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Note from the editor Lesley Jane Seymour
I travel a lot. And I shop a lot. But after years of attending runway shows around the world as editor in chief of Marie Claire — and therefore dragging kilos of designer handbags and shoes onto planes with me because my fashion editors insisted I couldn’t go to a Gucci show wearing Valentino — it’s delightful to be done with all that tortured preening.
No more freaking out about whether or not my French boss (yes, The Devil Wore Prada but The Real Devil Wore Dior) was going to fire me for the un-chic sound my heels made on the hallway floor (dear readers, I’m not making this stuff up: In the early years of Vogue, an editor was actually axed for this transgression).
No more fretting about whether some designer was going to look askance at my skirt length or handbag size. Or bitch behind my back about whether I had chosen the “wrong” bucket bag from their collection — you know, the one with “too much hardware,” instead of the “right” choice, which had less.
And while it was great fun to play designer dress up every day (after all, I had a clothing allowance that forced me to spend thousands on clothes!), I’m very happy, and relieved, to tell you that, as an entrepreneur who works mainly from home, I’ve declared a moratorium on all that stuff.
Since my new gig in front of the computer no longer calls for Spanx and a tight dress, I’ve been drifting toward looks that you might classify as comfortable chic. (OK, OK, so I skidded first toward sweatpants and T-shirts, but the scruffiness just got to me.) Where did I find this essential new look? At COS (the upscale sister of the Swedish company H&M). With stores in 29 countries worldwide, COS, which opened its first U.S. store in 2007, provides a perfect mix of chic, architecturally-inspired “Art Director” clothes that are totally on trend yet don’t cost a fortune. You can dress head to toe in COS or mix in some designer pieces. I was first tipped off about COS by my More fashion director when the line was only available in Europe. Now it’s here and just as fabulous.
I’ve also found easy-going separates at Aritzia, a store my daughter first introduced me to. When I went to Austin’s South by Southwest earlier this year to present a discussion about Covey’s wonderful forgotten market of women called “The $40 Trillion Market Everyone Ignores,” my partner, Dr. Tausha Robertson, who runs the website Ms.XFactor.com, which caters to Xers of color, warned me “not to dress up: you’ll look too old lady.” And she was right (see us below): not a shift dress in the crowd and certainly no stilettos. Thank god I wore my track pants and velvet sneakers.
Most reinventions also require a fashion reinvention as well.
Washing less and using dry shampoo may hurt more than help
You’ve likely read or heard that cutting back on how often you shampoo is healthy for your hair. It preserves salon color, prevents the over-stripping of natural scalp oils (so hair stays better hydrated) and enables you to scale back on daily, damaging heat styling. The problem is, while this practice may benefit the hair you have now, extending time between shampoos (and the tricks we adopt to look polished between washings) can cause strands to become scrawnier and sparser over time. Here are three haircare habits associated with infrequent shampooing that may be impacting the fullness of your future hair.
Overusing dry shampoo. Many of us rely on dry shampoo to revive our strands between hair-washings. However, the old adage you can have too much of a good thing is apropos here, says Nunzio Saviano, a New York City stylist, as using dry shampoo for a day or two is fine, but after four days, this strand saver becomes a locks liability. Spray powder builds up on the scalp, says Saviano, suffocating hair follicles and inhibiting future hair growth.
Not cleansing thoroughly enough. When we do finally get around to washing, more and more of us are opting to use something called a cleansing conditioner, an all-in-one product that flips the old Pert Plus 2-in-1 premise on its head. Rather than a shampoo with a touch of conditioner, these formulas are conditioners laced with cleansing agents. Fine to use in moderation, these products become a problem when used exclusively because most contain abundant oils and conditioning agents which build up on the hair and scalp over time, clogging hair follicles and compromising growth.
Sticking to the same (dirty-hair) styling strategy many of us, by day two or three of not shampooing, have a default ‘do: a ponytail, a topknot or a twist at the nape. This is an efficient and effective way to look polished with not-so-clean strands. However, if your routine rarely varies, and that ponytail or knot is always in the very same spot, you do run the risk of weakening and breaking the strands that are repeatedly strangled by tight elastics or stabbed with pins. Additionally, pulling your hair taut puts tension on fragile strands along your hairline, which can cause further breakage, as well as inflict trauma to the hair follicles there, impacting the health of the new strands they sprout.
So, what are better hair care strategies—that both protect future growth, as well as the hair you already have? Saviano says washing every other day (or, at the most, every third day), rather than trying to stretch for a whole week (or two!) is a good compromise. If you do use a cleansing conditioner, swap it out for a traditional shampoo at least twice a month to ensure you’re minimizing build up, and, once a month, go for a deeper sloughing, with a scalp wash or mask, such as Aveda’s Pramasana Purfying Scalp Cleanser or Phillip Kingsley’s Exfoliating Scalp Mask.
Finally, try to vary the height or placement of ponytails or buns, consider experimenting with gentler-on-hair braids, and always use hardware-free elastics such as Goody Ouchless Elastics that won’t get tangled in and tear at the hair.
ATTENTION WING IT MEMBERS:
Breaking The Rules
An abusive father led to myriad abusive relationships and two bad marriages. But Bob changed everything
Hasty cohabitation with men I barely know is a hobby I first began pursuing in the eighties when I was in my twenties. Matt was the first. Our sort-of-living-together in each other’s dorm rooms eventually gave way to finding a little apartment together at the end of our college years, a place where he could abuse me in private without the pesky obstacle of dorm mate witnesses to hinder his methodical destruction of my self-esteem.
I got much luckier on my second try when I fell for Big Red. I met him on a cross-country trip the summer I was 24. We sent silly letters via snail mail, a segue to long-distance romance that commenced on my 25th birthday. No longer able to bear the miles between us, I fled my Knoxville apartment one night, packed what I could fit in my ’77 Dodge Aspen wagon, and hurtled through the darkness to St. Louis, where I temporarily set up camp under the pool table in his parents’ basement until we could find a dingy place to call our own.
We never married but less than two years into our relationship we had a son. Neither of us was prepared, but we did our best until, on the cusp of Henry’s third birthday, Big and I split, both of us having to confront our respective addiction demons.
Big, a kind man, and friend to this day was the exception to the subconscious rule that otherwise dictated my romantic life. With some horrifying consistency, I went on to date a parade of men who, at best, were merely elusive but at worst were abusive. Two that fell in the latter category became husbands. I married the first within six weeks of a rapid-fire email exchange and less than 72 hours of knowing each other in person. I married the second, the widowed father of one of my students, within five months, which, compared to my first marriage, seemed like a Victorian courtship. Both unions imploded inside of ten months, the recovery from each far longer.
Ten years after the second divorce, after a six-year relationship with a not bad but not right guy, I took a two-year break from dating. I was calm. I was relatively happy. There was never not the low-level background buzz, a curiosity around whether I might ever find a suitable partner, but this I could turn the volume down on with relative ease. All I had to do was reflect on the ex-husbands, the sundry other narcissists and sociopaths I had too readily shared my life with, and realize I did not want to go there again, but might not have the skills to avoid. Better alone than miserable.
And then came Mr. Evil. He sauntered into my life summer of 2015. He pulsated trouble but came after me hard. My Inner Sucker awakened from her years-long respite and dove right in. Thus began my descent into a circle of Hell not even Dante could fathom. Technically we did not move in. But I did let him move into my mind, body, and spirit with tremendous haste. We shuttled back and forth between our residences — me to his shitty, dark dirty Houston apartment, he to my recently-purchased, sunny bright ranch near Austin. He kept hidden his meth addiction, his porn addiction, his other woman. I, blinders on tight, lent him a major assist, not seeing what I did not want to see, what I see now was right there in front of me from the get-go. But then, doesn’t hindsight always make Lasik surgery pale by comparison?
At least when I brought another man into the equation, I was not secret about it. As with the others, I allowed Bob to move in knowing very little about him beyond that he was a retired Indiana farmer, a recent widower, a lover of dogs (mandatory), and thirty-six years my senior. The circumstances of his arrival were straightforward. His daughter, my good friend Ellen, lived in Austin. Bob wished to spend some time close to her as he dealt with his grief and escaped a Midwestern winter. He preferred the rural life. I had a 3200-square-foot house and thirty-untamed acres, which, given decades as an urbanite, I had no clue how to handle. I could afford him proximity to Ellen. He could teach me how to run my property. We had a deal.
