[Life Back West] March 2011 – “Flatopup”



Our 8 1/2 year old son Traylor seems finally settled on a transitional object.

The Peanuts’ cartoon character Linus has his omnipresent blanket; my little big guy has Flatopup.

Flatopup took hold after a number of other alternatives were considered and then discarded. When Traylor was in preschool my spouse and I were convinced that his friend Emma – another child of a non traditional (single mom) and adoptive family – was his transitional object, the enduring item in his preschool life that enabled him to go through any number of other changes with the sense of a constant at this side.

When Emma did the predictable and cheated on him when they were both 4 (e.g. she developed other friends), Traylor  started looking around in his drawer of stuffies for something to call his alone. Four years later, and lots of stuffie auditions, Flatopup has settled on the top of Traylor’s heap, our version of his Velveteen Rabbit.

Transitional objects are defined as a “comfort object,” something that “replaces the care of the mother” as the child goes through changes. While that mother part doesn’t exactly fit into our two-dad family, the fact of the matter is that all of us can use some constants to remind us of who we are, or who we want to be in our lives.

I encouraged a coaching client whose  lower-affect presence hides the fact that not only did he have an engaging and funny sense of humor, but his bare office failed to suggest that he had kids and a wife that were his pride and joy. A few goofy drawings from school not only provided a prop for the curious (Cool! I never knew you had young kids.) but could also be my clients reminder for what was important in life. The objects were simply authentic props both to remind and shed some light on the personal person inside.

While I’ve tried to keep mentor Jack Hawley’s advice in mind that “To travel fast you need to travel light,” it hasn’t prevented me from keeping a few tchotchkes around to keep things in perspective for me as well. They include a letter opener from Tiffany that was a gift noting my move to McKesson’s corporate offices as an SVP of HR (“I hear things can be rough there so you might want to keep something pointy handy”) as well as a painted tile with the inscription “Miracles happen” from a solitary vacation years ago in Cannon Beach.

Yogi Berra said “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there,” and I suspect it’s very true. Some decent, accurate directional signposts along the way are really helpful.

Objects like Flatopup help you to remember where you’ve been – and where you want to go. And while I tend to subscribe to Ella Fitzgerald’s philosophy – “It isn’t where you came from but where you’re going that counts” – a little gyroscopic centering by your own adult transitional object (or three) never hurt anyone.

Life has joys and bumps. My colleague Jack used to crib Gandi and encourage me to “be the person you want to be.” With a little help from my own versions of Flatopup, I  just might work through those transitions and get to where I think I was meant to be.

If you haven’t already, you just might too.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, new role, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.