Those are the three words that come to mind when I think of Jimmy Nelson.
Jimmy Nelson. Known to those of us in the art as, “The Dean of Ventriloquists”.
Jimmy Nelson passed away last night. He was 90.
Jimmy created the seminal ventriloquism educational record, “Instant Ventriloquism”. It was that record that taught so many this ancient artform. Among them, Jay Johnson, Jeff Dunham, and yours truly.
Of all of the many albums (and later CDs) in my collection, none were played as often nor listened to more attentively than that one.
I still have that record. It hangs on the wall in my office. Meeting Jimmy in person and having him sign that record was one of the stand-out moments in my life. To later reach the point where Jimmy knew me by name? Wow. Just wow.
Jimmy was a fixture at our annual conVENTion. He loved to encourage people in the study of ventriloquism. Being such an icon in our art, it was intimidating for many to approach him. Yet once you gathered the courage, you walked away feeling like you had just made a new friend for life – and you had. Jimmy had that way about him.
Jimmy was a true gentleman, an icon in our industry, and his legacy lives on.
God bless you, Jimmy. Thank you for all that you have given to the world. I am honored to have known you.
This statement is often used to challenge us to grow. I disagree.
Stepping out of our comfort zone is a bad idea.
When you are completely outside of your comfort zone, you are like a fish out of water. Have you ever seen what happens to a fish out of water? Right. They die.
You don’t have to completely abandon your comfort zone to grow. In fact, I would argue that if you stay inside of your comfort zone, you will grow faster.
Instead, work on making that comfort zone bigger.
Do you remember math class in school? If that was too long ago to remember, think about your kids.
Consider the progression of topics. You don’t learn basic math skills and then go directly to calculus. Each level of mathematics builds on the levels that preceded it.
Jumping from basic algebra to calculus is stepping out of your comfort zone. Going from algebra to geometry to functions to calculus is EXPANDING your comfort zone.
We learn best when we stretch our knowledge rather than forgetting all that has come before. Skipping steps, completely abandoning our comfort zone, is a path to frustration.
Have you ever learned to play an instrument? Perhaps the piano. When we learn to play the piano, we don’t start with Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella”, which is consistently ranked among the most difficult pieces to play.
No. A good piano teacher will start you out with the basics. Typically one learns to play one note at a time using one hand at a time. As you improve, new techniques are added, constantly stretching you, expanding your comfort zone.
This is the same with anything we do. Sure, there are times when we don’t get a choice. Sometimes we are thrown into the deep end of the pool before we are ready. But if we have expanded our comfort zone, we can draw on all that we have learned in other areas of our lives and apply it to the new situation, allowing us to stay afloat long enough to reach the ladder on the side of the pool.
If we are given a choice, though, it would have been much better to start in the shallow end and work our way up to it.
Where do you eat lunch? Are you a brown-bagger, a company cafeteria, or a go out somewhere – anywhere – to get your lunch kind of person?
My office/studio is in the basement of my house. When lunch time strikes, I simply walk upstairs to the kitchen. Most days I make a sandwich. On really good days, that sandwich is made from leftover meatloaf. Mmmmm…
Regardless of what goes on the sandwich, I have found that toasting the bread makes the sandwich way better.
It’s a simple thing. Take the bread from the bag, pop it in the toaster, and gather the rest of the ingredients while it reaches that perfect golden brown color, filling the kitchen with the wonderful aroma of toasted bread.
When I really want to splurge, I pull out the George Foreman grill, turning that simple sandwich into a delicious panini.
Either of these simple steps make an otherwise boring sandwich feel more like a meal.
When I travel to gigs, I often pack a sandwich. It’s OK. But it’s just not as good as when the bread is toasted, or the sandwich is grilled.
It occurred to me that our offices are like sandwiches. The same thing every day. But with just a little bit of extra effort our work environment can become a lot better.
What is it like where you work? Is your office more like a boring old sandwich? Does it feel like the same thing every day? Do you say hello to the same people in the same order as you walk to your desk in the morning? Do you know exactly where every one of you officemates keeps their trash cans, making it easy to drop your random bits as you wander the halls?
Do the days all blend together, feeling no different from the rest?
Or do you live in a toaster-fueled office? A place where people make that little extra effort to make things more enjoyable.
It doesn’t take much.
