Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ain't No Half-Steppin'

I attended two amazing training classes at work last week. One was for Introduction to Lean process improvement and the other was for Crafting Communications. I absorbed useful ideas and wisdom from both classes. As usually, I was ecstatic about lessons learned in classes, and I was able to spring some of these new ideas into action within days.

But there is a layer of fear lurking underneath. What if I let my lessons learned slip away as time passes by? What if I completely forget the poignant tips from the challenging "Writing Headlines" exercise from the communications class? There is apprehension that I might flippantly dismiss the new information with a "that was nice, now let's move on" mentality. What is that fear? Will appending the worksheet from the communications class into my Levenger Circa organizer notebook be an exercise in futility? Would I begin to resent the "types of waste" of lean methodologies over time as it comes to a head against my material hoarding tendencies?

My fear is about the possibility of doing things half-assed. I feel a strong aversion to adopting a "just good enough to get by" mentality. I don't want to be content with half-assery. There ain't no half-steppin' when it comes to taking learning seriously. This is why I always participate and become active at learning classes, conferences, online meetings, and other events. It's not enough just to show up: I learn and contribute.

I have a disdain for "tourists" who appear at learning events, infect the rest of their class with boredom and apathy, and infuriate attendees who are there to learn and collaborate. Tourists are mostly corporate folks who view these classes and conferences as a form of paid time away from their offices. I've witnessed tourists in one Project Management class who would completely ignore group exercises and spend time making smart-ass remarks as rest of the group collaborated. It's most likely that their employers had paid them to attend the class, so there's no incentive for them to participate. Having paid $600 out of my own pocket to attend the same course so I could invest in my own learning, it chapped my ass to have these disinterested morons getting in the way of my learning experience.

I harbor similar dislike for colleagues who show up at "mandatory training classes" and make shit worse for those who actually want to learn new stuff. Over a decade ago, I attended an mandatory "Harassment in the Workplace" session with several colleagues. I was interested in learning about the topic and applying the lessons learned towards work, but one idiot co-worker spent most of session snoring in the back of the classroom! If they weren't interested in attending the class, they need to work with their bosses to find alternatives, and get the hell out of the way for those who want to learn!

Since I invest time and money for a good bulk of my learning opportunities (usually through taking "learning vacations"), I won't be shy about making the most out of these events. I will speak up, participate, and encourage inclusiveness among fellow attendees. I don't care if I am attending a professional or technical conference, a bar camp, or a gathering of inspiring people: these are all opportunities for me to make new connects, establish friendships, learn from other people, and share my knowledge with them. I'm full-ass at these events. And if the tourists don't like that, they can go stick it where the sun doesn't shine.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Can I Live?

Over a decade ago, I nearly drowned while whitewater rafting on Deschutes River. Some friends and I took a day trip to Maupin, Oregon, where we rented a raft and we spent the sunny summer afternoon floating and paddling on the river. In one section of the trip, the current moved at a leisurely pace, and many rafters floated down the river for about 100 yards, being buoyed by their life jackets. Since it looked enticing, I joined my friends who hopped out of the raft and floated with them.

As my friends and other floaters swam safely to the shore before the current picked up pace, I kept on going until I realized that I had difficulty swimming towards the shore. In my excitement, I had conveniently forgotten that I hadn't swam in over twenty years and had joined the life jacket flotilla with others who were competent swimmers. Within moments, I was knocked around by speeding and choppy current. I was struggling to keep my head above the water and was unable to breathe or see well. Grave panic set in. I was no longer in control.

The sudden realization that I may not make it out of the river alive led to numerous thoughts flashing through my mind. What will my friends who invited me to the rafting adventure going to do if I don't make it to the shore safely? Did I cast a tragic damper on these folks? Is this the way I envisioned passing away? Who is going to feed and take care of my cats?

At that instant, I regained my focus and stopped panicking--even though I was speeding down the river at a dangerous pace. I told myself to stick my legs out forward and bump into rocks in hopes of slowing down. The tactic worked--I had enough mental and physical capacity to swim to the shore after crashing into several rocks.

My brush with the near-tragic drowning happened in midst of a very dark time in my life. I was predominantly depressed around that time, mostly owing to a prolonged unemployment (which lasted one year), was spending significant amount of time with negative people who attracted drama, and had very little ambition for the future. It would have been easy to convince myself that I didn't really have much to live for. But in course of a near-fatal incident, something inside of me said, "Shit, I want to live!"

