Here’s one from the Learn Something New Every Day file…

One of my New Year’s resolutions that quickly fell by the wayside was to learn and use a new word every day.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m lazy, or no one got me a word-a-day calendar for Christmas, or some combination of the two, but by the end of the first week of January, this particular resolution was toast.

Multiple scientific studies have pinpointed the length of time it takes to make something a habit, and the findings usually land somewhere in the three-week range – i.e. it takes about 21 days of repetition to make something a habit. My assumption is that this applies only to beneficial habits – I seem to have no difficulties whatsoever in adopting bad habits after just one or two repetitions.

Once you hit that 21-day mark, it becomes smooth sailing, and you’ve now adopted a (hopefully beneficial) habit. Your body (or mind, if it’s a mental habit) kicks into autopilot, and you begin to feel pangs of guilt immediately when you skip the activity.

Go to the gym a couple of times a week, for instance – or whenever you feel like it – and it becomes easy to rationalize not going. I’m busy, I’m tired, I’m not feeling that well – all of these become valid reasons to avoid said activity.

What you’re actually trying to do is train your body and/or mind to develop and engage in another automatic behavior, and we have a name for this: Automaticity. This is the state of committing a physical or mental activity to muscle memory.

One of the most commonly cited examples involves driving. If you commute to work, try to recall the exact route you took – pretty easy right? If you take the same route to work every day, or cycle through two or three different routes that are essentially similar, then it’s easy to recall how you got to work today.

Now, try to recall and describe in detail three different vehicles you encountered on your way to work today. A bit more difficult, correct? Unless you encountered something out of the ordinary – an accident or collision, a truck with a vibrant, unique wrap, or something else along those lines, chances are you can’t recall the details about any of the vehicles that were making the same journey as you, despite the fact that you most likely encountered dozens of vehicles on your trip this morning.

This is because you were driving on autopilot. Your body was engaged in an activity that it had already performed hundreds or thousands of times before – driving a car – freeing up your mind to address the issues that are really important to you. Are you going to be on time with all this traffic? Where are you going to eat for lunch? Will you be able to sneak out before 5pm today to try and beat the traffic home?

Automaticity is a useful tool, and it allows us to function in a more sophisticated social environment. Think about the last time you embarked on a long-distance road trip. Being aware of the dozens or hundreds of miles that were passing by, as they were passing by, would be agonizing, to say the least. Listening to music, playing word games with your fellow passengers, and planning your itinerary when you reach your destination are all activities your mind is able to engage in as your body engages in the rote function of piloting your vehicle down the highway.

There are other fascinating real-world applications to this as well. One study that I came across, by the social psychiatrist Robert Cialdini, discussed the level of compliance in individuals when presented with differing scenarios. In one of his studies, he presented his subjects with three different requests:

“I have five pages to copy, may I user your copier? I’m in a rush.”
“I have five pages to copy, may I use your copier?”
“I have five pages to copy, may I use your copier? I need to make copies.”

In the first instance, a valid need is being expressed – I’m in a hurry, can I use your copier? – and a full 94% of respondents replied in the affirmative. That is to say, they allowed the person to make their copies.

In the second instance, that percentage dropped to 60% – in other words, a lack of a valid reason increased the resistance within the group of respondents to allowing the person to complete their task.

Interestingly, in the third instance, compliance jumped back up to 93%, despite that fact that, although a reason was given, it was not a valid reason. The only difference between the second and third requests is the addition of the additional (meaningless) phrase. However, most respondents made no value judgments of what was said – they heard what they thought was a valid reason, and so complied with the request.

Further, when the request was made of something a little more substantial – in Cialdini’s study, for instance, the request was subsequently increased from five to twenty pages – disruption can occur, jerking the subject back to attention to focus on the situation at hand.

In the case of our copiers above, the percentages dropped to 40%, 25% and 25%, indicating that the subjects were now paying closer attention to the reasoning when asked to make substantially more copies – “because I need to make copies” was no longer considered a valid reason, as evidenced by the matching percentages for both options two and three.

Apply this to your drive to work as well. Did that guy in the maroon BWM with the IMRICH vanity plates just cut you off? Disruption has pulled you away from your internal reverie and drawn your focus back to the task of driving, and presented you with a series of choices. Do you honk and flip him off? Hit the gas and try to cut him off? Let it go? Whatever your choice, you are now fully focused on the situation unfolding before you.

Automaticity is a valuable, if unintentional, tool for dealing with the humdrum, repetitive tasks each of us needs to carry out without wasting valuable mental energies that can best be utilized elsewhere. Embrace this condition and learn to use it whenever you can – it will pay huge dividends in the end.

Tales from the Front Lines

Getting set up for the Tulsa Run, October 28, 2017

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from spending two years as a starving artist/musician, it’s this – always be prepared!

