Understanding our Choices

I listen to podcasts nonstop.  I love listening to interviews with smart people, pioneers, innovators, and people who dare to step up and make the most of their lives.  One of the best podcast interviews I have ever listened to was Episode 69 of Beyond the To Do List, where host Erik J. Fisher interviewed Alsion Vesterfelt on overcoming procrastination, building bridges, and taking leaps.  I was struck by Alison’s courage on her journey to where she is now, how she created opportunities, and jumped forward to pursue her goals.  One thing that really stuck with me from the interview, and was something I could instantly apply to my life, was Alison’s approach to the choices she makes in her life.  She looks at everything that she “needs” to do, and sees her demands as choices, not chores or anything that is forced on her.  By examining everything that we do, and being aware of the choices we have in our life, we open our lives, and find freedom in our actions.

Vesterfelt talked about her work, and the transitions she has gone through to get to where she is now.  Along the way she had jobs she was not excited about, but once she was able to change her frame of reference, and shift her focus, she found more flexibility in what she chose to do.  She began to understand that she chose to work because it would open future doors, or allow her to do things that she really wanted to do.  She did not allow work to be an excuse preventing her from doing what she wanted. Alison worked hard to create opportunities, and as they grew, she found courage through her choices to go after her dreams.

By seeing my choices at work, and choosing to work the way I do, I feel as though I approach work better.  By being aware that I chose to work were I do, I have a more positive attitude.  I focus not on the job, but on what the job will allow me to do in the future, or what I will be able to take away from my job.

All of this choice connects to something I recently heard when working a basketball camp.  Sean Farnham, a UCLA graduate and ESPN sideline reporter, was talking to a group of 9 to 11 year old kids about his journey and lessons, and told the kids about a coach he had recently met up with in the Los Angeles area.  The coach gave Farnham a rubber wristband that he was wearing that day.  The wristband said one word, “attitude”.  When he was given the rubber band Farnham was told that the reason why attitude was the one thing the coach kept with him, was because attitude is the one thing we have complete control over, and the one thing we can choose at any time.  Farnham talked to the kids about the importance of having a positive attitude not just with sports, but with every part of life.  As he talked I could not help but connect the dots back to Vesterfelt’s interview on Beyond the To Do list.  Choosing to have a great attitude at work, understanding the choices available to us, and being aware of the choices we make can help us be the best we are capable of becoming.

Since listening to Farnham and reconsidering Vesterfelt’s message I have worked hard to choose to have a great attitude at work, to choose to go to work and be a productive employee, and choose to grow and learn at work.  By seeing what choices are available, and choosing to have the best attitude you can set yourself apart at work, and grow in any situation.

How High School Sports Translated to Being a Good Employee

Many people start at their first job towards the end of their high school career, or shortly after, and often times it is not their own decision.  I do not know too many people who were excited and happy to start working as high school came to a close, and most people I know or have watched enter the workforce did so because they had hopes of moving out while in college, and needed some money to do so.  I believe that by changing ones mindset, and starting in these jobs, or any job, with a mindset of finding new opportunities and avenues to grow, one can be successful and enjoy their job.  Today while out on a run I was reflecting on a good habit of mine, always trying to be 10 to 15 minutes early for work.  Punctuality is a very important thing for me, and it is something I have woven into my character for multiple reasons.  I know it makes me a better friend because everyone can count on me showing up when I say I will, and it helps me to be a better employee because my managers see a consistent pattern from me, and have a chance to go over anything important with me before my shift really starts.  By having a mindset of work and punctuality being entwined, and looking for ways to distinguish myself as an excellent employee, I have had an easier time connecting with supervisors, and have enjoyed the workplace more.

My drive for punctuality came from two places, high school sports at Reno High School, and a club basketball team called the Reno Ballers.  At Reno High I had coaches who kept practice on “Husky Time” which meant that when they said practice started at 4:00, we were expected to be at practice at 3:45, and to be ready with our gear on by 4:00. Husky Time was not a new concept for me, because growing up playing basketball with the Ballers program was the same way.  We were expected to be early and ready to play before practice started, plus if you were early you had time to socialize, warm up, get some shots in, or whatever you needed to do.  I learned the consequences of being late without communicating from my coaches, and found great benefits from being early to practice.  Having good practice routines and being early paid off, while being late and slacking meant that we had to work harder, and were less successful in the long run.  Four years of consistent high school sports routines, and four years of basketball before that, drilled the importance of punctuality and focus into me, and those two factors became part of my character.

