September 6, 2019

Why I’m Giving up Grammar

I've realized I want to let go of some things and it feels like the absolute intersection of fear and openness.
Conscious Leadership
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Seeing that title still makes me recoil, but I’m ready to let you know. 

I intend to give up adherence to and reverence for written grammar from today on. This is no easy swing because in making this decision, I also need to shed all the positive praise I’ve received for my facility with the language and all of the judgments I’ve issued for poor language use. That’s right. I’ve been judging people for those subject-verb agreement gaffes, I say “whom” in my head when you say “who” out loud, and I’ve been slow as molasses around adopting a gender-neutral singular pronoun. This balance sheet of props and disses goes back a very, very long way.

Last week, I had brain surgery. I wrote about what to do before brain surgery just before that event. The surgery at UCSF went extremely well. I received amazing care from every professional with whom I engaged. The jury is still out on full follow-up, but it probably went as well as it could have. I feel fantastic, energized, and eager to hop back into my life without the overhead of thinking about future brain surgery.

Before this operation, my doctors told me that there was a 4% chance I would lose peripheral vision on my left side. Five minutes before they started the anesthesia, the surgeons said that the previous night’s MRI showed that the risk was far higher and also far more core to my central vision. That wasn’t my favorite five minutes of this life, but I was in, and I realized that this news reinforced my decision to have the operation. It was a bit less “elective” than we had thought.

When I woke up some hours later, I remember hearing the laughter of my partner and one of my best friends. They were goofing around in a way that felt familiar. I smiled, called my partner by his nickname, and felt awash in the relief that I was sentient, that I had memory, and that I was able to recognize my man’s profile with my eyes.  

As I drifted in and out of awareness in the next hours, other things appeared. There were clocks without hands, there were signs that appeared to have no font or only incomplete words. If I scanned my vision backward (felt like reading Hebrew), I could spot the beginning of lines of text.  An Occupational Therapist did some exercises holding a green highlighter in a blue glove. At various points in this test journey, I lost the highlighter. I held some pills in my hand, and as I moved them across the front of my visual field, the pills disappeared and then reappeared, although my hand stayed visible (my brain was already alert to the fact that a hand would be attached to that forearm I could see).

It turns out that the loss that I experienced is probably closer to a central vision loss, weighted toward my left side. It may last, it may correct. I will improve and develop strategies. My brain is still plastic.

I feel fantastic, but there is neon tape now on black remote controls, and I asked my partner to wear more colorful clothes so I don’t go up and wrap my arms around a total stranger at the grocery store. Life is not only moving on. Life feels good. 

Assembly #3: Laptop and Mirrored Apple TV

I’m at Day 10 post-surgery, and I’m more than ready to get back to work. I love my work, my clients, my portfolio companies, and I’ve missed the rush of it all. Still, as I’ve started to see with varying levels of frustration, a central vision loss has taken this hyper-productive digital quasi-native a bit off her game. 

After days of trial, error, experimentation, and frustration, what’s apparent to me is that I want to let go of some things.

First, I want to let go of the identity of being hyperproductive. I have always taken such enormous pride in being systematic and organized. I’ve conquered every new task management tool, CRM, storage vehicle. I have booked all my own travel, managed all my own scheduling, and truly enjoyed it. This set of ops chops has been a point of pride for me, and since I can’t do it now, I’m deciding it’s a dumb thing on which to hang one’s reputation. In truth, in the Conscious Leadership scheme of Zones of Incompetence, Competence, Excellence, and Genius, I think this tops out at a Zone of Excellence. I’m good at it. People like it. It makes me move fast. But it’s not the most important thing for me to deliver in my life at this point. I’m going to work my way out of this “job,” allocating it to talented EAs and requesting more administrative support from my colleagues and clients. 

Second, and harder, is I want to let go of written grammar. Even with Grammarly and whatever comes next, it takes an enormous amount of time to craft well-wrought sentences. I’ve also realized that the red squiggly line that indicates most typos in most apps is about as easy to see as a hummingbird flying behind my head. I’m just not sure it’s worth it. 

Giving up on grammar means I can write more, communicate more intimately, and be more engaged in the communities that matter to me without the now-arduous process of redrafting and collaborative editing that once felt like a playful, over-intellectual party game.

Giving up grammar also means I have to acknowledge that I’m giving up something I value. I love our language, and I’ve long used it as a tool for deep expression.

Giving up grammar also means that I run the risk of you thinking I’ve lost my edge, that I’m not as smart as I once was. You’ll see errors and perhaps do what I once did: judge someone for not “getting it.” It occurs to me that I now won’t see those errors in others as much, which feels like a bit of a relief to be honest. It’s not the most important thing on which to judge someone, but it sure has been a comfortable place of superiority.

I want to face up to something here. By writing this post and linking to it from the signature of every email I write probably for the rest of my life, I’m avoiding coming totally clean here. I will have this post edited. I will then be sure you know (by sharing this with you) that if you see an error in my work, it is an issue of blind spots and not ignorance. I can see that this isn’t really a vaunted, hyper-woke decision, but mainly touched by sour grapes. I’m not giving up grammar because I think it’s a good idea; this grudging move is emerging because I don’t really feel like I have a choice. 

Last, I want to ask you a favor. My hope is that my writing will still be consumable and comprehensible. If you see errors, let me know in comments or by email. I will have someone else correct them for legibility. I have loved having this communication channel to people like Fred Wilson and Brad Feld, two bloggers I read nearly daily. 

As I let go of the titles of “Best Organized” and “Most Likely To Use a Semicolon,” I’m looking toward what skills and focus areas may take those slots. I am asking how much more present I might be as a Conscious Leadership coach if I take fewer notes. I am wondering if I may have even more emotional range to connect with teams if I’m moving a little more slowly through operational agility exercises. I notice that multitasking is far harder, and I’m considering a return to the kind of focus I had before apps or app switching was a thing. I am dreaming about the network of support that might unfold among a bigger crew of people with their hands on my personal and professional net.

That feels like the absolute intersection of fear and openness.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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