Sunday, May 18, 2014

Practical Pearl: All You Have to Do is Ask

Chapter 24 of Pearls from Sand is titled "Everything Is Negotiable." I described some techniques for negotiating constructively with merchants of all types that often can get you a better price on a product or service. In fact, reading that one chapter will more than repay the price of the book! Here's an update on some of the ways I've applied those principles recently to my advantage.

Some months ago I saved $325 on my cable TV, Internet, and telephone service for the next year. The price of my combination service had gone up by more than twenty dollars a month because the last special rate I had negotiated with them recently expired. Before I called the cable provider today, I checked into what a comparable package of services would cost from a satellite provider. It was about thirty dollars per month less than my new cable rate. When I presented that competitive information to the customer retention agent I spoke to at my cable provider, she immediately gave me the same promotional rate that they were now offering to new subscribers. Plus, I got some additional channels thrown in and free Showtime for three months. I had to make a two-year commitment, which is no problem for me, and the rate will go up somewhat in the second year. Still, I'm saving $475 over the next two years for a better package than I have at present. All I had to do was ask. This is the third time I've negotiated a better deal from my cable provider. I'm not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’ll keep trying.

I recently went to a jewelry store to buy an opal ring as a gift for my wife. The ring was on sale at a pretty good discount. I asked the young saleslady if that was the best price they had for the ring. She conferred with her manager, who rummaged around in their back room and found a coupon for twenty-five dollars off, which she gave me. I was amazed that my negotiation strategy worked in this case, but I happily took the coupon.

In Chapter 24 of Pearls from Sand I mentioned one magic phrase that I have found to be helpful during negotiations. Since then, I've learned a second useful question to ask: "Do you have any flexibility on the price?” It turns out that often vendors do have some flexibility, especially if you can suggest some reason to justify it.

I recently made hotel reservations for a three-day trip to Seattle, including a Friday. The corporate rate at that hotel for the company I'm visiting is $145 per night. However, I learned from the Web that the hotel has a standard reduced rate on weekend nights of just $109 for the type of room I requested. I asked about this, and the agent at the hotel reduced my Friday night rate to $109, thereby saving me $36 plus tax. I'm glad I asked.

I engage a nationally known lawn care company to apply organic fertilizer and other treatments to my lawn and landscaping several times a year. When I received the latest proposal for next year’s services, I wasn’t happy to see that prices had gone up by nine percent. I called the office and without any hassle at all, the man I spoke to agreed to cut the increase in half. That one brief conversation saved me $25.

Two weeks ago I spent a few days doing some wine tasting in one of the many wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, one of my favorite pastimes. At one winery I really liked a bottle that cost $40, but that's outside my usual price range. I asked the owner, who was pouring samples for me, if he had any flexibility on the price. He replied, “I can give you twenty percent off,” and I was happy to pay $32 for this excellent bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. At another stop I bought two bottles of a fantastic Syrah. Even though the wine already was reasonably priced, I asked the tasting room manager if he had any flexibility on the price because I was buying two bottles. This simple question earned me a ten percent discount.

This strategy doesn't always work, though. At a third winery I was greatly impressed with a $52 bottle of wine, but there's no way I was going to pay that much. I asked if I could perhaps get it at the wine club price. The owner pointed out that this would not be fair to the members of their wine club. This is absolutely correct (although no wine club members were there to complain about it), but I thought I’d try anyway. She did not come down in price, and I did not buy a bottle. Did she win the negotiation, or did we both lose? I didn't get a better price, but neither did she make a sale. I think it was a lose-lose outcome, but it's certainly her decision whether to modify the price or not. After all, the winery is a business and has to make a reasonable profit; I respect that.

Since I wrote that chapter in Pearls from Sand describing how successfully many of my negotiations have gone, I've continued to politely try to get better prices on a variety of goods and services. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. No one has ever seemed offended because I asked, and I have indeed saved quite a lot of money. Sometimes all you have to do is ask to get a better deal.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Personal Pearl: Criticism hurts, but it can be a powerful motivation for change.

What kind of criticism upsets you the most? Being aware of the types of comments that hurt you the most can help you make positive changes in your behavior. I still remember how much it bothered me when a teacher said that a paper I wrote or an exam I took was “not up to my usual standards.” That teacher had an expectation of my performance. Knowing that I had fallen below that expectation made me want to do a better job the next time. “Not up to your usual standards” is a small and fairly gentle phrase, but it always got my attention.

Another criticism that really bothered me was being told that something I’ve done is “unprofessional.” I strive to be professional in all of my business interactions. To me, acting in a professional manner implies following a particular code of ethics, always trying to do a first-class job, collaborating with others and sharing the credit, continually improving my knowledge and skills, and so forth. Suggesting that I did not behave in a professional manner indicated that I dropped the ball in one of these categories. It embarrassed me and made me redouble my efforts to avoid being labeled “unprofessional” in the future.

Identifying your hot-button criticisms provides a kind of internal aversion therapy. Whenever someone accuses me of behaving in a fashion that I agree is undesirable, I immediately take action to head in the opposite direction. When I was a mere lad, a friend once chastised me by saying, “Don’t be so wishy-washy.” More than forty-five years later, I still try to be decisive and to stick to my convictions. No one has called me “wishy-washy” in a long time.

My wife learned early on that telling me, “Now you’re starting to sound like your father” is a highly effective way to induce me to alter my behavior. Not that my father was a bad guy, but that phrase generally means that I’m telling the same not-that-funny-the-first-time joke for the umpteenth time or otherwise reflecting one of his less attractive behaviors. As I get older, sometimes I’ll make a particular comment, or even just adopt some facial expression, and realize I’ve turned into my father. I try to not let that happen again.

If you’re a parent, a teacher, or a manager, it’s helpful to know what kind of comments most effectively influence the people you lead. I once supervised an individual who didn’t respond much to any constructive criticism, performance evaluation, or coaching suggestion. Roxanne was talented and capable, but her productivity needed significant improvement to meet expectations. My own manager and I tried a variety of strategies, to little avail. Roxanne would agree with our assessments of her performance, but these “attitude adjustment” sessions, as she termed them, had little impact. It seemed that Roxanne had no “handle” for us to grab to steer her in the desired direction, as neither any comments my manager and I made nor any actions we took seemed to motivate her to modify her behavior. Perhaps we just hadn’t identified the precise comments that would push the right buttons. Ultimately, Roxanne left the company, which was best for all concerned.

Think about the comments or criticisms you don’t want to hear from others; the ones that embarrass you the most or make you feel as though you have let yourself or others down. Then reflect on your typical patterns of behavior to see if any of them invite those very criticisms. If they do, consider how you can change your behavior to avoid hearing such comments again.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Motivational Pearl: Look for ways to help others that cost you little or nothing.

I have a dear friend, Norm, who suffered a brain injury in an automobile accident fifteen years ago when a driver talking on his cell phone rear-ended Norm’s car in stop-and-go traffic. Norm, who is a very smart software consultant, has not been able to work since the accident. He now has only a limited income from disability insurance payments (see Norm’s story). Some years ago, a mutual friend and I set up a benefit fund to help Norm. We collect donations from generous people and forward them to Norm. One evening we put on a fundraising event with three well-known speakers from the software community here in Portland, Oregon. A lot of people came and it generated some nice donations for Norm. Every dollar helps when you don’t have much money.

This fundraiser led me to brainstorm how I might be able to help a friend or family in need at little cost to myself. I came up with an idea. My business website,, offers a variety of useful software items for downloading: document templates, spreadsheet tools, checklists, sample project documents, and the like. Several years ago I identified these items as being shareware, not freeware. The idea behind shareware is that if you download a software application or some other item and find it useful, you’re asked to make a nominal payment to the author. Shareware payments are voluntary but are much appreciated by the hard-working people who create useful materials. Every penny of the shareware payments I receive goes directly to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help Norm defray medical costs, house payments, and other daily expenses. I’m glad that I’m able to generate some revenue for a worthy cause in a way that costs me nothing more than a few minutes a month.

Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction—less than 0.1%—of the people who downloaded items from made any shareware payment at all. For instance, in May of 2011, nearly 38,000 items were downloaded, yet I received only eleven donations totaling just $150. If even one percent of the people who downloaded items were to send in a few dollars for Norm, that would be a huge improvement. People have become accustomed to expecting everything on the Internet to be free. Eventually, I changed the approach from shareware to simply charging a few dollars for sets of downloadable items. But there are other ways to easily help people in need.

I once received a donation check in the mail for the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund with a note attached. The donor wrote, “Thank you for making these materials available. I will be using them for my software engineering class. I also had a good conversation with my teenage son about why I choose to pay for something ‘free’. I hope it sunk in!”

It was nice to hear that my shareware provided a parent with a teachable moment to share her own pearl of wisdom with her son. There are two aspects to this lesson, I think. First, even if you’re getting a product or service at no cost, remember that someone spent some time and money to provide you with that “free” item. And second, when you see an opportunity to make a small donation for a worthy cause, think about throwing a few bucks in the pot. You probably won’t miss the money at all, and those little donations can make a big difference in the lives of people who are truly needy. Small amounts do add up.

Here’s another example. A few years ago I was invited to write a chapter for a software book. The editors of the book are generously donating their royalties to provide pumps that supply clean water to villages in Africa (see Children playing on a merry-go-round supply the energy for the pump. I spent a little time writing the chapter, but it cost me nothing out of pocket. That effort just might help enhance the lives of underprivileged people, so I was happy to contribute.

Various on-line services let you generate money for charitable causes without any effort or expense on your part. As one example, an Internet search engine called donates a penny to the charitable cause of your choice each time you perform a search. I direct all of my donations to Oregon’s Clackamas County Meals on Wheels program. GoodSearch has a companion service called GoodShop. If you click through from the GoodShop page into any of dozens of on-line retailers, the merchant will donate a percentage of what you spend there to your selected charity. These programs cost me nothing. It’s just a matter of remembering to use GoodSearch and GoodShop when I do my routine Internet activities. The result is free money for some worthy charity. GoodSearch is now my standard search engine (it uses the Yahoo search engine).

Do you like to exercise your brain? If so, visit for numerous multiple-choice quizzes on English vocabulary, mathematics, symbols for chemical elements, geography, art history, foreign languages, and more. For each question you answer correctly, ten grains of rice are donated to the World Food Programme to help end hunger. More than 100 billion grains of rice have been donated through this program so far. And again, it costs you nothing but the time to play the games. You might even learn something in the process.

Can you think of any other ways to contribute to a useful cause in your community that doesn’t cost you much? Maybe you’re short on cash but have some time available. There are many volunteer opportunities to help build a playground for the neighborhood kids, work on a Habitat for Humanity project, help people who have been hit by a flood or other natural disaster, or work at your local food bank or community vegetable garden. People sometimes hold car washes or other benefits for families stricken with large medical expenses. I’m a Meals on Wheels delivery driver. It costs me about two hours of time and one gallon of gas per week to help a dozen senior citizens and people with disabilities live independently and eat a good meal every day. Anything you can do along these lines will help. It feels good to lend a hand to people who really need assistance.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Interpersonal Pearl: We all have to know the rules for whatever game we play.

I had some business cards printed up to help promote my book Pearls from Sand. I asked my supervisor at a place where I do volunteer work if I could post a card on their bulletin board; she said yes. The next time I came in, I saw that the card was gone, so I put up another one, thinking that someone who was interested in the book had taken the card. The same thing happened the next week. When I saw the empty bulletin board the following week, my supervisor told me, “Don’t put up any more cards. The manager has been taking them down.”

I didn’t want to irritate the manager, so of course I would have stopped posting the cards had I known I was violating a policy. But my supervisor hadn’t passed along this useful tidbit of information. I didn’t know the rules. I learned a long time ago that it’s not fair to expect people to follow “the rules” if you haven’t told them what the rules are. They don’t necessarily have to like or agree with the rules, but all of the participants have to know them to follow them.

I encountered a misunderstanding about “the rules” early in my career as a research scientist. A group of scientists was learning how to use some specific software to design experiments efficiently and analyze the resulting data. The leader of this group, Ben, was working under a manager named Sylvia. Sylvia knew of my interest in computers and invited me to join the group, so I began participating and applying what I learned to my own experiments.

Several weeks later Sylvia stuck her head in my office. “We have a problem,” she said. “What’s that?” I asked, puzzled. Sylvia said, “You’ve been using the design-of-experiments software that Ben has been working on. But what are you doing for Ben?” Her tone was quiet but somewhat accusatory.

I was surprised. No one had ever told me about a quid pro quo, an expectation that I was supposed to repay Ben in some way. When Sylvia invited me to join the group, I thought it was just an interest group in which people put their heads together and built on the work others had done, as in most scientific endeavors. If she had told me at the outset that I was expected to share my data and results with Ben to help advance the group’s expertise, that would have been fine with me. But neither Sylvia nor Ben ever told me the rules of her game before she essentially accusing me of cheating. As a result of simply not explaining the rules, Sylvia and Ben were irritated with me and I ended up feeling bad, both of which were easily avoidable.

From a couple of experiences like this, I took away the message that it’s a good idea to put the ground rules in place for any collaborative activity right up front. This principle applies to everything from how business processes are to be performed, to company standards and policies, to the ways that collaborative teams make decisions, and to how people co-author a book. Rules are generally arbitrary and often they are somewhat flexible, but everybody needs to know what they are.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Practical Pearl: If you begin saving at an early age you can enjoy a financially secure retirement.

Shortly after I began my professional career at Kodak in my mid-twenties, I shared an office with another scientist who was a few years older than me. He told me that the people he knew who were most financially comfortable in retirement had always saved the maximum amount they legally could in their retirement plans, such as 401(k) and IRA plans. This sounded like a good strategy to me, so I followed that advice for my entire career. It really works. However, you have to have the discipline (and of course, some extra pennies lying around) to save for retirement systematically. I recently passed the same advice along to my 31-year-old niece; I hope she heeds it.

Once upon a time in America, you would work for a company for forty or forty-five years and then retire with a reasonable pension. This is not common anymore. Individual employees must now take more responsibility for their own financial well-being during retirement. Don’t count on your future Social Security check to keep you comfortable, either. The most secure strategy is to set aside a small amount of each paycheck for retirement beginning as soon as you possibly can. This might mean that you postpone other ways you'd like to spend that money, such as on a vacation, a new car, or something shiny that catches your eye. Unless you die young, however, that delayed gratification will pay big dividends.

I’ve always been a systematic saver. Okay, I’m kind of a tightwad. Even when my parents gave me an allowance of ten cents a week when I was six years old, I would save a nickel each week (and buy a candy bar with the other nickel). Eventually I accumulated enough money to buy my first electric guitar for the grand sum of forty dollars when I was twelve. So accumulating money for retirement seemed natural to me. In contrast, I have a friend who never passed up a toy he wanted. Now at age 58, he faces the prospect of working forever. He has a lot of stuff, but he doesn’t have many bucks in the bank. Of course, everyone has the option to spend their money the way they wish. I just prefer to have a comfortable cushion, which allowed me to retire when I was 54.

In my view, the best strategy is to set aside a fixed percentage or dollar amount right off the top of each paycheck. Pretend you didn’t even get that money. Keep it separate from all your other funds, whether in a jar under your bed or in an IRA account, and promise yourself that you’ll dip into it only for a true emergency. Not for a vacation, a car, a boat, or a house. I realize this is hard to do if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, just trying to keep the family fed. Short-term survival certainly trumps long-term security. Any time you have a little extra dough, though, stash it away for retirement, provided that you’ve already established an emergency fund to live on for a few months if your job disappears or some other disaster happens.

Some employers will match a certain percentage of your salary that you elect to defer into a 401(k) retirement account. Hey, it’s free money! Take full advantage if you have that option. Funds you contribute to an official retirement account may be tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, as well as growing tax-deferred over time. If you receive a bonus check or an income tax refund during the year, consider adding at least some of it to your retirement fund. This is a simple psychological trick to play on yourself. If you don’t need that money to live on now, you won’t miss it if it’s in a pile for future use.

I’m glad my officemate advised me long ago to start saving the maximum I could for retirement. Being an old dude now, it won’t be long before I need to tap into those funds. I’ll let you know in thirty years if I saved enough.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cautionary Pearl: Driving is dangerous enough without adding unnecessary distractions in the car.

Not long ago I saw a damaged SUV at the side of the road. I stopped to see if anyone needed assistance. A woman was standing outside the car, staring at the right front corner of the vehicle. The front wheel was nearly torn off, jammed beneath the suspension. She told me she wasn’t injured. I asked her what had happened. She said she spilled her coffee, swerved, and slammed into the curb. Then she looked at her vehicle again and said a word not normally heard in polite company.

That was an expensive cup of coffee. Now, odds are, this woman had driven with coffee cup in hand many times before without incident. But this accident shows how a small distraction can turn a routine local drive into an expensive nuisance—or even a catastrophe. Fifteen years ago, my closest friend suffered a disabling brain injury, thanks to a driver who, while talking on his cell phone, rear-ended him at high speed in stop-and-go freeway traffic. My friend had a very fine brain, but he will never work again and his quality of life is tremendously reduced. No cup of coffee, no phone call is important enough to justify inflicting this kind of harm on an innocent victim, or even yourself.

Fortunately, people are becoming more aware of the risks of driving while distracted. Like some other states, Oregon now has a law prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cell phones or texting. Nonetheless, I still see drivers talking on their cells almost daily. My wife and I have had numerous close calls while walking in parking lots because of drivers who seemed oblivious to pedestrians. Every single one of those drivers was talking on a cell phone. On a single day a few years ago, I watched two vehicles run red lights and a third barely screech to a halt in time. All three drivers were talking on cell phones. This is serious stuff.

I used to have a neighbor who routinely drove her minivan with a small dog sitting on her lap or wandering around on the front seat. Thinking of my poor friend with a brain injury, I spoke to her about the dangers of distracted driving. She assured me that the dog was not a problem. I’m not so sure. Recently I saw a car waiting at an intersection with a dog climbing all over the driver’s lap and sticking his head out the window. How can claws on your lap and a furry head partially blocking your view not be a distraction? I’m surprised that driver didn’t turn right into the guy talking on his cell phone who was coming the other direction.

Personally, I never talk on the phone when I’m driving. If you met my friend with the brain injury you wouldn’t either. I do recognize that there are times when phoning while driving can be useful or necessary, though. My guideline is that, if you’re driving under conditions where it is safe and appropriate to use cruise control, then it’s also relatively safe to talk on the phone. Otherwise, don’t dial and don’t answer the ring.

Being a distracted pedestrian is nearly as dangerous as being a distracted driver. I often see pedestrians walking right into a busy intersection at my local mall, often when they’re talking on the phone. Just yesterday I watched a young man step into a street without looking in either direction, eyes staring his palm and thumbs flashing over the keys on his phone. Couple that lack of attention with a driver on the phone and you have a recipe for disaster.

No driver expects to have a wreck; yet more than 17,000 automobile accidents take place every day in the United States. Don’t let one of them be your fault because of an preventable distraction.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Motivational Pearl: Work the problem.

In Chapter 28 of Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons I mentioned that I never acquired the commendable personal characteristics of tenacity and perseverance. Historically, when I became frustrated dealing with a difficult problem, I would prefer to move on to a different activity instead of pushing through the challenge to a solution. It feels so good when you stop beating your head against the wall. However, these days I try to keep another, more motivating message in mind when I feel stuck on a problem.

Perhaps you remember the 1995 movie Apollo 13. It tells the harrowing tale of an Apollo lunar-landing mission in 1970 that suffered a near catastrophe on the way to the moon. An explosion in an oxygen tank severely damaged the spacecraft. As carbon dioxide levels in the capsule rose dangerously high, the NASA engineers back on Earth had to quickly jury-rig a carbon dioxide scrubbing mechanism from whatever components were available on board. In the movie, the engineers look overwhelmed by the pressure of trying to save the lives of the astronauts under incredible time and materials constraints. Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) tells them, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

“Work the problem” has now become my internal catchphrase when I confront a difficult obstacle. Whether it’s an error I can’t figure out on my computer, a home-repair challenge, or a tough Sudoku puzzle, I now remind myself to “work the problem” when frustration begins to set in. I still can’t solve every puzzle I try, but this strategy usually works.

Recently my wife showed me a necklace whose four strands of beads had become hopelessly entangled. It was a real Gordian Knot, an inch-thick wadded mass of fine silver chains. Untangling it seemed impossible. But I realized that untangling was just a matter of methodically trying to undo the actions that had led to the wad in the first place. “Work the problem,” I kept telling myself, as I carefully teased the entwined strands apart. It took more than an hour of tedious manipulation, but I got there. I just kept working the problem, one knot at a time.

Okay, so untangling a necklace isn’t as dramatic as saving the lives of three imperiled astronauts. But this small victory was still gratifying to me because I didn’t get irritated or despair of finding a solution like I would have in the past. If you’re like me and you get frustrated easily, don’t give up. You’re smart: you can probably work your way through the challenge if you take your time. Think carefully, don’t panic, and just work the problem.