Monday, November 24, 2003

Getting Real About Giving Thanks

It's probably no big surprise that I don't exactly do a lot of cooking. Thanksgiving is different somehow though. I think maybe the logistics of getting a massive amount of food all out on the table in edible form at approximately the same time must appeal to my puzzle-loving nature. Whatever it is, I do seem to enjoy it.

Growing up, Thanksgiving was generally a pretty large affair - lots of aunts and uncles and cousins around to play and joke with. If I was trying to study for finals, it made life tough but otherwise having people around who have it as part of their basic job description to know who you are and like you at least a little is a lot of fun.

Once I grew up and started living on my own I became more acquainted with the notion that not everyone has such a nice time over the holidays. I guess I wasn't exactly surprised by that; I just hadn't seen it face to face before. I learned a lot during those years and what I learned has stuck with me for a long time.

For instance, I remember the first time I was invited to someone else's house for holiday dinner. While it wasn't something they had to do, I was very glad to accept the invitation. Instead of feeling alone in my apartment or like an outsider gatecrashing someone else's holiday, I felt included. I really enjoyed myself and enjoyed getting the chance to participate in someone else's traditions.

Another year, there were a whole lot of us who didn't have anyplace to be over Thanksgiving, so we pulled together our own very non-traditional potluck. A few of us prepared the one or two dishes we each most identified with Thanksgiving. It was a truly eclectic feast, one that we all very much enjoyed, most especially because we had each other for company.

When I started hosting Thanksgiving for myself, the gatherings were often quite small and it didn't seem quite right to me. As soon as I noticed that, I remembered those early years when complete strangers had thought to invite me to their home and I started inviting anyone I could think of who didn't have a place to be. I don't always get guests, but I find that some of the most fun I've had over Thanksgiving has been those years when there are at least one or two. Every time I invite someone new to my home, I make sure to find out what that one dish is that makes it a truly worthwhile turkey day for them - and between us, we work out how to include it in our plans for that year.

There is one year that weighs more heavily on my mind. I was working in a border town and found myself assigned to do the standard news story on Thanksgiving at the local mission dishing up meals for the homeless and other down-and-out folks. On my way out, I noticed several of the visitors were wet up to about mid-calf. Though it was clear these people had waded across the river just because they knew they could find a good meal there that day, the nice people at the mission were very happy to serve them. To them, it made no difference - they were there to help whoever arrived, no matter what their circumstances. Someone apparently saw the situation differently that day; by the time I left, INS had been called to deport the illegal border-crossers, many of them before they'd even had their dinner. If that wasn't irony enough, my boss wanted nothing to do with this twist to the traditional story.

Not knowing any better or having any stronger sense of my convictions, I obeyed orders and went back to the shop with the time-worn story they'd requested I do. Looking back, though, I realize it is a rare gift to be able to fully recognize and preserve human dignity. I also know now that it's a gift meant to be shared, not wasted. Rest assured that if I ever find myself without family or friends to celebrate with, I will be volunteering my time helping others. In my mind, it's what the day is about.

What do you find yourself grateful for this season? If you were to set yourself the task of listing at least ten answers to that question, would you find that easy... or difficult? One thing I'm thankful for is to have people like you share your thoughts with me on whatever topics you find important. Go ahead and send them to

Make your Thanksgiving something real. Gather people around you who are special to you and if you can spare the room, include someone who has nowhere else to go. Do what you can to preserve some old traditions... and create some new ones too while you're at it. Remember, it's about a state of mind that includes sharing and community more than it's about spending money we don't have on more food than we can possibly eat.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Learning to Balance

So - the 30-day trial license is about to expire on this Life Balance™ software that I've been trying out. Since I'm such a geek, it's a little tough for me to know yet whether it's really doing for me what I want or whether I just like playing with it. What I can say is that I'm using it and that is a pretty good sign.

I'm finding that there are some things I just don't like to do when they bubble up to the top and what I do about that seems to be the real learning edge for me. I have a couple of strategies that I employ... some with better success than others.

The most basic strategy is that I sometimes just get stuck and don't do anything else. I'll stare and stare at the item at the top of the list that doesn't appeal to me and after a while, I'll sometimes start beating myself up for not having done it. This approach doesn't actually work so well. I don't recommend it.

What works marginally better is that sometimes when something pops up to the top of my list and I don't like it, I'll just skip down to the next item I feel like doing. This way, I manage to at least get something done. This is more effective for staying on top of the list as a whole. It doesn't do a whole lot for the tasks I keep skipping over. As a general strategy, it's tough to recommend but I can see its usefulness from time to time.

As I work with this software and those problem To Do's, I'm finding there's another way that works better for me. Usually the tasks that I don't feel much like taking on are recurring so I have to deal with them regularly. After a while, it becomes apparent that they're a problem for me. Of course, that also means admitting some failure on my part, and that's not exactly comfortable. Here's a funny thing about the notion of failure, though - first of all, it assumes there's a right way and a wrong way; secondly, it also assumes that there's a finish of some sort where we reach "perfection" and are done. Don't we all wish!

Instead, I've been re-training myself to think of my inaction on these items as a red flag for learning, not as failures. So what kinds of things have I learned? Sometimes it's pretty simple - the task items simply just aren't as important to me as I'd originally believed. If that's the case, it's pretty easy just to slide the importance bar down a couple of notches so that I don't see the task quite so often. By the time I do see it, I can usually gumption up enough nerve to get through it.

Other times, the tasks really are important. While I may not like performing them, I do want the end result. If there's another way to accomplish what I want, I'll go for that. Who says life has to be hard all the time? One trick I try is to break the job up into smaller pieces. If the thought of writing some huge report is too intimidating, how about writing out the table of contents first, then a section or two at a time until it's written.

Sometimes it's a matter of finding a way to make it fun. Rewarding myself for a job well done is one way. Hate to pay the bills? It might be more fun if the reward is to have a beer afterward. Sometimes there's way to make the task itself more enjoyable. I know one guy who used to do the Tom Cruise Risky Business dance whenever he'd vacuum. Not that you'd ever want to see that... but it did get the living room clean!

Sure, I sometimes wish I didn't have to play such mindgames with myself to get my work done. At least I'm doing more of it than I ever had before, and that's the general point, right?

What are you resisting - and why is that? Send your answers to that question or ideas for doing things you don't like to do to - it could make for some real useful learning for the rest of us.

Don't like a job? Find a way to make it easier, more fun, or something you don't have to do at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Focus on the Things You CAN Do

"Focus on the things you CAN do, not the things you can't."

It sounds like some trite phrase trotted out by folks who have nothing better to do with their time than to tell others they should be happy with their lot, doesn't it?

While it's worked for me, I know all too well that I've had things pretty easy throughout much of my life. Such a philosophy might be too simplistic for someone facing real difficulties. At least that's what I always thought until I had a chance recently to hear a woman speak by the name of Kathy Buckley.

Her family and her teachers just thought she was 'retarded' and put her in a school for the developmentally disabled until she was in the second grade when all along, her real problem was a hearing loss ("And they call me slow!" she says...). Then after just two years at a deaf school, she was yanked out of an environment where she felt safe and was dumped into the mainstream without any real support. She was in her thirties before anyone helped her understand that she wasn't stupid, she was just hearing impaired.

And that was AFTER she was run over by a jeep and told she wouldn't be able to walk... and later diagnosed with cervical cancer and told she might not live. Not only is she still alive and walking (and dancing too), she's smart as a whip and fall-on-your-butt funny as a comedienne. Sure, you have to get used to how she talks but it's such a small thing to do when the message she has to share is so powerful.

Really, if Kathy can do all that she's done, shouldn't the rest of us be able to overcome just about any obstacle standing in our way if we only focus on what is possible instead of what seems impossible? What would you do if you had someone around who believed in you enough to make you feel it could be done? What if that person was yourself?

"Impossible" is usually just a thing we say to ourselves when we're really just afraid to live up to our true potential. It might be easy for me to say... and now I know from having heard Kathy's story (from Kathy herself) that it's actually true.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

When Stupid Stuff Happens

You know, sometimes stupid stuff just happens.

