Sunday, May 18, 2014

Practical Pearl: All You Have to Do is Ask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Motivational Pearl: Work the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Practical Pearl: Strive to build relationships with your service providers instead of just hiring them to do a job.

We all hire people to perform certain services for us from time to time, ranging from getting a haircut to constructing your dream home. I’ve found that there are advantages to building sustained relationships with reliable service providers, instead of just thinking of them as someone you hire occasionally when you need a job done. Let me give you some examples.

A few years ago some rotted siding on my house needed replacement. It was too small a job to interest a siding contractor, but I found a man who works for a siding company and freelances on these kinds of small jobs on weekends and evenings. Ray has many years of experience in the siding business; he knows what he’s doing. I quickly learned that he was professional, responsive, fair, and pleasant to work with. I hired him again later to do some additional siding repairs, and I felt like we had a good connection.

Last summer I needed to get some roofing work done on my house. In the process, the roofers discovered more rotted siding and some sheathing that had to be replaced before they could continue working. So there I was on a Thursday afternoon, with my roof torn up, a hole in my wall, and rain on the way. I called my buddy Ray and explained my predicament. He came over the next morning to check it out. Then he returned on Saturday and fixed the problem in the pouring rain, doing his usual high-quality work. I greatly appreciated him helping me out of this jam. Ray presented me with a bill for $125. “That’s not enough,” I said. “How about $150?” Naturally, he accepted my offer. So by paying a small amount extra as a gesture of my gratitude, I feel confident that Ray will do a good job for me the next time I need siding work done, which I know is coming.

Another experience reinforced the value of this pearl of wisdom. After writing Pearls from Sand, I contacted several literary agents and potential publishers to no avail. Finally one agent, Patty, told me that she really liked the book and pointed me toward the ultimate publisher, Morgan James Publishing. She didn’t end up formally representing me, so I didn’t have to pay her anything, but I was grateful for her encouragement and advice.

I sent Patty a gift certificate to Amazon.com as a gesture of thanks. She was very appreciative. She said that almost no one for whom she did professional favors had done that sort of thing for her. I also hired her to review the publishing contract, so she did get a few dollars out of the deal. Patty and I built the foundation of a relationship that could prove mutually beneficial for any future book I might write.

Building these kinds of relationships is valuable from the service provider’s perspective, also. Years ago I hired a company to clean the gas furnace in the house I had just purchased. The technician who came did a half-hearted job. When I received a comment card from the contractor asking “How did we do?” I told them how disappointed I was.

A couple of days later, I received a phone call from Al, the owner of the company. He apologized and asked what he could do to make me happy: refund my money or send someone out to clean the furnace properly. I chose the latter option, and the new technician Al sent did a very thorough job. Al’s last name was also the name of the company, so he had a personal stake in making sure that work done under his name was up to par. Because Al stood behind his work, I used his heating company for the next ten years, including hiring them to replace the furnace and redo some ductwork. We both came out ahead by building a long-term relationship: I got high quality service, and Al got a lot of business from me and my recommendations to prospective customers. It was a win-win.

The next time you need to find new service providers of any kind, think about how you might interact with them in a collaborative way that leads to a mutual benefit over the long term. I much prefer to work with companies and individuals I can recommend to others and who I feel confident will do a good job for me, instead of just simply hiring a random serviceperson to solve today’s problem.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Life Anti-Lessons

Some life lessons come to us because of a thought-provoking statement made by a friend, relative, or teacher. Others arise when we observe how our role models deal with particular situations. These can be inspiring and motivational. Occasionally, though, you can acquire a meaningful lesson by watching someone handle a situation poorly and vowing not to do the same thing yourself. Think of this as an anti-lesson.

Here’s an illustration. Long ago I raced a stock car (it wasn’t very stock!) at a local racetrack near my hometown of Boise, Idaho. I didn’t do very well, but it was a lot of fun. One of my teenage friends was much more successful. At the end of the season, he and another driver both had a claim on third place in the points competition, depending on how the points for one rain-shortened racing evening were counted. The racing association awarded trophies to the top three points leaders, but they had never encountered a situation like this before. What to do?

