Monday, May 31, 2010

What we should have said, but didn't.

The French, naturally, have a phrase for what we wish we said at the time, but didn't think of until it was too late: l'espirit d'escalier. Mostly, we shrug off our clever riposte, and forget all about it. Instead, I encourage you to record these retorts, because human behaviour being what it is, the opportunity to use them again is bound to come up sooner or later.

It's really more about difficult situations, rather than than difficult people. What's the difference? Difficult people are nearly always difficult and there are special techniques for dealing with them. Whereas most people can be difficult in some situations - usually those in which their needs and wants run counter to ours, and they won't 'get with the program'! Consider this scenario...

Your early-bird registrations closed yesterday at 2pm, and it clearly said so on the form. But Bill wants to register at the reduced fee the next morning at 10am. You explain that the special offer is over, and Bill says: "Why are you giving me a hard time about this? I would think you would want another person at your crummy event. Look, I already wrote out my cheque and I'm not writing another one! Just give me the discount, ok, or I won't register at all!" This is straight out bullying, by the way. People do it because it works.

For most of us, our emotions will go into top gear, we'll dislike for Bill and his high-handed ways - but we also may feel a bit guilty about feeling dislike and that will make us politer (through gritted teeth) but less rational.

Bill is trying for the old 1-2 sucker punch. He's thrown the blame for the issue onto us, and made it personal rather than procedural: why are YOU giving me a hard time about this? He's followed up by belittling what we're offering, with a not so subtle hint that our higher ups might not like us 'being difficult' and doing them out of a 'sale'. The implication is there that he will complain about us given half a shot. The sucker punch is the meaningless appeal that is hard to combat: I already wrote the cheque out. It has nothing to do with the matter at hand, but if we make the mistake of engaging with that, we're lost. He'll milk it and anything else he can think of, until we no longer no remember what the original point was: that the discount period is over.

I find that a question or a questioning statement at this point is often helpful. Bill is trying to make this about us, so ask a question or make a statement that returns us to the issue at hand and keeps the focus on his behaviour:

"Bill, the discount ended yesterday. I really don't understand why you are insisting that I break the rules for you, which is unfair to everyone else who is paying full price, and when the difference is only $20 and it's a really great event."

I'm sure you noticed that we're focussing on Bill's behaviour here, we're not saying "I don't know why you're such a ****.

What response can he make? He can bluster, but we're onto him. If we stay firm and keep repeating our position, he has nowhere to go. He can pay up or he can miss out.

There are things we should say, but we need to practice ahead of time so they fall naturally from our mouths when we're in the heat of the moment.

This is post 26 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Silence can say a lot.

Silence can say a lot. There are companionable silences or understanding silences, where nothing needs to be said. There are helpless silences or anxious silences, when we don't know what to say. There are angry silences, sullen silences, where we punish by withholding words. There are hurt silences or defeated silences, where we retreat from words. There is the dynamic silence of being alone in nature. There is the loud silence of being all alone inside yourself while others talk all around you. Or the silence when a group of people refuse to talk to you as a social sanction - what the British call 'being sent to Coventry'.

If you ask a question, and the other person doesn't answer, it's hard to tell whether that means they haven't heard, or they are refusing to answer. Silence can signify consent, when a group of friends says, "Let's all go to X restaurant," you are assumed to agree unless you make a counter-offer. You can encourage the other person in a conversation, whenever they run out of verbal steam, by simply smiling warmly and saying nothing.

Socially, silence can say, "I agree." Silence can say, "I have nothing to add." Silence can say, "I'm bored." Silence can - sometimes - say, "I'm fascinated" (just not as often as the unilateral conversationalists amongst us seem to think). Silence can say, "I think that might just have been the most fatuous statement I have ever heard" - but it says it politely, is unlikely to cause the speaker to bore on for another 30 minutes while they defend themself.

As someone who was once described as having been 'vaccinated with a gramophone needle' - mainly to cover shyness - I had to learn to respect and use silence. I encourage you to play around with silences deliberately, to gauge the effect they have on others, and on yourself.

This is post 25 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The perils of procrastination

I had a nice day yesterday: haircut, food shopping, a hot chocolate, some housework and cooking.

I kept thinking "I'll post later." Unfortunately, when later arrived it came with an upset stomach. Strange to say, when that was done, writing was not uppermost in my mind and I went to bed.

I have considered having timed-release posts, so that I'm working one day ahead. It seemed to take some of the sponteneity out of it... Food for thought, because if I don't plan to avoid a last minute hitch, I am allowing it to happen.

Belatedly (it's morning now) this is post 24 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Friday, May 28, 2010


No two snowflakes are alike. They're made of the same thing. In the mass they're pretty alike, but look closely and each is unique.