The first year I played the Route 66 Marathon was one long, two-day learning experience. I played for the 5K runners on a Saturday morning. I arrived thirty minutes early to the spot along the race route where I was supposed to set up. It was a little grassy triangle area where three streets converged in downtown Tulsa. I loaded out, set up my gear, then went looking for a power source.

The marathon had agreements in place with local businesses where they’d provide access to power for the musicians and water stops along the twenty-six mile course. However, it appeared that the business that was supplying me with power had forgotten all about that. I tried plugging in to various outlets, to no avail.

Fortunately, Myron, one of the race coordinators, showed up in the nick of time. He quickly found me a spot 300 yards further down the route, and helped me quickly load and move my gear to this new spot. I got set up and did a quick sound check just as the first runners began showing up.

Set up to play just in time!

The next day was a cold and miserable day, and I was assigned a spot near the twelve mile mark, outside of the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Tulsa. I arrived forty-five minutes early and quickly found the hotel manager, who showed me exactly where I could plug in and set up. Within fifteen minutes I was ready to go, and feeling pretty good about myself – compared to yesterday, this was easy peasy!

Until the first runners started coming by. It was then I realized that I had set up not only on the wrong side of the street, but far enough away from the actual route that runners would scarcely be able to hear me, let alone see me. I quickly broke everything down, made three or four trips across the street lugging all of my gear, and got set up again – all in under ten minutes. By the time the first crowd of marathon runners started trickling by – the ones that weren’t necessarily trying to qualify for Boston – I was finally ready to go.

Ready to go…on the wrong side of the street

My favorite – and I use that term loosely – equipment malfunction was when my guitar blew up.

A few weeks prior to my playing the Route 66 Marathon for the first time, I had the honor of playing for runners during the Tulsa Federal Credit Union Tulsa Run. This was the end of October, and it was a bitterly cold morning.

I arrived at my appointed street corner and got my gear unpacked and ready to go. I was assigned to play towards the end of the course, so I took the opportunity to go across the street and make friends with the EMT crew that was stationed directly across the street from me, as it would be a few minutes before we saw any runners.

As the first runners began showing up down the street, I scooted back across to my set up and began playing.

A quick word about my repertoire as it relates to playing these sorts of gigs, as opposed to an open mic or coffee shop or something along those lines. Whenever I’m playing somewhere where the patrons are seated for some length of time, I’m always reluctant to play the same song twice, even if there is some turnover in listeners. If someone is paying me to play for three or four hours, then they get three or fours hours of music, with virtually no repeats.

In the case of these running events, however, the audience is ever-changing. And the nature of the kinds of songs I play means I only have a few songs in my bag that relate in any way to running. So for events like these, my setlist looks something like this:

Eye of the Tiger by Survivor
I Ran by Flock of Seagulls
Run To You by Bryan Adams
Take It Easy by Eagles
(Rinse and repeat for four hours)

Both Tiger and I Ran have pretty catchy choruses, so I leaned on them pretty heavily – it is still pretty cool to watch runners go by singing along, giving me fist pumps or air high-fives as they passed. Those images will always be amongst my very favorite memories.

So on this cold October morning in 2017 just outside of downtown Tulsa, I began to play for the runners that were headed our way.

They began coming through pretty heavily ten minutes later, and that’s when my guitar decided to blow up.

More specifically, the electronics inside of my acoustic/electric guitar decided it was too cold, and they didn’t want to play anymore. I heard a pop and saw a wisp of smoke, followed by a burning smell and a loss of sound.

I panicked for about 30 seconds, then remembered that I had brought an extra mic – the P.A. I was using came with two of them, and I’d brought them both for some reason. However, I had no was to attach the mic to my guitar…

Then I remembered the EMTs across the street. I quickly ran across the street, picking my way through the crowd of runners, and borrowed some medical tape. I took it back to my set up and proceeded to tape the spare mic to my mic stand:

Tragedy having been averted, I continued to play for the rest of the morning, regaling the runners with the same four songs over and over and over again…

What I’ve Learned

All the preparation in the world doesn’t help when things go wrong. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and make the best with what you’re given.

Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

Is it better to be effective or efficient?

Many businesses wrestle with this question on a daily basis. When building marketing or business plans, when assigning duties, when filling orders, the question is always there. “What’s the best way to do this” is basically asking, “How do we find the correct balance of effectiveness versus efficiency when planning this project/duty/task?”

Sometimes these terms can even be mistaken for synonyms, but in truth they are polar opposites. Both are important considerations, but they indicate very different measures. The trick is striking the right balance between the two.

Effectiveness relates to how a given task performs against a set of standards, and is often expressed in terms of which goals are achieved and the extent to which the issues being addressed have been solved. For example, a certain brand of hand sanitizer may be marketed as killing 99.9% of germs, speaking directly to the effectiveness of the product against its perceived objective of providing a higher level of personal cleanliness.

