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Global Leadership Speaker and Premier Work-Life Balance Speaker
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Trapped inside.

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I am going out of my mind being trapped inside by a merciless sinus infection.

I joke about it, but it has really made me think about what my mother has been through in the eighteen years since a stroke left her disabled. Although there were many years when we could take her out for activities, she was largely homebound. When Alzheimer’s showed up in 2001, it got worse. She’s been in a nursing home for the last three years and I don’t know how she’s coped with it, except that she has.

These days, she doesn’t talk. The only thing I’ve gotten out of her is a “yes” on three occasions when I repeatedly asked if she was happy.

What is she thinking? I really wonder that. With so many endless hours in bed or in her wheelchair,  what is she thinking? Until the last six months, there were moments when I suspected there was more happening inside her mind than she could convey, and in one of her more lucid moments, I asked her about it. I said, “Is there more going on inside your head than we think?” “Yes,” she said. I asked her what, but she didn’t answer. I knew from the way she looked at me that she was right there with me, so I shared something with her that I had wanted to tell her for a long time. I knew she understood me because she reached her arm to me and drew me to her. She hugged me tight. I knew she’d heard and understood everything I’d said, yet she couldn’t acknowledge it verbally.

Day after day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour after hour. She is there, in the same place, locked in a body that can’t walk or stand or eat or communicate. I do think she means it when she tells me she is happy. I just wonder how she finds that happiness. I know there is some sort of profound learning that has happened to help her to cope with her disabilities and continue to live and find joy. I want to know what she’s learned, how she’s learned it.

A couple of years ago, there was an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Meredith’s mother “woke up” out of her Alzheimer’s and Meredith could have clear, the deep conversations that she needed to have. The clarity didn’t last long, but there was that window. There isn’t much documentation to back up that kind of recovery, but the fantasy is powerful. I wish that I could have a day of clarity with Mom. Or even an hour.

I would tell her how much I love her. How proud I am of her courage. I’d hold her. And love her.

Which is really what I do now.

As I think about all the things that I’d love to tell my mom, it hits me that I really don’t have anything more to say. I’d just like to hear back from her. I miss singing with her. I miss her sense of humor. I miss the sound of her voice. I miss her advice.

But everything is trapped inside.

Winning With the “New Normal”

I came home from the Executive Leader’s Forum last week with a negativity hangover. News on the business front is truly harsh these days. The bottom line is, if you are waiting this recession out and hoping you’ll just hang on until things get back to normal, you are making a mistake. This is the new reality. It’s the “new normal.”

It’s not all bleak — especially if you can grasp the seismic paradigm shift and adapt quickly.

The conference was for 120 of the nation’s most senior business executives. They are people I admire and enjoy tremendously.

Their point was that people’s values and habits changed in an instant — and aren’t going to change back. Society isn’t spending like it used to — and it won’t. People and companies are deliberating before buying. They are contemplating whether they actually need what they are buying, rather than just buying because they want something. Buying for “want” symbolizes excess — and that is now seen a gauche. The leaders at the conference don’t see the trend ever switching back, which is why retailers are having to dance fast to figure out how to service their changing customers. If people are opting to buy store-brand cheese and canned goods over the tried-and-true brand names, what can a brand name do? That’s the challenge.

Especially since, as individuals in the marketplace, we are all our own brand name products.

It’s also the opportunity, something that fits with the theme of my new book, Finding the UP in the Downturn. The daily dose of bad news is so bleak that people are giving up. But, for those who don’t, there is a huge opportunity to succeed. Like Shelley Broader (president of Michaels) told us, there is no better time to start a business than when the price of real estate, labor and equipment are at rock bottom prices. Instead of contracting, we have to figure out how to smartly expand by exploiting the new reality to our advantage.

All of this involves a personal awakening and acceptance. We have to accept that the rules have changed, and brainstorm ways to fit our talents to the new demands that have been created. We have to be relentless.

If you are looking for an excuse to give up, you don’t have to look far. But, if you give up, things aren’t going to suddenly return to normal when the recession ends.

This is the sobering new reality, and we’ve all got work to do to decide where we fit into it. That means studying our industries, our clients and our competition. It means learning our technology and knowing where it is going. It’s taking action without being 100 percent sure of the result because there is no more 100 percent certainty in anything. It’s having the confidence and courage to know that we are moving forward and, when we are doing it wrong, we can change quickly and right our course.

Bad news can wear down our confidence, but only if we let it. This is the time to make up our minds that we will be winners in the new reality.

What’s your first step? Open your eyes. The challenge isn’t going to go away, so what do you need to do?

Fawn Germer is the best-selling author of five books, including one that was an Oprah pick. She is a four-time, Pulitzer-nominated journalist and an internationally acclaimed keynote speaker who has been hired by some of the world’s largest corporations to share her message of opportunity and leadership.

Disasters in Babysitting: My First Career Setback

Someone recently asked me if I’d ever been fired, and the answer is, mercifully, only once.

 It happened when I was 13 and the second-string choice of babysitters for the mother of three young boys who lived directly behind me. She’d apparently exhausted her list of preferred sitters and called me.

The kids went to play next door, so I went about the business of raiding the fridge and seeing what was on TV. I realize I am dating myself here, but this was in pre-cable days, and for those too young to know about “the rotar,” I will educate you. It was an outdoor antenna controlled by a dial on a box on your television. Turning a  wheel on the box made the antenna rotate outside, bringing in better reception. That day, I worked the rotar to fine-tune Soul Train on Channel 2, a Detroit station that didn’t come in all that great 

Several days later, my friend  told me what everyone in the neighborhood apparently knew. I’d broken the  Figa’s rotar. Mrs. Figa had told everyone. I thought would never find work as a babysitter again.

My regulars still called. And, a few months later, Mrs. Figa must have been really desperate, because she asked me to babysit. I said I was busy.

 That was not my sweet revenge.

This was:

Two years later, my family was moving from Michigan to Florida. On one of my final days as a Michigander, Mrs. Figa was out in her garden. This was pre-wireless phones and pre-caller ID — the salad days for crank callers.

 Anyhow, Mrs. Figa was on her knees in her garden and I called her house. She ran through her yard, through the garage, and into the house to the kitchen, where I could see her picking up the phone, conveniently located in her kitchen window.

Click! I hung up.

She waited a minute or two, then headed back to her garden. The second she stooped down to her knees, I called again. She ran into the house and I saw her pick up the phone again.

Click!  

She waited ten minutes. Then, she headed back to her garden. When she crouched down again, I redialed. She ran in to answer the call.

Click!

She never went back out to the garden.

I realize this story does not paint me in the most flattering light, but I was only a teenager and I was a disgruntled former employee.

Fawn Germer is the best-selling author of five books and a professional speaker on leadership and performance.

Poverty Sucks. Sometimes.

My old friend Billie just moved in her mother’s home so she can keep her real house in pristine condition while she tries to sell it. The home is worth a fortune, and it must sell because she is a single parent who was laid off — another victim of the demise of daily newspapers.

I’ve known her for more than two decades, and I reminded her of the filthy apartment I helped her clean at the beach before she moved in. We were both in our 20s. She was my editor, mentor and friend. We made no money. But, we lived at the beach. We didn’t go to fancy restaurants or take expensive trips. But, we lived at the beach. We drove old cars and didn’t have any expendible income. But, we lived at the beach.

At the time, I was making $15,000 a year. I remember going out for payday dinner to Quincy’s steak house and ordering the hamburger because it was the cheapest thing on the menu that came with the salad bar. I remember countless camping trips to the barrier islands in North Florida and South Georgia. I remember walking over a beach dune on Cumberland Island one night as the wild horses ran through the water, silhouetted by the heat lightning. And boating on the Okefenokee Swamp, surrounded by a million alligators. And tubing on the Ichetucknee River. Plus so many nights of youthful revelry with our cohorts.

Those were truly happy and fun times. I had so little money and so few things, but I had so much fun. I know I laughed more in those years than any since. We were so young and carefree.

So, here we are. Years later, with nice houses and nice things, eating in fancy restaurants and enjoying the “best” of life. Looking at it now, I realize that we had the best of life when we didn’t have very much at all.  

Granted, Billie’s situation is challenging because she is so devoted to her daughter and wants the best for her. It’s so unfair — she’s truly brilliant. But, she’ll get through this. She just will. And, if she scales back, maybe she’ll remember how much fun it was when we didn’t have so many “things” to worry about.

Last night, she reminded me how I once “punked” her when I sent her a letter  that I’d forged on our publisher’s letterhead. The letter told her that he’d heard she was complaining about her low salary and, while he couldn’t give her any more money, he did want her to have a small token of his appreciation. Inside the envelope was a round button that had been wrapped in paper. Billie felt that package, figured it was a make-up compact, and the publisher’s allegedly sexist gesture infuriated her. But, when she unwrapped it, she discovered a button that said, “POVERTY SUCKS.”

She found the letter recently — and the button. About “POVERTY SUCKS,”  she wrote: “I’m beginning to get the msg. :)”

Maybe the message is that the poverty of our early years didn’t suck all that bad. When did we get so grown up that we forgot how rich we already were? I don’t think I have ever been as rich as I was, way back when I was poor.

The Measure of a Winner

He’s 46 years old. Handsome. Educated. Original. Politically astute. Brilliant.

And, underemployed.

I’m at lunch with someone I’ve known for almost a decade, and once again, I am hearing him express disappointment that he hasn’t accomplished more with his life. He has tried so hard for so many years to get a great job, but it hasn’t happened. He’s working for $9.75 an hour in retail, in a job with no benefits and no future.

Everything he says about himself is negative. He’s too old to compete. His friends have accomplished so much. He’s “never done anything” with his life.

It makes me so sad, because I know how hard this guy has tried. He’s been trying for years. Always sending out more resumes, but never getting the big break he needs.

I suggest he work harder at networking, but he’s truly shy and I know that he won’t. I know his introversion costs him plenty in the job market, because people hire people they know. It’s the American way. It’s reality. But, he doesn’t mingle.

So, he keeps sending in applications, and he keeps waiting.

Maybe he’s not a superstar on Wall Street. Maybe he struggles to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Does that mean he is any less than those who have “made it”?  I wish he would ease up on himself because, as far as human beings go, he is one of the best. He is a true friend. An independent thinker. A good son. A charitable person. A giver.

And yet, he feels inadequate. The only thing that is inadequate is his paycheck. I wish some company would realize what a gem he is and reward him with a fabulous opportunity, but until that happens, he needs to lighten up on himself and realize what he has achieved in his time here. Seriously, how many people go through life thoroughly and unconditionally loved and adored by their families? How many people get the truest friends because they are the truest friends? How many people live lives of righteous goodness, where they naturally help and comfort others?

He’s one of a kind, and that makes him a winner. I just wish he would see it.

GUILTY.

What I want to know is, who changed the rules? I had a lot of time to think about this as I sat in a Tampa courtroom waiting for the judge to consider my case.

Granted, I was guilty. I’d been going 68 in a 50 mph zone, but to my credit, I truly didn’t know I was speeding. I was driving in an unfamiliar area on a six-lane highway in a rural area that was virtually empty on a Saturday afternoon. I assumed the limit was “fast.” Apparently, not that fast.

In my rear-view mirror, I saw a late model, brown Mustang with a Harley Davidson plate on the front speeding up behind me. What happened next was something out of a science fiction movie.  That Mustang morphed into a light-flashing, no-mercy-whatsoever Florida trooper.

You know what a stop sign looks like, so you know when to stop. You know what a yield sign looks like, so you know when to yield. You know what a state trooper looks like and you know when to slow down and pretend you are going the speed limit. How unfair it is that the state I love would betray me by using decoy cars to trap me, a loyal taxpayer. Shouldn’t we have a fighting chance, especially since the cost of tickets have skyrocketed as the state seeks more sources of revenue?

I asked the trooper to consider my good driving record and he said, “I don’t even look it up. You can go to court and try and work it out there.” I live more than an hour away, but the ticket was in excess of $300 and I was ticked off that I’d gotten it. I had visions of standing up and protesting on behalf of all speeders betrayed by decoy troopers, but I sold those principles right out when the the judge told us that, if we had no tickets in the previous two years, he’d withhold adjudication, erase the points, make sure the insurance company didn’t find out and reduce the fine. Just for showing up.

Sold.

Your Place in the Universe

A Reality Check for Those Who Have Great Realities

The Cancer is Back, And There is Life…

deanne-robertsI just read the health update posted for Deanne Roberts, a community leader and businesswoman in Tampa that I have long-admired. I can’t tell you how much it hurt to read, “Since learning last month that my original cancer metastasized to the lungs…”

I’d thought she’d made it to the other side of cancer, but cancer rarely behaves as expected.

Deanne (pictured right) described a new regiment of chemo — three days in a row, every three weeks — that hopefully will send the cancer back into remission.

From her home in Maine, she writes, “I’m wrapping my mind around the fact that my life will be shorter than I always thought. Yet, two old friends from Tampa recently succumbed to unexpected, quick heart attacks so who EVER knows about these things?”

Who ever does? I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I have had with people who are, financially, driving on fumes. They are down to the last eighth of a tank in their savings account, wondering what is going to happen when they spend that last dollar. It seems so hopeless. But then I read what Deanne wrote and it hit me that all any of us can do is LIVE. Find life and joy in our days, regardless of the challenges we face. Besides, I guarantee you that any life challenge is minimal compared to a re-occurrence of cancer that has moved into the lungs.  

Deanne writes that, since she needs to gain weight, she’s chowing down on ribs, brownies and ice cream.  She’s seeing friends and family who are getting her through these challenges.  She finishes by saying, “Thanks for being part of my journey. I am at peace in a place I love.”

Faced with what is ahead of her, she still radiates light, strength and perspective. She has learned that all she can do is live her life — whatever that life may be. The challenge is the same whether you are facing terminal cancer or financial problems. LIVE, regardless. Connect to the people you love. Don’t surrender to the negative. Hang onto hope.

God bless Deanne Roberts.

Fawn Germer is the best-selling author of five books and an international corporate speaker focused on leadership and performance.

This can’t be.

I am still shaken by Steve Persall’s column about a former co-worker of mine who morphed from a solid newspaper reporter into a crack-addicted, homeless woman after she was laid off two years ago. He didn’t name her, but it didn’t take long to find out her identity and realize it was someone who I liked, someone whose work I respected.

To be sure, this is not a story of hard times turning a once stellar professional into a homeless drug addict. She has a history with depression and mental illness. Severe mental illness ran in her family.

I don’t know what triggered her fall, but it breaks my heart to read that this beautiful woman has spent nights curled up on the streets, being beaten up or urinated on by men.

Most reporters have written at least a few stories about once-successful professionals who fell down and became street people and crack addicts. I have never known a journalist to actually have the same experience. It seems so unlikely. She was too intelligent. Too beautiful. Too exposed to the consequences of drugs. But, she’s still suffering, and I wonder if she will ever traverse the chasm between lost cause and respectability.

I hope she will write a book about her experience. Sure, there have been other stories of people who have suffered the same ordeal, but she can write. I wish she’d remember and use her talent. I wish she could come back to a safer, saner world. As it is, it’s too sad.

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