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Paying Attention to the Small Things

I like to believe that ideas, opportunities and new directions come to us all of the time. Often, they are “disguised” as every-day events, seemingly insignificant in their singularity.

Have you ever looked back at something after it happened and decide you should have known it would happen based on finding all kinds of clues? This is called “hindsight bias”. It occurs all of the time. We are good at looking backwards, connecting the dots to seemingly disconnected circumstances. Ironically, we are not very open to those same types of disconnected circumstances as they are happening. At the time, they fly by, often unnoticed or not acknowledged.

We all experience random and targeted events in our life. The chance meeting with someone at a store. The article that we read talking about some idea or concept. A near miss traffic accident. Some activity that keeps us from doing some other activity. We hear something on TV or read something on line that momentarily crosses our consciousness. Singly, they are easy to ignore or brush off as happenstance.

There is a Biblical story about the person who spreads his seeds. Some of the seeds land on the pathway and are eaten by the birds before they have a chance to grow. Some land on rocky soil. They sprout, but because their roots are not deep, they wither in the hot sun. But some of them land in good soil, get nourished by rain and eventually bear fruit.

How aware are we of the seeds being thrown our way? Do we provide a fertile ground for them? Do we pause for a minute to consider the connections the seed might have to other seeds? Or, are we hard, worn soil that does not let many things in? In the rush of time, or the refusal to acknowledge reality, do the weak roots wither and die?

It is hard to be open to messages being sent our way. We are busy, frustrated, frazzled, angry, anxious, overwhelmed, already full. We get bombarded with so many messages, it is easy to ignore them. Sometimes the act of carefully considering a message we hear is REALLY hard to do. We don’t have time. We “must” move on to whatever it was we were actually doing before being interrupted. Even if we acknowledge the message, it may challenge our conventional wisdom. It might make us reevaluate what we are doing. It may be asking us to consider something that feels like a “risk”. None of those sound like a great idea.

It is possible that we have to work hard to put together the puzzle of some very random events that occurred over a long period of time. From many different sources. But the picture may be a beautiful one. It might be life altering. It may just lead us in the right direction.

It all starts with awareness and openness. Just the act of being aware of our surroundings. Could it be as simple as taking two minutes at lunch or at the end of the day to reflect? Might the act of simply writing down two things heard, read or saw today be the start of awareness? Sharing what you experienced with someone else might shine a new light. Engage your gut feelings. Who knows what might sprout from that humble beginning?

Boredom and Procrastination might be good?

Riding in a car for a long road trip. Listening to a presenter drone on-and-on with seemingly no message to deliver. Stuck in slow-moving or stopped traffic jams for an hour. Waiting in line at the BMV. Do all of those sound boring? What if I was to tell you that might be an opportunity for growth?

In his book The Power of Boredom, philosopher Mark Hawkins describes boredom as “spaces in time containing pure creative potential available for self and life transformation.”

Who among us ever associates “boredom” with “potential”? I certainly don’t. Do any of us feel like when we are bored we might be “available” for “transformation”? Nah. But I do like to look at things in a counter-intuitive way. What if boredom was a way to potentially transform ourselves?

“Properly understood, boredom helps us understand time, and ourselves,” Gayatri Devi, a professor of English at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania wrote. “Unlike fun or work, boredom is not about anything; it is our encounter with pure time as form and content.”

“Pure” time. Not sure I am really buying that. But could we be missing the opportunity to take advantage of those idle moments and hours that are so often missed? Maybe it makes sense to fill the boredom space with curiosity and exploration. I guess you could say that you are taking those “boring minutes”, recognizing them, and turning them into something productive. I am not talking about those long, boring card rides. But think of the times you are in a boring meeting that seems to have nothing to do with your “real” work. Perhaps allowing your mind to wander will create connections you had not thought of before.

For many job seekers, boredom is a fact of life. Days that were once filled with at least eight hours of work are now filled with long periods of boredom sometime. Researchers Gasper and Middlewood feel boredom has a purpose in our lives. They write that boredom “encourages people to explore because it signals that your current situation is lacking so it’s kind of a push to seek out something new”. Let’s face it, we all face times when out “current situation is lacking”. I like “seeking out something new”. Harnessing the potential in that situation might just be the creative connection we need.

