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Archive for December, 2008

Sensing Your Worth

Monday, December 29th, 2008

As we count down the last hours of 2008, let’s look at how well we did, rather than just lamenting the horrid year it’s been in general.    That action is particularly important if you’re not currently in the workforce.  One of the things we lose when we leave work behind is the regular assessment of our own performance that comes as part of any job.

It may not be an official “performance appraisal,” but the work environment has ways of letting you know whether you are doing well or not.  Maybe it’s the difficult customer who will only work with you. (Oh, joy!)  Maybe it’s the stack of papers graded or the sleeping toddlers in the nap room.  Maybe it’s the bottom line.  Maybe it’s the novel you’ve gotten far enough to leave in the bottom drawer to “steep.”  Maybe it’s the bottom of the pot you just scrubbed.

Maybe it’s billable hours, projects completed, tons of fish processed, or total sales.  Whatever it is, cherish it if you have it and look for a way to replicate it if you don’t.  Work gives us vital information about how well we are doing.  It has a lot of room for built-in feedback.  And that’s precious stuff.

Those little everyday review processes give you something you really can’t thrive without–a sense of your own competence.  So you really do want some kind of evaluation process in your life, even if paid employment isn’t currently part of the picture.

If we were doing this right from infancy, we’d be using clearly defined personal benchmarks that go beyond the current work setting as we measure our own merit.  This is rare though and hard to maintain.  My younger son used to do it via goal setting, at least before he got sucked into corporate America.  Each January, he’d rework his life goals and commit to what he wanted to make happen that year.  He’d work on making those things happen throughout the year.  Then each December, he’d do his “final reckoning” for that year’s goals and start the process all over.  Goal setting works well for young lions.

It’s a little harder to buy in on once you end up the non-rational depths of personal reality.  What good is a goal if your best strategy for the situation is to surrender to the Divine and accept life as it unfolds?  Goals serve as beacons, but they can lead you onto the rocks if they tilt because of a poor foundation.

But we need something to tell us how well we are doing.  That’s why we love games and those little tests in the Sunday paper.  We need information to confirm our own value.  We seek it even if it’s in some lame game show assessment of what you know.

Sometimes, we don’t even reach for that.  In retirement, we end up leaning on what we used to do to give ourselves validation.   Between jobs, it’s even harder not to rely on the past accomplishments to feel good about yourself.  But history is a weak second as raw material for personal worth.  Authenticity demands you stand tall on what you’re doing NOW.  How do you do that without a title?  Without the regular paycheck? Without the business cards and the company car?

This is the perfect time of year to create something better to take your cues from.  It’s a simple but powerful two step evaluation.  Assess your life with the following two questions.   They are unquenchable signal fires for your personal worth, regardless of the situation.



Your answers pretty much sum up the quality of your life.  If family is important to you, but the vast majority of your time is spent at a job you hate so you can buy stuff you don’t need, you lose,.  Even if your bonus was six figures  If you value learning and growth, but haven’t explored a new idea in six months, you lose. Even if you already hold a PhD in astrophysics and are working on the space shuttle.

To make life worthwhile, regardless of what the economy, the culture, and your favorite sports team are doing, there must be a strong link between what you believe is important and how you spend your time.

If you’re coming from your own truth, what’s important doesn’t stay behind when you leave work.  You take that commitment with you, no matter what the circumstance.  Lay off… botched bailout..organizational implosion–all are temporary obstacles if you keep your focus on doing something about what you think is important.

There is stength in doing the difficult, but only if it’s grounded in your belief that it’s important to get done.

Bailouts — When Not to Help

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

We are in interesting economic times, to be sure.  But it’s when we get into the tight spots and near the edge like this that we learn the most–both about how to deal with the difficulty and about what we are made of.

With more and more of the big companies standing in line for government help–which basically is going to come from all us little guys–the question eventually has be posed:  Who do you help and who do you deny?  This can’t be decided on politics.  And it can’t be decided by who does the smoothest job with the sales pitch to senators and members of the House.  Handing money to the wrong people is just going to prolong their agony and drain our respective wallets.  We need to be smarter about it than just saying “Well, there are a lot of people who will be out of work if this happens.”

Those who do stupid things should be left to deal with the consequences of those decisions.  How else will they learn not to do those same stupid things–or new ones–in the future?  If these were teenagers who broke curfew, that would work.  If these were individuals who broke specific laws, it would work.  But these bailout decisions are far more complex than that.  Or so those close to the negotiations are quick to tell us.

GM says we need to help them so that all those well paid union auto workers keep their jobs.  There is no guarantee that will happen if we keep them afloat.  In fact, if they are paying attention to the sales forecasts, some of those folks will get pink slips anyway.  Then they will be using the money we lent them to pay the union not to work.   Agreeing to that was pretty stupid.  While we’re at it, requiring an employer to agree to that was also pretty stupid on the part of the union.  Just where did you think they’d get that money?

