Tanned

The other day I was standing in line at a swank beauty spa to pay for a service when a total stranger walked up to me and commented, “What a nice tan you have!”

I didn’t know what to say. I’m not tanned. This is my color. I am a brown, dark featured Mexican American woman.

I looked around me in line and realized that I was the only brown-skinned person in the establishment. Still, why did she assume I was tanned? Is it because I dress nicely?

“Okay, Alicia,” I said to myself. “Don’t be so sensitive.” Maybe she wanted to make conversation, forge a connection. But why then comment on what a “nice tan” I have? Why not say, “What nice skin you have”? Besides, I find the whole idea a bit strange.

I have to wonder, though, is color, coloring the issue?

I recently dated a man who insisted to me I was Caucasian; a classification that the 2010 Census also endorses. Check the form – it asks you to distinguish your origin if of Hispanic descent but then right below leaves Hispanic off as a racial classification. One has to either check Caucasian or write in Hispanic under Other.

Though Hispanic is apparently not a race, I told my date, “No. I’m Mexican American.” He replied, “But I don’t see you as not White.” Poor English aside, I recognized the quagmire: color and race. Even in his response he confused the two.

I asked him if the people that worked on his ranch in Texas were Caucasian. I knew that he employed many Mexican Americans. “But you’re not like them,” he blurted. Then he paused, unsure of what to say. Finally, he continued, “So you mean, that when you’re in a room full of white people, you feel different?” He’s a Harvard Business School graduate.

Actually, when I enter a room I don’t immediately assess the color profile of the room. It usually doesn’t even occur to me. It’s the same sort of blur I experience when I’m in a room full of men at a business conference. It generally doesn’t matter for my purposes. But I would be lying if I said that it never occurs to me, because it does and sometimes it’s conveniently pointed out.

Because I have dark skin, I realize that I am often conspicuous among my fairer brethren. I’ve been taught that I am by women in tony shops asking me to hold their bags. Oh yes, I have all manner of stories like that – being asked at a charity event if I was So and So’s nanny, mistaken for the maid at a hotel, questioned for sitting in first class on a plane and forced to produce my ticket stub to prove I had purchased the ticket – I could go on.

I tend to think that the reason I encounter some of these experiences is because I operate in environments that are decidedly not diverse. Let’s face it; private equity and venture capital are not the normal stomping grounds of U.S. Hispanics.

Or are they? Here’s where it gets tricky for Hispanics. We’re not all brown. I once worked with a fair-skinned, hazel-eyed woman at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York who confessed to me at lunch one day that she was “half-Mexican.” Her father was German and her mother Mexican American. She urged me to never tell a soul.

Sometimes I think the Census should give up race classification altogether and ask people to mark the shade of color they are. But it’s so much more than color, isn’t it?

Why do U.S. Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rates and second highest representation in state prisons? Those drop outs and jailbirds are not all brown-skinned. I can only speculate that the reason I have to ask these questions is the same reason people assume I am tanned.

The lady in the spa? I believe that not only did it not occur to her that my skin is actually brown and not merely tanned, but also that I could be a Mexican American. To me, to assume brown skin is tanned skin is the same thing as calling a Mexican American a Caucasian. It subsumes a whole swath of people - a race, if you will. A race, subsumed, I fear, keeps that race invisible and therefore powerless.

Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Yet, from the attention we’re paid – from representation on television (no, we don’t all watch Univision – who by the way doesn’t do much to dispel the skin color issue) to the percentage of advertising dollars spent on the market, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that.

A subsumed race is also a denied race – its rich history, struggles, achievements and even its place are lost. Our place? Well, we can be found across conference room tables, at podiums, and even at ritzy spas. Just not as a racial classification on the U.S. Census form.

Oh, it happened again yesterday. A woman told me I had a nice tan. This time I said, “Thanks, I was born with it.”

Belayed Development

Course: Beginning rock climbing

Institution: Planet Granite

Location: San Francisco

It had been on my To Do list ever since I saw Planet Granite convert one of the old Presidio buildings down at the end of Crissy Field into an indoor rock climbing gym: learn to climb.

I decided to take their 4 week beginning climbing course. The first night we learned how to belay. Belaying is when you assist the climber by holding the rope and prevent the climber from hitting the ground in the event of a fall. There is a specific technique to belaying. You have to know how to wear a harness, how to use a belay device (at Planet Granite it’s called a gree), how to manage the rope moving through the device and how to brake the rope with your body.

In a climbing gym the rope is attached to the top of the climbing wall for safety and as such is called top-roping. The climber, meanwhile, ties into the rope directly using two knots – the figure 8 and the fisherman’s knot. Both the belay partner and the climbing partner use some basic lingo to communicate when climbing is okay to begin and when a climber has reached the summit and wants to be helped down.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. We learned how to belay and tie in as a climber in two hours. Our teacher asked that we take our belay tests before the next class. To climb in most indoor climbing gyms you have to take a test where gym management will watch you tie in as a climber and practice belaying to make sure you understand the techniques and are not a safety hazard.

So, ever the eager student, I drove over to the gym on the Friday before my next class and asked to take the test. I knew all the answers to the questions the manager asked and gave him quick answers. I did, in his own words, “everything technically correct.” But he didn’t pass me.

He said, “You looked hesitant.”

“What?” I said, truly dumbfounded. “But you said I did everything correctly.”

“It should look like second nature,” he replied.

My head spun. I realized arguing with him was futile but at the same time I was screaming in my head, “how the heck is it supposed to be second nature when I just learned a few days ago?”

He knew I was in the beginning climbing class and he knew that our teacher had requested we take the test before the next class. So I was thoroughly confused as to what he expected of me. I stepped out of my harness and left.

By the time I got to my car I was fuming and as soon as I shut my door, I was crying. I had failed. I had been prepared, I had done everything technically right and I had still failed. I felt like a loser. I mean who doesn’t pass their belay test?

It didn’t help to find out the following week that everyone else in my class had passed. I had practiced with them and couldn’t figure it out. They had no more skill than I did and they certainly didn’t belay with the ease of second nature. The teacher said she’d wait to start class to give me a chance to take the test again. So I stepped up, confident that I knew what I was doing, but the L word clanged in my head. I failed again.

I was so embarrassed I started to sweat. The class went on like nothing had happened – like my ego wasn’t lying on the floor like a used up chalk bag.

I couldn’t concentrate on what the teacher was saying. All I could think was why? Why did it bother me so much to fail?

The reality is that there are no guarantees. You can work hard, do everything right and still come up short. And I think that’s what was truly bothering me. I couldn’t help but relate my experience in a rock climbing gym to the rock I had being pushing up a mountain lately – my sense of self. My self-worth has been so tied up in accomplishment that without it, I felt like a stranded climber with a dangling rope.

That weekend I joined my family to select a tree for Christmas and related my woes about the belay test. While trying to strap the tree to the top of the car I became tangled in the rope. My sister laughed and said, “Maybe this is why you failed your belay test.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, too. It was a beautiful day outside, I was surrounded by family and all was well. She was right. I was getting tangled up in the outcome.

Still I was determined. I went into the gym later that weekend and asked again to take the belay test. While waiting to take it I told myself, “I will continue to take this test until I get it right. I will take it as many times as it takes. They’ll post a picture of me on the wall because I come back so often to take it.” And then I laughed at the thought of a framed picture of myself in full harness greeting gym members when they entered. Sure enough, I passed.

But the real test was this – learning to fail. Most things don’t work out if you’re doing them to reach a result. It is at the end of the day, like the struggle of Sisyphus, the effort that makes the person.

Toast with Strangers

Course: Toastmasters Drop-in Meeting

Institution: San Francisco Toastmasters

Location: Schwab building, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes before 6pm and took a seat in one of the chairs pushed up against the perimeter of a large conference room. Members were already seated around the table, some with name placards in front of them.

At the front of the room was a podium and a sign announcing the word of the day: Bailiwick (BAY-luh-wik, n). I would learn later that the word originates from the section of the courtroom that a sheriff (the bailiff) controlled.

We started on time. That alone made me sit up and take notice. I do love an event that respects my time. And it was a clue. This was going to be a structured experience.

The welcome was done by a gentleman referred to as the Sgt. at Arms in the one sheet program. I hadn’t heard that term since junior high. He introduced the Toastmaster, an Asian man with a deep voice and warm smile. He detailed the agenda. We would hear from a number of players: the Timer, the Distractions Keeper, the Word Master/Grammarian (about whom I was most excited) and evaluators. Then he outlined the speeches scheduled for the evening. He also introduced the theme of the evening: "Open heart. Open Mind. Open Door."