Bringing this character of punctuality paired with focus and preparedness when I showed up for something helped me in the classroom at the University of Nevada, Reno, and in the workplace.  I have never been late for work at my current job, and two times that I was cutting it close and knew I may be a few minutes late I called my manager to make sure they were aware of my situation.  I love being early to work because it allows me to check in with co-workers, double check the schedule for the next day and week, or get any important instructions before I get going.  There is no coach with a whistle, and no track or basketball court filled with lines to run to if I am late, but keeping the sports tradition of being 15 minutes early is still important for me, and still pays dividends in the long run.  When starting a new job, or beginning your first job, remember anything a coach taught you.  Look for areas where your job will help you grow.  By showing up early and focused with a positive attitude believing that you will have a chance to improve and grow, just as anyone might do when going to a sports practice, you will enjoy your work more, and get more out of it!

Apologetics at Work

A while back I listened to the 99% Invisible Podcast Episode #95: Future Screens are Mostly Blue, and was introduced to the term apologetics.  Apologetics as described in the show notes for the episode is the closing of logical loopholes, typically in theology, which means that apologetics is the act of explaining and rationalizing inconsistencies that occur in religious scripture.  At least, that is where apologetics originated. In the podcast episode two guys who wrote a book to explain why certain technologies are used in sci-fi movies apply apologetics to parts of movies that don’t seem to make sense.  This idea is something my friends and I engage in all the time.  Think of the Marvel Movies with Iron Man and Captain America doing all kinds of crazy things that may defy physics or involve futuristic technologies.  When you watch the movies 500 times like me, you pick up on little parts that don’t exactly make sense, but give you the chance to create your own explanation for why in the future these things would happen.  This is the type of apologetics that was discussed in the episode.  The two guys used apologetics to project why future technologies may develop in certain ways.  By looking at possible background and unexpressed situations they can see if there is a cultural reason for those types of technologies to actually develop in the real world, or if the technologies may be useful in the real future.

None of this really seemed to apply to me, my work, or really anything in the business world, until one day when I was reflecting on my work.  I started to look back at how the day had gone, and realized that I was making excuses and rationalizing the way I treated certain co-workers, acted when customers were in the store, and approached certain tasks.  This pattern continued for some time as I reflected on my behaviors and attitudes in the work place or in my social life.  In some of my reflections I was more honest with myself than in other reflections, and sometimes I felt as though I was deliberately changing my recollection of the situation to fit an ideal self-image.  I eventually came to the conclusion that apologetics was not something limited to fantasy or scripture, but something we all have the capacity to use in our daily lives.  At work and in self-reflection apologetics becomes excuses for our attitudes, performances, errors, and shortcomings. It allows us to rationalize behavior or actions that are inconsistent with how we want to see ourselves.

When we reflect on our day or our performance it is hard to admit that we made a mistake, failed to treat someone with respect, or were lazy.  It is easier and more satisfying to look at those negative moments and shift the blame elsewhere.  Perhaps we were being lazy at work because we had a busy morning and didn’t sleep well, so we could not have been expected to work hard. Or maybe the reason we treated a co-worker with a lack of respect was not our fault, but theirs for not being a better person and earning our respect.  These rationalizations take the blame for poor actions and judgments away from us, and shift it to others.  It is a poor use of apologetics that works to hide the painful truth that our self-image is false.  By avoiding apologetics at work and in our self-reflections we can be more honest with ourselves, and find ways to improve our actions and behaviors.  Rather than make excuses with apologetics, look at your shortcomings and write down ways in which you can improve yourself without allowing for excuses.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome and Work

