Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Year of Hopefulness - Day 1

On December 23, 2008, I began a daily log of acts of kindness after writing a blog post about small moments that made my day. I realized in the 15 minutes that it took me to write that post that I had a very simple New Year’s Resolution: I wanted to feel more hopeful in 2009 and I wanted to do my part to generate more hope for others. From that blog post and simple wish, I am starting an extraordinary year of giving and receiving.

I don't typically write series of articles on this blog. To help me keep my New Year's Resolution, I will be writing a daily blog post, in addition to my other regular posts, about what I am doing to be more hopeful and generate more help for others. It will be a good reminder to me, and I hope that it may do readers some good as well. 

The economy is weighing heavily on people's minds at the start of this year. People are facing layoffs and possibly the bankruptcy of the companies they work for, particularly in certain industries such as retail. As a result, it can be pretty tough to get up for work in the morning. Even if you are lucky enough to keep your job in this downturn, and you are indeed lucky if you're in that boat, there will be added stress as you may be doing the work of two or three people, and being asked to do that work with no additional compensation or resources. 

So what can we do to make that trip out the front door a bit better? This evening I made up a small sign that I taped to the inside of my front door, right by the door knob, that details what I am achieving and working toward at this current job and the good things about my position that I should be grateful for. It will be a good reminder every morning before I head out for work. If you are facing some discomfort in your current job, maybe this tactic will help you as well. 

Happy New Year!

Picture of the Year

The Today Show recently ran a contest to determine the "picture of the year". There were images of Obama, Michael Phelps, moving photos of conflicts around the world. But the theme that ultimately won out was nature. 3 of the top 5 photos chosen by viewers depicted acts of nature around the world, the top one being of a lightning storm over a volcano in Southern Chile. The photo is dramatic - so much so that you'd think it was doctored up or contrived. Rest assured, it is real and awe-inspiring. It was taken by photographer Carlos Gutierrez for the Patagonia Press. 

I think about the environment a lot, its beauty and power. I used to work for an environmental nonprofit and it is one of the main causes I donate to. I read extensively on the topic and am constantly working to lower my carbon footprint. I am certainly a green consumer and firmly believe that there are enormous public health implications if we do not do everything we can to protect our natural world. I am so pleased that Mr. Gutierrez's photo won - it shows that I am not alone in being inspired by nature, not by a long-shot. Of all the photos that were taken in this historic year, nature reigned supreme in inspiring people around the world.
I hope 2009 will be the year when green energy and environmental conservation takes center stage - in this country as well as in other countries around the world. I hope we put policies and regulations in place that halt the rapid disappearance of species and habitat. I hope that more people will be willing to pay a bit more now for green products rather than pay dearly for the consequences of not protecting the environment in years to come. As a society, I'd like to see us protect and treasure life.

There is a song that John Denver sings on the Muppet Christmas album that is one of my favorites. It's about a little tree named Alfie. At the end of the song, John communicates one small request from Alfie, and whenever I hear it I get a little bit choked up. It bears repeating. "You see life is a very special kind of thing. And not just for a chosen few, but for every living, breathing thing, not just me and you. So in your Christmas prayers this year, Alfie asked me if I'd ask you to say a prayer for the wind, and the water, and the wood, and those who live there, too." That's a request I'm very happy to fill. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Attaining breadth and depth

The conversation of breadth versus depth has always confused me. I have a hard time understanding why the two seem to be mutually exclusive of one another. Is it not possible to know a lot about a lot of things? A similar debate rages on about being a generalist versus a specialist. Again, why can't we be both? 

There is a widely-held, and incorrect, assumption that we as people do not have the time nor the capacity to be very good at many things. I constantly hear statements like "if you want to hone your craft, you really need to make that your singular focus." Nonsense. If we are curious and passionate learners, open to new experiences, and diligent in our studies (even long after our formal education is over), then it is entirely possible to be very good in many different areas. 

The paradigm is shifting. In the work world we are being asked to do more with less. And if that is to be expected and accepted, then we must also give up these debates of generalist versus specialist, breadth versus depth. We will have to develop high level skills in a number of areas in order to perform well in the new economy that will emerge after this current downturn. The idea of the "T" is no longer valid (knowing a little about a lot, and a lot about a little.) We will have to get to work on building a rectangle (knowing a lot about a lot, period.) 

Look at historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein. They were considered "Renaissance characters" of their times. They had a variety of interests and far-ranging expertise. Really, they were just life-long students who didn't accept the adage that they could only excel in a single field. They had the drive to let their curiosity be their guide, and we would do well to follow their lead - now more than ever. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

The other 86%

"May you live in interesting times." ~ Chinese proverb

Every week I am mystified by an IBM ad that consistently appears in Business Week. It's part of their "Stop Talking Start Doing" campaign and in large bold type it predicts, "86% of the world population will live in emerging markets by 2050." As a product developer, this is a fascinating statistic that will be critical to my future success. 

