Words Are Anchors… Or Only Clouds?

Words matter. We hear it all the time. We experience it all the time. We can be in the midst of a fantastic day and then BOOM, some words happen and we become completely thrown off. Maybe the words were a sharp criticism or back-handed compliment. Maybe they were a flirtation that you never expected. Maybe it was a social media post not necessarily aimed at you, but it hit home so hard that you can’t ignore it. Words anchor us to meaning. If you’re like me, you walk around (or run, or sit Zazen) and ruminate about words from time to time.

In the last few years, I have learned that resilience is perhaps the most valuable skill in my life. Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, grit, mindfulness, whatever we’re calling it this week, is the skillset that we use to bounce back from a setback to be able to focus on what is going on right now.

I mentioned earlier that words anchor us to meaning. To expand on that, think about the words that people have used to describe us or to give us feedback. If you’re like me, at least some of those words have stuck and turned into labels – some good and some bad. But either way, they anchor us and limit our possibilities. I have always been on the thin side with a slight frame, which my family lovingly referred to as “skinny.” Now 40 years later, I still doubt my athletic ability before going out for a long run or a soccer match. Will I be strong enough to compete?

One of the ways I’ve recently been able to build resilience around words is to think of them as clouds. Clouds are amazing. They can be beautiful formations in the sky or a grey blanket between the sun and us terrestrial beings. They can provide life-affirming rain or life-threatening lightening. But as with all of these cases, clouds change. Today’s dreary morning is this evening’s sky-on-fire sunset. Like clouds, words are impermanent. While words may represent “reality” right now and they should be given appropriate attention, the situation can and will change.

Interestingly, I’ve also been thinking about my words; especially, my words for others. Even though I’m building resilience to words by imagining them as wispy clouds moving across the sky, I have to recognize that other people aren’t where I am. So these days, I’m being careful to not anchor anyone with my words. I’m finding that it really doesn’t take that much extra time or care. Instead of, “You always do this,” I’m offering up, “I noticed that this happened when I did X.” I am finding that simple adjustments to my words are enriching my relationships because… words matter.

Our Devices are Probably Listening to Us

You have probably seen the Facebook / cat food test on YouTube. Now, I am no conspiracy theorist. I don’t wear a tinfoil hat and as a law-abiding citizen, I’m not terribly concerned about Big Brother or Big Data or whatever the next Big thing is. But still. It is creepy to think about. In spite of Facebook’s continued assertions to the contrary, it seems to keep coming up for us. My wife – who has designated herself as our family’s Facebook liaison (more on this in a minute) – has observed it repeatedly in the last several months. She has a conversation about some product or service that we don’t currently use, and then she starts getting ads about the product or service on Facebook within 24 hours.

Listening Devices

Now let’s consider for a moment the latest fad in technology. The virtual assistant operating via a microphone and speaker. Alexa operating on the Amazon Echo, Siri on your phones and Homepod, etc. These devices are listening for you to command, oh I don’t know, “Play Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.” In addition to taking you on a trip down musical memory lane, isn’t it in the best interest of their parent companies to listen to your conversations? Everyone wins when they provide you with deals on the products and services you’re considering, right? I have not seen the code and so I cannot comment on whether or not it is happening. However, at this point, I operate on the assumption that it is.

Tech’d Out

Some time ago in a morning meeting, one of my team members asked the question, “What future technology are you most excited about?” My answer: “None.” I know I’m starting to sound like everyone’s Dad here, but seriously – where does it stop? I feel over-marketed, over-surveyed, over-autodialed and over-emailed. I don’t feel like I need more. As mentioned earlier, my wife knows that I’ve grown weary of social media, so she has volunteered to be our “Facebook liaison.” I guess it means that she’s active enough for both of us. Love you, hon!

There is No Tech on the Trail

This past weekend, my marathon training schedule called for a long run of 16 miles. I’ve been pounding the pavement lately and my calf muscles are feeling a bit knotted up. So I opted to put my 16 miles in on the trail. With an elevation chart that reads like a saw blade, I got one heck of a workout. But you know what else? I got trees, dirt, mud, underbrush, spiderwebs (enough to stick my hat to my head), sun-dappled landscapes, lake views, and a whole lot of quiet. At the end, I felt great. I felt like I had put in some serious work and that I had gotten a reprieve from haptic alerts, pop-ups, and calls from New Jersey offering low cost health insurance. So… if you’re like me and getting a bit tired of Big Tech, I highly suggest getting outside. Happy Trails…

Leadership is Key to Working with a Bad Apple

Several weeks ago, I kicked off a mini-series about Bad Apples. My blogging break notwithstanding, I aim to get back to it.

