Friday, November 30, 2007

The tracks to Shangri-La

There are many places that I dream of seeing, and then there are some that I feel would fulfill some of my life's greatest wishes. Paris was one. Vienna was another. And then there was also South Africa. One that I have wished to see for quite some time is Tibet. The trouble is that getting there is a bit of a bear. Or, at least it used to be.

For a year, a rail line has linked Tibet to the rest of China. This is phenomenal news for those who want to see Tibet and would prefer to avoid the arduous plane or bus ride to the area. And the tourism numbers support what a revelation the rail line is - 3.2 million people visited Tibet the first 9 months of 2007, a 67% increase over last year. And there are concerns that this rail line is not only bringing tourists but bring destruction to Buddhist culture. This makes me wonder if my curiosity and interest in the region will actually harm the region itself. Can tourism and popularity wipe out a way of life?

This is of course a constant struggle for environmental conservationists. While we want people to take a keen interest in other cultures, people, and area of the world, there is also a delicate balance to guard to protect the very thing driving the interest. Technology has so many benefits, and yet there are some very powerful disadvantages, one of them being a movement toward sameness across cultures.

I do dream of seeing Tibet some day, of spending time there wandering the mountains, talking to Tibetans, and sharing with them how much their perseverance and strength and belief in happiness have influenced me and the way I live my life. I wander now if by the opening of the flood gates I have missed the window to actually ever see the real Tibet.

The picture above is a Tibetan couple stands at the end of the tracks that link the rest of China to the platform of the Lhasa train station in Lhasa, Tibet. It can be found at

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wishing you a Bergdorf Holiday

I've had every career aspiration known to man. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a paleontologist. When it was announced that Christa McAuliffe was going to be the first non-astronaut in space, I took that as a sign that I should join the space program. Doctor, engineer, attorney, film maker, naval officer, train conductor. And for a while when I first moved to New York City many years ago, I thought I was destined to be a window dresser. I fantasized about working into the wee hours of the morning, creation works of art for all of New York to see the next morning. The movie Mannequin was a tiny bit too real for me.

Have you been to the display windows at Bergdorf Goodman? If you live in New York City, I would suggest that you stop reading this post and run over there right now. 5th Avenue and 57th Street. They lush, stunning, artful displays. The best in the city, and I can't believe they haven't gotten highlighted more often in the "window gazing" guides published in NYC publications. During my window dresser career aspiration phase, I would sometimes go by there just to stare at the windows, make notes and drawings of the displays, and then imagine what I might do differently. I went into the store once - this was a bad idea. No one even spoke to me; clearly I didn't belong there, and everyone knew it. I rode the escalator all the way to the top, turned around, and went back out the door to the windows. I really should have stopped there.

Don't let the snootiness of the store staff dissuade you from seeing the windows. They are a spectacle. And if you're outside of NYC, never fear. I've posted photos of this year's displays on my photoblog at : And they're so fabulous and the company takes such pride in them that they have a dedicated website with archives -

The greatest accomplishment of the windows - they bring a sense of magic to the holidays. And couldn't we all use a little more magic for a while?

Building the Mississippi

I'm a big fan of management books and I consider it a personal mission to help people I know do what they're good at. I also would not deny that I generally advocate for ignoring rules, other than ones that would land you in jail or are necessary to protect people's happiness and freedom. Wrap all these up and your have two books by Marcus Buckingham, First, Break all the Rules and Now Discover Your Strengths, both of which I love, admire, and hold up as examples of how to conduct my career and my life.

The most powerful statement I've heard him make in various speeches is simple, concise, and such good advice that I wish there was a way to telecast it to anyone in the working world. "Find a small stream in which your strengths can flow and then see if you can carve it into the Mississippi." Incredible. This statement and adherence to it turns the whole notion of job performance, corporate culture, and career planning on its head. It puts the job seeker in total charge and in one short sentence gives you a complete action plan:

1.) Find what you're good at
2.) Find a company that has a niche, however small, that can be filled well by your strengths
3.) Work like hell to blow out that niche that makes you a rock star

I've been continually thinking about Barry Schwartz and The Paradox of Choice almost to a point of obsession in my efforts to simplify anywhere and everywhere I can in my life. The three steps above eliminate all of the guess work and maneuvering that goes on when people try to climb the corporate ladder. Just know what you do well, find a place that wants you to do what you're good at, and make it your duty to use those strengths to create value. Think of the richness, gratification, and satisfaction we can find at work with this mindset. It's how people at Google must feel everyday...and entirely accessible to each of us.

Wishing for a stress-free season

While out shopping for others this holiday, the temptation is high to reward myself with a little something too. Rather than get myself something of material value for the holidays, I decided to do myself a big fat favor - I'm cutting stress out of the holidays. Seriously. I'm giving 13 holiday gifts, most of which I already have. I didn't travel for Thanksgiving, but spent it in NYC about 10 blocks from my apartment. I'm going to my mom's an hour and a half drive away on the 25th. And then I'm likely spending New Year's at a house party less than a block from my apartment. In between I'll see friends, enjoy the lights, the special Christmas exhibits, window gazing. I'm looking to put the magic back into the holiday.