Human beings are the same, really.

So, even though you can't perceive what makes you unique - and special - viewed in the right way, it is obvious. Just as each snowflake is unique when seen under a microscope.

The snowflake doesn't know it's special or unique either, I'd guess.

This is post 23 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How delightful!

I wrote recently that all humans want acknowledgement. Today I've had a bumper crop! Thank you to everyone who has contacted me either here or elsewhere to offer words of encouragement or appreciation. I was happy talking to the walls, but it is gratifying to know the walls do have ears.

It is especially delightful to hear the sort of praise that we would most like to receive (in our wildest dreams). We all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. But do we listen to ourselves? Do we see ourselves?

In my role as 'Shopping Fairy' I am privileged to assist women - so far it's been gender specific - to find clothes that fit and flatter. The hardest part is helping women see what is really there. They see the negative reality, easily enough (especially the virtual reality that is in the software, not the hardware). We struggle to see the positives.

Think of a woman you know who isn't 'model beautiful' but whom you find rather attractive: now list half a dozen things you find attractive about her? Glossy hair or bright eyes, or a lovely smile, or lush shoulders, or great breasts, or shapely hands. It needn't be visual, either, it could be her fresh fragrance or the softness of her hands, or the sound of her laugh...

I don't think we listen to ourselves enough either. We don't listen to the whispers of our bodies - only the shouts. Some experts estimate that up to 50% of all our hunger pangs are really thirst that we've ignored and displaced? We don't go to bed when we're tired, we don't go for a walk when we're stiff and kinked from sitting too long at a computer, and we don't stop when we've had enough (food, drink, work or emotional shite).

We don't listen to ourselves and how often we say (or think), "I've had it with this stupid job" or "I'd love to travel" or "That would work better if...". The message can so subtle. Every time I go walking under trees, I am delighted. Yet it has taken me nearly 20 years to notice this is a repeatable and reliable delight.

Maybe I'd have noticed if it had been illicit: immoral, illegal and/or fattening? Encouraged by the media and advertising, we indulge in guilty pleasures, or fantasies yet ignore the moral, legal and nutritious activities we can achieve now, or work toward achieving soon, and that we find truly delightful.

This is post 22 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

5 things I'm feeling opinionated about...

  1. Drivers need to be aware of an area larger than a foot beyond the front of their car. Really.
  2. Pedestrians may have right of way, but when crossing the side streets off major roads, it is kind to pause for a moment if there is a gap in the oncoming traffic so the cars turning in have a chance.
  3. Pay someone a sincere compliment every day. If you can't find anything worthy of a compliment you're not paying attention.
  4. If not now, when? Sometime often becomes never.
  5. Conserve energy. Don't defend yourself the next time you make a mistake and someone points it out to you.
This is post 21 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's easy to starve your soul

When we're busy, one of the first things to go is anything we do purely for our own satisfaction.

Creative pursuits: music, visual arts, writing, dancing, etc. are easy to drop because there's no external motivation. No-one is making us do them, and there are no immediate negative consequences - such as attend our deciding not to go to work because we don't happen to feel like it!

There are even some secondary gains: a bit of relief from a packed schedule, and a bit of extra money in our pockets. These gains are soon lost to some other 'necessity'. The losses outweigh the gains, but again, we're the main sufferers.

If our lives aren't lived richly and creatively, nobody is going to tell us off. Your friends may mention it if you lose some weight, they won't if you lose some joie de vivre. Parents phone teenagers who have fled the nest, asking if they're eating well, not if they're keeping up their hobbies.

Yet a subtle malnourishment will take its toll. Sadly, it's easy to starve your soul.

This is post 20 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Finding the RIGHT moment

Choosing the right moment to spend time on a task is one of the skills Time Management 101never offers. Which is a shame, because I've been good at completing calendar entries for years now, whereas my completion of actual tasks can vary wildly.

The easy ones include:
  • There won't be sausages for dinner unless I take them out of the freezer the night before, or in the morning before work.
  • The time to buy Christmas presents is almost never on Christmas Eve.
  • Post a local birthday card at least a day ahead (2 is better).
  • Don't be late for meetings at work.
If only life was always so straight forward...

We may know what to do, but not when. I know that I have to spend several hours on completing a big report for work, but do I do it in half hour chunks over a couple of weeks, or do I put aside a day and pull a 'spectacular' (if my ducks line up ok)?

What do we do when our job keeps us so busy that we can't look after our health. That slight cough that won't go away "isn't important right now" but might be any day now.

We may know the moment is right but not what to do. The baby is crying so it needs something - but what? A feed? A nappy (diaper) change? Burping? This problem is one that various 'how-to' guides can solve for us.

