Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thanksgiving

There was no first Thanksgiving.

Not really.

Like most holidays around the world, this one was fabricated from legend that was without a doubt deeply rooted in truth, but nonetheless didn't happen the way people want to believe.

And that's okay.

We often get hung up on origin stories. Politics inevitably goes back to "the Founding Fathers" (capital F's); religion to the factual nature of the truths they hold dear.

Origins are important. Name any major company and there is a story behind its founding that is important to defining what that company is. A mythical beginning isn't critical to a company's success; but it adds just a touch of character, just enough flavor, to make it interesting.

Think of characters you like. Most, if not all, have some sort of an interesting origin. For every Walter Mitty, there are three John Rambo's.

We don't like Walter Mitty because he is so like who we are; we like those characters who are like who we want to be. That's the whole premise of Westworld.

So we created this myth about how Thanksgiving started. And it doesn't matter at all if there's truth in that origin story; because there is truth in what it has become, in what it is today. It matters what it is to you.

Once upon a time I focused too hard on trying to make the holidays (starting with Thanksgiving, ending with Christmas) into something worthy of a really fine origin story. And then I became an asshole, and I got frustrated because that wasn't actually the reality. At least not in my life. So I started wanting less. I cared less about fitting my life into that cookie cutter, which enabled me to care more about things that matter, about allowing my life to form itself to whatever is around it. Like water in a vessel.

Yet we cannot ignore the importance of the vessel. Water all on its own is just water. It is formless. Tradition is important; it is fundamental to our society, to who we are as individuals. This sounds contradictory, I know, to say that origin stories are not important but to then say tradition is important. The difference is that the former is just a story; the latter is the result of generation after generation interpreting that story.

For me, that's what Thanksgiving is.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A little lazy is a good thing

When you grow up rural, or in any environment where your work is defined by the amount of daylight available, there are a few lessons you learn. One is to work efficiently; there is X amount of work to be done in a finite amount of time. Another is to be nimble; when you put that fence up, you can only prepare so much, so we learn how to react to changing variable without panic, because that fence still has to be put up. 

Another thing you learn is how to be just a little bit lazy.

This concept has gotten mixed reactions in my friend group. When you read that sentence, your knee-jerk reaction was, I'm certain, negative to some degree. And I want you to hold onto that feeling, to think on it, as I explain.

Let's look at that trigger word: lazy. Dictionary.com gives the definition of lazy as to be "averse or disinclined to work." When we think on that, we all have a picture or two in our mind, and being from Appalachia, there is a particular stereotype that I can clearly envision: the hillbilly leaning up against a tree, stem of grass in his teeth, hat pulled over his eyes, sleeping. Inherent in this concept of lazy is a desire to not work. That's the thing I want you to focus on.

Now I want to point out that I'm not saying a person should be lazy. Laziness is not a great attribute. Sloth is not what you want in an employee.

But what you do want is somebody who wants to do something besides work.

That's what I mean by "just a little bit lazy." The best employee wants to go home and do anything but work. Maybe it's watch television. Or visit the gym. Play video games. Hang out with friends. And they want to do those things so badly that they will do their work more efficiently as a result.

If you look at your own life, maybe you can recognize this in yourself. You make plans to go out that night; perhaps your child has an event at school, or your partner wants to get dinner, or your favorite show is on, etc. That desire to do something else, something other than work, drives you to get your work done, or even turn down work because you just can't do all that work AND go see a movie.

This is what work-life balance is about. The life part of that equation is when we are allowed to be sloths. Or not. And it's nobody's business what we do.

So seek out those opportunities in your life. Find that bookend to your work day and give yourself permission to not work. To be just a little lazy. To focus on you rather than your job. If you're addicted to work, you'll find this isn't easy to do. You'll find that you're working just to work. And that's fine, as long as you truly find happiness in that. 

But ask yourself that question: does work make you happy, or does work provide you the ability to do those things that make you happy? Or is it (ideally, perhaps) a little of both? A good example of this is Japanese are notorious for their work ethic. There is an addiction to work in Japanese society that literally kills people every year. And it's an addiction to work, not an addiction to life. Not an addiction to productivity. Or happiness. But work. That's changing, slowly, because despite that culture of working until you drop, the recession has maintained it's festering stagnation.

Find your lazy and you'll find yourself more efficient, harder working, and a better employee to your company and partner to your life.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Flurry of activity

I feel like writing.

Once I dreamed about having a job as a writer. And I reached that dream, sort of. I worked at a magazine in Japan: Kansai Time Out. Technically I was an editor; but in that role I got to write some articles, and rewriting was a critical skill. We would get these articles submitted on notepad paper, small 4X6 sheets that you see in hotel rooms. They're meant to type notes, not entire articles. But when you're a struggling freelance writer, you do what you must to survive, and we supported the freelancers. That wasn't common, mind you; but it happened.

Later, after grad school, I had a job as  marketing writer. That job really excited me, and I sucked at it because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing; but I learned and grew and survived.

Time passed and writing has become a skill I rarely use at work. At least, it's not core; I do write all the time, and I try to write well. Once, many years ago, when I had a call center job, a coworker gave me a hard time because my tickets were written in flowing prose that was a bit too fancy for his taste. Once in particular he didn't like that I had said the problem seemed to be "system agnostic."

Writing is a critical skill for anyone who works in the white collar world. But like most skills, it is not something everyone can master. It is a discipline. Writing a technical brief is more than just stringing jargon together. It still requires the writer to follow basic writing principles of constructing the flow and following a process. Writing well is hard work.

This blog post is probably not the best example of that work. It's a rambling essay on ... something. Writing has become that, for much of us. Here, on this blog, I can create sentences and paragraphs that will quite possibly live, in some form or other, until the very end of time as we know it. You can too. We are the first generation that can truly say that. Our words will live forever, relatively speaking.

As such, I want to put pen to paper and create thoughts that matter. Ideas that have impact. Feelings that move.

