Excess Baggage

August 5, 2010

I picked up a new project recently, which means I had to clear the decks, and the desk, to accommodate the work flow. I was overdue for a cleanup, as the office was looking like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are and the floor was beginning to sag into the basement. Just a bit.

Time to toss all that material about executive relocation and technology consulting, the remnants of the magazine publishing assignment and the memo about office equipment leasing. Five-year-old directories, month-old magazines, expired coupons from Office Depot….gone gone and gone.

Clearing out the detritus requires more than a day. One garbage can is already full, but there are still too many piles to consider the job done. I’m going through all the old magazines and newspaper clippings and letters/emails that seemed important at the time. I saved them until I could give them all the attention they deserved. Now, though, I read through them and realize I’ve merely delayed the recycling truck’s pickup.

The job must be completed before I can move forward. I can’t find space or time for the new assignments until I get rid of the old stuff that’s cluttering up my workspace.

It’s no different from the rest of life, of course. It’s tough, sometimes impossible, to move forward until we get rid of the junk that’s making a mess of our lives today. We can’t launch a new journey with the same old baggage.

Sometimes, the mess that holds us back is absolutely obvious. Sometimes, it’s invisible. Visible or not, though, we can count on it to be long-tenured and much less important than we assumed it to be. Once we look at the materials we’ve been saving, the anchor chains of our life, we find they aren’t as meaningful, or critical, or valuable, as they seemed when we decided to hold on to them.

What do I need to clear off my desk, or from my mind, to accelerate my progress? How do I take a fresh look at the keepsakes that turn out to be monkey’s paws rather than rabbit’s feet?

Every so often, it’s important to reboot.

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It Seemed Like Such a Good Idea at the Time

July 20, 2010

Every so often you get a brilliant idea. You wake up in the middle of the night and say, GADZOOKS, THIS IS GENIUS. And maybe you grab a note pad by your bed and write down your $billion$ idea and then, when you wake up the next morning, you look at the note and try to figure out what you meant when you wrote, “put it online and phzilkygiiisz.”

I know how you feel. My penmanship, which is somewhere between doctor and dachshund, gets even worse in the middle of the night. If I could have read the notes about all my great ideas the next morning, I’d be so rich right now that I’d have someone sitting by the bed all night, just waiting to take dictation.

Until then, I’ll just have to content myself with the recognition that some of those billion-dollar ideas might not have panned out quite as well as hoped. For every idea that hits it big—pet rocks, hula hoops, carpal tunnel syndrome—another fifty or hundred prove to be expensive flops. I know, because I invested in most of them.

There is something much worse than a bad idea that flops, however. Far more expensive and irritating are all the bad ideas that succeed. We are plagued daily by timesavers and solutions that cause much, much, much more trouble than they are worth. They might have seemed like good ideas at the time, but they come from a box labeled Pandora.

My own Hall of Shame includes:

Automatic faucets. Okay, just move your hand a little closer; no, just a bit more. Oh, did the water just soak your sleeve? Bwaahahahahahah. Automatic faucets seem like such a convenience, but we have no control over the water temperature, how much water comes out or, in some cases, whether the water comes out at all. Don’t you love it when an overly aggressive faucet sprays onto your pants and you walk out of the restroom with the appearance of a person who just….? If only there was some kind of manual override for these things, maybe a handle of some sort that could turn the water on and off and adjust the temperature? Someday, perhaps, such a device could be invented.

Voice mail. Voice mail is the greatest wealth transfer mechanism in the universe, bigger and more far-reaching than Social Security, Health Care Reform, credit cards, online pornography or professional sports. Millions of companies decide to save the cost of having people answer phones and take messages; then pay their few remaining employees to leave messages for somebody else. Voice mail seems to save money, because companies know how much they once spent on secretaries. Watch how much time employees spend talking to machines, however, and it’s clear this experiment has gone horribly wrong.

Rolling luggage. Luggage without the lugging. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, the rollers and handles add weight to the bag and take up storage space, so the bag is heavier and totally unwieldy when we actually have to pick it up. Worse, these things take up too much space in the overhead bins, which leaves room for fewer suitcases and other carry-ons, while the boarding process is delayed at least ten minutes while various klutzes try to stuff their roll-aboards in the A-B bins. Perhaps airlines should start charging a toll for each axle? I discovered a final flaw on the shuttle bus to Sky Harbor last week as a boulder on wheels slammed into passengers each time the bus turned, bounced, slowed…

Reply All. Whenever I’m driving and I decide to take a shortcut, I end up getting lost, taking more time and traveling more distance than would have been the case if I’d just stayed on the original route. Reply all is like that, a shortcut in name only. Send an invitation to ten people and nine will hit reply all to announce whether they intend to show up, ask about the dress code, mention that they’re lactose intolerant…. If people had to type in the names of their recipients, all of us could spend more time watching television.

