Love and Work

 

Today is Valentine’s Day, a holiday that reminds us of love. We mostly interpret that to mean “romantic love” or eros, which leaves the day fraught with peril for those who are between love interests. If you’re without a sweetheart, the day may be a stinging reminder that everywhere you look, someone else is getting a dozen roses.

I celebrate Valentine’s Day in a broader sense, focusing instead on a higher form of love, agape, a transcendent love, universal and unconditional. This is the love that I’m speaking of when I share the mission of my coaching practice: “To create a world where people love what they do and do what they love.” When we are in service to others through our work, that is a transcendent love. We are driven to make a difference and in spite of circumstances, in spite of the evidence (failure, disappointment, no results), we keep on working. We do it for love.

My coaching practice rose from the ashes of losing the job that brought us here to the Chicago area. After the shock and shame of getting fired, I lifted my head and asked myself, “What did I learn? Where was I responsible for this mess?” Truth was, I was not fit for that job. I ignored the signs, to my peril. Once I accepted that I was 100% responsible for what had happened, I made a powerful choice: I would never again stay in a job that didn’t fit. I committed myself from that time on to loving my work and helping others love theirs.

Sigmund Freud said “Love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness.” I would venture to say “Love of work is the cornerstone to our humanness.” Look at how much time we spend at work…most of our waking hours. I had a colleague once who complained daily about her job. When I gently offered to provide some career coaching to her, she sighed and said, “No, that’s all right. I only have eleven more years until retirement.”

ELEVEN MORE YEARS! I think of my friend Sheryl, who died at 56 of a brain aneurysm, unable to see her daughter graduate high school. I think of men who have heart attacks within months of retirement, having tolerated their work with the vision of golf courses in their heads, now too weak to walk. Plan for the future, yes, but don’t live for the future. The future is now. We have the right–and the responsibility–to love what we do so that we can make a difference in the world. There is urgency in this message! We must love what we do because as far as I know, this is our one shot. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “The Summer Day,” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I hope on this Valentine’s Day you’re surrounded by all types of love–love of friends and family, your pets, your home and your work. Most of all I hope you love the choices you’ve made. If not, you can make new choices. There’s still time but time, like your life, is precious. Act now. Let me know if I can help.

Help! I’ve Been Hijacked!

Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve been hijacked? No, not literally hijacked on an airplane bound for Boston, then suddenly headed to Havana. But maybe you’ve been hijacked by someone else’s agenda. Perhaps you know the feeling of moving forward resolutely toward your own goals and objectives when suddenly, you find yourself writing copy for someone else’s campaign or you’re volunteering for a cause just because you couldn’t say “no” to that persuasive friend. Everywhere we turn we’re faced with opportunities, decisions and invitations, most of them well-meaning but with the potential to distract us from our own powerful missions.

Recently I wrote, in dry-erase marker on my bathroom mirror, “Don’t get hijacked by someone else’s agenda.” This reminds me, daily, to consider the invitations that come my way. Do they support the mission I’m on, to create a world where people love what they do and do what they love? Are they part of my strategic marketing plan? Is the opportunity one that aligns with my commitments, passions and brand? Or am I just caught up in the moment, swept away by someone else’s (well-meaning) enthusiasm for their own project? The writing on my bathroom mirror cautions me to take the time to stop, think, and reflect before saying “yes.”

A while ago I read this quotation by Warren Buffett, the famous business magnate, investor and philanthropist:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

 

This quotation initially shocked me. For many years, I had lived by the credo, “Just say yes!” For someone who “smells” opportunity everywhere, I was convinced that staying open to the world, and saying “yes,” would move me closer to my goals. The wisdom of Warren Buffett turned my thinking upside down and made me very uncomfortable–it seemed so ungenerous! But after much reflection, I think I understand. Successful people stay committed to what they say they are committed to. Reluctantly, we can’t do everything. The “really successful people” maintain a laser-beam focus, resist being distracted and refuse to get hijacked by other people’s agendas. We can wish them well, and stay open to possibility. But in order to make a really big “dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs famously said, we must maintain our own mission, purpose and direction. We have to practice discernment. When in doubt, refer to your strategic plan. If you don’t have a strategic plan, let’s talk.

Yearning for Order

There’s something about the beginning of a new year that has us focus on order–organizing, purging, out with the old and in with the new. My dear friend and Yoga Diva Lesley gifted me last year with the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, a best-selling book that reached nearly cult status. While I was wary of some of her assertions, including her admonition not to roll our socks in a ball because they (the socks) need to rest and relax while in our sock drawers, I grudgingly concede to the charm of her message. We are all, it seems, drowning in stuff.

