Tag Archives: Lessons

Why I Prefer an Elephant’s Butt to Her Belly

For weekend reading I thought I would tell you a short story, just a bit longer than my usual seventeen syllables. This is a true story about elephants and how they taught me a “tiny lesson”.

It was a nice December morning in Africa, more exactly in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. A good friend from Sweden had come to visit us and we decided to go on a safari over the weekend to show her the beauty of the wild. We used to drive ourselves in our sturdy SUV and usually I would be the “safari driver” – so also this morning.

little elephant near the lodge

After an early breakfast at the lodge, we set out into the wild to spot some animals. Our friend was particularly interested in seeing elephants. We knew they were plentiful in this particular park because big herds had moved in from neighboring Rwanda where a conflict was raging at the time.

We drove quite a while, from the south to the north of the park, first on a narrow gravel road and then followed a small trail hardly distinguishable in the tall grass. Suddenly we saw elephants crossing the trail in a distance. We got a bit closer, then stopped and idled. We watched in awe as a huge herd, probably 50-60 elephants crossed our path from a sparsely wooded meadow on the right to a grassy opening on the left. Everybody was there, from the huge elders to the small cuties. We watched and filmed the rare sight at a safe distance. Needless to say our friend was excited!

After about half an hour, we could see the heard had settled to eat at the far end of the grassy area. Only two adults were still on the right of our trail, busy eating from trees at the far end of the meadow. I quickly scanned the situation and decided it was time for us to continue our journey. I shifted to the first gear and slowly, quietly started moving towards the point where they had crossed the trail. Everyone continued to film and observe the herd. We were doing fine, none of the elephants had taken notice of us. Or so we thought.

Suddenly we heard a high-pitched alarm. I turned my head to the right and saw a huge elephant belly right next to our truck! A belly, not a butt or a head! The trunk making the noise was high above our vehicle, the front legs right above our heads! The matriarch had been managing the herd’s crossing from behind some tall and dense shrubbery next to the trail. And she had remained behind… waiting for the two latecomers to get their act together. That made sense. But for us my hasty decision resulted in a surprise that could easily have turned deadly.

As I am telling this story now, you already know the outcome. Metal to the pedal, everyone tumbled around in the truck, we all screamed, the video camera hit the roof…but we made it. We now have a reminder of this adventure – with the alarm sound, elephant belly, our screams and all – on DVD. But the truth to be told, I rather watch the latter part of this DVD filmed back at the lodge, where we met this charming young man.

I have thought about this small incident afterwards. I now know why I definitely prefer to see an elephant’s butt rather than her belly. I also learned a lesson, ever so tiny: I’ve got to get my facts right before leaping into a decision. Shooting from the hip might sometimes prove deadly.

Have a great weekend everyone – may your adventures be just a shade safer.

Tiny Lessons

foot prints in the sand

At the edge of water

somewhere

silently observing

ocean waves

just like days

come from the past

and fade into the future

searching for the now

the moment that exists.

*

At the shores of silence

anywhere

barely reflecting

images on the water

like illustrations

of past measures of success

now inadequate

and unnecessary

because life just is.

*

At the dawn of tomorrow

right here

eagerly expecting

life, like the bird’s song, to thrive

beginnings of self-realization

insisting for birth

and then – with uncertain steps

making foot prints

one for each tiny lesson.

Time Flies

On the threshold of the new year, we all tend to look back to the year past. Today’s media are doing the same: famous people who left us, couples who married, split, got babies, worst and best dressed, tragedies and triumphs, the year in politics, the weather in 2012, surviving the end of the Mayan calendar…and the list goes on. Gossip blended with more serious stuff.

We all have a few things on the top of our minds when we think back to the year just ending. And similarly, we probably have a few visions for the new year. But most of us might agree that the year has passed very fast, where did it go? And we say: time flies! When I look back on my year, I thought that I could tell a short story using some of the pictures I’ve taken of birds.

Early last spring, our adult son had a very serious accident, which resulted in several surgeries and kept him on crutches for the rest of this year. In seeking balance, strength and peace of mind, I walked a lot in the nature reserve close by.