For no seeming rhyme or reason, someone good gets laid off. Or a really great kid is faced with living with a serious heart defect the rest of his life, always wondering if he's going to need another open heart surgery and all the risk and trauma that entails. Or a skilled, top-notch pilot bends a wingtip - for a second time, possibly ending his flying career. Is it bad luck, poor judgment or action on someone's part, karma, or some divine plan for some greater good we can't see... or is it time to get paranoid that somebody's out to get us?

I've held every single one of these opinions at one time or another. Sometimes several at once or at least in rapid succession. Sometimes life just sucks and that's all there is to it. I used to defend my beliefs in this area and in so doing, came to the realization that the justification that makes the most sense to me is that I hold onto whatever belief helps me out the most at the time. Usually my preference is to use my beliefs to help me move forward (see, no whining for me either) so I tend to think in terms of things happening for a reason and I set out in search of it. Hey, it's good for pulling me out of a funk anyway.

Lately, I've started to moderate my thinking further though I'll be honest in sharing that while I can see the destination I'm charting toward I'm definitely not there yet. My new way of thinking goes something like this - The situation is what it is. Whatever complicity I have in getting myself here, I may be able to learn from it but it can't be undone so forgiving myself and finding a way to appreciate where I am is the only remaining action available to me now. Furthermore, given that life sucks (at least on occasion), unless I want to throw in the "no whining" towel (I don't) or continually beat my head against the wall, it's probably a good idea to figure out ways to enjoy life or at least appreciate it even when things don't go the way I want them to.

Maybe you have some strategies that work for you that you'd like to share - if so, please send them to

Accurate or not, treating situations as the result of some cosmic force for greater good is more likely to get you farther and in a healthier state of mind than any of the other options. Try looking for the benefits anyway and see how that changes your perspective.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Got Brains?

How's this for smarts: I have periodically googled my employers and my own name from time to time just to see what comes up. One time that I did this a while back, I ran across a guy's blog wherein he proceeded to blast the company that I worked for and the whole interview process he had recently gone through with some of their folks.

I know what you're thinking - he's entitled to his opinion. Sure, that's what I thought too... until I read that he had another interview scheduled with that same company a short time after the date of that particular blog entry.

It was one of those cartoon shake-the-head double-take moments. What was he thinking?! These are people who are potentially in the position to offer you a job - and you publicly insult their interview skills? It's totally irrelevant whether the guy was on-target with his opinions or not. Who would want to hire him after reading about themselves like that? And if he really didn't want the job after all (as the blog seemed to imply), then why bother accepting another interview?

On a different tangent, for years, I've been telling employees they should think more carefully about what they send via company email. Like many, I sometimes have gotten lax about this myself but in general, I try to think about what I'd be willing to have people read if a message were to get printed and left out at work. In the old days, the most anyone had to worry about was whether the company was machiavellian enough to want to wade through a lot of email to find anything incriminating. Not only are there filters now that make that job easier (and so more likely - especially if we give them any reason to want to go looking for incriminating information) but there's more than just the possibility of a malicious employer (probably more remote than most people are willing to believe) involved now too.

Consider the case of the Enron employees whose personal email messages were made a matter of public record because of the lawsuit. In the future, expect to see guidelines established around how to treat email as a strategic asset that should be included in comprehensive data retention policies. That means that sometime soon, we're likely to be asked to save just about everything we send. Beats me how IT will deal with that, given that they're usually the ones who set limits on the size of my inbox but it's probably coming down the pike anyway.

These things have been percolating in my brain for a while now. The real news today was a story I read in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer that really made me stop and think about a few things. It's is about Michael Hanscom, who was fired because of his blog and it really personalizes some of the other stuff I just mentioned.

If you're not too quick to jump on the whiner band-wagon, there's a lot to learn here. First off - in reading his blog entries, Michael is clearly not a whiner. That's good. You know I can't tolerate whiners; what you may not realize is that the reason I have such trouble with whining is that nothing good comes from it.

Case in point: this guy could run off blaming the company that fired him and not get anything from it except a bunch of whiner-bandwagon "friends" who are willing to commiserate just so long as he feels like venting about how he's been wronged. Those folks are just looking for the next pity party.

Instead, Michael seems to be genuinely interested in sorting through what his mistakes might have been so he can avoid them in the future. And while he's willing to point out ways he thinks the situation could have been handled better, he doesn't fall for the blame game trap - hopefully because he recognizes that really wouldn't get him anywhere. What will (I predict) get him someplace worthwile is that he seems to have strong ethical standards and is up-front about who he is, fully backing whatever he writes these days. Proof: it's beginning to look like this combination is going to result in some pretty decent press for him - meaning, that he could very well come out of this not just 'okay' but maybe 'pretty darned good'.

Another important lesson here is that mistakes are rarely a matter of life & death. Certainly they are in some situations but that's not the norm. Somebody smart enough to realize this will be willing to hire him. And when they do, they'll probably be the sort of folks he likes working with because they'll have open conversations with him about their expectations and will give him room to make some minor mistakes while giving him plenty of warning if he's getting too close to a big one. That's just my guess anyway.

Of course, the guys that fired him over the blog would probably benefit from a better approach themselves but without more information it's impossible to tell that for sure so I'll leave my opinions about that side of it for another time when I can use a situation I'm more familiar with.

With regard to the blogging, I can only suggest that you should feel comfortable printing out your most recent entries and posting them on your refrigerator at home and on your cube wall at work for friends, family and co-workers to see. If it can't pass that test, then maybe you should re-think the writing and/or the people you associate yourself with.

If you think I'm wrong, I'd be interested to hear your ideas about a situation where you have legitimate concerns over what you're willing to write and who could see it. Send them to

If you always conduct yourself as you true best self, and stick with people who can appreciate you for that, then you probably haven't got anything to worry about.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

What's Your Trap?

Are you the sort who looks before you leap or do you get stuck, still wanting to know more before you're willing to take a step?

Either trait is pretty common, especially with tech folks. If you're not sure which you are, take a look around you at the people who drive you most nuts... "She never thinks these things through - she just blows right through with her big ideas, expecting everyone else to pick up the pieces when they don't go right!"... "He couldn't make a move to save his life!"

If the thought under your breath is, "Good thing I'm not like that!" then you probably struggle with the opposite issue. If you simply cringe when you see what others do wrong, then it's probably a sympathy cringe, seeing your own behavior in someone else.

Great, so you know what your problem is - okay, bigshot, NOW what?

The way I figure it, every weakness is just a strength taken too far. Back off a bit and you'll be in just the right place.

If you're impulsive, that passion can do a lot for you. All that's needed is to harness it and add in some critical thinking before launching. Invite someone whose judgment you trust to take a look at your idea and offer other viewpoints. If there's criticism, don't let it get you down; instead, re-work your proposal to address the issues raised.

If you suffer from analysis paralysis, figure out even one small step that will take you in the direction you want to go. You can always adjust later; that one step just gets you moving and helps break the logjam of activity. After that one step, think of one more and then another until you've got some momentum built up. Continue to analyze as you go along but forget about perfection. It's not gonna happen!

Even the yellow brick road wandered around and around a bit before taking off toward the Emerald City. That's okay. When the pathway does straighten out, that's when you want to check to be sure it's headed the direction you want, making whatever adjustments you think are necessary then.

Where do you get hung up - on the thinking part or the doing part? Send me an email at and give me your best "yeah, but".

What is one thing you could do to improve the linkage between thinking and acting?

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Taking Time Out Before Being Taken Out

I wrote that last entry when I was trying to recover from the flu. It about knocked me flat but I probably had it coming. One thing I've learned is that I usually only get sick when I'm not giving myself enough time to rest up. I always have a good reason for running 90-per so my body steps in once in awhile just to say, "Enough already!"