In the end, though, I just create gibberish. Is that what is meant by writing - maybe all of work? Are we just creating nonsense that, in the end, means little and impacts less? Life is less a forest of trees and more a field overgrown with weeds where the tree cannot grow.

So distill things down. Take away all of the why am I here stuff. Strip out the competing elements that draw our attention away from what matters, even if you don't know what it is that actually matters. You definitely know what doesn't. When you've done that with your life, truly simplified it, made it something that is uniquely yours, then you'll have some real substance to write about.

And then, if you're lucky, you, too, can write a rambling essay on writing.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

First cold day

This past week we had the first really cold day of the year. The temperature has gotten low a time or two before; I had a thick frost on my truck one morning a month back. But cold can be about more than just the temperature. It's much more relative than we realize.

So it was that Friday morning I walked out and, for the first time, was truly cold. The air bore no memory of the previous day's warmer afternoon temps, no hint of an impending warm up. The season had changed in truth if not in calendar, bringing with it the inevitable temperature and the complaints. We always complain about the cold, while at the same time commenting that this year is not as cold as years past. The cold brings that out in us, and it is now, officially, cold. No manner of warm day will, for a couple of months, fully conquer that cold.

Today, Saturday November 11, started around 30, and we might get up to 55 or 60. And today, of all days, I will defy the cold. It is in my nature to defy things, in a general sense. I was born into it in the same way that someone else might be born with an artistic inclination, or was raised to be politically astute, or was given by their nature to dedication. My upbringing was to be rebellious, even if I never fully realized that potential; I was raised to think too much, to dwell on the problem, to not just take the toaster apart and fix what was never broken, but understand why it wasn't broken. That won't make sense but to a few, and those people are my tribe.

My defiance today is more than just stubbornness. It is also in honor of those who we recognize on Veteran's Day. Men and women have for thousands of years fought and died for causes that they didn't always understand. Some did so knowing that they would fight and die. Some, like my father, just happened to have been in the military when asked to go fight and (luckily for me) not die, not in the true sense, but to die just the same, little by little.

For him I will stubbornly go about my day. Because that's what he did, his life's tragedy buried within, working a job he didn't like just so we, his family, could go about our days. Defiance of society's norms while still adhering to them is the norm. For him I will continue that proud tradition. And on this day that honors him, I will perhaps be a little more stubborn than normal, as a tip of the hat to him.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Utah - or: how I learned to love (ish) walking in cold water

The second week of October, 2017, found us in southern Utah. Like many places in the country, my son's school was in fall break the week of Columbus Day. I don't understand why more people don't travel during that week; maybe social programming has led us to believe summer is the only time to go on vacation.

Up front I'll get this out of the way: I didn't want to go to southern Utah. I've been. It's a beautiful place, perfect in many ways, and I was probably being a little childish about it. But I wanted to go to either Scotland or Paris.

So now that I've made my official complaint, I'll follow up with this: I love the high desert. (Editor's note: I also love the high dessert.)

American culture, especially for those of us of a certain age, is a few things: gangsters and cowboys. That latter, in particular, has played a huge role in my life. I grew up with horses and had a lariat (lasso), spurs, cowboy boots. We rode western saddles and wore cowboy hats. Men in those movies spoke like me, and I wanted to grow up to be like them: strong, confident, and able to deal with their human weaknesses. They didn't cry, didn't coddle their own or others' emotions. They worked through their pain with courage. That's what it meant to be an American; and, to be honest, I still believe that to be true.

Nothing quite symbolizes that than the desert southwest, particularly the high desert, where survival meant dealing with oppressive heat as well as bitter cold and feet of snow. The lowland areas of the high desert are as far above sea level as some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi. Towering cliffs, mesas, rugged mountains, chiseled valleys ... all combine into that image that is America, for both those born in the country or others made familiar through our movies.

It is a region that makes us inclined to be romantic.

The vacation week started at home with a long bike ride. I was made. Work has not gone well and I have grown bitter at the bounty life has given me. Funny how that works. There is happiness to be found, but like a blind man I am unable to distinguish between the good and bad things right in front of me, and I've grown pessimistic: all is bad. The Zen flame that has guided me is extinguished, or else is burning so low as to not matter.

I rode hard and fast and far. After fifty miles my left knee ached, my back was sore, and I had exhausted myself. Whatever fed the anger within me was not gone, but it was beaten into submission. I was ready for vacation.

The easiest way to get to that part of Utah is to fly into Las Vegas. We looked at Salt Lake City as well; but there are many flight options to Las Vegas, and the cost was lower as well for both the flight and the rental car. Plus we had been to Salt Lake City just the previous summer; we hadn't been to Las Vegas in a long time.

Our plane landed early. We made a clean exit from the airport rental car center and were on our way. I made one miscalculation. I rarely sleep the night before leaving on vacation. We always fly early in the morning, and that in itself makes it hard for me to sleep because I am nervous about not waking up; but I also get excited about the vacation, particularly the part where I don't have to be at work. As a result, I slept three hours. Combine that with the exhaustion of pushing myself on the bike and I almost fell asleep at the wheel on the drive up. I pulled over and let my wife drive. She doesn't drive automatics very often; only on vacation. So it is a bit of a frightening thing for a few minutes. Not that I knew; I was asleep within a couple of miles.

I woke up as we pulled off the interstate for Kanarraville Falls.

The town of Kanarraville is somewhat less than "tiny." There is a gas station at the exit and not much else. To be fair: we didn't go looking for anything, but the town doesn't exactly invite you to explore. From an article online, the town has a love/hate relationship with the popularity of the falls. Thousands visit in the summer. The hike is under five miles, and the walk up the canyon is much less intense than The Narrows in Zion, for a similar (if less amazing) experience. Parking is $10.

Most of the first half of the hike was very blah. Hot, dry, and dusty, the walk is on a dirt road for much of the way, up and down, with little scenery other than the occasional tree with the leaves changing colors.

And then we entered the canyon.

