Tag Archives: Self Improvement

Mise en Place, Not Just for the Kitchen

I’m getting ready to make a presentation to a fairly large group, one that I had offered to make some weeks ago and have been refining since.  (I want to use a theater phrase in my intro that simply won’t come to the forefront of my mind, but that is a story for another time.)  I enjoy presenting (remind me I said that just minutes before I go on, would you?), and like to be prepared – shooting for that sweet spot where it can be interesting and clear without seeming practiced.


Anyway, I wanted to go into Chicago to the Lit Fest to watch other presenters and got my son interested by showing him the list of activities in the Good Eating tent.  I have cooked since my pre-teens and occasionally managed to do it well, but I have learned much more about the art of cooking since he became interested a few years ago.  It is his interest that brought me to DSC03390the French phrase in the title, which literally means everything in its place, relating to completing all prep work before actually starting on a recipe.  (You know when the chef just easily pours this little bowlful or that into the big bowl and tells the audience what is in the bowl.)


Put in terms for the rest of us:

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.”

~A.A. Milne


The carpenter who takes care of his tools and puts each one carefully back into a dedicated section of his tool box after wiping it clean from each use spends more time on the actual carpentry, purportedly the part of his (or her) work that is most enjoyable.  The same for the cook, and the office worker.


Not liking to do the clerical filing type tasks of keeping templates, manuals, etc. in the proper place means spending more time thinking about them and searching for them, in the meantime possibly losing the stream of the project or idea that is your actual task.


Our skill at managing these thankless mise en place tasks deeply affects our effectiveness at the tasks we were really hired to complete.


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations

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What is Your Favorite Skill?

I would love to conduct an experiment that would provide enough willing volunteers to teach each child in a classroom to read using materials from the child’s favorite topics. If you had learned to read using materials on say sports or horses or whatever interested you at that age, how much deeper would you cherish the opportunity to read itself? How much more likely would you be to read on your own, for pleasure and enlightenment?

Well, you can guess by the above paragraph that reading is my favorite skill. I like to ask this question of the children that I know, but just realized that it would be interesting to ask adults as well. We adults often stop thinking about our skills, except when we have to list them on our resume. But we shouldn’t just dryly list them this way.

Take out your skills and look them over. What have these traits done for you? Quite a lot, even the ones that you just do automatically like walking. Even the ones that you don’t care for, like math. Where would you be if you had not mastered these skills?


What if there were a complimentary skill that you could attempt? What if this new skill might be a key to the next step in your work journey? What if you brushed off an old and rusty skill? What if you found a way to share one of your skills?

What if, indeed.

© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations

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Training or Learning?

“I sincerely believe that the only way we can learn is through our deductive process.  Presenting us with final conclusions is not a way that we learn.   At best it is a way that we are trained.”

~ Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement (a business novel, what a novel concept)


I keep a list of books that I want to read.  I add to the list regularly through newspaper, magazine and other sources which reference books.  I don’t recall how I heard about this one, and I haven’t gotten very far in reading yet, but I was captured by this above quotation.  A man after my own heart, at least in regards to acquisition of knowledge.


Up until starting this book, I have always thought of training and learning as interchangeable concepts in education.  I have always preferred the pursuit of the why behind any concept rather than a dry recitation or memorization of facts, (or worse, acceptance of facts without presentation of corroborating information) but still these words have been synonymous in my view.


I have certainly encountered my share of people who would prefer to be trained – ‘tell me what you want me to know’ – as opposed to people who want to learn – ‘I want to understand the why and the how’.  There is room for both concepts, depending on the role and task but companies will grow more strongly when they hire the person who likes to learn and then give them some space.


Most of us, once we get warmed up, appreciate learning new things particularly if we can start to see the value – how we can use the new skill in our day to day.


Perhaps I will follow up once I finish this book.


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations

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Fear of Embarrassment, the Veil that Obscures Your View

veilI am not going to tell you that I am not subject to embarrassment, mainly because it isn’t true.  But I’m not particularly subject to fear – at least of this sort.  I have a long history of doing things that could be considered to be embarrassing, either intentionally or by accident.  It doesn’t really matter why I did them, it matters that while I turned 15 shades of red at the time, I’m still here and kicking.  I haven’t been banished from the human race.


