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?

 

Ideas and Creativity with Execution

Have you ever read a book that hit you right in the moment, that answered every question or wonder you were imagining? For me, that was “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert, who also wrote “Eat, Pray, Love.” I never read the latter book, but the former is everything I could have been hoping for as I have been in a mindset considering creativity over the past several weeks. The day after I wrote the post about the importance of giving yourself permission, I read a chapter in the book about giving yourself permission. It was like the world was coming together for me in support of creative endeavors!

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Creativity involves bringing original ideas to life. I don’t consider myself an artist, with paint or clay or any special materials or medium, but a creator who translates my ideas into words on a page (or a screen). If you’re a reader, you’ll understand that there is artistry to the written word (though I am not trying to claim artistry here!). Artistry and creativity do take many forms. My coloring skills would leave something to be desired! What do you create with?

When you think of creativity in its form of turning ideas into reality, the wider doors open to what it means to be creative. If you think about the concept of innovation, which is a highly creative activity, it isn’t about creating something completely new, but rather changing how something is used, manufactured, sold, transported – basically, innovation is a variation on a theme. A new look at something “old”. With all that technology has brought us, from the telegraph to the telephone to the cell phone to the smart phone, someone was creative enough to imagine something differently and find the ways to execute on it.

That might be the key to creativity – that we have to take action on our ideas. Thinking and journaling and talking mean nothing without follow through and implementation or experimentation. How can you consider yourself a creative person if you haven’t put pen to paper or molded something physically? Starting, no matter how good or bad the idea seems, is an important part of the process. Admittedly, I haven’t taken a lot of action yet on my ideas. My hope is to solve problems that impact business performance and how people live their lives. What can be done differently? Or better? The enemy of creativity in action is hearing “this is how it has always been done.” To me, this is a rallying cry that we can find a better way, and it spawns moments deep in thought of how to try to take things to the next level.

If you have ever read anything by James Altucher, you’ll know that he is a proponent of coming up with 10 ideas each day to turn yourself into an “idea machine”, the thought being that ideas beget ideas, and that as coming up with 10 becomes more routine, you’ll have more to draw from to execute on.

This is where I find the power of practice comes in with creativity. You can’t be an expert from the start. Even the masters, as talented as they are and were, need to refine their skill and, I think this is most important, experiment with style, direction, intent, and approach. The experimentation can be purely organic, or can be inspired – by other people, others works, something completely different, nature, and beyond. Opening yourself up to opportunity and seeing the world, or even just your neighborhood, in new lights can encourage you to think in different ways and approach your creativity and execution differently.

Here are a few of the easy ways I make attempts to open up my world. On many occasions I am finding my inspiration for ideas. Just yesterday, during a morning workout around the neighborhood, I was inspired about a whole bunch of ideas to write about that you’ll see in coming weeks.

  1. Reading opens many doors for me to ideas and creation. I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction, but for every two to three non fiction books I read, I do read a fiction book to reset my mind and escape into another world.
  2. Writing everything down, and going back to it. Sometimes it is just ideas, and sometimes a full post that doesn’t feel right, and sometimes it is from journaling.
  3. Walking instead of driving, or, riding in the passenger seat. This allows a new perspective. When we drive, it all goes by so quickly, even with lowered speed limits in many towns.
  4. Listening to podcasts. Getting a new perspective or even a twist on my current perspective can make me think of something new I want to try.
  5. Having meaningful conversations that include a lot of questions. “What do you think about…”, “how do you feel…”,  “what if…”, “just playing devil’s advocate, but…” are some examples I use and I hear friends use that end up sparking the ideas and new approaches

But when I get out into the world, and have one idea, usually another spawns from it. And another. And yet another! It goes back to what I mentioned above on practice. What happens when you are overwhelmed in the best way by a million ideas? This is a great problem to have! How do you capture the ideas when they are flowing so quickly? It is a rush to write things down.

  1. Always carry a notebook, or use a notebook app on the phone (I am forever carrying a notebook with me)
  2. Send yourself an email (this is especially easy when I am walking or running)
  3. Voice recordings on phone, or leave yourself a voicemail
  4. Call, email, or message someone about it to discuss further

In what other ways do you capture your ideas?

The biggest trouble I have with my own ideas is the struggle choosing which ideas I should pursue. I end up doing nothing, instead of something. My almost-creative ideas live (or die) in a journal moleskine notebook, or maybe a spiral bound from CVS. I should do more so that I can fail, or even be overwhelmingly successful beyond all of my expectations. Is it human to be able to fear our success, more than our failures? That may be a discussion topic for another time!

How do you come up with your ideas? Has practicing any particular technique over time helped you get better? What do you so that you get started on your ideas?