I Don’t Have to Eat That

The local news broadcast was on the television this morning, as I prepared for the day. Our local reporters typically do a good job of mixing levity and positive messages with the news that is necessary to report. Today though, was different.

There was no levity or positivity today. Between their non-stop COVID-19 reporting, the reporters managed to squeeze in news of a murder and a bleak weather focus. Even the commercials contained somber messages related to the physical and economic damage that this pandemic has caused. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer, so I switched off the TV and asked Alexa to lift my spirits with some Neil Diamond music. It was like I dumped a Swiss steak in the garbage.

As a kid, I hated Swiss steak. It wasn’t my mother’s fault – she was an excellent cook – I just really didn’t like Swiss steak, but I had to eat it. In my house, you ate what everyone else was eating.

I have had Swiss steak exactly zero times since I left home 30-plus years ago. That’s one of the benefits of being adult. I get to decide what I put in my mouth.

Likewise, because I have free will, I get to decide what I put in my head.

I don’t have to listen when media-appointed experts tell me that the world is irreparably damaged, that my college-age children might not go back to school until next year, that “things are going to get worse before they get better” and on the list goes. I don’t have to internalize gloom and pessimism, and I sure don’t have to perpetuate it.

In this time of mandated quarantining and other social restrictions, it is vitally important that we are aware of and use our free will. We might not be able to go where we want and do what we want, but we can sure choose what put in our heads.

We should also use our free will to control what comes out of our mouths. Instead of commiserating in misery, we should share gratitude and happiness with those around us. Being positive in challenging times requires more effort, but it’s worth it.

Just like we have to be especially mindful of washing our hands and careful not to expose ourselves or others to germs, we need to be mindful to avoid consuming and spreading the poisonous messages that bombard us daily. Exposure to a virus can make us physically sick, and a constant diet of negativity and fear can ruin our mental health.

I’m not saying that you should bury your head in the sand, but there are only so many times you can let negativity and pessimism clobber you over the head before you start feeling the effects. Be informed, NOT influenced.

If you feel anxious, upset or angry when you’re watching a television program, having a conversation or browsing social media, do something else. There are Web sites, television programs and conversations that can benefit, instead of harm your well-being. You could also immerse yourself in a good book, listen to an old album or do something physical. There are a lot of options for positivity if you’re willing to be creative.

If given the choice, I’ll never eat Swiss steak again, and you don’t have to either.

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I Was Just Laid Off, What Should I Do?

Almost daily for the past couple of weeks, I’ve fielded calls from friends, family and business associates telling me that they had just been laid off. For most, it’s the first time that they’ve involuntarily been out of work, and they’re in shock. Their world was just turned upside down, and they don’t know where to turn.

Unfortunately for these people and their employers, COVID-19 is having an unprecedented impact on employment. There is no textbook answer for unemployment questions in a time of social distancing. That makes it even more important to be strategic and thoughtful in your response.

In my 15-plus years as a professional recruiter, I’ve counseled many through the layoff experience, and this is what I tell them.

Take the first day off. Losing your job stings, and in that first day, you will likely have many negative emotions, like anger, frustration, bitterness, fear and even embarrassment. When your mind is cluttered like that, you aren’t ready to make big decisions or have important conversations. Instead, find peace in recreation and relaxing. Then, take an inventory of your blessings, including your professional skills and accomplishments. Finally, before you go to bed that night, affirm your value to yourself.

Approach day two and every day after with energy and enthusiasm. Now is not the time to cower in the corner and hide from the world. Yesterday was your day off. It’s time to get to work, and you need to be loud about it. Your network needs to know that your talents are available. Call your friends, colleagues and family. Update your LinkedIn status. If you know recruiters in your industry, call them now. They can give you insight on the conditions in your industry.

Be positive. Now, more than usual, many of us are surrounded by negativity. Because of this, a positive, enthusiastic voice stands out more than ever. Smile when you speak, even when you’re communicating by telephone. I spend a large part of my day on the phone, and can often tell the mood of the person on the other end of the line by his or her voice. In times like these, I grow weary of dark moods. Be that person who leaves people excited about the next time they get to speak with you.

Have a value statement. When organizations face uncertainty, their focus is on improving their immediate situation. Tell them how you can contribute to that solution. If you have special skills and certifications, don’t bury them in your resume or LinkedIn profile. Feature them in the way that a car salesman lists the most popular features first.

