Look before you leap

When I first saw this sign during a recent trip to Brazil, I laughed and reached for my camera. Really? I thought. They actually have to tell someone this? I snapped the photo and moved on, forgetting about it until scrolling through my photos this morning.

It still makes me chuckle, but my hyperanalytical brain started searching for deeper meaning. All of a sudden, I saw it as a metaphor (surprise, surprise). Have there been times when I jumped into what I thought was a waiting elevator, only to plummet down an empty shaft? Or to alight on top of a car that has almost, but not quite, arrived?

You bet.

My particular elevator isn’t major life decisions, investment strategies, or some other grandiose endeavor. I tend to think about those long and hard, erring toward the conservative side. No, my elevator usually involves my mouth. When I’m on a roll, you might find me jumping into an argument or a discussion having taken a “fact” or two for granted. Given my ponderous nature, I feel particularly humbled when I discover I’ve jumped into an empty elevator shaft without looking and have to climb out rumpled and rueful.

Whatever your elevator, check your facts and take nothing for granted. Don’t jump in blind.

I guess the sign isn’t so silly after all.

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Content follows form

Over time, I’ve come to believe strongly that content follows form. That is, if you go through the motions, get in the right habits, build the right structure, it’s a lot easier to fill that structure with meaningful substance. It almost comes naturally at that point.

Simply put, it’s a lot easier to be the person you want to be if you put on the trappings of that persona. Re-read both my Dress for Success posts if you want a quick reminder of what I mean. You’ll find them HERE and HERE.

As I take on more projects outside of my “official” job–freelance writing, committees, local support, kid stuff–I’ve been forced to confront the corollary to that theory: it’s pretty hard to do the work when I’m not “dressed” for it.

It’s easy enough to be in a work mindset when I’m in the office, sitting behind my desk in a dress and heels. Everything around me screams “Let’s get this done!” While I finish some days more productive than others, there’s no question that I’m in work mode.

The minute I walk in the door of my house, though, it’s a different story. A million other distractions scream for my attention: kids, running, laundry, dinner, that yummy yogurt place that’s only a bike ride away, surfing on the iPad, checking the chipmunk bucket*. If I’m still able to entertain thoughts of productive outside-activity, any remaining vestiges of those thoughts vanish as soon as my dress hits the dry cleaning pile and I’m ambling about in shorts and barefoot. Instant status: home mode.

With my mounting pile of outside commitments, I need to find a new way to get things done. Work mode won’t fly at home, and home mode won’t get things that feel sort-of-like-work-but-aren’t-what-I-get-paid-to-do done. I need to find a solution, and fast.

I’m fairly certain that the answer hearkens back to my beliefs about dressing for success; I just need to find the right wardrobe. In order for me to get these non-work, non-home things done, I need to define a new, non-work, non-home “wardrobe.” Rather than specific attire, in this case my wardrobe will more likely look like a specific routine or accoutrements: one particular place in the house that I come to identify with getting things done, some particular parameters about how I approach it, maybe even a specific time frame. Once I get those things set up, it will be a lot easier to fill in the remaining spaces with substantive accomplishments. Like putting on my running clothes signals a Pavlovian response in my legs to go, go, go, approaching my home workspace will soon trigger a response to write, plan, achieve. Content does follow form; I’ve seen it happen too often to believe otherwise.

Of course, another part of that formula is accountability. Ask me in a couple of weeks how it’s going.

*If you know me well, you’ll understand this chipmunk reference. If you don’t, it’s probably better that way.

Congratulations, graduate

Though I find it hard to believe, twenty-five years ago today was my high school graduation day. Besides making me feel pretty darned old, it also leads me to reflection. If I could go back, what would I say to my 17-year-old self, assuming she would listen to me? Who knows, but here goes.

  1. Don’t sit on the sidelines; participate. Ask questions, get to know people, build relationships. The high school model of learning–listen to a lecture, do your homework/write a paper/take a test, move to the next one–won’t get you a good grade in real life. You might pass, but you won’t excel. Whether you go to college or to work or anywhere else, get to know people. Connections count; you never know where or when it might make a difference. And no matter what happens, those relationships will enrich your life experience.
  2. Explore, explore, explore. I wish I had known myself as well at 18 as I do at 40-something. Unless you’re particularly gifted with self-awareness, it takes trying a lot of things to know which ones really trip your trigger. You can always make a change, but it’s a whole lot harder to make a career change once you’ve settled into a particular lifestyle. Figure out what you like to do, then figure out how you can make a living doing it. Even if it doesn’t make you rich, it will make you happy.
  3. No matter what people tell you, you can’t have it all. You can be a mom and have a career–and be successful at both–but there are always trade-offs. I wouldn’t change either of those things in my life, but it would have been a whole lot easier to have known that going in.
  4. Never, never, never give up what makes you YOU for anyone else. I’ve seen so many relationships falter–including my own–because the people involved tried to become what they thought the other person wanted, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Either way, it never ends well. Without those essential components of yourself, you’ll turn into a washed out shell. Your real self–the one who wasn’t trying to conform–attracted the other person to you in the first place. Don’t ever forget that.

These are some of the most important life lessons I’ve learned in the 25 years since I accepted my high school diploma. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long.

Bridging the gap

A couple of years ago, I ran two marketing research projects that took me all over the country doing focus groups. Of the two projects, one involved talking to contractors about a potential new product. The other project involved talking to homeowners about their water systems and options that were currently available. We had to keep them separate which meant we couldn’t just run one meeting in each city, but we did run both sessions back-to-back in the same room in order to minimize our expense.

We accomplished our mission, but we also found an unexpected benefit from this proximity: we got a big lesson on perspective.