Efficiency refers to how well a given task performs against a standard norm, and is often represented in terms of how much time, energy or investment has been reduced or eliminated. For instance, a refrigerator may be marketed as reducing energy consumption by up to 30%, resulting in energy efficiency savings for the purchaser of said refrigerator and, in theory, freeing up resources for others to consume.

In short, effectiveness is doing the right thing, and efficiency is doing the thing right.

So, how do we find the optimal middle ground, the happy medium that maximizes efficiency whilst solidifying effectiveness? Are there steps we can take that will tell us how to do this, and let us know when we’ve reached that goal?

We’re in luck – there are three simple steps we can take to ensure we’re striking the right balance between doing something correctly and doing it for the right reasons. By applying structure to a given process, planning and measuring activities and results, and delegating responsibilities and communicating changes, we can realize increased production that meets – and often exceeds – our goals and objectives.

Apply structure. The first step is to make sure all the pieces are in place – everyone is on the right bus, and in the right seat. Duties and responsibilities need to be clearly defined and communicated. Corporate goals are useless without buy-in from the entire staff, so be sure to allow for a means for everyone to have the opportunity to voice their ideas, concerns and opinions.

Once a basic structure is in place, it is imperative that it be followed. This structure will be what guides everyone through all phases of the current project and beyond – if it is initially created to be scalable, that’s all the better. It will be easier to disseminate this new structure up and down the organization, resulting in revenue gains across the board and increasing customer engagement and satisfaction.

There are many organizational operating systems out there to utilize as an example. Much like the operating system on your computer, an organizational operating system will assist you in ensuring all of the pieces are in place, that everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes are all being taken into consideration. It will be an indispensable tool in helping you to create a world-beating organization.

Plan and measure. Once you have the structure in place, begin planning for success. There are many business and marketing plan templates, but once you understand the basics, there’s no sin in developing your own. This will allow you to capture the essence of what your business is all about, and will also help you in determining what it is you need to measure.

The importance of data cannot be understated. Having goals and objectives that are forward-looking, attainable, and measurable are just as important to the long-term health of your business as anything else. Without the ability to measure exactly how well you’re doing, a company is flying blind. This is a dangerous situation for any organization that wishes to make a long-term, lasting impact on their industry or line of business.

Delegate and communicate. Now that you have all of the pieces for a successful venture in place, it’s time to get down to work. The old saying too many chefs spoil the broth applies here – it’s imperative that everyone knows, and is comfortable with, their role.

Delegating duties and responsibilities is how the actual work gets done. You’ve already determined where everyone best fits and what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are; now it is time to put the plan into action.

Above all else, keeping the lines of communication open up and down the chain of command will ensure the ultimate success of your venture. By creating a workplace where all voices are heard, where every opinion is considered, and where employees at all levels feel that they are vitally important to the operation and not just another cog in the machine, you are setting yourself up for a successful venture.

The steps we take and decisions we make will ultimately decide how effective and efficient we are, and when made well, will keep us from going 100 miles an hour in the wrong direction.

Trains and Muffins and Beers, Oh My!

The author and the band in happier times (9/23/2011)

As if I needed another reason to prove I can’t be trusted with alcohol, I present to you the time I verbally harassed a member of a very prominent and popular rock band right to his face

During the summer of 2011, my (at the time) pre-teen daughter had spent most of that summer telling the same joke over and over to anyone and everyone who would listen:

Two muffins are in an oven. The first muffin leans over to the second muffin and says, “Man, it’s getting hot in here.” The second muffin screams, “AAHHH!!! A TALKING MUFFIN!!!!”

To hear an eleven year old tell this joke is super cute. To hear an eleven year old tell this joke repeatedly, day after day with no end in sight, will make you a believer in corporal punishment.

In September of that same year, my brother-in-law Michael, a very successful insurance agent, treated me to a concert in Oklahoma City featuring Matt Nathanson, Train, and Maroon 5. It was held at the spacious, open air OKC Zoo Amphitheater on the northwest side of town.

While Matt Nathanson opened the show, a group of about sixty concertgoers (including Mike and I) were treated to a backstage meet-n-greet with the band Train. We gathered in a tented area behind the main stage, munching on snacks and helping ourselves to the free beer.

After about thirty minutes of feeling like big shots wandering around behind the stage at a major league rock concert, we were ushered into one particular tent. Moments later, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford and Scott Underwood (singer, guitarist and drummer for Train) arrived in our tent and immediately began playing tunes.

There was a bit of talking and joking mixed in with the 20 minute private set, and at one point Pat Monahan looked out over the crowd and said, “Man, have I got a joke for you – funniest thing I’ve heard in a while, and I think you’ll love it!”

In my inebriated state, those words hardly registered…but his next words certainly did.

“So,” Pat began, “these two muffins are sitting in this oven…”

“HA! I KNOW THIS ONE!” I said loudly. My brother-in-law, completely mortified, tried to silence me.

