Every Day is Groundhog Day

It’s fascinating to think that this very moment is the culmination of everything you’ve ever learned to date—skills, habits, mannerisms, education, and even which things are truly important to you. On its own, each bit of learning seems so insignificant. But compiled over time, they represent an enormously important part of who we are.

Amusingly, I think I first started to realize this after watching the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie, Phil (played by Bill Murray) finds himself in a situation where he wakes up every morning to find that he’s living the exact same day as yesterday. It’s always Groundhog Day. The key, though, is that he retains his memory from day to day—and after some initial despair (and humor, of course), he realizes that he can use this to his advantage. He learns more about the girl he loves. He learns when to save people from ill-fated accidents. He learns to play the piano.

It is this last that really got me thinking: aren’t our lives, without the repetition of days, still essentially the same story? We float from one day to the next, often reacting to the events around us, without stopping to think about the true sum of these events over time. We turn away from piano when we consider how difficult a song seems to play, without taking a moment to think about easy it would be to learn ten notes.

And then ten more notes.

Going one step further, we can look at this in the context of our most important dreams—dreams that often seem so unattainable. But if we can break down the steps to those dreams, to the smallest of steps, we can create our own Groundhog Day experience.

Some people ask me why I’m so driven to move myself forward—mostly because it often seems to my detriment. Is it really helpful to study web design in the depths of the night, when sleep tries to force my hand? Is it mentally damaging to try to hold on to so many goals at once? I am not sure I know the answers to these questions, but I do know one thing: I don’t want to look back on my Groundhog Day and say that I’m no better off than when I started.  I don’t want to be the version of Phil that stares blankly at a piano on Day 74.

I hope that you don’t, either.

Corporate Key to Success #4: Cubicle Decoration

After arriving at your desk, still feeling the exhilaration of your first meeting, you suddenly realize that you have no idea how you’re supposed to decorate your cubicle.

Don’t worry—this happens to everyone.

Not surprisingly, your first moment of panic comes you realize that everyone will judge you by your new corporate home, just as they would when pulling up to your residential home. Are your faded fabric-lined walls nicely trimmed? Are your orientation papers strewn across your desk? Is your monitor already caked with scattered dust from your fellow co-workers’ cubicles? Well, don’t despair—you simply need a few simple rules to guide you.

  1. Before anything else, you have to resign yourself to one thing: this desk, or one very much like it, will be your home all the way up until your retirement 34 years from now. That is a very long time. As a result, you must treat your home as something you’ll have three times as long as your most beloved pet.
  2. If you happen to obtain any kind of achievement certificate, put it on your wall—and make no mistake, these are not nearly as difficult to come by as you might think.  There might be one for completing a required purchase order system training session.  Another might celebrate your ability to exhibit a “moment of excellence,” in which case you can display the certificate long after the fleeting program’s demise (and for all anyone will know, you were truly astonishing in that moment).  If you’re really lucky, though, you can get a framed certificate that commemorates your survival within the company in five-year increments.  That will come later—but goal-setting is very important at this stage.
  3. Don’t make the rookie mistake of putting away your various project papers.  This is because the more papers you have, the busier you will appear. So when you go to any meeting, grab any handouts that you possibly can (even swipe the extras!), then take them back and stack them in your cube.  Do you think they’re going to fire the employee with the ultra-clean desk, or the one that has so many important papers that there aren’t enough drawers for them?Exactly.
  4. Always, always place a mirror in the back of your cube.  I know, you’re thinking this sounds strange—but that’s only because this is your first day in a cubicle.  If you consider your new space for just a moment, you’ll realize that your chair faces away from the entrance of your cube.  Why?  Well, because: 1) everyone loves a good surprise, and 2) office environments are designed to keep you from seeing other human beings. Distractions are not good.  So the bottom line is: get a mirror, and you’ll feel just a little more human.
  5. Keep in mind that you exist in a corporate office, so there are many rules about what you can’t do.  For example, don’t ever place items on top of or on the outside of your cubicle.  This goes back to the previous point, in which you are not supposed to be encouraging human interaction.  Second, don’t even think about plants.  Plants are only allowed in executive offices.  You may be thinking that God gave everyone the right to plants, but you’d be wrong, because God was a big believer in a little thing called trickle-down horticulture.  And finally, do not pursue lamps or other lighting.  You won’t need it.  When working in any cubicle, you will have the blessing of being bathed in overwhelmingly bright fluorescent lighting—which has the pleasant effect of always keeping you awake!  Burned retinas and shockingly white skin are a small price to pay for corporate alertness.

