Do Over

broom-294061_960_720The big project has taken months to come together – details, research, formatting and proof-reading. When I proudly present it, I’m met with that look. The “why did you think I wanted this?” look. The “No, what I really meant was this” look. I clap my hands to my face like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. But I really feel like Dorothy.

You know, Dorothy Gale, sweet Kansas girl who is thrust into the technicolor world of munchkins, talking scarecrows, and witches. All she wants to do is get home and everyone directs her to the wizard for help. After overcoming many significant obstacles, she is brought into the wizard’s presence, her meek request is rebuffed, and the accomplishments that brought her to this point are ignored. “Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West!” he shouts. It’s as if there is a straightforward recipe for getting what she wants and she skipped over step three.

Years ago, I was asked to prepare a privacy policy as my employer was entering the digital age. The collection, storage and use of data was becoming more complex and scrutinized, and businesses were expected to be transparent about what they were doing. Having never written a corporate policy before, I used existing documents as a guide, added the appropriate details, and collaborated with my compliance co-workers to finalize the policy. For approval, it had to be presented to the company’s most senior management during one of their regular meetings. There weren’t any flames or giant heads, but it was an imposing room with the biggest table I’ve ever seen. When the policy came up on the agenda and I explained what it was for, one of the most intimidating senior managers held up the paper like it had a bad smell and said, “This policy should encompass our international business. Revise it.”

I was stunned. We didn’t have any international policies, so my models didn’t point me that way. No one ever asked for it to be international. And it was going to be very hard. Now my meetings were by phone with counterparts in England and Ireland; they had more detailed laws that went over and above what the US required. After more weeks of revision, review, and negotiation, I thought the policy was ready.

I went back to the senior managers’ meeting with my knees quaking. I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the item to come up on the agenda. The policy was named, there was no comment (not even one!) and it was declared approved. Somebody rang a bell (were we on a ship?) and it was done. I floated out of that room, proud of finally pulling this project across the finish line. At that moment, I think I had on ruby slippers.

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Time Challenged

clockThe buzzer goes off at 4:30am. It’s still dark outside and I think for a moment, what is so important that I have to get up now? Oh, I remember. I need all that time to go to the gym, bathe, eat, and commute to work. The later I start, the more crowded the train will be. I should get up now…but it’s still dark out. I think that humans divided the day into hours so that everyone could have the same reaction to the alarm clock: “It’s too early!”

I like to start the day knowing I have lots of time to complete what’s on my list. A special weekend accomplishment is to have all my errands done by lunch so that I can use the rest of the day relaxing or doing projects at home. I try to use mornings at work the same way – tackle the big tasks, the harder things, in the morning; save more routine tasks for the afternoon when energy may be flagging.

Occasionally there is something happening in another time zone: a conference call with a colleague in Australia, or a vendor on the west coast. That’s when I need to consult a map to figure out what time is reasonable for both of us. I always get this wrong. I’ve dialed in for a New York webinar an hour late. I’ve shown up early for things in Pacific time.

I blame this blind spot on living in the Eastern time zone most of my life – even if Louisville bent the line out to include them – and I guess most of the people I knew lived there too. Now, I live in the Central time zone and have family and friends all over, so I have to consider times ahead and behind mine. Arizona is minus one hour, unless it’s summer and then it’s minus two. New York is plus one. It doesn’t seem hard, but it still trips me up.

I recently arranged lodging and bought plane tickets for a European family trip. It became immediately obvious something was wrong. Flying east from the US, we arrive in Europe the next day and I’ve booked the lodging for the day before we actually arrive. Fortunately, the kind proprietor agreed to change our reservation so we don’t have to pay for the day we’re not there yet. I guess I’m not the only American traveler to have this issue.

The day we fly over will magically shrink while the airline tries to fool our bodies into believing it’s morning by serving us breakfast at 2am. We’ll get those hours back on the return flight – otherwise known as the longest day ever. Fun travel aside, I think I prefer 24 hour days – especially when I can be sleeping for seven or eight of them.

Grocery Trip

110127-f-5640t-057I love grocery shopping – a weekly meditation as I stroll the aisles, examining produce, dairy, and frozen food. Success in finding all the things I need for the menu makes me feel ready to face the week. While I’m visiting two or more stores, it’s the check out clerks that stick in my mind.

The person at the check out is usually the only employee I’ll interact with. I may not visit the deli, meat or seafood counters where someone has to cut and wrap my selection. I usually don’t have to ask anyone in the produce section how to find a turnip. I’ve been to stores with “self check-out” but if you have any quantity of produce, it’s a slow process. This is why I want to go to the professional.

I consider before choosing a check out lane – how many shoppers are there, how many kids, how many items in those carts? But the most important element to gauge is how overwhelmed does the checker look? My favorite checker always appears calm and collected, with a pleasant smile for everyone. She remembers me, asks about my kids, and what I’m cooking. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving when the store was a mob scene, she still smiled at me saying, “So you decided to join the party?” Somehow the beeping of each item as it is scanned hasn’t driven her mad.

Some checkers ignore me, carrying on a conversation with the person bagging the groceries; some have impossibly long fingernails that appear to be an impediment. Some look quizzically at the produce I’m buying and have to ask – “what is that and what do you do with it?” I’m happy to oblige and potentially widen their culinary horizons: “That’s a dragon fruit / persimmon / Jerusalem artichoke. They’re great in salads / baked as a pudding / roasted.”

My dad visited us when we lived in another state, and he treated our grocery trip like it was a tourist attraction, marveling at the different brands of items our grocery carried, and perusing the meat and seafood displays. He added things to our cart that he wanted to take back home. And he chatted up the checker, telling her he was visiting from out of town. She probably wondered if she was supposed to recognize him as a minor celebrity, but took it in stride.

Today I visited a meat market in the neighborhood, because I’ve discovered that this store sells my favorite Darjeeling tea. (I was mildly panicked when my go-to store for tea abruptly closed.) After snatching up the tea, with no intention of buying any meat, the checker at this little grocery bagged my purchase gently and offered me help outside if I needed it. He treated me so kindly, I’m sure I’ll be back to try some of their house-made bratwurst.

Study Time

old-stack-study-carrel-300x225Home seems like a great place for quiet study. I’ve got my text book, my notes, my study questions. But the refrigerator is so close, I’ll just grab a little lunch. Oh and I think I’ll throw in a load of laundry. Before I forget, I’ll start a grocery list. Now someone is texting me. It’s been over an hour and I’m not making much progress. I need a simple space with no distractions. Something like those special desks in the college library: a study carrel.

Most of my college career studying was done on my bed, propped up with a pillow and using a lap desk. It worked well for reading, highlighting, taking notes, and any writing papers in longhand. Occasionally a professor assigned reading from materials that were kept in the library, so I had to go there and review them in the reading room. This large room was nicknamed the “Zoo” which indicated it wasn’t a place for quiet contemplation, but if I could get there in the afternoon and finish the reading, it wasn’t too rambunctious.

Every once in a while, I’d decide to spend more time in the library – for a change of scenery or research. The “Zoo” usually had lots of space, but it would fill up after dinner. Some tables had friends gathered together for regular study, other tables were classmates who’d been thrown together in a group project, or people studying alone. While quieter than some dorms, this space wasn’t immune to interruption. In fact, it seemed to attract activities meant to bring studying to a halt. A Halloween parade between the tables, wadded paper balls tossed from group to group, or just plain ogling at a group of beautiful freshmen sashaying by.

It was generally accepted that spending your library time in the “Zoo” was more to see and be seen, rather than really working. For that, you sought out a study space in the stacks. There were individual seats and work surfaces tucked into the rows of books, but being a limited commodity, you had to arrive early to stake your claim. Lucky enough to have a spot, I was aware of less fortunate folks going through the rows desperately seeking that perfect quiet seat.

For the very special scholars, there were private reserved study carrels. These small rooms were on the edges of the stacks: a spartan desk, chair, and light behind a locked door. Imagine, a private place to concentrate! I never had access to one of these carrels, but marveled at the rumpled people coming out of them. I wondered if it got hot and smelly in those little closets, or was I just jealous?

So what is a distracted student to do? If I move my chair into one of our closets, I might just establish the right ambiance – with a side of undergraduate anxiety.

Gift Wrap

IMG_3467Images of Christmas usually include the perfect tree surrounded by a shocking number of beautifully wrapped gifts – the kind of wrapping that only comes from the gift wrap counter in a department store. Large boxes cloaked in festive paper and impossibly symmetrical ribbon with a large loopy bow. Unfortunately, the packages I wrap stray pretty far from that ideal. At least you can tell I did it myself.

The closer you get to Christmas, the harder the shopping seems to get. Maybe it’s because stores are out of the perfect gift I’ve finally thought of, but really, it’s the traffic. My last shopping trip was supposed to be a precision raid on two stores because I had ordered online for in-store pick-up. I knew they had my items, but it took 30 minutes at each store to find a parking place. Already frustrated, I wasn’t getting in that long gift wrapping line at the store. I have all the supplies I need at home.

The large box where we store wrapping paper is very full, but when I pull the rolls out, only some of them have holiday motifs – snowmen and holly. The other rolls are colorful and were probably for a birthday – I’m sure it will be fine. Next, I review the large collection of gift bags we’ve kept from other gifts. Cute and festive, they only need a little tissue paper to make a pretty gift. As I paw through the bag of tissue paper, why is it we only have weird orange and green striped paper? Where are all those sheets of red and green or plain white? No worries, I’ll add some festive ribbon. There’s purple, hot pink, and five shades of green. The red ribbon looks more like wine and there’s not enough to fit around the gift. I dig the stick-on bows out of a bag and they appear to have been sat upon.

I find a book of retro wrapping paper and decide that the little rabbits are cute. No one will notice that it looks more like an Easter basket. And the lime green ribbon creates a little vibrating effect. If this doesn’t work, I can always wad this gift into the bag with a llama on it. Yeah – the Christmas llama. I’m pretty sure there’s a llama on our velcro Advent calendar, leaning next to the shepherds.

When the wrapping is almost done, I see the Sunday comics. Colorful and appealing, I think there’s enough to fit around this last box. With so many colors, literally any of the remaining ribbon choices will look good. As I’m making the last fold, I run out of tape. Surely there’s another roll somewhere. No? Then that is what the duct tape is for!

Magical Thinking

magic-40641_960_720When tasks and obligations pile up, it’s tempting to look for an easy way out. Someone delays the due date, or the return to standard time gives you an extra hour. Anything to avoid not getting everything done, or doing it poorly. When the world doesn’t cooperate, I try waving my hand like Obi Wan Kenobi and saying “this is not the completed project you’re looking for” to deflect notice. But it doesn’t work.

You can buy wands like those used by many of the Harry Potter characters – I want the one that does the dishes while I study, helps me type faster, and wraps gifts. I’ll pass on broomstick flight, but some help juggling everything happening at once would be good. Completing work projects, holiday shopping, and studying for an exam – my head is spinning, but I’ve been here before, and in a weird way, I think I thrive on the overload.

Early in my career I decided to pursue my MBA while continuing to work full time. I also joined a choir that performed four times a year. Inevitably, the intense preparations for concerts coincided with mid-terms or finals at school. On weekends when I could least afford it, I’d be dressed up on a stage singing while thinking about profit and loss graphs or economic theory. For fall semesters, I’d finally come up for air just before Christmas, and somehow get it all done.

Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” If this is true, bring that deadline closer! Agonizing projects that seem endless could be done by now. Sure, some things require deep thought, but not everything, so let’s get a move on! I don’t need to pore over all my cookbooks to come up with this week’s menu, I can read that chapter as fast as I can highlight the important stuff, and the first idea I had for a gift is probably the best one anyway.

I am prone to think of tasks as living creatures capable of conspiring against me – deciding to gang together to make my life harder with their simultaneous demands. Then I discover I can actually fit one more thing in – like reading a book for fun.

One of the characters in my book club’s selection is a magician. After years of practice, she excels at sleight-of-hand tricks with cards, scarves, and balls. She also has some larger-scale illusions like a vanishing cabinet, but the smaller magic is especially fascinating because she performs this up close where it’s harder to fool the audience. At one point, she surprises herself by turning a red ball into a beautiful fresh strawberry – she doesn’t even know how she did it, but there it is. So as I look over my juggled tasks, I’m wondering which one will surprise me by turning into a glistening fruit.

Holidaze

IMG_3446Holiday shopping is in full swing. Secret bundles under the bed, shipping notices for things in process, and my tattered list full of cross-outs and revisions. The last thing I expect is a package at work addressed to me. It is ominously large and not a candy assortment from a vendor. Now I remember that somehow, in a pre-caffeine fog, I agreed to prepare for another professional exam, and these are the study materials. Oof – not how I envisioned my holidays.

I have less than a month to complete my first review of the content of this thick book (curiously, they only number the pages within each chapter, but not cumulatively – I guess to stave off intimidation), and I’m scheduled to attend a review class the first week of January. So that means that I’m devoting all the remaining days of December to study. Just when I thought I might spend weekends shopping or decorating, I foresee that I’ll have a highlighter gripped in my hand most days and nights.

Thinking back to college, this would be the time of year we were all studying for finals with no time to even think about the holidays until that last exam was complete. Arriving home on the 18th of the month seemed to leave plenty of time to get it all together. So maybe that’s the trick, to put myself in a college mindset, knowing that I’ll spend multiple hours each day head down in the book. For realism, I should go to the main library after work and sit in the stacks till they close.

Instead of carols or sugar plums, my head will be filled with
Twelve Investor Profiles
Eleven Customer Communications
Ten Equities
Nine Variable Products
Eight Options
Seven Offerings
Six Account Disclosures
Five Market Analyses
Four Margin Calls
Three Debt Types
Two Clearing Brokers
and a Practice Test in a Pear Tree!

I think I’ll wear my ugly Christmas sweater the whole time.

‘Tis the Season

treeAfter Thanksgiving it’s impossible to resist the magnetic pull of Christmas. No more juggling for shelf space with back-to-school or fall holidays, it’s now full-on Santa. My emotions are mixed: excitement, dread, fear of missing the best sale, denial, and hope that I’ll come up with some gift ideas.

The assault is coming from all sides. The escalating number of e-mails from retailers and a mailbox full of catalogs make me feel suddenly way behind on my shopping. There are a surprising number of events to take in around the city. No fewer than a dozen holiday-themed stage productions, the Christkindlmarket, ice skating, concerts, holiday parties, light festivals, craft fairs, and even pub crawls (thank you Wrigleyville for this actual event description: “bringing the drunken stupidity of the summer months into the holiday season…the 12 Bars of Christmas has a history of violence, property destruction and general debauchery.” Eek.

It feels like we should have the entire month of December off to take in all these fun activities, but it is not to be. Instead, I’ll be commuting to work in a red and green decorated train car, passing the Macy’s holiday windows, dropping money in the Salvation army bucket outside our grocery store, and admiring the decorations adorning my office building. Around the edges, I will try to shop locally, devoting a weekend day or a lunch hour to some in-person browsing. And of course, I’ll shop online hoping I haven’t waited too long to allow for shipping time.

Other than some young nephews, my gift-giving is to other adults who know how to shop for themselves, so it’s fun to find something they didn’t know they needed: something silly to put in a stocking, a book to make them laugh, or tickets to an event. We may eat at a special restaurant, see a quirky version of A Christmas Carol on stage, or catch a new movie in a theatre with comfy reclining seats. Maybe this year my family can take curling lessons (a real thing)! Afterward we can shake off the chill in the new heated domes overlooking the Chicago River (also a real thing). Whatever we do, it’ll be good to be together, whether we wear ugly Christmas sweaters or not.

Evaluation

employee-performance-review-template-wordIt’s that time of year again – no, not the roaring retail lead-up to Christmas – time for the activity that strikes dread into the hearts of workers everywhere: annual reviews! It’s when we look up from our keyboards and realize we’re running out of time to do all those things we said we’d do when we set our goals last year.

