Friday, February 24, 2012

Courtesy is Contagious

SunflowerIt Begins With You

There are public service announcements (PSAs) on the subways.  One is: “Courtesy is contagious, and it starts with you”.  Sounds good, but I wonder if anyone’s listening.

The doors open and everyone pushes trying to get on and off at the same time – forgetabout courtesy there.  Old and young get on and whoever gets to the seat first sits down – not much courtesy there for the seniors among us.  Pregnant woman, people with disabilities, mothers and fathers with young children, shoppers with bags – nobody makes eye contact with them, let alone gives up a seat.  Newspapers, Kindles, paperbacks and PDAs – seems people can pay complete attention to those and never notice someone who’s looking for a little courtesy.  Maybe people just can’t hear the PSA.

I’ve been watching this for a year and it’s not about the PSA – right?  I mean, aren’t these the kinds of things you learn as a kid and just do because it’s the right things to do.  But when’s the last time you saw someone help someone cross the street, or carry a heavy bag or stroller, or any of the hundreds of other acts of kindness that could and should be happening spontaneously throughout the day.  So I started watching – you know, standing at the corner rather than quickly rushing across the street, watching people on the subway rather than reading my paper – that kind of watching.  And what I’ve started to see are the acts of kindness I thought weren’t happening.  Seems that these get lost in the overall shuffle.

Saw a guy help a women carry her stroller up the 32 steps from the underground subway station.  Saw an older woman help a blind person onto the subway and into a seat.  Watched a kid help an elderly man and woman across a busy Manhattan street.  Mine is a half-assed survey but the examples are there.  I guess there really are lots of boy and girl scouts around – I guess they’re just hard to spot.  Maybe that’s because they don’t jump up and down like pro athletes when they do these kind acts - are we so jaded or busy that we just don’t see them unless they do?

So now I’m wondering whether it’s the PSA (that many times can’t even be heard) or are these New Yorkers just hard wired to do it simply and quickly and then move on?  So I asked – no, I really just commented to a few when they were done – and they just shrugged like it’s no big deal.  And that’s the moral to this story: helping others, random acts of courtesy – they are everyone’s responsibility and people just do them because they know it starts with them.  No big deal; no cause for celebration; just the right thing to do.  So pay attention with all your senses today and see if an opportunity presents itself, and then, as the end of this PSA says: “Stand up for what’s right”!

My message this week is about participating in things, fully:

Arte Nathan“The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”
-Joan Didion

Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) is an American author best known for her novels and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation.

How much responsibility do you accept for your actions?  Really – be honest!  You probably know people who say they accept responsibility but actually don’t.  And if that’s the case, stop and analyze how that kind of disconnect happens, see how what they say is at odds with what they do, think about how they mislead themselves and think they’re convincing others,  and try to learn from what you see.  In life, it’s all about learning from those around you, and honing your thinking and skills by watching others, and getting and being better by avoiding the pitfalls you see.  Because if you can learn, and be better, then you’ll probably be more successful at the things you do in all facets of your life. Because if you can recognize the little ways that people deceive themselves then you might learn how to see and recognize some of those mistakes in yourself before they happen.  And all of that will lead to the place from which self-respect springs.
Stay well!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

It's a Dog's Life

A Dog's Life

I’m always writing about and talking about our dogs.  Two Jack Russell terriers, 10 year’s old, born in the same kennel a day apart, and given to us by our daughter as a holiday surprise.  And they came with the names she gave them: Will and Grace. And from that moment they’ve run our lives.

We’ve moved them from Las Vegas, to Laguna Beach, to the Adirondack Mountains, to Brooklyn. Very different places, but they’ve always adapted even when we thought they wouldn’t. Because we’re devoted to them they’re loyal to us; and they’re thrilled no matter where they are as long as they’re with us. That’s love. Unconditional love. And a good lesson to learn. That’s the cool thing with dogs – they’re not only our best friends but they’re also pretty good teachers.

Another cool thing about dogs is that most of the things you do with them are their favorite things. Time to eat – that’s their favorite thing. Time to go to bed – well, that’s their favorite thing too (these two sleep not only on the bed but under the covers). Give them a bone or a doggie treat – hey, those are favorite things too. Want to take a walk – hurry up, cuz that’s their favorite thing!  Sitting in the sun – oh my, that’s a really favorite thing too!

And speaking of walks, these two can take up to an hour to walk around the block, because no matter how many times they’ve taken that same path, there are so many smells to be sniffed that are new and exciting. My friend Kate from Laguna Beach calls it p-mail (just a little dog walker’s humor). But you can just picture it: noses to the ground, scampering from one spot to the next, all the while excited to be doing… their favorite thing.

And the lesson here is that no matter how much you think you know something, or how accustomed you are to doing something, or how mundane the task might be, you should always be curious and excited because that’s the first time you’re doing it that time.  A few years ago I had the chance to watch Sting sing Roxanne to a convention group – and even though he’d probably sung that song hundreds of times before, he sang it to them like it was the first time. We asked him how he could have it seem so fresh and new? “Well, he said, to them it was the first time”.  Huh!  He was so right. Like our dogs are so right. It’s always best to be in the moment, to be so excited and curious and full of wonder in every moment. That’s how to get the most out of life, to live life to the fullest, and to be the most and best you can be.  That’s the lesson from the dog’s life.

My message this week is about acting and being professional:

Arte Nathan“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”  

-Kenneth Blanchard

Kenneth Hartley Blanchard (born May 6, 1939) is an American author and management expert. His book The One Minute Manager has sold over 13 million copies and has been translated into 37 languages.

Ever see a professional try to push someone into doing something? Unless they’re a Sumo wrestler, chances are that the professionals you know in business or your personal life are the kinds of people who help guide rather than push you into things.  That’s because the key to being successful at anything – leadership, friendship, mentorship, stewardship – all of these and more rely on the not so subtle art of influencing others. Being good at what you do, being knowledgeable about the things you do, being humble in showing what you know – these are the things you look for in others and what others will look for in you. Never underestimate the needs that people have to learn new things or to be helped to better understand the things that confound them. Be aware of how you approach people:  be open, understanding, sensitive and patient, and show them through the strength of your influence how they can be better. In this, showing is always better than telling!

Stay well!

Friday, February 10, 2012

What a Year!

What a Year

It was one year ago that we packed our bags and dogs and headed to Brooklyn.  Never thought we’d be here a whole year.  And certainly didn’t think we’d be starting a second one again so far from our home out west.

Had to get used to the noise of the city, and not having a car, and having to walk or take a subway wherever we wanted to go, and carrying just the groceries we needed for that day, and walking the dogs on the busy streets, and living with the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.  Never thought we’d actually like all those changes, but we did.

Had to leave friends and family behind and live where we didn’t know anyone.  But after a few days the unknown started to become familiar, the schedules of things started to become routine, the things we feared from afar slowly started to seem secure, and the perceptions we had slowly became realities.  Now don’t get me wrong, I still hate change (don’t we all), but this tiny apartment, which is the 15th place we’ve lived in since getting married more than 36 years ago, and the new surroundings and work now are part of the rhythms of our current life.  And the hopes and dreams we had on that plane ride out here a year ago are now woven into the fabric of the lives we now lead.

In the end, it really is about seeing the possibilities in the things that we’re presented with.  We can always get caught up in the seemingly unfair turns that our lives take, but the road doesn’t look so long or scary in the rear view mirror and the things outside the windows of our lives are now beginning to define who we are, the trick being to more clearly see out the window or windshield. In the distance are the theaters and museums and parks and rivers and changing seasons that all hold so much wonder and promise.  But still I was sweating the small stuff, like I worried about how the dogs would take to the radical change of environments – actually they were just happy to be with us and going for walks is the same bonus here that is was and is anywhere.  To them, there’s a whole new world of smells to be sniffed…. there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

