Category Archives: Attention

The Bobbin Effect

The thing about sewing isn’t the patterns.  It isn’t the precise cutting, the pins that hold the fabric pieces together, or even the stitches.

It’s all about the bobbin.

That little spool of thread that sits underneath the needle and somehow makes the stitches possible.  I say “somehow,” since I’ve never spent the time required to either load a bobbin or to make one work.

I know from watching others that sewing requires a ton of time loading the bobbin, untangling the bobbin, and generally managing the health and welfare of that hidden spool of thread.  A healthy bobbin is the key to any successful sewing project.

Watch a good painter and you may notice that they spend far more time preparing and sanding the surfaces to be painted, masking off the unpainted areas, mixing the paint, and then cleaning up the area after painting…than they spend painting.

The same is true for a musician.  Watch a musician perform.  It’s easy to forget how much time was spent learning to play their instrument, selecting or creating material, rehearsing, and then setting up for the show.  As an audience member, we get to see the final product and that’s all that matters.

How about your favorite mechanic?

That person who can diagnose and fix anything that’s wrong with your car…usually the same day you bring it to their shop.  How much time has he (or she) spent working under the hood of countless cars, learning and honing their craft, studying the specifications of all the new vehicles that arrive each year, and finding the best way to finesse those hard-to-reach bolts?  Your mechanic has spent years, maybe decades, preparing to fix your car today.  That’s all great, but your main question is, “Can I pick up my car by 5pm?”

It’s easy to forget or ignore all the preparation, expertise, and hard work that goes into creating just about any product, any service, and any organization that we value.  We allow most of it to be hidden from our consideration.

At the same time, we’re disappointed when others forget or don’t appreciate all the hard work and preparation we’ve put into being the best “fill-in-the-blank” that we want to be.

We wonder why our contributions, our dedication, and our work aren’t appreciated, and yet we’re probably unwittingly doing the same thing to other people.

Each of us is a bobbin for someone.  A hidden key to happiness and success for someone else, whether we realize it or not.  Maybe not today, but someday.

We’ve prepared, we’ve practiced, we’ve toiled in silence.  We’ve cared for ourselves, knowing without fully understanding that we make things possible, and maybe even tolerable for others.  Our efforts, our dedication, our emotional commitment may seem invisible, but they matter.  They are important.

It’s time to give that little bobbin some attention.

Photo by LAIS on Unsplash

 

Five Stages of Problem Solving

I could write how problems are opportunities in disguise (many are).

Or, I could describe all the ways we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.

But, I think it’s most useful to describe the five-stage problem-solving model that most of us follow in our day-to-day lives.  It doesn’t matter if these problems are personal or professional…the same stages are usually in play:

1. Ignore the Problem

Ignoring a problem doesn’t mean not knowing about it.  We know it’s there, but we purposely choose to ignore it.  This gives us plausible deniability.  There’s a lot of hope involved in ignoring a problem.  Our hope is that if ignored long enough, the problem will solve itself, or someone else will take ownership and find a solution.

2. Deny the Problem

This is a bit more active than ignoring the problem.  We acknowledge that something is wrong, but it isn’t really a problem.  By consciously changing our perceptions, and the perceptions of those around us, we can plausibly deny (there’s that phrase again) that a problem exists.  And, if it really is a problem, it’s not a problem for “us” to solve.

3. Blame Someone (Else)

When denial stops working, the focus shifts to ensuring we aren’t held responsible for the problem.  We aren’t ignoring or denying the problem.  But, we know we aren’t the cause, for sure. Therefore, we shouldn’t be expected to provide a solution.

The most advanced version of this stage is to not only blame someone else.  But, make sure the world knows we warned everyone that this type of problem could happen…if only someone had listened to us in the first place.  I call this person the omnipotent blame shifter.

4. Accept the Problem

We finally accept that this is a real problem.  It’s our problem, whether we caused it or not.  We own it. We also own the task of finding the best solution.  This is the trickiest stage of all…

If we caused this problem, we must now admit our weakness, our mistake, our error in judgment, our previous lack of attention or understanding.  We may even have to admit that something happened that was out of our control.