Those unsettling minutes, where I felt helplessly out of control and overcome with panic, did form a blueprint for designing the kind of life that I wanted to pursue. Changes did not happen overnight, but over time I began surrounding myself with people who displayed incredible zest for living, started disassociating myself from drama-perpetuating people, and started shaping my life in a different trajectory. If willing myself from drowning was worth fighting for, I wanted to make something meaningful out of my life instead of pursuing the path of lackadaisical intentions. Over time, I noticed that I had stopped seeing things through negativity lenses.

Epiphanies strike people in different forms and manifestations. For me, it was when my life flashed in front of my eyes. I decided that I wanted to live, and live differently from that point on.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I Get Up Again, Over And Over

It has been almost thirty years since Madonna's Like A Virgin album was released. Most people are probably only familiar with her hit singles from the album--which includes the title track, "Material Girl," "Angel," and "Dress You Up." I follow a different beat, and find the album to be memorable for another song.

"Over And Over" wasn't even a single from the album, but the song is my favorite Madonna song ever. Yes, my favorite ever. The dancey, upbeat pop song has amazing lyrics about instilling determination, overcoming setbacks, and daring greatly. Recently I started listening to this song before and after epic challenges, accomplishments, near-successes, and setbacks. In the spirit of lyrics interpretations, these are the reasons why I am enamored with the song--and live my life with the spirit of the song every day.

Hurry up, I just can't wait
I gotta do it now, I can't be late
I know I'm not afraid, I gotta get out the door
If I don't do it now, won't get anymore

Being motivated by a bias towards action is how I want to ideally spend my time. Creating sustainable habits, surrounding them with complementary rituals, and shipping regularly are things that I believe in. Even if I'm doing something that I've never tried before, or lack skills or expertise in, I would rather try and learn from my experience than be stricken by fear of failure or my "lack of qualifications." A quote from Jen Sincero's book, You Are A Badass, sums up my sentiments: "Because so often when we say we're unqualified for something, what we're really saying is that we're too scared to try it, not that we can't do it."

You try to criticize my drive
If I lose, I don't feel paralyzed
It's not the game, it's how you play
And if I fall, I get up again now

If I try something and the result isn't what I had hoped for, I move on. To quote Jay-Z, "I'm on to the next one." Even when I see rhinoceros and dark skies instead of unicorn and rainbow, I'm not going to be stopped. I've had couple of events during the year that didn't turn out as I had hoped, including prospective employment and internship opportunities. They turned out to be great experiences though: I learned about my strengths, personal brand, passion, and career capital. I also gained insight into what strategies I want to follow to step up my game. Life is too short for feeling perpetually victimized, blaming others for outcomes, and playing scared. But I will make time for "Dude, Let's Try This!" experiments.

Got past my first mistake
I'll only give as much as I can take
You're never gonna see me standing still
I'm never gonna stop 'til I get my fill

I don't claim to be perfect--I make mistakes often. I see them as learning opportunities, and I apply them to my next attempts. If I want to accomplish something that is meaningful to me, I will make it happen despite mistakes, setbacks, and detours. Thomas Edison made over ten thousand iterations of the light bulb before finally succeeding. He didn't view his efforts as failures, but rather as ten thousand ways which didn't work.

It doesn't matter who you are
It's what you do that takes you far
And if at first you don't succeed
Here's some advice that you should heed

The process of making awesome happen isn't constrained by limitations that other people or society wants to label you with. Being in my mid-forties doesn't stop me from engaging in lifelong learning, indulging in recreational sports, making new connections with amazing people from different circles, or pursuing new activities. I may be obscured at the base of a corporate org chart, but I've gained the notice of senior executives through shipping quality work and promoting my value proposition. I have succeeded because I believe in myself, and  put the responsibility for my success in my own hands: there's nothing more destructive than entrusting your career and life successes to other people (who often have their own agendas).

