The way you think, act and carry yourself is impacting the world

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Although this blog is devoted to developing the visual component of personal style, the most important elements of style are the way that we think, act and carry ourselves. Our thoughts, words and deeds have power to influence the people around us more than anything we could wear, drive or own, but this is something that we forget very easily. 

Remember you have influence, and it's your purpose to use it for good

A couple of years ago, I was on a really tough project with a demanding schedule and difficult client. Although I tend to be an optimist, I allowed it to get me down and complained to my trusted colleagues, husband and friends as an outlet for my negative energy. 

A few months into the project, my boss pulled me into a conference room and said: "Colleen, I get that this is tough, but I need you to remember your purpose. The junior staff on this project look to you as their example of how to act. They're like sponges, and you need to think about whether you're teaching them the right way to handle themselves."

Ouch, right? But I needed to hear it. I was literally infecting others with my negativity. Stepping out of my self-centered view of that situation and considering it my job to guide these new analysts by setting an example for them inspired me to re-frame my perspective. Simply recalling that brief discussion with my boss has helped me stay positive in many challenging situations after I left that project. It also helped me to reflect on all of the people in my life who have had an enormous positive impact on my direction and probably don't even realize it.

(P.S. The dog is Sophie, my little boxer mutt, who spreads so much love it's ridiculous. And a little fear too, for the runners she chases. Can't be perfect all the time.)

Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier

When I was in middle school, I had a wonderful teacher who somehow intuitively knew how out of place I felt as a skinny, bespectacled oddball violinist-slash-painter who read a book every week. She once pulled me aside, and told me to think of every person in my life who believed in me, loved me, spent time with me, and had an investment in who I was meant to be, and to remember them when I felt like giving up on something I cared about. Then she gave me a printout of this E.E. Cummings poem on being true to yourself and told me that someday I would realize why it's a good thing to be different. (I can recite it by memory even to this day.)

This conversation got me through the rest of middle school, and some rough patches in high school. One conversation I had at 12 years old helped shape my mindset today. It's funny how easy it is to recall the people who've influenced you in positive ways. It makes it obvious that each of us has power over others in our world, and that it's our choice whether to use that power in a negative or positive way. 

*Cheeseball warning: the remainder of this post is going to get really misty-eyed and sentimental, continue at your discretion...*

To inspire myself to do a better job "paying it forward" and being cognizant of my ability to influence others in a positive way, I made a list of all the people in my life who helped to shape the best parts of who I am. I'm sharing part of that list here in hopes that it will inspire you to reflect on who those people have been to you and how you can "pay it forward" to those around you.

In no preferential order…


#1 My mom, for demonstrating every day what it means to put others first

She's an elementary school special education teacher who embodies what it means to be kind and patient. She also single-handedly fed a family of eight and managed to keep the house clean, throw fabulous dinner parties, volunteer at the hospital every Saturday and hand out communion every Sunday. She is also an incredible listener, extremely thoughtful, and has a circle of lifelong friends so big that it almost made me guilty to accept so many presents at my bridal shower. She gives amazing advice on a wide range of life topics, including dealing with mean people: "Any time someone says rude things about you behind your back, take it as a compliment because it means you have something they want" and marriage: "Before you criticize Wes, remember the things he has to put up with about you." She's also the best company to share a couch, blanket, bottle of wine and a bag of SkinnyPop.

#2 My dad, for teaching all of his children the importance of thinking critically, having a sense of humor, and treating everyone the same

He spent years demanding his children to bring the dictionary to the dinner table and look up words they used but could not define, consequently leading to high SAT scores, snap judgments of people who use big words incorrectly, and a mild distaste for mainstream media. He's a litigator who laughs at his own jokes, considers the doormen part of his social circle and occasionally takes homeless people out to lunch. He single-handedly supported a family of eight while reminding each of his children that he owned everything about them and managed a demanding schedule of family chores that led (almost) all of us to develop great work ethics and have zero desire to ever live in his basement. He has an incredible amount of hope and belief in the people he loves, even when all the facts might be working against him. He is also quite possibly the least materialistic person you will ever meet and an "old school minimalist" who truly believes you really only need three pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, and a good winter coat.

#3 My grandma, for being the brightest example of why life's better as an optimist and demonstrating exactly how one should giving zero "cares" about the opinions of negative people. 

(I wrote a tribute to her memory here.)


