Do you know what you want?

A lot of people I meet claim to be “goal oriented” and “driven to succeed”. They have to “know what they want or else how can they get it” and “if they don’t know where they’re going then any road will take them there.”

One problem I see with this idea that seems to have been so ingrained in the minds of the western corporate workforce is that if that thinking isn’t your tendency, you may feel deficient. There isn’t a lot of room for those who would choose to enjoy what’s happening now; the focus has to be on what I am setting myself up for in the future.

I wouldn’t suggest that everyone empty their bank accounts and live for today. That’s beyond irresponsible, even venturing toward ignorance of human instinct. But at a point what you want becomes an unhealthy obsession having the scent of greed.


What you want doesn’t have to be on an immovable date or have a specific name. And it doesn’t have to be more than you have. Reframe what you want so that it includes who you are and not what the loudest and rudest parts of our society tell you to be.

You’ll be happy if you want what you’ve identified as truly important to you. That’s success.

What are the truly important things?

It may have been 15 years ago, but I remember in vivid colour the first time it occurred to me to ask this question: “Is this a work problem, or is this a real problem?” A visibly troubled woman had approached me for advice. I happened to be aware of a workplace conflict she was experiencing, so I was confident in my assessment of why she wanted to talk.

My question was a little devious, even unfair perhaps, in that it is a logical fallacy – it’s entirely possible for a work problem to be a real problem. In my defence, it was with the good intentions of providing her with an opportunity to do a quick assessment of how important the problem was in the grander scheme. Fortunate for both of us, it did just that and had the desired effect of defusing the situation. We then had a very pleasant, productive conversation.

It’s far more complex than saying if something happens at work, it shouldn’t be considered important. I happen to think that my work is important and so, occasionally, thankfully, important things happen at work. And you can bet that this woman’s happiness was being affected, which doesn’t go away at the end of a work day!

I’m really just quoting tired old refrains; “Keep things in perspective,” and “Don’t make a mountain of a molehill.”

Ask yourself some questions when a problem arises at work:

  • Should this issue be allowed to make me unhappy?
  • Is it a good use of my energy to worry?
  • Are the consequences of things going wrong dire?

Most times the answer is, “No,” across the board. So a web page didn’t get updated. So a vendor got delayed. So a meeting didn’t go smoothly. So someone’s being a jerk. So what?

Yes, care. Absolutely. Imperative. But choose how and how much. And remember that when something truly important comes along, you’ll recognize it immediately.


Something Might Be Right

Not infrequently I am involved in discussions during which I hear facts being mixed with assumptions. Through trial and error, I’ve become pretty adept at detecting that very common – even natural – behaviour. And I’ve become pretty bold about asking that we check it.

Yes, it does get awkward. When someone comes to you, they’ve got a problem and they want your sympathetic ear not your critical eye. You listen intently as they start describing what’s wrong but… you start to receive the signals:

-          This is hearsay – it isn’t something the person reporting has experienced firsthand
-          This incident is being erroneously associated with previous history
-          There are guesses being taken (The word “assume” itself may even be used)

We’ve got emotions, we’ve got trusted colleagues, we’ve got our own set of experiences, I understand. But we need to recognize when we’re making assumptions. And we need to recognize that our tendency is to assume something is wrong. (Of course, I’m assuming that. I could be wrong!)

I have a request: The next time you assume something must be wrong, STOP and asssume something might be right.

If you don’t have all the information you think you need, assume that the person who can give it to you is willing. If you are having a disagreement, assume that it is a misunderstanding on your part. If you don’t agree with a decision that was made, assume that there are facts and circumstances that made it the right one at the time.

Good, intelligent people are out there and willing to work with you. Engage them, and check those assumptions.

Bertrand, why are you yelling?

I was trying to write something about taking the energy we invest in assumption and putting it toward patience. The whole time I was typing, Bertrand Russell was looking over my shoulder yelling at me. Things like, “You’re missing the point entirely!” and “Oh, for Christ’s sake, would you like to borrow my thesaurus?”

When he resorted to picking at my use of commas, I knew it wasn’t simply a matter of him not appreciating what I was writing. It was that he wanted to do it himself. He gets that way sometimes.


A little hypocritical given the way he just behaved if you ask me, but here’s what he came up with:

I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say…I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Alright Bertrand, pretty good. But next time just ask if you can write the damned thing.

Lessons from the bar: Feeling overwhelmed

If you’ve worked in a bar or a restaurant, chances are you know what it’s like to be busy. Sometimes it’s a big sporting event. Sometimes it’s because someone called in sick. Sometimes it’s just a fluke. Whatever causes it, you’re busy right now. And the first time it happens, it’s overwhelming.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is not a pleasant one. You’re not sure what to do next. You feel like you’re not doing a good job. It’s highly stressful and if you can’t manage that, you are not happy. If you are not happy, you are not effective.

I watched how a few seasoned veterans handled things the first few times it happened to me. I didn’t fully appreciate how smart these women really were until I paid attention to the devices they used to deal with adversity.

Here’s what one rock star did:

1. Stay calm: Nothing changed much. The pace may have picked up a little. But it was the same routine with the same smile on her face. “What’s next?” was the philosophy.

2. Be flexible: If something did need to change – maybe she needed to move some tables, pour some drinks – she rolled with it. No point in long discussions and nobody’s being singled out.

3. Be alert: She’d turn on the peripheral vision and communicate what she was seeing to those who might be affected. “Table 5 is ready to go.”

4. Help everyone: She always did this anyhow, but now she contributed according to her abilities without any hesitation. Wouldn’t matter whose table it was, she knew if she had time to clear a plate on the way by it would pay dividends for the whole team by freeing up time for someone else.

5. Set expectations: She was highly communicative and realistic with the customers – “The kitchen is really busy so I’m asking for your patience…” And the same with her manager – “I need to get some food out so can you watch the door.”

6. Accept everything: There was going to be conflict. There were going to be mistakes. There were going to be surprises. She prepared herself mentally by accepting that and knowing that she would do the best she could.

And she got through it. One thing at a time. And she was happy at the end. (Big tips didn’t hurt, let’s acknowledge!)

There’s a final chapter that might be worth writing. I said to those who needed to know, “She’s a rock star. We should put her in charge.” And they did.

Who’s in Charge of Culture?

In any healthy society, the elders (or, if we must, “the top”) and the young (or, if we must, “the bottom”) have an unspoken agreement to work together to develop the culture.

The elders set boundaries – we might call these rules. They also model certain behaviours – we might call these norms.

The young test boundaries – we might call this innovation. They also question the applicabilty of conventional behaviours when dealing with unconventional (i.e. new) problems – we might call this creativity.

If the young are respectful, they look to the elders for their advice and experience. If the elders are respectful, they provide opportunities for the young to lead and change their world.

In the absence of respectfulness – at the “top” or the “bottom” – the cycle is broken and the culture becomes stale or oppressive. But if the unspoken agreement holds, the culture remains vibrant and relevant – constantly refreshing and strengthening itself at the branches and at the roots.

Who Decides You’re the Boss?

You, your staff, or your boss?

The Way We Work: The Way We Were

I’m wide open on a serpentine highway in a Rocky state with a no helmet law. The winds are blowing by so fast I can’t hear anything but the loudest noises. I can roughly assess what’s happening in the distance but if I try to take a close look at what’s right beside me it’s a blur.

I don’t worry too much about what’s right now. It’s going to be behind me in a moment anyhow. So I let it come. I enjoy it while it lasts, but I keep my much of my attention on what’s next.

I’m loving the feeling. It’s dangerous and exciting, and there’s at once anxiety and relaxation. I’m resigned to the notion that if I lose focus there’s a chance that I’ll make a deadly mistake. So I have to be alert. I have to be confident in the data I’ve collected on what’s up ahead, and I have to be humble enough to know that I might have missed something that’s going to show up unexpectedly right in front of me. And I’m ready to quickly and calmly respond.

The way we work is changing. Where we do it, how we do it, when we do it – the winds of change are blowing by so fast we can’t hear anything but the loudest noises. Even what we consider work is changing. The notion that work happens 9 to 5 in a building to which we drive leaving evenings and weekends for real life is a hangover from industrialization that I personally find disagreeable. My work is an important part of my life – integrated, one might say – and I’ve got time for thinking about how technology can help me enjoy life and live it more fully.

But why we work and with whom remains largely the same. We’re trying to get somewhere new and exciting with our people. And we’re hoping we can have some fun and make things a little better for each other along the way. In that respect, the way we were is the way we should always be. It’s central to our nature; the way we are.

We’ve been on highways before, but we’ve not seen one with vistas like these. As we share these new experiences, and as we’re provided with new perspectives around each bend, let’s not lose sight of what’s important about the way we are.

Who have you helped today?

If you’re working in an organization, that’s a cooperative endeavour. Bottom-line driven or philanthropic. Mom and pop or multinational. It’s all going to come down to service to others.

You might get engrossed in your work and understandably forget about things that seem”external” – perhaps even start to think it’s about you. But when you lift your head up you remember it isn’t.

You might even be able to get away with working completely indepedently – perhaps not even talking to anyone if that’s your preference. But that doesn’t change the fact that what you contribute is connected to a larger, common goal.

We’re here to try to get our work done so that those larger goals can be attained. Goals that cross artificial team and organizational boundaries. And it all goes so much more smoothly once we accept that we benefit from serving each other no matter what flag we’re accidentally asked to fly.

Want to enjoy yourself and do great things at work? Help everyone you can.


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