The majority of those who consume products I will create going forward will not be from my heritage, my culture, or raised in my country. Aside from the big four, known as the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), places such as Egypt, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey will becoming increasingly big players. And the companies that are succeeding and will continue to succeed are companies that most of us have never heard of: Concha y Toro, MISC, and Sasol.   

What is exciting for me is that these markets will demand a decent percentage of products that fall into the "extreme affordability" category, and this means that we may soon be coming into a time when social entrepreneurship will reign supreme over the activities of large multi-national corporations. If we pair that prediction with the closer relationship that has emerged between government and business, it becomes a perfect (good) storm for product developers like me who want to do well and do good at the same time. Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times Columnist, wrote his Christmas column about a recent book on this very subject. The book, Uncharitable, discusses the moral dilemma and possible solutions for nonprofits who find themselves in the midst of this struggle to bring in funds and do good in the world.  

What I think is a tremendous opportunity is the role that international nonprofits like UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, and Mercy Corps can play. They have been working for decades in emerging markets. They can and should be a tremendous resource to entrepreneurs and start-ups looking to expand their business into those markets. These social entrepreneurs will provide better services and goods for the people they work so hard to help, and they can generate additional income streams for their organizations through a consulting practice on emerging markets. 

I recently viewed Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. His message is that we can only connect the dots of our lives looking backward. In order to move forward, we have to trust our intuition, we have to have faith that we can build our own road, and we have to believe that the dots will connect eventually, somehow. I am beginning to finally see how the dots of my patchwork life and career will connect - through this field of social entrepreneurship that leverages all of my experiences, all of my education, and all of my contacts, passions, and beliefs. Indeed, we are in the midst of interesting times. 

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New York Times Customized Widget

The New York Times just released a beta version of "build your own widget". It's a bit simplistic in its current stage, though I imagine they wanted to launch it, see what readers and social media users create, and then make modifications. If only all organizations could take that view of building a prototype, testing it in the market, and then making adjustments without beating themselves up and creating drama for product developers: we'd having many more higher-quality innovations in short-order!

Very easy to use and post, you have only two sets of choices: 1) Select the top articles from a certain section of the paper or use a specific keyword. 2) Choose between 3 and 10 headlines to post in the widget. Then just click "Add to site", choose which social networking platform you'd like to use (currently a very limited selection), enter your log-in info for that page, and it's posts automatically for you. I created an "Innovation News" widget with the top 10 innovation headlines of the day from the New York Times to post to my blog (you can find it in the sidebar on the right-hand side of this page) and to my iGoogle page.

What I love best about the widget is that it will be helpful for my blog readers and many of them also work in or are interested in innovation. It's also very useful to me to get a quick daily snapshot of what's happening in the innovation field. (When I boot up my computer in the morning, iGoogle is my first log-in.)

A few improvements I'd make: 
1) allow for greater customization. For example, I want to pick and choose with more discretion. I always read three NYT columnists: Kristof, Friedman, and Krugman. I'd like to see the top story from the arts, business, health, and world news sections, the innovation article of the day, the Magazine cover story, and a cartoon.
2) make the widget available for more social media platforms. I'd like to post it on my Facebook page and add a link to that widget to the signature of every email I send.

Create your own New York Times widget at

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Charmed Life

I took my baby niece to the Magic Kingdom. To be perfectly honest, she is so gorgeous that we always get stopped by complete strangers who want to tell her how cute she is. I think she looks like me.

My sister, Weez, and I were sitting with her on the ferry boat ride over to the Magic Kingdom when, as usual, some stranger sat down next to us and told us how perfect-looking my niece is. We smiled and modestly said thank you, though we really just wanted to respond, "We know. We get that ALL the time." 

This particular woman was also very curious about us as well. Where are we from?, where do we work?, etc. I told her I live in New York City on the Upper West Side. "You do?" she responded. "Do you go to all of those fancy restaurants and have lots of friends there?" "I do," I replied. "I have a pretty spectacular life there. I'm very lucky." "You certainly are!" she cried. "Can I have that life?"

This overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation hit me. I really am lucky. I really do live a charmed and happy life. So why have I not been realizing that for the past few weeks? Why have I been silently worrying and fretting?

Take a look at this: It's an opinion piece from today's New York Times about happiness. Recent studies show that our situation relative to others is more concerning to us than our absolute situation. If I lose my job, and everyone else around me keeps theirs, then I feel very, very bad. But if I lose my job, and so does everyone else I know, then my general happiness really isn't effected too much. Apparently "poor me" feels far worse than "poor us." If we're all in this together, then it's really not so bad. If I'm all alone up the creek without a paddle, then it's depression city. 

So is the key to happiness not our actual situations but rather surrounding ourselves with people who think we live a charmed life, or at least a life as good as theirs? 