Something I did not anticipate, that never even crossed my radar, was that in taking in this old man, I was giving myself one of the best gifts of my life, second only to having my son. At first, we were like ships passing in the night — Bob always out mowing and fixing fences, me forever dashing off to Houston to let Mr. Evil tell me how fat and stupid and overly-sensitive and unsexy I was, as I, fool, stuck around trying to prove him wrong. It is well-established that abusive men are fond of employing isolation as a means of keeping their victims off-balance. A tactical error Mr. Evil made was that, in dragging his sorry ass to the ranch, he put himself in the direct sights of Bob’s keen eye.
Bob smelled the rat in Mr. Evil with a nose far keener than mine. Bob also had plenty of experience with broken animals and knew better than to rush the crushed broken animal I had become. He was slow, stealthy, and consistent. He was gentle in pointing out the cruelty he witnessed, knowing that I, with my superpower of denial, would refuse to listen should he force these observations upon me in a demanding fashion.
In short, Bob became the father I had spent my entire life longing for, my own father having been an undiagnosed, mentally ill master of rage, violence, and perpetual criticism. No surprise then, that I spent so very many years, seeking out his emotional doppelgangers, hoping to change my childhood story by taming bad boys with my love. Seems so stupid, now that I have been reprogrammed by Bob’s love, how much time I wasted. But if you’ve ever tried to remake a haunting history, you know both the unavoidability and the crazy-making nature of this sick compulsion.
To be clear, I had not merely spent my thirties, forties, and early fifties running around after jerks. I really had sought help. Excellent therapists. Piles of self-help books. Meditation. Yoga. Martial arts. And these things did help. But in the end, what got me to break the cycle was something I never actively sought, never even considered was available, and so could never seek. Who thinks to herself, at 52, “Hey, I have an idea! I’ll move an old man into my house and he can re-parent me so that from now on I will have self-respect, make boundaries, and I will never be a sucker again?”
Bob actually did call me a sucker sometimes, another testament to the trust he instilled in me. Had anyone else said that to my face, I might have burst out crying or banished them from my life. Or both. But he said it in a way that implied he loved me, wasn’t giving up on me, and that really, there was no need to keep being a sucker.
Once Mr. Evil, a classic narcissist, had finally drained me of every last resource I had — love, money, time, patience, compassion — he discarded me. Rather than rejoice at this gift of freedom, initially I wallowed. Bob, day after goddamned day, listened to me cry and trotted out various refrains. I love you. He’s an asshole. You will get better. You don’t have to take shit from anyone. He did this with no fanfare, no shouting, no disappointment. Bob was just steady on, forever a twinkle in his eye, and an insistence that I get my ass out of the house and come help him take care of the chickens, the horses, the lawn.
Until at last, at long last, the stranglehold of ruminating daily over all the shit I had endured with Mr. Evil and those that came before him, began to loosen. At first, this loosening was nearly imperceptible. And then, after months, I noticed I could sort of breathe again without pain ripping through my lungs. I gathered up the ten million pieces of my shattered heart and, with Bob’s patient assistance, began to put them back together. As in that Japanese art form in which cracks are filled with gold, I let Bob’s love act as a glowing adhesive.
Do I really think that when he died, just fourteen months after arriving, his departure came because he knew I really could make it on my own at last? Not really. I’m pretty sure the COPD and three heart attacks were the real cause of his ultimate demise. But Bob brought with him so much magic, such healing, that to this day I talk to him regularly, thank him, and keep the promise I made him on his deathbed. No more shitty men.
To read more about Spike and Bob pick up Spike’s new book, The Tao of Bob.
2662 New York offers chic, luxury looks that fit real women’s bodies
Let’s face it. Shopping stinks. Magazines, the Internet, and red carpet events are filled with fabulous fashion you can’t wear because it doesn’t fit real bodies like ours. Founders Elie Sullivan, a former banker, and fashion designer Charles Warren want to change this with their upstart, 2662 New York, a capsule collection of creatively designed and impeccably made seasonless separates for women.
The founders define “women” as regular gals who aren’t shaped like runway models. With 2662 New York, their goal is to create fashionable high-quality pieces that real women can wear, while looking and feeling terrific. Their website opens with the tagline: “Finally a Label That Fits!” This collection, originally conceived in 2014, was launched because the fashion industry, they say, is flawed and Sullivan (CEO) and Warren (Creative Director) want to give women new and more realistic choices. Warren is a Parsons School of Design graduate who, after interning at luxury fashion companies including Lanvin and Thom Browne, founded a design studio in 2010 and for three years, had his own ready-to-wear collection. Warren joined Sullivan as a minority partner in 2662 but is now a co-owner. Sullivan’s stepdaughter, Susan Herlihy, is also part of the 2662 team.
“What I’ve observed over the last 30 years is that if you are not a perfect size two, you have no options for clothes that are chic and that fit,” says Sullivan. “Part of the issue is that [designer clothing] is predicated on grading and scaling up from a ten-foot-tall size–two model who’s this big,” she adds, sticking her pinky finger in the air.
In the fashion process of idea to final product, a design is made into a pattern that is then graded and scaled upwards for larger sizes. Sullivan and Warren argue that if you begin creating clothes on a size two fit model—the industry standard that designers also use for their runway shows—there is no way that the clothing, when scaled upwards to larger sizes, can proportionally fit non-model sized or shaped women.
To keep their 2662 even more “real,” the women wearing the 2662 collection on the website are either friends or size eight models, atypical for online or brick-and-mortar fashion retailing.
“As soon as you start to have this discussion [about designing on a real size body] with anybody in the fashion industry, they immediately start to talk about plus-sizes,” Sullivan notes. “When I learned that a size 10 was considered a plus-size, I said ‘over my dead body.’ We’re not having a conversation about women who are size 22! We’re having a conversation about normal people.”
No matter what you call it, this market for average-size women (and average Americans clock in at size 16-18) is a $20 billion one — a fact that doesn’t escape Sullivan.
“There’s no vocabulary for what we are doing,” states Warren. “‘Normal’ sounds pejorative and then you’re left with either ‘runway’ or ‘plus-size.’”
Warren notes that there is a huge, largely untapped multibillion-dollar space for real people who are consuming apparel for average-size bodies. These shoppers, however, are offered little in the way of stylish, chic, well-made clothes that actually fit and that’s where 2662 New York comes in.
Size, however, is not the only problem with the fashion industry. Sullivan says actual style has been traded for costume. Designers, eager to accumulate editorial pages in print media (essentially free advertising) or clicks on the Internet (which are meant to grow advertiser interest), show their most outrageous pieces on the catwalk. Though these designs are sometimes watered down for the retail selling floor, they still don’t fit a real woman’s body. Plus they crowd out the more realistic looks. “The whole theatrical aspect of fashion has gotten blown out of proportion,” Sullivan remarks.
Sullivan and Warren are changing the paradigm and they are off to a good start. Their design process begins with a size eight fit model upon which collection pieces are draped and cut. Thus, from the outset, 2662 will automatically fit a broader range of women without compromising design. The collection features 12 pieces in sizes two to 14: five tops – blouses and “oxfords,” two skirts – long and short, two shirt dresses, two tunic dresses, and one zip-front dress. The color palette is a simple white, khaki, navy and black. 2662 sources their fabrics — such as Swiss cotton poplin or sophisticated Japanese polyester — from the same suppliers used by the world’s top designers.
The subtle styling and construction of the collection mean that even in this small offering there are options that will work for a multitude of body sizes and shapes. For example, the short Toba skirt, in a navy Japanese crepe, has panels that layer and drape like flower petals plus a hidden, forgiving elastic waistband. The skirt works for both lean and fuller figures because it’s a classically flattering A-line cut; the same goes for the longer Carrington khaki skirt in crisp Japanese mercerized cotton twill. The Gwendolyn and Riley shirt dresses are subtly different, though the overall silhouettes are similar. Both have creative details such as extra fabric in their skirts in front. The Gwendolyn, however, has a strict A-line shape in the back, thanks to a clever use of panels and seams, and is particularly flattering for more full-figured women, while the Riley works well for others.
