Monday, May 22, 2017

What I Learned from Annabelle

Wow, it’s been a long time since I have written a piece, but a very nice friend asked me to write again as she told me she had missed my blogging.  That felt good and I appreciated the nudge.  Thank you, Susan.

So, since it’s been over a year, I wanted to come back and connect with you again.

I am still teaching and attempting to live Design Thinking. A week ago, I learned more lessons about myself and others when I was taking a workshop at the SAP AppHaus on how to collaborate with people so that everyone can feel included and the team can feel creative as a whole.

We did an exercise where each team was asked to build a tower from large sheets of paper.  We just had paper and tape.  Each team competed to build the tallest tower in a short period of time.

Some teams were laughing and enjoying the process.

My group, on the other hand, had a woman named Annabelle as one of the members.  From the instant we started, Annabelle took control.  She told us exactly what to do and she didn’t ask for any feedback or ideas.  She just commanded.  I just sat there bowled over by her demands and had nothing to say and I didn’t make a move.  I felt completely shut down.  I didn’t want to participate.  I just didn’t care anymore.

I am not a quiet person.  I am always giving input, requested or not.  Anyway, Annabelle proceeded to be exceedingly annoyed with me and the rest of our team for not following her explicit instructions on how to build this tower.  As you can imagine, our team fell behind and definitely didn’t win the competition nor did we enjoy the process.  We weren’t very collaborative or creative.

The reason I like Design Thinking is because you can go to a talk or a class and they will tell you things, but it is doing these crazy exercises where you really see what they are trying to teach you.

So, here is what I learned:

1) Oh, my God, is this what I look like when I am on a team?  What a bitch!  Annabelle shut me down and everyone else on the team.  She clearly had no interest in what we had to say or how we thought the tower might be built.  I do this.  I try not to, but I do this.  I was floored by how it made me feel. I didn’t want to contribute anything.  You may be goal oriented, but if you forget about the emotional component of how other people feel, your team will never be at its best (and worst of all, no one will enjoy the process).

 2) What the heck is going on in Annabelle’s life?  All this bossiness is not about us, it’s about her and something that she is dealing with outside of this exercise.  We are just watching it play itself out.

 3) Why didn’t I say anything?  I just watched it happen.  I could have gently voiced my opinion and helped the team work together.  I did nothing to improve the situation.

 4) The team that was laughing and enjoying the process came in second, but was really creative and had such a good time.  Unlike our team, they weren’t nervous or stressed and the goal was not the only thing they were thinking about.

So, in the end, the exercise was a way to help me learn how:

- to think about others and their opinions when collaborating;
- to consider what is behind team members' behavior and that many times the behavior has an entirely different underlying reason;
- to speak up if one person is dominating the group and help bring others in;
- and, to have fun and not always be about the end goal.


Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Difference Between Giving Up and Letting Go

“There’s an important difference between giving up and letting go.”

I saw that quote and it made me pause.

I am a fighter.  I am persistent.  I hardly ever give up, but sometimes it’s not about giving up. It’s about accepting what life throws at you. One of the professors that I work for tells the students that you can’t solve a problem you are not willing to accept that you have.

If you are so busy fighting something, you sometimes miss that it’s time to let go and just accept whatever it is.

It’s the semantics that make the difference for me.  When I saw the quote above, it helped me realize that it was not a negative to step back and say, “I can’t do this anymore.  I can’t fight this battle, but I am walking away not with my head down, but with my head up.”

I am choosing to say, “it’s time to let go”.  That doesn’t make me weak, it helps me be stronger.  Not only am I consciously choosing this, but I am leaving space for the next thing.

“Giving up” feels like quitting.  “Letting go” feels more peaceful and fruitful.  

When I do let go, another quote comes to mind, “Clarity is momentum that has no resistance in it.”  The two quotes are not contradictory.

They complement each other because when you do learn to let go, you begin to have more clarity and then things just feel more at ease.  


Friday, January 22, 2016

The Drama in Our Heads

In my last post, I wrote about rejection and my persistence in knocking my head against the wall when I want something.

One of the blocks I have found as I navigate my way through the work world is my pattern of assuming things are personal.

