The good things

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m ready for this holiday break. Events and issues have been coming at me fast and furiously lately, and I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed. Even though many of them–but not all!–have been positive, I could use a breather to digest everything. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Maybe it’s the approaching Thanksgiving holiday, but something reminded me of an exercise a friend recommended years ago. I found myself in a particularly low spot at the time, and she wanted to help me find my way out of the pit. She started with a simple plan: every night before I went to bed, I had to write down five things for which I was thankful. They could be big or small, but they had to be real. Even if all I could find was that I was thankful that the day was over, I needed to record it. I also had to promise to read back over the cumulative list each day.

I’ll admit, this sounds rather corny. I certainly didn’t see the value in the exercise when my friend presented it to me, but I grudgingly agreed to try. At first, this plan went as I expected. It felt contrived and I really couldn’t see the point. Gradually, though, something shifted and finding the good things became easier. Some days, my list included 7, 10, 13 items. More powerful than writing them down, though, was reading back over them the next day. I began to see the good things that punctuated my life. Even on the days when they were nothing more than tiny grace notes, actively and purposefully recognizing their existence had an effect on my general outlook.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped making my list. I made it through that particularly bad time, so the daily recording of good things didn’t seem as important. As I sit here today, I wonder why not. Though I’m in a much better place, I’m pretty sure this exercise could give me the daily breather I need without waiting for the next holiday vacation. Five minutes of positive reflection each day can’t hurt.

So, on the cusp of Thanksgiving, I’m going to reinstitute my daily list. The first installment is below, but I don’t plan to publish it regularly; I’m just hoping it will make you think about yours.

In no particular order:

  • My ten-year-old daughter makes me coffee every day and delivers it with genuine cheer.
  • The smell of a new book.
  • My son’s dry humor and quick wit.
  • The opportunity to write articles for a magazine. Seeing my name under the title would be reward enough, but I’m getting paid, too!
  • The thrill of making up clever rhymes and using them to banter back and forth with smart alec friends.
  • Long runs.
  • The brilliant color of sugar maples on crisp fall days.
  • The hive mind I share with my brother.
  • Cake and milk.
  • The thrill of knowing there really is such a thing as a long-lost uncle (and cousins, too!).
  • A friend (RK) who holds me steady.
  • A friend (SW) who makes me laugh.
  • A friend (MJ) who values my opinions.
  • A new friend (MC) whose company I enjoy.
  • Black licorice.

Funny–once I get started, sometimes it’s hard to stop.

Fingers, don’t fail me now

My brain works so much faster than any of my output mechanisms. I certainly can’t write as fast as I can generate ideas, and even though I’m a pretty fast typist, my fingers can’t keep pace with my thoughts. And–this may shock a few people–neither can my mouth most of the time. Thankfully, I can usually retain my ideas, observations, and arguments in my head long enough for my fingers (or mouth) to catch up.

Occasionally I forget, though, and it frustrates me to know that a really valid point or clever witticism has completely vaporized. I’ve talked to enough other people to know that this problem is not unique to me. Some people suffer from it more than others, but I’m fairly convinced that we’re all somewhere on the can’t-get-it-out-fast-enough spectrum.

My son has it bad. He is an extremely verbal kid who can easily build a detailed case orally. Though learning to type has help his conversion speed quite a bit, what he puts on paper doesn’t come close to what he knows.  Imagine the problems this can cause when writing essays and book reports for school. He has a good grasp of the information, but what he writes doesn’t reflect what he tells me. There are often gaping holes and fragmented logic sprinkled throughout his papers.

An educator introduced us to a clever trick. She suggested investing in a small digital recorder into which my son could speak his thoughts. He could then play back the recording, stopping and starting at his will to let his fingers catch up. Simple, yet brilliant.

When I stumble across tricks like this, you’d better believe I take notice. With so much of today’s communication in written form–email, web copy, even text messages–it has never been more important to be clear and effective.  We all need all the help we can get in order to be effective. And if it works for a seventh grader, it’ll work for anyone.

Let them eat cake

We’ve got some goofy traditions in my family, but the one that seems to roll the most eyes–and my favorite–is the one we affectionately call cake-and-milk. We put a piece of cake into a bowl, cover it with milk, and eat it with a spoon like cereal. This only applies to one type of cake, however: my mom’s black magic cake with caramel frosting. The best part is finding bits of frosting at the bottom of the bowl after the cake is gone. Mmmmm.

That cake represents more than dessert (or breakfast). Over the years, that cake has become a bond. It finds its way to most family gatherings. Its breakfast value is a family secret even the in-laws struggle to understand. It has been the subject of countless hijinks between my brother and me. (Telephone rings. Guess what I got. A cake. Mom likes me better; this proves it.) When black magic cake arrives on the scene, the bowls and spoons come out without a word. Everyone just knows.

The upcoming holidays–and the fact that I baked this weekend–prompted me to reflect about my family’s special cake. I’m constantly looking for connections to thread together and make sense out of life, and it occurred to me that not every important connection has to have some direct professional application. Recognizing connections and finding common ground in any situation make us better in every situation. This one may be intensely personal, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. In fact, I can’t think of a more important connection than family.

Now where are those bowls?

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.