Saturday, May 23, 2015

About plastic spoons and other treasures

[This post was written on a long but wonderful flight which took me from one coast of the USA to another.]
I get very introverted and introspective on flights. Sometimes I watch mindless TV (the kind that I never watch on the ground because it seems like such reckless waste of time). Sometimes I stare into the beauty outside the window. I also think a lot and often write some of my thoughts down. And I revel in the fact that there is nobody I have to speak with. This time I am lucky enough to fly first class. And it is a long flight. So the comfort and luxury are especially felt and appreciated.
First Class. Let me paint the picture for you. I have a front-row window seat. The service is impeccable. I am constantly being asked if I am comfortable, I am being offered food, drinks and more blankets. I am reassuringly smiled at. There is plenty of leg-room; there is space for my personal items and an outlet to plug in my electronics. The food keeps coming in the perpetual cycle of all sorts of yumminess.

And I sit here in a stunned wonder of it all. And before you ask, yes, I have flown business and first class before. And, yes, I have eaten delicious food before (and even on airplanes, believe it or not). It's not the newness of this experience which makes me think and reflect. It’s the seeming ordinariness of this moment and at the same time its boundless extra-ordinariness. Contradiction? Not really.

I am an immigrant and a grateful naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I believe, I never completely shook off the "fresh off the boat" perception of life around me. Perhaps other immigrants have this experience as well. At least, I haven't shaken it off yet and it's been nearly quarter of a century since the time I have called U.S.A. my home. What is the “fresh off the boat” perception you ask? Here is an analogy: think of a child trying ice cream for the first time. Imagine that child’s smile. It’s sweet. It’s chilly. It melts on your tongue.  It’s something that the child has never seen or tasted or experienced before. It’s special.  Even if it tastes weird, it’s still good weird. To an immigrant, or maybe it’s just me, the experience for the new world with all of its special new experiences creates a kind of feeling of wonder and awe. And then overtime, even as the newness wears off, the raw “awe” morphs into a kind of knowing and appreciation which stay with you.
As I sit here, in this incredible plush reclined chair, with soft blankets covering my body (one over the shoulders and one on my lap), I am smiling, both inside and outwardly. The feeling of gratitude is running through my whole being. Memories flood my mind. These memories are old and a little worn-out. But they are still dear.

These memories are from nearly a quarter of a century ago. These memories are of me on another flight - Pan Am flight from Moscow to New York.  I am with my parents and grandparents. And the flight attendants bring us our lunch with gray melmac plastic utensils – spoons, forks and knives. I remember looking at all of it in such wonder. I don't think I have ever seen plastic utensils up until that point or experienced the concept of anything that was produced for "one time use", something disposable.

I remember the same gratitude flowing through my body. This thankfulness isn't for the trivial things. This feeling does not have materialistic roots. No. It is the gratitude for being allowed a small moment of luxury. Even if this is a perceived luxury (is there any other kind, really?) In a life of an immigrant (including those from the Soviet Bloc) necessity and hardship are the main characters of the play. Back in the Soviet society, "spartan" life was the norm; "essential-ism" by default not by choice, life without any “extras" was the reality for many, including my family.

I remember, on that Pan Am flight, after finishing my food, I cleaned the plastic utensils thoroughly, placed them back into the plastic bag they came in with, and tucked them safely in my pocket. It felt like I got a little treasure. I remember I kept touching my pocket and thinking: “it’s something. It's special.” I kept the utensils for a long time. I especially liked the plastic spoon. It looked gray and shiny like real silver, but it was light and clearly plastic. I decided at that time that getting that plastic spoon was a good omen. That America was going to be a good place to live, full of wonderfulness. And when I learned years later of the expression "to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth", it reminded me of my first “silver” plastic spoon and of one of the first of many treasures which awaited me. I guess some are born with a silver spoon; others get a plastic spoon on their first Pan Am flight and put it to good use.

