Saturday, December 02, 2006

Less is more? More is more? Which is it?

A trumpet call please!

Hey, gang, guess what I just did? I just wrote 50,000 words on my hot new novel, Manhattan Husbands—all during the month of November, as part of National Novel Writing Month ( And during this very same time I was also beavering away at my long-awaited self-help book for lawyers, The Creative Lawyer.

Cool, huh? I’m just alive with energy and focus and what’s up with that? Sure, there’s a bit of cheating (repackaging old worksheets, finding old entries from my Julia Cameron-style “Morning Pages” to repurpose as plot) but that’s okay because the whole key in writing is just to crank that s**t out! My days have an easily understood core purpose. I just think, using an internal tone of voice most commonly associated with the Robot on Lost in Space: “Word count too low. Must write more.”

More is more!

A quick trip down memory lane

But there have been times in my life when less is more. In 2001, for instance.

During the bleak year things were not so great with my life. My internet company had collapsed after a tension-filled death spiral, my legal career was drifting ever further behind me, I was paying my mortgage on credit cards, and I had no ideas left in my head. Nothing! My big dreams—I’d already pursued them without significant results other than the depletion of my savings and the hobbling of my self-esteem.

Mind you, I did have goals at this time: I wanted to get a job in a foundation or nonprofit organization. I wanted to work out more. You know, the usual. But I didn’t experience much positive feedback and I found it difficult to pursue anything consistently. I frequently felt listless, unhappy and burdened with the profound sense of missing the boat. And then our beloved dog Astra died of kidney failure when she was only three and a half. I spent much of the year in a dark, empty place.

Periodically, I would vow to give things the old college try. “I am Michael Melcher!” I proclaimed to myself on multiple occasions. “I get things done! I have great ambitions!! When life gives me lemons I make lemonade!!!” Etc. So I’d wake up, push myself to go to the gym, make my balanced breakfast, write down my list of people to network with, make calls, send emails. This effort would typically last about a day and a half. And then I would find myself lying on my bed at three in the afternoon, letting the answering machine pick up calls.

Long story short, I was not ready to launch my big new thing. It wasn’t just that the world refused to beat a path to my door on the Upper West Side. I was going through internal change as well. I wanted to be out in the world, making it. But something inside me was slowing me down, necessarily. I wanted to get back on the ladder to success. But something was holding me back until I was in a position to find the right ladder.

Cocooning happens

I’ve seen this phenomenon in lots of clients and friends over the years—it’s the cocooning process. There are times when the thing we need to do isn’t to assemble the troops and march out to victory. There are times when we, instead, need to slow down, regroup, focus inward rather than outward, and let growth happen without deciding ahead of time what form it will take.

During my cocooning time, it was hard to imagine that a time would come when I’d wake up filled with a sense of purpose again. But guess what? It came.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Happiness is not always logical

Being in the happiness business, I have devoted a fairly large chunk of my life to the task of decoding how to be happy. In career, in relationships, in one's heart, wherever. Whence cometh happiness, after all? Does happiness come from working through tough issues in your primary relationships? Or does it come from doing 45 minutes of cardio each day? Does happiness come from letting go of career expectations and flowing along with the universe? Or does it come from sticking to goals long enough for them to bear fruit? It's an exhausting optimization problem. Does happiness come from starting sentences with "I" (as in "I feel") rather than "you" (as in "you suck")? Or does it come from finding new friends?

There's happiness that you attempt to lure into your life. And then there's the happiness that shows up unexpected, a loud, upbeat out-of-towner who drops an overstuffed duffle bag in your front hallway, slaps you hard on the back, and bellows, "Let's go to Ollie's! I'm starving. And don't forget to set the DVR for 'Lost'." This is what I experienced last week, when my personal happiness index ZOOMED up significantly.

It seems clear there were two specific reasons for this:
(1) I started using my "GoLight" for 30 minutes each morning
(2) The Democrats won the elections.

Reason one: my GoLight.

A year ago, I ordered a so-called "light box" from an online company. I have not slept all that well for years (not badly, but just not all that well, I know, it's kind of sad). I bought my GoLight having tried somewhat more mainstream approaches to improving sleep, such as exercise, therapy and cutting down on caffeine. I put on my GoLight around 7 pm, mood improved and I seemed to get a second wind in the evenings. It worked, sort of but not hugely, and then I stopped using it. Recently, I gave the GoLight another go after a fit of astounding irritability that I experienced following my return from a business trip to Raleigh/Durham, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Only this time I changed some of my answers to the online test and was instructed to use the GoLight in the morning, not the evening. Within a day or two I started falling asleep with ease. And sleeping better. This has continued for a solid two weeks now. Plus it's cheery to look into a blue light as I eat my breakfast.

Reason two: the elections

Did half the country just have a huge exhale of relief? It sure feels like it, judging from the letters to the New York Times. There's just something about not feeling that your country is sliding endlessly downward into insanity, intolerance and environmental collapse that cheers one up. For the first time in years, I don't feel a sense of dread when I pass a blaring television at the gym or at the airport. Apparently, this persistent low-level unease I've experienced for years was based on something--I was depressed about the state of the world! And now I have hope. Elation would not be too strong a word.

I compare these instant improvements to the thousands of hours I've spent over the years pondering, basically, what kinds of adjustments I should make in my thinking or behavior to be happier.

Sometimes, it seems, happiness just happens.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Book deal!

Well, guess what? I have a book deal. "The Creative Lawyer," my self-help book for lawyers, the one I've been talking about for like five years, is going to be published by ABA Press. So now I have to write the thing.

I'd almost forgotten all about it. Well, not really. But, having experienced interest-then-rejection many times, I had grown kind of sick of the topic. Amazingly, however, once the contract process was underway, I rediscovered all my pent-up interest in the topic. I'm into it!

The advantage of writing the book five years after I got the idea is that now, having worked as a coach with hundreds and hundreds of people, I am very confident that I know what I'm doing. So I expect brilliant and witty ideas to flow effortlessly from my mind onto the page. And if they doesn't, I have all kinds of tricks up my sleeve to force myself into submission. Come February 28, it'll be done!

Gretchen's Happiness Project

Check out my friend Gretchen Rubin's blog, She's spending a year attempting to follow every nostrum about how to be happy, from a variety of sources.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ugly Betty and the Amazing Right-Brain File

My television issues

Those of you who know me well are aware that I have a bit of an a-tee-tude about television. Aside from Project Runway, I'm not really into it, have a pronounced aversion to legal and crime dramas (or "legal" and "crime" dramas as I think of them), and really loathe CNN and other pseudo-"news" programs, especially when I they are broadcast at top volume in airports to crowds of slack-jawed, gullible people. Hmm, I guess that's a lot of a-tee-tude.

But today I am changing. I am opening up the dikes to mass media. I'm letting pop culture flow into my Upper West Side classic-five. Because it's the premier of Ugly Betty!

Ugly Betty rules!

Ugly Betty is a show with America Ferrera (last seen in Real Women Have Curves, Spanglish and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants .... yes, I saw it) playing a dorkster from Queens named Betty, who works in a Vogue-type place in Manhattan. Come to think of it, this Devil Wears Prada business is EVERYWHERE this year. And I just got back from Milan -- more on that later. Coincidence? I think not.

Ugly Betty is based on a fabulously successful Colombian telenovela called Yo Soy Betty La Fea and I can't wait for it to get started. There's a great photo of the actress in today's New York Times on the front page of the arts section, where she is undergoing a beauty treatment, Betty La Fea style -- she's wearing plastic-framed glasses, gigantic curlers in her hair and a flowery red and pink robe that looks like it's made of oilcloth. The walls of the salon are hospital green and in the background a red teddy bear decorates the counter among stacks of combs, brushes and vials of nail polish. Love it!

(Ignore, however, the pointless review by tiresome film critic Virginia Heffernan. A sample sentence: "Commedia characterization on pseudorealist television can be exhausting: just as not every rich person has to wear an ascot, not every provincial girl has to dress like a mental patient." Just give it a rest, girl!)

Into the Right-Brain File

This is the kind of article that goes RIGHT IN my right-brain file. What's a right-brain file, you ask? A right-brain file is a file of stuff that for whatever reason triggers your interest. In anything. It could be a news event, an article about a person, an ad for something, a travel brochure, an announcement of a lecture, some barely legible scrawled note you made after a revealing dream, whatever.

Building a right-brain file is a great way to figure out what you really want to do with your life, now or in the future. Creating a right-brain file is based on the truth that finding your true interests is rarely a logical process. Thinking about things harder rarely works. And insights rarely come announced as such. As Herminia Ibarra writes in her must-read book, Working Identity, many visions start out as a tingle, an inkling, a wondering, a twinge of interest. Not as fully cooked, or fully convincing, ideas. The right-brain file is a great way to let these various idea-ettes develop at their own speed.

The trick is to cut out the article (or whatever), toss it in the file, and NOT think about it. That's it. You do the analysis later. At some point, you can go back, sift through, and ask yourself, "what does all this say about me?" It's like making compost. You throw in a bunch of stuff, wait a few months, and then one day your kitchen scraps have been magically transformed into something fertile.

Today, a bonanza of right-brain inspiration!

I am motivated to write this post today because today the first arts page of the New York Times has THREE articles that ALL must go into my own personal right-brain file. One is the aforesaid mention (with glam photo) from Ugly Betty. The second is an article about how Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie about Barot the purported Kazakh is playing in Kazakhstan. The third is a story about Shondra Rhimes, the show runner for Grey's Anatomy. (Another show that makes it through my a-tee-tude, anti-TV screen.)

What do all these things mean? Who knows? Tossing the articles into the right-brain file is all the work I need to do today. Besides watching the premier of Ugly Betty!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Relaxing around the home, Michael Melcher-style

Greetings, loyal audience,

I am not the best person for relaxing. I'm a high-energy kind of guy.

Most normal relaxation-type activities don't really work for me--picnics, watching TV, watching brooks babble by. With time on my hands, I often feel a little panicky. (Or, as my family insistently describes it, "nervous." "You're so nervous," they declare, everytime I shlep across the country to visit one of them. "Why are you always so nervous?")

Mind you, this doesn't mean that I am actually productive all the time. Quite the opposite. It means that during my occasional downtime, I engage in a lot of low-level, completely useless, Hamlet thinking. "Should I go to the movie or do the laundry?" "Should I go the gym or rearrange my closets." "Should I call someone? But who?" I can go on and on like this for hours. And even when I sort of decide things, I can change my mind--I have been known to walk out of my apartment, and back, two or three times within a period of 20 minutes. This does not lead to marital bliss, incidentally, since nothing incites my three dogs to their shrillest, most aggressive barking than when I leave and unexpectedly come back.

However, like anyone, I do need to relax, desperately! Cause I got a lot going on! When I don't relax, I can get kind of...crabby. And confused. And prone to states that are unsuitable to being the Life Coach to the Stars, like feeling put upon, distracted, and pessimistic. It's shocking but true. I'm not proud of my limited ability to relax. No sirree. I hate all the faux constant busy-ness of contemporary life--don't count me on that side.

So how to relax effectively is a theme constantly in my head. And never did I need to relax more than this weekend. I just returned from a nine-day trip to Italy to attend a friend's wedding and try to do some business. And nine days from now I will be zooming off to Hong Kong (by way of Raleigh) and California to do a bunch of workshops. Much time zone changing and evil plane travel. With my mental and physical health in mind, I scheduled a weekend of down time upon my return. However, then the inevitable question arose: what will I do during this critical weekend? Something, God help me, besides checking email, which has got to be as opposite from true relaxation as anything.

The answer came in two parts. First, I lucked out and found a great book to read on my 8-hour flight back from Milano. Paul Auster's new novel, "Brooklyn Follies." Loved it! Oh, the joys of reading. Reading has been something I have counted on my whole entire life, ever since I mastered "Story Wagon" at age five. Yet, weirdly, I often don't have anything good to read.

Why? It turns out that good books, like good food in your refrigerator, don't just pop into your life. You have to do a bit of planning. Research, even. They're out there--but you gotta find 'em. Thus motivated, I went to Barnes & Noble to see what there might be for my upcoming 16 hour trip to Hong Kong. And I totally scored again--a well-written book on Bombay, the new novel, "Calamity Topics in Particle Physics," along with "What's the Matter with Kansas?," (the book that explains how the Republicans have taken over everything and what to do about it), and my most unexpectedly delightful find, "Julie and Julia," a book about a woman who spent a year making every recipe in Julia Childs's classic, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Why? Just cuz it seemed like a fun idea.

This last book, frothy but thoughtful, is awesome. And it brings me to my second form of relaxation... cooking!

Something I've known for years but not always put into practice is that cooking is a great way to unwind from a day, week or lifetime of stress. I can't say it feels like that when you are trooping home with plastic bags leaving welts in your palms from your trek from Fairway, but it really is true. Cooking is, after all, an act of creation. So it's the perfect antidote to the soul-numbing activities of checking Treos and dealing with office politics, paying bills and peering over cubicles. Plus, you get to eat what you create, which is always fun. Cooking at home is almost always more nutritious, delicious and cheap than anything you'd get in a restaurant. (New Yorkers often dispute the last point about cheapness, claiming that cooking at home is expensive, often way more expensive than going out. I will not even honor this with an argument. These people are delusional and probably lazy. Eating at home is always cheaper.)

