Love your inbox

unsubscribeI love email. I love its flexibility, its instant gratification, its geographic indifference. I love that it doesn’t hold a grudge against me for writing only a single sentence the same way a physical piece of paper accuses me with its very blankness. Fill me! screams the paper, regardless of whether I have anything meaningful left to say. I love the way email lends itself to conversations rather than reports and updates. I love the speed and agility it gives me to get things done.

And I hate it. I hate the barrage of unsolicited messages that assaults my inbox every day, every hour. I hate sifting through the junk to find the one important message I need to answer RIGHT NOW. I hate the way people or companies I don’t know invade my space when whatever they’re trying to sell has no relevance to my daily routine. Make. It. Stop.

Wait.

I can make it stop, or most of it anyway. Companies aren’t allowed to keep people on their email lists who don’t want to be there. It’s against the law. Violations can carry hefty fines, so the legit businesses are good about following the rules. They have to provide a way to unsubscribe in every one of those commercial emails they send.

That means that I have the power to stop them. Then why, oh why, have I let this keep happening? Even after reading a post from a fellow blogger about clearing her electronic clutter, I still didn’t take action for weeks. Quite simply, it was easier to simply hit delete every time I received an unwanted email than to open it, scroll to the bottom, and click unsubscribe. Well, easier in the moment, but not in the long run.

For the last few days, I’ve been on a campaign to rationalize my inbox. Although there may be some perverted sense of self-importance to being able to say (with a sigh), Ugh, I had to sift through over 200 emails today, it’s not worth the time wasted on the junk. Besides that, everyone knows that 85% of those 200 emails are junk anyway.

Even though it takes a (tiny) bit more time to do the unsubscribe dance, let me tell you, it’s worth it. Several dozen (a hundred?) unsubscribes later, I find myself less distracted by junk and better able to focus on the stuff that matters. I can go back to loving email. Has it really been that simple all along?

The power is yours; use it wisely. *She said with a wink.*

Walls

bldg-constructionLast week I paid a visit to our new company headquarters, which is starting to look ready for our planned mid-summer inhabitation. Because of my involvement with the project, I’ve actually had a pretty good handle on the building’s progress all along. Even so, something about this visit really grabbed me. The building just seemed so much bigger.

With walls finished and furniture installed, somehow the building seemed more impressive than when the ground was staked. Or when the frame went up. Or when interior walls were nothing but studs. How does that work?

It seems counterintuitive to think that filling a space will make it feel bigger. Shouldn’t adding boundaries make it feel smaller, more confining? Apparently not always.

As I thought about it, I got a bead on deconstructing the phenomenon. When the project was an empty field, and later when the footer was poured and the frame erected, so much of the building was left to my imagination. How could that footprint house more than 200 people? How could that many workspaces fit inside that very finite shell? My mind was left to fill in the gaps, to paint the rest of the picture.

The more of the building that went up, the less my mind had to fill in. On last week’s visit, I could clearly see where all those people would fit. I could imagine my colleagues and me bustling about. I knew exactly where our equipment would be tested. And with the structure nearly finished, I could easily compare it to our current digs.

Compare.

I think that’s the key. Most of us need a point of reference before we can really make sense of our surroundings. Even if the new thing is wildly different than anything we’ve experienced before, we still need that what-we’ve-experienced-before baseline to understand that it IS wildly different. We need a way to put it into context.

If you’ve got the time (about 17 minutes), take a gander at this video clip, Thinking inside the box. Dan Heath explains better than I ever could that sometimes it takes knowing the boundaries to really unlock our potential. Instead of closing us in, sometimes the walls actually open us up.

I need to chew on that for a while.

Dinosaurs and peas

Medion   DIGITAL CAMERAMy former father-in-law has a big personality, and he has coined a few phrases that leave his kids, grandkids, and hangers-on exchanging knowing glances and occasional eye rolls. Later on, though, those phrases always seem to worm their way back into our lives. Or maybe it’s just me. I frequently find myself muttering his maxims under my breath in all kinds of situations. In their quirky way, they just fit.

Take dinosaurs, for example.

Don’t be like the dinosaurs! You know what happened to the dinosaurs.

Just today, I listened to a colleague describe a situation in which people wanted to keep doing things one way because–you know what’s coming–that’s the way things had always been done. And I found myself thinking about dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were faced with change, albeit somewhat drastic, and they couldn’t adapt. Now they’re extinct. Don’t be like the dinosaurs!

And then there are peas.

You can eat your peas, or you can not eat your peas. You’re over twelve.

Whenever I feel the cords in my neck straining from exertion as I try to bring someone around to the right my way of thinking, peas start rolling around in my brain. Yes, peas. At a certain point–perhaps age 12–a person starts making his own decisions. He’s not a kid anymore; right or wrong, I get to make my point, but he gets to decide. I can’t force him to eat his peas, or even to do things my way.

Dinosaurs and peas. There’s a lesson in everything.

Reflex

standing deskI hurt my back. I don’t know how I did it, but a couple of days ago, I felt the mushy disk that I usually keep under control break free. It slid out of its designated spot between two vertebrae (I can name them, if you’re interested) and settle comfortably on a nerve. Well, comfortably for the disk anyway.

For the rest of the night and half of the next day, I babied it. I cut my run short and hobbled gingerly about my business. At work, I slouched to accommodate the sore spot. I tried not to do much that involved lifting or movement. Sitting was uncomfortable, so I rigged up a tall workspace and stood for the rest of the day.

That’s when I remembered.

Instead of curling up like a threatened pill bug, I needed to stretch out. I needed to stand tall and straight. I even needed to do a few exercises that pulled against the sore place. My (terrific) physical therapist taught me this a few years ago when I faced this malady the first time, but I had forgotten.

Of course, I had forgotten because those things don’t feel normal. It’s not intuitive to move into the pain; my primal brain tells me to Flee! Flee! Flee! Move AWAY from the pain, and fast! Naturally, that’s what I did. And naturally, it didn’t help.

When rational thought started to seep through the cracks of my discomfort, I heard the voice of my PT in my head. I pushed through the hobble and pulled myself straighter when I walked. Amazingly, it eased the pain. The more I hunched over, the more I hurt. The straighter I stood, the less I hurt. Make way for sanity, Tammy.

So often, the solution to a problem lies in taking the action that is the least natural. (If it were that easy, it wouldn’t be a problem, right?) If your back hurts, resist the urge to curl into a ball. If you start sliding on the ice, steer into the skid. If your argument isn’t working, change your approach, not your volume. If you feel threatened in your job, open up and add value, don’t protect your turf. When change is on the horizon, forge ahead, don’t circle the wagons.

If solutions were simply reflexive, we’d have no worries. We wouldn’t have to do anything but react from that primal node of our brains. For better or for worse, life is more complex than that. More often than not, the solution that works best is the one that feels the least natural. The next time you’re in a tough spot, resist the reflex and reflect.

Oh yeah–once I started following my own advice, my back started feeling better. Funny how that works.

Silent weapons

weaponsAs I contemplated what to write today, my mind repeatedly drifted back to a concept I played with some time ago: the power words carry not only with their presence, but also with their absence. Perhaps particularly with their absence.

I know how to deal in words. I can use them to soothe, intrigue, challenge, impress, or offend. I can pummel people with them or use them to deflect their targeted blows. Words celebrate, congratulate, contemplate, and correlate. They accuse, defend, justify, and exonerate. They empower and emasculate, deify and humble, elect and depose. Words can do anything.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the silence left in their absence to be absolutely crushing. Like the heavy air that builds before a storm, the intentional withdrawal of words oppresses me.

ArturSchnabel

Few people will argue that words can be weapons. But many forget that withholding them can be deadly, too.

Use them wisely. And don’t use them wisely.

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides!”. – Artur Schnabel

***Apparently I’m riffing on an old theme. For more of the same, read my 2011 post, The sound of silence

Next time

IMG_0305A local radio station is giving away a vacation package to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, complete with concert tickets and backstage passes to see Michael Buble. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” they say.

Friends and family look at the pictures I share of travels near and far with my kids. “What a great experience! That was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” they say.

Once in a lifetime.

I’ve begun to hate that phrase.

Granted, the stars will never again align in a way that conjures up exactly the same experience. From that standpoint, pretty much everything happens only once in a lifetime.

But if you’re talking about a trip to Paris or special passes to a performance or walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at night, I see no reason those things must be constrained to only one time in someone’s existence. Sure, it might take some planning, saving, creativity, and ingenuity to make things happen, and they might not happen often. But what doesn’t take some ambition? Some deliberate action?

The phrase once in a lifetime has gotten stuck in my craw. It leaves me thinking that people have resigned themselves to whatever their circumstances and that they have (or take) no power to change them. Anything momentous that happens has been bestowed upon them by Kismet, and they have no control over whether it happens again. That makes me really sad.

I’m hungry. I’m always hungry for more. When I experience something I love, I start thinking about how I can make it happen again. And when I do it again, how can I make it better? What will I do next time?

Next time.

I’m always thinking of next time.

When I take my kids somewhere, what I really hope to do is whet their appetites for more. For crying out loud, they’re still in middle school. If all the things we’ve done are truly only once in a lifetime, what’s left? I’d like to think instead that they’ll be intrigued, eager to learn more, curious enough to go back and do it their way, rather than my way. I’d like to think I’m just opening a door to next time.

There are truly experiences that happen just once in a lifetime, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t as many of them as we think. We have power over our lives. Whether we experience something once in a lifetime or there’s a next time is our choice.

I prefer to deal in next times.

The secret to cold calling

phone-for-cold-callI got another cold call yesterday, one of the dozens I take every week at work. If I spent the requested amount of time with each caller–Can I take ten minutes of your time? When can we set up a half hour conference call? I’d like to have a fifteen minute chat to assess your needs–I’d never get anything done. Besides that, if it’s not in the budget, I can’t spend it. If I’ve never heard of it, I’m pretty sure I didn’t put it in the budget. The result? I’ve perfected an extensive repertoire of ways to say No, thank you, firmly and politely.

Once in a while I will actually listen to someone’s pitch. The rules are thus:

  1. I’m actually in the market for the product or service. (Slim chance, but it happens occasionally.)
  2. The product or service is on my radar as a “might need later” and I want to do some homework. (Totally at my discretion; the caller has no control over what bounces around in my head.)
  3. The caller has taken some time to understand our business BEFORE he calls. (The name of my company can be misleading. A 2-1/2 second visit to our website will eliminate all confusion about what we do.) This isn’t always a guarantee that I’ll listen, but getting it wrong is a guarantee that I won’t.
  4. Having the particular caller/caller’s company as a contact might benefit me in the future–or ticking him off might burn a bridge.
  5. You’ve already done me a favor somehow.
  6. I have some time to kill. (Fat chance–just making sure you’re paying attention.)

Cold callers have no control over items 2 and 6, but items 1, 3, 4, and 5 offer a sliver of hope. The secret is doing the homework. Calling me from a database list will never work; I’ll be able to tell right away. It honestly ticks me off when someone assumes I work for a power company just because the word “electric” is in its name.

However, if the caller has taken the time to find out what I do, what my company does, and hone in on the areas where there’s either a glaring need or a strategic fit (which may not even be today but could materialize in the longer term), then maybe–just maybe–we have a place to start.

But, dear cold callers, you have to work fast. You only have SECONDS to get my attention when I answer the phone. That’s why doing your homework is so important. I’m not going to give you my time to figure it out; you have to use your own. If you have to do it, the calling should only be cold for one of us. I’ll give you a hint: you should already be warmed up.

P.S. Don’t ask how I’m doing today when I don’t even know who you are.

Badge of honor

years of serviceIt used to be that people wore their years of service with a company like a badge of honor. The higher the number, the more they puffed out their chests. And they were revered for it, too.

These days, not everyone sees it that way. While I appreciate their stick-to-itiveness and dedication, I have a lot of questions for people who have stayed at the same company for a long time.

On the individual side, I wonder:

How do you stay fresh? Are you still bringing new ideas? What are you doing to keep things moving forward? What makes you so valuable? Are you just filling a chair or are you making magic? Aren’t you afraid of stagnating?

On the company side, I think:

That must be a great place to work for you to stay so long. What have they done to keep you so satisfied? 

As I approach my 18-year anniversary with the same company, these thoughts occupy more and more of my cranial space. I couldn’t figure out why the years-of-service reverie was sticking in my craw–until a few days ago.

A friend forwarded me a presentation about company culture, and one simple statement from it made everything come together: people today work for a purpose, not a pension. (Thanks, HubSpot.) You can’t separate work from life, so your work and your life have to fit together in a way that YOU find satisfying.

Yes, yes, and yes.

Kayla Cruz, a fellow blogger who really thinks about this stuff, got it a long time ago. She’s been preaching it from her keyboard since the beginning of time. Well, okay, since the beginning of her time. She thinks we should redefine success:

Today, when I think of success, I don’t think about working for some multi-million dollar corporation managing all of the best accounts, swiftly climbing the corporate ladder.

Instead, I think about being happy. I think about finding a career that I love, one that challenges me. I think about a career that allows me to help others, that allows me to give back in some way. I think about having time to travel and hang out with my friends. I think about making sure that I have enough time to devote to a relationship and building a family one day. Success, to me, means being inspired and having interesting work to do. Success, therefore, is not being bored.

That doesn’t make me any less ambitious.

That doesn’t make me any less determined.

I love the way Kayla pokes and prods. Although she tends to apply her insights to Generation Y, I argue that they apply to everyone, even my Generation X self.

So as I think about my eighteen-year milestone, I realize that its status as a badge of honor depends completely on the answers to the questions I posed earlier. “I’ve been here for 18 years” should never be punctuated by a moment of silence as I wait for a round of applause. It doesn’t automatically validate my ideas over someone else’s. It should never be used as a weapon. That statement simply can’t stand alone.

No matter where I am or for how long, I have to stay fresh, I have to add value, and I have to find fulfillment.

The next time someone tells me how long he has been at a job, I’m going to ask, “And are you happy?” A yes-answer is the real badge of honor.

P.S. Check out this post from Kayla, too: 4 Day Work Week. Different approach, different words, but deep down, the message is the same. The link to the post I quoted is above, if you click the words ‘redefine success.’

Thunder and birdsong

Cardinal_in_the_RainBooming thunder woke me this morning, punctuated by sharp cracks and the rapid-firing report of driving rain. It seemed a fitting follow-up to the previous day’s explosions at the Boston Marathon.

In the middle of nature’s protest, I heard something else. Sheltered by a canopy of budding leaves, a cardinal sat in the tree outside my bedroom window and sang its song. In a thunderstorm. In the dark. How beautiful and unexpected.

My mind went to an anecdote I had heard the prior evening. Fred Rogers, that equanimous purveyor of patience and good manners from my childhood, once said (verified by snopes.com):

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’

I find that so comforting–and true. Look at any tragedy and you will find people rushing to help. Police officers, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, and regular Joes (or Janes, if you prefer) move in and make things happen.  As others rush from the scene in justifiable horror, the helpers rush to it. They offer safety, medical attention, and most of all comfort. And they far outnumber the bad guys.

Let’s get this straight. The tragedy in Boston sucks. It’s horrific, terrifying, and inexcusable. It reminds us that evil pulsates throughout the world, and it will rear its head in places where it is least welcome. We must figure out who did it, hold those people accountable, and do our best to protect against it happening again.

But in the aftermath, let’s give the attention to the good. Let’s celebrate the acts of selflessness, the kindness, and the heroism that become equally apparent in these times. Let’s listen for the birdsong in the thunderstorm.

Those are the stories that deserve the spotlight.

Feel the love–Carlo’s part 2

karaandbuddyFollowing up on last week’s post, Fran the man, my two-hour wait at Carlo’s Bakery was rife with examples of good business. If you’ll indulge me one more time, I promise this will be my last Carlo’s story.

This is a tale of customer service.

When my kids and I first arrived at Carlo’s, we saw a long line in front of a CVS on the other side of the cross street. The line in front of Carlos’s itself, however, looked fairly reasonable. Given that there were about half a block of open space and a cross street between the two lines, I shrugged off the disconnected tail and hopped into the part in front of the bakery itself.

My kids and I stood quietly for a few minutes and snapped a few pictures before we started talking to the people in front of us. That’s when we learned that we needed to go to the end of the other part of the line, the part that wasn’t disconnected after all. We made our way unfazed down the block; we figured it had been too good to be true.

Once we settled into our rightful spot at the back of the line, we learned how it worked. Periodically, a Carlo’s employee would make his way down the line, handing numbered tickets to each person or group who would be purchasing something. (For example, I received one ticket for my kids and me, since the pocketbook was mine-all-mine. We would have gotten individual tickets if they had intended to make separate purchases. Fat chance of that.) We couldn’t get into the store without these tickets, and we had to wait our turn until our number appeared on the “Now Serving” message board.

Besides keeping things orderly, what this really accomplished was to eliminate line jumpers. If we had stayed in our original location, we wouldn’t have gotten into the store anyway. No ticket, no entry. Once we understood how it worked, I could let down my hyper vigilant sense of righteousness and not worry about people getting in front of me; it wouldn’t do them any good.

The guys who handed out the tickets were very pleasant and especially patient. They tirelessly answered the same questions over and over again. They never stopped smiling, and their enthusiasm seemed genuine. They knew that our collective desire to wait in line, crowd into the store, and make outrageous purchases of pastries meant job security for them.

So did the people behind the counter. Questions such as, How often does Buddy come in? Is Buddy here? Where are the sisters? Is it always this busy? pummeled them from open to close. They answered every one and never seemed to melt in frustration. They clearly understood that they were there because we were there. The small bake shop may have been crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with people, but the overall mood was good, perhaps because we all felt appreciated and valued.

I found some outstanding object lessons here: make customers comfortable, address their concerns, answer their questions, act happy to see them. WIthout their Cake Boss fans, Carlo’s becomes just another local bakery.

In any business, we NEED our customers. Spending more time making them comfortable, addressing their concerns, answering their questions, and acting happy to see them shows that we appreciate them–and helps keep them as customers. What strikes me as odd is that intuitive as this seems, I’m always amazed when it actually happens. That tells me it doesn’t happen enough.