Category Archives: Personal Responsibility

Overcoming the Weed-Out

They’re called weed-out classes.  The classes in every major designed to weed-out the pretenders, the students who can’t hack it, the ones who just don’t have what it takes.

They usually come around the third year…just when you think you’re pretty good at this stuff, and after you’ve committed two-plus years of your life to this major.

There were a couple of doozies in my major, Computer Information Systems.  But, none compared to CIS 324—Database Programming.  On the first day of class, Dr. Stumpf said he wouldn’t be surprised if we’d be in the computer lab 40-60 hours per week, just to complete the four main programming projects.  We’d also have a mid-term and a final that covered all the database theory we were supposed to be learning while completing the projects.

To make things tougher, each project picked up where the last one left off.  So, if you stumbled on the first project, you were setting yourself up for a potentially unrecoverable torture test in the second, third, and fourth projects.

It didn’t matter that you had other classes, or that you had a life that included working 30-40 hours per week.  This was CIS 324.  The weed-out class.

There were 26 of us in class that first day.  I remember the number because two people wanted to add the class, and Dr. Stumpf was concerned because we only had 24 chairs in the classroom.  That wouldn’t be a problem for long.

Five weeks and two projects later, there were 18 of us in class.  The others had dropped.

Seven weeks and three projects later, we were down to 11.  This was long before Survivor, but students voted themselves off the island nearly every week.

Dr. Stumpf took it all in stride.  This type of attrition was normal.  The students who didn’t make it would try again next quarter, or they’d re-evaluate their choice of major and never be back.

In the tenth week as we handed-in our last project and prepared to take the final exam, there were only 9 of us.  By now, we knew each other well.  We had spent many hours together in one of the computer labs (this was a bit before the days when you could use your PC to connect remotely).  We were in every class, pulling for each other.

We were part of this small band of students about to make it through Dr. Stumpf’s CIS 324 class.

Looking back at those ten weeks, I don’t remember much detail about the projects.  I remember the long nights in the computer lab, the endless diagrams, and lines of code.  There was an amazing vending machine just outside the lab that dispensed ice cream bars for 30 cents apiece.  I lived on ice cream bars and Mountain Dew that quarter.

I remember coming to each class, especially on the days our projects were due, wondering who’d be there and who’d be gone.  I remember Dr. Stumpf congratulating each of us when we handed in our final exams on the last day of class.

Since CIS 324, I’ve faced lots of “weed-out” tests, whether I knew it or not.  I’ve taken on projects that were way over my head.  I’ve asked myself to deliver “the impossible” more than a few times.

Were these real-life weed-out situations harder than my CIS 324 experience?  Definitely.  And, many lasted a lot longer than ten weeks.

But, the experience of overcoming my first weed-out test made it easier to pass the next one.  And, passing the second weed-out made it easier to pass the third.

Overcoming all these weed-out tests had five things in common:

  1. If I focused on the ultimate and final deliverable on the first day, I would have given up. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  It’s the same with overwhelming challenges.  Break them down to their next indicated step and take that step with confidence and an open mind. That will lead to the next step…
  1. It’s easy to feel alone in these weed-out tests. But, I was never alone, even when it felt that way.  I found allies, sounding boards, mentors, people willing to join my cause, people I could trust.  These people made all the difference.
  1. Related to the above: Never forget the people who helped when you needed it most.  Make sure they know how grateful you are for their help.  Be there for them.  They’re facing weed-out tests of their own and can use your help.
  1. No matter how unique you think your weed-out situation is, it isn’t. Someone else has probably faced a similar challenge and lived to tell about it.  Take the time to review what others have learned and apply it to the test you’re facing.
  1. Don’t let your success on this test go to your head. Sure, it’s a great achievement.  Have a nice dinner to celebrate.  Enjoy the accomplishment.  But, stay humble.  Humility is the foundation for overcoming your next big, scary weed-out test.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

When we take the time to temper that strength with humility, we’re preparing ourselves to take on the next weed-out challenge that’s surely coming our way.

Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

 

The Big Ass Wall!

How to build a wall:

  • Determine where it’s going and what it looks like
  • Dig a trench for the foundation and set your forms
  • Install reinforcing steel
  • Pour concrete for the foundation and let it set
  • Get a load of bricks and mortar
  • Did I mention that you should decide if you’re building this wall yourself?
  • Lay down the first course of bricks, ensuring they’re perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • Install scaffolding when your wall gets too high to reach from the ground
  • Continue laying bricks, perfectly level, and properly-spaced
  • For a super strong wall, fill all the open cells with concrete
  • Cap off your wall with one final course of perfectly level and properly-spaced bricks
  • Clean-up after yourself
  • Admire your wall.
  • Go build another one.