If we didn’t cause this problem, our challenge is to put aside blame, and focus on solving the problem.  We don’t have time to teach lessons at this point.  Our focus must be finding solutions to the problem we’ve just accepted.

5. Address (Fix) the Problem

Ah…we finally arrive at the solution stage.  We’ve accepted the problem.  It’s real.  It’s ours.  And, now we (and possibly a large team we’ve assembled) will fix the problem.

Ironically, this may be the easiest stage of all, even if it’s the one we’ve worked so hard to avoid. It sits patiently, waiting for us to arrive.  To focus our attention, our effort and our creativity on delivering ideas and solutions to the problem.

Imagine the energy we’d have available to solve (and prevent) problems if we didn’t waste our time ignoring them, denying them, and finding others to blame.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

 

A Gentle Reminder

I recently witnessed a mom with her newborn.  It was feeding time.  Mom was ready with the bottle and within a minute her baby was content and eating.

Slowly but surely, the bottle was drained, and the effort seemed to exhaust the new baby.  She lay on her mom’s lap with a little dribble of milk around her mouth.

The neat freak in me said, “Hey, it’s time to wipe that kid’s mouth,” and my next move would have been to reach for a wipe.

This mom had the same idea but wasn’t in a hurry.  She remained still and put the empty bottle away.  She moved with a grace and fluidity that didn’t disturb her nearly-sleeping baby.

She then grabbed the edge of a soft towel and delicately wiped the milk.  She purposely took her time and continued to move with smoothness and grace.

The gentleness was amazing.  Her focus was complete.  The moment was silent.  This mother’s love and caring approach were there for anyone to see.  She took the time to be gentle and her reward was a moment of grace for her baby and herself.

When was the last time you purposely chose gentle as your first response?  To anything?

It’s easy for our lives to become a series of tasks, goals, deadlines, rules, disruptions and shiny objects that are anything but gentle.

Only our conscious choice to be gentle will make it happen.  Our desire to experience moments of grace and peace will bring them to us.

We control the gentleness we give to those around us…and to ourselves.

I, for one, am glad I got to see my daughter being so gentle with her new daughter.

It was a gentle reminder that I will not soon forget.

The Freedom of Humiliation

Consider how much time and energy we devote to avoiding humiliation.  We’re taught early in life to strive for being right.  Quickly understanding, and then knowing the answer…especially to the questions that’ll be on the test.

Think back to your first job, your second job, in fact, every job you’ve ever had.  How was your first day?  What about your first month?  How comfortable were you?  What type of impression did you want to make on your new boss?  Your new co-workers?

I bet your main goal was to avoid screwing up, learn what it takes to be successful, and by all means, don’t embarrass yourself.

It’s the same in just about any new environment.  Meet a new group of people and one of the first things in your mind is how to present the best image of yourself to this group.  Don’t let them see your flaws, your fears, your anxieties.  Don’t let them know you’re completely uncomfortable.  For now, your goal is to fit in, get to know who’s who in the group and, don’t embarrass yourself.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”   ― Rick Warren

What if you approached all these situations and nearly every other in your life without fear of humiliation or embarrassment.  In fact, imagine if you sought situations where humiliation was a distinct possibility.

What if you approached that new software tool, or the new sales program with the confidence of knowing that you’ll be learning something new…rather than worrying about arguments against them, or how they’ll push you out of your comfort zone?

We usually think of humiliation in its negative context, since we’ve allowed it to matter.  But, humiliation is closely related to humility, and humility is the first step toward real learning.

Once you approach a subject with the humility of a beginner, regardless of your tenure or experience, only then will you be fully prepared to learn.

The humble learner doesn’t allow themselves or their ego to come between new ideas and their pre-conceived notions of the truth.  They allow these new ideas to penetrate the veneer of pride and self-righteousness where many of us hide.  Then, they can truly assess and make a judgment about the new ideas.

Too often, we don’t even allow the new idea to enter.  We’re too busy coming up with reasons that our own ideas are correct, the only direction, the only way.  The new idea is like a foreign invader to be repelled at the gate.

A new and potentially rewarding relationship is placed behind a well-crafted wall of pride and imagery that hides our fears of humiliation or of letting this new person visit the deepest parts of ourselves.

All these walls and anxieties have their root in our fear of humiliation.  We can’t face the risk of being wrong, of being weak, of being vulnerable.  We are right, and our focus is on ensuring we reinforce this “fact” to anyone or anything we encounter…especially to ourselves.

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”   ― Ernest Hemingway    

The freedom of humiliation is a freedom to be open:  to new ideas, new people, new directions, new beliefs, and even new perceptions of truth.  When we’re free from the fear of humiliation, we don’t have to defend ourselves from new situations.  We turn the threat of the new into an opportunity.

This doesn’t mean giving up on our definitions of right and wrong, our definitions of how to live a virtuous life or our core beliefs.

It means dropping that wall of protection we place around ourselves and our ideas and allowing them to roam freely and interact with others.

“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.”  ― Albert Einstein

 

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

 

The Pebble

As in the small rock that somehow slipped into your hiking boot.

Can you give your boot a quick wiggle and move that pebble out from under your foot?  Maybe, but guess what.  It’ll find it’s way back under your heal in no time.  They always do.

Does it matter that you’re making great time up the mountain, and have lots of momentum on your side?  Nope.  That little pebble demands attention.

That’s the way of the small irritant.  It’s there and it won’t be leaving on its own.  It will start to cause damage, become more distracting, and take more of your attention.  Try as you might, there’s no way to ignore it.

The only thing you can do is stop and take off your pack, then take off your boot and dump that little pebble out.

Eliminate the irritant and get refocused on the trail ahead.

Sure, it’s annoying to stop.  But, the alternative is far worse.

Photo by Aneta Ivanova on Unsplash

 

The Sally Method Trap

Q: “What’s our approach for this year’s audit?”

A: “Sally Method.”

And that’s how an auditor can shortcut their work.  It’s a tried and true method for getting a quick start, ensuring consistency with the prior year’s audit, and making sure that’s nothing obvious gets missed.

 

Q: “What’s our big goal for the new year?”

A: “Let’s see if we can beat last year’s growth by a few percentage points.” (Sally Method)

Nobody can argue against growth, especially if it beats what we did last year.

 

“We can’t change the rules of the game.  It’s tradition to play it this way.” (Sally Method)

Tradition usually wins.

 

Sally…Same As Last Year (the second L is silent).

It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s safe.

Life outside the box that Sally creates is scary.  It’s filled with uncertainty.  It can lead to failure.  It can lead to embarrassment (something we fear more than failure).

But, it’s also the best place to find new ideas, opportunities for new exploration, and new growth.

What if we start with Sally (the easy starting point), and then opt for more?  Not only something more but something different?  Something radical, and maybe even a little nonsensical?

When we give ourselves permission to explore and fail, we unleash a power that Sally can’t imagine or contain.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

 

The Power of Chaos

Chaos is easy to create.  Eliminate judgment, eliminate priorities, and you’ve set the stage for a good dose of chaos.

Chaos is seductive.  It gives the appearance of action while preventing forward progress.

All the planning, all the preparation, all the foresight…none of it will prevent chaos when we give it control.

Chaos provides excellent camouflage for mediocre results.

After all, how can I be held accountable when all around me is chaos?  If I’m able to deliver any results amidst all the chaos, I’m a hero.  It doesn’t matter if my results are of the highest quality or even the desired quantity.

Look around you.  Is your work environment chaotic?  What about your personal time?  Chaotic?

Is all this chaos creating a positive environment for the changes you want, or is it sapping energy and stopping progress?

The secret to chaos is that you own the choice.  You decide how chaotic your life is.  You have the power over chaos, even when it appears that chaos is in control.

When you choose your priorities, choose what gets your attention, choose what to ignore, and choose what to eliminate, you take back control from chaos.

Be careful…

As you consciously take steps to eliminate chaos, you will be held accountable for the results you should be producing, instead of the results you sneak past all the chaos.

In the end, living in chaos is easier than being truly effective…probably why so many people choose it.

 

Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash

 

 

The Cow Stuck in the Mud

“How did that cow get there?”

“Why wasn’t the mud bog fenced off?”

“Who was supposed to turn off the sprinklers before this place got all muddy?”

“Why do we have cows in this area anyway?”