If this seems like a lot to remember, don’t worry.  You’ll have plenty of time to focus and create a cubicle action plan—especially with the lack of distractions.  Somewhere around 34 years, in fact.

In Search of the Little Things

This afternoon, an avalanche of e-mail spilled steadily into my inbox, and for a moment I wondered if somewhere a great dam had finally crumbled beneath its own weight.  Support requests of many different types tumbled down the hill, and as I often try to do, I ran at them with the gusto of a child running up the wrong escalator.  Because that’s the only way that getting to the top of an escalator is any fun.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m quite achievement-oriented.  I detest doing purposeless tasks – and love the image of a meaningful checkmark filling an open box.  Now more than ever, I’ve realized that every job in the world can ultimately be boiled down to a sequence of those checkboxes.  One after another they come, hour by hour, day after day, endlessly filling the gaps behind them with the next thing on the list.

If we look at our jobs this way, then the goal of every employee is quite clear:  get those boxes checked in the way that is asked of you.  Sometimes those tasks are open to various solutions (a design), while other tasks have completely pre-constructed solutions (a contract).  Regardless of the type, however, what’s interesting is how each employee goes about checking the box.

It’s easy to think no one is noticing.  But whether they realize it or not, employees are professionally and personally evaluated at every turn.  Most of these evaluations happen within the subconscious.  I often wonder by what measures others conduct these evaluations, but for me, I’ll let you in on a little secret:  I place immense value in how well you find and do the little things.

As my wife and I drove back home this past weekend, we stopped at an Arby’s.  We did so because, well, pregnant women have to make stops frequently.  As a husband, it’s my job to make sure my wife uses the restroom at the finest establishments possible – and thus Arby’s called to me amidst the sea of gas stations and less finer establishments.  We’d eaten a couple of hours before, so neither of us was hungry, and at 3:00 the place was mostly empty.  It was a uneventful stop.

Until the manager welcomed us to the restaurant.

He stood behind the counter, likely in his late thirties and severely overweight.  No employee sits for long within a fast food restaurant, so his feet were probably killing him.  As my wife headed to the restroom, I randomly took a moment to wonder what path might have led him here.  Does anyone say, “I want to manage an Arby’s twenty years after I graduate high school?”  Probably not.  But somehow I knew that his welcome was completely genuine, and I instantly sensed that whatever his path might have been, this was a man who had decided to take pride in his work.  He wasn’t going to phone it in, at least not today.

In that moment following his welcome, I didn’t quite have the heart to say, “I’m sorry, we’re just here to use the restroom.”  I certainly could have, and he wouldn’t have minded in the least.  But as I decided what I might order, I realized that I greatly treasure employees that do more than what they have to.  And by that I mean the little things – the things that take almost no effort at all.  Because these are the things that no one bothers to do.

As I made my selection, the manager kindly answered the lone question I had with no hesitation, which meant that he knew his menu well.  He waited patiently while his crew prepared my wrap in the back, and when it slid into the metal rack, he called out a thank you to them.  There was little doubt that he meant it.

Was this an earth-shattering sequence of events?  No, of course not.  But the world is full of people that do precisely what they’re asked to do, and sometimes they expend a great amount of effort doing it.  There are probably thousands of Arby’s managers that suffer through eight hours of fast food nightmares for a meager paycheck.  They meet their documented goals.  I’d wager, however, that there aren’t many who look past those goals and set their own, more important goals – completely driven by a inner desire to be something better.

In my eleven years of professional work, I have come across this type of person from time to time, and it’s little coincidence that I call many of them my closest professional friends.  They represent the person who looks past the black and white of a project to see where support may be needed.  They often do the work behind the scenes that goes uncredited.  They are the people that aren’t interested in the ordinary, everyday tasks but instead focus on how to make a room – and ultimately their company – a better place than they found it.

On my best day, I approach being that kind of person, but on other days I fall short.  I might unconsciously lower my standards to feel good about getting more boxes checked.  Or I may stare proudly at the bird in my hands and completely overlook the two in the bush.  But it doesn’t take long for that one person to come along and inspire me all over again – and in almost every case, that person has no idea that he or she did so.  Certainly the manager of that Arby’s did not.

