Worry, attachment, over-identification or anxiety; whatever you call it we all do it or have it. Worry is something we all need, it’s what allows us to get the critical work done, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and makes up a part of our conscience, keeping us our best self. But worry and anxiety are also energy sucking, joy-killing, life limiters when they are running the show. Can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy worry?
Here is what healthy worry sounds like; “Oh, I’d better make sure I submit that report on time!”. And this is what unhealthy worry sounds like; “Oh, I’d better make sure I submit that report on time!”. See the difference? This is what makes it hard to understand when our worry is helping us, and when it is not. Worry has a couple of “friends” that turn a fleeting thought into fear. The first is imagination. A thought can come and go like clouds in the sky, impermanent. However, if there is something about a thought that triggers our mind to start thinking, our imagination can take that thought and turn it into something else entirely; “Oh, I’d better make sure I submit that report on time! I don’t want to end up laid off from work like Sally, and everyone knows she was often late with her work. I can’t be out of a job right now, what would happen to my Mom? She depends on me to buy her groceries…” All of us have fleeting thoughts our imaginations take into whole new directions, creating fear and anxiety.
The second “friend” that tags along with worry is rigidity. Rigidity takes those hyper-activated thoughts our imagination just handed us and makes them a call to action. You stay really late at work, hoping to get everything done (so you won’t be a target for lay off). Perfectionism, vigilance, judgment, or a fixation on one particular outcome are all versions of rigidity, because your imagination just sold you a story you are desperate to keep from happening. We’ve all been there, imagining the worst possible ending, getting up in the middle of the night to check on an e-mail or spreadsheet we submitted, and are now second guessing (“Was my tone too harsh? Did I get those figures right?”).
If you have overwhelming amounts of anxiety in your life, please consult a qualified health care provider to help you. Relief can begin by making the call for that appointment (my true story based on real events). For the everyday items there are things we can do to keep worry from robbing us of well-being. The first step is to recognize when your imagination has taken off with a thought; sometimes you can catch this in the act (preoccupation, clenched jaw, headache, etc.) and sometimes you see it after the fact. When you see it, take it out for a cup of coffee. Take worry out of your mind and sit it down like it is a person, have a conversation with it. In doing this (making it something you relate to outside of yourself) you are much more able to see it objectively, to ask questions and to become more compassionate with it and yourself. Then, you are more able to accurately see the difference between healthy and unhealthy worry and do something constructive with it.
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” ~ Corrie ten Boom
Photo courtesy of Alexandru Zbrobau
Lately I’ve been thinking about my mental “junk drawer”. The place I put the things I don’t want others to see…things I don’t really want to look at either (but I can’t quite let go of…). I’ve decided it’s a junk drawer because the stuff in there is so closely aligned with the contents of the actual junk drawer in my house. Batteries that need to be recharged…but I can’t find what we’ve done with the charger (that thing I do where I make myself small around some people), keys with no locks (persistent behaviours I want to stop but don’t know how), bits and bobs that will be useful someday…but not today. And not without a lot of inconvenient effort.
The thing to remember about these items is each and every one of them has a story attached to it, just like the physical junk in that one drawer we all have in our homes. It’s easy in the moment to justify why I made myself “small” around someone; I tell myself they wouldn’t have taken lightly any challenge to their thinking, or that it wasn’t worth disrupting them, or…but that is not the story that particular item is telling. If I look at it objectively, setting that example apart from me in an act of observance, it is the story of a lack of confidence in myself. A lack of confidence in my ability to skillfully pose an alternate way forward, or influence another person’s thinking. Author Rebecca Solnit calls these “ambient stories”. An apt description as they are ever-present and influence our way of being in certain situations; sometimes we know we are doing “that thing again” and sometimes we can only see it when looking back.
In Solnit’s words; “Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and become their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.” Her words highlight that we need to pay attention to this mental junk drawer and the stories we tell ourselves when we tuck something away in there, a lot of rationalizing goes into that mental drawer. Lessons from the actual household junk drawer – drawers can only hold so much before they start spilling out their contents, and they always do that at the most inconvenient time. So it is with our mental junk as well. Reaction (rather than response), unwanted tears, passive aggressive behavior, shutting down or a desperate need to “numb out” (with food, TV, alcohol, etc.) are all signs your mental drawer can handle no more junk. What to do? Recognize what is needed; time to look in that drawer with compassion and curiosity, and do some “cleaning”.
Looking at the items we don’t want to see about ourselves, or admitting a context in which we are living (at home or at work) is no longer working for us is emotionally exhausting work, but it is valuable work. Only within the act of bearing witness can we see what is needed to break free of these stories, of the mental junk that otherwise holds us trapped in a repetitive cycle that does nothing for us but cause suffering. Start gently, start by recognizing when you have put something in there, and witness the story it is telling. As Solnit says “It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it is done with passion and independence and guts.” If you’ve ever cleaned out the junk drawer at home you know how deeply satisfying it can be to have room in that drawer, to see all the contents. And much like cleaning out the physical drawer where things will remain (the goal is not an empty “drawer”), you don’t have to act on everything in the mental one either, only enough to give yourself room to breathe.
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Ever received “constructive” criticism? It doesn’t usually feel very good, and you probably remember the last occasion when you received constructive criticism. On the flip side, have you received a compliment on your work lately? Now, hold in your mind the way you felt when you received constructive criticism…name one emotion you feel as you bring it to mind. Do the same with the compliment; what emotions arise for you as you consider the compliment you received (name one)?
For most of us, the weight of the constructive criticism will far out-strip any lift we gain from a compliment…assuming we remember a compliment we received recently (and that we actually owned it or took it seriously). Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let the negative feelings drag us down, but not necessarily let the positive feelings hold us up? I don’t know about you but for a positive event to make me feel better just after I’ve received constructive criticism, it would have to be on an order of magnitude with winning the lottery.
Science teaches us that our emotions are electrochemical signals released in our brains, and that these chemicals produce feelings that last for about six seconds (if you would like to read more on this please find it here). These feelings are designed to move us to action, so in a case where we are feeling shame, vulnerability, embarrassment or failure we continually produce electrochemical signals that make us feel bad, and on and on it goes, until another life experience knocks us off the cycle (or we manage the cycle ourselves). What this means is we have a tendency to perpetuate negative feelings, re-live them or refresh them. We beautiful human beings don’t tend to do this as often with our positive feelings and memories.
In a world where we in fact get as many items of constructive criticism as we do compliments (probability theory) then it stands to reason we should have the opportunity for balance and equilibrium in our days. When it doesn’t seem like that is the case we are falling prey to “conjunction fallacy” (a part of probability theory), which is the bias that given two statements most people will assume the first statement is always true (as in the choice between “my work is bad” and “my work is good”); on the days when you are continually flogging yourself with shame, guess which of those statements is always up first (I can find fault with myself during my morning shower without trying really hard…)?
“Our minds influence the key activity of the brain, which then influences everything; perception, cognition, thoughts and feelings, personal relationships; they're all a projection of you. ~ Deepak Chopra
What this highlights is it is up to each of us to see ourselves objectively. It’s up to us to balance the equation by taking in both the positive and negative and give them equal weight (owning that compliment, not just brushing it off). If we don’t do this for ourselves, no one else will either.
Having a sense of significance in our lives is important to our balance and well-being. Our internal guidance system is complex, but it ultimately comes down to the choices we make, and there is a fundamental logic to these choices. As beautiful human beings we choose to engage in activities that we know we are skilled in (often things we can do well or that bring us joy). We choose to engage in ways that make us feel good about ourselves, that hold value. We choose to do things that support our loved ones, our team and sometimes our community. We choose to action things that we have a measure of autonomy over, allowing us to execute on them in a felt or complete way.
When we have no choice, we can derive little joy out of what we are engaged in. That is not to say that throughout a day we will each only get to engage in things that make us happy, there is always a measure of “have to do”, in accomplishing those things that feed our sense of significance to enact our values. As an example, accounting, expenses and taxes hold very little joy for me but they are significant to me and I engage in them regularly and with purpose because they are key to enabling me to continue doing what I love to do for a living.
