The zone

My hairdresser called me the other day to tell me she was moving to a different branch of her salon, a location on the other side of town. She was clearly nervous about telling me and had waited as long as she possibly could to make the call. Her fear was that she would lose me as a customer.

Lest you think this post is about my hair, let me assure you that it is not. It’s a little about service, but it’s mostly about space.

In my mind–though obviously not hers–there was no question that I would follow Laura to her new digs. I’ve followed her from salon to salon for years because of the way she treats me and the quality of her work. I don’t give up those things easily. I also don’t think I’m that much different from anyone else in this regard. Most of us will remain loyal to the people or the companies that treat us right. Pay attention, service providers; there’s a fundamental lesson there.

Space is the other issue, the one that threatens to tip the balance for some of Laura’s other clients. To me, the move isn’t a big deal. I have a car and I can make it haul me wherever I want. This city isn’t so big that I can’t get to the new salon in a reasonable amount of time. Sure, it’s a little less convenient in terms of hampering my ability to roll out of bed fifteen minutes before my slotted appointment and still make it on time, but I get something in return. Aside from the great job Laura does, I get a reason to explore an area of town that I might not frequent otherwise. How can more exposure to more things/people/places be bad?

Too often, many of us, whether through habit or preference, find our day-to-day existence limited to an x-square-mile patch of land–often a tiny corner of a single city. If we don’t look for chances to break out of The Zone, we run the risk of breeding monotony. Eventually, some of the color will start to fade from our lives.

Yeah, yeah, I’m making a mountain out of a molehill again. We’re just talking about my hairdresser’s move, right? Maybe so, but when she told me some of her customers had balked at the added minutes to their drives, my mind started churning. It’s not about the behavior; it’s about the attitude. I don’t want my life to be limited by my zip code. I hope you don’t either.

I’ll be there, Laura.

Make it easy

Rather than sending a fruit basket or a box of chocolates, a local business I know instead gives its clients a better community as its Christmas gift. Every year, that company selects a service project that benefits people right here at home. Its employees put forth their time, money, and skills to collectively support the chosen project. The firm sends an appropriately themed Christmas greeting to its clients to let them know what effort was undertaken on their behalf.

I love it.

I love that the year the company helped homeless people, the Christmas greeting was sent on a raggedy piece of cardboard to underscore the dire need for suitable shelter. I love that this year’s greeting took the form of an upscale menu, completely empty of food entries, to highlight the fact many people go hungry while others are feasting during the holidays. I love the fact that this company doesn’t just put in money, it puts in time. I love that the employees roll up their sleeves and get personal, often looking into the eyes of the people who need help. I love that they are working to solve problems in our own community. I love that they work with existing organizations; they don’t start a new charity and waste resources on overlapping administrative efforts. Most of all, I love that they care.

This year’s project touched my heart more than usual. Not only did the company undertake an annual service project, but it also found a way to extend that to others outside the company to help–and not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. It has created cans (you can also use your own) for people to take home and fill with change. People can take to full cans to a local bank to be deposited into an account that benefits our local food bank. This company hasn’t just helped; it has extended its reach by making it easy for others to help.

Making it easy. That’s the key to inciting involvement. The food bank has existed in my community as long as I can remember, but I’ve never thought about writing a check. For starters, I wouldn’t know where to send it–well, not at least without a little effort on my part. With a stack of cans sitting at the door of my local grocery store, and with clear and simple instructions printed right on the can, I no longer have an excuse. You’d better believe I have a can of my own.

When you want someone to play, you have to eliminate the hurdles. Don’t counter the excuses with debate. Make them irrelevant by making it easy.

BTW…if you want to learn more, visit www.changealifeproject.org.

Alchemy

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a toast that has stuck with me ever since: To the alchemy that turns groceries into meals! (Anonymous)

Of course, the foodie in me reached out and grabbed that thought immediately, pulling it close to my heart as I ruminated on its meaning. It’s so true! There is a special magic in the process that turns raw ingredients into something wonderful–and in the ability to see it before it exists.

This kind of alchemy happens everywhere. It’s present in the house that rises from piles of wood and bricks and stone. You can see it in your computer that was once resin and wires and circuitry. It’s in the evening gown that was once silk and thread beads. Look around you. We make magic every day from bits and pieces of nothing.

