Second Act Lessons 

Posted on April 21, 2024

A close-up of a person riding a horse in a Western landscape.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Dr. Sarah Story, Executive Director of the Jefferson County, CO Public Health Department. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn, Medium, or Instagram.

What I’m Watching: Last weekend I went to the movies with my teens, and we had to decide between Godzilla x Kong or Civil War. It is a testament to my parenting that the vote went for Civil War (the lone dissenter being the mentally exhausted High School Senior who didn’t “want to think”). It was… unsettling. I think NPR called it “this year’s most triggering movie”. I appreciate a movie that doesn’t try too hard to give backstory. It’s simply a snapshot (see what I did there?) of a point in time that feels surreal but fully real. I think I recommend it? Maybe? It’s legit the only movie I can think of in recent history that gave me a nightmare afterwards. 

What I’m Reading: There are two things I’m obsessed with right now: the subject of this essay you’re about to read and this New Yorker article about France’s largest all-you-can-eat buffet. I actually can’t stop talking about it. I will interrupt any conversation with, “wait, one more thing about the buffet… there is a 7-tier tower of lobsters” or “they parade a canard on a spear through the dining room while the French National Anthem plays” or “MILES OF CAVIAR.” You have to make a reservation months in advance, and if you are guessing that I immediately booked a table for my birthday in 2025, you would be very correct. I had no plans of visiting France in the spring, but I guess this is as good a reason as any to start saving money.  

What I’m Cooking: Right this minute, a very large Instant Pot full of my favorite rice: Calrose. It’s back in stock at Costco so we are now proud owners of 30 pounds of it. Bonus, I recently learned from the NYT about a thing called “resistant starch” that’s supposedly healthier for you and is a byproduct of rice or pasta in leftover form.

My inbox filled up after my last essay. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and the number of people who felt compelled to commiserate. I was also overwhelmed with the number of people who shared how often they blast music and dance alone in their homes. It was inspiring–all this time I’m over here mourning my lost go-go dancing era instead of doing what y’all are doing, making your living rooms your own personal elevated platform. The problem was I didn’t have a current playlist in rotation that was cutting it, and I was growing weary of my regular playlists. 

Enter, right on cue, Cowboy Carter

I have a soft spot in my heart for country music. Growing up, it’s the music I heard blasted over the outdoor speakers in my rich friend’s homes all summer while we lounged by the pool. Bakersfield (my hometown) is the country music capital of the West, and we were LEGALLY REQUIRED to learn line dances during gym class. Every child of the Central Valley between the ages of 35 and 45 knows the Watermelon Crawl and Boot Scootin’ Boogie. I associated country music with belonging to this city, this life in the suburbs. So, while my own family didn’t listen to country music, I silently and secretly connected the dots between upper class people living in big houses to Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. In other words, it wasn’t for me. 

So, I was anticipating the release of Beyoncé’s new album with cautious excitement. I wanted to connect with it, because I wanted to sing loud in the car with the windows down and the sun on my face. I wanted country music that felt open and special and didn’t alienate me with insinuations that I am not a true American if I don’t encourage my sons to wear camo (cough cough Jason Aldean) or don’t… I don’t know… like throwing chairs off the roof of a bar

I set up shop the Friday morning of the album release with coffee and a breakfast burrito. I went for a run ahead of time so my brain would be open and clear, my endorphins high and my heart emotionally raw. Prime Beyoncé appreciation mode. I started a text thread with my sister so that I had somewhere to put my thoughts. At 9:55 AM I texted:


Then at 9:59 AM:

Why am I crying at EVERY song? (laughing with tears emoji)

Two hours later, a reply from sis:

😭😭😭😭😭😭(six crying emojis)

Me, at 12:56 PM:



A screenshot of a text message exchange.

I’m not in the BeyHive, per say. I love Beyoncé, of course, but I don’t connect with all of her music. I didn’t sell a kidney to go see the Renaissance tour. I will defend her to the death because she is around my age and, therefore, has been a staple in my memories between ages 17-present. Some of those memories are joyful (singing Irreplaceable while biking with my best friend in DC telling them to turn “to the left, to the left”) and some are less so (Lemonade things). 

