Giving and receiving

I’m a quirky girl. I don’t accept compliments well. Although I long to hear them, I squirm under the words. They somehow make me uncomfortable, so I usually deflect them. I could psychoanalyze this for weeks, but the fact remains that this is what I do.

I have one friend who truly loves to give compliments. He just likes to make people feel good. Life has taught him that a missed opportunity may never return, so he freely shares the gift of his feelings.

These two positions do not intersect well. For a time, our conversations resembled an eternal badminton match, each of us batting the birdie back to the other to avoid having it land. He lobbed kind words to me; I volleyed them back. We could keep this up for hours even though neither of us felt good about it.

We’ve since landed on a solution of sorts. I have agreed to accept, without protest or commentary, one compliment from him per day. After that, I’m free to parry and thrust, but he wisely refrains from engagement once he has landed his initial riposte.

It occurred to me today that this situation reminds me of an essay I cut from a magazine years ago. Although I intended to pass it along to someone else, I still have it somewhere, never dreaming the advice was really meant for me. The essay was about the importance of receiving gifts. We focus so much on what to give that we often lose sight of the importance of receiving just as graciously. Some people are natural givers; they show their appreciation through gifting–whether the gift is a material object, an action, or precious words. By refusing to accept that gift, we are depriving that person of the joy of giving.

I happen to be a gifter myself. I love to give freely, even spontaneously. I derive a lot of pleasure from delighting others. Sometimes, though, I have to remember that the greatest gift I can give is to accept the one someone offers to me. Receive graciously.

It doesn’t take much

I’m staying in an economy chain hotel that has no doubt seen better days. Although this place is clean and well-kept, I can still feel its age. The thermostat is the mechanical kind in the self-contained heating unit rather than the slick, digital keypad on the wall. The bathroom is tiny with a countertop the barely surrounds the sink. The bathroom fan comes on automatically with the light, and it’s loud and obnoxious. My spoiled side found itself slightly disappointed when I checked in, but the place is close to where I need to be, it’s clean, and it offers free breakfast. The price is right, and I still consider it to be a good deal.

After I had been here for a night, I noticed something that made me appreciate the place more. Every pillow carries an embroidered label on the sham, declaring its level of support. On each of the two beds in my room, two firm and two soft pillows have been neatly positioned. As the person who tests every pillow in a hotel room to find the best ones to carry me to slumber, I think this idea is pretty close to genius. All I have to do is look at the corner of the sham and I know what I’m getting.

I think this idea is pretty genius from a marketing standpoint, too. Other than making sure the right shams go on the right pillows when the linens are changed, there’s not a lot of effort involved on the hotel’s part. They order the shams–which probably don’t cost much more than the standard version–and off they go. No extra maintenance or daily expense. Someone had a neat idea that, for very little incremental expense AND effort, now plays a role in the hotel’s customer delight factor. Even if a customer doesn’t notice it, there’s no real loss.

I love the idea from the marketing side as much as I love my firm pillows. And I also developed a bit of a soft spot for this hotel because of it. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a difference.

Oh yeah, and they have free cookies, too.

The next level

When I started running, I got faster almost every day. Since my beginner’s pace was just a few strides beyond a walk and I was completely out of shape, I had nowhere to go but up–and up I went. The faster I raced, the more I wanted to run. The more I ran, the faster I got. For two years, each race I ran yielded a new PR for me.

And then one day, it didn’t. I had reached my natural limit. Now physically fit and in the best shape of my life, I no longer enjoy the results of a natural performance improvement. Although I knew that day would come, the first race I ran where my pace was slower than the last left me completely deflated.

I’ve gotten over that initial shock, but I still get mad at myself when I don’t beat my standing best. I think I should have worked harder, trained more, shed those extra five pounds, kicked it in at the end. Even though I can’t get better every time anymore–math friends, is this the law of diminishing returns?–I still want to.

I have reached the line between hobbyist and athlete, between talent and skill. I can still get better, but now it won’t be by accident. I have to be deliberate about training. I have to tackle the speed work that I loathe. I have to commit to running on the days I just don’t feel like it. I have to set a goal and work toward it. I have to live the discipline. I can still shave off some seconds or tackle a new distance if I really want to, but now I have to work for it, and it won’t happen at every race.

That’s the dividing line between the amateur and the professional, the B-student and the A-student, the person who sings in the choir and the person who cuts records. You have to be willing to keep going when your talent runs out.




Second time around

Last year, we made some big changes to a project that comes up annually. For years, decades even, we had followed the same format, and although we often made style changes, the output was essentially the same. So when one of our senior managers floated the idea of a sweeping format change to shake things up AND he was willing to help sponsor it, I enthusiastically jumped on board.

It sounds like a big deal, and in my world it was. However, because what we intended to undertake was such a big departure from the product of years past, I knew that in order to sell it internally we might have to water it down a bit. It was going to be different, that was certain, but it couldn’t be unrecognizably different or it wouldn’t fly. Rather than let that dampen my spirits, however, I looked ahead to year 2. That’s what made my eyes shine with possibility.