My friend would have been happy to share the third place award, and the association would simply have had to buy one more trophy. But my friend’s father, who was also his car owner, demanded sole possession of third place based on a tie-breaking scheme, such as how many races each driver had won during the season. “We want just one trophy for third place, or we don’t want any trophy at all,” the father said. The racing association opted to give only one trophy for third place; the other driver got it. My friend went home empty-handed from the awards ceremony, thanks to his father’s stubbornness.

There was indeed a life lesson here. You could phrase it in various ways, but it boils down to the importance of being flexible, of negotiating and accepting compromise, of settling for something reasonable instead of nothing. The lesson was particularly poignant because it was my friend who paid the price for his father’s inflexibility, not the father. As a result of this counter-example and other experiences, my friend’s practice became to observe how his father behaved in various situations and, more often than not, do the opposite in his own life.

Do you have any examples of life anti-lessons that you learned through similar negative-but-informative experiences? Please share them by commenting on this post.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Interpersonal Pearl: You don’t have to be arrogant just because you’re smart or talented.

Early in my second year of graduate school in chemistry, I was sitting in a seminar room with my friend Terry as we waited for a presentation to begin. One of the students from the new crop of graduate rookies walked into the room. Terry nudged me and asked, “Has this guy told you how smart he is yet?” I hadn’t seen the new student before, but I quickly learned what Terry meant. A few days later, I overheard that student boasting to a secretary about all the research papers he had published as an undergraduate. Considering that the secretary’s boss was one of the best-known scientists in the field of organic chemistry, she probably wasn’t too impressed.

In my various careers as a research scientist, software engineer, and consultant, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many highly intelligent and successful people. It’s easy to tell if someone is bright in just a brief conversation; that person doesn’t need to wear a sign announcing it to the world. Some individuals feel the need to broadcast their talents and achievements to everyone they meet. I’ve been guilty of this myself at times; it’s embarrassing in retrospect, and it’s a behavior I’ve tried to correct over the years.

You’ll see this behavior with certain celebrities, some of whom really are terrifically accomplished and others whose opinions of their own talent are greatly exaggerated. I have more respect for a truly great performer who takes a more modest approach and lets her body of work speak for itself. The blowhards and braggarts who blast their own horns in your face don’t impress me much. I know people who describe themselves as experts in a particular area. Even if it’s true, it can sound a little snooty. I’m always careful not to do that. If other people want to think I’m an expert in some field, that’s their call, but I never use the term myself. (But if you need to identify any World War II aircraft, I might be able to help.)

If you want to meet some really smart people, hang around the scientific laboratories of a major university. My graduate thesis advisor was brilliant, but he was so soft-spoken and shy that you might never realize it from a casual conversation. You definitely wanted to listen when he spoke, though. Another professor I worked for was the same way. I remember standing at the blackboard while he explained something to me and thinking, “Not only are we not in the same ballpark intellectually, we aren’t even playing the same game.” This highly respected professor had awe-inspiring mental horsepower, but on the surface he just seemed like any other sweet and kindly middle-aged man, the exact opposite of arrogant.

One of the most brilliant people I knew when I worked in a corporate research laboratory, Brian (an anagram for “brain,” as it happens), didn’t look too impressive. He had shaggy hair and a beard, and he usually wore T-shirts and jeans (my own favorite outfit as well). He shambled his heavyset body down the hall, totally unpretentious. But just talk to him! His ideas and the clarity of his thinking were amazing. His PhD in chemistry from Cal Tech was obviously no fluke. Contrast that with some scientists I knew who wore white shirts and neckties so they could look more serious (or managerial), who made sure everyone knew where they’d gone to college, and who made no secret of their achievements, abilities, and ambitions. I’d rather talk to Brian. He was more interesting and didn’t attempt to impress the people around him. He didn’t have to; the work he did was impressive enough.

