By Rita Wilkins, The Downsizing Designer

Report card day. Remember? Hand written, teacher notes, academic grades, effort grades, and “deportment” grades.

Sitting at the kitchen table, our nightly tradition, Mom made one of our favorite casseroles. After our usual lively conversation about the day, we would get the “dreaded” invitation from our Dad, “Let’s have a look at your report cards.” I say “dreaded” because that was my feeling about report card night. Not because I was ashamed of my B’s, C’s and occasional A’s, but it was that my sisters would always get straight A’s. (The one time my middle sister got a B, I remember her crying because it wasn’t an A.)

One by one, we each produced our report cards. Dad looked at each of them with genuine interest and sincerely acknowledged each of us for subjects we did well in, while asking us how we could do better in subjects we didn’t do as well in.

There was never any comparison. I always felt happy and loved when Dad (and Mom) reviewed mine  because he never compared us to each other, but rather, lovingly encouraged me to work a little harder, especially in the areas of math and science.

Conversations That Change Lives

When the time came for Dad to review my sisters’ report cards, he, of course, had glowing reviews for each of them… for their straight A’s. He never once said, “Rita, why don’t you have straight A’s?” but in that moment I was the one that told myself “I’m not smart, but my sisters are.” That experience and one other brief conversation with my high school guidance counselor changed my life.

As a high school freshman, after reviewing my PSAT results, my guidance counselor said, “You are probably not college material and should pursue another path”. That one comment fired me up and made me so angry that I became determined to thrive not only in college, but also in life!

From the moment we were born, our middle-class parents worked hard to save for college so our lives would be better than theirs. Mom’s “cash envelope budget system” for food, mortgage, and education visually messaged their dreams and priorities for their 5 children and our family. How dare my guidance counselor tell me I wasn’t college material!

That afternoon when I told Mom that story, she grabbed my arm, drove me back to school, burst into my guidance counselor’s office, unannounced and said, ”How dare you tell my daughter she is not college material?! We have saved all of our lives for our five children to go to college. She is going to college and she will excel!”

Ongoing Challenge and Inspiration

Having mom stand up for me In that way, and seeing her so fired up, inspired me more than she probably ever realized. In life, whenever confronted with “I’m not smart enough,” I am reminded of my Mom’s loving words of Ire!

And to this day, when challenged with “I’m not smart enough to do x, y, z,” I hear myself saying, “How dare you say ‘I can’t!’  Instead, I say, ‘Oh yes I can!'”

When one part of my brain is telling me impossible the other part of my brain says anything is possible! For the most part I’ve chosen the latter…to believe that anything is possible if I want it badly enough. I’ve become a fighter, a survivor, a thriver, and a winner…all because of one guidance counselor, many years ago, telling me I was “probably not college material.”

And as a side note, I’m so grateful for my sisters getting their straight A’s, because not only did they go on to become very successful, but they also inspired me to always  go for it. That taught me a life lesson: Even though my B or C might not be theIr A, I learned to embrace my own business- savvy superpowers.

For the past 35 years, I’ve owned and operated a very successful interior design firm, designing projects all over the country, from Supreme Court Justice Chambers, to corporate penthouses, to elegant kitchens and tiny houses. I’ve had the opportunity to make a difference in peoples’ lives through design and innovation. I found my passion, my niche, and have thrived there in the areas I was naturally good at and felt most comfortable in.

A New Challenge… Get Out of My Own Way

But, I avoided areas that I was not good at and became reliant on others for those tasks, primarily technology. I’ve always hired people who are good at what I wasn’t good at. Smart, right? I thought so too because it freed me up to excel at what I do best and to move quickly and successfully through project after project. My team has been like a well-oiled machine for many years. You stay in your lane and do what you do well, and I’ll stay in mine. It’s worked like magic for years …until COVID-19.

Suddenly, we were asked to shutter our businesses, work from home, keep on doing what we had been doing for all of those years…and to figure out how to do it differently…overnight!

I was challenged, confronted, and afraid. How could I possibly run my business this way when I’ve depended on my employees to handle “all things tech” because they were good at it and I wasn’t?  I would now have to do things I didn’t feel capable of doing. Until COVID-19, I never gave myself permission to challenge that way of thinking.

The onset of the pandemic took care of that. Like others, I suddenly didn’t have a choice. I had to figure it out. I had to rewire my brain to say yes” to getting out of my own way and forgetting about my comfort zone so I could skill up and thrive, not just during Covid, but post Covid.

