Sunday, January 31, 2016

Gray Rhinos

Now that I'm an entrepreneur, I do a lot of networking and meet brand new people every single week. Last week I met a woman whose book is about to come out called The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. Michele Wucker has intrigued me with her term "gray rhino." On her website, she explains that she coined the term after witnessing how clear it was that Greece's economic crisis would bring down the European Union, yet the EU took no action to head off that catastrophe until the very last minute. A gray rhino is a problem that is clear and heading straight towards us, but we do our damnedest to ignore it and deny it until it's right on top of us.

Of course, the easiest gray rhinos to see are those of other people. You can probably remember times when you wanted to shake someone and say, "Stop pretending everything's going to be okay! If you don't do something, this is only going to get worse!" What's much harder is to acknowledge the gray rhinos in our own lives.

Michele Wucker's book has this description:

A "gray rhino" is a highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat: kin to both the elephant in the room and the improbable and unforeseeable black swan. Gray rhinos are not random surprises, but occur after a series of warnings and visible evidence. The bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, the new digital technologies that upended the media world, the fall of the Soviet Union...all were evident well in advance.
Why do leaders and decision makers keep failing to address obvious dangers before they spiral out of control? Drawing on her extensive background in policy formation and crisis management, as well as in-depth interviews with leaders from around the world, Michele Wucker shows in The Gray Rhino how to recognize and strategically counter looming high impact threats. Filled with persuasive stories, real-world examples, and practical advice, The Gray Rhino is essential reading for managers, investors, planners, policy makers, and anyone who wants to understand how to profit by avoiding getting trampled.

Her book seems to take a macro-view of how gray rhinos affect us, with a focus on public policy and major world events, but it's a good metaphor and I can think of how it has applied to my life. The ending of my marriage was probably a gray rhino. I didn't see it coming, but once my ex-husband made it clear that we were done, I was able to look back and see the evidence that led to it. One of my most painful moments during that period was when a friend suggested that none of my friends were surprised by Bob's action. I felt wounded, humiliated and stupid as I considered that my close friends had known my marriage was on the way down the tubes while I hadn't. It's possible that this individual was wrong; maybe she was the only one who had seen my divorce coming, but I was rocked by the idea that everyone had expected it but me.

Any divorced person who wasn't the one to initiate the split probably knows what a gray rhino feels like when it hits. Even though Wucker's book focuses on leadership decisions, business climates and political changes, gray rhino is a term that works for life on the personal level, too. Someone once told me about the end of her mother's life, during which her father had insisted that her mother's illness was about to be cured and she was going to be just fine. He was absolutely certain of this no matter how many things pointed in the opposite direction. The only thing he couldn't ignore was when her mother actually stopped breathing and was declared dead. As the family began grieving and making arrangements, my friend said her father looked shell-shocked and became incapable of making any decisions and couldn't even really respond when others offered him condolences.

The term gray rhino sounds like an effective one for business management and global policy discussions, but it's also ideal for talking about our personal lives. We sometimes refer to the elephant in the room, but that elephant just sits there, waiting to be acknowledged or ignored as we choose. A gray rhino is charging and demands action, whether it's outward action or grappling with inner pain, like my friend's father. At what point does the elephant in the room become a gray rhino? It's a sobering question. Wucker's book has me thinking about what elephants in my life could be come gray rhinos if I don't pay attention to them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Young lady??"

I was waiting for the bus and struck up a conversation with one of those men who stands with a kiosk of brochures about God, life and whatever religion he is. He was an African-American gentleman who looked like he was in his late 50s or so, and he addressed me as "young lady." Maybe he was trying to be polite or meant it as a compliment since my 49-and-a-half-year-old gray hair is quite visible. But when the bus came and he said, "Have a nice day, young lady!" I couldn't let it go. 

I turned to him and said, "My name is Regina."

He said, "Nice to meet you, Regina."

I said, "I don't like being called 'young lady.'"

He smiled and said, "Well, when you get to be around my age, you'll appreciate it."

He was being so nice that I summoned all the niceness I could and said, "Does 50 count?"

He said, "Yes!" and then started laughing as if I'd made a joke. It was a solid belly laugh that lasted until I actually got on the bus and couldn't hear him anymore. I often say things in earnest that others find funny, so I'm used to it, but this surprised me. I was claiming my status as his peer, rejecting what felt like a patronizing expression. Why was that funny?

Well, anyway, I don't understand why middle-aged men address middle-aged women as "young lady." Do other middle-aged women feel respected when men do that? Does it make them feel young and pretty? Do men do that to express admiration or to help women feel like we're not over-the-hill? It feels to me like they're tossing us a bone because society sees us as ugly old bags. It feels patronizing to the point of being insulting.

