Humble pie

Every now and then, I’ll be cruising along feeling on top of my game, and out of nowhere I’ll get a pie in the face. Humble pie. Something will happen to remind me I’m not all that.

  • Someone else did it first.
  • Someone else did it faster.
  • I can’t control all the variables.
  • It didn’t turn out the way I wanted.
  • I ran out of time.
  • I didn’t make the team.

Whatever it is, there’s always something to remind me not to let my ego get in the way of my progress, that there’s still a lot left for me to learn.

The key in these situations is not to knuckle under and stop trying. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If someone did it first, what can I learn from that to make it better? If someone else did it faster, how can I improve my time–or make it worth the wait? If I can’t control the variables, how can I create a plan that accounts for deviation? If it didn’t turn out the way I wanted, should I reevaluate my expectations or try again?

Though best eaten with crow, humble pie can be nourishing with the right attitude.

Find yourself

My daughter’s babysitter leaves tomorrow for a year-long exchange to Germany. Lucky girl! While her parents struggle to let her go–as any parent would–I hope they know this:

They’re not losing their daughter; they are helping her find herself.

By allowing this exchange, they are giving their daughter the gift of self-knowledge. Stripped of familiar trappings and cultural conventions, the choices she makes in this year will be the products of her own essence. Everything will be new and different. And, until she forms new ones, nothing she undertakes will be born from habit. She’ll test, experiment, reject, and accept. Without the comforts of home, she’ll find out who she is, and that will likely be different from the person whom those around her think she is.

When she returns next year, many people will think she has changed because she won’t fit into the mold she left behind. Respectfully, I posit that she won’t have changed; the person her friends will see will be the same young woman who has always been inside. She’ll just look different without the cultural constraints and expectations that have clothed her for so long. We’ll get to see the real her, and that’s exciting!

We should all be so lucky. Who is the person hiding under your cultural artifacts?

Viel Spaß und alles Gute, Madison!


A couple of years ago I embarked on a personal transformational journey that has left me in the best physical shape of my life. I’ve never been fitter, and I’ve never worn a smaller clothing size in my adult life. In fact, I wear the same–and sometimes smaller–size I did when I was in high school. So what’s the problem? I weigh more than I did back then. Even though I’m sporting more muscle and it’s better distributed, by all rights I should wear one or two sizes bigger. Isn’t it great that the women’s clothing industry works so hard to keep my self-esteem in tact?

No, no, NO. I completely disagree with this approach which, beyond the clothing industry, has pervaded its way through so many aspects of our American lives. Of course I want to be a smaller size, but not by way of recalibrating the scale. Tell me the truth; don’t simply lower the bar.

Really, this post isn’t about my dress size–no one really cares about that but me. The fact is that what I see in my closet is reflective of what I see in schools, in business, in the world at large. Somewhere along the line, it has become more important to avoid the possibility of offense than to be real. In that process, we’ve lowered our standards and begun to accept less, calling it more. We grade everything on a curve.

Here are some examples:

  • College exams where 70% becomes an A, because that was the highest grade. (I’ve seen this happen regularly.) Shouldn’t we be responsible for knowing the material rather than just passing the test?
  • An airline which receives kudos because its on-time performance is better than all the rest, when the number would look disappointing if it stood alone. Late is late, regardless of what everyone else does.
  • My own results in a recent 5K race, where my overall standing for that particular event was better than ever, but my time was slower than it was in the same event in each of the last two years. My place doesn’t matter; I’m slowing down.
  • The highest levels of recycling participation ever in this country.Our landfills continue to grow and our landscapes are still polluted. We may be doing better, but we can’t say we’ve achieved success.
  • Trade show attendance that is up from last year.What if last year was the worst year ever?

If these examples seem somewhat myopic to you, I would argue that their hyper-focused nature illustrates the pervasiveness of the issue. Our tendency to measure success by the performance of our peers rather than a particular benchmark doesn’t truly make us better.

Pick a spot in the distance and aim for it. If you don’t make it, don’t take comfort in where anyone else landed. Stand up, brush yourself off, and get back on the road. It may be tough, but think how satisfying it will be when you get there.

