So much of the deep, formative learning that happens for each of us throughout our lives happens outside conventional learning environments. It happens at home when we are children. It happens in our workplaces, in our friendships, and in our families. It happens by mistake and when we aren’t paying attention but simply being ourselves.
At Women Together, we are always trying to get to know each other better and in different ways. So this month we asked members of the Women Together team: Who in your life has taught you something important and how have they shaped who you are today?
Here are their answers (please add yours below!):
When I was around 30, I worked with a woman from Indiana named Janelle, designing training curricula for Peace Corps volunteers. Indirectly, Janelle taught me that when you come into a new environment, whether a desert village or a city office, you ask questions. A lot of questions. About everything: who the people are, how things run, what they are trying to accomplish, why certain things are done certain ways.
I had a life-changing aha moment when I realized just how much I didn’t do this. I was more comfortable with having answers, not questions. “Not knowing” would have made me feel vulnerable. Suddenly, I wanted to try asking more questions, the way Janelle did, simply to hear the answers, staying completely open-minded.
That moment has stayed with me over the years — and has expanded in meaning and impact. My impulse is to barge into a situation, but when I remember that aha moment, I intentionally slow down and engage with the people and situation in front of me. It reminds me that my contribution can wait, to listen first to what people are saying and really take that in. And to listening with curiosity. I really should remember this every morning — and throughout the day!
Wake up. Get curious. Ask questions. Listen in.
That is what I learned from Janelle.
A Love for Animals
One person I owe enormous gratitude to is my Aunt Helen, of blessed memory, the wife of my mother’s brother.
My parents both grew up in the New York City and neither seemed to have any inclination toward nature or pets — this was partly cultural and partly for reasons I’ve not yet been able to clarify.
It was Aunt Helen, an elementary school biology teacher, who gifted us with animal friends. First it was tadpoles (which we watched with amazement as they changed into frogs), then turtles followed by gerbils, fish, a hamster, and a rabbit.
She taught us how to care for our pets and my childhood was filled with their presence. My eventual insistence on our adopting a dog was also very much connected to Aunt Helen and the dogs that were part of my visits with my cousins. She helped me decide what kind of dog would be a good fit for my family (a West Highland White Terrier!).
Happily, I was able to share both my Aunt Helen and the love and care for animals with my daughter, who also grew up with many animal companions. We opened our home to all kinds of creatures—insects, amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, including Ivy, the cat curled up on my lap as I sit here writing.
Among the benefits of animal companionship, high on the list for me is the reminder that whatever is going on the world, as bad as the news can be, the most important thing is paying attention to the here and now — and the pleasure of an afternoon nap!
We Are Always Learning — and Teaching
I like to think that there is no one point at which someone has taught me something important, rather that my life has been a continual process of learning — some things are new and other things are reminders. The teachings are often not singular in delivery but come via a series of connected events — an observation, a remark, a dark moment contrasted with a bright one, all leading to an aha moment. The gift, in my experience, is to discover the lessons — whether presented through joy or pain — integrate them and continue on. So thank you to all the people I’ve crossed paths with — kind or thoughtless, generous or stingy, those I actually know and those I observe from afar — you are all my teachers.
Listening to Discomfort
I have a friend who has been showing me the importance of my state of being — more precisely, the effects of tolerating situations and interactions in which I feel uncomfortable. I am in a process of cultivating awareness around what it means to have self-love and self-compassion. I have been conditioned for a very long time to accept people or situations that feel uncomfortable, so much so that I’ve often been unconscious of these feelings. I was taught that emotionally unhealthy interactions were a normal and necessary part of living.
But I am now more aware of the consequences of allowing this to go unchecked and I have recently learned appropriate and effective language for expressing how I feel — in both work and personal situations — that can inspire an inquiry leading to positive change.
When my late aunt Mary asked me what I wanted for my twelfth birthday, I told her I wanted to know how I could grow up and be an artist and writer just like her. She smiled in a way that only someone who knows you really well can smile — and that same day she enrolled me in a monthlong arts day camp. She also booked another day for us to tour some of the best art galleries in New York City, including the Guggenheim Museum.
Aunt Mary’s work and her love of the arts inspired me — and her unfailing belief that I could do what she did fuelled my self-confidence and helped me build a successful writing career that has spanned more than two decades.
With every success in my life, I am reminded of her.
Use Your Resources
More than 15 years ago at a new job, I completed the required training and became a full-fledged member of an awesome team of women — most of whom had been doing the job for years. Asking questions was, of course, encouraged, and I apparently embraced this encouragement like it was going out of style.
Instead of stopping and taking a breath to assess if I could find out the answer to a particular question on my own, I’d just ask someone else. I prided myself on being okay with “not knowing.”
One morning, a senior staff member walked through the office while I was filling out a report. I was stymied by a question on the form. As was my habit, I blurted out my question in her general direction. (Did I even say good morning first? I’m sure not). She kept walking and just as she exited the office, she yelled over her shoulder, and not nicely, “Use your resources, Laura!”