Here’s my theory. People are visual. Unless you happen to hit on their particular passion, most people’s imaginations are limited by things they have already seen. If you put something in their hands to work with, they can build on it, improve upon it, take it further. If you introduce a new theory without a proof-of-concept, you likely won’t see nearly the same creative results. As Henry Ford remarked, If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.

That’s why, with respect to this project, I’ve been impatiently awaiting year 2–even from day 1. Certainly, we put out a finished product that looked and functioned quite a bit differently from its predecessors, but it wasn’t all it could have been. And the response was exactly what I expected: Why didn’t you [insert suggestion]? Did you consider doing it this way? It would have been really cool if you had [insert suggestion]. In itself, year 1 didn’t look like a resounding success, but it showed people the possibility and has them clamoring  for what they couldn’t imagine the first time around. Now we can make something really terrific. In that sense, I consider year 1 wildly successful.

I can’t wait to see what we can do in year 3.

The perfect spot

After he read Saturday’s post about my brother, my dad took me on a walk down memory lane. He reminded me of my favorite hiding place as a toddler: our gooseberry bush. Now if you know anything about gooseberry bushes, you’ll recognize that the respite they offer isn’t particularly comfortable. In fact, it can be downright painful given that these bushes are beset with spiky thorns.

I’m told I certainly wound up with my share of scratches, but my choice of hideaway made it extremely difficult for any adult to forcefully retrieve me. Better yet, the berries offered a built-in source of sustenance, so I could stay for hours. Although this habit was likely formed by opportunity and coincidence, in hindsight it was brilliant, particularly for a toddler.

There’s a metaphor somewhere in this vignette. The trouble is, I’m not sure which perspective to take. On the one hand, I see a lesson about the best, safest shelter being in a place that requires some hurdle-jumping to get there. It might cost me some effort, but that same expenditure of resources can also serve as a deterrent to and protection from others. On the other hand, does it really make sense to cloak ourselves in a prickly mantle of thorns when the discipline (or comfort) of others actually may be what we need? I suspect there is truth in both perspectives.

A life-changing event

My very first memory is of a fall day much like this one. I tromped through the grass alongside a long, gray building, following my dad’s lead. I was too young to go inside, so we navigated the perimeter until we came to just the right place. When we finally found it, my dad took me into his arms and lifted me high into the air so I could see over the window sill. I turned my head, and through the glass, I met my brother for the first time.

I had no idea how my life would change after that day. This creature that I would push around in my doll carriage stole the smiles and hugs and laughs and attention that has previously been directed at me. As he grew older, his wry smile, impish eyes, and easy-going nature would capture the hearts of girls and boys alike, and the presence of his constant entourage left me feeling lonely and jealous. I once dressed him as a girl for Halloween to exact revenge for his popularity, and he ended up as the hit of the day.

This boy tested the limits while I followed the rules. He did everything that had been deemed out-of-bounds while I came home early and bemoaned my boring life. He climbed in and out our windows. He blasted heavy metal music through the neighborhood. He didn’t do his homework and often didn’t even go to class. He didn’t do his chores and left big messes. And no matter what he did, people loved him. I didn’t understand.

As time went by, I figured it out. I never had an AHA! moment; it just crept up on me. When I need something, he is always there. He continually builds me up; he refuses to see anything but the best of me. He disregards the ugly parts or rationalizes them away. He’ll break his back to help. He tries to take on my pain so that I don’t have to feel it. He cheers me on. He knows just which buttons to push. And he knows me better than anyone on this planet. With my brother, I don’t need words. Not only can he finish my sentences, but he can also start them for me.

I now know what others saw in him from the very beginning. Although I tried to ignore it for the first 20 years or so, I am no match for his charisma and his genuine affection. He has a gift for making people feel special, and he lavishes it on me. What a lucky woman I am to be able to call this man my brother.

When I met Dean 40 years ago through that hospital window, I had no idea how much he would change my life, but I am infinitely grateful that he did. Happy 40th birthday, Winky Bear. I love you more than you know.

The sound of silence

Words fascinate me. They show love, hatred, excitement, disappointment, hope, and fear. They promise, convince, defend, tease, soothe, and incite. They can make a heart sing or suck the air out of a room. They change elections, expose scandals, influence opinions. They leave people laughing and they bring people to tears. Their permutations are endless, their uses infinite, their power immense.

As much as I love words, it is often their absence that stops me in my tracks. Perhaps it is precisely because words are such powerful purveyors of mood and meaning that the vacuum created in their absence feels overwhelming. While I can use words to argue against words, I can’t pit them against silence. Then end up either swallowed whole or becoming mere noise.

Think about it. Nothing makes a stronger statement than the pregnant pause. The phone that doesn’t ring. The message that doesn’t come. Or even words that fall on deaf ears.

