Archive for the ‘productivity’ Category

Humility is too often treated as a bad word, especially in the professional sphere. It shouldn’t be. Here’s an example from my career where humility would have served me well:

Everyone in my group looked at me sternly. We had been given a simple logistics problem to solve during Air Force Field Training and I was being obstinate. 

I was trying to absorb every detail and build a solution for every occurrence of the problem. The mathematician side of me had taken over. Others around me didn’t understand what I was trying to do. They didn’t love math like I did. I was the only math/hard science/engineering major on the team. I believed this is why they didn’t care about an elegant solution. As a result, I was getting angry and upset at them. In turn, they were getting angry and upset at me. The tension in the room was extremely high. I was the root cause. I knew I was responsible for the tension, but I believed my teammates needed to listen to what I was saying and come along to my way of thinking.

Then one of my teammates said something to the effect of, “Let’s start with an point in time and see how things work out. That gives us a starting point, we can adjust, and check our work.”

The rest of the team agreed. Silently, I fumed. The problem consisted of a set of multiple equations. Solving them required a technique from Algebra I. The issue was there were six or seven equations and I needed a bit more time to solve them. Why couldn’t they wait?

They proceeded with the starting point method. Their first stab got them within 30 minutes of the time they had to meet. They backed up an hour, recalculated, and received a satisfactory answer to the problem we were given. I had gotten through four of the equations. The rest of my team felt we were done. Internally, I screamed. We weren’t done, because I hadn’t solved the equations. However, based on the problem we were given, we were done. We had solved the issue. 

At the time, I didn’t understand I was wrong. It was only during the de-brief about fifteen minutes later that I realized how my arrogance prevented me from understanding what my teammates were trying to do. I thought they were going down the wrong direction. It didn’t occur to me as we were in the middle of the exercise that I could be the one in the wrong. Arrogance can be blinding.

Humility in that situation would have meant I started with the belief that my teammates might understand the problem in a way I didn’t. Humility in that situation would have meant I would have listened first to what they were trying to accomplish and compared it with what I knew. After all, I could have been wrong (and I was). Humility in that situation would have meant that I didn’t care about who came up with the key way to solve the problem, just so long as the team solved it successfully. 

Humility isn’t thinking less of your own abilities. Humility, especially in a team setting, consists of:

  • Believing that your teammates bring something to the discussion/problem.
  • Choosing to listen first to what your teammates are proposing.
  • Checking what they say with what you know to verify you understand what needs to be done. 
  • Putting aside personal desires to be the hero.
  • Believing that you could be the one who is wrong if there’s a conflict.

A lot of these don’t come natural to us. That’s why we need to work on each facet of humility. All of them together make us the best possible teammate, gives our team the best possible chance to succeed, but improvement on any facet improves us as teammates and improves the team. If we want to be better teammates, we must embrace humility.

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I’m not a positive person by nature. It probably has to do with the fact that I am the type to collect as much information as possible and plan for the worst case scenario. Working IT security and being in the military before that, this attitude comes with the territory. After all, the military has coined phrases like, “Embrace the suck,” and acronyms like BOHICA.

However, recent research on positive attitudes, happiness, and like subjects have shown that there are benefits to maintaining a positive attitude. People who focus on the positive tend to have less stress, live longer, and be healthier.

Those studies tell me to change my outlook. If you’re like me, you’ve hidden behind defenses like, “I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist. I see things as they actually are.” Those defenses might be 100% correct. However, they don’t help your health.

Also, there’s the concept of being able to do things you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to be able to do. I am constantly amazed at how my youngest children are able to work devices that folks would say shouldn’t be doable by toddlers. If you’ve ever had a three year-old and an iPad, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Part of the reason they’re able to navigate around these devices and find Netflix or their favorite game is because no one has told them they can’t (as in, they aren’t able to) do it. The toddler may be told he or she can’t, as in mom and dad say, “No,” but not that such a task is beyond the toddler’s ability.

Apply that to yourself. Have you ever accomplished something difficult simply because you didn’t realize it was supposed to be difficult? Have you ever done something that you found out later others didn’t think was possible, simply because you didn’t know it was supposed to be “impossible?” That’s partially due to the power of positive thinking. As a result, we can accomplish more when we stay positive.

Therefore, even if you aren’t a positive person by nature, it is still a good idea to try and be positive as much as possible. The studies show there are definite health and life benefits that can’t be ignored. Plus, you’ll be able to accomplish some things simply because you believe you can.

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Life isn’t fair. When little girls die of cancer, you know life isn’t fair. We can wish life to be fair all we want, but it’s not going to be true.

Unfairness Isn’t Going Away in People:

As long as their is greed, as long as there is hardship, as long as their is disparity, some people are going to be unfair. Those people are going to look out for themselves and their own first. And if it happens to hurt you, too bad. That is, if they even consider your feelings or situation at all. In a perfect society, we wouldn’t have to worry about this. However, under our own power, I don’t believe we’ll ever see that utopia. All it takes is one person who doesn’t want to play fairly to disrupt things. Therefore, fairness is always going to be an ideal and not a reality.

The World Itself Is Unfair:

See cancer, above. There are illnesses. There are natural disasters. There are accidents, like falling and breaking your arm. There are all sorts of events that just aren’t “fair.” We can’t prevent all of them. Therefore, let us not pretend they don’t exist. We are only fooling ourselves.

Fight for Fairness:

While fairness is an ideal, it’s still worth fighting for. When we see prejudice, disparity, hardship, etc., we should do what we can to change things. Acknowledging that we will never reach the ideal isn’t a reason to give up trying.

