Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where's Your Best Space?

Research has indicated that there are three primary learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Everyone has one or two styles that is most effective for them, and each styles indicates how people most best process information . Personally, I am a very strong kinesthetic learner. This means that I learn by touching and doing things and I need to have direct experience of something. It also means I need to be physically active and engaged with things in order to stay focused.

Here’s some ways being a kinesthetic learner has shaped my life:

- All throughout college and grad school, I would rewrite all my lecture notes in order to be able to remember the information. After I had physically rewritten my notes once, I remembered the information.
- I have NEVER been able to listen to books on tape, and I generally don’t like to learn things via audio alone.
- In fact, I generally don’t retain new information when I hear it; I need to see something in order to retain it.
- When I designed my new home office, I covered the walls in white boards, so that I can physically write and draw things as I am working.
- I have rearranged the office furniture in every office I have ever worked.
- I much prefer to work in offices with other people, where there is physical interaction with other people. 

- I never follow the instructions for how to assemble products, I have to pick up the pieces to see how they fit together

Because I’m a very strong kinesthetic learner, I’m very sensitive to physical spaces. Houses, conference rooms, restaurants, stores - whatever the location, I’m always noticing how the space is laid out, and how I physically feel in each space. I hate when restaurants are poorly designed and I really hate when conference rooms are cluttered with tables and chairs that don’t enable genuine interactions between people. Physical spaces should always be designed for a specific purpose and it drives me crazy when rooms are cluttered with random furniture. After leaving a room, I will generally always remember how the room was laid out.

This also means that when it comes time for me to clear my head, or sort through a problem, or release stress, I need to be physically active. And I prefer to be physically active in spaces that inspires me. This is part of the reason why I love Tucson so much – because anywhere you are outside here you can see the mountains. Tucson is actually in the basin of four different mountain ranges so the mountains are always part of the landscape here. Whenever I run or bike or golf outside, I am aware of the physical landscape, and I love feeling that connection to the landscape. I love springtime because it means that I can run and bike in the morning before work and there will be some daylight. Here is a short photo tour of where I run with Charly in the mornings – this is where we start our day. 

These are some of the hills we run:

This road faces due north:

Facing northwest:

There's lots of little neighborhood roads around here that we love:

And here's our little neighborhood road where Charly and I run sprints:

We don't run on this road because of traffic, but here's where we bike down into Tucson:

In my writing throughout this blog, I ask people to think about a lot of questions. I try to provoke people like you to think intentionally about your life and your choices. And sometimes when it’s time to think about things, you need time AND you need space.

My recommendation to you is to be aware of the spaces where you think best. Be aware of the physical spaces, the visual stimulation, and the auditory stimulation that works best for you. Do you need quiet spaces or do you need auditory stimulation? Do you need to see things written down in order to sort them out? Or do you need to talk to someone to discuss the options on the table? Auditory learners process information differently from visual learners and kinesthetic learners. No one learning style is better than another. What’s useful is to KNOW your particular learning style so that you can organize your space around your own unique needs.

So take some time now to think about your spaces. And let me know where you think best, where you work best, where you feel most effective and most focused. Think about the spaces where you gravitate to, and the spaces you avoid. Think about the features of those spaces to figure out what they have in common. Generally, we all have choices about where we physically spend time. I say we should all spend more time in the spaces that inspire us and help us be productive. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What Kind of Player Are You?

Last weekend I took Charly to the park again to play frisbee. He only lasted about 30 minutes before he pooped out – tired from all the sprinting. But during those 30 minutes, he caught the frisbee nine times and I was a very proud dog mother. Driving home from the park, he was sprawled on the back seat panting, and I realized how completely happy I was watching him play. Watching him play makes my heart happy and it makes my body relax. It really doesn’t matter how many times he catches the frisbee, what matters is how much he truly loves to chase it.

During my typical standard week, I don’t have many other opportunities to experience “pure play.” Pure play can be described as pursuing something for the pure joy of it. The opposite of pure play would be pursuing something for the goal or outcome. When we engage in pure play, we feel good, we have fun, we lose sense of time, and we stop worrying about things. We play because it’s inherently attractive and fun; there’s no specific outcome or purpose to it. Stuart Brown is a psychologist who has written the definitive book on play, aptly titled Play. It’s a pretty good read – I recommend it.

After reading his book though, I came away somewhat sad about the fact that I can’t identify many times during my typical week when I truly play. Most of my days are focused on schedules and outcomes and tasks. Go here, do this, email that file, call that person, and do that errand. Then repeat. And repeat again.

Reading the book Play helped me remember the importance of play. It also illuminated the absence of it in our adult lives. Children and animals know all about play - children and animals typically play everyday. It’s only us grown up adults that somehow become too busy for play, too focused on turning everything into work.

