Measure the Right Things (#3 of 6 – Lessons That Impact Life)

This is third in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to just being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

Report card time for any student is stressful. I was inquisitive and curious and worked to learn and apply my skills, even in kindergarten and especially in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. This meant in most cases I was headed for the honor roll, but stuck in a perfectionist mindset anything other than all A’s was disheartening and felt like failure.

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Yes, I acknowledge now as a “recovering perfectionist” that being in a perfectionist mindset was ridiculous. I’m more forgiving of myself and realize that mistakes are opportunities, not just a penalty.

In my last post, I shared a lesson from my grandfather to figure out what really matters in life. Do the grades in my classes really matter? They influenced where I could apply to and attend college and grad school, but otherwise, these grades were a measure of a moment in time of how I could use the information. It didn’t take into account how it was applied outside the contexts of a classroom, how it could be meaningful, or if I would even retain it past the point of measurement.

But if something on a report card did matter to my grandfather, it was conduct and effort. Pops valued how we presented ourselves not just at home but in public. He found it important that we try our best no matter what we did. Pops didn’t mind a lower subject grade coming home if you truly did everything in your power to learn. The learning process, interest, and focus mattered. If you brought home an A in conduct and an A in effort, a reward of $20 was yours to collect.

This attitude was helpful to me when I got to college at WPI and was surrounded by incredibly brilliant people who also worked hard. There were certainly some curve busters in the classes I took (and I definitely did NOT fill that role!). The hard earned B (differential equations) or rare C (intro to electrical engineering…for majors) were sometimes accomplishments with greater pride than the A’s that came more easily.  

I realized in those moments of pride that I understood what Pops wanted us to learn by his reward system. Maybe it wasn’t exactly more about the journey than the destination, but how you go about the process, how you are as a person, and how you respect other people. No one wants to be around a person who is centered on how funny they are (especially when they aren’t!) instead of the task at hand. Anyone who has ever worked on a team or group project knows the pain of that one partner who doesn’t ever pull their weight.

He was, without telling us, building our character. Pops was encouraging, by rewarding conduct and effort, traits that would help us in the long run. That report card with “A” plastered all over it in fifth grade is great, but even better is the ability to contribute to a meaningful cause.

Right now I am reading the book Grit by Angela Duckworth. The timing as I write this post couldn’t be any more serendipitous. While I still have room for improvement on the grittiness scale, I know the expectations on conduct and effort helped develop a work ethic and ability to grind when the going gets tough. Following through with commitments, either personally or to others, matters. It is sadly a point of differentiation in a world of instant gratification.

Over the past few years at my current company, I’ve said “yes” to assignments that were new experiences, including one with ambiguous pathways for how to achieve success. On this project, the important thing was to first establish what the expectations were with my leaders. Once that was understood, I had to rally my team toward goals that meant something to each team member. We made these declarations together in the same room, and each group’s contribution to the list of goals was posted, shared, and agreed to by everyone.

Each team member committed to all of the goals, not just the ones they contributed. This built a mutual respect and understanding for what each member of the team needed to be successful. Doing a list of joint goals allowed trust and respect to be earned by everyone. If something didn’t go perfectly, we were more willing to go with the flow and work towards resolution than live with frustration. Mutual trust and respect being already established helped. This is the conduct and effort from the report card in action in a real work situation. When we measured goals that mattered to everyone, the whole team gelled and committed. The result was a level of success that went beyond any expectation.

My grandfather was a savvy guy. He knew the motivations that would result in helping his grandchildren become the best people they could be in school or in society, on top of what my parents were already doing. Pops recognized that if you measured (and rewarded) the right things, you could get the desired results. The lesson was clear to us that acing a test was only part of the equation, we had to be model citizens and represent the family well. And to do that, conduct and effort were measured and rewarded.

Have you noticed when you alter what or how you measure, that outcomes change? Did you learned any lessons from measuring the wrong thing? How do you know you are measuring the right things in your own life?

The remaining three posts will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

Focus On What Matters (#2 of 6 – Lessons That Impact Life)

This is second in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to just being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

In middle school and high school, I spent countless hours playing basketball with my siblings and the neighborhood kids. There was seemingly no significant improvement over the years. But for me, it was fun anyway: an excuse to be social, play, and exercise. In seventh grade, my skills compared to the other girls were obviously lacking. So to help compensate, I worked hard and hustled every practice. In high school, I was last on the bench, but at least on a team with girls who were fun to play with and cheer on from that front row in the bleachers. I lived for practice; games were not as fun for me.

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Though effort was frequently rewarded, my grandfather saw very early on that my siblings and I were not going to have even a chance at competing for lucrative college scholarships. Forget playing at a professional level. In a way only a grandparent can say without bruising a teenager’s ego, Pops stopped by the driveway game one day to remind us that there were other ways to spend our time than playing basketball. If we weren’t going to make it to the pros, shouldn’t we concentrate our efforts on other things?

This moment, though I can’t exactly place it at a certain age or specific date, has stayed with me. Why do we spend so much time on what isn’t going to matter, and not enough on what does matter?

Figuring out what matters takes time and mistakes. We are not born so smart to know everything that matters instinctively. Priorities can change over time. What mattered to me at 10 and at 20 is inconsistent with what matters to me most now. Certainly, the same is largely true for you. We have to learn through getting to know ourselves better, and we have to learn from those around us who are also on the journey or even confident in knowing what matters to them.

Setting goals is another area where I often confront if something matters, and especially consider the why of it mattering. Is it important to me, or to someone else? Will the goal get me to where I want to be? A goal without a meaningful reason behind it is a recipe for failure. It must matter to me. And, it may even have to matter to the world around me depending on the size of the the problem I am working to solve. What does it matter if I am never a “40 Under 40” recipient? It is wonderful for those who are winners, but that award doesn’t change my mission and what I want to accomplish in this life.

Problems by their very nature are not easy. When I become frustrated, whether by lack of weight loss or missing communication by others, I am often reminded by others of the Serenity Prayer, which contains an ever insightful request “to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Usually after I have settled down from whatever rattled me to react and remembering the Serenity Prayer, I think of that driveway moment with Pops, wondering about what does and doesn’t matter.

Intense soul searching often helps me reflect and focus on what matters. I can journal during morning coffee or take a long walk on a weekend morning. Sometimes I will talk it out with my husband or a friend. Ultimately, you need to make a decision or nothing gets done. Take reflective time and opportunities to have those deep conversations, internally and with others, to narrow down what you should focus on. Not everything can be a priority all the time. 

Lately, I’ve had to do some prioritizing of my time. It means I need to say “no” to more, and focus on only what is important. I was honored to be asked to fill some prestigious and inventive roles for the Alpha Gamma Delta Volunteer Service Team, including opportunities to work directly for some of my mentors and role models in the organization. I ultimately put myself forward for the Philanthropy Committee so I could focus my time on making a difference on a team guiding the organization’s fight against hunger. That was what mattered to me – to impact the work thousands of women will do to help even more people affected by hunger.

Who do you want to be in life? Where do you want to go? Understanding the journey you want to have in life has incredibly impact in determining what you should to do head toward the destination. Whichever direction you choose at the fork in the road, keep reminding yourself to focus on what matters.

The remaining four posts will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

Six Lessons That Impact My Life – in Honor of Father’s Day

My grandfather always had a major influence on my life. His lessons still stay with me today, more than 10 years after his death.  On Father’s Day, I started a six part series to memorialize the lessons to share with you. The lessons are timeless and important to any stage. Click the links below to share in the value he added for both career and life.

  1. The Value of Reading
  2. Focus on What Matters
  3. Measure the Right Things
  4. Never Stop Exploring and Learning
  5. Stand Up for Yourself
  6. Working Hard (Plus a Lesson from My Dad)

The Emotional Reason Why Reading Has Added Value (#1 of 6 – Lessons That Impact My Life)

This is first in a series of six posts about lessons I learned from my grandfather that apply to career growth and development, in addition to being generally good advice for life. This is in his memory and in honor of Father’s Day.

Most times when I walked into my grandfather’ house, next door to where I grew up, he was reading. The entertainment value of reading was important to my grandfather, who was retired for many years and lived on his own. My grandmother died the year before I was born, so he had spent many years without her. Reading filled the time, the loneliness, and gave ideas for discussion when visitors stopped by.

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My grandfather’s favorite book was Jack London’s Call of the Wild. At one point, he had bulk-bought copies so that he could hand out the book to people who hadn’t read it before. It seemed to be his mission to expose the world to this story. The summer I was heading into middle school, Pops decided that the time had come for me to read Call of the Wild.

At twelve years old, I loved reading, so it didn’t take too much prodding to have me do this. Nancy Drew had been my series of choice for years. The downside of my girl-detective obsession was a limited vocabulary (as was suggested to my parents by teachers), so to read Call of the Wild I needed to carry around a dictionary with me. Wasn’t I the coolest kid at camp, carrying around not just a book while everyone was on the playground, but a book accompanied by a dictionary.

While I often have to refer to Google to remind myself of the plot of Call of the Wild, (it clearly did not become one of my favorite books!) I do remember how accomplished I felt when I finally finished. I was more confident in what I could read, feeling like not book was truly out of reach. Referencing the dictionary slowed me down when I couldn’t figure out the “context clues,” but I was proud of the effort it took to finish and actually know what was going on. Looking back, I also realized that:

  • I was learning how to overcome small obstacles with my own initiative. In order to make Pops proud and complete the task, I had to assess options to get through the book. Carrying the dictionary around, so be it.
  • My capabilities would extend as far as I would let them. I could have struggled and given up, or I could resolve to find solutions and succeed.
  • My goals are my goals alone, for no one else to judge. While it was Pops’ idea to read the book, it was my decision to do it. I was teased for carrying a dictionary, but I’d bet I accomplished a few more personally meaningful things than other campers.

My grandfather had to drop out of school in the 8th grade, during the Depression, to help his family. Though he never attended high school, he understood the value of educating yourself both formally – he encouraged all three of his sons to go to college, and they graduated – and informally, by choosing your own adventure. He was a role model by both showing and telling the importance of reading outside of school assignments. It wasn’t just for show, and it set the stage for how important continuous improvement and constant learning can improve our lives and our careers.

While there were some strange times when he might have been reading the obituaries from an out of town newspaper (Dad would often bring him newspapers from other cities on his travels for work), it was clearly evident that reading could be both for learning and enjoyment.

One book Pops read in his later years was Devil in the White City, a novel-like historical non-fiction by Erik Larson, about the times leading up to and during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. When Pops suggested I read it, I was in college. My time was overwhelmed with a challenging engineering curriculum and all of my extracurricular activities, so it went unread for several years. In 2007, my grandfather died from an unexpected illness shortly before fall break of senior year. Over that following Thanksgiving, feeling devastated by his absence, I finally tore through Devil in the White City. Of course, Pops was right that I would love it.

Books are a powerful connector of people. Not only can they provide information, but also deep emotional associations. When you can share that raw feeling with another person, it opens you up not only emotionally, but intellectually and to the world beyond your own bubble. Books aren’t just an escape from our day-to-day; they are bigger than that. Reading serves as a bridge in relationships and our perceptions.

The value of reading helps to break up the monotony of business emails and technical reports that can drain us mentally. As communication has transformed to a greater digital focus and definitely more visual, reading can help keep the brain stimulated and primed to think differently. Imagine how much that can help with improving problem solving. What do you see in the value of reading? Did you learn to love any activities from a favorite family member?

The other five stories will be published in coming days. Please check back soon!

11 Techniques to Spark More Ideas in Your Life

As I’ve been on this quest of creativity, I’ve been focused on developing more ideas that I can execute on. However, if you ever talk to my husband, he might tell you that the last thing I need more of is ideas. Though I am a believer of quality over quantity, some quantity of ideas can beget even more ideas. Why shut off the faucet if the water is desired and flowing? A lot of quality ideas can cascade down into a few great concepts worth pursuing. We should strive to come up with as many ideas as is possible if we desire to create anything and have success.

But what to do with these ideas?

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All you need is a little ambition and courage to put your ideas out into the world. I’m still experimenting with this, and am excited about the big splash one certain idea made in my world with self publishing a book later this year. Writing is certainly one outlet, and so is the traditional creative endeavor of art. With the rise of innovation, creativity is entering and transforming not only the workplace, but how people live, use products, transport themselves, and interact with humans, animals, and robots alike.