Maybe it’s the guy in the cube around the corner who enjoys putting a “Word for the Day” on a small whiteboard outside his cubicle. Maybe it’s the person who wears a different team jersey every Friday during football season. Maybe it’s the one who brought in the lava lamp for its joyous randomness.
What little steps can you take to make your work environment more fun?
Look for ways you can spice up your boring old sandwich. Whether it is simply toasting the bread, or going all in on a panini, look for small things you can do to mix things up and add a bit of fun.
I recently released a new video to the world. (Click on the image above to see it.) It was a challenging project. It took a heck of a lot of time. And it was incredibly fun to do.
By my best estimation, that under-4-minute video took me approximately 90 hours to produce over the course of 4 weeks. That’s a lot of time.
Why did I do it?
I got that question a lot from my friends who knew what I was doing.
Often my pithy answer to the question of “Why?” is, “Why not?”
Or its cousin, “Because I could”.
Neither of those is the correct answer in this case.
Why not? There were many reasons for why not. The foremost being the aspect of priorities. Devoting the time I did to this project meant NOT using that time to do other things that in many regards could be seen as being more important.
What about, “Because I could”?
This project stretched me in ways that made it clear that “Because I could” was not an accurate answer. Had I had cameras rolling during the early stages, the footage would have made for a laugh-out-loud blooper reel. (Maybe I’ll do that on the next one…)
Which brings us to the real reason and that was to answer the question, “Can I?“
I did not know if I could pull it off. I didn’t know if I could actually sing all of the voices. I didn’t know if I could accomplish the video recording and editing components of getting all of the characters to appear on the screen at the same time. I didn’t know whether I would have the courage to release it to the world once it was done.
Have you ever taken on a project or task just to find out whether you were capable of doing it? How did it go? What conclusion did you draw from the experience?
Sometimes when we push ourselves our attempts end up in flames – literally. If you enjoy challenging yourself in the kitchen, then you know what I mean.
If we are going to challenge ourselves, we have to be ready for the answer to the question, “Can I?”, to be, “No!” I have certainly had my share of “No!” answers.
Many times the answer is not a definitive, “No!”, but rather a more gentle, “Not yet.”
Regardless of the answer, the act of finding out, the process of challenging ourselves, is worth the time to explore. We learn a lot in the act of trying. Often we learn things we did not anticipate. Sometimes the end result is not what we originally set out to create and sometimes that result is better than what we imagined in the first place.
Is there something niggling in your brain waiting for you to discover the answer to, “Can I?” What is holding you back from finding out the answer?
Allow yourself the gift of doing it wrong. Afraid it’s going to go up in flames? Set out a fire extinguisher close by and give it a shot anyway.
Has anyone ever told you those platitudes in response to some great loss you have experienced? Do you find them as annoying as I do?
Sometimes stuff happens that just plain sucks. It never stops hurting. I don’t care how good the lemonade is.
I started my career as a software engineer. I worked hard to be the best software engineer I could be. I loved the work. I loved the challenge of crafting tight code to do really cool things. I loved pretty much everything about being a software engineer. It was like getting paid to solve puzzles. How cool is that?
And then, something happened.
My hands gave out. I won’t go into the details. They’re not important. Bottom line is, I typed too fast for too long and I was in pain. A lot of pain. Pain that drove me to see a slew of doctors in search of relief.
After more doctors than I can remember, the quest for a cure came to an end with this conversation with a highly regarded specialist:
Doctor: There’s nothing I can do for you. Me: How do I make it stop hurting? Doctor: Stop typing. Me: That’s what I do. That’s my job. Doctor: Get a new job.
Just like that. Simple. Matter of fact.
I was angry. But I also came to appreciate his clear statement of what needed to happen next.
So I did what the doctor suggested. I got a new job. And eventually, it stopped hurting. At least physically.
I was not happy about the need to make this change. There were many days and nights of asking, “Why did this happen?” and “Why me?”
Finally, though, my engineering training kicked in. It was clear that knowing the answers to those questions would not make a difference in where I went next. I could not undo the injury. Knowing why at this stage was pointless.
The only question that mattered was, “What now?”
I was extremely fortunate to work for a company that supported me through the transition. I was able to change jobs without changing companies. The change even opened up a whole new career path.
The company provided adaptive equipment that allowed me to do the much smaller amount of computer input needed in the new role. They changed door handles on restrooms for me because I was no longer able to grasp and turn a round doorknob without excruciating pain. They were amazing.
Despite this support, I was still frustrated.
