Archive for February, 2008

I’m just digging into Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds, in preparation for putting together a presentation that I’m giving in April at the In Store Marketing Summit.

I came across a great quote from Wabi Sabi Simple, by Richard Powell. “Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential.   [C]arefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure…Clutter, bulk and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention.”

I think he’s refering to haiku and bonsai, but it seems like it could easily apply to a harried life. I know that when I start to get stressed out, it is often the product of taking on more than is necessary, much of which is self imposed.  It seems worth thinking about what is essential, what obscures and confuses, and what is actually worthy of clear and direct attention.


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One of the challenges of managing the intersection of work and life is that the language that we currently use to discuss it is misleading, and often dangerously so.

One of the phrases I hate is “having it all.”  I hate it for a couple of reasons. It makes the person who wants to “have it all” sound greedy, like they think they deserve more than their fair share. And it assumes that there is a single interpretation of “it all” that is shared, commonly understood thing that we’re all shooting for. I find neither of these implications to be true.  

In reality, people who want enriching work lives and enriching home lives aren’t all the same. We don’t all have the same definitions of enriching work or life – or even the same definitions of home. And we’re not necessarily asking for more of anything, just different ways of being, and the ability to move about it multiple domains.  

It’s less like an all you can eat buffet and more like a dim sum brunch. We’re not trying to gorge on everything, just looking for opportunities to taste a variety of interesting flavors, see how they compare and relate. And we’re happy to pay by the piece.

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I bought two great 3 piece puzzles by Melissa & Doug over a year ago. Both have animals  that are easy for the monkeys to recognize and really big pieces with big knobs to hold onto. The monkeys started playing with them when they were about 12 months old, and could do them by 18 months. Today, I was organizing the toys and put them in a front and center location, even though I knew that they were kind of easy for the boys to do.

Before bedtime, Monkey 2 got both puzzles out, and starting doing them together. He’d take all 6 pieces our of both puzzles, and treat it like one much larger puzzle. He did the puzzles and took them back apart and did them again with this same method about 4 times. He was enjoying himself.

I was fascinated watching him turn two easy puzzles into one slightly more complicated one. I’m pretty sure it was his way of keeping things interesting. After all, while he is capable of doing much harder puzzles, it’s probably still fun for him to ace something. But he’s no slacker, so he gave himself a small challenge by doing two at once.

Watching him made me wonder how much of what goes on in the workplace is the result of the same drive: people wanting to find the line between what they’re good at and what’s challenging to stay engaged in their work. Sometimes, you want to push yourself harder and so pick out a harder puzzle to attack. Sometimes you’re handed a harder puzzle and don’t have a choice. But sometimes, you get to do an easy one, which is nice. And also a bit boring – so maybe you start doing two easy ones, or three, to see how much you can handle.

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I’ve been working part time since the monkeys were born. When I first went back to work it was two days a week and over the last two years it’s slowly inched up to four days a week. That actually seems like the right amount for me to be able to feel somewhat successful in my career and also feel like I get to spend a lot of time with the monkeys.I say somewhat successful because it’s still a challenge. I can’t do everything I’d like to do and I have to really prioritize how I spend my time. I say no to a lot of requests. This is especially hard as I work for a small and growing consulting firm and there’s always more than enough work to go around. I’ve been with the company since it was really small, am a leader there, and am vested in its success. I often feel bad because I can’t do as much as I know needs to be done.I feel especially guilty when I see my colleagues and friends struggling with working many hours and having too much to do when I know that it is technically possible for me to take things off of their plates. But it’s not possible for me to do so and maintain my part time status, so I don’t.  For a while, this was really challenging for me. But I’ve recently decided not to stress over it, because it is what it is, and feeling guilty isn’t actually helping anyone. In fact, my friends and colleagues at work have told me not to feel so guilty, that they just accept that I give what I can and so should I. And I have indeed felt much less guilty about work lately (1 point self aware adult; 0 points Jewish heritage). And then there is the other guilt. Last week, I was in California for a couple of days for work. I hadn’t traveled in about a month, but it was to be the first of two longish trips to the West Coast in the course of two weeks. And it was my first trip since we lost our nanny. So I felt guilty just getting on the plane.

