9/15/2019

On being … calmer


By Ingrid Sapona

A major Canadian grocery store chain (Sobeys) recently announced it’s introducing “sensory-friendly” shopping hours. The first I heard of this was in a newscast that I had tuned into half way through. So, the only detail I caught was that store lighting would be reduced. When I heard that, I assumed the rationale was energy-saving, which I’m all for.

It turns out, however, there’s a lot more to the initiative than just reduced lighting. The program is designed to accommodate people with autism. According to Autism Ontario, many with autism are hypersensitive to lights and sounds. I had heard about those challenges, but I never really thought about how that might impact something as common as grocery shopping.

News stories about Sobeys’ announcement explained what this means to folks touched by autism – parents with children on the autism spectrum and adults with it. One woman with a daughter with sensory challenges welcomed the news, noting that grocery shopping is the task she dreads most, given her daughter’s issues. Another customer who shopped in one of the stores in Sobeys’ pilot said she was never able to take her daughter shopping. She was thrilled that her daughter could – for the first time ever – pick out her own treat at the grocery store. Ah, the things we take for granted …

The comments by adults with autism were just as moving. One woman explained that she and her partner usually shop together so that if there’s something they need in an aisle that’s “potentially overstimulating”, her partner can go and get it. An example of an aisle she usually finds challenging is one with lots of different smells, like those that emanate from laundry detergent and cleaning supplies. I have some idea of what she meant, since most of the chemical “fresh” scents give me a headache. So, I generally avoid those aisles too, unless I need something. But, while there might be one or two aisles that I skip, that woman said that in a normal grocery store, her partner ends up having to get about 70% of their groceries.

The adjustments Sobeys makes during its sensory-friendly hours are more extensive than I thought would be possible. For example, they dim the lights 50%. They ensure the store is as quiet as possible by not playing any music and not making announcements. They also silence the scanners (all those beeps) and registers. As well, during those hours they don’t gather up shopping carts and they encourage staff to speak more softly.

When they tested the idea in a few stores, they were concerned that with the lights so low, folks might think the store was closed or having a problem. But, when anyone asks about the changes, staff simply explain they’re trying to make the store more inclusive and welcoming to folks with sensory challenges. The feedback they got during the pilot was positive – and not just from folks on the autism spectrum. Some shoppers said they appreciated the quieter experience and others said they liked it because they found it relaxing.

I think the idea is fantastic – and not just because it could help people with autism. Creating quieter, calmer places is a worthy goal in itself. Everywhere we go we’re assaulted with sounds and smells. Only a handful of them are naturally occurring (the sound of birds chirping, dogs barking, food cooking, the smell of fresh cut grass, and so on). On top of that there’s the human-made background noise from traffic and talk and the constant hum of things like refrigerators and air conditioners. As if all that’s not enough of an assault on our senses, there’s “background music” and perfumes and “mountain fresh scents” added – all in hopes of drowning out other noise and masking other smells.

I truly believe most of us are overstimulated. For proof you need look no further than at the phenomenon of noise cancelling headphones or folks turning to people like Marie Kondo, who makes a living promoting techniques for bringing calm and serenity into homes.

I can’t wait to try shopping in a sensory-friendly environment, and I hope others will try it too. I think Sobeys’ efforts will raise awareness in more ways than they anticipated. Indeed, if nothing else, I think the contrast between normal grocery shopping the experience of shopping during these special hours will help folks appreciate just how much stimuli we’re bombarded with every day. I’ll bet this ends up appealing to a far broader spectrum of folks than just those diagnosed with autism and sensory challenges.

What about you? Would you go out of your way to shop in a sensorially calmer store? Do you think such changes would enhance – or detract from – your grocery shopping experience? Are there any other places you’d nominate for a sensory-friendly makeover?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona



8/30/2019

On being … in with the In Crowd?


By Ingrid Sapona

A couple weeks ago I read that an Ontario municipality (Richmond Hill) is going to provide residents with the option to pay their property tax using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. As it happens, Richmond Hill’s the second Ontario municipality to do so – the town of Innisfil was the first to allow this. Innisfil has had a “Pay with Bitcoin” option on its website since April. 

My initial reaction was, “Say what?”, quickly followed by a suspicious “WHY?”

Seems a Toronto-based “payment processing company” called Coinberry has entered into agreements with these municipalities to facilitate such payments. Coinberry, which describes itself as a financial technology company, runs a platform where people can buy, sell, and “remit” Bitcoin. When a property owner clicks on the Pay with Bitcoin option on their municipality’s site, they’re then connected to the Coinberry app. The property owner electronically sends Bitcoin to Coinberry, who then converts the Bitcoin to Canadian dollars and pays the town.

Richmond Hill’s deputy mayor is quoted as saying this option’s no different than going to your bank and converting your Euros or Pounds into Canadian currency. That may be so, but Bitcoin’s been more volatile than traditional hard currency, so there’s some currency exchange fluctuation risk. Though Coinberry says it will “instantly” (that’s the word in their press release) convert the Bitcoin to Canadian funds, if there’s a price change during the transaction process, the property owner will have to make up any shortfall.

Given that the towns don’t actually end up with Bitcoin, Coinberry’s basically a middle man – an intermediary. Before Coinberry came to them with this “solution”, did Innisfil have a payment processing problem? Previously, Innisfil residents could “only” pay via phone or internet baking, credit card (using another third party service provider), cheque (via mail or dropped off in a box at the front entrance of the Town Hall), or pay in person using cash (presumably Canadian currency), cheque, or debit card at the Town Hall during normal business hours. And, if you have a mortgage, your mortgage company can pay your property tax. Come on – aren’t those enough options? I guess not…

According to Coinberry, credit card companies charge municipalities about 3% but Coinberry charges 0.5%. So, Coinberry’s service is arguably more cost effective than credit card payments. But I still have trouble seeing the need for such an option. Innisfil’s website explains that over 5% of Canadians currently own some form of cryptocurrency. Innisfil has about 36,000 residents and, assuming my interpretation of recent census data is correct, about 8,700 of them are home owners. So, maybe 435 Innisfil property owners hold some cryptocurrency. Interestingly, the lone Richmond Hill counsellor who voted against the idea did so because there was “no evidence whatsoever to support this new service”. I guess he doesn’t think they need to cater to the (apparently) 5% of Canadians who own cryptocurrency.

Cynics might wonder how much Coinberry “wined and dined” counsellors (if not actually greased some palms) in its effort to persuade these municipalities to offer this new “solution”. But even assuming nothing fishy was going on, what’s really motivating these politicians?

The answer appears to have a lot to do with wanting to be seen as modern and cutting edge. Innisfil’s website says it’s offering this because, “Innisfil facilitates innovative solutions to everyday issues that enhance our residents’ quality of life…”. Seems to me the folks whose quality of life might be improved by this venture is primarily folks who own Coinberry – not the town residents, but never mind.

Bragging rights also seem at play here. In a Coinberry-issued press release Innisfil’s mayor, who describes the new payment option as “exciting”, is proud to be the first to take this “bold step”. As she sees it, “By getting into this now, we are making sure our municipality is ahead of the game, and signaling to the world that we truly are a future-ready and innovative community.” I’m not sure what game they were concerned they might fall behind in, but never mind.

And it’s not just the towns that are claiming bragging rights. Coinberry now proudly boasts it’s “the only blockchain based cryptocurrency platform to have secured partnerships and provide solutions to two Canadian Municipalities – making it the leading and most trustworthy platform in Canada.”  No doubt Coinberry will use this as a selling feature to other towns – after all – who wouldn’t want to be associated with THE leading platform?

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s good when politicians are open to change and innovation – and there’s nothing wrong with a town fostering the image of being hip. But, I can’t help think there are other pressing, real problems these politicians should be spending more time trying to find innovative solutions to.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona

8/15/2019

On being … an inflection point

By Ingrid Sapona

Today’s column was inspired by a recent Smarter Living column by Tim Herrera in the New York Times. In that column, Herrera was musing about work habits and how perfectionist tendencies can get in the way of productivity. He used his own habit of starting a column and then putting it aside, returning to it “every few days, reworking the same few sentences” as an example. He described this behaviour as being an editing and re-editing spiral and dolefully admitted that the end product is probably no better as a result of the “incremental faux-progress”. Boy could I relate!