I’m involved in several different social groups, all of which seem to be going through changes. So I’m seeing new people enter new circles. Most are great, but some struggle to find their place. Even fewer seem to be officially Bad Apples. You know the type. Bad Apples seem to be disruptive for the sake of being disruptive, intent on pushing their way into the social fabric all the while alienating established members of the group. I used to think it was my personal job to bring these people back down to earth. Mostly these days I watch with interest. My primary interest is the impact on the people around them. The bad behavior of one Bad Apple seems to spread like a virus. In other words, one Bad Apple really does spoil the whole bunch.

Here’s what I mean: A new person enters a group. Maybe he was brought to the table by other members who didn’t know his… ahem… quirks. Then, New Guy starts exhibiting Bad Apple behavior: talking over top of people, making everything about himself, belittling other’s skills and contributions, and so on. A funny thing happens. Formerly happy and productive contributing members of the group start to react with Bad Apple behavior of their own. I recently watched a quite talented long term member of one of my groups vehemently defend a step in the process that she had championed changing one week earlier because this week, Bad Apple guy said it was dumb.

It brings to mind a quote that I’ve recently heard: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to Gruenter and Whitaker, though I have no idea who they are. Origins aside, the quote illustrates the importance of leadership in creating an environment where everyone feels safe to contribute. If the uncertainty introduced by the behavior of a Bad Apple is not addressed by leadership, the performance of the group – and perhaps the longevity of the group itself – will be compromised.

Time and Transitions

To say that time has slipped away from me would be an understatement. Some six weeks have passed since my last blog post. In that time, we sent all 4 of our children back to school, the balance of work and life has dramatically shifted toward the workplace, my wife started back to college, and I ramped up my marathon training to 50+ miles per week. Now we’ve had four children for a while obviously, so “back to school shouldn’t be that dramatic. But our daughter moved away to college and I will tell you dear readers, that it has been a significant time of transition.

Moving out

Perhaps the biggest change has been simply not having our daughter around. She has shown tremendous maturity over the past year, which eased our fears about her being able to handle life on her own. But candidly, we miss her. I miss her. I think what I miss most is seeing her everyday and getting “the rundown,” which was her play-by-play summary of how her day went with plenty of saucy commentary. My daughter (who is featured in the lead photo) has a huge personality and wit for days, so there is a palpable humor missing from the house now that she’s away. For the first several weeks, I spent extra time – probably a good portion of my former blogging time – chatting with her via text and coordinating the order and delivery of things forgotten or newly needed for dorm life. Additionally, there have been a rash of sexual assaults on her campus in the first couple of weeks of school so that has added a layer of concern to an already challenging time of transition. Things seem to have settled down now, and this coming weekend is Parents’ Weekend. This is where we lost parental souls will get to traipse around campus with the students we so dearly miss while they roll their eyes at our droll ways because, as they’re supposed to do, they’re moving on with their lives. I’m actually handling it decently well, but I’m excited to see my girl.

Work, work, work

I’ve resisted making this blog about work, which I will continue to do. However, several work-related things have cut into my blogging time. My department has been slated to “stand on its own,” which now means I need to develop and manage a budget that I haven’t formally done for years. I’m also transitioning workers from my team and hiring others. My team will be leading a strategic initiative next year, so I’ve been spending extra hours on that front. And of course, we’re approaching the end of the year, so there’s the obligatory employee performance appraisal meetings and report drafting. Oh and I suppose its worth mentioning that our company has completely changed the rating system for this year, which means that it takes about twice the energy to go through the process right now. So the other portion of my blogging time has been eaten up by evenings and weekends at work.

Back on Track

So here we are. It is time to get back on track with many fronts, including the blog. Interestingly, I find that busy times are also times of significant growth, so I hope to have plenty of insights as I slow down and catch my breath.

Ulysses: Aeolus

Aeolus is the Greek god of the winds. There is a brief story in Book X of Homer’s The Odyssey in which Aeolus gives Odysseus all four winds in a bag to help get him home. Odysseus uses the Western wind do blow his ships homeward and they come within sight of Ithaca. However, suspicion and jealousy get the better of the crew and one of the men tears open the bag – thinking it contained gold and silver – only to unleash all four winds, which blow them all the way back to Aeolia. This time, Aeolus refuses to help Odysseus because he believes the gods are set against the Achaean. Short on wind, the men row to the land of the Laestrygonians, who are powerful giants that make a meal out of Odysseus’ scouts and sink all but Odysseus’ ship by throwing boulders at them.

