How Using My Brain Has Helped It Heal

[Originally posted on the Huffington Post.]

As we approached Brain Tumor Awareness Month (it’s every May), I had coincidentally been posting about my own repeated misadventures in and recent return visit to brain tumor land. Some of what I wrote or tweeted about might have sounded a bit crotchety (the stress of having to negotiate with insurance companies and my confusion about mankind in general, for instance) or odd (admitting that I was coping with stress and lack of control by watching videos of brain surgeries on a questionable Indian hospital website), but it could have been worse.

Just as I found out, strangely, that dealing with surgery to remove a meningioma and the subsequent recovery is harder for me with a family than when I was on my own, I’ve also become grateful that I can use my brain during this period instead of simply resting. The National Brain Tumor Society notes that for people who do choose to return to work, “the challenges … can help you move ahead on the road to recovery.”

Work gives me a focus, a framework, a welcome distraction—especially the work that feels good. One of the main projects helping me heal after my second craniotomy (the first was nearly six years ago) is to bring some healing to the families of the Sandy Hook tragedy. More than that: I credit this work with inspiring my recovery.

My agency, Havas PR North America, has gotten involved with the Emilie Parker Art Connection, founded by the family of one of the young victims. Newtown struck close to home—my partner, Jim, and I also live in a supposedly safe Connecticut community—and it’s a cause I would have been glad to wholeheartedly support under any circumstances. But with everything going on in my head this winter and spring, I threw myself into it as deeply as possible.

The Parker family and others needed my skill set and connections to the media, and I needed them: The still-active aftermath of Sandy Hook galvanized me to push myself to recover faster to help them, and I gave them the redoubled efforts of a PR pro who was extra determined not to let a personal setback stand in her way. I even persuaded Jim to stop at Havas’s Wilton, Conn., office on the way home from Massachusetts General Hospital two days after surgery so that I could see the team building the new Emilie Parker Art Connection website.

To be sure, I could have thrown myself into any number of projects at work or at home: I’ve always been an overachiever—a type A-plus (and as Jim will attest, I am understating my intensity)—and have always had trouble sitting still. I don’t know what to do with a hammock. More likely, show me a hammock on a Thursday and by Tuesday I’ll be importing hammocks and selling them to raise money for a Latin American village.

So taking a break from work just didn’t make sense. What would I do? Who would I be if I did nothing, even for a day? For me, clock watching isn’t being. I had done that for 19 hours in the ICU, and even there I monitored my BlackBerrys (yes, plural) relentlessly, provided unsolicited commentary to the Roman Catholic Church on its choice of a new leader and obsessed on the state of news coverage. Staying home and resting would have meant, well, just more time to watch those gruesome Indian videos.

Even though my surgery was a little over two months ago and I’m still technically on medical leave (I’m feeling much better, but the headaches can be paralyzing), I’m working as hard as ever. And thank heavens for that. Although the tumor has zapped my organizational skills, like the last time my entrepreneurial skills today (in addition to my hair) are intact and my media relations and negotiating skills are superlative.

A lifelong catnapper increasingly afflicted with insomnia, I pass the early morning hours thinking about new-business proposals, which relaxes me. When it was time to get the 50 sutures removed from my scalp, a procedure that could have been uncomfortable (to use one of the medical profession’s favorite euphemisms), I was so distracted by client emails and budget proposals that I didn’t even realize when the doctor was done.

About a week after surgery, in a moment of subtle levity (and clarity), I told Jim, who had by then returned to his classroom obligations at the University of Arizona, about an excursion I was making. I might have let him hear “CVS” instead of “CBS.” So while he thought I was headed to the drugstore, I was instead at an inspiring CBS shoot with the amazing Parker family in Newtown as they told the story of their 100-day journey since the tragedy. (I bribed Jim’s son to chauffeur me.)

And as with the Parkers and their eye on the future—on creating a legacy for Emilie and working toward a goal of stopping more senseless tragedies—my post-surgery clarity has led me to want to advocate for a better story for others. I was vigilant about getting regular scans after my first meningioma was successfully removed, so when my symptoms returned and then worsened, I dismissed them because my radiologists had given me the all clear. Three times. But they were obviously wrong. So I am here to passionately encourage listening to what your brain is saying and feeling, and to get a second opinion if you want to be sure.

No matter the trauma you face—and we all will, because life is never trauma-free—never underestimate the power of hard work, or working hard at your passion, to heal.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Ars Electronica]

Why Are Entrepreneurs Nearly Always Sexier Than CEOs?

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

It used to be that receiving a CEO title—and the corner office and tufted-leather sofa that came with it—was the acme of professional success. It was the recognition of a lifetime of hard work, of moving up the ranks, of following the path to its pinnacle. Once you’d arrived there, where else could you possibly go?

But now, in these topsy-turvy times—when “dropout of” seems to open more doors than “graduate of,” when getting a Thiel Fellowship might be more prestigious than getting a Stanford degree—that CEO title smacks of conformity, of drudgery, of playing by the rules and maybe playing it too safe. The CEO is The Man, plodding along the expected routes, expecting the same of his subordinates, becoming the figurehead of corporate oppression. It’s a big life, but it could have been so much bigger.

What’s much more appealing now is entrepreneurship. It connotes adventure, fearlessness, rule breaking and rebellion. Entrepreneurs are mavericks and innovators. It’s much sexier than winning the C-prize after a lifetime of corporate service. And it’s accessible to anyone, anytime: Think of Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm, Richard Branson on his private islands (the first of which he bought when he was just 24) or Bill Gates in his garage.

The entrepreneur is the person who was smart enough to sidestep the system. A list on the Strategic Business Team blog of 55 dropout billionaire entrepreneurs is enough to make anyone feel like a sucker for sticking with the traditional professional paths and corporate ladders. Along with Branson and Gates, the top 10 also include Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison.

Not only are they game changers, but they also seem to be the businesspeople with sexy hobbies: Think of Branson’s kite-surfing escapades and Ellison’s America’s Cup sailing races. Now name one famous billionaire CEO who came up through the corporate ranks and relaxes with similarly adventurous hobbies.

That spirit of thrill seeking and risk taking is not coincidental. Especially now that failure is a badge of honor (better to have tried and not succeeded than to have never tried at all) or even “an opportunity for spiritual growth,” taking bold leaps is seen in many circles as better than mincing along with baby steps. CEOs work to keep their shareholders happy. Entrepreneurs go for it. Their brands are built on being daredevils.

Sadly, it’s hard to think of a woman entrepreneur who fits this image. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, who infamously put an end to the company’s telecommuting policy last month, is definitely a CEO. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, who has written a controversial new book about work, motherhood and leadership for women, is a C-suite executive. As recently as 2010, women owned only 21 percent of startups that were seeking funding from angel investors, according to the Center for Venture Research.

One very notable exception here is Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of entertainment and digital networks and integrated media at NBC Universal. I think of her as a corporate chair who worked her way up the ranks starting in 2004 but acts much more like an entrepreneur: She until recently oversaw Bravo, Oxygen, Style, Telemundo, mun2 and the joint ventures Sprout and TV One; ran the digital properties Daily Candy, Fandango, iVillage and Television Without Pity; and lad companywide initiatives such as Green Is Universal, Healthy at NBCU, Hispanics at NBCU and Women at NBCU. Each of her businesses saw record-setting ratings and revenue growth, and she has forged new media and marketing partnerships, and won numerous awards for digital, mobile, social and ad sales innovations. But in a shakeup last month, Zalaznick was named EVP, lost most of her cable TV responsibilities, and was charged with focusing on innovation, digital, monetization and emerging technology across the company—a nod to her early and successful embrace of digital.

Yet she’s not nearly as famous as a lot of the boys in this game, and we’re still at a point where there hasn’t yet been a female Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. That’s partly because women continue to be dismally underrepresented in the industry that’s minting the most millions and turning the most people into household names: tech.

Huffington Post Executive Tech Editor Bianca Bosker looked at this phenomenon a little while ago when she interviewed Arielle Patrice Scott, an as-yet-unsung female entrepreneur who aspires to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Like the Facebook founder, she started her first venture while still in college—but hers, called InternshipIn, failed. At the time of the interview, she was on her second, GenJuice, a project born out of her senior thesis that she sees as the “next MTV,” by providing a platform for 20-something artists, writers and tastemakers to present and promote their work.

Bosker asked Scott why there isn’t yet a female Zuckerberg or Gates, and her answer was insightful:

“Women don’t think big enough. I hate to overgeneralize, because I’ve met some incredible women lately, especially in Silicon Valley, but there’s typically this sense of, ‘Let’s just start off small and see where it goes.’ I think men tend to think in bigger terms, and women don’t allow themselves to.”

That’s not just a commentary about why we’re still waiting for a real woman maverick of an entrepreneur. That’s a call to arms for anyone thinking of launching a venture—and a central reason that an entrepreneurial personal brand is sexier than a corporate CEO one: Entrepreneurs think bigger.

[photo: creativecommons.org/D@LY3D]

For Better or for Worse

[Originally published in longer form on Stamford magazine’s website.]

It’s as much a part of today’s office culture as mediocre coffee and birthday cupcakes from the nearest deli—and a whole lot more fun and useful for maintaining sanity. I’m talking about the work spouse, that person who is a sometime confidant, habitual significant partner and occasional partner in crime. (I’m not talking about office trysts; work-spouse relationships should be strictly platonic. Think Liz and Jack on “30 Rock.”) Whether we’re married or have a significant other or not, most of us have had a work spouse at some point.

And that’s especially true among those of us who work in advertising (and marketing, sales and HR, according to Captivate Networks, whose 2010 survey on the subject says that, overall, 65 percent of people have had a work spouse). I wonder if it’s because so many of us in the ad world are so gregarious, or because the nature of our work is so collaborative.

It’s not limited to marketing communications professionals, of course. In fact, an OfficeMax survey recently found that half of all respondents said they have a significant other at work. I’m surprised it was only 50 percent; maybe the others just aren’t admitting to it.

My childhood friend Joyce, formerly of Westport, admitted it to me on Facebook recently: “I had a work husband when I was at Microsoft. We would look out for each other, bring each other coffee, knowledge share, have lunch … but when he left the company, we never communicated again.”

Happily married writer Colin Sokolowski is so proud of his relationship with his work wife, or at least he sees enough humor in it, to blog about it on his enjoyable website, the Accidental Adult. About his also-married work wife, he writes:

A work wife, or work husband for that matter, is someone who provides a completely harmless, entirely platonic relationship that helps keep you sane 40+ hours a week, while also providing for your many workplace needs. In my case, these needs typically include:

CHEEZ-ITs at 10 a.m., breakfast of champions.
Gum at 10:30 a.m.
Help manipulating Excel spreadsheets. (Math sucks.)
Wardrobe advice (Are my white ankle-high socks geeky, or should I just go sockless for the rest of the day?)
Commiseration and cheap therapy when work gets ugly.
Postage stamps.
Change for the Coke machine.

Yes, Holly fulfills all of these needs for me. And she does it without attaching those messy, ridiculous demands often placed on traditional marriages. Pressures like remembering to leave your spouse with a full tank of gas or properly soaking and scraping your chili-caked bowl in the sink before throwing it into the dishwasher. Instead of writing me unnecessary little notes like, “Don’t forget it’s your turn to drive to dance tonight,” Holly writes me helpful notes like, “Here’s how much of your budget you’ve already spent. You owe me one billable hour for figuring this out.”

Presumably, they got their actual spouses’ approval before he posted it.

It’s only natural that we’d form close bonds with people we spend most of our waking lives with, often in stressful situations. If you brainstorm with someone, take risks together, navigate office politics or simply exchange pleasantries every day, you’re bound to form connections. A little bit of bantering can be a way to blow off steam. Plus, it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about a difficult boss or demanding client.

Workplace and career consultants theorize that the recession has led more people to look for work spouses, as new business realities have created larger workloads and increased desires to voice our frustrations to co-workers. And then there are all the new tools we have to do so: Twitter, Facebook, IM and the like.

Some people I know think that if your relationship with your work spouse is handled correctly, it can even help your relationship with your life partner. A New York writer I know was thrilled when her husband took up with a work wife—whom he told her all about, which is key—because he started coming home less stressed. Having had someone to vent with during the day, he was free in the evening to talk about other things and have more fun.

Or as relationship expert Joey Garcia told Huffington Post blogger Judy Farah in a post earlier this year: “A work husband/work wife is someone who has the same kind of passion or passionate concerns for my career. They’re going to help me in my career and selflessly offer me the naked truth about my behavior at work; about strategies, about my capability on a project.”

How can anyone in business today argue with that?

[photo: creativecommons.org/quixotic_man7]