What ingredients do you have at your disposal? What will you make with them?

Working miracles

I threw a party last Saturday evening for 23 really fun people. We noshed, mingled, chattered, and laughed. We had a great time; even the much-maligned poetry contest resulted in surprising hilarity. Nothing spilled, we didn’t run out of food, and everyone made it home safely. All in all, I’d call the party a success.

Twenty-four hours earlier, it had looked pretty bleak.

Friday at 7pm, my house was a disaster. I hadn’t planned a menu, which also meant I hadn’t shopped for ingredients or started to prepare a single thing. I was panicked and desperate.

Obviously, I was able to pull it off–thanks in large part to my brother, who cleaned my house, and my kids, who chopped, mixed, and stirred. By 10pm Friday, my house looked great. By 9:30am Saturday, I had a menu. By noon, I had groceries. By the time the doorbell rang at 7pm (okay, 6:50 thanks to Josh), I had a party. Whew!

I don’t ever want to do that again.

I (re)learned two things from this experience. First, having a plan makes all the difference. By the time I got around to turning this party idea into reality, I knew I had to have a clear picture of what I needed to accomplish. I made three lists: when/what to clean, what to serve, and what to buy to make it happen. I went systematically through each list and checked off each item as I completed it. I knew exactly what I had to do, exactly what I had to buy. I didn’t meander through stores, lost in possibility. With my lists, I was able to attack my preparations with purpose.

Second, plan or not, waiting till the last minute isn’t worth the stress. I may be more efficient when I am hyper-focused, but watching the clock tick toward my deadline and having no room left for error really messes with my psyche. And sure, working miracles might give me an adrenaline high, but who’s going to notice? I didn’t save anyone else’s day, only mine. All I did was deliver on a promise I made months ago–to host a party on January 7 at 7pm. Waiting till the last second to make it happen was my own fault and my own problem, so solving the problem rightfully had no bearing on anyone else.

Remind me of this post, readers, when November rolls around. That should give me plenty of time to plan.

Overtime

Anyone who watched yesterday’s wildcard playoff games saw a spectacular overtime finish in the Pittsburgh-Denver match-up. Just prior to the start of play, spectators heard the referee outline the special overtime rules that apply to a playoff series. To sum it up, each team is guaranteed one possession of the football unless 1) the initial receiving team scores a touchdown, or 2) the defense scores on the opposing team’s first possession. This, of course, reopened a long-standing debate about how overtime should be handled in professional football.

I believe overtime should be sudden death. Period.

To guarantee each team a possession under the guise of “making it fair” completely undermines the importance of the defensive squad to the team as a whole. Everyone has a job to do: the offense to score in spite of the opposing defense, the defense to prevent a score by the opposing offense. If the offense scores, the defense has failed to do its job, and vice versa.

What a guaranteed-possession overtime says is that the offense is all that really matters. Forget having a well-rounded football team. Forget the importance of the contributions made by the defense and special teams squads. The game rests on the offense.

I don’t buy it. Everyone–everyone–has a job to do. If each person contributes to the best of his ability, no matter which side of the line of scrimmage he occupies, the best team will win. If not, the best offense–or in some cases, the best defense–will win. That’s not what a team is about. That’s not what the game is about.

In works the same in business. The sales and marketing teams (offense) don’t bear sole responsibility for the success or failure of a company. They may be responsible for scoring points, er, increasing revenue, but the manufacturing and purchasing guys (defense) bear responsibility for keeping costs down in order to maintain profitability in good times and in bad. In the creative world, a graphic designer can generate a spectacular collateral concept, but he needs a top-notch printing company to make it come to life and a distribution plan to make sure people see it. Every contribution helps determine the outcome. Each one is necessary to the success of the organization.

The game works best when everyone plays.

Get personal

A news event caught my eye this morning: “Photojournalism Pioneer Eve Arnold Dies at 99.” I had never heard of her, so I don’t know why this grabbed my attention. Perhaps it was because the headline suggested a strong woman who made way for others in her field, but I decided to learn more about her.

I read the article that had initially caught my eye, looked up the Wikipedia entry for her, linked to a fairly informative profile, and finished by browsing through some of her work. Although I appreciated her photos, it is her words that still stick with me.