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Change of Scene Without Moving

I am in the midst of reading the book Wild Nights by Anne Matthews. It's about the world of New York City that emerges between dusk and dawn. Matthews isn't talking about the party-hopping nightlife, but rather the natural world that emerges when the archipelago's dominant species, people, largely take their leave. An underworld of song birds, wild animals like coyotes, bears, and deer emerge. 

I think of myself as a New York City expert - I know many of the neighborhoods like the back of my hand. I spend a lot of time walking around Manhattan Island, and unlike many Manhattan-ites I venture to the outer burroughs on a fairly regular basis. In such a small geography, I assumed I knew most of what's out there in my city. This book is opening my eyes in a whole new way, and has me planning weekend outings to parts of the city I've never even heard of, much less seen. 

All this new discovery in this book has me thinking about how to change our scene without changing our location. How can we make our space brand new, even if we've been in that space for a long time. And the same can be said for the actual housing space we live in, our jobs, our relationships. It's about developing a fresh set of eyes, a new perspective, finding new joy and gratitude in what's been right in front of us all along. A pretty decent New Year's resolution that we can all make, right 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why I Need Christmas

I was raised a Catholic and in my teenage years my mother had a religious epiphany shortly before my father passed away. We started going to church regularly. I was never much into that crucifix that was the centerpiece of the ceremony, though I did find the rituals comforting. I can’t tell you why – I guess I was craving some sense of routine, a little less randomness in the chaos. My expectations for the mass were set. I knew when to stand, sit, and kneel. I knew when to say hi to my neighbors and when to wish them peace and when to leave them alone. I knew what to say and when to say it aloud, in unison with everyone around me. I liked the structure and knowing what came next. Order and predictability were a welcome retreat.

I don’t go to Church anymore. I believe in being my own savior, and trying to save other people when possible by sharing my own survival stories, mistakes, time, learnings, and a sprinkling of chartable giving to select organizations that I believe do good work. I find salvation on my yoga mat, or in walking through the parks that surround my neighborhood, or at my computer, writing, in museums surrounded by centuries-old art, and during performances of theatre and dance and music of which there are many in New York. My inspiration and my faith are grounded in my family and my friends whom I am so close to that they are my family.

So even though I classify as Agnostic and not Christian, I still celebrate Christmas. I sill look forward to the season and take great joy in the decorations, the carols, the traditions, and the general feeling of hope and kindness that envelops our society at this time of year. I always emerge stronger and happier and calmer on December 26th than I was on December 24th. Maybe it’s the massive amounts of pie I consume on Christmas Day, maybe it’s seeing my sister, Weez, or the Christmas cards that arrive by post and by email, the surprise and excitement on the faces of my family as they open presents I so carefully wrapped for them.

More likely though, I think it’s a renewed sense of faith. In myself, in the world. I find that at Christmas time I can give up my fate to the universe much more readily than I can at any other time of year. There are some people who are able to keep Christmas in their hearts all year-round. I can’t. I am grateful everyday for what I have, for the people in my life, for my good health and fortune. Still, I need December 25th to be reminded of goodness, to be inspired, to rekindle my creativity. And it always comes just in time, just when I need it most. Happy Christmas.

A Happy Holiday Smile Box featuring Kenneth the Page

Click to play Happy Holidays Everyone!
Create your own invite - Powered by Smilebox
Make a Smilebox invite

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,
It occurred to me this holiday season that I have not written you a letter in over 20 years. As a kid, I would leave a note for you, with a glass of milk, some cookies, and some treats for your reindeer. I don't recall any gifts that I specifically asked for, though I do remember how excited I would feel going to bed on the night of December 24th. I would wake up several times during the night thinking I heard the reindeer on the roof, or jingle bells, or footsteps down stairs leaving presents under the tree. Every night in December we would call a special phone number (from our house phone - remember those?) to hear a message from you about what you were working on or where you were at that moment. I believed.

Now at 32, I don't make Christmas lists any more. I am very fortunate to be able to have the means to get what I need or want, within reason, for myself. However, I do have one request that I am hoping you can help me with that I have been having a bit of trouble getting on my own.

For the new year, I'd like to be able to capture some of that child-like wonder I had the last time I wrote to you so many years ago. I'd like to believe again - in the goodness of the world, in magic, in our ability to do anything we want with our lives. I feel like "No" is all around us. We are strangled by rules and hierarchy and people who tell us what's the "right way" or the "wrong way" to do things. It seems that we have lost our collective smile in the face of very hard times that will likely get harder.

I'm hoping you can help me be a little bit stronger, a little bit more hopeful, and a little bit more daring. Can you help me take a bit more risk, go out on a limb from time to time, and have more faith in myself and in people in general? I'd like to do my part in the coming year to generate more joy - for myself and in my community. This will take some focus on my part - even on days when I'm down, I'd like to be able to remember to count my blessing, of which there are many. And most of all, I'd like to have the courage to create the life I imagine for myself.