And now sitting here now, on this flight, I am realizing that inside I am still that little girl. I am still that child, eating my proverbial ice-cream, marveling at the treasures of my life. Sometimes pinching myself and asking "could it really be? Am I truly here and experiencing this?" There have been many "spoons and forks" and all kinds of big and little treasures on my journey through life so far. Sitting here, now, thirty five thousand feet above ground, I am reflecting on these very weighty and earthy questions: have I appreciated each of these sweet (or bitter or expected or unexpected or painful or silver or plastic) wonders enough? Have I tucked them neatly in the "pocket" of my memories and life experiences? Have I given them meaning?

Sitting here now, gazing into the vastness of the skies, with plenty of "legroom" and my electronics fully charged, mentally, spiritually I connect with the loves I lost in the physical world. And I share this moment, this experience and memory with them.  Maybe this is what meditation and mindfulness experts call “being in the moment.” I really don't know. Maybe I am getting old and sentimental – entirely possible. What I know is this moment, what I am feeling right here and right now.
We are all travelers through time, through life. I guess, all I want to say is take your magic plastic spoon with you everywhere you go, make it a symbol of your gratitude, make it meaningful and let it remind  you of the sweetness and wonder of it all. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What my Zumba instructor is teaching me about leadership

Recently, there has been a lot of “talk” about leadership and specific “skills” good leaders possess. There are books, articles, blog posts, speeches, etc. As a coach, naturally, I am paying attention and soaking it all in. And as it often happens in life, if you are thinking of something, it seems to appear and dominate the field of your mental vision. And sometimes, when you are extra lucky, you might even experience an "aha" moment.

So, this past Sunday morning, as I was happily jumping to the sounds of Zumba music, it hit me – my amazing instructor has been giving me leadership lessons for months and months. 

Think it’s impossible to teach coaching and leadership skills through an intense aerobic exercise with loud music? Judge for yourself – this is what my Zumba instructor does, without fail, class after class, week after week:

·  He smiles and says hello – There are many of us in the class, yet he manages to come over and say hello to every person, before every class.

·  He is fully present and completely prepared – He is always at least 15 minutes early for each class “to set up and meet and greet.” During the class, he appears to be fully immersed in what he is doing.  It is clear that he knows his stuff and has a full plan in place: he knows exactly what routine goes after which, who might need extra encouragement, when to pause things and when speed things up. To us, his students, it feels as if there is nothing in the world more important to our instructor than all of us having a great class.

·  He encourages participation and effort, NOT just outcomes – We are not all Zumba pros in the class. We cover all the different age groups. For some of us it’s the first time in our life that we do exercise of any kind. So my Zumba instructor does not demand perfection, but he does encourage “trying” and “giving your best.” Our efforts, no matter how big or small, don’t ever seem to go unnoticed. I have seen our fearless Zumba leader wink, give thumbs up or quietly whisper "I am so proud of you."

·  He leads from the back and the front – In every class, the instructor takes a few people and switches places with them. Which means that every one of us gets a chance to be “in the front” and lead, while he gets a chance to experience the class from the last row. 

·  He makes every person feel “seen” and “heard” – No matter our age, size, weight, quality of our “dancing” or our familiarity with Zumba steps, he manages to make all of us feel special, noticed, cared for. When there is a new person he makes a very deliberate effort to make them feel welcomed. He asks the newbie a number of questions (quietly and discreetly, without making them feel uncomfortable): Is this your first time here? Have you done Zumba before? Would you like to be in the front so you can see better and follow the steps?

·  He challenges us without scolding – Sometimes our instructor just stands in the back and watches us go through a new routine we learned. He pushes us to repeat it more than once or twice until we get the routine close to right and then he claps loudly and says “You are all amazing! You did it!”

·  He uses humor to defuse tension and fatigue – By the 45th minute, we begin to lose some of our resolve to complete the class. The instructor lightens things up. He cracks jokes and makes everyone laugh through sweat and fatigue. 

Most importantly, he does all these things – and likely others that I am not even conscious of – consistently, every single time. People want to come to his class because they know that they’ll feel great during and after the class – physically and emotionally, and because they are going to be called “fearless dancing warriors” and “the strongest Zumb-ists ever.” 

Is it not a great leadership example? It sure does look that way to me.