I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of roles during my time with American Family.
I started in AmPlan, our company’s billing department at one time. I remember trying to reconcile complex commercial billing accounts. I was just out of college and working with people who had 20, 30, even 40 years of experience. I admired how dedicated these people were and how efficiently they answered questions asked by customers and agents.
I wondered if I would ever do my job as well as they did.
I marveled at what they knew.
A few years later, I joined the Claim Division as a property adjuster. I worked with agents and adjusters who, for years, made it their business to help customers through some of the most trying times of their lives.
I wondered if I would ever do my job as well as they did.
I marveled at what they knew.
Here I am, more than 20 years later. Many of my expert friends are retired or no longer with the company. I’ll always appreciate the patience and willingness they showed when sharing with me their knowledge and, more important, their experience.
I think the spirit of sharing is alive and well at American Family. We just do it differently now. Technology helps us share information more efficiently, and it gives us more ways to interact with each other. That’s a good thing, but it also takes some of the human element out of the equation — and that human element is invaluable and difficult to replicate.
I sometimes wonder what my expert friends would think about today’s American Family. I know they’d be proud of our agent and employee accomplishments, and of our commitment to our customers.
And if I had to guess, I think they’d offer this advice:
What your co-workers know is your company’s greatest asset. When people don’t personally interact, the transfer of knowledge is compromised. Through your day-to-day work, strike the right balance between technology and each other to keep the art of personal interaction alive and well.
In the process, you’ll all marvel at what you know.
Ever get that nagging feeling that you’re not living life to the fullest? I know I do from time to time – especially in the doldrums of wintertime. Here are some ideas that have helped me live life more vibrantly. I hope they inspire you to do the same!
Taste – Nothing awakens the soul more than new flavors – and the transition from winter to spring is the perfect time to revitalize your senses with fresh ingredients or a stroll through the farmer’s market! Pick a theme and organize a potluck with friends for a fun way to taste new dishes and exchange recipes, or take a cooking class to learn the savory secrets of a new cuisine.
Ask – In the age of search engines and instantaneous answers, we often rely on technology to answer our questions. I’ve recently come to realize our incessant Googling can cause us to miss out on the gratifying gifts of human connection and storytelling that naturally occur when people ask one another questions. Whether it’s chatting with your barista about your café’s new coffee blend, or having a family member tell you what it was like growing up in a different era - you’ll enjoy a much richer life experience by taking the time to ask.
Stretch – Take a class. Volunteer. Borrow a book from the library on a topic you’re curious about. Watch online tutorials to teach yourself something new, or improve on a skill you already have. By stepping outside your comfort zone you can gain curiosity, confidence and a better understanding of what makes you, well - YOU.
Remember – “Don’t dwell in the past.” We’ve all been cautioned to look forward – not back, however I’ve found some of my most fulfilling moments have been flipping through old photo albums or watching embarrassing family videos– especially in the company of loved ones. Few things compare to reminiscing over old stories, or sharing a laugh over a dog-eared snap shot – and sometimes a little trip down memory lane is all it takes to inject fresh perspective and energy into your day.
Improvise – Let’s face it – we’re not all comfortable being spontaneous (I know I’m not!) But the fact remains that diverging from your normal schedule and responsibilities can be the ticket to experiencing that heart-pumping, soul-stirring feeling of being truly alive. The best place to start is by setting aside a weekend in which you pledge not to make any plans. Wake up and see where the day takes you. Hungry for a certain food? Follow your stomach to a restaurant that serves it. Try not to look any further than an hour ahead – and practice enjoying the incredible things that are happening in the moment.
More than a year ago, I made the decision to change my hairdo. I never expected that this decision would have impacted my life. I mean, it’s not uncommon that a girl wants to change her look, right? For me, I wanted a change every two years or so. I would go to the salon and say, "I need a change," which meant that I wanted a NEW hair style that would make me look younger, jazzier, or (I'm embarrassed to say) like one of the celebrities.
So what was different with this decision? This decision would force me to embrace a part of me that I had altered for over 30 years… my natural curls. I was faced with this life-changing decision when my five-year-old daughter was learning to swim and she wanted me to practice with her. I couldn't. I would mess up my hair (shallow, right?). Well, I felt silly after a while and took the plunge, starting a journey that would challenge me to confront other areas in my life where I was not being "real" or authentic.
After taking that initial step, I decided to dig deeper and discovered that my life was centered around preserving an "image" on the surface and denying the essence of what made me special. The image of an iceberg is the perfect metaphor for this because all you can see is 10 percent of it (what’s above the water surface or "above the line"). That’s where I was focusing ALL of my attention. The reality is that 90 percent of the iceberg is hidden ("below the line"). Unconsciously, I was also hiding 90 percent of ME because I thought that sharing that part of me would cause people to think less of me at work and in my personal life.
In my career, it was crucial that I managed how others perceived me. Success was about being the best. From my personal appearance to my work – my goal was to be flawless. Failure was not an option.
But life happened! Life has a way of throwing you a curve to help you grow. How you react determines if you grow. For me, it was the premature birth of my daughter, Briana, who was born at 1lb and 10ozs. Welcoming a new baby is a special, life-changing event. Briana’s immediate medical needs meant more than adjusting to a new schedule. The challenges we faced together helped me focus on the 90 percent – the part of me below the line.