I know you're busy tonight, with lots of children around the world to visit. But if you find yourself with a small gap of time as you're flying over the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I'd love to have you stop in for some cookies and milk. Safe travels.  


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Celebrating "Small"

A few weeks ago I was taking the bus cross town, or at least attempting to, in the pouring rain. I was dashing down the flooded streets, chasing after the bus I needed to catch. Thankfully another person was in the same boat, or so I thought. He banged on the door of the bus to stop it. For me. And he continued on his way under a half sagging umbrella. I breathlessly thanked him. "No problem." he said.

In the late summer, I was walking a few blocks to meet my friends at the Boat Basin. A "Not in Service" bus stopped and asked me how far I had to go. He offered to take me over there. "But you're out of service," I said. "Don't worry about it," he replied, "I don't mind." He dropped me off as close to the Boat Basin as possible and didn't even ask me to swipe my Metrocard.

Today I walked outside, very early in the morning and more than a little grumpy. An older woman was struggling to scrape off the thick ice that coated her car. A stranger pulled up to the curb and offered to scrape the car for her. The woman was overwhelmed with the offer of help. I smiled and felt a little more hopeful about the world. 

I was saying good-bye and happy holidays to some of my co-workers today. And I was quite speechless to have one of them say to me, "You, Christa, were the bright spot of 2008 for me. In a year that is so challenging on every front, I am so thankful for you." I didn't even know how to respond. I never would have expected to have made any kind of impact close to that.

It's these small acts of kindness and concern that make all the difference in our existence, in our experience of life. While grand gestures are certainly well-received, I always find that it's the small and heartfelt moments that I retain and cherish most. My new year's resolution is very simple - it is to celebrate and savor these small gifts, understand how little effort it really takes to make someone else's day, and to recognize that I can create those moments for others on a continuous basis. In short, I'd like to feel more hopeful and generate more hope for others. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting What You Can From What You've Got

My friend, Lon, sent me an article from the Financial Times last week regarding employee satisfaction. For most of us, we can forget it for the near-term. Either we're being let go or our friends are. Either we're dumping all of our work on the people left standing at our companies or we're the ones left standing doing the work of three other people. It doesn't feel good to be on either end of this stick. There aren't any winners in the job satisfaction game these days. 

So what are we to do? Hide under our desks or under our beds and wait for sunnier skies? It's tempting but I wouldn't recommend that. If you have your job, and even if you hate, there's a way to make the best of what you've got. My friend, Kelly, came in to town recently and I was talking to her about this subject. No matter how nutsy her job gets, she always has a positive perspective. It's a little sickening actually. She was my friend in graduate school who could listen to the most obnoxious student go on and on about nothing and be searching for what she could learn while the rest of us were banging our heads against the wall out of frustration. 

How does she do that?? How does she always see the best in her job situation, even though her company, and every company for that matter, is going through tough times? This isn't the end game for her and she knows that. Her real passion is education, but she wanted big company experience first so she could bring something to the education party that would be beneficial. Consequently, she takes in all of this good learning she has all around her, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and is able to distance herself emotionally because she knows these crazy times will inform her education career when she's ready to make that change. Brilliant, huh?

So while having a drink last night with my friend, Linda, I was talking over this POV. I'm 32 now. Where do I want to be when I'm 35 and how about when I'm 40? And if what I'm doing right now isn't what I want to be doing then, how can I utilize the experience I'm getting now to inform my future? And what other skills can I pick up from where I am right now to help me on my journey? Lord knows there is plenty to do these days at work, not enough people to do it, and plenty of room to take on more if we so desire. Perspective, and the wise advice of good friends, is worth its weight in gold. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Trust and learning in a time of change

"But never forget ... our mission is to recognize contraries for what they are: first of all as contraries, but then as opposite poles of a unity." ~ Herman Hesse

There's a lot of tension flying around companies at the moment. This holiday shopping season, and the financial results it generates for companies, will lead to some potentially scary decisions in January. If you feel everyone holding their breathe until the new year, you're not alone. The pressure and fear is immense and wide-spread.

This morning, I read my Daily Good email that highlight a Harvard Business Review article about trust in a time of extreme mistrust, and leading change in a time of change - both incredibly difficult things to do and quite frankly two things that many managers are not good (although they don't always know that but their team does.) For example, some managers think they're change agents simply because they question everything. The fine line that separates change agents from managers who only ear what they want to hear is how they ask the question and what their end-goal is. A change agent wants to examine possibilities, dig in to the issue, and examine detail in an effort to fully understand the issue at hand so a collaborative solution can be found. They take a balanced approach. 

Managers who hear only what they want to hear, also ask a lot of questions but ignore any of the details of what they're asking for. These are the "I don't care what it takes, just make it happen" managers. They will steamroll over their people, squeeze change out them, and then sit back quite proud of themselves of how they've transformed the group. Unfortunately that transformation came at the group's expense, not to their benefit. And if you have one of these managers, I am very sorry. Truly. I know where you're coming from and so do most of my friends. You are in a no-win situation because there is no reasoning with that kind of manager. Your leader doesn't have balance, and without balance that person cannot lead effectively, much less mentor you.  

