One of the people to make the largest impact and influence on my life has been my mother and her focus on always saying, “Yes.”
This may sound like a small or simple thing, but it’s made an exponential impact in my life. It’s really easy for people to say “no,” or be negative and put up barriers in their heads, make up excuses on why they can’t do things, but her focus and indomitable spirit has made me who I am and often opened me up to new adventures and opportunities that my peers passed over.
There’s so many reasons she has been an inspiration to me, but I keep coming back to this key value she instilled in me, along with all the tertiary values of sacrifice, focus, indomitable spirit and hard work that help make saying, “yes,” a possibility.
Her focus on frugality (almost to ridiculous levels) and living well below your means allows you to save and prepare for saying “yes” when the right opportunity presents itself. She raised me to appreciate people and our time with them, not material goods or fancy clothes.
She always said yes to doing things herself, from DIY projects to always taking great care cleaning/maintaining/fixing the things that you do have around things around the house, to gardening and enjoying nature’s bounty, to almost always cooking at home and only going out to eat on special occasions (which is a polar opposite to how most people live in DC, and it still feels weird to me). Even when I go home now, she puts up a fight when I want to take her out to eat. …maybe that’s swinging too far in the other direction, but it’s this mindfulness with her money that has made her financially secure on a public school teacher’s salary. She did her best to learn early about the stock market and how to make your money work for you, by founding an investment club with other teachers, and she passed these skills on to me.
Even when she didn’t want to say yes, she stepped up and did her best at whatever she tried. She didn’t set out to be a teacher, she originally wanted to be an entomologist but back in her day there wasn’t many opportunities for women to do much besides teachers or nurses, especially in the sciences. So she buckled down and became the best teacher she could be, with many awards, degrees and generations of glowing and thankful students. In doing so, she taught me to be the best at whatever you do no matter what it is. Similarly, one of my photographer mentors in Chicago, John H. White always relayed this story from his father:
When John H. White was nine years old, a teacher told him that he would grow up to work on a garbage truck because he was slow in math. At home, his father told him to grow up to be his best, to look for the best in others, and if he were to work on a garbage truck, fine—just be sure he’s the driver. White has said that this was a turning point in his life.
Her focus on public and community service and giving back through your life’s work, spending more than 40 years teaching generations of children also had a huge impact on me as I’ve worked through journalism helping the public good and now in government service. She has been a giving tree her whole life and gave that trait to me.
She also inspired me in saying “yes” to embrace travel as much and as frequently as possible and to seek out interesting and diverse people and events to learn about. In high school, I had a crazy eclectic group of friends from preppy jocks to metalheads to rustbelt gear heads to computer nerds to poets and artists, and looking back on it, I think part of that was founded by her always fostering me to embrace all sorts of different people, places and things to explore the world and understand more.
She seeded in me the intensity and indomitable spirit to say yes and chase my dreams and make them a reality. She also sewed a frank and sometimes cynical/realistic (depending on your perspective) view of the world, but always looking to find the best in people and life.
While she’s a bit more of an extrovert and social butterfly, people often say that we share the same laugh — loud, jovial and infectious; you can always pick us out in a room. I’m proud to carry her likeness, legacy and hope to instill the “say yes” values into the people in my life.