About Tom Atkins

Part poet, part broadcast engineer, part marketing expert, part professional creative, photographer, mentor and entrepreneur - I've never been able to tell people what I do in 25 words or less. Raised in Virginia, I now live in Vermont where the New England countrysides and towns sing to me each day, while technology lets me work with clients anywhere and everywhere.

Feathers as I Fall

glass jars

I’m not feeling it today. It’s been a long week and somehow harder than most for some reason that has nothing to do with the week itself. Some weeks are like that. I’m still wrestling with finding a groove and routine with changes in my life and work.

It’s an odd thing when so much good come into your life, and you have to adjust to it. But change is change, as a therapist once told me, and stress is stress. Even too much of the good kind takes its toll.

That somehow doesn’t seem fair. Good should be allowed to be all good. Bad should be easily identified as such. But that doesn’t seem to be the way it is. I’m not talking shades of grey and theology here, I’m just talking day to day.

God, I have decided, loves crazy diversity, and not content to create a world with immense variety, with a wild mash of color, flora, races, climates, opinions, tastes, food, animals and culture, he seems to need diversity within each person, making of us a mish-mash of thoughts, feelings, and abilities. None of us, it seems, get to be all good or all bad. We have a mad mix of tastes and emotions that at times make no sense.

I’d much rather be able to make clear, simple, all-encompassing judgments. It would be infinitely easier. I could love or hate purely. It would be easy.

But I can’t. People just aren’t that simple. I am not that simple. There’s stuff in me to love and stuff in me to hate and a whole slew of stuff in between on the strange sliding scale that we make judgments with. It’s the same with all of us.

I am very capable. Pretty much whatever you throw me into, I’ll figure out. I sort of take that for granted and it has meant, more than once, that I have lept into things – work, hobbies, artistic endeavors, that I probably had no real qualification for beyond the whole “I’ll figure it out.” thing.

It’s kind of like building a set of wings as you fall into the canyon. There’s a certain kind of stress that goes along with it. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time. Welcome to my life.

I don’t know why I do this. I have spent a lot of time in therapy and mostly we figured me out – the good and the bad and the ugly; the stuff I can fix and the stuff I just have to manage. Years of figuring out the nooks and crannies, dark and otherwise. That one we didn’t.

Some things you just accept.

And plow through. Even when you are not feeling it.

See, here’s the other thing. Good habits get me through. I have a habit of writing each day. I write in my journal, spewing out the madness of the night, and then I sit down to write a poem, or drivel like this. Mostly, by the time I sit down to write a poem, I’m feeling. The words come easy.

Sometimes they do not. Sometimes it is like living in the eye of Dorothy’s tornado in the Wizard of Oz, with my whole life buzzing around and I am unable to grab any one thing with any surety.

What then?

I write anyway. I put down any old thing. A catchphrase. A passing idea. Truly, anything. Like the opening sentence like this one: I’m not feeling it today. Just anything to get started. To break the logjam.

I don’t know if you noticed, but very little of this little essay has to do with not feeling it. The feeling doesn’t matter. The habit will get you through. You see, I know this: I write every day. My brain is well tuned to write every day. It knows what its job is. So when I start, it resets itself. It may be sluggish (like me in the morning.), but get it started and after a complaint or few, it throws up it’s (metaphoric) arms and gets to it.

It knows what to do. Habit kicks in. Words start piling on words. Stuff shows up. Poetry. Essays. Whatever it is I am writing. I figure it out on the way down. Like I do everything.

Habit. Boring, stupid habit. My savior.

And right now, it’s having to learn a new set of habits. Life is changing, as it does. My longtime habit of writing each morning has had to re-arrange itself. I have new stuff to learn. Just like people, it’s not a simple thing, all good or all bad. It’s a mish-mash.

