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thoughts

The 5 or 7 — or However Many — Phases of my Corona Times

First, I’m very lucky that I haven’t contracted the virus. But I’m only a few degrees of separation from those who have. So let’s get that out of the way.

When my full-time employer issued the decree in March 2020 to ‘go work from home.’ I was pretty excited. It was starting to feel hinky out there. People were acting weird in the office, getting mad if anyone coughed, and then going out to raves, and then dealing with the side eyes when they returned. You get the idea.

I love working in my home office. I love not commuting. I love having lunch break on my back patio. I knew there weren’t going to be a lot of entertainment options in this new world, but even so … I could exercise every day! I could take walks every day! And so began Phase 1.

About four weeks in, when it was absolutely clear the ‘before times’ weren’t coming back anytime soon, exercising every day forever wasn’t so appealing. So ended Phase 1.

Then came Phase 2. Get back to reading books. I’ll read a book a week! As long as it’s fiction. Unfortunately I discovered that modern media has destroyed my attention span. Reading does calm the mind. Even if you’re reading a book about a British girl who can’t stop shopping, it’s still making your brain work better. But my internet brain barely had the patience for it.

After finishing about four books, I thought, who am I kidding with this book a week idea? Do what you can do.

Enter Phase 3. Cooking stuff I don’t usually cook. It’s a cliche, but banana bread happened, so did bagels, soup with cilantro, and brownies. There was a lot of baking. The pendulum had swung away from daily exercise, to lying on the couch watching tv and eating carbs.

Phase 4. Depressing Documentaries. Including Tiger King, The Vow, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Phase 5. Home Improvement. That’s where I am now. Sometimes it’s just pushing furniture around, sometimes it’s extensive browsing on Wayfair.

The weirdest thing is, that once upon a time I thought this would end. It seems like a million phases ago.

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web business

On the Perils of Competency

We all know one. A person who’s just good at everything. They’re good at math, at sports, at cooking, at making friends, at public speaking, at writing, at making doll houses and travel plans. The list never seems to end. (Not to be confused with the person who will freely tell you how good they are at everything, but are mainly good at telling you how great they are. ) The super competent person is usually humble. They know they can do a lot of things, but they recognize that there are others who are more talented.

Most organizations have individuals who are multi-competent. The person who can build a handy spreadsheet for others to use when performing a routine – but complex – calculation. That person who can step in as support during a sales pitch. (They may not be the flashiest presenter, but they provide an aura of expertise and stability.) That person who knows how to get a dancing balloon man for a party, and submit an RFP, all while handling a delicate personnel matter.

If you are an organizational leader, you will be tempted to engage the multi-competent person in an abundance of situations.

For example

  • The Divisional Director of Information Technology picks up the weekly snacks and decorates the office at the holidays.
  • The Controller who personally corrects discrepancies on every Manager’s timesheet.
  • The ace sales rep who writes the company’s weekly blog.

Let’s just point out why this is a bad idea.

An uber-competent person can provide cover for many incompetent people. You will not be surprised to learn that there are many individuals who do not want to perform routine and complex tasks and have zero interest in either just getting through it or figuring out a more efficient way to accomplish it.

Let’s say a manager asks the multi-competent “Chris” to train a new employee, “Pat”, on the preparation of the Weekly Net Usage Reports. Chris does so, creates some shortcuts, detailed instructions, routinely checks Pat’s work while training, and eventually hands off the task to Pat.

But Pat hates preparing the Weekly Net Usage Reports. They are not only boring, they are also hard. Pat loses focus, makes a lot of mistakes, claims to the manager that the system doesn’t work, and there’s no way the reports can be done in the time allowed. The manager says, “Well, Chris can obviously do them, so it’s not impossible, and we can’t have these mistakes, so the manager gives the task to Chris.

You see what’s happening here. Chris is now spending time doing an entry level task, at a pay rate that is well above the difficulty of the task. And Pat is still on staff, perhaps asked to work on tasks that are less demanding, or, even worse, allowed to surf the internet for half of the day. Organizationally, it is important to make sure that the cost of time matches the complexity of the task performed.

In most cases, a multi-competent person has been multi-competent for quite some time. They didn’t instantly become a jack of all trades when they walked into your office. But many super competent people have difficulty saying “no.” It is satisfying to be needed and feel accomplished. But just because you are good at doing something doesn’t mean that’s what you should be doing.

The risks

An organization runs a risk by requiring a competent employee to do a kitchen-sink list of tasks, just because they’re capable of doing it. Every job involves some disagreeable tasks, but if every task is disagreeable and blocks off channels for advancement, the organization may lose that employee.