I didn’t quite catch the motivation behind the theme, but I felt it fit the purpose of my visit. I was there to open myself up to a new experience and specifically, new people. What some may find difficult to believe is that I’m incredibly shy when it comes to groups of people. I do okay one on one, but when I find myself faced with a group, I struggle with how to enter and then how to relate. But, meeting new people is on my list of priorities this year so I’ve decided to try activities that force me to meet folks and get me out of my social comfort zone.

First up were four speakers, all of whom were working through the Toastmasters’ book and focused on a particular skill in their speech like use of visual aids or inspiring an audience. There are apparently 10 speeches one has to complete to reach the first level in Toastmasters.

I listened and chewed gum to ease the onset of hunger. I find the 6 to 7pm hour tough for all activities. I’m always hungry then. I was stuffing a third piece into my mouth when a young woman next to me asked me for a piece. I have to admit this was surprising. It would just never occur to me to ask a total stranger for gum. Unsure how to respond, I handed her a piece. I told myself, if she asks for another one, I’m going to tell her to pound sand.

This would be an example of my anti-social behavior. While I couldn’t strike up conversation with her because a speech was going on, her request didn’t make me interested in speaking to her after. I looked around the room and wondered who I was interested in speaking with. I was holding myself back for some reason – holding back from engaging – going against the very reason I was there in the first place. Clearly, I had more work to do.

After the first four prepared speeches, guests were encouraged to introduce ourselves by saying our names and then telling the group about the “most commendable person I know.”

When the introductions wound their way around the periphery of the room to me, my heart started to beat faster and louder. I could feel the blood leaving my limbs. I moved the backpack that was on my lap to the ground, being sure to tuck away the straps so I wouldn’t trip on them when I stood to introduce myself.

The area clear of any possible road bumps, I jumped to my feet. The whole time I spoke my hands were covering my uterus like soccer players cover their genitals during a penalty kick. What did I think the attendees were going to do to me? Steal my eggs? Though it makes sense why my hands did that. Unconsciously, I was trying to protect myself and therefore my most vulnerable body part – my lady parts, received the attention.

When I sat back down I immediately started analyzing what I had said. Was it too trite? Did my volume peter out at the end, self-consciously? I didn’t even hear what anybody else said. I was too busy criticizing myself.

When the Toastmaster announced a bio break, I immediately moved to exit the room. When I stood I was woozy. My heart was still pumping wildly and the blood had not returned to my appendages. I somehow morphed my way to the restroom.

What is this?, I thought.   Being alive or a terrible affliction? Does public speaking get any easier? Does entering a room of strangers ever get comfortable?

Then it hit me, I was scared because the room was full of strangers. I had distanced myself from them mentally. The only way to feel comfortable with strangers is to see them as humans with whom you have something in common. I needed to recognize my interconnectedness in order to find them less threatening. Which, I’ve discovered, is only possible when I connect to my own humanity or said another way stop judging myself so harshly.

Does that mean I have to talk to that woman who asked me for the gum?, I asked myself.  No, I decided. I only have to admit that if I’d seen another woman with gum I probably would’ve wanted a piece, too.

How to Get Lucky

There are no direct flights from San Francisco to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Maybe it's a pre-trial, a sort of test to see if you can handle the unforgiving land you're about to visit. Perhaps, given its rugged terrain and pristine air, it's only right you should have to work for it.

I deluded myself into thinking that modern technology, like planes, would make it easier. I recently booked a flight to Jackson that connected in Denver. Long story short, my flight into Denver was delayed which caused me to miss my connection to Jackson at 7pm, the last flight to Jackson.

After a sprint to the gate and a cold rejection by the gate attendant, I took my place in the back of a very long line at United Airline's customer service. Apparently many flights were canceled or delayed due to that rarity called a thunderstorm in Denver.

I took up position and I could feel the tears starting to fill my eyes. I was tired - not only from the tedium of waiting so much of a day in an airport, and the sprint through the airport to my connecting gate, but also because these have been a long few weeks, months. Dare I say it? Year.

In that moment I felt utterly defeated. I surveyed my life and told myself I was single (therefore alone), without a fully-formed company or source of revenue - hell, a paycheck, running through my savings, utterly confused about what would come next in my life.

I almost hung my head and started to ball when an older gentleman next to me in line tried to engage me in conversation. I nodded without listening and at my first opportunity, turned away and started berating myself for wanting to cry.

Then I noticed something. I was not alone. I was in a line with a number of other people who had just gone through what I had and no doubt were experiencing the same feelings of frustration and anxiety. And yet, they were not crying, on the verge of a breakdown.

I took a breath and started to look around. Then I began to strategize. How do I solve this problem? How could I save my place in a very long customer service line but check other available flights? I turned to my phone.

I kept dialing customer service and finally reached an agent on the phone. He told me the next available flight wouldn't be for two more days - thus ruining my weekend trip and making the flight useless.

This sent me into yet another spiral of dark thoughts. I really needed this weekend. It was the only vacation I had allowed myself to have and I love Jackson. The outdoors and the peace it gives me are like nothing else. The nights are dark, the air is clear and crisp, the animals respected or they eat you. It's straightforward living at its finest.

I drew in a breath and said to myself, “Maybe Alicia, this is happening for a reason.” When I breathed out, I felt renewed. I surrendered to the situation. Instead of fighting it, I went with it and that’s when everything changed.

I struck up conversation with a young man in front of me and learned we were both headed to the same place. Together we strategized and hit on flying into Idaho Falls. Thankfully my frequent flyer miles bumped me up in line on the standby list and I was able to get on the flight.

While boarding the plane, I asked the gentleman boarding ahead of me if he was driving to Jackson and it turned out he was. We ended up sitting together and decided to drive together. This is something that I normally would never do. But it just felt right. I was calm and I knew with a certainty I haven't felt in a while that the universe was protecting me.

We didn’t get into Jackson until almost three in the morning and when he offered to let me stay with him and his wife at their place, I accepted. Again, I’ve never done anything like it in my life. But I just knew I’d be okay. So I said yes and texted my family his name.

They had a beautiful home on the Snake River and gave me a private room and bathroom that was gorgeous. “Who are these people?” I wondered as I fell asleep.

In the morning, they offered me breakfast and I came face to face with a moose peeking in their kitchen window. They then drove me several miles to my hotel. Their generosity was unparalleled. It was a beautiful day. I couldn’t believe my luck.

What started out as a potential nightmare turned out to be an invaluable lesson. I learned that people are inherently good and giving, and even more importantly, that I can trust myself to know who those people are. I also learned that sometimes, when everything seems lost, if you can just breathe and let go, what is supposed to happen will. And it can be a wonderful thing.

A Kick in the Butt

Course: K-Stars Track Workouts

Instructor: Andy Chan

Location: Kezar Stadium

K-Stars that’s what they’re called. I showed up at Kezar Stadium on a blustery Thursday evening. It was 6:30pm - really the reason behind my choosing the K-Starts track workout. I wanted to do a track workout to bring my running up to speed, as it were and the 6:30pm start time was perfect. Many of the other workout groups who run programs at Kezar start at 7pm and I find it difficult to plan my eating around that start time.

I wasn’t certain where the group would be meeting. The track was buzzing with various groups and lots of individual runners flitting about the track. Luckily, I found the K-Stars on my first random group approach.

Andy, the coach, told me I was in the right place. He took my money (only $4 a session) and introduced me to the group. Looking around I immediately worried that I was about to majorly embarrass myself.

Everyone looked lean and fast. There were a few women but from the looks of them I knew I would not be running with them. They looked unassuming, but as a former cross country runner I knew what to look for and they had the gams of fast runners. I spied a shy older Asian man on the periphery of the group and figured I’d be running with him.

After some quick stretching and a few striders we went straight to the work-out. Six 800s.

Ugh, I thought. The 800 is two laps around the track as fast as you can. It’s tortuous. What makes it so taxing is that it requires both aerobic endurance and sprinting speed.

We did the first 800 to see where everybody fell out in terms of speed. And of course, I came in dead last. That shy older Asian gentleman who looked like he was pushing 70? He kicked my butt. I was beginning to get a sense of what the K might stand for in K-Stars.

After the first 800 I was put in the second group - the slow group. Then a strange thing happened. I realized that I wasn’t upset. The Alicia of a few years ago would have been mentally kicking herself. The Alicia that showed up though knew she was out of shape, knew she wouldn’t be the fastest. My goal was just to finish the workout. Which I did.

The group was very supportive, calling my name as I brought up the rear every single 800. Normally, this would have irked me to no end. But this time I just smiled and gave a thumbs up.

