The weekend I didn’t go to the shore…

About two months ago, my husband and I were supposed to spend the weekend on the Jersey Shore at the home of one of our dear friends’ parents.  Each “season,” our friend gets the house to herself for one weekend and hosts an event known as “Camp Chaos.”  The name sums up how the weekend goes down.

This year the shore was taxi/flight/taxi/drive rather than the Friday night road trip from the city of years past.  Two days before departure, I got sick.  Unspecified, flu-like sick.  We didn’t want to cancel and put off making a decision until the last minute.  Hours before the flight left, we decided to use the flight to NYC and have a quiet recovery weekend at my in-laws’ empty apartment.  Disappointed though I was, that weekend was a significant turning point for my consulting practice.

In the course of 48 hours as “tourist” in my home city, over long walks and talks and meals with my husband, I realized I was doing a lot of things wrong.  Removed from real life and alone, no one asked how work was going.  And without the pressure to give a pat, positive, response, I was able to answer that question honestly for myself.

I identified a few lessons and made a few promises that weekend, most of which I’ve stuck to.  The most critical lesson for me was about ignoring my instincts.  When I’m not at peak performance, my natural inclination is to redouble my effort and push through.  I’ve always believed that the combination of my work and will can make almost anything happen.  A sequestered, semi-sick weekend where I completely let go of the reigns shifted my entire mindset.  Which brings me to Lesson #1:

Don’t squeeze the bunny.

I asked a lot of smart people for advise when I started consulting.  Like the diligent bee I am, I did everything they told me to.  I went to networking events, created a drip list, sent articles to interested parties, (dabbled in) social media, had enough coffees to support a fair trade beanery.  The results weren’t there.  Because you can’t make someone need/want/hire you simply based on their knowledge of your existence.  All you can do is be awesome and generous, form real relationships (rather than networking “connections”) with people you like and enjoy spending time with, and let the need find you.

Step away from the screens.

In the absence of having a real job and/or enough consulting work to keep me occupied 60 hours a week in the spring, I replaced being busy with busyness.  Online, on email, digesting content constantly – it became a habit and a void filler.  Its so much easier to refresh email than go for a run.  Or pick up the phone and have a conversation.  Or write a blog post.  Or volunteer.  Making is harder than consuming – I also derive a lot more satisfaction from it.  I just have to force myself to do it.

Friends are the best wingmen.

My job is to listen and help people solve problems.  I do this for my friends all. the. time.  I always have and I hope they never stop asking.  Yet I used to think it important to separate my personal and professional lives.  What I realized that weekend is that besides my existing clients and former colleagues, my friends know best who I am and what I can do.  In the past, when friends wanted to recommend me for gigs or to hire me themselves, I was unsure.  Were they biased because they knew me? Were they giving me an unfair advantage? Yes and yes.  They also knew exactly what they were getting, that they could trust me implicitly, and that I would be honest with them.  Now when a friend presents an opportunity, I’m open to it.  If they didn’t believe in me, they wouldn’t do it.  Why would I say no?

Technology = Frenemy

Besides the compulsive relationship I was developing with my iDevices, I realized something that weekend away: sometimes, no, a lot of the the time, its better not to know what’s going on.  In this age of info overload, ignorance is even more blissful.  That Friday, I checked my email while waiting in line for movie tickets and read a message about an issue a client was having.  I then pondered that issue throughout the evening wondering if I could help, how and when.  This might make me a committed consultant; it definitely makes me terrible company.  For social media, this rings even truer.  Do I need to see an ex’s wedding photos just before I fall asleep? Or while waiting in the ladies room line at a concert? No and no.  I recognized that weekend, which was delightfully low tech, that I’d never considered the emotional toll that social media takes.  That if I engage on those platforms, my mood will necessarily be impacted, and so will the “offline” experience that I’m trying to have.

I realize I’m not exactly breaking new ground with these little lessons, but reframing my situation during a 48 hour break from real life changed how I work.  Since then, I’ve begun engagements with three fantastic clients (none of whom were known to me two months ago) and feel both relaxed and optimistic about the future.  When someone asks how work is, I can unequivocally  respond that its great.  We’re thinking about another weekend away.  Maybe St. Thomas in December.  You know, just to keep the momentum going.

The weekend I didn’t go to the shore…

Everything 101

When I was in high school I had a boyfriend who was adorable and funny and later became a quasi-famous actor.  One morning, he came to my house unannounced.  I was in the midst of getting ready to go rollerblading (shush, it was the 90s).  He tried to convince me to bag it and head to the beach, and I tried to convince him to join me and try rollerblading for the first time.  He declined, and when I pushed for a reason he simply said “I don’t feel like learning something new today.”  I laughed at the time and relented.  But all these years later, I think of that quote often.

Because I spend a fair amount of time meditating on my internal thought processes, I have pinpointed the emotional arc that I experience when embarking on learning something new.  Whether its teaching myself to use the sewing machine I received for Christmas, play Hive, or navigate WordPress, the story is the same.

First I procrastinate until the amount of effort I’ve wasted avoiding the task is greater than the effort of doing the task.  Then I dip a toe in; skimming an instruction manual, doing a bit of online research, or posing a question to friends with expertise.  This leads to feeling overwhelmed at which point I divert my attention to something I know how to do (checking email, snacking).  Eventually, I tackle the unknown for real and push through, exhausting myself and sucking all the fun out in the process.  Then, I recover, and eventually repeat a reasonable version of the effort until I’ve gained some mastery.