So I've now spent two entire days in a kind of fugue state between reading about this funny person cooking Julia Childs recipes and cooking various things myself, with occasional forays into minor household administrative activities like doing my Quickbooks and opening mail.

So far I've made (and eaten) the following:
-- biscuits (made with Bisquick)
-- mashed sweet potatoes with lemon and orange zest
-- peach cobbler (made with Sylvia's-brand mix along with fresh peaches and Splenda)
-- goat meat stew with fingerling potatoes
-- lentil salad made with green French lentils and warm vinaigrette, following the instructions on the box
-- and (in a moment), some kind of marinated goat liver dish.

(Okay, a word about the goat meat, in case your wondering. I am a carnivore, but love animals, including the ones I'm eating. So my one consistent philosophy in dealing with this core hypocrisy is to buy meat that was once part of an animal that had a reasonably good life. This means that I will buy anything that appears to have eaten grass in a meadow for a reasonable period of time. This is why I eat beef but almost never chicken. Unless it grew up in the Hudson Valley or somewhere similar. The farmer's market had goat meat so I thought, why not?)

Anyhow, now I feel great! And relaxed! And sort of creatively whole, enough to tap out this little piece.

Plus, I am all bonded with my dogs, Luna, Splash and Jackson. It turns out that dogs are never more fascinated than when you are cooking a series of interesting dishes that they will surely taste. They are there, rooting for you, at every intriguing stage.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Latest life secret: Making a practice of non-attribution

Those pesky non-replies

Changing your career (and life) involves seeking out the advice and assistance of a lot of people. You have to do a lot of initiating and it’s not always clear what is happening on the other side. This can lead to frustration. One of sentences spoken most frequently in my charming office in the Flatiron district is:

“Well, I sent an email to that person, and he didn’t answer.”

This is usually followed by a kind of sigh that contains exasperation flavored with a whiff of failure and a heavy undertone of disapproval.

There are many alternate versions of this sentence: someone didn’t follow up; someone didn’t return a call; it was a great interview but nothing’s happened yet. Blah, blah, blah.

What's really going on

From my heady perch as New York’s life coach to the stars, what I know is that these folks are getting all wrapped up in their own internal perceptions of what’s going on, which often has little to do with reality.

There is an inherent asymmetry to looking for a job, starting a business, or getting people enrolled in your new idea. Other people are busy, they are attending to their preexisting list of things to do, and, shocking as it seems, they all have their own issues. All this means that time passes more quickly for the asker than the asked, and your greatest priorities are not necessarily theirs

I tell my clients that a lack of response isn’t the same as a “no,” and that they should assume a 5:1 ratio of output to response. In other words, until you’ve made five attempts to contact someone, don’t start assuming they don’t want to deal with you. It’s awkward, I know, but whatever, it’s life.

The power of non-attribution

A sales expert with very high emotional intelligence recently put it this way: “I try to make a practice of non-attribution.” This statement was in response to one of my colleagues who wondered what the heck was going on when a great initial meeting didn’t seem to lead to anything. “Maybe they were busy,” he said. “Maybe they have other things going on. I don’t know and you probably don’t know. Most of the time, I can’t know. So I try not to make attributions. It’s easier that way.”

I really dig this phrasing—“making a practice of non-attribution.” When you start attributing motives to people, you weigh yourself down. You complicate your thoughts and your interactions. You make yourself responsible for a whole other story line. You spend a lot of time strategizing rather than just, you know, doing stuff.

In contrast, when you avoid attributing motives, you lighten your own load. You take your own ego out of the equation. You increase your energies. So try it—the next time someone else makes you feel irritated, jerked around, ignored (and of course, they’re not making you this way, you’re making yourself that way) … see what it feels like not to attribute a motive to them. It works.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada and has an Awesome Career

During one scene in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, the Ohioan father of the purported heroine, Andie Sachs, plaintively says to her over dinner at a downtown restaurant, “I just can’t believe that someone who was admitted to Stanford Law is doing this kind of job.”

This comment led to much merriment, at least in my own head. Oh, the illusions we have. “Are you kidding?” I thought, having spent a good number of years at Stanford Law myself. “Her job is way better than going to Stanford Law School.”

Therein lies my core thought about this up-to-the-minute movie, which is a kind of Working Girl for people who grew up watching Party of Five (actually, I suspect that itself is a dated cultural reference… Help me out, people. What’s the right phrase -- “for people who grew up with The O.C.?” Okay, moving on.)

The thing about this movie is that although you are supposed to be horrified by Meryl Streep’s meanie character, Miranda Priestly, she’s actually the highlight of the drama. Although the author of the (very poorly written) book and presumably the screenwriter intended this to be a morality lesson of what happens when you are a bitchy powerful woman (answer: you end up loveless and surrounded by sycophants), it doesn’t come out that way. Instead, the lesson I draw is that if you work really hard, get over your ego issues, and focus on what you are doing rather than what you think you are supposed to be doing, you can have great career fulfillment. Furthermore, a career that engages you, however odd it seems to the outside world, is ultimately more reliable than boyfriends or husbands.

Whenever the character played by Anne Hathaway (who’s basically a new Sandra Bullock making better career choices) complained about her job, grimaced in frustration or talked about her beloved college articles about a janitors’ strike, I found myself checking out. “Whatever,” I thought, much like her anorexic colleagues. I wanted more makeovers, more coats-flung-on-desks, and more scheming backstage corporate machinations!

Perhaps I have so little patience with the complaints of a 20something fictional character because they remind me of how much time I spent in my 20s and early 30s obsessing about how things should be in my career. I would have been better off trying to understand the world of employment for what it was, engaging in it, and making the best of it. In a lot of ways, thinking is overrated and doing is what actually brings contentment.

In the end, Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly doesn’t look defeated, even though she’s apparently been ditched by her third husband, will soon be written about on Page Six, and is raising twin girls that will surely end up as shallow and annoying as the Bush daughters. She looks triumphant. She knows who she is and what she does, and those are goals worth striving for.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

A quick trip to China ... and those lingering myths of business travel

In Shanghai again (sigh)

Well, I find myself in Shanghai again. Cathay Pacific, The Four Seasons Hotel… I know what you’re thinking. “Alors, how does Michael stand it, the utter ennui of trans-Pacific travel.” Just a good attitude, I guess. With a positive h a-tee-tude I can find my highest AL-tee-tude. Etc.

I’ve come to help facilitate a big corporate event for Leaders Quest, the organization I went to China with in March. Only this time I get paid. And once again I find myself confronting one of those indestructible myths of travel, the ones that you swear you’ll never forget and then do exactly that.

