I happened recently on an article in the New York Times where the author, David Pogue, asked readers for their very best ‘life advice.’ I enjoyed it so much, I want to share some of my favorite pieces of wisdom with you. And, of course, I’ll suggest how this might apply to your nonprofit work and work/life balance.
Are you over-worrying about a cat stuck in a tree?
Not every problem needs to be addressed immediately. Some will work themselves out.
“You’ve never seen a cat skeleton in a tree, have you?” When Alexandra Aulisi’s cat couldn’t get down from a tree, her grandmother reassured her with those words, predicting (correctly) that the cat would come down on his own. “This advice made me realize that, sometimes, you need to shift your perception of a problem to see a solution,” Ms. Aulisi noted.
— David Pogue, NYT
While it’s tempting to drop everything (e.g., whenever a new email appears in your inbox, especially if it’s someone asking for help), it’s important to assess if this situation actually requires a rapid response. If not, you have options.
1. Lil’ Bo Peep: “Leave it alone and it will come home.”
Ever been on vacation and noticed a flurry of emails, back and forth, forth and back, from members on your team? Often by the time you’ve returned the ‘problem’ – as urgent as it may have seemed at the time based on all the email hyperbole – seems to have evaporated. I’m not suggesting you ignore legitimate, pressing problems; just use common sense and exercise judicious restraint, as appropriate.
2. Could someone else handle this?
I’ll never forget some excellent advice I received (actually from one of the donors I worked with during the years I was a young parent). While I was stressing about potty training, she told me: “Have you ever seen anyone at college who still wears diapers? If you don’t potty train your son now, never fear. His college girlfriend will!” It was silly, yet made a whole lot of sense. I didn’t need to oversee and micro-manage every little thing. Sometimes things happen on their own time frame. This was a reminder that patience can be a virtue.
Are you having trouble getting started?
Sometimes you just have to start.
“Exercise adds 20 degrees.” For example, “if it’s 28 degrees out and it seems too cold to go running,” Rory Evans wrote, “once you get moving, it’ll feel like it’s 48 degrees. And that, you can handle.”
— David Pogue, NYT
I have this trouble myself with exercise, but once I get into the routine I feel much better and actually enjoy it. Frankly, I have this problem with picking up the phone to call donors.There are emails to answer. Sticky notes to attend to. Meetings to attend. Again, however, once I make that first call my fears drop away, I get in the groove, and I start to have fun.
1. Adopt the Nike philosophy, and “Just Do It!”
Learn to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable hesitations. If you don’t know how to swim, then diving into the deep end may be a bridge too far, at least for now. But if you’re a good swimmer, and you’re dipping your toe in the water just because it’s a bit uncomfortably cold, that’s simply prolonging the apprehension and angst. Jump in and show yourself, and others, what you can do!
2. Get a buddy.
It helps to have someone else to hold you accountable. And vice-versa. That’s why people exercise, walk, diet and take courses together. That’s how 12-step programs succeed. In your work life, you can enlist a colleague, find a mentor or hire a coach.
Are you letting the perfect get in the way of the good?
When you learn to live with good, your worry level will go way down.
“Things don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.” Gail Dekker first heard her friend, a wedding coordinator, offer these words to young couples whose emotions were running high. But it works in all kinds of situations, including Ms. Dekker’s house hunt. “My initial reaction was that there was something wrong with every condo I saw. My friend reminded me: A place didn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. She was right.”
— David Pogue, NYT
I confess this is the hardest piece of advice for me to take, but I’m trying. I grew up with a Mom, and a boss of 22 years, who insisted all work must be A+. No A’s. No A-‘s. Just straight up 100%. But it’s crazy-making. Not to mention ineffective. Here’s what I’ve been learning.
1. Adopt my son’s philosophy: ‘B’ can be more cost-effective than “A.”
When my son reached his teen years, I noticed he didn’t seem to be sweating his homework. Other parents were complaining their kids spend 6 hours/night and worked well past midnight. They were burned out. My son put in a couple of hours, and then did his own thing. He went to the ballpark and hit baseballs. He played virtual baseball on his computer. He enrolled in a cooking course and made us gourmet meals at home. He got B grades. Of course, I talked to him about this. He said “Mom, if I can get a B in two hours, and it takes someone else three times that amount of time to get an A, which approach is more cost-effective?” I had to admit his approach led to a more well-rounded and enjoyable life.
2. Look for the wonderful.
It’s easy to get stuck in process. I learned to proofread, edit, correct for spelling and grammatical errors and so forth. My English teacher is always sitting on my shoulder. And that’s all well and good, but… it can cause me to lose sight of the BIG take-away – what I’m really trying to accomplish. Ask yourself: “What should be the ‘wonderful’ here?” Are you trying to make a donor feel good? Are you trying to inspire someone to advocate on your behalf? Are you trying to establish your organization as an authority? Often you can do all of this quite effectively, and in a timely manner, even with a little roughness around the edges. Whatever your goal, lead with that!
Are you trying to control that which can’t be changed?
At some point in my career, when I realized it was futile to try to change my boss, it was a light bulb moment for me.
“You can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control your reaction to them.” Kim Radich uses this advice daily. “For example, when a family member reacted negatively to a situation, I remembered I can’t control their behavior, and I let it roll off my back.”
— David Pogue, NYT
I couldn’t change my boss’s behavior any more than I could stop the sun from rising or setting. We naturally kick into a defensive attack posture when we come up against behaviors we dislike. We want to call them out, prove they’re wrong, and that we’re right. Sadly, that often doesn’t work very well. If you’re in a situation that’s making you miserable, you always have the option of leaving. If you can’t, or don’t want to, leave, then you have to look at options to shift things from bad to tolerable.
1. Tweak your modus operandi.
There are two ways to respond when you disagree with a proposed course of action. Let’s say your boss tells you to put on a Gala event. You think it’s a waste of resources and will lead to lost opportunities in other areas. (1) You can fight tooth and nail, take on the task begrudgingly, and complain loudly every chance you get – to your colleagues at the water cooler, to your friends when you meet up, and to your family at home. In short, you can make yourself and everyone else miserable. Or… (2) you can slightly tweak your approach by raising your concerns, suggesting a few ways to maximize return on investment, and then move forward to execute the event the best, most professional way possible. Get your misgivings on record, give your best advice, and then get on the team and move forward. In other words, don’t react; act in the most positive, productive way you know how.
2. Take a deep breath and count to 10.
It’s amazing how this simple little exercise can help you calm down and put things in perspective. Is this a battle you want to choose? Do you have a ghost of a chance of winning? Take a moment to calm down and consider this carefully. I can remember a development staff retreat many years ago where the facilitator said to us: “List all the things impeding your progress.” We got those all up on a flip chart. Then she said: “Put a star next to the ones you can’t change.” That worked wonders! For the rest of the day, rather than ranting and raving about things outside our control, we worked on things we could change.
Are you stuck in a rut?
It’s easy to get complacent. Or just a little bit buried or lost. Your job becomes easy. It’s not unpleasant. The pay isn’t bad. Yet for nonprofit workers who entered the sector to make a difference and change the world, this status quo can be the kiss of death.
“Never accept work where you’re not learning.” Catherine Kunicki, fresh out of art school, heard famed furniture designer Charles Eames on a local radio show, and called in to ask his advice. She wound up following it. “I never got rich, but I loved what I was doing most of the time.”
— David Pogue, NYT
1. Take advantage of professional development opportunities.
If your organization offers to pay your way to conferences, do it. If they don’t, ask for it. So much is changing in the sector today that it’s easy for organizations to get left behind. Tell your boss you want to help your organization be forward-thinking! Ask if you can get a coach. Take online webinars (there are many free ones, and I send you links biweekly in my ‘Clairity Click-it.”) Read my Clairification blog regularly, and check out other nonprofit blogs as well. Join professional development organizations and attend educational and networking sessions.
2. Don’t let fear of loss blind you to opportunities.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is famous for loss aversion experiments demonstrating how much people’s economic behavior is guided by a change of reference point. This is also called prospect theory, as in the way we react differently to the prospect of loss vs. the prospect of gain. It’s also called fear of missing out (FOMO). (BTW: You can use this to your advantage in fundraising appeal writing). You know, of course, that if you take no risks you reap few rewards. FOMO leads to an aversion to take risks.
Don’t worry, be happy.
Do you live in fear of judgement from someone else?
“In life there, are two types of workers: ditch diggers, and those who tell them how to dig the ditch. Decide who you want to be, and do it 100 percent.” —@cooneyd554
— David Pogue, NYT
Without even knowing it, I feared my mother’s judgment. She wanted me to be a lawyer, so I became a lawyer. But I didn’t enjoy the work (at least the line of work I fell into out of law school). So, on the advice of a friend, I attended a facilitated ‘Career Change Retreat.” It was eye-opening to look at what made me, not my mother, happy. Interestingly, there was a CPA in the group who thought he didn’t want to continue being a CPA because he didn’t like the impression it gave others of him. It wasn’t the work he disliked; it was his perception of how others viewed this work. Surprisingly, he learned he loved doing CPA work and was able to embrace it once he realized how well it aligned with his preferred skills. Here’s how I approached figuring out how to be happy in my career.
1. What skills make you feel successful?
There are exercises in the oldie-but-goodie best-selling career book of all time, What Color is Your Parachute to help you assess the skills you most enjoy using. The book makes the distinction between “love” and “can do.” What matters most are skills you love to use, among those you can do. Passion plus competency, not just competency alone, is key to a happy, fulfilling career. Deciding on your favorite skills should not be an intellectual exercise, but an emotional exercise, choosing between words that are rooted in stories you tell about times in your life when you felt most successful. The book recommends writing down a story for every five year period of your life. Then you cull through the story to look for skill words. Heart, then intellect; not intellect, then heart. Stories then skills; not skills then stories. And there’s much more here too! This book is well worth a read, as the tips apply to approaching donor prospects as well. It will help you become a better listener and self-advocate and enable you to take control of your career so you live it for yourself, and not for someone else.
2. How can you leverage your strengths to overcome your weaknesses?
I recommend the Gallup-Clifton Strengths Finder as a self-assessment tool. You’ll come away with your top 5 strengths, and a better idea of what makes you tick. Their philosophy is that too often workplaces and managers hone in on a person’s weaknesses and focus on getting them to improve in that area. A better approach is to hone in on their strengths, find ways to help them do more of those things, and find ways to take tasks where their skills are weak off their plate. It makes common sense! They make the claim that those “who use their CliftonStrengths are more engaged and productive at work and 3x more likely than others to have an excellent quality of life.” Feel free to take that with a grain of salt, but know I’ve found it useful. [BTW: You can take the test online for just $19.99. It’s fun!]
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