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 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.