People who go out of their way to brag about their capabilities and achievements sometimes turn out to be empty shells. The young boxer talks tough, then goes down in the first round. The experienced manager touts his many successful projects, but then you discover that he couldn’t manage his way out of a wet paper bag. You know the type. You sometimes wonder if such people reached the positions they’re in simply by bluffing enough people along the way. When I was a manager, I occasionally got fooled when I hired people who talked a good game but couldn’t walk the talk. I’d rather see evidence of their achievements than hear them expound about how wonderful they are. I was surprise how many job candidates seemed to resent being asked for examples of their work rather than just stories about their greatness.

People with exceptional intelligence or ability in a certain area can communicate that to the world through the work they perform and their positive influence on those around them. A little self-promotion is fair, and you do need to market your own skills and experience if you want to get ahead in the world. Arrogance and flagrant self-aggrandizement just turn people off, though.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Interpersonal Pearl: Get to know people who seem unusual before judging them.

During my first year of graduate school at the University of Illinois many years ago, I lived in a graduate dormitory. Large universities attract students from all over the world, particularly for graduate studies, so the population in my dorm was highly diverse. There was one woman my friends and I saw regularly in the cafeteria, always eating by herself. She appeared older than most of the other students and was rather exotic looking. She dressed in a somewhat unusual fashion and always wore heavy, colorful makeup, especially around her eyes.

One of my fellow students found this woman’s appearance peculiar and off-putting. “I think maybe she’s a prostitute or something,” he said one day, based on the colorful makeup she was wearing. His judgment came across to me as both offensive and unlikely. How did this idiot come to that conclusion? And why would a prostitute be eating in a college cafeteria? I decided to learn more about this woman.

One morning at breakfast, I walked over to this woman’s table and asked if I could join her. She agreed, and as we chatted, she mentioned that she was a graduate student from Iran. She hadn’t been in the United States for very long and didn’t have any friends at the university, which is why she always ate alone. She was a perfectly pleasant and friendly woman. We became acquainted over several meals together. We did not become close friends, but I was happy to meet her and learn something about her background and experiences.

Getting to know this woman from a distant land taught me an important lesson: don’t jump to conclusions about someone who looks a little out of place. None of my fellow students who gossiped about the stranger among us showed any interest in getting to know her. I’m glad I took the time to talk with someone who might not have had a friendly conversation for a while. I could put the rumors to rest amongst my colleagues, replacing speculation and gossip with fact.

Everyone has a story to tell. It’s better to hear that story than to speculate, judge, or dismiss someone based on faulty assumptions.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Personal Pearl: Take advantage of learning opportunities wherever you find them.

I am by nature a curious person. I enjoyed school, I enjoyed college, and I enjoy learning new things even today. I read more nonfiction than fiction, including biographies, science, military history, and numerous other topics. I have great respect for people who actively pursue knowledge. On the other hand, people who don’t seem very interested in learning new things puzzle me. It’s a big, complex universe with unlimited opportunities to acquire information, whether for practical purposes, for intellectual stimulation, or just for the fun of it.

You can learn a huge amount by looking over the shoulders of other people who are doing something interesting. My friend Norm is one of these highly inquisitive people who just soaks up new knowledge. One day Norm and I and our wives took a train from Portland to Astoria, Oregon. Norm spent much of the ride up at the front of the train, asking the engineer about his job and how the train works. Norm is genuinely interested in what other people are doing, and most people he meets are happy to share their knowledge. It’s both unusual and flattering when someone asks about your special interests or abilities.

Norm is a great teacher himself and is generous about sharing his own knowledge. Among his many accomplishments, he is a master woodworker. A few years ago we jointly refinished my teak dining room table, which was badly scratched and stained after years of use with little care, thanks to my ignorance of wood. Norm made it both fun and educational for me as we rejuvenated my well-worn table step by step. When we were done, it literally looked better than the day I bought it new. I never would have undertaken such a project on my own, so it was great to learn from an expert. We've worked on several other wood projects since then. Norm lets me do whatever I feel I can handle then steps in himself while I watch—and learn—as he performs the trickier steps.

When you’re in a situation where learning opportunities abound, take advantage of them. I went to graduate school in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At that time, Illinois had the largest chemistry grad school in the country, with more than 300 students performing all kinds of experiments. I might be walking down the hall in my building and see a fellow student working with a laboratory setup I’d never seen before. I’d stick my head in the door and ask what kind of experiment he was doing. This way I got to see in practice many kinds of chemical reactions that I otherwise would have only read about in a textbook.

On the flip side, my own research involved some unconventional types of equipment for organic chemistry. When I did an experiment, I had vacuum pumps running, noisy hydraulic systems in operation, an oscilloscope, and a big computer terminal in the lab. Only rarely would a passer-by step into my lab and ask, “What the heck kind of organic chemistry is this?” I was always happy to explain to them what I was doing. The mystery to me was why so few of my fellow students were curious about what was going on around them. Certainly, graduate school is exhausting and takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s easy to look over someone else’s shoulder for a minute or two to learn something new.

There have been times when I failed to take advantage of a learning opportunity, and I still kick myself for it. I’ve played guitar for many decades, mostly rock ’n’ roll. (My philosophy is that what I lack in ability, I can make up for in volume and distortion.) I’ve discovered that the only times I really get better at playing are when I take lessons, play in a band, or really concentrate on learning specific new songs or techniques on my own.

I last played with a group more than 13 years ago. It was just a basement band that got together for fun and to learn. Their lead guitarist was the best I’d ever played with. Steve knew thousands of songs and a wide variety of musical styles, and he had outstanding technique. I never heard him make a mistake. I could have learned a lot from Steve had I picked his brain more, asked him to show me how he played certain phrases or chords, and invited his critiques of my own playing. Steve was a quiet guy who didn’t spontaneously offer suggestions for improvement, although he always freely shared his knowledge when I did ask. I regret that I didn’t more fully exploit this great opportunity to learn more and enhance my own guitar skills.

If you like to learn new things, don’t be shy about asking other people to share their knowledge and skills with you. Enlist a skilled friend to help you with a project around the house. Let the people with whom you work and play know that you’re receptive to their input and eager to benefit from their experience. You probably have some tricks to teach them, too.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Professional Pearl: Sometimes taking a sensible risk can open up new worlds of possibility and success. (Part 2)

There are times when taking a risk pays huge dividends. About 18 years ago, I decided to create a training class on how to develop and manage the requirements for a software development project, a domain I had been interested in for some time. Developing a training class is a lot of work. It was entirely possible that I would teach this class just once at a conference, for a mere few hundred dollars. This wouldn’t provide much return on the investment of time I made in developing the class.

To my surprise, I had a hit on my hands. Since then, I have taught that two-day class 183 times and have delivered more than 100 related classes and shorter presentations on the same subject. I’ve written four bestselling books and numerous articles about topics in that field. I created eLearning versions of my training courses, and I also licensed the courseware to other companies so they could teach it themselves. So that risk paid off phenomenally well. On the other hand, I also wrote another software book that I almost literally cannot give away. The annual book royalties just barely pay for the cost of keeping the accompanying website alive. And yet it’s a fine book, with a lot of good, practical information in it. Not every risk you take will turn out the way you hope.

My friend Alice took a risk. She had been baking gluten-free nutrition bars for her own enjoyment and sharing them with her friends, who really liked them (I love them!). With their encouragement, she decided to launch a business. Alice’s dream was to be able to give up her day job and make a living pursuing her passion of making tasty, nutritious, and healthy gluten-free products. She did all the right things and had a fair amount of success, but the business didn’t take off the way she hoped. Eventually, she was forced to shut the business down, as was my friend Eric who started a great wine store that just didn't make enough money to survive past five years.

It’s discouraging when you throw yourself into a new endeavor, be it making food, selling wine, or making music, and the world doesn’t take sufficient notice. I admire people like Alice and Eric for taking the risks and making the investment. Even if the business is not a hit, it's an adventure. Just think of all Alice has learned that she can apply to her next venture.

The next time you are facing an opportunity to do something different or take a leap into the unknown, don’t be too scared. It’s certainly more comforting if you have some kind of a safety net, like a stable day job, a pension from a previous job, or a multimillion-dollar inheritance. Even if you’re on your own, though, you might find that taking a considered risk to change the direction of your life pays big dividends in lots of ways.

(Read the first part of this two-part article)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Professional Pearl: Sometimes taking a sensible risk can open up new worlds of possibility and success. (Part 1)

I spent the first fifteen years of my professional career in the research laboratories at Kodak in Rochester, New York. I started out as a research chemist but soon migrated into the software development field. After working for so long in the same building, I wanted to move to another area of the company and try something different, so I applied for a job in one of Kodak’s product development areas at another plant in Rochester.

One afternoon, I drove to that other facility and interviewed for the position. I knew I was well qualified and had a good chance of being offered the job. As I walked back to my car, though, I asked myself, “What in the world are you doing? You have a perfectly fine job already in the research labs, you have a lot of latitude to do what you want, and you are highly regarded. Why would you leave all that?” But then another voice intruded on my internal conversation. “Oh, Karl, take a risk,” it said. I figured I could always return to my old department or find a similar position if the new job didn’t work out, so what the heck, give it a shot.

I did accept the offer to join the new organization, and I worked there for two and a half years. It wasn’t all sweetness and light, but overall it was a valuable experience. I met a lot of smart, talented people. I was able to apply what I already knew about improving software development processes in organizations, and I also learned a great deal more. Working closer to the product development side of the business was a valuable lesson in pragmatism and a reality check on my thoughts about the software development process. So it worked out well for me, and ultimately I was glad I took the risk.

Some people are adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers, always hunting the next challenge. Most people are more risk averse. Recently a woman who works at the library where I volunteer told me, “I’m not good with change.” We all have our comfort zones. It can be difficult to stretch out a bit, to try something new, to leave the safe surroundings of your present situation voluntarily and step into the unknown. You never know how it’s going to work out. What if you hate the new position? What if you can’t go back and you’re trapped there? What if you jump ship for a new company, only to lose your job because you’re the least senior person when downsizing hits? You just don’t know how things are going to turn out, so it’s understandable that many people are reluctant to make a change. Inertia is powerful.

Sometimes, though, taking a sensible, thoughtfully considered risk works out very well. During my last few years at Kodak, I had begun doing a little consulting and training at other companies. I enjoyed this work and was pleased that my experience and knowledge were broadly applicable in the software community. At one point a highly experienced outside consultant asked me, “When are you going to leave Kodak and hang out a shingle as an independent consultant?” My first reaction was, “Are you nuts? I like to eat every day.” But as I thought about this possibility, it occurred to me that perhaps I could make a go of it. And if it didn’t work out, I could probably find another job somewhere.

So after careful consideration, I started my own software training and consulting company, Process Impact, and bid Kodak farewell. Fortunately, Process Impact flourished. I had the good fortune to be far more successful than I ever expected as a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author. So that was a risk well worth taking. However, I do have some colleagues whose independent consulting careers didn’t work out as well, for various reasons. The risks they took turned out to be mistakes, and they had to go back to real jobs in corporate America. Perhaps the lessons they learned from the experience will be valuable should they decide to give self-employment another try in the future.

(Read the second part of this two-part article)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Practical Pearl: Just keep your feet moving, and you’ll get where you’re headed.

One night when I was in college, I was waiting, with a horde of other people, to get into a popular (and free) midnight movie. When the doors opened, the crowd pressed forward but nobody seemed to be going anywhere. Then I remembered some advice my father once gave me. He said, "If you are in a crowd of people who are all heading toward the same destination, just keep your feet moving and eventually you will get there." He was absolutely correct. I kept shuffling my feet and worked my way through the crowd, instead of just waiting for the tide to carry me into the auditorium along with the mass of humanity.

This principle applies to other aspects of life besides navigating through crowds. Most progress is made incrementally, not by giant leaps. Whether you’re facing a daunting journey or an imposing project, you’ll eventually make progress if you just keep your feet moving. You’ll won’t get far, however, if you procrastinate and never start, repeatedly start and stop, frequently change directions, or charge headlong into barriers.

