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Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov

I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.

UnknownIn his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.

Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.

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From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?

simplicity-8153To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.

il_340x270.661762228_od2hAside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.

That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”

And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.

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And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?

It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.

This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.

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Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.

Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.

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Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.

I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.

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“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.

We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.

Watch a neat video about flow.

Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

Networking, paying it forward and a request for help

16 Feb

Do you know anyone, anywhere, who needs an editor, writer, marketing or communications professional?

When I was cutting my teeth on corporate America, working as a proofreader at an advertising agency in Lexington, Kentucky, the person who made the connections to get me that stepping-stone position was a male executive in the company who took the time to read a short résumé that demonstrated little experience except for award-winning essays at two colleges, including a piece analyzing a song by Joni Mitchell. He remains a dear friend to this day.

Try as I might, I couldn’t ascend from proofing to writing during the one long year I spent in that company. Whenever I heard an ad rep fretting because the copywriter was out for the day, I would dart out of my office into the hall and literally throw myself at the poor salesperson’s feet pleading, “I can write it!” But to no avail. When all my attempts to write copy at the ad agency ended in disappointment, I moved on to the local newspaper, where I was finally allowed to write – in the Creative Services (Promotions) department. Here again, it was a male editor who gave me my chance to cross train in the newsroom, so that I could taste the life of a reporter, a skill I later capitalized on when I had my own company and the paper became my client.

Many more stories would reveal that it was the men in the journalism, media and marketing worlds that were nurturing enough to help me get all my first big breaks. Most women I had met along the way thus far seemed to take the attitude of, “Good work getting this far, good luck getting any further, and oh, by the way, I’ve been your supervisor for the past six months so I just thought I’d say hello. Let’s chat again in another year or so.”

This repeated experience was what later prompted me, while working for myself as a successful freelance writer, to found and direct a non-profit organization based on the concept of successful business women mentoring low-income, undereducated women who needed a chance to discover their talents and find better job opportunities. I worked at this for a good five years before one day suddenly realizing that, while helping others get a leg up, I had inadvertently stopped bringing in an income for myself. It was then that a female friend and colleague suggested I do an interim stint at a travel association that needed an editor for its full-color monthly magazine. During that time, another professional female fostered my initiation into the travel industry so that I eventually took the position full-time.

I’ve been working in travel writing, editing and marketing ever since. And whenever someone writes or calls me asking for networking help, whether they are young or old, male or female, experienced or not, I always follow the model set for me early on by Jim Gleason and Jim Durham, and later by Susan McDaniel and Catherine Prather, and I go out of my way to read the person’s résumé, conjure up good connections for them from my network, call someone who might know a great contact, or e-introduce them to the most likely connections to help them get where they want to go with their career. I do this automatically, without thought; it’s my lot in life to be this way, a characteristic, like having crazy hair and green eyes. It’s what I do; I pay it forward.

And now, I am in a position to ask others to do this for me. I need to find new paying contracts that can utilize my editing, writing and marketing skills in a telecommuting capacity, either in the travel industry, or anywhere else. Book publishing and online publishing are of interest. I am based in an office in Winchester, Kentucky, where I can keep an eye on my mom. I can travel for up to two weeks at a time. My bio, experience, references, publications and other CV elements are all right here on my blog. Do you know anyone, anywhere, who needs an editor, writer, marketing or communications professional? Is there anyone in your network you could put me in touch with via an e-introduction?

My early mentors demonstrated that networking only works when everyone plays the game, when each person in the chain tells others what they need and what they want, when we all pay it forward – and that’s there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. Thanks in advance for any connections you can provide. I hope you will let me know how I may, in turn, help you.