It's as easy as it sounds. I made the decision, after years of not really enjoying the holidays all that much for a variety of reasons, that I was really going to love this time. And the best way for me to have a good time is to mitigate the stress. I spend a lot of time taking on other people's energies, good and bad alike. This is part of the downside of being a sensitive person. I counteract some of this draining with yoga, or meditation, or seeing friends, or taking long walks in the park. My gift to myself is time to do whatever I want - a gift that really does keep on giving.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dreams minus logic

For years I have wondered about my weirdo dreams, which I have more often than not. They don't make sense. They seem to be a manifestation of clumping a lot of the areas of my life together in a way reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's painting style.

Many publications have recently picked up this curiosity about dream creation - the New York Times, Real Simple Magazine, even Business Week. It turns out that when we dream, the area of our brains that control logic and reasoning goes to sleep, too. It unplugs, allowing other areas of our minds, and the thoughts they contain, to run rampant. When the cat's away....

So I think about this everyday when I wake up, wondering if my illogical mind has revealed anything that would have otherwise been stifled by reason. This morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was negotiating hard for a salary with a new employer. They agreed to pay me $585,000 / year. Rather than jumping for joy, I said simply, "I am not going to be in the office after 6:00pm." Can you believe that?

This dreams tells me a few things. One, my unreasonable mind believes in the very reasonable idea that I need a balanced life. Two, I am clearly thinking about money and becoming concerned about my finances. This makes sense, too - authorities are considering raising the fare on the GW Bridge to $8 a day and my school loans have entered re-payment. The days of deferment are gone for good. The other thing that this dream reveals is that I am clearly thinking about what's next, and trying to decide what I'd like to see on the horizon. My boss planted this seed a month or so ago, asking me to consider where I want to go with my career so that he can help me get there. This is quite possibly the greatest show of support any boss has ever shown me. It's truly a remarkable proposition, and I appreciate that this personal support in a work environment is rare.

Despite logic's need for a rest, my dreaming mind seems to be holding up its end of reason, and teaching logic a thing or two in the process.

Black to Green

Our economy may be in for tough times. The growing number of labor strikes, unexpected bank write-offs, mortgage defaults, and mounting debt are enough to make us think the sky may actually be falling. No where is this worry more alive than in retail during the holiday season. The sheer dollar amount of holiday spending is an indicator of consumer confidence, highly scrutinized by every analyst with airtime.

I was thinking about this at 4am on Friday as I took the subway down to Times Square to help our store staff on the day that kicks off the holiday shopping season. Black Friday, or Green Friday as we call it, is a day a lot of people look forward to. It's a tradition for families and friends to stand on-line outside the stores they think will have the best deals.

I am not one those people - I have never been inside a retail store on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I completely avoid them until about the second week of December. Better yet, I get onto my computer and never have to contend with retail check-out lines and disgruntled shoppers who grapple with out-of-stocks and too-long wish lists from their families and friends.

This year, though I would be on the front lines in arguably the craziest retail center in the world. I arrived at 4:15, half an hour early so I could familiarize myself with which product categories were on which floors. This was a handy list to have. I felt glad to be able to help guests get those special items they had been looking forward to purchasing and gifting. There was a rush of people for a few hours and then the traffic calmed down to a reasonable level. Stocking shelves, showing guests to items they couldn't find on their own, checking prices, clearing aisles, restocking shelves. All in a day's work. By far the greatest contribution I could make was to say hello, smile, wish shoppers a happy holiday, and ask them to visit our .com site if we were out of stock on the items they wanted. They seemed generally appreciative to pause for a moment and answer the questions, "how are you today?"

The thing about being a retailer is that you learn to be a better customer. You read circulars cover to cover, you look for department directories, you utilize price checking machines, and match item numbers from shelf tags to packages. By being a retailer, even for a short period of time, you become a retailer's dream guest.

That said, many people at the store 5am have never been retailers. They were crazed. "Where can I find Dora?" "Where are your video games?" "What about dance mats?" "Do you carry Barnyardigans?" (Huh??? - what exactly is a Barnyardigan? I soon found out it's a licensed property from Nickelodeon.) And the number of bags - some people dragging around 5 large bags behind them filled to the brim with boxes. There were a few grumps - when I didn't know the price of an electronic keyboard off-hand, one women wished me "A merry f*****g Christmas." I smiled and wanted to say, "Same to you" but I stopped short after the smile and helped her to a price checking machine just across the aisle. 'Tis the season to be nicer than you would be other times of the year!

When I was in the middle of helping one guest, 3 others would ask me for help. This was a good sign to be this busy. Maybe the economy isn't crumbling as quickly as we may have thought. I remembered how many times I've done that when I need help in the store. I should have been a more patient guest.

Once the crowd died down, I headed out to take look at other retailers. My favorite experience by far was the the Apple Store on 5th Avenue and 59th Street. Judging by the crowd, a lot of people shared my view. They have designed a way to anchor floor models so you can try out every item they sell in store. You can make a one hour appointment with a MAC personal shopper to help you pick the perfect holiday gifts. And the store is strikingly clean, airy, and open for a small space, so a bit of that holiday stress has room to dissipate.

