The smallest truths of all: #8 TAKE BREAKS

As we collectively attempt to embark on Taking Breaks from Work in honor of celebrating the holidays with our families and friends, I take a break from my own pre-holiday workload to admonish you: SERIOUSLY, TAKE A DAMN BREAK this holiday season. Do it like you mean it. Do it like Santa is real, and he'll remove a present from underneath the tree every time you sneak back into your work email to "just take care of one thing real quick." Do it like you're being scored on how good you're doing at being "on break," and a bad score will transform itself into an extended bout of toilet-embracing food poisoning brought on by Aunt Edna's under-cooked meatloaf. Do it like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is standing behind you, waiting to smilingly pummel you at the slightest mention of spreadsheets, wireframes, project deadlines, client calls, pursuits, upcoming meetings, or even mere P-R-O-D-U-C-T-I-V-I-T-Y.

We are trained to push ourselves hard. In modern society, being a "hard worker" is a badge of honor — something you trumpet at the very top of your resume. Increasingly, in our technology-riddled daily lives, we're conditioned to believe work should never end.

I am a hard worker, and I'm generally quite proud of it. It means I'm doing right by my colleagues and clients. It means I'm trustworthy, and it means people can ultimately count on me to deliver on my commitments. If you too are a hard worker, you too should be proud of yourself. But the thing is, being a hard worker — especially one who doesn't give him or herself occasional and genuine breaks from said work — doesn't always mean we're always doing right by ourselves. 

If you ask anyone I've ever supervised or trained, they'll readily tell you that I regularly berated them to Take Breaks. (In my nice, well-meaning-big-sister-to-everyone sort of way, of course.) Which is why it's summarily hilarious that I'm often terrible at letting myself take breaks. 

When it comes to working, I sometimes push myself too hard. I'll metaphorically chain myself to my computer for hours at a time. I'll forego doing things that matter to my personal life in favor of doing whatever it is that will help me feel Accomplished and Satisfied about my work-related To Do list. While that kind of behavior undeniably shows a strong work ethic, it's also undeniably nonsense. It's not healthy. It leaves me occasionally feeling like a failure in the personal realm. It doesn't help me cultivate a feeling of inner balance or peace — rather, it often throws me into a sad-faced panic when, at the end of the day, I realize all the things I neglected to do FOR MYSELF. 

I'm always telling myself to take more breaks. I'm also still failing regularly at it. But I'm proud of the fact that I've been doing a little better over the past couple weeks. And I'm very proud of the fact that John and I have sworn to one another that — when we head to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, for our own holiday/family vacation — we're not even bringing our damn computers. 

So, this holiday season, do yourself a favor and TAKE A TRUE BREAK. Use the opportunity to remind yourself how genuinely beneficial breaks are for our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our relationships with the people around us. When you come back from your break, remind yourself to take breaks during your regular, non-holiday-themed life, too. Breaks bring us back to ourselves — to a core that still exists outside of who we are in our professional lives. Breaks let us breathe. So, this holiday season, give yourself the best gift ever: an honest-to-goodness break. 

With that said, I'm taking my own advice and signing off for the holidays. Look for my next post-Mexico blog on Wednesday, January 17. I hope you all have the best holiday breaks imaginable, with no questionable meatloaf anywhere in sight. 

The smallest truths of all: #7 LISTEN TO OTHER PEOPLE

Listen to other people. Don't just act like you're listening. Really listen — to the advice they give, the ideas they have, and the things they feel it's important to tell you.

My life is a better place because I finally figured out that I myself don't always have all the right answers about it. For example, just over a year ago, my amazing and wonderful fiancé, John, told me something important and I listened. He helped me see a truth about myself and my life that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Listening to what he had to say helped me change my life, start a new business, and set myself on a path to living a life I'm vastly better-suited to living.

This advice applies no matter who you are and what you're doing. It applies whether you're successful or struggling, whether you think you've got your shit together or you absolutely know you don't.

One of my clients is a successful entrepreneur. He readily admits that one of the primary reasons for his success is that, at some point, he learned to listen to other people. He now makes it his business to ask for help and advice from all the smartest people he can find. Listening to sound counsel is exactly what helps him thrive.