We may also do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Ouch! Nagging is the classic 'what not to do' example. It's (usually) the wrong thing, and (usually) at the wrong time. We nag because we want our kids to remember to pick up their toys, but our kids don't remember to pick up their toys except when we nag them, and then they're just following orders.

Eventually, we learn to manage the right thing at the right moment in our study and work: if we don't we fail or have to go find another job. Outside of work, we're largely on our own with the really important stuff.

How should we spend our precious 'self-care' time?
  • Should I go see a movie and relax with friends, or have an early night at home and do some housework?
  • Should I spend my holiday rushing about experiencing everything my destination has to offer (and having a wild time) or relaxing beside a pool not bothering with which country the pool is in?
  • Do I hang out with my partner or kids, or do I spend time alone?
Where should we best spend our precious time when nurturing personal relationships?
  • How much time - and when - do your kids need you in order to feel connected to you and loved?
  • How much time - and when - does your partner?
  • Can you and your grannie on the other side of the country be satisfied with monthly phone calls?
  • When will a disagreement with a loved one be helped by ignoring it, and when should we fight on until we reach a solution?
  • What's the right time - if ever - to tell a friend we don't think their partner is good for them?
Most of the time we only learn the answer to these questions - partial answers at best - through the harsh experience of getting them wrong at least once.

At least I can trust that I've found a right moment (if not the right moment), now, as I post this: post 19 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Our dysfunctional relationship with time

The old saying goes, 'money is a good servant and a bad master'. The same concept applies to time. Do you master time, or does it master you? Isn't it annoying when someone fails to deliver on time? Aren't we sad when our loved ones are "too busy"? Quite different from when - regrettably, unavoidably, through not fault of our own - we are unable to deliver on time? Or have to tell a loved one that we are "too busy"?

Stating the obvious, everyone has the same amount of time in a day: 24 hours. That's 1,440 minutes, or 57,600 seconds. Every day of your life except (possibly) two, the day you're born and the day you die.

We blame time - there not enough of it, it's going too fast - rather than recognise the issue is us. Blaming time: the ultimate ego defence! We don't own our choices in time expenditure. Perhaps we don't want to acknowledge the painful double-edged truth of how much time we really have, and how little.

Our perversity about time encourages us to live in total denial about how long almost any human activity will take. We use best-case scenarios based on a fantasy that we will always be in peak condition. We come unstuck when faced with reality. We aren't machines, we don't work at the same pace throughout a day, let alone a life, and yet few of us have to the courage to admit this, and take action. Go on, admitting it is half the battle.

"I didn't have time to..." As excuses go, this is an all-time loser. Sorry, but if you're alive when making this excuse, you had time, you chose to use it elsewhere. When you fail to deliver please, please, please do not tell me you just 'didn't have time'. Instead, just say: "I didn't finish..." or just "I didn't do..." I suspect that the only one listening to our excuses is our feeling of guilt.

Ready for a challenge? Try this thought experiment. For a day (a week is better but so hard for us serial procrastinators) do not blame time. Time is a good servant, but a bad master.

This is post 18 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


I can be impatient. I like things to take no longer than they have to - especially at work. If something takes a long time, usually I'm the first in line to start tinkering and make the process quicker by making it more efficient. (The numerous, embarrassing instances of this tendency I will leave for now - with 83 posts to go in this challenge, I'll keep them up my sleeve.)

The iPhone has been a god-send to me: especially apps like Tramtracker, the real-time tram information service which means I can cut down on waiting for a tram, and the shopping list app which means I can spend my 2-3 minute safety margin planning meals for the next few days.

Sometimes, though, I enjoy the chance to be slow.

Today I was doing some potting. It took me over an hour to pot 3 plants and tidy up my potting bench ( two hurdles and spare plank of wood at the side of our house.) In my defence - and I somehow feel it requires defence - I had to get some sticky labels off the new ceramic pots before I could start work. I had to trundle a couple of heavy plants from the house to the potting bench. I had to find some screening to prevent the soil coming out the bottom. I had to carefully water the plants to be repotted and wait for the water to get in before shaking them loose. In short, I found all sorts of reason to potter about. It was lovely.

The same thing happens when I cook for recreation rather than to get a meal on the table before NCIS starts. A friend who is a chef once told me it hurts here to watch me chop vegetables. I gather the urge to rip the knife out of my hand and do it properly (ie. quickly) was quite compelling, but she woman-fully restrained herself.

My approach to slow is different from those who think things need to take as long as necessary to be done well. My gardening/cooking is a LOT slower than that! It's the slow that pretends an autumn afternoon will last forever. When we slow down, time slows down (not at work, but in the rest of our life it may).