It felt to me like I was living an extension to the old joke, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, manage.”
(Side note: This old joke is not at all fair to teachers. Teachers rock!)
As a manager I had a much broader impact than I ever did as a software engineer.
Climbing the corporate ladder was certainly good for my income, too. My new career far exceeded anything I ever imagined.
You could say that lemonade was made. You might even argue that this was a reason that the injury happened.
But, you know what?
It still pains me that I had to stop being a software engineer. Even now, I long for the days of solving puzzles, writing code, creating cool things.
That ladder climbing career change also enabled me to do what I do now – run my own business, spreading joy and laughter wherever it is needed. What I do now has even broader impact than being a manager.
Again, you could argue that is a reason all of this happened.
That doesn’t stop me from feeling the pain of loss.
What bad stuff has happened in your life?
Have you been able to move forward in a new direction?
Can you see that it might even be a better direction?
In most cases, trying to figure out why the bad stuff happened is a fruitless exercise. “Why did this happen?” is the wrong question on which to focus.
What matters is, “What now?”
You don’t have to let go of the pain. It’s going to hurt. It might hurt for a very long time. The pain might never go away.
But you can move on. You can move forward.
Forget about making lemonade. Don’t waste your time trying to discern the reason.
Last week my daughter treated me to a day at COSI, the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus’ science museum. It was a belated Father’s Day gift and well worth the wait. The main attraction was a special exhibit: “Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited”.
We both greatly enjoyed this exhibit, remembering fondly the many things brought to life by this singularly creative individual.
“Singularly Creative Individual”. That is exactly what struck me the most as we went through the exhibit. Yes, these creations all came from “The Jim Henson Company.” Clearly, Jim Henson was the driving force behind them. But the Muppets and all of the rest of these fantastical creations were not done by one singular individual. They were brought to life by a team.
If there is one thing that I took away from this exhibit it is the importance of colleagues, friends, and collaborative partners.
While the Muppets would not be what they are without Jim Henson, they also would not be what they are without Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl and Jane Henson.
It was through the collaborative genius of these colleagues that we have the Muppets as we know them today. “Sesame Street”, “The Muppet Show“, “The Muppet Movie“, and “Fraggle Rock” all exist because of the partnership and underlying friendship of these individuals.
During my time in corporate America, the best times were when I had that kind of collaborative, collegial working relationships. The kind of relationship where you eagerly celebrate your collective successes, while also being able to tell each other when they are full of crap.
I often find myself jealous of those who have been able to sustain that level of deep, connected partnership through decades.
Have you seen the biopic movie about Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody”? There is a scene where Freddie gets back with his “Queen” bandmates after a somewhat failed attempt at going solo. To paraphrase, Freddie says, “I had plenty of studio musicians who did exactly what I asked them to do. And that was the problem. I need you guys to tell me when I’m wrong.”
Like any partnership, I’m sure there were times at The Jim Henson Company when the team did not all agree. I’m sure there were spirited debates and challenging conversations. These were not well represented in the exhibit. But, put more than one creative person together in a room and there are bound to be disagreements.
And that’s OK.
True creative types thrive on different ideas.
Do you have a collaborative partner in your work or life? If so, celebrate!
Do you have the beginnings of such a relationship? Nurture it!
Find a friend. Find a person with whom you can give and take; push and be pushed.
To be a singularly creative individual takes more than one person.
That sign hung in the company fitness center. The message was meant to be inspirational to those who came to workout in the gym. I’m sure many took it the way it was intended. I wasn’t one of them.
For some of us, it was yet another implication that we did not belong there.
Have you ever walked into a gym and felt completely intimidated? Perhaps you avoid the gym altogether.
That’s a shame. Stick with me, though. This post is not about exercise. I’m not here to guilt anyone into (re)starting a physical exercise regimen.
Intimidation is not isolated to the gym. It happens everywhere. Do you remember starting a new job? Walking into a new classroom in school? Attending a social function where you felt less-than?
Have you ever wished you could play a musical instrument? Perhaps the guitar, the piano, or the ukulele. What’s holding you back? What is preventing you from starting?
I would venture to guess that at least part of the resistance comes from feeling intimidated. How could I do that? Look at that person there who is so good. I could never play like that.
Maybe that’s true. Chances are pretty good that you’ll never be able to play the guitar like Eric Clapton.
It is easy to feel it is pointless to pursue an interest when we compare ourselves to masters in the craft we are considering.
Pursue it anyway.