Building anything of value requires the same steps (in roughly the same order) as building a big ass wall…one brick at a time.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

I Can’t Wait!

Why do so many people avoid making a “mid-career” course change, avoid switching companies, jumping to new industries, starting their own company, or even avoid moving to a new department within the same company?

Fear.

They probably won’t admit it, but the fear shows in their “I can’t” phrases (excuses):

  • “I can’t afford to start at the bottom at this stage of my career.”
  • “The only thing I recognized at that company was the restroom sign. Everything else was foreign.  I’ll never survive over there.”
  • “The learning curve is way too steep! I’m not a technical person anyway, so I’ll just stick it out in this department.”
  • “I may not like what I’m doing, but at least I know everything there is to know about this job. I’d have to start at ground zero over there.”
  • “I was surrounded by a bunch of kids just out of college. I can’t relate to them.  I definitely don’t understand what they’re saying.”

What if the “I can’t” phrases were replaced with “I can’t wait!” phrases:

  • “I can’t wait to dig into a new industry!”
  • “I can’t wait to learn how these new machines work!”
  • “I can’t wait to exercise my curiosity again!”
  • “I can’t wait to forgive myself for not knowing everything!”
  • “I can’t wait to understand the perspectives of a new generation!”
  • “I can’t wait to grow and stretch!”
  • “I can’t wait to give myself permission to fail…every day!”
  • “I can’t wait to bring my experience and talents into this new arena!”
  • “I can’t wait to make a profound difference in a new field!”
  • “I can’t wait to surprise myself!”

I don’t remember who said it first:  “Hire the attitude, train for skill.”

Who would you rather hire?  The candidate who seems scared, confused, and overwhelmed…or the candidate who CAN’T WAIT to learn, who CAN’T WAIT to start, who CAN’T WAIT to become a valued contributor in your company?

I’ll take the “I can’t wait” candidate every time.

Fear is a normal part of life.  But, courage…  Courage is what happens when you decide to act in the face of that fear.

When you can’t wait to explore, can’t wait to challenge, and can’t wait to learn, you’ll be one step closer to harnessing your fear and embracing your courage.

By the way, adopting the “I can’t wait” mantra is a good idea at any stage of your life.

 

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

If you look…

…for things that are frustrating

…for people to disappoint you

…for what’s missing

…for situations that are hopeless

That’s exactly what you’ll find.

If you look…

…for opportunities to be thankful

…for people to surprise you

…for what’s included

…for situations with a path to success

That’s exactly what you’ll find.

It’s easy to be disappointed.  Easy to be frustrated.  Even easier to want more.

Are you seeking the good, or just the opposite?

Do you expect failure, or success?

Your expectations and perspective create the outcome.

Are you a manager?  A parent?  A coach?

Guess what…the people who count on you the most will quickly learn what you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for success, they will deliver it.  Looking for failure?  They will deliver that.

You find what you seek.  The choice is yours.

 

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny 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

 

 

Every Job Has a Suck Ratio (along with everything else)

Nearly every pursuit in life has some portion that sucks.  This is especially true for jobs.

It may be a short “phase” at the beginning caused by your lack of knowledge or experience. “I have no idea what I’m doing, so every day is torture!  I can’t wait until I get the hang of this new job.”

It may be a valuable sacrifice required to fully embrace the benefits of a new opportunity. “The position is exactly what I’m looking for.  The only problem is the 90-minute commute…each way.”

Maybe there’s 1% you don’t like that comes along with 99% you love.  “This company is amazing!  I wish the people I work with would realize it.”

What if the suck is more than 1%?

What if it’s 30% of the experience?  80% of the experience?

The ratio of suck versus awesome determines happiness.  As the suck goes up, happiness goes down.

Humans are more sensitive to the suck than the awesome.  We thrive on the negative.  Bad news travels fastest.  We assume and discount good news, so we don’t put much effort into spreading it…even to ourselves.

Measuring the suck is arbitrary and subjective.  Something that sucked only 1% last week may suck 95% today when that 90-minute commute causes you to miss your daughter’s award ceremony.

Are you considering a job change?  Just thinking about it means you’ve decided that the suck ratio is getting too high in your current job.  So, a new opportunity or a new direction seems like a good idea.