“These are not nice clothes [for tiny bodies made] available in bigger sizes,” explains Warren. “These are clothes designed to flatter real women as if they were cut and fit on [each individual] body.”
The 2662 New York collection was originally named for the respective ages of its founders but now it’s referencing a fictive, tony Manhattan address. The clothes are cut-to-order in New York City and feature quality tailored craftsmanship like French seams and darts, details generally reserved for luxury designer ready-to-wear. The manufacturing costs are high but because the label is sold direct-to-consumer via the website, prices remain significantly lower than similar items sold in a top department or specialty store. Those traditionally go for seven times cost of goods while 2662 prices are roughly three times cost of goods. Prices start at $325 for the architecturally-draped short sleeve poplin Vija blouse and go up to $550 for the Rego zip-front dress that features a cascading ruffle on one side; the Rego can also be worn as a lightweight coat. In addition to clothing, there is the Sullivan tote in full-grain Italian leather and German merino felt for $625 that is hand cut-and-sewn in Los Angeles.
Despite being designed for regular, not “plus-sized” women, Sullivan is deliberately steering 2662 away from the cliches of the current plus-size fashion market, notably oversized prints, garish colors and cheap fabrics. 2662 is instead on-trend with the movement of designers and fashion brands showing fewer body-hugging pieces and more investment items.
This fashion venture is quite a deviation from Sullivan’s 30-plus year career in asset management that included 14 years at Schroders Capital Management International as part of the marketing and client services team in addition to eight years in Howard Street Partners, a company she co-founded that represented outside investment managers to public funds. Throughout, Sullivan specialized in bringing investors to large public pension funds and vice-versa. Interestingly, it’s thanks to this former profession that she met Warren. Public funds have a lot of teachers on their boards of directors. One of these teachers wanted to have lunch with Sullivan though they had not seen each other in ten years. At lunch, Sullivan told the woman about her fashion idea and the woman mentioned that one of her student’s sons was in the fashion business. Sullivan and Warren then connected.
“What are the chances that I would have met Charles?” asks Sullivan from her lushly appointed home on Manhattan’s upper east side. “We have the same sensibilities and work ethic. We just hit it off.”
In addition to the 2662 collection, Sullivan and Warren want to expand the website to include a selection of other fashions for regular-sized women the same way that J. Crew integrates other brands into their offering. They’re looking at the stylish aesthetic and curated collections of The Line, a brick and mortar retailer and website, for inspiration.
“We’d like to cull from Target all the way up to top designers such as Tomas Maier or Jil Sander,” Sullivan says. “We think we can do this for a very broad customer base. Good style, good taste and good fit are not specific to $1,700 dresses.”
Elie and Charles are offering Covey readers a 20% discount on all items. Use the code Covey20 when ordering.
All photos by Maria Karas
Sponsored by 2662 New York
4 startling reasons why this gremlin strikes
Your eyes pop open.
You’re wide awake.
Time to get up?
But wait: It’s still pitch dark outside. Ummm…maybe that’s because it’s only three thirty in the morning.
What happens next seldom varies. You keep flipping into new sleep positions, hoping one will work. But nothing does, and meantime you’re noting every 15 minutes that goes by. Alarming thoughts course through your over-wired brain: Did I forget to lock the front door or turn off the stove? How can I save for retirement when the cost of my dental bills and insurance premiums keeps going up? And, scariest of all, if I’m awake half the night, how will I get through my crazy-busy work day tomorrow?
Eventually you do fall back to sleep — but not until you’ve stressed yourself so much that the next day you’re like an extra in The Walking Dead.
People who are awake in the middle of the night may feel very lonely, but in fact they have plenty of company: More than 10 percent of Americans — and more women than men — report suffering from the two types of insomnia sleep onset, meaning you have trouble falling asleep, and sleep maintenance, the 3 a.m. wake-up call described above. There are a few medical conditions that could be contributing factors, including arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, endocrine problems and sleep apnea. But if your doctor has eliminated those, then the answer to why sleep-maintenance insomnia is so common among women may lie in the theories and explanations below.
Relax, say some historians: You don’t have a sleep disorder; you’re just following the example of your pre-industrial ancestors. “Segmented, or biphasic, sleep was the natural pattern of human slumber in the Western world and perhaps elsewhere from time immemorial to the modern age,” explains historian and sleep expert Roger Ekirch, PhD, award-winning author and professor of history at Virginia Tech. Before the Industrial Revolution, people in Europe and North America didn’t necessarily sleep fewer hours than we do, he says, but they broke their snooze time into two segments, called first sleep and second sleep.
That changed over the course of the nineteenth century, with the advent of gas lighting and, later, electric illumination, Ekirch says. These stronger and cheaper forms of artificial light enabled people to work (and play) much longer into the evening. So bedtimes were pushed later and later, disrupting our circadian rhythms and reordering our sense of time.
While gas and electric light were the major reasons for our changing sleep pattern, there were other powerful factors as well, says Ekrich. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth century, brought not only new technologies but changes in cultural attitudes toward work and rest. In the new capitalist age, he explains, “Sleep [came to be seen as] a necessary evil, best confined to a single interval, and early rising became a very popular reform movement.”
You see where this is going. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you’re not suffering from a disorder and you needn’t feel anxious. You’re just a throwback, following our ancestral rhythms.
You’re waking up at that hour because that’s when you cycle from deep sleep into lighter sleep. “The average person wakes up about six times each night,” says James C. Findley, PhD, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Penn Sleep Center in Philadelphia. Most of the time, he says, these wakings are so brief that we don’t remember them. But once you’re past the deep-sleep stage (the first four or four and a half hours of slumber), it’s sometimes not so easy to roll over and snooze again after you’ve awakened. So if you turn in at, say 11:00 p.m., says Findley, by three in the morning you’re mostly out of deep sleep and shifting into longer periods of lighter sleep. And since your brain is more active during light sleep (the REM stage), it’s more likely that you’ll awaken.
What can you do? Findley suggests cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment that is also endorsed by the NIH, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the American College of Physicians. The specific technique he advocates is called bedtime restriction. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you typically go to sleep at 10:00 p.m. and wake five hours later at 3:00 a.m. Try “restricting” yourself to bed for five hours — but a different five hours. If you want to start your day at 6:00 a.m., go to bed at 1:00 a.m. Set that time in stone; don’t ever go to bed earlier. You’ll sleep for the same amount of time, but you’ll be getting up at a much more decent hour. Once the routine is working well, try moving your bedtime back by 15-minute intervals each week until you get to the point where you can go to bed earlier than 1:00 a.m. but stay asleep until 6:00 a.m., when you want to wake up.
You’re waking up simply because you’ve had enough sleep. “One of the most important causes of insomnia can be spending too much time in bed,” says Shalini Paruthi, MD, assistant professor in the division of pulmonary medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine. For example, if you only need six hours of sleep but you turn in at 9:30 p.m., when you wake up six hours later it may be simply because you’re done. Of course, 3:30 a.m. is not an ideal time to start your day, so try going to bed later.
If you never had this problem until you got older, then, yup, aging and its good friend menopause are playing a role. For one thing, says Findley, as we age we tend to get less of that deep sleep. But there’s more. If you’re post-menopausal, you need no introduction to night sweats. These are caused when the hypothalamus, which regulates your body temperature, becomes confused by fluctuating estrogen levels.
However, says Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor at Yale and practicing ob/gyn, there’s a newer hypothesis for why menopausal women often awaken in the early hours: Their pituitaries may be making them do it. “When estrogen declines,” she explains, “the hypothalamus sends a hormone called GnRH [gonadotropic releasing hormone] to the pituitary gland. And since the hypothalamus is thought to produce GnRH most actively in the early morning hours, this activity may stimulate the nearby sleep center, which is also located in the hypothalamus.”
The remedy for night sweats and early-hour wakefulness? Estrogen replacement may help, says Minkin, as may SSRI and SNRI antidepressants. One of her favorite non-medical remedies is Remifemin Good Night, which contains German black cohosh for hot flashes and various herbs for sleep.