Another brightly spot in service was Old Navy. Knowledgeable staff, great deals, and mesh bags galore. Not bad for a store that has to content with an association with the ever-more-boring The Gap and Banana Republic.

The shopping frenzy is continuing this weekend. I am watching it intently for signs of hope. Tomorrow is another big shopping day - Cyber Monday. The day when working folks decide Christmas shopping on-line is time better spent than on work. I love it. Shoppers have aligned so tightly on this that they created another holiday tradition of their own. It's so strong that a boss can't complain about shopping during the workday tomorrow. After all, they're only helping the economy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Different lenses

My friend Monica sent me an email for Thanksgiving with a simple message: "Worry looks around, Sorry looks back, Faith looks up." I had never thought of emotions as having a specific direction, though it makes sense. Sorry does have its root in the past, worry has us looking around to see how we are being judged or what may be coming at us, and faith casts our gaze upward. I wonder if the converse is true as well - can the direction we choose to look incite certain emotions?

If I want to embody faith and hope, then I may spend more time looking forward, especially during times of reflection. Looking out into my future so to speak, and imagining happiness and success, however I define those. I have a tendency to beat myself up for past mistakes, big ans small. Spending energy being sorry, especially for things that are long since past forces us to look back. This is especially damaging since once we do apologize and forgive, there is nothing more we can do about the past.

I've written on this blog before about my tendency toward worry. A certain amount of worry can keep us on our toes, keep us motivated. But there's a tipping point where worry can paralyze us from ever moving ahead. It's okay to look around, as long as it's done in moderation of looking up.

And that balance applies to all emotions. Experiencing a full range of emotions keeps us empathic, humble, and appreciative of the good times. Some people think that the goal of Buddhists is constant happiness. From the texts I have read, Buddhists are more interested in moving through an emotional array, experiencing all that life has to offer. Physically an emotionally, it seems that we would all do well to have a full range of motion.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Judging people by their covers

My latest blog favorite is And it's about - you guessed it - any topic under the sun, all centered around books and literature. They ask readers to send in pictures of their bookshelves for possible publication on their blog's banner.

People are what they read. So I took a closer look at my own shelf.

From left to right:
The Smallest Majority
The Best Things to Do in New York
Running with Scissors
Leading Minds
700 Sundays
The Complete Book of Running for Women
Begging for Change
Long Walk to Freedom
The Namesake
The Tipping Point
Stumbling on Happiness
Yoga, The Poetry of the Body
A Year of Magical Thinking
The First Five Pages
A Reason for Hope
Four Noble Truths
The Elements of Style
Hard Laughter
The World According to Mr. Rogers
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
A Walk in the Woods
Einstein, The Life and Times
What I Know Now, Letters to my Younger Self
Women Who Run with the Wolves
Dreams of My Father
Bird by Bird
Oh The Places You'll Go
John Adams
Jefferson and Monticello

To be fair to myself, I am a fan of lending out books to friends so a few key ones are missing. Though this gives a pretty well-rounded picture of who I am and what I care about. As my friend Catherine pointed out, "That's quite an eclectic mix, miss." And yes, it is. Fittingly for a pretty eclectic person.

So what does this shelf say about me? I am a fan of history, political, social, and personal. (It was one of my majors in undergrad.) I'm a writer, or at least aspire to be. At heart, I am still a kid. I practice yoga and am spiritual. I am a liberal. I enjoy traveling. I care about the environment. I love NYC. I care about the world and would like some insight into how to manage it. And the variety of topics, writers, and cultures says something all its own. I am searching - for truth, for inspiration, for a different, new way to see what's around me.

And even more striking to me is what's missing. If I take a look at all of the titles and consider the stories between their covers, they are all about hope. You won't find one sob story among them. A decade ago, there would have been a very different mix. Maybe a little bit sadder, a little bit more lonely. A little less confident. This current stash shows great progress.

Our books are a form of self-portrait. Building these bookshelves is a good check-in, a solid way to reflect on where we are in this moment. Our books are our self-portraits.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

On Happiness: I'm thankful in writing

I spend some time every day being thankful. Truly. I commute to and from New Jersey and despite the fact that I love NPR, there are times when the reception goes out or I am looking to just spend some time with myself. Because of our extremely warm autumn, there are still colorful leaves on the trees - the first time I can ever remember this being the case. The yellows and oranges and red give such a warm glow to my commute. Once I turn off the highway and onto the country roads that take me to my office, I shut off the radio and just look at the trees. It's the best part of my morning.

I am grateful and thankful today for my family and friends, for my job, for my ability to write, and for people who are actually interested in reading my writing from time to time. I am thankful for living in NYC, for my apartment, and my neighborhood. I am thankful for my education, for my curiosity, for my ability to imagine and create. I am thankful for my health and my yoga practice, and the personal freedom I have to truly control my own destiny. I am most thankful for my ability to generate and sustain happiness, to smile even when there may not be much to smile about.