So what can you do? Reach out, way out, in your organization. Extend the olive branch at every turn, whether the person is in your group or not. Take this time to expand your network - you'll feel better meeting new people in your organization that may have nothing to do with your job now, but could in the future. You can find solace in partnership, strength in unity. And that solace and unity is what's going to get you through this economic bust. 

The other thing you can do is focus on the learning, not the bad behavior your fearful manager is exhibiting. Bob, one of my former bosses, gave me this counsel and I think of it all the time. He would say that no matter what happened to him in his career, good or bad, he knew it was all good learning and it made him a better person and a better manager in the end. Take this time to think about how important it is to build trust with the people you work with and for, and go out and exhibit that trust while also relying on your skills and ingenuity that will help you persevere. It's a tough road, I know, but at this point it may be the only way forward.   

Friday, December 19, 2008

Acronym City

Ever have a conversation with someone, in English, and then all of a sudden feel like you've stepped into a foreign land without moving from where you are? My friend, Kelly, has the wonderful quality of being friendly to EVERYONE. On occasion this will get her into trouble, like one recent night at Joshua Tree. 

She was speaking to a guy at the bar (she dubbed him "Jersey Johnny" as his two favorite subjects of conversation were himself and New Jersey) who was there with his friends, though seemed much more interested in Kelly than in his friends. To be honest, she thought he was a bit of a jerk, but given her inability to be anything but friendly, she kept talking to him. He was going on and on about another party he was supposed to go to. "So then why are you staying?" Kelly asked. He leaned over to her and quietly said, "Well, I have some IOI here and I want to see what happens." Huh? 

Kelly though that my constantly-connected life would leave me well-versed in this type of acronym speak. Nope - this is a new one for me. Jersey Johnny went on to say that he felt some of the other girls in the bar were checking him out so he wanted to see if any of them might make a move - he had Indications of Interest (IOI) from them. 

Now this story left me ROTFLOL (Rolling On The Floor, Laughing Out Loud - one of the favorite sayings of my friend, Lon) though prompted me to consider all of the ways we develop and re-develop language, and how confusion could arise by not saying exactly the words we intend. For example, Kelly could have thought Johnny meant "Internal Operating Income" or "Index of Irritation". You see how easily this whole speaking-in-acronym thing could backfire?

So how wide spread is this possible acronym confusion, and how are we supposed to sort it all out if these handy little time-savers are creeping in to pick-up lines at bars? Fear not - there is an on-line acronym dictionary with thousands of common and not-so-common acronyms. (What we might really need is an iPhone app to whip out at a moment's notice, as evidenced by Kelly's situation with Jersey Johnny.) NFW, you say? LNKO, folks. This could be MC for your social life, particularly those of you who are into OLD. I am N/J - you really cannot take these suckers out of context, lest you could end up with a BFM on your hands. 

Here are a few common acronyms whose confusion could have dire consequences:
WTF - Welcome to Finland!, Wild Turkey Federation, What The Frick (polite version)
HOTD - Hottie of the Day, Hair Of The Dog, Head Of Train Device
BFF - Best Friends Forever, Black Footed Ferret, Buffered Flip-Flop 
STD - Sexually Transmitted Disease, Save The Date, Safely Tolerated Dose 
BFD - Big Frickin' Deal (polite version), Big Fat Disclaimer, Burger Fries Drink
And if you're wondering "AYS?" with all these acronyms, the answer is "YBBI"! 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grey Bracelets and David Sedaris

My friend, Liane and Steve, and I tried to go see David Sedaris at the 66th Street Barnes and Noble in Manhattan. We were stopped at the door. Why? No receipt for a book, and no bracelet. What's worse - if you had a "grey bracelet" (meaning you didn't go to the Avery Fisher Hall show of David's) you were told to go wander around the store and you would be called when you were allowed to meet David. "Don't stand by this door, grey bracelet holders. It won't help you," cried the disgruntled Barnes & Noble worker. Or maybe she was just a naturally angry woman. They have a grey bracelet, not a disease. They aren't "untouchables". Calm down, lady. And frankly, if they want to stand by the door, who are they harming? 

Hmmm....I like David Sedaris's writing, but honestly, is there any reason to treat his fans badly? Is the security detail similar to that of the Pope appropriate or necessary? Given his humble economic background, you'd think he'd have more empathy for those of us who couldn't get to his show. Maybe fame has gone to his head, or maybe he just has a real stick-in-the mud for a publicist. I'm going with the latter. I love his writing too much to think that behind those funny stories lies a guy who's too high on himself.   