Meaning then is comprised of choices (large and small) that are based on our sense of self, our values, principles and awareness of what we enjoy doing (and why we enjoy it) and how it touches others. It’s often assumed that happiness is the needed focus in life – if we are happy then everything else falls into place. But happiness is fleeting, for many of us it is often conditional (we can only access it when certain conditions are present, or absent). Our relationship with meaning is quite different then the one we have with happiness; we recognize upfront there is work involved, that having meaning present in work and life isn’t a given (or an entitlement), but it is in our control to increase, and if we want what we do to be meaningful we need to look beyond our own needs and wants.
The wisest words that I could find on meaning were from Joseph Campbell; “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
Go bring your meaning to life.
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I have a confession to make; I am not a very confident person. This may shock anyone who knows me because “confident” is a word that is often associated with me/my work. That is not to say that I am never confident, I have my moments, but more often then not the thing that has me putting myself out into the world is courage. I have not always done this skillfully. Lack of confidence creates unevenness in performance, and courage (when it is your only “tool”) can have you persevere in something without objectivity; this was (at times) pervasive in my work and life. Feeling secure allows you to be more relaxed and open to what is needed, to what is being called for…more adaptable. To relax into what you do you need to know the difference between courage and confidence. Just to make this even more complicated, your work will look the same whether it is genuine (confidence), or a mask (courage); as confusing for you as it is for those around you (“You say you love your work! Why are you so tired all the time?”).
Courage is something I am also profoundly grateful for, because without it I would never have pursued anything meaningful in my life. I would not have completed the various iterations of education that gave me the “entrance ticket” to what I am able to do as a professional today. Without courage I would be the pleasant, but deeply unhappy, person who unsettled you at work…the person whose smile never reached her eyes. Courage is the reason I have been successful as a career professional, putting new ideas and concepts “on the table” for consideration, making a difference to the organizations and individuals I serve. Courage had me leave a comfortable profession to pursue something risky, becoming a Career Coach and an entrepreneur (all at the same time, which is not the most rational thing I’ve done) allowing me to deepen the positive impact I now have on others. Courage did that, not confidence.
What I now understand from my own journey is courage will get you “out the door”, but it alone won’t allow you to be successful (you may win a battle, but lose a war, so to speak…the war with your inner critic, your health, your well-being). I have seen this many times in myself, in my clients and in my work in organizations; the person whose stellar performance gets them promoted into the next level, only to find themselves without the skills (ready to hand) to feel good about who they are in their new role. Courage can be a bridge, the key ingredient in “fake it until you make it”, but no one stays in a place for long where they are running on courage alone; courage is not enough to provide well-being, or meaning, in our work. Relying on courage alone is the path to burnout.
So, how do we balance these integral elements of courage and confidence in our working lives? Here is the valuable lesson I have learned. If you are using courage to do something, you are already enough. No one uses courage to do something they don’t know how to do; as beautiful human beings we use courage to enable us to do things we feel motivated and able to do, but where we may lack a complete belief in our selves. Courage and confidence are two sides of one coin…the coin of ability. You are enough. You wouldn’t be where you are, doing what you do, if you were not already enough. Look at what you accomplish, look at how you make a meaningful difference to others. You may not be exactly where you want to be yet, but you are on your way and both courage and confidence will pave the path to get there. Use them in tandem to continue AND enjoy your journey. Tap into your confidence, it is right there; in fact it has been quietly supporting you all along.
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A client asked me “How would I figure out if I loved my working life?” It’s a great question, and within it there is a lot of instinct, in some respects you just know if you do or don’t love your working life. But what about the part that isn’t instinctual, the part that has you wondering what does love of your working life look like? It’s about what motivates you.
As an example, a healthy attachment to your working life is one where you can give your time, effort, expertise and even your affection for your working life without having to worry that your employer will take advantage of you, close up shop (leaving you without a job) or fail to meet the commitments they made to you (i.e. they accurately pay you on time, support your ongoing development, etc.). There is a consistent and complimentary flow of needs and wants that you and your employer provide to each other, and going in to work is usually a pleasant experience. There are good days and bad, but they balance out and your well-being is well supported through your work. You are motivated by the positive impact your work has on yourself and others.