The writing down of blessings helps us to be thankful, the same way writing down frustrations and disappointments helps us to bear them. The record keeping boosts our memory, helps us reflect, and yes, helps us to give thanks, loudly and often.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On NYC: My first grown-up Thanksgiving

This year is the first time that I am ever spending Thanksgiving away from my family. They are all sunning themselves in Florida, and oddly enough, I am sunning myself on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. It's as warm here as it is in Florida. Over 60 degrees tomorrow, and green leaves abound in Riverside Park, a.k.a my park.

While I miss the fam and their always crazy antics, I am thankful for not having to fly to my turkey this year. I'll be able to sleep late tomorrow, watch the parade on TV (despite the fact that it rolls past me several blocks to the east - too crowded and I don't think anyone wants me showing up on Central Park West in my jammies), and then stroll up about 10 blocks around 4pm to my friend, Lisa's, for a lovely catered dinner devoid of stress. I have been looking forward to this for months.

The real reason I remain here at the heart of consumerism is because at 4:45am on Friday I will be surrounded by frantic shoppers at our Times Square store. To be fair, I volunteered for this, choosing the location and the time. And to be honest, I am looking forward to it. A friend at work today told me I should make it a party. Whoop it up! Have some fun! Pretend everyone in the store is my best friend. I like this idea.

Truth be told, I have never set foot in a store on Black Friday. I'm beginning to wonder if I am agoraphobic. Just thinking about the crowds is making me nervous. The idea of getting up, standing in line at an ungodly hour, all to save a few bucks makes me scratch my head. Why do people do this?

By nature I am obsessed with comparison shopping. Now being in retail, that obsession is even more heightened. It turns out that you don't just save a few bucks on Black Friday. You save a boatload of bucks! Some of these deals are unbelievable. Plus this year there are added on-line sales that are released on Thanksgiving night. You'd think some of these places were giving it away. It's incredible.

So while I wish I was chowing down on turkey with my lovely, though exceedingly dysfunctional, family and playing with Sebastian, my sister's adorable daschund puppy, I'll settle for the magic of NYC, not flying on the busiest travel day of the year, and Friday morning embedded with my fellow bargain-hunters. I'm sure that 4:45 Friday morning will be just the beginning of a long list of blog post topics from the front.

Until then, I wish you a safe, happy, and relaxing holiday wherever you find your turkey.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

On Happiness: Giving it Away

This weekend, a friend of mine moved out of her apartment of ten years. Messy roommate situation, messy subtler situation. She looked around her boxed up apartment to find almost 100 boxes, furniture in various conditions, much of her from her childhood home. She lost both her parents at a young age. She has worked so hard to get her life in order, to find her place in the world. She is one of the bravest people I know.

And even with so much courage, so much meditation on detaching herself from worldly possessions for the sake of lasting happiness, she is having a tough time letting go. Despite the fact that she is thrilled to be saving money, time, and effort by cleaning out many of these remaining remnants of her past, she is finding that letting go is in many ways just as painful as hanging on.

In the U.S., we are criticized as a nation of consumers, pack rats, too few people with too much stuff. I agree with that to an extent, except when the possessions we have really stand for a diary, a journal of where we've been and who's played a part. My friend isn't just letting of materials items; in a very really sense she is putting to rest a part of her life gone by. Giving up what's been, what's defined her, for the sake of what could be. It's the gamble of a lifetime, literally.

We forget - details, events, emotions. Our minds have a wonderful way of glossing over many awful experiences, dulling the pain, or shock, or discomfort so that we can move forward. Friends and family remind us, and we keep mementos of past experiences to memorialize them. By giving away these mementos, we are not only giving away possessions, but also giving away the ability to recall the details down the road. We are losing a part of ourselves.

And we have to. We can't possibly hang on to all of it. A lifetime holds so many things, people, occurrences. We have to assume the responsibility of editing our lives - of culling out the things that matter most from the great cumulative mass of living. It is the toughest job we will ever do. In seemingly simple acts like giving away furniture, we are choosing how to remember our lives and how to we will be remembered by others. As nice as a clean slate sounds, there is a period of mourning that happens in the cleansing.

My friend walked me to the subway Saturday afternoon after we spent a good couple of hours hashing through this idea of letting go. All I could do was give her two giant hugs, promise her my positive energy, and assure her that the next chapter would be an adventure. I am sure she walked away teary-eyed. I did, too. It's part of the cleansing - a clean slate is on the way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Innovation: Laundry minus the water

I love smart products - ones designed to fit my crazy life's schedule, make my days a bit easier, and make me feel good while using them. For example, I don't like house work. I do it, and the only thing I ever like about it is how it looks when I'm all done. So if a product quickly gets me through the pieces I don't like, I'm all for it. I've got places to be...

Voila - Swash! P&G developed a "smoothing" spray for people like me - I'm an infamous re-wearer. I'd prefer to wear my jeans about 20 times before I wash them. I don't because they just feel kind of used after just a couple wears. Same with heavy sweaters. With Swash I can get rid of stains, odors, and wrinkles with a few sprays of the can. No water required. And even better, the can is made of recycled aluminum and can be recycled again.

Check it out at

Making sense of a mess

There are many antecdotes that people use to comfort themselves or those they care about when something in their world goes wrong. "You've got to turn lemons into lemonade." "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger." "It's a character builder."