“…and one of them says to the other, is it hot in here?”

“THAT’S NOT HOW IT GOES!” I corrected our host, too loudly.

“…and the other muffin says, Aaaahhh! A talking muffin!”

“NO NO NO, YOU’RE TELLING IT WRONG!!” I announce to Pat and the other two band members and approximately fifty-nine guests as they laughed at his joke.

At that point, Pat notices me. Or, he decided to stop ignoring me and let me hang myself – I’m not sure which. Pointing to me over the crowd, he said, “Yes? What were you saying?”

By this time, Mike has me by the arm and is dragging me out of the tent as I’m yelling over my shoulder, “MY ELEVEN YEAR OLD DAUGHTER TELLS THAT JOKE ALL OF THE TIME, AND DOES A MUCH BETTER JOB THAN YOU DID!!!”

Pat said something to the group at that point – I couldn’t hear it as I was now well outside the tent, being towed away by my embarrassed brother-in-law. I heard some giggling, then a loud burst of laughter from the tent we’d just departed, and then Mike was dragging me up the walkway and around to the front of the amphitheater. I was sorry I’d missed something funny, until I realized it was most likely something funny…about me.

Within minutes I started to feel bad for embarrassing Mike, myself, and a musician I liked and respected. However, it was too late to go find him and apologize, and I was sure he had already moved on and forgotten about it – he had a show to do for a few thousand adoring fans, after all. Can’t let one misbehaving drunk ruin your night for you.

To his credit, Mike has never mentioned the episode, and it only comes up when Train comes on the radio and I begin to reminisce about what an idiot I was that night.

So Pat, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry. You’re an excellent storyteller.

It was all the beer’s fault.

Being a Team Player

Image courtesy Piktochart

There’s no ‘I’ in team. Tough times don’t last, tough team do. Together Everyone Achieves More.

All of these expressions (and so, so many more) tell you what a team is, but do very little to help you build a good team, or be a valuable, contributing member of one. What does it take to be a next-level team member? What separates the good teams from the great ones? And why should you care?

1. Be a next-level team member

There are three very straightforward, deceptively simple steps to building a great team, from converting a simply good team to a great one. These are in no particular order; each is as important as the other:

Hold yourself and your team members accountable. Open and honest communication is key to ensuring that all of the goals and objectives of the team are well-thought-out, germane to the purpose of the team, and agreed upon by all members. When another team member begins to diverge from the agreed-upon objectives of the group, it is incumbent upon the other members of the group to ensure that the issue is addressed and resolved in a way that is satisfying to all involved while staying true to the goals of the overall team.

Team first attitude. Abandoning the “I” and embracing the “we” work ethic ensures that everyone is on the same page as the entire group works towards the same goal(s). Don’t be afraid to share credit, and put your ego back in your pocket – the goal is not to become a star, it is to accomplish the objectives of the team. This may mean sometimes stepping up, and sometimes stepping back. Always remember: the success of the team is your success, too.

Stop, listen and learn. It is important to remember that no single person is a subject matter expert on everything – in the words of Simon Sinek, “No one knows everything, but together we know a lot.” Keep in mind that everyone’s contributions have value, and everyone has a unique perspective on each and every problem. There is always room for improvement, always an opportunity to gain knowledge and experience. It is always best to reserve judgement until everyone has had the opportunity to express their ideas.

2. Good teams vs. great ones

There are three key characteristics that separate a good team from a great one, characteristics that identify a given group of people as a cut above the norm and ready to face any challenge:

Strategy and purpose. This goes beyond having a yearly jam session where everyone gets an opportunity to express where they believe the team is headed in the next year, and what they expect to accomplish personally. It is imperative that the team has 1) clearly defined, well-reasoned goals and 2) an agreed upon path to reach those goals.

Conflict and decision-making. There must be sufficient trust and support within the group so that each individual feels they are able to express their thoughts and feelings on a given issue. There must also be a process in place where active discussion, without fearing of degradation or reprisals, can be carried out to the benefit of all. It is important to remember that each member is an individual with a unique and informed opinion on each subject, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

Right bus, right seat. In his outstanding book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins compares a company to a bus, and makes the case that who is on the bus is more important that where the bus is going. We can extend this metaphor to the team level as well – the objectives of the team, while very important (in fact, the reason for its existence), are secondary to ensure the right people are on the team, and are filling the roles that they are most qualified for.

3. Why you should care

Humans are social animals. They have a deeply held need to not only belong to a group, but to also be viewed as a successful, contributing member of the organization. The same holds true whether we’re talking about work or play – the same drive that makes someone want to root for (or play on) a winning sports is the same drive that gives us the desire to succeed at work. Teams are the ultimate expression of the social desire – it allows us a manageable situation where we feel we can make direct contributions to the success of the team, and of the company overall.