Start where you are.
Rather than be intimidated by those who are masters in your area of interest, see their current level as an indication of what is possible. Maybe. Someday. Instead of intimidation, use their example as inspiration.
Realize that “heavy” is a relative term. If you’re just starting out in the gym, a 5 pound dumbbell might seem heavy. Great! Start there!
If you’re just starting out on the piano, the C scale is pretty heavy. Great! Start there!
After you’ve mastered that, build the weight. On the piano, add the other hand. Two hands at once. Whoa! That’s heavy! Keep going.
Wherever you are in your pursuit, keep going. Keep adding weight. Make it heavier for you. Remember that what is heavy for you is different than what is heavy for someone else. And that’s OK.
Have you lost your spark? Is it a struggle to keep your engine running?
I have long had a love/hate relationship with gas fueled lawn tools. Specifically, those that have 2-cycle engines. Leaf blowers, edge trimmers (aka weed whackers), etc.
I love these tools when they are new. They fire right up when you pull the starter cord, run smoothly, and do their jobs. It’s easy to feel like Tim the tool man Taylor as you wield these things around the property.
After a while, though, they start to bog down. It gets harder to start them. They bog down when you pull the trigger to rev the engine. They conk out mid task and refuse to restart again until they’ve sat for a while.
Do you ever feel like that?
You start a new job, or even just a new project. At the beginning, it is exciting. You are jazzed. Each day is a new thrill. You happily go about your days and power through whatever lies before you. Bring it on!
Then, after a while, you start to bog down. It gets harder to get started in the morning. Some days you give up half way through the day and just can’t get going again.
Maybe you need a tune-up. Maybe you just need some fresh fuel.
At a friend’s encouraging, I spent some time this spring doing more maintenance than usual on my collection of gas-powered lawn tools. Each one got fitted with a new spark plug, a new air filter, and a new fuel filter.
As I replaced these on each of the tools, they showed a range of wear and tear. One was clearly way overdue for this tune-up. Another could have gone another year at least. Still another was somewhere in between. I replaced the parts across the board regardless.
Oddly enough, the visible signs of wear on the tool was not a good indicator of how well it ran at the end of last season. They had all reached a pretty consistent level of (un)reliability.
I expected this maintenance work to be complicated. It wasn’t. And the parts were cheap. It didn’t even take all that long to do.
If you’ve ever dealt with 2-cycle engines, you know that these tools require a special blend of gasoline and oil. You have to get the ratio right. Some are 40:1 and some are 50:1. It’s not hard. You start with one gallon of gas and add in the appropriate container of oil, which comes pre-sized for the blend.
The biggest challenge with this blended fuel is that it has a relatively short shelf life. Most manufacturers recommend using the fuel within 1 month. I don’t know of any homeowner who goes through a full gallon of this blended fuel in that short of time. Most of us don’t go through a gallon in a whole season.
From all I have read and heard, continuing to use the blended fuel beyond its recommended shelf life causes the most issues with these tools. Check it out yourself. What you’ll find is that the very first step people recommend for getting 2-cycle engines working again is to empty out the tool’s gas tank and add fresh fuel. Actually fresh fuel that you have just mixed, not the stuff left over from last year.
The other predominant advice from people who work on small engines is that ethanol is really bad for these tools. They all recommend using gasoline that does not contain any ethanol. That is difficult to find at the pumps.
So, having made the effort to do this maintenance, I also decided to spring for fresh fuel. And not just any old gasoline, I sprang for the premixed version that is now readily available anywhere they sell these power tools. No ethanol. And a rated shelf life of two years.
The result of all of this effort? My lawn tools are running great. They fire right up and keep running.
How about you? What can you do to give yourself a spring tune-up? Maybe all you need is some fresh fuel.
Remember the joy of new school supplies? Remember the excitement that came with a fresh package of pencils and erasers, a new notebook, a brand new lunch bag?
Maintenance doesn’t need to be difficult. I was amazed how easy it was to replace the spark plugs in my tools. What are some simple things you can do to generate a fresh spark in your work and life?
Harry Callahan, aka Dirty Harry, aka Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force
What are your limitations? Where do you draw the line?
Many years ago, when I was a low level executive with AOL, I had a conversation with my new boss where I laid out my limitations. I was based in Columbus, OH, with teams in both Columbus and Reston, VA. There had been increasing pressure for me to move to Reston. In my first meeting with a newly hired boss, I told him, “There’s something you need to know. I am not interested in moving. I will travel to the point of pain, but I’m not going to move.”
