A scary thought

What better day to talk about fear than Halloween? I’m participating in a training session where, like most group events, we started with an introductory exercise. You’ve probably done this before: pair off and learn enough about your partner to introduce him to the rest of the group. Ideally, you’ll throw in a few interesting tidbits that keep the audience engaged, and often the group leader helps this along by providing a framework for the interview.

This session was no different, but this framework included the following question: What do you fear most?

Being (primarily) a rule follower, I took the question to heart and answered accordingly. Rather than citing heights or snakes or spiders or death like some of my colleagues, however, my answer went pretty deep. What I fear most is looking stupid.

Looking stupid can be the result of a variety of situations. I may have been duped. I may not have known the answer. I may be flat-out wrong. It doesn’t matter why; I just don’t want to feel that blush creep up my neck and onto my cheeks.

Now, I could make an argument that simply admitting this makes me feel stupid. Indeed it does. Somehow there’s a vulnerability aspect tied in here, as well. I have a weakness (many, in fact), and I’m sharing it publicly. I feel pretty silly. *gulp*

So why do it?

To get better, of course. To conquer my fear. To convince myself that even though there may be a scary one or two or several in the bunch, people are people. We all have hopes and fears and dreams and successes and failures. We may look different, have different goals, and view the world from different perspectives, but somewhere at the core we all share whatever it is that makes us inherently human. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. Every experience has something to teach us, even the ones that make us feel stupid. Take it and run. My guess is that even when you’re wrong, you probably don’t look as stupid as you think.

Remind me of that often, will you?

Happy Halloween.


If you read last Friday’s post, you know that I suffered from my usual case of nerves before the race I ran last weekend. As expected, I stayed jittery all the way till the opening cannon (yes, it really was a cannon–we all JUMPED across the starting line), then I took off and did my thing. It worked out just fine.

As a decent competitor, I’ve won a few age group awards and had hoped to do the same in this race. I faced a tough field, and it just wasn’t to be this time, although I was satisfied with my finish. As I analyzed the results, however, I found myself not only looking at how I had done, but also at who had finished around me. Then I found myself looking at their ages, calculating when I would slide into the next age group and who would stay behind.

I wanted to win, and I was looking at Father Time to help me do it.

Wait, what?

For those of you not familiar with road races, they work like this. Everyone’s time is recorded and logged to determine overall results. Then the data is parsed and participants are categorized by age and gender. Two finishing lists are published: overall and age group. With not a prayer of a contending overall time, I look to the age group results to boost my ego.

When I’m on the early end of my age group, I always do better, relatively speaking. Now that I’m approaching the top end and the “younguns” are infiltrating my pack, my former top threes have become top tens. This is the only time I can’t wait for my birthday so that I can get closer to the next group–and to being a “youngun” myself. Instead of racing the clock, I’m racing the calendar.

I have mixed feelings about this. I want to keep getting better and post faster times. I also want to win, and apparently I’m willing to bank on my age to do it. Will I be jitterbugging for joy when I’m an old lady, further down the overall list than ever, but fastest in my age group simply because I’ve outlasted everyone? What does this say about me?

All I know is that people want to feel good about themselves, and we’re willing to slice and dice the data to do it. Keep that in mind when you’re trying to get someone to buy in to your message. I’ll say it again: people like to feel good about themselves. Help them find a way to do it.

Ask the right questions

Sitting in a training class this week, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of asking the right questions. Too often, we’ll limit the possible answers by the way we frame the questions we ask. We narrow our field of vision.

I don’t have to look very far to find examples of this. Consider, for instance, this scenario from my weekend. Each of my children had plans to hang out* with a friend. (*Note: at this age, I’ve been informed that they don’t play any more. They hang out.) Trying to get some mileage from my magnanimous granting of their socialization wishes, I made their plans conditional on cleaning their bathroom.

