Thursday, April 20, 2017

Four Ways to Ruin Any Social Situation

We all have a friend that always seems to know the right move in any social situation. This person handles every tense or awkward situation with grace and never seems flustered. I am not that person. Over the years I have found ways to mess up all kinds of social situations. I am able to create the following list of ways to ruin a social situation because I have done all of them:

1. Telling people how you would have handled a stressful situation better than they did.

Right after college I was working at a group home and after four months switched from one group of residents to another. On my first day with this new group one of the residents sent me to the Emergency Room. The injuries wasn't serious but it was painful. The next day when I was back at work, two of my co-workers told me in great detail all of the ways that I mishandled the situation and how they would have done better if they had been there. As you might imagine, the conversation did not make me feel better about what happened.

Nothing good comes from telling someone how to handle a situation after the fact. The truth is that you have no idea how you would have responded because you were not there. Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get hit. In a crisis some people rise to the occasion and others freeze up. It is impossible to predict how things will go and sometimes the biggest talkers come up short in the moment. The best response in this situation is to listen and be empathetic.

2. Offering unsolicited negative opinions.

I while back I was in the break room at work talking to a co-worker over lunch. I had just finished telling her how much fun I was having reading The Chronicles of Narnia books to my children when another co-worker came in. She looked at us and declared how she thought that those books are awful and boring. I haven't had many conversations with that co-worker since that day.

I come from a long line of people who are free with their opinions, no matter the situation, and it has taken me a long to time learn when to keep my opinion to myself. When someone expresses that they enjoy something, telling them that you don't like it serves no useful purpose. There are times when you can playfully poke fun at something someone likes, like their taste in music or favorite football team, but sometimes the things people like are a part of who they are, so tread carefully. Like your Momma said, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

3. One-upping other people.

Imagine that someone is telling a group of co-workers how she ran her first marathon over the weekend and what the experience was like. Suddenly another co-worker jumps in and says "I've run two marathons this year already." Then he describes each one in great detail while the woman who was so excited about her experience watches in silence. She has just been one-upped.

There are two kinds of one-uppers. The first just wants to be a part of the conversation. They don't mean to overshadow the person sharing and it's more of an accident. The second wants everything to be about them. It's important that everyone know how cool they are and they don't care if it's at someone else's expense. I have been both kinds of one-upper and I cringe every time I think about it. When someone is sharing something important or special, it's best to be quiet, listen, and let them have their moment.

4. Being constantly offended.

To clarify, there is a time and place for taking offense. I see red when someone makes fun of people with disabilities. My brother has developmental delays and I have no tolerance for it. Sometimes, though, I need to back up and look at intent. There are times when people say offensive things but they are not trying to be mean. They just might not understand. A number of years ago I used the phrase "beat the tar out of him" when describing a play in a football game. My friend Thomas gently informed me of the history of that phrase and how it is offensive to our African-American friends. I was embarrassed but grateful to Thomas for pointing it out. He could have been offended and called me out for using a racist phrase but he knew me well enough to know that I meant no offense.

In many situations we should be like Thomas and give people a chance to understand things before we automatically take offense. Of course, that does not mean that we should remain silent when someone says something truly awful, but to first consider someone's character and intent before speaking up.

I wish I was a master of all social situations but, alas, I am not. I ruin less of them than I used to, so I consider that progress. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pathways to Success: Having an Owner's Mentality

For ten years my wife and I owned a duplex. It was . . . challenging. Not everyone is cut out to be a landlord and that included us. However, it was a learning experience. Owners and renters have a different way of thinking. Even great renters don't have the same stake in the property as owners and therefore they don't take care of the property as well. This concept works with managers and employees as well. Motivated employees think like owners.

Here are five ideas for ordinary employees to think like an owner and see their candle shine brighter.

1. Owners don't say "that's not my job." I read a story a year or so ago about John Elway, former Hall of Fame quarterback for the Denver Broncos and now the General Manager of the team. He and two members of the team's management were about to leave for the day when one of them noticed several boxes of t-shirts that needed to be sorted and put on tables for an event in the morning. One of the managers started to call one of the administrative assistants to come in and sort the shirts but Elway stopped him and said, "no, let's just take care of it right now." The three of them sorted the shirts and let the administrative assistants leave for the day.

Good owners are not afraid to get their hands dirty and work alongside their people. Good owners pitch in when needed. When employees act like an owner, they take on the less glorious jobs when they need to be done. They take out the trash, answer phones, and empty the dishwasher in the break room.