Regardless of your role on the team, just keeping these principles in mind will help you become a more valuable, more trusted, and definitely more successful contributor. The choice is up to you – are you content with being on a good team, or do you want to take your team to the next level and become a truly great team?

In the words of tennis great Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

The results may surprise you.

Lifeline, or How Not To Record a Performance Video

Writing and performing an original song is hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot when trying to record a video of it.

Yet there I was at Robin’s Roast Coffee Shop in December 2017, trying to record a live version of a new song I had just written called “Lifeline.” In retrospect, I should have used a lifeline to phone a friend to record it for me.

The whole thing started off easily enough. I had what I thought was a catchy guitar riff, added a variation of that chord structure to act as the verse, then sat down to write the lyrics. I’d done this a number of times already, and figured this would be a piece of cake. The lyrics came pretty easily, and within a few hours I thought I had a pretty good song.

Speaking of catchy guitar riffs…another song I’d written around the same time, “So Alive,” featured another interesting chord progression. They say that there’s nothing new under the sun, but I thought I’d really hit on something special with this one. So much so that I recorded a number of different versions of it, and made it the title song of my first album:

Then, a few months later, I had occasion to learn the song “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers – I wanted to play it during one of my gigs at the coffee shop. Imagine my surprise, then, that as I’m learning this tune, I come to find that the chorus of that song was nearly identical to my song, just sped up a little bit and in a different key. I had unconsciously plagiarized the son of one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last fifty years.

Anyway, back to December 2017 – the setup I used at the coffee shop was your basic mic-stand-with-iPad configuration – you can see it exactly as it was in the picture at the top of this post. There was very little space to spread out and move around, so I had to be very compact.

One of the things I loved so much about playing at Robin’s Roast was that the acoustics were very good – I could play at one volume at the front of the shop and there was very little degradation of volume or clarity as you moved to the back of the store.

Another nice thing was that most of the clientele were there to drink coffee and work on homework (at least on the nights I played), so there was very little pressure to “put on a show” – I just played three hours of background music, basically. It really allowed me to experiment with new songs, arrangements, and sounds.

I also thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to record a video of me performing my new song in a live setting. The table right in front of where I set up happened to be empty, so by leaning my phone on the napkin holder and hitting “record,” I was able to record my performance.

Ordinarily I don’t take breaks during a gig, so if it’s a three hour show, I play for three hours, straight through. On this night, however, after about an hour of playing I stopped, set up my phone on the empty table in front of me, announced to the handful of patrons that I was going to play a new song I had just written, and launched into “Lifeline.” When I finished, I retrieved my phone, put it in my pocket, and proceeded with my regularly scheduled show.

The reception after the song was very heartwarming – everyone seemed to enjoy it, and I even received a nice compliment (and a $10 tip) from a couple that left shortly afterwards, saying they really enjoyed that song in particular.

After the show, I packed up all my stuff, finished my coffee while making small talk with the manager, Caleb, then loaded out to my car. Once I had the engine running and the car had heated up sufficiently (it was early December, remember), I pulled out my phone to watch my performance of “Lifeline.”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go:

That is correct – I didn’t bother to check the alignment of where everything was in relation to the angle I was shooting from. For all intents and purposes, it is a four minute video of me singing my song from behind my iPad.

To say I was disappointed in myself and feeling pretty stupid is an understatement. I couldn’t believe I’d made such a rookie mistake. I’d recorded dozens of performance videos in my living room and at the bar where I’d been doing open mic. How could I be so dumb? It boggles the mind.

I resolved right then and there to do it again next week, but didn’t follow through. Then the gig ended when the shop changed owners, and the opportunity had passed.

Fortunately, I have a good friend who, aside from being a good sport, is a damn fine musician, and he learned the song so we could add it to our repertoire. So without further ado, here is our version of Lifeline:

Lifeline recorded Dec 10, 2017 by Hardwick & Caldwell

The song had finally made it to video, though not in the way I’d originally intended. However, the fact that I got to release it to the world with a good friend more than made up for my earlier screw up, and made the whole experience that much more meaningful for me. I wouldn’t change a single moment of the whole experience. It ended exactly the way it should have.

Immigrant Story

Have I told you about the time I was mistaken for an immigrant?

I was born and raised in the dustbowl of southern California. After graduating high school, I spent two years in the Bedfordshire, England, and three years in San Vito dei Normmani, Italy, before finally settling down in Denver, Colorado in 1988. I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the December of 1993, and I’ve been here ever since, livin’ the life.

As I related in an earlier post, and for reasons I won’t go into here, I took it upon myself to learn to speak Spanish last year. During the spring and summer of 2018, every other sentence that came out of my mouth was en español. I visited taco trucks with my daughter at lunch – she happens to be fluent in Spanish – and attempted to order in my new language. I visited Mexican panaderías. I listened to Spanish-language radio. And most importantly (for this story, anyway), I changed my name on the Starbucks mobile app to Esteban, the Spanish form of my given name, Steven.

