Better Manners of Getting Things Done

Today I found myself in line at a big hardware store to return something that had arrived broken. Not the end of the world; it was just something that I’d hoped I could get without an involved trip to the store, but I wouldn’t have ordered a replacement to be shipped when I had weekend time to resolve it more safely. There was only one guy in front of me at the Returns line, and he was FURIOUS. But he didn’t know how to handle the problem he was facing.

If you go to Returns for something large and heavy in your vehicle, and they ask you to have the Pro Desk (at the other end of the store) unload it first – sensibly, so you don’t get a refund and then run away with it – fine. If the Pro Desk then sends you back to Returns, you don’t need to go to Returns and throw a swearing tantrum, threatening to dump your return in the middle of the parking lot and blow off your money before storming away without a resolution. Of course he did just that, which got me thinking. I’ve been in the same type of situation before, and you may have, too… at the store, at work, or anywhere else.

What you CAN do in this situation is much simpler. You thank the first person and assume they’re right until you learn otherwise. Then you get the name of the second person who sent you backward and take it to the first person or place. If the first place sticks to their story, you calmly tell them that Ron at the Pro Desk (for example) insisted on the Return being done before the unload, and you calmly ask Lynn at Returns (for example) to get hold of Ron by phone or radio and sort this out. You calmly explain that they (not you – you’re being calm and civil) have a misunderstanding and that they (not you) need to straighten it out before you go back and forth and waste any more of THEIR (not your) time. Then you smile expectantly and stand calmly and quietly in the way until Lynn reaches Ron or gets him to come to you. Once both people are in the same place or at least on the same page, you get a straight answer and have a firm plan on who will help you first. That’s all it takes.

We’re all going through a lot right now, but yelling at people who just need a little guidance and respect doesn’t really solve anything, and it can darken everyone’s day.

Manners and diplomacy aren’t taught in most schools in the USA. Perhaps they should be. There is almost always room for a better manner of getting things done.

Musings on a Darkened Day

For several months now, I have lived my life in daylight (fortunate to have one of those day jobs that can sometimes be done from home), and I have hardly used my headlights at all, except as a safety precaution in early morning or late afternoon. But I have never once needed them to SEE.

So today, as I left work at the same time as always, but this time in the dead of night (by all appearances), my headlights hardly seemed enough. No gradual transition, this Daylight Saving Time conversion! No, this is throwing a switch that kills the circuit and turns off all the lights at once. The difference in one hour around noon can seem almost like nothing. One hour at night can seem almost eternal. But one hour around dusk? Day literally becomes night.

Swiftly I recalled one of the first lessons my mother taught me when she was showing me how to drive: if someone is driving toward you with lights so bright that you can barely see anything in front of you… focus on the line to your right. If you focus on that outer line, just for those last few seconds, it is easier to maintain your place in the lane and control your speed and your steering. Plus it helps to keep your night vision intact.

I was surprised at how easily that old lesson came back after months of disuse, though of course I’ve been practicing it as needed for decades now. Much how catching a baseball (for those coordinated enough to do so) involves complex physics and mathematical trajectories that we anticipate without having to calculate the actual numbers, this skill was suddenly at the forefront of my mind without any words. My eyes glanced slightly away from the onrushing vehicle and its blinding glare, and I focused on that dim little white line, softly illuminated by my own headlights.

Worked like a charm, of course! I found myself maintaining a perfectly still position in the lane; I continued slowly forward, until the other driver had passed; and suddenly, my own headlights mattered again, and I could once more see a little bit of the road in front of me.

How reassuring to have these rarely-needed skills rise back up so easily when the time is right.

My mother was an excellent defensive driver. She could make good time on long road trips, but she also taught me early on that you can only control what YOU do on the road, never what someone else does. So if you want to be safe, act as though everyone else is paying less attention than you are and might miss things like turn signals, red lights, stop signs, oncoming cars, drivers in a blind spot, debris in the road. And you leave a little extra room, and a little extra time to respond, if that happens.

Driver in front of you didn’t see that board in the road? Might be nothing. Might have nails in it. Might flip up as they drive over it and thump their car, or come at yours. If you see it before the other driver, though, you can slow down, space out the cars a little more, and be prepared to respond safely.