“Can you believe that this cow just walked right into that mud and got herself stuck?”

“What was that cow thinking?”

“I told you this could happen, and now it has!”

“There’s no way you’re gonna pin this on me.  I never told that cow to go there.”

“We’ll need some pretty heavy equipment to get this cow out, and that’s going to be expensive.”

 

I’ve never seen a real cow stuck in real mud.

But, I’ve seen lots of metaphorical cows stuck in deep metaphorical mud.

The dialogue about the cow usually revolves around how the cow got there, who should have prevented it, who’s to blame, and the costs.

The one thing that’s usually missing from the conversation is how we’re going to get that cow out of the mud, clean her up, and send her on her way.

All the talking in the world isn’t going to get that cow out of the mud.  In fact, the longer the cow is stuck, the more risk there is that the cow will get seriously hurt.

That cow will remain there until you take action.  Enlist the help of others.  Then, work creatively and diligently to get that cow out of the mud.

There’s plenty of time to discuss all the why’s, how’s, and whose at fault…after you save the cow.

Stop talking, stop pointing blame, stop finding excuses.

Get to work and rescue that cow!

 

Photo Credit:  Joshua De @unsplash.com

 

No Surprises…the Secret to Managing Up

“I love spontaneity, as long as it’s well-planned.”  –Says nearly everyone in business

Surprises can be great.

We love surprises when they bring unexpected wealth, unexpected fun, or unexpected comfort.

Sadly, surprises aren’t always good news:

  • Surprise! The IRS just sent you an audit letter.
  • Surprise! That small mole on your cheek is melanoma.
  • Surprise! That neighbor you thought was a nice guy is wanted in another state for armed robbery.
  • Surprise! Microsoft just added a feature to their operating system that makes your profitable utility app obsolete.
  • Surprise! Your private financial and credit information was just hacked at Equifax (well, that type of thing shouldn’t really be a surprise nowadays).
  • Surprise! Your most promising employee is leaving your company…to join your competition!
  • Surprise! The executive that “owns” your company’s contract and projects just got fired.

Surprises in business are rarely the good kind.

In fact, a “good” surprise in business can become a nightmare if you’re not prepared.

Think about that sudden and unexpected increase in demand for your service or product.  Great news!  But, now your staff is feeling overworked and things are starting to break under the pressure of all this new business.

How does all of this connect with managing up?

The number one thing your boss, and your boss’s boss (and so on) need from you is to minimize the surprises that come their way.

Does this mean you should keep information away from them?  Of course not!

It means creating an open and thorough communication path between you and your boss.

It means anticipating surprises before they happen.  Preparing for the unexpected, since you can always expect it.  I’ve seen lots of surprises that shouldn’t have been surprises at all.

Your boss needs to know when something is wrong, or about to go wrong.

Your boss needs you to be honest.  Always. Even if you’re the one causing the surprise.

If you, or someone in your organization, make an expensive mistake, your boss needs to know about it.  Now.  More importantly, your boss needs to know how you plan to learn from that mistake, and avoid a similar mistake like this one in the future.

If you see or hear something in the marketplace that can help (or hurt) your organization, your boss needs to hear from you.  Now.

The last thing you want is for your boss to learn about a problem (or a surprise, which may be the same thing) within your organization from someone else.  This does two things:

  1. Lets your boss know that you may not understand that something is going wrong, and
  2. Makes your boss wonder if you’re hiding bad news and if you can be trusted.

When I was a kid, we lived in a small 3-bedroom house.  We had a hallway that got pitch black when all the doors were shut.  Even when your eyes adjusted, there was almost no light to see where you were going.  I always had this (unfounded) fear that I might run into something, hit my head, or crack my shins on some unseen edge.

Your boss might as well be walking in that same dark hallway, whether he or she realizes it.  It’s tough to see what’s coming, and in the real world, that fear of being hit by something in the darkness is often justified.

Many of the lessons we learn from the “school of hard knocks” begin as surprises.

Lesson One:  expect the unexpected.

Lesson Two:  make sure your boss knows what’s coming.

Lesson Three:  don’t ever forget about Lesson Two, and you’ll be doing a great job of “managing up” in the process.

