Monday, January 30, 2012

Experience versus Aesthetics

One of the best examples I have in making the argument between aesthetics and experience – and, to be clear, there are many – is The Platform Bed. 
 J and I once had a platform bed. Well, he had a platform bed. He brought it into my life when we first met and, in the days of early courtship, it was actually pretty cool. I liked that it made the room look modern and sophisticated; I liked it because it was trendy, sexy, and so delightfully anti-suburbia. But mostly I probably liked it because I had my own bed to go home to.

But then we moved in together, and it suddenly became my bed, too – like some kind of awkward stepchild you acquire through marriage. Except that , over time, I openly disliked it, rather than feeling it in clandestine. As such, I had no qualms about my plans regarding the bed’s future: it had to go.

The problem with the platform is actually exactly what you would think: while it looks incredibly cool in a room – I’m the first to admit that the minimalism and artful lines never did get old – the reality of interacting with it was anything but. Getting out of bed each morning was a task. In my early 20’s, I was made to feel like some senior citizen, heaving my body up against gravity each morning only after an excessive amount of effort and will power. Then there was the other critical factor: the bed made our dog eye level with us. This is fine until a.) it’s that time in the morning when he decides it’s time to eat, you think it’s too early to get up, and he's set to convince you otherwise or b.) the moment you realize that three truly is a crowd.

When J moved to Chicago, he left the bed. When I moved a year later, I did too.
I think we all knew it was time to move on.

Every time I see a platform bed in a catalogue, I still feel a little seduced by the sensuality and simplicity. They’re beautiful pieces. They make your room beautiful. And, in the beginning, they make you feel beautiful.

But then I remember the experience of having one, and I again feel fortunate to have a place to sleep that's conducive to me.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

On clubs and crowded trains

Every so often, I like to go clubbing. This surprises some people who know me, as I have evidently been moderately successful at getting folks to see me as a professional, mature individual. But yes -  sometimes - I like to go clubbing.

When I go, I don't wear suggestive clothes. I'm often the girl in the group dressed like she just came from dinner with her folks. I often drink soda water and lime, so I don’t go to get drunk. I dance, usually, but not with anybody in particular, so I don’t go to solicit attention, either.

(I have likely painted an image of being that super dud dancing alone in the corner holding her drink to her face and anxiously sucking her straw. I’m not. At least, I’d like to think I’m not. I go with girlfriends and we dance together. )

So why do I go clubbing? I go, I realized, because it’s one of the few places where you can be incredibly close with a lot of other people. That experience is, for me, is a deeply satisfying one. I feel comforted by closeness.

For me, there's something extraordinarily psychologically soothing about physical proximity. I am deeply affected by “space,” particularly my own, and I find closeness to be tremendously sensual – that is, pertaining to the senses – more than sexual, even when it pertains to clubs. The gratification of crowded spaces holds true in almost any setting with almost any group of people, sexually appealing or not.

I love crowded restaurants. I love tiny apartments; I love roommates. I love busy sidewalks and farmers markets. I feel a sense of connection with fellow passengers on a plane. I love sleeping right against someone else, under a blanket so heavy that my companion inevitably becomes too hot.

I feel disappointed – almost anxious – when a space is too big or there aren’t as many people in it as I sense there should be. I hate king size beds and superfluous square footage. There are few things more depressing than empty city streets, and I find it disheartening to dine in an almost-empty restaurant.

When I shared this with my friend Chris over brunch one Sunday, observing that I felt the restaurant needed not only more diners, but more tables, he laughed. And then, curious as I explained my love of nearness, he asked,

“Do you intentionally choose the most crowded car on the train, too?’
“No,” I mused, “I don’t do that. But if I find myself on a crowded car, I secretly relish it.”

(Incidentally, I would rather take the train or the bus than drive myself. It’s for a number of reasons, but one of them is definitely this.)

For me, one of life’s most beautiful elements is experiences shared with others, and the implied intimacy. And the simpler and more sensual the experience, the more gratifying it is to me.   

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why I hate Vegas (it's not what you think)

Vegas and I don't see eye to eye.

We were destined, from the beginning, to exist apart from one another. For me, Vegas' role will always be the acquaintance kept at arm’s length rather than the hot fling she is for everyone else.