Let's briefly review some of the leading ones:

Myth #1: “Since I’ll have a lot of time on airplanes, I should bring along one of those books that I’ve never been able to read, but feel I should, like Jude the Obscure or Beloved.”

Myth #2: “I’ll work out every day and come back in better shape than I left!”

Myth #3: “A business trip is a great opportunity to really enjoy myself, relax AND get paid for it.”

This last one is the relevant one today. It turns out that working overseas actually involves a lot of WORK. And precious little time for shopping, exploring charming new neighborhoods or working on my exciting new novel. Oy!

Still the life coach to the stars

Back-patting is in order, however, for what I did yesterday. I modeled good life-balance behavior. What did do to merit this?

I went to yoga! In Shanghai! On my business trip! And I even took a 90-minute class, which is a major time commitment for me given my rather short attention span. Go, Michael!

I found a place on the internet called Y+, which turned out to be a gorgeous, internationale, sumptuously appointed yet spiritually open studio. A single-class pass cost what I assume is someone’s monthly salary, but it was awesome.

Quien es mas obnoxious?

When competing for the title of Ugly American overseas, businessmen are the perennial favorites. Shuffling from country to country, cramming their wheelies into your overhead rack space, talking stock prices on their cell phones while dribbling sandwich crumbs onto their laptop PCs … you get the picture. However, there’s a new contender for the crown--those self-absorbedly cool, post-college, Asian-wannabe hipsters whose every atom goes into the process of broadcasting their unique (not) identities. (Of course, I was never that way.)

Here’s a picture of the guy who stood behind me in Starbucks: mid-20s; soul patch and goatee; wearing black kung fu pajamas and sandals; punching out text messages as he ordered his drink; and dragging a high-end longboard (a four-foot skateboard) behind him. In Starbucks Shanghai, I should repeat. He repeated multiple times that he wanted skim milk several times. Or at least I THINK that’s what he said because his Chinese, that he was so insistent on speaking, had no tones! I wanted to slap him! Or at least expose his uncoolness. Which I'm now doing, because no one hides from the blog.

To review:

Speaking Chinese well or just being culturally open: cool
Speaking Chinese without tones and pushily insisting on skim milk, while dragging a longboard around Starbucks and wearing kung fu pajamas and having a gross goetee: NOT cool!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

My fave career self-help books that are not career self-help books

When I was about 10 years old, my mother, sister and I went to our first-ever used book sale. With great literary perspicacity (a trait I had never seen before and can't say I've seen since), my plucky mom picked out 6 or 8 shopping bags full of great books, priced at a dollar a bag, which formed the core of my reading syllabus for the next few years.

One of these books was the 70s classic, "When I Say No, I Feel Guilty." I read it avidly (the concept of "the broken record" still sticks to me... something about how to say "no" without feeling guilty) and from then on was HOOKED on self-help lit! Now, as a world-famous career coach, I continue to explore this realm while getting to deduct it as well.

Many of the books that have helped me most in career development are not specifically career-development books. Perhaps that's why they're so good--they avoid the tedious lists and overenthusiastic stating-the-obvious of a lot of career-specific titles. Here are some of my favorites:

Julia Cameron, "The Artist's Way." This is still the single best book on personal development and transformation I've read. She is definitely channeling something way bigger than she. This is much better than her later title "The Artist's Way at Work."

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, "Finding Flow." A cogent, readable analysis of what kinds of experiences make life worth living, and how to create them.

Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, "The Art of Possibility." How to see past self-imposed obstacles to create art, happiness and a better life. He's the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and developed many these ideas working with musicians.

Dan Pink "A Whole New Mind." My newest fave read! My clients across the land are grooving to his suggestion that meaningful careers for our time will involve innovative combinations of right- and left-brain skills. (See my previous blogs for a review of this.)

Martin Seligman, "Authentic Happiness." Techniques to retrain your mind to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

Talane Miedaner, "Coach Yourself To Success." One hundred and one tips that, surprisingly, work toward getting your life in synch with what you want.

Srikumar Rao, "Are You Ready to Succeed?" A recent read. How to get out of your own way (notice a recurring theme?). Also reviewed on this blog.

Twyla Tharp, "The Creative Habit." An awesome book, about all kinds of creativity, written by super-choreographer Twyla Tharp. (Fun fact: she works out at Gold's Gym every morning at 5 am. She says, "The workout begins when I get into the cab.")

Don Riso, "The Wisdom of the Enneagram." A personality archetype system for understanding individual passions, preferences and temperaments. Back of, skeptics! The enneagram has made a huge difference in how I understand myself and what careers will work for me. Great for relationships, too.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Okay, this is kind of cheating BUT

check out the informative and amusing post about "Purity Rings" written by my very own Jason Mazzone:

Friday, May 05, 2006

Career experiments gone wild!

Of the many pillars of wisdom that hold up my position as career coach to the stars, perhaps the most important is this: the only way to figure out what you really want to do with your life is to experiment. This idea is discussed at length in Herminia Ibarra's book, "Working Identity," which is the title I most frequently recommend to clients.

The thing about experiments is that you can never really predict how they are going to come out, and that's a good thing! When you create experiments--whether they be an informational interview, a class in vegan dessert-making, or a trip down the Amazon--you combine intention with an openness to serendipity. So often you'll get great insights, although on completely different topics than the experiment was intended to address.

Here's an example from my own fascinating life.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a novel-writing class run by a woman named Elizabeth Merrick. I signed up for this because for some time I've carried around ideas for a soon-to-be-bestselling novel called "Manhattan Husbands," but wanted some structure to, you know, actually write it.

Each of us (me and nine women) was paired with a partner. My partner turned out to be a woman who had introduced herelf as a shoe expert and poet on the first day of class. "A shoe expert?" I exclaimed to myself. "Oy!"

I met my shoe expert partner, Meghan Cleary, in her office, a funky surprisingly nice place in the Village at the end of one exhausting day to discussed our writing assignment for the week. Meghan was quite fascinated by business and wanted to know about my marketing, media plan, rates. Somewhat shyly, I shared with her my new, improved rate structure--not wanting to overwhelm her with my gargantuan business savvy.

She reflected silently for a moment. "You should add another thousand dollars to your day rate, at least. And you definitely need more press coverage and media attention. You can make way more than you're making." Etc. etc.

It turns out that Megan ( really IS a shoe expert, and a famous one, and one who charges and gets beaucoup bucks for her work. She's written a book, marketed it, has been all over the shoe-related and general press, and fields calls every day from leading department stores and manufacturers wanting a piece of her! Before launching this business, she'd done a couple of start-ups and worked for years in marketing for places like Deutsche Bank. And she gave me a lot of trenchant, very useful marketing, branding and general business advice.

So, to sum up:
Experiment: take fiction writing class to see if my book idea has legs
Result (so far): got great ideas about how to make more more MORE money in my coaching business, and also achieve fame.

Lesson: don't overthink your experiments! Just do them, and see what happens.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Hiking up to the Miao villages in Leishan (Guizhou province)

Miao reception line!

Happy old ladies!

No tour of China is complete without a trip to the Chengdu engine-block factory!

Kids in Guizhou, vamping for the camera.

The secret of my international travel success--my high-tech squishy neck pillow!

Long live the 10-course meal!

Jin Xing -- Shanghai's best-known female dancer. Star, entrepreneur (founder of Shanghai Dance), impresario, cultural critic, concerned mother of three, and former man!

Aboard the 300-mph magnetic-levitation train from downtown Shanghai to the airport!

Juniors at a public high school in Shanghai. None of these kids has any siblings.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hey, what happened to the just-in-time travelblog?

Faithful readers,

No, I'm not still in China. Yes, I have much to report. And yes, I have committed the cardinal sin of blogging (so I hear) -- not updating regularly!

I have an excuse, I swear -- there is a mysterious firewall in my apartment that stops my shiny, pretty, PowerBook G4 from accessing!

Am working to resolve issue -- please return!!! I have VOLUMES of witty brilliance to share and I promise something really good!!!!

Your host,


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Beijing gets ready for its close-up

24-hour party people, Beijing version

Sometimes staying in a nice hotel gives you a very limited view of reality. But in Beijing staying in a nice hotel gives you a pretty accurate picture of one aspect of contemporary China, its headlong rush to the future.

Staying on the sixteenth floor of the Hilton, I had a very clear view—literally—of China on the move. From my room I could gaze down on a giant construction pit for one of the zillion new skyscrapers being erected all over Beijing. Lines of men in hardhats hammered away underneath two giant yellow cranes swinging their cargo back and forth. (These looked scary and oddly friendly at the same time, bringing to mind a favorite book from my childhood, "Mike and His Steam Shovel."”) Perhaps classical Chinese paintings done a thousand years from now will feature the motifs of these industrial cranes, replacing the swans and mountains of Guilin that have represented ChinaÂ’s essence for the past few hundred years.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Max"

China has been on a roll for a while, now, but preparation for the 2008 Olympics has given things a whole new push. China is getting ready for its close-up and it wants everything to be perfect. There's a lot left to do--—building several new subway lines, opening a new airport, eliminating air pollution--okay, we might put that last one on hold. But things are happening. We read about this all the time in the states but it's quite another to be in the thick of things, watching construction gangs move piles of pipes at two in the morning.

China has many problems and challenges, but laziness and a sense of entitlement do not figure among them. If American parents are pressuring their kids to achieve now, that'’s nothing compared to how they would be if they could actually see the competition up close.

And speaking of American parents...

One night in Beijing I had dinner with an American friend from business school, her husband and her two daughters. I'll call them Susan and Todd.

Susan and Todd have lived in China for about 18 months now. They used to live in Palo Alto and one day decided to move to China. That was basically the decision process. They didn'’t know what exactly they would do, and their kids were not thrilled, but it was an idea that had been percolating for a couple of decades so they did it.

From my brief visit, I concluded that they have created an extremely fabulous and meaningful life in Beijing. They started a media company that appears fun and successful and their daughters, who are ten and eleven, speak Chinese fluently with perfect "biaozhun" accents. They can read and write as well. The kids never watch television, except for Chinese-language shows. I know what you'’re thinking, and you're right: two fewer places for everyone else at the top colleges when these two girls apply.

Their house is gorgeous and totally reflects their own esthetic and experiences. And perhaps most significantly, the experience of living together overseas and creating a new life seems to foster a kind of intimacy among parents and children that I rarely see back home--what people are thinking when they talk about quality time.

Of course, not all expatriate families are like this. Having seen many over the years, I can accurately assert that many are somewhat paranoid, critical of local cultures and get little out of the experience. But Susan and her husband show how wonderful this kind of international experience can be.

Though their move seems dramatic, I think that it's much more possible than most people would think. In the past 20 years, world travel has become about 10 times easier than it used to be, thanks to email, ATMS and better flights.

And there are clearly opportunities in one of the world's fastest growing economies. Things are happening here--I am not sure exactly what they are, but they're definitely happening! Talented people who are comfortable with a certain amount of risk and uncertainty can find a much more ample space for expressing their interests and skills than might be the case back home.

Next stop: Shanghai

Monday, February 27, 2006

"Brokeback Moment" and America's next Oprah moment

The Oscars are coming and I, along with everyone, is predicting the same thing: "Brokeback Mountain" will walk away with most of the major prizes. I thought the film was beautiful, brilliantly made, and moving but this is only part of the story. "Brokeback Mountain" is going to clean up because the movie happens to be at the right place at the right time to express a much bigger cultural phenomenon: America's Oprah moment regarding gay rights and acceptance.

What do I mean by this? Let me start by briefly reviewing our cultural history.

Two decades ago, Oprah Winfrey burst onto the national scene. An Oscar-nominated turn in "The Color Purple" more or less coincided with the national broadcast of her talk show, which previously was local to Chicago. About five seconds later, she became anchored to the national consciousness and we haven't let go since. It's hard to imagine an America without Oprah Winfrey--who else would we aspire to be friends with?

While Oprah is great (love her!), her success isn't really about her. It is about what she represents to an entire culture, and what that culture needed at the time she showed up. Media may influence the culture but often it lags behind it. This was the case in terms of race in the mid-1980s. Before Oprah came along, African-Americans had a limited presence in the media. To the extent they were included in television shows or movies, they were mostly tokens. They were people to look at, not people to connect with. (How easy to forget that MTV for years was essentially all-white, and that it was Michael Jackson who integrated it!)

By the time Oprah came around, people--meaning the white majority as well as other minority groups--were yearning for more authentic connection across race that they didn't find in the media. They wanted, on some level, a more real expression of certain basic principles of our society--justice, equality, acceptance regardless of race. The culture needed someone to be Oprah, and she stepped up to the plate. Tens of millions of people greeted her with open arms. Most American still live in racially segregated neighborhoods and attend racially segregated skills, but in this limited way we now connect across race.

What does this have to do with "Brokeback Mountain?" This year is the Oprah moment for gay acceptance. For twenty years, Americans have steadily become more comfortable with homosexuality and bisexuality, and the idea that different people are just different, not evil. At the same time, gay people themselves have become more out and more proud, and focused more on living our lives rather than fitting into someone else's image of what we are supposed to be. This is the state of the culture as a tearfully romantic movie about two super-attractive cowboys has coming riding into town.

