Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Year's resolution: Down with willpower!

A lot of you out there are going to make resolutions for New Year's Eve. And let me guess: a lot of them are going to involve Calvinistic promises to eat less, exercise more, be nicer to Mom, or work harder at your business. And you are going to fail at all of them.

Here is why I am so sure about that. These resolutions all involve willpower. And you may not realize it, but willpower is often the worst thing you could try to develop in your life. In fact, I would like you to start looking at willpower for what it really is: the enemy of success.

For my first example, let's take something I see every week as a therapist: conquering your fears. If you are afraid of driving on the freeway, you might think that the best thing to do is screw up your courage, get behind the wheel, and point your car resolutely toward the on-ramp. You know, like all those platitudes about "doing the thing you fear."

Wrong-o. What you are actually doing is sensitizing yourself to your fears, and probably making no progress at all - or worse, setting yourself back. Clinically, the most effective way to conquer fears is to change how you think about them, and then take tiny baby steps that desensitize you. Ironically, while having fears is very scary, getting well from them is often painless if it is done correctly.

For example, I once used to be afraid to fly. (Never mind that I am a former engineering supervisor at Boeing Aircraft.) And I had "exposure" out the kazoo, logging over a quarter million air miles during my management career, all the way up to 19-hour flights to Asia. But then one day I had a two-hour telephone counseling session from a pilot-turned-therapist who runs, focusing on how I viewed the experience of flying. I literally hung up the phone from that session and said to myself "Now I'm ready for this." And ever since, for 50,000 air miles and counting, flying has been like stepping on a bus.

Now, let's take dieting. Something I've done often. What happens every time is that I cut back my calorie intake, get on the treadmill three times a week, and lose exactly 10 pounds. And then get stuck. And stay there, seemingly forever. After which I get fed up and go back to my normal eating habits. So this New Year's, I am not "going on a diet." Instead, I am going to talk to a nutritionist and learn how to eat better for the rest of my life.

Moving to more sensitive territory, let's talk about your career. Do you think that working harder is the cure for your job woes? That is how your boss thinks, of course. I've got a much better idea: pick the most fun thing you could possibly be doing and become absolutely incredible at it. When I finally left corporate life to spend every day doing what I love, many years ago, it wasn't just the best emotional move I ever made - it was the best financial one as well.

Finally, since this is a communications skills blog, let's close with my favorite subject: getting along with people. Resolving to be nicer to others never works - you either slip back into your old habits, or you open your mouth and nothing comes out. Most people feel like deer frozen in the headlights in their most difficult situations, until they are taught to say the right things. Then it becomes incredibly easy to be nice to people, resolve conflict, and negotiate what you want.

So, if your business struggles with infighting, difficult customers, employee motivation, high turnover, or any other communications problem, I've got a dandy New Year's resolution for you: go to and see what we can do for you in 2010. And then watch what happens when you replace willpower with a much more potent force: skill power.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The end of the whatchamacallit decade

Next week we reach the end of the decade that never was.

Think about it. Have you ever heard anyone use a term to describe these last ten years? I haven't. Sure, back when we partied like it was 1999, we talked about calling this decade the "aughts." But if I gave you a nickel for every time someone has actually used that phrase, you'd have, well, nothing. Same with the "oh-oh's," but even more so, because that sounds too much like "uh-oh." Or, as the Jetsons' dog Astro would say, "rut-row."

The 2000s don't count, because that is a millennium. We get to use that one for the next thousand years. And while we're at it, we've lost a whole century here as well - history teachers who blandly talk about things like the 1600s will find themselves tongue-tied describing the first hundred years of this new era. And so we disappear into mute silence about a large chunk of our history.

Radio stations were among the first to develop corporate amnesia about this decade, using phrases like "hits of the 80s, 90s, and today." Do you think that ten years from now, they will be talking about hits of the 90s, the aughts, and today? I didn't think so either. And now, all those news shows and countdowns reviewing the last decade are coming up with a novel way to describe it: "the last decade."

Perhaps it's the growing realization that the 90s will soon be 20 years old. That people who were born after Wang Chung broke up have children of their own now. Or worst of all, that the next ten years aren't going to get any better: even if you wanted to talk about "the teens," you can't do that until 2013, and probably don't want to anyway. Whatever it is, our nomenclature for dates has succeeded in creating a massive vacuum in history.

This will all get better in 2020, of course. If we are doing well economically by then we could even make like our great-grandparents and call it the Roaring 20s. After that we'll be OK again for another 80 years or so. In the meantime, we could perhaps make like the Chinese, who simply refer to this as the Year of the Ox (or by number as the year 4705, 4706, or 4645, depending upon which epoch you use). Or better yet, stop trying to fit time and history into neat decade-long boxes. That's what I think we "aught" to do.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TV or not TV

I never watch television, unless there is a baseball umpire on the screen somewhere. But since my darling wife finds 200 cable channels more entertaining than I do, it is often on in the background at our house. And frankly, there is a lot about it I simply don't understand.

Perhaps those of you who watch television more often than me could help me figure some of these things out. Here goes:

-Why does the Food Network never prepare any, um, food - as in, something you would actually serve your family or friends? Unless, of course, you serve them things like braised eel with garlic aioli on a bed of risotto.

-Where do all these people under 30 come from purchasing houses on the Home and Garden Channel for sums like $852,000? And do they all sell crack for a living? When I was that age I was scraping up a $4,000 down payment on a $78,000 condo.

-How come they call it The History Channel when it is actually filled with people like Gnostic bishops, UFO hunters, and end-of-the-world theorists? Perhaps the idea of calling it "The Kook Channel" didn't pass muster with the ol' marketing department.

-Whose brilliant idea was it to rename the SciFi Channel to SyFy? And why do they call it either of those things, when most of their shows involve teenage girls uttering bloodcurdling screams as they outrun some pustulating monster? I'll bet talent auditions at SyFy are pretty straightforward: "Next? All right, honey, let's hear what your scream sounds like."

-Memo to people like Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Glenn Beck: do you folks ever smile? And did your parents teach you not to interrupt your guests in mid-sentence? None of you are getting invited to our house for dinner. (Oh, all right, Keith Olbermann, I'll make an exception for you, because you used to work with my brother at WVBR in college, and he tells me you're actually a nice guy. But smile once in a while as we're passing the potatoes, OK?)

-When newscasters tell us to "stay tuned for this important story" for 40 minutes and counting, do they really think I am going to sit there in slack-jawed suspense? Instead of simply going online and reading the story myself three clicks later?

-I am as much a fan of diversity as anyone, but do we really need five different Nickelodeon channels? Or am I missing something here?

All I can say is that I am looking forward to Spring Training in another three months or so. Then watching television will start making sense to me again.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Our Christmas letter

Dear friends,

Like many people, Colleen and I have fallen into the habit of sending an annual letter every December, rattling off the great things that have happened with us: places we've been, things we've accomplished, and so forth.

But how many of you wake up each morning thinking of other people that way? We don't, and you probably don't either. So this year, we decided to share some of the things that are really important to us. Here are some of our "real" highlights of 2009:

-Colleen and I are both as madly in love with each other as when we first met nearly 37 years ago. In fact, probably more so.

-Colleen is also madly in love with this guy, who is now three years old. And my desire for her to be happy obviously still extends to having live animals in our household.

-Rich wakes up every morning doing work he really enjoys - albeit too much of it sometimes - and is celebrating nearly a dozen years of being self-employed as a writer, author, and public speaker. And most recently a budding psychotherapist, starting in private practice under supervision this past summer and hopefully graduating soon.

-Colleen remains the resident landscaper, photographer, and stained glass artist. And has a truly great novel in the works. One of these days people will discover that she is the real writing talent in the family.

-We don't feel any older or dream any less big, even though we are now 55 and 61 respectively. About the only thing that feels different from our 20s is needing three different pairs of glasses nowadays!

-We cherish our connections with you, our good friends and colleagues. Being in contact with great people every day makes our lives very sweet indeed.

Rich will just brag about one thing, because it meant a lot to him: 2009 was a career year for him as an author and ghostwriter, including a national #1 customer service bestseller and a finalist nomination for a major book award. Details are elsewhere on his blog or Facebook page if you're interested.

So how are you? And what things are important for you at this point in your lives? We'd love to hear from you, and wish you the very happiest holiday season and a blessed 2010.

Love, Rich and Colleen