Vegas embodies everything I dislike. It is not because I'm opposed to gambling - I think gambling is fine, in and of itself (and, quite frankly, each time someone writes off my feelings for Vegas as an issue I must instead have with gambling, I kind of write off their intelligence.) Vegas has an identity that runs deeper than gambling. Everyone knows what the issues are; few take the time to name them.

So, in the interest of clarify, here's my critique of Vegas:

·         It’s fake. The lighting is artificial. There are waterfalls falling out of and into nowhere. They pump oxygen into the air. (While I’m at odds with just about all the Vegas properties, it should be said that The Venetian’s “always-3 pm sunlight gondola” gives me some serious heebie-jeebies.) To be clear, I do know that, for many Vegas visitors, the charm lies in the fantasy. People often try to win me over by saying: “it’s like Disneyland!” (Often they emphasize their point by adding “…for adults!”) And yes, I can see the similarity, but that fact would carry a lot more weight if I liked Disneyland. But I don’t. (That shouldn’t surprise you – again, I too see the similarity...)

·          It's maliciously deceptive. This is deeper than artificiality alone. I know that the people around me are being seduced and duped, and I don’t like that feeling. It's like sitting in a bar and watching a nice girl fall for the good-looking, charming guy who dresses well, smells nice, and tells her what she wants to hear. It’s a sinking feeling to later watch her leave with him. She sees him as the materialization of a dream. He sees her one of countless girls with whom he plays out this choreography every single night. And to suggest that she “knew what she was doing" - just like Vegas visitors - while it may be true, doesn’t ease my discomfort that she’s being had – just like so many people who make mistakes because they’ve “fallen for” the casino environment. Knowing this is happening isn't "part of the fun" for me.

·          It's creepy. The "Big Brother" element weirds me out. Folks marvel at the sophistication of Vegas hospitality. I sleep in until 2 pm and the maids will never once knock on my door. The moment I leave my room for more than 5 minutes, though, my bed's made when I get back. That's not "cool." It's creepy.

·         There is no community. Nearly everyone in Vegas is either transient or paid to be a part of the experience. There is no feeling of depth, and there are few genuine "locals" who can actually vouch for anything without being paid to do so. There are no roots and no relationships. (In other words, everyone may “know your name,” but it’s from a place of showmanship rather than sincerity.)

·         There is no substance. Sure, gambling is obviously the biggest revenue for Vegas. The second biggest, however, is conventions and conferences. If your second largest economic driver is empty space, you don't have a soul. Plain and simple.

·         I don’t like the way it makes me feel. Women aren’t regarded very respectfully in Vegas. We don’t just get checked out by men; we get “valued.” Money buys you a lot in Vegas - to most of the guys strolling the casino floors, every woman is there to be paid off, and they have no qualms about eyeing her accordingly. I don’t like that.

To be brutally honest, my sentiment on Vegas is that it’s a place to escape the real world when the reality you’ve built isn’t good enough. And because I so deeply value the process of investing in a rich reality for ourselves, I will always be incompatible with a place that stands for escapism and emptiness.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Everyone likes hugs

My colleague hates hugs.

At least, that's what he told me and the rest of our team at dinner after we left the office last week. He hates hugs.

He also hates feet and handshakes. "They're gross!" He clarified. And he's right - feet and handshakes can be gross - so I let that one go. But it didn't sit right to allow hugs to be grouped alongside sweaty palms and hairy knuckles. So I started giving him hell. We all did.

I mean, who hates hugs?

I listened while the others chimed in. I laughed along. I cut in where it seemed appropriate. I participated in the overall antics. But even while we chided and played along as though he did, in fact, truly hate hugs, on the inside I was thinking:

"he's lying."

He's either lying, or he's in denial.

Everyone - everyone - likes hugs, somewhere deep in their core. To hug is to indulge in one of life's most beautiful pleasures - a gesture deeply ingrained in our psyche. Recall your mother's embrace after the neighbor kid knocked your ice cream to the ground. Think, too, of the way it felt to wrap your arms around a much-missed lover; the drawn-out good-bye to a friend you're not sure you'll ever see again. All of these moments, caught up in a hug. To say they aren't a part of you is to deny a part of yourself altogether.

I felt very deeply for my colleague as he spoke. Amidst the laughing, I felt skeptical. And concerned. And determined to change his perspective.

