This is the first of a two-part post inspired by an unusual definition of luck that really resonated with me. As is often the case, the first direction this mental endeavor took me to was an incredibly difficult weekend that I was not at all prepared for. But the second post will give you some hope that even when things start out about as bad as they possibly can, they can be turned around. Hope you enjoy.
I’m taking an online course with Dorie Clark, a marketing and strategy consultant I was introduced to by a high school friend who has gone on to have an incredibly successful law career on both coasts. It’s been an interesting experience since many of the people involved in the course are business people, working to build their portfolios with things like publications in Harvard Business Review, Forbes and the like. I feel a little bit like a fish out of water, but that’s an ok place to be from time to time.
As part of the work, I am reading Dorie’s book Stand Out. I just read a section about luck (this is also in Dorie’s TEDx talk I posted recently). She sums up luck, from Anthony Tjan’s book Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck: What it Takes to Be an Entrepreneur and Build a Great Business like this:
What does it look like to make time for luck in your life? Anthony Tjan…told me, “Luck is often mislabeled in business.” It’s not so much that people are lucky, but that they’re interested in other people and aren’t rushing along to the next, better thing. As Tjan notes, “Lucky people have an openness, an authenticity, and a generosity toward embracing people—without overthinking ‘what’s the value exchange?’ It’s just, that’s an interesting person.”
People who self-identify as “lucky”—and are therefore perhaps a little more laid-back and open to chance—”…benefit disproportionately later in life from some of those relationships. (Clark 180-81)
So I want to tell you a story that perfectly and painfully sums this whole idea up AND speaks to finding the intersection of remarkable and so, so ordinary (although in this case, my ordinary was this group’s patient zero of a SARS outbreak). It’s kind of long, but it’s horrible. Trust me, you’ll stay engaged.
In March of 2012, my same friend invited me to apply for something called Renaissance Weekend. Put away your ideas about jousting and huge turkey legs; this is a networking and learning event planned by a former diplomat and his wife that gathers leaders from across all the disciplines and sectors for a weekend of content created by the attendees (interestingly, this is where my friend and Dorie first met).
It’s a really cool idea—how often do we get to spend intentional time with people who are completely outside our normal spheres? How often are we both the seeker and the sharer of knowledge? I was thrilled to be accepted and scraped together the considerable, albeit first-time discounted, fee to attend and booked my ticket to Aspen for Labor Day weekend.
Part of why I said yes was that my step dad and I share the same birthday. The year I turned 39 and he turned 65, we both knew that that was his last birthday. Incredulously, this giant of a man in my life was dying of esophageal cancer, despite never having smoked a day in his life. So on December 29, 2011, I vowed to myself that I would spend this final year of my 30s saying yes to everything I could to honor Papa’s final year.
When you live in Fargo, ND, you get used to people the world over finding that fact intriguing. “Oh, I love the movie/tv show!” “Is it always that cold?” “Do you really talk like that?”
So I didn’t give any thought to what I was stepping into that weekend. My friend assured me that I was going to love it, and I was looking forward to reconnecting with him after more than 20 years.
Have you ever had one of those moments where you arrive and slowly realize that you are way, way out of your depths? I don’t mean tread water until you get your bearings kind of depths. I mean the sharks are encircling because there’s a growing pool of blood surrounding you, and it’s only a matter of time until the first one attacks kind of depths.
I’m an ok networker, but I was too naive to immediately read the room, so I found a table of people and sat down, curious to meet this new group.
They literally said things like, “John Smith. Harvard undergrad. Yale law. Senator from Massachusetts.” “Jane Doe. Yale undergrad. Harvard law. Council for [insert big Wall Street firm].” “Jim Anderson. UPenn undergrad. Stanford medical. CEO of [insert massive hospital name].”
It was my turn, and I was still naively optimistic; I couldn’t see their ferocious teeth behind their super wealthy, polished exteriors, so I stupidly said, “Dayna Del Val. I’m in the arts, and I’m from Fargo, North Dakota.” And I smiled and waited for the requisite three sentences..
Instead, there was complete silence. And finally someone said, “Is that in…the midwest?” And “midwest” was said with the kind of internal retching you do when you come across something so disgusting your body has a physical response to it. Later, a man reached his hand out to shake mine, but when he read on my name tag where I was from, he immediately retracted his hand and veered away as quickly as possible. A women literally gagged when I said what I did and scuttled off to find a more appropriate connection.
Over the years that we have had our pup Lilly, I have watched her encounter people on walks. She is completely accustomed to people stopping to pet her and praise her for her beauty wherever we go. In fact, when people just walk by, she has a kind of forlorn, confused look like, “Wait. Didn’t you notice me?” It always takes her a minute to readjust from that.
I would love to say that that’s exactly how I handled this—with a little confused readjustment.
That’s not how it went down.
After the first day and a half, I skipped an entire afternoon session to go back to the hotel room and cry. In my entire lifetime, I have never been treated like that (and I had some crappy instances as a single mother, believe me!). In essence, it was like I had some horribly contagious disease (think leprosy) and to stand too near me or to engage in conversation with me would surely infect you, too. Better to just stay away and look on with complete and utter disdain so that others know you didn’t catch it and aren’t infected with disgusting midwestern-public-university-small-nonprofit-itis. Apparently that diagnosis is a death sentence and there is absolutely no cure.
Perhaps the most incredulous moment of the conference, however, came with the first panel I was on around leading nonprofits. There were seven of us: six with at least one Ivy League degree, all leading multi-million dollar nonprofits on either the East or West coasts, and me. I was seventh in the row. After we all went through and talked about what we did and where, the first woman decided that she would recap for the audience what everyone’s credentials were. She regaled the crowd with the information they had basically just heard from each of the panelists, but she really enjoyed adjectives, so she built each person up with stupendous, tremendous, impeccable, phenomenal qualifiers.