"Brokeback Mountain" is a colossal hit because it's the country's stand-up-and-be-counted moment. It's a cultural touchstone, a chance for people to define themselves as for or against, as with the program or against it, as part of the solution or part of the problem. And as it turns out, tens of millions of people are quite comfortable saying where they stand.

It's not at all paradoxical that all this is occurring a year after Republican (and some Democrat) politicians stoked fears of gay marriage to rustle up election victories in Ohio and therefore the nation, and in the same year that the president tried to write discrimination into the Constitution. The political world came up with one result, but the culture has come up with another.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why everyone needs a personal assistant

Nothing has quite so captured the imagination of my public than my recent hiring of a personal assistant. “How very Hollywood!” people think. “How indulgent!” and of course, “Is Michael pioneering the next big thing? With his finger constantly on the pulse, as it were? Do I need to get in on this before it’s too late?”

The correct answer is, of course, the last one. Personal assistanthood is not new to me; it’s just that I was usually on the other end of the pay-stub. With the hoary benefit of hindsight, I realize now that I have been a personal assistant numerous times in my life, such as my college “research assistant” job working for Prof. Catherine Clinton, where I spent a fair number of delightful hours picking up photos from the film store and reselling complimentary publishers’ copies of books to used bookstores for big bucks. And certainly, being a first- or second-year corporate attorney at an elite, white-shoe law firm is much like being a personal assistant.

Why is there so much personal assistanthood in the world? Well, because hiring a personal assistant can really change your life. Everyone imagines how freeing it would be to have someone go to the post-office on your behalf or pick up the dry-cleaning, but those are merely the most pedestrian, unimaginative value-adds.

Here are some of the things that my personal-assistant-to-the-Star, Jennifer Tuttle, has recently done for me:

--Gone to the bank to pick up two rolls of quarters (laundry money)
--Made FedEx refund me $132 for a package sent to Tasmania that arrived five days late
--Helped me figure out my 2006 corporate workshop pricing (“Go higher!” she insisted.)
--Updated my contacts and filed my filing (n.b. this takes several hours a week, which explains why for years I put off and dreaded these tasks. Now my business SINGS with efficiency!)
--Did secret competitive research into how much other coaches charge, by posing as a PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultant with an MBA and CPA
--Had a lively discussion with me on the merits--nay, the necessity!--of my purchasing a Hugo Boss suit
--Discussed with me the merits--nay, the necessity!--of creating a “reel” of me in action to share with agents, television bookers and high-end speakers bureaux, which—conveniently—she and her talented boyfriend Ryan can put together for a reasonable fee.

It is no surprise that Jennifer herself has an extremely busy, productive life as an actor, singer, film producer and now reel-creator-for-self-employed-people. She needs a personal assistant herself.

I would go so far as to say that personal-assistantness is a core economic principle for our age, much like the Keynesian “money multiplier” that I learned about in college. Forget your Razr V3 phones and accounts—this is the hot new thing!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bill Clinton, global superstar!

(Photo: my mom, following the Clinton trail)

Here’s a truism of contemporary travel: wherever you go, Bill Clinton has already been there.

On my recent trip to India, this maxim held true. On a quick visit to the sumptuous Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, a palace of a hotel that is the spitting image of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, my mom and I ran into Bill’s smiling photo in the lobby. Bill’s photo also greeted us in Jaipur, Delhi and Bombay.

I’ve seen Bill Clinton’s photo in Hanoi, Shanghai and Istanbul. I’ve seen it in Moscow, Buenos Aires and Paris. He traveled a lot as president and he continues to do so, and wherever he goes the paparazzi are snapping away. He’s the global It-Boy.

Foreigners love Bill Clinton. From Amman to Zanzibar, mention his name and the locals smile. I have never heard a single person oversees say anything negative about him. Ever! He's basically our Gorbachev--revered abroad but not at home as a historic, powerful figure. What gives?

Why foreigners love Bill

People overseas like Clinton because he’s the face of a positive America. He's considered brilliant and powerful but also someone who actually cares about foreign people and foreign countries. He’s remembered in numerous countries (e.g. Ireland) as a peacemaker. And he knows his stuff—his view of the world marries business, economics, government, diplomacy and a clear understanding of global problems. He’s able to help businesspeople understand and contribute to the resolution of social problems, and he’s able to help government and nonprofit people understand the value of free-market economic growth. His speeches are filled with substance, rather than the tedious and often dangerous clichés of our current president.

From their somewhat distant vantage point, foreigners see the legacy and gifts of Bill Clinton a lot more clearly than most Americans do. Across the world, Bill Clinton lives!

An aside

A skinny teenager working at a tourist shop in Kerala inquired, “I must ask you one question: what do you think of George W. Bush?”

“I loathe him!” I responded, my arms flailing to convey my angst and frustration. “I can’t stand him. He’s awful.” I shuddered involuntarily, as we liberals often do nowadays.

The salesman’s eyes twinkled and he bobbed his head left and right. “Every American people coming here is saying same. Why then is he president?”

Why indeed. “Because all the people who vote for George W. Bush are the kind who never leave the country! Just as he never did before he was president!”

This just in...

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

What I'm reading now ... Are You Ready to Succeed, by Srikumar S. Rao

A friend of mine recently asked, “How can a cycle-rickshaw driver in India be happy?”

This question was not a hypothetical one. This person had recently traveled to India. One detail that struck him most was his interaction with a cycle-rickshaw driver in Varanasi. My friend told a joke, and the driver—scrawny, prematurely aged and extremely poor—burst into a wide, authentic smile.

Was the rickshaw driver a happy person, despite a life of grinding poverty? I have no idea. But he made me think.

“The question isn’t how can Indians be happy,” I said. “It’s how can Americans be so unhappy.”

We looked around at the breakfast crowd at Balthazar—surely a place of “making it,” New York-style. The patrons sure looked busy, but they didn’t seem all that happy. Shouldn’t we be a whole lot happier, given how much better off we are than most of the world?

All of which brings me to a book I recently read, Are You Ready to Succeed, by Srikumar S. Rao. He analyzes why people are so unhappy with their jobs and lives in the U.S., and what they can do to change things.

Rao’s book is based on a popular course he’s taught for the past decade at Columbia business school. Whereas most books that dare to use variants of the word “success” in their titles focus on mastering the external world, Rao’s book is all about mastering yourself. He rejects the core Western belief that achieving more of something (more money, more recognition, more free time, more skinniness) will make you happy. Instead, his goal is to help you transform your life by dealing with your biggest impediment to happiness—you!