An unhealthy attachment to your working life is one where you are trying to appease your employer (or your loved ones…or yourself) by going in to work because it provides something you feel you desperately need but in isolation of what else may be needed (an income, social status, belonging, etc.). Unhealthy attachment doesn’t offer the complimentary flow of needs you see in a healthy working relationship, it is one-sided. This can be for a variety of reasons, it could be that you’ve over-extended yourself in a bid to find security at work (always being available, always saying “yes”) and your employer has come to expect this as the “status quo”, not recognizing it for the heroic effort it actually is. It could be the need to appease family expectations by remaining in a job or a workplace that isn’t challenging you or is burning you out (perhaps because the salary allows you to best meet family obligations). Your employer may not be ethical in it’s employment or business practices…the examples of what an unhealthy workplace can look like are legion. With unhealthy attachment the motivation to continue the working relationship is one of desperation, based on fear or anxiety (trying to hang on to what you have), or because of a need for your work to define you.
Unhealthy attachment can make us do some very bizarre things; as an example I became so attached to the idea of putting my education to good use that I took a job with a 1.5 hour commute to work (60+ km’s)…one way. It was great work experience, but completely unsustainable. The impact to my well-being was felt for almost a full year after I left that role, which of course I was only able to see in retrospect. My family, on the other hand, lived it daily. We will convince ourselves, for many well intentioned reasons, that what we are doing is right; when we are in the throws of attachment we do not have access to objectivity…or options. We cannot see “the forest for the trees” so to speak and get lost in tightly holding on to what we think we have or need. It’s important to note that healthy working lives have both balance and flow; there is no selfishness present (on your part, or that of your employer). You are open to new things (i.e. change), and comfortable with the fact that no employer is perfect. Your employer is also well intentioned, invested in helping you to learn and grow in your role, and all of this takes place in a sustainable way. No punishing commitments, unethical behaviour or ridiculous hours (or commutes).
Take a look at what is motivating you to head in to work each day, and look at it with as much objectivity as you can (ask yourself what it is you are attached to) to see if your working life is something you can love (and loves you back). Healthy attachment means you can have the working life you both want and need, giving to yourself and others effortlessly.
If you’d like to learn more on this topic, here is an article on attachment you may find useful (within the context of interpersonal relationships): https://www.powerofpositivity.com/3-differences-love-attached/
I’ve been contemplating feedback lately and the irony that the word has two meanings; to give/receive some form of praise or critique and the horrible ear-splitting noise that sound equipment emits when it is not yet properly set up. Feedback (in both senses of the word) has the effect of quickly grabbing our attention and eliciting some form of reaction or response. Feedback (again in both senses of the word) is also temporary.
As our careers progress, we become better at being able to receive feedback, but that doesn’t always mean we know what to do with it. Healthy feedback, delivered with compassion and our best interests at heart has the opportunity to help us grow and develop in our pursuits. However, one person’s definition of “constructive” may touch another person’s excruciating vulnerabilities (knowingly or unknowingly). I myself have spent weeks crafting a thoughtful summation of an employee’s strengths and weaknesses, designed to enable collaboration on potential areas of development…and had it received with a visible flinch (cue the ear-piercing noise from a large speaker…). Both the giving and receiving of feedback has lessons for all parties.
It can be hard to hear (or learn) about our weaknesses, either because we don’t want to know this about ourselves, or because others can see it (sometimes it is both). The flip side of critique is praise; having someone recognize something we did as “well done” or “beyond expectations” is something we may crave. Oddly enough, we may receive praise with the same wariness we receive critique, not allowing it to really sink in because we may think this person is “just being nice” or because we fear the “new” standard of performance our success has just set. In many cases we will remember critique, but not praise, criticism having an “emotional weight” that is heavier then the perceived lightness of praise. So with that, would it surprise you to learn that over the great wash of time we are likely to receive as much praise as criticism? What we chose to remember and let touch us may not be balanced, but they do equalize over time (track it for yourself and see, but be prepared to be objective and let each touch you in meaningful ways).