My stomach grew more and more tense as she moved closer and closer to me. What could she possibly say about what I do, where I went to school, where I live, why I had any value?
She got to me, and I kid you not, she said, “And YOU (because of course she couldn’t remember my name). You are just so…cute!”
To their credit, even the jack ass audience had the courtesy to do a collective intake of breath. Sure, they wanted to be sure I knew my place (which was nowhere near any of them), but this apparently crossed the line.
For one moment, the Earth stopped spinning and everything stood completely still as I darted my eyes out to the gaping-mouthed crowd. Then it started up again, and I turned my full attention to the audience, determined to take control of this preposterous moment and said, “I don’t bring much to the table, but I am goddamned pretty.”
They understood what I was doing and laughed to relieve the tension.
And that’s how that session ended.
I stood up, humiliated, and made my way out the door—making a straight line to the hotel for another cry session. A circuit judge who had been friendly with me at breakfast (he didn’t ask me what I did, so he had no way of knowing how insignificant I really was), stopped me. I was crawling out of my skin to get away, but he said, “That wasn’t a very nice thing she did. I just want you to know that it’s too bad you have a wedding ring on. But maybe that doesn’t matter…”
And he let what he was saying hang in midair.
I looked at him and simply turned and walked away. I might not have attended an Ivy League school, but even I could catch that inference. Apparently, my dreaded disease wasn’t sexually transmitted.
So, where is the luck in this horrifying story?
Stay with me…it’s coming. I promise.
On the final day, the sessions ended around noon. My friend had hooked me up with another friend of his so that we could room together to cut down on the costs. I really loved her and have incredible regard for the impressive racial and social justice legal work she does.
But here’s how out of sync my world is with the world of these types of people. When I told my roommate how this had all gone down, she tried to make me feel better by saying, “You know, people are kind of dismissing me because I did my undergrad at Berkeley, too.”
Ummmmmmm, thanks, but not quite the same. Where I’m from, Berkeley is a place to aspire to.
Anyway, we were having lunch in town, where the cheapest glass of wine was $18 (apparently the fact that the conference was in Aspen should have been a good tip off for me. I have so much to learn…or not!). The restaurant was full, so two women, whom my roommate had met in one of her sessions about legal affairs, asked if they could join us. My roommate eagerly said “Sure,” and I warily tried to make myself as small as possible because I simply couldn’t endure yet another meeting of dawning disgust.
These women sat down and immediately the weights that had settled on my shoulders lifted. They asked me about who I was, what I did, what it was like to live in North Dakota (from real curiosity not to confirm their preconceived notions of how Old West it must really be). They were funny and smart as whips and interesting, and I immediately loved them both.
When Dr Marry was looking for jobs early in our relationship, I used to say to him, “There are a lot of places I won’t go in the US. Like Alabama. I’m not moving to Birmingham, Alabama!” Never mind that I’ve never been to Birmingham or Alabama or the south at all. I just knew I wouldn’t like it there, based almost solely on the idea that I think about photos of lynchings where white people are celebrating the horrific deed like it’s a Sunday potluck after church (between you and me, I still kind of think that when I think about Alabama, but it behooves me to keep working to get past that unfair stereotype as you will see when you read on).
So, as we are talking, it’s abundantly clear that one of these women is from the South. Y’all spills from her like a gentle waterfall. Turns out she’s from…Alabama (of course!) but now lives in Washington, DC and is a partner attorney for a major firm.
My first instinct is to make an assumption about her because of her birthplace. But it dawns on me immediately that I am doing to her what everyone did to me! Again, I’m pretty quick on the draw despite my obviously lacking Ivy League education.
We ended up spending the day together, going to Maroon Bells before flying out to our respective cities. We hiked, laughed and enjoyed the incredible scenery, and I knew I had made new friends for not just the day but for well beyond.
Meeting those two women changed my life, both in that moment and going forward.
I now stay at my friend’s house when I attend an annual conference in DC. Last year, she and I super spontaneously flew to England for a week to have tea on a restored art deco train with Mary Berry. We were intending to go to Paris together this summer.
She and I don’t live at all in the same realm—I once joined her and two clients for a casual dinner that ended up costing what one of my paychecks was at the time. Turns out, that was her billable hourly rate. But she talks to me as if we are living comparable lives, and in all the ways that truly matter, we are.
She lives in a stunning home that she graciously opened up to me even when she was back home in Alabama saying goodbye to her dying father. She introduced me to another friend of hers who introduced me to Brian Stokes Mitchell in a moment that could only have come from divine grace.
The other woman I met that day has since moved to Chicago, and I met with her the last time I was there and thoroughly enjoy her, too.
These women are high powered and live and work comfortably in the world of United States legislators and others who run our country. They make gobs of money. They are experts in their respective legal fields. And they don’t give one whit about my public school education or my geographic location.
In fact, I recently shot a commercial for an international agricultural company that has a branch in Fargo. When I posted a picture of it online, my DC friend sent it to one of her old clients that is connected to this ag company. They loved the photo and set up a meeting with her to discuss new business.
I hated (most of) Renaissance Weekend with every fiber of my being. It was truly one of the lowest experiences of my life. But, I consider myself incredibly lucky that I was invited and that I said yes. Look at all the glorious good (and fun!) that has come out of it!
And you know what? I may be pretty darn cute, but that’s just the tip of my iceberg. And that’s true of everybody—we all have worth, depth and insight that deserves to be invested in, explored and lifted up…regardless where we did our undergraduate study or where we call home.
Next: Part II
Photo credit: Maroon Bells, Colorado. September 2012.