Enjoy the rest of our weekend - I hope it is a slow one!

This is post 17 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It shouldn't happen to a dog.

Do you treat the dog* better than you treat yourself?

I was inspired to ask this by a recent stint of dog-sitting. It's both a big honour and a big responsibility to care for someone's pet. This dog is the apple of its owners' eyes, and a bit delicate to boot, so I was determined not to have it die on my watch.

During the month the dog was with us we religiously walked the dog every day, often twice a day - occasionally thrice. A dog who is not walked or otherwise entertained is either very sad or demanding of human company and gets into mischief. So it was in my interest (and that of my furniture) to consider the dog's needs.

The dog must be fed regularly. It's up to the humans to make sure the dog gets enough-but-not-too-much food. You have to give them fresh water every day.

As the dog is away from its loved ones, you have to keep it company. You have to play games with it, and pat it occasionally. You have to brush its coat to keep it free of burrs. You have to keep an eye on its behaviour and its eating and elimination so you know when its sick. Then you have to take it to the vet - or indeed the animal emergency hospital if it gets sick in the middle of the night.

Mr O‡ argues that I'm not fooling anyone, I took care of the dog for its own sake, because it was a living creature and relied on us to meet its needs. (He may even have said something soppy about that being one of the reasons he loves me. Men can be sentimental about women's nurturing instincts.)

One day, someone wise said to me: "You care for the d*** dog a lot better than you care for yourself, it seems to me." I wanted to deny it, but... well... I couldn't. Its true.

Logically I am just as deserving as a dog of a bit of consideration when it comes to basic needs, but that's not what I do. Another gap between intention and strategy. Really, it shouldn't happen to a dog.

* or cat, horse, rabbit, guinea pig, small child, parrot, budgerigar, elderly parent or goldfish, if you prefer.
Mr Opinionatedchildlesswoman

This is post 16 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Begin with the end in mind

I recently quoted Stephanie Dowrick who says we judge others on their behaviour, and ourselves on our intentions. Intentions are slippery things. What we intend to do, and the strategy we employ to achieve this end, are often at cross purposes. We humans are wonderfully complex and variable creatures!

We say: "I love my children and being a good father is important to me" then we stay at work late most weeknights until after they are in bed.

We say: "I want to lose a bit of excess weight" then we begin a mortification of the flesh that would impress the early desert fathers, and when we - inevitably - slip up, we give up and eat a whole tub of icecream to drown our failure.

We say: "I want to impress my boss, so I get a raise at my next review" then we hide any mistakes we make, even if this means we'll keep repeating them, because we don't want to look bad. Or we work long, long hours, without checking that our output is achieving what our boss needs.

It's fun pointing out other people's cognitive dissonances. The trick is to find your own. Try this sentence completion:

I want X and to get it I (do) Y.

I want my son to be confident and unselfconscious, and to get it I loudly point out to him times when he is shy, and push him into social situations even when we both know he'll just sulk and refuse to engage in order to resist me.

Ok, that was a cheap shot, but you get the idea.

This is post 15 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Playing games

I surprised myself recently by spending about 20 minutes doing 2-octave scales with a 10c coin on my hand, to see if I could do it without the coin falling off. I didn't learn the piano as a child, so this exercise had not previously come my way.

A colleague suggested I turn it into a game, saying that if you can keep a coin on your hand, you can replace it with a square of chocolate: if the chocolate stays on (and not because it melted on your hand in the heat) for the whole 2 octaves, you get to eat it!

My diet is under no immediate threat, but just making scales into a game is fun. I enjoy the challenge of it. I enjoyed getting better at the task, without being too precious about it. I laughed aloud when I noticed that after a while, your skill gets worse because you get tired. My rule is that when you start to fail again after doing it right, it's time to stop. With 12 major scales to play, and the same number of minor scales, I have indefinite entertainment available.

What task in your life can you turn into game? Considering how many of us spend countless hours trying to best the computer chip in our Playstation/Wii/Nintendo/iPhone, it's safe to say that human beings like playing games. What is a game? According to it is:

A contest, physical or mental, according to certain rules, for amusement, recreation, or for winning a stake.

So you the next time you're bored by your task, see if you can apply some rules (and maybe a stake) and have some fun.

This is post 14 of 100 posts in 100 days

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A definition of dishonesty

I am reading Donna Leon's latest, A Question of Belief. If you have not come across Guido Brunetti of the Venice police, I highly recommend it.

My subject for today arose from a conversation Brunetti has with Signorina Elettra, who is an expert at obtaining information either through a computer or by exploiting her many networks, when Brunetti realises she has never used a female source.

