Coffee klatsch

creamerDoggone it. Why do my local grocery stores only carry plain-Jane flavors of coffee creamer? Vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, and a few seasonal concoctions are all that grace our shelves. I know from traveling and a few relevant trade shows that there are dozens of flavors we never see–flavors that appeal to me a whole lot more.

So here’s the dilemma. A store might say it is catering to the preferences of its clientele. Customers buy a lot of French vanilla, so they stock French vanilla. But how do customers (or the store) know whether they like cinnamon creme if they don’t even know it exists?

We limit ourselves by serving only current needs and desires. We look at what’s around us rather than looking ahead at what could be. Although we think we are meeting demand today, we’re actually limiting it in the long run. There’s a big difference between serving demand and creating it.

Forget coffee creamer. The point is that we have to think ahead. Where can we go? What can we accomplish? What new solutions can we offer? What can we do that no one has ever thought of? We move forward by looking beyond our current situation and reaching for more.

And lest you think my capitalistic heart has taken over, I’m talking about new ideas, not necessarily new products. Reach for the stars, friends. You might just find a planet.

Varsity blues

Varsity_LetterBefore I start with the “real” content of this post, I want to say that I am unbelievably proud of my son, who earned his varsity letter for wrestling this year–as a freshman. He worked really, really hard and took at least his fair share of bumps and bruises–to his body and his ego.

Now, onward.

Talking to my son’s wrestling coach the other day, I asked him his thoughts about the program. As much as he appreciated how hard those boys worked, he lamented the team’s lack of depth. Although there are 14 varsity weight classes, they could only fill 12 of them this season, and several of those spots only had one guy. That is, the guy who got the varsity spot took it by default; he didn’t have to wrestle off or prove he was better than anyone else.

Where I come from, said the coach, freshmen and sophomores wouldn’t even be sniffing at the varsity line-up. When I pushed for clarification, he went on to say that underclassmen would be working hard and paying their dues, getting better and stronger in the hope that they would be good enough to earn a varsity spot as a junior or senior.

Of course, as the mom of a freshman who had wrestled varsity almost all season, my initial (internal) reaction was to go all mama-bear and protect my son’s accomplishments. The more I thought about it, though, the more I respected the coach’s position.

After all, if no one is challenging those boys for their spots–if they don’t have to worry about others rising through the ranks and threatening their hold on them–what’s their incentive to get better? They’re already “good enough,” right?

I thought back to some of the opposing teams our kids had faced this year, and the toughest ones always had huge programs. In fact, one team we wrestled even had an A-team and a B-team–both considered varsity–with an even larger number of JV guys hungering for their spots. No wonder they were so good–they just naturally pushed each other upward and onward.

I’m not saying our kids didn’t work hard. Oh, they did–they really did–and I’m proud of them all. But I also know that things look different when you can see the forest beyond the trees, and for our guys, that forest was a long way off. No wonder the coach thinks that the secret to the success of the program is to get more kids interested and participating.

Some people have an incredible internal drive and push themselves to improve no matter what. Even those people, however, need to see where the bar sits. That’s why when I was running in a lot of races, I not only looked at my time and strove to improve it, but I also looked at the winners’ times to see where I needed to go.

Competition can be healthy for all of us. It helps us get better individually and as a team. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with one winner and one loser, either. After all, I might never make varsity but end up vastly better than where I started. Or I might lose my varsity spot to someone who has surpassed my ability–and I have to step it up to get it back.

Sure, there’s unhealthy competition, too. But when I look at this kind of situation, how does it make me a loser if I end up better than where I started? I shouldn’t be afraid of more people on “my” turf; I should use them to spur me on. The more the merrier.

Take the money

Antique_cash_registerA certain department store sends me coupons all the time in the mail–either 15, 20, or 30%. It’s rare that one isn’t lying on my counter. The trouble is, I rarely remember to take it with me when I shop. I’m such a spur-of-the-moment person that I often just pop in on my way to or from somewhere else.

The store has a pretty liberal policy about those things. Whenever I’m checking out, the cashier will ask if I have a coupon. Invariably, I’ll have to respond that I’ve left it at home. No problem, says the cashier. What was the discount on it?

Herein lies the dilemma.

Call it upbringing, but I always answer truthfully. I think it was 15%, I’ll say. Nonplussed, the cashier will gently prod me, Are you sure? After answering in the affirmative, I’ll belatedly realize that the cashier is giving me the opportunity to increase my savings, thinking I’ll correct myself and go for the 30% discount rather.

For some reason, I just can’t do it.

Besides the fact that it never occurs to me until the opportunity has passed, the knot in my chest that grows when I’m not completely truthful won’t let the words clear my voice box.

Often I think this is just another of my strange quirks, but sometimes I wonder if it’s more than that. I hate, hate, HATE to be on the receiving end of a lie, and let’s just say that my upbringing reinforced the value of not being on the giving end, too. I have a deeply ingrained habit of needing to believe the stories I tell are true. When they’re not, I can’t get the words out.