The power of silence is indomitable; I have yet to find an effective weapon against it.

Do your homework

After giving a stern lecture last night to one of my kids about accepting responsibility, putting forth appropriate effort, and doing homework, I took a breather to dash out and vote. I noticed when I arrived at my usual polling place that there were no campaign signs framing the entry to the parking lot, and my unease increased as I approached the unadorned door. “Vote here” and “Precinct Number X” signs were conspicuously absent as I entered the building. Sure enough, there wasn’t a voting machine to be seen.

A sympathetic passerby told me she had seen signs just down the road at a different venue, so I hopped in my car and headed that direction. Indeed, I found a polling place, but once inside the election officials informed me that I didn’t belong there. A quick check of their records told us that my polling place was a couple of streets over, not far from my house but in the opposite direction.

Again, I hopped in my car, weaving through the neighborhood until I arrived at the new location. As I turned into the parking lot, I grumbled to myself that someone should have told me and I felt my frustration simmer. That is, until I had a flash of good sense. The real problem in my pinball scenario (which took all of 20 minutes from the time I left home until I walked back in the door, by the way) was that I had not done my homework. I made an assumption about where I needed to go and barreled out the door without checking the facts. I wasn’t properly prepared, and it was no one’s fault but my own. In fact, everyone I had encountered along the way had been extremely helpful. It was, as they say, my bad.

Isn’t it funny how life has a way of reinforcing its object lessons? The minute you try to pass one on to someone else, you have to confront it yourself.

And yes, to complete the circle, I told my errant child of this experience as soon as I walked back through the door at home. With a chuckle and a sheepish grin, of course.

Listen up

Someone listened to me the other day. Not only did she listen, she also gave me her name, phone number, and address. If I have to call back with respect to the same issue, I don’t have to navigate an anonymous web of call center connections, only to have to explain my situation all over again. I can go to a real person who knows my story. Sharon at Staples personalized my transaction simply by attaching her name and contact information. She made it so much easier to get something done.

I called Staples last week when I had a problem with new business cards I had printed. Though the printing itself was spot-on, the cards just didn’t meet my expectations. Their definition of matte was a little too matte for me. Technically, Staples had delivered what it had promised, but I still didn’t like it. After putting in my dues on hold, I landed on Sharon’s phone, and she helped find a solution that satisfied me. She took personal responsibility by giving me her name for future contact.

That makes a good story by itself, but there’s more. Staples wasn’t the first place I had gone to have my cards printed. Originally I had given the order to another company, who printed and delivered them a day early. Unfortunately, they weren’t right. The trim was off, leaving the design out of balance. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if the company had made it right, but I’m still awaiting a response to the complaint I submitted three weeks ago. Since I had to submit my complaint in an online form, there was no email attached for follow-up. As far as I know, my comments disappeared into the ether. I don’t even have a mechanism to follow up.

To me, this is the corollary of one of the lessons my dad taught me: never write an anonymous letter. If it I’m not willing to sign my name to it, it’s not worth sending. Conversely, if you provide a mechanism for feedback, make it real. Provide specific contact information or at least a reference number for my case. Transparency works both ways.

Update: As I read the draft for this post, I decided to give the first company one more try. I located a phone number and ended up talking to a real person. He still didn’t resolve the issue–he submitted it to a design tech for “further review”–but he did apologize for not having offered any response to date. We’ll see what happens. Object lesson: it’s harder to ignore a phone call than an email.

Mission accomplished

The project launched by the promise date. Everyone put in a lot of effort to ensure an on-time delivery, and we got it done. Mission accomplished; chalk up another success.

Whoa, Nellie.

Nowhere in that scenario do I see any of the following information:

  • Does it work?
  • Does it make things easier than the old way?
  • Are the users happy with it?

Lately I’ve seen a lot of projects like this. Although the project is originally designed to make things better for people, somewhere along the way the better part is forgotten in an effort to launch on time. The mission morphs into an effort to complete a task rather than to make an improvement. The original intent is forgotten as deadlines loom.

The result? The new system is up and running, but it takes three times as long to manipulate the data than the old, manual way did. Or no one knows how to use it. Or people are frustrated, but no one is listening. The project launched on time, so attention has turned elsewhere.

You’ve probably figured out that I’m currently on the user end of some implementations that have left me frustrated and fuming. Sheepishly, though, I have to admit that I’m not without fault of my own. For example, I recently took on a big project to combine services at a single vendor. In the end we launched as advertised, but no one was happy. Thankfully, after a short period of assuming oh-they-just-don’t-like-change, some voices I trust rose out of the fray and convinced me that I needed to re-evaluate my solution. Admitting failure wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did. It allowed me to find a solution that provided even better results than I had expected from the original execution.

No project should be considered complete without measuring it against the incremental utility it was designed to provide. No matter what the project, we should always ask the people who interact with it–not the people who designed or implemented it–for their feedback. If the end result isn’t better than the original state, we need to keep working on it until it is.