'It would be more dishonest to get information from women this way.'
'Dishonest?' he repeated.
'Of course its dishonest, what I do. I'm taking advantage of people's innocence and betraying their trust. You want that not to be dishonest?'
'Is it more dishonest than breaking into someone's computer system,' he asked, although he thought that it was.
She gave him a puzzled glance, as if amazed that he could ask such an obvious question. 'Of course it is, Dottore. Information systems are built to stop you from breaking in: people know you're going to do it or try to do it. So in a sense, they're warned, and they take precautions or they should. But when people tell you things in confidence or trust you with information they think you're not going to repeat, they have no defences.'

Later, he mentions to his wife: '... she believes dishonesty is in proportion to how much trust you're betraying, not to the lie you actually tell.'

I find that a fascinating definition, and one that keeps the focus on the 'victim' rather than on the liar.

This is post 13 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Monday, May 17, 2010

When the mood takes us

I don't really feel like posting tonight. I've had a hard day, I'm cold and frankly I just don't feel inspired. So negative inspiration led me to the subject of today's entry.

I think most of us have times when we're like the little girl with the little curl: when we are good we are very, very good, but when we are bad we are rotten.

When I feel well, feel happy, and - most important - feel appreciated, I can move mountains. I can be efficient, good-tempered (even in the teeth of provocation), insightful, industrious... you get the idea.

Then, the wind changes, or my head aches, or it's been a little while since I was praised, or I'm coming down with a cold, or I'm annoyed with my spouse, or... you get the idea. Since I'm a grown-up, I don't let "don't feel like it" completely derail my life. I still get the must-dos done, although sometimes other things slide. The joy of doing is often absent.

I'm intrigued by this. What happens to turn our mood? Where does inspiration go when it hides from us? Do you know?

This is post 12 of 100 posts.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Teaching and learning

Today I justified my existence. That's how it feels.

This weekend I've been teaching one of my adult beginners' workshops. Undoing the damage of past musical misery, and unlocking the pianistic talents of those who thought adults can't learn the piano.

Very satisfying, by the way. Fun for me - work - but FUN work.

As always I am amazed at human adaptability. The amazing becomes normal, and then not good enough so quickly.

Total beginners arrive at the Workshop, in many cases unable to read a note of music. By lunchtime on the first day they can find any note on written music and on the keyboard. They're pretty excited. That evening they can play at least one song hands-together, and can vamp some chords. They are frustrated by not being able to do it better.

By the second morning, they are still excited, but disappointed they can't play "better". By lunchtime they're annoyed that they can't instantly play every chord ever written: only a lot of them.

Our inner-critic is a powerful force and it always says: "Is that it?")

But I do love to see perseverence rewarded. I hope that most of the workshop attendees go away feeling that if they apply a sensible strategy they will be able to work things out. "One damn note after another" is virtually never a sensible strategy by the way.

I love meeting and working with people who have decided to "go for it" and achieve their ambition to learn a new skill. That never gets old.

This is post 11 of 100 posts in 100 days

Saturday, May 15, 2010


As I type this I'm sitting beside my fire on a cool autumn night. (Note to self: get drapes made and hung.)

I'm enjoying the warmth of the fire, the comfort of my chair, my belly full of food, and the knowledge that bed is not far away.

It's easy to dismiss simple comforts and pleasures, and I don't really know why that is, when they're so precious as a source of enjoyment - literally things that make us joyful. We put our thoughts and our attention into the future or the past, we don't even notice now and that's a shame.

A hot shower, even when only 3 minutes, is a delightful thing. A toilet that flushes. Warmth when we're cold. Cool when we're hot. Food when we're hungry. Drinking water that doesn't make you sick, and doesn't have to be fetched. Sleep in a safe place (let alone a comfortable bed) when we're tired. These would have been the pinnacle of aspiration for the majority of humans, for most of recorded history and continue to be a dream for millions today (Note to self: make another KIVA donation.).

Today I've enjoyed the company of interesting and articulate people, I've done work I am passionately motivated to do, I've eaten three meals (and a couple of chocolate biscuits too). I've hugged my husband, and I've made music. Suddenly my utter failure to become rich, famous and powerful seem a matter of indifference.

And now I'm about to watch a DVD, then go to bed. I wish you joy, wherever you are as you read this.

This is post 10 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Friday, May 14, 2010

One little thing

My local cafe has the best mushrooms. The secret is a little rosemary. It brings out a savoury-smokey flavour that makes the mushrooms even more mushroom-ey. (Ok, I haven't had dinner.)

One of my music students is learning a new piece, and has her hands coordinated enough that she was able to add some groove to the rhythm. It wasn't wrong before, it just wasn't very blues-ey. Now it is, it sounds like a different piece altogether - or a different pianist!