Social Networking. Let’s see. I’m spending about two hours a day scrolling through FaceBook entries and LinkedIn entries and checking out tweets. Most of the stuff is boring, so I don’t bother responding. My posts are brilliant, but my online friends are too busy shouting “look at me” to notice my wit. Meanwhile, thanks for calling, but I can’t take an hour off to meet you for lunch today. I’m too busy being social. All alone. At my desk. Surrounded by friends I’ve never met and strangers I used to know. If you post your thoughts online and nobody responds, do you really exist?

Drive-Through. I don’t have to get out of my car to pick up the dry cleaning, buy my breakfast, drop off a deposit at the bank or mail a letter. I’d be saving tons of time, except that idiot in front of me can’t decide whether to get the hash browns or the tater tots and the guy before him didn’t like the foam on his latte and I had to wait five extra minutes while they resteamed his non-fat yak milk. Hey, look over there. That family of four that was going in when I pulled up here is done with their breakfast and heading to their car. I can’t understand why they didn’t take advantage of this convenient drive-through lane like me.

Loyalty Programs. Booking a plane ticket on the company’s dime and earning free trips as a result? Now that’s what they mean when they say ‘something for nothing.’ Except that the flights aren’t available and there’s a fee for cashing in the points and the number of miles needed for a free trip goes up and up. Whether its hotels, airlines, book stores, restaurants, hardware stores or grocers, I’ve been seduced and abandoned by half of corporate America. I’d stop the madness, except I’m only 3,200 points away from a free pencil. Without a doubt, points are the crystal meth of marketing.

Supersize. Do I really have to explain this one?

The list goes on and on, but all this whining is tiring me out. Time for me to go take a nap and dream up some great new ideas to improve our lives. If we’re really lucky, I’ll forget all about them before I wake up.

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Immigration and Ockham’s Razor

July 4, 2010

Fourth of July Note: Before posting this item, I passed it by some friends, both conservative and liberal and somewhere in between. None has unfriended me on FaceBook and they still take my phone calls, so it’s just possible there’s some truth in common sense. And isn’t this great country all about common sense, common people and the commonwealth? As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha.”

__________________________________

I am continually amazed at the people who think immigration reform is a controversial topic of some sort. When you approach it like a true American, it’s so simple that even a child couldn’t screw it up.

Thank God we have Congress to handle it for us. Or not handle it, as the case may be.

ABOUT THIS COUNTRY

The United States is a really special country and part of what makes us special is our history of accepting all kinds of people from all kinds of places and turning them into AMERICANS. We’re all hyphenated Americans of a sort, but most of us end up with the second half (xyz-AMERICAN) in all caps.

The ability to take in boatloads of people and transform them in a generation or two is such a quiet and consistent process in this land that we sometimes forget it exists. Like the cleanup teams at Disneyland, the work is so silent and efficient that you can forget it’s going on.

ABOUT IMMIGRATION (THE LEGAL KIND)

We all take pride in saying this is a nation of immigrants and, in fact, most of us are no more than two or three generations removed from the people who grabbed a batch of clothes and a fry pan and hopped on some ship—in steerage. Most of us, I suspect, have actually met the person who was the first of our family to set foot on these shores, even if that person is no longer with us today.

We believe in the American Dream, the ability of strangers who know nothing of this country or its culture to become a part of us and to succeed. Many (most) of us recognize that the American Dream has been at work in our own families.

People come here to pursue the American Dream and you don’t see a whole lot of people begging for a chance to leave. The exit door is open, but there’s a lot of cobwebs on the hinges. The American Dream involves work and most people come to work. You can see it in the fast food joints, the donut shops, dry cleaners, landscaping companies, factories—pretty much anywhere that the wages are low and the work is difficult. It’s the first step on the ladder and they’re ready to jump on it.

Immigration is good for many reasons. It brings in new workers—people with drive and ideas—enriches our overall culture and builds our economy. Everyone in this country needs to eat, to sleep, to have a roof overhead, to attend school and buy clothes and pay for texts. Strip away all the political spinning and lies and you find that population growth builds the economy and immigration is a good way to build population.