He's a pretty typical guy: in his 30's (I have a horrible time at guessing ages so I tend to stick with ranges that span ten years. He's about 32-42. Ish.) He's single. He owns a home in central Massachusetts, where our project happens to be.

When I once told him that I thought the area was lovely, he laughed.
He laughed in the way people do when they sense they're being made fun of.
"Yea, well, it's no Vegas."
"I'd rather be here than Vegas," I countered: "Vegas is fake. And pretentious."
(Since that day, the team has chided me for my love of all things "real." Which is okay by me, because it's true.)

He wears a blue shirt every single day. Not the same blue shirt - he has several; they're just all blue. When I once called him out on this, he growled, "I refuse to wear any other color."

He once returned brow-beaten from a meeting that didn't go well, sat down at his desk and lamented:
"Maybe they just didn't like my shirt."
"Well," I chimed in, "that shirt is pretty risque."
It was Brooks Brothers. And blue.
He spent the next several minutes agonizing over how serious I was before I finally convinced him I was actually trying to make him feel better.

He likes dogs and hates sushi. He drinks coffee in the morning. He cheers for his home football team. His first name is one syllable, short for something that's been around forever.

A typical guy. Almost weirdly typical.

And therefore - I wagered - a person who does, in fact, like hugs.

"At the end of this project," I announced, at dinner, in a lull of laughter, "I'm going to give you a hug."
"No you're not." He countered, "I'll take the week off if that's your plan. I'm serious."

And he looked it.

So instead of making him anxious for three months, I gave him one the next day. I did it right after I'd packed up to leave for my flight home. To be entirely honest, I had to work up some courage, after all the "hate" talk the night before. I put my winter coat on, so it wasn't so scary, and after a moment of hesitation, I leaned to where he was sitting at his desk, working, and hugged him, awkwardly, from the side.

And he did not pull away.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A few of my favorite things

1.     waking up 5 minutes before my alarm – or, better yet, waking up early without one – and having time to myself in the morning

2.     simplicity in food – I could live off of salads, hard boiled eggs, apples and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, broken into bites

3.     simplicity in clothing – I could live in wellies, knee-high boots, white denim or trouser jeans, silk tanks or cotton tees

4.     simplicity in space – true loft conversion and the preservation of original features

5.      all animals, but especially horses. and my dog.

6.     sensory experiences: the sound of mourning doves and passing traffic; the psychology of colors

7.     regional design and planning; walking to get from A to B; the concept of public transportation and the experience of using it; street-level retail; analyzing the way lifestyles are built depending on a city's design

8.     travel: the density of cities; open-air markets; the gritty, dirty, “ugly” parts; the design and study of the human experience

9.     book stores and libraries

10.  the ritual of "getting coffee" - particularly in the morning - and the taste of the first Guinness sip

11.  trees: the poetry of their silhouette, the contrast of bright baby leaves against wet tree trunks in the spring; the feeling of being beneath them in the summer

12.  random acts of kindness between strangers; the complexity of the human condition

13.  the color brown: it's the color of what's real (it’s earth, rust, some horses, all skin)

14.  the color orange: it's the color of vivacity and innovation; of brilliance; of challenging the status quo

15.  being critical and disregarding “the way it’s done”

16.  personal finance, saving, career planning, and being forward-focused

17.  spontaneity and surprises in all else

18.   the tactile experience of putting a good pen to a pad of paper; journaling; writing lists

Things like these define us. Life is too short not to dwell on them and build our lifestyles to include as many as we can.

What are yours?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The real first phase of our career

I have already reflected on the phases on my career. And I have forecasted the next phase on the horizon, which is largely in line with - while still an aggressive development of - my current phase.

But beyond that, I know that at some point, I will return to The Real First Phase – the one we suppress before we even realize it’s a phase at all – let alone the most important.

It's the phase we develop as children.

I know, at my core, what my purpose is: I am meant to be an architect.

I  loved combining my brother's Legos and cars to design cities in our basement. I later designed entire worlds for my toy horses - spaces sprawling across my bedroom floor - out of everyday objects. I obsessively sketched dream homes when I was nine. Gazing out the window while driving through low-income areas as a child, I recall informing my dad that "if I were ever the governor, I would build everyone better places to live." ("You can't," he told me, "those people own those houses.") I am exceedingly affected by my environment - my first criteria in choosing a college, after four years in a high school built to withstand bombing, was a "beautiful campus." I feel the psychological impact of space and light. I see beyond the superficial, and I love architecture not for the crown molding and "cool" floorplans, but for designing an enriching experience and beautiful lives.

My ambition was originally stifled because I was (and frankly, still am) repulsed by the salaries associated with the field – which I assert is one of the most invaluable to mankind. Isn't it? We certainly don’t treat it that way. We pay doctors millions to save us in the few moments we need them, but shaft the folks who design the very environments that influence our long-term wellbeing to begin with.

I also felt discouraged by the stifling reality of the field: it's highly hierarchical , and you can spend a decade with a firm without designing much more than a bathroom. You could spend a lifetime never doing anything more meaningful than track homes. I wanted more for myself. And, quite frankly, the field at large.

And, to be honest, I didn't relate to my peers who were pursuing the field, and resented their reasons - ranging from "I want to build houses with slides!" to "I'm gonna build mansions!" It's not the stuff on which society should be built. (Maybe that's why they're tasked with bathrooms for ten years.)

But one day I'll pursue the field. And one day I’ll change the way it’s done.

We all have that real first phase. The one before we understand what a career is supposed to be. What was yours?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A short history of career pursuits

In high school and college, my career development was more or less defined by what I thought I should do. I needed to prove that I could cut it in the real world – I wanted to know that I had a place, and that I had earned it. I also wanted to afford myself choices in life.

And so, at first, my objectives were defined, as many at that age are, by:

The yearning to make money – I went to business school. I chose finance as my major.
But I didn't want to suffer the economic shifts as drastically as those in finance often do, and so with this came:
The desire for stability - i.e., adding the other major: accounting.

When I graduated, I accepted a job in corporate banking, where I spent a year and a half. (Of my life. Of my youth.) It didn't fit, to say the least.

I learned a lot – a little bit about debt structure and probability of default; a whole lot more about how deeply flawed some people – especially those in positions of power – can be.

And it was during those 15 months that – between the job and the coinciding attempts at earning my Masters in Accounting – I realized two of my most life-changing truths:

1.     I hate convention. I hate rules. I hate letting details reign over my work. I hate hierarchies. And I hate being governed by “the way it’s done.” So it almost goes without saying that I hated corporate banking. And accounting. Hated.

2.     But more importantly, I realized: you create your own stability in life. If you’re scrappy and tenacious and good at learning to be great, you’ll create your own job security. Once I realized this truth, I began preparing to jump ship.

I spent an almost inconceivable amount of time in my cubicle at the bank doing what I called “soul-searching” – seemingly circular, possibly repetitive but absolutely comprehensive research and self-reflection. I looked at astrology; I colored my parachute; I took every self-assessment I could find. I read tirelessly about career development and happiness. So when my boss pulled me aside at year end and, eyeing me from between her blinders, asked me if I’d (please) consider moving on from the company, I knew what I was going to do. So I said yes.

(She pulled me aside a few weeks later to retract her suggestion, asking if I’d like to make the bank part of my “long-term plan.” Had I had any doubt in my decision prior to that moment, that proposition – and the evidence it provided on her competence as a manager – would have most certainly quashed it.)

And so on I went to the next phase, defined by:

The yearning to touch clients directly
The desire for influence – to add real value.

I hated being in the cubicle. I knew with certainty that I wanted to speak directly to the client. I also knew I liked travel, and would never aspire to a plush corner office. And, lastly, I knew I wanted to see my day to day work add direct value. Those truths made consulting a natural channel.  

In my search, I must have gone through thousands of company websites and sent out over a hundred resumes to secure interviews with about a dozen firms. I accepted one offer and quit the job four months later. Just a few months after that, I found the one I was looking for.

(During this transition, I also bootstrapped an overall 50% increase in salary in less than a year (8 months, to be exact.) It pays to know what you’re looking for, what you need, and what you bring to the table.)

And I already know the next phase – the soft elements not being satisfied in my current role:

The yearning to create.
The need to strike out on my own

And so the time will likely come to pursue those. Until then, I’m enjoying the sense of achievement in having realized phase 2 (as well as that earned by leaving phase 1 in the dust.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In work as in love

At The New Job, I was assigned the task of "mentoring my mentor" - giving him advice, much like he is giving me, on the sort of things on which I may be more informed.