There is a picture that we all have in our head when we think of the canyons of southern Utah. We envision winding walls of rock with a ribbon of water that has patiently worked for thousands of years to erode a narrow path. Kanarraville Falls isn't as grand as other canyons of the type; but it also isn't as crowded. That's why we go to those wild places; at least, that's why I go. The scenery is part of it; but more important is to get away from those things that make the world unbearable at times, and those things usually involve people.

Inside the canyon I stood listening to the sound made by that shallow stream. For the entirety of human existence we have found spiritual solace in the sounds of nature. Our ancestors speak to us through our world. Wind in trees, gurgle of water over rock, a rumbling waterfall, a howling gale. All of those sounds are reminders of the things we've lost, things we've yet to find.

We passed four people returning from the falls as we hiked in and seven people while we were in the canyon itself. On the way back we passed four. That's not as alone as I would have liked, honestly; but it was good enough.

Our hotel was in the town of La Verkin; that's what happens when you decide on your destination a little later than the thousands of other people who have decided to go to the same place. It wasn't too inconvenient, though, with a good grocery store that had some of the best bread I've had in ages.

That night I slept fitfully, as always. Long, hard hikes would cure me of that, if only for a short while.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Anniversaries

On October 16, 2016, one of the people I cared about most in the world texted me. Only it was him, it was his wife. I had, until that text, held out hope that the reason the hospital had been a bit cagey with me was that they couldn't tell me that he'd broken his leg in the motorcycle accident, that HIPAA was preventing them from giving me the full scope of the situation.

Any hope of a positive ending was squashed by the text from James' phone, with his wife announcing herself, telling me that James had died. That had to be hard for her, exponentially harder for her than for me, harder for her still to this day.

Yet here I sit, blogging about it. I have James' picture in my office and routinely call him a son of a bitch for dying. No, for getting himself killed on his way to see me, on his way to let me help him get out of the situation he had gotten into, on his way to just have a beer or two and complain about the way corporate America is just a pyramid scheme that preys on the weak.

For that's what James gave me in life: we had shared experiences, and could complain about the same things.

This will be a tough anniversary for me. It's been a tough year, overall. My mom's death was not what I wanted to go through, but she was in her seventies and had lived an incredible life, the life of a fighter, kicking the ass of her illness until the very end. My grandfather, too. Every loss I'd gone through was someone elderly, someone about whom I could legitimately say that they had lived a good, long life.

James just ... died.

Suddenly.

It is my way to analyze things, to find the lessons, to take apart the toaster and see what makes it tick. Here's what I've learned.

First: Companies don't know how to handle this situation. They have a bottom line to deal with. There are profits. Deadlines. Objectives. Boneses (not mine, but my managers). It's a complicated matrix, and I totally get that. But because of that, companies suck at dealing with an employee who has gone through a crisis.

Second: I don't know how to handle the situation. As a clinically depressed, codependent guy with strong alpha tendencies, this is not something I am capable of dealing with. Yet I have to. James didn't deal with it; I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that while his was not a suicide, it was the closest thing to it. He was on his motorcycle pushing things to the edge. I have found that I am doing the same thing, except I'm on my bicycle, driving forward with an intensity that I have never had before.

Third: Friends and family don't know how to handle the situation. They've tried, I suppose. But James and I shared no friends; not really. He was the crazy psycho in my life, the guy who was a right wing gun nut anarchist who reminded me of those roots in my own past. We'd jumped naked into hot springs in Japan not giving two fucks for how "against the rules" that was.

I head off on vacation soon. Somewhere out in the desert I hope to find an answer to this problem. I've taken this particular toaster apart. I've tried to explain the issue to bosses and friends. In the end, nobody cares and nobody wants to care. So it's up to me, now, to get a handle on this. Because I won't be James; I won't be the person whose cell phone is found on a lifeless body, I won't put my friends through getting that phone call from the hospital that had to get a court order to unlock the phone just to see who the last contacted person was.

At least I hope not.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Long Ride

A long bike ride is a lot like work.

Or, maybe it's how work should be.

On Saturday, I had a destination ride; that's going to be a "new thing" that "we do" in my family. The other two drive someplace and I ride my bike to meet them. I don't want to make it sound like a chore; it isn't. Not at all. I love riding my bike, love being with them, and love going to new places.

But it is very much how work should be.

Let's break that down.

First thing to do is to define the goal. On a lot of bike rides, the ride itself is the objective; to de-stress from the harsh realities of life and relax, or break free from technology for a little bit, or something else that defines the journey. Saturday's ride, though, was about going someplace. In this case: Asgard Brewing in Columbia, TN. It is about fifty miles, give or take, depending on the route.

Which leads me to the second task: define the path. This is where many projects break down. In order to map out your route from point A to B, you have to know all the parameters: resource availability and competencies, tools and their limitations, obstacles, etc. For my ride, I had options of anywhere between 48 and upwards of 65 miles, or more. But that's the realistic range for the ride. And part of this calculation is to understand where I was, fitness-wise. I had it in me to do 65 miles; but that was the max. I picked a route that was just around 49-50 miles, trying to avoid major roads since I didn't know the bike lane situation (project "known unknowns" are important to understand).

Then there is executing to the plan. If a project hasn't broken down on the path definition phase, then there is a strong risk of trouble happening in the execution phase. In my case, three things happened that almost derailed the plan.

Execution issue one: I had a bike wreck. Not a bad one. In the Belle Meade neighborhood of Nashville (that's where all the old money rich people live), there is a creek that crosses a number of streets. I had planned to take one of those; the water was a bit higher than expected, though, and while I've been on those roads many times, I didn't anticipate the added force of just a few more inches of water. As I rode across the concrete, which was covered in algae, the force of the water swept my bike out from under me. I landed hard and was soaked top to bottom.

Execution issue two: I took a wrong turn. Two, actually, almost back-to-back, and rather than turn around and take the right turn, I kept going. It didn't add more than a mile to my route, but when you're already pushing your limits, every mile counts.

