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?
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.
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.
How do you respond when things are not going your way?
Do you sit down and pout? Do you pick up your toys and go home? Do you actively throw a fit?
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read, #RESIST.
Combined with the other stickers on that car, it was clear what they were resisting. Since this blog is not about politics, I won’t include the rest.
This blog is about making work fun.
I’ve seen this same approach at work. We don’t get the promotion we were seeking. We are part of an interview team to select our new manager, but our preferred candidate is not the one who gets the job. New policies go into place that we don’t like. There is a rearrangement of office space and we are not happy with the changes.
(Side note: I used to say that if the biggest complaint my staff had on a given day was their office, I was doing pretty well as a boss.)
Some people deal with disappointments by resisting. They do everything they can to try to subvert the decision. They go around every day as if they had the hashtag #RESIST tattooed on their forehead.
So, what should we do instead? Allow me to suggest an alternate hashtag.
Don’t like your new boss? Ask yourself, how long did the old one last? I don’t know about you, but in my career, I have outlasted a lot of bosses.
Don’t like a new policy? Why not? Is it just because it’s different? Or is it really going to be an issue for you?
Do you have a better idea? Perhaps you can suggest an alternative. Politely. Through proper channels. Start by understanding the reason for the change.
Work environments, like much in life, are often like a pendulum swinging. In order to fix something that isn’t working, it is sometimes necessary to swing the pendulum to the other side for a while. Eventually, it will come back again.
Ever tried a crash diet? Yeah. Like that.
I have yet to find a workplace that is a democracy. Good leaders do want to hear from the staff and create a good work environment. But most things are not decided by a vote. Input, yes. Vote, no. Get over it.
You do have a choice. Sure, you can sit down and pout. You can silently refuse to do your job, or decide you’re going to do it half-assed as a means of protest. I guarantee you, the only one who will feel the pain from that is YOU. If you choose this path, get your resume ready. You’ll need it.
Of course, getting your resume together is another option. If you really can’t stand the current situation, you do have the option to seek something else somewhere else.
(Side note: You should ALWAYS have your resume ready. Not just for the unexpected bad turn of events, but also for the unexpected once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might present itself.)
Persistence isn’t about “sit down, shut up and put up”. It is about looking out for yourself in a positive way. Sometimes that does involve putting up with a situation you do not like. More often it means finding a way to adapt, either by making a change to yourself, your attitude, or the situation.
Persistence is about staying power.
In sports, it is doing the extra reps even when you are exhausted. As a software engineer, it was writing those extra lines of code before breaking for lunch. As a manager, it was communicating changes to my staff with a positive outlook even when I, personally, did not agree.
And some days, it is about simply making it through another day.
If you are feeling the urge to #RESIST, turn that energy around and apply it in a positive direction.
In my previous post, I shared my view on the latest scandal around college admissions – bulldozer (or lawnmower, or snowplow…) parents.
This time I’m going to take on the issue of bulldozer bosses.
Have you ever experienced a bulldozer boss? Have you ever been one?
It is critical in the development of a child to allow them to experience failure – and to know the joy of pulling yourself out of it. Failure happens. Mistakes happen. We must develop our resilience and learn to recover.
This ability to learn from our mistakes, to deal with failure, doesn’t end when we leave school. Rather, when we stop allowing any possibility of failure, we stop learning.
In my experience, our greatest learning happens in the aftermath of things that go horribly wrong. I am not saying that we have to actually fail in order to learn. I am a huge fan of learning from the mistakes of others.
But, I am suggesting that allowing for at least the possibility of failure, by operating in a space where we accept that failure is a possibility, we do learn more.
Some bosses behave in a way that disallows any option of failure. They berate staff who make the most minor of mistakes, they fire people for making even single mistakes, etc.
My philosophy has always been that it is OK to make a mistake. Repeating them is not.
Some bosses act like bulldozer parents who attempt to clear all possible roadblocks. They cannot tolerate any possibility of failure.
Some of these bosses, in their attempts to avoid failures, become micromanagers. They not only tell their staff what to do, but exactly how to do it. And by “how to do it” I mean “the way I would do it.”
Like loading the dishwasher, there are many ways to accomplish the same objective. It really doesn’t matter whether the silverware gets loaded handle up or handle down. (I know, heresy, right?) We all develop our preferences for which is the right way, but in the end, they get clean either way.
The next level beyond micromanaging are the bosses who step in and do the work their staff should be doing. They don’t trust that their staff is capable of doing the task, so they do it themselves.