So instead of lying awake and anxious, consider trying one of the approaches above. Or just give up and follow the lead of our ancestors, who embraced their wakefulness as a time to do some chores, converse with neighbors, have sex, or even steal some firewood. You say your partner has no trouble sleeping through the night, and your house has no fireplace? In that case, just pick up your phone and email, text or tweet. Someone you like is sure to be awake at that hour, too.
Her father died ten years ago. But the strangest things would allow the sense of loss back in
A month or so ago, meeting a new friend for lunch at a mall midway between our houses, I arrived early and thought I’d wander through a jewelry store. I was attracted by a strolling violinist, someone pouring sparkling juice into tall flutes, and chocolates on silver trays. They were celebrating something, but the moment I moved close enough to identify the music and notice the type of chocolate, blood began pounding in my ears, and an unexpected shroud of sadness enveloped me. I had to walk away.
The tune was one of my father’s favorites. The chocolates were the kind which for 25 years he’d asked me to ship him from our native New Jersey to his retirement home in Las Vegas. The double memory trigger overwhelmed me, grief throbbing. By the time my new friend arrived, the tears were sluicing down my face as I explained.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you recently lost your father,” Angela said.
“Actually, he’s been gone for ten years,” I tried to explain. “But some days that doesn’t make any difference.”
While it might not have been our choice of conversations at our first lunch, Angela and I spent the first half-hour talking about grief: how it sneaks up on us at the most unpredictable (and often inopportune) times; how, just when we think we’ve moved past the worst of it, grief rides back into town, sometimes on a flashy fast horse, other times on a quiet, sweet pony, but either way — wham!
Angela lost her mother decades ago, and her favorite cousin only recently. For both though, she reported that reminders regularly brought back her grief in new and unexplainable ways.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “Grief is unpredictable as hell.”
We compared notes, about when and how (and how quickly) something comes along and pitches us back to emotions we thought we might not tangle with again.
A scrap of song drifting through another driver’s open window. The color of bridesmaids’ dresses at a wedding. An old movie stumbled upon while clicking through channels. A date on the calendar. Smells of a neighbor’s cooking. The set of an elderly man’s eyeglasses. A book on someone’s coffee table. Coffee.
Or, nothing at all.
In the wake of my father’s death in 2006, I thought — the pragmatic no-nonsense 40-something woman I was — that I’d grieve simply and move on quickly. I was busy: two young sons, freelance jobs, graduate school, an occasionally skittish marriage. Besides, my father and I had lived on opposite sides of the country for 30 years. We weren’t close.
And yet, grief has meandered through my life over a dozen years on its own languid, unhurried course. Some experts have amended the familiar five stages of grief to seven, though acceptance remains the final step. There’s no question that I’ve accepted Dad’s death; I don’t expect he’ll turn up! But there’s nothing in the stages lists about what comes after that last stage, or how so many of us slip back and forth between stages, for years.
As I wrote my book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press), which traces my path through the first three years after my father’s death, my research revealed that grief goes on — and doesn’t go away.
Only the form changes, the intensity varying, but never completely waning. That day in the mall, the tears fell, my heart ached with such sadness. A few weeks before though a momentary splash of grief — enjoyable almost in its wistful, flitting way — popped up when I remembered it was March 15 and how Dad had often called me on that day and when I said Hello, he’d say, “Beware the ides of March!”
Grief — and its windy ways — interested me even before grief and I got to be on such familiar terms. My tender and tough Noni died when I was eight. When I’d see my mother cry five years after, 15 years after, 40 years after, I didn’t understand it yet but her emotions never seemed odd to me. When your mother is gone, she’s always gone, and so why would that hurt less at age 60 than at age 45?
Not long ago, at a specialty foods store which stocks nostalgic items, the sight of a Black Jack gum packet, Noni’s favorite, brought my cart to a halt. My gasp spurred another shopper to ask if I was okay. I was fine, happy really with my discovery, even though for the rest of my afternoon a melancholy descended. But that was okay since it also brought luscious warm memories of the fierce love I always felt from Noni. That too was grief — 49 years later.
The problem with typical assumptions about grief — that it’s finite and the goal is to “get over it” — is that they don’t account for grief’s own idiosyncratic behavior. There’s no getting over or being done with something that seems to have a mind, a trajectory of its own, disconnected from charts or timelines. Grief, it seems to me, arrives when it wants to and stays as long as it stays.
This makes sense when we recall how memory works: in non-linear, episodic, thematically linked but also random ways. Since the real work of grief is remembering (not forgetting), it’s no wonder grief behaves in the same way, presenting us with out-of-sync, non-linear, sometimes linked but often random episodes.
When someone is taken up with the busy-ness of death — funeral planning, dealing with death certificates and insurance, responding to condolences — it’s often said, “it hasn’t hit her yet.” It meaning the reality of the loss. It meaning, sometimes, grief. My elderly aunt says she didn’t begin grieving until three weeks after her husband died when the house emptied of grandchildren and casseroles, and she had no more death-related tasks to dispatch. That was six years ago. Whenever grief does begin, I haven’t seen much evidence that it makes an exit plan. She tells me she talks to her husband each evening while she watches the news.
My father died in autumn, four days before his 80th birthday. I was at my mother’s house in Las Vegas when the birthday arrived, and she and my sister suffered greatly that day. I found it only mildly interesting. The first Father’s Day without Dad, eight months later, similarly affected me very little. A few months later, however, when my husband and I arrived for a swim at his parents’ house, I realized it was one year exactly from the sweltering August day I’d gotten the call about Dad’s stroke. To deal with the swift and stunningly sharp emotional pain, I swam lap after lap, unsure where the tears stopped and the water began.
Last week, I watched the BBC Like Minds digital documentary, “Grief is Not Something You Have to Get Over,” in which a psychotherapist posits that grief enters our lives like a huge ball and instead of finding a way to get rid of it, we make room for it: our lives grow a wider circle around it. Grief changes shape and at times, recedes into the background. And since we can’t predict or control when memory triggers will find us and ignite new grief episodes, it may pop to full size at any time.
That day at the mall, grief hit me full force at the jewelry store. I made room for it, absorbed the impact. As I told my friend a story about Dad and those chocolates, I could feel it softening, shrinking. After lunch, I went back to the jewelry store and — with delight this time — reached for a dark chocolate-covered Jordan cracker, and let it melt on my tongue.
"I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."
Breaking The Rules
Older women are considered invisible. So I decided to push back.
The class was held in the back room of an art gallery in the trendiest part of the Bowery in New York City. It was a Wednesday evening and the neighborhood was just waking up. I was giddy as I passed freshy fresh young indigenous punks and hipsters on Delancey Street. I looked like an older uptown tourist but I had a secret.
Google Maps directed me to make a left on Allen Street and shortly thereafter announced that I had reached my destination. I stood for a moment and then said to myself, You’re doing this. I breathed deeply and entered the gallery. It was stark, long, narrow and cold. Very cold. The bright white walls were lined with a smattering of large colorful paintings that included one of a very large pink penis and another that was a woman’s asshole spread wide. Don’t look. Don’t think. I walked with confidence to meet Tom, a handsome young Brit behind a counter at the other end of the gallery. He was the artist who booked me, and his friendly demeanor warmed the room right up.
I met Tom through Scott, my first boss after college, who I recently reconnected with thanks to the wonders of Facebook. Twenty-five or so years prior (who’s counting?) he was a television producer and I was his assistant. Now I was the television producer and he was retired and on the board of a very prestigious New York graduate school of art. We met at the Tribeca campus and he gave me an avuncular tour of the school and beamed with pride as he introduced me to the earnest, idealistic art students who shared their work with me. Scott explained that the first year of school revolves exclusively around figure drawing and in one of the classrooms the students were sketching a nude model.
“I would like to do that,” I said to Scott. He chuckled. I impressed upon him that I was serious. While it had not been on my midlife bucket list (I’m actually quite modest), I explained that I thought it would be an amazing experience to become a physical part of visual art. I believed it would be fascinating to see how different artists interpreted me and my body. I also thought it could be an ideal act of self-empowerment for a postmenopausal woman who has been told by society to become invisible. (That’s why there are no Marvel movies made with us as heroes!) I got excited, which, for those who know me, is easy. Scott blushed and said okay.