Because there are not a whole lot of Estebans that frequent my local Starbucks, all of the baristas got to know me in pretty short order. I was often greeted with, “Hi, Esteban!” or “Good morning, Esteban!” as if I were the Hispanic Norm Peterson, to which I’d reply, “¡Buen día, mi amigo! ¿Cómo estas?”

One particular morning, I arrived a little early after placing my mobile order, and the barista said, “Hey, Esteban! I’m just finishing up your order, it will be ready in just a minute.”

“¡Gracias, mi amigo!” I replied. We then proceeded to make small talk (in English, as he doesn’t speak Spanish) as he continued to prepare my drink.

As I reached across the bar for my finished coffee (venti almond milk latte with seven – seven! – pumps of peppermint, in case you’re looking to get me something for my birthday in April), a hand reached out and grabbed my arm. I turned to face the older woman who had stopped me from getting my life-sustaining bean juice.

“Do you mind if I tell you something?” she asked me.

Well, this is awkward I thought to myself. “Sure, please do!” I said, perhaps a little too energetically.

“I just want to tell you that your English is fantastic, Esteban! You are assimilating very well to your new country. Tell me – how long have you lived here?”

I was floored. Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me was horrified, and part of me was flattered that I’d been mistaken for being Hispanic.

Competing thoughts flooded my brain. Do I tell her the truth? Do I mock her somehow? Do I accept this little microaggression for what it was meant to be – a compliment?

In the end, I decided not to burst her bubble, to let her think she was being a good American citizen by welcoming a foreigner in to her midst.

“A few years, ma’am,” I responded, “and thank you for the compliment!”

“You’re very welcome, “she replied. “You’re doing a great job – have a nice day!”

“Gracias – ¡que tengas un buen dia!” I said to her as I grabbed my coffee and walked out of the shop.

Activity Rings and Dog Walks

I’m trying to have a perfect month, and it’s causing my dog to think I’m crazy.

In the native Activity app in iOS, for those of you not in-the-know, there are three rings that the user attempts to close everyday. These three rings are the bells that lead to my Pavlovian response of needing to exercise, to get up and move.

The outermost ring, the cotton candy pink one, denotes active calories burned – active calories being those calories that you burn above and beyond resting calories. I suppose this ring is the color of cotton candy as a reminder to not ruin your caloric burn gains by eating junk food. This ring might be more meaningful to me if it were the color of chocolate or donuts.

This ring is usually pretty easy to close – I’m am active dude, for the most part. Whether I’m wandering around my house looking for something to do, or wandering the halls at work looking for something to do, I’m usually on my feet. I never worry about closing this ring.

The innermost ring, the baby blue one, records whether or not you’ve stood up during the course of a given hour. My guess is that this ring is colored baby blue because, just like a young baby, the goal of this ring is to get you to stand up and walk.

I rarely worry about this ring, as well. As mentioned above, I’m constantly on my feet, moving about my home or office. There have been days when I’ve been sick in bed in the past, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get out of bed and shuffle down the hall, only to return to my bed, for the sole purpose of adding another notch to this ring.

The ring that garners most of my attention, though, is the middle ring, the vomit-green one. This one is easy to figure out – it tracks cardio activity, with a goal of completing at least thirty minutes of exercise for a given day to close the ring. The vomit color is fitting, as that is often how I feel after about ten minutes of running.

The goal of closing this ring has led me to do some decidedly odd things, the least of which is not showing up at the gym at 9:30pm (it closes at 10 on most nights) just to do a quick thirty minutes on the treadmill with the express purpose of closing this damn ring.

One of the more questionable decisions this ring forces me into is to go out at 5:30am in the frigid cold to do a little running with Zeus. I’m sure he hates it, and I’m not a fan, either. We often have conversations while out walking/running, and they go a little something like this:

Me: “Man, it’s cold out here!”
Zeus: *looks back at me*
Me: “Is it cold for you? I mean, you’re always wearing a coat…”
Zeus: *looks back at me again*
Me: “…but I know you get cold. In fact, I can set my thermometer…”
Zeus: *looks back at me with concern*
Me: “…by how quickly it takes you to bark to be let back in the house…”
Zeus: *looks back at me and, I swear, rolls his eyes*
Me: “…when I let you out in the morning.”

So, here it is, late January, and so far, so good. Not to jinx myself, but I’m reasonably confident that I’m going to close all three rings every day in January, thereby giving me a perfect month. And my reward for doing this?

A digitally Perfect Month award in the Activity app. And the peace of mind of knowing that, no matter how pointless a goal is, I’m up for the challenge. And a dog that thinks I’m crazy.

Continuous (Self-)Improvement

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What are you doing to continuously improve yourself personally and professionally?