I don’t know if this is more common with women, but I like to connect with people and if I think they aren’t interested when I am, I assume it’s a personal affront.

A number of months ago, I was talking with a startup that was creating a service that I had felt passionate about and was excited to think that I might be involved in some way.  I connected with one member of the founding team, and she was wonderful and supportive.  I got her and she got me.  But, then, I spoke with the “top dog”.  She seemed uninterested in me, which I couldn’t understand because I “knew” I was a perfect fit.  She also didn’t want to pay me anything close to what I knew I was worth.  That was no easy assumption for me.  Many times I undervalue my work, but I had done enough work at Stanford to know I did have something to offer and it was worth a certain level of compensation.

I watched the startup begin and stumble and I had known what their weak points were and I was right.  But, in the end, they are coming around and are doing fine without me.

I spent months not connecting with them acting like a hurt little girl because the woman at the top, I had decided, didn’t like me and I was disappointed because this was my “perfect fit”.

As time went on, I discovered new opportunities in other areas, ones much closer to my heart and compensating me at the level I felt was fair.  All in all, much better fits for me than that startup.

A few days ago, I finally went back to the startup and showed my face at an event. I had been thinking all along that I had been in a fight with “someone” and they would wonder why I was back. There was much drama in my head.

I hugged the team member who originally had been kind and supportive and told her that I was thrilled for her success.

As I went up to the woman in charge who I thought had snubbed me originally and congratulated her on her accomplishments so far (I was so proud of myself for letting bygones be bygones), she looked at me like, “who are you…I have no idea who you are.”

I stood there somewhat dumbfounded like “really, you don’t even remember my face?”  It was fine, though.  The startup is doing well.  I am happy with alternatives that have come into my life. 

But, it reminded me of the crazy things we do in our heads that have no connection with reality and how those thoughts dictate the actions we take and the feelings we have.

That is why I love Design Thinking.  (You knew I couldn’t write a blog post without mentioning it, right?)

It is so important not to get bogged down by what you “think” someone is thinking because they might not even be thinking it.  In Design Thinking, so many of the exercises are about not limiting your thoughts which completely halts innovation. 

I have been pretty good about following what I am teaching, but this was a weak point for me. It is all about learning and I did.

Next time I create an entire drama in my mind about another person, particularly in the work world which still feels new to me, I will picture the startup founder’s face as she looked at me and how completely opposite that played out from the story in my mind.


Sunday, December 06, 2015

Reject Me, Please

For years now I have been learning everything I can about Design Thinking and trying to live the process and mindsets of this concept in my everyday life.
One of the basic tenets of Design Thinking is to try things and not to be afraid of failure. “Fail fast and fail often,” we say.

Well, I have been doing a lot of that lately.  I have been sticking my little neck out and getting it chopped off.

Of course, I take it personally.  I know most of the time it’s not about me, it’s more about how busy the other person is, but I when I reach out in my career searches and transitions, I take the rejections hard.

Even writing on this blog over the last year has been difficult. The funny thing is as I looked at the patterns of these rejections and what happened afterwards, I noticed something interesting.  It was working.  With each rejection, I got feistier, more creative, and more productive.

Sort of like, OK, if you don’t want me, I’ll try another avenue and then another. I have this crazy courage because I love Design Thinking and I love teaching it and I am going to keep on doing it one way or the other. 

When I was a freshman in high school, I met with my college counselor, Mr. Bettencourt, and told him proudly, “ I want to go to Stanford”.  He looked at me and said with complete certainty, “Denise, we all have dreams, but your chances of that are almost non-existent.”

He didn’t even know me, but he rejected me.  I call those my “Mr. Bettencourt” moments.  The moment that someone rejects me and I leave quietly and go do what I need to do.

I never went to see Mr. Bettencourt again until the end of my senior year.  I just said goodbye to him and told him that I would be going to Stanford in the Fall.

Things don’t always work out like that for me, in fact, they rarely do, but the feeling I get when I fail or feel rejected gives me more energy than praise could ever give me.

I don’t like failure, actually, I feel terrible when I am first rejected.  I think, oh they’re right, I really can’t do it, but then something happens, I hit rock bottom and there is nowhere to go except up.

I teach my students about failure and its importance in moving forward and learning to design your life forward.  If I really am a good teacher, then I must live what I teach.

So, I need to make peace with rejection and failure and maybe even be grateful for them because my biggest accomplishments are after after my biggest rejections.

I will be teaching a new set of workshops starting in January on Design Thinking.  The workshops will be about what Design Thinking is and how it helps you get unstuck and live a more creative and peaceful life. I know that’s a tall order and if I hadn’t experienced it myself, I couldn’t teach it.

If you would like to be on my mailing list for these workshops, email me at: and I will let send you information on time and place.

Happy Holidays to all of you.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Less Effort, the Faster and More Powerful You Will Be

I haven't written for a while, but today a friend of mine and a wonderful coach, Johanna Beyer, wrote a piece that hit home with me and I wanted to post it here so you could enjoy it as well.


"The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be."
 Bruce Lee


Over the summer, I had the good fortune to take a tennis class to learn new things about a game I love. I went into it all ready to show the instructor my wicked ground strokes! I clenched down, gripped the racket and literally tried to kill the ball. After about 75% of my shots went into the net or way outside the lines, I got frustrated. What the hell was going on? During a break I asked the instructor what she thought the problem was. She immediately told me that I was working way too hard. My grip was too tight and I was losing all my power with my supposedly intense stroke.


WHAT? I've always thought that staying loose meant that you weren't taking things seriously. The more clenched, busy, and proactive I could be, the better. The more I focused on meeting others' needs, the more I would be liked.

The delusional belief behind all of these thoughts went something like this.... the harder I work, the more worthy I am. I must push and overextend to be good enough.

And this belief has brought me success...I did well in school, built a successful career, and have a wonderful family and friends. But as I woke up to this toxic message, I realized that every time I overextended in dance, I got hurt. When I tried too hard to connect with people, they backed away. When I put others' needs first, I often misread what they actually wanted, and almost always ended up abandoning myself.

This way of living was tiring, leaving me achy and burnt out! And the worst part is that it was blocking the support that wanted to come into my life.

So, since that fateful day on the tennis court, I've been experimenting with my coach's principle of working less to have more power. It is so subtle, but when I practice it one small choice at a time, I find many opportunities every day to loosen my grip on life and experience flow. The benefits are instant and available to all of us.

What working LOOSE looks like:
-WAIT. I try not to act until there is a genuine and actual reason to do something. When I feel an idea emerge, I write it down and it helps me determine whether it's driven by fear or urgency, or if it truly comes from my heart. When I have clarity, I can prioritize.
-RELEASE. When I do not know the solution to a problem, I release it for a while instead of ruminating and forcing an answer prematurely. Asking for help from my higher self and then turning over the problem brings enormous freedom.
-ACCEPT SUPPORT. I say yes to help and embrace compliments when I receive them. A tight grip is often critical and unforgiving. Accepting kindness from others helps us to be more loving with ourselves.
-STAY IN THE MOMENT. When I'm working with a client or a group, I work hard to stay open and present instead of always thinking about the next topic, or how I could or should respond.
-REST. I take breaks and let myself relax when the time is right instead of filling every second with something practical.
-HONOR COMMITMENTS. I start on time, end on time, and honor my boundaries. These simple commitments are within my power, and they give me something I can always feel proud of.
-DETACH FROM OUTCOMES. Before I offer help, I consider whether the person really wants help, or if I am offering it because it makes me feel better -- and more in control -- to fix things. Offering support and then letting go is a liberating way to truly help others.

Working LOOSE does not look like:
-Planning for people when they do not need my help.
-Overextending and doing extra to look good or seem more worthy.
-Jumping into action too quickly for the short-term satisfaction of feeling productive.
-Judging others for their decisions when they differ from mine and forgetting that everyone is on their own path!
-Staying busy when others around me are chilling and enjoying themselves.

My questions for you are:
Where can YOU loosen your grip on life a bit?
Where can you harness your energy and resist the temptation to overextend?
Where in your day do you silently accept more responsibility or work than is really necessary?
How many relaxing little breaks can you build into your day?
Where can you say "yes" to more help and accept compliments?