  • It required me to challenge myself to step way out of my comfort zone onto new scary “skinny branches.”
  • It required me to dive into educating myself and to quickly skilling up.
  • It challenged me to want to learn, something I never wanted to learn before.
  • It inspired me, it motivated me. I became
  • It made me retrain my brain to say I can do something I had been telling myself I couldn’t do before.
  • It got me excited about learning something new and believing it was possible.
  • It made me more determined than ever to succeed at something I told myself I couldn’t do.

My “A” in technology may not be your “A”, but my “C” might as well be an “A” because my desire to succeed in this area is through the roof! I’m fired up to thrive and to never stop learning and growing. And the best part is…  I’ve only just begun!

The Story I Had Been Telling Myself

Why do I tell you this deeply personal story?  Because, like me, many baby boomers have been telling themselves this exact same story for years:

  • “I am not good at technology.”
  • “I don’t know how.”
  • “I’ll have someone else do it for me.”

In our defense, you may recall:

  • It was not natural for us to use a keyboard to write a letter or document. We hand- wrote them on letterhead or on a note
  • It was not natural for us to use a phone to text messages to our clients or loved ones. We picked up the phone and called them instead.
  • It was not natural for us to file our work or save documents in the cloud. We filed our important papers and documents in a file cabinet.

And so many of these die-hard habits are still part of our DNA because they work and that’s what we are  used to doing. It’s what we have been comfortable with.

But things have changed and will continue to change.

We no longer have a choice.  It’s time for us to wake it up and shake it up. Covid has forced us to get real about the digital age and our need to embrace technology.

My wake up call came suddenly. It came when I could no longer depend on the way things had always been.

I’ve had to think differently about the way things can be and will be in our future.

I no longer had a choice. I had to act differently, to confront my fears and my lifelong dependence on others to do things for me that I wasn’t good at… or comfortable with.

Years ago, I told myself I wasn’t good at technology, math, or science. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy I chose not to challenge myself in areas that I wasn’t good at. I wasn’t even willing to try.

A Brave New World (and Brave New Me)

Today, I’ve been asked choosing to deliver a keynote speech on Zoom that I would have previously delivered in person, on stage, to a live audience. This keynote must be pre-recorded, edited, and uploaded by me. Am I confronted? Yes, but I’m also determined to nail It!

Today, I’m giving myself permission to be totally open and vulnerable with you by exposing a very personal story that I have been avoiding for many years.  So why unmask something so deeply personal that I have had hidden from my view all of these years? Because by telling my story, I hope that others can learn from it. I hope that it will inspire other baby boomers who are still saying, “I can’t,” to reframe that by simply adding, “but I will try.”

The Bigger Reveal… To See What We Didn’t See Before

Another reason I tell my story Is because during this pandemic and this extended period of sheltering at home, many of us have been forced to “see what we didn’t see”…or chose not to see. It has helped us unmask or reveal what has been in plain view all along.

We’ve had time to reflect on what’s working and not working in our lives.

We’ve had time to reflect on what we have been hiding, denying, or unwilling to confront, and to allow ourselves to see our own lives through a new lens of change and possibility:

  • Relationships: The value of more quality time with our loved ones.
  • Possessions: The realization that we probably already have all we need.
  • Technology: The desire to discover new ways to communicate with our colleagues, stay connected with our family, friends, and loved ones, and embrace technology.

The Gift of the Great Unmasking

This “gift of time” has allowed us to:

  • Live simpler, abundant lives with less stuff and less stress.
  • Opened our eyes and our hearts to what matters most to us.
  • “Make due” to get creative using what we already have.
  • Free ourselves from needing and wanting more, realizing we already have enough…. and are enough.
  • Be curious about creating something new, more fulfilling so that we can make a bigger difference.

The funny thing is, it’s been there right in front of us the whole time. We just needed to open our eyes to see it and to see ourselves differently. It has allowed us to unmask our lives, to see through walls and barriers that prevented us from seeing what’s possible for the life that we really want.  

When you believe you can, anything is possible.

I’m not going to say that this wouldn’t have happened had we not been forced to shelter at home because of COVID-19, but I am going to say that because of Covid,

  • I was forced to face my fears.
  • I was forced to unmask my vulnerabilities.
  • I was forced to accelerate my learning… or fail. Since failure was not an option, the path I chose, and encourage you to take Is, “I may not know how, but I will try.

It took a crisis, a pandemic to help me finally saying “yes” to my own life, “yes” to an opportunity that was right in front of me the whole time. I’m grateful I have rewired, re-fired, and I’m excited to never retire from learning and growing.

PS. A disclaimer: You will probably still never see me changing my oil or tires because I’m still telling myself I can’t …and I really don’t want to know how!