Execution issue three: I didn't properly understand the topography of my route. I had planned on meeting my wife in no more than 3.5 hours. That gave me plenty of time, and I wanted to go to the small coffee shop in Columbia that's supposed to be really nice, and there eat a muffin or something. But while the route I had chosen avoided the major highway and its unknown bike lane situation, it went up and over a ridge into a tight valley, and then back out again before heading into the town. Also, the roads were much rougher than I was prepared for, and then I took another wrong turn because I missed the road sign.

Every project should have it's postmortem analysis, and here's mine related to my bike ride. In the end I reached my destination a half hour late, and asked my wife to meet me at the brewery rather than the coffee shop because I was pretty tired and wanted a beer more than a muffin. My wrong turns had added almost seven miles to the trip; still well within my acceptable bookend of 65 miles, but at a cost. Not understanding the landscape hurt me; literally, as my right hip was in pain and my bicycle's rear derailleur was slightly bent, which made shifting tricky and forced me to ride in a harder gear on hills than I'm used to. In the end, I think that worked out; sometimes we need that sort of situation to make us understand that we can, in fact, push our boundaries without any issues. On the good side, I had brought enough water and nourishment, and my breakfast (two sunny-side-up eggs over quinoa, along with a cup of oatmeal) more than carried me through the almost four hour ride.

The day ended as every difficult project should: with beer.

How often do we, in our jobs, fail at exactly the same points? In my ride, I was still within my acceptable parameters; but in work it seems we often don't know those parameters, or the parameters shift. Imagine, for example, if you were in the middle of a bike ride and someone came along and took away your front wheel, maybe (if you're lucky) changing it for one that's larger or smaller than the bike can take. Sure, it's still a wheel, but you can't ride efficiently. That sort of thing makes it impossible to adapt to the changing road conditions. My bent derailleur is another example; had I not known how to bend it roughly back into position, the ride would have gone much worse. Yet at work do we not often launch ourselves into situations unable to adapt to the problems that arise?

My lesson today is to go into your projects prepared. Understand the lay of the land. Know your resources and resist the urge to change them. Work within the acceptable parameters, which should be defined in your project plan.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The life change

In March of 2017 - March 9, to be exact - I made a pretty big change in my life. Not many people outside of my inner circle of friends knows this.

I was at Starbucks in Brentwood, TN with a couple of friends. One of my buddies had lost a good bit of weight, and was talking about the Keto diet he had been on. I jokingly said "I won't eat another doughnut until I've lost ten pounds" and we laughed, because I had a doughnut just that morning (Starubucks' doughnuts are awesome when you get them warmed up and put cinnamon in the bag and shake them).

Ask anyone and they'll joke about my fascination with doughnuts. It is, I tell my customers, the only true way to bribe me to do anything. I might run into a burning building to rescue a good doughnut. It's an obsession.

At work I told my coworkers, and they joked about it. And then one young lady said that she, too, was trying to lose some weight. She used an app called MyFitnessPal to track her food intake. I downloaded it; the app is owned by Under Armour, who also makes MapMyRide, the app I use to track my cycling.

That doughnut I had eaten was just under 500 calories.

It hit me harder than I thought. I cannot explain it, but that one doughnut was 25% of the calories I needed for the day. And since then I had eaten a few Snickers Minis; each one is just under 50 calories. I was, by the way, still hungry at that moment, even though I had consumed over 700 calories before lunch.

That was the last doughnut I ate for over two months.

It was the last time I ate any high-sugar candy bar to date. (I have had some very dark chocolate: 90% stuff.)

That evening I weighed myself at 196 pounds. Earlier that year I topped 200.

Like a lot of folks, I believed that I was active and that was all that mattered. I was strong. I could bench press x-pounds.

But my ankles hurt every day, with most steps I took. My knees complained. My back hurt. I was very slow when I rode my bicycle and got tired easily. "I'm getting old," I told myself, much like we all do.

And it pissed me off.

My family didn't believe in me, to be honest. And I cannot say that I blame them. I'd tried to lose weight before. Only ... I learned that I really hadn't tried before. I only said "I want to lose weight!" and thought that was enough.

For the rest of that week I logged everything I ate. I studied diet and nutrition methodologies. I prepared. I cut out everything that was made using added sugar. My carb intake goal was to stay around 50 grams of carbs a day, and for six weeks that's what I did. I ate tons of chicken, turkey, and yogurt. It became an obsession. And in six weeks I lost 20 pounds.

That was amazing to me.

I was 175 pounds for the first time since graduate school in the 1990's.

Somewhere in there my son (17 years old) explained two other concepts that changed my life. First, I started working out to maintain a steady heart rate less than 140 beats per minute (roughly 80% of my max). Second, I worked out to eat, not the other way around.

That first change was harder than I thought. Like many of us, I grew up in an environment of sports where you pushed as hard as you could for as long as possible. Think of the television commercials that preach this. Sweat sweat sweat. Only that isn't right. When I started focusing on my heart rate, I could ride my bike maybe 20-25 miles without feeling like crap, and at a pace of 13 mph. Within two months I was up to 40-50 mile rides that felt great at a pace of almost 16 mph. So yeah. It worked.

That second change was maybe more difficult. How many times have you eaten something and said, "I'll walk that off later" or "Oh, I'll go to the gym, so I can eat this muffin now." That's not how it works, though. If you eat a muffin for breakfast, by the time you go to the gym those calories and nutrients have already been processed. So I started eating in concert with the activity I had planned. I didn't eat before going to the gym; the average American eats plenty of calories and carbs and you don't need to eat before a workout. And if, like me, you say "it feels better to work out after eating" then you need to think on why that is. I don't do a true fasting workout, but I also don't "load" before a workout. I'm not pushing that hard. I just want to be in shape, not win Mr. America.

Another way I changed my life was to start doing push-ups. In March, based on really nothing, I started doing five sets of push-ups three days a week. At that time I could do 15 in each set. In April I upped that to 25. Then, in May, 30. June: 40. July: 50. Now I do 60 a set. I looked up the different ways to do push-ups (it might surprise you how many variations there are) and I wasn't religious about it. Some days I did 4 sets. Some days I did fewer in each set. But I made sure that I did the work.

And, in the end, that's what it's about. I just put in the work. I treated my weight loss as a hobby, a task that I wanted to complete. I didn't treat it as a chore.

I am now down 30 pounds and falling. I am back to drinking beer when I feel like it, and allow myself some ice cream every so often. Even bread has made its way back in. Before a long bike ride, in particular, I make sure to properly eat what I'll need.

My ankles don't hurt.

My back doesn't hurt.

And I'm happier, in general, with who I am. Which, at the end of the day, is what matters.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

What's lost hopefully stays lost

In the past two months I have lost over twenty pounds. That's a touch over ten percent of my starting body weight. It's been a challenge; the first month I quickly dropped about a dozen pounds, but then cycling season started in earnest and I have to maintain a certain diet in order to compete.

Note that I don't cycle competitively; I don't race, don't even ride with other people. But that doesn't mean I'm not competing. Everything I do is a competition. I've learned to live with that reality. It's me. I don't like it, because it pairs poorly with my lack of self confidence and depression. In fact, I think it is a dangerous combination. But I compete, so I needed to up my diet to meet the needs of my lifestyle.

Here's the secret to losing weight: focus on the long view.

I've never been very good at this; it's why I struggle with pure project management. I'm a reactive individual. I like action, now, and want - maybe need - to have a conflict to resolve. Long-term planning is a struggle. Live for the moment is a mantra I totally get.

I sat with a friend at Starbucks one morning in early March. He said he'd lost a lot of weight by cutting his carbs down to less than fifty grams a day, pushing his body into ketosis. The "keto diet" is something I'd heard about. I spent that morning researching it and decided by lunch that I would do a modified "keto diet" for a month or so. My modification was to not just focus on the carb/protein/fat diet components. I now treat my calories like a budget.

Let me explain.

Losing weight is basically accomplished when you eat fewer calories than you burn. But it's not exactly that simple, in reality, because we all burn calories differently. It's hard to know exactly how many calories my body needs. I settled on a max of 1,600 a day, and in reality that first month I kept it at around 1,200-1,300. The weight came off easily. And early I did count carbs fairly religiously. But when I hit that first weight loss goal, I loosened up a bit. I looked at my 1,600 calorie budget, and now focus on getting the most bang for the buck. Think of it in terms of having money to spend, but only so much: in that case, you spend on high value things (rent, utilities, food, etc.), and if you have anything left over you can splurge a little. I also focused on not eating within three hours of bedtime, and I did some fasting cardio when I could.

I combined it with a push up workout: five sets of push ups throughout the day, the same number of reps for each set. The first month I could barely do twenty in a set; I can now do thirty five.

I don't know if I can keep this up. But I want to, because I want something in my life to be under my control. I cannot do anything about the whims of the world; work will progress according to the vision of others. My goals matter very little. My personal life is what it is; friends can meet or not meet according to their own schedules. I cannot ride my bike in the rain, cannot workout as I want when I'm on the road. Pottery is somewhat under my control, but the class is one day a week and I often miss because of business travel.

But I can control my diet. I can control my urges for more food. It's not easy, but it is something I can do, on my own, without needing anybody else to do anything about it.

We'll see if I hit my goal weight of 165. I have ten pounds to go to get there. But I have a goal, one that is within my control, and ... we'll see.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Empowerment vs Delegation

Once there was a man, and this man was viewed by a small number of people as special. He was a natural leader, and that challenged the social norms of his day. This man's message was simple - perhaps overly so. His brand didn't need refinement any more than new fallen snow does to a skier. He empowered his followers. When they got too clingy, he pushed them away just a little, creating the buffer needed to give them room to succeed. In the end, the man's mission was killed by those threatened by his power, which wasn't something the man himself actually sought.

The man was Jesus. I'm not super religious, not in the way most people are, but there is a great leadership example in Jesus. It is leadership through empowerment, rather than leadership through delegation.

Read this Dilbert for an example of the danger of delegation:


http://www.dilbert.com/strip/2017-05-20?utm_source=dilbert.com/share-email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=brand-loyalty

What isn't said in the comic's few frames is the utter hopelessness of being an empowerment leader - or follower - in a delegation-based leadership structure. There is this persistent belief that this is new, that only the "young kids today" need that constant pat on the back, that constant reinforcement. Yet as the biblical example shows us, the concept is hardly new. An entire religion was built around a man who did no actual, direct leading on his own. He delegated when needed, but mostly led by example, giving his followers the knowledge and power that they needed to move forward. Note I don't say succeed. Success is often so individually defined that it is impossible to lead and have everyone succeed in the way that they want. Usually the success that's achieved is the leader's success. It's a pyramid structure. Empowerment is round table. Sure, there's a leader, someone in charge who makes the decisions. But that person doesn't put herself above the others, doesn't consider herself more than an equal, for all that she wears the crown.

Empowerment isn't obstacle focused, but, rather, is about the objective. The end result is important, and the path more often than not is allowed to be individually defined by the team.

Go out today and empower your team, don't delegate. Follow the examples you are given.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hiking

In college I was asked to help lead a couple of hikes for our outdoor program. It was, in a way, an odd request. Though I had been a part of that program since my first days on campus, I didn't do a lot of their programs. I did the rock climbing class enough to learn what I needed to know, then found my own ways to learn and improve. (This was in an era before there was an Internet.) I only did one or two of the group hikes; again, I did what I needed to learn and moved on.

But I was always there. Always involved and helping out.

So I was asked to help lead a couple of hikes.

My friend, Jeff, was the main lead. I was second. He and I had done some orienteering stuff a time or two, and he was more than competent. More than that, though, we got along well, understood the need for a common leadership philosophy.

One hike in particular stands out because it was a place Jeff had always wanted to go. It's a hard trail because day one was entirely downhill. Camp was by a creek. The next day was a long slog uphill back to the van. "Long is relative." It was around four miles.

Here's the thing about group hikes. When you're on the hike, you really don't have much of a choice about much of anything. The trail is chosen, the day of the hike is known well in advance. Everything is planned. You show up, pile in a van, and then proceed to hike.

I didn't know it at the time, but group hikes are a great preparation for life and career. Especially career. We show up with very little choice about the path, the destination. Sometimes we might, if we're lucky or at a high enough level, get to make some decisions. To continue the camping analogy, we might get to decide where to put our tent, where to build the fire, etc. In an ideal world, as we improve and gain experience, we get to someday start leading hikes, having an impact on those bigger decisions.

Truth is, though, only a few people get to do that. Very few of us are decision makers. Most of us struggle along on paths others have chosen for us, paths that might, in reality, be more about their goals. Like when Jeff and I picked that particular trail. That was our goal; others had to share it or not go on the hike.

And that's hard.

There's no great sage advice at the end of this post, except perhaps this: if you're a leader, understand the goals of those you lead. Don't just take them down paths that suit your own needs, even if those above you are doing exactly that. Be the agent of change. Be the person who decides to make the path as good as you can for those you lead. And lead rather than manage. Most important do that.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Power of Hello

It started raining halfway through my walk to work. That's the danger of taking a path through Washington Park in Albany. On the one hand, it's shorter than taking the sidewalks (though sometimes I do take the longer route for a change of pace), and the walk from the Garden Inn at Albany Medical Center is twice as far as the Hampton Inn, but less strenuous since it's fat (and they have a free shuttle if I need it). On the other hand, it makes me prone to wander a little, to slow down and quite literally smell the roses.

That's what caught me this morning. The tulips are gone, but the park is still beautiful, particularly in spring when the trees are a dark, perfect green, the grass freshly mowed, a slight breeze moving the just-cool-enough air.

Then it rained.

I ran as fast as I could to the end of the park where an apartment has an awning. My shoulders took the brunt of the light rain; I wasn't too soaked as I stood there waiting to see if it was going to get worse. A man walked up the street. He, too, looked to have been caught out in the sudden shower. When he got close, I said hello. He looked surprised, but said a friendly hello back.

That one word - hello - is immensely powerful. As the man walked away, I thought back on previous experiences with that word. Often I'm "that guy" who says hello (or hi, or some other variant) to strangers. At work, too, I make sure to welcome everyone, to engage with them, let them know that their trip to work wasn't just an expenditure of time.  I email my remote team funny things, a Dilbert perhaps or something I saw; we talk often, and when we do, I make sure to say that simple word: hello.

I've had many managers over the years who never said hello. Once I had a boss who would say hello to everyone she liked, walking past people she didn't like (me, particularly) just to say hello to the other person. In my experience, few people take the time to engage their peers; few leaders make the effort to give a greeting to those that allow their jobs to exist.

I challenge all leaders (whether you are a manager or not) to do one thing every day: say hello to your team. Say hello to the security guard. Say hello to the random person that gets on the elevator. Say hello. Start your day with that little act of kindness. Make someone smile, if only inside, and if only a little.

Hello.

Keeping Quiet

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack a lot lately. In it, Aaron Burr says to young Hamilton: "Talk less, smile more. Don't let them know what you're against and what you're for." It is an old idea, inclusive of guilty dogs barking loudest and speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
My favorite, though, is this:

"It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it."

Upon reading that, everyone said it's a quote either from Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln. In looking for other similar quotes, though, I discovered that the actual source of the quote is most likely Maurice Switzer in Mrs. Goose: Her Book.

My intent for this post was to talk about the necessity of being economical with what we say; silence controls the conversation as much as empty space on the soccer field controls the game, or the space between stars is what binds them together.

But when I realized a famous quote everyone thought belonged to either one of America's greatest orators or one of America's greatest writers ACTUALLY was written by a no-name writer who doesn't even merit a Wikipedia page. The reason is pretty simple: somebody wrote that Lincoln said the famous line; and somebody else wrote that it was Twain. Despite the clear evidence that it was neither, the simple writing down made it fact. It is the power of words perfectly exemplified.
How many things today will you hear that aren't true? That you'll believe because someone on television said it? They don't even have to say that it's true; the words just have to be spoken. Or Tweeted. Or someone puts them in a meme on Facebook, and we treat it as though posting on social media is the same as writing in stone.

So speak little. Listen, don't hear. But maybe also be a little skeptical.

Free Food

On Wednesday, I took some time off to go fishing with my son. It's important to do that, to take a day or half day off just at random, to do something a little different. Break up the routine of life every so often. Disrupt the pattern.
My son and I went to Starbucks as the sun rose. He and I ordered the exact same thing (venti iced Americano). I went to Kroger and got two boxes of animal crackers. We headed to the car.

Behind us was an older Chevy Blazer. It was beat up and filled with the latest in transient lifestyle fashion. As I got in, a lady got out and asked if I could buy her some food; she explained that she hadn't eaten in three days.

Now, I won't give money to someone I don't know. But I will always buy food if I'm able. Once in downtown Nashville a lady asked for money to take the bus to the grocery store. Since we were standing in front of a grocery store, I said I'd go in and buy her some groceries; she said no thanks, and I walked on.

So when the lady said she was hungry, I said I'd buy. Not to get all biblical, but in the Bible Jesus didn't dig into people's motivation for needing food; he didn't get all uppity about their lifestyle choices and the path that led them to poverty. He simply helped.

I told her I would go into Kroger if she wanted some groceries. She said that she hadn't had Starbucks in a long time, and a little coffee would be good. I understand that; unless you've actually been poor in your life, you don't know the wonderful feeling of even a small luxury when everything else is going to crap.

I told my son to come with me and we went in and bought two breakfast sandwiches and two coffees. She said that she wasn't good if the caffeine was good for her baby because she was pregnant; as a writer and former English major, I wanted to tell her to not make her story too complicated, but I simply said, "can you take it from here?" She said yes, and I told her I hope things get better for her, and I left.

In my car, my son noted that Starbucks discounted off all of the food. That's $20 (they included the Frappucino). All I paid for was the coffee.

Finally we get to the point of this long, rambling post. When I went back today, I asked the guy at Starbucks about that encounter. He said that, yes, they had discounted everything but the coffee (he even gave me my coffee free today). He also confirmed that the lady is familiar to them; she hadn't been in a lot, but she was known to ask for food, and push towards Starbucks over the grocery store.
It cost the coffee shop $20 to do the right thing. I don't know if they had a biblical or otherwise moral compass driving them, or if they were just rewarding a frequent customer for his.

How often do we marginalize doing the right thing in the name of money?

My challenge to everyone, both your personal and professional selves, is to go out today and not think of the cost of doing the right thing. Maybe there isn't a cost. Take that shopping cart that's blocking a parking space and put it up. Pick up that piece of garbage and put it in the trash. Let that car merge over without going on a weird power trip and getting angry that they didn't get over sooner. Revel in doing good. Bask in the glow that comes from helping. Make it your habit.
And start today.

What rolls downhill

I've come up with this new saying that sums up my view these days: "in order for sh*t to roll downhill, someone higher up has to take a sh*t in my general direction."

Not very refined, I know. That's all I've got today: you can choose to let things roll on down to those below you, or you can choose to change that. I'll finish with the joke that inspired this new saying, found Here:

In the beginning was the plan.
And then came the assumptions.
And the assumptions were without form.
And the plan was without substance.
And darkness was upon the face of the workers.
And they spoke among themselves saying,
"It is a crock of shit and it stinketh."
And the workers went unto their supervisors and said,
"It is a pale of dung and none may abide the odor thereof."
And the supervisor went unto their managers and said,
"It is a container of excrement and it is very strong, such that none may abide by it."
And the managers went unto their directors, saying,
"It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength."
And the directors spoke among themselves, saying to one another,
"It contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong."
And the directors went unto the vice presidents, saying unto them,
"It promotes growth and is very powerful."
And the vice presidents went unto the president, saying unto him,
"The new plan will promote the growth and vigor of the company, with powerful effects."
And the president looked upon the plan and saw that it was good.
And the plan became policy.
This is how shit happens.

Leave the Unanswered Question Alone

For your review, I present the following:

http://www.gocomics.com/foxtrotclassics/2016/07/06

This comic represents the importance of being careful when answering questions you weren't asked. I am bad about this; it's part of my empathetic, helpful nature. If I know there's a problem, I tend to speak up about it in a very honest attempt to make things better. As the comic shows, though, this can often lead to a bad end.

So the lesson for today is: answer the question you are asked. When you think about going beyond that, put the brakes on and think it through or else you'll wind up learning a hard lesson.

All he wanted was food

My way in to work the other day was rough. Discussion over selling our house (or not) dominated the ride in, and all I could think about was how much work I hadn't done - but needed to do. I decided to go to Starbucks for a coffee; it was a Thursday.

The man walked up to me and asked if I could buy him food.

I have a couple of rules that I follow when helping people in need who ask out of the blue. I don't give money; I do buy things if they say they need it. There used to be a lady downtown who asked if I could give her bus money so she could go to the grocery store to buy food. She asked this standing in front of a grocery store, so I told her I would go in that store with her and buy whatever she wanted. Twice she refused, and I never saw her again; maybe she realized the flaw in her plan.

The man who asked if I could get him something to eat was skinny. He wore a plastic poncho. I told him sure, name the place; he seemed surprised. I suggested the grocery store, or maybe Starbucks. He agreed on Starbucks.

Some that I've told this story to later criticized the man's choice. Starbucks is expensive. The grocery store offered more bang for the buck. Even one of the many breakfast food places downtown would have given him a better actual meal. But Starbucks has a certain allure; it represents a status. When you have nothing, those things make you feel good. It's why every so often you see stories of homeless men or women jumping at the chance to go to a hairdresser or out to eat at a fancy place. For right or wrong - good or bad - those things make us feel good.

He chose Starbucks.The story he told on our one-block walk there was very typical. He made some mistakes. Took easy paths. Living comfortably among his regrets - the devil he knows - his outlook was clear: life held no real hope, no job would stick, no car to get to a job anyway, no place to live and clean up even if he had the car.

I told him to get what he wanted. The young man at the cash register seemed to not know exactly what to do. A patron looked in disapproval - at me or the homeless man, I don't know. Outside he thanked me and we went our separate ways.

Life gives us opportunities all the time to help those in need. But we shield ourselves from knowing what it even means to be in need. For example, right now I don't have a car; it's a long story. What I've learned is that you cannot buy a car if you don't already have a car; think about that. Imagine how you would get to a place to buy a car if you didn't have one. You'd ask friends or family. But what if they couldn't take you? What if they didn't exist?

To keep this business-related, at least a little: people all around us in the office have different needs. Different stresses. Different triggers for their depression and different ways they respond to that. Look around you at work. The majority of the people you see is one disaster away from standing on a street corner asking for food. You doubt that. Your instinct tells you otherwise.

Our lives are more than work. Sure, that's what we get paid to do: work. Make money. Improve the bottom line. But we live to make the world a better place. And since most of our lives are spent at work, then do what you can to make that world the best place it can be.

Stacked Rocks

Vacations are often misunderstood. Many people go on vacation, get all relaxed, and wish that they could just do that all the time; wish that they didn't have to go back to jobs that make others rich, while all we get are gray hair and wrinkles. I've been very guilty of that way of thinking; we all have. Even Bill gates. Maybe.



At the moment I'm in the Pacific Northwest. It's the second year in a row that I've come to this part of the world. This time we're in the greater Seattle area, and as I write this, I'm looking out a window at the mountains of the Olympics National Park. Two days ago I played in snow in the Cascades; tomorrow I might do the same here. Today we walked through old growth forests, the trees wearing a thick moss like a heavy coat that weighs the branches down. Those giants are older than any ancestor of mine that can be traced, some older than our nation.

That's perspective.

Vacations are the reward for work. They aren't a lamentation of the hardships of life. They are it's bounty, earned by our sweat and tears. The United States gives less vacation than many countries; Afghanistan gives more days off than my nation. But my company is solid in that regard (among many others).

So take your days off. Build towers of rocks. Stare up at large trees. Climb a hill or two.
But use the time you have. Because unlike those trees of the Olympics, we won't be around forever.

The Olympics

For the past couple of weeks, my family has been consumed by the Olympics. Every day we turn on NBC and watch until we go to bed. It doesn't matter too much what's on; we have our preferences, of course, but we watch it all.

I've always loved the Olympics. I hear the criticisms people have, about the corruptness of the IOC, the money behind the athletes, the doping. There will always be those things in life, both the negatives of something as well as those who only see those negatives.

I love the Olympics for stories like the Tae Kwan Do athlete from Tonga who catapulted to international stardom not because of his athleticism, but his body; I hate that part, to be honest. But his story is awesome. No money to go one time; broke his foot another time. Finally made it.
Or the story of Chierika Ukogu, a Nigerian who went to school in America, decided she wanted to be the first to represent her home country in rowing, mastered the technique of sculling, created the first ever Nigerian rowing team, and found the money for getting to Rio with her boat.

Those stories are what inspires me and should inspire everyone. Athletes picking each other up to finish races. Athletes who compete injured or sick, doing all they can to make their country proud.
How often in our lives do we have the opportunity to excel, but we bypass it? Or do we sometimes not recognize it? We should push to be the best, despite setbacks, ignoring the pain. Ignoring the irrepressible draw towards the average or normal. Everyone has the opportunity to be average; statistically, most of us are. We can be average without doing anything.

Years ago, a comedian said "the last runner in an Olympics race could have been last without doing any training." And that is true; I would without question come in last in every event at the Olympics. But that person who came in last is propelled by the desire to not be average, to not be part of the crowd.

Be that person in your life. Be the one that goes that extra mile, without prompting, without needing to be told or asked. Find a way to excel. Because that opportunity is there, right in front of you, right now. Just take it.

Vacation or Travel?

I read an interesting thing earlier by "Nomadic Matt," a man who has traveled for ten years. "[W]e don't live in a travel culture," he writes. "We live in a vacation culture."

As is my way, I'm going to attempt to make this more profound than it probably is at first blush.
When my good friend and coworker and I go on a business trip, we travel. Sure there's work to do, but every time we try to find something else. Maybe it's a brewery, or a walk around town. Just anything that's a little different.

Years ago, when I went to India, none of my peers walked around the area of the hotel. They woke up, went to work (which started in the mid/late afternoon and ended at midnight), and then went home. Their flights to India were just that: flights. I, on the other hand, explored as much of that country as I possibly could, asking my driver to take me all over the place, walking around, hitching rides with coworkers on their motorcycles, etc. On my flight back I spent two days in Paris.
I'm not bragging, just noting a different mindset.

Life is a journey. Too often we see only the stress in our day-to-day; it's hard not to, and I'm pretty bad about it myself. But the world will rotate, time will travel forward, the sun will rise and set, and work will still be there. Take that moment, that time, to see something different. Even in our jobs we have the opportunity to travel through events rather than simply labor. It's an approach to accomplishing tasks, to see not the "vacation" at the end of the project, but the opportunities along the way.

Good luck and safe travels!
Today I present a Sunday Arlo and Janice comic.

It is an interesting concept: the notion that she is so focused on trying to take a photograph - to memorialize - a beautiful sunset, that she misses the sunset; meanwhile, her husband is sitting calmly taking the photograph that is before him, rather than attempting to find that perfect shot.
Customer service is much like this, at least in John's "philosophy of customer service." Sometimes we sit and focus so much on making things perfect, that we forget the perfection (so to speak) of how things are at that moment. More, that quest for perfection is often self-serving. For example, a company I used to work for had, when I worked for them, very good customer service; the teams were dedicated, worked hard, were solution focused, etc. Then the metrics folks came along, and rather than improving customer satisfaction - which you get by providing good customer service - they focused on measuring the level of customer satisfaction, measuring how much people worked, or could work.

So don't focus too hard on capturing that perfect sunset; like solutions to the issues in our jobs, sunsets happen every single day. Sometimes it's a beautiful scene; sometimes obscured by clouds. But it always happens. So experience the events as they happen - and as they are. Don't make them more or less than their reality.

Labor Day

I have never worked in an industry that had a union. Once, many years ago, I taught English for a company in Japan called Bilingual Language Institute. This was 1993, and the Japanese economy was near the end of its free fall, the beginning of decades of very Zen-like economic stagnation.

Things were not so great at the school, but we were doing well compared to my peers in other companies. I made $30K a year, worked just over 20 hours of actual in-class work time a week, and had my transportation paid for to wherever I worked, which was often doing corporate training. I loved it. But not all of my peers did; they thought the increasing "in school" hours (time spent in the school, but not actually teaching) was unfair. I understand that those of us in Kobe were lucky; some schools had very bad management. I was quickly promoted to assistant manager of the location. Life was good. But then the company had financial trouble, and some teachers decided to organize into a union, and within about a month the company was bankrupt. (I know there was more to it; but this is the abridged version.) Anyway, that's the only time I got close to being in a union.

My dad, though, was a union man for his entire life. He worked at Bell South, and the union was strong. They protected the workers. I'm sure there was corruption; power tends to have that effect. But for the most part, the union got along well with management and things progressed. Then the 90s came, and the union started growing weaker. There was a big anti-union movement starting; it continues today. As my dad's retirement came around, the company (with union support) offered him the chance to turn his pension into stock options. My dad refused and took the pension; but many of his peers took the chance to get rich. Unfortunately, the stock was Lucent. Some of you reading this will not understand that reference; others will groan inwardly. Lucent did well for awhile, then the stock failed and a lot of retirees had to take bodies broken by decades spent in manual labor back into the workforce.

I mention this to illustrate why we have unions, and why it is important for a union to be strong. I understand why some people hate unions; they have not always been the greatest things. And sometimes, in working to make the worker's life better, the company suffers. But the reason everyone reading this has a job is because of the unions; they gave the regular person a voice in the chorus.