I’ve written of this before, the staggering dollars we invest in storing our stuff. According to an article in Forbes, “The Real Cost of Your Shopping Habits” by Emma Johnson, American spend $24 million each year to store their stuff in 2.3 billion square feet of storage units. Quoting from the Self Storage Association, Ms. Johnson writes that storage units comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. Then there’s the $1 billion we now spend in professional organizers and the products required to stay organized, a number reported by the National Association of Professional Organizers.  I have invested some of my own hard-earned money on professional organizers (thank you, Linette George of Get Organized By George) and consider it some of the best money I ever spent.

What is it we’re really looking for when we get the urge to purge? “Focus, organization and productivity” are the promises of the professional organizer. The ability to breathe when we sit down to dinner, not haunted by the piles of paperwork that’s been sitting at the edge of the dining room table for months. The blessing of what graphic designers call “white space,” the absence of clutter or knick-knacks that dominate our vision and our imaginations. The peace that come with a place for everything and everything in its place.

A Paris apartment ad prior to curating

A Paris apartment ad prior to curating

I should talk. My home is a mélange of the interests of both my husband and me, a veritable assault on the senses. I mutter about his attachment to collections of musical instruments, bottles shaped like musical instruments, even the music itself, piling up on the dining room sideboard. No matter what system we (read: I) create, he morphs another one that spins out of control. He’s an artist: society gives him a pass. What about me?

My collection of vintage roosters, circa 1950s, grew alarmingly and I had to issue an edict to family and friends: NO MORE ROOSTERS. I thought they’d draw a fortune on eBay–wrong. I gave some away to a local restaurant, Egg Harbor, and now when I visit them I’m wistful and think about reclaiming them, even go so far as to reach over a startled diner to rearrange them, explaining without apology “This was mine, once.” I still have dozens of roosters tucked away in tissue in colorful hat boxes upstairs, a painful reminder of the money I didn’t invest in my 401K. “Wanted: a good home for antique roosters. Must appreciate irony.”

This week I broke a teacup from my teacup collection, bequeathed to me by my Aunt Marian. I remember sitting at her dining room table (the very dining room table from which I’m writing) and eyeing her teacups with a covetous glance. Now there they are, lined up and waiting for the occasional tea party which happens every decade or so. I think of my Aunt Marian and wish I had another luncheon with her instead. She used to invite me to lunch at her assisted living facility and I couldn’t bear the sight or smell of old people, so I made up a lame excuse and dashed off before the meal hour. This is what they mean by regret.

Other collections: Indian art, anything with the theme of El Dia de los Muertos and Our Lady of Guadalupe, vintage pottery, books, books and more books, quilts and religious kitsch, especially anything that illuminates. Think Jesus nightlights. We aren’t hoarders, but the idea of slogging through all this stuff to lighten our loads first inspires, then exhausts. I’d rather read a book.

But this year, we are downsizing. There, I’ve said it. Not sure where, not sure how, but it’s a commitment, like a New Year’s Resolution that is now in print. We will “curate,” a trendy word for a function that my husband once did as a museum curator of exhibits. We will handle every thing with the tenderness recommended by Marie Kondo and evaluate whether it’s a keeper or it belongs in the recycling pile or, last resort, the trash. With the reminder that we are not our things, a compassionate heart for our children who should not be burdened with our stuff and a joyful eye toward the future of streamlined, purposeful living, we will lighten our load. Wherever we end up–a smaller home, an apartment, a townhome or condo, maybe even, as my husband likes to say, “a trailer down by the river”–we will create this new space, together, surrounded only by the things and the people we love.

Photo: Close-up of my 2015 hatbox collage 

Becoming a Positive Deviant

One of my author-speaker heroes is a physician named Atul Gawande, a surgeon based in Boston who is also a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Best known for his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things RightDr.Gawande wrote an earlier book called Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. The audiobook was on sale at my favorite Tempe, AZ, bookstore, Changing Hands, so I bought it thinking I could listen to it in my car. And in spite of the many clinical stories he told, some of which made me a bit queasy–after all, the guy is a doctor–I enjoyed the book. In the afterword, the author provided five tips for improving performance by becoming a “positive deviant.”

