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.


Being the change

DENVER, COLORADO. It’s not your usual story about restaurants, food, or about prices and cash registers.

It’s about serving people, serving dignity, and serving hope.

You see, when you have lunch at SAME Café, you become part of a larger mission of helping others, So All May Eat.

picture-201SAME Café, sandwiched between local bars, thrift stores and tattoo parlors on East Colfax Avenue, is the loving work of Brad and Libby Birky. “We think that everybody deserves to eat well,” says Brad. They started the small restaurant by borrowing from their own retirement accounts when no bank would lend them money.

The menu changes daily and features soups, salads and pizza, using mostly organic ingredients prepared fresh by chef Brad.

Customers place their food order and receive a small envelope in which they put their donation for the food they eat. There is no cash register, credit card machine or change drawer. Some pay sparingly. Others are extremely generous. Others can’t pay. They are encouraged to donate an hour doing dishes, sweeping floors, wiping tables, doing some mopping.

Today, with the economy, SAME Café finds more people volunteering.

Despite that, affluent couples mix with those in need. Each enjoys the good food, the chance to be warm and to sit and chat.

One news reporter likened SAME to Gandhi’s admonition to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Brad and Libby are inspiring builders of a better society. One thing we know is that there are many other Brads and Libbys out there. Their spirit of giving is part of who we are, too. The question is how we will pass it on to others.

You can visit www.soallmayeat.org to learn more or make a contribution and you can watch the NBC News report on SAME Cafe here.


Creating art from words

Thanks to a friend, I was introduced to this really cool website that literally turns words into an art form. Wordle.net creates “word clouds” in which the most used words take a more prominent place than lesser used ones. Commonly used words like “a,” and “the,” are left out, leaving only the major ones to find their place in a Wordle.

The program is the brainchild of Jonathan Feinberg who, on IBM’s nickel, produced this amazing piece of code that’s entirely free to all of us. Feinberg, who claims the site gets about ten hits a second, collaborated with a couple dozen people-among them artists, software developers, Java experts-to visually depict the power of language.

Although uses for Wordle seem more whimsical than practical, a word cloud, if studied, can say much about the meaning of a speech, phrase or letter, etc. Here, for example, is a word cloud of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech using the program’s standard setting which automatically filters out commonly used words.picture-14In this rendition, “new,” “nation” and “America” seem to be the most frequently used by the new President.

However, a different pattern emerges when automatic filtering is turned off.

picture-15In this version, “our” (used 68 times in the address) and “we” (62 times) are most prominent.

And, it would seem that Obama is saying…?

The way it’s supposed to be

The water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 and the rescue of all 155 aboard is truly a tremendous feat, if not-as some say-a miracle. The quick thinking of the pilot and co-pilot, the decisive actions of flight attendants, the passengers’ relative calm in the midst of chaos, and the flawless, timely rescues by passing boats and helicopters made for a tragedy that could have been, but wasn’t.

_45384654_-18Who among us didn’t feel a sense of awe as we took in television or radio accounts of The Miracle on the Hudson, as it’s been dubbed?

But, what we should also recognize is that all that surrounded The Miracle was “the way it’s meant to happen.” Well, except for the birds in the engines, that is.



Quick thinking.



The system worked! Think about that. That’s the way it is supposed to be.

Who did not go home that day thinking, “I’m honored to have done my part. I was in the right place at the right time.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that passengers would heap mounds of praise on the crew and that both passengers and crew would heap mounds of praise on the rescuers. Each would probably say, “I was just doing my job.”

In fact, one of the rescuers, a scuba diver, described the training that equipped him to work in freezing Hudson River water that is totally black just inches beneath the surface. When submerged, they couldn’t see anything, so they worked by feel.

When a reporter asked if he felt fear when he jumped from the hovering helicopter, he paused, then said, “No, there wasn’t time for that. There were just people to be rescued from the freezing water.”

There are many lessons from this, but one stood out to me today while at the drive through window of a local fast food restaurant, the one with yellow arches outside. Oftentimes, such places don’t attract the most enthusiastic workers. For many, it’s just a job and a way to pay the bills which often gets played out as disinterest and rudeness.

I couldn’t see the woman who took my order, but her voice came clearly and professionally through the speaker. After carefully repeating my order and giving me the total, she concluded with a confident, “Thank you for your order, sir. Please pull forward at your convenience.”

I handed her the money when I reached the window. She was a 50s-something African American woman with graying hair pulled tightly away from her face. I inquired if she was the person who took my order. “Yes,” she said, “why do
you ask?”

I looked her in the eyes and said, “Because I have never been treated so professionally here. You have lots to teach others about customer service.”

As I said it, I thought about the people whose actions lead to the safe outcome of Flight 1549. Someone was there to thank them–even though they were just “doing their jobs” just like this woman.

Her eyes sparkled. The smile on her face was real. “You just made my day,” she said.

As I pulled away I couldn’t help but think, “That, too, is the way it’s supposed to be.”

A concert at the train station

On a cold January morning at the L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington DC, a man, non-descript and dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap, pulled a worn violin from the case at his feet and began to play six classical pieces. picture-7

It was about three minutes into the performance when a middle aged man briefly slowed his pace and then hurried up to stay on schedule.

Another moment went by before a woman threw money in the open case, his first tip.

A man leaned against a wall to listen, glanced at this watch and moved on.

It was a three-year-old boy who appeared most fascinated. But he was hurried along by his mother who pushed hard as the child turned his head, struggling to hear the music.

The violinist finished playing. There was no applause. No recognition. The metro station was silent—or at least as silent as a metro station can be.

By actual count, 1097 people listened as they hurried past the 43 minute concert, most on their way to work. Just six people stopped. About 20 gave money totalling $32.17.

joshua_bellWhat wasn’t apparent was the identity of the player. It was Joshua Bell, notably one of the world’s best musicians, who performed some of the most intricate and mesmerizing violin music ever written for the focused commuters. He played an instrument made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari and worth a reported $3.5 million. Only two days earlier, he sold out a Boston performance where tickets averaged $100. Bell, who usually commands $1000 per minute in concert, would have averaged about $40 per hour that day.

The story behind the story is this: It was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post. Bell, performing incognito, was a test about perception, taste and priority. What would happen if you put a classically trained and dressed-down virtuoso in a train station at an early morning hour? Would the preoccupied commuters perceive his talent? Appreciate it? Would people recognize a gift when it presents itself in an unexpected context?

The experiment raises manifold questions. One that comes to mind is this: Would you or I have stopped to listen or would we have moved on quickly and passed up a nearly priceless seat at the concert-cum-social experiment?

Note: Versions of this story (some more accurate than others) have appeared on the Web. The complete account, a Pulitzer Prize winning article from The Post, can be found here. The video is cool, too.

Does this subplot play out in your life, too?

He wants to be a hard news reporter. But it turns out that John’s real gift is writing columns about happenings in his own and others’ lives. Connecting with readers in a personal way brings him energy and enthusiasm. His editor calls his work “a national treasure” or, at least, a “regional” one (if I remember the line correctly.)

picture-33His full name is John Grogan. You might recognize him as the author of the bestselling book Marley & Me which was just released in movie form over the holidays.

The main story line is, of course, Marley the dog and his penchant for disobedience in pretty much any form one might imagine. Grogan’s dubbing him “the world’s worst dog” is a well-deserved rap in both book and movie.

But within the Marley movie is a small, easily-missed subplot about the author (played by Owen Wilson) and his struggle (perhaps that’s too strong a word) to pursue his life in his own way as a newspaper reporter, instead of using the gift that brings him, his wife (played by Jennifer Aniston), and thousands of readers much pleasure.

I would have missed the significance of this subplot had it not been for a colleague’s account of seeing the movie with her soon-to-be husband. “Like many of us,” she said, “We think we’re supposed to be doing one thing, when it’s another that we get so much personal and professional satisfaction from.”

It’s unfortunate that many of us feel the same way. For whatever reasons, we’re doing good work but we’d really love to do other things. In some cases, we may be completely dissatisfied with what we’re doing.

Can we make money doing what we really like to do?

Marsha Sinetar thinks so. She’s an organizational psychologist and author of the book Do What You Love the Money Will Follow. She poses four questions:

1. What is my real life’s purpose? (What do I want to have accomplished when I look back upon my life in old age?)

2. How, specifically would I have to think, speak and act in order to bring that purpose into being? (What habits would I need to cultivate and what would I have to delete from my present life to live out my true purpose?)

3. What activities—what actual daily choices, attitudes and concrete accomplishments—would I do if I lived as if my purpose meant something to me?

4. How would I live, on a day to day basis, if I respected myself, others, my life’s purpose?

So, what do you love to do?

Here’s another post that looks at this topic from a different angle.

The book, its cover, and slowing down

It’s an unusual art project that was recently unveiled in the small town of Cochrane, Alberta, Canada. The effort offers learning at many levels, not the least of which is that what we initially see and experience may be quite different upon closer inspection.

picture-32Take “Trust,” Cochrane’s art project, for example (shown on the right).

From a distance, the painting appears to be a young cowboy and horse providing each other comfort and support. But when you look carefully, you find not a single painting, but 216 of them, each a foot square, each a complete painting in itself.

Founding artist Lewis Lavoie calls it a mural mosaic.

He creates a master image then designates panels to numerous artists who are provided color guidelines and, perhaps, some shapes to use. But each is free to create, so long as it fits within the theme of the mural. Lavoie points out that, unlike photo mosiacs which are individual photographs arranged like pixels using a computer, mural mosaics are fully hand painted by individual artists.

To see for yourself, go here. Click on any single image to see the individual artist’s contribution to “Trust.” Creating “Trust” is an illustration of teamwork and of appreciating how an individual’s contribution can be part of a greater tapestry. It’s a lesson in diversity.

It is also an example of what a friend, his wife and I were talking about as we discussed the old admonition to not judge a book by its cover. “I heard a father give advice to his son,” my friend said, “Judge slowly.”

How easily and how often we rush to conclusions about people or events without really understanding them. In fact, the world often rewards decisions and smart conclusions that get us to the bottom line quickly. Even author Malcolm Gladwell pontificated on the topic in his best selling book, “Blink,” in which he concluded that we’re able to make decisions with far less data than we thought.

I don’t mean to argue with a noted author (he gets, after all, big bucks to discuss his blinking theory), I just suggest that we can often miss the richness and beautiful complexity of events and people by judging too quickly.

Without getting closer to “Trust,” would we have looked into the horse’s eye to find a boy who is hang gliding, or at the cowboy’s finger to see a peasant woman gathering grain? Each painting is its own message, yet each is part of the whole—much like you and me.

If we should ever doubt our significance in the scheme of things, we only need to step back to see the bigger mosaic to which we contribute. And, if we think that our significance is greater or lesser than anothers’, perhaps we should think about it from a different standpoint: which is the most important painting in the painting?

The answer is none is more important than the other. In fact, the bigger painting cannot exist without the little ones. And the little ones exist to make the whole. We’re all important, all valuable, all needed.

“Judge slowly,” the father said to his son. Judge slowly.