A Love Note To San Francisco

photo for sf

I remember my first trip to the Bay Area for my Stanford business school admissions weekend. I had not spent much time in California, yet I felt drawn to moving West. That said, when I arrived, I was a bit confused. I remember sharing with my soon-to-be-classmates: “I don’t know what people see in it.” I was committed to moving West, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the place. The whole start-up scene appeared unhinged from reality. People seemed to do whatever they liked on nearly every dimension, defying convention and practicality. Did they really kite-surf every morning, wear hoodies to work, and drink wine in Sonoma all weekend? Even the arid landscape seemed alien compared to the traditional deciduous forests of my life to date.

And yet, everyone seemed to love this place. Not just the hippies and surfers, but trusted friends (practical, business-type people!) who had already taken their manifest destiny.

So, I packed my bags and caught the train from my hometown of Port Huron. I rode Amtrak’s Blue Water Line to the California Zephyr straight out to the Bay. After sixty-seven hours on the train, I disembarked in my new home, excited for school but still skeptical about this place.

After a month or so, I noticed that I smiled more. I smiled to myself as I walked to class. I smiled to others. I became one of those people who hug everyone. I dyed my hair from brown to blondish-red, an act that somehow lightened my view on the world. I left behind my wardrobe of drab neutrals and bought a bright pink coat. While the palm trees and weather were lovely, there was something even more important about this place: California’s freedom, looseness, and joie de vivre started to seep into me.

I studied entrepreneurship and interpersonal dynamics. I came to differentiate between real Mexican food and other Mexican food. I tried out ecstatic dance, hiked in the redwoods, and held bonfires on the beach. I went to naked hot springs, dabbled in yoga and meditation, and discovered my favorite spiritual retreat centers. I came to have opinions about not only Napa versus Sonoma, but specific ideas about which Sonoma wineries were the best. My love for kale, kombucha, and avocados grew. I had one wardrobe, appropriate year-round, and filled with color.

Beyond what I gained, I also lost things. I lost my concern for appearances. When I left the house, my goal was to look like I wasn’t homeless. And if I was mistaken for homeless (which did happen), it was no stress.

I am sure that freedom also played a role in supporting my ability to come out (previous entries here) and subsequently fall in love with Liz. San Francisco was not just the backdrop to but a character in our love story. On our first date, we lingered over breakfast sandwiches at Slow Club and drinks at Triptych. She proposed in our Potrero Hill apartment, and I ‘counter-proposed’ at a vineyard in Napa. After a week of escorting our guests around to all our favorite Bay Area sites, we were married in the Presidio against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. We didn’t think twice about how we’d be accepted as a couple — or later, how our little lady would be accepted and loved.

This April, we left the Bay for Connecticut. We were lured away by the promise of new things: a job that offers unparalleled learning and significant impact, less commuting and travel time, more balance and flexibility. It is the right choice for our family, but it is not without heartbreak. Because, beyond everything I’ve described about California, the biggest thing we will miss is the people. The ineffable magic of the Bay Area doesn’t come from the temperate weather and the bay views, but from the people and the culture. We will miss our community above all.

It will take a while to grieve California and adjust to this new place. As I wind my way along the parkways of woodsy, suburban Connecticut, I feel the familiar questions creep in: What is this place? What do people see in it? Like my reaction ten years ago, I honestly don’t understand what is so great about this place. Driving by the green-leafed trees now feels foreign. And yet, just as impossibly as California did, I hope that this place too will grow close to our hearts.

But, for now, I have left my heart in San Francisco. This is my love note to you. Thank you for everything. We’ll be back.


That First Trimester Feeling

Let’s start with the headline: I’m pregnant. 15 weeks. Due July 25th. Don’t know the sex yet but will find out. Going to stay in our current house. Don’t have a name yet. And yes, our dog, Reese, is very pleased.

That’s the explanation for my blogging hiatus. It’s been 10 weeks and 6 days since I’ve blogged. That is 10 weeks and 6 days of feeling crappy.

Since the positive pregnancy test, my entire lifestyle flipped on its head. I went from keeping a primarily dairy-free, gluten-free, organic, minimally-processed diet to developing the appetite of a toddler. Most of my meals involved chicken tenders. I started eating hard candy. I could not get enough cheese and bread. Being a rational adult, I did try to sneak some cooked kale into my Whole Foods macaroni and cheese, but I couldn’t dupe myself and picked it out. Similarly, my sleeping habits shifted. I typically get eight hours of sleep and then turn into a whirlwind of productivity during the day. Now, I found myself ready to clock up to ten hours a night and cherishing a mid-day nap. Moving my body in any way sounded miserable. Leaving the house was not on my list of things to do. My wife wondered if it was invasion of the body snatchers; I had been replaced by a lethargic look-alike.

My doctor, one of the few people who knew of my pregnancy, described it best: it’s like having a constant low-grade hang over (except there’s no fun night out and no miraculous revival when you finally get out of the woods).

All of this caught me off guard. While I have many close friends with babies, I never fully realized how tough first trimester could be. Instead, my images of pregnancy were vibrant, lively, and (as it turns out) disproportionately second trimester. My Facebook feed abounded with pictures of smiling pregnant women; they ran half-marathons, twisted into impressive yoga poses, and modeled for bump-focused photo shoots. They all had elated grins, silky hair, and more stylish clothes than I have ever worn. Even the pregnant ladies I met in person fit the mold: they ran seven miles a day, designed adorable bump-focused Halloween costumes, and munched on cucumbers when everyone else housed holiday sweets. In short, all the pregnant women I observed embodied the pregnancy glow.

I, on the other hand, was eating a mega-sized bag of gas station Doritos on my drive back from a doctor’s appointment, pants unbuttoned.

All this brought up two major emotions in me: self-blame and competition. First of all, why wasn’t I doing a better job at being pregnant? What was wrong with me? Why was my body acting so strangely – and why was I giving into it? Second, I was resolved not to underperform at this pregnancy thing. What did they all have that I didn’t have? What did I need to do to succeed at this?

In my life, I’ve become accustomed to the idea that thoughtful, diligent action drives results. Do the right work in high school and get into college. Do the right work in college and get a job. Do the right work in my job and craft the life I want.

But that’s the thing I’m learning about pregnancy: there is nothing to do. My body’s got it. Beyond taking some prenatals, cutting the booze, and moving a bit, I can’t do much to influence the development of this baby. S/he is going to grow however s/he grows, whether I eat kale or cookies, whether I run a full marathon or watch a Transparent marathon. To be clear, I’m not giving up my responsibility; I’m just letting go of my control patterns a bit more.

Second trimester has provided more relief and normalcy. I eat vegetables again. I have fewer waves of nausea. I even started doing prenatal yoga (like those ladies in the pictures). But I’m glad to have gone through the unexpected unpleasantness of first trimester. With this little one coming into the world, there will be only more and more things I can’t control, from my child’s feeding schedule to the job s/he chooses after school. In that sense, this lesson in letting go is probably the healthiest thing I could do first trimester (aside from buying the organic version of chicken tenders).


baby or burrito 2

Still in the uncertain place:  Is that a baby, or did I eat a burrito?

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Keep it Simple, Smarty

I had lunch with a colleague this week during which we talked about her near-term plans and long-term aspirations over a bowl of bi bim bap. She reflected on options ranging from graduate school to life-long ambitions, from alternative career paths to renegotiating her relationship with her childhood pastimes. At the end of the discussion, as I munched on the leftover bowls of banchan, she paused, reflected for a moment, and remarked: “You ask really good questions.”

I? Ask good questions? That’s interesting, because I wasn’t trying to ask good questions.

There was a time when I tried to ask good questions. In fact, I’ve wanted to ask good questions most of my life. As far back as elementary school, I sought to ask the interesting, non-obvious question to the teacher, less because I wanted to know the answer and more because I hoped to signal just how advanced my comprehension was. “I understand graphing real and imaginary numbers on a two-by-two, but what if you add a third dimension?” I delighted in stumping the teacher and didn’t mind taking the class completely off-track.

This inclination continued in the working world. Asking the right “high-gain question” was celebrated as a great skill. If someone was evaluating many options, I might say “It seems like there are really two approaches here: A or B. Which seems most useful?” Similarly, if someone was trying to understand a situation, I might say “In my experience, it is always a matter of X or Y. Which is at stake?” My questions were crawling with clever frameworks and embedded advice. Intentionally or incidentally, I casually showcased how brilliant I could be while simultaneously seeming helpful. While my questions presumed to help the other person find their direction, let’s be honest: they were all about me.

As I’ve started to work on my ego (only partially successful to date), I’ve tried to shift to asking questions in the service of the other instead of for my own benefit.  This has prompted me to realize two things:

The smarter you try to be, the less useful you become, and

The most powerful questions are the most simple.

Everyone has heard the perennial advice to “ask open-ended questions.”   Beyond this, I propose adding the guidance: “ask simple questions.” It’s not about providing a maze of options, a clever trade-off, or a new framing. It’s not about leading people in the direction that you see unfolding. And it’s certainly not about receiving recognition for your endlessly clever perspective.

Instead, it’s about reducing to the simplest question in service of the individual:
“What do you want?”
“What’s important about that?”
“How do you feel?”
“What’s next?”

Though I can’t always get out of my own way, I am always most useful to others when I’m not trying to be clever.  In other words, keep it simple, smarty.

So, what now?

Try to Stop Trying

I’ve realized that I’m always trying.  Trying to do, trying to be.  Trying, trying, trying.

The whole idea of ‘trying’ has value to me because I believe that I have agency – a lot of agency.  When I work towards my goals with enthusiasm, intelligence, and emotional-awareness, my efforts are typically correlated with results.  All my experience supports this:  I send emails, stuff happens.  I make slides, stuff happens.  I talk to someone on the phone, stuff happens.  It’s a pretty straightforward view of the world.  Further, it’s a view of the world that has allowed me to be happy and successful to date (since I’m so good at trying).  Keep trying, and there will be success.

But what happens when I don’t try?

When a friend asked me that question last weekend, it leashed an avalanche of defensiveness and self-justification.  “Not trying?!  That’s inconceivable!” huffed The Defensive One in my head.  (I imagine him wearing an old-school British barrister outfit as he argues each point.)  “That’s an incredible betrayal!  It controverts the very idea of intentionality, one of your core values!”  He gets only more flustered and riled as he continues.  “For heaven’s sake, why invite the Queen to tea if you’re not going to show up?!”

It’s true; after observing the effort/result correlation enough times, I’ve been duped into believing that voice.  I’ve come to see that the world moves forward when I try – and therefore, I have convinced myself that I must keep trying.

So what happens when I don’t try?  With this worldview, presumably nothing.  And yet, I increasingly observe that’s in fact the case.

This Wednesday was a good case in point.  I worked all day developing a new piece of training content, figuring out the flow of the module and tailoring each exercise so it would serve the learning goal.  I sat in front of my computer, revising text, swapping slides, changing pictures.  As I finished the day, I had the sense that something was mildly off.  I decided to step back, take a break, and go for a pedicure.

Thus I found myself an hour later, sitting in the pedicure chair, feet in a shallow pool of water and journal on my lap.  I was writing about whatever craziness I typically journal on.  And I was giving myself a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back for creating time for self-care.  But then, with three of ten toes bright orange, I realized:  “Ahh!  I know exactly what needs to change in that module!  I see how to reformulate the question to really make it sing.”

I’ve worked for so long under the belief that my efforts, directly exerted upon the task at hand, will create the most movement.  But I’m learning that sometimes there’s more movement when you stop trying and let things be effortless.  This isn’t just true because the subconscious parts of my brain get a chance to process the information (as in this example), but also because things external to me seem to work in a different way when I stop trying as well.  People line up to support a new idea.  Someone sends an email with the information I need.  A new offer comes to the table.  It sounds crazy and semi-magical, but something happens when I stop trying.  And much of the time, that force moves the world forward more powerfully than my trying ever could.

So here’s my challenge:  I am going to try to stop trying.  Or, phrased more positively, I am going to see if I can relax and let go.  That way, I may just find my way to that productive and elusive place where trying and not trying meet.




Giving Up My Command-And-Control Post

Sometimes I get stuck in a feeling of lack.  It could be lacking anything – enough money, enough time, the right attitude, the right opportunities, the perfect interactions with others.  Like everyone, I find myself ruminating that “This is not enough” and “That is not right.”

This weekend, I was throwing away junk mail when I ran across a flyer from a self-help program.  In my cursory flip through, I found this suggestion:

“Get in touch with the feeling of what’s it’s like to feel you have your every need and want already met.”

Every need and want already met.  That sounds nice, I thought.  Impractical, but nice.

It continued:

“Just rest into that feeling for a moment.  Feel it in your belly.  Allow it to expand up into your heart.  Open up your awareness to feeling it spread all throughout every cell in your body and even to the area around your body.”

Of course it sounds cheesy.  It is absolutely cheesy.  But I try not to let judgments like that limit my experience, so I gave it a shot.

I opened up my journal and wrote down everything I needed and wanted:  a perfectly-balanced travel schedule, the willpower to follow through on my health commitments (The Month Without Sugar is in full swing), a thriving social life that is both broad and deep (this has been challenged by my travel schedule), and a perfect and cheaper-than-expected wedding venue .

This exercise of visioning the future was not unfamiliar to me; my journals are filled with goals, expectations, and ambitions.  What felt different about this, however, was experiencing those ambitions from the perspective of ‘already-havingness’ and ‘already-beingness’ instead of plotting how they would occur in the future.

You see, when I set a goal, my instinct is to write a tactical plan that outlines exactly how I’ll get there.  So when I set the vision of a “perfect and cheaper-than-expected wedding venue,” I was quick to start my Excel spreadsheet of locations, ask former brides for their suggestions, and fire up the online diligence.  When faced with a goal, I default to strategic thinking, clever problem solving, and executionary prowess to get me there.  These are my trusty old tools; I’m good at them, and, most of the time, they work.

Make it all happen

This challenge to try on ‘already-havingness’ and ‘already-beingness’ eviscerated my typical approach.  I had to turn off the achievement machine in my head.  No more mental to-do lists, no more clever plans to bring my goals to life.  Instead, I just had to sit, to let them come, to feel them to be true with every part of my body.  And it felt amazing.

Beyond feeling good (many things make you feel good, this is just one), it seemed to be useful as well.  Case-in-point:  As soon as I gave up the spreadsheet, the appointments, and the aggressive pre-planning, we locked down our perfect, cheaper-than-expected wedding venue.  The already-havingness was, weirdly, already true.

Do I believe that you can imagine your goals into existence?  Not necessarily.  But it’s both wonderful and relieving to think that every good thing doesn’t need to be the result of my effortful striving.  A better approach for me might be to just let go a bit.  Stop trying to drive so much.  Stop trying to work so hard.  And maybe join together my vigorous action to make things happen with the faith and feeling that they already have.


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dont work too hard