I also won’t tell you that I seek out embarrassment intentionally (alright a couple of times – especially if it would embarrass my children).  I just won’t hold back from doing something because it might end up being awkward.


The thing that I have found is that I can make decisions on my actions more clearly once I removed the fear of embarrassment from the equation.  Of course I am having trouble thinking of a current example to share so I’ll tell this story instead.


Graduation gowns have wide, graceful sleeves which are not a style that most people commonly wear.  High heels and stairs aren’t a good mix (Jennifer Lawrence handled her trip up the Oscar stairs with aplomb, in my opinion), so it is wise to use the stair railing.  Except when you have to back back up the stairs to unhook your wide sleeve in front of all of your classmates and their families.


I tell this story regularly, because it is funny and humanizes me, but not a single one of my high school classmates seems to remember the tale.


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations



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Bloom Where You Are Planted

How many times has someone told you that things just haven’t quite worked out for them?  Or maybe the thought has gone through your own head that if only xyz had lined up, well you’d be sitting pretty.  It is called being human, but isn’t really very productive particularly because this attitude cedes control for your life to unknown forces.


There is plenty in life – work or personal – that is out of our control; largely these things can be lumped into either the system (school, company, other institutions that we interact with…) or people (every one we encounter, whether well-known or once met) that we deal with because we don’t live alone in caves.  And these systems and people certainly have an effect on the course of our lives.  But how much control they have over the outcome of situations, events or chapters in our lives depends on the control that we allow them.


I moved around every couple of years as a child so I became acclimated to change, the things which are relatively constant, and the things that while different are still familiar.  So bloom where you are planted was rather a family philosophy.  Our immediate family remained the same, our furniture; the houses and neighborhoods and schools were all different and yet had familiar qualities.  Sometimes I was more advanced in my school studies and sometimes I was behind and had to catch up.


Roll with the punches, make lemonade from lemons, just do it; I’m sure I could come up with more sayings that we tell ourselves.  I like bloom where you are planted because it has positive connotations.  Plants cannot move themselves if they find that they have too little shade or too much; too little water or too much.  But they have their own will to live and thrive so they find a way – the tree that stretches farther to the side to get more sun, the vine that sneaks under other plants to get away from the sun.


Did that somebody know that you wanted the promotion or to be on that new team?  Or have you been lurking in the shade, just making time at your current job?  Have you researched the benchmarks in your industry to plan how to meet them?


Plants do send us signals when they could use human assistance to get a better situation.  My leaves are burning and I am leaning as far as I can into the nearest shade, my dappled willow was saying a couple of years ago.  When I moved it to a shadier spot, it responded well and its will to live strengthened.  How can you bloom where you are planted?


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations

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You’ve Got Skills

I went to the library on the advice of a new contact looking for a book called Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It by Peggy Klaus, and drat it all my library doesn’t have it.  But I did get a different useful book from Peggy, The Hard Truth About Soft Skills.  (I love to support my library, and also get a chance to try out books before I decide whether I should buy them.)


We all know the importance of our thinking skills as knowledge workers, but it is good to actively think about the state of these skills, how current they are and how best to cultivate them to keep them relevant.  This is a nice quick read, and broken up so you can dip in over the course of your library’s borrowing period.


“While hard skills refer to the technical ability and the factual knowledge needed to do the job, soft skills allow you to more effectively use your technical abilities and knowledge.  Soft skills encompass personal, social, communication, and self-management behaviors.  They cover a wide spectrum of abilities and traits: being self-aware, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, critical thinking, attitude, initiative, empathy, confidence, integrity, self-control, organizational awareness, likability, influence, risk taking, problem solving, leadership, time management, and then some.”


In other words, technical skill and knowledge being equal between two or more people, the levels of soft skills between the people are what set them apart in a spectrum.


Taking that even a bit further, it behooves each and every one of us to keep these skills polished up at all times, on our own time and with our own money if necessary because this is an investment in self that will pay off.  (Investing in you starts with you – and often these days, ends with you.  Believing that you can’t increase your skill set because your employer is unwilling or unable to foot the bill is self-limiting.)