I know (and love) lots of people who would go for the big discount–and I don’t blame them. But if paying a little more is the result of a deep-seated behavior that serves me well in so many other areas, take my money. If I start turning it off, a day might come when I forget to turn it back on.

Language lessons

Recently I worked on a side project that fell just a bit outside my realm of experience. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done similar things before; I just hadn’t done that particular thing. I viewed it as a surmountable challenge, and I dove in.

I made a few calls, asked a few questions, and got what I needed to move forward: the right words. You see, I knew what I needed to accomplish, but I didn’t know how to talk about it in a way that would make sense to the right people.

So I put myself out there and asked questions. I asked them until I could describe my subject in the vernacular of people in the know. The conversation to get there went something like this:

Me: Hi! I’m working on this project and I need to do XYZ. I also need a bit of an education.

Guy on the phone: Sure. Will you help me understand what you’re looking for?

*He asks as few specific questions, which I answer.*

Guy on the phone: Oh, you need [specific term].

Simple as that. Once I knew what to call my project, I was home free. My Google search results changed dramatically when I knew what to input. I found the right people to contact and could describe the project in their terms. Now I could get things done.

It’s funny how finding a simple key to a situation makes me giddy. And of course, I analyzed the heck out of it so I could boil it down to a couple of key lessons. First, don’t be afraid to ask questions–ask people who know and keep asking them till you get what you need. Second, speaking the right language gets results. When it comes down to it, words do matter.

Eye candy

EyesWhen I started cooking as a kid, I loved to try new recipes and even make up some of my own. I lived for the praise I hoped to get at the moment of truth, when I served my dish. I knew something wasn’t right when my stepmother would say, It has good flavor.

Now, those words may look innocent enough, but my first reaction was always to retort, But it looks like crap?

***

Years ago, I sometimes helped my former mother-in-law serve food when she catered large events. Although the food always tasted good, what really set it apart was its presentation. Sometimes I thought we spent as much time arranging each platter as my MIL had spent preparing it. (Did you know that a cheese tray looks terrific on a bed of red, curly lettuce? Or that there’s even such a thing as red, curly lettuce?)

I never minded helping her because her customers were always so profuse with their compliments.

***

When I lived in Germany, I tried hard to make sure I spoke using good grammar, but as a non-native speaker, I regularly made mistakes. What I did master was the accent. To this day, I have friends who tell me I speak perfectly, even as I stumble over an adjective ending. They just don’t hear it because the sound is right.

***

One of the toughest things to get used to in my job was formatting my work a certain way–even the drafts and the internal stuff. At first the requirement seemed like overkill, but eventually it sank in and became a habit. Now it comes almost naturally.

One day it all came together.

After reviewing some documents I had presented to a client, he remarked about how pleased he was with them–especially the format. I never get anything this well put together, he said. I expected to work on this, but I can share this with my colleagues just as you’ve given it to me. I am so impressed.

Time after time I am reminded that presentation is half the battle. If you make it look right, sound right, act right–whatever it is–people are more receptive to the content. The package is part of the experience, and people eat with their eyes first.

Balancing act

Balancing actSome time ago, a colleague introduced me to a quote that goes something like this:

Balance, dare I say it, is vastly overrated. In the end, you might want to consider the benefits of imbalance, and the achievements that come with pursuing a passion with a single-minded devotion. –Colin Cowherd

I chewed on it at the time, “getting” it but still somewhat skeptical. After all, single-minded devotion to, well, anything means the rest of the stuff in your life will suffer, right?  It seems to me that there’s a trade-off between being okay–or even pretty good–at a lot of things and being really, really great at just one. I’ve got a family, after all. Single-minded devotion seems like a luxury when there are so many demands on my time.

Then I went to a football game. As usual, my team’s performance was wildly inconsistent. We had a great first drive, then we fell apart for a big chunk of the game. The reason? We’re really good at passing (the focus of the first drive) and struggle a lot at running (subsequent play series). It was pretty frustrating to watch.

My uncle and seatmate is blessed with the ability to always look for the silver lining. When the outcome looked hopeless, he turned to me and said, I’m glad to see we are trying the run. We need a balanced offense.

Without thinking, I shot back, Who cares about balance?! I want to win!

Light bulb moment. I finally got it, skepticism discarded.

Figure out what you do well. Practice it. Hone it. Perfect it. Do it better than anyone else and own it.

There’s another part of that quote that sums it all up: And if that means they sacrifice balance along the way, they don’t care. They’ve found something more important: results.

Thankfully, my team figured that out. We eventually went back to the passing plays that we do best–and staged an amazing comeback to win the game. Results.

Hang tight

OHandleHere’s something that might surprise you about me. As fiercely independent as I (like to believe) I am, I like for someone else to do the driving–particularly when we’re talking about my significant other. Don’t get me wrong; I’m neither afraid to drive nor do I dislike driving–and I’ve definitely done my fair share. It’s just a quirk I have.