#4 My husband Wes, for showing me how much fun it is to let go, be yourself and live life according to your own standards

One of the first things I admired about him (besides his crisply pressed dress shirt and handsomeness) was his sense of self. In the nearly 6 years we've been together, Wes has never wavered on who he is and what he wants. He has an infectious enthusiasm for life, an amazing sense of humor, and strong sense of justice and can be extremely charming and very edgy depending on the circumstance. His wit, intelligence and natural curiosity constantly keep me on my toes. I'm not sure that I've ever seen him embarrassed or self-conscious. He's a natural risk taker who is willing to learn, flex and change in order to get where he wants to go. He's incredibly loyal, sometimes to a fault. He's extremely brave, the first to put himself in harm's way to help others (except when it comes to centipedes and other basement-dwelling critters). He is the best influence on my life, career and creative ventures, pushing me to stop questioning and doubting myself and instead put my energy in going after what I want.

#5 My mother-in-law, for demonstrating the power of incredible fortitude and generosity 

Carolyn is an astounding woman. Her life story deserves a separate post but here it goes in a nutshell: she built an empire from the ground up entirely on her own, got married and helped her husband build a second empire, adopted my now-husband, raised him into the best possible man he could be, and bought a bazillion rental homes and helps her tenants get their acts together to lead better lives. Oh, and while doing all of that, she also taught herself to be a gourmet-grade cook and travel the world. Literally every time I call her she is off exploring some new place. Last but certainly not least, she showers me and my husband in generosity, taking us to see places we couldn't possible afford to on our own; cooking, cleaning and caring for us; and passing along a seriously amazing collection of fine jewelry that I cherish. (Such as a 1970's antique gold-and-opal ring that I've worn on my right-hand ring finger every day since she gave it to me.) She also does this for everyone she loves in her life, and somehow still saved for retirement. Sorry, Marissa Mayer, but you don't really have much on Carolyn.

#6 My sister Karen, for showing me and all of my siblings the power of personal responsibility 

There are not many people who I would follow blindly over a cliff, but Karen is pretty much #1 on the list. She's unquestionably one of the most focused, driven, successful and responsible people I have ever met and I say with 100% certainty that having her as my older sister has made my life and path easier. She can bring order to our raucous group of siblings with a degree of efficiency that causes us to both fear and admire her. There have been countless occasions where Karen took the backseat, gave up the last slice of pie, or took dish duty when it wasn't her night to demonstrate to me and my siblings the power of taking the high road. There are so many things that I've learned by watching her, it is impossible to count. She gives her time, money and attention freely, to anyone who asks or needs her. There are literally hundreds of employed millennials in America who got their foot in the door of some company because they spoke to Karen Kelly, took her advice and benefited from whatever connection she passed along. Copying everything I could from her was one of my best life decisions. (I even have a mental hashtag for this: #wwkd, which stands for "What Would Karen Do?") She is having a baby girl in three weeks who will definitely be the president or cure cancer.


#7 My sister Patty, for demonstrating the power of diplomacy and the importance of quality time

If you met Patty, you'd love her immediately. She has the rare ability to make whoever she is speaking to feel like they are her best friend to the degree that they tell her everything they know. She does this almost methodically in our family, and I think carries around the deepest, darkest secrets of all our siblings. Which she is normally keeps in a lock box unless overserved and the right opportunity surprises it out of her.  She is calm and even keeled, but will not be pushed around. If that line is crossed, she will strike with the most overwhelming force that you won't dare try it again. Patty is the one person in my life, besides my mom, who can truly calm me down in life's most stressful situations and make me feel like everything is really going to be OK. The night before my flight to move my entire life out-of-state after college graduation, Patty sat with me on my parent's patio and talked me back into believing it was really a good idea to do what I was about to do. And I thought about her advice often to reassure myself as I sat freezing in my beige cubicle second-guessing myself. If she ever lives more than 2 miles away from me again, I don't know what I'll do.