The new opportunities have their own suck, whether you choose to see it or not.  Sure, they have things you appreciate, but it’s easy to overvalue the good stuff and minimize the parts that suck.

It’s human nature to see only the “good” stuff that’s happening over there…and see only the things that suck, happening here.

The grass usually isn’t greener over there (wherever “there” is).  It’s usually just another shade of green that looks greener today.  The suck ratio is in play over there just as much as it is where you’re standing.

Does this mean we should never change jobs or career paths?  Hardly.  But, it’s important to keep some things in mind:

  • Every job has a suck ratio.

 

  • It’ll take a lot longer than you think to get good at your new job. Even longer before you become great at it.  Until then, it’s suck ratio will be higher than you like.

 

  • It’s hard to see the suck from the outside. Suck only shows itself once you’re on the inside when it’s too late.

 

  • Don’t measure the suck every day. Suck measures are only accurate over the long-term.

It’s easy to find something that sucks today if we look hard enough.  It’s just as easy to find something that’s awesome.

The effort we put into the search for suck or awesome dictates the one we find the most.  That’s true for jobs, too.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Looking for Permission

We’re taught at an early age to seek permission.  At the most basic level, permission is a great defense against chaos.  Imagine if every kid did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  For that matter, imagine if every adult did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Chaos would result.

We seek direct, indirect, and implied permission.  We operate within the bounds of what our cultural traditions permit.  We stay within what the law permits, at least most of the time.

The permission of others surrounds us.  It shelters us from responsibility.

The big challenge comes when we start asking ourselves for permission.  We look for a direction that fits within our comfort zone.  We seek our own okay to try something new.  We can imagine doing the impossible, but the easiest path is to deny ourselves permission to try.

When we can’t get permission from ourselves, we look for it elsewhere.  We ask our friends and family.  We read articles, blog posts, and books.  We listen to podcasts and speeches (TED talks come to mind).  All is an effort to find someone who approves.

We wonder if anyone else is thinking the same things.  What would they do?  How would they handle this?

Permission’s power is immense.  Without permission, our next indicated step is a mystery.  The un-permitted transforms into the impossible before our eyes.  “Hey, nobody else is doing this thing, so it must be a bad idea.  Let’s bail.”

I’ve read many times that each of us is the product of the five or ten people we interact with the most.  If this is true, we’re really the product of what those five or ten closest people permit from us.  We grant each of them the power of their permission, often without realizing it.

What if those five or ten people, out of concern for our safety, or possibly their own comfort, don’t grant us the permission we seek?  What if their collective box of permission is too small for our life’s goals to fit?  Should we find another five or ten people?  Maybe.  But, that’s not the real answer.

The answer lies in realizing that the permission we seek comes from within.

Our ability to visualize the future, and see ourselves within that new reality is the change that’s needed.  Once we find the courage to consider and see that future, permission for growth and new challenges comes naturally.

Will this be easy?  No way!  This requires a commitment to personal responsibility.  You won’t have anyone else to blame, or forgive, when things go wrong.

You’ll be living a life without the foundation of outside permission.  Your internal permission will become that foundation.

The permission we seek from others must build upon our own internal permission, not the other way around.

“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” —Grace Hopper

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash.com, Aziz Acharki

Strategic Rebellion

I’ve had a few chances recently to watch my grandkids coloring.

It was a bit torturous for me, watching as they scribbled around the patterns, with no regard for the lines.  Was that a horse, or maybe a flower?  It didn’t matter to them.  Color selection was random.  A green horse?  Perfect.  Blue?  Even better.

Faced with this onslaught of coloring chaos, what’s the first piece of grandfatherly advice I wanted to give?  You guessed it:  Try staying inside the lines, which would inevitably be followed by advice on color choice and coloring patterns.

Most of us were taught from an early age to color inside the lines, follow the rules, avoid poking the bear, err on the side of caution, measure twice and cut once.

These are all good guidelines…most of the time.

However, I’ve found that a sprinkling of “strategic rebellion” from time to time can be quite useful.  Poke that bear, make a few waves, dare to color outside the lines.  In fact, who needs lines?  Just bring some color and see what happens.

Thankfully, I caught my advice before giving it.  It remained safely in my head.  They have plenty of time to learn about staying inside the lines.  Here’s hoping they also get a nice dose of strategic rebellion along the way.

In the meantime, purple is a perfect color for grass.