Herrera went on to talk about strategies for managing such behaviour. One that I found particularly thought provoking related to “inflection points”. Rather than paraphrasing what Herrera said, here’s a paragraph from his column that talked about it:

“At some point, we must remind ourselves, any changes we make to a creation no longer make it better but just different (and sometimes worse),” Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today on the topic of just getting things done. “Recognizing that inflection point – the point at which our continuing to rework our work reaches a law of diminishing returns – is one of the hardest skills to learn, but also one of the most necessary.”

I find the idea of an inflection point beyond which what you’re really doing is just making things different quite useful. If for no other reason, assessing whether you’re at an inflection point is helpful because it involves stepping back and considering whether it makes more sense to continue spinning or to go on and take the next step. So, for example, when I’m in a re-writing spiral, by considering if I’m at an inflection point, my focus shifts from trying to find the perfect way of expressing an idea to deciding whether it’s better to publish and get the idea out there, trusting that what I’ve written is reasonably clear.

Indeed, there are other ways I think applying the idea could be useful. For example, have you ever found yourself in a decision-making spiral where you’re just weighing and re-weighing various factors? When that happens, maybe it would be helpful to look at it as a possible point of inflection. In other words, stop and ask yourself if you’ve considered all the relevant factors and – assuming you have – consider whether making a decision and moving forward from the inflection point is a better choice than continuing to spin.

I also love the idea that recognizing when you’re at an inflection point is a learnable skill. I have to admit, when I first read that, I was skeptical. But, in thinking about the actual steps that might be involved in applying it to different situations (like writing and decision-making), I can see how it’s something you can train yourself to do.

So, putting this new skill into practice, I recognize I’m at an inflection point for this column. I could go on, talking more about why the idea so grabbed my imagination. But instead, I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether becoming better at recognizing inflection points might be helpful in your work and life.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona

7/30/2019

On being … invisible


By Ingrid Sapona

The other day I was meeting a friend for dinner after work and I decided to walk to the restaurant because it was a lovely summer day. Rather than taking the most direct route, I decided to walk through the University of Toronto campus. Whenever I go through the campus, I take note of the different banners that adorn the light stanchions. I’ve always loved such banners: they’re festive and they’re always a signal that something special’s happening or coming.

In the case of the banners around U of T, they remind passers-by of the importance and benefits of the University. For example, some banners feature the name of a prominent alum or faculty member along with information about that individual’s achievements. Others promote discoveries that are somehow related to the University, like Banting and Best’s discovery of insulin.

Because of my extended, leisurely stroll through the campus, that afternoon I read all the banners I came across. There was a series of banners with the word BOUNDLESS across the bottom. All of them seemed to relate to research I figure was being done at the University. One in particular caught my eye – it read: INVISIBILITY: SCIENCE FACT OR SCIENCE FICTION? It also featured a drawing clearly meaning to conjure up Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.

I loved that the banner did exactly what I imagine the banner designer intended: it caused me to stop dead in my tracks and smile AND think about the question. As I pondered the answer, I realized I was in the part of the campus that hosts hard science faculties. That, I figured, had lots to do with the wording of the question.

Indeed, I immediately thought that the question of invisibility isn’t just relevant for those studying physical sciences. As it happens, the phenomenon of invisibility’s been on my mind a lot lately, but from a sociological perspective. I’ve been thinking about the different ways people have of making other people seem – or feel – invisible.

The feeling of being “unseen” is a common complaint among seniors, for example. As proof, they often point to all the marketing aimed at younger folks. But, beyond reminders that one’s not in the coveted demographic, I’ve been in many situations where others’ subtle behaviours have made me feel invisible.