I have driven a great deal in my years so far, and I have long ago lost track of the number of times that her advice saved me trouble, saved me from damage, and may even have saved my life.

Years ago, The Moffatts wrote a charming, age-appropriate song called, “Mama Never Told Me ‘Bout You”, where the lead singer recites many good lessons that his mother had taught him, but he was still blindsided by falling for this cute girl. Well, mothers may not automatically know everything, of course, but the wisest ones continue to learn as they go and impart their distilled wisdom into their children’s minds and hearts whenever they can, to set the best examples they can possibly do, and – ideally – to raise thoughtful, attentive, curious, compassionate, and kind-hearted children who grow up to be the same kind of adults.

My mother made mistakes – everyone does – but she got a lot of things right, too. In tricky situations, with a lot of variables in play, like driving and so many other things, one wrong decision in one instant can mean the difference between life and death, or any stop in between.

Strong wisdom and good teachings provide no guarantee that anything will go right in one’s life, but it seems like they lean the odds just a little bit in your favor, and I am grateful to have them on my side. Might have made all the difference a few hours ago. I’m glad we’ll never know, but I’m glad to be able to tell you about it now.

My Californiversary

Moving across the country in 2019 changed everything, overwhelmingly for the better. Thinking about my Californiversary, I also looked back and considered my career to date.

I had a lot of odd jobs when I was young, and I learned a lot of skills, had a little fun, learned about a thankless grind in places, and at one point I worked FOUR different jobs: two during the week – both part-time – and two on weekends only. It was crazy, I was very young, and I almost never slept.

For the record? I don’t recommend that. To anyone. But moving ahead:

I’ve had three important segments in my career as an adult. The first was when I was just starting out, and I was hired at a small, family business, directly by the owner, who was ready to retire and sell the company. She wanted two reliable people she knew would help keep things safe. She had one – he’d been there for 2 or 3 years when I signed on. But she wanted a second sharp one to come in, pick things up quickly… and then she could move on with a clear conscience, knowing she left her customers (many of whom she had known for decades) in good hands.

She tried me out, found out I had the perfect blend of broad skills and adaptability (plus a dynamite learning curve) that she needed, and she hired me as a temp. She’d finally turned to a temp agency to let them pre-screen, because hiring straight in had brought more headaches than help for a while. As it happened, I came highly recommended by both my short-term clients to date and my agency, so when she asked them, they had someone promising on tap and sent me over.

On the job, I picked everything up quickly, and she was so pleased that she soon asked me when my contract was up. After confirming with the agency to be sure, I told her 90 days after hire. She said, “You put that on the calendar, and you tell me on the last day, because I want to put you on payroll!” That was encouraging (and welcome!) news when I was just starting out at a new job.

When that day came, she sat me down and said, in short, “Obviously you’re doing very well. I’m delighted to have you, I’m very tired, and I want out of this business that I’ve built. But before I sell it, I’m gonna put you on payroll, and I’m writing you and Jeff into the sale contract, where you cannot be turned over as a disposable asset. You will both be hired in and kept on.” (Unless, of course, one of us were to be fired for cause, but neither of us ever was.)

Of course I was delighted with that news as well! She asked me what I was making from the agency, and since this was the payroll conversation, we were direct with each other. I was making X; she was paying them Y. She took $0.50/hour off the higher number and made that my new wage, effective the next day! I thanked her for her generosity, and she replied, “You’re a young man who’s working to build his life. I’m in a position to give you some solid footing, and I’d like to help.” It was far more than the minimum wage at the time, and we were both satisfied with the arrangement.

Once the contract additions were in place, the owner promptly sold the company, having already negotiated most of the details with a buyer once she saw that I was working out so well. It was then sold two more times, but I stayed with the company – or rather, with that group of people, performing the same roles – for twelve years.

A few years after I began, it was acquired by a large company with an international footprint and a worldwide presence. They had systems for doing everything, and people were just numbers. We were all cogs in a wheel, but at least there were rules.

I learned the rules, I fit in very well, and I was promoted a couple of times. But then the company stalled out; they saturated their market, they eliminated ALL the growth opportunities and the available position I was applying for next, and they literally told me, “You’ve maxed out your pay scale, and you’ll never get another raise, unless you take another job.” And of course, they had just eliminated all of the other jobs in the company at large, with that contraction. So unless someone above me quit, I was stuck.