For some reason Cowboy Carter struck me with a cupid arrow quickly and fully. Maybe it’s my own genre-change, a re-entering into a field I thought I wasn’t allowed in anymore. Maybe it’s being another year older, more rooted in the first half of my 40s, questioning the things that truly make me me. Or perhaps it’s just a well-timed gift for those of us who needed permission to wear those old cowboy boots we’ve had buried in the closet for 25 years.

While some of the lyrics on this album are just pure fun, there are many lines that resonate beyond the song. The best thing about art is that the meaning is, often, in the eye of the beholder. It really doesn’t matter that I have seemingly very little in common with Beyoncé aside from gorgeous kids and over four decades on earth. What matters is that I, the listener, can find a glimmer of inspiration for my own situation regardless of the intent of the lyric. That’s a really beautiful thing. 

So, put on your spurs and enjoy these eight leadership lessons from Cowboy Carter

A closeup of boots in stirrups.

“I don’t fellowship with these fake ones” – Daughter

The White Lotus song of the album, this track had me screaming out loud “she’s singing opera!!!!” And while the crown jewel of lyrics is obviously “I’m colder than Titanic water”, that one is not exactly well-positioned for a LinkedIn work-fluencer post. Better is this lyric, a reminder to constantly calibrate your BS geiger counter. The central word of the lesson is “fellowship”, which suggests community and equality. It’s a group of people brought together for a shared purpose. Most of us do not inherit a blank slate of an organization when we assume our position and, therefore, we don’t get to choose who we work with. I’m thinking too of my daughter and her friends about to graduate high school and head off to college, where the desire to meet new people might override that quiet whisper warning you about other people’s intentions. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever have to be around fake ones, it means that we can control the influence and power we hand over to them. 

Unrelated, I like to perform this song in the car as if I’m walking slowly down a grand staircase in a huge mansion. 

Been a while since I haven’t tried to pull away. But it’s time for something new” – II Most Wanted

I know this song is supposed to be about someone we love, romantically or platonically, but instead it reminds me of road trips with my dog. I think about the first time I saw her face, and how it changed me from a hard-hearted, dog-indifferent woman into a squishy-hearted, dog-obsessed “dog mom” who buys raw food in frozen meat tubes and plans weekends around dog-centered adventures in nature. My love (our love, really) is so uncomplicated and pure that it reminded me that I do have it in me to unapologetically, unconditionally love something with no expectation of transactional balance. 

Professionally, I find myself in a similar place where the dreams and ambitions I had hidden away behind a high security fence topped with barbed wire are starting to see the light of day. Past experiences taught me to stay guarded, not to get my hopes up too high. I am learning to trust and love again, in the realm of my career, and although it feels scary it also feels so good. 

Also shout out to Beyoncé for featuring so many other artists and making me sing along with Miley Cyrus and Post Malone, two people who weren’t anywhere on my radar these days. I also now have a million Black country artists on rotation thanks to her elevating them on this album–a testament to the power of bringing others with her even when the country establishment did their best attempt at gatekeeping. It’s always easier to tear down expectations with a team.

A dog peers out the window of a car.

Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined” – Spaghettii 

This choice feels a little bit like cheating, because it’s a spoken intro by the legendary Linda Martell. Regardless, it hits, especially because Spaghetii comes on the heels of songs that are very different stylistically. As one of my favorite think pieces put it, this song isn’t about breaking the rules of a game stacked against you, it’s about designing a whole new game. The album to this point ropes us (get it?) into thinking we’re in for 40 more minutes of country infusion (and opera?) and then pivots hard into the type of music you put on your “lift heavy things at the gym” playlist. It’s a delightful surprise and I found myself craving that burst of energy and enamored with the boldness of it all. How often are we afraid to change course because of the categories we have been shoved into? How many opportunities for delight and surprise have we missed because we bought into the sunk cost fallacy that switching things up is a waste of all the effort we put into the road behind us? Spaghettii doesn’t have the same impact without Bodyguard or My Rose – the experience of all of these moments are dependent on each other. Plus, life gets pretty boring when you play the same part your whole life. 