There's even research out now that validates my long-standing theory that I only get sick after I've completed some major sprinting effort... after I finished taking my finals, after some big project has been turned over to the next group, after some important rollout, etc.

Once I figured out that the world was not going to come to an end just because I recognized I needed a rest before my body gave out, things started running a lot more smoothly all the way around. I was going to have to take the time away from work one way or another at some point. Why not make it more a thing of my concious choosing & control rather than waiting just to get sick at the most inconvenient time possible?

This is not to say I like taking time off gratuitously because "I have it coming to me." We all know people who think only of themselves and not at all about the team. I find those folks to be a major pain. Probably because they also tend to be the ones who whine the most. It also costs money for the business - money that, when it's spent on absenteeism, isn't available for other things like equipment, salaries, R&D, etc.

The stoics have a different problem. They tend to think only of the team and hardly ever about themselves, not realizing they're not helping the team any if they totally burn themselves or their bodies out and so therefore aren't even available to the team at all.

It's a whole knowing when to stop as well as knowing when to act that is key to the I Ching "Keeping Still Mountain", one genesis point for the name Soaring Mountain Enterprises, so yeah, you could say it's a general philosophy of mine.

How are you finding the right balance for you... What are you struggling with? Send me an email at and let's talk about how to make it work better.

The greatest benefits are had when there's an overlap between the interests of the individual and of the group.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Death Is Nature's Way of Telling You To Slow Down

"Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down"

We all have things we'd like to do "if only I had enough time." Exercise, spend more time with the family, relax, do something fun (what - spending time with the family isn't fun and relaxing?!), whatever. The thing is, if you don't have enough time to do these things now, just when is it you think you will have time? Have you found it yet?

Probably not. It's called the "Myth of Spontaneity" and it's got us duped into thinking we'll get to these things after this "one urgent thing I've got to do first."

If the urgent thing really is that much more important, sure go for it. How many times, though, do we really stop to question what's truly important in our lives? And how often do we fool ourselves into thinking that an action is a "must-do" or a thing is a "must-have" when in reality, that might not be the case?

Want to know a good test?

Try thinking of it in terms of your 95th birthday. Will you rate this as one of the things you're most pleased about in your life if you do it or have it? Will you still regret it that much later if you don't?

If you're feeling pressured into putting in long hours at work that take away from feeling like you have a balanced life, you're not alone. Tomorrow is Take Back Your Time Day. It's scheduled to coincide with the day out of the year that the typical American could stop working altogether - and still have worked the same number of hours as the average Western European.

Maybe you just need help sorting out the logistics of achieving the sort of balance you want. I'm planning to give Life Balance™ software a try - it sure looks interesting anyway.

On the "gottas" (I gotta do this or else...), I can only say I dare you to think about it differently or find another way.

I'm sure I don't want to hear all the reasons you can't make more time for yourself (remember - no whining!). How about instead you think of one way you can (just one, we don't want your brain to burst). Try it and send me a message at - I'd like to hear how it works out.

What would you do if you had the time?

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Building On Small Successes

So now that you're starting to move a little bit or are at least thinking about it more than you may have been, I am reminded of something a lot of geek folks deal with... we tend to want to be perfect straight out of the chute.

Well, here's the deal: it doesn't work that way. Yeah, we tend to learn fast and that's probably our ticket to stardom, but you've still got to start somewhere when it comes to something new. This is especially true when it comes to physical activity when you may not have had much focus on that in the past. (Any?)

You can get this message many places and the concept is applicable to all aspects of life and work.

The first time I ran across it and noticed it for the good advice that it really is was in a book called The Runner's Handbook by Bob Glover. He writes about his Run Easy program where the amount of running (or even walking, depending on the level of fitness you're starting with) he advocates in the beginning is so small as to be downright embarrassing. At least that tends to be true for those of us Type-A folks whose natural inclination is to "get in there and do it right if we're going to bother to get in there and do it at all. The trouble with the Type-A approach is that it just isn't sustainable.

FlyLady knows that starting small and building up from there is where it's at too. I'm sure you're sniggering now - or will be as soon as you visit the site. One of smartest geeks I know, though, is out there shining his sink and doing the 27-fling boogie on a regular basis.

Many of the Eastern philosophies dwell deeply on the subject too. Don't beat yourself up if you're not "there" yet - work on where you are instead and begin stretching out from there when you're ready. If it sounds like yoga, you're not far off, given that it's where I heard the message most recently myself. Added bonus for the male-dominated field of tech-geeks: group yoga classes can be a great place to pick up babes.

On a related, but less physical note, there's even a book called Start Where You Are that takes the reader through at least some of the how of giving into what is happening with us right now and learning to accept and even use it to make improvements.

What stands in your way? What do you do to overcome that? Send your thoughts to me at and we'll discuss it.

For now, what is one small step you can take toward your goal? Are you willing to make that step?

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Get a Move On!

Have you moved yet today?

I don't mean from bed to car to desk to car to couch. I mean getting fresh oxygen into your lungs and getting your blood circulating. If your idea of a break and some fresh air is to step outside (only because that's what's expected) for a smoke, then this goes double for you.

Lack of time is one of the biggest reasons I hear people don't do anything to get (and stay) fit. The real reason (and the second most likely cited) is lack of motivation. Why is that? For many of us, it's because we've thought of ourselves as a brain that just happens to be associated with a body for so long we've forgotten that the two do actually come as a matched set. For others, maybe the desire to play video games the 20 hours a day we don't sleep is more enticing.

In truth, though, just about anything else that we do and enjoy can be made better by paying at least some attention to our bodies by looking after them and caring for them to some degree. That is even true if we give it just 10 minutes at a time.

When we get regular cardiovascular exercise of some kind, we live longer, feel better, enjoy food more, get to eat more food (or don't have to cut out quite as much), and have more stamina to do the other things we like to do. Yes, even THAT.

Let's pretend that you decide you really are motivated to get with this fitness thing. You're not angling to become the next governor of California or anything, you just want to be able to walk around the block without getting out of breath. There's that time factor of course, so how do you deal with that? Well, how about starting with just ten minutes at a time. Take a walk instead of having a smoke. Or find something else you enjoy doing - a quick bike ride, shoot some hoops, go for a run, or even yoga (don't laugh - have you tried it?). If you belong to a gym, you probably have even more options available to you. Swimming is one of my favorites. I can get a full body workout in a short period of time and I usually don't spend the next half hour sweating.

One great way to ease your way into this moving thing without having to dive right into a big commitment is to focus on the 10,000 Steps advocated by the Surgeon General. Don't try to DO 10,000 steps just yet. Just track with a pedometer (this one I won't link out to - there are too many to try to indicate a preference) and make a note of how many steps you're walking each day. After doing that for a while, start increasing it, just a little each week. While you're at it, take note of how you're feeling. If you're increasing your activity slowly enough, you'll probably be feeling better in all sorts of ways you may not have even thought about before. And THAT can help provide some of the motivation you may have been lacking up until this point to get out and move.

Oh, and do us all a favor - consult with a doctor before making any serious changes to your level of activity. The presumption here is that you do have a brain attached to that body you're thinking of taking better care of.

What's your favorite activity for attaining/maintaining some level of fitness? What kind of results have you noticed? What are your favorite excuses for not being more fit? If you have of any of these or any helpful advice to share with others, send them to me at

Just remember, "Everything in moderation - including moderation". The idea is to enjoy life!

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Letting Go...

Today it's raining. Big surprise given that I live in Seattle, if you believe the stereotype but that's beside the point. What I've noticed today, is that after having a truly superb summer (assuming it's not a part of the whole global warming trend that folks are concerned about), it's finally feeling like fall is really setting in. The weather has definitely changed and everything feels different now.

Some people are whining about it but you already know I don't go for whining, right? The rest of us are thinking about what else we can do with the time that's productive.

Personally, I like taking my cue from the seasons. Summer is a great time to be out there doing things, having fun and making things happen. The whole world is active and it feels right to participate in that activity. Then, late summer and early fall is harvest time in nature and I start thinking about paying attention to the successes I've had. It's usually good timing too because it's not too unusual that this is when I'm asked to write something up about my performance during the previous year.