What All This Means:

Don’t develop your plans expecting life to be fair. Don’t expect people to always treat you fairly. Don’t expect them to always do the right thing. If you do, likely your plans and your efforts will fail. Don’t misunderstand me: in my experience, the majority of folks will try to treat others in a reasonable way, but there are always a few who won’t. Therefore, you have to be prepared for those who won’t.

Also, don’t build/propose solutions that only work with everything is perfect. Expect failures and hardships. Expect unfairness. Build that into how you cope with things. Case in point: any time you suggest an action which is only going to work when everyone is on their best behavior, you are not making a good suggestion. There will always be some folks who know better but will still choose to be disruptive, to be obnoxious, to be harmful. Any time you propose a plan that will only work if “all the stars align,” you are proposing a plan that will likely fail.

As we say in the military, “No plan survives first contact.” The unexpected will come to pass. Be prepared to deal with change. If possible, have resources available to attempt to handle an unplanned situation or circumstance. If you know someone has the potential to be unfair, especially because of prior experience, consider what to do with said individual. Can you confront? Or is bypassing better? Don’t be caught off-guard by unfairness.

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As a young lieutenant in the US Air Force, I was taught a valuable lesson by a staff sergeant whom I had asked to mentor me. Why I asked is for a different post, but this staff sergeant looked out for me and gave me the benefit of his years of service in the military. Because of him, I avoided several missteps in my early career and was set up for some big successes. Of all the things he told me, I think the one that I found most valuable was this:

“When you’re leading people, you can never communicate enough to them.”

The military creates a separation between the enlisted and officer ranks. Because of this separation, there’s sometimes (often) suspicion about what’s going on among the leadership. This is natural. That staff sergeant was giving me the best tool to overcome that suspicion: keeping the troops informed. When you have the opportunity, communicate the why’s and how’s for decisions. When procedures and processes change, make sure those are clearly communicated and give the opportunity for questions and feedback.

Also, don’t be afraid to communicate the status of your particular piece of the organization. If nothing has changed, that’s fine to report, especially if that’s expected. If there are issues, don’t be afraid to bring them up unless there is a specific business/mission reason you can’t. People can’t address issues they don’t know about.

It is very easy to under-communicate one-on-one. This is especially true when the person is waiting on you. Some of the things the staff sergeant pointed out could go through the person’s head:

  • You’re blowing the person off because he or she doesn’t matter to you.
  • You have prioritized other things over that person because he or she doesn’t matter to you.
  • You don’t have a good answer and you don’t have the courage to face the person.
  • You are so disorganized that you’ve forgotten.

None of those four are good. If you don’t have an answer yet, there’s nothing wrong with telling the person that you’re still working the issue. What’s better is if you can give a date when you expect an answer. If it’s well in the future, periodic emails to the person help reassure him or her that you’ve not forgotten. With all the task tracking systems and reminder apps we have nowadays, this just isn’t that hard. And it can mean a world of difference to that person who you lead.

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From the time I was four years-old, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. That dream lasted until my senior year of high school, when I watched the market drop out of the aerospace industry. I stayed in related fields in college, physics and mathematics, but I never became an aerospace engineer. However, I retained my love for aircraft and beautiful aircraft designs. Why does this matter from a productivity perspective?

At the beginning of the year I bought a desktop calendar, the type where you tear off the page every workday. The one I chose for my work desk has classic aircraft on it. For instance, yesterday’s was of the Supermarine Spitfire, a beautiful aircraft. Today’s is of the Grumman Widgeon, which admittedly isn’t as sleek and exciting, but it still inspires me. Each day, seeing a new classic aircraft picture along with the short write-up gives me enthusiasm and a bit of a boost.

What inspired you as a child and still provides you a positive boost as an adult? Is there a way you can bring it into your work day every day? Is there a way you can focus on it, even if only for a couple of minutes, at the beginning of your work day? If you don’t already have something like that,  try and implement it in your daily routine, even if it’s something simple as a calendar or a desktop background. See if it provides you a positive boost for the day.

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Here is where I had a lunch time meeting today:


It’s another private spot in downtown Columbia, another place to get away. Today’s lunch meeting consisted of an alumni board meeting for my high school alma mater. It was a conference call and it was my first as part of the board. As a result, I wanted to:

  • find a place of privacy.
  • find a place of serenity and quiet.
  • get some sun.
  • steer clear of the office.

The fountain in this location is more prominent and the flowing water is soothing. This particular spot, while in downtown, is located on side streets where there isn’t a lot of traffic. As a result, I was able to focus on the conference call and make good use of the time.

Even when you find private spots, consider what is good and and bad about each one. I could have gone to the spot yesterday, but the amount of background noise would have been in competition with the voices on the phone, even with a headset. This particular spot is slightly less private (more people know about it) but always much quieter, even with people present. That’s why today’s spot was the best place for me to attend my meeting.

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I’m in downtown Columbia, SC. Right behind where I’m sitting is busy Taylor Street and I can hear the cars on the road and construction at a neighboring property.


While I can hear the noise, there’s no one around me. I have this tucked away garden all to myself. It’s like this every time I’ve been here at lunch. This hidey-hole, and places like it, is where I can get alone and recharge.

To get to this particular spot takes some walking. It’s easy to reach in a lunch hour, still giving me about 30 minutes of privacy. Therefore, coming out here serves two purposes: I get a bit of exercise and I get some alone time. For an introvert, the lunch hour doesn’t get much better than this.

Wherever I am, I try to find spots like these. Often times they are hiding in plain sight. Parks and public gardens like the one I’m in now are usually the first places I investigate. Do you have a quiet, private place to which you can flee? Even if you’re an extrovert, it’s still good to have a couple of such places when you just need to get away.

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