Have you ever had someone point something out to you that you were not consciously aware of, and then you could not stop noticing that thing everywhere you looked?  For me, this happened with the concept of shifting baseline syndrome.  The idea was first introduced to me while listening to an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible.  The episode was called Wild Ones, and it detailed a live performance of Jon Mooallem’s new book, Wild Ones: A sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.  The podcast episode played parts from the live performance, and gave some insight into the ways in which human interactions with nature are now designed experiences more often than they are wild encounters.  I loved the episode so much, I purchased the book online, and once I dove into this detailed examination of human and nature interactions, our views towards nature, and the concept of shifting baseline syndrome, I began to question more of the world around me.  Shifting baseline syndrome is the idea that each generation inherits a world that is in some way different from the world that the previous generation inherited and accepted as normal when they grew up.  In the context of nature this applies when one generation grows up accepting the current state of forests, pollution in the ocean, and populations of animal or plant species as their baseline for normal.  That generation will see the state of those things change throughout their lifetime, often becoming more depleted or polluted, and will see nature as being lessened, but the following generation will accept that lessened state of nature as their new normal.  This idea crosses over beyond Mooallem’s descriptions of nature into many areas of humanity, think of Facebook, technology, and privacy concerns.  I began to look at how it affects us in our work environments, and saw that it can be a factor in the changes of our accepted practices and ideas in the same way that it is a factor with nature and conservation efforts.

Just like people and nature, companies and businesses grow and evolve over time.  As conditions change companies adopt new goals, policies, and practices that shape the workplace.  What once was normal and commonly accepted may no longer be possible at a given workplace and employees must change as their job changes.  In order to head in a new direction a new baseline for productivity, communication, or work progress may need to be established.  Changes are natural at work as every company strives to be more competitive.  If employees cannot adapt to the shifting baseline that accompanies new settings, atmospheres, and environments then they will not be successful, and by trying to maintain the old baseline or constantly comparing everything back to their original baseline they will hinder progress.

It is easy to see shifting baseline syndrome in action when new leaders take over at companies and hire new sets of employees.  A very visible and common example happens in sports, when the coaching staff of a sports team is fired and a new coaching staff is brought onboard to change the direction of the team.  The athletes on the team who are able to adapt to the new baseline of expected play, rules, and procedures will be the ones who can become stars, while those who cannot may be cut from the team.  When new employees are hired during times when new rules and regulations are introduced they will learn those rules within the workplace as normal.  The employees who were present before the new rules will be adapting to a new baseline.  As both new and senior employees adapt to the new rules or procedures, and as kinks are ironed out, they will both come to another new baseline that must be universally accepted to reduce conflict and boost productivity.

By being aware of shifting baseline syndrome you can act as a bridge between the new and the old.  Changes will occur at work, and new practices that are better and more efficient will be introduced.  By learning how to adapt and accept those changes you can become a better employee, and learn how to grow in new situations.  Being a bridge to new baselines requires open communication between you, those who hold positions above you, and new employees.  By being willing to discuss your ideas, the fears or concerns you have with changes that seem to be needed (or unnecessary) you can help to make the transition from one baseline to the other a smooth affair.  Accepting new baselines and learning how to reach them makes you a more flexible employee who can be trusted with more responsibilities.

Appreciate Demanding Managers   

I have had many managers at the jobs that I have worked throughout college.  I have worked mostly at small local restaurants, but I have had numerous other jobs along the way.  Each position has given me a new manager in a new atmosphere.  The managers and supervisors that I have worked for have given me examples to learn from and have taught me how to adapt to managers with different styles.  Most of my managers and most of the owners of the stores I have worked at have been very nice people, helping me feel relaxed and motivated at work, but their styles have always varied.   Through reflection observations, I have been able grow by becoming more aware of how I should act when I am in leadership positions.  My managers and supervisors have ranged from absent or very lax to demanding and even one manager who I can only describe as a jerk (the first clue in that job came on the first day when he told me he was a jerk and I was going to learn how to deal with it).

I can find positive and negatives in all of my managers, but those who were truly effective managers for me and my co-workers all shared several characteristics.  They were all managers that I would classify as demanding, but in a positive sense.  Unlike managers who are best described as driving, demanding managers I see as being flexible and approachable.  They allow you lee way when working, and give you a chance to prove yourself before they criticize you.  Demanding managers do not hover over you when you work, or constantly follow you to make sure you are on task, but expect you to be an adult who can work independently, and put 100% effort into your job.  The manager I describe as a jerk did not have any of the characteristics I just mentioned.  When I first met him (he was not part of the interview process) he treated me as though I was not worth his time.  Rather than giving me a chance to prove that I was hard working or a chance to demonstrate my skills, he acted as though I was not good enough of an employee, and I felt as though he treated me like a child.  He pressured me and watched me to make sure I was working constantly and putting in a full effort, but did not provide positive feedback.  Luckily for me, I had other options and did not have to work long under that manager.  Working a minimum wage job through college does allow you freedom in the work place.  Finding a job that is flexible is important if you are going to school, and looking for positive people to work for is incredibly beneficial.  Leaving a job early is not a bad thing if you learn from your experience, and are able to say that you fully applied yourself during your time at that job.