A few weeks later Scott emailed me to say that one of the school’s graduates was looking for a model for a sketching workshop; was I interested? Of course I was! I’m never just talk! To calm my nerves, I told myself that modeling nude for art students is not something silly but a feminist act. Artists don’t objectify. They find beauty in every brush stroke; there is no imperfection.
While my friends believed I might actually do something like this — even though I’m so modest that I turn my back to change in a gym locker room — they wondered if someone who fidgets like I do could sit still and be quiet for a long period of time.
Now, Tom tells me to change into my robe in the downstairs bathroom and to meet him in the back room. I do. In the bathroom, I try again to turn my brain off, as it keeps recycling the phrase: What the fuck am I doing? In the back room, Tom and I chat while we wait for the artists to arrive. I continue to wonder if this is a good idea as I realize that in a few minutes the robe will be gone and I will be sitting here nude. But Tom is kind, tells me he has a girlfriend, and sets up a heater. “The first few seconds are the hardest,” he says. “Don’t think about it.”
Six additional painters — two female and four male twenty-something postgraduate school artists who “draw from life” — arrive. This is their practice, a service the gallery offers. We introduce ourselves and I chat them up and learn that many have grown up in suburban New Jersey in towns similar to the one where I raised my kids who are probably their age. Don’t think about that, I tell myself.
They take their seats and open up their pads. Tom says to me, “It’s time.”
In that moment of judgment, I think to myself, it’s only awkward if you make it that way, so I exhale hard and fast as I attempt to channel my inner “still life” … “be the pear,” or in my case, the carrot. I remove my robe, stand up and ask Tom, like my actors question me when I direct, “Where and how would you like me to stand?”
I assume the first pose, an easy one, sitting in a chair. This isn’t hard. I find a place to lock my eyes: the holey jeans of one of the artists (hope he doesn’t mind my staring), and then just do it. I transcend. I am no longer me, but “art subject.” Tom tells me in a gentle tone that this first pose will last ten minutes and that we can break it into two five-minute increments. As someone who never wants to back down from a challenge, I say, “I can do ten.” And I do.
Tom plays a weird BBC station off of an app, which is distracting, but I don’t complain. I wonder if this is the artist’s version of new-age, canned spa music. While they sketch, they chat freely about art exhibits (that the MOMA is no longer free to non-city residents), music, movies, their addiction to their cell phones, and the pluses and minuses of doing acid (the way artists do). One from the suburban town next to mine shares a story about the bad trip he had at the Met that backfired as he tripped on the people rather than the art. I wonder if any of my friends are friends with his parents, I think. Then, Stop. I enjoy being the naked fly on the wall, but it is hard not to engage. They mention a band called Tool, that I gather is super hipster. Note to self: Google “Tool.”
At times I want to break out of the pose and look over their shoulders, but think, That would be weird. I am tempted to invite all of the kids to my next party as I tend to do when I meet interesting strangers, but stop myself by thinking, Would that be weird?
I remain perfectly still for two hours, doing several sitting and standing ten and 20-minute long poses. They are shocked it is my first time. As my arm leans frozen against the wall, I bask in this validation. It is strangely easy for me. I take short breaks and am ready for the next pose. Put me in Coach. Twenty minutes. No problem.
While in a pose, I recall how Tom, to ease my vulnerability, says that there is a lot of power in being a model, so my mind goes to one of my favorite contemplations: power dynamics. Do I have power? Or do they? I find myself vacillating between the two. Am I their muse, their goddess worthy of immortalizing, am I their… wait… what is her name from Titanic, oh… shoot… you know… or am I nothing more than their submissive statue slave?
The two-hour session ends. “That went fast.” I put my clothes back on and ask if I can take photographs of their work. They throw their sketchbooks down on the floor and step aside, as is the ritual at the end of class, and I peruse them. While I know they only sketched in short increments, I still imagined the drawings would be very literal, lifelike. I worried that if I moved just a smidge I would mess up their work. Indeed, they are only sketches — but some are very real and show incredible talent. I am wowed.
Now fully clothed again, my vulnerable ego kicks in. I realize I only want to memorialize the sketches that I perceive to be the most flattering.
As I leave the gallery, I feel this strange “I can do anything” kind of liberation. I just faced a huge fear and survived. I kicked a taboo as well — feeling just a little bit naughty about being naked in front of strangers who are the age of my children. What will I do next? As I pass the pink penis and giant asshole all I can think about is the model who had to hold that pose for a very, very long time.
Healthy eating gets a reinvention from a little-known cookbook
Seven years ago my amazing combustion machine of a metabolism came to a grinding halt. The pounds piled on and I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer eat like Michael Phelps before an Olympic meet, ordering the Hungry Man’s Special for breakfast (replete with homefries and several variants of cured meat!), a steaming bowl of pasta for lunch, then a steak and potato for dinner.
Oh, yeah, and there were a bunch of cakes and cookies — and probably Twinkies — in between. I know, pull out your smallest violins.
But after fifty years of “not getting” the body struggle that some of my friends had to deal with in high-school, I got clued in. Fast. One of the first things that Lyn-Genet, author of the book The Plan — which literally taught me how to eat healthy — ordered me to do was restrict my intake of meat to 4-6 oz per day. What filled in the holes on my plate, of course, were vegetables — and salad. But alas, how many unique experiences can you create with romaine or frisee or even spring mesclun mix, really?
I bottled my own vinaigrettes and it still got boring. Until Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette walked into my life when my friend Stephanie brought “salad” for dinner. What was this amazing mix of pear, endive, brie and pecans? I ordered the 2004 book (Twelve Months of Monastery Salads: 200 Divine Recipes for All Seasons) and now delight in my dinner-worthy jumbles of peas, fennel, cherry tomatoes, shallots and crumbled Roquefort (St. Scholastica Salad) or celery, dates, apples, red bell peppers, cukes, shallots and almonds (Madagascar Date-Nut Salad).
Though some salads contain fish or eggs — or even caviar, most are as the brother notes in his introduction, “basically vegetarian, thus adhering to the principle of the monastic diet as prescribed in the Rule of St. Benedict.” And all of this comes with a healthy dose of eating inspiration: quotes from the likes of St. Jerome to Albert Schweitzer.
But he taught me how to ignore the ads that make me feel bad about aging
My father was a jingle writer, spinning the fervent claims of advertisers, from Ford cars to Flintstone vitamins, into catchy commercial music. Even today, a half-century after Mad Men ruled New York, lines from his compositions rise up randomly in my memory and stick there stubbornly. “Little girls have pretty curls, but I like Oreos.” “Chipsters, the hip chip, with a taste that’s like today.” And the lyric that’s particularly hard to erase from my mental mixtape: “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” He wrote that jingle for Clairol, and even at 17, I saw it for what it was: a cynical enticement to buy hair dye.
Professionally, Dad was Oz to my Dorothy: the man behind the curtain who opened my eyes to the gears and levers that operated the ad machine. I saw the hand-drawn storyboards before they became commercials. I heard the music banged out in fits and starts on the piano before it acquired all those lush layers — percussion, brass, strings, vocals — and coalesced into an anthem that would sell cigarettes, antacids, snack foods, airline tickets.
And yet, for all my exposure to the inner workings of the advertising business, it turns out that I was just as susceptible as your average consumer to the hidden message behind the ads that my subconscious so deftly decoded: Buy X and you’ll be prettier, cooler and more successful than your friends. It wasn’t that any single commercial convinced me of this, but taken in the aggregate, all those shiny, happy ads led me to the same conclusion: My peers on the small screen had lots of things I didn’t — better bodies (in spite of the fact that, on screen, they downed cinnamon buns, fried chicken and loaded burgers with abandon), newer cars, bigger kitchens (way bigger kitchens), lusher lawns, smoother skin, entrée into swankier clubs and restaurants.
And then, a few years ago, something happened: I fell out of the Mad Men’s coveted demographic.
Not only was I well past the 17- to-34-year-old population beloved of all advertisers, I wasn’t even among the 35- to 49-year-old second tier. My peers still appeared in plenty of commercials, but now they had all sorts of things I didn’t want: indigestion, slippery dentures, slipping libidos, creaky knees, dry eyes, leaking bladders.
