How do you view your job description? Do you see it as a well-defined set of expectations to stay within? Or do you see it as a starting point?
Let me tell you a story…
There is an old trick that is done by many magicians, especially those who perform for kids, called, “The Magic Coloring Book”.
In this trick, the magician shows a children’s coloring book. The magician flips through the book, showing all pages are blank, with only the outline of the image yet to be colored in on each page. After some hand and wand waving, they then flip through the book showing that all of the pages have been magically colored in.
An acquaintance of mine, who is a talented and highly regarded magician, released a new version of this trick. As with all good magic trick marketing, he posted a video demonstration of how this looks to the audience.
In his presentation, he brings a couple kids on stage with him to help with the trick. He has them wave large prop crayons at the book. After this initial waving, he flips through the book showing that the pages have been colored in wild scribbles.
Horrors! They’ve made a mess of the coloring book! How dare they scribble! Let’s all laugh about that.
He then has them wave the crayons again, and POOF!, the pages are now colored neatly, with all markings contained within the lines of the pictures.
Isn’t that wonderful?
My reaction to this presentation was visceral. I was appalled that a fellow entertainer, especially one I hold in such high esteem, would criticize kids for coloring outside the lines. How can an artist criticize others for thinking beyond the confines of what society has dictated?
OK, so maybe I was overreacting just a bit.
Or, maybe not.
We are constantly being told to stay within the lines when we color, while at the same time being encouraged to, “think outside the box”.
And that brings us back to the job description.
How do you go about your job? Do you stay within the lines? Do you view the duties and expectations as outer limits?
What if we looked at our job description as a guideline, a starting point? What if we were willing to step outside the basic requirements that are listed on that HR document and do more?
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.
The full quote is, “Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”
Walt Disney’s motivation for this quote was about business. Deliver a quality product and people will come back again and again.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying something along a similar vein.
“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
This quote has been simplified over the years to become the adage, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Both of these quotes speak to the value of doing good work. If we do good work, we will be rewarded – monetarily.
That’s fine. But is that the only thing that motivates you?
I have a different perspective.
To me, the highest reward we receive for being good at our craft is getting to hang around others who are good at theirs.
We earn a seat at the table.
It’s a whole lot more fun to hang around with people who are good at doing what they do.
Do you remember playing games on the elementary school playground? Do you recall how teams were determined?
Two team captains were appointed; usually by general consensus. Then those two captains would take turns selecting individuals to be on their teams.
When were you selected? First? Somewhere in the middle? Last?
It was never fun to be selected last. Believe me, I know.
Do you play a sport? If you are an avid golfer, do you enjoy playing with a horrible duffer?
Maybe tennis is your thing. Maybe you’re pretty good at it. Is it any fun at all to play with someone who isn’t?
While sports are an easy metaphor to help us understand the concept, this same thing plays out at work.
When we are truly excellent at our craft, we want to hang around with others who are excellent at theirs. Our crafts do not need to be the same. But our levels within our area do.
It is frustrating to be held back by people around us who are fumbling about.
Yes, we can expect to be better compensated when we “do it well”. But, even more important, it is more fun – because we earn the right to be with others who also do it well.
How do you spend your time when traveling for business?
Do you frantically check, recheck, and respond to email? Are you constantly on the phone, coordinating the latest project, or averting the latest crisis?
I’ve seen all kinds of crazy behaviors at airports. People who are clearly caught up in their own self-importance, who can’t let go.
I’ve been all kinds of crazy at airports and continuing onto the flight.
Long before the days of iPhones, I had a PDA. A PalmPilot, with its nifty stylus and hand writing recognition. I even had a portable keyboard for my PalmPilot.
This keyboard allowed me to write documents while on cross-country airplane trips without needing to use the heavy laptops of the day.
I remember when iPods came along. The ability to carry your entire music library in your pocket! What a joy!
Somewhere along the way, I realized that the quality of work that resulted from my vain attempts to be productive even during travel time was so low that it was essentially pointless.