I used to think old people had it all figured out. I also thought they were too bound by habits. At 63, I have learned differently. We only wish we had it all figured out, but you can’t figure it all out because it’s all changing. Some of us may resent that fact, but we may as well go with it, because as the popular phrase (which I hate, despite its truth), “It is what it is.”  You can leap, or you can be pushed, but change is life.

You build your wings on the way down. Just like everyone else.

And, not having the blueprints, we all come up with a different set of wings. That’s more OK than we like to admit. We’re too busy with judgments,  both of others and more often, and more violently and more destructively, of ourselves.

Instead of just enjoying the world and that crazy diversity God loves so much.

I am a preacher, though I rarely preach here. Not overtly. But I am going to for a paragraph or two. One of the things that has always struck me as I read the bible is the incredible brokenness of God’s people, even the great men and women of God. The whole book is one long collection of broken, flawed people becoming something more with God’s help.

God, it seems, looks through the ugly stuff and finds the good in people, and raises them to their good. Why don’t we? Particularly when dealing with ourselves.

I think it’s a thing of safety. Judgment runs rampant and the more harmfully we can judge, the more hateful, the more loudly and publicly, the more powerful we feel. And those of us being judged feel crushed, even when we are self-judging.

One of the life-changing books in my life is “The Four Agreements“. It is a small book, that says if we make four agreements with ourselves, our life will be changed for the better. One of those agreements is to simply do your best. Sometimes that best is very good indeed. Sometimes it is, because of health, or circumstances, or brokenness, less perfect.

But as long as we do our best, then there is no judgment to be made. That, whatever it is, is good enough.

And so I write every day. Some of it insightful, clever, striking, powerful. Some of it less so. Whether I am feeling it or not. I just do it. I let a lifetime of habit kick in and do what it will.

Tacking on feathers as I fall.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Unsaintly

fog on the dock

She’s here.

She, of course, would be the woman I love. The woman I married a little over a year ago. This past week we loaded a truckload of her things and brought them up to Vermont from her apartment in Massachusetts to my house in beautiful downtown West Pawlet, Vermont.  This morning she left early for her new job in Bennington.

For the last year, we have migrated between her home in Athol and my home in West Pawlet. It’s meant a lot of miles and a lot of constant re-arranging of our lives to do it. I’d drive down to her place and work in the middle of the week. She’d come up on weekends, sometimes for three day weekends. I shudder to think how much travel this has meant over the year.

But I love this woman. I wanted to be with her, and fortunately, she wanted to be with me. I wasn’t willing to wait for everything to fall into place to be with her. I don’t regret not waiting at all.

This morning as I did my devotions, meditation and Bible reading, I found myself reading this verse from Colossians 3:12:  “You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”

I have never thought of myself as a patient person. I often feel like I am chafing against a world around me that never goes at the pace I want to go at. I never feel like life is progressing as I want it too. I hate waiting in lines. Delays drive me crazy – a bad thing in Vermont which runs on its own time zone, Eastern Slow Time.

This morning, as I kissed my wife off to work, she told me, not for the first time, “You have the patience of a saint.” If true, the saints were pretty frustrated souls.

But this morning, as I spent some time thinking before I began writing. People are always telling me I am patient. And if I have learned anything in my life (the hard way of course, that’s the only way I seem to learn anything important.), it is that when all the people around you say something, you had best listen.

Here’s what I came to – I am patient if you measure my actions. I am not so patient if you measure what I am feeling.

One measure of patience has been how I have constantly re-arranged my work to match the situation I was in and the people I felt I needed to take care of.

When I was married to my ex-wife, and having kids. I felt a pressure to be “the provider.” I did work that I liked, but that required me to travel. Why? Because that is how I could make the most money. Two or three nights a week, I was on the road. First in sales and then as a manager and partner in a startup in DC. The other two or three days a week, I worked from home, reshuffling my work so I could get the kids off to school and then be available when they got home. I often ended up working late into the night after they all went to bed.