First, let me share the definition of “positive deviant.” People who do things outside the norm (often unknowingly) that have a good outcome are “positive deviants,” and they change the world, whether by improving the nutritional health of children in a village or stopping an epidemic. The book Better can be applied to all of us, though, not just physicians and healthcare workers. Here are those five tips on performance improvement and how they can apply to you and your business or career:

  1. Ask an unscripted question. Whether you’re in business or excelling at your job, you’re called upon to educate, inform and ultimately, to persuade (some call it “selling”). The best way to engage people to think is to ask an unscripted question, one they weren’t expecting. I know I’ve hit a chord when I ask an unscripted question and the person across from me pauses, looks up at the ceiling and takes some time to think before responding. Unscripted questions open up a whole range of possibilities that weren’t there before.
  2. Don’t complain. What a great piece of advice for us all! No one wants to hear our litany of concerns, petty or otherwise, and besides, complaining is bad for your brand. I’m not suggesting you be a phony or a Pollyanna; just have something substantive to say. Today, catch yourself before you complain and substitute a conversation that will really make a difference with the person you’re speaking to.
  3. Count something. “What gets measured gets managed,” according to the late great management guru Peter Drucker. Setting up metrics, whether its in the form of sales calls, revenue or client/customer satisfaction data, is critical to moving the needle. Without data, there is no needle. What can you count today that will move you toward your goal?
  4. Write something. My dad used to say that to me whenever we talked about my vision to become a writer. “Don’t just sit there–write something!” he would bellow with a grin. Writing is an act of courage, whether it’s keeping a journal, launching a blog, writing a poem or contributing a letter to the editor of a news organization. Writing is also a powerful way to connect with your audience, whoever that is. “The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it,” says Dr. Gawande in his afterword. What will you write today to contribute to your audience?
  5. Change. Try something new. Become an early adopter. Recognize that there are gaps in your performance and seek ways to bridge those gaps. Our work lives are filled with uncertainties and failures, so it may seem best to keep doing things the way you’ve been doing them. Resist that impulse. What one thing will you change today in your business or your job that will fill a gap in your performance?

I love sharing my thoughts with you via this blog and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section, below. What are you counting, writing, changing? What complaints will you give up to strengthen your brand? What’s a great unscripted question you’ve created to get your clients or employees to open up to you? “Ask people what they think,” Dr. Gawande recommends at the end of his book. “See if you can keep the conversation going.”

So, what do you think?

[Photo: An elevator sign, taken at Taipei 101, formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center, a landmark skyscraper in Taipei, Taiwan]

The Unhappy 49%

The mission of my coaching practice is “to create a world in which people love what they do and do what they love.” That mission drives me every day. But apparently I have a long way to go before revolutionizing the World of Work, judging from a recent study issued by the American Psychological Association.

In a press release dated March 5, 2013, the APA announced, “More than one-third of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunity for advancement and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors.” This was from a new national survey, the “Work and Well-Being Survey” conducted on behalf of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

The report goes on to say, “On the heels of the recession, many employees appear to feel stuck, with only 39 percent citing sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement and just over half (51 percent) saying they feel valued at work.”

Hmmm… well, it is over half. But that leaves an unhappy 49% of the workforce, or at least the ones who responded to the study (conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the APA between Jan. 9-Jan. 21, 2013, among 1,501 U.S. adults aged 18 and older). These folks had complaints about employers not flexing to their needs, including the concern that work encroaches on family time.

Perhaps even more alarming, the study reported that “Only 37 percent of women reported regularly using employee benefits designed to help them meet demands outside the office, compared to almost half of men (46 percent), and just 38 percent of women said they regularly utilize flexible work arrangements, compared to 42 percent of men.” That means the guys are using the resources made available to them by the company–things, perhaps, like wellness programs or flex-time. So even when it’s offered, the ladies are using those resources much less frequently.

I don’t have the answer. Just the question: If we’re unhappy at work, what’s our part in it? What do you think?

Free from your labors on Labor Day

To most of us, Labor Day means picnics and barbeques, parades and a three-day weekend. We think of the holiday as a time to kick back and enjoy the last days of summer before the transition to our more hurried fall routines of work and school.

But if you read the history of Labor Day, you’ll see it began as a reconciliation with the unions after bitter strife and even bloodshed. According to Wikipedia, the holiday was first proposed by union workers in the late 1880s. The officially sanctioned holiday was a rush job by President Grover Cleveland to appease workers after the Pullman strike.

So out of chaos and conflict came this three-day weekend in which we celebrate work and workers… while not working. Hmmm… go figure.

My many years of working for hospitals taught me that even on holidays most of us take for granted, people are working. Nurses and doctors, firemen and women, emergency personnel and 911 operators… these are the people we can stop and acknowledge while sipping a beer or flipping a burger. The drive-throughs are still open, the retail clerks are frantically stocking to keep up with Labor Day sales and somewhere, someone is writing a blog. Oh, that’s me.

To all of you who are workers, I salute you. I believe we’re created to make a difference through our work which is why I do what I do as a marketing coach–helping people be successful in their businesses and careers. I’m thrilled to launch this blog about work on the holiday set aside to honor work.

Here’s to you! (clink)