I switched to carrying a thin Moleskine notebook and a pen for those flashes of brilliance that came along during travel. Those flashes happened often enough to justify the price of official Moleskine notebooks, yet infrequently enough that a single notebook would last a couple months.
The big ah-ha that came along with this shift was that I am much happier. I arrive at my destination with far less stress. While I can’t say that I enjoy travel by air, letting go of this compulsion to “make the most of the time” has allowed me to at least tolerate the travel.
Ironically, letting go of a need to “work” while traveling has actually turned out to be a more effective use of the time.
Using the travel time to do nothing, while not quite recharging the batteries, has had the effect of allowing the batteries to not drain during that time.
Try it sometime. Maybe even on your next trip.
Give yourself a travel day (and one to get back). Do nothing other than transporting yourself from point A to point B.
See if you don’t arrive in better spirits, able to accomplish more overall than when you were frantically “working” the whole time.
Do you panic? Do you completely freak out? Do you shut down?
I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines. I do my best work under the pressure of a looming deadline, and yet I hate that pressure.
Do you know people who are always prepared well ahead of time for everything? Me too. I hate those people.
OK, so “hate” is too strong a word. I simply don’t understand them. I’ve never been that kind of person. I procrastinate. Constantly. If I were told I must procrastinate, I’d find an excuse to put it off until tomorrow, or next week.
Then, as that new date approached, I would be the best procrastinator you ever met.
Or, at least that’s what I would tell myself.
I sing in the choir at our church. This is a relatively new experience for me. I was in a choir only once before. I didn’t enjoy the experience and it didn’t last long. This time it is completely different. I love being in this choir. So much so that when we have a week off from rehearsal, I miss it.
Our director is amazing. She is a highly skilled musician and an excellent teacher. But, what I most appreciate is her steadfast, calm, persistence as we struggle to step up to sing music well beyond our comfort level.
This year as we were preparing our anthems for Easter, it was clear we were being pushed in our musical ability. Our director is not a procrastinator like me. However, I definitely felt that we should have started learning these pieces much sooner than we did.
As the deadline of Easter Sunday drew near, it seemed like we would be better off starting over with something easy. But, she persisted. Calmly. Steadily.
Each week at rehearsal, our director comes in with her notes on specific spots that are particularly problematic in whatever we are currently preparing. Usually, this is a few well-spaced passages in the music. In this case, it was pretty much the whole thing.
And yet still, she persisted.
And we went along.
Slowly, steadily, it got better.
Easter came. We pulled it off. An Easter miracle.
It wasn’t perfect. But, it was certainly acceptable. Maybe even good. Perhaps a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1-10.
What deadline do you have looming? Are you in panic mode? Are you feeling like you should just throw out your lofty goal and start over with something easy?
Hang in there.
Be like our choir director: steady, calm, persistent.
In today’s rambling blog post, we’ll cover the following topics:
Leasing vs buying
Ongoing employee education
Stick with me. They’re all related.
Lease vs Buy
Do you lease your cars, or buy them outright? I’ve never been a fan of leasing. I tend to keep my cars a long time; 10 years is about average. I buy them new, take good care of them (mechanically, anyway), and drive them until they no longer serve my needs.
I don’t completely drive them into the ground, but they are clearly a used car by the time I replace them. I love not having a car payment. Leasing simply doesn’t make sense to me from a financial perspective.
How about your home? Do you prefer to rent or buy?
I much prefer to own my home.
Maybe you own a condo? Maybe when I no longer enjoy mowing the lawn this will be attractive to me.
For now, I prefer as much physical separation between my house and the neighbor’s as possible. I also like to change things in my house to suit my tastes, without needing to negotiate with a landlord for permission. And I like the idea that what I put into the house I will likely get back.
As an owner, I feel I have more to gain from ongoing maintenance and improvements. When I rented apartments, anything I spent on improvements felt like throwing my money away.
Even if you don’t follow professional golf, you’ve probably heard the name Phil Mickelson.