If I can boil Rao’s prescriptions down to two basic elements, they are: (1) mastering your own mind, and (2) accepting the idea that the universe is a cooperating, positive force rather than an indifferent or antagonistic one. The book argues that one’s perception of reality is merely a construct and that it’s possible to change this construct, for positive results. Many of the exercises in the book aim to help the reader master his or her mind, by reexamining our stories about how our life actually works, overcoming negative chatter, surrounding to reality rather than fighting it, and so forth. Ironically, it’s by achieving self-mastery that we finally are able to achieve what we want in life.

Rao establishes up front that all of his insights have come from other, greater teachers. His book is consistent with principles of acceptance and detachment found in Taoism and Buddhism, as well as the teachings of numerous Christian, Muslim, Jewish and nonreligious sages over the centuries. As I read the book, I was reminded of a number of other influential works, including The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron), The Power of Now (Eckhardt Tolle), Wishcraft (Barbara Sher), Finding Flow (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi) and Authentic Happiness (Martin Seligman).

What Rao contributes to this literature is a coherent definition for what personal mastery actually is, and a coherent plan for achieving it. Hence, I’m reading it for the second time, and this go-round actually doing all the exercises!

Rao is clearly focused on an educated, professional audience, the types who are likely to be skeptical of books like this and therefore the ones in most desperate need of their teachings. I recommend it. If you’ve ever wondered why, no matter how you try, you always seem to fall short of “making it” in a way that is personally meaningful, this book offers plausible explanations and workable solutions.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A New India, or just New Year's Eve? (Part 2)

The party gets going…

Our first day in India was New Year’s Eve. We were resigned to letting jet lag claim us but, as night approached, Cheryl and I started to get that old New Year’s Eve feeling of “hey, we want to do something!” Our hotel was holding a major fete, stretching across its three restaurants and all public spaces. But despite the lure of the thumping bass notes, the thought of paying a hundred bucks for dinner and the possibility of getting caught on the ActionCam being broadcast in the lobby were deal-breakers. And frankly, the handful of early attendees made it look more like the Davis Polk employee Christmas party than a must-attend international soiree. So we hoofed it to a nearby mall.

First we dined at “Punjabi By Nature,” a packed restaurant where we sampled various tandoori delights to the background of American rap music. I allowed myself a Blue Lagoon cocktail and a big pile of naan to get into the mood. Then we popped by the record store to check out the latest in Indian pop music. “What’s essential? What should we bring home?” we demanded. It turns out that Indian record-store guys are like record-store guys all around the world. They conferred and debated in Hindi and then ran around the store pulling out various party mixes, soundtracks and bangra hits. I demurred on Fifty Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying” but did purchase “Everybody on the Dance Floor!” Then we wandered over to Passion for Tea, a tea shop that featured employees in Baskin Robbins-type caps and a karaoke machine! Though nearly empty, this was clearly the place to be!

It’s showtime in New Delhi!

A young guy in a brown polyester suit manned the machine. His commitment to singing song after song in the face of complete public indifference led us to believe that he was the MC. Though he had some melodic challenges (“Hotel California” is a stretch for the best of us), he did maintain a consistent level of enthusiasm, and we respect that! He gladly yielded the mike, and Cheryl and I stepped up to sing “Take Me Home Country Road.” The crowd, ever-growing, responded with cheer and enthusiasm to the slick New Yorkers, and hip Indian girls burdened with boring dates boldly made eye contact with me. I later attempted “The Greatest Love of All” with far less success, but my voice-cracking didn’t seem to matter. No attitude here, the party was on!

The average age of the crowd dropped with the mercury as the night wore on. Yuppies gave way to twenty-something couples, who were replaced around midnight by skinny adolescents wearing low-rise distressed jeans, rocker t-shirts and international teen expressions of utter ennui. Still, we all managed to blend and appreciate our diversity in the big crazy world that is modern India.

We chatted with the MC. He revealed that he wasn’t a tea shop employee at all, but rather a college grad working in his family’s plastic bags manufacturing company. Passion for Tea was his personal clubhouse. After a long day manufacturing bags, he came here to chill and be artistic. As my personal trainer Doug might say, “Nice.”

Equally fascinating were the karaoke videos themselves. Instead of the usual blond people walking around Japanese parks ponds in Japan, each one featured—perhaps as a special Korean branding device?—three rubberish grey cartoon characters who performed ever-changing aerobic routines to the rhythm of the music.

These rubber characters were transfixing, yet their weirdness raises a broader question: where the hell were we? Were we even in India? Or were we just gross tourists hanging out with Western wannabees? What’s real in India?

What's real, anyway?

Even though I tend to resent these kinds of question when I get them from other travelers (especially “sandalista” types—Euro, American or Australian backpackers who talk about “sustainable travel,” rarely wash their hair, and seem appalled that I have an American Express card) I have to admit they are legitimate. When I read articles written about other parts of the world, the reporters always seem to be interviewing doctors, professors and architects even if they’re in, like, Kurdistan.

It’s easy to think that India is on the fast-track to the first-world when you eat at “Punjabi by Nature” or read Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World Is Flat” (currently the number-one seller in English-language bookstores in India). We Americans make all kinds of excited generalizations about whatever country is in the news, and now it’s India. We hear regularly about the hundreds of millions of people in India’s middle class. We see Indians increasingly as smart and successful people. You can hardly throw a Frisbee on U.S. campus without hitting an Indian person with an 800 GMAT. Columnists like Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristoff exhort American kids to get off their fat, lazy asses, given the fact that hundreds of millions of Indian and Chinese kids are busy studying and planning their entries to the Intel Talent Search rather than playing Grand Theft Auto. India is happening!

The context…

Those facts are true, but here some others: only five percent of Indians speak English “comfortably” (in the words of writer Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, and author of the great book, “The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change”). Another ten percent operate in English with minimal proficiency. Eighty-five percent don’t speak English at all. There are close to 200 million people in the Indian middle class (more on this later); at the same time, 260 million Indians live on less than a dollar a day. Seventy-six percent of Indians don’t have access to flush toilets, and more than 40% of the country is illiterate, including more 50% of women. (These are mostly 2002 data.) Out of 162 countries, India ranks 127 on the UN’s human development index. So India isn’t Europe, it isn’t Taiwan, and it isn’t Mexico.

That being said… we Americans had better get off our fat, lazy asses because change is a-coming.

India is different now. It’s more prosperous, more worldly and, most of all, more confident. In the late 80s, I heard a lot of things like, “We have five thousand years of civilization, what else could we need?” You don’t hear this much anymore. Instead, you hear the buzz of activity: new construction, GMAT coaching schools, and social and political change, in addition to the economic ones.