For example, I’ve been in business meetings where it’s clear some people in the meeting had information that a few of us didn’t. When this fact subtly surfaces, it’s often clear it’s not meant to hurt or alienate. (By contrast, I was recently at a meeting when someone said: “I’m privy to information that you aren’t…”. When the person didn’t elaborate, it was clear to all that it was a power trip.) In any event, the result’s the same – those not “in the know” may as well be invisible.

Ignoring people’s calls, emails, or comments is another way people make others invisible. Again, I’m not necessarily saying that such behaviour is intentional – I’m just talking about the impact of such actions (or lack of action). No fancy invisibility cloak is needed: the person left hanging, unacknowledged is, in effect, invisible.

The question posed on that banner – and my admittedly weird riff on it – got me thinking about whether – or how – I might treat others as invisible. As I made my way to the restaurant, I couldn’t think of ways in which I might be doing so. In a business context, for example, I always respond quickly, even if my initial response is that I’ll get back to them. The same with responding to friends. Whew, I thought… not guilty…

But, given that the topic had been percolating through my mind of late, I thought it would be something I’d feature in a column. Then, as these things so often go, it came to mind last night as I was stopped at a traffic light. The road had a centre median and up ahead I saw a man walking down the row of stopped cars holding out a cup for change.

This gentleman said nothing and did nothing other than hold out his cup as he paused by every car. None of the drivers – myself included – gave him anything. In fact, as he approached my car, I consciously avoided making eye contact. After he passed, I watched him in my rear view mirror and I saw that the person behind me did the same thing.

As I sat there waiting for the light, I began to feel bad because I realized I had done my best to make him invisible. Regardless of the reason he was panhandling, as a fellow human being I should have recognized his existence by at least making eye contact with him. Shame on me…

I don’t think there’s any question that invisibility is a fact. Maybe there should be a banner with the question: Invisibility: What can we do to combat it?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona

7/15/2019

On being … when to?


By Ingrid Sapona

Wimbledon 2019 wrapped up this weekend. I don’t really follow tennis, and I didn’t watch any of the tournament. But, it’s hard to avoid hearing about it while it’s going on. This year, one of the biggest stories about the tournament happened before I was even aware it had started. I’m talking about 15-year-old Cori Gauff’s first round win over Venus Williams.

The news reports focused mainly on the young Gauff, which is as it should be, as it was her moment in the sun. She certainly sounds like an impressive, poised young woman. It was heartwarming to hear that after the match when she shook hands with Venus, Gauff thanked her for everything she’s done for the sport. Apparently, Gauff idolized the Williams sisters growing up and said they were the reason she wanted to pick up a tennis racket. Imagine going up against an idol the very first time you’re at Wimbledon…

When I heard the story of the young phenom beating the 37-year-old I immediately wondered what Venus’ reaction was. It didn’t surprise me to hear that she was gracious. Apparently, when they shook hands, Venus congratulated Gauff and encouraged her to “keep going” and she wished her good luck. But it wasn’t what she said that I was thinking about.

I was wondering how Venus felt and whether – in the days after the tournament ends – this particularly newsworthy loss might weigh heavier than others. I wondered whether – or how – it might impact a decision she must face at some time: whether to retire from singles competition. Given her health issues, I imagine she’s been thinking about it for quite awhile. (She’s been public about the fact that she has Sjörgen’s syndrome, which is a horrible sounding autoimmune disease.) And, I’m sure she understands that even for those without health issues, it’s rare to remain competitive as a singles player as you near your 40s.

In the business world, the issue of when it’s time for someone to leave is often couched in a discussion of “succession planning”. That has a nice, noble ring to it, doesn’t it? But, I always wonder whether the person whose successor is being contemplated views it so objectively. If you still feel perfectly capable and enjoy your work, such talk must be hard. Now imagine that you’re facing replacement by a 15 year-old. I know, given that Venus started her Wimbledon career at the ripe old age of 17, perhaps it’s less shocking to her than to a businessperson. But still, I can’t imagine how it feels to be replaced by someone who is not even old enough to drive!

Part of why I found myself dwelling on it is that the issue of when (or whether) to retire is something that comes up a lot these days in my social circle. For many, their decision seems to hinge on economics. In other words, whether they can afford to retire with the lifestyle they’d like. In this regard, some probably envy Venus because that’s not an issue for her. But even when money isn’t an issue, perhaps ego is. I can’t imagine it’s easy for a professional athlete to walk away from their career because they stop winning. (Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if aging fuels professional athletes’ competitive nature even more because maybe they feel they have to prove that they’ve still got it.)

I’ve also been thinking about the cascade of other decisions that follow on as we get older. For example, there’ll be the question of whether to downsize or move into a place that’s more physically accessible. (Ah, those pesky stairs…) Then, at some point there’s the issue of when to give up driving, or when to give up owning a boat or cottage.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not writing about this because I’m down or depressed about facing such eventualities. I’m merely pondering them because I’m a planner by nature and Venus’s inevitable retirement has gotten me thinking about – to borrow a sports metaphor – what a winning approach to making life decisions might look like. My father’s approach was to not leap to action. Instead, he insisted on crossing bridges when you come to them. While that makes good sense, it can be easy to deny that you’re at a bridge. Indeed, I think we’ve all seen situations where people have postponed difficult decisions to their detriment.

So, here’s what I’ve come up with based on a strategy I imagine Venus might apply as she faces the end of her tennis career. I think that rather than focus on what’s ending (a 20+ year professional career), she’ll be focusing on making good decisions about the next phase of her life. I think such a positive approach is key. Of course, it remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to apply this strategy when it comes to some of these decisions as they come up in my life. But, I’ll certainly try to.

What about you? What decisions are you facing in the not too distant future? Any insights you can share about how you might approach such decisions?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona

6/30/2019

On being … deserving?


By Ingrid Sapona

We had a particularly cold and wet spring. In general, I try not to get too fussed about the weather. After all, my livelihood doesn’t depend on it or anything. But I must admit that I did notice my mood was elevated last weekend when we had two warm, sunny days in a row.

On Monday morning I was chatting with a woman about how lovely the weekend was. I was surprised when she said, “Well, we deserve it after the spring we had.” While I couldn’t disagree that the spring was nothing to write home about, I didn’t really agree with her assessment about us deserving good weather. I realize she probably was just making conversation, but her comment got me thinking about my basic discomfort with using the word “deserve”.

I’ve written about other words I’m uncomfortable using. “Absolutely” is a good example. I find it jarring every time I hear it, even though I realize some folks use it simply to show their assent. I can’t use it that way – I’m far too literal to do so. I just don’t think there are that many absolutes in life. (Heck – in my most literal moments, I’d even object to one of the two items in the punchline about death and taxes being the only absolutes in life!)

Wondering if perhaps I’m misconstruing what “deserve” means, I decided to look it up. The dictionary definition was pretty much what I thought. According to Merriam-webster.com, deserve is variously defined as “to be worthy of” and “to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward or requital…”

The idea of merit and worthiness are at the heart of my struggle. I’ve always felt that to merit something you have to do something. Notwithstanding the day-to-day struggles, I don’t think that existing (or surviving a wet spring) earns you any favours or graces. In my mind, such a comment is a sign of an entitlement mentality, which I find offensive.

I don’t know why I feel so strongly about using that word, but I do. Sometimes I wonder if my view comes from some deep-seated Christian guilt, or maybe it’s a self-esteem issue. I don’t know… But, whatever the reason, it’s a feeling I’ve had as long as I can remember whenever someone blithely claims they deserve something. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I think it’s ok to use the word. For example, if I’ve done something well and someone else praises me because they think I deserve the recognition – that’s ok. But for the most part, I don’t see deserving as something one should self-assess.

Realizing my view is pretty narrow, I turned again to the dictionary definition. When I read the definition, I realized I didn’t know what “requital” means. Apparently, a requital is something given in return or as compensation. With that in mind, I guess there’s a bit of room for self-assessment of being deserving. For example, if I’ve worked hard for awhile at something, I might feel deserving of taking a break – as compensation.