I live in Dublin, OH, a Columbus suburb. Dublin is the home of the annual Memorial Tournament, a regular stop on the PGA tour. As you can imagine, this annual event is the topic of much of the local news media during the weeks leading up to the event, through a final recap once it has ended.
One of my favorite “interest” pieces from years ago was about Phil Mickelson and his propensity to drive his rental cars through the car wash, usually every day. In the article, Phil said it makes him feel better to drive a clean car.
I’ve rented many cars in my travels. I have never once driven one through the car wash. I’m not even that fastidious with my own vehicles.
Rumors abound that Apple is moving to a model of streaming-only for music that it sells. According to these rumors, there will come a day when they will no longer allow you to download music, only stream it.
The idea, like Spotify, is that you don’t own the music. Rather, you pay for access to it. I’d call this leasing. If you stop paying, you lose access.
You’ve probably guessed that I am not a fan of this concept. While I enjoy listening to the music I’ve purchased on my phone, iPod, and other portable devices, I find comfort in knowing that the original CD is still available to me in a box buried in the basement.
There’s something about having the tangible media. Like many audiophiles of my generation, playing a record was a ritual involving meticulous care of the record, cleaning on every use, and careful storage.
Unlike many of my more persnickety music lovers, I eagerly embraced the transition from vinyl to CD. However, I am strongly resisting any effort to remove the ability to “own” a copy of the music I love.
I am warming to the idea of that copy being only in the digital domain, with no physical media to back it up. But, I do require a copy that I can manage. I am not OK with a leasing model that only provides access to the music, and that only works with an active Internet connection. Maybe someday.
Ongoing employee education
And now the fun part – relating all of that to work and ongoing employee education.
Do you lease or buy your employees?
(As an employee, how do you see yourself?)
As with a car, neither leased nor purchased vehicles are forever. Sure, some people drive their vehicles to the point where they have no useful life when they’re done with them. But, at some point, most vehicles need to be replaced.
Likewise, employees. Whether your employees leave to move on to other places, or retire, at some point that employee will no longer be there.
Most people I know tend to maintain their vehicles better if they purchase rather than lease them. Same goes for our homes. If we own it, we tend to take better care of the property.
If you lease your vehicle, do you still perform routine maintenance? I certainly hope so. Maybe you don’t worry so much about minor dings and scratches. But, surely you keep up with oil changes and new tires.
Most employers I have experience with do a far better job of training and providing ongoing education for their employees when they view them as “purchased” rather than “leased”.
In more typical business lingo:
Purchased = Full-time permanent. Long term.
Leased = Contractor. Consultant. Temporary. Short term.
Some employers I’ve encountered treat all their workers as if they are temporary, only guaranteed until the next paycheck. They rarely provide ongoing education that would move people ahead. They often resist doing even routine maintenance that would keep their employees’ skills at par.
Oddly enough, these same employers tend to be the ones who are baffled by high employee turnover. And they are the ones who struggle the most to find what they consider to be qualified employees.
Even if you view your employees as “rented”, do you drive them through the car wash on a regular basis?
My philosophy has always been to provide as much ongoing education as possible. I enjoy working with people who are up on their skills, engaged, pushing themselves and those around them. It’s more fun, like Phil driving a car that has been freshly washed.
Many of my corporate job peers have gotten upset when they made an investment in training, only to have that person leave for another opportunity. Certain employers I’ve worked for have suggested having employees repay the cost of education if they leave within some period of time after the training.
The reality is, changing jobs is a complicated equation.
It is the manager’s job to create an environment that is supportive yet challenging, that makes people want to stay. Ongoing education is simply one part of a supportive environment. It makes people better at their job. It makes them more fun to work with.
How do you treat your employees?
How does your employer treat you?
Rather than ask, “What if we invest money in employee training and they leave?”
I love watching people who are skilled at their craft.
The scene from “The Princess Bride” quoted above is a perfect example. Two highly skilled swordsmen in an epic duel. Both such masters of their blades that they make it look easy.
I recently had a front row seat at a concert by Ellis Marsalis and his trio. Ellis Marsalis is a jazz pianist and the patriarch of the well known Marsalis clan. Perhaps you’ve heard of his more popular sons Branford and Winton, or the younger Delfeayo and Jason.
The concert was an evening of awesome music and performance. Ellis is well known in the jazz world for his smooth style at the piano. At 84 years old, he can barely walk. But, when his hands start moving over the keys, you forget that he needed assistance to get to his position on the piano bench.
He makes it look easy.
If someone had said, “You are wonderful,” he would have been justified in responding, “Thank you; I’ve worked hard to become so.”
What is it that you do that elicits that statement?
I’ll bet that there are things you have done for so long that you find them to be easy to do and that you have forgotten how long you worked to become proficient. With most things we do on a regular basis, once we become good at them, we forget that it was ever hard. Take walking for example. Or riding a bike.
There’s a fun saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The concept of that saying is that when we have mastered a particular tool or technique, we tend to apply that tool or technique as our first choice for anything we encounter.
What’s the go-to tool in your toolbox?
There’s nothing wrong with this “everything looks like a nail” approach. When we have great skills in a particular thing, it makes sense to apply those skills.
The problem arises when we become so enamored by someone else’s mastery of their particular tool of choice that we forget that isn’t the only way to accomplish the task.
Each of the Marsalis brothers plays a different instrument. Imagine if they all thought they had to create music the same way as their dad.
And yet, that’s exactly how we often think. We see someone who is good at artistic painting, or sewing, or creating masterful Excel spreadsheets. We can’t do those specific things, so we feel “less than.”
Often, this gets exacerbated by the Excel expert who thinks the only way to do, well, pretty much anything, is by using Excel. So, everything they show you involves a spreadsheet. If you’re not good with that tool, the job becomes harder and wrought with frustration.
Go back to the original objective. What are you trying to accomplish? How is that “expert” using their tool of choice to accomplish it? What are your skills? How could you apply what you are good at to accomplish your goal?
There are many ways to attach two pieces of lumber together. A hammer and nails is only one of them.
In music, the variety of instruments makes the music better. We all need more cowbell. But, even that has its limits.
Use your tools. Make it look easy.
You are wonderful. You’ve worked hard to become so.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to saving money?
For my wife and I, coffee is a big one. We make our own coffee, but we are particular about the brands that we like. It’s not always Starbucks, although that is our go-to favorite. We’ve experimented with cheaper brands. Every time, though, we come to the same conclusion: it’s worth it to us to spend a little bit more for the brands we like. So we watch for sales and stock up when we can.
Being just the two of us in our house now, we also tend to spend more for smaller packaging rather than buying the mega-packs that would be cheaper on a per unit basis. We view it as paying the stores to store the excess for us. We’ll come back and pick it up as we need it, thank you.
There is something satisfying about being able to spring for life’s little luxuries. These are different for everybody.
For some people, it’s Charmin ultra soft toilet paper. Maybe it’s Jeni’s Ice Cream. Or, perhaps it’s that specific type of ballpoint pen, medium tip, black ink, that only comes in 5-packs and can only be found at that one store.
I am fond of good quality legal pads. White paper. College ruled. Somehow writing on them just feels better. It makes the ideas that get scribbled there seem more important.
I could go on and on about my personal choices for which things I find worth spending a bit more vs. where I am willing to go with the cheaper brand. You might get a laugh out of the list. You would likely disagree with many of the choices.
What matters more, though, are the choices that you make. Only you can determine those items that are important to you.
If you are a compulsive saver, uber frugal, who finds pleasure in how much you save by buying in bulk, go for it. If you are fine with plain old stick pens, have at it. I am not suggesting you do otherwise.
However, I do think it is important to identify those areas where treating yourself, even if only occasionally, is valuable. It sends a signal to your brain that you value your self, that you see yourself as being worth it. And you are.
So, go ahead. Throw caution to the wind. Buy yourself the extra-bright colored super-sticky 3M brand Post-It Notes.