Listening is also incredibly important as we navigate this eternally insane political climate. We're never going to get anywhere if we don't listen to one another, and really try to understand what those who hold opposing views are saying. It's hard to do sometimes. I readily admit that. But we should all keep trying. 

So, next time you want to interrupt someone or tune them out, try listening instead. It's not that much to ask. I can't promise it will always yield something of life-changing or success-generating value. But I can say that, if you genuinely listen, it sometimes just might. 



The smallest truths of all #4: ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR LIMITATIONS

If I took a survey of the working population of the Western world — including, of course, all the incredibly hard-working stay-at-home parents out there — I'm fairly certain the majority would agree with the following statement: "I have more work than I can handle."

Why is having an overfull plate the norm? Right now, I myself have a decent excuse: I'm a new freelancer, and I'm still in the process of learning and deciding what Red Pencil should contain. But the sad fact is that this isn't a new problem for me. Except during the blissful decade I spent as a competently multi-tasking and oddly content pub or restaurant waitress — years in which I felt rather miraculously like I had time for well nigh everything — I've often taken on more than I could handle. When something falls outside my skillset, that's a different story: I'm quick to raise my hand and find the right help. Apparently, however, I have a small but nagging need to be a hero when it comes to anything I *should* be able to do.

During my time training or managing others, I gave exemplary advice: "Raise your hand when you've got too much work on your plate. Push back when people ask for unreasonable things in unreasonable timeframes. Don't be a superhero. Remember the importance of preserving your own sanity. Defend your right to your own time." I was even good at helping them to push back, reset expectations, and find a better way forward. So why can't I take my own damn advice?

This blog is not intended to answer that question. Instead, it's intended as a helpful reminder to me myself, as well as anyone else who suffers from a similar malaise, that sometimes it's best to simply acknowledge your limitations. It's not a weakness to say, "I'm full up." In fact, it's a strength, because acknowledging our limitations is yet another way we grow both personally and professionally. Be humbled, be honest with yourself and others about what you can and can't do, and move on. 

I hereby humbly acknowledge that this lesson is going to be a hard one for me to implement. Like Popeye, sometimes, "I YAM WHAT I YAM." So are you. But the truth remains: who you are, and what you can do, is more than enough. 

I'll get better, inch by inch. For example, instead of beating myself up over not having something amazing to write about for this week's blog, I'm just writing about what's on my mind... which just so happens to be the increasingly pressing need to acknowledge my own damn limitations. ;)

The smallest truths of all: #3 GIVE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

Well, if it didn't look quite so overlong as a title, I'd make it say, "GIVE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT MORE OFTEN THAN NOT." Because I truly do get that there are plenty of situations when giving someone the benefit of the doubt is *not* the best idea. (For example, when I imagine someone holding a gun to my face, I don't think to myself, "Oh, whoops, I'm probably misunderstanding this person's intentions." In addition, there are many politicians who are likely never to receive the benefit of various deep pools of my doubt.) 

In general, however, most of the people you come across mean you no harm or ill will. So even if and when you do have reason to doubt their good intentions, it's the right way forward to give them the benefit of the doubt regardless. 

When we allow someone the benefit of the doubt, we give them a gift. The gift is a way forward that doesn't leave us pissed off, thinking badly of them, and disinclined to give them the benefit of the doubt in the future. Because, let's face it, if you've decided to mistrust someone, that's a decision that's hard to come back from.

Most of the divisions between people could be healed or at least helped by both parties simply giving the other the benefit of the doubt. Instead, we apparently prefer to assume people are idiots, or evil, or out to get us. Stop thinking that. Instead, assume good, and see what happens. How much worse can it get? What, really, is there to lose? 

If it's in your nature to doubt and fear and mistrust, then my advice is to practice giving the benefit of the doubt more often. Instead of thinking, "Oh, that asshole just cut me off because he's clearly an asshole," try thinking, "Well that was totally uncool, but maybe he's not feeling well today, or he just found out he lost his job or that his mom has cancer. So maybe he didn't mean to act like an asshole." You not only get to drive on in a less singularly pissed-off frame of mind, but you've also flexed your kindness muscle in a very real way. You can drive on thinking, "And I'm not so bad myself." 