2. Owners don't watch the clock. This does not mean following the example of Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Meyer, who is famous for putting in 130 hour work weeks. That's ridiculous and unproductive. It means being willing to put in extra time when needed and not expect anything in return. There are times when  a large project needs to be completed or there is a big event and good owners dig in to get it done. Sadly, there are many employers that are takers and will suck the life out of their best employees, so there is a converse to this. Good owners also don't work themselves to the bone. They take time to recharge and ensure that they have something to give. Watching the clock goes both ways.

3. Owners pay attention to the tiny details. When we owned the duplex, I spent much of my time picking up garbage, painting, pulling weeds, and fixing screens. It was someone's home and I wanted it to feel like a home. Owners know that the tiny details count.  

4. Owners move like a shark. Some sharks have to keep moving or they will die. Owners are always moving. They are always looking for something that needs to be done.  Six years ago my wife and I were trying to stay afloat with a toddler and infant twins. She would constantly remind me to move like a shark. There was always a bottle to be washed or clothes to be folded or a diaper to be changed. If we did not stay on top of it, we would get less sleep, which was our most valued commodity. When an employee is thinking like an owner, he or she never stops moving but keeps a constant eye out for projects to be done to keep the business or organization running.

5. Owners anticipate needs. As a landlord, when a tenant moved out, there was a lot of uncertainty. I would walk through every room with a notebook and write down the broken screens, holes in the wall, and every surface that needed to be cleaned. I knew that I would need to paint, fix screens, and clean, so I always had what I needed for those tasks with me when I arrived. I would almost always need a trip to the hardware store for the unexpected items like broken doors and cracked floor tiles. It was impossible to anticipate everything but I would make it much easier on myself by thinking it through beforehand and preparing my supplies properly.

Much of this comes from experience and once that experience is earned, an employee who thinks like an owner can start making everyone's life easier by anticipating the organization's needs.

There are two final items to be covered on this topic. The first is some managers seem to go out of their way to demotivate employees. If you read a "how to be a terrible boss" list that is popular on LinkedIn, it would look like a how to list for these managers. These insecure managers suck the life out of their employees and make it so much harder to care about their work. Kudos to the employees that can still think like an owner in those conditions.

The second item is that I want to clarify that I do not have this all figured out. Every day I work at having an owners mentality at my job. This is something I aspire to but have not figured it all out yet. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Five Thing You Learn When You Are Colorblind

As far as disabilities go, there are many that are far, far worse than being born with colorblindness. It falls mainly on the level of annoyance but it does change how one lives life.

One of nine males are born with a form of colorblindness and there are many different kinds of colorblindness. The two types of color blindness are red/green and yellow/green. They are exactly what they sound like, which is the inability to see colors on those spectrums. Yellow/green is less common and also less severe. Red/green is more common and tends to be more severe. Even within the types of colorblindness are subgroups, where a person can't see different types of red and green. My particular colorblindness is on the violet scale, which is the most unique type of red/green.  The rarest form of colorblindness is when someone has both types, called monochromacy. That is true colorblindness, like watching television on a black and white set, and anyone with that is not allowed to drive a car in the United States. If you put two colorblind men in the same room, chances are that they would see color differently from the other.

Colorblindness in women is extremely rare but, strangely enough, the genetic trait comes through mothers. I have three sons who are not colorblind while one of my sisters has two sons who are both colorblind and another sister has one son who is not. If Agnes has a son, it is probable that he would be colorblind.

Here are five things I have learned going through life with colorblindness.

1. I have been answering the same question over and over again my entire life. When I tell someone I am colorblind, before they can respond, I always tell them the same exact thing. I say "I am red/green colorblind. That means I cannot see all of the colors on the red/green spectrum. It's not like I see the world like a black and white television, I just can't see certain colors. It's kind of like you have the box of 64 crayons and I only have 12." Every single time, the person looks at me for a moment then points at an object and asks "what color is that?" I then give the same response I always give, "It's (whatever color), I can see colors, just not all of them. If I can't see  a color, I don't always know I can't see it." Then they always pause and point at another object and ask "so what color is that?" At that point I usually say "it's (whatever color), I think. I don't actually know." That is usually enough to satisfy them and the conversation moves on.

