When I grow up

208247_5887814934_3245_nWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

How many times were you asked that question as a child? How many times have you asked it? Do you know the answer?

It’s a tough question, mostly because we feel limited by the labels in some mythic index of occupations. Besides that, things change. Technology changes. Society changes. Needs change. People change. Very few people carry that same dream forward and can actually present a business card bearing the label they casually (or passionately, in some cases) spouted.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be an insurance salesperson! But I do know people who sell insurance–and even reinsurance–who absolutely love their jobs. They love helping people feel secure and protecting their assets.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a be a logistics manager! But I do know logistics managers who find tremendous satisfaction in putting together intricate delivery plans to ensure that their customers have what they need, when they need it. They love knowing that their work keeps factories running.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a customer service rep! But I do know plenty of customer service reps who become energized by helping people get what they need. They love solving problems, fulfilling orders, and making connections.

*Cut to real life.*

One of my friends is looking for a job. His life path has removed him from the corporate frenzy for several years, and now he’s looking to rejoin the fray. When we talked about this, I found myself asking, What do you want to do? Of course, I was looking for a label to slap on his forehead so I could drop him into a category. Then I’d know which direction to point him.

He didn’t give me a clear answer, probably because he didn’t have one. Instead, our conversation digressed into the verbal pinpricks we like to inflict on each other. Slightly annoyed, I finally said, “You need to find a way to get paid for exasperating people.”

Boom.

I thought I had landed a jab and we’d move on. Then I started thinking about it. What if he could find a way to get paid for exasperating people? I concocted a plan and pitched it to him:

You could totally sell it. Call yourself a change agent and get hired for short-term gigs by companies that are having a hard time changing “the way they’ve always done it.” Your entire job would be to sit in meetings and be contrary. Force people to think differently by answering your pain-in-the-a$$ questions.

Maybe it sounds like a crazy idea, but I know lots of companies who could use this kind of thing. (And if you label yourself a consultant, they might even buy it.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about how we limit ourselves with labels. Crazy ideas like this don’t come from trying to fit someone in a box–and we need more crazy ideas so we can come up with some good ones in the process. We have to think bigger than labels.

Instead of asking what someone wants to be, maybe the better questions are What do you like to do? What problems do you want to solve? What is your passion? It might be hard to give that destination a name, but I’ll bet you find the journey more fulfilling.

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. (Attributed to John Lennon)

Translation error

translation errorOh boy. I spend all this time talking (writing) about finding a common language, minimizing communications mishaps, and interacting with clarity and what do I do? I tumble into that very pit myself.

I was sitting at lunch when an acquaintance asked me how I would approach a particular situation. After casting about (in my head) for a plan, I chose the germ of an idea and held on for dear life. I ran with it, talking and talking around the thing until I had exhausted its possibilities.

When I finally shut up, I noticed my companion’s eyes had shuttered. I had missed the mark.

I hid my embarrassment as we moved the conversation to other things, but I didn’t stop turning over that misfire in my head. Where had I gone wrong? What should I have done differently?

As usual, clarity came almost instantaneously once we had parted–when it was much more difficult to “fix” it. Even so, here’s my epiphany:

We were speaking different languages. Instead of stopping and trying to make sure I understood what he was after, I plappered along based on my translation–not his. Duh.

He had used a term that can have broad interpretation, and not wanting to look dumb, I picked one narrow facet of it and worked from there. Unfortunately, that took me down the long and winding road to nowhere. I ended up looking like the inexperienced country cousin.

Instead, I should have stopped my blind dive and sought more information. I should have asked questions to clarify what he was after. I should have taken the time to ensure I understood his language. I should have looked before I leaped.

Who knows if I still would have come up with an answer that helped him, but at that point at least he could have evaluated its potential effectiveness rather than trying to figure out how it connected.

That’s a broad term. What does it mean to you? Do you mean X or Y? What do you hope to accomplish? Would have been some great starting points.

The moral of the story? Ask questions. Assumptions that haven’t been validated lead to conversations rife with translation error.

Generationally speaking

young and oldI follow a blogger who writes about her challenges and opportunities as a 20-something in the workplace. Even though I’m not in her demographic (unless you count my 40-something as two of her 20-somethings), I generally find raw truth in her commentary.

When one of her posts popped up in my feed the other day, I noticed something.

Like me, she had taken  an unintended break from blogging.

Like me, she has made major life changes in the past year.

Like me, she has taken a new job in a completely new industry.

Like me, she is discovering the truly important elements of a career.

Sure, she’s half my age and sees life through a lens unclouded by experience and tradition. She’s fighting for recognition and I’ve got a long resume. She has future and I have history.

But you know what? We’re not all that different. In fact, deep down inside, we’re pretty much the same.

We want to make a difference.

We want to love what we do and where and with whom we do it.

We want people to judge us by our abilities and accomplishments, not our age, background, or gender.

What we really want is to be relevant.

So even though her writing centers on generation gaps (I’ll see her Gen Y and raise it my Gen X), reading her commentary constantly reminds me that the only real generation gap is in our minds. People are people. Let’s stop making judgments based on the folds of our skin (I refuse to call those things around my eyes wrinkles) and focus on the folds of our brains and the chambers of our hearts. Age is irrelevant.

Thanks, Kayla.

**Want to read her blog? Here’s the recent post that had me vigorously nodding my head in agreement: 5 Reasons Why…

And if you just delete the word “older,” you’ll find a guide to interpersonal relations, regardless of gender, HERE.

Coffee klatsch

creamerDoggone it. Why do my local grocery stores only carry plain-Jane flavors of coffee creamer? Vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, and a few seasonal concoctions are all that grace our shelves. I know from traveling and a few relevant trade shows that there are dozens of flavors we never see–flavors that appeal to me a whole lot more.

So here’s the dilemma. A store might say it is catering to the preferences of its clientele. Customers buy a lot of French vanilla, so they stock French vanilla. But how do customers (or the store) know whether they like cinnamon creme if they don’t even know it exists?

We limit ourselves by serving only current needs and desires. We look at what’s around us rather than looking ahead at what could be. Although we think we are meeting demand today, we’re actually limiting it in the long run. There’s a big difference between serving demand and creating it.

Forget coffee creamer. The point is that we have to think ahead. Where can we go? What can we accomplish? What new solutions can we offer? What can we do that no one has ever thought of? We move forward by looking beyond our current situation and reaching for more.

And lest you think my capitalistic heart has taken over, I’m talking about new ideas, not necessarily new products. Reach for the stars, friends. You might just find a planet.

Varsity blues

Varsity_LetterBefore I start with the “real” content of this post, I want to say that I am unbelievably proud of my son, who earned his varsity letter for wrestling this year–as a freshman. He worked really, really hard and took at least his fair share of bumps and bruises–to his body and his ego.

Now, onward.

Talking to my son’s wrestling coach the other day, I asked him his thoughts about the program. As much as he appreciated how hard those boys worked, he lamented the team’s lack of depth. Although there are 14 varsity weight classes, they could only fill 12 of them this season, and several of those spots only had one guy. That is, the guy who got the varsity spot took it by default; he didn’t have to wrestle off or prove he was better than anyone else.

Where I come from, said the coach, freshmen and sophomores wouldn’t even be sniffing at the varsity line-up. When I pushed for clarification, he went on to say that underclassmen would be working hard and paying their dues, getting better and stronger in the hope that they would be good enough to earn a varsity spot as a junior or senior.

Of course, as the mom of a freshman who had wrestled varsity almost all season, my initial (internal) reaction was to go all mama-bear and protect my son’s accomplishments. The more I thought about it, though, the more I respected the coach’s position.

After all, if no one is challenging those boys for their spots–if they don’t have to worry about others rising through the ranks and threatening their hold on them–what’s their incentive to get better? They’re already “good enough,” right?

I thought back to some of the opposing teams our kids had faced this year, and the toughest ones always had huge programs. In fact, one team we wrestled even had an A-team and a B-team–both considered varsity–with an even larger number of JV guys hungering for their spots. No wonder they were so good–they just naturally pushed each other upward and onward.

I’m not saying our kids didn’t work hard. Oh, they did–they really did–and I’m proud of them all. But I also know that things look different when you can see the forest beyond the trees, and for our guys, that forest was a long way off. No wonder the coach thinks that the secret to the success of the program is to get more kids interested and participating.

Some people have an incredible internal drive and push themselves to improve no matter what. Even those people, however, need to see where the bar sits. That’s why when I was running in a lot of races, I not only looked at my time and strove to improve it, but I also looked at the winners’ times to see where I needed to go.

Competition can be healthy for all of us. It helps us get better individually and as a team. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with one winner and one loser, either. After all, I might never make varsity but end up vastly better than where I started. Or I might lose my varsity spot to someone who has surpassed my ability–and I have to step it up to get it back.

Sure, there’s unhealthy competition, too. But when I look at this kind of situation, how does it make me a loser if I end up better than where I started? I shouldn’t be afraid of more people on “my” turf; I should use them to spur me on. The more the merrier.

Balancing act

Balancing actSome time ago, a colleague introduced me to a quote that goes something like this:

Balance, dare I say it, is vastly overrated. In the end, you might want to consider the benefits of imbalance, and the achievements that come with pursuing a passion with a single-minded devotion. –Colin Cowherd

I chewed on it at the time, “getting” it but still somewhat skeptical. After all, single-minded devotion to, well, anything means the rest of the stuff in your life will suffer, right?  It seems to me that there’s a trade-off between being okay–or even pretty good–at a lot of things and being really, really great at just one. I’ve got a family, after all. Single-minded devotion seems like a luxury when there are so many demands on my time.

Then I went to a football game. As usual, my team’s performance was wildly inconsistent. We had a great first drive, then we fell apart for a big chunk of the game. The reason? We’re really good at passing (the focus of the first drive) and struggle a lot at running (subsequent play series). It was pretty frustrating to watch.

My uncle and seatmate is blessed with the ability to always look for the silver lining. When the outcome looked hopeless, he turned to me and said, I’m glad to see we are trying the run. We need a balanced offense.

Without thinking, I shot back, Who cares about balance?! I want to win!

Light bulb moment. I finally got it, skepticism discarded.

Figure out what you do well. Practice it. Hone it. Perfect it. Do it better than anyone else and own it.

There’s another part of that quote that sums it all up: And if that means they sacrifice balance along the way, they don’t care. They’ve found something more important: results.

Thankfully, my team figured that out. We eventually went back to the passing plays that we do best–and staged an amazing comeback to win the game. Results.

Week one

You can probably tell that I’ve been busy. I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing my officefor a job change, making the job change, and trying to wrap my head around it all. New extracurricular activities have filled my time outside the office, and my head is spinning. But I love it.

I figure it’s a good time to step back and take stock of what I’ve learned, to let some of my first week observations coalesce into useful tidbits for moving forward. Here goes.

  1. There’s no such thing as too much communication. Just when I thought I had found something I’m good at, I find people who do it better. A lot better. Inside and outside the office, my life is suddenly full of terrific communicators. The more you talk, the more you share ideas, thoughts, and most of all expectations, the better your interactions–and the more you can get done, faster. And there’s always room for improvement–I’m a living, breathing example.
  2. Every minute is valuable. Time management, time management, time management. I thought I was busy, but I didn’t realize how much slack I had in my life until I started watching a great bunch of people get things done. They don’t block hours and days out of their calendars; they wedge things into minutes.
  3. Meetings suck. Over the course of my career, I’ve been in meetings, meetings about those meetings, pre-meeting meetings, and meetings to discuss whether having a meeting is necessary. We’d get a lot of smart people in a room to decide…to have another meeting. What we really should have been deciding is what to get done and how to do it–and then stop meeting so we could make it happen.
  4. Less process, more results. I love processes and standards that bring clarity and repeatability. I hate process that exists for its own sake. Sometimes, you just have to get things done.
  5. You can still have fun while you work hard. Yes, at the same time! This new gig just might feature the hardest working group of colleagues I’ve ever encountered, but it’s also the coolest, most fun working environment I’ve ever encountered. What was that? A smile? Woo hoo!
  6. Jump in with both feet. You’ll have a richer experience, no matter what you do. If you don’t like it you can always do something else. In my case, whether it’s OLG or BWW, I’m all in. This is pretty awesome.

What have you learned lately?