At the end of the day what other people offer to us, and think about us, is fluid; it may change over time and hold both positive and negative aspects of our way of being. What we are left with then is…ourselves. We cannot always change the way others experience or perceive us because we do not control them, nor are we experts on others (much as we may lead ourselves to think otherwise from time to time). We are only in control of ourselves, and we experts on ourselves too. Acknowledging feedback (both positive and negative) is part distortion and part education and requires us to be the stewards of our own development, knowing what is objective and reasonable to consider, and what is not, allowing the right things to touch and influence us at the right time for the right reasons. Without both praise and critique we would have a difficult time discerning the right thing to do, it would be like walking in a blinding snowstorm with no reference points to guide the way. We need both to shed their different lights on something to allow us to see what is being called for…the answer becomes visible through their shadow and light, allowing us to see and know our unique path.
“Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they're less defensive about it.” ~Adam Grant
Other blogs on this topic you may find useful:
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I have a friend who recently received a promotion and she was ecstatic! For her it was the culmination of years of personal and professional development and she not only felt ready, but was thrilled to know her organization felt she was too. Fast forward a few months and her eagerness had turned into wariness as she ran into some significant challenges she didn’t anticipate. There is a saying that goes “what got you here won’t keep you here”, and it is true of many things; a promotion, committing to a relationship (personal or professional), etc.
The “entrance” conditions to access what we need (like promotions and important relationships) require us to be mindful and adjust, but that is only the tip of the iceberg; the real work begins once you “get there”. Adaptation (as opposed to adjustment or application of skills) requires us to look at ourselves with self-compassion and objectivity, and consider not only the skills we may require, but how we want to be experienced (by ourselves and others) in this new context. It means changes to our behaviours, which in turn touches on our emotional intelligence, values, perceptions and beliefs. In dynamic circumstances, like those found in relationships and workplaces, adaptation takes place on a continuum: healthy stretch into something new, or (at the other end of the spectrum) a stress-filled breaking point. The difference is in how motivated we are to continue taking steps into this new frontier, and whether or not it was our choice to go there in the first place.
In our working lives we will have many opportunities to adapt to different circumstances and it is a choice only we can make (consciously or unconsciously); this choice makes the difference in how we experience the change (stretch or break?). We may also adapt for many reasons; to enable our success in our chosen career path or adapt for our own self-preservation (willingly or not). Acknowledging your reasons for adapting is very important, because it affects the outcome as well as how you feel physically (think energy) and mentally (self-esteem/well-being). Being adaptable requires not only a measure of self-awareness but also resilience; self-awareness to help you to see when you are not at your best (and the impact of that to yourself and others) and resilience to find the energy and willingness to uncover a viable path forward during stress and challenge. Resilience is born of an open mind and growth mindset to help overcome the inevitable obstacles that will arise along the way.
My friend did find resilience and was able to ask for help enabling her to adapt to her new role, which she now enjoys immensely (contributing to her self-esteem and overall well-being). What is key to remember when you are adapting is the all-important word “yet”. As in “I am not there…yet”. That mindset is an indicator of both adaptability and resilience, and it means you will get there in the end.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. ~ Winston Churchill
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Did you know our emotions are happening constantly? They are released as electrochemical signals in our brains, and interpreted based on how we perceive the world around us (Joshua Freedman, The Physic of Emotion; Candace Pert on Feeling Good). An emotion is neither "good" nor "bad". Even though there are emotions we want to feel and others we don't, our emotions are neither inherently good nor bad, they are simply expressing a need. As an example, anticipation and apprehension are two different emotions; the first feeling most of us associate with happiness and the second feeling we tend to associate with fear. Both are responses to something that is known, so you could think of them as being two sides of one coin. All our emotions interrelate to each other in this way, which is why emotions are messy and complex. The purpose of our emotions is to direct our actions. Being the wonderfully complex creatures we humans are we need an equally complex navigation system. Our emotions arise as an expression of need, grabbing our attention and pointing us towards action. As an example, fear helps us to ensure we meet a hard deadline at work, allowing us to continue our career and working relationships; joy helps us to celebrate that we made the deadline and share good fortune with those around us, strengthening our ties to each other. Emotions are a compass, guiding us to what is most needed in the moment, whether we welcome that need or not.