2. Some careers are unavailable to people who are colorblind. I have a friend who joined the Army and his colorblindness meant that he could be a medic or a Chaplain's Assistant, but all the other jobs were unavailable to him. I cannot be an electrician or graphic designer. Working in a clothing store would be challenging. In some cities I could be a police officer and in others I couldn't. I can never be a commercial or military pilot. With help from technology, people with colorblindness can be housepainters but they still have to be careful not to mix up the colors.

3. I cannot match clothes and that has led to interesting responses from people. Usually someone would say something like," that's an interesting color combination." Then I would have to explain that I am colorblind and have the conversation laid in point #1. Before I got married I had to rely on roommates for help. I would often ask friends or relatives to show me clothing combinations that worked and I did not stray from them. Much of my wardrobe was black and grey. If I needed to dress up, I wore a white shirt with a tie so that I wouldn't have to worry about it. One time in college I was eating lunch with a group of friends and one of them commented on my pink shirt. I asked what he was talking about since I was wearing a white shirt. Everyone at the table then told me that it really was a pink shirt. I had been wearing it regularly for quite a while without knowing it was pink. Whenever I talk to someone else with colorblindness, they almost always tell me that something similar happened to them.

4. I ask for help a lot. I used to remind my friends that I am colorblind and if they see me wearing a bad color combination, they should tell me and not worry about offending me. I often ask sales people at a store what color something is before I buy it. The only downfall of that is having to start the "what color is this?" conversation. Any time something is color coded I have to ask for help, even if I am pretty sure I know what color it is. After a few mistakes, I've learned to just ask. It's humbling to ask for help for something that most children can do with ease.

5. The frustrating part of being colorblind is not knowing when I don't know something. Since I have never seen the colors that I can't see, I don't know when I make a mistake with colors. The stakes are pretty low and I have found ways to cope but sometimes I wonder what I am missing. I have heard about glasses with special lenses that fix certain kinds of colorblindness but since my kind is so rare, I doubt they would work for me. Maybe someday I will try them then write an article about it.

That is my experience with colorblindness. If you have a friend that is colorblind and he's wearing a strange color combination, now you know why. Unless he's a hipster and then all bets are off.

Monday, February 13, 2017

3 Aspects of Public Speaking I Did Not Learn in School

In ninth grade I had to give a speech in English class and I was terrified. I vividly remember being too nervous to take off my jean jacket and wearing my old glasses because I'd lost a contact lens the day before. I knew that public speaking was a skill that I must someday learn so my Junior year of high school I joined the speech team. My first speech was a disaster. I was so anxious that I didn't eat anything all day and when I gave my first speech my cheek twitched uncontrollably the entire time. Over time I got better. I participated in competitive speech for two years in high school and three years in college. In fact, I have a Bachelor's Degree in Communications.

After all these years I realized that there were some vital parts of public speaking that I did not learn in school. I am going to look at three of them now.

First, I did not learn any tricks for calming my nerves. In that first speech class in high school we did activities that put us in front of the class and that was helpful, but I did not learn how to calm my nerves before a speech. There are a lot of tricks public speakers use but I cannot remember being taught any of them. The following are some examples:

  • Arriving early and scoping out the venue. Go to where you'll be speaking and stand there for a minute. It won't seem unfamiliar when you get up to speak.
  • Looking at a fixed point in the room when you start speaking and then looking around at the crowd once you feel more comfortable.
  • Knowing what to do with your hands. This is where you have to plan beforehand. Deciding what to do with your hands before you start speaking is essential. If I was speaking behind a podium, I would put my hands on it until my nerves calmed down. If there was nothing to stand behind, holding a microphone with both hands was helpful. Also, holding the microphone with one hand and putting a thumb in my pocket worked for me.  Standing and absentmindedly moving your hands around is a distraction to the crowd.
  • Wear clothes that make you feel more confident. When you are confident in how you look, that is one less thing to worry about.
  •  If you cannot have notes, write the key points of the speech on an index card and put it in your pocket. That way if you freeze, you can look at the card and get your bearings again.
Second, I did not learn how to craft a story. My greatest strength as a public speaker is storytelling. Telling a good story in an art and a truly great story is crafted before it is told.