If you’re inspired to make change in the world around you but aren’t quite sure where to begin, here are some thoughts about coming up with more ideas:

  1. Reading. Take risks with genres you wouldn’t normally pursue, try new authors, and read about things you may have never heard of before. Diversifying your selections allows exposure to new concepts, beliefs, and understandings. Most of my reading revolves around non-fiction, like leadership, management, and personal improvement. But mixing in fiction gives me an opportunity to treat my brain to a break and think about life from someone else’s imagination.
  2. Listening to lyric-free music. As fun as lyrics make songs fun to sing along to, I listen to lyric-free music at work. I find I can be more focused and take the energy of the music and apply it the energy I need to work with and get things done. Some examples I enjoy are movie scores (anything by John Williams is a winner for me), college fight songs, and some of my favorite composers like Tchaikovsky.
  3. Walk or run outside. Either of these activities allow you to get away from the daily grind. Being physical in the fresh air, sunshine, and breeze is freeing and mind opening for me. It is also time away from distraction. On early morning workouts, I often find peace and quiet on the track to think through challenges I need to work through or what excitement is coming in my day.
  4. Meditate. Despite haphazard implementation into my own life, I see multi-day impacts from just one three or five minute session. I am able to think both more broadly and with greater clarity. It gives the ability to assess new and different concepts I couldn’t before. When I am frustrated in both personal and professional settings, I find that the meditation practice, even intermittently, helps me step back and re-frame the situation.
  5. Share the ideas you do have. Expressing ideas to receptive listeners (and especially the devil’s advocates in our lives) forces us to think through details, challenges, and how we might execute. Sharing with someone who asks thoughtful questions can put your idea on a new axis of orientation and spin it in a new direction.
  6. Writing in a journal. Writing down thoughts on a regular basis can free up your mind for a task, have therapeutic benefits, and preserve your ideas for future reference. I like to spend fifteen to twenty minutes a day, sometimes less and sometimes more, reflecting on the events immediately past or upcoming. This writing lets me connect with my feelings and gives an outlet to express and explore. It forces me to come to terms with where I really stand, good and not so good, and practice self-awareness.
  7. Be bored. Creating the optimal time and space to think without anything else going on around you can be tough to carve out. Put your phone away. Close the laptop. Even hide the headphones in the drawer. Being bored lets the brain have a rest from constant stimulation. However, I find that my brain focuses on my thoughts in a relaxing and non urgent manner, unlike meditation, where thoughts pass through. Growing up, being bored forced my imagination and creative side to activate. We made up stories and new sports – boredom forced us to be adventurous in a variety of ways. This can be true as adults, too!
  8. Have interesting conversations. Dig deep, be curious, ask questions. Talk to strangers (carefully). Examine your values with others. Play the contrarian instead of agreeing. Explore the “why” all around you. Get rid of small talk, and truly get to know about someone’s history and purpose and place in this world. Take the topic of weather, a typical point in small talk. Addressing snow or sun might lead to discussing hobbies that are weather based, then onto the entry into those sports, and what benefits someone gets from a lifetime of skiing or hiking.
  9. Try new experiences. How do you learn and adjust to changes? Whether it is trying Thai food for the first time or actually going to explore Thailand, find something in your budget that takes you out of your comfort zone. You may see (or taste) things very differently going forward.
  10. Don’t let anything get in your way. We can be our own worst enemies with ideas. They don’t need to be realistic yet when they are just ideas. Start with no judgment, expectation, or requirement for you ideas. Just let them “be” to begin, and you can take next steps, next!
  11. Practice, practice, practice. I am a horrible free throw shooter, not that I’m a great basketball player anyhow. I loved the game in high school, though, and I experienced the joy in the desire to get better. Practice, when consistent and done whole heartedly, can be a path toward excellence. Ideation takes practice too – pretty soon you’ll be practicing the execution of ideas.

 

One of my personal goals in the coming months is to experiment more with execution, to go beyond the idea phase. Most, if not all, ideas are not perfect on their first iteration, or in theory only. By getting to “ship stage,” execution allows the idea to come to life, to figure out what adjustments are needed to meet the desired goal, and figure out if it will fail or has a chance at successful impact over time. I hope to be a catalyst for positive change in the worlds around me, whether work or home or socially or with organizations I volunteer for. This experimentation goal will take some courage to put myself out there. It might be the same for you.

Coming up with new ideas can be invigorating if you welcome the opportunity to think and try the eleven techniques listed. New ideas excite my passion for life. Ideas ignite the possibility that anything can be possible if I believe it to be so.

What methods do you find best for coming up with ideas? Are you pursuing execution of any of your ideas? Are there additional methods you would add to the list?