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Archive for December, 2013

Ending 2013

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

We are to that point in the calendar where we officially write THE END on the current year.  Each of us comes up with our own rituals for marking this.  It’s different for me now that I’ve “given up work”–not as straightforward or obvious.

When I was in corporate America, Dec. 31 was my favorite work day–partly because most of the office had taken vacation and I could get a ton of work done.  But every Dec. 31, after everything else was buttoned up, I’d also spend an hour reflecting on the year that was ending.  There were always things to point to that made me proud, excited, happy.  It was a great little ritual because it never occurred to me to dwell on what had gone wrong.  I left the office and walked into the new year with confidence.

Now, I’m not so good at that.  It’s tempting to tell myself that it’s because I haven’t gotten anything done in the dying year that justifies being happy, proud, or excited.

But I can finally see that’s not really what’s going on.  (Thank heavens!)

Once we are out on our own, it’s harder to set a course and stay on it.  That’s one of the side effects of that flexibility retirement blesses us with.  As we age, things tend to get less predictable as well.  Illness or injury quite often, but also opportunities that make us veer off course from the things we said we were going to do.  Two weeks in Mexico with the perfect travel companion?  Of course the volunteer work you were going to find can wait.   A friend with a litter of puppies that have him overwhelmed?  You love puppies–why not help out?

So how do you assess a year once you’ve given up the annual goal setting process at work?  Do you even need to ask “Was this a good year?”

I think we do.  All of us want to be competent and deciding that the year was done well is an example of that.   But the parameters need to change.

Instead of looking at work projects and milestones with kids (graduations, potty training, whatever), at this point we need to ask ourselves more personal questions.  These are the ones I’m going to use day after tomorrow when I end this year:

  • Did I do the things I felt were important?
  • Was I authentic in how I lived this year?
  • Did I offer kindness when I had the chance?
  • What did I create?
  • How did I have fun?
  • If I was starting again on January 1, 2013, what would I do differently?

That last one is just to prime the pump for 2014.  Endings are beginnings after all.  As I close this chapter, I’m laying the foundation for the next one.

It’s not about whether you meet all those goals anymore.  It’s about how well you’ve lived this particular chunk of your life.  Only you know what’s important about that, so find the questions that resonate for you.  And then be happy, excited and proud of all you did with the last twelve months.

Happy New Year!





About “Experts”

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

How much of what we get from people who call themselves “experts” is truly helpful?  We seem to be in a societal groove that assumes “somebody else knows what I should do here better than I do.”  Is that so?  Is that even realistic to assume is possible?

Last week I did a session for a group of life coaches that billed me as an expert (with my concurrence) on non-financial retirement issues.  I did not feel good about that session.  I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since.  What I am discovering is a surprise–and a relief.  I do not want to play the “expert” role.  I do not like being an expert.  I like helping.  Those two things are different.

There’s an old joke that defines expert is the combination of “ex”–a has-been–and “spurt”–a drip under pressure.  Not very flattering.  And probably true more often not.  Why, as a society, do we value “experts” so highly?

The amount of information now available for any significant decision  makes it impossible to have a complete grasp of exactly what’s needed and how to go about making the right things happen single-handedly.   Finding someone to help sort the situation out–so you working with the best information–and to help identify what needs to be done–decisions, actions, etc.–is a major plus.  That kind of expert is a treasure.  Sometimes you pay those people; sometimes they are family members or friends.

Too often these days though, “experts” jump up to offer services before you even ask.  These “expert” practices are designed more to make them money than to give you help. These are the experts you don’t need.

But how do you winnow out the people offering themselves as “experts” who–well intentioned and personally committed as they might be–really aren’t useful to you in what you’re trying to do?

I keep dancing back and forth on this dilemma.  I don’t like the idea of being an expert.  So that devalues the role for me significantly.  But I also know I need help from people better versed in what I am ignorant about but need to get on with.  Right now, my experts include a plumber, an HVAC guy, the folks who will install carpet next week, my accountant, and my financial advisor.  In a few weeks, that list will also include my sons and brothers–who are far better than I am at getting large pieces of furniture from where I am now to where I am going to live then.  These are practical experts.  No problem using them and paying them as the situation dictates.  (Sometimes that’s money; sometimes it’s “Thank you!”)

But every day I am bombarded with people who want to show me how to grow my business, create a better social media presence, lose weight, etc.  These people approach me–which is the first red flag.  If I don’t know I need the help, using it–even if I do get it once I sign the contract–isn’t likely.

Some other red flags:

Does working with this person help?  I’ve spent money on people who didn’t have a clue about what I was trying to do or what the details of my project were–even after I provided information on both.  These people offer the same cookie-cutter solution for any problem a client describes.  If the solution is already laid out in a glossy brochure, it’s probably not the solution you need (unless you’re looking for a product rather than an effective problem-solving process).

Is working with this person about YOU?  The “expert” who goes on and on about what she or he knows isn’t valuable no matter how much he knows and how much he charges.  The focus needs to be on your problem or project, not on how wonderful the expert is.  If you find yourself mesmerized by “war stories” about previous clients and wanting to be them, get outta there!

Is this something someone else could even know how to approach?  Very often, we turn to experts when what we really need is to turn inward and learn our own truth.  Having some well-paid third party tell you to lose weight or ditch the unsupportive significant other or buy a house is so much easier than accepting that reality yourself.  But that other person’s opinion doesn’t get you very far in terms of staying motivated.  A good expert in that kind of context gets you off the dime so that you start to do what needs to be done yourself.

Being an expert is not a good gig.  It’s too easy to get caught up in “being the expert” which dilutes your ability to help solve the current problem well.  So please don’t seek me as an expert.  I can tell you what I see from my perspective in terms of what you’re trying to do.  I can help you find the right information in my area of expertise.  I can explain concepts that you don’t understand and offer insights that I’ve gained from working on the same kind of problem with other people.  But I don’t want to offer you a canned solution or to have you  rely on me to make your decision.  You need to do that.  Period.


Do You Ask for Help?

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

This time of year, we usually have too much to do. But asking for help doesn’t come easy for most of us.  You believe it’s just easier to do it all yourself.  But really, it’s not.  And asking the right people for the right help builds the kind of bonds we all yearn for.

There’s a lot more to effective asking than screwing up the courage to do it though.  First, you need to have a good grasp of the help you need to get it right.

  • Is it something you really don’t know how to do?  Trying to fix something better done by a professional (like electricity and cars) may end up in injury—or worse.  But we get off track in the other direction, too—like calling the electrician when all that was needed was to plug in the cord.  Check the obvious solutions before you call for help.
    • What really needs to be done?  When you ask for help, choosing the right resource hinges on knowing what needs to be done.  So get as clear as you can with yourself about what you need.  If you don’t know, admit that when you ask for help, but don’t send your saviour down the wrong road by being lazy with the information you provide.
    • Is it just a matter of time versus money?  I have friends who pay to have their houses cleaned.  This works for them because they would rather spend money than time on that.  But asking for help is not about taking advantage of family members and friends just as busy as you are (or busier) simply because you don’t want to do that work.  If you need this kind of help, pay up, one way or the other.  When you ask more of those you claim to love than you need to, you build resentment not those nurturing bonds you’re looking for.
    • Can someone else do it well enough that you’re going to be okay with the results?  If it’s critical that the results are perfect, and you’re sure you can do it more perfectly than anyone else, then you need to do it.  But is it really that critical?  And are you really the one who will do it best? Are you really that good at it?  Or do you need a reality check on all that?
    • Are there extenuating circumstances?  Sure, your cousin George has built three fences on his own properties and needs the money, but if you have a picky HOA and a bunch of restrictive architectural requirements to keep in mind, maybe hiring the fence company that’s done all the other fences in your subdivision is wiser.

Then there’s the actual asking.  For many of us, this is where the whole idea stops. There’s no high school class on how to do this well.  We don’t get to “practice” this under careful tutelage.  First attempts can be difficult and unsuccessful.  Learn to do this anyway!  Life is so much better when you feel like  you are on team.

  • Be clear about what you need.  It’s tempting to assume that the person you ask will just know.   Nope.  Be precise and complete in explaining the situation.  This is true whether you are paying for a top-notch reupholster job or asking your sister to prep the potatoes for dinner.
  • Get on the same page about timing. Don’t assume another person is on the same wavelength in terms of timing.  Be honest about when you need it done.  Do you really need that light bulb changed before the next commercial?  Or are you just trying for a power grab with a fake emergency?  Give the other person as much leaway as you can–but no more.  If the differences in timing aren’t going to work, reassess whether this is the resource you are best to ask
  • Ask wisely.  This is particularly true when you are asking for unpaid help which is basically a favor.  Pay attention to what the other person is doing before you ask.  Expecting someone to drop everything just to hear your request is setting yourself up for a “No.”  Don’t ask for more than you really need either. And when someone says, “Sorry, I can’t,” find someone else to ask rather than acting like a five-year old and asking again and again.  Be aware of the context and the other person’s needs in making your request.
  • Keep asking.  If what’s supposed to be happening isn’t once someone agrees to help you (paid or otherwise), it’s wise to follow up. But that doesn’t mean you have to make a federal case out of it.  People forget (even the ones you pay to do something.)  If nothing’s happening and your gut is telling you to find another resource, pay attention.  Sometimes there’s more than forgetfulness at stake and the longer you wait to deal with it, the bigger that kind of problem gets.
  • Have more than one option.  If you do need to shift gears on how you are going to get something accomplished, it’s a lot easier if you’re already have other options identified.  This is as true of who’s going to pick up Aunt Jen at the airport as it is of getting your cellphone fixed.

“The strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it.”  – Rona Barrett, columnist and businesswoman.

At some point, you’re going to need help. Be strong and smart. Ask for it well.