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.

Customer Service

Customer Service is hard sometimes, because often we work to solve the problem that isn't the problem. I saw Southwest Airlines do this very thing yesterday.

A man missed his flight and said a few curse words. I don't know what those words were; I didn't witness that part. But I heard the gate crew saying that they couldn't help him because he had an attitude problem and he needed to stop cursing. Now, this is a young man who had been held up at TSA, had to have his bag (which had photography stuff in it) hand checked, and he missed his plane because of that. Should he have gotten to the airport earlier? Yep, without question. But that's not the gate crew's problem. Nor is it really their problem that he was held up at TSA. Their problem was that a guy missed his flight.

They focused, though, on the cursing. Even called security. I witnessed them telling him that they couldn't help him. Heard them say that they couldn't do anything until the guy calmed down. (He didn't seem overly agitated, in my opinion, just angry that he missed his flight.) Security showed up and walked away with the young man, and they had a conversation that I couldn't hear, but probably reviewed who has the power in the situation, and it isn't the customer, as much as we might all want that to be the case.

Of course, the problem that the Southwest folks ignored was that a customer missed a flight and was with good reason upset about that.

I like to counsel friends and peers in customer service that (among other things; I'm a mentoring personality) there are problems that can be fixed and those that cannot, problems that can be made worse and problems that can be made better. If someone is upset, look for that path to make them not upset. Find a way to make the situation better. If you're a religious person, then there are clear instructions in every major religion that this is our obligation on this earth: to make it a better place than when we got here. That is true on both a macro and micro level.

Southwest Airlines could have ignored the cursing. They could have understood that here was a young man on his way to a photography assignment, and he missed his flight. They could have found a path to a resolution (quite easily, actually). It would have meant less stress for all of us who had to watch, less negativity on the whole, and maybe made at least that one customer happy. Improved the guy's day a little. Instead, they focused on the cursing.

At this point, I'll note one other detail that I intentionally didn't mention at the start. The man was black. I have myself missed a flight, have myself cursed because of that, and had Southwest not like that I cursed, but still they helped me get to where I was going. Because that's their job. I don't know if the man's race impacted them or not; but I know it impacted those around me. Did you, the reader of this, change your perception when you learned the man's race? Even a little bit, a small psychological twitch?

Ability and Opportunity

Napoleon said that "Ability is nothing without opportunity."

Think on that for a moment. Look at your own life, and the lives you impact. How many people do you know who are very talented, but don't have the chance for that next step? There are few of those next steps available, for one thing. And there is also a natural inclination to go with the known rather than the unknown. For example, consider a child trying to get on a travel baseball or soccer team.

There might be only one or two spots open, if that, and even if the child is more talented at their position than a player already on the team, a coach will stick with what they know rather than take the chance.

Employers do this, too.

As you go through your day, see how you can give an opportunity to someone with ability. It is one of those differences between managers and leaders. Are you going to be a manager today? Or will you lead?

One Word Makes a Difference

A few years ago I worked in an office that I loved. Great team, good work, lots of interaction. Our ability to collaborate was excellent. There was only one thing that bothered me: the manager never greeted the staff, and even if she did, it was one or two people only.

It's a small thing in a person's day. A greeting. Acknowledgement. But it is very powerful.
Google it: The Power of Hello.

When we are in a leadership position, our obligations extend beyond simply making sure the cogs in the machine all show up. The grease in the wheels is all of the small things that go into making the workplace an open environment. Even if we don't like the people around us, leaders have their obligations nonetheless. No matter our stress, we have commitments to the people in our work lives.

That can be as simple as hello and goodbye.

If you have read my articles before, you'll understand that I use the term leader rather than manager. The person I opened up describing was a manager, good up to a point at making sure the project plan was filled out. Inertia took care of the rest. But that's not leadership.

Say hello to someone today. Don't wait on them. Be the active agent in their life rather than the other way around. I'm counting on you.

The Obstacle Focused Life

Think for a moment about football, particularly the position of running back. There are two kinds of running backs: those that are nimble and quick, deftly avoiding tackles with ankle-breaking jukes.

Then there are the brutes that charge straight ahead, blasting through the defenders head on. Most of the greats are a combination of both; most of the journeymen running backs, though, are more one way or the other. More often than not they are head-down bulls that charge the defense. It is taught from an early age. Football is a full-contact sport. So players are taught to seek out that contact.
How often have we seen this in business? Think about the people you work with, the teams you lead, the leaders of your team: are they nimbly trying to maneuver around confrontation? Or do the people in your life charge straight at problems? Or both?

How often do we personally do this? Just now, for example, I stopped writing so that I could go do something for work. My goal was to write this article; but instead I found an obstacle to accomplishing that.

We all do this from time to time: we are obstacle focused. We believe it's part of being "goal oriented" and in a sense it is. You should understand your obstacles. But that can be a slippery slope. Think of going on a hike. You research the hike to learn if it's difficult, the distance, elevation change, etc. But in the end you go on the hike, and if there's a fallen tree, you figure out how to deal with it. If you encounter a stream that's higher than expected, you figure out how to deal with it.
Rather than taking an obstacle focused approach to life, instead devote your energy to being path focused. It is not as easy as it sounds. We have apps on our phones like Waze to tell us that there's a wreck up ahead, or congestion, or a cop. Restaurant reviews guide where I go to eat out. Think about how much of our life is built around understanding obstacles.

How much, though, is about the path? The journey?

There is a choice we must make: worry about the problems that haven't happened yet - a process that will cause other problems; or prepare for the journey as best we can and take every step, one after the other, in its proper order, left-right-left.

Years ago I stopped using my bicycle computer when I ride for this very reason. It became an obstacle - or, perhaps more specifically, it was a measurement of obstacles. I needed to maintain a certain speed, needed to do a certain distance. I didn't just enjoy the experience. I started using an app on my phone to measure distance and speed, put my phone in my bike bag, and now I ride as best as I can on any given day, and I enjoy the experience. Plus I actually ride faster and longer than I did when I was married to my statistics.

So I challenge everyone on this wonderful autumn weekend to focus not on the obstacles, but on the path. Take a road less traveled. Head out into the country. Go to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or a taco truck. Don't think about the chores needing to be done; don't worry about having a plan. You'll find it hard to rewire the brain to stop thinking of barriers, to not run headlong into them. But it will be worth it.

Friends and Coworkers

A couple of times this week, the concept of "workplace friends" was challenged. It isn't always easy to maintain friendships with people you work with; sometimes the nature of "work" means people have to be placed in opposition. I learned how to do this while digging ditches. The foreman was the boss; he was also our friend. A lot of people, especially leaders, fear getting too close with the people that report to them. After all, they might have to reprimand them, or fire them, and they don't know if they can do that if they're friends.

Lucky for me, I have no problem with that.

The biggest challenge I faced was when one of my longest friends in my current job left.

She and I met within a couple of months of starting, and for various reasons we hit it off from the start. Part of the attraction was that our focus - our end goal - is very similar; but we're on completely different paths to get there. That enabled us to have good discussion and we worked together well.
Over time, I got to know her better. I met her husband and consider him my friend. I met her daughter. They all met my family as well.

I won't go into the gory details of why she was let go; suffice it to say it happened, and while I think it was a mistake, I've seen companies make such mistakes many times in my career, and I acknowledge my perspective is a bit myopic.

There is no great lesson here, nothing wise to say. A friend lost her job. That sucks. I've been there, more than once, and I know what it's like to wake up one day with no purpose. The feeling is hard to digest. It sits like a dark cloud that oppresses every action. But it goes away. And it leaves a void that the driven individual cannot help but fill. And she is, and she will.

Seeing the trees

As some of my friends know, my "hobby" is to be give travel advice on TripAdvisor.com for trips to Japan, particularly the Himeji area. It is no stretch to say it's an obsession; depending on how you look at things, it could be an addiction. In any case, it's what I do with my free time when I'm not writing.

Today on the forums a person asked about doing a really unique trip from the city of Kyoto to Himeji and on to an island called Okunoshima. I've never been to that island, but now I kind of want to go; they have a bunch of rabbits running around, and there is one of Japan's many peace museums (the island once housed a poison gas factory). The question was: could it be done in a single day.

Pretty much every response was either a resounding "No," or was "Yes, but why would you?"
And I admit that was my first instinct as well. I'm a crazy traveler at times; but when I thought about the trip, I couldn't see how to do it.

Then I remembered what my "job" is on the forum (such as it is). It's not social media; I'm not there to criticize or argue. So I did some research and gave the facts of the trip. As I wrote down the steps, I realized not only was it doable, but it sounded pretty cool. Hopefully the person who asked the question does that journey and tells me about it.

Sometimes in life we find it easy to focus on the obstacles; I've written on this before. It is very easy to see our obstacles. However, if you consider the old adage "cannot see the forest for the trees," think on how every obstacle (or tree, in this example) is merely the boundary of an open space where we can travel. This isn't to say it will be easy, or fun; but that's how I try to approach life. Life will present us with many obstacles that we can do nothing about; the weather, for example. So don't go seeking things that are barriers to forward progress.

And if, when you read what I wrote on a tree being a boundary for open space, you immediately thought of a jungle, or dense forest, or some reason that what I said cannot be true - think on what that attitude means. :)

The Tethered Life

There once was a cartoon character known as Foghorn Leghorn; only people of a certain generation will know this. Those folks will also remember this particular scene. For those that cannot watch the video, here's a synopsis. Foghorn Leghorn is a bit of a jerk; that's a common theme in the cartoons.

He is, however, clearly the character in power. He walks around literally like he's the cock of the walk. Because he is. The anti-hero is often the barnyard dog. The dog is more clever than Foghorn Leghorn; he's smarter; and often, by the end of the cartoon, he gets the upper hand. In the scene I am talking about, though, Foghorn draws a line in the dirt, goes over to the dog, paddles the dog's butt, and then runs to just past that line, which happens to be the end of the dog's leash. The dog runs and runs and then nearly rips his head off as the leash runs out.

How often do we feel that way in our jobs?

It is something we must be careful of: becoming tethered. The truth is, most of us are in fact tied down. We wear a leash at work. This is one of the biggest surprises young workers have. It's not just at work, though. Life, as we grow older, puts leash after leash on us. Mortgage. Family. The need for a car. The need for appliances. Even food. All of these things tie us to some reality.

In the cartoon, Foghorn Leghorn reminds the dog in the most brutal way that he is tied down, while Foghorn is not. I will not go into the fairness of life, though it is tempting. But I will note that, always, the dog breaks his leash and wins.

So be careful of the tethers in your life, both those you wear and those you assign.

Farms

I grew up on a farm.

Sort of.

Maybe it's better to say that I grew up in a farming area, surrounded by farming people, in a family with a long legacy of farming. Because other than a garden, we didn't really do much actual farming. Oh, we had cows every so often. Horses, too. Sheep, sometimes. But my parents had jobs and farming was not something that they had a lot of time for.

But let's continue down this idea that I grew up on a farm.

When I was five or six, we went to my Uncle Bill's house in Parrotsville, TN. At that time (1970s) it was about as far away from "anything" that you can imagine. It still is, I guess, though the highway to get there is larger and they have a few stores. When we went, there was nothing.

Anyway, my uncle told me that if I could catch a calf, I could have it. Now, Uncle Bill is something of a legendary figure in my mind. He was my grandfather's brothers, so technically a Great Uncle. And he was great. He loved us wholeheartedly, and was as close as a twin to my grandfather as you can imagine. And my grandfather - papaw - was the greatest influence in my life; I am literally tearing up just writing this sentence, even though he died over twenty years ago.

So we were at Uncle Bill's house one day and he told me I could have a calf if I caught it. I almost did many times over the next hour or so. And he would have given me the calf had I caught it; because that's the way the world worked. Your word meant something.

On other visits I helped milk cows, or watched the machines do that job.

There's a lot to learn about that process, things that I think society has forgotten. When you milk a cow, that's all you can do. You cannot milk a cow and simultaneously groom a horse, gather eggs from the chickens, and muck out stalls. All of those things can be done in their own time, over the course of a day. But ask a farmer to do all at once and they'll laugh at you.

How often do we ask that of people at work, though? How often do we task someone with doing the impossible, with producing too many deliverables at the same time.

For those who read my irregular writings, you are familiar with John's Laws of Promotion; and this "asking too much" is part of laws 2, 3, and 4. To refresh.

John's First Law of Promotion: If a person looks, on paper, as someone who should have been promoted, but hasn't, then they will not be promoted.

John's Second Law of Promotion: when an employee has made their position one of critical importance to the organization, they will not get promoted because of the downstream effects of removing them from their current position. I call it the Atlas Effect. Atlas was a Titan who held up the sky. He is often portrayed with the world on his shoulders, but it isn't really a world, but a celestial sphere. The punishment handed down by Zeus was to stand and hold up the sky. That became his job. If he failed to do it, the sky would literally fall down. So Atlas became so critical to the running of the world he had to always do it.

John's Third Law of Promotion: over a period of time, the employee will be seen as unmotivated and their reputation will begin to tarnish; they are content to hold up the sky, and managers who don't realize how hard it is to hold up the sky will think it's easy because Atlas makes it look that way. They will look lazy compared to their past work.

John's Fourth Law of Promotion: an over-taxed worker will eventually hit a point of diminishing returns; they feel their reward for hard work is more work, almost to the point of abuse. They will continue to get praise, but will at some point hit the ceiling that they can be paid or promoted, and the praise slowly transitions to criticism as management realizes that they can get someone else to hold up the sky for less salary. Never mind that Atlas knows all of the inconsistencies, the intricate details, and all the quirks that go into holding up the sky. Atlas costs a lot of money, and he's documented his job well (because Atlas wanted to move from holding up the sky to something more interesting, noted in the Third Law); so the company hires someone younger to do the job of Atlas, valuing the bottom line over experience.

My challenge to you today is two fold. For those, like me, who always say yes to more work, because we believe in the Benevolent Leader effect (a leader will act in the employee's best interest, and thus the employee will do what they are told, believing their leader wouldn't act outside of their interest) - that isn't true. As long as you say yes, as long as you continue to take that load on your back, you will be given more and more to do.

For those leaders, be the Benevolent Leader. Look at the workloads; listen to the indicators that, in fact, you might not be the Benevolent Leader but might actually be a Harsh Taskmaster. Do not kill your workers to make yourself look good.

Enjoy your weekend!

Riding up the hill

When I was thirteen, I got a ten speed bike. I don't know where it came from; in my memory, one day it was just there. It was orange, a brand sold at Sears or K-Mart, with shifters on a collar around the handlebar stem. Changing gears was a symphony of clackety-clackety noises. Braking was squeals and screams. It was clunky and old and I loved it. Not for the thing itself, but for what it gave me: freedom.

I rode the hell out of the bike, blaring '80s rock from a jury rigged cassette player, tearing down Appalachian East Tennessee roads that had probably never seen a cyclists until me.

When I was seventeen or eighteen, I got a real bike, from a real bike store. It was not top of the line by any stretch; but legs that had grown powerful on that steel-framed beast could put the power to the much lighter Diamondback bike.

I've been riding bicycles on the road since I was thirteen, ridden on the roads of three countries on two continents, multiple states, mountain bikes and road bikes.

Yet for whatever reason, I cannot efficiently ride a bicycle up a hill.

Hills are my nemesis, and when I ride I go after them. Every time. Part of that's geography; there aren't many places to ride in middle Tennessee without a hill. But I know those routes. They are my warm up for the hills.

We each have to face hills in our career. Sometimes they are long and drawn out; other times, short and brutal. But they are inevitable. Just like on my bike, I seek out those hills. It's the challenge, the fight required, the accomplishment when done that is fleeting because another hill is always looming ahead. Others seek out the gentler terrain. They avoid the things that expose their weaknesses. That's them. But know this: the hills are always there, the challenge doesn't go away simply because we avoid it. So face your challenges today. Find them. Climb that hill. Cuss and complain, get despondent and pull yourself up.

Go on. Get out there and let the world know you aren't afraid of it.