Of course, as I settled into my work, I forgot about the guilt and concentrated on what I was doing. I was immersed in my work and feeling pretty good about it. Until I got this text message from my husband: Monkey 2 has infections in both ears. Cue spiral into guilt and recrimination, vision of husband on sofa buried under two screaming kids, fantasies about quitting my job, vision of myself on sofa buried under two screaming kids,  worries about paying the mortgage, etc. Oh, and then off to lead a team of 15 people in a working session.

This other guilt is equally bad for my job, equally unhelpful to my husband and the monkeys, and equally unhealthy for me. Yet I can’t seem to figure out how to get past it. Is it even possible to not feel guilty over not being with your kids when they’re sick? If I can get over the guilt about traveling for work and leaving home and childcare responsibilities to my husband, does it make me a bad mom? If I was the dad, would I even be writing this post? I know this last question isn’t quite fair, just like I know that there are some moms who do travel for work without the guilt. What I’d really like to know is, what’s their secret – and can I get some?

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My husband and I are experimenting with new ways of handling childcare for the two monkeys and household responsibilities in lieu of a nanny. We’re trying longer days in school, and adding a day, plus hiring a dog walker for when I’m out of town, and asking my mother-in-law for some mid-week help.

It feels like we’re joining the juggle for the first time since the kids were born, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never been good at juggling. There are some things about our new arrangement that are working well and others that we’re struggling with. But one of the most difficult elements of the entire experiment is trying to keep perspective on this new arrangement as an experiment and not necessarily the answer.

After “the incident,” we decided to try this life without a nanny thing. We said we’d try it, see how we liked it, and then see what we needed to change. But now that we’re doing it, some strange kind of inertia keeps trying to take over and remind us that success is not an option. Instead of acknowledging what is and what is not working, we slip into defending our choice and making rationalizations about what’s going wrong. In truth, it’s too early to tell. But in fact, it’s hard not to feel like the no nanny lifestyle is already a done deal.

I see the same thing happening all the time in my company and the companies that we work with. A direction, once chosen, becomes set in stone as ‘the way we now do things,’ even if it was intended as a stopgap measure and not a final solution. A product launch, once it passes some early stage gates, moves forward, even in light of some later information that would point to cancelling the project.  A prototype, intended as a vehicle for learning, gets either canned or launched as is, because it’s judged as if it were the final execution of an idea.

Successful people become accustomed to succeeding. And that can sometimes get in the way of being open to learning though trial and error. But I’m finding that there are some things that I can’t learn any other way. It’s so easy to say, “Fail early to succeed sooner.” It’s much harder to actually let myself do it.

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One of my Strengthsfinders strengths that I’ve always identified with is input, which means that I’m a collector of information. In my case, it means that I’m an information addict, filing pieces away in my brain, overloading on data, never shirking a web search when more information might be out there that might be able to help me in some way that I can’t even imagine.

When I was pregnant and a new mom, it actually started to feel less like a strength and more like a weakness. Especially since the more books your read about getting your babies to sleep, eat or play, the more perspectives you can find about the ‘right way to do it.’ Ultimately, after consulting 6 different books about gas and finding 5 different answers ranging from it’s all in the parent’s head to your child could be seriously ill, I made a clean break and decided not to rely on books to help me rear my children.

Instinct, I decided, would be a way better teacher for me than information, and I vowed to stop reading the baby books. Oh yes, every once in a while I can’t resist, and still consult a chart that tells me what my kids should be able to do by now or an article that helps me decide whether they’re really sick or just have some evil cold. But for the most part, my husband and I have been going it alone since sometime before the monkeys’ first birthday.

Enter the era of the tantrum. Lately, my kids have been really stumping me. The whining. The crying. The defiance for defiance’s sake. It makes my head hurt just thinking about it. And while every once in a while I find myself coming up with an inspired way to handle their behavior, for the most part I have no freakin’ idea what to do.

So today, I read that Dr. Harvey Karp has come out with a new book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. I’ve heard about his first book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, but never read it. And while I’m still really into the idea of parenting by intuition, I’m wondering if it has it’s limits. I mean, how many times can you use the same approach to address behavior and find that it doesn’t really work before you start questioning that approach.  