For the last few months, I’ve let myself be chauffeured about quite a bit. And boy-oh-boy, did that take some getting used to. The first time we took an exit ramp at slightly above the speed limit with me in the passenger seat, I thought we were going to careen off the road. Luckily I glanced at the speedometer before I really let him have it–only to discover that he was going somewhat slower than my standard ramp speed. What the heck? Why did it feel so different?

Because everything’s different in the passenger seat, that’s why.

When someone else holds the wheel, terra firma often feels like skid city. Try as I might, I can’t stomp on the imaginary brake hard enough or throw enough body English on the car to change anything. When I’m not in control, I feel way less secure.

That was a big eye-opener for me, especially when I recognized the metaphor. Life surely feels different when you’re not in control.

And then I went a step further. I started thinking about people who have been in my passenger seat. How secure do I make them feel? Do they try to make compensatory adjustments for my feckless navigation? Have they just accepted it?

I’d like to think I’m a little more respectful of those alongside me since I’ve had this revelation, but time will tell. And lest I forget the lesson, I’m about to receive frequent reminders. My son starts driver’s training soon. Hold on and hang tight!

Sally forth

not an optionYou can never go back. Ever. If I had a dollar for every time I learned that lesson the hard way…well, you know the saying.

It’s true. It’s impossible to recapture a moment, to reverse a mistake, to revisit the past. And it’s almost as difficult to pick up something where you left off and go on as if there had been no break. You can never go back.

But you can make a new start.

I’ve struggled to make a series of life adjustments over the past year. Instead of finding a new world order and taking charge, I’ve come pretty close to letting it take charge of me. Among (many) other things, I haven’t been running, and the last post I made to this blog was too many months ago to count.

But I can’t go back.

So here’s the deal. I’m recommitting to writing, but I won’t just pick up where I left off. Since this is a new start, I’ve given the blog a new look and I plan to freshen up the content, too. I’m not sure how yet, but if I wait till I figure it out completely, Wordsmatter will remain dormant. So I’m forging ahead and pounding the keyboard. I’ll figure it out as I go along. Suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, sally forth!

P.S. If you think this post applies to more than writing, you might be right.

Swagger

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I pass this billboard every day on my way home. The first time I saw it, I reacted with a start. That’s gutsy, I thought. Arrogant, even. Does Peerless think it’s THAT good? Wow.

I had plans of blogging about this right away, but one thing led to another and I put it off for a while. Turns out, that wasn’t all bad. It gave me a chance to ponder the campaign and how I felt about it.

Although my first reaction tended toward negative, is wasn’t quite negative. Part of me thought that a business needs to possess that kind of swagger to sell itself well. After all, if it doesn’t believe in itself, how can it expect others to believe?

Then I found the campaign online and realized that the person on the billboard was a realtor. (The text on the bottom of the image above either wasn’t on the actual sign or wasn’t readable. I hadn’t noticed it driving by.) That made this sign make WAY more sense. Digging deeper, I realized it was part of a campaign featuring local businesspeople, tying them into the dry cleaner through clever slogans. Ah, clarity.

Then again, if I had to work that hard to “get” it, was it really successful?

In the end, I think it was–not because the message was so clever or the campaign so well thought. It was successful because it captured my attention for days. I remained engaged with that sign for days, maybe even a couple of weeks. Peerless Cleaners captured a portion of my mental real estate and stayed top of mind as I pondered and explored.

What say you? How do you feel about the sign itself? And do you think its swagger got the job done?

Keynotes

mos cardAs you might expect, my recent job change brought a few surprises with it. Realizing how challenging it is to be new at everything. Opening my closet door to find to find a stockpile of clothing that no longer seems appropriate. Being able to have lunch with my mother during the workday for the first time ever. Struggling to find a new writing routine. Something that surprised even my surprised self, however, was the attention generated by the announcement of my new venture.

My new company announced my arrival with a press release–pretty standard fare. In my previous position, I had even written several of those for others. The part that surprised me was the way others viewed the PR as a marketing opportunity. My grad school alma mater tweeted it to tie the success of an alumna to its own value. A local auto dealership sent me a letter outlining the advertising opportunities it offers. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sent me several tracts and a handwritten note that tried desperately to explain a nebulous connection between them and my new job. I found this all very fascinating.

I did, however, find one missive to be very well executed. I received a tasteful, well-written note from an upscale restaurant offering nothing more than congratulations–and a $25 credit with no strings attached. Brilliant. No gimmick, no expectation. The restaurant gave something to me; it didn’t expect something of me. Now, $25 won’t go far at that particular restaurant, but the gesture does make me inclined to pay it a visit.

What a terrific illustration of the potency in valuing people, of being willing to give in good faith in order to build a relationship, of giving people reasons to want to come to you, not to have to.

There’s a lesson in everything, even one little note.

P.S. Click on the photo above and read the card if you have a chance. What it said made all the difference. Words do matter.