#8 My sister Meghan, for being a living example of "joie de vivre" and the "you do you" brand of willpower the world may not be ready for

Meghan doesn't realize this, but our whole family admires and fears her absolute, unstoppable will. It's both her biggest strength and Achilles' Heel, but has helped her shape a life path that is truly her own. Where I followed in my older sister's carefully planned steps, Meghan ran as fast as she could in the opposite direction. She has an uncanny ability of seeing the good in people. She is the only person on Earth who has gone toe-to-toe with Paul Kelly in an argument and won, hands down, and then convinced him to think it was his idea in the first place. If she could somehow bottle this skill and sell it, she would be a billionaire. She knows who she is and what makes her happy, and does not apologize for it. She's the funniest person whose SnapChats routinely make me laugh so hard I cry. And, she's also just really fun to be around in general.

#9 My brother Tom, for showing what it means to be self-made

Tom is literally a self-made man. Sure, he had a few legs up given the family background he was born with, but he's done everything he can in life to make it for himself. But he never talks about it. In fact, he never talks about himself at all. (Probably because the rest of us were so busy talking he couldn't get a word in…) Most of what I know is from relentless prying, reading his mail, and from my mom. He's had a job of some sort for as long as I can remember. He paid for his entire college education himself, I'm pretty sure in cash. He joined the Army Reserves and spends one weekend per month training. He's on a hockey team, volunteers at the parks district and actually gives pretty good unsolicited advice with all of that time he saves from never mentioning any details about his own life. (I should also mention that he makes a mean waffle and animals flock to him as they would to Mary Poppins.)

...this list grows into the hundreds, with aunts, uncles, cousins,  beloved friends, colleagues and even baristas and hotel concierge staff. I figured you won't stay with me for that long, so I'll be sprinkling them in to future posts... 

This exercise, by the way, is incredibly uplifting, inspiring and made me feel so grateful for the amazing people in my life. Reading through it makes me want to be a better person for all those people who have helped me. Let me know if you decide to do this, would love to hear your stories!

4 comments on "The way you think, act and carry yourself is impacting the world"
  1. This is such a lovely and moving article Colleen, and so sweet to see you and your family! it's really special, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. My background is very different but I also have a loving family, although we are very different say, than most Americans, we don't even hug each other(i know, my colleague could not believe it when I told her), but we love and care each other deeply.

    Anyway, I want to say is how important family is to us and how they have impact on us. We are lucky to have a great supportive family, that's really something to feel grateful for.

    Enjoy your weekend. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing!
    echo

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    1. Hi Echo, thank you so much for your comment - I always look forward to reading your thoughts! I love hearing about other family "cultures" and how they express love - and yes, unusual that your family doesn't hug (you'd be force-hugged in our house) but as you say the emotion is the same even if the expression varies (my family doesn't verbally say "I love you" which some find odd). Have you read the Five Love Languages? It's so eye opening to the different forms that people demonstrate that they care. A really quick read that made me think!

      Hope you have a great week!

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  2. Dear Colleen,

    What a delightful post! I have enjoyed reading about your family so much even if you couldn't tell by looking at me at the time as I was literally sobbing my eyes out! That's ok though - those were "good" tears :)

    Your family sounds absolutely lovely, and it's truly heartwarming to read about how they - each of them in their special way - have helped shape who you are. And from what I can tell, you, in turn, did your part by being receptive to that loving motivation and encouragement. You could say that that's how it should be (and you'd be right, of course) but we all know that sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. That makes your experience even more special.

    Your post made me miss my family, all of whom are in Europe, even more than usual. My husband and I have made a good life in the US, but when it comes to leaving our family behind I feel like we've paid a really big price. (It makes us treasure the few close relatives of his who live here so much more.)

    Just a few observations. First, your mom is wonderful. Can she adopt me? Second, the photo of your dad and you at your wedding - priceless! Third, your siblings are wonderful. Can I adopt them? (Heck, you can throw your husband in, too!:) And fourth, thank you for posting pictures with a glass in your hand; it makes me feel better about seeing all those snapshots of myself, getting caught in the act.

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    1. Ivanka, thank you so much for your comment on this! Hearing about how you and your husband are so far from your family in Europe really made me think about how I'd feel if mine were that far - it must be really tough for you, and for them. Although we are lucky to have technology and fast planes, there's nothing quite like having your mom right next to you on the couch when you really need her.

      Also your observations made me laugh! My mom would gladly adopt you - she has many pseudo-children she's picked up along the way with her big heart! Not sure you'd want all the siblings and husband - they are a handful when all together LOL! And yes to glass in hand, enjoying responsibly with family :-) I think it's good to document those fun moments as well as the more posed serious ones! Hope you have a great week, thanks again for reading!

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