When’s the last time you could walk to enough restaurants that you almost never had to eat in the same on twice; of course we found some favorites and in them we became recognized regulars.  When’s the last time you could easily walk to the park, and to get groceries, and to buy flowers and wine from people who slowly stopped being strangers.  Not surprisingly, we’ve grown comfortable and familiar in these new surroundings – like many would under these circumstances.  When’s the last time you had to change doctors and dentists and hair stylists and gyms and all the other things you’ve gotten familiar with.  Funny, but the new ones quickly start to seem like the old ones (and the people in each of them look nearly familiar).  Yep, we all cringe at the thought of change, but fortunately, we are, in fact, adaptable enough to change.

I’m writing this on the train from Long Island to Brooklyn – the bonus is being able to write rather than drive with gritted teeth through rush hour traffic.  I’m wearing a winter coat instead of the warm weather gear I’d have on back home in Laguna Beach – but I’m now one of the happy ones who remark about the great winter weather we’re having here in what is normally the frozen and frigid Northeast.  I’m headed back to our little apartment in the middle of Brooklyn in the heart of the Big Apple – and yes, the glass is half full because it’s the weekend and I can get out the New York Times and check out all the great entertainment choices we have.

Because we didn’t have to pack up and sell our home, this started off feeling like an adventure.  And every day we had to remind ourselves that adventures at any age are good; so we took lots of deep breaths and tried not to worry about what we didn’t have.  Because what we did have was good enough. Yeah, we had uncertainty, but we had each other.  Of course, we had ups and downs, but again, we had each other.  And after more than 36 years, it’s comforting to know that that’s more than enough.  So it’s been a good year.  And now we’ll get up on our tiptoes and look over the horizon at the next year to come.  Together.  Good enough!

My message this week is about never being afraid to try:                             

“Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.”

-Stephen Kaggwa

Stephen Kaggwa is a young Ugandan restaurateur who immigrated to the USA in 2002. Since 2006 he has owned and operated an African (Ugandan) cuisine restaurant called Tam Tam's in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Lots of people have uttered quotes like this throughout time, and it’s noteworthy that a young immigrant understands this sage advice.  How many times as a youngster did you fall off your bike, only to have your parents get you back on with a friendly “try again”?  How many times did you try something for the first time – at work or in sports – only to come up short and have a coach or colleague urge you “try again”?  Ever hear the saying: “nothing ventured, nothing gained”?  Lots of different ways to say that it’s better to have tried and failed at something than to never have tried at all.  Because it’s only by trying that you’ll put yourself into a position to do the right thing or even possibly win or succeed.  And never giving up is the only way you’ll ever have a chance to do something great and grand.  So go ahead and try, and don’t worry if you fail; what you’ll learn will be invaluable.

Stay well!

Friday, February 3, 2012


Close-up of camera lensB&H

My computer died. It seems that everything I do and have and know is loaded on that computer, and because it’s a laptop and gets carried everywhere with me it’s taken its share of lumps over the past few years. And going through its electronic demise was very unsettling. So I bit the bullet and bought a new one. But this isn’t about computers.

I used the old and failing computer’s internet connection to surf the web for information about all the available options: Desktops, Laptops, Notebooks, Chromebooks, Tablets,  Ultrabooks - everyone has an opinion, everyone has a favorite. And then I surfed for all the options on where to buy one - I could buy from a brick and mortar store or online – there are so many options, so many confusing choices.  And then someone said to go to B&H Camera. Go to a camera store for a computer?  Yep - it’s a huge, block-long store near Madison Square Garden with everything for cameras, including computers. So I went and, don’t you know, had a one-of-a-kind experience. This is about that experience.

Here’s what it says on the B&H website:

Since our store opened more than 35 years ago, we've gone beyond simply supplying you with professional gear. We've aspired to share our knowledge of technology with you in the most personalized way. Visit our store, and you'll find a sales staff made up of industry professionals who share your passion for technology and will help you use it to its fullest potential. As you choose from over 235,000 products, feel free to enlist their help.

That’s a mouthful, and since everyone says something like that, it’s pretty easy to dismiss it as some kind of hype.  But from the moment you step into this huge store you begin to experience something extraordinary. This place has nearly 3,000 employees, all of whom seem to know the answer to just about anything you can ask.  We’ve all been to stores and malls that have the necessary signage, but this place has intersections and stairways that are clearly marked and backed up by scores of employees giving or clarifying directions. Busy stores have lines that normally seem like a trip to the DMV, but this place has clearly marked lines leading to sales, ordering, cashiering and checkout. And everyone was friendly, helpful and upbeat – unlike most of the stores that advertise heavily, promise mightily, and disappoint regularly. When’s the last time you got no-nonsense help about the latest electronic gadgets from someone that wasn't trying to convince you to buy something you didn’t want or need? Nobody was pushy here! How often do you go to places like this and end up feeling confused or stupid?  Didn’t happen here! Every employee was knowledgeable without being full of themselves or pushy.  And take it from an old HR guy – that’s not easy.

And because of all the goods and all those smiling and helpful employees, you almost don’t notice the most amazing thing about this store. Constantly running through the floors, walls and ceilings is a conveyer system. So when you get help on the floor and finally figure out what you want, you get in a line to one of 75 order takers who key in what you want, and voila, while you’re standing there talking, up comes what looks like a milk crate with all you ordered.  You check it out, confirm it and then head to a line of cashiers. Give them your name and they’ve got the invoice all ready.  Next go to checkout and your crate of goods is now packaged up and waiting for you.  And out you go.

This was low tech, high tech and high touch all rolled into one. Why isn’t every retail or service experience like this. Why is it that we can count on one hand the number of smart and innovative sales and service experiences like this?  Why is it that so many of the companies we rely on for the everyday things we need don’t seem to put much emphasis on getting great service right. The answer is that it takes lots of care and training to create something like this. Average is not good enough today, and anyone trying to get away with providing average quality and service won’t survive. Here’s what Thomas Friedman wrote in this week’s New York Times: There will always be change — new jobs, new products, new services. But the one thing we know for sure is that with each advance in globalization and the I.T. revolution, the best jobs will require workers to have more and better education and training to make themselves above average.

When you see something as good as this it’s a good idea to thank somebody: I stopped and thanked several of B&H’s employees for a job very well done, and  I wrote to the owners and thanked them for being astute and detail-oriented enough to provide this kind of experience. Most of us are pretty jaded from all the average experiences we have – so if you see or experience something above average be sure to thank those responsible. Doing that will slowly but surely raise the level of service we expect and experience, and it will reinforce the good efforts by others. Don’t take anything for granted, don’t accept less than great quality and service, don’t forget to do what it takes to reinforce the best behaviors you see and experience today.

My message this week is about doing what it takes to be more than average:

Arte Nathan“Big thinking precedes great achievement.”  

-Wilferd Peterson

Wilferd Arlan Peterson (1900 - 1995) was an American author who wrote for This Week magazine (a national Sunday supplement in newspapers) for many years.

When it comes to team spirit, there’s nothing that reinforces it like winning. That’s because winning is the ultimate achievement.  And the best way to win is to think that you can, believe that you can, and act like you can. Of course there’s also the prep work and practice that goes into transforming individual effort into team work.  How often have you seen boasts and promises proven to be false because the ones doing the talking think that’s all it takes to defeat the challenges and competition that exists in so many aspects of life?  And how often have you believed those boasts but then found them to be lacking the key ingredients? Those ingredients include the things that nourish the will to achieve and win, like hard work and practice, patience and perseverance, team work and team spirit – these are the big things that winners believe in. If you and your team want to win at anything today you should dream the big dreams and do the hard work that always precedes big achievements.

Stay well!

PS: I got an ASUS Ultrabook.  And if this computer turns out to be half as good as the experience of buying it then I’ll be a very lucky guy indeed.