I was going to drop this whole issue and not write about it. But then when I was telling a friend of mine about the event, and he said David Sedaris would probably find the whole bracelet caste system funny. So here's hoping he somehow finds this post, reads it, laughs a bit, and then changes the policy the next time he is in NYC promoting his books.  

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fewer, Better Things

Those clever marketers at De Beers, the diamond company, have launched another brilliant ad campaign: "Fewer, Better Things." De Beers is a PERFECT example of a luxury company who is using the current economic state as a benefit to them. 

The idea of the campaign is simple. As a society, Americans collect a lot of junk - things of little value and use and we're not even sure why we have them. They don't bring us joy and most of it won't even be around a year from now much less a generation from now. Jean Chatzky, financial advisor guru, has a rule of thumb that if you didn't want it 5 years ago, you don't need it now. De Beers thinks the same way, and maybe we all should take that advice to heart. 

Have a pair of earrings that you truly love (preferably De Beers diamonds) and make them part of your signature look. Same goes for other high ticket items. Save up for something of value that you really want instead of piddling away money on items you won't cherish. Who knew some of the best financial advice you'd ever get would come from a diamond company's print ad?    

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Idea Guy

Some stories would be really funny if they weren't so true. My friend, John, has successfully gotten his hefty graphic design projects out the door for the holiday season. He was right on-time and under-budget. We had coffee yesterday now that he's successfully dug himself out from that pile of work. He was re-counting some of the sad and hilarious moments of the season and one of them really caught my attention. Well, actually one of the characters really caught my attention - his boss, Tom.

John largely does graphic design work for print. However, many of their clients are looking to them for web design work as well, specifically for social media. John doesn't know much about this field so he had to dig in, learn the details, and then reconfigure his skills to get the job done. They had some big budget and time constraint decisions to make on some of his projects. He assembled the details in a clear presentation and then gave the decision options that were possible with the constraints they were under. After a 15-minute presentation, Tom cut in with some SWAG (Super Wild A*s Guess) ideas. Apparently, his company is fond of this SWAG idea to develop things like budgets, business cases, colorful PowerPoint presentations with smiley faces on them, etc. Poor John....

Professionally and tactfully, John explained why they really needed to choose from the options that he had presented. Tom stands up, and raising both of his hands to point at himself, says, "Tom, you're not getting it. I'm the idea guy." And gesturing to the rest of the team in the room says, "You guys need to make the ideas happen. I don't care about the details." Ouch. One of the team members actually rolled his eyes and plunked his forehead on the table. I feel another comedy sketch coming to me. And this would be a funny story, if it weren't true. All we could was laugh as John was telling me this story. Otherwise, we'd have to cry. 

I love ideas; I can't stand "idea people". I'm not talking about people with ideas, innovators, product developers, etc. I'm talking about people who are full of hot air - lots of ideas with nothing to back them up. They have no ability to execute or even think about how it could be executed. And as a result, nothing gets done, the "make it happen" people leave, and innovation stalls. It's a sad state of affairs. 

I have a simple piece of advice for companies that have people who refer to themselves as "idea people". Get rid of them! Seriously. We all have ideas. All of us. The companies and people who win are also the ones who are movers and shakers, meaning they have ideas and they actually do something with them rather than just verbalizing them for their "minions" to do. These "idea people" are dangerous because they degrade others, as happened to my friend, John, and his team. By proclaiming themselves Lord of Ideas, they make everyone else feel small. If companies are going to get through these rocky times, teammates need to band together with a will to win. "Idea people" destroy the team dynamic, and that team dynamic is an asset that companies cannot afford to lose.  

Friday, December 12, 2008

What Now?

About a month ago I read Ann Patchett's book, What Now?. It's a reproduction of her graduation speech at Sarah Lawrence University, her alma mater. And she talks about crossroads and where you might look when considering your next step. I wonder if she realized how poignant this question would become in the year after the book's publication. 

In the month since reading the book, I've been considering "What Now?" almost daily. It seems that I am at an eternal crossroads in almost every area of my life. As I talk to my friends and my family I realize that many people are doing the same thing. So I thought it might be helpful to detail the way I'm framing up this question to myself in an effort to answer it as effectively as possible. 

Career: My friend, Susan, whom I consider my career guru, is always concerned about the story that our careers are weaving. And this is especially important for us 30-somethings. We have amassed a good deal of experience and expertise and we may be teetering on a taking the plunge into a higher level position a a big company, starting our own company, or making a career switch. How are those pieces weaving together into one cohesive story? When have we been happiest in our careers? What skills are we happiest exercising and what skills do we still want to polish up? These questions help me think about what's next for me. 

Relationships: A tough one for us single 30-somethings. We've likely had a number of relationships at this point. And we've gone through the highest of highs and lowest of lows in love. We've had our hearts broken, perhaps broken someone else's heart, walked away, been walked out on. We've loved and lost and loved again. Some people think this is the time to find a husband or settle in to be single for a long time to come. I don't. There's a calm that has settled in for me around love in the 30's. Either it works or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, I've given up the sadness and sulking of my 20's - it must mean that I had better get back out there because that relationship just wasn't the right one for me.