In each case, one little thing took their work from acceptable and pedestrian to outstanding and amazing. I think we could all use a little more amazing in our life.

Another student is looking at different interpretations of a song. He's going to try a couple of different styles and asked me, "will it be better that way?" I replied: "well, it will be different, and then you can see if its better."

Making the commitment to write here every day is one little thing that is making my life richer. Because I have to write something, I find I'm noticing more, and I'm reflecting on my what happens. I'm already more connected to my own experience, and its just over a week.

What's one little thing you could do today?

This is post 9 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Committing to staying awake

A promise is a promise. I get that, yet I've always been ambivalent about commitment. Even though people who are slapdash about their promises annoy me. Sometimes the game is not worth the candle.

Along with concepts like "discipline" or "honesty", "commitment" is a slippery customer. Too little is clearly a bad thing, but too much can be as well: discipline can slip into self-punishment, honesty into cruelty, and commitment can become absurd rigidity.

I have known people who will cause themselves illness or injury helping with a task because they said they would. I have known colleagues who drag themselves out of bed with the flu in order to come to work - where they will achieve little beyond spreading the germs. If you're too sick to do your job, please, stay home. It applies in social situations too.

Have you ever entertained exhausted guests? People who are clearly not well enough and/or awake enough to be out and about, and who nonetheless make a valiant effort to be cheerful and sociable but who, you suspect, are only here because they promised. Your generosity, the gift of your hospitality, has become a penance for such guests. You are - however unintentionally - torturing them, and they are abusing your hospitality by turning it into a penance, even if they are abusing it in a socially acceptable fashion.

How far can you go? The 7 Habits chap tells a story about making a new year's resolution not to drink soft drinks. He included orange juice in that category. It was a really hard promise to keep, partly because he loves orange juice, but also because it became awkward when he was out because sometimes there wasn't anything he could drink. Sometimes he would be very thirsty. He stuck to it because a promise is a promise. He was very relieved when the next New Year rolled around, and learned to be more careful in what he promised in future.

Its a fun story, and I find his determination and perserverence quite admirable, and also quite silly. I think the real moral of the story is pride. I think he was too proud to admit that his promise was a stupid, pointless promise and that he should release himself from it. I think he could have learned not to make unreasonable promises after maybe a week or a fortnight. After that, what was the point, really?

We should be thoughtful and realistic when making promises, but we should also be thoughtful and realistic about keeping them too. A promise is a process we commit to in order to attain a particular outcome. If it doesn't serve the outcome, we should review it. A promise is no excuse for acting on auto-pilot.

This is post 8 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I enjoy designing and implementing systems. As long as they make the work easier, not harder! Or if they make it harder in one place they make it better and/or easier overall. I'm not a fan of bureaucracy for its own sake: far from it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If a system sucks, or is unnecessary, junk it.

Even a good system - meaning a well-designed, efficient and robust system - can fail, because ultimately any human system depends on goodwill. If the real problem is a lack of goodwill by human components in the system, then your systems-tinkering will fail. You're just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Ok, some "reengineering" is just removing the source of bad-will from the system. If you have a single sticking point (the cliché bureaucrat who loves to hold things up to flex some corporate muscle or because they're a fussy stickler and "we've always done it this way") that might work, although I suggest your one bad egg may have created a wider problem...

In every business I've ever worked in, breakdowns in goodwill were seen as the problem of various individuals, caused by one or more of: laziness, grumpiness, arrogance, stupidity, perfectionism, distractability, carelessness, pedantry or absence. Here's a little secret: increase the amount of goodwill in the system, and most individuals within it will start to show diligence, friendliness, humility, intelligence, practicality, attention, care, flexibility and attendance.

Goodwill can be increased by even one person within a system showing it.

Most human beings crave acknowledgement: recognition that we exist, that we have a right to exist, that we are who we are, and the circumstances are as they are. It isn't necessarily about praise: "I can see you're really swamped at the moment". "I know it's important to you to do this RIGHT." "wow, five people want you to do x in the next 5 minutes - I guess four of them are doomed to be disappointed."

Be polite: say hello and goodbye, please and thank you. Ask if now is a good time to talk. Give people your whole attention when you're with them. Excuse yourself if you have to answer a phone etc. Understand that other people's time is valuable to them, so don't waste it. Do not expect immediate politeness in return - when goodwill is in short supply, people become cynical.

Keep your word. Under-promise and over-deliver is good advice - but do deliver. Do what you say you will, and make sure you know what you're getting into. And never utter a threat you're not prepared to follow through on.