But I'm afraid if I say what I really want to say, which is "Please don't call me 'young lady.' I'm not young and I'm not a lady," they'll think I'm making a joke and laugh. So what's the best way to handle it? Probably just by saying, "Please don't call me 'young lady,'" and leaving it at that. And maybe a withering look would drive the point home.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


In the fall I began a business that provides services to non-native English speakers who came to the U.S. as adults. I help with communication skills, American social skills and American business culture. It's going well, but any new business takes considerable investment of time and money before it becomes financially solvent and successful. One of my challenges in getting Welcome Dialogue off the ground is that I fill needs people don't realize they have. I offer to help people speak clearer English when they think their English is fine. I offer to help them make friends when they don't realize they're lonely. I offer help getting along with co-workers when they have no idea their colleagues have problems communicating with them. Et cetera. It's frustrating to have to convince people they need me before I can even start to impress them with what I offer, all of which, of course, happens before they consider hiring me. It's slow work.

In my discouragement, I emailed a new acquaintance who also has a one-woman business and is also a coach. Sally Eames of Corage Coaching helps people who feel stuck in their jobs or overwhelmed by their lives or discouraged about career goals. She has a similar challenge of getting people to even see that they need her. People think, "Sure, I hate my job (or don't know what to do next, etc), but I'll figure it out. I'm fine." And then two or three years later they're still at that job or stuck in that same place. Sally is helping me through my period of discouragement and in return I'm telling friends about her. Maybe you can use her services or know someone who can. 

In the meantime, here's what you can do to support me, if you want. Please like my Welcome Dialogue Facebook page. I'm trying to get to 100 likes and am currently in the 60s. Also, if anyone knows of stories of individuals who successfully started a one-person business in an area that didn't exist yet as an industry, I'd love to hear them. I need a pep talk right now because I seem to have added challenge to challenge: I'm starting a business from scratch and it's not even the kind of work anyone has ever heard of. I often hear, "What a great business! I love that. I've never heard of anyone doing that." If only I could get paid for coolness.

Now I'll email more of my self-employed friends for moral support. It's an uphill climb and I benefit from the input of entrepreneurs who are also in this struggle.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Post-holiday peace

After my year of austerity (drastically reduced sugar, dairy and grains), I totally indulged last week when I visited familia in Houston, Texas. I ate cookies and cupcakes and pie. I also had grain-y foods like pancakes and tamales because I wanted to take a break from being the person who's SO careful about her diet and who has all these damn things she "can't eat." In fact, I didn't say a word about food (except to compliment it) the whole time I was there!

But, oh, my body felt it this week. My knees and elbow joints started hurting while I was still in Houston, but the digestive discomfort didn't kick in until I got back. This is strange because if I ate that many cookies and wheat-based foods in my daily life, my stomach would be in constant pain, which it used to be before I cleaned up my diet. But oddly, those wheat-bellyaches didn't start until I got back to Chicago. On my first night in my own bed, I woke up with that familiar pain that robs me of sleep in the middle of the night. I got up to walk it off, wondering if my body had simply delayed all the stomach aches it should have had on Christmas Eve, Day and the day after.

Here's what I think it must be, using what I've learned from Dr. Joe Dispenza's books on the mind-body connection. I think that similarly to how family visits can cause us to revert emotionally to the person we used to be, our biology can revert, too. When I was growing up, I could eat any amount of cookies, cakes, pancakes, etc, with no digestive discomfort whatsoever. And that's how my stomach behaved during those four days when I was with familia, eating through the holiday. But as soon as I reached my apartment on Monday night, the digestive pain returned. It's damned weird, but that's the theory I'm going with. It was both good and bad: it allowed me to eat all the holiday goodies without the usual digestive consequences (although the joint pain still kicked in), but it also got me back on the sugar roller coaster and if I'd kept that up, my joints would have gotten even worse.
Christmas Day w/ familia

As of Tuesday, I've gone back to my wheat-free life and I'm relieved to notice that my joints feel better. Even though the health crisis of 2015 that made me cut out sugar, dairy and grains is over, I'm still limiting those foods because I just feel better this way. That means I still have sugar, dairy and grains (besides wheat), but they're reduced from what I used to consume. The sad part is that wheat is now on my permanent list of things to simply avoid. As much as I still love baked goods, wheat flour just causes me too much trouble.

So I guess this is actually good news: maybe once a year when I join my familia for the holidays, I'll get a window of time during which I can treat myself to my sister's and cousin's baked desserts and my dad's pancakes. Maybe that could work, as long as the period of time isn't more than a few days.  This gives me yet another reason to look forward to Christmas: parties, familia, lights, decorations and a digestive reprieve from the wheat bellyaches! For those few days, maybe my stomach will simply act the way it used to when I was a child. Thus December will remain my favorite month of all.