Friends: My friend, Amy, and I always talk about how important it is to get energy from our friends rather than have or energy sapped by people. My friend, Kelly, describes it as not wanting to be around people who suck our will to live. A bit dramatic? Sure. Accurate? Definitely. We have just so much time to devote to people in our lives. Make sure that each one enriches your life. It's not easy to clean out our lives of old friendships that don't work anymore - for one thing, we may find our lives have more holes than we'd like. But the good news is that if we do that we'll have more time for the people in our lives who really matter to us, and you'll be surprised what good fortune finds you when you make room in your life for it to stay awhile.

Happiness: This is the area of my life I work on the most. It effects our health, the foundation for every other area of our lives. It effects those around us. A recent study found that surrounding ourselves with happy people has enormous benefits - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When I think about what's next in my life, the greatest consideration I give is a decision's effect on my happiness. And having that one guiding principle, light's the way. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is this the end of hierarchy?

With the current economy, the only case for hierarchy might be in the military. Have you ever wondered what a Senior Vice President General Manager Grand Pooba Chief of Everyone does? Me too. Who is making up titles this long and complicated? Companies too large to get out of their own way. 

The more I talk to my friends about their jobs, the more I hear the exact same frustrations continuously. "Not able to get anyone "of power" to listen to my ideas." "Tired of feeling like I don't count because I'm not a high enough rank." "Why do 18 people need to approve every small decision we make?" "Why is everything SO SLOW here?"

There are many reasons for this commonality in their frustrations. It could be because many of my friends are on that cusp of being young though with enough years of experience under their belt to make bigger decisions than their titles "allow". It could be that my friends are much smarter and more worldly than their bosses. It could that they're all having a bad day - at the same time. 

The real reason I think they're getting irritated is because the rules of the corporate game have changed and no one told their bosses, or their company CEOs for that matter. Seth Godin talks about industries as ecosystems, meaning they are dynamic. The rules change all the time, meaning corporate cultures need to change all the time. Adjustment, constant adjustment, is the name of the game. What worked for companies 10, 15, 20 years ago won't work today. This is a brand new world. And it requires an intense curiosity and desire for growth that will keep today's established companies relevant; without curiosity and growth they will be obsolete in the blink of an eye.

So what can big corporations do? Are they doomed? No - they just need to flatten out, especially at the top. A friend of mine recently attended a corporate training session and the trainer said that whenever they encounter a senior leader they need to look at their feet and let that leader run the whole conversation. I almost got sick. Who wants to work for an organization that not only doesn't value youth, but does its best to make its young people feel insignificant? If corporations want to hang on to young people, they better learn to how to utilize their energy and ideas, quickly. Flatten out and give everyone at every level a chance to participate!

And for my friends who are frustrated with corporate rigidity? A few suggestions: think about branching out to try a new venture, maybe not for pay, but for peace of mind - for hope of what may pan out down the line. Offer your services to a start-up, or try something new like a language class that could have professional value in the future. It's also powerful to gather the experience you can from where you are for however long you're there. We all always have something to learn from whatever situation we're in. Make sure to capture those learnings and take them with you when it's time to give yourself a fresh start.      

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chance meetings you keep

Today I was feeling pretty badly. Sore throat, achy muscles, possibly a fever. But I had to go to work. I know I'm supposed to stay home when I'm sick. I couldn't today - too much to do, no time to do it. Bad practice - yes. Avoidable - yes, if I had known I wouldn't feel well and had brought my computer home. I didn't. So I went in. 

And my sickness got worse throughout the day. My frustration and irritation was mounting.I hate being sick; I hate feeling sow and unproductive. Frankly, I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed. 

I had a meeting after work with an entrepreneur whom I greatly admire - Melanie Notkin who started (If you haven't checked out the site or signed up for the newsletter, I strongly encourage you to do so!) She wrote a post on her blog recently asking for interns. She wanted help, exactly the help that aligns with my experience and interests, to build her brand. I love social media; she loves social media and she needs someone to work on that part of her business. I almost cancelled our meeting, or at least postponed it. I didn't feel well. I was tired. And frankly, I arrived home with a very bad attitude. How could I go talk to this bright-eyed entrepreneur with this dark cloud hanging over my head? I went any way - it's rude to cancel last minute. And we were meeting at a Starbucks around the corner from my apartment. So I put on my best actor smile, decided to be in a good mood, and then was in a good mood. 