Suddenly I found myself remembering another of my father’s commercials. Written for a popular antacid of the day (to the tune of “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”), it asked the musical question “Eat too much, drink too much?” and responded with a prescription to “Take Brioschi, take Brioschi.”
But thankfully, that decidedly unsexy jingle did not become my new theme song.
Moving into a new demographic, I discovered, has its benefits. Perspective, for instance. I accept that my hair is never going to gleam as brightly as the impossibly sleek manes on display in the latest crop of hair-color ads, but I think my dad would be happy to know that I remind myself regularly of the process — lights, camera, music, Photoshop — that brought that gleam into being.
Having acquired the wisdom to treasure what I do have, I find the marketers’ subliminal messages about my failings no longer register in my subconscious.
For four decades I’ve done work that I am proud of. I raised a beautiful, talented, daughter who is now my friend. I’ve managed to stay married to my husband for 30 years. My house and kitchen may be small compared to the ones they shot for Dad’s commercials, but both bring me great joy, as do so many other “small” things: the new shoots of crocus I planted along the front path to remind me that spring always returns, a cardinal lighting on the backyard feeder in expectation of an evening meal, my husband’s apparently sincere belief that my butt still looks good in jeans.
So maybe at least part of my father’s lyric was right: I am getting older, but I’m also getting better. And that’s a tune I can happily carry.
Woman of Passion & Purpose
Helping others tell their stories has helped Jamie Yuenger create her own
In author Paulo Coelho’s bestselling book, The Alchemist, we’re told that “to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” Coelho’s story of a young shepherd on a quest for treasure illuminates the human need to realize one’s own “Personal Legend.” What that shepherd ends up discovering on his journey is something he never expected, yet was exactly the thing he’d been looking for.
Jamie Yuenger planned to be a folklorist because she was drawn to the study of human behavior and what she refers to as the “art of living.” Today she is the founder and CEO of StoryKeep — a production company that creates stunning professional-quality books and Hollywood-level films for families looking to capture their history for future generations. In this Q&A, she shares the story of her own journey to fulfill her destiny — to share the stories of personal legends that might otherwise be forgotten.
Covey Club: What compelled you to start StoryKeep?
Jamie Yuenger: I started my career as a professional folklorist, which is a mix of anthropology and sociology. But I always felt that my work provided immense value to the audience of a file folder. At the recommendation of a co-worker, I went to school to study documentary radio and started working in the field. It was thrilling to finally [hear] my work broadcast, but I had a vision for myself that didn’t align with a corporate career in radio.
Around the time that I was deciding to leave the industry, a friend hired me to do audio recordings of her father-in-law’s life story. I did a number of interview sessions with him and at the third session I realized this was going to be my life’s work; it mattered and I was good at it.
CC: How did you turn this passion into a business?
JY: I thought if one person was willing to pay me, there would be others. I worked like a machine for four months doing freelance writing in order to save up enough money to live for a year while I tried to get the company off the ground. I’d wake up at 4 AM and work until 10 PM. I’d eat oatmeal for weeks.
I eventually brought on a business partner who was a filmmaker and we were able to secure a small business line of credit.
We were profitable but had not been taking a salary in those early years so that we could put the money back into the business. I continued to do part-time work on the side to make money. I was working about 65-70 hours a week. We did the nitty gritty of it all. After three-and-a-half years we realized we weren’t a match anymore, so I bought out her half of the company and that was the beginning of a monumental shift for me.
CC: What happened when it was just you?
JY: My role shifted tremendously — I went from being a producer to a boss, hiring others to do the projects. I had to figure out quickly who to hire and start managing a payroll. It was a balancing act. I grew so much… Fate is funny; I learned I’m much better at being the boss than the maker. It’s a better role for me. I’m much more of a visionary who sees the bigger picture than a sound mixer.
CC: How did you find your first clients?
JY: In the very beginning, I sent an email to 20 acquaintances explaining my services and offered a discount to the first five people who signed. About two to three people signed up and I just thought ‘oh my god, I’m doing this!’ Eventually it grew through word of mouth and PR efforts of friends who were able to get the company some media coverage.
CC: How did you determine what to charge without any competitive models?
JY: At first I charged by the hours involved in doing the projects. I understood in my heart that the work had value but I didn’t have the confidence in the marketplace yet. Once I started hiring team members and evolving the product to include more films and books, I realized I had to completely change my strategy.
CC: Did you meet any pushback?
JY: Oh yeah, tons, but I had to change my client base. It was scary, but it was clear to me that this was my life’s calling and if I wanted to keep doing it — and I needed to keep doing it — I was going to have to charge the price that would allow me to be sustainable. You do the math and realize that if everyone working on the project is to be paid a fair market rate, including yourself, this is how much it needs to cost. Plus, what we provide is so valuable and beautiful.
CC: Why do people come to StoryKeep?
JY: People tell me they have the idea of [creating their own family films or books] themselves but realize it’s a fantasy, or they try doing it on their own but fail miserably. They’re so time-strapped and yet they want [this kind of project] to be done very well. It’s the combination of ‘am I really going to go through all [my grandfather’s] letters and scan them and transcribe them? I don’t think so.’ And sometimes people are racing against time. They’re swamped with their kids and they can see their parents are getting older or having memory loss. When people learn about us they’re relieved. If they’re going to do the project to the level we take it to, they can’t devote the time to it. It’s also a beautiful way to spend time [together]: the whole process is reflective, therapeutic, and meaningful not just for the storyteller but for the whole family since we’re interviewing others to get context.
Trailer for “History of an American Family”
CC: What are the intangible benefits to clients who sign on for these projects?
JY: It’s a way to strengthen relationships; it’s a frequent result of the work. People share things with me in interview sessions that they’ve never shared with anyone or [they discuss] things they haven’t thought about for decades. The project [requires] time [be] set aside from normal life and because of that people are able to focus and crack open their heart and find release from things they’ve held in. Some people have said to me ‘this has been a really healing process.’
CC: How does StoryKeep work?
JY: We elevate family stories to an award-winning level. If a family has a stack of WWII letters, for example, we will digitize and transcribe them into a book you can read or a feature-length film. We don’t just do interviews, we spend time with people. We generally record over an entire day but in blocks of 60-120 minutes (all depending on a person’s energy). A minimum of two recording sessions are recommended: you want at least a day in between for reflection; we kind of open up the can and then there’s more one feels compelled to say.
CC: What are the costs?
JY: The pricing varies because everything is custom. The average range for books is $25,000-$50,000 and for films it’s $50,000-$75,000. There have been less expensive projects and more expensive projects; it all depends on what the client wants and the amount of work that’s involved. We do at least three rounds of feedback with a family before delivering a final product.
CC: What’s unique about your clientele?
JY: They are individuals who value the connections within their families and have the means to invest in and nurture them. They appreciate the many facets of legacy, wealth, and history. They also appreciate art and the storytelling mediums we use — their aesthetic standards are high.
CC: How do you choose your projects?
JY: Families come to us [because they believe they] have something that they feel is interesting; they don’t bring boring people. It may not be a blockbuster [to the public], but to the family the subject is important. We do about 10-15 projects a year: 70% are films and 30% are books. We’re also starting to do audio projects again.
CC: What are some of your most memorable projects?
JY: The most interesting project was one woman’s life story, which we shot in three different cities. She has developed relationships with fashion designers and artists for the last 30 to 40 years and wanted us to visit their studios to pay homage to them. Meanwhile, we were documenting her life and the collections she has created. It was fun to be with this exuberant older woman who I learned so much from on a personal level.
Trailer for “A Sun for the Flowers”
Another one I really love is a giant 12×12, 312-page coffee table-sized book we created for a family that had 40 scrapbooks to work with. The matriarch had kept a scrapbook for every year for 40 years and wanted to make a condensed version for her grandchildren. [One of the family members] had lived through the Holocaust so the book is incredible in many ways. The man passed away three to four months after the project. We went to sit shiva at their home and saw the family had the StoryKeep book on the table and everyone was looking through it. A bulb went off in my mind and I understood that this is what it is all about. I was surprised by what the depth of the work could mean.
CC: What’s your advice to someone who’s been toying with the idea of documenting their family history?