She wrote that “Themes recur again and again in my work. I have been poor and I wanted to document poverty; I had lost a child and I was obsessed with birth; I was interested in politics and I wanted to know how it affected our lives; I am a woman and I wanted to know about women.” (From her 1976 book, The Unretouched Woman) She summed this up perfectly when she said that  “a photographer must have a personal and passionate approach.”

I love that perspective, and I’m convinced that it applies to everyone, not just photographers. How much better will my work–and I’m not just talking about the stuff I get paid to do–be if I approach it personally and passionately? If I pour myself into it, I’ll have a deep connection to the outcome. A personal and passionate approach leaves no room for mediocrity, for halfway. Our work is a reflection of ourselves.

Of course, this approach only works if we love what we do. Even from the little I read about Eve Arnold, I’m certain that she understood that. That’s why her work was so closely tied to her interests. She found subjects that fascinated her, and then she poured herself into capturing their images.

Oddly, all of this reminds me of a dialog from the movie You’ve Got Mail. When Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan, “It’s not personal; it’s business,” she responds with “It’s personal to me.” Meg got it.

Look around at the people you know who are successful. Their work is their passion; it’s part of them.

Do what you love and love what you do. If you don’t, do something else.

According to plan

I’ve been struggling lately with an article I’m writing. It was a decent piece–probably not spectacular, but decent–when I submitted it to the subject for factual review. Rather than providing verification and editorial commentary, however, the subject organization returned it to me with parts of it completely rewritten. Even more disconcerting, the people who had worked on it had inserted material that I had not covered in my interview. I felt extremely conflicted, and certainly indignant.

The problem was, most of the edits improved the piece.

Journalistic integrity aside–the subject of an article doesn’t get editorial rights unless the article is a paid placement, aka advertorial–I like the new piece better. When I consider the big picture and what we want to accomplish with this article, it gets us closer than my version. As I nurse my clipped wings, I can’t lose sight of that fact.

While all of this rattled around in my head, I revisited a brilliant little book I mentioned some months ago called Anything You Want, by Derek Sivers. There is a section titled “This is just one of many options” where he reminds readers that nothing ever goes according to plan, so plan for it.

We analyzed a business plan for a mail-order pantyhose company. Like all business plans, it proposed only one plan. After reading the whole thing, I felt like saying things my old voice teacher would have said:

-“OK, make a plan that requires only $1000. Go!”

-“Now make a plan for ten times as many customers. Go!”

-“Now do it without a website. Go!”

-“Now make all your initial assumptions wrong, and have it work anyway. Go!”

-“Now show how you would franchise it. Go!”

You can’t pretend there’s only one way to do it. Your first idea is just one of many options. No business goes as planned, so make ten radically different plans.

I think I was more offended by the right turn in the usual editing process than by the actual changes to the article. I would have gladly rewritten it to accommodate worthy suggestions, but I wasn’t given the chance, though I did do some amount of editing to the altered version before I submitted it. Regardless, the end result is a more powerful piece that will more effectively capture the attention of its intended audience. And ultimately, that’s really the point.

I got where I wanted to go; I just had to follow a different plan.

 

Leave it to a professional

I hate doing laundry. Always have, always will. In fact, there’s an unsubstantiated rumor about my college days in which I supposedly bought more underwear in order to forestall an inevitable encounter with the washing machine in my dorm. No comment.

Now that I have kids, my laundry situation gets progressively worse as they grow up. Their clothes get bigger (fewer clothes fit in a load, forcing more loads) and they change them more often. In fact, my daughter thinks she needs to wear a different pair of pajamas every night. Add to that my steady stream of stinky running clothes and my constant laundry pile seems insurmountable.

But it gets worse.

For longer than I will admit publicly, my dryer had been flaky. It blew air, but not always hot air. Sometimes I could dry a load of clothes in an hour; sometimes it took three. Several months ago, I even bought a new dryer (washer, too–after 17 years, it was time). I was excited to take advantage of its high-efficiency features, but alas, I saw no improvement. Finally it dawned on me: clean the dryer vent.

To be fair, the thought had occurred to me a few years–er, some time–ago. And I did try. My dad came over and sucked it out with his shop vac, but honestly, I didn’t notice much difference afterward. Ignoring the impossibility of cleaning my long, stair-stepping vent with a vacuum, I wrote off the dryer issues to a bad thermostat and moved on.