Be bold and specific in your communication with prospective employers. You are trying to get attention, not earn a high score for etiquette. Employers probably aren’t desperate for talent. Their inboxes are flooded with resumes. Make them desperate for YOUR talent. Tell them how you can help them and in what capacity you are willing to work, e.g. temp-to-hire. Memorize and internalize your value statement.

Don’t get discouraged. Businesses now are trepidatious and very careful with commitments that require resources. Plus, they have little time to focus on the future, as they struggle remain solvent. Be persistent, but don’t be alarmed if the process goes more slowly than you wanted. Also, don’t stop looking when you are going through the interview process. Looking out for yourself means that you consider all opportunities.

Like all previous downturns in the employment market, this one will end, and we’ll be stronger for the experience. If you apply these hints during the process, you can be ahead of the game when the rebound happens.

Note: If you are an engineer or have experience in technical sales, I want to hear from you. Please call me at 402-884-7466 or e-mail me.

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When You Can’t Do What You Want

Our two college students returned home for their spring breaks, a little over a week ago. A close family with students 500 miles apart, we had been looking forward to this time since their Christmas break.

Typically, we spend our limited time together visiting our favorite restaurants and meeting with friends and family. COVID-19 changed all of that. Now, we can’t do what we want.

As someone who has lived with physical limitations for most of my life, I have substantial experience not being able to do what I want. This what I’ve learned.

When you can’t do what you want, the first impulse is to complain. That’s understandable, but before long, you’ll figure out that complaining gets you nowhere and usually only leads to more misery. My parents had no tolerance for self-pity or complaining. They saw me suffer through tests and operations, and struggle to do things that my classmates could do. They knew what I was going through wasn’t easy or fair, but they never allowed me to feel sorry for myself. Instead of self-pity and complaining, they taught me that I could be happiest through self-reliance and resilience. If you can’t change it, learn to live with it.

Focus on what you CAN do. No matter who you are, there are things you cannot do. You might not be able to afford a dream house, travel as frequently or extravagantly as you want or star in a rock band, but that shouldn’t stop you from being happy. Hunting has taught me this lesson. Though my limited mobility keeps me from exciting stalks and limits my access to challenging terrain, I’ve found ways to enjoy my passion and even experience success from time to time, by focusing on what I can do.

The same thing is true with our current social limitations. Maybe we can’t go to our favorite restaurants or sporting events or have a huge party with our friends, but we can enjoy a game of cards with our family, take a nap by the fire or cook a gourmet dinner. We might have to be creative to exercise, socialize and work, but there are things we can do.

Appreciate small, simple things. Nothing brings blessings into focus like adversity. Several years ago, after going to the gym and showering, I threw my back out getting dressed. For three days, I couldn’t stand up straight or even tie my shoes and dress myself. I remember lying in bed wanting a shower, and wondering if I would ever be able to shower in the same way again. Eventually, my back healed, and I’ve been fortunate never to experience anything like that since, but I definitely gained an appreciation for showering that I didn’t have before.

The COVID-19 situation should have the same effect and leave us with extreme appreciation. Before things got turned upside down, I appreciated the ability to dine out and freely socialize, but that appreciation has since heightened to unprecedented levels. Plus, I’ve learned to appreciate less obvious blessings.

Last night, unable to visit a favorite wing and pizza restaurant, we ordered take-out from them, and though only one of us went in to retrieve the order, our entire family went on the drive. If things were normal, we would have met friends at the restaurant or, if we ordered take-out, only one of us would have driven there in silence, while the others continued their individual activities. Instead, all of us jumped on the opportunity to get out of the house, and we enjoyed a lively conversation to and from the restaurant.

No, we can’t do what we want, but that shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can, while learning and appreciating what’s truly important.

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Embracing the Selfishness of the Empty Nest

The month-long college Christmas break that ended in late January allowed my wife and me to escape our empty nest reality briefly, and it gave us a glimpse of the way things were and will likely never be again

We obviously enjoy having our college-age children around, but since that’s not an option, we’ve adjusted to, and even embraced, the selfishness of the empty nest.

For more than two decades, as we planned our days, my wife and I factored in our kids’ activities. In the early years, parenting required near constant effort. That effort waned considerably, as we progressed from cribs and diapers to high school jobs and activities. Still, like all parents, even as they grew into young adults, we tried to be aware of where our kids were and what they were doing. We also tried to prioritize time together, like family dinners and church.

All of that changed last fall, when our youngest left for college. We now have a vague idea of where they are and what they’re doing, but without the daily updates, it’s futile to try to keep up, and we shouldn’t. We got them this far. The rest of their journey is their responsibility.