This is the worst of all. It sends a clear signal to the staff that they are seen as incompetent. It gives them no path to grow. It encourages them to do less, when all the time we are being surrounded by a message that we should be doing more.
If we want our staff to grow in confidence and capability, we must allow room for them to make mistakes. And in doing that, we also allow room for them to do things far better than we could have done ourselves.
Step out of the bulldozer. Point the way. Set the direction. Then stand back and watch the magic happen.
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.
What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Where do you spend your time?
Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time working on our weaknesses, while downplaying, if not outright ignoring, where we are truly gifted. In many cases, we don’t recognize how special our particular strengths are.
This pattern of focusing on our weaknesses routinely plays out at work in the annual performance evaluations.
After your evaluation, where does your mind go? What do you spend all of your time stewing over when you walk out? Right. The stuff you were told you need to work on. Your weaknesses.
Here’s a thought. What if we focus more of our energy on what we are doing well? What if we simply do more of that and less of what we don’t do well?
When I was a manager in an office job, this was much easier for me to do. If there was something I didn’t enjoy doing, or was not particularly good at doing, but recognized the importance of it being done, I could delegate that task to someone on my staff.
By delegating, I do not mean dumping. Proper delegation involves assigning tasks to people who are best suited to do that task. Maybe they’re already good at it. Maybe they are looking for opportunities to become good at it. Either way, delegation done right is a gift you are giving, not a burden you are imposing.
Effective delegation tends to be one of the hardest lessons for new managers to learn.
As a homeowner, there is no end to the litany of ongoing maintenance. Many repairs are things I am able to handle and even enjoy. But, there are others I won’t touch. Electrical work? I’m all over it. Gas lines? No way. Plumbing? I’d rather not, but I’ll do it in a pinch.
As a manager, I became adept at delegating tasks for which I had no inclination, sometimes to a fault. I had one particular boss who did not appreciate my lack of interest in keeping statistics in my head. But, I had a person on my staff who loved that.
When it comes to home maintenance, I tend to work around things I can’t handle myself for as long as I can get away with it. In other words, until my wife gets angry.
Why is it so hard for us to accept that there are things we are simply not good at doing, or that we have no interest in becoming good at doing, and move on? Why do we constantly beat ourselves up over the areas where we struggle, while totally disregarding those areas where we excel?
We accept the idea of focusing on our strengths as a natural thing when it comes to sports teams. Let’s talk football.
Imagine listening in on the performance evaluation for the guy who plays center. His primary job is to hike the ball to the quarterback. During his review, he is criticized for not being able to kick a field goal. Sounds ludicrous, right? And yet, that is exactly how we treat ourselves.
We expect ourselves to be able to do everything. Sadly, I’ve experienced performance evaluations in the workplace that were equally ludicrous.
Sure, most of us work in jobs that have broader expectations than “hike the ball”, or “kick field goals”. And, truth be told, most of those guys actually can and do play multiple positions. But, for the most part, typical job descriptions have a fairly narrow focus.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in my business. I love having my own business. This was my desire since high school. OK, this particular business was not what I had in mind when I studied electrical engineering in college. But, the type of business doesn’t really matter.
There are aspects of my business that I love and some that I don’t. There are tasks I am good at, and and those I am not. In most cases, the “good at” and “enjoy” categories align. There are also the ones I enjoy, while not being particularly good at. But, hey, it’s my business. I can do them if I feel like it, even if I do them poorly.
Then there are those tasks I am capable of doing, but I detest doing them so much that they simply don’t get done, or get done so poorly they might as well not have been done at all. Unfortunately, some of these are tasks that do need to be done if I want the business to grow.
The challenge for me is determining which tasks I absolutely must do myself and which can (and should) be done by someone else. Some of these are obvious. Others are not. And some I have simply been too stubborn to let go of.
When you own your own business, the strong tendency is to assume that you have to do it all yourself. Michael Gerber writes about this extensively in the book, “The E-Myth”. He makes a strong case for working on your business, not in it.
What that boils down to is creating an actual job description for yourself. Assigning tasks to yourself, based on your job description – and even more importantly, NOT doing tasks that are not in your description.
There will always be tasks we must do ourselves that we don’t enjoy doing, or that we are not particularly skilled at doing. At work, at home, in life. But, if we can learn to pause, consider if that is a task that we absolutely must do ourselves, and NOT do it if the answer is “no”, we will be better off.
By handing off tasks we do not enjoy to those who DO enjoy doing them, we are giving them a gift. We are happier because we’re not doing something we hate. They are happier because they get to do more of what they love. It’s a win-win.