Process improvement is another area where it pays to keep your feet moving. I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with software organizations to help them improve the way they build their information systems and technology products. It’s hard to significantly change the culture and practices of an organization. You can’t just hand everyone a big procedures manual and say, “Starting Monday, this is how we do business around here.” Instead, the appropriate operating principle is: “Gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.”

If you’re the improvement leader, you need to choose the weak areas to focus on initially, get the effort underway, and keep it visible. Carve the time out of the team’s schedule to learn and implement new ways of working, monitor progress, and assess results. I’ve seen too many process improvement programs derail because some manager launched the activity with much fanfare but didn’t follow up. If the leader doesn’t keep a little gentle pressure on the team members, frequently reminding them of the goals and guiding them toward a better tomorrow, it’s not going to happen. Organizational change of any kind involves steering people toward new ways of working by setting objectives and taking baby steps, one after the other, toward the target. Continuous incremental movement usually will achieve better long-term results than intense flurries of activity that drop by the wayside after the initial energy dissipates.

How do you prefer to approach big projects? Some people like to focus on the greatest challenge, the hardest part, or the core part of the problem first. I prefer to start with smaller tasks or simpler parts of the problem that I can quickly handle. These early “wins” give me confidence and make me feel like I’m making progress right out of the gate, instead of feeling like I’m beating my head against the wall (which is how I often feel when I’m struggling with something more demanding). I’m a list-making kind of guy, so I also get the satisfaction of crossing a few tasks off the to-do list.

There’s another benefit to this approach. It gives me the opportunity to cogitate on the bigger challenges that lie ahead, to learn more about the problem and explore potential solutions before I dive in. I have time to run through different scenarios for the big problem in my mind, contemplating the issues and refining my approach instead of having to adapt my initial approach on the fly. This small-tasks-first strategy is more efficient for me than the alternatives of either tackling the hardest problem first or just working on tasks in some random sequence.

On the other hand, if you’re facing a potential showstopper, a make-or-break issue that could terminate the whole project, you should deal with it as early as possible. In such a case, any time you spend knocking off those small tasks could be wasted. Many projects also involve dependencies that require some tasks to be completed before others. All other things being equal, though, I’ll get my feet moving on the smaller activities first, confident that I’ll get where I’m heading in due course.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cautionary Pearl: Don’t let arrogance inhibit you from absorbing an important lesson.

When I was a young chemist beginning my career in the Kodak Research Laboratories, I once put myself in a dangerous situation and arrogantly dismissed the helpful advice of someone I should have listened to. Fortunately, no harm was done. On the plus side, I did take away the message that it’s worth listening to people with more experience, no matter how strongly you might believe that you already know it all.

My work as a photographic research scientist involved developing experimental films in my darkroom. The developer came in heavy, one-gallon glass jugs. Photographic developers are caustic solutions; they aren’t good for you. One day I had to transport two jugs of developer from one floor of the building to another. For safety purposes, we were supposed to use big padded bags with handles to carry such chemicals around. That day, I foolishly neglected to use those bags, electing to carry the jugs by the loops in their necks, one jug in each hand.

As I walked carefully in the stairwell, I encountered an older scientist named Dan. Dan paused and looked at me. He said, “You know, a man was very badly injured a few years ago doing what you’re doing.” I had heard about that accident. The man was carrying jugs of solution similar to mine in the stairwell when he slipped and fell. The bottles smashed, cutting him badly and splashing the caustic chemicals all over him and into his wounds. I blew off Dan’s observation with some wise-ass reply. “That doesn’t impress you?” he asked. “Nope,” I replied flippantly, and I continued on my mission.

What an idiot I was being! Of course, I was taking a stupid chance by violating the safety procedures in the first place. They’re established for good reasons. And then I was just a jerk for failing to respect Dan for pointing out my mistake in a gentle and thoughtful fashion. My only excuse is that I was young and foolish. It’s no surprise that those words are often used together.

After I reached my lab safely, I thought about what Dan had said. Of course, he was right. In retrospect, I appreciated him taking the time to call me on my actions. Dan’s question—“That doesn’t impress you?”—has sometimes come to mind over the years when I found myself tempted to neglect sensible advice I should be following. At times this recollection has saved my butt.

Dan, wherever you are, thank you for showing me the error of my ways in a gentle and constructive fashion. Although it was over thirty years ago, I remember that conversation, the expression on your face, and the tone of your voice as vividly as though it were yesterday. I appreciate your attempt to save me from my own stupid arrogance, and I apologize for not being more respectful toward you at the time. You were absolutely right, and I was completely wrong.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cautionary Pearl: Let go of the rock before you throw it in the water.

One of my earliest memories is from Loring Air Force Base in northern Maine. I was four or five years old. I was walking along the edge of a reservoir with my parents and my three-year-old brother. Bruce picked up a big rock and threw it in the reservoir. Unfortunately, he forgot to let go of the rock. Bruce plunged right into the reservoir along with the rock. My father quickly fished out a soaked and scared little boy, removed his wet clothes, and wrapped Bruce in Daddy's big jacket to keep him warm. Everyone was fine after the initial fright. This experience offered a simple but valuable lesson: let go of the rock before you throw it in the water.

It occurs to me that we have all sorts of rocks that drag us down in life. If we can throw some of those rocks away, doing our best to let go completely, we’ll be happier for it. One of my biggest rocks is guilt. I carry guilty feelings about words and actions from my past far longer than is sensible, but I haven’t figured out how to throw them away. If I could, I'm sure it would bring me more peace of mind.

What kind of rocks do you carry around with you? Patterns of interactions among family members are a common source of such rocks. Family dynamics can affect children for decades, but at some point it’s best to try to get over them (perhaps with the help of a therapist) and move on. Even in the absence of genuine verbal or physical abuse, the emotional and psychological behaviors of certain family members can impose a lasting burden on the others. Spoiled children can grow up to be self-centered adults who expect everyone in the world to treat them as being special. Children who receive less attention from parents than a sibling gets can have deeply ingrained self-esteem issues for decades. If you can find a way to drop these mental rocks that are impairing your happiness, you’ll be glad you did.

Destructive personal behaviors are another class of rocks that hold us back and, in extreme cases, can sink us to the bottom. Addictive behaviors of all kinds fit into this category: alcohol, drugs, gambling, dangerous adrenaline-driven activities, sex, and so forth. Eating disorders and other psychological conditions that lead us to harm ourselves, such as cutting or other deliberate infliction of injuries, carry a heavy price. Such behaviors are often symptoms of underlying causes that often can be addressed only through therapy or medication. Sometimes you just can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps—you need some help.

Hatred certainly takes a toll on our health and well-being. In this category I’m including intense racism and ethnic bigotry, homophobia, religious intolerance, and the like. Many people find that discarding the burden of practicing such hatred is liberating, allowing them to both tolerate and enjoy more of the people and life around them. Actively hating consumes a lot of emotional energy. Perhaps there’s a more constructive way to spend that energy if you can discard those burdensome rocks and get past your own biases.

The people you choose to associate with can constitute yet another type of rock that drags you down. Do you have friends who are more trouble than they are worth? Do they fail to give you the emotional support you need when you have a problem, yet expect you to be there for them? Are they takers instead of givers? Do they influence your thoughts, actions, or feelings in ways that don’t make you feel good about yourself? Maybe you don’t need friends like that.

I have a close friend who suffers from a traumatic brain injury. He has had to learn to ration his time and energy carefully because he has so few hours of effective functioning in each day. My friend has chosen not to continue associations with certain individuals who he refers to as “energy suckers.” These are people who take more than they give, who demand more from him than he can now provide without offering him enough in return. My friend has consciously chosen to drop some of those relationships because they weren’t making enough of a positive contribution to his life.

We all have rocks that we carry around. Think about what yours are. If you can share any stories about how you have learned to drop those rocks, I’d love to hear them. We’ll all be a little happier if we focus on moving forward and upward, even if that means releasing some of the ballast that holds us down.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Interpersonal Pearl: Say “thank you” before it’s too late.

Perhaps you have heard about—or even experienced—having someone close to you die before you have the opportunity to apologize for a past transgression or to heal an old wound in the relationship. This missed opportunity can lead to a lifetime of guilt, of wishing that you had found the time to put things right. The same applies when you miss the chance to thank people who have been influential in your life before they are no longer around to hear your appreciation. Since then, I’ve tried to keep this valuable lesson in mind.

Like many other students, I took a history of Western civilization class when I was a sophomore in college. I was not looking forward to this class. My previous history class had been American history during my junior year of high school. It was terrible. The teacher simply flipped through the pages of the book, paraphrasing the portions he had highlighted in advance. Consequently, I developed a real distaste for history. I went into the college Western civilization class with a bad attitude.

I was in for a wonderful surprise. The professor, John Seward, was terrific. Instead of simply relating dates and events, he made history come alive. He talked about the people, their interactions, their decisions, and how they influenced their world and the world we live in today. I loved the course, I did very well in it, and history became one of my lifelong interests. My mother had attended the same college, graduating just one year before I did. She had also had Mr. Seward for the same class and had enjoyed his teaching very much.

The other benefit I got from this class was that I learned something about how to write. We had to write one term paper, which I based on a suggestion that Mr. Seward had offered during an office consultation. When he returned the paper, it was completely covered with red editing markup. It looked like someone had hemorrhaged all over the pages. There also was a big red “A” on the top of the first page. I was perplexed. How could he have given me an A if he had made so many corrections? I asked Mr. Seward about this dichotomy after class. He replied, “Oh, your paper was very good. I just gave you a few suggestions about how to improve your writing.” I studied the revisions he made and learned from them.

Time passed. I graduated from college, headed off to graduate school, and received a PhD in organic chemistry. I had begun writing magazine articles when I was in graduate school, reviews and analyses of board wargames I was playing with a fellow student, as well as a few scientific papers about my chemistry research. Then I began my career as a research scientist, transitioning into software development after a few years. I started writing articles about computing and software development. After publishing several dozen articles, I wrote my first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, which was published in 1996.

As I reflected on my book, I tried to figure out how I had learned to write. I’d never taken a writing class in college and hadn’t learned anything formally about writing since English in my junior year of high school. I realized that a lot of my writing knowledge had come from studying the feedback from professors like John Seward and a few others who provided detailed comments on papers I had written. I was deeply grateful to Mr. Seward both for helping me learn how to become a writer and for inspiring a love of history in me.

Shortly after my first book appeared, I happened to be back in my home town visiting my parents. I wanted to share my enthusiasm about my new book and my appreciation for all he had done for me with Mr. Seward. I looked up his phone number in the book and dialed. An older woman answered the phone. “Is this the home of John Seward, who used to teach at Boise State?” I asked. She replied that it was. I asked if I might speak to him. She paused a moment, and then told me that John had died a few years earlier.

When I told Mrs. Seward who I was, I was absolutely astonished that she recognized my name. “Didn’t your mother also take a course from John?” she asked. Apparently, John had been sufficiently struck by the performance of my mother and myself in his classes that he’d mentioned us to his wife, who remembered us twenty-five years later. I explained to her why was calling and expressed my regret that I had not thought to thank him earlier for the influence he had had on my life. I still feel bad that I missed that opportunity and wish that I could have passed along my gratitude for him to hear and enjoy. This might have helped him reap the prime reward of being a teacher, knowing that you have helped shape the lives of students in a constructive and lasting fashion.

I remembered this lesson-of-missed-opportunity some years later. My mother had just moved into a retirement home in Boise. One of her fellow residents happened to be my high school mathematics teacher, Helen, then 94 years old. Helen was a terrific math teacher. She had been a great help to me as I switched from the basic math track to an accelerated track, generously tutoring me after school one semester in trigonometry, which I had missed in the classroom when I switched tracks. Nearly forty years after the fact, I did finally have a chance to thank her for taking a special interest in my math education.

Do you have teachers, relatives, coaches, or mentors who helped shape your life and might not even know it? If so, find an opportunity to tell them thank you. People will not live forever, so you have to pass along your appreciation in a timely way. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that other people value the part you played in helping them succeed. Do it today. They might not be here tomorrow to hear your thanks.