Needless to say, I started looking and training my successors, just in case. When I found a role elsewhere, I had also found someone sharp who could step into my shoes rather easily. I finished up the project I was leading (giving three weeks’ notice instead of two) and stepped into my new company: a small, family-run business once more.

Now, I had just completed nine years at this international mega-corporation, so the idea of being a more important part of a smaller group again held enormous appeal.

What I didn’t realize was this: at a large company, you can sometimes change roles (unless they decide they’re too big and they must eliminate their open roles instead of streamlining their operations); at a small company, you may wear more hats, but there’s no room for advancement.

There were five people who ran this family business, and everyone else was “floor level”. Either you were an owner/manager, or you were a foot soldier in the workflow. And that was all there was.

I learned this a little way in, but just a few months after I arrived, the Great Recession of 2008 shut everything else down, and everyone did a hiring freeze, so then there was no place else to go, either. Might I have gone and begged for my old job back? Perhaps. But stubbornness kept me where I was, convinced I could make a difference in this place, and knowing that in the smaller company, even with fewer resources, they had greater control over how those resources were allocated. So I thought if I could help the bottom line, surely I could improve my position.

However, small companies have their own issues, and I frequently found myself pigeonholed if I tried to step outside of my primary duties. When I taught myself some new skills, scooped up technical work from in-house, and kept us from having to outsource that (saving money and often time), that was a welcome change. When I learned a new technology for our website or some new device for our office, I could confidently troubleshoot it and bring everyone else who needed to use it, up to competence as well. Translating systems from one person’s lingo into that of another, has always been a strong suit of mine.

Well, these were suitable changes, but when the bottom line was suffering, and the owners told everyone, “We need to increase sales!” I considered this, found a few ways that I thought we could do so, brought them to the owners, and offered to take point, or even just to participate on the side without telling anyone. And the first time I heard, “But YOU can’t do that; you’re not in sales!” I was dumbfounded. It took a very long time for me to wrap my head around this, but I was an Executive Assistant; if I started doing more sales, I might be working with a different group of people in the company. And since I was the ONLY Executive Assistant for all of them, I think the CEO and a couple of others thought that I would be unavailable to handle their needs while I was busy helping us bring in enough money that everyone could keep getting paid on time. Either way, most of my ideas were shuttered, and when that happens often enough, most people will stop volunteering new ideas.

The company stagnated for a while, had a couple of changes in leadership (in and out of the family – not being sold like the other one), and eventually, I left them, too, although I had at least been preparing this change for several months. When that time came, I had built them a series of reference documents for tasks from the basic to the complex, and I taught a crash course for the successor they hired at the last moment, after cross-training as many of my colleagues as possible in the months prior. I kept my personal phone on their speed dial for a few weeks after my departure, and the company officers sent me with glowing letters of recommendation for my future roles.

I moved to California for love, not for employment, so of course I still needed an income. While I’ve done some freelance work here and there, most of my income for most of my life has come from a traditional job, and I am very good at what I do. Though I applied at several places in and around my new hometown, and even walked in cold at a few more to find out what was going on, eventually I registered with an agency in the area, and much as had happened more than twenty years ago, I got a call. The agency told me that this great company with which they’ve worked for years needed an experienced Executive Assistant who can handle a lot of things at once while working for at least five different people, maybe more. I could not hide my smile on that phone call as I replied, “You’re in luck!” The recruiter laughed and asked me a few questions (she was not the same one who had completed my registration, so we were new to each other), and when she confirmed that I had in fact worked for five different executives at the same time, successfully and with glowing recommendations at my departure, she let her client company know that someone might just fit that bill perfectly.

Sidebar: her exact words were, “They basically read me your résumé in their job description!”

That Friday, I had a long, delightful conversation with the client’s in-house recruiter, who set me up an interview for the following Monday. That interview went well; I liked the first executive who interviewed me as a temporary addition, and we seemed like a clear professional match. As I got back into my car, I decided to send the in-house recruiter a simple but gracious email from my phone. I sent the thank-you note, and before I could start the car, I received an email back. She told me that the interviewer had been quite impressed and wanted to give me a shot. Could I start tomorrow, she asked? Of course I did so!