Time will tell

Several years ago, the pastor of the church I attended tendered his resignation to head to the mission field. This man had been a friend and advisor to many, and he would be sorely missed. His departure, and that of his family, would sting.

I will never forget what he said to us the day he announced his resignation. Paraphrased, it went something like this: If this congregation falls apart because I am no longer a part of it, then I’ve accomplished nothing. The church is not supposed to be about ME. What a wise and foresightful thing to say.

I reflect on that statement today because the world is abuzz with the recently announced resignation of Steve Jobs from Apple. Certainly I don’t equate Apple to a church, but the same precept rings true. People have long said that without Jobs, the Apple will rot, that he’s the idea engine that makes it all work. While I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man, I hope that’s not true. No significant endeavor should be about one person; employees and shareholders deserve a succession plan that ensures the continued success of the company. After all, what has Apple really accomplished if the resignation of its CEO derails its performance, even its existence? Time will tell if Jobs has built a business or merely an homage to himself.

In the meantime, let’s use this as a wake-up call. Look around at the work you do. If you left tomorrow, would the plans you’ve set in motion continue? Or would they fade like a dream? If those plans are about something bigger than yourself, I hope you’ve shared the vision, inspired other people to grab it, and empowered them to make it happen. Otherwise, you haven’t really accomplished anything.

Spare me the limp

A few people who know me well know that I have a passion for shoes. You’d never know it by looking at the four or five pairs of sensible togs through which I rotate each season at work, but my closet is crammed with colors and styles. Back in high school, I wantonly bought footwear based on looks and price–the cuter and cheaper, the better. I paid little heed to comfort or durability; I wanted my feet to look good. I didn’t care how they felt or how long the shoes would last.

I didn’t care, that is, until I landed a job after college that required me to wear formal business attire every day. My collection of pumps (hey, it was almost 20 years ago) ballooned quickly, but I soon found myself longing for the days I could wear that pair, the one that didn’t make me long to take it off by 9am. When the day came that I realized my closet had transformed itself to revolve around that one comfortable pair of shoes, I knew something had to change before my wardrobe became completely uninspired.

I’m pretty active and I spend a lot of time on my feet. I prefer to walk to someone’s desk rather than to call. I’ve been known to zip out to the factory floor to understand a product or a process rather than waiting for an explanation. I move around a lot. In that context, my shoes had become a critical component in my daily accomplishments, but I treated them as window dressing. The necessary mental recalibration didn’t take long, and now I see my shoes as an investment.

I still buy shoes for looks, but they have to feel good, too. And they have to stand up to heavy use. I’ve walked ten miles in Boston with my nephew in three-inch heels–and I comfortably wore the same shoes again the next day. I’ve moved office furniture in classy pumps. I’ve trekked across grassy fields in high wedges to watch my son’s cross country meets after work. All without missing a beat.

(For those of you waiting for the punchline, thanks for sticking with me so far. I promise this post isn’t just a glimpse into my sometimes frivolous inner self.)

Here’s what I think. If I didn’t invest in good shoes, quantity notwithstanding, I’d spend more time working around sore feet than getting things done. The same goes for my computer and my phone–and even for the people who work for me. The things that are most important to my productivity are the things that deserve the most investment. I don’t just mean monetary investment here. (For the record, I buy most of my shoes on sale.) I mean an investment of care and of attention. I should devote my resources to the tools, people, and activities that have the most significant impact on my output–and ultimately on my success.

Thought for the day: don’t skimp on the important things or you’ll end up walking with a limp.

Tricks of the trade

At work, my department handles the coordination and execution of most of our company’s North American trade show participation. Accordingly, it’s fair to say I’ve attended a few of these shows (and then some). While you might think that trade shows have evolved over the last several years to accommodate changing economic conditions and faster information delivery, surprisingly, I don’t really think they have. Most shows I attend today look a lot like the shows I attended ten years ago, though with smaller exhibits and fewer people. Every year, they shrink before my eyes.

Show organizers in most industries are taking a good, hard look at these events to try to analyze why they are shrinking and how to return them to their glory days. From what I’ve seen, that generally involves beating the drum a little louder, changing locations, and dreaming up catchier headlines. I see registration discounts and impassioned missives extolling the benefits of attendance. They may be changing the wrapping, but what’s inside is still the same.

Here’s how I see the problem. It’s expensive to attend a trade show. It involves travel, lodging, and lost opportunity from being out of the office or the field for a few days. Besides that, people used to attend shows to get information and see new products, to connect with others in their line of work, to get a handle on the big picture. They don’t need that so much anymore. They have an instant information feed via the internet, so by the time a big show rolls around, what was once was big news is already old hat. While the benefits of attending a show once clearly justified the expense, the case is quickly fading.

Or is it?

Actually, I think the reasons people attend shows are still valid: to get information, to connect with others, to get a handle on the big picture. We’re just not giving those things to them in a way that makes their outlay of time and money worthwhile. I think there’s still time to fix that.

For the most part, shows have been about displaying product and hawking services. With information so easy to obtain these days, I believe we need to shift the focus to connecting people. We must offer creative opportunities for industry participants to discuss current issues and solve problems. What if, instead of building a shiny exhibit that gathers dust in a sleepy show hall, would-be exhibitors (singularly or collectively) sponsor workshops and networking mixers built around industry-relevant themes? Pick an industry; I’ll give you a list of potential topics. People could attend as many or as few as interest them. Bring people together who share interests–vendors and customers alike–and give them a chance to share ideas in non-threatening, small group settings. Create opportunities for enrichment. Solve problems. Send people home feeling as if they accomplished something and eager to return the next time.

As show organizers and exhibitors, we continue to offer trade show attendees a shopping mall when a think tank may provide more value. We have to offer something that isn’t readily available anywhere else so that people will seek it out. They have to want to come. While I’m not certain I have the right solution, I do know that doing more of the same isn’t going to bring people back. We keep proving that year after year.

Covered under warranty

I can’t believe it. I bought an extended warranty and it paid off. Apparently, a couple of parts on my car are at the beginning stages of failure–nothing critical, I’ve been assured–and with 11,000 miles left on my extended warranty, my service guy tells me that now is the time to fix them. Not only will I save almost $1500 (before netting out the cost of the exwarr itself), but I’ll also get a rental car to drive while my car is being repaired. Suh-weet! And to think I almost passed on the exwarr when I bought the car.

The real story here isn’t about my own foresight or perspicacity (that one’s for you, Johnny C). It’s actually a tale of customer service and building loyalty. Then newly single and neither knowing nor caring anything about the maintenance of automobiles, I became a serviceperson’s dream when I bought my car five years ago. I faithfully schedule oil changes and tire rotations at prescribed intervals. I cheerfully agree to any and all maintenance recommendations. I let the people in the service area of my dealership do whatever the manufacturer advises at specified mileage benchmarks. In short, I do whatever they tell me to do.

There’s a sucker born every minute, right? Not this time. My decision to trust Evans Toyota with the care and feeding of my vehicle has paid off–for both of us. Certainly, I’ve incurred some mostly minor unplanned expenses as we’ve flushed systems and replaced filters, belts, and tires, but many, many times I’ve walked away from oil changes and service checks without paying a penny. Everything looks good and You don’t need anything right now are phrases I hear more often than the alternative. And with 109,000 miles, my car has never let me down, and I won’t go anywhere else.

The really telling part is that last Saturday when I was at the dealership for the requisite oil change and tire rotation, my service guy brought the failing parts to my attention. Before I could even open my mouth to ask, How much? he continued talking, telling me that he had looked up my file, that he had noticed that I had an extended warranty, and that we should do this now while the repairs are still covered. In an economy where everyone is struggling to capture every possible revenue opportunity, I felt as if I were on some other planet.

Okay, okay, I realize the dealership is still going to get paid for the repair (albeit by the warranty company), but Dave went out of his way to 1) determine whether I had a warranty, 2) make sure I scheduled these necessary-but-not-yet-dire repairs within the warranty period and did not put them off, and 3) nail down the details and call me as promised with a plan. In fact, Dave even made sure to arrange a rental car (within the warranty plan) so that I wouldn’t be without wheels. All I have to do is drop off my car one day and pick it up the next; I don’t even have to bring my checkbook.

Maybe this is the way the world is supposed to work, but the plain truth is that it doesn’t. I don’t often see people doing anything more than the job at hand; they don’t look ahead to anticipate the next transaction or to set themselves up for it. It’s head down, check the box, move on. When people go out of their way to do something today that makes me want to come back tomorrow, I notice. That’s called good customer service, and it builds business. We could all learn a lesson from it.


Know where you’re going

French class is over. My bike ride is complete. The Warrior Dash is behind me. I seem to be in a place of suspended animation, as so many of my much-anticipated events begin to fade in my memory. Homework and training took up a significant portion of my non-working, waking hours. So now what? What’s next?

A period of rest sounds nice, but I don’t function well that way–at least not for more than a couple of days. I need something to work toward, to anticipate. I need an objective. And in reality, I think we all do.

Without something to work toward, I’m not convinced we really move forward. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, we might not get there. Or worse yet, we might end up somewhere else. Without a goal, how do we keep from simply running in place? We need a destination.

Goals can be big or small, lofty or humble. Either way, they are drivers. They pull us forward when we can’t push ourselves. Without them, daily routine becomes habit, and if you don’t know how I feel about habit, read about it in my Kicking the Habit post.

Don’t let yourself be caught without purpose. (Note: just making it till the weekend is not an effective goal.) Whether your goal is to master a particular cooking technique, to run a mile, to paint your kitchen, to write a book, to get into college, or to make a million dollars, work toward something. When you achieve it, work toward something else. It makes all the difference.

Now, what should I do next?

Time to redecorate

A woman I know went through an intense period of dissatisfaction with her job. It lasted several years, during which time she applied for every open position at her company. Whenever a new job was posted, the hiring manager would see her resume. Unfortunately, there was never a suitable match for her skills.

I don’t know exactly when this woman stopped applying for internal positions; it took awhile for me to notice. I don’t even know what prompted it or if she made a conscious decision to stop trying. What finally seeped into my consciousness, however, was the realization that somewhere along the line, this woman had become more engaged in her current activities. Rather than resigning herself to her occupational fate, she had chosen to embrace it.

This woman dove in and took control of her job. She became the resident expert in that area, and she now touts herself as such. She finds new ways to apply the services of her department and communicates the options throughout the company. She has made her job into her vocation.

Figuratively speaking, she has stopped trying to sell her house and instead has decided to live there, remodeling and redecorating to transform it into a space she loves. Good stuff. I wonder where I need to redecorate.


At a loss for words

I read something the other day that set me back on my heels for a bit. According to a blurb in my (admittedly old) marketing research textbook, there are about 600,000 words in the English language, but 50 words account for 40 percent of usage. Further 16,000 words account for 99 percent of usage. (p.409) 50 words = 40 percent of usage? And 99 percent of our word usage is accounted for by only 2.7% of available words? I don’t know whether to feel sad or hopeful.

Certainly, these statistics stir feelings of melancholy in me because they highlight a vast, forgone linguistic opportunity. Somehow, we are limiting our field of expression in order to facilitate convenience, expedience, or perhaps simply laziness. It’s no wonder so many of the things I read seem like jargon to me–words and expressions deriving meaning from cultural reference rather than intrinsic definition. If you don’t believe me, try reading marketing materials from a broad smattering of companies and industries. Chances are, you’ll find them eerily similar, though the products and services they represent may vastly differ.

On the other hand, I see the remaining 97.3% of neglected vocabulary in our collective lexicon as a tremendous opportunity, and that excites me. Think of all the untapped words and expressions I can use to color my communication. Personally or professionally, I can set myself apart by creating a richer experience for people on the receiving end of my conversations. I can paint pictures with words that are clear, vibrant, and unique. I should never be at a loss for words to describe a concept; there are, according to the quote above, at least 584,000 that I probably haven’t even considered using.

Seriously, while the number of words in our language may seem formidable, the total number of permutations of those words created to form unique expressions is close to limitless. My marketing materials, my reports, my communications have the potential to stand far above others, provided I free myself from the jargon and thoughtfully use the full set of language tools at hand.

When I consider the statistics, I should never be at a loss for words.