I realized that beating myself up for being out of shape or being ashamed of my performance was not going to help. Running has taught me that if you don’t run hard you’re going to slow down, and that if you push yourself just a little bit more each time you run, you can improve. Though it does take time. Which, I guess, is just like life.

Knowing I can get better if I put in the work is immensely comforting to me. It makes the course clear. And that course is made easier when I am another type of K with myself – kind.

A Girl's Breast Friend

“Are you remembering to do regular breast exams?” she asked while washing her hands.

“Um, sometimes,” I paused, “Not really.” I decided to just come clean, this wasn’t a college final. This was an exam, but I was pretty sure the gynecologist wasn’t going to fail me.

Until she did.

“How long have you had this lump?” she inquired looking down at me with concern as her hands worked their way around my chest.

I was thinking about the celebrity gossip magazine I had just devoured in a paper gown waiting for her to enter the room. She was over forty minutes late. I almost went home.

I didn’t answer. She jerked me out of my stupor when she grabbed my hand and placed it on my right breast.

“Here. Do you feel that?”

I did. What was that? How did it get so large without me noticing? Still, strangely, I was calm. I don’t have cancer, I thought.

“You can sit up now,” she said and began to scribble on a blue piece of paper. “I want you to make an appointment to get a mammogram and an appointment with Dr. ____. She’s a surgeon.”

“Okay,” I said grabbing the blue form and clutching my paper gown.

She shook my hand and held it for a beat longer than necessary. Her concern hit the bottom of my stomach and threatened to send me into sobs. Instead, I jumped off the examining table and threw on my clothes. Better to face all this with jeans on, I thought.

I called the Breast Health Center and had an appointment the next day. That was my first inkling that this was serious. I had a baseline mammogram when I was 35 and that took weeks to schedule.

When I got to the Center they ushered me up to the second floor. I didn’t even know there was a second floor. Everyone was female and all soothing smiles. They offered me coffee. That was my second clue. I have never been offered coffee at the doctor’s office.

The environment was as comfortable as I suppose you can make a center focused on breasts. I was given a locker and a robe thicker than paper. There were plenty of women’s magazines. The older woman who contorted my breast and squeezed if flat between large moving plastic objects was delightful. I wanted her to be my grandmother.

The third clue was when grandma came back into the waiting room and said the radiologist wanted her to take a few more pictures. At the time I thought she had somehow messed up the slides, but I know now that more pictures means more questions and that generally isn’t good.

I was walking back to the main sitting area when I ran into my new grandmother talking to the doctor. “Has she been told, yet?” the doctor asked.  Grandma saw me out of the corner of her eye and tensed. I knew they were talking about me.

My suspicions were confirmed when the doctor called me into her office.

“We found something,” she said.

Turns out they found a mass (as opposed to a cyst) and it wasn’t what my gynecologist had discovered. The doctor told me that is often how it works; you come in looking for one thing and leave having found another.

I sat there and blinked hard. She was talking about a biopsy and minor surgery and I couldn’t take in any of it. I could feel tears starting to well up and felt foolish. They didn’t know if this was anything, yet. I didn’t know what this was, why the heck was I about to cry?

Finally, I realized I was fighting what I needed in the moment: acknowledgement of my feelings.

The doctor kept rattling on so I blurted out, “I’m trying not to freak out.”

She looked at me as if noticing me for the first time. “Oh,” she said.

“Yeah,” I nodded, as if urging myself on, “I’m trying not to.”

“Well, there’s nothing to worry about, yet,” she concluded and handed me paperwork for the biopsy. She wanted to have it done the next day.  I sucked down my tears and went home.

I didn’t tell anyone. I didn't want people to worry. I told myself I could soldier through it. My appointment with my gynecologist was on a Tuesday and the biopsy was three days later, Friday.

After a surgeon used what looked like a staple gun to extract the potentially nefarious blob, I spent the weekend tucked into my couch, unable to lift anything, nose running from a nasty cold, and waiting.

I also wondered. Is this how it goes from here on out? Is this just a part of aging? The ol’ breast cancer scare rite of passage? Or something more devastating?  I didn't cry.  Instead, I watched the last two seasons of The Wire that I had never gotten to.

The following Wednesday I had an appointment with the surgeon and was given good news. All was/is well.

When I left her office and drove away, a car cut me off on the road. I mumbled an expletive at the driver and my anger shook me awake.

I had been holding my breath and holding all my feelings at bay – again. Old habits die hard.  But in that moment, I was salty. A good sign, I told myself. That means I’m alive.

 

* Interesting discovery through this process: my initial gut reaction was correct.

**Interesting bit of research: most women don’t discover bumps in their self-exams.

Moral of the story: get someone to feel you up regularly!  (Literally and figuratively)

 

Learning to Swim

I learned how to swim by being thrown into a pool. I can’t remember if this coincided with taking a poop in the pool, but I remember doing that, too. It's possible that being left to sink or swim, literally scared the $%&^ out of me.

I’m thinking about this because I had the distinct pleasure of watching my four-year old nephew take his tentative first steps in a pool. He was supported by a loving father and the watchful eyes of extended family nearby. His father did not push him to do any more than he was comfortable doing and interestingly, while my nephew grew confident there was a decided limit to what he would do.

Lest you think my nephew a coward, he was pushing himself in subtle ways. You could read the frustration on his face while watching his older cousins diving about. He wanted to be doing what they were capable of but did not force himself. He seemed to know that he would get there – on his own schedule. And so seated in an inflatable boat, he worked hard at mastering the art of navigating the water; hugging it to go backward, parting it to go forward. He went at his own pace and his father validated his efforts by subtly allowing for any baby steps he might want to take.

Eventually wanting to do more, his father obliged him and switched my nephew’s vessel from an inflatable raft to a pool noodle which put him more in direct contact with the water. His father drew him across the water as if to demonstrate what he would be able to do on his own one day.

On the sidelines, my family debated whether a child should be forced to learn to swim. I came down on the side of not forcing the issue because even if you accomplish the goal – the child learns to swim - you may be sinking the child in other ways.

Nothing quite illustrates my point like that of a poem by Mary Oliver, The Swimming Lesson:

Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.
Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,
Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, --
How to survive in any place.

I can safely say now as an adult, that I didn’t learn how to swim by being thrown into the pool. That skill actually required adult swim lessons where I learned for the first time the dynamics of making your way though the water. Instead, being thrown into the pool taught me how to survive. And learning through surviving tends to teach only that learning has to be hard and that growing requires suffering.

How would my experience now be different if I were allowed to believe that I didn’t have to survive to learn? That I could gently go at my own pace and that how I felt in the journey was worth validating?

My nephew’s example was informative – learning can be accomplished in far gentler ways.

Sink or Swim: A True Story

Most companies expect employees to sink or swim, the idea being that those who can swim as soon as they hit the water (enter an organization) are somehow better—the A players, the star performers. Swimmers rise to the top and only then do companies invest in them.

But this is a fallacy. Employees need training in order to glide through organizations. To become a “natural” swimmer, a young person needs professional development as soon as she joins a company—not just at the manager or executive level.

The “sink or swim” reference to workplace progress is a good analogy because it reflects the overall flaw in the system: learning to swim can be treacherous.

I learned to swim by being thrown into a pool at the age of seven. I never had swim lessons, and it wasn’t until I was a teen that I had enough experience to swim a full lap. Being thrown into a pool did teach me how to survive in the water—but learning through surviving tends to teach only that learning has to be hard.

This lesson was paralleled in my work life when I entered my first full-time job as a financial analyst for the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs & Co. I was wholly unprepared—surprising, given that I graduated from Stanford University and Goldman wasn’t my first job. I’d worked as a retail associate, a waitress, and a bookkeeper. Heck, I’d even delivered Donnelley Directories. But when I reached Goldman—and what’s worse, even after our analyst orientation—I had no sense of what was expected of me, how to navigate the organization, or even how to make the best first impression.

So I looked for guidance. I turned to my peers—an icy blonde woman from Connecticut who wore Escada at twenty-three and said I should just be grateful I had a job, and the salt-and-pepper-haired Vice President with a wife and two kids who mistook my questions for flirtation—to no avail. I was one of the only Latinas in my analyst class; there weren’t any executives who were looking down and saying, “She reminds me of me. I think I’ll watch out for her.”

My family was no help. My siblings had refused to even go to my college graduation because they thought attending college made me “stuck up.”

Most business books were on management, and because I wasn’t a manager I figured they didn’t pertain to me. Lacking training and guidance, I flailed.

Still, I was acutely aware that others were making progress, and it made me assume that the reason I was struggling had everything to do with me. My emotions swung from excited to dejected daily. I had no sense of how I was perceived by my peers. I tried to lay low, but would often pull attention with a misguided verbal hiccup. I tried to adopt the reserved, competent look of my colleagues, but mainly felt wild, frustrated, and disheveled. I seemed to be missing something—something that everyone else knew but me.