Thankfully I place a value on respect because I am thrilled that I didn't cancel! I thought we'd meet for half an hour - we talked, non-stop for 2 and a half hours. By the end of our meeting I was on-board and excited about being an intern. An unpaid intern. Who would have thought? 
Turns out I was sick, though I had misdiagnosed the cause. I felt deflated all day today. With savvyauntie, Melanie explained what she needed, I explained what I was interested in, and we found a common ground. And wouldn't you know it - my sore throat went away, my muscles ached less, and my bad attitude had evaporated. I feel more motivated for every area of my life. And I'm pretty jazzed about my new project. More to come... 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lessons from an albatross

Seth Godin wrote a post today on his blog that made me pause and re-consider some questions I've been thinking about recently. He talked about the patience of the albatross. It can often sit in the water or on land for days waiting for the right wind to carry it up, up, and away. It can fly for days or weeks, non-stop, with a resting heart rate. It's an incredible lesson in biology, with many applications to our lives. 

Seth talks about Albatross businesses - those that favor a long, slow ramp-up with an eye toward longevity. He promotes patience as more than a virtue - it's a method of survival. And this is a good lesson not only for business, particularly entrepreneurial ventures, but also anything that is worth our personal time. This can be a personal relationship, a friendship, a hobby. I am thinking about it in the context of my writing and career and I hope these thoughts will help you think about this principle in the context of your own life. 

My writing: I started this blog on a whim about a year and a half ago. My friend, Stephen, said he liked my writing and hoped I'd continue doing it. I knew nothing about social media at the time. He suggested a blog. I googled the words "create blog", Blogger came up as the top search engine return (no surprise since Google owns Blogger), and I put up a few posts that were copies of the newspaper articles I had written over the course of a year. I didn't know what else to write about so I'd just jot down funny or interesting things that would happen to me throughout the day. And pretty soon, I was cranking along with a decent body of work. Over 400 posts to date. Where am I going with my blog? Not quite sure yet - but goodness am I enjoying the writing and it's become a hobby I hope to continue throughout my life. At my friend, Anne's, suggestion I am consider turning some of the posts into a collection of essays for publication on a more public scale. Just like the albatross, I'm searching for the right air current to launch a project like that.

My career: I'm 32 and have spent the better part of 10 years intensely studying human behavior and product and service development. I've cobbled together this beautiful tapestry of experience with that experience I have found a many colorful characters that have become my greatest treasure. Their collective diversity is a reflection of the many twists and turns my life has taken. I review the expertise I've built and the successes I can point to and wonder what's next? Where do I go from here? How do I know what current to look for?

Part of the albatross equation is knowing where you want the current to carry you so you can quickly identify it when it comes your way. Extending your wings is the easy part. The challenge, and ultimately the reward, comes when you have taken a 360 look around from wherever you are now and determined the direction you need to go. The albatross doesn't concern itself with the length of trip, his wings will carry him as far as they need to. He cares only about the destination. 

Saturday, December 6, 2008

We're going the wrong way! Who's driving?

My friend, Jamie, was was telling me about a his sister's job in retail. It's an industry I'm passionate about and may return to someday. It's the heart and soul of the 70% of our GDP created by consumer spending. They're hurting, like so many industries, and in times of trouble companies need the most able navigator at the helm. The trouble, at least with Jamie's sister's company, is that everyone is playing a game of Pass-the-buck instead of Survivor. The answers to questions like "Who is our core customer?", "How are they hurting right now?", and "With our competencies how can we ease that hurt for them?" are critically important for companies that wish to come out the other side of this latest economic slide, or any economic slide for that matter. 

Jamie drew a metaphor that is so clear in my mind and it perfectly captured the situation with his sister. It's as if everyone is in the back of the bus, facing the wrong way, and asking where we're going. No one, no one is actually willing to grab the steering wheel and drive. That driver's seat is a very dangerous place to be for sure, though sitting in the back, eyes covered, knowing no driver is up there steering is far worse. It's a choice of the lesser of two evils, with advantages and disadvantages for each action. 

Let's look at hat's actually happening for Jamie's sister - no one's driving. A crash is practically unavoidable. A runaway car with no driver can only stay on the road for so long. The people in the back may feel that they have a better chance of survival if they hang out and wait for someone else to step up. That's possible. Though the greater likelihood is that the whole operation goes down while everyone is wringing their hands. And the lead up to the crash is painful and anxiety-inducing. 

An alternative is that someone does take the helm, and the crash happens anyway. It would be a near certainty that the blame and guilt will fall to the driver, and that driver couldn't hope to survive. But what if that driver can pull it off? At this point, it's hard to imagine any industry coming out of this recession unscathed. With the right leadership, the wounds could be bumps and bruises instead of lost limbs and massive internal bleeding.

It's a gamble - there are clear choices that need to be made now by every company. What's not clear is the best way forward that causes the least number of casualties. Strong leadership that focuses on stakeholder needs now is best able to find a way up, over, or through. At this point, we have to ask ourselves a key question about that bus situation: If we had no intention or desire to drive, or at least take a shift at the wheel, then why did we get on the bus in the first place? It's foolish and downright dangerous to leave an entire journey up to everyone else.