When my ex no longer wanted me, I threw myself into work even harder. I traveled more. It wasn’t about making more. It was about keeping myself sane when I was anything but. I worked a zillion hours, traveled constantly, just to dull the pain. But I was always available on weekends when I got the kids. I wanted to be fully available to them for the short time I was able to be with them.

Eventually, I moved to Vermont. A year or so later, my daughter chose to leave her mother and move up here to be with me. I was still traveling, and she traveled with me. Again, though, I re-arranged work to give me time with her.  I’d get up earlier so I could finish by dinner time. We’d do movies or go out for dinner from my hotel room after she had finished her online school work. When we traveled back and forth from DC to Vermont, I’d arrange it so we could stop and visit historical homes and places. (a thing we both love.). If I had to work more on weekends to make it work for her and I, I did.

She did what kids do. She grew up and went to college. And then my son decided to do the same, leaving his mom in Virginia to come here.

He’s a different creature. Far more social and busy than his sister or I. It soon became evident that instead of online school, he would be better served being back in the public school system. That meant a complete rethinking of my work. What I had done for 30 years only happens in big cities, and traveling to those big cities wasn’t a good option.

The new work I took on had me at home working a lot more, but made a lot less money. A lot less. And it was new to me. Kinda scary. But as priorities change, so does what we do and the choices we make. Was it the happiest work I could have done? No. But it fit the bill to make the best choice and to be available for my son at this new turn in his life. I’d do it again.

And then, of course, I fell in love. (I still am in love). But she was in Massachusetts. And my priorities shifted once again. And along with it my work. I wanted to be able to take days off in the middle of the week, so I had to let some work go, figure out some other things to do. Build in a radical flexibility in hours. It meant a bit less money again, but I have whittled my life down to pretty simple, low-cost affair. That wasn’t a big deal.

And it got better when we married. I still had to re-arrange time to migrate between Athol and Westy Pawlet each week. But I had more of a schedule. So again I reshuffled work to fit the schedule I wanted.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I determined a decade ago that time with the people I love is more important than maximizing what I can make. I wish I had made that decision younger. But I don’t regret how I used to do. Like the past decade, I made the decision around what I thought (and was told) would best suit and take care of the people I love.

And now she is here. The woman I love. My kids are gone and grown up. And I am left with the question that I often ask my coaching and consulting clients: What do I want to do.

Me. Not for person X or person Y. Me.

It’s not a case of making enough money. I make enough. I would kinda like to make more, but mostly, I want to do good work. Work I enjoy and work that makes a difference. Work I can do for another decade or so. Work on my schedule. Not someone else’s. And I am not sure what that looks like right now.

I’ll do what I do, and do what I urge my clients to do. I’ll sit with it a while. I’ll think. I’ll let feelings churn a bit. I have a lot of options, including just doing what I am doing. Things are shifting in my own life right now and the right path will show itself.

I am blessed. The woman I love is crazy supportive. She wants me happy. She wants me to make decisions based on what I want out of the next decade or so. We will figure it out.

It is strange though, to be sixty-two and facing the same question my kids are facing: What do I want to do?

Whatever it is, I know I can. I’ve been able to change and re-arrange work for a decade to fit the needs and schedule of others. In fact, that is one of the lessons I have learned. We can pretty much do anything or become anything if we set our minds and attitudes towards it.

Assuming we know what “it” is.

In a lot of my photography and poetry, I use images of fog. I love the idea of fog, of things being just on the other side, barely seen. It’s an analogy that suits so much of life. Yours. Mine. All of ours.

And it fits me today. I feel like I am once again about to set sail, in the fog. It’s a journey I have made before. You never quite get used to it. But after a host of voyages, you also no longer fear it.

I guess I am more patient than I thought.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

The Race

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From the Book, Make Today Matter, by Chris Lowney:

“Don’t treat your life as a race to be won. Don’t focus on getting to the top of the heap, because every peak you reach will yield a clearer view of the next summit, already occupied by another competitor in the game of life. Run every race as if it’s your last, but decide first why you’re running. Instead of competing against me or anyone else, why not contribute your energies to making us better people, through your coaching, love, inspiring example, or noble mission? Instead of trying to win the race, why not make it your mission to contribute to the race, the human race—by making your corner of the world more just, more loving, and more happy.”