I know – this probably sounds like wordplay to many of you. In a way, I suppose it is. But if we’re willing to admit that weather impacts our mood, why is it any less important to think about how we react to words?

Anyway – now you all know that “deserve” is a word that gives me pause. What about you? Are you as literal as me about the concept of being deserving? Or maybe there are other words that trigger reactions in you. What are they and why do you suppose you feel as you do about them?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona

6/15/2019

On being … unlimited


By Ingrid Sapona 

The other day a show on the Ontario public broadcaster (TVO) caught my eye. It’s called Employable Me. One of the series co-producers describes it as “a documentary series featuring job seekers who are determined to prove that having a physical disability or neurological condition shouldn’t make them unemployable.” https://www.ami.ca/category/2411/season 

Turns out, the series is incredibly inspiring and an excellent contribution to the Hope Project I mentioned starting in a January On being…. It also helped me see what a narrow lens I’ve seen the work world through. More on that in a minute…

Each episode features two job seekers. We first meet each job seeker as they walk into an office and sit down across the desk from an off-camera interviewer. With most of them, from the moment you first see them, you can tell there’s something different about them. For some, their physical problem is obvious (for example, they’re wheelchair bound), but with others it isn’t until they begin to talk about their condition that you realize how they’re different.

The next scene shows them in their home environment and we meet their families. The families are remarkably open about the challenges their son, daughter, brother, or sister faces as they venture out into the work world. They’re supportive and guardedly hopeful.

We then tag along as the job seekers meet with a range of professionals who assess their physical and thinking skills, capabilities, and interests. The assessments are fascinating – not the standard personality tests (like Myers-Briggs) that many of us have taken in a workplace setting. Because these individuals have lived with their physical or neurological problems their whole life, they know full well what their limitations are. These professionals help show them (and the viewer) the flip side – the workplace strengths and abilities they have as a result of coping with their limitations. So, for example, these job seekers’ ability to figure out work-arounds shows great problem-solving skills. As well, in a work environment, someone’s obsessive behavior can be seen as a heightened ability to pay attention to detail.

But of all the skills and traits, the most impressive quality each job seeker exhibited was tremendous self-awareness. For example, one gregarious young man who was born with many complex medical issues that he still struggles with, interviewed for a job at a senior’s residence. He teased and joked with the seniors during an art class. You could tell he and the residents enjoyed it and the position would be a great fit. But, he ended up turning down the job because he realized he’d have difficulty handling it when a resident dies. Another woman with Tourette’s knew that because of the energy demanded by her ticks, for her the physical demands of an 8-hour shift is the equivalent of a 16-hour shift. So, in her interview with the company that ended up hiring her, she specifically asked if they could accommodate her on a five or six-hour shift.

After figuring out how their strengths and skill might apply in a work environment, the next part was to me the hardest: finding potential employers to match the candidates with. It’s fine to conclude that a blind young man who enjoys sports and who holds a record in the 100-metre dash should consider a career in athletics. But, to my un-trained – and uncreative mind – that sounded pie-in-the-sky. I couldn’t imagine what kind of job that idea could translate to.

Well, they sent him off to a private boxing gym that was looking for a “member ambassador” that would encourage and motivate members. Hmm… I could see that – this guy has such a positive outlook and the fact that he doesn’t let blindness stop him from competing is motivating. But then, when the gym wanted to see how he did sparring with one of those huge, hanging punching bags – I thought they were kidding. How could they expect this blind guy to learn to spar? Well, the blind guy didn’t seem to think it was odd – he relished the chance to learn it.

The series really opened my eyes about a lot of things. For example, though I’m coming to this revelation too late to benefit much by it in my own career, it’s given me much better appreciation for career counsellors and Human Resource folks. Until this show, I never really saw them as specializing in seeing people’s capabilities and in helping folks achieve their potential. What a gift those professionals are.

The series also makes it very clear that physical disabilities aren’t necessarily career limiters. Indeed, those who have learned to cope with disabilities often have more empathy and are leaders capable of motivating others to achieve their potential. In short, the series has given me great hope as I realize that people are capable of coping with all sorts of challenges.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona

5/30/2019

On being ... proud

By Ingrid Sapona

Some On being … columns feel like they write themselves. This one isn’t one of those.
Today’s column has been a struggle mainly because I’ve been debating about whether it’s too personal to write about. (I know that probably sounds odd, as most columns are pretty personal.) Maybe I should just admit that my struggle with today’s column is because it lays bare something I’ve been judgmental about for a long time. (Funny, I thought – OK, hoped – that admitting that would help the words tumble magically onto the page. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.…)

Anyway – the topic for today’s column came to me when I was at my sister R’s retirement party two weekends ago. R is retiring after 30+ years on the faculty of a U.S. university. The past 12 (or more?) years she’s been associate dean for academic affairs in one of the University’s colleges.

OK – so let me get the embarrassing part out of the way. Though I love and respect both my sisters immensely, I’ve always felt frustrated by what I see as R’s lack of ambition. I know what you’re thinking: you don’t get to be associate dean by accident. But honestly, in a way, she did. She didn’t seek the job out. She was asked/invited to apply for it and then she got it. So, you can see why I’ve always felt she kind of fell into it.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t think she deserved the position. She did. She is incredibly competent and organized. In the latter years of her tenure as associate dean, an increasing part of the work involved resolving complaints against faculty and students. Such issues involved working with diverse teams and crafting fair solutions – two of her particular specialties. And yet, to my way of thinking, if she were ambitious, she’d have proactively sought out such a position or tried to move on to a dean’s position after a few years. I know, pretty judgmental of me…

At her retirement party, the faculty and staff of the college presented her with a beautiful wood box filled with cards printed with thoughtful comments and reflections her colleagues wrote about her. After the party, I was reading the comments and I was moved by all the tributes. But one comment in particular struck me like a bolt of lightning. The comment was to the effect that R never approached things with an agenda. That rang true to me, as I figured no ambition = no agenda.

But the comment didn’t end there. R’s colleague went on to say that because R had no agenda, she always approached things with the best interests of the students and faculty at heart and with the aim of doing what’s right. That was the lightning bolt part. Indeed, it’s precisely because R didn’t have an agenda and ambition for herself and her career, that she was always able to steer toward being fair, finding consensus, and doing what she could to help others.

That last part also made me realize something about R that I’d never focused on before: of us three sisters, she has always been the most people-focused. In other words, her ambition was about forging bonds with others. Indeed, by going about her career in her way and on her own terms (rather than based on her little sister’s terms), she not only fulfill her desire to connect with others, she made a big difference in so many peoples’ lives. Who could ask for anything more from one’s career or life?

As it happens, last night I attended a women’s networking event sponsored by a big law firm. The event and panel of speakers centered around the launch of a book called The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women: Leadership Lessons from The Judy Project, edited by Colleen Moorehead. As you might imagine, the topic of women’s relationship with ambition was front and centre in the discussion. The first thing that stood out to me was the acknowledgement that even successful women find talking about ambition uncomfortable. Boy did I need to hear that, given my wrestling with whether to write about ambition today.

Ms. Moorehead, who hosted the event, kicked off the discussion by explaining that one of the messages that came through from the stories the women execs shared for the book is that women have redefined ambition. Rather than defining ambition based on the model that’s centered on greed and self-promotion, for women ambition tends to be broader and more inclusive. Moorehead calls it a “collective ambition” that manifests itself in ambition for one’s company or one’s team. Man-oh-man, that definition describes R’s version of ambition to a tee.

Before leaving the event, I went up to Ms. Moorehead to tell her how much I enjoyed the event and that I’m looking forward to reading the book. I also told her about the guilt I felt about having misjudged my sister as lacking ambition when, in fact, she’s always had an inclusive ambition. Colleen smiled and nodded.

As I turned to leave, she said, “Just be proud of your sister.” I turned back to look at her and assured her I am very proud of both my sisters and lucky to have them as role models.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona