When No Means Yes

It all goes back to a rejection letter that I didn’t quite believe.

When I was the executive director of non-profit in Wisconsin, I applied for a scholarship to attend a week-long training at the Harvard Business School, an executive education program for non-profit directors. The local Harvard Business Club awarded two well-publicized scholarships per year from about 70 applicants in the Milwaukee area.

Where I come from, Harvard was like the moon, a place so far off that even though you read quotes in the paper from people who had been there, nobody you knew had actually been. The possibility of studying there even for a week seemed ridiculously huge.

I applied anyway. I received a rejection letter from the local Harvard Business Club almost immediately. It said try again next year. I doubted that would work, because the organization I worked for was an association, and their criteria specified they were less inclined to award the scholarship to an association leader.

I set the letter aside and went back to work. The letter bothered me. I picked it up and read it again. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still got to go to this training. I wondered how that could possibly be.

Somewhere I had learned that if you know in your heart that something is possible, but you aren’t sure how, just let that notion cook for a while. Keep your mind open. The ‘how’ might just make itself known, if you let it.

By the next morning, I had an idea. I called the Harvard Business School itself and asked if they had scholarships available, and if I could apply directly to them instead of going through a local entity. To my surprise, a live person answered the phone number on their website. I learned I could apply to the executive training program directly, online. The Harvard Business School had a few scholarships available for the leaders of organizations with tiny budgets, which mine had. And they didn’t mind at all that my organization was an association.

So, on a day when I was home sick with the flu, I filled out Harvard’s online application. A month or so later, I received a letter by email from the Business School. I was awarded $4,400 for the executive training, including room and board for the week in student housing.

At the training, I fell in love. I loved the stimulating conversation with dedicated public service leaders from all over the world. I loved the people I met and the instructors. I loved the case studies we talked about and all the stuff I was learning. I loved the campus. I wept openly on the last day when it was time to go home.

The following summer I went for another week-long executive education program. This time, the topic was performance management and it was held at the Harvard Kennedy School. Still beguiled, I asked the professor, “What else have you got?” He said there were no more short training programs for non-profit management, but there was a Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration, a year-long degree-program with a residency requirement.

Um, what did he just say? There’s no way I could do that, I thought. I have a family and a house and a job in Wisconsin. It’s too expensive. Harvard would never let me in.

Walking back to the residence where I was staying during the training, I noticed strollers and kids’ play sets on the decks of student apartments. People with families go to grad school, I thought. They do. I thought about what it would mean for my kids to spend a part of their formative years in this dynamic environment. How would it change their perspective on what they can do, to watch their mom get a degree at this place that was so unimaginable a little while ago?

So that night I looked up the Kennedy School Mid-Career MPA application online. It seemed huge. Five essays, the GRE exam, references. It was pretty daunting. I kept thinking about this option on my return flight home. And somewhere over Ohio, the notion hit me that this degree was something I could do if I just decided to try. Once again, I somehow knew what was possible, and the ‘how’ would make itself known, if I let it. I don’t know where that inner sense of knowing comes from. And it can be bothersome when the facts around you don’t yet support what your instincts are telling you. It can be just about impossible to explain it to other people. Trust your instincts anyway.

My husband’s first reaction was that I was out of my mind. Within a few days, he warmed up to the idea and then he was just as excited as I was.

I spent about four months gathering more information. I spoke with people who had been through the program or whose kids had gone to the Kennedy School. I revisited the campus to stand in the space and do a gut-check again. I put together a timeline. I planned when to prepare and to take the GRE. I set aside Friday evenings for six weeks to work on the essays. I submitted in December. I waited and waited and waited to hear. After I was accepted, sometime in March, it was a rapid three months of hard work to orchestrate the move, the financial aid, schools, selling our house, finding an apartment, making pet arrangements, and leaving my job. By mid-June my family and I were on a plane headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My grad school experience turned out to be one of the most amazing and transformative of my life. A year after our arrival, I received my diploma from the Harvard Kennedy School with my daughter and son, ages 13 and 10 at the time, cheering in the audience.

Our decision to move opened up a whole new chapter of adventure and opportunity for the four of us, connecting us to new friendships, creating family memories and paving the way for a new life in the DC area. Has it all been a bed of roses? No, not by a long shot. Parts of this odyssey were really, really hard and expensive and filled with self-doubt. But each of us had our consciousness raised about what life can do, especially my kids. I can hear it in the way they talk about the future and their place in the world. As much as any personal ambition and commitment to public service, that’s really what this was all about.

As they get older, I sometimes remind my kids that small things can make a big difference and, yes, your perception can change your reality. And I have proof. Our whole lives are different now because of one little rejection letter that I didn’t quite believe.


Nurse Roger

One of my intentions for this blog is to share positive stories about remarkable people who discover and do what they can do. For example, I am thinking of a nurse who helped take care of me when I was re-hospitalized after my second child was born, more than a dozen years ago. He made an impression.

After a long pregnancy that went into two-weeks overtime, my baby boy finally arrived. Recovery went smoothly for the first week, except a worsening pain in my right side. After a series of missteps where this pain was mistaken for something birth-related, I developed a fever. Eventually, I returned to the hospital, where a body scan showed a ruptured appendix. I was then taken to another floor where I awaited further instructions.

In the rush, communication was unclear and I felt like I was the last one to know that I was scheduled for urgent surgery and that I would be in the hospital for up to five days. I kissed my 8-day old baby and my husband good night and they went home.

Now alone in my hospital room, I was thinking that none of this is what I had planned. I was in pain, still recovering from childbirth and feeling badly about not being able to care for my newborn. I had no emotional crust left because my hormones were depleted and I was exhausted and fighting infection. So even though I was relieved to have the mystery solved, I was in a bad way.

That’s when a nurse named Roger entered the scene.

First of all, forgive me for saying this, but he didn’t look like what I expected when I heard the word nurse. He was a burly fellow and I remember him as having a beard. He looked to me more like a lumberjack. He sat down next to my bed with a clipboard, asking questions to fill out some paperwork. He explained everything and apologized for any lack of communication. And I thought to myself, I like this guy. He was confident and understanding and taking care care of everything. He had his act together.

At one point during his visit, I looked up at the ceiling and sighed, “I can’t believe this has happened to me.”

Nurse Roger looked up from his clipboard and observed, “Well, maybe somebody was looking out for you.”

He explained that a ruptured appendix during pregnancy would have been a much bigger problem. I later learned that scenario can get very complicated. In severe cases it can result in premature birth, miscarriage or, much more rarely, death of the mother. I was fortunate that my appendix ruptured when it did and not a few weeks before.

Sometimes a set-back is actually your rescue, and it can be difficult to see that while you’re in it. Nurse Roger’s comments changed everything.

Just like that, he shifted my attention away from the fact that I was about to have abdominal surgery and that I would be hunched over in pain for several days attached to IV antibiotics, and away from the ache in my heart because I was already missing my baby boy that I waited so long to know. All of a sudden, this ruptured appendix was one of the top three luckiest things that had ever happened to me, a possibly life-saving, heaven-sent blessing.

I met a lot of medical professionals over the course of those weeks and none could top this one for his remarkably effective bedside manner. I wanted to know more about him.

I asked him how long he had been a nurse. Roger appeared to be in his 40s. I found out he had only recently finished nursing school. He had been a trucker before, driving giant 18-wheelers. He left that to go back to school because he wanted to take care of people. I was struck by how deeply centered he was. His dream job was to work in a psychiatric unit taking care of the mentally ill, a challenge well-suited to his strengths.

I wondered what it must have been like for him to make such a career change at mid-life and what his truck-driving buddies thought when he told them his plans. I wanted to know if there was a pivotal moment when he figured out what he wanted to do. Whatever his story I was grateful he made the leap. Clearly, he was a natural-born caregiver, and when you have a talent for taking care of other people, that is no small thing. I admired his choices.

I never did get a chance to ask him my follow-up questions, though. During the rest of my stay, my favorite nurse had time-off. It was November in Wisconsin. Naturally, this rugged outdoorsman had left town for a hunting trip.

But I still think about what he said after all this time. Whenever I have a wish that isn’t granted or a plan that doesn’t go. Maybe you are better off, I say. Maybe somebody is looking out for you.



It’s Like Riding a Bike – Mentors Matter

When I was about seven years old, I had it in my head that I could do anything I set my mind to. I guess I heard that somewhere. And what I wanted to do was learn to ride my bike, a used but newly-acquired banana-seater with a basket in front.

I thought I could just learn it. I took my bike to an area in our yard with a slight hill and tried pedaling down the hill. But that didn’t work; I just fell over. For one thing, the hill was too grassy and short for a beginner to learn to balance. And for another, I needed someone to grab hold and give a push so the bike could start with some momentum. Maybe it is possible for a kid to teach herself how to ride. But I couldn’t.

So I learned a new lesson. It’s one I have re-learned many times. Yes, you can do just about anything you set your mind to, but you may have to get some help.

Eventually, an older sister brought me to an empty parking lot with a long, gentle slope and even pavement. She held the back of the banana seat, and gave me the shove I needed so I could coast. It took several tries and falls, but eventually I learned to balance and pedal. Then she took me on short rides to the store so I could learn traffic rules. Biking became and continues to be one of my most valued pastimes.

Later, as an adult, I decided I wanted to do a long bike ride that was 150 miles over two days. But I was having trouble training. For starters I was riding a bike that caused me pain in my lower spine after about 25 miles. I turned to my friends who were advanced cyclists for advice. They helped me select a better bike, taught me how to change an inner tube, and, importantly, showed me the prettiest bike routes and the coffee shops where cyclists hang out.

On the first day of the big two-day ride I had been preparing for, I spun out on some loose gravel and skidded to the ground near the second rest stop. I was only 30 miles into my first 75-mile day, and my right side was covered in road rash from my hands to my shins, with huge gashes on my elbow and knee. Volunteers at the first aid station patched me up so that I could continue. Bikers I met on the route checked in on me. Crowds along the roadside cheered. And with the added encouragement and care, I managed to finish the full 150 miles.

So, my message today is this: Even if you are doing what you are born to do or what you truly enjoy and even if you think of it as a solitary pursuit, odds are you are going to need people. You are going to need mentors and guides to teach you technique or to show you the way. You may fall down a time or two. And you may need friends who offer a word of support (or a bandage, as the case may be).

It takes courage, especially as an adult, to claim a personal goal out loud. And to say to someone you admire, “I don’t know how to do this. Would you teach me?” And it can be hard to accept the help that’s offered in that moment when you’ve just wiped out.

But I imagine that nothing that was ever worth doing was easy. And few things that were ever worth doing were accomplished completely alone. Even in cycling, which I have often thought of as a solitary sport. There’s no substitute for all the miles I had to personally cover in order to train. For sure, it was me digging deep to push that Trek up every last hill. But other people helped, starting with the sister who gave me a start all those years ago.

So, whatever it is you want to do, look around for folks with experience and knowledge and patience. You will be surprised to find out who is there, and that they are happy to share what they know and to help you succeed. And, they might also show you the best place to stop for an iced cold latte along the way.

Amy@faceyourtalent.com. Thank you for reading.


The Right Words

When I was in my late 20s attending a conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I wandered into the wrong workshop. When I saw that the crowd was thin, I felt badly for the presenter and decided to have a seat anyway.

An older gentleman in a suit sat down next to me. The workshop focused on career development in the field of fundraising. After about ten minutes of class discussion, the man asked me if he could borrow a sheet of paper. I smiled and tore a lined page from my notebook for him. Then he realized he had nothing to write with, so he asked to borrow a pen. I happened to have a spare, which I handed to him.

I thought he was taking notes on the conversation. But a few minutes later he handed the sheet of paper back to me. On it he had written a profound, inspirational note.

I then asked for his name and contact information. It turned out I was speaking with Reuben Harpole, a prominent community leader in my city with a long history of stepping in to mentor others.

Later, when I took him to lunch to thank him, my new friend told me he picked up on the fact that I was going through a little something. I was feeling some career angst at the time, which I had lightly touched upon in my comments out loud. And he felt moved to say something.

For years I kept this reassuring note in a plastic sleeve, sandwiched between the pages of a book, always on a shelf near wherever I was working. I seem to have misplaced it during a recent move, but I read it enough times that I have it memorized. Maybe it will help someone else who reads it today. This is what it said:

“You are doing what you are born to do. The path you are on is yours. You were not born to please other people who have their own purpose and meaning in life. Please God, not other humans. You are okay. When other people do not understand or can’t see the picture, that’s okay. Smile and keep doing what you are doing.”

Also, I haven’t forgotten this important life lesson: whenever you are about town, always carry a spare pen. You never know who might come along and need to borrow one.

Thank you for reading. amy@faceyourtalent.com

Joan’s Escape

I recently gave my first speech at my local Toastmasters Club. I told the following story about my mother and the surprising things that happen when she takes up painting late in life. I wanted her story to be the first that I shared here. I find her inspiring and hope you do, too. –Amy.

My mother grew up in a town on the shores of Lake Michigan in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin. As a teenager, she spent two summers sailing with her family and friends on a boat called The Escape. When she was 23 years old, in 1956, her parents gave her an oil paint set. Looking back fondly on those summers, Joan painted a charming picture of the sailboat from memory.

For more than half a century, this painting was kept in storage. And, in a manner of speaking, so was my mother’s artistic talent. When she finally got around to taking up a paintbrush again, she was 77. By now Joan had 11 children, 14 grand-children and two great-grandchildren. The intervening decades had been full ones for her.

Her youngest daughter, Sally, is now an art teacher in a town about two-hours drive away. A few Christmases ago, when asked what she wanted, Mom asked Sally for art lessons. Why now? She said if she waited too long, she wouldn’t be able to. Mom and Sally started meeting about every two weeks to work on art. In no time, it became apparent that our mom was onto something. Sally found that she didn’t need teaching so much as just a bit of encouragement. Color, line, contrast, balance. Mom had a knack for this stuff.

Joan created painting after painting, using acrylics mostly. She painted abstract designs and landscapes and butterflies and horses. She painted tiny floral refrigerator magnets and giant wall-size waterfalls. Her art became one more way of being generous to people. Many of us received paintings as gifts. Her work was made into calendars and printed onto coffee mugs and hung lovingly in our homes.

Three years later, it was Christmas again. And this time our extended family was trying to figure out what to do to for Mom’s upcoming 80th birthday. While she was out of earshot, we hatched a plan to host a public art exhibit of her work. It took us a few months to pull this together. For starters, we had to make sure Mom would agree to it. She’s not one to show off. And to our surprise, she did. We rented a small mansion in her hometown and attracted a bit of press coverage from the local paper who wanted to interview this local artist making her debut at age 80. Remarkably, our bashful mother went along with that, too.

It wasn’t until we were in the final stages of preparation that we realized how much art Mom had created in three years. We had expected 30-40 pieces. There were 104, including that original piece with her maiden name. Every piece was properly framed, labeled and mounted in a team effort led by Sally.

On the night of the event our family was seated at tables in the center of a giant ballroom and the art was displayed around the perimeter, when I noticed an older gentleman enter the room.

“Welcome,” I said. “Are you here to see the art?”

“I am here to see the artist,” he responded with a grin.

I led him across the room to where my mom was sitting. He squatted down at her level and asked “Do you know me?”

No, she shook her head. She didn’t. “How about this picture?” he said. He flipped open his cell phone and showed what appeared to be a copy of Mom’s painting of the sailboat. His phone was a little older and the image wasn’t clear. We looked closer. It was not a copy of the painting. It was a black and white photo of the actual boat! This gentleman’s family owned The Escape and this man knew my mother when she was a teenager and he was a small boy.

After this amazing reunion, our visitor asked to see the painting of The Escape. I took him to where it was displayed in a place of honor, right next to the birthday cake. As he and I compared the photo and the painting, we were struck by how accurate my mother’s memory had been of the light and shadows. This had to be the photo she had pictured in her mind. He said the actual boat had long since been sold and probably aged out somewhere in Florida.

The gentleman explained that his mother had seen the art story in the paper. At age 93, she wasn’t well and had sent her son to the art exhibit hoping he could purchase the sailboat painting, at nearly any cost. He leaned in to read the label and asked “What does NFS mean?” I had to break it to him, that this particular piece was marked Not For Sale.

There were more surprises that evening. Long-lost friends appeared as a result of her story that my mother hadn’t seen in decades. And family, too. Her cousin brought a laminated copy. Not only were these dear people able to appreciate her artwork, but they had a chance to meet this expansive and growing family Joan raised. Most of these were folks we could not have tracked down any other way. If my mother had not begun to paint, or had not agreed to let us celebrate her publicly, we all would have missed out.

At the end of the night, a number of visitors had purchased artwork to take home. I bought a painting of the Kenosha Lighthouse, which happens to mark a spot with special significance to our family. To me, the lighthouse is also a reminder. When you stand in your joy and allow yourself to be seen, wonderful things find their way to you that could not have found you otherwise.

Thank you for reading. amy@faceyourtalent.com




A friend of mine throws frisbees for a living.

Another just released a folk-song CD after learning to play guitar.

My mom took up painting when she was 77 and had her first art show when she was 80.

My neighbor has taken up wood working and building furniture. He’s repaired a couch for me and is now working on an elaborate cheese board made from found wood.

You may be thinking about some ability or gift or passion…something latent that hasn’t come out or a thread you dropped from your youth. Or an idea that just occurred to you this morning.

Whatever it is, you may be thinking the world doesn’t need one more of those — one more painting, one more dancer, one more garden, one more poem. Well, actually, that’s precisely what this world needs.

You may be thinking you don’t have the time, you’re too old to become an expert, the world won’t like it, no one will notice and you’ll never make any money.

That’s fine. Maybe all that is true.

But you can probably make the time if you really wanted to. People have made time who had less to work with. And you can ignore the critics. What do they know, anyway. You can ask for help. And you can start small. You can begin by deciding to try, and be surprised at how much that means.

Maybe your reasons for not getting started are just like mine, and, as I have been told, they are all really one reason: fear. And maybe, like me, you’re finding it is time to set the fear down and shift your attention to trust. Trust in the good you can do, and trust in the fun you’ll have doing it.

Maybe it’s time to begin.


This message is brought to you by Amy@faceyourtalent.com. Thank you for reading.