It’s Simpler Than You Think

man think how to solve the problem

It’s simpler than you think.

Really.

And I don’t’ even care what “it” is.

As a person trying to be more or have more or build a certain kind of life or find our spiritual center or balance a balanced life – It’s simpler than you think.

As a company or organization trying to grow, build a marketing campaign, streamline business processes, build loyal and engaged employees, build a culture of creativity, design a broadcast facility, become more profitable – It’s simpler than you think.

I’ve been wrestling with this column for ages. Because in general, we don’t want to believe it’s’ true. For some absurd reason, we want to make everything complicated. And I’ve never had a good understanding why.  But at last, I think I understand.

A little background first. I worked primarily in the broadcast technology world for the first few decades of my career. I was part of the startup team for three different companies and I owned part of one of them. In each case we took two very complex things – high technology and building new businesses, and made it stupid simple.

Each grew to be national powerhouses in the industry. (Well, two of them did. The third one was bought out by a national powerhouse.)

The Lesson I Keep Learning

I can remember the first of those startups. There were four of us with an idea. The head of our little band, Kevin, met with the owner of the largest IT and networking firm in the state of Virginia about the possibility of them funding our startup.

The owner of the IT firm came with his entourage. Lawyers. Financial types. Operational gurus. The whole shmeal.  And on the other side of the table was Kevin.  “Tell us your plan.” the owner said. I know what he was expecting. Long involved business plans. Charts and graphs.

That’s not what he got.

Kevin said simply. “We intend to dominate the broadcast and AV business. We hire the best people and take better care of customers than anyone else.”

That was it. The whole enchilada. No charts. No graphs. No power points. No accounting projections or complex contracts. I give the IT owner credit. He got it. Take away all the jibber jabber and razzle-dazzle and that is how you build an organization. He funded us.

Today they are one of top two or three companies in the industry, with offices across the country and around the world.

I’ve seen the same thing play out both in the other two start-ups and was part of. I’ve seen it in the companies and organizations I have consulted with. Simple solutions create success.

I also see it in personal lives. Both in my work of the last five years coaching individuals to their own version of success, and in my work as a part-time pastor, the solutions are always simple.

Solutions are simple. People are complicated.

I am a student of success. I read about it. I pay attention to people and organizations that succeed. I often contact successful people just to pick their brain about what made that success happen. I have a huge bookshelf of self-improvement books that range from step by step manuals to law of attraction tomes. And here’s what all my study, experience and observation has taught me.

It’s simpler than you think.

And I don’t care what “it” is.

Everyone who has written a book on success, everyone who has sent you an invitation to a webinar promising success, every one day program or weekend seminar, every class, every program, every guru, they are pretty much saying the same thing.

Oh, they use different language but pay attention and they are all trying to tell us the same thing. Stuff is simpler than we think. Everything is.

Solutions are simple. People are complicated.  And we make things complicated. Way more than it needs to be. Mostly the only thing that gets in our way is ourselves. We don’t like to think that. But I’ve done what I do long enough to see the pattern.

We get in our own way.

Over and over again I see it. In individuals. In companies. In non-profits. In churches. in anyone who wants anything. The ones that trust the process that leads to success, succeed.  I don’t care if it’s my process, (blatantly stolen from everyone else out there) or someone else’s proven process.

When we do the simple things to get there, we get there. It’s never as hard as we think when we trust and act on a proven process. Except when we get in our own way.

So, where do you want to go? What do you want to be? It’s there. Stop making it so complicated. The solution is out there. It’s simpler than you think. Pick one and go.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

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When it all comes undone….