Then October comes and by the middle of the month, the leaves are starting to color and fall off in earnest. It's time to let go of stuff.

What can I clean off my desk? What stuff at home can I bag up to give away to charities or sell on eBay? If I get enough junk tossed, I find I can even begin to think about what mental clutter I could be ditching too.

For me, mental clutter is outmoded assumptions, beliefs that don't help me get where I want, and any negative thoughts that I have to keep navigating around just to get through the day. Imagine piles of newspapers around that have to be stepped over or through just to get anywhere. Eventually I get tired of it and it just has to go... my thought processes are no different in that respect than the physical space around me.

So what about you? What thoughts or beliefs are keeping you from whatever it is you want? Are you ready to let go of any of that yet? If not, what would it take to be ready? I think it would be cool to hear what you're letting go of... and even more cool to hear what happens afterward. Send me an email at and let me know what you're up to.

Learning to let go is a powerful way of making room for something even better.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Cool Defined

What's your definition of cool? If it includes the notion that the thing or idea has to have some useful purpose in conjunction with the other factors that elevate its stature to the level of "cool" then we have at least one thing in common. Wanna know something cool - something you may have noticed already but might not have known you can put to good use?

Let's say you have a friend who buys a new car (okay, I realize for some folks, this may be a bit of a stretch, but hey, is it more or less of a stretch to imagine you have a friend or that YOU would be the one to buy a new car?). Done snorting your Mountain Dew? Good. Now let's say it's a car you hadn't noticed much previously on the street. Now you're seeing it everywhere!

You've had something like this happen, right? Not suprisingly (once you think about it, anyway, something I never did till recently), there's a name for this. It's called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and it explains how what we see and hear and how we interpret that information is closely intertwined with what we think is important. It's related to a lot of other things too but the impact of our underlying thinking on the filtering system that determines what we are able to notice in our lives is the part that is truly cool.

Have you figured out how to use this knowledge yet?

If there is something you want, the trick to getting it is to program your RAS to recognize anything having to do with this new interest as "important" so that it will include it when selecting what information to pass along to your cerebral cortex. You can do this by talking about it to yourself and other people and you can also do it by writing it down. In fact, the more senses you can use and the more often you use them, the stronger the programming will be.

Try this - write out a goal that you have. Now say it out loud at least once a day; more is better. Chances are pretty good that if you do this enough, you'll start noticing a lot more conversations, web articles, TV shows, course offerings, books, etc. related to your goal than you ever have before. If you're like many people, you'll even start running across new opportunities related to your goal. Why does it seem like these things are suddenly appearing out of nowhere? Unless you are using Arthur C. Clarke's definition, it's not magic, it's just that your attention has been newly drawn to information and experiences that quite likely have always been there because of successful programming of your RAS.

If you want to see this brain functioning at work in a different way, try visiting, where you can take any of a series of tests designed by researchers at Yale and the University of Washington to measure unconscious bias using this same basic premise.

If you try this, I think it would be cool (interesting AND useful) to mention some of the results here, so let me know what your experience is by sending a message to

If it's true that our brains are hardwired to provide us with supporting evidence for whatever it is we believe, what will YOU choose to believe?

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Accept No Substitute!

Okay, so I like to tell rambling stories I think will make a useful point. If you've got a problem with that, go find another blog.

If you're looking for work and are willing to stretch an analogy a bit, read on.

I once lived in a studio apartment in the city. I was tending bar at the time so was getting home very late, long after all of the other car-driving city-dwellers had parked for the night. As a result, finding a space for my own vehicle tended to be a rather dicey proposition.

One night, I started the usual routine of checking out the most likely spots for parking near my apartment. Nothing doing, so I expanded the circle a bit and continued cruising for a space. Still nothing, so I expanded further.

Twenty minutes later, dog-tired from a night of pouring drinks for other people, I was starting to feel a bit desperate. I was now looking for parking four and five blocks away from my domicile - farther than I'd ever looked before. Although it was not a part of town where people generally cared to come visit of their own volition, safety wasn't really an issue. I just didn't feel like walking that far. When the search pattern had expanded to six blocks, though, I started getting angry.

At forty minutes into the process, somewhere around seven or eight blocks, a huge calm washed over me. The scene had become downright ludicrous. This far away, I was now practically in another part of town, one I probably wouldn't even choose to drive through under normal circumstances. There simply was no way I was going to park there. Whatever other choices I felt I had or did not have, parking this far out (especially in that area) was no longer under consideration. I crossed it off my mental list.

Once I was clear on that, I started back in closer to my apartment. I made up my mind that, however it had seemed earlier, I simply would not even look beyond a two-block radius of my home for parking. It wasn't worth it to me and I had become convinced that getting desperate enough to tolerate something that was otherwise unacceptable to me had not helped. From that point forward, I was determined that I would accept only what I really wanted in terms of a parking place - two blocks from home, no farther.

Under the circumstances, this can seem a terribly foolish demand to make. Did I think the parking fairy was going to come grant my wish every night at 3:30am? Maybe I thought some of the nicer neighbors would save me a spot. Yeah, right.

I won't say it was always easy. There were times when my resolve was sorely tested. Even so, I never went more than 20 minutes after that looking for a place to park. And I always found one inside that two-block radius I insisted on.

I can't say I really know how it worked but clearly it did. I lived there for about a year and the process never failed me, not even once, in all that whole time. I do think I know now what it took to work though, so I'll share that - I'm certain the concept is transferable to just about anything else related to a search, whether you're talking about parking, a place to live, a job, or a spouse.

  1. Absolute clarity - if you don't know exactly what you want, it's tough to know what's acceptable and what's not.
  2. Laser focus - if something doesn't meet your criteria, don't waste your time on it; it's not worth it.
  3. Patience - when it doesn't happen the way you want right away, it's fair to look again at your criteria and change that if it doesn't suit you. Do not, however, be tempted into giving up #2 just because it's taking some time.
  4. Go ahead and believe in magic. Okay, this one is gratuitous. Sometimes, though, the unexplainable happens and it's simpler just to call it magic until it can be explained; if you're at least open to the possibility, it increases your awareness so that it's easier to see things you might have missed otherwise.

When you really want something, what works for you? Send your ideas or your questions to so I can share or respond.

Make a choice to accept only what you truly want in life. Don't waste your time in tolerating anything less.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Good For a Laugh

A while back I mentioned mechanisms for coping with change. Humor is always one of my favorites. Although I'm a big fan of the darkest black gallows humor, I find that it is easy to get too much of it. Or addicted to it.

And you can just plain forget the nasty caustic humor us geek types so often fall back on. Tearing down someone else for our own amusement isn't funny for long, if at all and the Us vs. Them mentality it fosters just doesn't equal progress in my book. Besides, it's bad karma, eh?

So that leaves just the stupid, wimpy humor, right? Where's the fun in that? Finding the in-between can take some effort but the pay-off is big when we can find it.

There's the good ol' Dilbert standby of course. And while he does poke fun, the geeks get ribbed as much for their foibles as do the managers, marketing-types, and vendors.

One of the best curtain-pullers I know right now is Jon Stewart and the rest of the Daily Show crew. They've gotten so good at seeing the crazy truth behind what passes for current events these days that I find it the most watchable (and often the most informative) news source I can bother to tune into anymore.

I've recently also started paying attention to a couple of relative new-comer's on the comic strip scene. They don't always have me totally on the floor busting a gut... but they're amusing and often very pointed in their humor. When you need a good laugh, check these guys out:

Geek Salad - Because salad is good for you!
User Friendly the Comic Strip

What makes you laugh? For real and really makes you feel good enough to keep going when the going starts getting tough? Let's get a collection of geek humor going - send your favorite links to me at

Go for the laughs - the real ones - it's a great endorphin rush, spurs creativity and burns calories. Honest!

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Paralyzed With Fear

A while back, I was out walking and heard a small voice calling out, clearly very distressed. The voice belonged to a 4 yr-old boy who had climbed a woodpile in his backyard and had become stuck. Clinging to the side of the woodpile, he desperately wanted to get back down again but didn't know how, and he was scared.

I wanted to help, only there was a fence between us that I couldn't climb. The woodpile was at the back of his family's yard, and his parents were out of direct eyesight and earshot. Front access to his yard for me was four-block walk around to an entirely different street, one I was not entirely sure I could find even if I'd have felt comfortable leaving the frightened tyke for the time it would have taken to come to his rescue.

That left talking him down. It should have been easy - he was less than a foot above the ground; one short step down would have put him safely on solid footing. The trouble was, clutching onto his perch as tightly as he was, he had no way of seeing down to the ground to know how close he really was. He was convinced he was quite high up and that to let go would be a dangerous move. The strength of his convictions became readily apparent when the volume of his wailing increased each time I tried to persuade him to take the step. Even getting him to calm down enough to talk was tough.

Ultimately, his mother did hear him and came to his rescue herself. I like to think that my presence was somewhat helpful in that it was probably the louder cries resulting from each new attempt of mine to propose grave mortal danger that drew her attention. The whole event makes me wonder sometimes, though, how often we're absolutely sure that a thing cannot be done and that it would be horribly risky to even try... and in that certainty we are more wrong than we can possibly imagine.

Fear is paralyzing. There's no doubt of that. And even when the fear is justified, that kind of paralysis rarely serves us. So what do we do? What steps can we reasonably take to move beyond that fear and closer to, rather than farther from, safety? And is there a way we can teach ourselves to hear and trust the counterintuitive signals that lead us to that safety when so much else around us is screaming Danger?

If you have thoughts on dealing with fear, send them my way; I can be reached at In the meantime, I'll share some of my own coping mechanisms that I've found to work in upcoming entries.

Sometimes, solid ground is closer than we realize.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Creating Luck

When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to spend time living on a lake. It was a particularly good lake for waterskiing but only if you got an early start in the morning. Near the beginning and the end of the school year happened to be some of the best conditions because of the combination of the weather and the fact that other people mostly had school in mind instead of skiing. Going for a quick pull before school was not necessarily the norm (no one planned it) but if you were awake, had eaten breakfast already, homework done & clothes laid out - short, if you were prepared - when the airhorn sounded... well, you just might have a chance to sample perfection for a half-hour or so and start the day out right. There was nothing like early morning sun on my back, wind in my hair, and the smoothness of the water that time of day.

Why does this matter in the context of this column?

The point is, are you ready for whatever opportunity is right around the corner or perhaps even staring you in the face? Are you even ready to recognize such an opportunity?

There is a project providing scientific proof of a sort that is starting to get some attention that we do create our own luck... and that staying optimistic and keeping a broad focus that makes it easier to spot a variety of opportunities (even those that come disguised as disasters) is an important component to that process. For more information on the Luck Project, go to, recently written up in Fast Company.

For die-hard pessimists, the same can be said about disasters. I carry water with me on desert hikes and matches on hikes in areas with wetter climates. What sort of preparations have you made in your career to be ready for whatever difficulties or opportunities may come your way?

My favorites include:

* Keeping a running list of the projects I'm working on and the skills I'm developing and the results I've achieved
* Using this and other information to keep my resume updated at least once a quarter ("whether I need it or not")
* Staying in contact with a variety of individuals in and outside of my industry
* Making sure I'm doing as many favors for the people I know as they're doing for me
* Add new people to my list of contacts with each new project, job, or role that I'm involved in
* Regular mental run-down on of how happy and satisfied I am with my work, what drives me right now, and where I feel like I'm really making a difference
* List of skills I want to add - these I either make time to add or are the first things I jump into in the event of having unplanned time on my hands, such as happens so often with unemployment.

What it comes down to is this... Some of the most important turning points in our lives, good and bad, don't bother to announce themselves in advance. That means we've got to be ready for them before they arrive.

How do you stay optimistic? What personal disaster recovery plans do you maintain on a regular basis? Send your suggestions to me at and I'll share the best ones here.

Just know that when that airhorn blows, you've either got your swimsuit on already or you get left on the dock.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

"I Don't Know. It's a Mystery!"

Today I wrote something on my white board that seems to be a useful sentiment under a variety of circumstances. It's a line from the movie, Shakespeare In Love, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster...
...Strangely enough, it all turns out well...
I don't know. It's a mystery.

The fact that it is such a mystery is incredibly unnerving to most people. It takes an enormous amount of discipline (along with some good experiences in the past to bolster faith) in order to hang onto this notion that it all turns out well.

The question, is, when the uncertainty and the usual pain that comes with it is nearly overwhelming, why shouldn't we just give into it? Why bother with summoning up heroic levels of gumption to guts out the tough parts?

The reason is very simple; more often than not, our beliefs - through no particular magic, by the way - become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I'm thinking gloom and doom, I pass it on to others around me. I undermine productivity (my own and others) rather than cultivate and nurture it. If I am so certain that things will not work themselves out, then my brain will automatically filter out any evidence to the contrary. It becomes a vicious cycle and if allowed to continue will result only in one more experience that supports the beliefs and subsequent behaviors that brought it about in the first place.

On the other hand, starting with a belief that things will turn out well makes us more optimistic. In our optimism, our brains begin working overtime to make that perception a reality, brainstorming new ideas, open to opportunities that might be missed otherwise, and creating an infectious atmosphere of success that helps bring others along too. As more success experiences build up, it's easier to believe the next episode of chaos will turn out well also.

So, what if a person gets stuck in the pessimistic view and does want to grab hold of the optimistic view instead, only they don't know how? First off, it helps to recognize that the discomfort of change is normal. It's called Limbo, and it's incredibly common to dislike this phase. If you are feeling a lot of distress during this period, it's completely normal - there's nothing wrong with you in that regard.

In fact, it's often a good idea to give yourself some time (do yourself a favor though, and put a limit to it) to really wallow in whatever self-pity or other negative feelings you might be harboring. Then get rid of it. Use whatever ceremony or ritual works for you to say goodbye to the grief and accept that whatever you have lost is now gone, so it's time to start looking for what's new.

In the process, just keep reminding yourself that it does get better... "Crisis, by definition, is self-limiting"

Face it, at some point, it either goes away, or becomes chronic. In either case, it doesn't feel nearly as ugly as it does now. If it becomes chronic, we find other ways to cope.

Next, focus on what CAN BE. Create a realistic idea of what you can do now, either short term or long term, that is completely in line with what you've always wanted to do. Expand your thinking... what have you wanted that didn't seem possible before? Is there something about where you are now that actually minimizes your risk? For instance, one person I know decided that what he'd always wanted to do was work with special needs dogs. During a period of unemployment, he realized that even if he wasn't getting paid to do that sort of work, it beat sitting around the house waiting for the phone to ring. With no risk at all, he could step into his life's dream, at least for a short period of time. And in the long run, who knows what sort of opportunities can open up for a person who's fully involved in something they can feel passionate about?

Do you have other suggestions for how people can move successfully through the chaos of change? Email your ideas to me at and I'll share the best ones here.

Create a future that excites you by starting with your thinking.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Expanding Your Thinking

I hadn't gotten so far as to start linking out to other sites yet but now I think it's time because I have something I'd like for you to think about - "What are you doing to expand your thinking?"

By this, I don't just mean what technical knowledge are you picking up through some kind of continuing education. While that's important, I'm talking about something that will really keep you out ahead of the rest, in that place where all the real opportunities lay. I'm talking about pushing your horizons and challenging your root assumptions. Are you engaged in anything that regularly pushes you in that manner? If you're not, your horizons are probably shrinking, rather than expanding. It takes a lot of effort just to keep them status quo.

Think about the last time you drove all night to get someplace you wanted to be. If you're still at that stage of life where you're doing these things, pick something else you used to do and haven't done for a while. Now pretend you've got an opportunity to do just that. Are you excited about the opportunity? Or are you busy thinking what a pain it was the last time you did it... the discomfort of losing sleep and wondering if it's really worth all that this time. Don't get me wrong - I'm not advocating sleep deprivation here - that can be a dangerous thing (for this exercise, let's assume you've got other folks to share the driving with & you're all safe about it); what I'm talking about is intentionally taking yourself out of some comfort zone so that you can have a new experience. Are you still willing to do that? Or have you slowly gotten to the point where new experiences aren't worth the hassle?

In our household growing up, it was always my father's argument that the definition of growing old had nothing to do with age, but rather a willingness to allow our boundaries to contract. As such, I've always strived to do new things, experience what I've never come into contact before and, above all, push my thinking. I like to think it's served me well. You'll have to decide for yourself whether that's true or not for you, however I hope that you at least push your comfort zone enough to give it a shot. Our current way of thinking is one comfort zone that hardly anyone ever likes to push. Challenging our basic ideas about life is a tough thing to do. Of all the horizons that need expanding, though, this is the one that gets us the most for having done it.

For one thing (and there are many other benefits), when we're willing to at least entertain another point of view, it makes it easier to understand others. When we understand another person's perspective, it makes working with them easier and that makes us more effective. On a broader scale, the practice can even prevent war but that's perhaps a different topic. Go ahead and think on it for yourself though, if you're drawn to it. Puzzling through difficult questions is one way to stretch your mind.

Reading thought-provoking material is another good way to do this and there are a few resources I have always felt I could count on for that. One is Bob Lewis' column that used to run in InfoWorld. They've made some changes recently to their format but you can still find him writing on his own at The similarities in name are completely coincidental - unless of course, I subconsciously gravitated toward mine because of his. If you see a name change soon on this site, you'll know it's because I decided it'd be better to try not to step on anyone else's toes - and Bob was out there with his name long before I was here with mine.

In any case, if you're reading this at this still early stage, chances are good that you know me, so probably you know you can trust me about Bob. He's good people. I've been reading his column for years and it's always been on target. If I don't immediately agree, I stop and ask myself why that is. That's the mind expanding part that's so important.

Another terrific resource for new ideas and ways of thinking about things is Fast Company Magazine. They always strive to push boundaries, their own and ours in a variety of ways. I always feel excited about new possibilities after reading one of their issues and frequently recommend particular articles to people. It's worth spending time on.

Do you have other resources for stretching your imagination? What keeps you at it? Email me at and I'll share your ideas with the others.

Stay current; stay young - keep stretching your horizons.

Friday, April 04, 2003

Nurturing Creativity

A while back, I wrote about how it helps us be more productive to establish good relationships with co-workers. I've had enough experiences to prove to myself that this is true; now I have some better ideas about why that is and how to harness it.

Today provided me with a good example of how this works. First, a flashback... When I first started working at this particular company, someone asked me to join the group one day for lunch. I couldn't do it that day but I figured that lunch was a good way to get to know people so I wanted to be sure I was invited the next time there was an opportunity. "Sorry," was my reply; "Tuesdays aren't good for me. If you're going on another day, can you let me know? I'd like to join you next time."

A few weeks later, came another invitation: "Today's not Tuesday!" Even though I had other things in mind, none of them were critical so I dropped them and joined the group for lunch. On the way back, I made sure to thank the person responsible for the ride and for the invitation.

Fast forward to today... Having set the stage for future invitations, I received another one today. On the way out for Chinese buffet, we talked mostly about who had kids and what ages or where we each had gone on our last vacations. At lunch, talk turned to food preferences of different cultures and which substances should be legal or illegal. Having exhausted a lot of the "normal" topics of conversation, or perhaps because we were all ready for post-lunch naps, or even more likely because we're geeks and it's what we love, talk turned to the latest problems stumping some of us.

Some lively debate ensued over how some of the code worked and what customers were likely to see and under what circumstances. Even when there weren't out and out answers, there was good food for thought being tossed around and ideas of who to talk to next.

This is the kind of collaboration that puts us at the top of our form. It flows freely out of our shared interest in solving a good puzzle and willingness to talk easily with one another. The fact that it happens in a car ride back to work from lunch is a testament to the fact that what we do is creative and creativity happens how it will, not how we will it to. The fact that there was a car ride to begin with (for me anyway) was a testament to my efforts at building a new relationship with a new group of people. I haven't solved the problem yet that I'm working on, but I'm quite certain I'm closer now than I would have been without the time spent with the group.

Do you spend any time consciously building relationships in your workplace? What works for you? Email me at and I'll post your ideas here.

Provide yourself and your co-workers with opportunities for your creative thought processes to come together and build on each other's work. Nurture the relationships that make this possible and take advantage of the opportunities that show up.

Friday, March 28, 2003

Why Bother?

Doing the right thing can get very discouraging. Often, I find my effort has been wasted because I was shooting for the wrong target. Or I just didn't have what it took to accomplish my goal. All too frequently, not getting what I was after comes down to some other idiot (okay, maybe it just seems like the person is an idiot - you're not going to deprive me of my feeling of righteous indignation, are you?) blocking my efforts.

So sometimes I find I'm tilting at windmills, seemingly to no real avail. It's enough to make a person give up. What keeps me at it? My top ten:

10) Knowing it's the right thing
9) I'm too stubborn to give up
8) The occasional success
7) Finding new approaches to try
6) Learning something new about the issue
5) Finding a previously missing ingredient for the next go-round
4) Stubbornness (wait, I used that one already)
3) Knowing that people around me need an alternative to the current situation
2) Greater pain continuing down the wrong path

And the number one reason
1) Still knowing it's the right thing to do

Oh, and that righteous indignation? Totally justified much of the time but somehow I've never found a good use for it. Have you? Email me at and I'll respond here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Make It a Habit

Sometimes, the best advice is not to worry too much about trying to catch up. Just jump in wherever you are and start from there.

If it's a really big task or an overwhelming project and I want to be sure I stay with it, I start very small. I find that I am so embarrassed by how little I've accomplished and there was so little time involved, that it is easy to get back in the next day and do it again.

And again.

And again.

That's the point. I remember being told by my guitar instructor as a kid taking lessons and then again by my orthodontist as a teenager that I couldn't get in a whole week's worth of {practicewearing bands} crammed into one day. The same principle applies here. Small amounts repeated over long periods of time - that's where the pay-off is.

So, today, I've got a new habit starting. It's just one data point - hopefully after a while, we'll see enough more to call it a pattern we like!

Is there a pattern or habit you'd like to start? Email me at and I'll respond here.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Thinking Broadly

I took this past week off - I started a new job, building a tech support organization for a startup. I'm excited about the prospect - the building of a way of doing things, supporting product again and that sort of thing.

I was going to add "while still getting to exercise a broader way of looking at things and having my ideas heard", then I realized that was very limiting. Yes, it's been easier as a manager. AND I've always believed strongly that my ability to think broadly and find ways to get my ideas heard (usually through some form of 'marketing', not force) was what led me to management and allowed me to grow into that role & flourish. Not the other way around.

As people who report to others, I think it furthers our common goals and our individual interests to think at the level of the people we report to as much as possible - not that we think LIKE them (we have to think like ourselves) but that we take into consideration the same things that they do. It helps them do their jobs more easily (which helps us out in the long run) and it makes our own jobs "taller", more interesting.

The reverse is true of managers - I believe I make a better manager by understanding and taking into consideration the same things that people who report to me do. Right now, I don't have anyone reporting to me. I'm doing all of it. And when there comes the opportunity to share that load, I expect I'll have a better understanding of the issues at hand. And you can bet I'll be looking to hire someone who also has the capability to think broadly.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Accepting Gifts

Each experience, whether perceived to be positive or negative at the time, is a gift in its own way. Are you ready to accept that gift? Saying yes is all you need to discover what it is and derive some benefit. Try it once wholeheartedly and see how it feels.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

When They're Idiots

Since this blog is still in the earliest stages and I haven't done anything to help people find it, I expect I'm writing mostly to see myself think these days. The result is that I spend a fair amount of time thinking each day how to let you know this information exists. The evolution of my thinking has gone from figuring I would advertise something like, "Get more soft skills now" - which I realized would turn off techies immediately to actually talking about the problems that real tech-geeks have - such as, "They're all idiots and don't listen to me."

No matter how I slice it though, the solution seems to be to make some changes in how we do things so that we can be more effective. It's not that we're not technical enough (though I'm sure you can point out someone for whom that's a problem), it's that we don't always relate well to other people who are not technical (sometimes we don't even relate well to each other). And there's the rub. It's the non-technical people we need to reach if we're going to be of any use.

Of course, as soon as I think that, I have this image come to mind of the names of the various people I've worked with who would immediately protest that it's not fair, why do they have to change when others don't seem to want to. Or they consider it inappropriate or undesirable to have a manager ask them to change their personalities. "This is just the way I am," they say. I do want to be clear... I don't mean to be suggesting a personality overhaul. I mean only to shift perspectives slightly to see what small modifications we can make that would help other people understand us better. And yeah, it's not fair that we may be the only ones stretching that far. Who's benefit are we doing it for, though? If we don't do it, someone else will and that person will be the one helping out the dumb jerks who can't tell their... oh, excuse, me... I lost myself for a moment... while we... while we... hmmm. If you've got something better to go do, then definitely do it. I highly advocate that. If not, then, no whiners!

Take a look at the situation from someone else's point of view long enough to see if you can make any modifications in your approach (not your general personality) that can makes things go more smoothly. If you don't wanna, go do something else where you don't hafta.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Not the Game; Just the Ticket to Play

We all like to be the "go-to" person. I didn't fully realize this was a fairly universal tech-geek condition until I became a manager and started interviewing people for tech support-type jobs. In response to the common question, "So... what it is it you like (or would like) about this role?" nearly everyone has responded with some version of, "I like being the 'go-to' person."

Surprisingly, it's nearly always worded exactly like that!

Connecting with what I was writing last night about value you provide to your company, it makes sense here to investigate what that really means, to be the "go-to person". Why would people want to come to you for help? What would make them want to come to you more? And how does that tie in with technical knowlege not being your primary asset?

To draw an analogy, let's take a look at your favorite coffee stand, auto parts store, grocery store, etc. Let's say they carry what you want, at least most of the time. Life is good, eh? You go to the store, you get what you want & you go on your way. Now, let's say they carry what you want (most of the time) but they are complete and utter jerks every time you visit. They make it a hassle to get what you want. It takes more time, they take you too literally and screw up your request or they give you crap for interrupting their break, etc. and hey, they're the only game in town so they can do that. And you keep going back. Not that you like it of course, but they've got what you need and you don't feel like going out of your way to get it somewhere else. Yet. Every time you go, though, you wish there was a better alternative and you grumble all the way there and you badmouth the joint to all your friends, right?

Let's turn the tables. Let's say that another coffee stand, auto parts store, grocery store, etc. opens up just down the street. Or maybe it's not even quite as convenient as the other one. And maybe they don't usually carry your PREFERRED coffee, brand of parts, sugar cereal, etc. but they carry something that's a close second. What they might be missing on availability, however, they more than make up for in how easy it is to go there. They let you use your debit card so you don't always have to remember to keep cash on hand, they get you through check-out quickly and easily & don't give you any hassles... and they remembered that last week you asked about a particular item and think to tell you today that they're carrying it now for a trial period. In short, they treat you well, like another human being, and they listen to you.

Now which coffee stand, auto parts store, grocery store, etc. are you going to go to? There comes a point when service will outweigh availability and even quality to some degree. Yes, there is a bare minimum that you've got to provide (whatever it is, from auto parts to technical knowledge) to play the game. That bare minimimum, however, is lower than you think and after that, that's NOT what counts. It's how we feel after interacting with the organization that matters. It's the customer service we get.

What the heck does this have to do with being a "go-to" person"? Each and every day, we market what we have to offer to the people around us. They accept that offer with the terms provided (they "buy" our "product"), or they choose to accept someone else's offer (take their business somewhere else). This is true regardless of the consumer/provider pair you are talking about. Customer/company, customer/tech support agent, co-worker/co-worker, company/employee. Over time, you are building or eroding your standing with the people who are your "customers".

The question is, do you have the minimum "product" availability to play the game? And if so, are you easy enough to work with and do you listen well enough that people want to come back to you. Do they WANT you to be their "go-to person"? If not, then just as soon as they have another choice, they'll make it & you won't be "the one" anymore. Something to think about the next time you figure it's someone else's problem if they don't like working with you.

We are a business of one and and every day we market our skills, talents and services to our customers, co-workers, and the companies we work for.

If you have questions about this, or related topics, feel free to send me an email at

Monday, January 20, 2003

Making a List

I'm making a list tonight of things I think are worth knowing & understanding if you're a tech... especially those things that might be counterintuitive and therefore could be raised here and not have the first reaction be, "Duh!" Instead, I'm striving for the first reaction to be, "No way; you're crazy!"

Here goes. When you think about what value you bring to your company, what comes to mind first? Whenever I've had this conversation with others, probably 6 or 7 out of 10 say their technical knowledge is their greatest asset. Better than 90% of you mention it as one of the top three. And why not, it's why most of us were hired, isn't it, for our expertise? What if I tell you that you're wrong. That you're so far gone on this one that it may even hurt you if you count on it too much. Would that get the reaction I'm looking for?

Here's why I say that. Think about it: Knowledgebase systems and other methods for tracking issues, calls, information, etc are getting better and better all the time. Many companies have such systems in-house and more are purchasing them. You may curse yours but chances are good it's better than starting over from scratch every time. It doesn't matter whether your customers have direct access to this information or you're an escalation resource and some other front-line agent uses it before they contact you for help. If it's something you already know, that information is (or it should be) already in there for someone to look up.

If they have to come to you when they could be finding the information easily without you, it's an unnecessary expense for your company and very few companies can afford unnecessary expenses these days. And, when unnecessary expenses pile up, eating into the profit margin, rank and file workers usually are the ones to suffer because labor costs in a knowledge-driven industry tends to be higher than just about anything else a company can spend money on.

So... if all this is true, that your technical knowledge is NOT your greatest asset, then where the heck does that leave you? Just what value DO you provide? I see two important components; one without the other is of marginal value... both together pack such a punch that hardly anything beats it. The first is, the capacity to grasp whatever is new and make it understandable for the other folks following behind you on the learning wave. In other words, learn and teach as fast as you can turn it around; don't hang onto knowlege any longer than is absolutely necessary. Even before you have it completely figured out, share out the pieces you've got worked through in your own head, and then move on to the next thing that's new.

The second thing is uncompromising service in every interaction you have - where service is defined as understanding what the other person really needs from you (and not just what they say they need) and delivering it in a responsible (to them, to yourself, your team & the company) fashion.

There are certainly other ways that tech-geeks provide value. And both of these mentioned are big enough to warrant entire entries on each one alone. Maybe more. So I'll leave it at that for now. Mostly I just wanted to share the general idea. See how it sits. If you think I'm nuts, send an email to and tell me why. Better yet, share an alternative theory and let's see what we can make of it together.

Don't count on your technical expertise as your greatest asset. Instead, think of your ability to learn and teach whatever's new and deliver it through outstanding (responsible) customer service as a far more powerful one-two punch.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Networking for Dummies

So last night I went to a networking event - it was rather eye-opening. This was a reunion of a bunch of us who all used to work together. Whether or not you have any particular fondness for an old work environment or the people you spent time with there, there was no question that this was a lot of people that potentially could help each other out one way or another. Or hurt, depending on how the interactions went. It struck me that just working with a group of folks on a day to day basis not only is like that, but sets the stage for how an event like this, real, virtual, or completely imaginary, might play out.

I know some folks who didn't go because they never cared for the people much. Opportunities lost - or not; maybe they weren't needed. Some folks who didn't go because they aren't comfortable at these things. Too bad; a little discomfort never killed anyone and hey, it's really not that tough to learn how to at least APPEAR comfortable. Then there were folks who went and really didn't know anyone. That's when I started to understand something a little better. I found I knew quite a lot of people. Not only that but at least some of them seemed interested in how I was doing and what I was up to. Strange, because I don't exactly consider myself particularly social. Certainly I'm not entirely comfortable in that role anyway.

As the evening wore on, however, and I nursed my beer, I found myself remembering spouses and children's names, that someone else got their Master's degree, that someone else used to live south of the city instead of north like they do now, etc. I'm probably not going to win the Survivor challenge where you have to know all about your teammates but that having paid attention some time back really paid off. People felt more at ease talking with me as I asked them about the things that they cared about.

There's more to it though, than being able to make small talk or show an interest in another person or whatever you want to call it. More than one person has told me that part of why they don't like associating with people from the rest of the company is that those folks tend to make Tech Support folks feel like "Other". It's true that people from departments outside of ours tend to make it difficult to get along with them. But I have found that if I make an effort to get to know them as individuals, they do respond positively. I have made it a practice to get to know as many people as I could outside of my department right from the very beginning, and I always have felt that it makes a huge difference in my ability to work with those people and get what I need from them. It especially works when at least some of my interactions with them are NOT about having some request. Sometimes I've even joked about not needing anything from a person that day - that all I stopped by for was to say hello. It nearly always gets at least a chuckle.

See, the thing is, as soon as we're relating as individuals, it's harder to fit into that "Other" category. So naturally you're a step closer to working well together. This has worked within a single department, between departments within a company and also with people outside the company such as customers and third party vendors.

Oh, and by the way - not that you would, because you're the kind who probably despises slick-sounding sales types anyway, but don't even try to fake it; it doesn't work. People smell insincerity a long way off and it does NOT sell. Try just studying people and looking for things about them that you find interesting. For real.

In my case, it has always been sincere, and it has always paid off. Getting to know more folks paved the way for me to learn more as they were willing to share with me what they knew. As I became more knowledgeable, I earned my way into talking with even more technical folks and gaining an even greater understanding. More people knew who I was and I had more to offer technically and suddenly I was considered for positions I hadn't even considered previously. The seeking new positions and getting some of them gave me an opportunity to get to know more people and learn even more and the cycle continued. And for those that are primarily interested in technical knowledge, you might care to know that the coolest part of all of this was getting to play with newer and cooler technology every step of the way. That came from exercising people smarts, not just smarts.

The upshot? Getting to know people and showing a genuine interest in them improves working relationships. Improved working relationships makes getting work done easier. Having an easier time getting work done not only makes us more effective, it also makes doing the work more fun.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Finding the Good Stuff

Of course, the fun part of something like this is - where do I start? Day-to-day stuff seems best, as I do aim to be practical here. If you're an Tech Support person, talking with customers, how you talk with them is probably a good place to start. Even if you don't talk with external customers, you probably have to deal with people who at least some of the time seem like idiots and individually or collectively come to you with the same questions over and over.

That's annoying. But sounding annoyed to them doesn't go over too well. So what's a geek to do?
My first attempt at handling this problem was working one of the computer labs in college as work-study. My real job was supposed to be studying but I kept getting interrupted by people who didn't seem to know how to spell STOP with an o (oh) instead of a 0 (zero). so I got pretty good at looking for that particular problem and a few others that seemed to crop up regularly.

Long before David Letterman, I had a top ten list of likely problems which I then posted and proceeded to memorize the numbers I'd given each. I'd review their printout, and then in my surliest voice, I'd snap, "Look at number 2 - that's your trouble!" and then I'd go back to my studies or, more likely, bit-net conversations with buddies at other schools. It was great fun, it was efficient and... it didn't work out so great. Something about the surliness didn't go over so well. Somehow, truth is the best defense doesn't seem to apply to service situations.

When you look at it, though, there IS some usefulness to canned responses. If you listen to what comes out of your mouth... and then PAY ATTENTION to whether the other person responds favorably or not... you can re-use the good stuff. The "good stuff" here being defined as the stuff that tells the customer what you want them to know in a way that they go, "Cool! That's exactly what I need; you've been a huge help"... or at least grunts in a way that leads you to believe they're harboring similar thoughts.

Keep a list of what works. Save it for using over and over. It's a good thing.

If you know of a publicly available list of phrases that keep customers (and people who are sort of like customers even though they're not), send it to I'll post the link for others to use.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Getting Started

Why should anyone listen to what I have to say about surviving as a techie? Let me start by saying that for a number of years I worked in Tech Support. I'm sure I'll feel like writing more about that experience and what I learned from it soon but that's not the point here. The point is to give you an opportunity to say "blow-hard!" and run off to some other site. After all, when I taught flying, the people who swaggered in saying, "I've got ten years in a tail-dragger!" were the ones I learned I had to be the most suspicious of. That's another story. Maybe you can talk me into telling it sometime.

So, I might not be able to convince you in two paragraphs or less (can we make it three?) that I'm worth listening to, but I can try. Even though I wasn't the MOST technical in the bunch, I was probably top two-thirds. Good enough that other tech-types didn't run screaming when I walked up to ask a question. Sure, there were people who sometimes didn't think I knew what I was talking about but then it turns out that at least some of the time they were wrong. After a while, *I* got used to the idea that I knew what I was talking about - which turned out to be helpful when I had to tell network administrators that they had their networks set up wrong.

Except for establishing some level of credibility amongst a group of people (that would be you) that often cares ONLY about that, my technical ability is probably meaningless here. What should be more important is that I was able to say those kinds of things to network admins in ways that resulted in them going and reconfiguring their networks right so they didn't have to call me anymore; and if they did call again, they did whatever I asked because by that time, they thought I was god. And I was one of those people who got regular (and often fat) raises, had good relationships with my bosses, got to work on a lot of the cool projects, and almost always got to do what I wanted... let me also assure you that I did all those things without sucking up, without giving up who I am, and without selling out. In fact, people usually got to hear more about what I was thinking than even the most prolific whiner could dish out; not only that, but at least some of the time they took what I had to say and did something about it. Best of all, I started this blog because you can have all of that too - and probably more. If you want it.

These days, life is pretty unstable out there, especially in the tech world. Flat out, there are simply no guarantees - though that's probably always been true. However, if you want to be one of the ones who gets at least some of whatever raises might be available if your company is handing any out, I can probably help. Ditto for if you want to improve your chances you're NOT part of the next big lay-off... and feel better prepared to see it as an opportunity rather than a problem if you are. If you've got a pet project in mind that you've been dying to get permission to work on, or want to change the way you do your work, or what it is that you do, I can probably help there too. It'll be here for the reading.

Before I get into any of that, though, I have to also make a confession. Ultimately, I went over to the Dark Side and became a manager. I wasn't on some power kick. I just figured that after watching so many friends report to idiot managers that must've been templates for Scott Adams' manager in Dilbert, maybe I could help out by getting into it and doing a better job. I like to think I've succeeded; the number of people who have followed, or expressed a willingness to follow me, as I've moved around seems to be a testament to that. So the advantage here is that I've seen both sides. I know what it's like to work for a manager who gets it and also what it's like to report to ones who don't. I also know what it's like to manage geeks like you. Most importantly, I realize there are plenty of things that you should be aware of that managers either don't understand themselves, don't know how to tell you, or don't think it would help you to know. Maybe I can bridge that gap & make it better for everyone in the process.

I'll start by brain-dumping a topic or two at a time. If you feel like dropping me a line to ask I cover a specific area first, that's alright by me. Send it to and I'll use whatever you send as a jumping off point. The only thing I ask is that you keep it to stuff that you actually would be willing to read about and try to learn from - or suggestions you have for others based on what you've seen work. If you're not, then it's just whining and one thing I've never tolerated well is whiners. No whiners allowed!