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: