Sacred Time

July 28, 2010

Susan and Stephanie were having a Sister Day.

Two or three times a year, they get together simply to enjoy each other’s company and share the joy of being sisters. Usually, it involves some self-indulgent activity like manis or pedis or shopping and, sooner (usually) or later, consumption of alcohol. Sometimes, in the evening, the boys are allowed to join them.

Sister Days are sacred time, not to be interrupted by social engagements or family demands or work. The girls put up a wall around their time together and decline the opportunity to bring the rest of the world inside.

Sometimes, the rest of the world might bristle, just a bit, at their practice. If something comes up, why can’t the girls postpone their day? There are a million opportunities for them to spend time together, so why not make an adjustment to fit in a new engagement?

Which got me to thinking, as most things do, about time and priorities. How we spend time—our most precious resource—is a measure of our values. When do we bend, when do we break and when do we hold firm? What or who comes first on our list and when do we move people aside—including ourselves—for someone else’s benefit?

If a customer called with a problem, would we be expected to interrupt our honeymoon? Skip a funeral? Work on New Year’s Day? What if it wasn’t a honeymoon, but a long-delayed dinner? What if it wasn’t a funeral, but a long-awaited visit to the zoo? And what if it wasn’t a customer, but one of many friends who suddenly can fit us into THEIR schedule?

Would we forgive someone for declining to meet with us because they were riding a bicycle, reading a book or having a Sister Day? Could we acknowledge that their schedule of personal time is just as valuable, just as critical, as their career?

If you had been working for 21 straight days and had blocked out Day 22 for simply sitting in the house and reading a book, would you feel comfortable letting the world know about your choice? If mom or the boss or a friend from college called on the evening of Day 21 to suggest lunch the next day, could you decline the offer? Could you disclose the reason for your choice?

Some days, we’re the highest priority on somebody’s list. Other days, we’re not. It doesn’t make us, or them, bad people. Sometimes, it’s just a conflict of sacred times.

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Geese Must Comply With New Rules

May 16, 2010

A woman is walking along the pier with her son when a wave rolls over the deck and washes the boy over the edge. He disappears under the water and she begins to pray. “Oh, Lord, save my son, don’t let him drown, I will do anything, I will be so grateful, he is my life…”

A few seconds later, another wave rolls over the pier and returns her son to her, coughing and soaked, but otherwise unharmed. She looks down at her son and back to the heavens. She raises her tear-streaked face to the sky as she cries out to the Almighty:

“Hey! Where’s his hat?”

I was reminded of this story as I read the latest news about The Miracle on the Hudson, in which Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his merry crew landed their Airbus 320 in the Hudson River and 155 people lived to tell the tale.

Several days ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on the accident, in which both jet engines died after ingesting undercooked poultry.

The NTSB investigation benefited from a rare luxury that is tragically lacking in most such inquiries: witnesses. Analysts could ask 155 people to recount the turmoil over three very tense minutes on the potentially doomed flight. Freed of the limitations of voice recorders and instrument readings, they could review, possibly for the first time, all the thousands of possible and actual events on a falling jet.

Shockingly, the NTSB discovered that not all contingency plans were activated and not every prescribed step was taken as the plane was falling from the sky. In some cases, the crew simply ran out of time to complete its checklist, which resulted from the fact that the bird strike happened at such low altitude. In his recent book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande credits that checklist with keeping people focused and effective.

The agency’s analysts say the crew wasted too much time trying to restart the engines, indicating a need for better sensors to tell the pilots when it’s useless to even try. (It is impossible to imagine a pilot trusting such an indicator, after the impact of a bird strike or other incident, and NOT trying to restart the engines anyway.) Worse, they suggested that maybe these sensors could be designed by NASA. NASA?

Equally significant, the passengers were unprepared for the emergency because 70% of them ignored the safety briefing. You know, the prescribed, word-for-word briefing that begins with instructions on how to fasten a seat belt…a briefing so boring and rote that they don’t even bother to have living people deliver it on most flights.

The NTSB now wants the airlines to find catchier ways to deliver the safety briefing, so people listen. (My recommendation: show a video of USAir 1549 sinking in the Hudson River.)

The agency also recommends that water landing equipment be mandated on all flights, whether they are expected to travel over water or not. Of course, the equipment was on Flight 1549 and most people couldn’t figure out how to use it.

Most of the issues raised by the NTSB were tied to the idea that the process can be perfected. Nothing will be in the wrong place, passengers will arise, or sit, as a Crackerjack Evac Squad, bird strikes won’t occur below 2,000 feet….

Ah, the arrogance of human beings.

I was a bit surprised they didn’t add a requirement that all bird strikes and engine failures occur within one mile of a smooth body of water. Crew competence notwithstanding, the Hudson River was the ultimate salvation of the plane. Along with dozens of tug/ferry/barge operators, of course.

In any complex situation, thousands of things go right and thousands go wrong. And the fixes that would have worked in the last crisis might actually make things worse the next time disaster strikes. Best intentions notwithstanding, you can’t fine-tune fate.

Every so often, you just have to accept the limitations of human endeavor and be very, very grateful.

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And So, Fellow Graduates…

May 8, 2010

I was hoping my commencement speech at Harvard this year would help me promote Your Name Here: Guide to Life as the ideal gift (Unisex!! One size fits all!!) for graduates entering the real world….but their invitation got lost in the mail for the 57th consecutive year.

I had the speech already written, though, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. And so, (breathless anticipation) graduates and families, here is the speech you should be hearing….

Graduates, I bring you warm and heartfelt congratulations today, not merely for earning 120 class credits but also for your brilliant financial decision not to attend Harvard. (If you attended Harvard, insert some other name here.)

By taking the cheap route, you’ve put yourself well ahead of those peers who enter the real world with a prestigious degree and $300,000 of student loans. After about one year on the job, few people will ever ask you where you went to school, and even fewer will care about the answer.

So congratulations. You’ve avoided paying $300k for 12 months of bragging rights. If all your other financial decisions are this good, we’ll all be working for you five years from now. (Remember that I was your friend before you were fabulously wealthy and famous.) Of course, there will be pitfalls along the way, and you’ll need some special insights to avoid the traps that lie in wait for recent graduates. Herewith is almost everything you need to know to succeed in this world.

1. Relax. You aren’t the future of our nation and the universe doesn’t rest in your hands. It’s tough enough finding both a job and a good deli without the extra burden of saving the world. Don’t worry about it. You’re responsible for yourself and, if you choose to have kids, raising them to be responsible for themselves. Being responsible for yourself sounds easy, until you try to do it, so take great pride if you get it right.

2. You’re going to fail most of the time, but you only need a small number of victories to have a great life. Remember that a baseball player who fails to get a hit 60% of the time is almost guaranteed a shrine in Cooperstown.

3. Listening is the most underrated form of persuasion. If you want people to like you and trust you, learn to listen more than you speak.

4. There is always a camera. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, somebody within 20 feet has a camera. If you’re doing something really stupid, it’s going into your permanent record. On YouTube.

5. No problem ever gets resolved by e-mail. If there’s a real issue, pick up the phone, pay a visit and, oh yeah, listen to what the other person has to say. E-mail is great for forwarding links, but terrible for linking people.

6. Unless you have a billion dollars already, nobody is going to bring you a billion-dollar investment opportunity. Somebody’s going to invent the next e-Bay or Google or FaceBook. Most likely, that person isn’t coming to you for seed capital. Just spend 10% less than you earn every year, sock money away for retirement and you’ll probably do just fine.

7. The bad stuff is the price of admission. You’ll put up with all kinds of nonsense as you start your career, date, raise a family, and pay off the mortgage. We all pay a price to get what we want. Eventually, we get comfortable enough that we can mock the next generation of whiners.

8. In the first meeting, the answer is always ‘Yes.’ Whether it’s a job interview or a sales call or a friend who needs help moving, ‘yes’ is how you build relationships and lifelong success. You can work out the details and end up saying ‘no’ later, if needed, but at least people will know you were willing to make the attempt.

9. Like embezzlement, change is an inside job. You can’t change anyone else and nobody can change you. If you want to be better at something, nobody can stop you…other than you, of course.

10. You have power, because you have choices. Go or stay, buy or sell, love or hate, it’s all up to you. Never make yourself subservient to someone else by blaming them for your decisions.

11. Life isn’t about what you have or what happens to you. It’s all about how you respond. Everyone gets a share of pain and aggravation, but the ones who end up happy are those who deal with it and move on.

12. You have three reputations to protect in your career. Yours is first, your boss is second and your company is third. Never forget that yours is the one you’ll be renting out to your next boss and your next company—and passing on to your kids.

13. Everybody has something to offer in this world. The more you look for it, the more you’ll find it. That means you’ll have access to friends and resources that other people miss, because you paid attention to the people everyone else was ignoring.

And so, graduates of 2010, you now know almost everything you need to know to achieve happiness, love, serenity, prosperity and successful lives. The rest is contained in Your Name Here: Guide to Life and, if your parents really loved you, they would have bought you a copy by now. Forgive them, however, as they were smart enough to raise you to be a responsible adult (See Note 1 above.) and you should be eternally grateful for that gift.

Now, go forth and prosper as the world of joy unfolds before you. Remember, whenever your face hardships, setbacks and difficulties, that millions of others have faced the same and worse.

They survived it.

So will you.

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