My whole life I've been a champion for bright-siding. Accentuating the positive. Seeing the best in people wherever and whenever possible. I'm certain there have been occasions when it hasn't been deserved. But I know my life has been better, fuller, and happier because, generally speaking, I choose to trust that people are more good than bad. 

Try trusting. If it doesn't work, I'll be sorry to hear it. But I'll just say again: try trusting. 

On the value of doing it right the first time

When my brother and I were growing up, there was an aphorism that my dad could be counted to utter at every possible opportunity: "Be the labor great or small, do it right or not at all." No matter the secret frustrations or eye-rolls I may have gifted him back then, it has now become my own mantra. And it is to that aphorism — in particular, to the persistence, commitment, and insistence on quality that it has ingrained in me — that I owe a great deal of my success in life. 

At some point, I no longer needed my dad to say it to me. Instead, his voice — and those words — were always just right there in my ear. Maybe I'm exhaustedly sweeping the kitchen floor, and I think I'm done, but then I see another grainy patch of dust shimmering over in a different corner, and there's the voice again. Or maybe I'm nearly finished painting a bedroom a beautiful new color; it's taken me hours upon hours across several days; and, through my exhaustion, I realize there's a teeny-tiny spot I missed above the doorway that like 98% of people would never ever ever notice in all of eternity. And yep, there it is again. Thanks to my dad, I'm pretty much never allowed to half-ass anything. 

Regardless of the situation, once I've seen that little spot — once I've spotted any error or opportunity for improvement whatsoever — I've got to fix it. I'm not allowed to let it go. I've got to make sure it's done right. This is not to say I'm always overjoyed about it. Mostly, in fact, I'm slightly irritated. On dozens of occasions, I've talked back to the air: "FINE. Whatever. Do it right or not it all. I get it. Fine. I'll do it. Shut up already!" But then I sweep up the offending dust or ascend the ladder to tackle that teeny-tiny spot. Summarily annoyed by my own insistence on doing it right, I do it right. 

If you know me personally, I'd wager that there's a greater than 60% chance you've heard me utter this "be the labor" advice aloud. If you are my fiancé or my ten-year-old almost-stepson, you've heard it at least once a month, and that's a highly conservative estimate. (On some occasions, when particularly unenjoyable tasks are at hand, they've taken to only half-jokingly responding, "But I don't WANT to be the labor!!") And so it goes: a phrase that has plagued and annoyed me for much of my life has nonetheless become core to who I am.

But the thing is, my dad was right. If something is at all worth doing, it's worth doing right... and doing right the first time. It's pointless and time-wasting to cut corners or half-ass anything. You're likely to disappoint someone, look lazy, or suffer some sort of negative consequences. You're even more likely to be compelled to return to the task to redo the part you failed to do right the first time. 

So. In the words of my hard-working, uncompromising father — who, let's face it, probably heard the words from his own incredibly hard-working, uncompromising father — "be the labor great or small, do it right or not at all." Hear it in a stern dad voice, or hear it in my slightly gentler, always-well-meaning-sounding tones. But HEAR IT. It's honestly the best advice I can give any of you. It applies to every single area of your life that matters.

That conviction is also the reason my poor stepson is doomed to hear the phrase from me continually throughout his youth: because I am dead-set on doing everything I can to help him understand the value of doing things right, and doing them right the first time. If he takes it to heart, it will take him far in life. (Well, once he learns to control the eye-rolling.) 

And with all that said: thanks, dad. With mom's help, you turned me into an incredibly hard worker with an unswerving commitment to quality and commitment. Though there are times I've cursed you for it, I really do love you for it. 

POSTSCRIPT: Hilariously, through the wonders of Google, I've *just this moment* learned that this is the full version of the (anonymous) quote: "If a task is once begun, never leave it till it's done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all." And it turns out I don't agree with that first part at all. But hey, people don't have to be right about EVERYTHING. :)

The rule of YOU

The rule of YOU

To succeed in business relationships, “do unto others as you would have done unto you” needs to become “do unto others… as others would have done unto them.” I've started to think of this practice as “The Rule of You.”

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Don't end your presentation on Q&A... serve dessert instead

Don't end your presentation on Q&A... serve dessert instead

If you end your presentation with Q&A, you're choosing to give up a very important thing: control. You're giving up the right to decide what the audience's final impression of you will be what they'll feel, and what they'll remember.

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More excellent rules for writing emails that don't waste anyone's time

Nobody likes having their time wasted. And when you're paying someone for their time, you would hope that they're not wasting any of THEIR time — because if they are, you're paying for it, both literally and figuratively. 

As a freelancer who generally charges clients hourly for the time I spend working on their projects, I have to be careful about how much time I spend composing email communications to those clients. After all, my clients are paying for that time, too. In addition, I have to consider the time it takes for them to read my emails. So I owe it to them to strike the right balance of being brief yet thorough, businesslike yet friendly, and clear yet not overly detailed. 

Lawyers and other legal professionals have to remain consistently mindful of this as well — not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because their hourly rates are sometimes challenging for the average pocketbook. A client of mine, John O'Grady — an impossibly lovely and always conscientious estate and trust lawyer based in San Francisco (let me know if you want a referral!) — has a true passion for making sure his own emails to clients, as well as those written by his legal staff, adhere to principles designed to waste *no one's* time. (In fact, he seems to have decided to hire me as an editor based on an early blog post I wrote dedicated to writing more effective emails that don't waste anyone's time. Never let it be said that expressing excellent intentions gets you nowhere.) 

At any rate, my client has a fantastic set of email guidelines that he gives to his own team, and he has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with y'all. The guidelines are designed to help make sure his team's communications are focused on providing value to the firm's clients while not wasting their time, money, or focus. You'd be supremely well-served to make them your own guidelines, too. And if you're saying, "I don't have clients, so this doesn't apply to me," hush. Because you do have clients: your clients are your colleagues and other stakeholders.

Without further ado, guidance on how to send emails that provide significantly more value in exchange for everyone's time (for your reference, the bold marks his guidance; the explanations are mine):

  • One email per topic per client. If your email is too wide-ranging, you risk diluting or losing your client's focus. It's a courtesy to keep each missive focused on one matter only; that way, the client can easily digest it, attend to it, and file it where it belongs.
  • If you have three questions, send three emails, so that you get three answers. Again, don't risk diluting or losing their focus. Furthermore, you are much more likely to get one answer quickly than you are three, because different questions require different answers — answers that may differ greatly in nature and complexity. Easy, short answers can be provided promptly, while answers requiring careful decision making or extended contemplation can be processed in their own due time. 
  • Make it 25 words or less whenever possible! This is an excellent goal sure to be cherished by any busy human in any walk of life. Nobody has time for your extended treatises. That being said, if length is required for clarity or the client really will benefit from having the information centrally united, adhering to the 25-words-or-fewer rule may not be possible, and that's okay. The idea is simply to be conscious about your choices, and to make sure you have bulletproof reasoning for any wordy, lengthy emails. 
  • “The 'e' in emails stand for evidence.” –Willie Brown In sensitive situations, it's important to be careful about what you put in writing. If a dispute were to arise, your emails could be used as evidence against you. (Let's take a moment to raise a glass to Donny Jr., who — in dashing off a quick response relating his excitement regarding potentially incriminating information about a political opponent — gave us a compelling example of email "evidence" that none of us will soon forget.)
  • When clients send a question by email, it is rarely the best question. Schedule a telephone appointment. Conversation is a lot more interesting on the telephone, where anything can happen. Having one question turn into a string of 14 back-and-forth explanatory emails isn't the goal. The goal is to understand the question and provide a timely response. In many situations, it's going to be more efficient and effective to simply pick up the phone and thereby avoid constructing a long and potentially confusing email chain. 
  • As a disembodied form of communication, email is great for transmitting data. It sucks for nuanced technical discussions. Do not use for interpersonal conflict if you value the relationship. If you're dealing with a complex matter, it's often best to pick up the phone. Nothing expedites a solution more than real-time, two-way communication. Anyway, even the best writers struggle to make their tone and message crystal-clear on the page. 
  • One email per client. We have a duty of confidentiality regarding even the names of our clients. Do not mention the name of one client in another client’s file. Don't be lazy and wanton in sharing your clients' information. Consider your responsibility to each of your clients in every communication you make to any client or colleague, because your clients' files should only include information pertinent to them.
  • Be gracious: say “thank you.” Every communication benefits from a "thank you." After all, they're giving you their time in reviewing what you have to say. "Thank you" belongs somewhere in absolutely every email you write. 