I thought initially I could try and fight my way through the murky social order of investment banking with hard work. Then I had my first performance review and it devastated me. I didn’t have the emotional regulation skills or perspective to take the feedback in stride. I soon found myself drowning, and, not understanding what to do, I grabbed onto the nearest life preserver I could: grad school.

Law school gave me some time, but it was merely a flotation device. When I left law school I knew how to dress the part of a professional and I could act the part largely by staying to myself, working long hours, and being nice, but ultimately I was getting nowhere. To hide that fact, I simply kept changing jobs.

It wasn’t until I became an entrepreneur that I was forced to face my lack of professional development. Ironically, around the same time, I signed up for a triathlon and had to confront the fact that I was a weak swimmer. To get help I purchased basic adult swimming lessons at a local club.

At my first lesson, the instructor asked me to swim the length of the pool so she could assess my skill. I swam vigorously to the other side of the pool. When I popped my head out of the water and looked at her, I saw that she was laughing.

“You do what most adult beginning swimmers do,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“You think if you swim fast enough, you won’t drown.”

“Isn’t that true?” I asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said.

In that swim across the pool I demonstrated all my bad habits and my mental model of what made for good swimming. I thought swimming fast would save me, much like I thought working hard would help me at work. But I was wrong.

Swimming fast can get you across the length of a pool, but will leave you gasping for air and completely unprepared for open-water swims, much less rough seas. Similarly, working hard will not in itself lead to success at work—or, if it does, it won’t leave you with the skills to fulfill a leadership role. My swim instructor taught me to slow down, to turn my body in certain ways to glide through the water. The result is that I learned to swim longer and more easily, and without the fear of drowning.

With the help of a CEO coach and professional development courses in things like effective communication, I eventually learned to swim in the workplace. As founder and CEO of my company, I learned firsthand that self-awareness, an ability to give and receive feedback, and an ability to manage conflict are necessary for success. But these skills are not often taught or practiced in the business world, especially in start-ups. Instead, many companies expect people to learn them by osmosis—which is like throwing someone into a pool and hoping they figure out how to swim. At best, you end up with someone who can dog paddle.

The “sink or swim” mentality of the business world needs to change. No matter their background, young people in every organization, small or large, need professional development—the type of training that is usually reserved for managers or executives. If more people are given access to professional development sooner, we’ll see fewer people drowning—something that will lead to stronger, happier people and organizations.

Growth

Course: Figure Drawing

InstructorMichael Markowitz

Location: San Francisco

Price: $500, 22 weeks

How to explain this class?  I doubt Michael would even want me to, but there’s so much in this class for artists that I think it requires at least some exposition.

To start, you have to interview with Michael before you’re admitted to the class. Don’t worry. It’s not a skills assessment. You can be an absolute beginner, like I was.  But more for Michael to communicate his expectations and suss out your commitment. He wants commitment and a three hour class every week for 6 months pretty much demands it.

The space is a cluttered movie set homage to artistry. It looks just like the space you would imagine a mad genius works in – charcoal drawings, pencils, pencil sharpeners, charcoal nubs nestled in crevices, newspaper print paper, track lights and work lights pointing in different directions casting intricate shadows and easels of various sizes and orientations surrounding a small platform for the nude models. The whole scene is covered in a light coating of black charcoal dust.

The class norms are straightforward. Show up on time, buy your newspaper print, gather up the sheets and staple them together on one end, attach them to an easel, bring your own charcoal sticks, sit or stand, and shut up. NO cell phones. Of course.

He starts with a bit of a lecture packed with lots of axioms you will think sound trite until you start drawing and think about what he’s said. Then he brings out the model – male or female, usually nude, introduces them, and then asks them what music they want him to play.

Then in the quiet and cold of the studio, the music creeps along the ceiling and fills the space. The model drops her robe (they’re usually women) and you’re faced with all your concerns, beliefs, and thoughts about nudity and the body. Once you manage that hurdle, you’re brought to the charcoal in your hand and the blank paper and the exhortations of Michael from time to time to draw your experience. Not the body outlines – like a murder victim, but follow your eye. Follow your eye!

You don’t know what to do and that’s the point. We’re primed to avoid the “I don’t know” experience. You will never know what to do. Just do it an integrated way – do it because it feels right.  Act on urge and impulse and see what happens, Michael says.  You’ll follow some urge and it will lead you astray. So what? Don’t copy – your aesthetic can’t be found in copying.  Everyone has an innate ability to be expressive – even you.

It’s difficult, at first, to not be self-conscious. The new place, the nudity, the perceived greatness of the other students in the room. But eventually, you’ve put charcoal to paper and made your marks. After a few minutes, Michael stops the model’s posing and asks you to step back. Look at what you think is good and what isn’t. Not other’s work. But yours.

He asks us and invariably, we hate our drawings.  Why do we hate our drawings?  Michael explains that the drawing becomes something to us – a reflection. And what is it reflecting back to you?  A lack of presence, a willingness to be taken in by your idea of what drawing is. To change, to create something different or more, you have to engage.

Whoa. Not what you’d think a drawing class would involve. Self-actualization? Yep. According to Michael, you may not have technical ability but you do have the capacity for expressive marks. Drawing is not figuring it out – it’s more experiencing something and expressing it.

He goes on to explain that when you hate a drawing there was likely no connection with it from the beginning and lacking connection, you defaulted into a process. That program or process called “knowing how to draw.” If you’re in such a hurry not to look at what you created – what does that mean about your relationship with it? Drawing will get away from you, he tells us, so you have to interact with error. Maybe you can’t un-muddy your drawing. Maybe you un-muddy your drawing by making it more muddy.

That moment you don’t know what to do? Sit with it. You get to that place because you lost creative collaboration – you are no longer feeling – no longer feeling what is pleasing or displeasing. Don’t flip the page and start over. Deal with the problem.

But I want to be better you may lament. Michael says the expectation that you’re going to make a great drawing is naïve. This expectation comes from wanting to be more than you are – be who you are and then grow from there. Be willing to let anything happen. Stop deferring experience. Let it come. Don’t try and avoid it.

And that was just from the first class.  There was more. But when I looked back at the notes I took after class each week, I noticed for the first time that he was teaching us the same thing over and over again – using different approaches – all through the medium of charcoal drawings.

It just takes a long time to realize what he is saying. And by realize I mean incorporate it. It’s one thing to listen and think you’ve learned, it’s another to embody it and that’s what drawing forces you to do. Take it in.

In one exercise, he asks you to partner with a classmate and you take turns watching each other draw. It’s one of the more difficult exercises for many students because you can feel exposed. And that’s the point. Your partner watches you draw for a while and lists the things you do when you draw. For example, do you anchor the page with your left hand? Do you always apply the same pressure? Do you start at the same point on the page in every drawing?

Your partner presents you their list and then you switch partners and observe someone else’s drawing.  After, you immediately think about how you can vary your moves, and if you step back, you realize your patterns apply to other relationships – to an intimate, to work, to the world.

The class connects to your life and your life connects to the class. In fact, it shows up in what you draw. There are no hard lines.  You and your drawing are in a relationship and what you bring to any relationship shows up in this relationship.  That was the big aha moment for me.

This isn’t art therapy. It isn’t learning how to be creative – though helpful in that respect. But as simple and complex as a drawing class. If you trust the experience it reveals a lot about yourself to you. If not, you’re taking a drawing class with a feisty little man named Michael.

If you do submit, however, you will start to see your patterns, your defaults, the ways you avoid, and even the ways you engage. You don’t get better and better. You get better, then worse, then worse some more, then better, then worse – forever. The trick is to not let the first time it gets bad throw you.  It’s like the old adage – falling down is an important part of learning how to walk. And the next time you don’t know what to do, you’ll remember Michael’s words:

“The next time you don’t know what to do, do something bold.”

Who's to Blame

This is what unconcious racial bias looks like.

You are out for a long run on a Sunday afternoon.

You are running on a narrow sidewalk and up ahead are two young women, tall, with long blonde hair walking abreast. They are both looking at their phones.

You think they will see you coming but you are not sure. There is no room on the sidewalk for you to run by if they don't see you.

Your only option is to jump into the street on a blind corner into oncoming traffic.

You hope they see you. You are almost upon them.

The one on the right, in the space you would use to pass, looks up. You think she sees you.

But she doesn't move to make room for you and instead bends her head to her phone right as you try to run past.

Your shoulders hit. She is taller and heavier than you. You take the hit with your whole left side but keep going.