JY: I find it’s valuable to do it earlier rather than later because the person being documented gets to bask in the joy and appreciation while still being around. I’m always happy when we’re honoring a 60th birthday instead of a 90th. People invest in documenting the birth of a baby, but what about the family member who’s a bit older and has the memory of earlier generations? They carry the legacy of the family. People are now starting to invest the resources to honor the gravitas of a life well lived. Even though being older is not as sexy in our culture, we still seek wisdom from our elders; we want to hear from someone who’s lived a long life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Thinking about ways to preserve your own family’s stories? Check out Jamie Yuenger’s top tips for preserving family memories on our blog.
The word “gorilla” is derived from a Greek word meaning, “A tribe of hairy women.”
Sports psychologist to the Seattle Seahawks reveals his #1 recovery secret
During the recent Winter Olympic Games, everyone was waiting for world champion and previous Olympic gold medalist skier, Lindsey Vonn, to capture a gold medal in her specialty, the downhill women’s event, and medal again in the Super-G (a slalom race that is faster and has wider turns than a giant slalom). Anticipating that these would be her last Olympics, the media was in a frenzy filming her every move. Her last gold medal was in the 2010 Winter Games; she did not participate in the 2014 games due to injury. Of her three events, Vonn earned what USA Today called a “measly” Bronze medal in the downhill. The newspaper described her Olympics presence a “bust.”
Did Vonn fail? Watching Vonn cry after earning the bronze would certainly push that argument. But she says she was satisfied.
“I gave it my best shot; I worked my butt off,” she told NBC News. “I left it all on the mountain like I said I would and I’m proud of my performance.”
High-performance psychologist Michael Gervais agrees, saying top performers give it their all but view both success and failure as a process, not an outcome.
“It’s not about winning and losing,” he says. “Doing your personal best and still not winning is a success.”
This is why top athletes return again, again … and again to their sport and attempt to win, even after terrible past outcomes. Gervais says it’s persistence, the constant striving to do their best, to master their personal and external world and their craft and embracing feedback, that truly differentiates top performers from the rest of us.
The 47-year-old Gervais earned his doctorate in psychology at San Diego State University studying under sports psychology pioneer Bruce Ogilvie. Gervais’ wide-ranging practice includes his position as sports psychology consultant to the Seattle Seahawks football team and offering mindset training to major corporations (including Microsoft and AT&T) via Compete to Create, a company he co-founded with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. He’s good enough that he’s even gotten 300-pound offensive tackles to meditate! Gervais talked with The Covey about what top performers do to excel and move on from faltering — or what we regular folks would call failure — and what we can learn from it.
Katie Weisman: What is your definition of failure?
Michael Gervais: It’s the inability to go for it because of the perception that the stakes are too high.
KW: What prevents us from “going for it”?
MG: There’s a decision we have to make every day: is the world safe or dangerous? If you apply that to performance, then it’s about approaching success or avoiding danger. Most people do what our brain is designed to do: scan the world and avoid danger. Intellectually, approaching success is a higher order but [our] DNA [takes over] under duress, and [we avoid that danger].
KW: Is there a difference between how high-performing females and males deal with failure?
MG: At the tip of the arrow, women and men are more similar than dissimilar. These “half-percenters” measure themselves [by] a higher standard of excellence. The majority of ambitious people are trying to be the best; those at the top are trying to be their best. For the rest, and I have no data to back this, I would think that men tend to be more obsessed with the outcome than women who tend to be more relationship and process-focused.
KW: So how can we average folks achieve this level of commitment to the process instead of the outcome?
MG: It’s simple. Upon waking in the morning, outline six things you need to do to be your absolute best and how you would do them. Anyone can do this. Awareness is the first thing you need to explore [your] potential. You need to be deeply focused on the present moment. Top performers know that mindfulness and deep awareness increase ability, that every thought precedes emotion and emotion impacts performance.
KW: So you’re telling me this is all about being mindful in my head? That’s nothing new.
MG: I know, it’s like when Gandhi told everyone to be compassionate and everyone is like: “yeah, yeah.” There’s a difference between an intellectual exercise in being mindful and actually training one’s capacity to be mindful and to think clearly on the razor’s edge. Mindfulness is about having awareness and a host of mental skills to adjust self-talk — breathing to regulate your arousal system, imagery to create the optimal vision of your future, etc. If we are not aware of our internal state and we don’t have the mental skills to adjust, then our brain wins, we enter survival mode again to avoid danger.
KW: Do top performers train their mindfulness as much as they train their bodies?
MG: No. It’s that they understand that they need to train both. There’s a requirement for them to be aware so they can get better at their craft and for when they are being tested, which is a competition or a forcing function. For the rest of us, because there isn’t this intense forcing function, we can slip into a lazy approach to life.
KW: You mentioned how athletes get feedback all the time, daily, hourly, at their matches. We women don’t get this kind of feedback, at our jobs or at home. Is there a way to substitute for feedback?
MG: You have to create your own feedback loops. The first one is internal. If we are skillfully mindful, then we can become an incredible feedback loop for ourselves. Once we are clear who that person is that we want to be, we become the fine-tuning fork for ourselves. You can’t do this if you are not mindful. If you are busy in your head, critiquing your work, thinking about what’s next-next-next, you are debilitating your internal tuning fork. As a society, that tuning fork is wildly out of pitch.
The second feedback loop is from the natural environment where Mother Nature is swift with feedback. If you are a big wave surfer and you fall and are stuck underwater for four minutes, it’s because you screwed up.
The third feedback loop [comes] from others. In large organizations, there are smaller communities and units of relationships. Making sure these are working for each other’s best interest is critical to you becoming your very best. Increase the feedback loops from people you trust, who are aware, skilled, have your best interests at heart — not theirs — and you can do the same for them.
At the Seahawks, we offer feedback loops as often as we can.
Elite athletes organize their days to [create] positive [feedback] loops. They work to train their mind, their body, their craft and to get feedback to make all three work. The rest of us are looking for the tricks. There are no tricks.
KW: Let us go back to failure. You said it’s also about not pushing yourself to the edge, the unknown.
MG: Right. Those half-percenters are able to embrace the unknown better than the rest of the world. They are constantly playing on the edge and are reminded they love it. Our brain lights up and is most alive when there is an appropriate challenge. Life is unpredictable. Being able to embrace the unfolding, the unpredictable and the unknown is the mark of a master.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Studies show women mean money. Marshal your talents and clinch the deal
Gail Tifford has championed other women’s success for years. As a vice president at Unilever, she helped create a women’s network that provides leadership training and career development. She also co-founded #SeeHer, an Association of National Advertiser’s initiative aimed at presenting a more accurate portrayal of women and girls in media and advertising. So, when she started reading articles about the lack of women on corporate boards, she decided she wanted to change those statistics by joining a board herself.
“Just look at stats for women on boards,” she says. “It’s staggering. It’s one of the reasons I left Unilever to work at Weight Watcher s— to be in the C-suite of a public company.” Tifford is now Weight Watchers’ chief brand officer.
Tifford is also part of the wave of women joining corporate boards. She became a director at American fashion designer and manufacturer Fossil Group, Inc. in July 2017 after a six-month search, although she had anticipated it taking two years or more to join a board. “The reality is timing is everything,” Tifford says. “Board seats don’t come along very often so when an offer does come along, think twice about saying no.” Tifford interviewed for one other board position at a public company in Boston before joining the Fossil board. That interview “gave me confidence for my next interview,” she says.
Why they want you: Women =$$$
Consider this: In 2018, one-fourth of all publicly held companies have no female directors on their boards and one-third have only one female board member, says Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, CEO of 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign to increase the percentage of women on U.S. company boards to 20 percent or greater by the year 2020.
The statistics look better for women and minorities, however, if you focus on just the S&P 500. In 2017, for the first time in the history of the Spencer Stuart U.S. Board Index, just over half of incoming directors on S&P 500 boards were women or minorities. Perhaps that change can be traced back to a 2016 Credit Suisse report that found that companies with at least one woman director received a better return on their investments compared with companies with all-male boardrooms. But Berkhemer-Credaire cautions that boards need a minimum of three women to be successful because “one woman is a token, two is a conversation and three has impact.”