In business, the activity of continuous improvement is known by many names – Kaizen, PDCA (plan-do-check-act), lean culture – and usually involves some variation of the act/analyze/improve model that you might expect.

Regardless of the approach, continuous improvement works towards streamlining processes, reducing costs, and preventing overages (where applicable). It can be an informal practice – everyone in the organization is charged with taking responsibility for the effectiveness and efficiency of their output, for example. Or it can be a more formalized process, with a specialized team of personnel assigned specifically to access, document, and make recommendations based on their findings.

In your own personal and professional life, however, this process becomes simultaneously more personalized and more difficult.

Continuous self-improvement is important to everyone in order to 1) grow as a person, and 2) adapt to new or changing environments. Do you feel stagnant, bored, like your life is going nowhere? Are you stuck in a rut and don’t know how to shake the lethargy of doing the same thing every day, day after day? It may be time to assess your priorities and learn something new, something meaningful to you, on either a personal or professional level. Or both.

I have identified four areas that are essential to effective and meaningful continuous self-improvement. These guidelines are not necessarily meant to be all-inclusive, but the exclusion of any one of them will severely hamper your attempts to effect positive change in your life. To broaden your horizons and develop new skills (or expand upon ones you already possess), follow these four simple rules:

Make time for yourself. This is the first building block in the process – you have to be willing and able to set aside sufficient time for yourself in order to begin your journey. Whether it’s taking a college class, learning an instrument, or learning to speak another language (all things I did in 2018), the first order of business is to prioritize your time such that you are able to accomplish what you set out to do. Every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Get out of your comfort zone. Just as essential as starting your journey is doing something that will challenge your status quo, and the only way to do that is to step outside of your comfort zone. While you want to be careful not to overextend yourself too much initially – a series of discouragements is a good recipe for failure – you also want to chose something that will interest and excite you, and will hold your interest through the learning curve of frustration and failure. Life begins where your comfort zone ends.

Long-term commitment. Be prepared to devote a lot of your time to your new-found preoccupation. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in it, letting it become a part of who you are as a person. Tell yourself you’re in it for the long haul. Don’t be afraid to fail, and resolve to press on though the discouragements that are sure to come. If you don’t fail at least a few times, if you don’t find what you’re doing to be difficult at first, then you haven’t challenged yourself enough. Remember, even the smallest changes lead to the biggest improvement – from a small acorn a great oak grows.

Don’t stop. Once you’ve resolved to effect a change in your life, once you’ve begun the process of learning or doing something new, once you defeat the learning curve and start to become comfortable with your new found skill or interest – don’t stop. Make a conscious effort to avoid complacency, seeking to always grow and change. Be happy with yourself, but don’t become satisfied. Satisfaction leads to comfort, which leads to complacency. To paraphrase a Japanese proverb, at the moment you think you’ve arrived, you’ve already begun your descent.

On a personal level, there is nothing more important than continuous self-improvement. It is the hallmark of the human race, the desire to reach beyond the confines of our existence and experience something new. Sometimes it’s something huge and world-changing, but most often it’s the little things that we can change in our lives that make the biggest difference.

And as you begin your journey, keep this one last thing in mind – in the words of Vince Lombardi, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, nor a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”

So get out there and try something new, and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

Business People vs. People People

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Are you a business person or a people person?

Are you a take-charge, no-nonsense employee or manager? Do you believe that you (or your employees) are there to work, and that down-time or non-work related activities should be consigned to fifteen minute breaks every two hours? Or altogether eliminated until the whistle blows at five? Are you a proponent of the gospel of work hard and play harder, but play only comes after doing a solid eight hours of hard work?

Or are you a social butterfly, making sure to check in with everyone on your journey from the front door to your office or cubicle? Have you ever encountered a personal conversation at work that you didn’t have an opinion about? Are you sure to greet everyone who passes by, whether they’re engaged in conversation with someone else or not? Do you consider sitting at your desk for more than twenty minutes without any human interaction to be cruel and unusual punishment?

Of course, these two synopses are caricatures of the traditional business person and people person. No one wholly embodies one extreme to the exclusion of the other. If they did, they wouldn’t have a job for very long. The caricatured business person would soon lose the buy-in and respect of his or her employees, and the people person illustrated above would soon meet the business end of a poor performance review.

On the other hand, everyone leans in one direction or the other, favors one behavior above the other. There are business-minded people who recognize that they must interact with their co-workers in order to function properly within the workspace, just as there are people-minded managers and employees that have to constantly remind themselves that they have a job to do.

The trick is finding the happy medium between the two, and that is almost always only gained through experience. No one is born knowing when to work and when to play – it’s a learned response that is slightly different in every environment. This is why it is important to give new employees that much-needed time to acclimate to their new work regimen. They need to observe their co-workers in action to get a feel for “how things are done” in their new surroundings.

