Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Professional Pearl: Most difficult situations do not have simple, magic answers, no matter how much someone might want one.

I’ve spent much of the past fifteen years helping organizations improve the way they develop and manage the requirements for software projects. Most people realize that this is a challenging job without many shortcuts. Yet sometimes people ask me questions in a way that suggests they hope I will give them a magic, easy solution to a difficult problem.

For instance, someone once asked me during a training seminar, “What should you do if your requirements specifications come in Japanese?” This organization was collaborating with a Japanese company, who was supplying them with the initial requirements written in their native language. I could think of only three possible ways to deal with this situation: learn to read Japanese; have someone translate the specifications they receive from Japanese into English; or persuade the Japanese originators to write them in English in the first place. This seems obvious. But I could tell from the inquirer’s body language and expression that he was really hoping I would know of a magic and painless solution to this problem. I’m pretty sure he already knew that I didn’t have such a magic solution. Nevertheless, he asked. I hope he wasn’t too disappointed to learn that there was no easy way to deal with this situation.

I would like nothing better than to offer amazingly effective and cheap solutions to such challenging situations. Just think how much I could charge as a consultant if I knew such secrets! Alas, there are no such secrets. There are no magic wands, silver bullets, talking mirrors, genies in lamps, or all-knowing wizards. Sorry.

In another case, a business analyst told me that another analyst she works with sometimes proceeds with his part of the work without regard to the needs and limitations that her part of the work imposes. She wanted to know how to fix this problem. My suggestion was to build a more collaborative relationship with the other analyst, so they could work together on such problems and come up with more appropriate and feasible solutions. However, she was reluctant to talk to the other analyst. She didn’t seem to think was going to be feasible in her environment, so she dismissed my recommendation out of hand.

I wonder if she wanted me to provide her with a secret code phrase that she could use to get this other analyst to cooperate, or perhaps suggest some telepathic mechanism to help them to communicate. The best I could do was to suggest that she sit down with the other players on this kind of project and have them all say to their peers, “Here’s what I need from you for us jointly to be successful.” That’s a more collaborative approach. It’s not magic, it might be uncomfortable, and it might not succeed if the other participants refuse to work together. I wish I knew of some magical way to get all people to be reasonable and to work and play well with their team members, but I’m not aware of any such shortcuts.

This desire for wonderful solutions also shows up when planning a project. Project managers or team members often are asked to provide estimates for how much time or money it will take to accomplish a proposed (but often ill-defined) body of work. If you’re asked for such an estimate, you might come up with an answer that your senior manager or your customer doesn’t like. Perhaps it requires more resources than they have available, or it will take longer than desired. These disappointed people can exert considerable pressure on you to change your estimate, even if there’s no good reason to make such a change. Simply reducing the estimate doesn’t make the project smaller, shorter, or cheaper. It just moves you deeper into a fantasy world.

I saw a striking example of this phenomenon once. I knew a project manager I will call Rachelle. A senior manager asked Rachelle duringa meeting how long it would take to complete a particular project. Rachelle replied, “Two years.” This manager said, “That’s too long; I need it in six months.” So how did Rachelle respond? She said, “Okay.” In other words, she simply pretended that it was feasible to execute this project in six months, even though absolutely nothing had changed to call her original estimate into question. No additional people were assigned to the project; the extent of the required work did not shrink by a factor of four; Rachelle’s estimating method and assumptions were not examined for flaws; Rachelle’s productivity did not instantly quadruple. Rachelle simply said what she knew her manager wanted to hear. Not surprisingly, the project actually took longer than two years. Even thoughtful estimates often are optimistic and don’t account for risks, unexpected eventualities, and the inevitable growth in scope that takes place on software projects.

It does no one any favors to pretend that the world is different from how it really is. It is fruitless to seek magic solutions for difficult problems when there aren’t any. I’m not that crazy about reality, but it’s all I have, so I have to deal with it. Sometimes that means we encounter technical barriers or interpersonal challenges that just cannot easily be overcome, no matter how badly we would like to cure them. Instead of looking for secret solutions, we have to rely on skilled technical practitioners, adroit project planners, and leaders who can steer groups of people toward effective communication and collaboration. That takes talent and perseverance, but it ain’t magic.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Personal Pearl: If you tell other people how they ought to behave, follow your own advice.

Walk the talk. Practice what you preach. These phrases speak to the importance of having congruence between the advice people give to others about how to behave and the behaviors they exhibit themselves. If you’re in a leadership position, it’s important to set an example through your own actions. You want to avoid the embarrassment of having to tell someone, “Do as I say, not as I do” if he sees you acting differently from how you tell others to act. Like the time when I saw my high school band director smoking at a marching band performance after he told us students not to smoke or drink while in uniform. To be fair, he wasn’t wearing a band uniform, but still.

I learned the importance of this lesson when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor of organic chemistry at the University of Illinois. Fresh out of graduate school and just twenty-three years old, I taught the introductory organic chemistry laboratory course to hundreds of premed students and others who were not majoring in chemistry. My students attended one hour of lecture per week, which I presented, as well as a four-hour laboratory session, which was supervised by a graduate teaching assistant. It was an ironclad rule that all students must wear safety goggles at all times in the laboratory. Students hated the goggles because they fogged up on humid days (that is, every day in Illinois), and the elastic straps were uncomfortable.

My custom was to pop into each laboratory session and walk around for a few minutes to see how things were going. A student once asked me why I was not wearing safety goggles as they had to. It was an excellent question. I always wore my regular eyeglasses, but of course that’s not the same as wearing safety goggles. Slightly embarrassed, I made sure to put on goggles every time I set foot in the lab thereafter. It was important for me to model the proper behavior and set an example for my students to follow. I’m glad that one student called me on my laxness.

You see disconnects between stated and observed behaviors or values all the time. Consider medical professionals who advise you not to smoke but then take their own cigarette breaks. The news periodically reports on a public figure, such as a minister or a politician, who definitely is not following his own advice. A well-known televangelist rails against homosexuality, only to be caught in the company of a gay prostitute. Ministers preach against the evils of extramarital sex even as they conduct affairs themselves. Moralizing politicians who advocate virtue and “family values” are revealed to have gambling addictions or other vices. Famous people are still people, subject to all of the weaknesses and temptations everyone else confronts. That’s no surprise, and it doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the hypocrisy of people who castigate others for activities that they themselves are practicing.

You see the same kind of thing in the professional world. As an example, one large software company developed a framework—a set of processes, principles, and practices—for developing software applications. They recommended this framework to their customers and sold consulting services for it. As I understand it, though, they did not follow the framework themselves. You’d think that if it was such a great system, the developers would use it themselves. There’s even a term for this in the software world: it’s called “eating your own dog food” or dogfooding.

