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.