She grabs her shoulder and screams that you are a bitch. You keep running and hold up a middle finger to acknowledge her.

This is not the unconscious racial bias part.

You are running a few hundred feet down the road after this interaction when a white man on a road bike rides across the car lanes to approach you. He calls you a bitch for hitting the girls while biking by you.

You think this can't be happening. He wasn't even around, you hit only one of them, and he's assumed you are the problem.

"She couldn't be bothered to look up from her iphone!" you say while running looking over your shoulder.  This gives him pause. You can see that he suddenly realizes he doesn't have the full story. He pedals away without comment.

You turn back to the road ahead.  The unfairness causes a surge of adrenaline through your whole body. You want to cry, but you do what you always do - you keep running.

Hypnotherapy

Course: Hypnotherapy

InstructorBlaze

Location: via phone

Price: hourly

When I’m confused, I tend to turn in rather than out. But I’ve often found that it helps to have guidance when turning in. Sometimes, you don’t know what you know until you start talking. To that end, I turned to hypnotherapy.

I tried hypnotherapy once before at the luxury resort Miraval in Arizona. I had some treatment credits and saw they offered hypnotherapy to deal with cravings. I figured I would try and tackle my sugar compulsion. I thought the session was very relaxing, but it didn’t actually cure my sugar habit. It did make me calm and when I’m calm I’ve noticed I don’t crave sugar. So there’s that.

More recently, I’ve been struggling with my path in life (and to be honest, eating a lot of sugary foods). Where do I want to go? What should I do? How do I get there? A friend mentioned hypnotherapy and even though I wasn’t sure how it would help, I remembered the relaxation I experienced in that Miraval session and asked her to refer me to the hypnotherapist she knew.

The hypnotherapist is a woman named Blaze. It’s not her real name but it fits her personality well. She does hypnotherapy over the phone.

I was excited for it – thinking it would reveal to me some definitive answer about where my life is going, but to my surprise I had difficulty getting into it; relaxing.

Blaze started the session by asking me about the intentions I held. I said I wanted to see what comes up, but my questions were basically what should I be doing with my life and will I find love – my usual angst.

She instructed me to close my eyes and picture a sky. She asked me what I saw in the sky. I described to her a bright blue sky with a plane going across the sky from left to right.

As we talked I found myself yawning several times, my body adjusting to her voice and my heart beat slowing.

She then asked me a series of questions and I had trouble answering them. Thoughts crowded into my consciousness and I wasn’t sure how to answer. What’s worse was that I was sitting on my bed and actual planes kept flying overhead. More planes than I’ve heard in my normally very quiet neighborhood.

She asked me again what I saw in the sky. I told her I saw a plane doing loop de loops.

Eventually, she ended the hypnosis part and we talked about the session. To start, she said that my first description of the sky was what she was actually seeing. She interpreted this as me being so anxious for answers that I put myself in her space. Almost literally.

The loops, she explained, are the two voices in my head: a big yes and a big no. "There’s something you’re saying yes to and something you’re saying no to," she said. "In order to have the entire loop you have to have the yes AND the no."

She asked if one voice was more mine or someone else’s voice. I said they were mine. At least they felt like mine – maybe one more of fear and the other of desire.

She continued by saying that the yes and no is the yearning talking. "What do I do?" I asked. Her conclusion: the "yes and no" has to go on until I embrace being peaceful and alone. "You must become peaceful with your aloneness," she said.

Here it sounds very Chinese fortune cookie-like, but it resonated with me. She went on to advise me to "follow the ideas -the ones that make you laugh, the ones that light you up, that bring you peace."

After our session, I felt a little dizzy, but happy. I’d been struggling with my meditation practice and taking the time to get back in touch with my gut. Blaze helped me sit and take time.

Ultimately, what Blaze does is a lot like guided meditation. She calms you down with her voice and instructions, and then when you’re in a more peaceful place she asks you questions. That’s when your inner self is safe to answer truthfully.

She doesn’t have the answers. You do. But they’re often masked by fear and anxiety and old voices. It’s only when those things are stripped away that the answers reveal themselves and peace is achieved.

Spiritual Healing

A friend gushed about a transformative experience she had with a spiritual healer and of course, I was intrigued. I am consistently attracted to anything that might offer a sneak peek into the mystery that is life or more specifically, my life. So without stopping to consider what exactly a spiritual healer was, I booked an appointment and found myself in the lobby of a yoga studio in San Francisco.

The spiritual healer, Christy, greeted me at the door with an outstretched hand and pursed lips. She looked to be about fifty with well-coiffed short blonde hair and a pile of statement jewelry atop her cashmere sweater set. Frankly, she looked like an investment banker.

I shook her hand and she pointed me to a back room barely large enough to hold a massage table. A floor heater pumped out warm air. She asked me to lie down face up and said “don’t touch yourself with your hands.”

I moved my hands from their protective position on my stomach and thought her instructions, while brusque, clever. Studies show that asking someone to open their body language makes them more receptive. Nevertheless, my skepticism kicked in and I tried to reconcile her manner – was it her personality or was she just in a bad mood?

She positioned a high stool next to the massage table just above my head forcing me to strain to look up at her and forcefully said, “I’m not a psychic. I can’t tell you your future.”  She spit out the words like she’s been trying to disabuse people of this notion for years. Still, I felt admonished.

Then she closed her eyes, and loudly inhaled and exhaled. She did this a few times, explaining she was summoning the spirits. I bit my lip to keep myself from laughing nervously.

She asked about my father. Was he alive? “Yes,” I said.

She said he was a strong energy in the room. That’s interesting, I thought, because he has never been a strong presence in my life.

She asked if I had grandparents. Yes, that’s how I exist actually, I thought sarcastically, but said, “No.”

“Did you know them?” she asked. “No,” I repeated.

“Do you know their names?” she pushed. “No,” I said. I could tell now she was trying to find a connection, not unlike a psychic does.

Finally she said that my grandmother on my mother’s side was trying to say something. I listened hard thinking I could hear, too but gleaned nothing.

Then she let loose with a host of revelations. Not the least of which was that the spirits said I had psychic abilities. I predict, I thought, that I’m going to regret this.

Suddenly, she opened her eyes and looked at me with knitted eyebrows. She said that I struggled with self-worth and she was going to say something that I should repeat. I let out a half-grunt, half-giggle. I was sure she was about to tell me to repeat the Stuart Smalley mantra: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

“So you have it all figured out?” she snapped angrily.

I lifted my head and turned to her, surprised. “You’re going to tell me how I’m worthy.” I said feeling caught.

“That’s not what I’m going to say,” she huffed.

I felt scolded and swallowed back tears. What was going on? Why is she angry? Every urge in my body was to sit up and get the heck out of that claustrophobic, warm petri-dish of a room. But, like someone who can’t tell her hairdresser she doesn’t like her haircut, I stayed.

She closed her eyes and brought in more spirits. As she did, tears slid down my cheeks. I’m not sure if it was from feeling scolded or a letting go – the releasing of my defenses.

Finally, she opened her eyes and said there were angels in the room.

I didn’t look at her. I just stared at the ceiling and felt a deep sadness.

When our time ended, I put my shoes back on and glanced at her sitting slumped on her stool. She seemed broken; her anger in a puddle below her. Had she, in the end, channeled my spirit in order to heal it? I left confused. I didn’t feel healed and wondered why I kept trying these off-beat services. What was I looking for exactly?

A few days later it hit me. Trying different seminars, healing methods, what have you, are my way of experimenting. They are all exposures – experiments in trust.

When you meet someone new and share about yourself, even if you are paying for the privilege, that is an act of trust.

It’s those exposures, those acts of trust that open the heart. While I couldn’t see the spirits she did I could see that trust is a decision. One that often meets resistance and you can only hope to be in a safe situation that helps you push through that resistance. Because once you do you find yourself.

 

Body Work

Course: Body Work

Instructor: Chris

Location: Oakland

Price: $300

I’m an avid runner, cyclist, weight trainer, dancer, jumper. Basically, I’m a pretty physical person. But as much as I move, I sometimes miss the mind body connection. I usually don’t notice that something is wrong until I feel pain. Tight hamstrings, in fact, sent me to Chris. I didn’t even know the woman who referred me, but something about the description of what Chris does, “body work”, drew me in.

I booked an appointment and after emailing with Chris to reserve a time I learned that “body work” was a three hour Thai massage. I’d never even heard of getting a three hour massage.

Still, I didn’t stop to question what I was doing until I reached the address for Chris in the east bay. It was an apartment building. For a $300 session an apartment was not what I was expecting. I had dark thoughts of a man breaking my neck and calling it a Thai massage. “Thoughts in, thoughts out”, I told myself and looked for parking.