Possessing an appropriately proportionate balance between being a business person and being a people person often means the difference between success and failure in the workplace. As a manager, it’s knowing when to be part of the gang, and when to draw the line and mete out the praise or constructive criticism. As an employee, the same holds true – knowing where the line is, being aware of its constantly shifting nature, and being prepared to adapt when necessary is one of the hallmarks of a great employee.

Make no mistake, though – both characteristics are vitally important for all members of every organization, big and small. It is imperative in order to keep the workplace humming like a well-oiled machine for each individual to understand and accept their roles within the group, and live up to the expectations of the organization.

Leaving Your Comfort Zone

As I begin the journey of transitioning to a new position within my company, there are two quotes that keep running through my mind that I’d like to share them with you.

Henry Ford, the innovative business magnate and inventor of the assembly line, is credited with saying, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” This speaks to me on a visceral level, as it exemplifies the belief that you are the captain of your own destiny, that only you can determine your own fate.

While this viewpoint is a bit simplistic – there are obviously outside forces at work all of the time that affect who you are and what you are trying to do – it is true in that it all starts with you. Your attitude, and the actions that attitude leads to, dictates a great deal of your success…and your failures.

To steal from Norman Vincent Peale, the power of positive thinking cannot be understated. So much of life depends upon how you react in a given situation, and by maintaining a positive outlook and acting in a manner that is consistent with your most deeply held values and beliefs, you will succeed in whatever you set out to do in the long run.

The second of the quotes is by Virgin founder Richard Branson: “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.” This really goes against my nature, and human nature in general. As a civilized Society, we are hard-wired to find a situation in which we’re comfortable, and then do everything in our power to remain in that situation. Granted, there are those individuals who thrive on change and who live for the next challenge, but most of us just want to be content, to find what makes us happy and stay there.

I don’t remember much from the psychology class I took years ago, but Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has always stuck with me, in much the same way that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” has, and which I tend to throw into conversations at inappropriate times to show I paid attention in biology class.

It is significant that the need for safety and security is near the bottom of the pyramid, second only to our need for physiological satisfaction – food and water, warmth and sleep. The need for comfort and security is intrinsically basic to our survival and sense of well being, so much so that it often becomes the goal rather than the means to the end of advancing up the pyramid.

To journey outside my comfort zone – to move away from the job I’ve had for the past seven years and try something new, something I’ve never done before – is, frankly, quite scary. Don’t get me wrong – I have all the confidence in the world that I’ll succeed, based on my past experience of jumping into new things and doing well. But I also know that there’s no guarantee that I’ll do well. I know everyone in my new department will do everything they can to assist me, but in the end I’ll be depending on my own skill and ability to learn new things and succeed.

In the end, I believe the payoff is worth the risk.

The Ballad of Disgruntled Dan

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In the deep recesses of an uncaring, cruel city
Lives a man whom many call Disgruntled Dan
No one takes notice, none show the slightest pity
They avoid him like a plague (as much as they can)

Disgruntled Dan works the eight-to-five dayshift
If he’s avoiding his spouse he might pull overtime
And if he’s out sick, all consider it a gift
Sadly, he hasn’t missed one since 2009

He leaves the house early and his coffee he gets
With a scowl to the barista, never bothers with words
Then proceeds to the office, to pay off his debts
He works for the money, passion’s for the birds

He sits at his desk and logs onto the network
To see which emails he’ll ignore first today
He couldn’t care less if they all think he’s a jerk
They can mock all they want, as long as he’s paid

When lunchtime rolls ’round and the whole office clears out
To their favorite restaurants go the various cliques
Ol’ Dan grabs his brown paper sack, rigid and stout
Downs his egg salad sandwich while the office clock ticks

The afternoon meetings are challenging for Dan
He’d much rather be left to his own devices
He wishes they were over before they even began
He could care less about their inventory prices

He never contributes to the roundtable discussions
Content to doodle on his yellow legal pad
He’s blissfully unaware of any repercussions
Of the staff’s business plan, good or bad

The clock strikes five and ol’ Disgruntled Dan
Is out the door as if shot from a rifle
He honks at the traffic that he cannot stand
The annoyance he feels is no trifle

By the light of the TV, Dan and the missus
Eat yesterday’s leftovers, then doze in the den
And when they retire, there are no good-night kisses
Goes to sleep preparing to do it all over again

The morale to Disgruntled Dan’s tortured existence
Escapes him on a daily basis
The root of it all is his very insistence
In how he deals daily with the problems he faces

His passion was lost far too long ago to remember
If it ever existed in his heart at all
He counts the years, January to December
He feels the end coming but can’t seem to stall

So don’t be like our ol’ friend Disgruntled Dan
Be thankful and pleasant and giving and kind
Let a passionate life be your guide and do all you can
Be positive of heart, and of soul, and of mind

And you’ll find that your happiness and goodwill
Becomes success in the blink of an eye
For what does it profit a man to tilt at the windmill
Wake up! Don’t let your life pass you by