I was watching the news a few nights ago and Robin Roberts from Good Morning America was getting her head shaved because her hair was falling out from chemotherapy. They showed a clip of an interview with her asking her why she would subject herself to something like that on national television. And she simply said, "Because my mother taught me to make my mess my message." So much more more powerful than making lemonade or building character.

Making your mess your message actually gives you something to do with what's wrong with your life at the moment. That can mean cancer, a broken relationship, a lost job. You can scoop up your sorrows, however many there, however intensely they make you feel, and put them to work. And it helps you get through it, connects you to other people going through a similar situation, and helps them pull through too.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How did we get here?

Luck never gives; it only lends. — Swedish proverb

Life has funny lines. They divide moments of "aha!" from "huh?". They separate moments of magic from moments that are just a good time. And there are times when we stumble on luck, or maybe luck stumbles on us. It sticks around for a while and we think we've hit the jackpot. Somewhere along the line the shine dulls a bit and so ends the honeymoon period of a new venture.

This happened to me recently and I began to question whether or not I was in the right place with the right people. That familiar old flight response began to kick in, to take hold. The I took a deep breathe, kept at what I was doing, and when I finished I went home. I went to bed, woke up, and started again. There are hard days ahead; there will be tough decisions. Not everyone will be happy with the outcome.

After the honeymoon period ends, we really get down to it. Luck enters our lives, and falls away. It's the falling away that contains the real learnings, about ourselves, about those around us. We discover our sense of commitment and loyalty. The incredible part comes when we see luck fall away and keep going in spite of it. And then it returns, as mysteriously as it left us in the first place. You have to wonder, is luck ever really there at all or is it our dedication that breeds good fortune? We aren't giving ourselves enough credit. Rather than attributing favorable circumstance to luck, we should consider how hard we worked to get where we are.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Happiness: A Matter of Time

Some people are surprised to hear that the self-help section on a book store often has the most robust sales. Closet self-helpers like me are the reason; I am a fanatic about it. It often took me many hours to slog through accounting and finance books while I was in school. Self-help books I have been known to fly through at lightning speed.

So when the Today Show launched its most recent series, “5 ways to improve your life”, I naturally made a note of it a la David Allen, the author of “Getting things Done”, so I could check it out later. I must say the writers and researchers of the Today show are working overtime these days. About a year ago, I was becoming very disenchanted with them, though now they seem to be back on track. The information is useful – 5 ways to healthier bones, 5 ways to tone up, 5 ways to ride out the market, 5 ways to save for college, etc. In their section “5 ways to live longer”, one of the suggestions is “make the decision that your time is the most valuable thing in the world.” This, by far, is my favorite. An entire self-help book in one sentence.

I think of all the times that I hand over my time willy-nilly. I do it grudgingly on occasion, though I often treat my time as if it is entirely flexible. What if I compared my resource of time with ways I use other resources? Money, energy, my health, the love of my friends and family. I would never even dream of wasting those resources, and not in small part because those resources have a quantifiable limit. If I waste any one of them, there are dire consequences. I haven’t been thinking of my time that way on a consistent basis. Yes, I know when I am doing a project and my time is running out, then I see how precious it is. But what about my free time? Why do I give that away on a daily basis? Why do I treat it as if it is a resource in abundance rather than something precious?

The root of the problem is that I have not been looking at my time as something I truly own. It belongs to work, to my hobbies, to people in my personal life, to my community. What I need to do is flip that around. I own my time and have every ability and every right to decide how to divvy it up. It goes back to what Sue Monk Kidd wrote in The Secret Life of Bees, “The hardest thing on Earth is choosing what matters.”

And everything always comes back to this choice, this decision of how to spend time. No matter what decision I am pondering, at the root, it is all about time. Even decisions that seem to be about money or health or family. They are really based on “how much time do I have and how much of it do I want to spend on (fill in the blank)?”

This revelation is game-changing. We cannot help but live our lives differently if we begin to place an increasingly high value on the actual minutes that make up our lives. And not just those crucial moments or highlights like getting married, having a baby, graduating from school, getting a new job, buying a home, taking a vacation. Every minute – they all count. They’re all precious. They’re all unique – truly. We cannot repeat a single one of them. There is no do-over, no rewind.

I am a huge fan of Real Simple magazine, and one of their website features is wallpaper for the computer that contains a simple, brightly colored picture and an inspirational quote. On my desk top right now is one by Arthur Ashe and it seems particularly relevant to this post. “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.” And what we give to everything we do is time. Treat it like a gift.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Everyday we create workarounds, conventions that help us get through the day by literally working around difficulties. Most of the time it's safe to assume that these adjustments we make are simply things we must do get through the day, to get our jobs done, to take care of our family and friends. "Everyone does it," we tell ourselves.

Workaround get tough when they become the default action, when we do them because it's easier to create workarounds than it is to fix the problem that's causing the workaround in the first place. May take a little more time, a little more money, but if we can avoid conflict, we'll do it. No matter how confrontational people may be, it's in our nature to avoid situations and actions that cause harm.

The problem with developing and fostering these conventions is that there is no progress in that. If a system is broken and we create a method to deal with what's busted rather than fixing it, we get stuck. It's as if we cannot move past this short-term solution. And then the system proceeds to get broken further until it's so bad that we need to develop a workaround for our workaround.

One of my past employers had board meetings several times a year, scheduled well in advance. There was no process in place for preparing for these meetings. Without fail each time it was absolute mayhem scraping it all together. Everyone would end up completely frazzled, hating each other, pointing fingers at who should have done this and who should have done that. Then a few weeks would go by, follow-up would fall through the cracks, and in a few months time, the vicious cycle would repeat itself. Everyone involved developed their own workarounds to just "get by" because there was no leadership anywhere in the line. No one owned outcomes, so no one owned the process.

This isn't just a workplace phenomena. We can apply it to our holiday shopping patterns, our summer vacation planning (or lack there of). School assignments. Our nagging to do lists. That home repair we keep meaning to make. Workaround have a nasty habit of making friends with passive aggressive behavior and procrastination, mounting into the perfect storm. Once we get used to doing workarounds, we feel we deserve some sort of recognition for our how hard we're working and the extra care we're taking to get our jobs done, despite the fact that the system we're compensating for is riddled with problems.

Now think about this - channel all of the energy and effort we put into workarounds into actually fixing the system, once, so we don't have to keep repeating the workaround and so that we can move forward. High anxiety. Discomfort. Short-term losses of some variety. Sure. Any system or process, in order to be designed right and function properly, has to take the long view.

I know that many times fixing what's broken is more difficult than just stepping over it for now. I know it's tough; I know you don't want to do it because you don't have enough time right now, nor enough money, energy, or patience. Get it done. Systems and processes don't fix themselves; they won't go away just because you ignore them. Eventually they will rear their ugly heads and better to deal with them while they're small and contained rather than have to fix them once they've created a gangly mess down the road. Daley Carnegie said "Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy." Just make sure what the things you're doing will add value, real value, down the road.

Monday, November 12, 2007

On NYC: What gets rewarded

NYC is a tough place to live. On the surface it may appear to be all fun and games. It's not - this city and living in it is serious stuff, not for the faint of heart. People manage it in all different ways - after thinking they can hack it in the thick of it all, they grow tired and weak. Some move to a new borough, or a new state if it's really bad. They get new roommates, a new job, new friends, new hobbies. They cry, scream, join a gym. Some just hide under the covers hoping tomorrow they will wake up in a more polite, less crowded, quieter NYC, only to be disappointed that overnight the city seems to have grown more rude, more crowded, and nosier.

And don't forget how damn expensive it is to live here! I won't even tell you what I pay in rent - it's horrifying, and I have the best deal in town. I recently went to Disney World for the day with my sister, Weez, and brother-in-law, Kyle. (They live near Orlando.) You know you've lived in NYC too long when you think the prices for Walt Disney World concessions are cheap.

So what's a girl to do? I've tried all of the strategies I listed above. I have had horrible roommates, and even more horrible bosses in years past. I tried to moving to a borough, and several other states. I got new friends, and saved my good old ones too. I've tried new hobbies, volunteering. I'm quite adept at hiding under the covers, and I consider myself to be an expert screamer and crier when the tension gets too much. I have never joined a gym here - I put initiation fees on par with broker fees. "Oh, please, let me give you an outrageous sum of money to have the right to pay you an even greater sum of money on a monthly basis for the privilege of being in your presence." No thanks - I'll take to running on the streets of NYC.

The best remedy I've found for surviving and ultimately coming to love NYC - keep showing up. Truly. Falling in love with this city is a long, slow, and very painful process. It takes deep commitment. It plays hard to get better than all of us combined. And it wins every time. The harder you fight its freakish, bizarre happenings, the more it will throw at you.

And then one day you turn the corner to your apartment, or fly over Manhattan to land at one of the city's airports, and you realize there is no place in the world like your New York. You meet good people. You find that dream job. You nurture and develop hobbies that complete you. Sometimes it takes a few tries - it took me 3. And now I know I could never call another place home. It's true that if you can make it here, you make it anywhere. Trouble is that once you've made it here, you'll have a hard time wanting to make it anywhere else - you fought too hard to make this work. And just when you're ready to throw in the towel, it relents. Anything worth having is worth fighting for, right?

On Innovation:

My mother and brother are huge Trekie fans. I mean, HUGE. And their favorite character, of course, was Spock. That strangely lovable Vulcan who lacked even a single shred of emotion. My mother's favorite Spock quality - the mind meld. It's a useful skill really - being able to dump a lifetime of accumulated knowledge into some other mind in a matter of minutes so that way even when the being passes away, the knowledge lives on. Think of all the progress we could have made if we could have preserved all of the knowledge ever amassed in the world! How many mistakes we could avoid! How much pain we would never have to go through!
While no one has yet developed a mind meld device, there is one man who has developed the next best thing: a way to easily map your brain onto your computer for future referral. All that is required is an itty bitty piece of software and your time to input all your information. Behold: It's creator: Jerry Michalski,

TheBrain allows you to map and bucket any thought you have about, well anything. It's intuitive, easy to compile, and so logical you won't believe it. The simplicity of the design has such power that you have to try it to believe how magical, and addicting, this tool will become. Forget any project management software, list-making, favorites bar you've ever created. Truly, throw them in the trash. TheBrain will keep you organized, on-task, and will get you to see connections between the seemingly disparate parts of your life that you never realized before. Best of all, it's a permanent record of how you work, what you think about, and what matters to you. Part journal, part accomplishments list, part powerful resource, part to do, etc. You see where I'm going with this...