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There comes a point where rebuilding is no longer an option. When things are so broken, so torn down that what was is beyond reclaiming. What is left is in ruins. Pieces are missing, taken by others, or simply rotted beyond repair.

It is true of buildings. It is true of ourselves.

I grew up thinking anything could be salvaged. My father was a master restorer of things. As a child and a young man, I saw him restore thing after thing. Old cars. A wooden sailboat. Once I remember him bringing in a box of wood that I thought was for kindling for the fireplace. As it turned out, it was an antique cherry Grandfather’s clock, and when he was done, it was magnificent. Today it lives in my sister’s house, one of those things you notice the moment you walk in the room.

Just before I went off to college, my dad bought a business, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream.

A dream that went badly. It turned out the man he bought the business from had been cooking the books for ages, cooking them in a way so clever it caused the state legislature to rewrite laws to prevent what he had done. Not that all that lawmaking helped my dad – he came close to losing everything.

For my father, that was a turning point. He was never the same, according to my mother. What he saw as his failure haunted him the rest of his life. It colored the way he saw himself.

The irony of that is that while he was beating himself up, I was getting a different lesson. What I saw was how he picked himself up in mid-life. How he entered a whole new industry and succeded. I watched him recover financially, and not just stabilize his financial life, but thrive. He did good work, built great relationships with his clients, who often became his friends as well. He and my mom were able to travel extensively – something he likely would never have been able to do had he run his own business, even successfully.

I saw resilience and rebuilding. I saw the courage to plow through the dark times and, not rebuild, but recreate a life. I saw how hard it was.

It was probably the most important lesson I have learned in my life. That not everything can be fixed. That somethings are so broken they cannot be recovered. But that even when it is all broken, you can still build. You can take the rubble of life and build something new. And that new may be different, but it can be wonderful. It might even be better.

Decades later, as I neared fifty, my own life came apart. I lost everything. My marriage. My children. My work unraveled. My financial state went from solid to fragile. I sank into a black depressive place where I barely functioned. For years.

What I had, what I was, was gone.

But there was a tiny little sliver of hope gleaned from that lesson I had learned while I was in college, watching my father slowly build a new life.

That’s the key I think. When life comes undone, there’s a tendency to want to restore the old life. It’s natural, I think. There were parts of my old life that I loved. Part of the “before the crash”  time that was a delight to me, that I was proud of. I wanted that back.

The problem was, of course, is that too many parts were missing. There’s a reason things come undone in our lives and at times it is a cumulation of many many pieces that one by one, go missing, Like a Jenga game.

Unlike Jenga, though, where you can rebuild because all the blocks are there, in real life when things come undone, too many parts are missing. The tower can’t be rebuilt.

But something else can be built.

Going back to my father, when I was ten, he and my mom built a new house. He found an old 1700’s parsonage back in the woods of Surry County, Virginia that was falling apart. There was no restoring this house. It was too far gone.

But there were parts that were still useful. The floors in particular, beautiful heart of pine floors, hand-hewn, tongue and groove floors. We (OK, mostly he. I was only ten, after all.) pulled out those floors, had them planed down, and put them in the new house he was building. They were, and remain breathtaking.

The house could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it. My dad’s life could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it. My own life could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it.

But to get to that place of building something new, we have to stop trying to rebuild the old thing. And that is hard. Some of us never get there. Our lives come undone and we spend the rest of our precious time here trying to rebuild the tower, without the pieces and parts we need.

Not everything can be restored. But something can be built anew.

In my office is a small hanging corner cupboard. It is an 18th-century corner cupboard that is fifty some odd years old. How can that be? It is made from the shutters of that same old house my dad pulled the floors out of.  Nearly every piece of wood in the cupboard came from that house. Beautiful as it is, nothing there is what it was originally made to be. It is not a restoration. It is a new thing my dad made from the pieces and parts of the old house, and it’s beautiful. But it is not a restoration. It is something new.

My life now is something new. And it’s pretty wonderful. Not what I had planned 35 years ago, or even 15 years ago. I’ll never be able to restore that life. It’s gone. Too many pieces missing.

But it’s pretty wonderful. I would not trade it for the life I once had. And the beginnings of this wonderful life came when I realized, and accepted, that I’d never have my old life back again, and set about, not restoring, but building.

It’s hard building anew. There are no blueprints. We still have that old stuff to figure out what to do with. Call it baggage if you like. Or call it building blocks. Something to build on a giant puzzle where some of the pieces seem to be of one puzzle, (the old one) and some seem to be of another (the new one). A giant collage, with about a million mismatched pieces.

But that is where art comes from. And that’s where amazing new lives come from. The adventure of discovery, along with the adventure of salvaging the stuff from our past that is useful and good, and merging it with the new things.

The sad part is that my dad never fully embraced the wonder and power of what he managed to do. His failure haunted him till the end. Somehow he never took the lesson that saved my life to heart for himself.

But I am grateful for that lesson. I do love restoration. Like him, I like to restore old things. And the things that can’t be restored, like the life I once had? Ah, that’s when the magic starts.

If we let it.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

PS: The picture was taken in Turner’s Falls, Mass. It was a wonderful old abandoned factory until a fire destroyed it for good.

Not Quite According to Plan

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Well, the new year did not exactly get off to the start I had anticipated.

Like many of us, I had plans. A trip with the woman I love for New Year’s, and then a flurry of activity to get the new year off to a bang of a start. New projects. New approaches. January was going to be a corker of a month, just chock full of New.

Well, then the pipes froze in my house. A few days lost nursemaiding those. And then there were the inches of snow. And the more inches of snow and ice coming tomorrow. A couple of days of bad health. There was the hiccup of my all-important internet router at home. Some of the new software I had chosen was, well, not quite as advertised. Powerful yes. Easy to set up – not even close. Two weeks into it all, I am nowhere near I envisioned I would be as I finish up the second week of the year. The best-laid plans and all that.

But not all is lost. As I plodded through the delays and interruptions, as I was forced to live without internet a bit, and chose to for a bit longer. As I dove into the world or API’s and technical jargon I never had any intention of having to learn, I learned all kinds of things, even a few about myself. I had time to rethink. I stumbled into some new opportunities, gained a new client, fine-tuned my marketing, learned some of the tools I already have even more deeply. I’m not where I wanted to be, but I have moved forward in directions I planned, and in directions I never even saw coming.

Forward. That’s what matters.

I am always telling my clients and friends that the trajectory we are on is more important than where we are or where we have been. “Which way am I moving?” is the question to ask.”Have I made progress?”

Sometimes (most times) we spend too much time measuring ourselves by our expectations, but what we think we should accomplish in “X” amount of time, as if we had control over all the elements of life and work and circumstances that are part of that happening. As if. Somehow we seem to ignore all the other stuff happening in the universe, some of which can grease our skids (and often does) and some of which fall like a huge old tree in the middle of our road.

Forget all that. Remember Dory from “Finding Nemo”. Just keep swimming. If we fall, fall forward. There’s no great secret to it. Not where you want to be? Feel like you’ve already failed all those New Year’s promises? So what? Don’t let that stop you. Plow forward! Never got started at New Years? So what? Start today. Forward is one day closer. Forward is the right direction.

And every step counts, whether you are creating a life you love, or the company you want to be.

Screw the calendar. It’s trajectory that matters. Forget all the hype and internet ads and garbage you read that says there is a secret. We pretty much know how to get or be anything these days. The problem is rarely not knowing how. There’s books and sites and coaches and consultants like me. You can find the how. No, that’s not the thing holding us back. It’s not taking a daily step forward.

Take that step. And the next one tomorrow. Big steps. Baby steps. Any steps. Do something. Do anything. Fall if you will. ( I am good at falling.) Just fall forward. Then do it again. It may sound boring, but it’s true. It works. And here at Quarry House, we’re all about what works.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom