Time machines

Back_to_the_future_timemachineMy ex used a lot of aphorisms. (I could have written “sayings,” but I thought “aphorisms” would make me sound smarter.) Although I’ve tried to forget many of them, one will sometimes pop into my head when the situation is right.

Scurrying to work this morning, I was putting increasing pressure on my gas pedal when I heard a voice in my head say, Your car is not a time machine. Doggone it. I wish I didn’t have to attribute occasional snippets of wisdom to my ex.

He’s right, you know. My car can’t make up for the extra time I spent checking my email or the five extra minutes I lay in my bed in a fugue state refusing to get up. It won’t compensate for all the stuff I decided to do instead of getting on the road when I had planned. A car is a car. It moves me from place to place; it’s not a vehicle to make up for past sins.

Whether it’s a car or some other object, process, or person, I think we all have a tendency to expect more than something is designed to do when we fall short elsewhere. We lean on it to correct or save a situation, when really we just need to own up to our actions.

Which, of course, leads me to another aphorism the ex liked to use: a lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.

Dang it.

Up the ladder

up the ladderIn my day job, all employees have to complete periodic legal compliance training. Once a quarter, I have to watch 2 or 3 online videos about selected topics relevant to the workplace and then pass a quiz on each one. It’s not really a big deal (though I do hear a lot of grousing when the reminders come out), and usually I just do them and move on.

Yesterday was the day I dug into this quarter’s modules. (Yeah, the deadline is Friday.) Partway through the first module, something caught my attention. I backtracked a few frames to make sure I had it right.

Sure enough, what I had noticed was this: the first recommended course of action when faced with this particular problem was to approach the offender and present your case reasonably and professionally. It said:

You CAN speak up and tell someone that something they are doing or saying makes you uncomfortable. It demonstrates leadership and can make all the difference in the world.

Hallelujah! A voice of reason and responsibility. I wholeheartedly support reporting procedures, and they should always be followed according to the prescribed protocol. However, the first step in any conflict should be to bring it to the attention of the person involved. Tell her you don’t like it, it makes you uncomfortable, you find it offensive, you think it’s wrong, whatever. Give the person a chance to respond; perhaps you can work out the issue right then and there.

So often these days, I feel as if the immediate reaction of many is to move directly to what I believe should be the SECOND step of the process: tell the next person up the ladder. And often that next person fails to ask the follow-up questions, “Have you talked to this person directly? Have you tried to work it out?” Certainly, the up-the-ladder process exists for a reason, but that reason is to give people redress when the last step didn’t solve the issue. We can’t jump into the middle of the process without trying the simplest, most reasonable course(s) of action first.

And I especially loved the part that stated, It demonstrates leadership. Darned straight. It says a lot about a person who is willing not only to stand up for herself, but also to (try to) handle an issue directly rather than simply handing it off to someone else.

I know there are exceptions to every rule and that occasionally, the direct approach just won’t work. I get that. But we must at least ask the question, What can I do to help this situation and then evaluate the options before pushing it up the ladder. Start on the ground floor, not the first rung.

P.S. We don’t let our kids do this; why should we?

Egomania

noegohereApologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego. —Unknown

I chewed on this quote for a long time when I first read it. It’s good stuff, but as sung by The Fray, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same” (from All at Once). So I still struggle to put that into practice, to wait a beat before I speak and let my head lead my mouth rather than vice versa.

The other day I realized that perhaps “apologizing” is too narrow a term. Listening on a conference call, the posturing was so thick, it almost took material form. I could practically see it. This quote popped into my head, and I thought of it in terms of correcting, redressing, proving you know something, and reminding someone else of what [you think] he should know. I’m sure there are dozens more.

Then I thought about the word “relationship.” People on that call clearly weren’t concerned about relationships, but at least they should have been concerned about getting things done. Stepping on people’s proverbial toes (or egos) should always fall behind accomplishing the goal. Think of how much good we could do (or pick your own result: how much money we could make, how many goods we could produce, how much we could improve quality, how many people we could help, how many diseases we could cure) if we could all just get over ourselves.

No matter how I rewrite that quote, it all boils down to this: putting aside my ego.

Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.

How to say no

just say noWith all due respect to Nancy Reagan, sometimes you shouldn’t “just say no.” In fact, the best purveyors of that pesky word can deliver it without ever saying it. They can even leave the recipient of the denial feeling, well, not denied. It’s a finely tuned skill, but I’ve seen some true masters at work. I’ve watched and listened, and here’s what I’ve learned.

Step 1: Listen. The person you have to turn down is obviously asking for something. Listen to what that is. All of it. Ask a few questions along the way. The asker will appreciate that you’ve given the proposal due consideration, and you might pick up on something that a quick judgment would have hidden from view.

Step 2: Give something. Chances are, even if you think the overall proposal is a cockamamie idea, there’s probably some part of it that might be worth doing–or at least doesn’t really matter either way. Look for that thing and lead with it. Say something like, “I think [x-aspect] is a good idea. Let’s make that happen.” Give something to get something.

Step 3: Ask the person’s opinion. Formulate the questions whose answers have led you to your decision to say no. Then ask them. “Do you think we need this?” “What will we have to give up [if funds are an issue] to do this?” “Do you think it’s a good idea to…” Many, many times the person doing the asking isn’t considering the issue from the same perspective. When you ask the questions rather than giving the answers, you give the person a chance to reach your conclusion on her own. She is then in a position not only to accept your decision, but also to support it.

Step 4: […]  Yep, this one is empty. If you’ve done the first three steps effectively, you’ve probably already ended the conversation, with both you and the asker are satisfied. And you’ve never actually said no.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I was on the receiving end of that no today–and I feel good about it.

Do what you can

booksI just read a remarkable book. Packed to its binding with a broad range of insights, one in particular has my attention right now. The book, a memoir of a son’s relationship with his mother and an homage to the books they shared, revives my long-standing question of whether I am really doing enough to make the world around me a better place. The son had the same question for his mother:

“I just feel guilty that I’m not doing more in the world,” I said. “I mean, it’s so easy to read Suite Francaise and think, ‘Why didn’t people in America know more and do more?’ But here I am, and there are things going on all over–child soldiers and genocide and human trafficking–and I’m hardly doing anything.”–Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about people in a faraway country or people at my local soup kitchen, there’s work to be done. The topic could be education, literacy, health, crime, safety, community development, or general quality of life. The questions are the same: What am I doing to make the world a better place? Am I doing enough?

Many days I don’t feel as if I have a moment to spare. I have a demanding full-time job and kids, for crying out loud. We’ve got practices and games and performances and check-ups and middle-school social activities and info sessions and…whew. Plus I’m training for a half marathon, I volunteer on some local committees and boards, I do some freelance writing, and I have a pipe dream of carving out some kind of social life. What else am I supposed to do?

And yet, something deep inside me tells me that we all should be working to make the world a better place. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, but some way, somehow, we should touch a life in a positive way. A changing way.

Oh, the guilt.

I loved the answer Will’s mother gave him, not only because it assuaged my guilt a bit, but also because I believe she’s right:

Of course you could do more–you can always do more, and you should do more–but still, the important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that’s all you can do. Too many people use the excuse that they don’t think they can do enough, so they decide they don’t have to do anything–even if it’s just to sign something, or send a small contribution, or invite a newly settled refugee family over for Thanksgiving. –Mary Anne Schwalbe in The End of Your Life Book Club

She later added:

It’s fine to give yourself treats, if you can afford it, but no one needs to eat like that every night. It should be special. [Here’s my favorite part.] If you are fortunate enough to have these questions, it means that you have an extra responsibility to make sure you’re doing something. … People should use their talents.

I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. There’s so much to do everywhere; will my little contribution of time, talent, or treasure really make a difference? I have to believe that it all adds up. I may not be able to do a lot, but I still have to do what I can. I’m holding on to that.

P.S. If you’re interested in the book, I highly recommend it–especially if you have a passion for books themselves. It’s called The End of Your Life Book Club, written by Will Schwalbe. Loved it.

Purse-rverance

PurseI forgot my purse. By the time I realized it, I was 40 miles away from where it lay nestled unobtrusively in an empty file drawer at work. I had already been home, packed my kids in the car, and whisked them off to accomplish a flurry of errands that would finish with dinner at a restaurant. It wasn’t until we pulled into my son’s haircut venue that I realized the omission. Plans for the evening shattered, and we prepared to go home and sulk.

That lasted about 30 seconds.

My son had his debit card with him, so I sent him on his way to his haircut. I then took off with my daughter to unload half my closet at the dry cleaner while I mentally regrouped. When we returned 15 minutes later, I had a plan.

As soon as my son’s high-and-tight was complete, we headed to the neighboring bank and its ATM. Although my debit card was safely snuggled in my absent pocketbook, his was inches away in his wallet. Of course, his bank balance was likely not enough to cover dinner for our little threesome, but now comes the fun part.

By the time we pulled up to the ATM, I had already whipped out my phone, logged into my mobile banking app, and transferred money from my checking account to my son’s. I covered his haircut and the amount he was about to withdraw for our dinner. Two minutes and a few twenties later, we pulled away from the bank and started negotiating for our respective favorite restaurants. Crisis averted; our plans were saved.

I can’t stop thinking about that evening. At first I was awed by the flexibility afforded by electronic technology. (And why, oh why, can’t I just pay from my phone if I can move money around with it?) Look how far we’ve come. Eventually, though, I came back around to the fact that even with a full palette of digital options, they’re all worthless without the ability to string them together into something useful. They are simply tools; we still need craftsmen (and women) to effectively put them to work.

No matter what the technology, it is no substitute for reasoning and critical thinking skills. In fact, as technology advances, we have to move our minds along with it in order to effectively use the tools at hand. We have to keep up.

P.S. Although we had a great time at our dinner out, we would have had a great time at home, too. We’re cool like that.

I know where you sit

exterior-south-side-010913My company is building a beautiful new headquarters, and I’m lucky enough to play a significant role in it. I have the pleasure–and it really is a pleasure–of overseeing the furniture, fabrics, fixtures, and finishes for all things interior. Over the past several months, I’ve learned more about office systems, upholstery, paint, veneer, laminate, and seat pans than I even knew existed. And I’ve had fun doing it.

Every now and then, I’ll stop dead in my tracks. I’m responsible for the interior of this impressive new building. Me. Moi. Yours truly. The realization always takes me by surprise, and it humbles me. That’s a lot of responsibility.

Of course, I’m working with an interior designer, as well as some very capable (and talented) vendors. I’m not flying solo here. Nonetheless, one principle has tempered every decision I’ve made. When I make  a choice at odds with the suggestion of our interior designer, I tell her this:

No one will remember your name when this is all over, but EVERYONE will know where I sit.

Anyone who fosters a gripe about the comfort and aesthetics of the new building’s interior will quickly and easily find his way to my office. My involvement in this process has been no secret, nor should it be. Because of that, I constantly have to balance what suits my own taste with what is appropriate for the company, what best serves the most people, what makes the most financial sense, what will stand the test of time, and what will be most widely accepted. I can’t simply disappear when the project is complete; I will carry the responsibility for my decisions for a long time.

As this project draws to a close in the next few months, I realize that this lesson is far more important than anything I’ve learned about paint or furniture. No matter what I do, I can’t (or shouldn’t) make decisions in a vacuum. Someone will always know where I sit.

That changes everything.