On right questions, open doors and staying on top of your game

The other day a friend called from across the state. She was considering a job in another part of the country in an area where I grew up, and she wanted to know what it was like to live there. We talked about it, but the conversation soon shifted from the locale to the new job and what she’d be doing.

My friend is a smart, articulate, good thinker. But, even the smartest among us can get confused—especially when seemingly easy decisions become complex as heaps of personal and professional issues get piled on. That’s where my friend was at the moment.

Been there. Done that myself. Here are three ideas to consider.

Castle portalFirst, get the question right. For my friend, the question seemed to be, “Should I take the job?” Ultimately, that’s not a bad question. Yes, the job would bring her closer to her family, it paid well, and it was very stable. These were important criteria for my friend.

But the answer to a different question gave another perspective. When asked if she’d really enjoy doing the work, the answer was, “Not really.” My friend is an outgoing, fun-loving person who spends most of her work time helping people solve problems. The new job (call it “a heads down job”) would entail much individual work with little interaction with others. Even though it would address some of her important criteria, long term it wouldn’t be a good fit.

But this seemed like one of the only jobs that would get her closer to her family. Not taking it was troublesome.

Here’s where the second idea comes in: Look for other doors to open. In the same way that there are rarely (if ever) single right answers to problems, there are always other opportunities on the horizon. The belief in limitation or even defeat is self-fulfilling. Accepting that there are options and other possibilities presents a series of opening doors—if only we are willing to see them.

In my friend’s case, we talked about the people who would, based on her reputation, be willing to explore options with their colleagues. She turned the job down and is actively looking for the next open door (or window for that matter).

And finally, stay on top of your game. That’s right up there with some of mom’s other wisdom such as always wearing clean underwear. Staying on top of your game can get difficult during times of change, but it’s essential to delivering your best performance, doing it consistently and being ready for the next opportunity that comes along.

Although my friend is usually on her game, some of us may not be—especially if we’re in what feels like a dead end job, or one we’ve taken because it was all that was available. As a result, we may take on a half-hearted attitude, just putting in the hours and hoping for something better to come along. Maybe you’ve run into someone like this or been there yourself at some point.

One way around this (or through it, as the case may be) is to find “the hook” you can buy into as your reason for being there. Maybe you provide customer service today, but your real goal in life is to be in marketing or to be a teacher. The hook might be to be the best at what you currently do: to be enthusiastic, provide good information and advice, and to help your customers be successful.

This may sound a bit pie-in-the-skyish, but it works because it focuses us on the moment and what is going on, not on a future that has yet to materialize. All the while, you’re doing your best, a best that people around you see and appreciate. It’s not that you don’t think about the future, make plans and follow up. Those are all good things to do. Rather, you deliver the best you can at the moment without reservation or holding back.

It’s not always easy, that’s for sure. But it helps you find the right questions and to be alert and ready for the next doors to open.

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Learning from my dad’s garden

The brightly colored carpet of flowers stretched against the stark, steely gray concrete of a Boise, Idaho freeway. The blooms were an oddly out-of-place reminder of my father and his passion for gardening.

photoI never really understood his fascination with the summer garden he’d begin planning each spring as soon as the crocuses started poking through the front lawn. These small, unassuming flowers were, it seemed, a sort of terrestrial calendar for him—their dark green blades and understated pastel petals marked a “countdown to the planting.”

If the selection of plants and their placements in his garden seemed random, it was hardly that. Random required a draftsman’s table and t-square. White alyssum was always the choice for a front border. “White brings out the color of the other plants,” he’d say. Dahlias would mark the garden’s chest high, rearmost edge.

Between the two were vibrant, colored annuals—asters, carnations, chrysanthemums—magnets for bees and butterflies and his Saturday morning attention. I could understand the insects’ interest in our backyard. But the time he spent carefully picking off dead blossoms and fending off interloping weeds was, to me, a pure waste. After all, weren’t there bikes to be ridden and friends to be played with?

During the summer, the garden would find its way into the house where my mom would arrange its gifts in containers and place them on the dinner table or piano. Sometimes the selections would be shades of just yellows or reds or pinks. At others, they’d mirror the mélange of the garden.

Today, in Boise I began to understand Saturdays in the Garden. Though the garden was a source of beauty, it was also a place of ritual, an important anchor for the rest of my dad’s week. It was a space of solace, a place to be mindful, a time to tend ideas not yet ready for fall or winter.

I only presume that the flowers were better because of my father’s thoughtful attention to them although, if I were a betting man, I’d put money on it. I do know that they made him a better dad, husband and friend, if only because the garden gave him time to think, reflect and plant for the future.

Thanks, dad.