* this blog post is an excerpt from the talk that Deneen gave at the DreamBank Madison on February 7, 2013.
So, I was a dramatic child (those of you who know me, I know, shocker!). So that means that I probably should have been an actress. Maybe I will become an actress. Vocational ADD strikes again. One of my favorite Broadway tunes was from the production “Annie Get Your Gun.” You know the one: “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”
For a long time, I kinda owned that philosophy as a running soundtrack in my head. Not that I was overtly competitive or trying to one-up anyone. It was internal; a challenge to myself. I grew up with a certain innate defiance that comes from … who knows where? Maybe from being the only girl among six kids. Maybe from growing up in a very, very modest (and that’s putting it politely) household. Maybe from being raised in a conservative, upper middle class community by a single mom who worked in the graveyard shift in a factory. Not a typical lifestyle where I grew up. I think it’s safe to say I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder that only I really knew was there. “You’re not better than me,” I seemed to say. “Just watch what I can do. Anything you can do, I can do better …” and the subtext, for me, was, “ and I can do it all on my own.”
Except I can’t do it alone. And, more importantly, why would I want to? The biggest life lesson I have learned in the past three years from opening Neena to joining the fire service is that nothing I do is possible or really matters unless I have people to share it with. That I can tell myself all day that I am completely self-sufficient and I can accomplish anything I want under my own power, but it’s just not true. Connection is really all that matters.
I know it wouldn’t make sense in the Annie Get Your Gun, but the song should be:
“Anything you can do, we can do better.” Because that’s really how it plays out.
Neena is the perfect example of this. My dance studio was a partnership and when I sold it, I vowed that I would never go into a business partnership again. And I probably won’t. Coming off that difficult time, I was all about fierce independence in every way. I was going to build walls so high and so thick that nobody could mess with me. Because that’s super healthy. And effective. Right.
But then I hired my first employee and that kinda changed everything. Actually I got to steal her from the dance studio where she had worked with me since soon after we had opened. So although I’m the sole owner of Neena, from its beginning it has been a team effort. It enjoyed early success right out of the gate for one reason: because it is a shared effort. I simply could not have done it on my own. I mean, I could have. On paper. I could have opened the store on my own. Hired out all of the work it took to open and I couldn’t do on my own. Hired a manager with a perfect retail resume and experienced sales staff. And we’d probably be out of business by now. But we run Neena like a smart, loving and supportive household. We’re a family of sorts and we get through it all because we value the connection and the shared effort. And it’s been that way from the beginning. From Ronni, my store manager, who has been part of Neena since we registered as an LLC to friends like Dan & Anna and others who gave their time and energy to help us build the space out in 45 days. Shared with our neighbors who watched us painting late into the night and brought us food and words of encouragement. How boring and flat would it have been had I kept the defiant chip on my shoulder and had tried to do it all on my own? How rich and meaningful are the memories that I have of the first days of the Neena dream? Beyond measure.
The importance of connection is even more direct with firefighting. There is an actual, physical connection. The buddy system; you call for help unless you can either see, feel or hear someone on your team. The whole brotherhood that people talk about or you see in movies that is part of the fire service – it’s a real thing. From being on the fire ground to playing recreational sports to training to funerals. It’s a family. Being at the station, among the community, the family, of firefighters, is probably the only place in my life where I can be 100% unapologetically myself. It’s a safe zone. The only expectation that anyone has of me when I am there is that when a call comes in, I am focused, I’m efficient, I can be counted on to do my job as a member of a team with 100% effort and that safety is my primary concern. That my team can trust me and that I can trust them. With our lives if we must. That is powerful and rewarding and uncommon connection.
The takeaway? Connect. Relationships mean everything. In business. In family. In friendships. In love. You can be independent and strong and accomplished and still be connected. Actually, you can probably only be these things if you have people in your life who help you become them. Connect. Every opportunity. Even the tiniest, most fleeting ones. With neighbors, with strangers at the airport or the coffee shop or the bank. Through the noise and the fray and day-to-day, it can be distilled down to thus: Our relationships, our connections, are what bring the greatest meaning and joy into our lives. Put them above all else.