Monday, August 31, 2009

Knitting a life or stepping into the future

How do you decide, among all the pressures from home, work, or personal needs, which tasks or areas will get your attention when you wake up in the morning? Taking a broader perspective, how do you decide what to do in your life? Shall you paint portraits or get an MBA, live on a beach or in a quandary?

You could say that school or work or family demands dictate what you do on a particular day, but most of us actually have some ability to choose our activities, even if it's just our attitude toward those activities. People seem to structure their days and lives in one of two ways. They either knit them or step into the future and look back.

People who knit their lives construct them moment by moment, as if knitting, stitch by stitch. They make decisions as they go, doing what feels right in the moment. The advantage is that they're living life as it occurs; they're following their instincts, neither shunning nor putting off the unpleasant. The disadvantages are that they change direction and task as life demands, and that, unless their original goal was to make a big old blanket, who knows what kind of garment will result and how happy they'll be with it in the end?

Others create their life's decision list by stepping into the future, and they look back to the now, mentally constructing the actions that brought them to this tomorrow place. For example, today they have a job they don't like. They step into the future where they're living in a happier state because they had changed careers after putting it off so long. To reach this possible future, they had to get training they had avoided, they had to drop one of their community activities and rearrange some family responsibilities. But they made it! They got a new job. All the sacrifices were worth it.

Using this technique not only helps define a visionary goal, it also lays out the steps of the plan necessary to attain it. People who achieve great things have this ability and an unswerving refusal to take their eyes off the goal. Those who can ignore life's pressures and focus only on what they want are rare. This technique also has a disadvantage. If you concentrate only on the future, the present moment contains little sweetness, and you will live a life chasing happiness instead of tasting it now.

I think it's a good idea to use both approaches. Find a goal that's important to you, get a vision of the garment you want to knit, visualize its completion, describe the steps needed to get there, and make them your action plan, the backdrop for the life you live today. As you do, follow your instincts, do what feels right, and don't let a moment pass by that holds the potential for joy or sweetness.

Imagine what a remarkable life you can construct if you have both vision and flying fingers that knit a well-woven now.

Monday, August 24, 2009

How loyal should I be to my employer?

You should be exactly as loyal as you see people being rewarded for loyalty. There are three kinds of companies: those that value it and compensate with loyalty and security; those that feel employees are as expendable as nose tissues and blow them off, no matter how loyal and hard working; and those that ask for the employees' loyalty but don't keep their end of the contract, essentially flushing them.

Ten years ago, my advice would have been that loyalty pays. Companies then placed a value on loyalty. They worked people hard, but they rewarded loyalty. Now we're in a cycle that's 180 degrees different. Companies see employees as short term plugs in a socket, and new upgrades will replace them in several years. They aren't valuing the long-term, valuable employee. The employee isn't loyal in return. Pity. Ten years from now, someone will have the new idea of finding ways to achieve loyalty, and it will happen when that behavior gets rewarded. Pretty simple.

Employees feel uncomfortable attaching themselves to the organization with removable tape instead of Velcro. Most of us like belonging, being part of something we like and respect, and behaving in loyal Boy Scout ways. We like throwing ourselves into it, giving our all, waving flags and putting hand over heart as the company band marches by. We like being loyal and feel almost like it's cheating when we aren't. The tune bitterly changes, however, when we find ourselves and our loyalty unceremoniously dumped in this week's downsizing.

Bosses hate it when I talk about loyalty in my television appearaances. They tell me they face a buzzsaw of angry employees who have also seen the TV segment and realize they aren't getting the rewards of loyalty.

Here's the contract that employer and employee must have: You be effective and loyal and give your all, maybe even passing up opportunities, and the boss rewards it with money, benefits, security. If the contract is one-sided, i.e., you're doing all the giving, then you're also a fool if you're loyal. Looking at this a little closer, the ticket that needs to get punched for your loyalty is the boss' fair treatment and provision of security. Otherwise, do your job, but don't give your heart away.

The employer is paying for your performance. Do your best. But if giving up other parts of your life doesn't net you anything, then don't go in that loyalty sphere. Just do your good job and look for a company where loyalty matters.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Don't count on lightning

Stop looking at the sky and get off your horse. There was only one Saul on the road to Tarsus, struck from his horse by lightning, who afterwards knew his job was to spread the word about the new religion, Christianity.

We often think of ourselves as a St. Paul-in-Training, galloping down a pointless road doing meaningless things. We want someone to jump from the bushes, grab the reins, and point the horse in a new direction. We fear the celestial Ka-BOOM! but feel so hopeless doing what we're doing. We would take lightning over our daily drudgery.

Guess what? The sky is clear and the road is empty. You have to create and place everything on your career map: the destination, the scenery, the path, even the damn horse. Oh, there are people like me lurking in the bushes, happy to take the reins for a moment and point out a pass in your life's mountain range, but the journey is mostly all yours.

Saul was one of the lucky ones, along with the children who issue from the womb knowing what they want: the baby lawyer with her baby briefcase dangling from the umbilical cord; the will-be doctor with a stethoscope in his waving fist; the tiny artist already gripping a dripping brush. The rest of us squeezed out looking sheepish that we didn’t already have it worked out, and both the look and confusion have remained.

The map is created as you walk it. Stop a minute and look back at the way you've come. That's your lived life. Is it what you wanted to do, or what someone else thought you should do? If you see how much is there but you don't like it, you probably did the latter.

The best way to create your life map is to stumble toward what feels good for you. Contrary to what other counselors might tell you, it's not a question of what you can do well or enjoy doing. It’s what feels right for you RIGHT NOW, and that's a significant difference. If you begin to stumble (and I do mean stumble) in that direction, the right path will open for you. And your over-the-shoulder life/path reviews will give you joy, not regret. The way doesn't come immediately, but it comes sooner than later.

Day-by-day trudging is less interesting than being bounced onto our keisters by lightning. The stories are certainly less exotic, but the trudging leads to meaningfulness. I promise.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Take Your Job Search Medicine!

I am the most non-compliant person I know. I sit before any doctor, confident of my Good Housekeeping-formed medical knowledge with a Google kicker. I am ready to say why I know better than this guy who’s surely in the clutches of the drug companies. It’s clear that echinacea tea, not an antibiotic, is indicated here. About half of the people who get prescriptions fail to fill them. I am the president of that group.

I hate it when my clients don’t do what I tell them to do. The process and the timeline are fairly predictable, with the told age/skills/economy as a variable. Finding a job is a numbers game. Make this many real contracts and you’ll have a job. Do this with your resume. Give yourself a daily structure. Be with people who’ll keep you on an accountability trail. Do whatever it takes to keep your spirit up because attitude is everything. Be specific about what you’re pursuing. Be honest with yourself: are you going after your dream job, your Plan B, or just-a-job? Talk with your family, but before you count on them as cheerleaders, understand whether they’re your loudest critic. Don’t hide under the rock of Internet resume submissions or a call to a recruiter and call it a job search.

Finding a job is not the tidy, push-button console in a "Star Trek" movie. It feels like the day job it is, bloody hand-to-hand combat on a daily basis, and you’re the wounded combatant who has to walk and talk like a hero, while sewing up the hole in your self-esteem, with no anesthetic, at day's end.

I know better than most how difficult it can be to hard and follow advice. I pray daily to remain teachable.

You now this thing is not rocket science, so you shrug on your self-confidence suit and tie your self-reliance shoes and head into the joblessness swamp. What too often happens is that you're faking the confidence thing, you’ve worn the wrong shoes, and you’re ignoring the guide holding the light at its edge.

If you have a guide — an outplacement counselor, a career strategist, a friend who’s agreed to be your helper in your job search, take that as a gift. If you develop goals together, take the good advice you get, and check in on a regular basis. You'll find you have punched the accelerator button on your job-finding boat.

Let’s make a deal. You take the advice of your guide and I’ll buy the antibiotic; we’ll both be better for it.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Many motivational types would argue that our behaviors are our expressions of what we truly want. ("I know you said you wanted X, but you did Y, ergo, the life you're looking at is the life you wanted to create.") I don't agree. Your behaviors, the sum of which is your life, represent your decisions, not your desires. I would love to tell you to bound out of bed in the morning eager to create the abundant life you want, but if you're like most grown-ups, "what I want" winds up at the end of our daily to-do list, the list we never complete. Because we so tightly embrace our responsibilities, we live "gotta" lives, not "wanna."

It's easy to live a "gotta" life. Kids. Job. Faith. Partner. We don't have to think; those responsibilities must be attended to, and we're right to give it our quality attention. But life can slip into bitterness and fatigue if we don't put a little "wanna" in there. It takes courage to consider what you really want from today. A courageous choice is where we grow, where we live our truths, where we exercise our talent. It could be as simple as buying yourself a pound of the coffee you want, or as challenging as getting up an hour earlier to write the story that's hammering at your brain. Courageous choice takes you a step closer to being an athlete, an expert, a crafter, a project manager.

It's time to put in the effort to create a better you. What a great choice to make each day! What do you want for you today?