So, while he helps me become a manager, I am helping him get his lifestyle enough in order to find a significant other.

The task seemed straightforward enough. So I took some time on a flight to put together a PowerPoint (yes, a PowerPoint - we are professionals, after all) outling the steps he should take to find The One:

1. Map out your values... so that you can look for someone who shares them
2. Identify your strengths... so that you can emphasize them when you meet her.

Seems simple enough, right? I thought so.

When our Director of HR saw the 20-slide document I'd put together, however, she was amazed, quickly shooting off an email that read: "Wow - I love this! I feel like you've done this before!"

I replied that, although I had, in fact, never before played "match-maker," the strategy in doing so was almost identical to the one I had researched, fine-tuned, and employed in finding the position I now held. (I got the job because I knew what I was looking for. And I knew what I was bringing to the table.)

(Her reply to this was, quite simply: "fascinating.")

So, here's the point:
Whether it's your dream job or your soulmate, there are but a few high-level introspective exercises that will get you what you want.

1. What are your values?
2. What are your strengths?

The first will help you identify positions or people that share or complement your deepest desires.
The second will win them over.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happiness Over Hotel Rewards

When I first got the consulting gig, one of the most popular conversations with my new colleagues surrounded the topic of rewards programs. With the industry standard being 80-100% travel in the consulting world, it quickly becomes exceedingly interesting to discuss which airline a new hire is choosing – or which hotel family; car rental company. There are suggestions reflecting personal preference; advice of “sticking to only one” company for each of these expenses; the possibility of a credit card whose own rewards would mirror – and amplify – those of my Chosen Few.

And as much as I’d like to say that I enjoy this system… I don’t.
Because, quite frankly: rewards bore me.

Upon hearing that I’d become a fellow Marriott Rewards member, J commended the choice with: “you’re going to earn so many points! You’ll have free nights before you know it!” (And the guy should know. I think he travels more than some of the flight attendants employed by his chosen airline.)

And as great as that sounds – and it does, in theory – it also just kind of really bores me. I don’t want to structure my lifestyle so that I’m spending my time earning the privilege to enjoy it at some point in the future. I definitely don’t work simply to earn a vacation – that’s the exact mindset I’m trying to avoid in the way I’m building my career and my lifestyle. I don’t want to suffer Monday through Friday for 50 weeks just to enjoy the benefits for 2. So why would I prioritize my time outside of work in such a way?

 Now, my stays at the Marriott Courtyard aren’t horrible – perks like a freshly-made bed and free wifi certainly aren’t as bad as a loathed job – they’re also not necessarily the stuff of dreams.

(When J himself saw my Courtyard, he noted that the hotel restaurant alone was one of the most depressing he’d ever seen. (And again, the guy should know.) Who wants to come “home” to “one of the most depressing” environments every day? No hotel in the world has a free night nice enough to make a year of that worthwhile.)

I value my lifestyle and my environment. I obsess over tiny things – like the specific street-level retail neighboring my apartment building, the width of the sidewalk, the walking distance to a decent grocery store – and I feel strongly that it’s these details – not the week in Belize – that create happiness. No matter the discount on the latter.

The Courtyard is my home three nights a week. Your home should make you feel pleased. Monday through Thursday, mine doesn’t. No amount of vacation vision-boarding will change that.

And for me, here’s the kicker: it would be one thing if I kinda liked hotels to begin with. Then maybe I could get over the whole Courtyard thing and get into the whole Caribbean payoff… but to be totally honest, I don’t even like hotels when I travel. I’d rather be surrounded by energy than comfort, and I think there’s no greater disservice you can do to yourself while traveling than hole yourself up in a “nice” hotel (except, perhaps, eat every meal there.) When I travel, I want to fully experience the local lifestyle. My favorite foreign accommodation while traveling? A rented apartment. And not even a “nice” one.

Which is, incidentally, my innovative and alternative plan to staying at the Courtyard and dutifully earning my points. I want to find a little apartment in the area, maybe a roommate or two. (I’m happiest with roommates. What rule says I can’t have one at my home away from home?) All this, and also expense my “lodging” costs to my client at a fourth of the current amount.  

Why deliberately spend time racking up points to earn something I don’t value? While free nights at hotels may sound like a terrific bargain to most people, I personally think it sounds a little bit more like: sacrificing something that makes me happy, to get something that doesn’t for free.