In the past year with this company, I have learned something important. Large companies that are very well-run understand the roles their people play, and that they must develop those people to invest in their teams. Investing well and wisely in your people is a tremendous incentive for them to explore new areas, master new skills, and generally add value every single day. This is reflected in the best attitudes and often the best teamwork, as enthusiastic groups of curious people with even decent communication skills among them, are incredibly productive! Add in an atmosphere of continuous improvement, and you can blow the game right out of the water.

Now I am in a workplace where everyone believes in development. I have been given the chance to explore numerous fields outside of my “generalist” areas as an Executive Assistant. While my primary role can encompass an unlimited breadth of challenges, I have been able to step into specific new roles as well.

Finally I can see a number of options for my future with this company, instead of just the one.

I only moved across the country, but it’s a whole new world where I landed.

The First Medical Specialization

Medical specialties may have their place, but sometimes they baffle me.

While training with my punching bag two days ago, I struck with my left hand at a bad angle and instantly felt a searing pain shoot through my wrist and into my arm. Whatever reminded me of it today, I am unsure, because it doesn’t hurt anymore. Right after this happened, I stripped off my training gloves, quickly grasped my left hand with my right, pointed my elbows outward at chest height, and pulled my hand away from my elbow, gradually increasing the pull until I felt everything click back into place.

Now, I am not a chiropractor, though I visited one when I was very young. He helped remove my chronic earaches by adjusting my neck. Obviously there can be more to medicine than some of us learn. But human bodies are extremely complex and interdependent systems, and without caution and insight, specializations can become a black hole that bury everything else.

Ask an oncologist how to treat your cancer, and you will likely be told that chemotherapy is the only logical choice. A radiologist will most likely suggest radiation first. A surgeon will want to remove as much of the tumor as possible. A holistic doctor may suggest something else entirely. All of these positions can have merit, and all of them might help, but you are still your own best advocate. Only you know your body and your responses to treatments over the years better than anyone else.

Comedian Eddie Izzard once joked that no matter what is ailing you, a chiropractor will always suggest that they should “crack your bones” to make you feel better. His delivery in that show was hilarious, and he still makes a very good point.

I recently heard of “ozone IVs” for the first time. If your medical specialty is infusing ozone to enrich the blood’s oxygen content and cleanse and energize cells throughout the body, you may know well what conditions this can help. You will be quick to sing the praises of the ozone IVs, and you will tell everyone why they do such good. You may even say that there can be no harm in them, so everyone can benefit, whatever their condition. And you may be right. But so may be the homeopath, the acupuncturist, and even the pharmacologist, who thinks that the benefits of the drug of the month will far outweigh the risks, if you feel you need help.

The point is never to overlook either the advantages or the disadvantages of a treatment – of any treatment – and never to close yourself off from something that can help you. I take very few medicines, even for my occasional allergies, because I find that everything else works better day and night when I have fewer medicines in my system. I know people who take 12 a day, and they cannot imagine skipping any of them, because of the benefits they provide to those people. Everything works differently on everyone, and this must be kept in mind to treat anyone successfully, with any discipline.

I would visit a biontologist monthly or even weekly if a reputable one were close, because I believe from my studies that this is something that has no downside and can only help realign all of your systems to function at their maximum efficiency. And there is science to support that; hence my studies. But I also think that it only makes sense to consider all options, and what they can do right and wrong, and take whatever treatments you may need at any given time to help your body heal itself.

The danger in all of this comes when any specialization, or any evangelism toward a specialization, blinds you to other possibilities that could help you more, or help better, or do more good or less harm in the first place. The right answer to anything in life is rarely so cut and dry.

Real life is messy, and we live in the gray areas every day. Be vigilant, question everything (even yourself if you seek wisdom and improvement), and learn all you can. If you have friends, relatives, and trusted medical advisers, so much the better. But whether you do or not, you are still your own best advocate, first and always.

 

<Author’s Note: This post was written in February of 2019 and somehow failed to upload then. For continuity, I tagged the original writing date when I published it successfully in May of 2021.>