Earlier this year, Berkhemer-Credaire says corporate investors such as Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street and Morgan Stanley started putting pressure on the boards of the companies they invest in to add female directors. They communicated that they’re watching what’s going on and they’re insisting those boards address gender diversity if they want institutional investors to look upon them favorably.
You don’t need to learn new skills
Tifford’s digital marketing experience and her prior experience on a non-profit board helped her to land in a director’s seat quickly, says Nicole Kyner, head of search at theBoardlist, a group that connects highly qualified female leaders with opportunities to serve on private and public company boards. Boards are looking for people who can solve the problems their companies are currently facing, and digital marketing experience is becoming increasingly important, she says.
In the last three to five years, the skills that boards are looking for have changed, says Sheila Ronning, CEO and founder of Women in the Boardroom. A decade ago boards were looking for financial experts and current or former CEOs. But today, she says, they are also looking for experts in talent management, risk management, cybersecurity and digital disruption — all in response to the challenges companies face.
Yet, despite companies looking for more women and minorities with broader experiences, only 1 to 3 percent of people of all genders will ever serve on a corporate board, Kyner says. “You really have to be at the top of your profession. You have to make yourself very visible.” Most corporate boards are looking for people with operating experience who have built programs and projects, and know how to lead, says Kyner. However, once you’re on a board, your role isn’t to build and to lead but instead to advise the CEO without telling him or her what to do. “It can be a difficult transition,” she admits.
The questions Tifford was asked during her interviews fall into two common sought-after buckets — her ability to influence others and her emotional intelligence. “You can have all the [technical] skills but if you can’t convince and align people, you will be ineffective,” Tifford says.
The big game changer: fit
Cultural fit can be more important when joining a board than with a full-time position, Kyner admits. So you need to realistically consider whether you would use the product or service the company sells. “If you wouldn’t use it, you shouldn’t be on the board,” she says.
Kyner helps to match qualified women with corporate boards looking for directors. “I look for experience that will resonate with the board,” she says. “I’m looking for that great fit.” Every woman on theBoardlist was nominated by a CEO or a board member and about 50 percent already have had experience on three or four boards, she says. For instance, former Twitter COO Adam Bain nominated Tifford.
Getting an endorsement from someone already in the C-suite can increase your chances of becoming a board candidate so, if you’re interested in serving on a board, let people know. Then, when they’re asked to nominate a board candidate, your name will come to mind. “Never underestimate every conversation and connection made,” Tifford says. “Look at every person you talk to as an opportunity. If people don’t know it’s of interest to you, nothing is ever going to happen.”
Work your connections
In fact, the majority of board seats are filled by candidates referred by other board members. Less than 15 percent of seats are filled by candidates recommended by search firms, Ronning says. That doesn’t mean you need to meet with 50 new people a month to be considered for a board seat. Instead, re-engage with people already in your network who are influencers and connectors, she says. Once you reconnect, think about how to maintain a relationship with them going forward. For instance, if you see an article or something that would interest them, send them an email or call them. “Let them know you were thinking of them and that keeps you top of mind for them,” she says.
Berkhemer-Credaire agrees that it’s important to develop a solid network of people who serve on boards. But, it’s also essential that you get experience serving on large non-profit boards like United Way or American Cancer Society. Or get a seat on a city, county or state commission to learn about fiduciary responsibility, she says. You can apply for a seat on government websites or ask your local politician to recommend you. “A smaller board will lead to a bigger board,” says Berkhemer-Credaire, who is also the author of The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors.
Fiduciary experience is essential because all board directors are responsible for the stewardship of the proper spending and management of the company’s money, Berkhemer-Credaire says. As a board member, you represent the shareholders in approving budgets, managing the company’s strategic growth, and taking responsibility for the hiring and firing of the CEO as well as his or her compensation.
Make sure you have no conflicts of interest
Before joining a board, be sure to get the support and approval of your current employer, Kyner says. You don’t want to get an offer to join a board and then find out there is a conflict with the company for which you currently work.
While investors have put more pressure on boards to address gender diversity in the boardroom, it is unclear how much impact the #MeToo movement will have on the number of women serving on boards. Although theBoardlist is getting an influx of calls and emails from boards saying they want to add a woman to their roster, Kyner isn’t sure if it will ultimately lead to more female directors. While it may translate to more female candidates, Kyner is cautious about assuming that it will translate to more women on boards.
One of the most surprising aspects about being on a board, Tifford says, is how emotionally invested she is in the success of the company and the friendships she has developed with other board members. “I care so much,” she says. “That works to their benefit. When you care, you give more.”
Writer, editor, and beauty expert, Genevieve Monsma has been in the game for nearly twenty years. She’s been the Beauty Director for publications such as More, Shape, and CosmoGirl, and Deputy Beauty Director at Marie Claire. Genevieve currently keeps women up to date on the latest beauty trends on her blog MediumBlonde and is a regular contributor to CoveyClub.
Lisa Romeo plays a number of roles in her life, including writer, editor, teacher, mother, and wife, to name a few. After graduating with a degree in journalism from Syracuse University, she went on to write numerous articles, essays, and nonfiction narratives in publications such as the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Inside Jersey, and Brevity. Her first full-length novel, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss (University of Nevada Press) was published in May 2018.
Spike Gillespie is a journalist, blogger, book author, writing teacher, wedding & funeral officiant, rancher, animal rescuer, dedicated meditator, domestic abuse survivor, and avid knitter. She was voted Best Writer in Austin 2006, and Best Memoirist/NonFiction Writer in Austin in 2016 and 2017 by Austin Chronicle Readers. Her latest book, Tao of Bob, was published in March 2018.
Wisdom we don't want you to miss — May Edition
As we kick off a new month, let’s remember the great interviews, blog posts, and conversations that happened in our community in May. It’s our mission at Covey to support women in search of their dreams. If you know of anyone who would benefit from joining our community, please spread the word and share these stories with them. #LearnGetConnect
Build Your Personal Brand: 6 Starting Steps — Personal branding: we’ve heard of it, we know it’s important, but we don’t necessarily know how to do it. So I sat down with “brander-in-chief,” Patrick Hanlon as part of a CoveyCast podcast interview about how to apply big-brand concepts to creating your own personal brand.
I sat down with two PhDs: Beth Gullette, managing partner of the Institute for Contemporary Leadership and Jessica Dawson, a professor of leadership at Westpoint, for a Coffee & Conversation. It was an eye-opening dialogue with CoveyClub members where we dove into the various reasons why women are so uncomfortable with power and what we can do to break free from limiting mindsets (mostly adopted in childhood). You can watch the full conversation here.
How Well Are Your Feet Aging? — When it comes to anti-aging advice, we’re inundated with info on products and treatments for the face … but by the time we make it south to our feet, there’s not much talk about foot-aging — or what we can do about it. Until now.
The Tyranny of the Yoga Lady — Lauren Zalaznick teaches us how to win the passive aggressive wars that take place between mats. Namaste!
You’re Never Too Old to Start a Whole New Life — Her second marriage bombed but she kept going. One woman’s secret to resilience.
Zen and The Art of Decluttering — Laura Moore is on a mission to help us completely rethink how we think about our stuff—and what we should do with it. (Hint: Don’t assume your kids want even your most prized antiques.)
5 Things All Entrepreneurs Must Do — The legal fees involved in starting and running a new business can make most of us put counsel on the backburner. Luckily, Jenny Sheridan is here to give us affordable help.
***DEAL ALERT: The first 10 people to sign up for Jenny Sheridan’s StartUp Business Law Bootcamp for Entrepreneurs will receive a special 50% discount (making the total course cost only $249!) and can participate in a FREE webinar (‘How to Select Your Trademark’) with Jennifer: Enter code SBBE1-50-CoveyClub at checkout.
Her Mother Took Desegregation Into Her Own Hands — This is the first installment of a new series we’ll be running on Covey called SHEroes featuring those invisible women who didn’t make the history books but who affected meaningful change in their lifetime. Do you know a SHEro? We want to feature her! (Read the article for details.)
All The Covey magazines you missed in one place
If you’re new to Covey, WELCOME! We’re so happy to have you in the club. Here’s where you can find all the amazing Covey magazine content you missed. With your Covey membership, you can now read all of these issues for FREE! We hope you enjoy your time with us. [Note: To read a specific issue, just hover over the month and click.]
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