The fact that I’ve finally dissected this arc enough to understand my reticence at acquiring new skills has, in itself, been somewhat helpful.  Recognizing in myself how, when, and why I derail in the face of new challenges has helped me devise a few ways to overcome my bad habits.

1.  Git ready for learnin’

Once I’ve decided to try something new, I set aside time the day before to prepare.  This might mean digging out my sheet music, setting up my music stand and tuning my cello but not actually playing.  Or, it could be unwrapping and registering my Rosetta Stone DVDs, calling customer service when they don’t work, and testing the mic on my laptop but not actually completing a lesson.  The nasty bits of administrivia that lead to the lesson can be derailleurs in and of themselves.  Taking care of those as a separate exercise means they won’t muddy the fun of the activity itself.

2.  Early bird special

Tony Schwartz says in this article that the time to tackle your most difficult challenge is the first 90 minutes of your day.  Although not a morning person, I find I’m most creative and intellectually flexible before I’ve started to engage with the world.  I liken it to how humans are taller when we wake up in the morning than at the end of the day when gravity has compressed us toward the ground.

Whether you’re going to create a new system for organizing your email or try a spin class, do it first thing.  You’ll have less time to talk yourself out of it and more mental agility to absorb the experience.

3.  Buy vs. build

Are you really going to teach yourself Ruby on Rails or might you need to attend a course? Is your fluency in Russian on track or would a conversation partner help it along? Have you been doing your daily pull-ups or would a personal trainer kick you into gear?

In my professional life, I help clients think about what to outsource vs. do themselves everyday.  My consulting practice is based on the idea that it can pay to outsource aspects of a business.  But how often do we make the same calculations with regard to personal growth? Estimate the investment you’re willing to make in learning a desired skill.  Then consider that doing it for free (e.g. on your own) may result in not doing it at all.  Calculate.

4.  Fro-yo

When I complete a milestone that I want to achieve, I reward myself with a run, an Amazon order, a TV show, or frozen yogurt – all things I enjoy and serve as deserved time away from the rigors of self-education.  Note to teacher (that’s you): completing half the module does not entitle you to half a “30 Rock.”

Those are my hot tips for today.  Now I’m going to speak some Spanish and reward myself with a yoga class.  Class dismissed.

Everything 101

How to sell yourself.

If someone knows, by all means give me a ring.

Since starting my own business, I’ve solicited a lot of advice from people who know more about doing this than I do.  Smart people have told me to network, network, network.  Write, write, write.  Speak, speak, speak.

But what no one told me is how much harder it is to get the work than to do the work.  I’ve worked for two organizations since graduation and was at each for more than five years.  I made a faster-than-usual climb up ladder and received a lot of head patting and back slapping along the way.  I had gold stars on my forehead, the right cards in my wallet, and a mind half stress, half swagger.  Now, I’m writing to people I’ve not met, attending networking events, talking about myself and asking for things.

I don’t like asking for things.  I like being asked for things.  But here I am.  Those who know me professionally reaffirm that I’m special, that I’ll make a go of this, that it just takes time.  But what it also takes is an appetite for rejection.  For being ignored.  For allowing that it doesn’t matter how capable I am if I only have two clients.

I will continue down this path and push until I succeed.  But for those at the head of the path, be warned: it seems so easy with the first clients.  Work life is better in every way than when you were at a big company.  But the path isn’t lined with flowers.  For every pointless meeting you had at your corporate job, now you will attend a useless webinar about branding and social media.  For every client call you didn’t want to answer, now you will hope that the potential client is the one answering the phone.

The work is all its cracked up to be.  Unfortunately, this business is about more than doing the work.


How to sell yourself.

Write it down, yo.

One of the reasons that I’ve come back to writing a blog is to use it as a tool capture what I read, observe, and hear about the work I do.  It ain’t easy, as you may gather by the 6 week gap between my first and second posts.

I’ve always been told that I should have been a writer.  I’m so glad I’m not and I tip my hat to those who are, because the discipline it takes for me to bang out even a lighthearted post isn’t easy to muster.  Having just written that sentence, I have the impulse to make a cup of tea and text my Mom.  And there we have it.

But….  I see the lack of written word in my work as a problem.  In the last ten years, the number of people I see with notebooks on their person in the office has declined dramatically.  We don’t write down what others say to us.  We don’t write down our ideas.  Hell, a lot of folks I work with don’t even write down their to do lists.

Why the change? In the first world of smart devices, productivity apps, a zillion free resources dedicated to helping us maximize our proficiency as human beings – why the chaos? I pose three explanations:

1.  Writing stuff down is a skill that we have let tarnish.  Like cardio fitness, it doesn’t stay with us if we don’t work it out.

2.  We aren’t reflective as a culture of professionals.  Creating something new is nearly always seen as preferable to re-purposing something already in existence.  This mentality extends to hiring, marketing, and nearly every other aspect of our work lives.  The tendency is exacerbated by our lack of documented content to refer back to.

3.  We aren’t reading, anyway.  Emails are shorter and more frequently ignored.  Meetings are longer.  Communication in the office is becoming increasingly informal.  This isn’t all bad by a long stretch.  But how is the great, impromptu, brainstorming session being captured? Who is going back to harvest the seeds of brilliance from the tet-a-tet that just happened in the hallway? When an amazing idea is exchanged over IM and the window is closed, what happens to it?

I’m sure in the course of writing this blog, I’ll talk about the tools I use to stay organized and to help my clients do the same.  But today, my Wunderlist said it was time to finally man up and write something down.  Here it is.  Check.

Write it down, yo.