Throughout our conversations with contractors, we heard a lot about how these guys do business, what (they think) their customers think, and why they do things they way they do. In our conversations with homeowners, we learned a lot about what they know, more about what they don’t know, and what they really want. When we compared those different conversations, we found that contractors didn’t always know their customers as well as they thought they did. In fact in some cases, they were at complete odds with one another. We had stumbled upon a gulf wider than the Grand Canyon.

How could that be? There we were, among a group of successful professional contractors, and they didn’t achieve success by accident. These were smart guys.

I don’t think this scenario is uncommon or unique to that industry. Often in the process of successfully building a business, we establish routines. We learn what people want, how to make that happen, and how to apply it across the board. We develop a formula and we use it. It works.

But things change. Mindsets shift, new products become available, economic conditions fluctuate. Unless those changes are dramatic enough to get our full attention, we often forget to periodically take the pulse of our customers so that we can adjust our formulas. We just keep doing what we do.

To really stay on top of the game, we need to run a feedback loop. We need to keep having conversations with our customers, learning from them at every encounter. To keep our formulas for success fresh and relevant, we need to run a feedback loop and continually adjust. If we don’t, eventually we’ll find a huge gulf between our customers and us–and it’s usually easier for them to find another service provider than to bridge the Grand Canyon.

(Originally submitted in September 2011 as a guest post for Franklin in the Field.)

Runaway

I’m baaaack. Well, sort of. After my deflating half-marathon experience a few weeks ago when I didn’t meet my time goal (cue voice in my head: perseverance and tenacity, perseverance and tenacity, that’s what counts, perseverance and tenacity… it has to sink in soon), hitting the pavement for my daily run has involved Herculean mental effort.

I’ve tried all my usual tricks. I even bought new shoes. Each day, though, it just came back to gutting it out.

When my son suggested a couple of weeks ago that we run a 5K together, I only half-heartedly agreed. We checked the local race calendar and picked one that seemed convenient, but I had a hunch his resolve might fizzle as the day approached. To my surprise, it didn’t.

And so, on the hottest day of the year (so far) on a course that featured one hill after another, we ran. I ran to recapture something I had lost, and he ran to prove that he could. Gloriously, drenched with sweat and heaving, we did it. We both found what we were looking for.

We ran our hearts out and finished strong. My time and my finishing place were much better than I had anticipated. Better still, Jake finished only two places behind me. In another couple of races, I fully expect him to pass me–to both of our delight.

In any case, yesterday’s accomplishment already makes the thought of my next run seem less daunting. All it takes is a little success to rekindle the motivation. The tough part is sticking with your plan until you find it.

So sue me

About a month ago, I took my he-man wrestler son to the emergency room for only the second time ever. He had bent his elbow at an odd angle in practice, and though I was fairly sure the prescribed remedy would be ice, immobilization, and ibuprofen, I went through the motions of having it checked, just in case.

Three hours and a pile of forms later, we walked out of the hospital with an ice pack and a sling, as well as instructions to take ibuprofen. (Told you so.) After a few days, my son’s arm was back to normal. Case closed on a normal adolescent rite of passage.

Apparently, I was wrong.

Last week I received a form from the insurance company to be filed in cases of an accidental injury. Although a bit puzzled (shouldn’t most injuries be accidental? and if they are instead deliberate, shouldn’t THOSE be the ones requiring explanation?), I attacked the form with my pen, eager to move on.

I quickly observed that the form was intended to help the insurance company determine where it could lay blame, i.e. who else might be able to pay for the charges. There were sections that requested the name and address of the responsible party and homeowner’s insurance information. My hackles really started to rise when I reached the question about whether I had retained legal representation, but I didn’t completely lose it until question number 9.

If a lawsuit or claim against the responsible party will not be filed, please explain.

Wait, what? I have to explain why I’m NOT filing a lawsuit? I guess that means the presumption is that we should always be looking for someone else to blame, and I find that appalling. It should be the other way around. People should have to justify the lawsuits they do file, not the ones they don’t.

Whether we play sports, get behind of the wheel of a car, order a hot beverage at a drive-thru window, or [fill in the blank with your own example], we bear responsibility for our own actions. My son chose to participate, with my blessing, in a physical contact sport. Sometimes people get hurt, and we both knew that going in–and accepted the risk accordingly. Now that it has actually happened, we can’t look for somewhere else to shift the blame.

That’s my not-so-humble opinion. If you don’t like it, sue me.

More than a feeling

I have come to realize that feelings don’t count for much. What does count is the action–or inaction–that accompanies them.

I’m not saying that feelings are worthless. On the contrary, feelings measure what is important to us, and they often serve as the launch pad for the deeds and behaviors that make us who we are. They can spur us toward activity or leave us huddled in a corner. But feelings without actions are just, well, feelings. They don’t do anything.

Think of it this way. Say you really appreciate a co-worker’s diligence and appreciation to detail. Does that appreciation make a difference to anyone if you keep it to yourself?

Or you love your kids, your mom, your spouse, your dog. Until you demonstrate that love through your actions, does it matter to them? How does your good feeling translate into something meaningful in their lives?

Or say you didn’t get a promotion you thought you deserved and now you’re disappointed and angry. Can’t you give value to those feelings by letting them drive you to work harder, perform better, and speak up for yourself?

Of course, feelings can also spur negative action or even paralysis. Regardless, if left untended and unacted upon, feelings only matter to the person experiencing them. Whether positive or negative, it’s not the feeling itself, but rather the demonstration of it that makes it count to anyone but you.

Love someone? Hate the way your neighborhood looks? Enjoy a friend’s company? Appreciate a staff member’s initiative? Feel sad for a friend who is suffering? Then do something about it. Otherwise, you’re the only one who cares.