Avoid blaming, assume innocence & give the benefit of the doubt. "You weren't at the meeting, and I wondered whether you got the memo..." is more effective than, "You slacker, you couldn't be bothered coming to the meeting." "Did we agree to meet at 2pm?" is better for both of you than discovering the hard way that YOU are the one who messed up after righteously saying, "Where were you? I was here at 2pm" (and the meeting was at 2.30). It's about basic dignity. While we're on the subject, don't ask someone to do something you wouldn't be willing to do yourself.

Set others up for success rather than failure. Get agreement where possible, even if you consider the task is just part of the person's job. Give reasons for urgency - when goodwill is low, people are cynical about deadlines: "I know you're busy Ann, but I need those stats by 10am if I'm to get them to Jo for her presentation at noon. Can I rely on you to have them?"
Send reminders before the due date, so there's still time for the other person to come through. Reminders after the fact just say: "You stuffed up."

Offer incentives. To be effective, an incentive has to be something the other person wants. The best way to find out what will work is ask. "I really, really need x by Friday, and I know that's a big ask so I wondered if there was anything I could offer you that would help?" Expect to be surprised by how little most people want - although there are always chancers.

Be relentless (politely). Non-compliance and avoidance have probably worked for a while, so it will take a while to retrain. You can't afford to get bored and lose interest before you get what you came for. I once chased someone for 7 months, because its important to show that the run-around doesn't work. It's true that if I'd been a boss rather than a colleague I would have sacked the person, but after that I never had to chase that individual again... for anything. They turned in all future tasks on time - or preferably early.

Have fun, play nice and increase the amount of goodwill in your system.

This is post 7 of 100 posts in 100 days

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why is it so?

Why do smokers always stand upwind of the non-smokers at the tram stop (or bus stop, or train station)?

Because they do. I've been testing my theory for the past 2 months and it is invariable.

This is post 6 of 100 posts in 100 days

Monday, May 10, 2010


The plant is green, with no dead brown bits or sinister black or white spots (fungal infection). It looks much as it has done since I brought it home from the garden centre a couple of months ago. It needs water about every third day, and I dust the leaves when they get fluffy so it can breathe.

One day, I moved it. I can't remember whether I was just wanting to clean the bench thoroughly, or if I needed a bit space to put something, or just fancied a change: anyway, I moved it and it looked well-enough in the new spot and I forgot to move it back.

A couple of days later, it had new leaves unfurling. A week later, it is 50% bigger than when I bought it, and 45% bigger than when it lived on the other bench. I hoped it might just be its growing season, as I didn't want to believe I'd been a bad gardner, but as its autumn (fall) that isn't likely.

The plant is now clearly thriving.

There was nothing 'wrong' with the spot it was in before, but nothing especially right with it either. I was looking for signs of disease, rather than signs of vigorous health. When we ask, 'what's wrong?' we may miss important information. We also need to ask, 'what's right?' An answer of 'nothing much' may not be good enough.

There have been times in my life when I've felt like that plant: I'm sure you're the same yourself. I've also seen it in others. These questions are not about achievement, it's about being (the plant was 'achieving' green leaves). It's such a subtle but profound thing, it can be hard to put into words, but when you see a plant or a human being thrive, it's unmistakeable.

This is post 5 of 100 posts in 100 days.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Intention is not strategy

How often have you said, or heard someone else say: "I'll do better next time." The intent is genuine, so transparent that if will alone were enough, it (whatever 'it' is) would already be in the bag,

As a teacher, I often flummox students by asking, "Great! How?"

Many people - both children and adults - take this is as disbelief in their sincerity. "Well, I'll try harder, I'll try my very best" is the usual answer. So I ask again: "How will you try? What will you actually do differently?"

I'm not yanking their chain. Or yours now. Intention is not strategy. Try is not a plan, so as the old saying goes "if you're not planning to succeed, you're planning to fail" and another "if you do what you've done, you get what you've had".

Trying harder is like that. A lot of the time it stands in for "I have no idea what is going wrong, so I'll just throw effort into it in the hope that something sticks." We think the problem is in our will to change, and sometimes that is true, but often its more that we don't know what practical, physical steps to take.

This applies whether the change is learning the fingering in a passage of piano music, or remembering to pick up the milk on the way home, or exercising a bit of what Nigella Lawson calls 'dietary restraint'. Last week we tried to "just get it right" and this week we'll try that again, this time it's bound to work...

I do it, I suspect most people do it about something. In some magical future, we'll be perfect, and we'll get what we want by simply willing it to happen. We wish we could be more skillful at our jobs, our relationships, our hobbies, our driving... All too often, we're quite content with 'trying'.