 

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

The Power of Repetition

We’re each born without skills.

We don’t know how to play the piano, hit a tennis ball, type a letter, program a computer, balance a checkbook, climb a mountain, drive a car, wake surf, back up a semi-trailer, finish concrete, ride a bike, race a motorcycle, fix an engine, pilot an airplane, or just about anything else.

Fortunately, humans are learning machines.  Watch a toddler for even a few minutes and you’ll see an aggressive and insatiable quest to imitate, experiment, test limits, check for patterns, see what works, see what parents allow, and see what happens when they push certain buttons (real and metaphorical).  Amazingly, they’re doing these things before they can walk or talk.

Toddlers also have an almost unending desire to “do it again.”  If throwing the ball once is fun, it’s even more fun to go pick it up and throw it again, and again, and again.

I took a typing class in my freshman year of high school.  There were about fifty students in the class.  Half of the typewriters were electric (the new IBM Selectrics) and the other half was manual typewriters.  Yes, I’m that old.

I started my year on a manual typewriter (we swapped to the Selectrics mid-year).  This meant that at the end of each line, after hearing the ding, I had to reach up and manually return the carriage…and place my fingers back on the correct keys to continue typing.  It also meant that my keystrokes had to be smooth, consistent and well-timed.  Otherwise, the keys would jam on top of each other.

We started with the Home row.  I must have typed ASDFJKL; a thousand times!  Then, we added the G and the H to the home row drill.  ASDFGHJKL;  Again.  Again.  Again.  Ding.  Manual carriage return.

Did I mention that all the keys on the typewriters were blank?  We were learning how to be “touch” typists.  Looking at the keys was not an option.  We had diagrams and workbooks that showed us what each key was, but nothing on the typewriter.

After mastering the Home row, we moved up to the QWERTY row.  The row that gives the standard keyboard its name.  QWERTYUIOP  Again.  Again.  Again.  Again.

Next, the drills included the Home row and the QWERTY row at the same time.  We were typing letters in random order from both rows.  QPJHFDRT Again.  Again.  Again.  Ding.  Manual carriage return.

Finally, we moved to the dreaded bottom row.  ZXCVBNM,.  I hated the Z.  The Z is in an awkward spot.  It requires pinky strength and dexterity in the left hand.  A tall order for a right-hander.  A right-hander who had broken his left pinky a few years earlier (another long story).

Now our drills included all three rows, and all in random order.

Oh yeah, every drill was being timed.  We started and stopped each drill as a class and typed the drills until we heard the ringing of the clock.

The drills got harder, included more randomness, and both upper-, and lower-case letters.  Again.  Again.  Again.

I don’t remember how many weeks we spent on all these drills, but one day our teacher told us we’d be typing actual sentences.  One more thing:  our typing speed would be measured in words-per-minute.

Any mistakes would subtract one word from our score, so accuracy mattered.

How could this be?  We’d never typed sentences before.  We weren’t ready to be tested…on real sentences.  We were just getting good at the drills.  We had practiced proper hand position, proper finger curl, proper posture.  But, this was uncharted territory.

“Ready?  Begin.”

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.”

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

Why do I remember these two sentences?  They’re classic typing drill sentences.  They each use almost all the letters in the alphabet and require the typist to jump between all the rows.  I typed these two sentences continuously during the day of our first typing test.

I realized I was actually typing!  Not just a drill, but two real sentences.  I was typing them quickly…even on a manual typewriter.

After that first day of testing, we typed many more sentences.  We learned about the structure of various business letter formats.  We typed information into practice forms.  We keyed numbers into columns.  We centered text.  All before spreadsheets or word processors made these simple tasks.

Our teacher provided the drills, the structure, and the discipline.  We drilled, practiced, and drilled again.  And, again.

We were touch typists, using the skills we learned through repetition.  I was having my own “Wax on…wax off,” moment before Karate Kid was a movie.

Fast forward 35 years.  I’m still learning new skills.  Practicing.  Making mistakes.  Sometimes pushing too hard.  Sometimes jamming my keys in the process.  Always looking to improve.

Only with repetition can I learn, improve, and become.

Again.  And, again.

 

Photo by Jason Yu on Unsplash