Some of the people laid off will be at the auto dealerships.  Some of the companies will even go under.  This is called the bottom of the economic cycle.  It’s Economic Darwinism–an essential part of a robust economy.    When the strong survive, the economy rebounds and thrives.  When we run around trying to keep the weak outfits in business, we all lose.

Those who have come to the marketplace since the recently-departed nice long bull market started have the naive impression that downturns are not supposed to happen.  And that if they do, somebody else is supposed to fix it. Nope.  It is survival of the fittest at its best.  And if the fittest are headquartered in Japan and Korea, perhaps it’s time to develop a new strain of US automakers.

If Chrysler whines about the economy and blames that instead of their own calcified thinking for the mess they are in, are we helping anyone by letting them continue that delusion?  And if Ford can make it “but it will be close,”  then make it, dammit.  Put your hand back on your pocket.

I personally don’t want to give the maker of the Hummer two cents  It was a travesty to offer that gas hog in the first place.  Nice of you to blame the consumer now that the market for it has soured.  But you bet on what that consumer was going to want.  You  lost track of one indisputable fact.  Consumers are fickle. You bet way too much money on announcing affluence and far too little on building good cars.

In tough economic times, the small business owner has a lot to teach the high paid executives.  You don’t lament the problem and go on spending money.  You cut every expense you can.  You renegotiate with suppliers.  You “make do.”  You lay people off if you have to.  You go to the employees and say “Either we figure out how to make us competitive together or the company seeks bankruptcy and you will have concessions forced on you.”  Can you imagine the mom and pop store on the corner going to the mayor and saying “We can’t make ends meet.  Give us money to do it.”?

This disaster is the result of a long series of short-sighted executive decisions.  Boards of Directors paid those executives handsomely for such decisions.  The house of cards has fallen apart and still you refuse to face reality.   Yes, good people will be affected.  The economy might worsen.  But if we give you the easy way out on this, you aren’t going to learn a thing.  Then it’s just a matter of time before we live this disaster again.

The Devastating Power of Assumptions

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

There’s an old trainer’s trick to teach the folly of assuming things about others. It breaks the word into three pieces…ass….u…me….with the admonition: “ When you make assumptions about other people, you make an ass out of you and me.” It’s a valid observation even if the word play is a bit hokey. It is tragically easy to assume the wrong things about others.

This fact was brought home to me with such intensity twice lately that I am still thinking about it. The first situation was at a meeting where I was the presenter. It was a local service club, and the members were mostly at or nearing retirement, so my topic seemed relevant and full of insight. Turned out I was the one who got the insight.

One of the members was in her 20’s and in a wheelchair. She has cerebral palsy and is not blessed with the vocal control most of us have. Throughout the meeting, she made sounds that I assumed were a reflection of her intellectual level. I assumed that she was not able to function mentally as an adult.

At the point in the meeting where members talk about the good things that have come into their lives lately and donate “happy dollars” to mark the blessings, this young woman made her way around the room in her wheelchair, collecting the dollars, even though her motor dexterity is also limited .I continued to assume she was a guest, there because her father belongs and welcomed because of his status with the group.

After the meeting, I condescendingly told her what a great job she had done collecting the money. That’s when her dad very deftly set me straight.

Yes. She has cerebral palsy .It makes her physical situation more daunting than mine, he agreed. But she is also an investment whiz. Even in this lousy economy, she’s been making money in the stock market. She’s repaid money from the Social Security Administration. She’s bought her sister a laptop computer for college. This woman is a full-fledged member of the club and had painstakingly created her initiation speech using electronic voice software, slowly typing one letter at a time. She is loved by everyone in the club and deservedly so.

I was such a callous fool to assume I knew what her situation really was. Bless her for tolerating me. Sadly, I’m not the only one she has to put up with.

A second situation was even more frustrating. The neighbors of a good friend announced they were divorcing and the wife acknowledged it was because she was not willing to be physically and verbally abused any more.

I fled from verbal abuse myself and know how difficult it is to get people to believe you when you admit what was going on. I’ve felt the heartbreak of having your own family believe your spouse is the one who’s being treated unfairly. I know how harrowing this particular situation is and how important it is to support someone who’s found the strength to get away. I try hard not to make assumptions ever, but particularly not on this.

And yet, when I heard the news, I did the same thing that hurt so badly when others did it to me. I assumed he could not have been that bad person. “He’s a nice guy,” I told myself. “He wouldn’t do something like that.”

When I caught myself in this thinking, I was devastated. If I experienced the same thing and still wanted to assume it didn’t happen to her, how could people who hadn’t had the first hand experience be willing to accept the reality of his public niceness and private meanness?

These examples are both fairly dramatic, but the challenge applies to the little everyday stuff, too. Assuming things are going a certain way when you haven’t confirmed it is just going to ratchet up your stress level. Assuming everyone knows what you need, want, or intend to do is naive and unfair. Don’t do those things!  Check out your assumptions.

Talk to each other. Be honest and straightforward about what you need, are thinking, and are planning.Relying on assumptions is the short route to misunderstanding and hurt. Check things out. Make it just “u” and “me” – no asses.