I'm not afraid to say I hear a different beat
And I'll go out in the street, yeah
And I will shout it again
From the highest mountain

There is no shame in daring greatly and living a dynamic and enriching life. It's amazing how many other people I have encountered in the streets or on that highest mountain who share similar zest for leading a fulfilling life. And it's great to hear these people shout (or talk or blog) about how they had dared greatly, chose meaningful action-filled lives, elevated themselves after following the "Dude, Let's Try This!" attitude, and found their roads to awesome. These are the people of my tribes, and we all hear that beat of dreams and possibilities.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Design It Yourself--Nobody Gonna Build It Like You

Disillusionment and despair are traps that I sometimes stumble into. These feelings happen periodically in the workplace. There's nothing more uninspiring than punching in the time card, day after day, at a job that sucks energy and creativity.

Gallup surveys have reported over recent years that seventy percent of workers in the United States feel disengaged from their work. Some days I feel like a member of the downtrodden majority, but I quickly take steps to cross over into the territory of the engaged minority. By following the ideas of thought-provoking authors and visionaries, I've learned to make the best out of less-than-optimal work environments. These life hacks have helped me join the engaged thirty percent.

I take ownership of factors that I can control before spending the workday in a stressful office. I start by getting sufficient sleep at night, taking a minimalist approach to morning routines (e.g. setting aside the work attire the evening before, having a set idea of food and snacks to pack, and filling my bag with essentials to take during the day), eating a healthy breakfast, and stimulating my mind through reading thoughtful material or writing.

Using sprints, grouping similar tasks together, and avoiding multitasking while working cuts down on unnecessary mental fatigue which happens when I switch gears more than I need to. I find it easier to get things done when I tackle work using these tactics. The "first-in, first-out" approach to getting work done might work in some occupations, but as a modern-day knowledge worker, I question the wisdom and the effectiveness of taking an assembly line approach to processing work. It goes without saying that I abhor the so-called "emergencies" that are caused by others' procrastination, carelessness, or laziness (Want to promote respect in the workplace? Develop your work skills and empathy to minimize generating these urgent issues).

I've recently learned the importance of knowing when to stop work and take time to recharge. It's an essential idea that Tony Schwartz details both in his book (Be Excellent At Anything) and in a recent New York Times article ("Relax! You'll Be More Productive"). Setting aside time for energy renewal throughout the work day helps me maintain focused energy throughout the work day, and I rarely feel drained when business hours are over.

I also get away from my desk during lunch and break times. Getting away from the noise and stress does wonders. During every workday over the past fifteen months, I've also collected interesting photographs of nature outside my office: The Lunchtime Project is a splendid diversion which adds a moment of creativity during workdays. On those rare times that I eat at my desk during lunch, I'm likely participating in interesting webinars.

One of the keys to my engagement at work is that I'm able to connect the dots between the work that I do and how it impacts the ability for my customers and peers to make awesome. When I feel that my work goals are closely aligned with the business goals and aspirations of my customers, I feel more inspired to kick ass. Finding meaning in my work--not the size or the frequency of my paycheck--is what inspires me to get out of bed each morning. I find meaning through building connections with customers and peers. We often share commonalities, such as interest in creative and innovative pursuits, life hacks, music, art, fitness activities, and culinary arts. Getting to know others enhances my workplace engagement. I've strengthened my relationships with others through years of excellent work and finding shared interests.

Through discovering these commonalities, I've met many awesome people at work. Recently, a discussion with a customer about a business book author whom we both respect led to after-hours social gathering and a lunch outing. Learning about another friends' interests in mobile photography led to many interesting conversations. And through establishing my personal brand and value proposition, I have met people in the organization who are fully behind my journey on the road to awesome. These folks include friends in high (organizational) places, professors who offer courses on productivity hacks and neuroscience, and other kindred spirits who believe in finding meaning in work and being engaged at work.

Designing an environment where I feel engaged at work is rewarding. The connections and the relationships that I've built through the years are invaluable. However, there will be those people who do not, or want to, understand why I work the way I do. They don't think of work as being anything but a set of rigid rules which must be followed in exchange for approval and paycheck. As a recent Fast Company article succinctly puts it, "people will always shit on the things they're scared of." There are haters out the who don't get the life hacks. They believe that work involves only pain and suffering--that is, being being happy and engaged through productivity, sense of purpose, and working smartly, means that I'm not working hard enough. They are the ones who complain that they're so busy that they don't get to enjoy lunch until after six hours of work (do they pack sensible snacks and bring them to work?), scarf down prepackaged instant foods at their desks and then wonder loudly why they feel sluggish in the afternoon, and insist on telling me that I "don't have the luxury" to work the way I do.