I seriously couldn’t think of anything I’ve done during the past week that could be considered play. Even my morning exercise isn’t pure play, because it had an outcome and a purpose. So I decided I needed to change things up.

In the book Play, Stuart Brown discussed a survey that had been done by Runner’s World with many recreational runners. They found that most runners can be divided into four different types:

- the exerciser runs primarily to lose weight
- the competitor runs to improve race times or to beat others
- the enthusiast runs to experience the joy of the day
- the socializer uses running to bring people together for talking

Up until recently, I would have described myself as being primarily an exerciser and a competitor. For the seven years when I competed in triathlons, every running workout had a purpose and a schedule. Every workout was part of an overall training plan, all geared towards a specific race or event. I kept track of all my race results and I compared my progress from month to month.

So today, I decided to do something revolutionary and become a running enthusiast. I decided to run for the pure joy of it, and NOT keep track of my time or my pace or anything else. I downloaded new music onto my ipod and made sure it was charged. I put the running leash on Charly, and out we went into the sunrise.

We started out running in our own little sub-division, but we ran into too many other yappy dogs so we decided to wander. First we went up a big steep hill, and then we turned around and ran down it. Then we went up another hill, and down another one. Over and over again. We ended up doing about 8 hill intervals, just for the fun of it. By the end of our early morning adventure, Charly’s tongue was hanging down and we were both spent. And we were both completely happy.

This morning I ran in the foothills at sunrise for the pure joy of it. I came home happy and relaxed and balanced. And the rest of my day went better than yesterday.

I want to find time for more play in my life. And I want to know more about how other grown up people with jobs and families and responsibilities find time to play. What kind of player are you? Where and when do you play? I’d really appreciate it if you write in the comments something about where and when you play.

I think as a country, we could all stand to play more. Work less, play more, that’s my mantra for this week.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Can You Answer the Question WHY?

I have to confess that I’m getting slightly tired of online bloggers who preach. There are those who preach you must work for yourself, while others preach a 4 hour work week, and others preach that you must travel. Still others preach you should only do work you are genuinely passionate about. I totally and completely appreciate their perspectives and I value the fact that they challenge people to think outside the status quo. And for the most part, I find myself inspired when I learn more about all the different ways that people design their life and their career.

But I think when it comes to you and your life, you don’t need to do anything any certain specific way. You don’t need to quit your job, you don’t need to sell your house and you don’t need to travel around the world. And sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to make a living off your passion. There are very few absolute recommendations that apply to everyone. The world is not that simple.

Here’s what I think you DO need to do. You need to know why you are living your life the way you are living it. I think that knowing WHY you are doing what you are doing with your life and being honest with yourself about your reasons is what really matters. I think is true for all of us.

For example, I work for a large corporation. If you ask the 11,000 people who work there why they work there, you might here some of these answers:

- Because I believe in the purpose of our company and I want to serve our customers
- Because it’s the only large employer in town
- Because it offers great salaries/benefits
- Because it offers long term job stability
- Because I love the work and/or my coworkers
- Because I need a stable paycheck
- Because I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do
- Because I can make more money there than other places in town
- Because I’m afraid to work for myself
- Because it’s comfortable and predictable
- Because I enjoy the challenge and diversity of the work 
- Because I'm too close to retirement to quit
- Because I’m using my time there to build my resume to go somewhere else

You can see from these answers that there would be a great deal of variability in how people respond. Some answers on that list are very honest.

What I care about when I work with people is NOT that they live their life a certain way, but that they absolutely know WHY they are doing what they are doing. I want people to have incredible self-awareness about their choices.

Ten years ago, I worked for a software start-up company that closed suddenly. Along with 100 other people, I was out of a job. But I was also in the middle of graduate school and the company that suddenly closed had been paying my tuition. So what did I do? I got a job at the only other company in town that offered tuition reimbursement, for the sole purpose of continuing my graduate degree. That is why I went to work for this company ten years ago. It was a very pragmatic decision on my part. After I finished my graduate degree, I stayed with this company for several reasons. The work was challenging and interesting. The opportunities for professional growth were huge. The people were mostly nice and sincere. The salary/benefits were generous. For the most part, I really loved my work.

But every year, I continually re-evaluate this decision. I ask myself a lot of questions to probe my only reasoning, and every year I weigh the pros and cons. I try never to take my work for granted, and above all, I never want to become complacent. 

However, I resist those people who would tell me that I’d be better off working for myself, and I resist those people who tell me that I’ve sold out to the corporation. As long as I know WHY I choose to work there, that is good enough for me, and it should be good enough for others. If I make my choices intentionally, then I find it difficult to accept the judgments of others. 