By the way, population growth is one reason the United States might fare better than many European countries that are aging faster and have few younger workers to pay taxes. Whatever we might think about Social Security and Health Care Reform and other government programs, it’s an absolute fact that each of us pays less taxes than we would if there were fewer people to support the system. If anything, immigration is a good way to reduce the burdens per capita from unaffordable programs.

ABOUT IMMIGRATION (THE ILLEGAL KIND)

First, let’s stop saying politically correct things like “undocumented.” Using euphemisms makes people sound fearful, unable to address topics head-on.

The challenge in discussing illegal immigration is that the distinction is legality, not immigration. Lots of people who don’t like immigrants, other than their own grannies, will talk about immigrants as if all are illegal. Lots of people who see legality as a mere technicality talk about illegals as if they don’t represent a problem at all.

So we come to the question: Why does legality matter? If a person comes to work, as most do, why do we care if they come with papers or not?

There are two simple answers here:

First, if we cannot know whether Jose or Piotr or Winston has entered the country legally, we cannot know if Osama bin Laden is here, either. Knowing who is in the country is a national security issue. It’s not particularly dangerous when Pedro comes to harvest fruit or Mani overstays his visa to keep writing code, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore their presence. In the world of security, you can’t inspect only the bad guys, because they tend to hide among the good ones.

Second, illegal immigration creates a number of distortions in our country. Illegal immigrants are more likely to be abused in the workplace and less likely to report a crime. Illegal immigrants with native-born children run the risk of being deported, leaving their citizen offspring behind. Illegal immigrants are more likely to work for cash, and be off the tax rolls, although lots of American shrimp boat operators in the Gulf are suddenly discovering the downside of that gambit as they need to show BP how much income they’re losing.

The cost of illegal immigrants to the nation is really hard to calculate, although you can find very specific numbers trumpeted on both ends of the political noise machine. If an employer pays illegal immigrants in cash and provides no benefits, that employer’s income rises and he pays more taxes as a result. Assuming our law-abiding employer is actually paying the full amount of his taxes owed, the government might see a net gain in its income—because the employer is paying at a higher marginal tax rate than his worker. As money circulates through the economy, the total impact of Illegal/legal immigrants might not vary much, but there could be large displacements as local school boards get less, for example, and the state government or feds get more.

Illegal immigration also creates distortions in law enforcement. Local police have fewer cooperating witnesses when the victims of crimes have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. More federal dollars go to tracking down and deporting criminals here illegally, people who would be simply local/state targets if they were citizens or, in some cases, legally within our borders. As a result, less federal time and dollars go to anti-terrorism efforts.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Okay, assuming everything above is true, which it is, what do we do? We benefit from immigration, but illegal immigration creates costly displacements in the economy. Is there, perhaps, a three-step solution to fix all of this?

Why, yes, there is.

1. Secure the borders. It costs much less to keep the border secure than to try to find and address issues across 50 states. By borders, I’m talking about the coasts and Canada, along with Mexico. This is a national security issue, not a Mexican immigrant issue. We do need to invest more heavily in the South, as a practical matter, but people who speak only of the southern border betray more of their beliefs than they might realize. This government, like every government, has all good reason to know who is and isn’t coming into the country. Why waste money on immigration enforcement in the States when it takes about a week for a deported person to re-enter our space? Secure borders are a necessity. In fact, nothing works without secure borders, because people who are thrown out find it far too easy to come back.
2. Open the gates. Bring in immigrants by the truckload and encourage them to become citizens. Yeah, there’s no more room here, but that’s what they said when our grandparents were getting off the boat, too. We have room and we have opportunity—that American Dream thing we like to talk about. People on the left love Zero Growth when it comes to environment, but not immigration. People on the right love Zero Growth when it comes to immigration, but not the environment. They’re both wrong. When we make it easier to come legally, we reduce the incentive to come illegally. Fewer criminals enter, including terrorists, because the border is secure, and people who are deported are likely to stay deported, for the same reason. The good, hard-working people who want to become Americans will be able to do so and we will know how to keep the others out of our fine nation.
3. Create a path to citizenship. Let’s face facts. We aren’t going to deport 12-20 million people. First, it might not be possible for us to identify and process that many people in a lifetime and we would end up with multi-trillion-dollar costs in doing so. In addition, the movement of 12-20 million people, many of them employed and, contrary to public opinion, paying taxes, would cause gigantic disruptions to our economy. Not to mention the violent battles in the streets of our nation.

If we eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes said, we’ll arrive at the truth. The truth is that we would benefit immensely from having 12-20 million additional tax-paying, voting, engaged citizens. (NB: Republican fears that all will be Democratic votes might not come to pass. Contrary to much punditry, Latino doesn’t equal Liberal.) Bringing illegals out of the shadows, to the extent they are hiding now, will also accelerate their acculturation as Americans.

The Puritanical side of me believes all the illegal immigrants should have to pay fines and back taxes and otherwise jump through flaming hoops to become citizens. The common sense part of me says we should make the path attractive—even it it isn’t free—and naturalize as many as we can as fast as we can. It will be less expensive, less time consuming and less disruptive over the long term.

Sometimes, we make situations more complicated than they need to be. In seeking or insisting on the perfect solution, we give ourselves the excuse to provide no solution at all. The problem gets worse, as has been the case with government spending, Social Security shortfall, state pension programs, personal debt and so on. We pass the problem on to our children like an heirloom that is not only priceless but also unaffordable.

Every so often, Ockham’s Razor is the scalpel we need. Every so often, we must decide whether we want to be vindicated in our beliefs or simply choose to resolve an issue. Immigration reform is simple, if we want it enough to choose common sense, decency and practicality over ideology.

And, on this Fourth of July, isn’t it nice to recall that common sense, decency and practicality are fundamental strengths of this great nation?

You betcha.

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Your Idiot Boss

June 21, 2010

Being the font of wisdom that I am, younger folks will sometimes ask me important questions, such as, “Do you want paper or plastic?” “Is that for here or to go?” and “Did you dress that way intentionally?”

Young people are learning new things every day, of course, and their education doesn’t end with graduation. Just like childhood (I bet I can climb all the way! How many of these can I fit in my nose?) the metamorphosis from teen to adult is a time of constant wonder that the newly independent are anxious to share.

Mom, you just don’t realize how hard it is to have a job and do your own laundry.
Dad, can you believe my landlord expects me to take out my own garbage instead of getting it from me?
Mom, you just don’t understand how much groceries cost.
Dad, you won’t believe how much money the government takes out of my paycheck. MY paycheck.

Forget it, Wonder Bread. The formative years aren’t ages 1-12. They’re 18-23. It’s a time of immense discovery for young adults and for immense smirking and giggling among parents everywhere.

Many of the greatest sources of wonder and bewilderment originate in the workplace, where the newest employees on the payroll discover all the failings of their employers and ask one of my favorite questions of all time: How did this idiot get to be my boss?

Alas, it is true. Like Mork from Ork and Benjamin Button, we regress as we advance in our careers. The person who can run the company after 40 hours of indoctrination must abide the foolish prattle of a clueless manager while waiting to show everyone how it should be done.

It is the ultimate irony. The same guy who was smart enough, insightful enough and farsighted enough to hire my young friends turns out, in the end, to be an idiot.

“Hiring me was the smartest thing he ever did,” they might say. “Other than that, it’s hard to believe he’s allowed to operate a cell phone. I’ve been here all of two weeks and I already understand the company better than he does.”

I have great sympathy for my young friends, as I also discovered the shocking ineptitude and idiocy of many bosses on the way to becoming an inept and idiotic boss myself. I know the temptation that comes from seeing things more clearly than the people at the top of the organization.

“I bring a fresh perspective and great analytical skills that are strangely absent anywhere in the company until now,” I would say. “In fact, my new boss hired me for exactly that reason, hoping I would tell her how she is screwing up and how she can do her job better.”

All of this is true, of course, but the really savvy novice will focus on something deeper than the incompetence that dwells on the surface. Perhaps the boss has a hidden talent, much like the X-Men or porn stars. Somewhere, behind the memos and the policies and the mind-numbing incoherence of their strategies, somewhere beneath the contradictory goals and illogical incentives and undeserved self-esteem, a genius could reside. After all, if a person so untalented could rise in the organization, they must know something. Right?

Right. If their skill set is not found in actually running the company, perhaps they are savants at getting promoted by their own bosses. If a new hire could have all the answers to running the company AND learn how to get promoted more quickly, there’s no end to the opportunity.

And so, young people, I suggest that you hold back from saving the company for just a few days and take the time to really study your boss. What did she do to get where she is now? How does she hide her incompetence from her own bosses? And how did THOSE doofuses get to the top? The answers to these questions are the keys to success.

Study them. Admire them. Mirror their behavior. If they can do it, you can do it faster and better. All you need is a good sense of humor and a whole lot of patience.

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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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