I’ve encountered this issue in my own work in the field of defining requirements for software products. Numerous companies have created commercial products called requirements management tools that project teams can use to store and manage the requirements for their product. Whenever I talk to a vendor of such a product, I always ask if their teams store their own requirements in that product. If the answer is no, I don’t get very excited about that tool. Why is it good enough to sell to other companies, but not good enough for the developers of the tool itself to use? Eating your own dog food certainly shows a commitment to your product, process, or principles.

If you ever find yourself showing a disconnect between behaviors you advocate for others and those you demonstrate yourself, take a look in the mirror. Either start practicing what you’re preaching, or change your sermon.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cautionary Pearl: Be sure you don’t take away an invalid life lesson from an experience.

When I began riding a motorcycle many years ago, I shared an office with a man who had grown up on the island of Cyprus. Mike told me about the time he rode a small motorcycle when he was a teenager. At one point he had to hit the brakes hard, and he pitched over the handlebars and landed on his face. As he was not wearing a helmet, Mike got a little banged up. Fortunately, he did not suffer any serious injuries. I asked Mike what lesson he took away from this accident, thinking he might have learned that it’s always a good idea to wear a helmet when on two wheels. To my surprise, he responded, “Don’t use the front brake!” He interpreted the cause of the accident as being excessive braking on the front wheel, which caused the nose of the motorcycle to pitch downward and toss him overboard.

This isn’t the right lesson to take away from that experience. In reality, the front brake provides about twice as much braking capability as does the rear brake. If you decide to never use the front brake, you're going to greatly increase your stopping distance. This could be fatal in an emergency stop. The best bet is to apply both the front and rear brakes simultaneously.

The story illustrated for me the importance of taking away the correct life lesson from an eye-opening experience. If you draw the wrong conclusion you might learn a “negative” lesson, which could come back to bite you. As you ponder the insights you gain from your daily encounters and observations, make sure the lesson you draw are valid and will serve you well in the future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Interpersonal Pearl: Balance complaints with compliments.

I’m a critical kind of guy. I don’t have a lot of patience when people (including myself) do things wrong. In fact, I have a long history of writing customer complaint letters to report problems with products or services. A friend once called them “Dr. Karl Wiegers Expects Results” letters. But to be fair, I also try to pay compliments whenever they are deserved. I can’t say I’ve reached a one-to-one ratio of compliments to complaints, but that’s a good target to aim for.

Here’s an example. Two of my Meals on Wheels clients live in a large apartment complex that has many lovely azaleas, rhododendron bushes, and other flowers. (Spring is gorgeous in Portland, Oregon.) I saw a man planting some flowers when I drove through there on my delivery route one day this spring. I asked him if he was responsible for the landscaping in that whole big complex. He replied, “Yes, I do all of the gardening here.” I told him what a great job he was doing and how pretty the flowers looked. The gardener seemed to appreciate the compliment. So many people take things like landscaping and gardening in a shared community for granted, but somebody has to plan and perform all that work. If you appreciate the landscaping or any other shared attraction, look for an opportunity to tell the right person how much you enjoy it.

I’ve paid compliments to other people for exceptionally high quality service and products, too. I’ve been with State Farm insurance for nearly forty years. My local State Farm office is by far the best group of insurance people I’ve ever worked with. The staff are always pleasant and helpful, they look for ways to save me money on premiums, and on the rare occasions when I’ve had a claim, they paid up with no hassle. The last time I spoke to the office manager on the phone I told him this; he was most appreciative. So often, people hear only complaints when customers feel that the service they received wasn’t up to snuff. Try to balance even legitimate complaints with compliments when the service exceeds expectations.

Every once in a while you find a product that really blows you away. I bought a rather expensive Travelpro travel bag when I began my consulting career. That bag is far and away the best piece of luggage I have ever owned. Fourteen years later, it has more than 300,000 travel miles on it and still looks brand new. The bag is very thoughtfully designed and appears to have infinite capacity, as I’ve always been able to stuff one more item in it. I wrote the Travelpro folks a letter and told them how delighted I was with this excellent bag. They didn’t reply, but I hope I brightened someone’s day by letting them know what a fine job they were doing.

It’s okay to complain about problems with services and products we buy. In fact, I think customers have a responsibility to complain. Otherwise the vendor might not even know about the problem, like the time long ago that I found a couple of Rice Chex in a box of Wheat Chex. I wasn’t upset about it, but I informed the manufacturer in case their equipment wasn’t being fully cleaned out between batches or something. You can’t expect someone to correct a problem he isn’t aware of.

It’s only fair, though, to offer compliments when warranted, as well. A compliment goes a long way toward counteracting the negative feelings that complaints generate.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Motivational Pearl: A life-threatening experience can open your eyes like nothing else can. (contributed by Bruce Wiegers)

[Chapter 23 of Pearls from Sand, “An Ounce of Preparation,” describes how my brother survived a terrifying accident in a canyon deep in the Idaho desert. Bruce fractured his femur in a fall and had to be airlifted to a hospital for several hours of surgery. Fortunately, Bruce was extremely well-prepared for such an emergency. Those preparations doubtless saved his life. One year after this accident, Bruce reflected on the experience and the insights he gained from it. Here is his story.]

Today marks one year since I broke my leg. The way I view it, this is the first anniversary of my newly-given life.

Initially, I never expected to make it out of the canyon. Once they got me out, since the leg was so badly broken and twisted, I never expected the doctors to be able to save it. Once they did, I never expected it to work right again. You know, it works perfectly! I am so incredibly fortunate that I want to share what I have learned over the past year.

Appreciate every day to its fullest, regardless of the weather, the disposition of those around you, or how well your body might be functioning. However messed up things around you are, it beats the alternative.

Do not waste mental energy on petty items; let them go and focus your efforts in positive ways. Life is too short to spend time holding grudges you may never have an opportunity to straighten out. I believe most problems of this type are the result of simple misunderstandings and can be resolved by openly talking about the issue.

I have learned to trust in my fellow man much more than I ever did before. Strangers put their lives on the line to save mine; that is a humbling experience. My exploring companion Bob, the flight crew, the ambulance crew, and the Sheriff’s posse who winched me out of the canyon all put themselves at risk to drag my butt out of that hole I was in. As awkward as the trip out was, they all did their individual jobs perfectly.

Technology is an incredible thing when it works. Thankfully, every bit of technology used in this rescue worked just as it was supposed to. The SPOT Messenger GPS tracking device sent out its signals, and the SPOT Search and Rescue team sent a Life Flight helicopter exactly to my location; it took the flight crew all of fifteen seconds to find me. The morphine worked, the tension splint worked, the four-wheeler that helped winch me out of the canyon worked, the helicopter flew perfectly. I have to believe that the Zoll defibrillator in the helicopter would have worked if needed (I hope so; my company built part of it).

