Life lessons at the Berlin Wall

This month marks the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What a wonderful metaphor for my life lessons and the beginning of my life’s mission; bearing witness to and nurturing people through times of profound change.

The story themes/life lessons are captured in ()’s

That girl in the photo is me, I was studying math in Budapest during the fall of ’89. It was a rigorous course to finish out our math majors and it required me to be all in on my studies. But, that didn’t keep us from traveling and exploring eastern Europe whenever we got a slight break in the curriculum.  We booked train tickets to see East Berlin, figuring it was a once in a life time opportunity, little did we know…. (plan but be ready for anything)

As we called home on the free/underground pay phones* (get scrappy) to update our parents of our plans, we learned that rumors of the wall falling were all over the western newspapers. Our parents were scared, we were excited – a chance to be part of history! (don’t shy away from opportunities)

As the train got closer to East Berlin, it filled with all classes, shapes and sizes of people, there were even a few chickens, and the noise level rose exponentially. We all wanted to see for ourselves the demise of Check Point Charlie and the Iron Curtain. (being part of something larger than you is meaningful)

While we planned ahead enough book train tickets to East Berlin, we hadn’t booked any rooms.  Needless to say, our 1st night was spent in McDonalds in West Berlin, each of taking a 30 min “turn” eating happy meal as slowly as we could while the others slept, heads on tables. This did have a benefit, we were the 1st people in line at the hostel when it opened the next day! (collaboration is key)

I have very few memories of the weekend but the emotions are still clear; the excitement, camaraderie, feeling of hopefulness and shared awe were overwhelming. (connections happen at the emotional level, not the fact based level)  I was hooked, I knew I wanted to find ways to replicate these feelings.

As I look back, I see how these themes have threaded through my life experiences.

Some examples …

Plan but be ready for anything – Tom and I fought infertility for 2 years. After our IVF attempt failed, we submitted our adoption paperwork and Jimmy came home 9 months later.  We prepared to get pregnant but all that really mattered, in the long run, was that we were ready to be parents.

Get scrappy – Our wedding was at a summer camp, everyone brought sleeping bags and we held the guests hostage for 2 days of camp fires, camp songs, swimming and Johnny Appleseed.  We didn’t have a event planner so, on the morning of the wedding, everyone had to pick a “chore” out of the hat for the day (set up chairs, set the tables, serve the wine, etc) Tom and I pulled “pick up the porto potty”, its my favorite memory of my wedding day and the fact that everyone was literally a part of our wedding day brought everyone closer together.

Don’t shy away from opportunities – Tom and I moved to Bangalore with 60 days notice, 3 kids under 4 and without having ever been there as the 1st family Target ever expiated. It was the best experience in our marriage and for our family, shaping who we are today with a global perspective.

Being part of something larger than you is meaningful – In May of 2004 I had the honor of attending negotiations training at Harvard. I happened to be there when Boston passed a law and granted the 1st same sex marriage licenses in the country.  The people in my class were so excited, it was all we could talk about in class. We rushed city hall at midnight and were so moved by how many people showed up to support the couples exercising their right to marry.

Collaboration is key – In starting up Target Canada, we were on tight deadlines with impossible expectations. The ONLY way to make it work was to trust the people around us.  The very best peer leadership experiences of my career where on Friday mornings when each of the functional directors came together to solve problems for the whole. It was amazing to watch the progress we made on a daily basis when we saw our problems, not individually, but as a collective commitment to solve together.

Connections happen at the emotional level, not the fact based level – During the last 2 years of my tenure at Target, we dealt with a lot of change, including layoffs. I was continually humbled by how everyone pulled together to support their peers that were impacted.  We held resume writing sessions, people wrote LinkedIN recommendations, scoured job postings … it became our mission to help each other.  In fact, one of my friends commented “I know that this is hard and devastating, but its also sort of fun. I’m making connections with people who really care about my wellbeing and success and are willing to help me land on my feet”.

As they say in Spinal Tap   ‘There’s a thin line between clever and stupid.’  I’d like to think that I’ve landed on the clever side of the line more often than not due, in part, to learning my life lessons and finding my life mission.

I truly believe I am hear to bear witness and nurture people through times of profound change.

What are your life lessons and how have they shaped your life mission?


*there were “free” pay phones, you had to know where they were located, follow a series of beeps and enter a code and …you’d get a free international call – in hindsight I’m sure it was an underground communication network but as poor college students it was a cheap way to stay in touch with our parents