I learned to be present, take risks and embrace who I am!
I also thought how these lessons will impact the future pursuit of my dreams. I can say that my life is richer now that I have changed my focus from myself to others. I now focus on the impact that I make each and every day. Every interaction that I have with another person will have a positive or negative impact; there is no such thing as a "neutral" impact.
So, I challenge you to be present in each moment. Next time you interact with someone — whether it’s in a hall or a meeting — ask yourself if this will result in a positive impact. Are you really listening to the other person, or are you distracted by other noise such as the next item on your to-do list? When you are present in the moment, your listening skills improve, your relationships blossom, and your life is enriched.
Today, I embrace and share who I am — all 100 percent.
Despite blanketing the city in marketing material and advertising, almost every day I’m asked, “What is DreamBank anyway?” Our “elevator speech” answer goes something like this:
“At American Family Insurance, we believe that your dream is the most valuable thing you’ll ever own, so much so that we opened DreamBank, a community space dedicated to the pursuit of dreams. We invite our community members in to use our interactive tools and technology to discover their dream and then find inspiration to pursue that dream through our calendar of events and expert staff.”
The true answer, though, is much deeper and more purposeful than we could ever explain in a sentence or two. It’s important to note that the universality of dreams is that you’re always the right age, in the right circumstances and functioning in your best interest when you have a dream. This is the platform we’re using to connect with people. We’re not just reaching out to the business community and entrepreneurs – we’re reaching out and connecting with people.
We’re not just hosting field trips. We’re convincing 12 year-old Alexcia that her dream of becoming a doctor is not only possible, but that it’s admirable, noble, and impactful. We’re not just throwing Pinterest Parties. We’re creating a warm, welcoming environment where Wendy, a victim of years of emotional abuse, feels comfortable to express herself and begin re-scripting her internal dialogue.
Our growing community of dreamers consists of thousands of individuals who are working to better their own lives, the lives of others, and the lives of future generations. All by simply pursuing a dream.
So what is DreamBank? It’s many things. It’s a lecture hall, an art room, a contemplative space, a refuge, a dance party, even a place for meaningful conversation that brings clarity through introspection – you name it. The best part is that it’s what you make it – literally and figuratively – not just because you can use these resources at your leisure, but because when you talk, we listen.
You said your dream is to run a marathon, so we now have a “Couch to 5K” running club to get you started. You said your dream is to send your children to college, so we enlisted an expert to help you navigate the world of financial aid and standardized test prep. You said your dream is to travel, so we’re hosting events to help you plan and budget for your dream vacation.
DreamBank is the vehicle we’re using to catapult you from “Park” into “Drive.” It’s American Family’s way of bridging the gap between dreams and reality, because, in the words of best-selling author Sarah Ban Breathnach, “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers, but above all, the world needs dreamers who do.”
As long as I can recall, I haven’t been winter’s biggest fan. As a kid on a working farm, when I carried water to animals through snow as tall as I was uphill both ways, winter felt like an endless and brutal season. When I was 10, I made a deal with Mother Nature; I was allowed to curse the cold, the snow and the ice, but I could never once complain about the summer heat.
I’ve stuck to my word for 32 years.
I’ve now had three decades to reconsider my relationship with winter, and this winter in particular seems like a great time to write it down. Spring, summer and harvest season (I don’t use the “f” word in my house) are a riot of planning, planting, picking, pickling and putting by food from my garden. Some people say that folks in the north cram nine months of activity into our three-month summer. That may be true, but if we had a nine-month growing season, I’d be working in my garden the whole time. So maybe winter is a mandatory rest period I wouldn’t otherwise take.
I like the change of pace winter brings. I also like some of the other changes that happen at our house. Our menu changes as we incorporate more frozen and canned food. I love nothing more than going into the basement in the middle of winter and bringing up garlic, onions, cans of vegetables or fruit jam. We play more games with friends. We watch more movies. We go to plays and all the fund-raising dinners we attend seem to be in the winter months. We don’t make time for these things in the summer, so I’m glad winter makes time for them for us.
Another thing winter does is it slows me down. I’m a “doer,” meaning sometimes I stick a shovel in the soil and start digging, occasionally a little sooner or in a different place than had I planned in advance. So winter’s forced “down time” from the garden helps me sit back and observe my surroundings. It gives me time to reflect on the summer past and the summer to come. It’s also when I get my graph paper and doodle garden beds, pore through seed and plant catalogs and read the magazines I didn’t read when they arrived last summer.
Finally, this winter’s “polar vortex” was particularly long and harsh, but this isn’t new. Every winter has a spell of below-zero weather. I have a name for that bitter cold. I call it “bug-killing weather,” and I like to think it’s the reason we don’t have cockroaches the size of my foot or malaria mosquitoes here in Wisconsin.
So on reflection, I’ll continue to curse the cold of winter (and relish the heat of summer) but maybe, just maybe, winter isn’t all that bad – and even has it’s purpose in my life.
Josh Feyen - the Urbane Farmer shares his “raised-on-a-farm” wisdom and writes about urban farming and organic gardening topics on his personal blog, too.