When all is said and done, we spend a great portion of our lives in an office, working under flourescent lights in monotonous spaces.  Everything is ordinary about our jobs, because it’s all been invented years before we get there, by people with titles a lot higher than ours.  But what isn’t so ordinary are the tasks that lie beyond the norm.  If you take a moment to think back to several truly memorable experiences of your life, it’s interesting to consider what made them stand out the most.

Was it the big things, or was it the little things that you never expected?

The Forsaken

For a little while now, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the current political discourse that so deeply disturbs me. There are all of the obvious things on the surface: the ceaseless stalemate, the fiery (and unfruitful) rhetoric, and the growing divide among our everyday neighbors. Perhaps worst of all, most cable networks fan these flames as a means to boost their ratings. Yet it goes further than that.

In recent months, almost all legislation (and accompanying debate) has centered around wealth. Those who don’t have it want the government to help them, and those who do have it argue for their right to choose where their wealth goes – obviously wanting to retain the right to distribute it as they see fit. Health care, taxes, Social Security, and the infamous bailouts all find their roots in wealth-based politics.

Every human being has certain rights, and one can easily argue that each person should be able to determine his or her own path. No handouts, no unfair advantages, and certainly no forced wealth distribution. Each of us should be, quite simply, what we make of ourselves. Obviously we don’t have have the same starting point as we arrive into this world, so there is an unspoken exception: that we should be able to inherit the hard work and/or wealth of our parents and grandparents. This seems fair enough.

When trying to understand the dilemma of whether or not to help the have-nots, though, there are two questions that come squarely into focus:

  1. Do they deserve it?
  2. Does it matter if they deserve it?

The answer to the first drives most of the discussion. It has become convenient to make the freeloading welfare mother the posterchild of the poor, and by extension cement the notion that most of these people do not deserve our assistance. Why would we continue to bail out such a lifestyle with our hard-earned money? Many would say this is senseless and pointless, and in almost all cases they would be right. But this not the question that matters – not really.

The question has always been: what happens to the people that truly do deserve our assistance?

This is where things get difficult. Let’s assume – for a moment – that 80% of the poor are more or less freeloading and deserve the situation they’re in. These are people that do not deserve any more of our aid than we’re already giving them, and recent cutbacks in government programs may actually spur them to step up to the plate. So be it. But no matter how we look at this, there remains the other side of the coin: the stay-at-home mother whose husband suddenly passed away, the man whose factory just closed due to outsourced jobs, or the family that can’t come close to covering the hospital costs of a son with cancer. Not to mention the tragic situation that everyone always overlooks: those unfortunate enough to be born with a lack of intelligence, which is something that cannot be overcome at any cost. At the end of the day, all of this leads to the one question that this really boils down to: is it worth helping these people, if it means that we have to help some of the freeloaders along with them?

Even at the low estimate of 20%, based on the number of Americans in poverty (a family of four with less than $22,000 in total income, or $11,000 as an individual) this would mean that approximately 8 million Americans would fall into the category of the deserving. Yet the idea of helping the undeserving poor is so repugnant that we continue to pull back from helping any of them. The discussion is boiled down to the ever-simple “yes” or “no” to government programs as opposed to trying to make them better.

So again, we have to decide – as a nation – to what extent we’re willing to help the undeserving as the price of helping the deserving. Many Republicans want to cut back as much government spending as possible, because they believe in the central philosophy of Every Man For Himself. Democrats want to improve the country from the bottom up, taxing the wealthy as a central means to do so. Yet largely caught in the middle are the millions of Americans who fall victim to both chance and the system – and through little fault of their own never really stood a chance to make a solid living for themselves. They are the casualties of our own internal war.

Perhaps it is as simple as this: the fact that the most deserving of these people are Americans should mean something. It should mean that they’re afforded rights, but it should also mean that their fellow citizens lend a hand when they hit the very bottom. It should mean that they don’t have to be terrified of getting sick, or know with certainty that their children will receive a terrible education. And most of all, it should mean that they’re not consistently looked down upon by those in power, with little regard for – or time invested in – their individual situations.

On a personal level, this is why I vote the way I do – because I see it as a necessity, not a choice. I’m not willing to sacrifice the deserving poor (whatever the percentage might be) until we build a system that gives them a chance.

Corporate Key to Success #3: Meetings

(This is the third in a series of posts on Corporate Orientation.)