Chris turned out to be a small man with hair that’s almost as long as he is tall. He was waiting outside his apartment building and I followed him up to a unit that looked like a flop house. It was a one bedroom with a kitchen and no furniture save some mats, towels, and wooden rollers for stretching.

In the bedroom, a space heater warmed the room, incense and an iPod dock sat on the floor, and long blue straps hung from an empty closet over a futon mattress on the floor. Everything was clean, but it was a bit unnerving. It looked like essentially what it was an unlicensed massage practice. I was tense and wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into and for three hours when he asked me to fill out a quick form to indicate where I was experiencing pain. I marked my left hamstring and followed him into the bedroom.

He asked me to lie down on my back and began to massage my shoulders. He was very insistent that I breathe. Not the typical breathe in and out of your nose but an exaggerated breath in through my mouth and out my mouth. The first hour he nagged me continually to breathe. Breathing, apparently, forces you to engage. I know that sounds odd – I mean you have to breathe to live, right? In the second hour when I got more comfortable that he wasn’t going to kill me and I started to relax, I actually dozed off. But Chris wasn’t having it. He nudged me and told me to breathe. He wouldn’t let me check out - which is what I typically do during a massage. He explained that breathing would get me into my body and out of my head. I resisted it. My jaw was tight, my yoga-like breaths squeezed out of pursed lips. I pushed out my breath and silently chanted, “I (inhale) hate (exhale), (inhale) you, (exhale).” I thought that loud forced breathing was a hippy pretension. But he kept insisting as he dug deep into the tissues of my right shoulder and eventually I lost the will to fight. I started breathing and then lo and behold I was crying.

Now, I’m pretty familiar with pain. I know how to run through pain. I know how to live through pain. I call it my Safe Mode – like what your computer does when something is wrong with it. It can still operate but with reduced functionality. I didn’t realize how reduced I was until that moment. He was forcing me to reconnect with my body and through it face the pain I’d shoved into the crevices of my shoulders.

When I cried, Chris said nothing but put his hand on my shoulder. It was the most caring thing anyone has done for me in a long while.

If all we are is energy – which I believe we are – is it crazy to think that our energy gets blocked? That we can store trauma and emotions at a muscular level, a cellular one? That is what Chris found – my stored emotional pain, my fear of others hiding under the tightness of my muscles.

Ultimately, going to see Chris was a lesson in trusting myself. Out of that trust I discovered not all people are out to hurt me, that in fact people can be beautiful. That there is someone in the world who feels called to this kind of work and I’m so very grateful for it.

After the massage he offered me organic blueberries and a tall glass of water. He said that he couldn’t fix the tension in my right shoulder completely but thought we had made a good start. Indeed.

 

The Wisdom in Socks

If you've seen me up close you know I'm brown. I'm so brown that in foggy San Francisco my skin absorbs even the tiniest bit of light and turns it into melanin. I could take a ten minute walk down the street in a short-sleeved shirt one cold but sunny day in January and have a farmer's tan. To wit - I tan easily.

I know this melanin magic for some might be appealing, but for me it has its downsides. Namely, tan lines. As I am also an avid runner I suffer specifically from sock tan lines. Any exposed leg above the sock but below running shorts or running pants is almost instantly turned to a toasty brown leaving my legs looking like a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich.

I cursed my sock tan lines for years and was always embarrassed by them when trying to sport a summer dress with wedges, say. Unfortunately, it took advice from a brother-in-law before I happened on the solution: socks that hit below the ankle.

So I ran right over to Sports Basement and bought five pairs of small, no show socks. I was elated.

Until I washed them and tried to run in them. They were too short and kept slipping down to my heel. Every run involved many stops to yank my socks back up. Still, I persisted. I figured that I'd eventually yank the socks into compliance. I would just make them work. After all, I had spent almost $100 on running socks.

But soon I began to dread the sock pulling ritual of my runs. I knew what the solution was - try another pair in a different size - but I couldn't get myself to go back to the store. I ran in ill-suited socks for over two months. I obviously couldn't return laundered socks, so my cost was sunk and that burned me. We humans tend to feel more pain from loss than we do joy from gain. Finally, two weeks ago, I had had enough and I went back to the store and bought new socks.

You may think me cheap, but the socks were really the manifestation of a bad habit I have - trying to make things work. I'm a survivor so I'm always trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but the reality is that's not always the best approach to life. Overdone it becomes more a way to repress one's true wants and needs which translates to a lack of respect for self, a lack of self-worth.

Alicia, I told myself, get yourself some new pairs of socks! And sure enough, when I took my new socks out for a whirl and they fit perfectly and stayed in place, I felt a relief I haven't experienced in a while. It was a revelation that I need to pay more attention to: when something isn't working, change it. It may cause you time and money and maybe even a little pain, but it's always worth it in the end to get exactly what you want - what fits.

As for my tan lines? Well, I hate to admit this, but I still have them! They are just lower on my feet. I guess there is just no getting around who I am. But at least now I know I can be me and be comfortable.

I’ll Have the Lobster

The universe started speaking to me before I even realized she was talking.  I was on my daily run and pleased to catch This American Life’s Ira Glass tell the story of visiting the MOMA in NYC to see an exhibit by Cindy Sherman.  While viewing the exhibit a woman came up to Mr. Glass and his friend and announced herself to be Cindy Sherman.  They’d never met Cindy Sherman so they weren’t sure if the woman was in fact the artist.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I remember slowing to a jog when I heard this:

“Well today on our program, Switcharoo, pretending to be somebody or something you are not. Sometimes that's perfectly fine, perfectly innocent, hurts no one. Sometimes it is not that at all. And sometimes it is really hard to tell.”

And sometimes it’s really hard to tell.  Don’t I know it.

A few months later, the Cindy Sherman exhibit came to the SF MOMA.  I was determined to check it out.

The first thing I noticed when I entered her exhibit on the top floor was how much the women (and it was mainly women) who were there to view the show looked like Cindy Sherman or rather what I thought she looked like: white, non-descript.

Cindy Sherman photographs herself as different women – the socialite, the movie actress, the Renaissance portrait subject.  In each photo Cindy disappears into what amounts to a superficial depiction, basically a woman who is so identifiable she’s without an identity.

As I ambled through her show I began to realize that my assessment of her was the essence of Cindy Sherman’s photographs and genius – a woman who knows herself so well, whose identity is so clear, that she’s unafraid of being white and non-descript.  And because she can embrace that about herself, she can explore it for its depths and come out with something very rich – pictures that beg the question, who are you?

I walked around and was convinced that whoever I was it wasn’t Cindy Sherman.  That is until I caught a glimpse of a woman in the glass reflection of a Cindy Sherman photo.  “She looks like Cindy Sherman,” I thought. Then realized in the same instance, it was a reflection of me.  I was bowled over.  That’s true art, I believe, when it literally causes you to see yourself in a new way.

I left the SF MOMA and didn’t give my experience another thought until a week later I was invited by friends to see a movie in the film archival space, Oddball Films.  The title of the movie?  Guest of Cindy Sherman.

The movie is by Paul H-O, Cindy’s former boyfriend, and starts by introducing Paul and his public access show Gallery Beat.  His show went nowhere but his love life did when he met Cindy Sherman. The movie follows the arc of their relationship from giddy beginnings to incidents where Paul feels nameless to its eventual demise when ironically Paul begins working on a movie about their relationship.

His decision to make a movie about their relationship seemed to upset the balance of their relationship, their unspoken agreement that their relationship would be about her.  His choice (whether he knew he was making it or not) to give up his identity in service of the relationship is something women do all the time and interestingly, is at the core of what a lot of Cindy Sherman’s work speaks to – identity.

Most people don’t blink an eye when the wife of a powerful man is snubbed or looked past.  It’s so common place for women that it’s a movie when it happens to a man.  But for me the movie only highlighted just what an epidemic identity is for women – if not defined by our men or our families, who are we?  It’s no accident Cindy Sherman's work started garnering attention in the 70s when the women’s movement really took flight.  And it’s no accident that she’s seeing a resurgence today – a time of great uncertainty.  When who you are is all you’ve got.

Shortly after the film started my fingers began to dance in their telling way – signing “I’m anxious” in the dark.  I chewed through half a pack of gum.  Uh, oh my subconscious seemed to be saying, this is cutting close to home.

You see, I’ve been struggling with how to carve my own identity.  So much of who I am, I’ve come to realize, has been repressed in the service of twinship (I’m a twin) and frankly, survival.  Growing up, often in violent and emotionally abusive homes, I went along to get along.  My thoughts and feelings safely tucked deep inside me.  So deeply that over time I ceased to access them anymore.  That’s the problem: when you press a leaf between two heavy books, it almost never regains its original shape.