Here is another way to think of it. Most of us feel we don’t “have any time”. We are too busy. How about embracing the boring times (we all have them, no matter how busy we are) as our “me time”? Time to allow yourself some space to relax or to be creative?

It is tough to find an inspiring quote with the word “Procrastinate” in it

I tend to think of procrastination as a “distant cousin” of boredom. Procrastination is the act of postponing or not doing something. It, too, has a negative connotation. We are generally putting off something that needs to be done. You don’t very often find someone who will say “procrastination is one of my strengths”. We generally do not link procrastination with anything creative or action oriented.

But the author and professor Adam Grant wrote about the positive benefits of procrastinating in his book, Originals (even though Grant admits to hating to procrastinate). He says the reason procrastination may have benefits is that our initial thoughts are often our most conventional ones. Procrastination gives space for a person’s mind to wander, leading to more innovative ideas. Using procrastination, we actually get creative. He sites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as two examples where the speaker waited until the last minute to finish the address. That is not to say they waited to start the address. They had written and revised it many times over a period of time, honing their thoughts as creative points surfaced. But they allowed procrastination to enrich the message, up until the last minute.

So long as you’re delaying your work with the explicit idea of coming back to it, Grant says in a recent TED talk, “procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”

Procrastinating doesn’t work in all cases. If you really wait until the last minute to do something, you’ll probably find yourself scrambling to cobble something together haphazardly. The work won’t be creative; it’ll be desperate. To arrive at something truly unique, you always need the slow and sometimes frustrating ingredient of time. That is Grant’s basic idea. Use that time by starting on an idea, then let it sit for a while. Allow yourself time to make connections and arrive at creative thoughts.

I have found myself looking at how I do major things like presentations and even these blog posts. I am not a person than anyone would call a “procrastinator”. I plan things out. I don’t like to be late. I don’t like deadlines to sneak up on me. I have never been one to “cram” at the very last minute. But I realize I am using procrastination to make my work better. By getting started, then leaving it sit, I find my mind working on the post or the presentation in the background. Ideas pop into my head later, and I incorporate them. I might eventually write five revisions of a post. Not because it was necessarily “bad”. No, it’s because I found a more creative or more interesting way to express things.

Heck, maybe I am taking advantage of those “boring” times to “encounter” my ideas in a more interesting way. So the next time you find yourself bored or procrastinating, think about how you might use the time to be creative or to make new connections in your thoughts.

The Message in Misfortune

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts is receiving justifiable praise for a commencement address he recently gave at his son’s middle school graduation. He provides a lot of thoughts for the young men. But I believe he is speaking to all of us. His message is one that reminds us why we have misfortune in life. He asks us to think about how we react to the misfortune because this is how we are defined. He says:

“From time to time, I hope that you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I wish that you will be lonely from time-to-time, so that you don’t take friends for granted.”

Value justice. Importance of loyalty. Long-lasting friendship.

I think all of us would agree that these are among the most important traits to have in our lives. All of us wish to experience them. But do we ever think about the fact that they sometimes must come about through the pain of suffering their opposites?  Unfairness. Betrayal. Loneliness. Are we willing to suffer through those painful moments in order to find the joy that comes? No one wants to suffer, but his point magnifies the idea that if we don’t experience some setbacks in life, we take the good things for granted.

The Chief Justice goes on to say this:

“I wish you bad luck, from time-to-time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”

Who of us hasn’t suffered bad luck? The definition of “chance” is that we are not in control. That is, unfortunately, a big part of life. Chief Justice Roberts was sending a message to all of us on that day. We may be going through some tough times. I know a lot of people who are out of work, or are unhappy with work that they have. It is human nature to wonder “why me?”. Perhaps the answer is in this address. Sometimes it is only through pain, or having to live through the opposite of what we really want, that we finally achieve our goals. Maybe the contrast between the “unlucky” or “lonely” or “losing” state and “chance”, “friendship”, and “sportsmanship” serves to sharpen our view.

There is also a strong message for all of us to think outside ourselves for a moment. I really love this line from his speech, “understand . . . the failure of others is not completely deserved either”. We lose sight sometimes that bad things happen to good people. Some people have a cloud over their head, seeming to go from one pitfall to another. It is easy to categorize them in many ways, when perhaps the word “chance” is simply the answer. We also take our own good luck for granted some days. As he says, do we always “deserve” good fortune? The hubris it takes to believe we “deserve” good fortune might be blinding us to the reality of life. Plus, we might actually take good fortune for granted.