To allow ourselves to step aside, we needed to learn to embrace the selfishness of the empty nest, which can be a challenging adjustment after so many years of active parenting. When they live with us, our children’s needs almost always come ahead of our own. Over time, selflessness becomes natural. Then, ironically, when it’s time for them to leave, we selfishly want to keep them around when we need to let them go.

When my son left for college nearly three years ago, the family dynamic changed, but our identity didn’t; we were still parents with a kid at home. We missed him, but our active teenage daughter kept parenting among our daily duties. Though she rarely challenged our parenting skills, her presence in the house reminded us that we were indeed parents. When she left last fall, the change was abrupt.

I remember waking up the next morning, a Sunday, with no one in the house who needed to update us on her plans for the day. We didn’t need to worry about when she came home the night before, nor when she needed to wake up that day. We no longer factored in her plans, nor she in ours.

In addition to the silence and reduced responsibilities, there are reminders of our empty nest throughout the house. The dry-erase calendar on the fridge looks barren now, with only our activities. The laundry piles are smaller, and the grocery bags lighter. I can no longer get away with the trick of leaving a dish in the sink and having it reappear in the dishwasher before my wife gets home.

It would be easy to get depressed about our new reality, but like all life changes, things are a lot easier if we learn how to capitalize on the positives and minimize the negatives. Instead of sulking about missing them, my wife and I reminisce about their successes and the good times we’ve shared as a family. We’ve also learned to capitalize on the spontaneity of the empty nest. It’s now much easier change dinner plans according to our whims, and if we go out to eat, the tab is half as much. Perhaps best of all, it’s now easier to prioritize our relationship and enjoy the time together.

Sure, we’ll always miss them, but it’s a lot easier when we embrace the selfishness of the empty nest.

“To raise a child comfortable enough to leave you means that you have done your job. They are not ours to keep but to teach them to learn to soar on their own.” – Anonymous

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Are You Really That Happy?

I spend a large part of my work day looking for unhappy people, and it’s not as easy as you might think.

While I enjoy meeting and visiting with happy people, my role as a recruiter requires me to seek professional discontent, even if it is just mild discontent. That discontent gives me an opening to propose an opportunity with one of my clients. One of the biggest challenges I face is getting my prospects to be honest about their happiness with their jobs.

Years of doing this have taught me that the prospect of change frightens most people, and when they’re frightened, they can be less than truthful. Common responses to my calls include: “I’m happy” and “I’m not ready to make a move.” While that might be true in some cases, I’m pretty sure that such contentment is far less common than my experience might indicate.

For most, change connotes discomfort, and no one wants to be uncomfortable. Because they sense discomfort looming, many of my prospects quickly dismiss the thought of considering another professional opportunity, even if their current situation is less than ideal.

Fear of change impedes progress in many aspects of our lives. In addition to staying in jobs that are unfulfilling, we hold on to relationships that we know aren’t good for us. We delay dieting while the pounds all up. We cling to bad habits, though we’re aware how much they limit us. For years, I held on to a business structure that kept me from reaching my financial goals.

Fifteen years ago, when my business partner and I decided to move the business from our homes, sign a lease for office space and hire employees, we did so with grand ideas of success. The early years were lean, but we persisted and found enough success to expand our team and move into a bigger office. The recession that occurred around 2010 put us in a hole that we struggled to climb out of. Eventually, we got on relatively solid footing, but we never regained our momentum.

For the next few years, we treaded water when we should have been growing and prospering. There were a lot of reasons for that, and though we tried to make corrections, the numbers didn’t lie. We did some projections, and learned that, if we lowered our overhead and focused our efforts on producing revenue, rather than managing employees, we could take more money home to our families.

Even with that knowledge, I resisted making a change. My resilient/stubborn personality made it difficult to move on. Ultimately, a pending five-year lease renewal and insistence from my partner left me little choice.

It turned out to be the right choice. Four years later, I’ve made more money working few hours with much less stress. I can’t even imagine going back to the way things were.

I urge you to consider doing the same. The beginning of a decade provides the ideal setting for major change.  Stay alert for opportunities that will set you up for success, and most of all, make sure that you are truly happy. If you’re not, don’t let fear of change keep you from making adjustments that will make this decade your best yet.

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Factor Gratitude Into Year-End Self-Evaluations

At the end of every year, our family discusses our personal self-evaluations. It’s a simple, informal process, but remarkably revealing for the level of effort it requires. Last year, it opened my eyes to some hidden frustrations and the importance of gratitude in maintaining a healthy perspective.

I started the self-evaluation family tradition a few years ago, after finding success using it with my employees. The discussion typically occurs at the dinner table, and starts with the general open-ended question: how was your year. Follow-up questions include: what factored into that evaluation and was your year better or worse than last year. Finally, we rate our years from 1-10, with ten being optimum.

The open nature of the initial question encourages us to develop our own rating strategy based on our personal priorities. Last December, there were some very outwardly successful people sitting at the table, so I anticipated a light-hearted conversation in which we would recount some of those successes. Instead, the conversation got deep and serious quickly.

The high achievers were not happy with what they accomplished during the year. They expressed frustration at their inability to overcome obstacles. Failure and frustration dominated the evaluations, and gratitude was scarce.

When we truly strive for success, we expose ourselves to potential failure, anxiety and frustration. Most of the evaluations that night centered on ideals and the frustrations with coming up short. While it’s important to set high standards for ourselves and understandable to be frustrated with failure, all of that must be balanced by gratitude. To do that, we need to be purposively grateful.

It’s not easy to be purposively grateful. Unless we make the effort, we tend to take our blessings for granted, as we focus on what we want to achieve. I learned how challenging it is to be purposively grateful two years ago when I read Rhonda Byrne’s book entitled, “The Magic.” This book is a follow-up to her best-seller, “The Secret,” and it challenges readers to create written lists of the things for which they are grateful. I learned that it was easy to start that list, but surprisingly difficult to finish it.

As I listened to my family discuss their self-evaluations, I was struck by the brutal honesty I heard, and I was awakened at just how easy it is to develop tunnel vision when we reach for dreams. Tunnel vision occurs when we are so focused on our goals that our attainment of those goals defines us. If we fall short, we identify as failures, especially if we ignore our blessings.

After a few minutes of listening to the year-end evaluations of my family, I asked everyone to reset and talk about how they were blessed in the past year. I got some quizzical looks as everyone shifted their thinking in another, more positive direction, but before long, smiles and light-heartedness returned to the kitchen.

The focus of our thinking controls almost everything in our lives from our mood to our actions. If that focus is skewed toward negativity, so too will our moods and actions. The year-end evaluation gives us a chance to vocalize who we are, how we identify and what we prioritize. Find some time at the end of this year to share self-evaluations with your family and close friends, and make sure that gratitude factors into your evaluations.

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Don’t Let Others Muck Up Your Day

A couple of days ago, I learned that a phone number I had called a few times in the past week wasn’t that of a prospect I wanted to reach, but instead, that of an angry garbage truck driver.

When he picked up my call, I could hear the anger and hostility in his voice. He was mad that I had been calling his number, and although I apologized and tried to explain myself, he continued berating me. When I had enough, I hung up. Things should have ended there, but they didn’t. He tried calling me back, but I let the call go to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message, but called again a few minutes later. Not wanting to antagonize what I feared was a deranged person, I picked up that call.

He insisted that I had called him many times over many months. I hadn’t. I asked him what he wanted, and he said that he wanted to never speak to me again. Though seething inside, as calmly as I could, I assured him that I wanted the same thing.

I’m pretty sure that this guy wasn’t a garbage truck driver, but he reminded me of The Law of the Garbage Truck, which is pasted below.

One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches!

The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. And I mean, he was really friendly. So I asked, ‘Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!’ This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, ‘The Law of the Garbage Truck.’

He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it! Sometimes they’ll dump it on you. Don’t take it personally. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don’t take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets.

The bottom line is that successful people do not let garbage trucks take over their day.

I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I wanted, so it took me a few minutes to remember and apply the lesson behind this law. After I hung up, I paced. I fumed. I wanted to lash out at the injustice of being chastised for a simple, common mistake that could have been corrected in a polite conversation.  I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to pick up the phone and call someone else, until I realized that I had a choice to make. I could let this chance encounter ruin the rest of my day or I could shrug it off as an inconsequential misfortune.

In my line of work, it’s absolutely necessary to maintain a positive attitude. I would severely limit my effectiveness if I approached my professional interactions with negativity. Even if I tried to mask negativity, most people can pick it up, even subconsciously. Unless I was ready to throw in the towel on the rest of the day, I had to get my attitude right.

That’s where The Law of the Garbage Truck has value. When we encounter unpleasant people or find ourselves in unpleasant situations, we have to maintain context and not let negativity squash all of the positivity surrounding us. Whatever garbage is dumped on us, we need to brush it off and do our best not to spread it.

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