The positive aspect to working for a jerk manager is that you do learn how to focus on small details and avoid cutting corners.  Managers who push their employees to the edge will see good results in the work place for at least a short term, but they risk burning their employees out quickly, or driving away good employees.   If you do work for a manager who is a driver, reflect on the positive takeaways you have received by working for them.  You will understand the importance of punctuality, and will know how to look at the fine points to make sure your work is great, and not just good.  These are skills that you will not develop with a lax or absent manager.  After working for the jerk I went to work at a local golf course where I had two managers that I hardly ever saw.   I would work alongside one manager on the weekends for an hour or two during the morning shift, and the other I normally would only see when he walked to his car at the end of days that I worked the closing shift.  Because we hardly ever saw the managers it was hard to know what they expected from us or what they wanted us to do.  We would usually get written notes with instructions but no time line.  Without stating when they wanted something done, tasks would get pushed off or ignored for multiple shifts.  The quality of our work was not very good, and many employees spent time sitting, playing on their phones, or wandering around.  The workplace for us was relaxed and fun, and if you put in a little effort on your own you had a chance to make good tips, but there was little growth for any employees.  We did not have a chance to do work that impressed our managers, or take on new responsibilities.  The worst part of having an absent manager is the frustration that accompanied negative feedback or unusual requests.  Employees would not take criticism well, and the managers had a difficult time asking people to do tasks that needed to get done, but were not part of the regular work routine.  Easy jobs with lax managers can be nice to have, and can allow you to work on goals away from work without stress spilling over, but they do not offer much in the way of personal growth.

What I have learned from working with demanding managers is that my work is more than a reflection of me, it is an integral part of the workforce.  Demanding managers are demanding because they need you to be a contributing factor for the team, and not just a passenger along for the ride.  They will push you to perform at your best, and if you can live up to their expectations you will grow.  If your manager pushes you, but is good at giving you positive and negative feedback, and if they give you a chance to learn without treating you like a child, then you will find yourself in a position where you are able to develop skills far beyond the tasks noted in the job description.  Demanding managers should be flexible and open to suggestions from the staff to help keep everyone happy, engaged, and working as a team.  Observe your manager, and take notes on what you do or do not like about their style, and what you will find if you have a demanding but not driving manager is that you can appreciate the things about them that make them a tough but great manager.

Practice Anticipating Workplace Needs

Learning how to anticipate the needs of your workplace can be a great productivity strategy that will carry on to any future career.  At work everyone has a handful of tasks that must be accomplished each day, some tasks that reoccur every few days or weeks, and random things that come up unexpectedly but must be taken care of.  Entry level positions provide us with an opportunity to practice anticipating what will need to get done and when things will need to get done.  When we are aware of what needs to get done we can develop timelines for accomplishing tasks, and begin to see the importance of doing certain tasks in a certain order to be highly productive.

Anticipating the needs of your workplace is the same as planning ahead.  Every manager, business owner, and entrepreneur has to plan ahead to make sure that the business runs smoothly and is competitive, but many entry level employees do not make an effort to learn these skills.  Planning ahead is not easy.  It requires greater focus and application at work, and if one is not aware of future plans or needs for the business they can not plan ahead.  Entry level employees can help their managers, supervisors, and bosses by letting them know what is needed, and helping them plan ahead.  Developing skills for planning ahead in an entry level position helps to prepare you for a time when you may be a manager or business owner.  Learning how to be more conscious of the business, and becoming more comfortable with making predictions makes you a more valuable employee.

When you do become more aware of the business, and can develop timelines for when things need to be completed the next step is learning how to address the important things first.  In entry level positions the important things are often the more difficult and time consuming tasks or activities, while the less important tasks are easy, short, and only appear to be productive.  Business owners and managers can fall into the same trap.  It may feel productive for owners and supervisors to work through their email inbox, but it may not be the most productive activity, and can be quite distracting, especially if they get pulled in by those Amazon suggestion emails.  As an entry level employee learning how to attack the important task rather than procrastinating with semi-meaningless tasks will translate forwards to more important positions.  Pushing back the important tasks will leave you and your business, regardless if you are the owner, manager, or just another employee, in a bind and a time crunch when the important stuff must be done.