 Please e-mail me at or check out

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Life Awaiting

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” 

I have read this quote so many times, but I have always thought you have to have a plan. No plan, no accomplishments.

I have been working with undergraduates for over 3 years now helping them think about the life ahead.  Who are they?  Who do they want to be?  I listen to their plans and life goals.  It’s not easy for the students, but the possibilities do seem endless and, most of all, possible.

Not only do I spend my days with college students, I do it at my alma mater, so I rarely forget how I felt when I was that age.

When I first read the quote above, I felt a sense of sadness.  “Letting go of the life we planned.”  Did that mean it didn’t work...that we failed?  As I hear these young students describe their future, I think about the plans that I made years ago.  I felt fairly confident of my direction at that time.  It helped that nobody ever questioned why I was doing what I was doing.

In the class that I help teach, we do an interesting exercise.  After weeks of helping students design their lives forward, we have them pretend they are at their 25th year college reunion.  We have them imagine what it would be like to be 47 and what their lives would look like.  What did they accomplish, what didn’t happen, and what parts of life just happened that they never saw coming?

It’s fascinating to listen them.  The exercise is meant to help them think about those things that didn’t go as planned.  What did they have to let go of?

So back to the quote above.  I don’t see it as sad anymore.  I realize that so many things I didn’t plan have actually been quite magical.  And, yes, there have been things that have torn my heart into pieces that were not magical in any way.

But, it is when I let go, as Joseph Campbell says, that life becomes quite an extraordinary ride.  It is when I stop measuring my life against the plans I had made as an undergraduate and I just become who I am and take each day as an opportunity to be open and experience whatever comes my way that I find I am most at peace. I guess that is living the life that is waiting for me. So much planning and measuring of goals has many times prevented me from allowing life to just happen and to see opportunities that when I was younger I wouldn't have even noticed.

Maybe mid-life is not so much about a crisis over what can no longer be accomplished, but an opportunity to see what surprises we couldn’t even have imagined at age 22.

It’s not easy, though, letting go of the things you planned.  It means giving up the pretense of being in control, it means not thinking that you failed, but just that you are following another path, and it means feeling much more comfortable with uncertainty.

I am in awe of those who have led their lives this way from the beginning, but I have been a very analytical type and it has taken me much longer to let go of the life I had planned.  I don’t know what is ahead, but somehow, that feels extremely peaceful and I am eager to know more about the life that is awaiting me.


"Not all who wander are lost."  J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, February 27, 2015

Empty Nester

I remember thinking years ago as I drove my sons to Little League practices or games every day of the week, “When I am an empty nester, I will move to France for a month or two and see what it’s like to live there.”

“Empty Nester” defined by the dictionary is “a parent whose children have grown and left home”.  Translation:  now you have lots of time to do all those things you have been meaning to do.

Am I the only one that finds that being an empty nester is nothing like I expected? I love my parents and as they age (and I feel blessed that they are still here so I am not complaining), I want and need to return the love and care that they gave me as a child.  That takes time and is sometimes mentally exhausting, both because of the actual job and because it reminds me that life is short.

Then, there are the kids that went off.  They went off, but they still have issues that I am sure I worry about unnecessarily.

So, what am I getting to?  It’s difficult.  It’s not what I thought it would be.  I love many people around me and, many times, I can support and love them, but I can’t always fix things for them.

I am trying to make a special effort to do nice things for myself and not run myself down. I know that isn’t good for anyone.

I guess I never really thought that much about this time of my life.  I was so busy up until now following the path that I knew, that is, raising children, getting them off to college, out of college and then on to the next step. 

I don’t think I really had much of an idea what this time would be like. So, the good news is that I am learning day by day how to make the most of each moment that is mine and to appreciate all that I have.

I just don’t think I will be moving to France anytime soon.

Maybe this time of life is meant to teach us how important life’s little blessings are and remind us to slow down and pause.  Fixing, controlling and worrying have yet to be helpful actions for me.  What does help is making sure that I find my way to the beach to  enjoy the beauty of the ocean, sip a cup of coffee slowly in the morning, or make sure that I am really present with the family and friends I love.

And, maybe, it helps feeling that I am not the only one going through it.

Hoping that you are finding time to relax and take care of yourself...