Yes, technology can provide wonderful tools. However, it does not replace being prepared. This experience reinforced my viewpoint that all of us are responsible for our own well being. Being in good physical condition, knowing the environment I was visiting, having survival gear with me, knowing how to use it, and filing travel plans helped set the stage for the positive outcome of this accident. If I had failed in any of these preparations, the results could have been very, very different. I have learned that, sometimes, you can help make your own luck.

Thank you, everyone, for all of the support over the past year. Without the help and encouragement from everyone, I could not have made the progress I have made. Now, it is time to put this event behind me and only look ahead. I have a whole new set of adventures planned, and I plan on spending some great times with each of you this next year.

Oh, I also learned that good Scotch beats cheap Scotch!

Love one another.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cautionary Pearl: You never get caught up on life.

When I worked at Kodak, I carpooled for a few years with another research scientist. We typically arrived at work at 7:30 in the morning and left about 5:30 p.m. Near the end of the day, Sean would walk down to my office and read his newspaper until I was ready to leave. I was curious why he often arrived early in my office. “Don’t you have a lot of work to do?” I asked him once. “No,” he replied, “I’m all caught up.”

My career at Kodak lasted more than eighteen years, yet I can’t remember a time when I could say “I’m all caught up.” The concept of being caught up didn’t even exist for me. There was always a raft of work awaiting my attention. I might reach a convenient stopping point on a particular task, and of course projects did wrap up from time to time. But that just meant that I had some time available to work on other tasks in my backlog. If I waited to go home until I was truly all caught up, I’d still be in my office there today.

I learned some time ago that you never get caught up on life. I can remember times when I made mental plans to do something fun, take a vacation, or undertake a new activity when I was “caught up.” Eventually I realized that such a day would never come. Instead, I needed to adjust my priorities to spend time how I wanted to even while my to-do list remained unfinished.

A couple of experiences in my educational background brought home the reality that “catching up” on life is a rarity. Juggling, planning, and prioritization became watchwords to help me do my best to get caught up.

When I took an analytical chemistry laboratory class in college, I quickly realized that it would be impossible to finish all of the intended work in each week’s four-hour lab session if I did tasks sequentially. I had to learn to multitask. I planned my lab session so that I could begin one activity and let it run while I turned my attention to something else, interleaving the various tasks until they were all finished, with any luck by the end of the lab session. This was a valuable learning experience. Multitasking and interleaving of tasks is vital for cooking and many other kinds of projects that involve steps that aren’t necessarily performed strictly in sequence. This can help you get “caught up,” but it’s no guarantee.

When I began graduate school, one of the first things I learned was that there was absolutely no way I could do absolutely all the things I had to get done. Therefore, I had to learn how to prioritize and allocate appropriate chunks of time to the various responsibilities. Like multitasking, effective prioritization is also a useful skill to acquire. Sure enough, I never accomplished everything I hoped to, and often not even everything I had to. Assessing priorities before just diving in on the first task and working hard helped me focus my energies for the greatest benefit.

Maybe you’re never going to get all caught up on everything there is to do, but at least you can learn to allocate your energy in a sensible way to yield the maximum benefit and still leave yourself some time to enjoy life.

I had a friend who once felt overwhelmed because he could never get caught up with the huge backlog of work he had to do. Mark was a first-level manager. He told me that at the end of each day, he would stare at the growing heap of paper on his desk and feel depressed because he never seemed to make any headway on it.

I offered a radical suggestion. I suggested that Mark throw everything on the top of his desk away. If there was something really important there that he needed to follow up on or a phone call that he simply must return, someone would get back to him about it. Otherwise, likely no harm would be done by simply ignoring the backlog. This was pretty extreme advice.

Mark tried it. He flushed the backlog. To his surprise, no unpleasant repercussions arose from simply ignoring nearly everything in his mountain of unfinished work. I guess quite a bit of Mark’s backlog consisted of unessential items that no one would miss. He immediately felt much better about work, and his stress level plummeted. This isn’t necessarily the right strategy for every overwhelming work situation, but it worked out well in this case.

Since I retired a few years ago, I don’t have as many looming commitments that I need to address. I have more time to devote to activities for fun, even if they do involve considerable effort (like writing and promoting Pearls from Sand!). Even though there have been times when I’m a bit—dare I say it—bored, it’s not because I’m “all caught up.” There are always chores to do around the house and yard that I’ve been putting off. Those little repair and clean-up jobs don’t go away just because I don’t feel like doing them yet, and the car won’t wax itself. But now that I understand I’m never going to get fully caught up, it’s okay to start living. Put that item on the top of your to-do list.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Practical Pearl: You don’t save money at a store; you save money at a bank.

When I was in college, I wanted to buy a nice stereo system. I went to several audio stores, testing components and getting price quotes. Naturally, I was looking for the best system I could find at the lowest cost. The salesman at one store told me something I’ve kept in mind ever since then. He said, “The first thing you should know is that you don’t save money at a stereo store. You save money at a bank.”

We see countless advertisements every day that exhort us to come into a particular store and “save” vast quantities of money on some product. But every time you buy something you are spending money, not saving money. You save money only by not buying something. What the ads mean is that you can pay less for the advertised product than you would otherwise. Maybe the ad should really say that you can pay less for the item at Store A than at Store B, or you can pay less if you buy it now instead of next week. But, that’s only a true savings if you needed to buy the item at that particular time anyway. The siren song of “save money!” sometimes leads us to buy things we don’t really need because we just can’t pass up a good deal.

A better way to think about spending your hard-earned funds is to make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck. Fortunately, I’m pretty immune to impulse purchases. I’m not going to buy a new car unless I need one, no matter how much the dealer claims I can save—this week only, just two in stock at this price! I know people who went out for a Sunday drive and returned in a brand new car that just happened to catch their eye. Not me. When I do buy a car, though, I’m going to comparison shop, research dealer costs, and negotiate to pay the least amount of money I can for the greatest amount of car. It doesn’t matter if that ultimate price turns out to be the same as list price or thousands less. What matters is that I maximize the value of what I get for a product or service I really need to buy, and that I feel like the outcome was fair.

And if I have any money left afterward, I’ll save it—at a bank.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Professional Pearl: Anyone can become more confident and relaxed about public speaking.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became a public speaker. I never took a speech class or participated in debate in school, and I never went to Toastmasters or any other organization that helps you become comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Nonetheless, I’ve delivered nearly 600 presentations in the past twenty years and enjoyed just about all of them. Almost all of these have been technical seminars and training classes on software development and management, my profession since 1984. Somehow I have become comfortable delivering presentations to audiences ranging from just a few people up to nearly two thousand.

Speaking in public is one of the most terrifying experiences for most people. I can certainly understand that. Everyone is staring right at you, waiting to hear your words of wisdom. You feel incredibly vulnerable. It’s one thing to say something that sounds foolish in a private conversation; it’s quite a different matter to say it to dozens or hundreds or thousands. The potential for embarrassment is enormous. However, so is the potential for sharing important information that can influence many people in a positive way.

Just in case you, like so many other people, are scared by the idea of giving a presentation, in this three-part post I’d like to share Karl’s Safety Tips for Confident Public Speaking. I think you’ll find that keeping these ideas in mind as you prepare for a talk will give you a lot more confidence. Maybe you’ll even have a good time the next time you’re on stage.

Presentation Tip #1: No one knows what you’re going to say, so don’t worry if the words that come out of your mouth don’t exactly match the way you scripted it or practiced it. Just keep going. This is very different from giving, say, a piano recital of a well-known piece, where someone in the audience is certain to detect a C that should have been a B.

Presentation Tip #2: You’re in control. You’re the one with the podium, the microphone, the projector, and the laser pointer. You’re the one who can ask the audience if they have any questions; you can terminate the discussion and move on whenever you like. It’s your show, not the audience's.

Presentation Tip #3:
Even if you aren’t the world’s expert on the topic you’re presenting, you almost certainly know more about it than anyone else in the room. Otherwise, one of them would be speaking and you’d be listening. Keep this truth in mind to give you confidence in your material.

Presentation Tip #4: You rarely face a hostile audience. Most of the time, people are there because they want to hear what you have to say. This isn’t necessarily true if you’re dealing with a controversial political, social, or community issue. But if you’re delivering a factual presentation to a group of people who are attending of their own volition, they usually start out with an open and receptive attitude toward the speaker. After that, it’s up to you to hold their interest.

Presentation Tip #5: If you’re using slides, as in a PowerPoint presentation, never say “and on the next slide....” Maybe you don’t remember exactly what is on the next slide, or perhaps you changed the sequence from the last time you gave the presentation. If you’re surprised by what slide pops up, you’ll have to backtrack a bit after the lead-in you presented just before it appeared. Instead, just display the next slide in the sequence and talk about whatever is on it. In other words, it’s okay to fake it a little bit.

Presentation Tip #6: It’s fine to say “I don’t know” in response to a question. That’s better than standing there silently because you can’t think of the right answer. It’s also better than making up some answer on the fly that might turn out to be wildly erroneous. Even better than a simple “I don’t know” is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know,” or “I’m not sure off the top of my head, so let me think about your question and get back to you with a more considered response.”

Presentation Tip #7:
Keep an eye on the clock. If you see that you might run out of time before you cover everything you wanted to say, that’s your problem, not the audience’s problem. You might have to skip some material. That’s much better than holding captive a fidgeting audience who would like to move on with their lives. It’s usually okay to run a minute or two over your allotted time, but that’s it. With practice, you’ll get better at selectively deleting or condensing your planned material to bring the talk to a smooth close without having to flip through a dozen slides in the last two minutes—nobody likes that.

Presentation Tip #8: Be sure to talk about what you said you were going to talk about. I firmly believe in “truth in advertising,” so I try to write descriptions of my presentations that are accurate as well as inviting. The audience members have a right to know what to expect, and the speaker has a responsibility to deliver. I’ve attended more than one conference presentation where the content delivered didn’t fulfill the expectation set by the title and description. Let’s say the title of the talk is “Conjugating Verbs in Swahili,” but the material presented missed the mark. At the end of the talk the speaker invites questions, and one attendee asks, “Were you going to say anything about conjugating verbs in Swahili?” The speaker is dumbfounded because she thinks that’s what she just spent an hour talking about, but she really didn’t. That’s an embarrassing position for any speaker to be in. I’ve seen it happen.

There are numerous other tips to keep in mind during an effective presentation, but I find that these eight help keep me confident, comfortable, and poised when I’m speaking in public. I’ll bet they’ll help you, too.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Learning from the Masters

What books have taught you the most significant or useful life lessons? I got a lot out of Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As with most such compendiums, the lessons are not particularly subtle or unobvious, but the author does a fine job of selecting powerful messages that are helpful to nearly any reader. Since I read the book, I’ve incorporated several of the habits into my daily life. For instance, I routinely practice the habit to “Put First Things First.” When I’m facing a lengthy task list, I try to tackle the most important tasks first, not just the ones that seem urgent but might not be very important.

Just recently, I had an opportunity to practice Covey’s habit “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” The bill I received from my accountant for preparing my income tax returns was substantially higher than I expected. My first instinct was to call the accountant and tell him how outrageous this bill was. But then I recalled my commitment to following this habit. I sent the accountant an e-mail and asked if he could help me understand why the bill was so different from my expectation.

I’ve found that it is far more constructive—and collaborative—to start by asking this type of question. In this case, I knew that more information would allow me to make a more considered evaluation of the situation, and that I could squawk later if I still thought the bill was unacceptable. By taking this approach, I don’t get agitated unless and until I need to, and the other party isn’t immediately put on the defensive by my complaint, which might have a perfectly sensible explanation. In this case, we negotiated a payment that we both found acceptable.

I’ve learned a lot from other authors, as well. In fact, I learned a great deal while writing Pearls from Sand. As I reflected on the major lessons I’ve accumulated over my life, I kept thinking of new ones that hadn’t come to mind for some time. You, too, might find it instructive to search your memory for the books that have had the greatest influence on how you think about yourself or on how you interact with others. Perhaps you can share those books with people around you who might also find them insightful. I’d love to hear what books you come up with.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cautionary Pearl: Sometimes you do get what you pay for.

I once had a friend named Mitch who went down to Tijuana, Mexico, when he was in high school. When Mitch came back he proudly showed me the new leather jacket that he bought there at an amazing price. The second time he put the jacket on, one sleeve tore off in his hand. Mitch learned the hard way that sometimes you really do get what you pay for. He didn’t pay much, and he didn’t get much.

Everybody likes a bargain, but sometimes the lowest price is not the best deal. The bargain brand of paper towels might look just like the premiums at half the price, but they don’t do you much good if they dissolve into a soggy mass when they touch liquid. That inexpensive guitar looks just like the one your favorite musician plays, but it’s not going to sound the same and it’s not going to be as nice to play. I’ve learned that it’s worth paying for quality guitars because they stay in tune, the neck won’t warp, they can be adjusted for comfortable fingering action, they produce good tone, and you don’t have to replace parts that break. I suspect a lot of budding musicians gave up in frustration because their el cheapo guitars were just too hard to play. A short-term bargain can turn into long-term disappointment.

One time I needed to get the gas furnace in my house replaced. I called several contractors and asked them to come look at my house and prepare a bid. A week later I phoned a contractor who hadn’t gotten back to me with his bid yet. He refused to quote me a price! “I’ve found that most people go with the lowest bid,” said the owner. “When you have all your other quotes, give me a call and I’ll tell you if I can beat the lowest price.”

That’s not how I roll. I don’t just go with the lowest price for a custom product or service. I want to size up the contractor to get a sense of how diligent and thorough he seems and to assess how he might deal with any problems that arise. This guy sounded like a bottom-feeder who might cut some corners, sell me an inferior product, or do a shoddy installation job, then fail to return my calls if I had any problems later.

In this case I chose another contractor who struck me as much more professional and concerned about providing a solution that really met my needs. His employees took pride in their workmanship; they did an excellent job. It probably cost a fair amount more than the bottom-feeder would have charged, but it was worth it. I’m willing to pay for quality, especially for an important and long-lasting item like a house furnace. If you always go with the lowest bidder for anything other than a commodity product, eventually you’re likely to get what you pay for.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Motivational Pearl: Emulating a friend’s behavior can lead you to embrace healthy practices.

The phrase “peer pressure” generally carries a negative connotation. It suggests that goading by your friends can induce you to do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. For most of my life I’ve been relatively immune to this sort of negative peer pressure. For instance, I haven’t succumbed to pressure from colleagues to eat whatever weird local “delicacy” the people in certain parts of the world like to inflict on their visitors, unless I felt like eating it. I figure I’m an adult, and I can do what I wish without feeling the need to prove anything to anybody.

Sometimes, though, you can get the benefits of constructive peer pressure if you choose to emulate a friend’s positive behaviors. This aligns with my philosophy of picking up good ideas wherever I find them. One day I was talking to a coworker named Bruce. For reasons I cannot recall we began discussing oral hygiene. I mentioned that I brushed my teeth diligently and flossed two or three times a week. Bruce matter-of-factly said, “I floss every day.” This thought flashed into my mind: if Bruce can floss every day, so can I. Bruce wasn’t suggesting that I should floss daily, but he clearly thought that was a good thing to do.

I set myself a challenge. Since that conversation some eighteen years ago, I have averaged only one day per year that I didn’t floss, usually on an overnight flight. Flossing keeps your gums in great shape, and some medical evidence indicates that gum disease is linked to heart disease. So besides that nice squeaky-clean feeling, there are plenty of good reasons to floss your teeth every day. Thanks in part to following Bruce’s good example, going to the dentist isn’t an unpleasant experience for me.

Even if your companions aren’t pressuring you to pick up habits they consider desirable, you might be inspired by their behavior and challenge yourself to follow their example. Suppose you’re dining out with vegans or vegetarians who avoid eating meat for moral or animal rights reasons. You might be less likely to order a steak in their presence because you don’t want to offend them. You might even decide to eat less meat yourself. Or perhaps you have a friend who works with the homeless. You’re more likely to give to panhandlers when you’re in her presence because you respect her self-sacrifice and the cause she supports.

This is the kind of follow-the-leader action with a positive payoff, not the kind that might land you in the emergency room. Can you think of any positive behaviors you picked up from your friends or other role models, even if they never said a word to pressure you into following their example? Tell me what you come up with.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

The personal pearls category of my book Pearls from Sand, refers to pearls of wisdom that taught me something important, and often surprising, about myself or my own behavior. Each of us has a self-image: a perception of who we are, what’s important to us, and how we behave. It’s hard for us to really know how other people view us, though.

You’ve probably been involved in a conversation or a business meeting with someone, and afterward another participant says to you, “What a jerk that guy is!” It’s entirely possible that the individual in question doesn’t even know that he’s viewed as a jerk by the other people. And there’s a good chance that no one’s going to tell him that to his face.

I think it’s helpful to know how other people view you. It can come as quite a surprise if how other people view you clashes with your self-perception. You can be happy about it or you can be upset about it, but that knowledge gives you the opportunity to decide if you want to change the appearance you present to the world. Very recently, a friend sent me an e-mail in which he made an offhand observation about me that I found puzzling. I don’t have any idea how he came to that conclusion, and it’s not at all accurate. I’d like to know what his thinking was, or just what he observed about my actions or words, so I could make sure that I send out the signals I wish to send.

What input have you received from another person that gave you the most insight about yourself, for better or for worse? Are you glad you got that information, or do you wish you hadn’t? Did you decide to do anything differently based on that person’s feedback? There’s a line from a song that goes “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” I know that feeling, but I still want to know.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Interpersonal Pearl: Being polite costs you nothing, yet it buys goodwill and cooperation. (Contributed by Linda Rathburn)

I used to work in a mainframe computer programming group where tests had to be submitted to the computer operators. A co-worker once told me that the operators weren’t running tests that day. He said they were “too busy”. His tone of voice suggested that he didn’t believe the operators’ excuse. Knowing that this individual didn’t work well with the computer operators, I set up my own test, called the operators, acknowledged that I knew they were busy, and asked politely if they would run my test when they had time. Within a few minutes one of the operators called me back and said the test was complete.

I didn’t have to beg or grovel to get legitimate work done. I just made a polite request and let them know that I understood that their priorities might differ from mine. At times when I made a similar testing request I wouldn’t hear back about my test for a while, but that usually only happened when I already knew there had been issues overnight and the operators were still playing catch-up. On other occasions when I needed something urgently and said so, the operators performed my tests quickly.

My formula for success in all these situations was the same: be polite. By “be polite” I mean not only to use words like please and thank you, but also to acknowledge that not everyone has the same priorities. Limit your “immediate” and “urgent” requests to times when they really are essential, not every time you wish something would happen faster. Being polite also means responding appropriately when you receive a request for some service. Accept the request graciously, make realistic commitments, respond as quickly as possible, and follow up when you say you’ll do something.

Another way to say “Be polite” is to say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” sometimes known as the Golden Rule. It’s a simple philosophy, but it always applies.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Interpersonal Pearl: If you have a problem with someone, confront it thoughtfully and respectfully. (contributed by Bob Glass)

Early in my software career, I worked in a small and tight-knit group of people. As our work grew, we needed to expand the group. One of our new hires was a fellow named Harold Graebner. Harold appeared to be a nice guy, but at the same time he seemed to go out of his way to bug me for reasons I did not understand. After several weeks of this behavior, I decided I had to do something about it. I confronted Harold and explained how I felt about what he was doing.

What happened next astounded me and became a life lesson I love to share with others. After I had my say, Harold looked at me and said “Why don’t you and your wife come over for dinner Friday night?” I had expected some sort of defensive reaction, but instead what I received was a solid overture of friendship! Harold and I became good friends after that, a friendship that eventually withered only when we moved to different geographic locations.

What was the lesson, the one I have shared so frequently with others over the years? If you have a problem with someone, it is best to confront it thoughtfully and respectfully to try to understand and resolve the issue. It may turn out to be the greatest decision you ever made. I never found out exactly why Harold had made such a point of bugging me. I chalked it up to the “little-boy syndrome,” where a little boy annoys a little girl because he likes her, not because he particularly enjoys bugging her or is just being a jerk.

Interestingly, I elected not to apply this particular life lesson a few years later in my life. At the time I was a national speaker for a computing technical society called ACM. As a national speaker, I was paid to travel to and lecture at various student and professional ACM chapters around the world, mostly in the United States. I remember vividly one trip to Kansas City, where a group of my hosts and their spouses took me out to dinner before the talk (that was the normal practice). One wife seemed to delight in bugging me and in fact kept doing it all evening, not only through the dinner but also both before and after my presentation.

I thought about applying this life lesson and confronting her. But I realized that this was a one-time event and I would never see her again, so I decided not to bother. I will never know, of course, whether that was the right decision. Without discussing it with her I couldn’t find out why she was behaving as she was. In the end, though, the confrontation simply didn’t seem to be worth the risk of offending the wife of one of my hosts on this speaking tour. This was a different situation from my experience with Harold, with whom I had to work every day. I guess this just shows that life lessons need to be applied selectively!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Interpersonal Pearl: People sometimes prefer to receive experiences, rather than things, as gifts.

Do you already have enough stuff in your house? I sure do. Most people have way more stuff than they need. We accumulate more stuff over the course of a year through purchases or from gifts given at Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s or Father’s Day, on and on. Then at the end of the year or in the spring we sort through all our stuff, give some of it away, maybe hold a garage sale, and throw some more stuff in the trash. What a waste.

A close friend told me a few years ago that he didn’t want any more gifts. Instead, he would rather receive meaningful and memorable experiences. This is a fine idea. My friend lives in a small house, so he doesn’t have much room for more stuff. Nor does he need it. But, like most people, he enjoys interesting and special experiences.

If you want to give a memorable experience as a gift, consider giving something edible. My friend savors fine cheeses. He’d rather enjoy a few ounces of an expensive, special cheese than have one more trinket to store someplace. Sure, the gift is gone once he has eaten the cheese, but the pleasant memory of the culinary experience lingers on.

I appreciate wine, although I don’t spend a lot of money on it for myself. It’s uncommon for me to pay more than about twenty-five dollars a bottle, and usually I spend less. But I have tasted a few wines that cost around a hundred dollars a bottle, and you know, they really were better than the less expensive ones. If someone wanted to spend a nice chunk of change to get me an exceptional bottle of wine, I’d savor every drop. The same with chocolate. I’d rather have a sampler of outstanding dark chocolates than some item that will just collect dust on the shelf.

My wife, Chris, gave me an intriguing gift for Christmas a few years ago. Chris knows I enjoy watching auto races and that I used to drive a race car decades ago as a teenager. She bought me a half-day auto racing course at the Portland International Speedway. It wasn’t cheap, and I was kind of nervous about it, but it certainly was a blast. That was the only time I’ve driven 115 miles an hour. I will remember that experience for many years. How many of your Christmas gifts can you remember?

A few years ago I tried to give Chris an unusual experience for our anniversary. She is one of the world’s biggest Johnny Depp fans. You should see all the Johnny Depp paraphernalia in our house. I wrote a letter to Johnny through his fan club and offered to make a substantial donation to the charity of his choice if he would meet with Chris and me briefly sometime when he was in Los Angeles. I had it all worked out. I would keep the plan a secret, providing no explanation for our flight to Southern California. It would have been worth every penny to see the look on Chris’s face as she walked in the room and saw Johnny Depp in the flesh.

Sadly, I never received a reply from Johnny or his fan club, although my proposal was completely serious. Now, that would’ve been an unforgettable anniversary gift.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sharing Your Life Lessons

How do you pass along your life lessons to others? If you are a parent, you have countless opportunities to impart both knowledge and wisdom to your children. You’ll have the greatest impact during the first several years of your children’s lives, but preteens can begin to absorb more significant life lessons—that’s where the wisdom part comes in. As children become teenagers, though, they’re likely to tune you out—just when they could understand and benefit the most from your experiences. At least, that’s how I was when I was a teenager. Yet, I do have friends who have crafted relationships with their children (or stepchildren), such that respect for the elder’s wisdom lasts through adolescence and into adulthood. Perhaps you can influence your nieces and nephews even more than your own children. To many young people, aunts and uncles seem cooler and wiser than their own parents.

Imparting life lessons to young people involves more than just lecturing. It involves coaching, mentoring, and steering as well. Anytime you’re in a position of respected authority over others, you have a chance to communicate the lessons you’ve learned. If you’re like me and you learned a lot of your most important life lessons by making mistakes, maybe you can make someone else’s life easier by sharing what you’ve learned. You can play such a role as a scouting leader, church leader, sports coach, mentor, or employment supervisor, as well as through other kinds of relationships.

If you’re reading this, then you already know that the written word is another way to communicate life lessons. There are countless books, articles, and blogs that communicate an author’s insightful experiences. Blogs like this one provide a participative forum for readers to share their own experiences, which could either reinforce or counter the author’s viewpoint. Some people keep journals or write memoirs to pass along their experiences to their descendants, but typically that’s something that adults do later in life when they aren’t quite so busy.

Look for “teachable moments.” These are opportunities to have conversations with younger people that can help them absorb significant lessons at just those times when they will provide the greatest impact for long-term growth and happiness. One of my friends helped his young stepdaughter learn to make and sell soap. She learned some important lessons about money and responsibility along the way, and those messages have stuck with her to this day. Think about the valuable lessons that you’ve accumulated and how you can best pass them along to others.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Personal Pearl: Think about what kind of work gives you the most satisfaction and try to steer your career and outside activities in that direction.

These are tough economic times. Many people find themselves without jobs. That’s a frightening feeling, especially if you were at your former employer for many years. Changing jobs, either voluntarily or involuntarily, is stressful and scary. In a way, though, it also provides an opportunity for you to think about what kind of work gives you the most satisfaction and to redirect your life toward a more fulfilling outcome.

I worked at Kodak for many years before launching my own software development consulting and training company. As Kodak’s fortunes declined, thousands of people lost their jobs. Many of them, however, discovered that there was indeed life after Kodak as they moved on to other rewarding endeavors.

One of my wife’s closest friends was laid off after spending thirty years at Kodak. Margie had been a secretary for part of her career, and then she became a scientific technician in the research laboratories. After she adapted to the shock of being laid off, Margie considered what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She had always loved working with animals, so she decided to launch her own pet-sitting business. She doesn’t make as much money as she did at Kodak, but she has a lot of new four-legged friends. Her new venture keeps her busy and fulfilled, even though it wasn’t how she thought she’d be spending the last years of her career.

Any transition point in your life or your career is an opportunity to change directions. I started my professional career as a research scientist, and then moved into software development for several years. After that, I took a three-year assignment as the manager of a small software group. I didn’t enjoy being a manager, so I wasn’t sorry when that tour of duty ended in 1993 and I decided to move on. For the first time in my professional career, I thought carefully about what kind of work was really fulfilling to me.

I had always liked to teach. I enjoyed writing computer programs, and I had certainly loved the excitement of science, of learning how some aspect of the world works. But I realized that what gave me the most satisfaction was helping other people do a better job on some activity than they could have done without my involvement. That was probably why I found teaching rewarding. I enjoyed transmitting knowledge and skills to other people so they could accomplish more on their own. I also found it satisfying to create order out of chaos, to simplify and organize people and processes so they operate more efficiently. But what kind of job would let me contribute along these lines and reap the satisfaction of helping others improve how they do their work?

That line of thinking led me to my next career as a software process improvement consultant and trainer. I began by performing these activities within Kodak, helping software teams make their development activities more efficient and create higher-quality products. I developed and presented training classes to the software development staff at Kodak. I also began giving presentations at conferences and writing books and magazine articles about my experiences and knowledge, thereby sharing them with thousands of people worldwide.

Ultimately I left Kodak and formed my own company, Process Impact. Since 1997, I have provided consulting and training services to more than one hundred companies and government agencies. It’s rewarding when people tell me how my presentations or writings have helped them. For me, that’s the real fulfillment—knowing that, with my assistance, people were able to do better work than they could have done otherwise.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Professional Pearl: Be honest in your response when you don't have the answer to a question, and then follow-up. (submitted by Linda Rathburn)

When I first started working as a computer programmer in a bank, I was assigned to work with another software developer and to learn about the application he supported. When his internal customer asked him a question about the application or about the feasibility of making a change in that application, this developer would talk for several minutes. Sometimes he answered the customer's question, and sometimes he just talked.

One day, shortly after I'd taken over responsibility for the application, the customer asked me a question. I didn't know the answer and said so, but I added that I would look into what she wanted and get back to her. As promised, I went back to my desk and did the necessary research to answer her question. I called her up and explained what I had found. The next time I saw that customer, she thanked me for the honest answer and the follow-up. She had never appreciated my predecessor's method of throwing words at her in the hope that some would be what she wanted to hear. I don't know if she ever complained to our supervisor about that other developer’s methods, but she could have done so. His employee review likely would have suffered, as would his chances of working effectively in other areas with that same customer or with any others to whom she had spoken about him.

The lesson I learned from this experience is the importance of responding appropriately when you are asked for information. If you know the requested information and can provide it, then do so promptly. If you don't know the right answer, say so and promise to do the necessary research. Then follow up and respond in an appropriate manner to the requester. This will help you build a reputation as a trustworthy and reliable collaborator in your business activities.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Other Sources of Life Lessons

Pearls from Sand describes many life lessons that I have accumulated and find useful. I’m posting additional lessons in this blog, both from my own experiences and from those who submit their own pearls of wisdom at www.PearlsFromSand.com/submit.html. Numerous other publications and websites list various sorts of life lessons that people have elected to share with the world. At www.PearlsFromSand.com/other_books.html I’ve listed several other books on life lessons, as well as additional self-help books you might find interesting and informative.

Below are some other web sites where you can find lists of life lessons, presented in varying degrees of detail:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Interpersonal Pearl: Defend your opinions to others if you can, but if you can’t, perhaps it’s not a sensible opinion to hold. (contributed by Andre Gous)

About thirty years ago, I used to have strong opinions—I still do—but when I acted on them and someone questioned these actions, I would not defend my opinions. Instead, I felt helpless anger. The woman I was married to at the time observed that I tended to have well-pondered reasons, but that I lacked the courage and eloquence to articulate them. She urged me to become proficient at verbally defending the rationales behind my decisions and actions.

Her advice changed my life. Nowadays I speak out in defense of my ideas, though “defense” is not really how it feels any more. I have the right to live by my own best judgment. If someone doesn’t like how I think, that’s his issue, not mine. If someone doesn’t understand my rationale and if he asks nicely, then I’m willing to educate him as to my premises. However, if there’s potential value to me and if I trust the other person’s insight and experience, then I’m especially enthused to offer my rationale to someone else for critical analysis and the opportunity to discover a flaw in my thinking. Regardless of the reason for the discussion, I no longer feel like I’m under attack, even if it might seem that way to an observer. I try to be, and tend to be, calm and logical as I explain my point of view.

The best role model for this approach was my father. I am no longer a Christian, but when I was, I was a Bible-thumping enthusiast, aggressively out to save the souls of the world, including my father’s. I began my father’s intended salvation process with a question about his world view. This was essentially a set up for me to demolish his opinion so I could offer my own views on how he should think. However, my father’s explanation of how he viewed the world and his place in it completely took the wind out of my sails. It was so calmly reasoned and indisputably logical that I could think of nothing of value to add.

I walked away from that conversation puzzled, and I did a lot more thinking. As I sit here today and ponder that event, I realize how his calm tone, his reasoned approach, and his confidence made it a non-debate and helped me to learn how to better express my own opinions and values.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Inside

Detecting that you have identified a new life lesson is just the first step. The lesson is of little use until you figure out what it means and what its implications are for your life. It takes a while to internalize life lessons so they become part of your automatic thinking and behaviors. It takes time for each lesson to become a habit, such that you can follow its guidance without having to consciously stop and think about it in each relevant situation.

Until you have internalized a life lesson, you might have to remind yourself to consciously scan your memory to see if you’ve acquired some appropriate guidance to apply in a particular situation. Once taken to heart, however, it should pop to mind almost automatically. For instance, I internalized a lesson from Stephen Covey’s fine book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits is “Put first things first.” Now, whenever I’m faced with a daunting task list, I always ask myself which tasks are important versus not so important, and which ones are urgent versus not so urgent. This quick analysis helps me decide on a plan of action. I’m not even consciously aware that I’m prioritizing my workload. That’s a real example of internalization, when you realize “this is just how I operate” as opposed to following a checklist or procedure to get something done. It takes some time for a good practice to become a steady habit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pearls of Wisdom and Your State of Mind

A few months ago, I was talking to my friend Kyle about the book I had just written, Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. I described how, at various times in my past, I picked up on a particular sentence someone spoke to me that I found especially insightful and remembered it for the rest of my life. Kyle said that I must have had a question in my mind that the conversation resolved for me. That is, I was already looking for an answer to something that was bugging me, which is why I found that particular comment meaningful at that particular time.

I don’t entirely agree with Kyle on this. True, that does happen occasionally. I can remember times when I was discussing some topic with a friend or teacher, and that person made a salient observation that struck home and clarified the matter for me. There was the time I was talking to a college professor and another student about a teaching issue I was struggling with, as I described in Chapter 35, “Knowledge Is Not Zero-Sum.” One of the comments that came out of that conversation gave me just the understanding I needed. So that’s a good example of what Kyle was talking about.

But I don’t think that it’s always necessary to be walking around with specific questions in mind, seeking the perfect pearl of wisdom for that moment’s issue. Often, the pearls I’ve accumulated just dropped into my lap. I wasn’t wrestling with an issue or being particularly introspective. I just heard or saw something that made me ponder and provided some valuable understanding.

The key is to be alert to possible learning opportunities wherever you find them. Keep your life-lesson antenna operating at all times and contemplate whatever it detects. That way you can collect pearls that just happened to wash onshore by your feet without having to open a lot of oysters to look for them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Everyone has pearls of wisdom worth sharing.

Some people tell me they don’t have any pearls of wisdom; they don’t remember any lessons from eye-opening conversations or seminal experiences from their lives. I suspect they’re not giving themselves enough credit. Certain people are perhaps more conscious of the kinds of small encounters that I describe in Pearls from Sand. I’m pretty good at collecting such experiences and remembering them, often with startling clarity, years later. Nonetheless, I believe that most people do have a treasure trove of life lessons at their disposal. I also believe that many of these lessons are broadly applicable to others, even though each individual likely learned them in a unique way.

I recently discussed this issue with a highly intelligent and well-educated friend I’ll call Cheryl. She claimed to have no pearls of wisdom worth sharing. But Cheryl had a life-changing experience about six years ago. When she was forty-one, Cheryl suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, it wasn’t terribly destructive. Since then, she has become the poster child for “what to do after a scary cardiac event.” Cheryl lost a lot of weight, she permanently changed her eating habits, and she still exercises vigorously six times a week.

Not everyone who undergoes such a frightening experience takes the message to heart (get it?) the way Cheryl did by altering her lifestyle dramatically and, I suspect, for the rest of her life. Maybe the pearl of wisdom here is simple and obvious, something like: “Take good care of your heart; it’s the only one you have.” But I find Cheryl’s story compelling and inspirational. She showed that it is indeed possible to change your life significantly in response to a serious health scare. I’m proud of Cheryl for doing all the right things after her heart attack so early in life. She probably has the healthiest heart in the West now.

Even if you aren’t aware of it, I’ll bet that you, too, have acquired some meaningful life lessons over the years. I’ll also bet that if you think carefully, you can remember who spoke a significant sentence to you once upon a time, or an experience that led to an insight that is still useful to you today. Let me know what you come up with.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Where did your pearls of wisdom come from?

Who did you learn most of your life lessons from? A parent, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, an author? How did they communicate these lessons to you? How receptive to their messages were you at the time? Sometimes the most significant lessons don’t arise from where we might expect.

Of course, we learn a lot from our parents, especially at an early age. By adolescence, though, when we could probably benefit the most from a parent’s experience and wisdom, many people aren’t very receptive. I sure wasn’t. Teenagers often think they already know everything they need to know. They think their parents can impart almost nothing that’s relevant to today’s youth (no matter what era “today” refers to). It’s an understandable type of rebellion, but it’s unfortunate if this typical adolescent attitude interferes with picking up valuable lessons from folks who have been around the block a few times.

Leaders and authority figures are valuable sources of information, although what they teach you can’t always be neatly encapsulated in a “pearl of wisdom.” I remember one college professor who was very influential in my life as a teacher, mentor, and friend. I respected and liked him a great deal, and we stayed in touch for years after I graduated. I learned a lot from this professor. However, thinking back, I can’t remember any particularly powerful sentence he ever spoke to me or any specific life lesson that he imparted. I find this surprising because this professor clearly had a significant impact on me. Concisely stated pearls of wisdom aren’t the only important types of knowledge we acquire, even if they are the things I recall most readily and rely on most frequently.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where Life Lessons Come From

Life lessons can come from your friends, from role models such as parents, teachers, or other authority figures, and from everyday experiences. Sometimes you deduce your own life lessons, through observation, through trial and error, through successes and failures. You might glean an insightful lesson from a book or article you read, or from a presentation you attend.

Life lessons are all around us, but you have to be alert to them and receptive to the message. I have my life-lesson antenna up at all times. If I hear something during an ordinary conversation that really resonates and makes me think, there’s probably a message in there. Sometimes I don’t appreciate the significance of the lesson until later, after I’ve had time to reflect on the experience or conversation and its implications.

You aren’t likely to pick up many useful pearls of wisdom unless you go beneath the surface of a conversation or experience and think deeply about how it can help you be a better person, interact more constructively with others, and feel more fulfilled or contented. Pearls of wisdom are there for the picking. If you simply collect the pearls as you encounter them, you will accumulate a rich set of life lessons that will help guide your behaviors, decisions, and feelings throughout your life.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Pearls from Sand" and Life Lessons

Welcome to the Pearls from Sand blog. This forum accompanies my book Pearls From Sand: How Small Encounters Lead To Powerful Lessons (Morgan James Publishing, 2011). Here I will periodically post new pearls of wisdom, along with explanations of how I acquired them and how I've been able to use them in my life. I invite you to submit your own life lessons at PearlsFromSand.com/submit.html. I will post selected submitted pearls in this blog, so that others can learn from your experiences and insights. I welcome your comments on the entries posted here, too.

What constitutes a "life lesson"? In my view, a life lesson is a fragment of wisdom, an insight about how the world and the people in it work. Life lessons go deeper than mere knowledge, like "If you just dropped a can of soda on the floor, don’t open it right away." That’s certainly good advice, but I wouldn’t call it a life lesson. The most effective lessons provide you with an "Aha!" understanding that can shape how you think about yourself, your relationships with others, your values, and your behaviors.