I have a coworker who hasn’t been very happy lately. He doesn’t really enjoy his work anymore, but he’s not completely miserable. He’s what I call comfortably numb – he’s become used to his current state, and he could continue this way for years without ever being really happy. If some of the preachy folks met him, they’d say he shouldn’t settle for work that doesn’t inspire him, and tell him to quit his job.

But here’s the thing. He has two elderly parents to support – and he is their primary source of financial support. And he feels a strong sense of responsibility to support his parents, and he appreciates the stability and benefits that come with this job. So if you asked him why he stays in a job he doesn’t love, he’d say that he stays because it’s the best way he knows to support his parents whom he loves.

He values his parents’ well-being, so he tolerates a less than perfect job. He knows that is the tradeoff he is making and he knows he is making a choice. He will tell you that if his circumstances with his parents were different, he would quit and do freelance work. But his circumstances aren’t different, they are what they are today. And he’s not bitter or resentful, he is very realistic and matter-of-fact about his situation.

Here’s a very different example. Several years ago I was working with a new team of diverse leaders and I started out conducting some 1 on 1 interviews with each of them. One of the questions I asked everyone was “How did you choose this particular career path?” I still remember one individual who looked at me with a blank stare. He didn’t understand the question. So I elaborated: “You know, after college, how did you decide that this was what you wanted to do, how did you decide to come work here and follow this career path?” He still didn’t get the question – I had really stumped him. So I tried a different tack, “What do you like about your current job?” He still couldn’t answer me. Finally he just explained that he never knew what he liked and he never had any idea of what he wanted to do. After college, a relative had helped him get this job, and he had just never thought about doing anything else. He didn’t know if he liked it or not, it was just a job and he would probably do it until he retired.

After that interview, I felt sad. I felt sad because he seemed completely passive about his life. He wasn’t unhappy so much as he was just unaware. But he’s not the only person like that. There are many people out there sleepwalking through life.

I hope you are not sleepwalking. I hope you are aware of the choices you are making. I hope that you could answer the question why? I hope you know these things:

- Why you are living in the particular town where you live
- Why you are working where you work
- Why you are in the relationship you are in
- Why your level of physical fitness is what it is today
- Why you have the amount of debt you have
- Why you spent your last weekend doing what you did

If you can answer all these questions, congratulations. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  If you can’t answer all of these, you might want to do some thinking or writing about these. 

Life is too short to sleepwalk.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why Can't You Just Get Along?

Most of us work in an office somewhere. In the majority of offices around the world, people appreciate it when our coworkers are agreeable and easy to get along with. I think most of us would rather alongside someone we like, someone who is agreeable. Many of us were raised and taught to get along with others.

For the most part I believe in the value of being agreeable. Being agreeable and getting along with others are good skills to have.

However, I am here to tell you that there are many hidden costs to being agreeable, and being agreeable can cost you dearly. If you do get along with everyone, then there might be something wrong with your situation. – you might be a little bit too comfortable.

1. If you agree to everything that people ask of you, you will get bogged down in garbage and meaningless work. Think about it – if there is really awesome fun work to do, someone will want to do it for themself. They aren’t going to come knocking on your door to ask you to go to Hawaii to film that next beer commercial. Instead, they will come knocking on your door to ask you to fix that spreadsheet formula or unjam the copier, or provide boxes of paperwork to the auditor. People generally are more likely to ask you to do crap work. I hope you don’t say yes to the crap work.

2. If you agree to everything that people ask of you, you will give up your ability to think critically and make smart choices. Being agreeable means doing even the stupid work that is tedious and meaningless - the stuff that no one wants to do. As for me, I say that if no one wants to do some specific work, then go find someone who does want to do it. Or better yet, just STOP doing it. If it’s stupid work, don’t waste anyone’s time doing it.

3. If you say to everything people want, you are really just saying no to everything too. There is just no way that you can satisfy everyone – that is totally and completely unrealistic. And you won’t be able to get everything done and you will NEVER keep everyone happy. So just don’t even try it. You will fail and you will disappoint the people around you.

4. If you agree to everything, you won’t be able to take a stand for anything. Seriously, I KNOW that many people reading this blog are smart and informed and want to make a difference in the world. In order to make a difference, you have to take a stand for something. So take a stand and make a difference, but do not agree to everything you are asked to do. You have to say no to something in order to say yes to something else. So get good at saying no, be proud of saying no, and remember that you need to say no in order to say yes.

Since I’m clearly not in favor of being agreeable all the time, what’s the alternative to being agreeable? I think the opposite of being agreeable is being logical.