That’s why I am here, late in the game, working to honor who Alicia really is.

But building an identity, of course, is more difficult than it seems.  Which Paul does not seem to understand.  His central lament in the movie is that everything is easy for Cindy.  Yet, he seems to miss the fact that she worked long and hard, often unrecognized and alone, on her art and Paul happened to meet her at a time when she was finally being noticed.  He doesn’t seem to recognize that building an identity takes work, unwavering commitment, and a good measure of courage.  Cindy’s grace is that she knew and accepted (key word accepted) who she was early on and stuck with it.  Paul might have accessed inklings of who he was with Gallery Beat, but he ultimately didn’t put in the work it takes to stay on one’s path.

So what happens when you lack an identity?  You don’t go after what you want.  Instead, you can get sucked into something that is not you or true to you.  Do that long enough and you won’t even know what you want. That’s the switcharoo – the times it’s really hard to tell…who you are.

The clarity of Cindy’s identity is demonstrated by one memorable anecdote from the movie.  A friend of Paul and Cindy recalls going to dinner with Cindy.  The friend notices lobster listed on the menu and hems and haws about actually ordering the lobster.  He listens to his “shoulds” – he shouldn’t eat it because it’s too expensive, etc.  Cindy, he marvels, doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t get the lobster.  Finally, the friend chooses something else and Cindy orders the lobster.

Towards the end of the movie, I leaned in hoping to understand how Paul reclaimed his identity after the break-up with Cindy.  But sadly, he only seemed lost.  Which after decades of putting your sense of self on hold is the only logical result.  Unfortunately, instead of turning to the hard work of figuring himself out, he seems to still be defining himself in relation to her – hence the title, Guest of Cindy Sherman.

The credits rolled, the lights came up and my throat was dry.  I felt sad.  I told myself I had just witnessed a cautionary tale and said a silent prayer that I don’t fall victim to the same fate while simultaneously worrying that I already had.

As we exited the Oddball Films building and walked to our cars, my friends and I discussed what we took away from the movie.  I hurried to voice my opinion that Cindy Sherman was a vortex.  To use another metaphor, she shined her light on him and he could no longer see.  As I said that out loud I pictured her personality in my mind as beast-like, ravenous.

And then it hit me.  If I continue to think that living your potential, stepping into all that you are makes you a beast, I’ll never do it.

I realize now that I want the lobster.  Scratch that.  I will have the lobster.  Which can mean only one thing: I am Cindy Sherman.

Why Women Don't Code

I recently wrote an essay for Women 2.0 about women and computer programming. It was based on a difficult experience I had trying to learn Ruby on Rails. I felt a little vulnerable sharing this story, but for the most part readers were very supportive. I'm happy to divulge the name of the boot camp I talk about below, but the real purpose of sharing this story is to help other women looking to learn to code. Be careful about where you choose to learn. There's nothing as precious, in my mind, as that developing desire. Make sure you work with other people who feel the same way.

The essay:

A few months ago when my new website was crashing, and my web developer wasn’t returning emails or answering his phone, I decided to learn to code myself. Fortunately, there’s been a recent explosion of programming courses. There are community college and online classes, as well as development boot camps, all boasting accessible learning.

Many of the boot camps are only for people who already know how to program, so I was encouraged when I found one that taught programming in ten weeks for $10K and was open to beginners. The course founder and instructor, a hot shot male programmer with a resume full of top technology names, called me for an interview after I applied:

Him: “Are you passionate about coding?”

Me: “I don’t know enough to answer that yet but I can tell you, when I’m doing an HTML CSS online tutorial, I stay up into the wee hours of the night trying to solve problems. I really love that. And I know I have a passion for learning.”

Him: “A passion for learning is one thing, but a passion for coding is another.”

He went on to say a woman had once dropped out half-way through his class and he didn’t want that to happen again. What did that have to do with me? I thought. I was so angry that I couldn’t even respond. He ended the call by suggesting I try another online tutorial.

In fact, I already had a long history with coding. In seventh grade my algebra teacher offered a short course in the programming language BASIC. I built a baseball game with a pitcher on a mound who threw pitches to a batter controlled by the user. The game kept score and it even had bleachers in the outfield. I was proud of my creation but when I showed it to my teacher she gave me a disapproving look and said, “That wasn’t the assignment.” I can still remember how dejected I felt.

Like many seventh-graders who don’t get attention for their work, I switched to other activities that garnered approval. It’s sad to look back and realize that’s all it took.

My belief that I was not a computer programmer eventually bloomed into a larger belief that I was not technical. Yet, as I grew older, I had a sneaking suspicion I actually was technical. I’m quick to grab on to concepts; I’m good at math. Heck, I even started an advertising technology company. But all along I had told myself I couldn’t code.

After the more recent blow to my programming curiosity, I tackled the first few chapters of the online tutorial recommended by the hot shot instructor. My anger powered me through until I was so upset I couldn’t see anymore. Was I resentful because he was right and I just wasn’t cut out for coding? Or was it because coding was a club I’d been prevented from joining?

I see my experience and resulting self-doubt as the reason why so many women don’t pursue programming. These barriers might seem incidental at first glance, but they represent an insidiousness that keeps us from entering the fields of computer science and engineering, much less staying.

It was only when I went back to the instructor’s website that it dawned on me why his program requires an application: his course advertises job placement. He gets paid more for placing a student in a programming job than he does from teaching her. I was only looking to learn and his class wasn’t meant for me. But he didn’t have the balls to tell me that. Instead, he discouraged me.

It took me a few weeks to shake my conversation with him and come up with a new plan. For $10K, I could continue learning on my own and pay a tutor to meet with me regularly. In fact, for $10K, I could pay for other women to meet with tutors, too.

I am a successful female entrepreneur and I can still get knocked down and locked out, but the difference between now and the seventh grade is this: I don’t need anybody’s approval to code.

What a Bubble Looks Like

I recently spoke about technology entrepreneurship at a San Francisco public high school’s career day. I co-presented with an engineer. In Silicon Valley, when you hear the term engineer you mostly likely think electrical engineer or someone who programs computers. In a public high school class of about forty mostly male Hispanic and Black students, even in San Francisco, engineer means something altogether different.

I didn’t realize this until I stopped talking and started listening. As the boys opened up and asked questions, I learned that to them engineer meant auto mechanic.

Of course, that makes all the sense in the world. Their lives don’t include people who work at computer technology companies – in any capacity. While almost all the students had cell phones, very few had laptops. Their parents, if they have both, work multiple jobs and names like Twitter, LinkedIn or Square are nowhere in their lexicon. What is so shocking about this is this is in San Francisco.

I did my best to expose them to the other world of Silicon Valley in my allotted twenty minutes, but clearly this will never do. These young people are already so behind. If they don’t come up in an environment where even the language of technology is discussed, how will they ever gain access?

And so you can see the socio-economic and skills gap widening. Even for those who want to be auto-mechanics. Why? Because even cars use computers.

Upon wrapping up my talk, I went out on a limb and asked the class if they knew who Mark Zuckerberg was. Not a single student raised their hand.

Not one student knew about a young privileged man who by age eighteen had a better education than most of the juniors and seniors in that career day class will ever have, had already learned to code and started a business.

Not one student knew he was the founder of Facebook and as a result, not one student knew that what Mr. Zuckerberg did was even remotely possible for them.

And how will they ever know?

How to Improve

Course: Improv - Foundation Level

Institution: BATS

Instructor: Chris Sams

I circled the block a few times. Where was this God-forsaken building? Nothing on the website indicated how complicated it would be to find the entrance. I headed back down the block and a fella was stretching his neck in a similar manner. He saw me walking towards him and asked if I was looking for Improv. Yes, I said. Yes, I am.

We were the last two to arrive. I immediately spotted a woman who was taking a writing class with me. “Oh, you’re on a self-improvement kick, too!” she cried out in front of the semi-circle of students. I brushed her comments off with a waive and thought, “Yes and it really helps for you to yell that in front of everybody.” Slightly embarrassed, and any semblance of cool shot to hell, I took a seat.

The group in total was fourteen strong. It was a pretty even mix of men and women from all walks of life. When we introduced ourselves I learned that most were there to get over performance anxiety or learn to think on their feet better. I was there, as always, to learn something about myself.

To start we did something I had feared about taking an improv class - throwing an imaginary ball. No one looks good throwing an imaginary ball. To my relief, however, we used an actual ball. I thought I was in the clear until the instructor decided to mix it up by introducing "sound ball."

This time we had to make noises as we threw the ball to each other. I found it pure torture. Yet, others, seemed to thoroughly enjoy making the most idiotic noises they could muster to another stranger.