It exacerbates problems in relationships, where Stephanie Dowrick has commented that we judge others on their actions, but we judge ourselves on our intentions. (Did anyone order cognitive dissonance to go?)

When mentor Tim Gunn on Project Runway says "Make it happen", he's not asking the designers to try harder, he's asking them to decide what needs to be done and then do it.

So if you want something different - no matter how big or small - try to work out something however small that you'll do differently next time. And if that doesn't work, try something else the time after.

This is post 4 of 100 Posts in 100 Days.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

New skills & old

I'm clever. Lots of people say so, and have done all my life; it would be a mistake to assume they were always paying me a compliment, by the way.

So I've always viewed myself as 'clever' just as I've viewed myself as 'female' and 'brown-haired' - that last being less definitive as I 'mature' - without really thinking too much about what it means. Clever was just a label among a bunch of labels, and it was good or bad depending on who said it. Being brown-haired was the same. Some people like brown hair, but not a single picture book princess except Snow White ever had dark hair, and at the age of seven I worked out that was because of narrative necessity.

I looked it up in the dictionary today. In fact, 'clever' is not so much an attribute, as a skill or a practice: "mentally quick", "original", "bright", "nimble with hands or body".

You know that rush you get when you do something new for the first time? I hope you do. You only get it when you do something difficult, something you're not 100% sure you're going to pull it off... When you do, it feels great. It feels even better if you've tried several times and those attempts haven't worked.

It happened yesterday to me. That's' when I had the 'aha!' moment (also known as a Blinding Flash of the Obvious). I actually felt clever. I put a paypal button into a promotional email. [Did you just lose faith in my cleverness that I found this difficult? Or were you impressed too?]

Later, I showed a colleague how to do a couple of keyboard shortcuts. She was over-impressed, never having used them before or even known they existed. She also worried that she wasn't as quick at them as I was. Ah, perfectionism, that arch-enemy of development...

"Look, you don't think you're clever because you know the way to your kids' schools to pick them up do you?"

"No, of course not."

"That's because its something you've done a thousand times, which is why its easy and you don't have to think about it."

"Yeah..." Where are we going with this?

"Those keyboard shortcuts are like that for me. Someone showed them to me years ago, and I've used them nearly every day of my life since. If I had a dollar for every time I've used them, I'd never need to work again."

What old skill do you take for granted? What new skill could you acquire if you stuck with it through a few attempts?

This is post 3 of 100 Posts in 100 Days.

Friday, May 7, 2010

to fail is a verb, not a noun

Carol Dweck has written a fascinating book, Mindset. She's the lady who found that praising kids for their intelligence made them perform worse on tests than those praised for their effort.

In one study, kids were given 3 tests. The first one was easy. The second one was very hard, so most kids failed. The third test was medium hard, so the kids should have done better again. But many didn't.

All kids who did well on the first test were praised. Praise along the lines of "you did well - you must be very smart" encouraged what Dweck calls "the fixed mindset", an either/or view of the world. When the second test 'proved' to these kids that they weren't so smart after all, either they lived down to that belief or they stopped trying. The kids who were praised for their effort "you did well - you must have tried really hard", perservered on all tests, and weren't worried by getting lower marks on the second, because they recognised it was a harder test.

Belief in innate ability (in this case, intelligence) robbed the kids of resilience in the face of failure. Dweck writes compellingly about the pervasive myth - and not just among children - that natural ability means you don't have to work to succeed - and if you don't have natural ability there is no point in trying.

I gather the myth says failure through not trying is better than the humiliation of trying and failing. You can fail a test or a challenge - to fail is a verb. But a fixed mindset encourages a more universal belief: "I failed this, therefore I am a failure." The term doesn't really work well as a noun.

I'm not sure how you can be 'a failure'. What's the definition? Maybe you could fail life, but we'll have to wait until the game is over before we judge, surely? If you're still breathing while you read this, the game is still on.

And if you set out to fail, and succeed at failing? What do we call that? I guess that would be an oxymoron.

This is post 2 of my 100 posts in 100 days challenge.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Real artists ship: 100 Posts in 100 Days

Coulda Woulda Shoulda Didn't.
Pretty much sums up the past year here at opinonatedchildlesswoman.

"Real artists ship" according to Steve Jobs, and quoted by Seth Goden in his latest book, Linchpin. For the longest time, I haven't been shipping.

"Shipping means hitting the publish button on your blog. ... Shipping is the collision between your work and the outside world." (p.103)

Wow: reality check. I could cite a hundred good reasons why I haven't been around. But mostly it's just resistance, that inner voice that protects the ego from failure, usually by paralyzing me with self-doubt.

So here's my challenge, and my promise: I will post at least once every 24 hours for the next 100 days.

Let's see what happens.