If you are logical, then you can explain WHY you are not going to do the dumb things at work. If you are logical, you can explain your rationale for what you ARE going to do, and you can explain what you ARE taking a stand for. If you are logical, then you can appeal to the logic in other people, you can communicate your true priorities, and you can explain the risks associated with being agreeable. Most importantly, if you are logical, you can explain why no one should be doing the stupid work at work - because it wastes time and money.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert writes a really really awesome blog. Check it out. He has a blog post where he described focus groups, and an experience he had doing a pilot television show. In some of the focus groups they did to test out the television show, the production folks were excited because no one hated the show. For the most part, all the focus group people sort of liked it. Yeah! – no one hated the new show. Scott however, thought this was a terrible outcome and terrible feedback, because he wanted some people to hate the show. As he explains it, if no one really hates your product, then no one will really love it either. Ultimately, you want people to feel strongly about your product - you want them to feel passionately about it and talk about it to others. But if no one hates, no one will love it, and so no one will ever talk about it. In other words, having a product that everyone agrees with more or less, is like a death sentence. If no one hates your product, no one loves it either, and no one will feel strongly enough to go out and buy it.

I know that you as a person are not a product. And yes, focus groups are usually collecting feedback about products. But the principles of product development are the same with people. You want people to feel something about you. Positive or negative, you want to provoke a feeling. If you don’t provoke anything, you will blend in with everyone else and you’ll never stand out. If complacency and comfort are important to you, then go on being agreeable.

But if you want to be remarkable and extraordinary and you want to stand out, then give up being agreeable. Just stop it – because it won’t serve you well.

Instead, be logical. And be passionate and enthusiastic and honest and authenthic. Authenticity and passion will help you be successful in life - they will help you much much more than being agreeable.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Please Measure the Right Things

There has been a lot of writing online lately about metrics. Matt writes here about the very practical concept of white board accounting. Lots of marketing folks have been writing about conversion rates and page views and Twitter followers. I believe that measurements matter, but I also believe we need to get clear about identifying the RIGHT measurements before we get our measuring sticks out and get to work.

In my own life, I’ve been observing how easy and appealing it is for us to measure the wrong things. I don’t mean the BIG wrong things, like houses or cars or spouses or diamonds. I mean the smaller daily things that we get lulled into measuring, because they are easy to measure. We are all human, we are notoriously good at deluding ourselves, and we are fallible.

Let me share a personal example. I recently sent out an email to a large group of work colleagues, with a list of upcoming event details, with dates and times of group meetings. I prefaced it with the header “Please don’t delete this email.” A friend of mine commented later that the message worked, because he didn’t delete that email. I clarified for him however that I wouldn’t consider my email successful until he actually attended a meeting. My intention was NOT to keep emails hanging around all year, my intention was to have people attend real meetings. But that’s how we commonly think these days. We measure the “intermediate metric” because it’s easier and faster and simpler. We might keep the email in our inbox, but that doesn’t guarantee we’ll take any action.

The real things in life that are more important to measure are messier, more complicated, and more subjective. Therefore we are less likely to measure the important things. Yes you can measure how much time you spend with your spouse each week, but is it quantity or quality of time that matters most? And how exactly does one measure the quality of time? On a different subject, how would one measure career success? The traditional answer for the previous generations would be to measure the number of promotions, raises, and awards. But I think that measurement has changed significantly in the past 10-20 years. People are still people, and we all have similar basic human need, but I think that how we assess and measure those needs is evolving with every generation.

Here’s what I did over the past several months. Every day on the drive home after work, I started measuring how I felt about the work I did that day. When I say “how I felt” I don’t mean happy or sad or glad. Instead I asked myself these questions:
  • Do I feel I accomplished meaningful work that day? 
  • Do I feel I worked on projects that really made a difference? 
  • Was I energized about the work I did that day? 
  • Was I excited about the work I had in front of me tomorrow? 
I didn’t write down the answers every day, but I just made mental notes to myself. Yes these were subjective and personal measurements. Importantly, I didn’t judge myself or anyone else for the answers. I just took in all the data, and tried to identify the trends. My measurement of career success includes the degree to which I use my talents and my level of excitement and energy I have for my work. Therefore, that is what I tried to measure with my questions.

Another way of saying this is that we all need to be scientists. We all need to be rigorous and accurate about the data we collect. We could thin of our life as one huge scientific experiment. But in order for us to learn something, we need to understand the right data. Data that measures outcomes, not just activity. Yards gained does NOT equate to touchdowns scored.

Another blogger wrote a useful article that advised, “If you want to start a running routine, don’t go buy new running shoes.” The reason is that you will mistakenly consider your new shoe purchase to be a productive activity, when it’s really not. Only running will make you a runner. Everything else is superfluous. This is a very disciplined way to think.

So now I’ll ask you – what are the right things you should be measuring in your life? What matters most to you? Write that down - no more than five things that truly matter to you. Then get creative about HOW you can measure those right things. Don’t worry if the answers are messy or subjective.

Just make sure you don’t waste time measuring things that don’t matter. Life is just too short for that.