As in The Odyssey, Aeolus represents a tumultuous time in Ulysses. The Aeolus episode is set in the Freeman newspaper offices. The text in the book is offset by newspaper style headlines which, for me, give the episode a hurried kind of energy. There are a lot of characters as well. Bloom and both Dedalus men, City Councillor Nanetti, Hynes, Ned Lambert, Professor MacHugh, JJ O’Molloy, Myles Crawford, Lenehan, and O’Madden Burke are all featured. Like the winds of Aeolus, the men are all blowing about with their various interests and commentaries, which makes the episode challenging to follow.

Much like in Hades; however, we see that Bloom is still an outsider. Bloom is making a genuine attempt to get his Keyes ad placed in the Freeman, but the rest of the cast seems disinterested in business. Ned Lambert puts on a mocking performance of Dan Dawson’s speech discussed in the carriage on the way to Dignam’s funeral in the Hades episode. The elder Dedalus and Lambert depart for a drink and shortly thereafter Stephen Dedalus arrives to turn in Mr. Deasy’s letter on foot and mouth disease from the Nestor episode. Crawford agrees to publish it. Crawford then asks Stephen if he’ll write something sharp for the paper, but Stephen will snub the idea. On the other hand, Bloom is trying to get Crawford’s attention to get the Keyes ad settled, but Crawford is distant. At Stephen’s suggestion, all the men gather up and head to a pub.

Themes:

Several prominent themes are reinforced in this chaotic, wind-blown episode:

  • Bloom the outcast / inferior: Throughout the episode Bloom plays the part of the inferior. Bloom runs into Hynes, who owes him three shillings, but who also told him at Dignam’s funeral he didn’t know his first name. Bloom tries to tactfully remind Hynes about the 3 quid but Hynes doesn’t catch on. Then, Bloom works hard on designing and landing the ad for Keyes. He works with Nanetti on the ad design and then runs off to call Keyes to secure the three month’s renewal. As he runs off he gets mocked by some boys for his jerky stride. Lenehan then imitates him too. Upon his return, Bloom struggles for the attention of Crawford, who is flippant in dismissing Blooms request to get the Keyes ad for two month’s renewal rather than three. Instead, Crawford is focused on Stephen, who doesn’t work for the paper.
  • Molly the object of lustful attention: Bloom and Molly are inseparable in people’s minds. When people talk about Bloom they routinely make a comment about Molly – usually in a sexual nature. This holds true in Aeolus as well. When Crawford comments on the gathering of many talents in the room, MacHugh mentions that Bloom would represent the art of advertising. O’Madden Burke immediately jumps to Molly, whom he says would add vocal talent. Lenehan then coughs and makes an off-color remark about catching a cold in the park, implying some impropriety involving Molly.
  • English vs. Home Rule: This theme is never far away in any part of Ulysses, just as I imagine that it would a prominent topic of discussion in any gathering of men in Dublin in the early 1900s. In helping to develop the ad for Keyes, Bloom invokes the Isle of Man and the dream of Irish home rule. Later, Crawford and O’Molloy bring up the Romans which prompts MacHugh to compare the Irish under English rule to the Jews under Roman rule.

As I close the review of this episode, I must admit that it wasn’t one of my favorites to read. It bounces around with the sizable cast of characters playing off of one another. However, as with most episodes, once I’ve had a chance to contextualize it with its Homeric counterpart, I understand and appreciate it more. While the actual movement of air was minimal, the whirring of the machines and the collection of windbags certainly created a good bit of tumult for our hero Bloom to operate in. I know it took Joyce 5 years to write Ulysses. It will probably take me at least that long to fully appreciate it. What a book!

Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.

That’s Curious

Be curious, not judgmental.                                                                                                                     -Walt Whitman

Simple but powerful. I coach my team to think this way. I do my best to live this way myself.

Today, we received some shocking news at work. It was interesting to watch everyone – myself included – go through the gyrations of processing the information. Most of us were inclined to judge. As I mindfully processed, I remembered Whitman’s sage advice. Instead of getting invested, I treated the news as data. I learned more about the world today through this topic. It allowed me to still feel deeply about the matter, but to minimize the disruption and get back to my day.

I hope your excitement is positive, but in times where it isn’t, perhaps this simple quote can inspire you to be able to accept the Truth of the situation and deal with it head on.