Plus, just like checking this book out from the library, the investment can begin just with your time.


Peggy is on my list of smart women I would love to meet, and Brag is on the list that I carry around with me for that off chance of time to wander a book store.


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations


Filed under Job Search, Personal Growth, Work Life

We Want Linear, We Get Billy from The Family Circus

Closure, the word that represents the neat little bow on the package that we want as the end stage of all of life’s little problems.  This happened, these suggestions were made, this action was taken and issue was wonderfully and completely resolved, the end.  Put forth in a single hour, 42ish minutes allowing for commercial breaks – wait a minute, that’s a TV drama.

We are complex creatures and we live in a busy, noisy world so it is no wonder that we crave clear cut, simple, straightforward story lines in our lives.  If it did work that way though, we would no doubt get pretty bored.  Even those of us who don’t care for math can respect the beauty that 2+2=4 every single time, regardless of the format – horizontal or vertical – or the font that we use to type it.  Ahhh, beauty in simplicity.

My Timeline

For years we tried to figure out one way or another to create a linear training process in a very complicated business model.  Build a tower with these idea blocks that relate to each other – but wait, we can’t put this next one on until we go off on this tangent and build a bridge to a nearby tower.  Oops, then we need basement access to these underlying theories.  And, bang, the new person’s eyes are starting to glaze over.

So we decided to tell the story through self-contained tasks that would help the new person to feel valuable right away and also get their feet wet with our process.  This was much more successful, but time consuming and eventually we would get to the tangle of all the interconnected theories and process.  Billy would tramp through and take us on his circuitous route.

Now, I love Billy and I like nothing more than to trace his progress through the neighborhood with my finger, especially in the colored Sunday comics.  But I also know that with a deep understanding of process, I can keep the main theme in mind as I follow the detour.  Because I know the main theme well.

How to communicate this to someone with a different thought and work method, though?  How to do it for a group of people, all with potentially varied work methods and thinking methods?  (Thankfully there are only so many methods and combinations!)

Call out core and ancillary aspects by name, use graphs and charts when you can.  I adore flow charts – which really is a mode of taking Billy’s meanderings and giving them structure.  Don’t get too dry, try to keep at least a hint of Billy’s whimsy.

(My compliments to Bill Keane, creator of Billy and The Family Circus cartoon.  We all learned about flow whether we realized it or not.)

© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations


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Lesson Learned, Until it’s Not

lessonI was entirely too practiced at avoidance behavior in my younger years.  I can readily admit this now because my boys are beyond the point at which they can use this against me in their own arguments.  Time after time I would convince myself that it was easier to miss my curfew than stop making my way home and call to announce my tardiness and face immediate wrath.  (This was long before cell phones.)


What I know now and could not, could not get through my thick skull back then was that the ire was most likely made exponentially greater by my avoidance tactics.  I would promise myself as I endured whatever fallout came from my stupidity that I would learn this time.  I would give advance notice.  (Missing curfew was pretty much a given if I wanted a social life – I didn’t have a car and my curfew was by far the earliest among my friends.  Sleep-overs were a win-win solution that I did employ as often as possible.)  Time after time in the heat of the moment, I would ignore my resolve and avoid the confrontation until I arrived home.


But we’re all adults and we don’t have curfews.  No, but we have bosses and clients and co-workers who all have expectations of us.  And some among us simply cannot, cannot seem to believe that facing the issue is the best means (outside of heading off the issue in the first place) of lessening the fallout.


While raising my boys, I sowed many different seeds on the wrong-headedness of avoidance as a viable choice for solution.  I promised to hold my tongue and offer a lower or even no punishment if they would come forward and tell me right away.  As a manager, I was always frustrated when I would have to have similar conversations with an employee.


There are plenty of lessons that must legitimately be relearned because the tools or rules have changed – i.e. the newest Microsoft Office product which is always just a bit scrambled from our previous understanding comes to mind.  If there are any examples when avoidance actually worked, I don’t know about them.


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations


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Tolerance to Exasperation and Back Again

I deserve the benefit of the doubt when I did that thing, the one that made you puff up your cheeks and expel the air loudly within my earshot.  You see, I was dealing with a difficult issue, so I deserved special consideration.  I know that you rolled your eyes and said something nasty about me to your seatmate too, don’t think that I don’t.  I deserve tolerance, I don’t know why you can’t see that.


Now, when you are dealing with a difficult issue, I am well within my rights to be exasperated with you because you always need special consideration and that is just getting old, you know.


Did you see yourself in these last two paragraphs, even just a little hint?  I hope so, it is called being human.  We know the details of our own circumstances and therefore can list why we deserve tolerance and the benefit of the doubt when something comes up.  But we are well within our rights to act put out when someone else comes along and wants special treatment because it is making our life more difficult.


Do you remember George Carlin’s bit about driving – how we all believe that we, ourselves, are an excellent driver but that the majority of others on the road are quite incapable?  Statistically we simply can’t all be above average.  (Because that would raise the average, you see.)


Then you add in that tricky confirmation bias – where you only see/hear/notice the parts of the situation that reinforce your own belief about your deserved need for tolerance or your righteous exasperation.  Whew, it is sometimes a wonder that we humans ever managed to get beyond living alone in caves and working all by our lonesome in some corner of the world.


Despite the fact that I use my writerly powers of observation to watch the tolerance/exasperation pendulum swing in plenty of interactions that I am not actively participating in on a daily basis, I am still subject to the same tendencies when I’m in the thick of a situation.  If I see myself barreling into the land of exasperation I will do my best to divert, stop short or turn around.  If I don’t see until through hindsight, I will devise some type of atonement in hopes of paying it backward in some cosmic way.


My main tool, when I am on my game, is to seek for clues of inclusion with the person or persons with whom I am sharing a space regardless of the amount of time that we may share that space.  By inclusion, I mean what we have in common, how we are sharing this human experience in a way that we could each recognize and nod knowingly.  If I see something of myself in you, then I am more willing to fall on the tolerant side of the spectrum.


Mr. Fred Rogers, that original paragon of niceness and inclusion, reminded us that we should think about what the other person might have been through that day or week or recently before passing judgment.  And it is quite true that as real as our own problems are to us, everyone else’s are just as real to them.


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations


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What Price, Solution?

There are so many instances when the choices that we have to decide between are quite similar, making the selection of just one that much more difficult.  In deciding, we are rejecting possible alternatives – choices which may in the long run be better suited to our purposes.  In some cases, we may be able to give each potential solution a trial run, but this is rare.  We must determine the best solution based on established parameters and turn away from the other choices.


I’ve already written about making decisions once specifically, and referenced this requirement of life many more times.  Being good at making decisions comes down to having a strong understanding of how to define the current a potential future needs which should be met by the successful choice.   It also means giving up the idea of a perfect choice – attempts at perfection in decision making often lead to the worst paralysis.


So this first decision is to make certain that you know the intent or objective that the solution you choose should meet.  For instance in your personal life, the choice of a particular school for yourself or your child.  What are the pros and cons of each of the choices in comparison to the expected needs for the course of study?  Farther back, how to decide what is the best course of study?  What other factors will affect the choice – distance from home, financial aid, availability of work study jobs, and so on?


At work perhaps it is a new opportunity, but not quite in line with the direction that you had expected to grow.  Should you divert from your expected path, what are the pros and cons of making this choice?  What are the pros and cons of staying put and being prepared for an opportunity more in line with your preference?  Are you even ready to make this decision right now?  If you don’t really know what you want from these choices, then you should work on that issue first.


Perhaps you are normally good at making decisions and are agonizing over a particular one.  Instead of trying to figure out the best choice, your energy might be better spent digging into why this particular decision is so difficult for you.  Is it because you have fallen into the perfection trap?  Or are you just not ready to work on this particular issue right now?  Perhaps it is a case of conflicting priorities?


Perhaps you have received too many opinions from interested parties, regardless ultimately you must come to your own conclusions.  Lying awake at night agonizing over decisions is ridiculously maddening and not at all time well spent.  Here’s a great perspective from a fellow blogger – Decisions, Decisions – What if I’m wrong?


© 2013 Practical Business | Reasonable Expectations


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