A performance review is a great idea in theory. We can all use some praise and constructive criticism. Best case, we should be having regular, open discussions with our manager and peers – check-ins that keep us on track and encouraged. But either organizations are too big, or too “flat” giving one manager way too many direct reports, so that it becomes an onerous task to give frequent, balanced feedback to everyone on your team.

I don’t feel like I need to get constant feedback. I’m self-motivated, and have a pretty good sense if I’ve done quality work, or phoned it in. I don’t need a pat on the head, or a handful of M&Ms after each task to keep up the good work. However, I’ve learned that it’s important to highlight your accomplishments so that other people notice them. It may take the form of updating your boss in the hallway, or a status report in a team meeting, but however delivered, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

For at least the last decade (or two?), performance appraisals have been more of a “do-it-yourself” exercise where the employee essentially writes their own review. Filled with details and all the statistics you can cram in, it feels like your one time all year to declare your worth LOUDLY. And it’s not just what you did, but how you did it. Did you cooperate and collaborate rather than leave a trail of scorched earth? Did you coach others while you were trying to complete that automation project?

Tooting my own horn doesn’t come naturally. Is it really a big deal that I arrive at work on time, that I cut a full day out of a lengthy process, or met a print deadline? In a word: yes. I may not mention these things everyday, but over time, I find they add to the impression others have of my work, and what they expect: I’m happy to take on a task and see it through to the end, I’ll accept criticism and use it to improve. I have to work these traits into my portion of the review. Of course, the manager contributes to the appraisal as well, mostly agreeing with my comments and also pushing for higher achievement. We will sit down together, discuss, and lay out goals for the next year.

So as I put the finishing touches on this year’s review, I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of projects accomplished, wish I’d made more progress on some things, and gird my loins for the challenging goals to come. A hand-full of M&Ms would taste good right about now.

Traveler

roller bag

Whether they are coming or going, people with suitcases seem to be preoccupied with their travel plans – measuring the time it takes the train to take them to the airport, or how long the bus ride will be before they’re home; anticipating or remembering the sights they saw and the people they met. When the suitcases are roller bags, they make travel look effortless while simultaneously giving us license to bring all of our stuff.

I remember the bad old days when suitcases had to be lifted by their handles. These suitcases were heavy when they were empty, so they were practically unmanageable when full. I had a giant white Samsonite suitcase that I called “Moby.” As I stumbled from the car to the earliest opportunity to check that monster, I would question all my packing choices. If I had merely harpooned that bag, I would have been a step closer to today’s relative nirvana – the roller bag.

Now, no matter how overstuffed, our luggage glides effortlessly across the parking lot and into the airport. There are still times when we are reminded of the weight of our gliding bag: when there are steps (yes, Chicago ”L” stations, I’m looking at you) and the dreaded scale at the airline counter. Turns out it matters how much weight they load on the plane, and it’s embarrassing to have to dig through your bag to extract the free weights you thought would be great to take with you.

My roller bag isn’t the snazziest one at the airport. There are silver hard-sided cases that can roll in multiple directions, or families with matching bags in a brilliant color. There’s even a riding roller bag for kids – brilliant invention – a suitcase that your toddler can ride on as you pull them through the airport because, let’s face it, they are not going to pull it themselves.

During my daily commute, I see roller bags, and their cousins, roller briefcases and backpacks. Now it’s easier to bring all those papers home from work, and transport shockingly heavy textbooks without spine damage. Unfortunately, it is the relative ease of transport that encourages us to bring it all, rather than carefully selecting what we want to haul around. This is precisely why I don’t want to get a bigger suitcase – I would just fill it up.

When I pack for a trip, I guess I’m trying to plan for all eventualities and simulate the comforts of home. Slippers, a fleece, and extra shoes in case I mysteriously toss one out a window; an extra pair of pants; jewelry and scarf combos that will allow me to make that black dress look different every time I wear it. Little things that add up till I’m straining to hoist it all into the overhead bin.