Taking the minor bit of time required to review your emails with these guidelines in mind can make a massive impact on the value of your communications to your clients and colleagues. It's an investment you can make in your relationships. And it's an investment you can make in no longer wasting your own time composing yet another over-long, lazily worded email. 

Decoding idioms for non-native English speakers

Imagine, for a moment, that English is not your native tongue. Now imagine that a colleague sends you a work email with the following message about a project you'd just completed, and that — not being a native English speaker — you must take their message entirely literally: "Hey, I hate to say it, but you really dropped the ball on this project. You've cut too many corners. Did you bite off more than you could chew? To make a long story short, while I'd personally love to cut you some slack, I can't let you off the hook here. I'll do my best to keep the big boss lady at bay, but I need you to go the extra mile and go back to the drawing board. The ball is in your court now. I hope you can get your head around it this time and pull a rabbit out of the hat." 

If you took all this literally, you'd likely worry that your colleague had lost his marbles — er, lost his mind — entirely. Why on earth is he talking about balls, papercrafts, eating food in an ill-judged manner, truncating stories, cutting you, embedding hooks in your skin, your boss lady adrift in a bay, race mileage, something called a "drawing board" (is that another craft?), more balls, some sort of brain-wrapping activity, and magic tricks?

Idioms — phrases that have come to have certain meanings that can't be deduced from the individual words used — are something we ALL learn over time. My native-English-speaker fiancé, who isn't exactly the sporting type, has often amused me with tales of the sports metaphors he willfully misunderstood and misstated throughout his childhood: "batting 100," "going the full 10 miles," etc. But it's doubly hard for non-native English speakers trying to navigate our idiom-laden world. 

One of my current clients is a company largely comprised of non-native English speakers. Their native tongues include Russian, Portuguese, and other languages. While I try to limit idiom usage in my communications with them, the fact that I have a hard time with it tells me how incredibly common idioms are in the phrasings I use and the world at large. So in honor of my wonderful colleagues at Distillery (hi everybody!) and a lovely German friend named Marc, this blog focuses on decoding some of the idioms that they've found most useful or confusing over the years. Beyond that, I want to do my part in raising awareness about being more careful with idiom usage in communications with non-native English speakers. So before we jump in, I plead with you: please don't make it harder on our non-native English-speaking friends by overusing idioms. After all, they already went to the trouble of learning our language, which is more than most of us can say. :)

Without further ado...