  •       Stories are a great way to start speech since it usually makes the speaker feel more comfortable and people love a good story. One effective trick is to start with a story but don't finish it until the end of the speech. At an important moment, cut away to something else but return to finish it at the end.
  •       The first line is essential. "In the hole in the ground lived a Hobbit." JRR Tolkien's classic story starts with a great line. A good opening line catches the audience's attention and opens them up to trusting you to keep their attention.
  •             Next, the story must have some details but not too many. My tendency has always been to include too many details. A few tiny details make a story feel more real but momentum is more important than details. Details build trust but too many details bore the audience.
  •       The conclusion of the story is what our audience will remember. If it's a funny story, don't laugh yourself. Never laugh at your own jokes. Pause for laughs and then continue with the speech. If it's a serious story, the same rule applies. Pause to let it sink in, then move on.
Finally, I was not taught how to deal with frowns in the audience. In almost every crowd I've spoken to there has been someone who seemed to give me a negative response. It's unnerving. I would get rattled by one person who looked unhappy even if the rest of the room was engaged. Over the years I have learned several things about a negative response.

  •       The person in the audience may be genuinely unhappy but it has nothing to do with you. They could have just received bad news or dealing with a difficult situation. The person may have great interest in what you have to say but cannot get past their current circumstance.
  •       Someone might be frowning because they are intensely processing what you have to say. It's hard to discern when someone is reacting like that.
  •       Some people have what my wife calls "resting crabby face". They might be sitting and thinking about something they enjoy but their face looks like they are unhappy. They are not intentionally frowning but they give that appearance. That person might be enjoying your speech but giving the opposite impression. 
  •       If someone is falling asleep during your speech, you might feel like they are disinterested in your speech, but may not be  the case. Through my years of untreated Sleep Apnea I fell asleep listening to many speakers despite great interest in what they had to say. I'm sure some of them thought I was rude but I couldn't help it. 
  •       Some people may not like you for reasons out of your control. They may dislike you for your race, gender, appearance, or something you represent. They may be angry at something you said or for something they perceived you said. It doesn't matter how benign your subject matter may be, some people just need find something they dislike and dwell on it. No matter how hard you try, you will not win them over. The tendency is to try and win them over at the expense of the rest of the crowd. The sad reality is that anyone who engages in public speaking needs to learn how to accept the small percentage of people who don't like you and focus on the large group that does.
I don't mean to degrade the educators in high school and college that worked with me as I learned to speak to groups. I learned so much and will always be grateful them. My hope is that my children will learn some of these things earlier than I did and surpass me as a public speaker.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A money saving trick - the Ed Grazier Ten Year Plan

There are lots of tips and tricks for saving money, some good and some bad. One trick
that I like is the Ed Grazier Ten Year Plan. Who is Ed Grazier? Ed and his wife Rhena
have four daughters, with whom Heidi and I are friends. A few years ago Julie, one of the
Grazier sisters, told us about her Dad's ten year plan for buying a Ram truck. A number
of years ago he thought about how he would like a Ram truck, but, being a practical man,
he wanted to make sure he was not rushing into such a large purchase. He decided that if
he still wanted a Ram truck in ten years, he would buy one. Sure enough, he waited ten
years, and he still wanted a Ram truck. So he bought it.

I did something similar several years before I heard about the Ed Grazier Ten Year Plan.
Back in 2000-2001, I had access to company vehicle for 15 months. At the end of the 15
months I knew I would purchase another vehicle. Early on in that 15 month period I
decided I wanted a light pickup truck, either a Ford Ranger or a Chevy S-10. When the
time came to give back my company car, I decided against a truck and bought a used Mazda
Protege from some friends. Having time to decide made me realize that a truck would not
have been practical for my urban lifestyle.

A few years later I wanted an I-Pod but I made myself wait six months to see if I
still wanted one. At the end of the six months I wanted it more than ever. I still use
that I-Pod even though it is a technological dinosaur.

The Ed Grazier Ten Year Plan is a little extreme for most purchases but the principle is
sound. One reason so many people cannot get their finances in check is their inability to
master delayed gratification. The key to the plan is the bigger the purchase, the more
time a person should wait before making it. Give yourself six months before buying an
I-Pad or a Lego Millennium Falcon. Longer for trucks or motorcycles and similar items.
The pause in the purchasing process makes all the difference.

The main point of the plan is to think about spending habits and avoiding impulse
purchases. A nice byproduct of the plan is a lack of buyer's remorse. When someone slows
down and really puts thought in to a purchase, they have a better chance at being happy
with it.

The Ed Grazier Ten Year Plan does not apply to every financial decision. It is one tool
in a person's financial toolbox. Just think of all the unnecessary junk people have in
their garage and how much less they would have if they just slowed themselves down before
they bought that exercise bike that now serves as an expensive clothing rack. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Playoffs? You're talking about playoffs?

The NFL playoffs are here. When your team makes the playoffs, there are seven possible outcomes. Only one of them is awesome and the rest have some degree of bummer to them. Let’s break them down from best to worst.

Winning the Super Bowl: It's pretty great.

Losing the Super Bowl: It’s a bummer, but not that bad if you can keep the proper perspective. Your team is the second best in football, so that is actually pretty good. As a Broncos fan, I have experienced four Super Bowl losses, every single one a blowout. That does not include the Super Bowl beatdown when I was four years old. I am getting pretty good at handling this outcome.

Winning in the Wild Card round, winning in the Divisional round, and losing the Conference Championship: In this scenario, your team won two playoff games, including a road win in the Divisional Round, one of the hardest wins to achieve in football. If your team played in the Wild Card round, expectations were probably fairly low so falling one game short of the Super Bowl is pretty good.

Winning in the Divisional Round, losing the Conference Championship: In this scenario, your team got a first round bye and then won a home playoff game. Expectations are high and the Super Bowl is one game away but the teams falls short. The 2005 Broncos fell into this category, and after the game, I just kept thinking about what could have been. For Vikings fans in 1998 and 2010, this scenario still haunts them. The reason it is not lower on the list is that your team at least won a playoff game before heading home for the rest of the playoffs.

Winning in the Wild Card round, lose in the Divisional round: Most likely the expectations were low but your team did win a playoff game. At least your team made the playoffs and won a game. The 2011 Broncos season felt like a success since the team had failed to make the playoffs for the previous five seasons and then scored a victory when they did. On the other side, the 2005 Patriots were defending Super Bowl Champs and getting bounced in the Divisional round was pretty crushing to them. Perspective is everything with this one.

Losing in the Wild Card round: Chances are that your team was not very good but you still held out hope that they would make a run. Instead, your team rewarded your hope by failing to win a playoff game. Bengals fans just keep experiencing the scenario and it crushes their souls. The 2008 Colts won twelve games but lost in this round and their fans probably never recovered.

Losing in the Divisional Round: This one is the worst. Your team was good enough for a first round bye and is playing at home against a team that had to play a week before. Home teams win 75% of the time in this round. The Divisional round loses in 1996, 2012, and 2014 haunt me way more than the Super Bowl loses. The 2012 loss against Baltimore still makes me want to throw up. The Broncos will need to win multiple Super Bowls before I get over that game. Now that I write it out, that sounds kind of pathetic.

The Broncos have the #1 seed for the playoff so I am hoping for an outcome on the higher end of this list. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lessons from the back of the pack: the purpose of sports

20 years ago I finished my career as a collegiate runner and have been thinking about the things I learned at that time. This is part five of my series, Lessons from the Back of the Pack. 

A few years ago Nike had a series of commercials called "why sport?" They all followed the same formula with a story and a funny line in text on the screen at the end. The most famous one featured a woman alone in a cabin in the woods who is chased by a guy with a chainsaw and hockey mask. She takes off into the woods and easily outruns him. The text at the end said "Why Sport? Because you live longer."

With my boys getting old enough to start taking an interest in athletics, I have started to think about the role of sports in our lives. There is a small group of people with the ability and work ethic to make their living through sports, but for the rest of us, what purpose should they serve? I contend that the purpose of sports is to make you better at other parts of life. When I am physically active, I am a better person. When my boys are worn out from physical activity, well, they are too tired to fight with each other, so that is a win. Sadly, humans like to take something good and mess it up. We have done that with sports.

Youth sports are supposed to be fun. Kids are supposed to learn sportsmanship and hard work. Unfortunately, too often parents and coaches take things too seriously. My nephew has been a Soccer referee for years and tells crazy stories about parents and coaches acting like complete tools at their kid's games. That will suck the life out of a group of children really quickly.

Another problem that has come up in recent years is specialization of youth sports. Kids are expected to start young and play the same sport year round. A friend was telling me that his daughter wanted to try softball but found that all the teams were made up of kids that had been playing for years and there was no place for beginners. She is 11 years old. Many experts have said that specialization is not good and that kids should play different sports during the year but it looks like it will take a while to change.

Despite my lack of athletic gifting I still love to participate in a lot of different sports and I feel more alive and happy when I do. I will pass that on to my children so that, even if they end up in the back of the pack, they can feel the joy of competition and trying your best. I want them to understand the purpose of sports and enjoy them as much as I have.