In desperation, I finally called a professional duct cleaner last week. After a false start and rescheduled visit, Dusty Brothers arrived to augur out my vent. They found it so packed with lint that birds had even tried to nest in it since there was no flow of hot air to deter them. Five minutes and about $100 later, my dryer worked. Finally.

I felt pretty silly after Dusty Brothers left. I had waited a long time to address the problem–too long. I assumed it would be easier to just deal with it rather than to take the time to call for help. I ignored my own advice (see: Inertia) and squandered hours of productivity. What did I do with all that time I spent waiting for my clothes to dry? I would have accomplished so much more had I stuck to what I know (not household appliances, for sure) and called for help from a professional. Luckily, it was a simple fix.

I still hate doing laundry, but now that I can dry a load of clothes in 40 minutes instead of three hours, I hate it a lot less. Next time I’ll ask for help.

Do more with less

I listened to someone speak recently who had a lot of good things to say. Unfortunately, he cloaked them in so many unnecessary words that I quickly lost interest.

This man diluted his point so much that it lost flavor like a weak tea. I just wanted to gulp it down and be done with it rather than savoring the taste and substance. Unfortunately, I had to take long, slow sips.

I felt sorry for the subject of his speech. It didn’t receive its due, not because the man didn’t say enough, but because he said too much. He would have been more effective to simply make his point and let it stand on its own merit. Instead, he talked it to death and he lost me. Others, too, I’m sure.

As much as I love words, too many of them–no matter how eloquently delivered–can kill a story. Say what you need to say and let it go at that. Do more with less. It’ll make people think, and isn’t that what’s important?

Reflection, resolution, ready or not

Vacation has been great. For the most part, I completely checked out from my professional life and from any sort of normal routine. I based my schedule–no, my daily activities, for there was very little that could be construed as a schedule–on my whim. I visited, cooked, ran, played word games, slept, wrote, learned French, read, disconnected, reconnected, watched football, and did laundry–if and when I felt so inclined. Some days I accomplished very little, some days a bit more. Some days I even got dressed.

While all this “nothing” was happening, random thoughts would occasionally slip unbidden into my consciousness, particularly the kind that are wont to do so as a year ends. I didn’t hunt for them, but neither did I ward them off. They just happened.

I’m not sad to see 2011 go.  Some chapters in my life closed while others can’t seem to move forward without first taking a few steps back. I’ve lost people close to me and struggled with futility. Sometimes I feel like a feel like a fish out of water as I try to discover the person who is the real me.

All in all, it was a fairly turbulent year, but it wasn’t without some really brilliant moments of sunshine breaking through the clouds. I started writing publicly, first this blog and then a freelance gig. That validated a hidden desire and brought me confidence I didn’t expect. I found a family I didn’t know I had. That opened a new corner of the world for me and brought some special people into my life. It also gave me the impetus I needed to tackle another language, an intellectual challenge I have always loved. I made some new friends. I reconnected with some old friends. I’ve watched my son turn into a young man and my daughter charm the world around her. I paid off my car and refinanced my house. I’m starting, slowly, to get plugged into my community.

It is these moments of promise that I want to carry into 2012. I don’t want to squander them by letting them languish; I want to lay them as the foundation to something bigger. Resolutions don’t interest me, but goals do. I need to work toward something concrete that I can attain; I need a plan. Trying to embrace a formless ideal won’t move me forward. So here’s what I’m going to do.

  1. I’m going to continue my French lessons so that I can become reasonably conversational with my newfound family members. I want to be able to express myself in their language.
  2. I’m going to run the Indy Mini again. My goal is to improve my time from the last Mini I ran, even if it is by one second.
  3. I’m going to ride the PMC again this year. This time, I’m going to put in 500 miles on the bike before I cross the starting line. That means getting on the saddle earlier and more regularly.
  4. I’m going to run five races besides the Mini this year. I need events to keep me true to my running.
  5. I’m going to sit down to dinner with my kids at least one night a week.
  6. I’m going to teach my kids to follow a recipe.
  7. I’m going to write something bigger than an article, and then I’m going to try to have it published.

Okay, maybe those don’t sound like much, but they are steps in the process of living healthier, tickling my brain, and preparing my kids for adulthood. I encourage you (read: plead with you) to check back with me throughout the year to see how I’m doing. Hold me accountable, please.

Here I come, 2012, ready or not.