“whether you benefit from them or not, (your success) will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes”

We can’t explain, or quickly fix, misfortunes. Maybe it makes sense to look back at a tough time in your life and see how you grew from that event. It was probably very painful at the time, but hopefully you are a better person now. If you are out of a job today, I hope Justice Roberts’ words help you find some strength to push forward.

One last thought. Sometimes, our service to others is the way forward. We can all help others, sometimes in ways that seem small at the time but can actually be big in the end. Even if we choose our service in a simple way as Justice Roberts notes – by smiling and greeting everyone we meet along the way, no matter what their station in life. Who knows the impact that might have on the other person that day? After all, as he says, “the worst thing is you will become known as the (person) who smiles and says hello”. Now wouldn’t that be a great tag line to have on your LinkedIn profile?

If you want to listen to the speech, it is here

Never give up . . ?????

The Wharton College professor and author Adam Grant recently gave a graduation speech at Utah State University. In his speech, one of his themes was around persistence and grit.  He said: “Never give up is bad advice. Sometimes quitting is a virtue. Grit doesn’t mean “keep doing the thing that’s failing.” It means “define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.”

“Never give up is bad advice” – Adam Grant

He went on to provide an example. He explained that as a young person, he always wanted to be a basketball player. But his lack of size and lack of ability – despite lots of practice – meant he got cut from his junior high basketball team. So he turned to diving and made the Junior Olympics twice. If he hadn’t “given up” basketball, he never would have gotten to diving. His “failure” led to success in a totally different venture.

He goes on to say “So don’t give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans.”

I am a guy who likes to plan everything, so that almost sounds heretical to me at first. But actually, I like the sound of that. Values are second nature to us. They are what really makes us who we are. But plans are totally different.  One definition of a plan is “a detailed proposal to complete something”. Those are the things I do all the time! But it can also mean an “intention or desire to do something”. An “intention”, that sounds simply like an idea. Sometimes our plans are unrealistic. It is possible to create an unrealistic plan, I know I have done it. But if you are willing to think of your plan, even if it is a detailed proposal, as an “intention”, it might be easier to rethink it.

None of us likes to be a quitter (“a person who gives up easily or does not have the courage or determination to finish a task”). It never sounds good. But sometimes creating a new frame around reconsidering an action can allow us to see it in a new way. There are times when sticking with something can be a sign of stubbornness. Other times, we can be complacent. We decide to stick with something because we don’t want to spend time creating a Plan B. Stubborn and complacent don’t sound that great either, do they?

How many people do you know that are unhappy with their current job? They go through the motions, complaining about their lot in life or their boss. But ask them “why do you keep doing it then?” and you get an amazed look. I encounter the same thing with people looking for a new job. Are they stubborn? Complacent? Don’t want to be labeled a quitter?

“Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags. Other times it comes from having the courage to admit your flaws.”

So why don’t we quit? Is it because the word has a negative connotation? Is it because we might have to “admit our flaws” as Grant says? What if we reflected on the phrase “never give up” in a slightly different way? “Never give up” can mean not abandoning your values, but instead moving on from a bad situation. You aren’t “giving up”, you are letting go so you can grow elsewhere.

The power of “I wonder . . .”

I just finished a most interesting book, “Wait, Why” by James E Ryan. The book is a short read on the Five Essential Questions we all ought to be asking everyday.

One particular paragraph got me thinking (I guess I should say it got me curious). Ryan writes:

This leads to the final point about asking “I wonder why” and “I wonder if”. These are questions that are useful to ask not simply about the world around you, but to ask yourself. . . I believe it’s healthy and productive to remain curious about yourself. Why do you have certain habits? Why do you like certain places, foods, events, and people, and what if others you would like just as much, if you gave them a chance? Why do new experiences make you nervous? Why are you quiet in meetings or shy at parties? Why are you easily distracted? Why do you sometimes lose your patience with certain members of your family? And what if you tried to change those things about yourself that you would really like to change? Or, just as importantly, what if you just accepted some of those things as part of who you are?

That’s a great paragraph for me. It asks a lot of questions. But aren’t questions a great way to get answers? We so often say or think “that’s just the way I am”. We can skip past understanding certain characteristics about ourselves, chalking them up to experiences or the way we grew up. After all, we have been successful so far in life, so what we are doing must be working. Okay. But I wonder if I could be different if I was willing to spend some time trying to understand myself. I wonder why I am the way I am. And does “that way I am” always serve me well?

I believe many of us are “in our heads” quite often. But most of that conversation is a monologue. It is our perception spit back at ourselves. It is us telling ourselves who we are, why we do what we do, and how we always should act. It is usually not original thinking. It is like a parrot mimicking the words spoken.

Sometimes we actually do have a dialogue. However, it tends to be with previously-prepared questions and off-the-shelf answers. We have already heard that conversation before. It is almost like a really bad tv interview, where the interviewer lets the interviewee know all the questions beforehand. So the answers come back banal and rote memorized. Who gets much out of those interviews? Who of us really likes to listen to them?

“I believe it is healthy and productive to remain curious about yourself”

When we use the approach suggested in the paragraph at the start, the world opens up to us. Now we are asking ourselves questions we have not asked in a while – or perhaps ever. “I wonder what it would be like to get up every day and look forward to work?”. “I wonder if I could try something different?” “I wonder why I don’t talk to that person about what they do for a living?” “I wonder why I am not getting any job offers?” “I wonder if I tried something different, if I would get a different outcome?”

I get it. You might not like the answer to the questions. You might not even have an answer. Guess what, we don’t always have the answer. That’s what learning is for. Go take a class, read a book, listen to a podcast or go on an informational interview. Sometimes we need others – partner, friend, co-worker, coach, mentor – to help us work through the answer. Even just asking the question and pondering it for a while is personal growth. Taking that first step offers a chance for a new direction.

Isn’t it important to get to know the most vital person in our lives – ourselves – a little better?

Sometimes to manage expectations, you need to just “do it”

I recently got back from a trip to Zion National Park in Utah. It was a great time with some great views to remember. I challenged myself with some tough, but rewarding hikes. But I was reflecting on two different set of expectations I had. How I anticipated them. How I acted on them. And how they ended up. I believe these expectations are a metaphor for some of our expectations in job and career search.

The first challenge was Angel’s Landing. The Zion web site characterizes it this way: “Long drop-offs. Not for young children or anyone fearful of heights. Last section is a route along a steep, narrow ridge to the summit.

This little character is the Park Services way of warning you. That is a person falling off the edge of a cliff!

For someone like me, who has a fear of heights, this was a really scary hike. I was very nervous beforehand, wondering if I could complete the hike. In fact, I was prepared to stop before the last half mile, which was the really scary part (I could justify that I already did 2 tough miles). In the last half mile, I needed to be able to climb along a cliff edge, sometimes only six feet wide. Some of the climbing required using a chain lodged in the rock to help you climb up.

Once we got to the last half mile, I decide to go for it. We went early enough in the morning that it was not very crowded, so I could take my time. I have to admit, I spent most of that last part staring at the two feet in front of me as I climbed (inched?) up. I did not want to look up to see the next challenge. I definitely did not want to look left or right to see the drop off from the rocks. Looking back? Forget it!

That’s me in the picture. Does my body language say “confidence”?

I made it. The view was amazing. But the satisfaction of overcoming a fear was even more special. Of course, we still had to go back down the way we came. In my mind, I anticipated this being harder (more anticipation!). The descent would be more crowded, so I would have to negotiate around people. There was no avoiding looking down, that was the direction we were headed!

Reality was the climb down was way easier than expected. I had the confidence that I had tracked up the mountain against all odds. I had that accomplishment in my back pocket.

Which gets me to lesson #1. Ever felt like what I just described on a work or personal task? “Whoa, I don’t know if I can do this”. “Tell me again why I would want to do this to myself”? “I don’t think I should apply for that job, I just won’t get it”. I am sure we all have. Taking the first step is the key. Once you get going, you have a little momentum. You might still embarrass yourself. If anyone looked closely at me, they would have seen my terror. To be honest, in that climb who is paying any attention to me? If they are on this climb, they are either as scared as me or they are enjoying the view along the way. That’s what happens to most of the things we do. We imagine others’ reactions, when they in fact are so wrapped in themselves we are invisible to them.

The second hike was The Narrows. I was REALLY looking forward to this hike. It is one of the most unique hikes I know of. You hike, in the water, against the current of a river through a very narrow canyon. There are some times where the water is above your knees. By the way, the water is 52 degrees. As one person characterized the hike, “it is like walking on slippery bowling balls”. The river has deposited tons of rocks, most of which have algae growing on them, making them slippery. Okay, so maybe that does not sound “exciting” to you. But it was to me.

On this hike, I needed to manage expectations in a different way. I was so excited, to do this hike, how could it meet my expectations? Was I already too anticipatory to truly enjoy it?

So that is lesson #2. When you are excited for something, anticipating a great event, live the moment. Remember why you are there. Take in each sight, sound, feeling as it is happening. Don’t jump forward to what “might be”. It is said that sometimes the anticipation is greater than the event. You don’t need to curb your enthusiasm. But don’t be so wrapped up in trying to anticipate “what’s next” that you missed “what is happening”!

I think that happens to job seekers. We get so wrapped up in preparing for the interview for “the best job”. We get excited when we perceive the interview is going well. We think about the next question, our next response, our next great story. And perhaps we miss an opportunity to really clarify a point. Or we miss the fact that the interviewer was being nice, but did not fully appreciate our story. By letting our excitement for the larger event (the interview) overtake our awareness of the moment (the interviewer’s reaction) we miss an opportunity.

You could probably come up with your own examples of highly-anticipated situations that did or did not meet expectations. Were you present in the moment? Did you simply “do it”?



We all face burdens. Sometimes the barriers in our way seem so high, so large that they cannot be surmounted. So we don’t try. But just when you think you don’t want to face the barriers, an unecpected event challenges your conventional thinking.

I don’t watch much television. But this past week, I watched and was moved by a wonderful singer on America’s Got Talent named Mandy Harvey. Her story provides the inspiration for all of us. At age 18, Mandy was struck with an illness and was rendered totally deaf. After a period of mourning, she has picked herself up and is a singer. More than a singer, she also plays an instrument and writes her own melody and words. And remember, she is DEAF!

The title of the song she sang on the show was “Try”. You can listen here (it’s only a 2-minute long song)

The lyrics resonate:

“I don’t feel the way I used to
The sky is grey much more than it is blue
But I know one day I’ll get through
And I’ll take my place again

If I would try

So I will Try

There is no one for me to blame
cause I know the only thing in my way
Is Me

I don’t live the way I want to
That whole picture never came into view
But I’m tired of getting used to
The Day
So I will try

If I would Try”

“I know the only thing in my way is me“. Can it be said any better? We all underestimate our ability, our power, our capability to overcome. If we can only recognize that we are in our own way. It may take someone else to help us realize that, but there is real power in knowing we are the barrier. Because “me” can be changed and overcome.

Sometimes the burdens are heavy (“the sky is grey more than it is blue”). I am not downplaying all that we have going on in our lives. But progress only asks for that three letter word, “try”. In Mandy’s case, her career was suddenly, unexpectedly crushed. Her desire to sing seemed to end. How do you come back from being rendered deaf, when your whole life has been dedicated to singing? That is a pretty huge barrier.

Perhaps you are out of job and growing more disenchanted with the job search. Maybe you are in a job you hate, but the “whole picture won’t come into view”. You, or someone you know, might be frozen by anxiety, self doubt or fear. Sometimes finances can be a very large barrier to progress, hold you in place, or cause you to make rash decisions. But Mandy’s example, and her lyrics, point to another way.

So I will Try

I like the way she transitions from “if” (“if I would try”) to “I will” (“so I will try”). That is the first step. The acknowledgement that “if” I would try, perhaps something will come of it. I would think in her case, there were few clear paths, or trails that someone else blazed that she could follow. Her path could not have been clear. Isn’t that what many of us face?

I hope your challenges are not as big as Mandy’s (I don’t believe mine are). Like Mandy, find the courage to move forward – even if the next step after the first one is not apparent. Dare to challenge the perceptions of what is possible or not. Be willing to go in front of others (in her case, thousands of people) and TRY.