  • "A pot calling the kettle black." Meaning: This is when someone criticizes someone else for a fault they also have. You're pointing out the hypocrisy of the person's statement. Ridiculousness: Apparently, historically speaking, everyone's kettles and pots were black? My own kettle is a pleasing green.
  • "Bring it on!" Meaning: This is an informal way to express one's confidence in being able to tackle a challenge that's at hand. Ridiculousness: Bring WHAT WHERE? 
  • "By the skin of my teeth." Meaning: This is used to refer to a situation in which you managed to accomplish something, but only just barely, narrowly escaping defeat. Ridiculousness: Supremely well-stated by one of my colleagues: "Well, it hurts me to imagine that my teeth have skin on them."
  • "Hit the books." Meaning: This simply refers to studying something very intensely. People may also use it to express that they feel they don't yet know enough about something: "I'd better hit the books." Ridiculousness: Go ahead and HIT those books. HIT THEM! They won't hit back. 
  • "Don't have a cow." Meaning: This expression is used to tell someone to calm down about something. While it was made exceedingly famous by our yellow friend Bart Simpson, people have apparently been saying it as far back as the '50s. Ridiculousness: If you use this in the presence of non-native English speakers, you deserve the blank, confused looks you're going to get, because your literal meaning is as follows: "I can clearly see that you don't have a cow in your possession, but I really must implore you not to give birth to one."
  • "Eat your own dog food." Meaning: The concept here is that if you are responsible for a service or a product, you should be willing to use/eat/drink that product before subjecting others to it. (Just imagine if politicians had to treat lawmaking this way. What wondrous fun.) Ridiculousness: I shudder to imagine the makers of Alpo having to start staff meetings by digging into that horrific dog food.
  • "Face the music." Meaning: This means you need to face the negative consequences of whatever you did. Ridiculousness: Why does "music" stand in for "negative consequences" when the majority of us LIKE music? 
  • "Hit the nail on the head." Meaning: This means to get something exactly right. It can also be shortened to the pleasing "You really nailed it!" Comparative Lack of Ridiculousness: If you think about it, this one actually makes sense. The metaphorical image is of a hammer and a nail. You're trying to pound the nail as effectively and accurately as possible, so you want to hit the nail straight... on its head. You don't want to mess around and miss the nail, or nail it in at an odd angle, do you? 
  • "Kill two birds with one stone." Meaning: This simply means to do two things at once. Maybe you need to take out the garbage, so you figure you may as well grab that screwdriver from the garage on your way back in. Ridiculousness: Please draw me a diagram showing me how you are going to kill both of those flight-capable birds with a single throwing object. 
  • "Knock your socks off." Meaning: This expression describes something that's really impressive or amazing. You could also express your own amazement by saying that something "really knocked my socks off." Ridiculousness: Did we at least begin by knocking off the shoes? Or do the socks somehow escape the shoes while the shoes remain miraculously on the feet?
  • "Let's call it a day." Meaning: We're ceasing activity for now, and we're more than likely happy about doing so. We Americans LOVE "calling it a day" after we feel we've worked sufficiently hard to feel self-satisfied. Ridiculousness: Calling non-day things "days" is just so... satisfying? 
  • "Now you're talking." Meaning: People say this to express enthusiastic agreement with something you've just said. Ridiculousness: "Yes, I do happen to be talking right now; what of it?"
  • "On cloud nine." Meaning: If someone says they're on cloud nine, it means they're blissfully happy about something. I googled this one out of consummate curiosity, and apparently, a 1950s US Weather Bureau classification defined "Cloud 9"-type clouds as those perfectly fluffy cumulonimbus clouds that all children draw with crayons by age six. Ridiculousness: "No, not the eighth cloud. Or the seventh heaven. Keep going... yep, there it is, cloud nine!" 
  • "Pitch in." Meaning: If you "pitch in," you join a collaborative effort with enthusiasm and vigor. You help out. You do your part as a member of a team. Ridiculousness: Our modern references for the word "pitch" typically have to do with baseball. In the context of baseball, "pitching in" makes no sense. 
  • "Take it with a grain of salt." Meaning: If someone says this to you, they're telling you that while whatever's being said is only partly worth believing, and it'd be smart to stay a little skeptical about it. For example, one might say, "Promises made by politicians during elections are best taken with a grain of salt." This one is apparently quite historic: it seems that Pliny the Elder, way back in 77 A.D., said something to the extent that salt makes everything a little easier to swallow. Ridiculousness: So you're saying that just ONE minuscule grain of salt will do the trick in all situations?
  • "The best thing since sliced bread." Meaning: This is an expression used to emphasize how enthusiastic someone is about something. For example, if a fancy new VR headset comes on the market, you might say, "WOW! This is the best thing since sliced bread." Ridiculousness: Actually, no, you wouldn't say that at all, because in the modern age we're no longer super-impressed by pre-sliced bread. 
  • "Way to go!" Meaning: You did good. If someone says this to you, they're expressing their approval or excitement about whatever you just did. Ridiculousness: The innate silliness of this one is best typified by another non-native English-speaking colleague's comment: "It sounds like it's not to cheer someone up, but rather tell him there is plenty room for improvement." As in, "Dude, you've still got a long way to go on that."
  • "What's his/her face." Meaning: People say this when they're referring to someone they know whose name they cannot remember, and whose name they're too lazy to try to remember. Ridiculousness: This one makes very little sense, as you do not actually want whomever you're asking to describe the person's face. Please don't inflict this on anyone.

If you still haven't had enough idiom fun, check out this idiom-learning app, which uses highly amusing illustrations to highlight and teach our ridiculous American idioms. And remember: have mercy on our non-native-English-speaking friends and colleagues. Because sometimes, we native English speakers do use idioms to the point of idiocy, and the habit doesn't do them — or us — any favors.