Like all kids, there’s always a lot of finger-pointing and duty-shirking that precedes any chore. “He’s supposed to” and “she didn’t” ring out with more frequency than my email notifications. Accordingly, I often try to pre-empt the bickering and give specific assignments. Kid 1, you clean the toilet and the mirror. Kid 2, you clean the sink and the shower. This time was no exception. Each kid had a specific assignment, and I left them alone to get them done.

When it was time to go, I went to their bathroom to do a quick visual. You guessed it: DISASTER.The kids had done exactly what I told them, but the results were embarrassing. Though the mirror had been sprayed and wiped, it was so cloudy that I found myself rubbing my eyes when looking into it. The sink had been wiped down, but the globs of toothpaste that had previously decorated it had turned into artistic smears.

I quelled my anger and gathered the troops. Guys! I bellowed stated calmly. Look at the big picture! What are we trying to get done here? Don’t just do what I told you for the sake of saying you did it. Figure out what the end result should be and make that your goal. Blank stares called for a follow-up. Think of it this way. I don’t care so much that you can tell me you wiped down the mirror. I want a clean bathroom! Attempt number two yielded somewhat better results when they looked at it that way.

The problem wasn’t (exactly) that my kids weren’t doing their jobs. Sure, they were busy, and they could honestly tell me that they had accomplished the tasks I had given them. They just hadn’t done them well, and they certainly didn’t move me toward my goal of a clean bathroom. They had failed to ask themselves the right question. Subconsciously they had asked themselves What do we need to do to satisfy Mom’s request? when they should have been asking Why is Mom asking me to do this and how can I make that happen?

In the context of this training class, the universal question is What job is my customer hiring my product/service/piece of information to accomplish? When we get to the heart of the matter, we’ll end up with much more valuable solutions. Don’t ask people what they want; ask them what they want to accomplish.

Otherwise, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you’ll end up with faster horses. Or artistic toothpaste smears.

Bundle of nerves

You would think that after running as many races as I have, I wouldn’t get nervous anymore. Not so. I find my heart fluttering days before each new race, and the thought that runs in a loop through my head is, What if I can’t do it?

I’m registered to run another race on Saturday, a 10K this time, and the jitters have already started. Aside from the normal nervous musings, there’s a new factor in the mix: I’ve never raced this distance before. Sure, I’ve done tons of 5Ks, a couple of four-milers, and two half marathons. I’ve at least covered the bookend distances, so this one should be no sweat (rhetorically speaking, of course!). Add to that the fact that I run this distance occasionally on my regular evening jaunts, so I know I can do it without a lot of extra effort. A walk in the park, right?

Somehow I still fret. All the way up to the starting line, the jitters will build. I’ll calm a bit on the course, but until I cross that finish line, I won’t be completely confident that I’ll get it done.

That’s probably not all bad. Those jitters keep me going, pushing me along just ahead of the fear of failure that nips at my heels. The resulting sense of accomplishment I feel when I cross that finish line is that much sweeter.

Guess I’ll hang on to my bundle of nerves for a while longer. It might be worth something.

That dirty word

Ah, meetings. I could rant all day about them. I sit in too many; they go on too long; little gets done. Time management and focus issues seem to be the two driving factors, often combined with a liberal dose of posturing. Consider this if you don’t believe me: the following passage was listed as a requirement in a bid specification for one of my projects.

2.b. Do not raise issues at Progress meetings that do not involve other participants at that meeting, and that could be handled more efficiently at the level of the Vendor’s coordination with its own subvendors and suppliers.

Translation: stay on topic (focus) and don’t waste anyone’s time (time management).

Holy smokes. Since when do we have to spell that out? Shouldn’t that be common sense? Although I was flabbergasted to find this as part of the spec, the first thing that popped out of my mouth was, Oh please, oh please, can’t we apply this to all meetings, everywhere?

I’ve been thinking about this for days. It has stuck with me so hard that I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I dreamed about it last night. (Please, no inferences about my lack of social life!) I woke up thinking that perhaps I could make a new career for myself as a meeting facilitator. I could hire myself out to various organizations just to lead meetings. As an outsider with no personal involvement in the organization or the topic, I could impartially keep the meeting on point. I wouldn’t accept the job without an agenda and a list of goals or necessary decisions to result from the meeting.

Actually, if more meetings had those items up front–an agenda and goals–they might be a lot more productive on their own. They wouldn’t need me, but then again, I already have a job.

Anyone have a meeting nightmare you’d like to share?

Pulse check

I laid out some goals at the end of last year, hoping that holding myself publicly accountable would keep me on track. To stay true to that intent, I think it’s time for a pulse check–maybe past time. I’ve copied and pasted my goals from the original post so you’ll know what I’m talking about. Here goes.

  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. I continued with private lessons for the first couple months of the year, but dropped them shortly thereafter. My schedule has continued to burgeon, and I haven’t been able to fit them in. I’d like to get back to it someday (soon, I hope), but something had to give. This one is sitting on the back burner.
  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. I ran the Mini but fell far short of my time goal. I wrote about my experience HERE, and I’m already signed up to redeem myself next year.
  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. I. Did. It. YES! I didn’t get in quite all of the 500 miles I intended, but I trained better, harder, and more regularly. I put together a plan for both physical and mental success, and I followed it pretty closely. It paid off for me with my best ride yet. I had a great time and finished strong.
  4. I’m going to run five races besides the Mini this year. I need events to keep me true to my running. Complete, and then some. Races: 1. Runaway Eagles 5K; 2. Running for World Water 5K; 3. Warrior Dash Indiana; 4. Eradicate Polio 5K; 5. Warrior Dash Oregon; 6. Rebel Race. And my son has been pushing me to run a few more.
  5. I’m going to sit down to dinner with my kids at least one night a week. Sketchy. Some weeks I do well, others I don’t. In any case, it’s not a routine practice.
  6. I’m going to teach my kids to follow a recipe. We’ve done some cooking together this year, and I’m hopeful. In fact, I’m pretty sure they could muddle their way through alone by now.
  7. I’m going to write something bigger than an article, and then I’m going to try to have it published. Stalled.

All in all, I’d give myself a C+/B-. Your advice, comments, and encouragement are welcome; please send your thoughts my way. How’s your year going?

Failure to thrive

A friend of mine struggling with her current circumstances tells me she doesn’t like change. She’s holding herself in limbo, moving neither forward nor back. As I thought about her situation, it occurred to me that the change she so fears has already happened. She’s not keeping it from happening by ignoring it, because it has already taken place. She’s just living in limbo until she can accept it.

Within 3.62 seconds of my smug epiphany on her behalf, I started hearing voices in my head. Well, one voice. A small but persistent one. It got louder and louder until I could no longer ignore it, despite my best efforts. By the time I acknowledged it, it was screaming at me:


It’s true. There’s one particular situation I’ve been juggling for a while, trying to stave off the inevitable. The trouble is, the inevitable has already happened. I’m just spinning my wheels trying to pretend it hasn’t happened. The only thing I’m accomplishing is keeping myself from moving forward. While living in limbo may feel like a safe place to be, its false sense of security really translates into a failure to thrive.

That reminds me of the plant in my kitchen that has lived in the same small pot for more than three years. It may be growing, but it’s a whole lot smaller than it would be if I would give it a new, bigger home. Its sparse and spindly self might be lush and full if I only gave it a chance. Instead, I’ve taken the easy way out and kept it in its original container. Limbo has not helped that plant.

I hate to think how twisted its roots look.

Happy accidents

It’s funny how we sometimes stumble into the things we enjoy. A chance encounter, a sliver of opportunity, a mention in passing. Sometimes it’s a new hobby, other times it’s a new genre of music. It can even be a new job or a new role in an existing job.

I never intended to be an event planner. Comfortable (sort of) in my role as a marketing analyst, I attended my first company sales meeting many years ago–13, to be exact. After two seventeen-hour days of information cramming and intense networking with the same 50 people (read: meetings all day, followed by carousing till the wee hours), I was exhausted and frustrated.

After the first few hours of each day, my brain was fried. The intense format, followed by zero downtime to process the information presented, left me questioning whether I would retain anything at all. And if I wasn’t retaining much of the information, I wondered if anyone else would. If not, why were we even there? There had to be a better way.

Following the meeting, I made a list of the things I didn’t like or that I thought were ineffective. In an uncharacteristically bold move for my young, upstart self, when the VP of sales later asked me what I thought of the meeting, I told him that I thought it could have been done better. (Yikes!) Ever gracious, this man suggested that we get together for a more detailed discussion. The next thing I knew, I had a slot on his calendar.

Appointment made and back in my office, I panicked. I couldn’t go to this man with my laundry list of complaints and simply drop it in his lap. Unless I also brought some specific suggestions for improvement, I’d be lucky to get a pat on the head and a kwityerbitchen–and I’d probably never be granted another audience with this guy.

With four days till the appointment, I worked frantically to come up with a plan. When the day came, I was nervous but ready. We sat down together and the VP gave me the stage. He asked me to tell him what I thought in specific detail, and then he listened intently. When I finished, he posed the question I knew was coming:

How would you make it better?

I have never been so thankful to have been prepared. I presented him with three alternative meeting formats, and it took him all of about 36 seconds to tell me that I had just earned the next year’s meeting planning duties. I walked out of that meeting stunned but thrilled.

After that, I planned a lot of meetings, eventually adding trade shows and a few other events. That chance opportunity helped build a bridge from my then-job to corporate communications, which is my current playing field. I love what I do today, but you wouldn’t have found it on my radar all those years ago.

Sometimes, life’s best opportunities are happy accidents. Pay attention; don’t miss the next one that crosses your path.

P.S. Thanks, KMN. Every day I realize something new about how you quietly mentored me.

Jumping through hoops

Yesterday’s post got me thinking about mind games we play with ourselves, particularly when we pretend not to know something. It brought to mind a nightly ritual with my daughter years ago.

Somewhere at around 18 months old, my little bundle of energy joy learned how to climb out of her crib. Unlike most toddlers, however, she was pretty savvy about it. She would wait a requisite amount of time after being tucked into bed before she would quietly steal from her room. Rather than announcing her presence, however, she would pad down the hall and stop just short of the doorway to the family room, lying down to position herself to see but not be seen.

The first few times I caught her were like a Laurel and Hardy skit. I’d find her and put her back in bed. She’d wait a few minutes and come back out. I’d find her and put her back in bed. She’d wait a few minutes and come back out. Both of us equally stubborn, we sometimes played this game all night.

After weeks of trying to find ways to keep her in bed, I eventually stumbled across an unconventional solution. I gave up. Sort of.

My scheme was this: as long as my little diva sweet pea didn’t know that I had seen her–and I almost always knew she was there–I would let her stay in the hallway. After all, she would fall asleep almost immediately, and wasn’t that what I wanted anyway? However, if she knew that I knew (stay with me here) that she was there, I had to take her back to her room.


It was all a clever mind trick, at least to my way of thinking. She had to see me as a firm parent who followed through. If I saw a problem, I had to solve it. If I didn’t see it, though, I couldn’t be held responsible for solving it. And if she didn’t know I had seen her, that counted as not seeing her.

I’m not recommending this course of action for anyone. It worked for me in this case–my daughter went to sleep at a reasonable hour and in calm fashion (just not in her bed), and I stopped making myself crazy over it–but it seems like pretty convoluted logic. What I find interesting isn’t the solution, but the logic behind it. Assuming I’m fairly normal, human beings will often perform complicated mental gymnastics to justify their actions. We go to great lengths to do what we want to do–and make it work in our heads.

This is an important concept to understand, not just in marketing, but simply in communicating with people. Whatever point you may be trying to drive home, you have to make it work for your audience. Give them a reason to embrace it that allows them to fit it into their world. Make it work for them; don’t make them jump through hoops.