Not everyone understands my road to awesome. Let the haters and the biters ride their own short buses on their circular road to nowhere. Jealousy might cause others who don't understand to get mad at me for getting my shine on and being successful. That's their loss though: it frees up the traffic on the road to awesome for the fellow folks in my tribes to follow their own journeys to engagement.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Difficult Takes a Day, Impossible Takes a Week

It's rewarding to sustain goals, invest time in following them, and watch the results evolve over time. Many serious endeavors reach their rewarding finale only after you invest countless hours on focused work, embrace the unsexy aspects of these activities, and become skilled at grunt stuff. Successful outcome does not happen overnight: in words of a very popular film, "One does not simply walk into Mordor."

I recently made significant strides with a professional skill-building activity. The effort started three months ago with a huge mountain of task in front of me. I was asked by some people to not bother with spending time with the project, and no one else wanted to venture beyond the mountain. Whereas others found barren vegetation and arid surroundings, I found opportunity. "It's there for my taking!" was my reaction. I quickly discovered a community that would support my efforts and unearth several new invaluable connects. I surveyed the mountain of tasks, kept climbing through the unsexy incline, and finally reached a milestone recently.

Arriving at successful outcomes through putting in sustained effort does not happen overnight--these things take time. Although there are notable examples of "overnight successes," it is rewarding to string together series of small base hits and walks to generate a big inning instead of trying to win the game with one swing of the bat. Through small victories which combine to yield a successful result (a big inning), you gain confidence that great things can happen when you make awesome at every opportunity. Do you want to prepare to run a 5K race? Putting in several workout sessions over period of time can build the confidence, offer insights to your physical strengths and limitations, and may even provide opportunities to meet new connects and resources.

I am very fortunate that I have many friends who have demonstrated their commitment to success through putting in hard work over long time. A friend whom I have known for about a decade recently received her Master of Fine Arts degree in Stage Design. She traveled a long, sustained road to reach where she is at. When I first met her, she was learning and sharing knowledge as a community theater volunteer, and was working at restaurants to pay for her education. She continued to keep herself busy learning, sharing, and working while she received her undergraduate and Master's degrees. Through building her career capital through deliberate work at every stop in her journey and never losing sight of her dreams, she built her expertise and became part of many communities. She is ready for the next chapter in her amazingly creative life. A diploma mill graduate she is not.

It is very easy to become frustrated when the fruits of sustained effort do not appear quickly. What do you do when your progress is incremental? Guess what? Rome wasn't architected and built in a day. You don't lose fifty pounds in a week. You don't transform yourself from a sedentary couch potato to a frequent marathon participant after one training run. You've got to work hard if you want anything at all. You've got to establish routines, become good at what you do, then challenge yourself to step up your game. That's how best-selling author Stephen King evolved--he first published his stories in a fanzine, then higher-tier magazines, and finally through major publishers. His first novel was published ten years after he started writing (Cal Newport wrote an excellent blog post about Stephen King and his habit of deliberate practice).

Although it may be difficult to control time ended for prolonged success, it's possible to control the little things which can help (or get in the way of) turning goals into action. You can establish rituals which can help with your goals (e.g. regular workout sessions, blocking time in the morning for focused writing). Sustaining habits over a period of time can be powerful and inspiring. You can find ways to dare greatly every day through learning, teaching, sharing, and making new connections. You can also add related activities which can help sustain your goals. I become inspired and rejuvenated when surrounding myself with other action-oriented people. 

You can also stop doing things that don't help with the pursuit of your goals: minimizing distractions and removing obstacles are two strategies which work well. I take drastic measures with the latter--I avoid or minimize people who want to prevent from accomplishing my goals. Sometimes I need to pursue my goals in secrecy and on the down-low when I cannot escape an environment where such goals are discouraged.

I am excited about the opportunity to take next steps with my professional skill-building activity. With help and insight from expert friends, I have identified strategies which I want to pursue for reaching the next milestone. With encouragement from people who matter and through establishing a body of work, anticipating time spent on additional skill-building looks extremely appealing. In words of Jen Sincero (from You Are A Badass), "There's nothing unstoppable as a freight train full of fuck yeah."