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3 Life lessons from Shelby-the-wonder-dog

My 14-week old puppy, Shelby-the-wonder-dog (alternatively known as Shelby-the-demon-dog), is asleep on my lap (no small trick to type with arms akimbo so as not to wake her). Her stillness and calm belie the whirlwind in which I now live. My normally neat and organized home is strewn with crates, gates, toys, and the ever-present pee pad (which we’re working on eliminating - a humbling experience for someone used to being in control).

I recently left an all-consuming, workaholic-inducing, ‘C’ level executive position and have started a coaching and consulting business (which I LOVE – but that’s another story). Shelby is part of my new work-from-home strategy. As she sleeps, I’ve been reflecting on in my new puppy-filled world.

There are many things I’ve learned, like to always have a chew toy within arm’s reach. And many previous lessons I’ve been reminded of, like the importance of breaking training down into a series of small steps. But for your benefit, I’ll focus only on the “a-ha moments” I’ve had in recent weeks.

The ability to ask for help is actually a strength. Looking forward to Shelby’s arrival, I fell into my typical pattern which could best be summarized in all caps – BE PREPARED. I did the research, my house was puppy proofed, I bought more (way more) dog paraphernalia than needed, and then came the moment of truth. Shelby arrived. Chaos ensued. Shelby has clearly not read the same puppy training books I have. Enter Melissa, dog trainer extraordinaire (more accurately, a trainer of humans). Yes, I soon realized, I do need help. I don’t have to do this all on my own. What a concept!

I have worked hard my entire life and, when overwhelmed, I double down and work even harder. It’s served me well and is at least a portion of the reason for a successful career. Over time, I’ve learned to be comfortable delegating, but in the moment, when my head’s down and I’m focused on a goal, I put blinders on and don’t really notice when I can and should ask for support. Admitting when I have needed help has, at times, felt like a weakness. Not asking for help when you need it is the real weakness.

When it comes to help, I realize I’m better at giving than receiving. I love to support others (hence my desire to start a coaching practice). Receiving help, however, is clearly a work in progress. So lately I find myself asking – how do I allow myself to receive support and help? How can I ask my clients to be open to this if I’m not willing to do the same?

Stillness is a wondrous thing. Morgan Freeman once said, “Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance.” I never understood that sentiment before now. I have never lived in a state of stillness. I’ve always been about action and activity. After all, isn’t having a ‘bias towards action’ a valued competency? I know I wrote that in a competency model at some point. And it’s true… except when it isn’t. And it’s always served me well… except when it hasn’t. Sometimes we confuse action with results. Sometimes it can lead to action without thinking things through. Sometimes doing nothing may have been the better choice.

And then there are Shelby’s walks. This is where I finally understood Freeman’s ‘radiance’. Walking a puppy is an exercise in mindfulness. She is fascinated by every blade of grass, every leaf, every person, every smell, sight and sound… anything and everything she encounters in the moment. She doesn’t really walk; she meanders from one interesting thing to the next. She lives in the here and now. And in watching her, I feel still. There is a grouping of ornamental grass outside my gate and when she sees it, she literally pounces into the middle and becomes completely buried in its fullness. Her joy is infectious. And in the stillness, my mind wanders everywhere and nowhere. In the stillness, I have allowed space for new thoughts, ideas and connections. I have learned that mindfulness isn’t simply about releasing stress… it’s about using the space to allow a new story to emerge.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking. Of course, Shelby and I are not always on reflection-filled walks. She has periods where her alter-ego, Shelby-the-demon-dog enters the picture. On these occasions, she’s a frenetic bundle of constant motion and activity. If I try to answer an email, talk on the phone, or read while also trying to pay attention to my dog, she finds a way to let me know the limitations of my dual-focus. She tugs at my pant leg, chews a book, or pulls anything and everything off tables and chairs. It seems that the more distracted I am, the more destructive she is. In these moments, I remember that crate training is a very good thing. I also remember that focus is, indeed, a singular activity.

To be fully present for another person (or dog), we must set aside our own thoughts, biases, concerns, judgments, opinions, activities and answers. For client meetings and calls, I have learned I need to crate Shelby on another floor so she doesn’t distract us. And I have learned to put away my laptop and focus on Shelby exclusively at periodic intervals during the day. She seems much calmer and open to redirection when I make this effort. It’s true that this means I haven’t gotten as far along in setting up my business as I would have liked. But the progress I’ve made is fine. And given what else I’ve gained, fine is actually great!

I’m very fortunate to have the time and freedom to spend with Shelby and experience these reflections. It’s an opportunity I’d wish for everyone at some point in their lives and careers. I also realize that many of you have learned these lessons without leaving a job and getting a pet. I think I’ve been a tad bit stubborn in sticking to some of the habits I’ve developed over the years, especially those that contributed to my success. And isn’t that the hardest thing to do – letting go of behaviors that have worked for us in the past to allow room for new ideas and behaviors to take their place?

Thanks for reading about a part of my journey. It continues.

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