I realized then this class was going to require something much more from me - I was going to have to let my guard down.

Mind you, I know how to get down. I am the same woman who regularly dances in my socks in my sister's dining room for the amusement of my little nephew. But this was something altogether different.

The next exercise hinted at the source of my problem and a way out. Our instructor had everyone walk around the room, go up to each other and yell, “I failed,” and then throw up our arms in exultation. Or, “I totally messed that up” and do a victory dance. The idea is to celebrate that you took a risk.

It instantly relaxed me. I had never allowed myself to say those words with joy and it definitely changed how I began to feel about the class. This was a safe place to fail. There are so few of those they are hard to recognize - even when you’re in one.

I’d like to say that after this exercise I jumped in wholeheartedly, but I can’t. I can take risks in business, but I’ve always found that taking risks with people is a lot more difficult. I can say that I waded in further.

Over the next six weeks we were introduced to many improv principles, like “Yes, and.” This is a way to build on the ideas of others as opposed to shutting them down or in the parlance of improv, “blocking” them, with the dreaded “Yes, but.”

Many of the principles were, of course, good life habits, like “make your partner look good,” “accept your own ideas,” “listen,” “make eye contact,” and “start positive.”

But I took the most away from the various games and exercises he had us do.

One of the last ones we did is called the status game. Everyone selects a card from a deck of playing cards. You don’t look at it but place it on your forehead for others to see. He told us that the higher the card number, the higher status the individual. Then he had us mingle, pretending we were at a party. Afterwards he asked us to line up according to what we thought our status was before revealing the number to ourselves.

Walking around, I thought I was lower status because of how people interacted with me. Turns out I was higher than I realized and the people who gave me quick glances and then looked away, were more often than not, those who thought they were lower status, even if their card number was high.

Many times when I’ve been at a party I’ve tried to connect with a stranger and been completely rebuffed. I had always assumed it was because the other person thought I was not worth their time or that I was lower status. What the game taught me is that people act according to what they think of themselves.

And that's when it hit me. What matters at the end of the day is what I think of myself, and if I'm not judging myself it makes it a lot easier to take risks with people. Being yourself, it turns out, never fails.

Is Crossfit a Fit?

Course: Crossfit Orientation Institution: San Francisco Crossfit

Instructor: Angel O

Location: Behind the Presidio Sports Basement, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes early and surveyed the scene. There was a circle of people in a parking lot tucked behind a retail store heaving weights about. It was quiet with only the intermittent shouts of "time" from a coach who was staring down at her iPhone. I was watching a group class. To be able to join a group class, San Francisco Crossfit requires people to take a two week, 6 session, orientation course.

I was there to get oriented. My orientation class was five people and I was the only gal. The other participants were all very nice fellas who, from the looks of them, were there to bulk up. Our instructor started by asking us to do three pull ups. Then he asked us to do squats with just our body weight. Then he told us how we were doing it all wrong.

The emphasis of the orientation, according to our instructor, was to make sure we learned key movements that Crossfit utilizes, like a proper squat. In the first class, he used the Socratic method or really, a bastardized version of it, to teach. The class participants often looked at each other puzzled because he'd ask a question without any context, like, "How does this work?"

We'd look at him and at each other. Was he talking about the pipe in his hand, the weight on the floor, what? Our instructor was buff, but a teacher he was not.

The second class incorporated an actual work out portion. We learned more moves and weight holds and then did a 15 minute session that was, admittedly, intense. It consisted of box jumps, squats, cleans and burpees.

The subsequent classes increased the work out portion even more until we were conditioned for a whole hour of Crossfit exercises. I thought the workouts were challenging, but the culture is a bit macho (which I don't believe it has to be). The instructor often made comments about “real men” who in his mind were capable of doing things that my cohorts couldn’t.

And the tough guy environment doesn’t lend itself to asking for help. Case in point: one of my fellow orientation classmates was getting tired after 3 sets of 25 box jumps, 25 weight ball tosses and a ¼ mile run (with the goal being 5 sets). To give you a sense, these are high boxes (the platform was above my knees). After the third set, I knew I wasn't going to be able to complete 5 sets of 25 jumps without very likely scraping my shins on the box during a jump, so I switched to a shorter box that I saw nearby.

The guy who was struggling on his sets never received instruction to switch or given the option and so what happened? He injured himself when a jump of his fell short and he hit the box with his shins. He fell to the ground and grabbed his leg in agony. Did our instructor go over to help him? Offer him any words of advice – even a shorter box? Nope.

That brings me to my main criticism of Crossfit: it’s an injury waiting to happen.

While I like the demanding workouts, it's pretty clear that you really have to monitor yourself in these classes. The instructors will push and it is up to you to decide how much your body can handle and make adjustments as necessary. They are simply not qualified (most are not certified trainers and all that’s required for a level 1 Crossfit certification is $1,000 and a weekend) to assess what you’re capable of or to understand limits. The program also isn’t set up to be tailored to individuals.

Further, after watching some group classes, it's clear that after the orientation you're pretty much on your own as far as form and stretching. While I saw one instructor catch a few form mistakes, most instructors I observed were looking at their phones or chatting with other instructors during the workouts.

So is Crossfit a fit? I think it's a good way to get our of your workout comfort zone for those who are experienced with weights, but if you're not and don’t know how to set your own limits, it may not be a fit.

How to Design

Course: An Introduction to Design Thinking

Institution: Stanford University

Location: d.school

I was fortunate recently to take a class at Stanford University’s design school, better known as the d.school. The class was organized into a group exercise and we were tasked with designing the ideal wallet. We started by each sketching the "ideal" wallet. When we reviewed the results we discovered that when you don’t know who you are designing for, you design for yourself. Which was the point. The d.school is all about user centric design not you-centered design.

So in order to understand what users want we needed to focus on empathy. Our mission was to redesign the wallet experience so that it was “useful and meaningful.”

We started by interviewing a customer, the person next to us. We took four minute turns, twice. The goal was to get the interviewee to tell a story about themselves and then delve deeper by asking lots of Why questions. What we found in the interviewing process was that the interviews became about more than the wallet. They were about finding the meaningful problem, which is a reframing of the design task.

To capture our findings and see this more clearly we were asked to list out needs – what our partner was trying to do (active terms, verbs) and insights – new learnings about our partners’ feelings and views that we could use in our design. This then helped us literally define the problem better.

All we had to do was complete this sentence: [Partner’s name] needs a way to _____. Unexpectedly, in his/her world, ________. This blank was for the insight.

The process really opened my eyes to how much of what we truly desire or need goes unsaid and it’s only when we take the time to listen that we can begin to meet those needs or desires. The d.school process is really a design plan for life.

After we completed our new problem statement – as opposed to “I need a new wallet,” I found that my partner Jayme needed a way to express his creativity and unexpectedly, in his world physical fit drove his behavior. Jayme actually didn’t even like carrying a wallet if it would affect the profile of his jeans.

Next we were asked to ideate – meaning, generate alternatives to test. We sketched three to five “radical” ways to meet our partner’s/user’s needs. I came up with a new pair of jeans for Jayme.

Then I shared my solutions with him and captured his feedback. I listened to what he liked and didn’t like about my ideas and with his help centered on an idea for re-usable, color pockets he could adhere to the jeans pockets of any jeans he uses.

At this point we were about 45 minutes into the exercise. We were then tasked with making our idea. Yes - making it. Scattered around the space were materials to prototype our solution. I gathered up felt, scissors, and duct tape and whipped up some “portable pockets.”

If this all seems lightening fast to you, you’re right. Part of the lesson was just how quickly and cheaply you can get to solutions and working ones at that.

The whole exercise took an hour and it was revelatory. The methodology in general is this:

  • Empathy
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Repeat. When there are disagreements about what design makes the most sense, then it’s important to go back and ask more questions of your users. Also, these words are more buckets than steps per se.

What guides this process are some of the d.school principles: Focus on human values

Show don’t tell

Craft clarity – this is reframing the problem: what is the problem I’m really trying to solve?

Radical collaboration

Embrace experimentation

Bias toward action – which I’m all about!

There have been numerous design successes that have emerged from the d.school and benefited from their approach. Most notably is Embrace – a baby warmer that replaced incubators in Nepal. You can learn more here.

And for more on the d.school approach check out their Bootcamp Bootleg Dschool Bootcamp Bootleg 2010.

In the words of the Founder of the d.school David Kelley:

“We want to try to develop empathy for people, see what they value as humans and try to use that to come up with big ideas, so we call our method human-centered design. There’s a creative act in trying to decide what problem is worth working on in the first place.”