I observed the many birds that live there and every now and then snapped a picture. It was calming and soothing just to be in the nature. And these walks helped me to remain positive through some of the heaviest weeks “on record” for me.

Being on the water was also helpful to me. And there of course were the pelicans keeping us company.

Then came the hight of the summer. Mind much calmer now, things looking up slightly. And with the heat came tropical storm Debby.

The nature reserve and the beach flooded…the birds withdrew to dry land for a while. I guess there was enough food for them outside the flooded marsh, in the park and even in our yard.

The summer brought lots of joy and comfort in the form of visits by family and friends. On our regular walks on the beach we could observe the herons, pelicans and sea gulls.

In the middle of the summer, literally, I also started my blog. Its title was influenced by my own tough lessons playing out right at that time. Blogging has given me so much on many different levels: continuously learning from others, new friends and a new community, and an opportunity to write. I consider this one of the really positive “events” of this past year.

Of course there has been work too, but obviously of much lesser priority for me than previously. I’ve been traveling, mostly in Europe and here in the US. I see travel as a window to the world that widens our perspectives and look forward to doing a bit more of that in the new year, both for work and pleasure.

The late fall finally brought good health news and other positive developments to the family.  The best Christmas gifts one can wish for.

The rough ride has taught me many valuable life lessons this year. Maybe most importantly: live in the now, do not take anything for granted, and always remain grateful for who and what you have in your life.

So now it’s officially winter. Time to soak in the hot tub. Cleanse the soul and look forward to the new year with positive expectations and hope of being able to make a small difference, to bring a few rays of light to the world. That would be wonderful. Blessings and Happy New Year!

My Ostrich Moment

I don’t like conflicts or disagreements. Most of us don’t.  My natural inclination is to be positive and optimistic, always give the other party the benefit of the doubt. So when life throws these negative episodes in my way, my first instinct would be to bury my head in the sand or run away. Much like the poor ostrich has falsely been accused to do when it comes under attack.

This was particularly true when I was younger. Most often I would give in for this instinct, try to walk away or at least look in the other direction. What conflict? I didn’t see anything. And if I didn’t see anything, it wasn’t going to be there anymore. Or so I hoped. But that’s not how it works. Conflicts get worse by time if not dealt with. Life teaches us many lessons and one thing I feel I’ve learned something about is conflict resolution.

I credit much of my initial growth in this area to one specific conflict situation. Just before my thirtieth birthday, I was appointed to my first management job, as the Head of a Division of thirty some people, all considerably older than me. I knew it was a tall order, but believed that I could do it – with a lot of learning along the way. Some of my staff were very enthusiastic and others much less so. I observed this already in my first few days, but gave in to my inclination to look the other way. I was hoping that if I just worked hard and showed them that I was a good leader, things would calm down. I was wrong, I could sense it. So one day in my second or third week on the job, I decided I needed to do something uncharacteristic to me. Not to hide my head in the sand, but instead try to define and understand the problem a group of my most senior staff seemed to have. I needed a higher vantage point. So I invited six of them for lunch.

So when all of us had received our plates, I didn’t resort to small talk, but asked them how they felt about my appointment to this job. I wanted to hear them out. It was like opening the flood gates. They all talked and I listened. I learned they had a deep concern: my appointment to this important job was a disaster for the Division. I was of the wrong gender and by all counts far too young and unexperienced. The only woman ever to hold this job before me had been very experienced, twenty years my senior, and she had failed miserably. And the youngest male who had ever held this job was forty when he started, ten years my senior. They asked me to withdraw from the job so it could be opened for a new search.

Wow! I certainly did not have the odds on my side. My first thought was to run – fast and far. But I didn’t. I decided to acknowledge their fear that I may not succeed. I also understood that they feared for their jobs as this was a time of “right sizing” in the company, many divisions were merged or abolished altogether. I told them that I believed I could succeed, but only if we all pulled together. I had a lot to learn. I also told them that I wanted six months to demonstrate that I was the right person for the job, that my only interest was the success of that division. If I was proven wrong, I would resign at that point. Anyone can survive for six months, so we had a deal.

Almost six months later, my Division held the customary semi-annual retreat to review progress and to plan for the future. Our day-long meeting was set in the beautiful Stockholm archipelago. I opened the meeting but before I even got to the agenda, one of these six people asked if she could say something before we started. She took the floor and told everyone in the Division about our lunch discussion. She told very bluntly and honestly what I had been told and how I had responded. While she was talking I observed amazement on many faces. Then she said that she and the others wanted to apologize to me publicly. And so we lived in harmony, survived as a Division and worked together successfully the next five years.

This conflict was the first one I had tackled head on in the workplace and it taught me many valuable lessons. I have since faced many other conflicts and helped to resolve countless ones. To me, the key ingredients to successfully resolve a conflict, whether in the workplace, in the family or between friends or neighbors, are the following:

  • Acknowledge the conflict as soon as it starts, when it has not yet had the time to grow and fester, and do not brush it under the rug;
  • Try to define the issue objectively, detach from the personalities involved as much as possible. A lot of hurt can be avoided if we are able to be objective and look at the issue and say here it is, this is what it looks like and then ask, with honest intentions to resolve the situation,  how do we find a new way of doing things, a way forward;
  • Listen attentively so that we actually hear the other party;
  • Acknowledge that the problem took its time to develop, so the resolution will also need to take its time;
  • Understand that sometimes only small steps can be taken to start with, instead of trying to resolve all of it in one go; and
  • Understand that particularly when the conflict has been allowed to escalate and bad things have already been said, forgiveness will need to be part of the solution.

I still don’t like conflict, but now I don’t hide or run from it. Once the issues have been resolved, and good intentions to follow through have been demonstrated, harmony and peace usually return in time. What is your experience?

Small Talk

Yesterday in my “thank you speech” I said that it’s not often I’m speechless. That’s true for the young me (read me now), but it was not true for the younger me. I was a clam, didn’t open my mouth much. Particularly not in public. When writing my post yesterday I vividly remembered the first ever occasion when I had to speak in front of an audience. I dreaded public speaking.

I was still in college, where I had successfully avoided speaking in front others. I would do the research and others would present. Team work was an excellent invention of the time.  Then I was lucky to get a summer job in a hospital in Stockholm. I was in their HR department and one afternoon I learned that a colleague had fallen ill. I was asked to take over her induction speech to new staff, about 20 or so doctors, nurses, receptionists and technicians. I was terrified. Not because I didn’t know the topics, but because I’d need to stand “up there” at the podium all alone and everyone would be listening to me. So many things could go wrong.

I sat up late that night drawing my “transparencies”, some of you may remember those. They were written using colorful markers. And then I couldn’t sleep, at all. The next morning I was tired, and even more frightened. I remember the huge knot in my stomach walking up the hill towards the hospital. By that time I was sure I could not get a word out of my mouth when standing in front of everyone. But of course I did. It didn’t go very well, I was searching for right expressions many times, but all in all the new staff got “inducted” that day. I discovered I can survive public speaking, even if barely.

Then later on when my career took off, I had to do it more and more often, but it didn’t mean that I mastered public speaking for many years. In particular, I remember my first time presenting a big project to the Board as a new manager in my early 30s. I had been given 45 minutes for the topic on the Board’s agenda so I prepared a presentation that would take 30 minutes, leaving 15 minutes to discussion and Q & A. That sounded like an excellent plan. While I still suffered from some stage fright, I felt quite well prepared. The butterflies were under wraps.

My topic was the last on the agenda, and when the meeting went on, I became more and more worried. They discussed the other topics for ever. When my time came, there was barely five minutes left of the scheduled meeting time. I started my presentation and spoke as fast as I could (think a New Yorker) and the transparencies flew on and off the projector. Five minutes into my presentation, our Managing Director who also was the Chair, interrupted me. He told me that I had exactly two minutes to come to conclusion. Two whole minutes? I had slides to go for more than twenty minutes! I tried to cut it short but was not able to finish…what a disaster.

On the top of everything, my Managing Director came to talk to me soon after the meeting. He told me that a professional was always prepared for surprises like this…and that the Board members actually could read. I didn’t need to read my points to them. Of course I knew that. I cried walking back to my office. But I also decided that this would not happen again. For the next year or so, I had three stacks of transparencies with me, one for a full session, one for half a session and one for the eventuality that I only got a fraction of the time originally given to me :).

My lesson from all this was that I had to be so confident in mastering the topic I would speak about that I could do any length of presentation and still make my points. By time this of course got better. Until the next obstacle. I had to speak in English. In the first year of using English as my working language, I would always miss my turn to speak in meetings. By the time I had thought what to say – and translated that in my mind, the meeting had already moved to the next topic! I wonder why they didn’t fire me, a total clam. Nothing to say, ever.

Somehow life teaches us these lessons and we acquire new skills as we go. I learned to let go, not to strive for perfection, and to forgive myself for occasional mishaps. I began to trust that the right words would find me and simply learned not to take myself too seriously. Then ended up earning much of my livelihood to date by speaking up and speaking loud about topics entrusted to me, many times using humor to reach my audience. But a small butterfly is still always fluttering there close by. I think it’s there just to help me focus.

So public speaking can definitely be learned even if one doesn’t have the natural gift of speaking or charisma that captivates people. That should be comforting.

Stuck on Dignity

Have you ever started writing about a specific topic just to discover that something completely different keeps popping up in your mind? Like a minor invasion. It doesn’t go away until you write about it. Or is it just me?

Today I wanted to share a simple lighthearted story that taught me a tiny lesson, but I can’t. The word dignity is completely stuck on my mind, in the way that I have to write about it. And to be completely honest “it” is not alone. Actually there are three somewhat related words on my mind: dignity, dignified and dignitary. And I’m thinking what is this all about, kind of need to analyze that.

I’ve been a bit annoyed by the sloppy use of the word dignitary in reporting, camera zooms and general speak during the Big Games. It hasn’t been used just to describe people who hold a high office in one country or another, but often to denote “somebody” as opposed to “nobody”. Like singers, actors and other luminaries. And I’ve been pondering whether or not all these so-called dignitaries have dignity and whether or not they all are truly dignified.

That’s an interesting question. And I guess the answer depends on what we mean by these words. I have a specific attachment to words and that’s why I like, or should I say love, writing. I used to research words, where they came from and what their meanings were in the few different languages I speak. It’s very interesting and I still do that sometimes. But I won’t need to do more research on dignity and dignified. I definitely know what they mean to me. In my book, to put it simply,  someone who has dignity usually is also dignified, has this calm presence and gravitas. Whoever and wherever they might be.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few dignitaries, as in holding high offices, and they’ve all been quite dignified. But I’ve met many more people with shining inner dignity. Often in places far from where the dignitaries live and the spheres they influence.

The first person that comes to my mind is a retired teacher in Uganda, in what we would call a very poor neighborhood, or a shanty town. She had a small house in this township at the outskirts of Kampala city, and she had started a school in her tiny garden. There was nothing really left of the garden, no space for subsistence farming. The little space was occupied by wooden benches for her students, all aids orphans from the township, aged 6-13. These kids were not enrolled in the public school because there was nobody to pay for the small school fees and the uniforms. They had nobody to care for them. They slept on the floor in their distant relative’s or neighbor’s house. And for many of them, the only meal they got in a day was the simple meal provided by this retired teacher while “at school”. Somehow she managed to find funds, from one day to another, to buy mielie-meal so she could make a porridge for the over 100 neighborhood kids attending her school.

Her students were learning the basic skills in math, reading and writing and the school day was sprinkled with some fun too, like singing and drawing. Singing was an everyday ingredient, but drawing could only be on the program whenever the teacher had managed to get enough paper and pencils. Her effort was a demonstration in dignity and her dignified presence is etched on my mind forever. And when the kids sang for me when I came to see them, it was the most the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I was deeply touched by the fact that this teacher sacrificed everything she had to help these kids to grow up with some dignity.

So in my mind, these words are reserved for those who have truly earned them and that’s probably why they have been stuck on me lately. I needed to say this.