Our bodies respond faster to our emotions than our brains do. Emotions create a somatic (body) response before our brain catches up. Odd, as this all starts in the brain, but it serves a very useful purpose; allowing our feet to move before our brain has to consciously tell them to; you may have experienced this in an emergency when several things all happened at once (you heard an unexpected fire alarm and then next thing you knew you were moving towards the exit). What this means at work is our bodies give off subtle signals to others about how strongly we feel long before we are aware that we are having an emotional response to something (like clenched fists). These signals can be very understated and unnoticeable to those who don't know us, but for anyone familiar with our usual way of expressing ourselves, it may be obvious. As part of owning your truth, recognizing when your body is responding to something is a rich source of information. We can be very unconscious of what our bodies are doing, even when it is an explicit act, like clenching a fist. Our bodies will tell us our truth if we are listening, and our truth (once expressed) enables our bodies to relax, even during times of stress.
Accessing our truth means staying with our emotions, realizing we are experiencing one, naming what it is, becoming curious about what it has to tell us and then understanding our truth within it. The “ah-ha” moment attached to recognizing your truth in any one moment offers you the chance for relief, letting you breath deeply in your new awareness, relaxing tense muscles and making you feel better emotionally and physically. The truth really does set you free.
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I had an epiphany the other day while shopping for a new book to read. I recognized I was putting a lot of pressure on this book (whichever one I chose), to bring me new insights and to fire up my brain. It occurred to me I was putting the accountability for that very personal process in the hands of something else (in this case consumerism) and I wondered, “Where else in my life might I have done that?” As it turns out, I’ve done it a lot. I put confidence into the “institution” of marriage in my early 20’s without a lot of thought as to what it would require of me (it’s been an interesting 24 year journey of discovery ever since). I’ve done it with certification processes (to give me credibility with others) and fitness plans (to magically get me “in shape”). In all of those cases, I was empowering the process, but not myself. I wasn’t putting faith and confidence in myself to do or be what it was I needed, the onus was being placed on an outside institution, process or thing to see me through. From this new vantage point (staring at my on-line shopping cart) I could see there was a time where anything I felt I was missing I sought out externally to fill the void (belonging, self-esteem, success, etc.), abdicating both my needs, and the accountability to meet my own needs, passing it on to something or someone else. That’s a lot of power to give away…and they were not accountable acts.
Fortunately there are “life forces” that push us to rise to the occasion; my marriage has happily continued because before long I recognized that a marriage requires both intention and attention, it’s not a “check the box” life activity that just does it’s thing without effort. My career has been much the same; the view from the rear-view mirror is not flattering, but it did get better with experience. I placed confidence in my profession, not necessarily myself, when I entered the professional workforce (because I believed in human resources in ways I could never have believed in myself at the time). Because I did not believe in both myself and my profession I experienced the same uneven results I have with anything where I abdicated (consciously or unconsciously) some aspect of my own accountability, empowerment and worth. When I relied on some outside entity to make me grow, be happy, successful, etc. I didn’t get that in meaningful ways. When I was the one taking responsibility for my own needs, voila! Deep contentment and sustained results. It begs the question, are you placing faith in yourself first or are you relying on something outside yourself to fill a need? Do you honour, love and believe in yourself? Those first years in the professional workforce were very confusing for me; I had a degree, I had found a profession and become credentialed…why wasn’t it working? The rear-view mirror isn’t flattering, but it can be incredibly informative.
I left the shopping site without a book, but with more self-awareness and a new perspective on my life that is invaluable. I’ll be back to shop for a book, but only when I know what it is I actually need. The lesson in all of this is if you have faith in yourself, nothing can take it away; and if you don’t, nothing else can replace it. Do not be a bystander in your own life. If you do, you leave yourself at the mercy of entities whose main objective isn’t to do this for you, but who might be able to help you to do it for and by yourself (if you are paying attention). Empower and own your own great potential.
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ABOUT MY BLOG
I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Face Book or Linked In.