As an entry level employee a great way to begin anticipating the company needs is to think like an owner.  Look at what needs to be done, and begin to prioritize by considering how long everything will take, and when things will be needed by.  Find the big hitter items rather than the simple tasks, and work on those when you can be the most productive.  Direct your best energy towards those first, to ensure that they are done to the best of your ability.  Thinking of what the manager or owner will need first, and doing them with great quality will make you more valuable, and help you stand out.

Practice Using Language Effectively in Meetings

Communication at meetings is important for any group of people.  Using communication effectively is important whether you are talking with college graduates, high school students, or PhD's.  Trying to talk in a way that will bring everyone together is key, where using fancy  words to impress others can ruin the entire meeting.

Communication at meetings is important for any group of people. Using communication effectively is important whether you are talking with college graduates, high school students, or PhD’s. Trying to talk in a way that will bring everyone together is key, where using fancy words to impress others can ruin the entire meeting.

Entry level jobs give us the chance to practice good communication in team meetings, and to observe what we do and do not like in the way that we or others speak or listen.  We will all have many meetings throughout our lives, and if we are unable to communicate well in meetings, they will not be usefully, and people will become disengaged.  Learning to be involved in meetings in your first few jobs and practicing effective communication can help you be prepared for more important meetings in future careers.

When going to school and working at an entry level job, it is tempting to use fancy words that you learn during your studies at work.  Throwing in jargon at meetings to fluff up ones speech, using technical words rather than colloquial words, or using shortened blended words, an example would be “synbio” short for synthetic biology, is tempting during meetings, but it is not helpful for the overall purpose of a meeting.  At a meeting it is important that everyone is on the same page.  Likely a meeting was called so that the owner or manager could have a chance to sit down with everyone to discuss how things are operating and make sure that everyone is working in harmony.  There are reasonable words that go along with any job or industry and may sound like jargon or be on the technical side, but those words are used because they are more specific for the situation, and make things clearer for those involved.  Using that type of jargon or tech talk is different than using complicated words that many of your co-workers will not recognize.

People may use big words in meetings because they want to gain more power and importance at the workplace.  Using large words and knowingly confusing others may provide a chance to further explain yourself, allowing you to hold your co-workers attention as you explain your big complicated words in common terms.  Unfortunately this attempt to gain control and influence over your co-workers runs against the overall purpose of any meeting.  When everyone is together you have a real chance to connect with others, and everyone should have the chance to provide creative input.  One person using the meeting to promote their intelligence in order to gain status among co-workers causes a rift among all employees.  Others may lose respect for that individual, and they may not be able to connect in a meaningful way to build relationships with anyone at work.

Making a considerable effort to sound smart at work can do more harm than losing the respect of others at work.  From the daily interactions with the people you work with, your co-workers will have already formed an opinion about you.  They will have an opinion about how smart you are from your work habits, your interests, and how you act throughout the day. Trying to look impressive in meetings and using big words to sound smart when you are talking in front of all of your co-workers will not change the way they think of you.  Meetings are not useful places to try and impress people by sounding smart.  Speaking in an overly formal manner, and using language that is not characteristic of your speech can have the opposite effect.  Your co-workers will grow to respect you more if you can speak honestly, openly, and efficiently in meetings. When you try to use big words in meetings your run the risk of misusing words and sounding unintelligent.  The language we use in team meetings does not have to be complicated, and if you want to sound smart, using simple language can often help you more than complicated language.

Practicing using your language at work to connect with your co-workers and develop a thread of commonality is the best practice.  When you are in an entry level position or working at a minimum wage job, it is likely that you will be in a meeting with people whose educational levels vary.  There may be people who are currently taking college courses alongside high school students or college graduates.  These meetings give you a chance to practice communicating in a way so that everyone understands your ideas, and can provide their own input.  You may have a great idea, and your thought may spark a better idea in someone else, and if you are able to foster an environment of open and honest communication then it will not matter if the next good idea is from the high school student or the college graduate because they will both be comfortable with sharing their thought in an easy to understand way. Use the meetings you are a part of to observe others and improve your ability to communicate efficiently so that everyone can be involved with the discussion.