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve already learned something from reading the review of the book in the New York Times. The article goes into a bit of detail on Dr. Karp’s method for talking a toddler out of a tantrum. Instead of reasoning, or trying to soothe through calming adult language, Dr. Karp suggests talking toddler speak, mimicking your children’s language and phrasing. In response to a child’s wilful demands for a cookie, “Dr. Karp adopts a soothing, childlike voice to demonstrate how to respond to the toddler’s cookie demands. “You want. You want. You want cookie. You say, ‘Cookie, now. Cookie now.’ ”

Talking directly to toddlers in their own language shows them that you’re listening to them, and, Dr. Karp suggests, reinforces that you’re acknowledging their point of view. My guess is that it may also surprise them enough to shock them out of their tantrum. Gotta try that one.

This idea really resonates with me because it reflects the attitude I try to take when having conversations with clients and colleagues. When folks are frustrated or upset, the first thing I do is repeat their concerns to help them fell heard. Of course, when I do it with my kids, my instinct is to rephrase what they say in my own words. But I really like Dr. Karp’s suggestion of using their words and their phrasing to really drive home the point.

 So I’m intrigued. I probably will even buy the book. And it makes me think about the limits of intuition. As a consultant in an emerging field, I am often asked to solve problems that go beyond my area of expertise. Most of the time, that’s OK, because something that I’ve done before prepares me for what I have to do now. Even if I don’t have the exact experience of doing something, I have enough related experience to figure it out.

But any good consultant knows that some things lie directly outside of their area of expertise, and therefore require bringing in other people who do have the knowledge, or figuring out how to learn really quickly. As much as I think relying on your intuition is a good thing, its also critical for me to know when I’m outside of your zone of effectiveness, and when I need to consult outside experts to get the job done — whether that’s with my children, my colleagues, or my clients.

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After the monkeys went to bed tonight my husband and I had an invigorating, um, discussion. I learned a few things.

One – not having a nanny is hard. Two careers, two kids, one dog and one preschool schedule, not to mention dinner, household repairs, laundry and a delightful 5:30 AM wake-up call this morning, leads to two very tired parents.

Two – sometimes, I need to be as thoughtful about entering into a conversation with my husband as I am with my colleagues and clients. Here are some techniques that work well when facilitating a meeting at work that I should have used tonight with my husband.

 1) At the start of a meeting, let everyone know why you’re there and what you hope to accomplish. We don’t have formal family meetings yet, but when broaching a sensitive topic of conversation with my husband, I think he’d really appreciate knowing why I’m bringing it up before we get too far into the conversation.

2) When you share information, let others in the meeting know what you expect from them. Are you telling them something just so they know what you’re up to or what’s on your mind? Are you looking for input into a decision that you’re going to make? Are you looking to make a shared decision? Clarifying this can help the other person be in the right place to give you the kind of response that you’re looking for, and can prevent ‘what do you want me to do about it?’ defensive attitudes that can take a conversation down a wrong path when all you really want is for someone to nod, take note of what you’re saying, and move on to the next topic.

3) Try a trial close. Sometimes, conversations continue far longer than they should because everyone wants to say their piece, and minor details are debated, discussed and debated again without much progress being made. Sometimes, you’re at an impasse and there’s real disagreement between the parties to a conversation. And sometimes, it’s hard to tell which situation you’re in. At those times, it can be useful to stop the discussion with a question: what can we all agree on right now? In my meetings at work, we suggest a way to resolve the topic and have everyone vote on whether they agree with that course of action. If we agree, great, we’re done. And if we can’t agree, we either continue talking or put the issue aside for when we have more information to make a decision. My home is also a place where we like decisions that are made by consensus, not decree. I think it would help some conversations end faster and expend less of our energy if my husband and I made an effort to call it and see if we could agree on a resolution to a conversation instead of over-discussing an issue. Best case, we resolve the conversation. Worst case, we pause it and move on to the things we really want to be doing. After all, there’s dinner, laundry, the house, the dog…

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