“Plant my bare feet on solid ground for years. They don’t, don’t know how hard I had to fight for this” – American Requiem 

This whole idea of who “gets” to be country is absurd and rooted in some truly ugly isms. Personally, I think anyone born and raised in Texas “gets” to be country as a birthright. If Keith Urban, the Aussie son of a convenience store owner in suburban Brisbane, or Tim McGraw, whose closest brush with farming was being a member of the FFA in high school before attending college in Florida on a baseball scholarship, can claim country then who can’t? I don’t discount these guys’ connection to the music or their Nashville bona fides, but the number of white men cosplaying cowboy and finding success shouldn’t be ignored. 

The truth is, no one will ever know our full story. No one will know our struggles to get where we are, to sit in the desk chair we inhabit, unless we own the story. But we need to remember that, for those of us with immense amounts of privilege, all struggles aren’t created equally. I’ve seen too many white women, for instance, attempt to identify with the oppression of Black and brown women by countering with their own hard upbringings or the sexism they have faced in the world. I’ve been guilty of this defense mechanism myself, and I’m ashamed of it. For as much as this album speaks to me, I will never know what it is like to inhabit a Black body. In fact, I will never know what it’s like to inhabit anyone’s truth and so it’s imperative that I move through the world leading with grace since I’ve been given a social latitude solely through the color of my own skin. I didn’t earn it, even if I did earn my accomplishments. Maturing as a leader is simultaneously recognizing that yes, you did work hard and yes, you also got a boost thanks to the systemic oppression of others. 

Which brings us to…

Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh. History can’t be erased, ooh” – Ya Ya

I can’t work in public health and not recognize the Tuskegee experiments. I can’t be a government official and not admit to the horrors our institutions created and the ones they ignored – slavery, redlining, forced sterilization, war crimes, minimum mandatory sentencing, et al. These are just as much a part of our history as the good stuff. In the same way, a leader recognizes their own personal histories with the same blend of honesty, repentance, and growth. I’ve done well, and I’ve messed up big time. It can all be true at the same time. When we face opposition to Government programs, we can’t undo the legacy of our past selves and attribute resident hesitancy to a lack of education. We can’t inform our way back into trust, we have to earn it over time with action. Deep wounds require long runways for healing, and the most critical element to good leadership isn’t intelligence or productivity, it’s patience. Patience isn’t without urgency, though, and it isn’t an invitation to procrastinate. 

And can we just take a moment to appreciate the utter CHAOS that will ensue in the arena when this song is played live? And can we also take a moment to pour one out for the fact that millions of white cowboys are on TikTok doing a viral dance to this song? A real full circle thing. 

Even though I know, someday, you’re gonna shine on your own, I will be your projector” – Projector

If you thought you’d get through one of my essays without the word “sobbing”, you clearly aren’t familiar with my canon. From the moment little Rumi opens the song asking her mom for a lullaby, I knew I was in trouble. That first time I listened, when Beyoncé sang “I feel proud of who I am because you need me”, I convulsed into sobs so hard I had to shut the song down and wash my face. This pattern repeated over the following days so predictably I had to start SKIPPING it because it was too hard, my children’s faces appearing before me in one of those kids-growing-older montages you see in whatever Apple commercial is making you cry during every winter holiday season. 