I'd stay and tell you more, but I have the building out of my brain to think of. Have a look for yourself at

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Travels: Delta Rising

Delta is a remarkably consistent airline – consistently horrible. As a general rule, I avoid their flights completely. This could be because I associate Delta with Atlanta, GA, my least favorite city in the country. Until recently, I have put Delta in the same class as Sleepy’s, the 7 train, and reckless bicycle riders on the streets of New York City, all of which I have ranted about on this blog in previous posts.

Times change, views change, and improvement does happen. I flew Delta to Florida this weekend to see my little sister and brother-in-law, and to throw a baby shower for them. And for the first time ever, my flight left a New York City airport on time and arrived in Tampa, FL 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The same situation was repeated on my return trip.

Now, I am still a bit peeved with Delta because they told me a ticket I changed was good for a year from the date of the originally scheduled flight time and it was actually good for a year form the date I made the change – a difference of a month that rendered that original ticket useless when I was booking my recent flight to Florida. Annoying. Really annoying.

But hey, you’ve got to take the bitter with the better. Improvement is a piece-meal process. Delta may be on the path to getting off my bad side. I’m open to changing my opinion - rare, but it happens.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

On NYC: Making your own space

"No task is so humble that it does not offer an outlet for individuality."-William Feather

One thing that I love about New York is its constant battle against routine and sameness. At every moment, around every corner lies an opportunity for individuality and a fresh outlook. Always the chance to learn something new.

On Monday I had coffee with a professional colleague and then stopped in at my doctor's office for my annual check-up. Great experience. Very efficient. Hardly any wait. And now I have a doctor before I need a doctor.

I stopped back at my apartment to pick up my lunch bag before heading to my car on 94th Street, where I had parked it that morning in a very legal space. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but a row of double parked cars blocking me in that brought me to tears. Of course there was no cop anywhere to be found; no where to turn for help. I was boxed in - completely. I was standing on the sidewalk, thoroughly exasperated, and then I saw this kind elderly man, also standing by a penned in car with a friend of his.

At least I thought he was kind. I asked him what was going on with the double parked cars and he replied, "Aren't you a New Yorker? It's street cleaning time and there's no where for them to park so they have to do this."

"And how the hell am I supposed to get to work?" I asked.

"Well do you have a better solution? Maybe you should run for mayor," he said in a mocking tone.

Now I was really steamed.

"Usually they leave a phone number as a courtesy," he offered

"Courtesy? Please. What would be courteous is for them to get off their lazy asses and drive around to find a legal spot like I did early this morning. I've heard of make your own pottery, but make your own parking space? This is asinine." There wasn't any phone number on any car in the row either. So much for "courtesy."

"Well that's the way it goes, kid."

Now I'm fit to be tied. First my car is penned in. Then this curmudgeon disguised as a kind old man gives me a hard time with that New Yorker, "Everyone Knows This" nonsense, and now at 31 I'm being called "kid".

His friend commented to me that I was being remarkably good natured about all of this because she was completely furious. This made me feel better - I thought I was being obnoxious. She counseled me that she felt I could inch my way out with the tiny space between the two cars that had blocked me in. I figured what the hell - did I have anything better to do at the moment?

20 minutes later I had inched my way out, literally inch by inch, nearly hitting the two cars beside me and in back and in front of me. Once out of the space, I breathed a sigh of relief, though still annoyed at that indignant man.

That's the thing about NYC, just when you think you know what's going on, you realize you don't. It will leave you with your jaw dropped and scratching your head on a daily basis. There are more than an ample number of opportunities to make your own way here, figuratively and literally. And the only way to learn these peculiarities is to live through them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The moment of giving

"Generosity lies less in giving much than in giving at the right moment. — Jean de La Bruyere"

The saying "It's all in the timing" tends to be related to a stroke of good luck, a serendipitous moment that occurs quite by accident with some great fortune attached to it. I am a huge fan of surprises. When I think about acts of kindness that I have experienced in my life, they came in the form of a surprise. My memory of the kindness has nothing to do with the actual gesture, but with the time that the kindness arrived.

My friend, Alex, is a fan of sending cards and little surprises in the mail. She sent me a magnet that I just love when I moved into my new apartment in New York. And she sent me a card during the summer I spent in Atlanta, which was miserable for a variety of reasons. She had no idea how much I needed a smile those days, though her timing was impeccable.

Even a well-timed, unsolicited compliment becomes an act of generosity. Occasionally I change out my picture on my blog or my Facebook page and I am always so touched when someone writes to me to say how much they like the new picture. The same goes for friends of mine who read my blog and reference it to me. I feel so touched when I know they've taken time out of their day to read what I'm thinking and writing about.

Simple phone calls do the trick, too. I am always excited to get a surprise call or voice message from someone I wasn't expecting to hear from, especially when it's not around a holiday or my birthday. I love those cards, emails, and messages that arrive just to say hi, for no reason in particular except to say "hey, I was thinking about you."

As I consider gifts I'll be giving this season I'll be thinking about the experience they create, how much joy they'll generate afterwards and hopefully for a long time to come. And this quote also gave me a third dimension to consider, timing. While the secret to a happy life may be to have low expectations, it may also be that we can generate happiness for others by providing unexpected generosity just when we sense that those around us need it most and expect it least.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Granting wishes

The season of massive gift giving has arrived! And with the season comes the litany of holiday TV commercials. It's tough for retailers to cut through with a unique message, though some are doing just that. I saw one this morning that made me reconsider the list I'll be checking twice. In the past, we've focused so much on getting gifts for people, the focus being the product we wrap up in shiny paper.

As retailers shift their business model to dually focus on the product and the experience of purchasing the product, consumers also seem to be focused on not just giving a gift but creating an experience for the recipient. Granting a wish.

We do put ourselves into the frenzy of mass purchasing - pictures of consumers dashing into retailer doors that open at 6:00am or earlier. But if we take a look back, and think about someone as a whole person, and find a way to give them something that's not just a box with a bow on it. One of these commercials shows a family that redid their dad's garage because he spends so much time touching up everyone else's room. Another one shows a little girl who loves fashion though until this year has had to wear a uniform to school. They bought her new sets of fun, funky clothes to celebrate her transition to a new school in which she can wear her own outfits. Both sets of gifts celebrate the core of the person they are given to.

We spend a lot of time gifting, though how much time do we really spend paying tribute to people who make such a difference in our lives? If we focused on this later part more often, we may find our gift lists transformed from simple packages to truly extraordinary gifts, and incidentally may find that the holiday season is filled with a lot more joy and a lot less stress.

Friday, November 2, 2007

On NYC sights and sounds: Having their say

What I love about serendipity is that it affords me a wonderful surprise that makes me feel connected to the world. It helps me begin to see the rhyme and reason that threads through one day's activities to the next. On Tuesday evening, I was late getting back from work and I wasn't able to get down to the Chelsea Barnes and Noble to see one of my favorite authors, Amy Bloom.

I needed to get a book for work so I just walked down to my neighborhood B&N. I was poking around and stumbled upon another event happening - this one for StoryCorps. I had heard one of their stories on This American Life the previous Friday on NPR. The story was moving, so I decided to stick around and see what this event was about.

I wish I could do justice to the personal stories that were shared - a NYC bus driver who helped a lone elderly woman find the restaurant her friends were at. It turned out that that woman had just been diagnosed with cancer and she was incredibly appreciative of this bus driver's kind efforts. A WWII vet and his grandson talked about the battle that their loved one faced with Alzheimer's. A woman talked about how she met her husband; they were one of the first StoryCorps stories recorded, and the husband had just passed away from pancreatic cancer.

StoryCorps's mission is very simple: record the quintessential stories of everyday American people and create an archive of the stories to be accessed by future generations. They record these stories through two NYC locations, and a few mobile units around the country. It's a 40-minute unscripted interview between two people who know one another well and usually revolves around the big questions in life. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to sign up. At the end of the session, a CD is given to the participants, and one goes to the Library of Congress if the interviewees would like to have that happen. To date, 15,000 stories have been recorded.

You have to hear these stories for yourself - they will change your life. They'll make you a kinder person. They'll make you appreciative of the little sweet moments in life in a way that you couldn't before hearing the stories. Telling our stories, and sharing them, may be the most important work we ever do.

You can listen to a sampling of the stories and sign up for an interview slot at StoryCorps's website: Check it out!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Advertising what's not there

I was grateful to find a parking space on 95th Street despite that it was 6:30. Most of the time, the spots are gone right at 6pm when parking becomes legal on the right side of the street. It was colder than I planned so I was rushing up the hill to 92nd Street, and had to stop to snap this photo to the left.

Several things could have happened to cause someone to put this posting on the widow of his car. 1.) The car's been broken into before or 2.) He's completely panicked about having a car in New York.

Either way, I understand. The news lately is enough to make anyone paranoid. This is what our lives as car owners in New York have come to. Forget getting the club, installing an alarm. Deter them with honesty, and keep them from wasting time trying to find the good stuff where it doesn't exist. A last ditch effort to keep misfortune from heading our way.

On the way home today, I heard on NPR that Zipcar and Flexcar have merged. The CEO wants to build a $1B business convincing Americans to think differently about car ownership. According to data, 50% of urban car owners could have their driving needs met and spend far less money by using Zipcar. That would cut down on congestion, remove pollution, and decrease road rage. Not to mention what it could do to drop the number of all crimes related to car ownership. Imagine if we could remove half of all the cars from urban areas in America. Then maybe my neighbor wouldn't have to be quite so paranoid about his radio, or lack thereof.