He reminded me of that conversation years later when I discussed taking a sabbatical (technically a leave of absence…). He asked, “What happened to traveling to the point of pain?” My response, “I’ve crossed the pain threshold.”
Side note: This second conversation is a great example of what made this particular boss one of the best I have had. He remembered things in great detail and did his best to accommodate his people’s needs, while still meeting the needs of the organization. The fact that he recalled my exact words from years before spoke volumes. Can your boss do that? Can you?
Business travel is one of those things I no longer enjoy. At least not if it involves airports. I’ll gladly drive 8 hours one way to avoid the hassles of air travel. This past January I drove to Olewein, IA, for a gig. That trip was 10 hours of drive time each way. Even in the middle of January, driving it was preferable to air travel.
That is my limitation. What’s yours?
It wasn’t always like this. I used to enjoy business travel. I enjoyed flying to San Jose’ every couple months to meet with the staff there who reported to me. I enjoyed the almost weekly trips to Virginia. It was exciting. I traveled so often I was on a first name basis with the woman in the Avis rental car booth at Dulles airport. (Hi, Marlena! How are you?)
Now? I get anxious just opening the airline ticketing web site. Ugh.
How about you? Is there something that you used to enjoy, but now dread? Has your line moved? Do you have different limitations than you once did?
Be aware of your limitations.
Feeling stressed? Maybe you’re bumping up against one of your limits. Maybe it’s a limit you didn’t know was there. Step back. Look around. Give it some thought.
If you’ve discovered a limitation, whether it is new or longstanding, what can you do to deal with it? Is there an alternative?
Sometimes all we need is a break. In my case, when I returned after my sabbatical, the pain of air travel had receded. It took years for it to return to its current level of abhorrence. And it is only when traveling for business. Vacation? Sure! Let’s go! Business? No thanks. I’d rather drive.
Take the time to look at your stress levels. Dig in. Look for the cause. It’s probably not what you think. You might think your boss is being a jerk. More likely they are asking you to cross one of your limit lines.
Know your limitations. Find a way to break through them, or a way around. Step one is the same: identification.
12 years ago, I walked away from my day job for the first time.
In the summer of 2007, I walked away from a corporate job. It was a good job. Corner office. Ridiculous salary. Great people.
Why? I couldn’t take it anymore.
Every day I went to work thinking, “This is it. This is the day they figure out I’m not worthy. This is the day they tell me they’re on to me. A big faker. Your services are no longer required. Pack your boxes. You’re done here.”
That feeling had been building for a long time. It was a slowly festering anxiety that continued to build day after day after day.
I now know it to have a name: Imposter Syndrome.
And like many who suffer from it, it was untrue.
It wasn’t until I started conversations with my boss about leaving that I recognized the falsehood. To paraphrase the conversation with my boss…
Me: It’s time for me to go.
Boss: Only if you let us take you out to dinner and celebrate all that you have done here.
It didn’t matter that I got great reviews every year during the annual performance evaluations. It didn’t matter that I was continuously given more responsibility and a steady stream of promotions. It didn’t matter that I always got my bonus. Always. Every day I walked in expecting to get the proverbial pink slip.
Can you relate?
Do you feel like you are faking it, hoping someday you’ll make it? Do you feel like you’ve built a fragile house of cards that is going to collapse at any moment?
It’s a horrible way to go through life.
Even stars are prone to this inner turmoil. In her iconic Oscar acceptance speech, Sally Field said, “You like me. Right now, you like me!”
This is often misquoted as, “You like me! You really like me!”
Ah, if only she had actually said that.
The misquoted version implies closure, a sense of finally achieving a sense of belonging, reaching a point of no return, knowing that you have finally made it and it can’t be taken away.
Instead, the actual quote captures the ongoing struggle.
“Right now, you like me.”
These words capture the still lingering angst that it is a temporary victory.
Right now you like me, but tomorrow I’m going to do something to screw it all up and we’ll go back to you not really liking me after all.
I wish I had great words of wisdom that would quell those inner doubts. I wish I could close out this post with a pithy phrase that would make it all go away.
All I can offer is that you are not alone. Hang in there. Keep going.
Chances are good that your fears are unfounded. Odds are that you really are worthy. People do like you. They really like you. Just as you are. You don’t need a trophy on the shelf to make that a reality.