There is little doubt that the following is true: Corporations hold a tremendous amount of power in America, and this power has increased significantly in recent years. We often see it exercised in the form of large financial transactions, but where does the money come from? How is such unbridled power created?

Well, I’ll tell you – it’s created through meetings.

Very, very little happens in any corporate office outside of meetings. So as you begin your corporate life, this is where you should devote a huge amount of attention (after you’ve parked and found your cubicle, of course). It would not be overly dramatic to say that many of the world’s most promising businessmen have ended up as doormen and dishwashers because they never found a way to navigate the meeting climate of their businesses. Thankfully, I can offer a few simple rules to keep you afloat in such a fast-action environment:

  1. Rule #1: You don’t have to arrive on time. Sure, your meeting invitation says 10:00 – but like every great party, it is trendy to arrive fashionably late. Everyone is busy, after all. In the end, it always comes down to the law of averages, and the average is that there will be some poor schmuck who “respects everyone’s time” and shows up to start the meeting at 10:00. And by working longer at your desk, you’ve just become 15% more productive than that person.
  2. Rule #2: Talk over people on conference calls. Quite simply, you can’t “win” if you’re never heard (and neither can anyone else!). So take a good two or three minutes before the meeting starts to decide how it will end, then jump into the conversation at every chance to win over the attendees. This takes some perseverance, but remember, you’ve got the additional energy you saved from missing the first ten minutes of the meeting.
  3. Rule #3: Master the big moment. Few people realize that within an hour meeting, there is a window of about 10-12 minutes that truly matters. We call that The Big Moment.™ Why only 10-12 minutes? Well, because you have to subtract out the time waiting for the stragglers (including you!) to arrive, going over what you covered in the last meeting, predicting what you’ll cover in the next meeting, recapping topics for people that missed the last meeting because of other meetings, and talking about the weather from a windowless conference room. After all of this is removed, you only have to master those 10-12 minutes, and you’ll be a genius.
  4. Rule #4: Your Blackberry is your friend. I’ll warn you: relearning the rules of social interaction within a corporate office can be difficult. At home, for instance, if your spouse is talking with you about an important home project, you’d get beaten with a frying pan for texting in the middle of the conversation. In a corporate office, however, this is not the case. I can’t stress this strongly enough. If you’re in a meeting, using your Blackberry while someone is talking means that you are an Important Person. It also means that you’re kind enough to let others make decisions, because you trust them to do the right thing (although if your subconscious hears something that sounds wrong, don’t hesitate to stop typing and ask them to repeat it). Meanwhile, you’re racking up e-mail responses like levels of Angry Birds! If you’re still not sure, I’d ask you which sounds better: multi-tasking or single-tasking? Yes, I thought so.
  5. Rule #5: Take lots of notes. Within your first few days, talk to other corporate employees and ask them to show you their meeting notebook. Everyone has one. It’s the place that you’ll constantly refer back to when you want to relive some of your company’s greatest meeting moments – perhaps it’s best to think of it as one of those soaring sequences of movie clips at the Oscars. That time when the project went from yellow status to green status? It’s in there. Want to recall when you delivered the most action items last February? It’s in there, too! Of course, it’s likely that you missed a few things while taking those notes, but the important thing is that you have the notebook. No one can ever take that away from you.
  6. Rule #6: Make a streamlined agenda. If you find yourself in the unenviable position of making an agenda, realize that the only important thing is that you need to have an agenda. The most efficient meeting organizers master this by creating an initial agenda that is very generic, then recycling that agenda into each weekly meeting. Items like “Discuss Topics” and “Review Action Items” are especially efficient.
  7. Rule #7: Brainstorm using Post-It notes. If there’s one thing that kills a productive meeting faster than any other, it’s an idea filter. What is that, you ask? Well, you know how there are times when someone asks for suggestions, then an idea pops into your head, and you immediately think, “That’s the dumbest f&*king thing I’ve ever thought of in my life?” Well, never think that. You’re killing your own ideas! People need to hear those ideas, and that’s what brainstorming is all about. You don’t have to use post-it notes, per se, as a big paper easel will do – anything that can hold all of the ideas. Even the ones that would make your father shake his head with that sad, bemused, “What I have created?” look.

And there you have it. It may sound like a lot of things to keep in mind, but you’ll find that most people do not know these rules, and your way to success is already laid out in front of you. And it’s all possible via the magic of meetings.