A key part of this is the emergence and growth of the Indian middle class. Observers say that the growth in the middle class is the key to transforming a poor country, and they are right. The middle class increases in numbers when poor people move up. The average middle class person in India, placed in the U.S., would seem really poor in material terms. But being middle class really has to do with aspirations and values—using education, hard work and savings as methods of moving forward—and as far as I can tell, the 200 million or so members of the Indian middle class have these in spades.

One middle-class story

I’ll give you an example—a friend from my foreign service days I’ll call Pradeep. He never graduated high school, and his wife is illiterate. Seventeen years ago, Pradeep was a contract laborer for the U.S. Embassy. He worked as a gofer and earned 20 rupees a day (less than US$2). Now, at age 43, after nearly 25 years of service, he’s risen to data entry clerk, and is an employee of the embassy rather than a contractor. He earns about US$300 per month.

But here’s the thing. Pradeep is building a house. His son and daughter are in private schools on an extended day program. They go to school from early morning until 5 or 6 pm. After homework and dinner, they are allowed watch cartoons for half an hour before they go to bed and start all over again. Pradeep’s household does not have a car, does not have a washing machine, and has extremely few material possessions. But they basically have everything they need to move ahead in life. Pradeep used to be poor and now he’s not. His wife is illiterate, but his daughter reads Harry Potter. I’m confident both his kids will go to college. The family is movin’ up.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Return to India! (Part 1)

I’m in India and have so much to tell. But first, let’s talk about me!

I usually think that the biggest benefit of travel is that stepping out of your normal world changes the way you look at yourself. Usually upon my return from some place foreign, I’m all set to launch the newest New Michael Melcher. This trip, however, gave me an opportunity to do something even better: revisit the Old Michael Melcher, or at least a particular vision of myself I’ve been carrying around for a couple of decades.

I shall explain.

First, a bit of background…

My first real job was as a junior office in the Foreign Service. Just months after I turned 24, I was dispatched to Calcutta with a black passport and a zeal to see the world. As an employee of the U.S. Information Agency, I was charged with public diplomacy, which consisted of informational and educational…well, it wasn’t all that clear what I was charged with, which turned out to be part of the problem. Anyhow, I did spend nearly a year in India, mainly in Calcutta with two months in New Delhi. Afterwards I went off to Taiwan.

Living and working in Calcutta were difficult for me or, as we say in resumes, “challenging.” I had a difficult, WWII-vet boss (and was inexperienced in “upward management”), went through big culture shock (despite my image of myself as an experienced world traveler) and was pursuing a dramatic, long-distance relationship, which I had—naturally—started just a few weeks prior to leaving the U.S. At the four-month mark I got really sick, which depleted my remaining reserves of confidence and peppiness. And there were some additional factors, such as institutionalized homophobia of the Foreign Service under the Reagan administration. (In a bizarre, Kafkaesque scene, the U.S. government once put a friend on mine “on trial” for being gay, with the intention of yanking his security clearance and thereby ending his career. Though he managed to keep his job, this is not the kind of thing that encourages one to make one’s career with the government.)

Anyway, even though things improved quite a bit at about the halfway point, I was very relieved to leave India. A year later, I left the Foreign Service altogether. Because things had not worked out the way I wanted them too and I had gone through moments of pain and confusion, I tended to think of my Foreign Service experience as a sort of personal and professional failure. When I’d recount my time overseas, I would mention a few interesting anecdotes but typically emphasized the negatives. If people exclaimed about the unusual and interesting aspects of my experience, I would often make (or think) self-deprecating rejoinders.

I also made the great error of youth, which is to over-generalize and over-personalize everything that happens to you. (It’s all about me, right?) I therefore made many of the inane assessments you can make in your 20s about work and life. I had fallen behind, had fallen off track, was not where I should be, had some explaining to do about my choices, blah blah blah BLAH. Now in my glamorous and enticing adulthood, even hearing myself think about this kind of juvenile negative self-absorption makes me tired!

Now, on to the insight!!!

Well, guess what? It turns out that story I have been carrying around since 1988 about my year in India is….wrong. It’s a significant misinterpretation of what actually occurred. Sure, the remembered episodes took place—assorted gastrointestinal conditions, culture shock, air pollution, low staff morale, a boss that told me not to speak Bengali to our Bengali constituents because it would be “counterproductive” (you figure that one out), not to mention the nagging, gross sound of crows outside my window every morning. But lots more happened as well!

This became quite clear during the five days I recently spent in Bombay with our wonderful hosts Ranjana and Sanjeev. Ranjana is a sweet friend from my Calcutta days who is now a high-powered (yet fun and caring) business exec. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade, since she was studying for her MBA in the U.S. When I lived in “Cal,” Ranjana was part of a group of American, European and Indian students and hangers-on who boarded at a place called the Ramakrishna Mission (nicknamed the Swamiramayana Dingdong Institute for Meditation and School of Hotel Management). I used to have bunches of them over to my enormous apartment for dinner, partly for company and partly to provide professional fulfillment to my cook, who found it boring to cook for me alone.

Ranjana and Sanjeev are the consummate hosts, attending to our every need—car, driver, cook, shopping tips, and most of all warmth and conversation. My travel companions—my mom, Trini and my friend, Cheryl—and I ran around Bombay doing various things but also spent several hours each day just talking with our hosts. What I discovered was that Ranjana and I could crack each other up for hours just remembering and reviewing that year. Some of it was recalling the internal dramas of the Ramakrishna mission crowd; my cook Jan Alam (who wrote “happy birthday Melcher” on the special cake he made for me); the boring, self-important people who hang out at Consulate functions; the tendencies of Bengali intellectuals and their foreign groupies to overhype everything related to Rabindranath Tagore; the diet contest I organized at the consulate, the female Indian student who stalked me when I got home. You know, challenging people and wacky experiences—your basic entertaining dorm chat.

We also talked about current things: economic and political reforms in India, the cultures of the nonprofit vs. private sectors, and the parallel between self-important Washington DC and Delhi on the one hand, and fabulous, free-for-all New York and Bombay on the other.

These conversations exploded the way I had been remembering my India experience. I saw a much more complex and positive reality. My year in Calcutta had been challenging, sure. Who wouldn’t be challenged? But all things considered, I did pretty well. I managed to create an interesting, vibrant life. I made good friends. I learned tons about India and the world in general. And I didn’t hurt anybody! Things didn’t work out that way I planned, but when do they ever? In fact, I’m going to give myself a post-hoc “A” for that year. Just because I can.

My two little coaching takeaway points from this:
(1) If you focus too much on how things are supposed to be, you miss the great things that are actually happening,
(2) It’s worthwhile to reexamine the stories you tell about your own life. They might be totally wrong.

Calcutta in the late 80s was really a trip! I’m glad I was there. :-)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Owen the hippo and his best friend Mzee (the tortoise)

In case you haven't yet seen this teardabilicious story, read on: