Monday, June 29, 2009

One Little Shift

As space goes in New York, I have a good one. Still the arrival of my new desk this weekend forced me to rearrange the furniture.

It started with the removal of an oversized chair. I thought that was it. The desk would go where the chair was. But I have been a bit antsy about some space change lately. Now that this is my home and my office, I had an itch to shake things up. My new workspace was not enough to satisfy me. I looked around the room and started envisioning other possibilities.

An hour later I had configured a whole new space. One that is more spacious and open than the way things had been.

I was happy. In this new setup everything looks different and feels different. I had shifted the furniture and with it the energy.

But what I can’t get out of my head is why I had not thought of this before. I was absolutely convinced that the way I had my furniture arranged was the only option. That there was no other choice. I had a limited space and I was doing what I could with it.

But I was wrong.

Had I just been too busy the way things in my corporate life had been that I didn’t notice I even had a choice? Had I been that consumed with unwinding and recharging my own battery when I came home to notice things could look different?

Apparently, the answer to that is yes.

I am reminded today as I look around at my change that there is always possibility. Sometimes we don’t see it. Often we don’t allow ourselves to. In rearranging the furniture and in our career decisions. One little shift is all it takes.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Time Shifts

It is rare anymore for me to get up at the same time two days in a row. When still in my corporate life, the alarm went off at 5:30AM, Monday through Friday, and I was up, to the gym, to write, to get whatever I could in before I got to the office.

Now there is no rhyme or reason to my hour of awakening. Some days it is still before 6 and then there are days like today when I am struggling to get up before the digital numbers shift to 9.

That, you may be saying, is the joy of working on your own, out of your house and in creative endeavor. You may also be thinking I must have needed the extra sleep. All true. But then why do I still feel guilty when I allow myself the indulgence of lingering under those covers until 9?

Is it just that old habits die slowly? Or could it be that Corporate America ingrains in our heads that work must be contained between the hours of 8:30-5:30, Monday–Friday or you’re just not working? In which case they got me good.

In my old world my work was dictated by when someone else told me I should be working. There was no attention paid to when I might be most productive and never any heed to the idea that left to my own devices I would get my work done and get it done well, whether or not I got into the office at the specified hour.

But now I am my boss. And my work time is never dictated. Each day is different. Sometimes nothing gets written on Monday, but pages and pages ensue on a Saturday. And there are those days when I wake up at 4AM with the next line for my novel in my head and others when the day is spent out of the house(aka home office) and the writing begins at 9PM. But every day I write. Something. Because when I don’t, I just don’t breathe right.

I don’t know when, if ever my mindset will completely shift and I will get that it is OK to get up at 5:30 and it is OK to get up at 9:00. Perhaps this is simply because there is no boss but myself to drive me crazy. Perhaps there is some dysfunctional part of me hidden away that misses that and so I occasionally like to do it myself.

But I do know that while I got up at 9 this morning, my commute time to the kitchen for coffee was less than one minute. In another ten I had made it in front of my computer. And now, just 10:30, I have answered emails, done some free writing and written a blog. So maybe it's not the time I get up, but what I do with that time when I do.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Truth About Mondays

This is what Mondays were like for me in my old corporate days.

They would start on Friday afternoon when I would make a list of what I hadn’t gotten to that week but would be at the top of the priority list on Monday morning. My desk would be be neatly organized and I would be ready to go after the weekend. Sunday nights I always tried to get to sleep a little earlier so I was awake and refreshed and ready to get the week off to a good start with a productive Monday.

Some Mondays my plan worked like a charm.

Then there were the other Mondays, the ones when no matter how good my intentions, I would struggle through. I’d look at the list I had neatly printed and try to find something easy I could cross off. Those Mondays no matter how hard I tried, the end of the day would arrive and the list would look exactly like it did on Friday afternoon.

Now I lived in the delusion that when I got to write full time things would be different. I would be working for me, doing what my heart and soul’s passion was. There would be no unproductive Mondays, or Tuesdays or any other day of the week.

I was wrong.

Take last Monday. I couldn’t even get it going at the gym. I was tired after five minutes on the treadmill and it did not get any easier. The same weight I used two days before suddenly felt as though it had been mismarked.

When I got back to the “home office” I sat down for what I had planned to be an afternoon of writing. But the same thing happened. Every, single, keystroke was an effort. I had those excruciatingly long pauses, searching for the next word and staring at the blank space on my word document that every writer dreads. I kept hoping that I would write a sentence, any sentence that made some sort of sense and move my novel forward. A few sentences later, I had to go take a nap. Because I was, after all, exhausted.

I used to think that working my passion meant it was never going to be hard. That there would never be days when I got nothing accomplished. That work would never seem like work. It would be easy. There would be no walking around in circles.

But it doesn’t matter. Whether you get to live and work your passion, simply collect a paycheck or something in between there are always days when the simplest of tasks look like you are about to climb Kilimanjaro. When there is no other solution but to simply stop and take a few long breaths, and if, like me you are lucky enough to work out of your house, take a nap.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Savoring Moments: Father's Day 2009

One of the many lessons I have learned this past year while chronicling my reinvention of life after Corporate America is that it is not just what I do for a living has that has changed. It’s how I look at almost everything.

Take today. Father’s Day. For year’s I have pretty much ignored the day. It started in 1987. That was the first Father’s Day after my dad died. I can still remember the feeling of sensory overload standing in the middle of a card store surrounded with too many reminders to get a card for dad. His absence in my physical life was still raw. The reality of it was too real. It wasn’t a dream. He was gone now. There was no card to buy, no gift to accompany it. It was no longer a holiday in which I would participate. I ran out of the store in tears with a note to self for the future. No card stores in the month of June.

It’s easy to ignore things when your life is so busy and every moment is accounted for by you or by someone or something else. So each year it became a bit easier. This is not to say I have not thought about my father over the years. A day does not go by that I don't miss him. But the reminders on Father’s Day were too painful for too long to think about him on this particular day.
I did not know that Sunday in 1986 was going to be the last Father’s Day I would spend with him. But then, we never really know when the last of something is we get to be with the ones we love. While my father had been recovering from a stroke that past October, he was getting better. There was no indication that warm June day that three months later a heart attack would end his life.

I remember driving home early that Sunday morning from the summer share house I had in Avalon, New Jersey, stopping before I hit the causeway bridge to pick up a container of She Crab soup and cooked shrimp as part of his present. I have a picture in my head of Dad and I sitting in the backyard on the old lawn chairs he had re webbed, dipping each shrimp we peeled into cocktail sauce, disposing of the shells into a brown paper bag, and looking out over the vegetable garden he called his, but my mother really tended to. He didn’t say much, which was typical of that last year. His new dependence on all of the rest of us had taken his once jovial and contagious good spirit out of him. But it didn’t matter. I was happy to be sitting with him. His stroke had been the first big reminder in my life of how quickly things change and how precious our time here really is.

My Dad was a pro at savoring. He never liked to be rushed. He got the importance of slowing down and taking a moment to just be. I didn’t always get it when I was younger and convinced that constant movement was all that was important and just being a waste of time. But I do now.
So, in honor of Father's Day I am taking pause to reflect and remember with gratitude all the great moments he and I did share. The photo above is one of them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What's In A Name?

There is a lot of commotion in the world of cyberspace lately about claiming your name. The New York Times had an article Thursday on keeping a true identity online. Facebook was encouraging users to claim customized Facebook web addresses. David Meerman Scott reiterated the urgency in his blog. There are countless articles out there on the importance of using your real name on Twitter. And then of course, there is your own personal web site.

It got me to thinking about what really is in a name.

Growing up with an unusual Greek name was bothersome. It was too long. It was too hard to pronounce. It was too difficult to spell. There was just enough room on those forms we used to have to fill out in school with number 2 pencils for all the letters to fit. Which made me happy I was not given a middle name.

I would dream of shortening my name, except I thought my father would disown me. I prayed that I would fall in love and marry someone who had one of those easy to spell, more common names that did not require long explanations as to how to spell and how to pronounce, so I could get rid of mine.

But then life happens and suddenly I found myself too far into it to ever want to change it. My name became more than my name. It was an extension of me. It was who I was. I started to cozy up to its uniqueness. There were no other Joanne Tombrakos’ out there. If you Google it right now, you’ll find I am the only one. In fact with a rare exception I know every Tombrakos who shows up in the search.

Today, as we like to say in the world of social media, my name has become part of my brand.

I remember when the Internet was still frontier territory. People would create user names like alter egos, as if this was a place they could go incognito. In fact, it was almost encouraged. The web was a scary new place, so you didn’t necessarily want your real name out there. You just didn’t know what someone could do with it.

Well, you still don’t. But things have changed a bit and having a web identity has become an important part of our culture. So you want to know if someone is Googling you they are finding the right you. And, as Seth Godin suggests, you should live your life on line as if you are on Candid Camera so what they find is what you want them to.

Suddenly having an unusual name has become even more of an asset than I thought. I don’t need to add a middle name as David Meerman Scott did to distinguish himself from the rest of the David Scotts. Mine already is one of a kind.

Even if I do wind up marrying a man who has one of those easy last names, maybe I might be convinced to add it on with a hyphen, but my name is still my name. It will never be erased from me. Besides, I already have registered.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Future's Not Always Ours to See

I have not been able to get the lyrics to this song out of my head since I heard it this past Friday.
Que Sera Sera
Whatever will be will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que Sera Sera

The song, which originally was featured in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" in 1956, later went on to become the theme song for "The Doris Day Show"(1968-1973). It was selected as the backdrop to the final number of the 277 danceproject last week. The choice contrasted beautifully in a creative and unique modern dance. While the title was "I Forget", for me, it evoked memories.

My mother always loved that song and would sing it around the house when we were kids, with or without Doris Day accompanying her on the stereo. I harbored a fascination, not just with the catchy melody, but also with that picture perfect photograph of Doris on the album cover, every blond hair in place, her eyes seeming to be sparkling off the jacket, as though someone had sprinkled fairy dust on her.

I remember growing up my mother’s response to the difficult questions I wanted answers to was often Que Sera Sera.

I didn’t always like that answer. I was too curious. In much the same way, I would often skip to the last page in a novel, to see how it all turned out, I was certain the answers were there someplace, ready and waiting. But still, maybe my mother and Doris Day were on to something I wasn’t. Maybe not every story already had the ending written.

It made more sense Friday night as I learned from my cousin Jeanne who was sitting next to me that her mother had also loved this song and had also sung it around the house.

It occurred to me that perhaps it was also that generation’s way of trying to impart to us the concept of surrender. That as much as we are able to influence and create in our lives, that we also have to let go of trying to steer it too much. There are some things that we simply cannot know in advance.

I am certain my mother and my aunt both did not know back when they were singing Que Sera Sera to us, that one Friday night far into the future I would sit next to my cousin watching her daughter, Nicole Phillipidis, perform in a piece she wrote and choreographed for a dance company she founded, much less that it would have inspired me to write this blog.

The future’s not ours to see. Que Sera Sera.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taking Note: Trish McEvoy

The first time I heard of Trish McEvoy was in the early 1990’s. I was on a ski trip in Aspen and had ventured into the Cos Bar looking for something that would remedy the havoc the altitude was wrecking on my skin.

A team of Trish McEvoy make up artists were visiting. An hour or so later, I walked out the door with my first set of make up brushes, a black patent planner full of eye shadow and blush and a lesson as to what to do with it all. It was a bit of a defining moment for me. Until then I had never had a real “how to put on makeup” lesson and I had never, ever used any brush except those little spongy ones that came with the package.

So I was excited when I learned that in addition to Carla Harris, Trish McEvoy was speaking at the 85Broads breakfast two weeks ago.

Trish’s story started with a brief stay in the corporate world. She left what might have been an easy ride up the ladder because she knew early on that it was not for her. It was an environment that as she simply put it, she “hated”. But she knew what she liked and what she was good at. That was teaching women how to put on makeup.

She held true to that passion and talent, growing the list of women who came to her to have their make up done and cutting up paint brushes when she could not find the exact shape she desired. She was creating the brand of Trish McEvoy before there was a brand.

Today the business is estimated at $70 million and in addition to revolutionizing the way women would include the make up brush as part of their routine also boasts one of the first ever medical spas run with her husband, Dr. Ronald Sherman.

As Trish told her story it did not appear to me that it started with a clear vision and a specific business plan. Instead she paid attention to what felt true for her, listened to her instincts about her direction and the marketplace and let the Universe lead the way. Corporate life was not for her but because of her passion and talent the work and the opportunities kept finding her. It was from that the vision crystallized. It got me thinking that maybe the best of all plans are those with open endings.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Living In The Land Of In Between

I am living in the Land of In Between.

It's this June Gloom thing that first got me thinking. June Gloom is what they call weather patterns that include overcast skies during late spring and early summer in California. I thought it was indigenous to that coast, but it seems to have descended over Manhattan. According to the extended forecast via my iphone, there is little indication it is moving anytime soon.

I am sure summer really is about to begin yet I walk outside and feel like I am still stuck in March, maybe April. The sun peeks through one minute and the next the fog is so thick I cannot see the tops of the buildings outside my windows.

Seriously, a few days this week, I could have dressed for October there was such a chill and dampness in the air. The weather has been stuck in that place of In Between. Long past winter, hardly spring like, and far from summer.

Long past the days of being caught up in corporate life and certain the moment I can say I am a published novelist is close at hand, my reinvention journey seems to have landed me in this place of In Between as well.

There is no extended forecast on my iphone for that, just the certainty that as is the case of the weather, this too, is a temporary location.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Taking Note: Carla Harris

Last week as I sat at an 85 Broads Power Breakfast I took notes, because, well, I always take notes when I want to make sure I remember what I am hearing. I didn’t trust my memory when I was younger, much less now.

One of the notes I took was to myself. It occurred to me as I was listening, that I keep crossing paths with extraordinary women who serve to inspire me. And I love writing about their stories of reinvention. So I have decided to institute a weekly feature on my blog. My goal is that each Tuesday I will take out my notes and write about one of these women, starting with Carla Harris.

When I saw that Carla Harris was on the agenda for the breakfast I did not know who she was. Currently a Managing Director for Morgan Stanley, Carla is also the author of Expect to Win, Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet. It sounded nice, but really what interest did I really have in hearing about navigating life within Corporate America from someone who works on Wall Street. I’m all about life after Corporate America.

I was wrong. You could feel Carla’s energy fill the room before she started to speak. An impeccably dressed, smart, funny and confident woman, Carla captivated the room as she shared what she calls Carla’s Pearls.

It may not seem at first glance that Carla’s story is one of reinvention. After all, she has been in the same industry for over twenty years. But I see it differently. Her success helped to reinvent the way she, as a woman, and a woman of color was looked upon in a traditionally male dominated business. No one gave her the playbook because there wasn’t one for women, and certainly not one for women of color. She wrote her own based on what she experienced and what she learned works and doesn’t work. I’d call that a bit of reinvention.

What struck me most about Carla was her authenticity. She learned how to navigate a challenging environment and achieve the success she desired, always remaining true to her core character. She points out how our authenticity as women is our competitive advantage and yet too many of us play it down. By playing it down, we lose that edge.

I hadn’t gotten enough of Carla Harris at the end of the breakfast so I read her book. Carla’s grasp of the playing field in the corporate world and the challenges women face resonated profoundly with me. I was reminded in my own corporate career of what I did right and where I made mistakes. Carla’s playbook would have given me an edge had I had it then. But even reading it now, I am inspired. Not to go back to Corporate America. But to win. This book transcends success in corporate life and Wall Street. It’s about exactly what the title suggests, expecting to win, whatever it is you are doing.

Carla finished up her talk singing Amazing Grace in a voice that brought me to tears. Did I mention that in her spare time she is a gospel singer,recorded a CD and performed at Carnegie Hall? She is a big believer that balance in all areas of your life is essential to winning. If you’re interested in doing that I suggest you pick up a copy of her book.

Next week: Trish McEvoy

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I'm Still Standing

I admit that Sundays the first section of the Times I pick up is Sunday Styles, because while I write a blog and read blogs I also read newsprint. And the Style section is usually fun, filled with the latest fashions and trends and of course,my absolute favorite, Vows. Who doesn’t want to read the story of how two people find love and each other? Reading the Style section first, makes it easier for me to digest the Business section and the Week in Review.

Today my eyes zeroed in to an article on the front page, Blogs Falling In An Empty Forest. Judging from that headline it didn’t sound very uplifting, but this is the Style section and the sun was shining, so I bravely read on.

There was no mention of the influence a well written, well followed blog can have, nor the success stories of the ones that get a great readership. Not a word about how a blog can help brand you and network you without ever leaving your house. Nor did it mention that it gives everyone an equal opportunity moment to create their own personalized, living, breathing interactive resume.

No, no. This was all about failure. The blogs that don’t succeed, the ones that go abandoned by readers or worse yet by the writer. I imagined this ravaged forest, with patches of green trying to sprout between broken twigs, dead leaves and fallen trees. Those little seedlings looking for fertile soil would represent the 7.4 million blogs they cited that are considered current according to Technorati. If you were contemplating starting to blog, I suggest you do not read this article.

I guess whoever was doing the layout for the page didn’t see the curiosity that I would in placing an invitation to visit one of these forest members just below the article. If like me, you had no idea what The Moment is, it is a daily NY Times Style blog. Yes, according to the article, blogs are falling every day. Still newspapers everywhere keep adding them to their own on line features and promoting them. I’ll let you know if I think its worthy to add to my Google Reader or just let it fall on that forest floor.

Before I flipped forward to Vows, which I knew was a sure bet for a happy story, I jumped across the page. What’s Your Backup Plan? I liked this. I am a big believer in having a Plan B. Between the state of most people’s 401K’s and how much longer we are all living , it is unreasonable to think that one career will do for a lifetime. I think it’s wise to have a Plan B percolating on the back burner.

I am glad the sun was shining, the sky blue and if I listened hard enough an occasional bird chirping amidst the traffic outside my NYC apartment while the author alluded that Plan B’s were mere fantasies, reaching the conclusion that there was a reason many of us choose to live in cubicles.

I’m thinking their writing this Sunday was influenced by all the rain and gloom that descended on New York this past week. I didn’t make it to the Business section or the Week in Review. I’d already read enough doom.

But I don’t sway easily and am happy to report, I am still standing. I am a glass half full girl at the beginning of her entrepreneur days who is passionate about what she is doing, including the care and tending of her blog, (which thanks to the Times, I was inspired to feed today.) Most importantly, as Barry Eisler writes is critical in being an entrepreneur, I am a girl who believes in herself.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The No Waiting Zone

About a month ago Jane Friedman's blog discussed how the basic rules of business apply to writing. Inspired by the scene in Glengarry Glen Ross in which the famous "coffee is for closers" line is uttered, she created a list of lessons to be learned for the writer. For someone who says she never had a sales job, Jane was spot on. And that is coming from someone who held one for over twenty five years.

One of the things I have learned in the last ten months is how much my sales/business background is helpful to me as a writer. Her words helped to confirm that.

Today I am having one of those anxious days in which I am impatient for my first “big sale” to close. And I am remembering a common mistake rookie salespeople make before they seal the deal on their first big piece of business. They wait.

They haven’t yet grasped that they need to be prospecting for more clients, making the next call, setting themselves up for the next sale, no matter how big or small.

In the case of the writer, that would be posting a blog, submitting a story to a contest and yes, working on that next book, even though the first one hasn’t sold yet.

Today I have been wanting to wait even though I know better. There is no waiting in sales as there is no waiting in writing. If you don’t make a call, you can’t close a sale. If you don’t submit work, you can’t get published.

I’ve been sitting in the No Wait Zone a bit too long today. I’m hitting publish before I get a ticket.

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Virtual Trip to BEA 2009

I didn’t actually get to go to BookExpo America or as they say in the trade, BEA. I was advised not to as Peter H. Fogtdal so humorously pointed out in his blog, I might be shot on sight. Apparently there are those in the industry who believe the only writers who should be there are the published ones as in those who have been paid to have their words printed on paper and bound into books. I am not in that category just yet.

But I was there. Virtually. Via Twitter. I kept a search going for #BEA09 which kept me up to date and gave me a bird’s eye view of what was going on.

From where I sat, it sounded like many a convention I attended in my corporate days, except this one, instead of being about Radio or TV, was about Publishing. There was lots of discussion as to the future of the industry, if there was a future, the place of digital, if we must give it a place, those fearful of what is next versus those excited about what's next. Despite the worries about spending money, and whether it was worth the expense to be there, parties did occur and live, in person networking transpired. Yes, it appeared there was fun to be had.

The conversation is continuing today as those lucky enough to be there digest.

Having had the perspective of all my years in corporate offices, I know what goes on when business isn’t quite right. Panic. It pervades the halls, seeping into the window shades and the carpet. It is so consuming you can almost see it before you get off the elevator.

All anyone can focus on is the numbers. And my favorite, the percentages, which can often make even respectable numbers look bad.

Often the panic gets so fierce that those in charge cannot see beyond their nose to anything but the profit line. And they forget about something important. Strategy. Not strategy as in how many more people can we lay off, but strategy in what can we do to maximize what we do in a changing, recessionary marketplace.

I understand the theme this year was Big Ideas. Here are a few of mine.

Start by stopping the doom and gloom of publishing chatter. Publishing is not going away, nor is the automobile industry or selling television advertising. It’s just changing. Probably more drastically then some would like, but then maybe that needs to be.

Accept that digital is part of the mix. Yes, you have to be lucky enough to afford a Kindle to read a book electronically and just because you can, does not mean everyone is going to want to read that way. But many will. It’s another platform in much the same way you can now choose to watch your favorite show on a television or your computer.

Recognize that all this new technology is making people read MORE and that is a GOOD thing. The key is to get them to read what you have to sell and not just the stuff they get for free. People can watch a network TV movie for free but they still go to movies and pay to see something REALLY good on a big screen.

Publish good stuff. Compelling story gets read. We all know the sagas of the mega hits that the big houses turned down. It was the endorsement of the National Alzheimer’s Association that made Lisa Genova decide to self publish Still Alice. It was not until then and the success of her novel through viral marketing that Simon and Shuster offered her an advance.

Here’s my favorite. How about promoting reading as something fun and affordable? The great escape from a world gone off kilter. Curl up in your favorite chair with a good novel or a great biography and you can get hours of entertainment all dependent on how fast you read. What if the industry collectively did something to promote that reading is a great pastime, and still, even if you splurge for the hardcover edition, one of the cheapest forms of entertainment around.

Maybe these don’t sound like such BIG ideas. Maybe they seem obvious. But my experience in corporate culture is that when things get tough and the panic is high no one seems to really think.

Next year I intend to be there in person. My agent and I are working on getting me the proper credentials at this very moment.