Even though this song is, as my dear friend and honorary cowgirl Corinne said the other day over tacos, “the best song about parenting ever written”, it’s also a rallying cry for succession planning. A couple weeks ago I was honored to be a guest on a podcast hosted by another dear friend and former co-worker and one of the questions they posed was about how I would define success when I move onto the next season of my life. I wasn’t expecting this question, and so I answered with my first instinct – I would know I was successful if there was someone poised and ready to take my place when I leave. Being a strong leader isn’t about hoarding accolades for yourself, it’s about amplifying the light of others so that they are filled with value and energy as they prepare for their next season. I’ve worked for leaders who thought that giving me credit for good ideas or big wins somehow dulled their own shine. And I’ve been frustrated countless times by the feeling that my hard work went unnoticed, only to be recycled as a “brilliant” thought that spontaneously came to the very people who earlier dismissed me. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to realize that the best reflection on me is the success of the organization and all of the people within it. It’s a leader’s job to create an environment where great initiatives thrive, even if it means your name isn’t stamped all over it. I’m not perfect at this yet, and I will always struggle with that need to be validated, but I’m working on it. 

“Here’s to hoping I’ll fall fast asleep tonight, And I’ll just need to get through this // Born in the darkness, who brings the light? And I just, I need to get through this // Or just get used to it” – Just for Fun

I love Beyoncé in her lower register because it makes me feel like I too, one day, can be a famous singer instead of, as one acting school decision maker deemed me 25 years ago, “two-thirds of a triple threat.” This is one of those songs that deserves expensive headphones, because then Willie Jones comes in and you just wanna turn this song into a big weighted blanket and cuddle up in it all day. Personally, I think this is the best vocal performance Beyoncé gives on the whole album. It’s restrained and a bit scratchy and there are some vocal acrobatics and phrasing that give me goosebumps. It’s not Caro Mio Ben but it’s just as powerful. 

This line may feel defeatist, but it’s akin to something I say to my staff and my family often: sometimes things just suck. They’re hard. They’re painful. They’re dark. There is a beauty in this surrender (a topic I have written about at length here and here and elsewhere) where you throw up your hands and just admit: “I don’t like this.” It doesn’t mean we just give up and check out, it means we ride the wave and resist the urge to believe the lie that the dark will last so long we’ll never see daylight again. It’s courageous to continue to be that daylight yourself even when it’s difficult – to be a truth-teller, to bring things out of dank, dusty corners. Pointing out the suckiness also robs it of its power. One of the best things a leader can do is not run from the hard conversations and pretend EVERYTHING IS TOTALLY FINE. I’ve had more nights than I can count where sleep is all I can do to push through one more painful day. Sometimes those days stretch into weeks, those weeks into quarters. It’s not a failure to admit when you’ve failed, but it’s a serious misstep to fake perfection and give false hope to the people you serve. 

And finally…

“Look at that horse.” – Sweet ⭐️Honey ⭐️Buckin

And to top off this essay, the line that’s got me about ready to spend my life savings on stickers and mugs on Etsy. This song starts off with a Beyoncé nod to Patsy Cline and quickly introduces a bouncy beat that wouldn’t be out of place at the Jersey Shore circa 2010. THEN we start buckin’ and it becomes what Bowen Yang referred to on Las Culturistas as a sort of Ketamine-induced nightmare track, complete with what my girlfriends and I have always called the “hip hop horn.” It’s only right that the song leads into Amen. We all need to hit the confession booth after that night out. 

Look at that horse. It doesn’t need to mean anything more than what it says. It isn’t jargon. Beyonce doesn’t say “circle back and touch base with the four legged equine in the near future.” She says to LOOK at that HORSE. And when we look at the horse, then what? Nothing. Just… enjoy it. See it. Notice it. Sometimes we get so wound up trying to sound smart that we lose the plot entirely. We get afraid to just say what we mean, lest someone think we don’t know big words. I’m sure this is rich coming from someone who just spent nine Google Doc pages talking about an album, but I did already admit that I’m not perfect. 

Look at that horse. It’s silly. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. The absurdity of this line doesn’t invalidate all of the poetry on the album or the serious messages throughout… it just IS. It’s as much a part of Cowboy Carter as the powerful statements on racism and sexism. That’s the best part about authentic leadership, the ability to contain multitudes and proudly display all of them.

The sculpture Blue Mustang, a cast-fiberglass sculpture of a mustang located at Denver International Airport. The sculpture is colored bright blue, with illuminated glowing red eyes.

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