and when some of my greatest achievements, happiness, sadness and disappointments occurred.

Its almost scary how fast time flew by…and sobering to realize that I may only have one more 25-year chunk left.  That’s why I am trying to be purposeful and conscientious about the choices I make, and how I spend my time these next 25 years.  But not so conscientious that I don’t take risks and occasionally throw caution to the wind.  After all, unlike my retirement celebrations, my next “funeral “ will be the real one…and I won’t be there to hear what people say about me. J

My Law School Reunion – “Live Each Day to the Fullest”

I spent last weekend with my Santa Clara University law school classmates for our 30th reunion.  As a group, we’re a little older, a little grayer (or balder), a little heavier, and a little wiser than the last time we met for our 25th.   As is common for me after such events, I needed to come home and process all I saw and heard, and re-orient my brain around the new realities.  John Smith is now bald!  Sam Lee gained thirty pounds!  Terry Jones has been divorced three times!  Pat Johnson left the law firm and opened a winery! And sadly, we mourned the deaths of both students and faculty.


A picture of me at my graduation from law school in 1983

Having been officially retired for an entire three weeks by the time of the reunion, I came with perhaps a different perspective this time.   I wasn’t so much into the professional networking and career advice.  I was more interested in learning about what has been meaningful in people’s lives and what activities they are passionate about.

On Friday at the first event (a portrait unveiling) I sat next to my former Criminal Law professor, who completely intimidated me as a first-year law student.  She is still teaching but in the process of phased retirement.  Once I got over the long-ingrained terror of being in her presence, we had a lovely chat about my career and hers, my retirement and hers, Paris and the theatre.  We furtively exchanged notes during the portrait ceremony and I even slipped her my blog address (she thought the blog was a splendid idea).  It was gratifying to hear from her and other professors that they have a genuine contentment and personal satisfaction with teaching.  It is remarkable how many professors from my student days are still there and that is a credit to the law school.

The second day I met the new Dean of the law school,  who is the first female Dean.  She was a bundle of energy and warmth.  I shared my memories of my law school experience as well as a 3-minute recap of my career, specialty area and retirement status, and she immediately suggested two or three activities that I could do in connection with the law school and that all sounded frankly interesting.   Some involved mentoring, others developing programs in my subject matter expertise area.  In her prepared remarks, she gave a “state of the law school” and shared that class size is down as prospective students are more critically looking at the cost of a law school education (the class of 2013 was averaging about $120K in debt) and deciding that the end result is not worth it.  Partnered with the fact that the law school has a strong mission toward training lawyers who will give back to the community and not just look to the financial rewards of the profession.  The former Dean therefore kicked in a record amount of financial aid in order to attract a quality incoming class.

Prior to dinner on Saturday night, the keynote speaker was Leon Panetta, a 1963 law school graduate, who was attending his own 50th reunion, I have met Mr Panetta in the past (I bumped into him on the way to fetch another cocktail at my 25th reunion), followed his career, and have the utmost respect for him.  He has served as U.S. Congressman, White House Chief of Staff, Director of OMB and Director of the CIA. Most recently, he was the Secretary of Defense (and thus my son’s boss!) under President Obama.  He and his wife Sylvia established the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey. At our event, he spoke candidly on a wide range of topics, including the state of Washington, DC and the crisis in Syria.

Mr. Panetta’s personal testimony is what I found most compelling.  He is the son of poor Italian immigrants.  His father owned a small restaurant in Monterey.  Mr. Panetta worked hard and embodied the American Dream while staying true to his principles.  His life work was one of service to our country.  His charge to himself was and is to live each day to the fullest and to make the most of his God-given talents and skills to make a difference in the world.  He observed that our country is at a critical juncture at a time where we have a crisis in leadership. He pointed out that each day the men and women of our military put their lives on the line to serve our country and their families often pay the ultimate sacrifice.   His charge to us was to also give back, and that we too should feel an obligation to our communities and to use our legal training to effect positive change.

My weekend thus far had reminded me that whatever I decide to do next, my activities need to include at least some that are larger than myself, that will work toward change in the world.  My Crim Law professor observed that many of the retirees she knew tended to limit their world to their immediate families after retirement.  I want to challenge myself to expand my world.  I have committed to not commit for a year…but I am starting a list of ideas for ways I can serve that will best use my skills and interests. And things that will bring me a sense of satisfaction and contentment.

Of course, then it was time for the wine reception and class dinner, and that’s where the rubber meets the road.   What has our class been doing…and how have we served our world?  There were some cautionary tales (divorces, alcohol, early death) to be told along with endearing tales of friendship.  But mainly that’s where we reconnected and renewed our relationships,  re-lived the old days, drank a little too much,  laughed at ourselves and had great fun. But I’ll save that for another post……