Further, by permitting the Pat to escape a challenging task, the organization does Pat no favors either. Pat is bored, underemployed, and setting a bad example for everyone else. Pat’s career is stalled as well, as it’s clear the organization has effectively given up on making Pat a valued employee.

By allowing Chris to do so many things, the organization has rendered Chris both indispensable and stymied. Management definitely doesn’t want to lose Chris, but they are missing the opportunity to allow Chris to do things that could legitimately move the organization forward. There is also the question of how to replace Chris. It’s going to take a lot longer than it should — now that Chris has become a bucket into which a pile of wildly diverse and random tasks are tossed.

If you’re a Chris, it may seem like being a swiss army knife is never dull and provides job security. But long-run it keeps you from developing true expertise. You will have to continually draw boundaries — always focusing on the cost to the organization, not on your own personal goals.

If you’re a manager in an organization that employs several super-competent individuals, recognize it, but don’t let it run amuck. Channel their abilities into something that pays off for the organization, and for them. And when a Pat tells you, “I can’t,” don’t concede. Ask them to try again.

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thoughts

Life’s Better When You’re Making Things

If quarantine time has taught us anything — and it’s taught me many things — it’s that we humans are inherently driven to make things. When gazing at our little goggleboxes grows tiresome; when we are limited in our ability to gather at restaurants, bars, gyms, or offices and distract each other, eventually we will say to ourselves, “I would really like to make something.”

Maybe we will start small with a loaf of banana bread; maybe we will aim a bit higher with sourdough. Maybe we film an elaborate tiktok with our family. Maybe we will tear up all the carpet in the upstairs bedrooms and refinish the hardwood floors. Maybe we will design an app for timing the maturation of a sourdough starter or create a home-built drone out of Lego blocks and a kit bought online. Maybe we’ll finish the scrapbook we started two years ago or take up knitting.

At some point just sitting there and taking it all in just isn’t enough. You got to make something. What is satisfying about creating things, even if they’re not Martha-Stewart-perfect? I’m not sure, but it feels so elemental, it must be encoded in the human genome. “I made this!” cried the cave-person who painted on the walls in Altamira. “And so did I!” shouted the much-later human who created the wheel and axle. “As did we!” said the various people who invented and improved the telescope. Leaving aside questions of who got there first, and whether these creations were solo or group projects, or even whether these creators knew their work was going to be problematic for the “higher ups,” you just know that they felt fantastic about what they had done.

Same thing with banana bread – on a slightly more modest scale. The endorphins are released, and the baker feels, “I am here. I have forged rotten bananas into sustenance for myself and those around me. Huzzah!”

When our distractions and entertainments are whittled down to a precious few, we realize that life is better when you’re making things.

So let’s go make some stuff. Even after we get vaccinated.

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web business

How do I find a web designer?

  • Go local, that’s just my preference. Local designers know the market, may know the competition, have local resources and — most important — can actually meet with you to go over details. Doing absolutely everything over the phone or via email is okay, but it’s not always ideal.
  • Get a reference. Do you have a neighbor or friend or colleague who has a website you like? Ask them who they worked with and were they happy with it
  • Check out the websites of competitors (of similar size) Very often there’s a credit link to the design firm at the bottom of the page
  • Check your local chamber of commerce or better business bureau
  • There really is nothing wrong with doing a google search for a local web design firm. Your first problem will be an overwhelming number of choices.
    • Look for a portfolio. Do you like the work? Do they work in a style that meshes with yours?
    • Does their portfolio have examples of the kind of work you need? Like shopping carts or animation or blogs?
    • Many companies (but not all) now put pricing plans on line. This can be very helpful in finding out if you can afford their work, and if they work on projects like yours. Just because the pricing is not posted, doesn’t mean you can’t afford it. Contact them with a brief description of your project and ask for a typical price range for projects like this. Whoever you work with, be sure to talk to them in detail about your work and get it in writing.
  • Things to beware of:
    • A portfolio with hundreds and hundreds of websites. Real companies only put their best work online. Hundreds of websites = webfarm. Don’t expect too much.
    • A portfolio that is full of errors: spelling, grammar, pages that don’t load, images that are over there when they should be over here. Your site will not be any better
    • A firm that gives you a price without asking about your project
  • Things that you may be surprised about, but shouldn’t be.
    • Most of the best design firms will not do work ‘on spec’. That is, they will not not provide free sample pages and then hope you choose them to design your site. Students or companies who are just starting out may do this in order to build their portfolios … but the business relationship will not be there.
    • Most professional design firms require installment payments once a mutual agreement has been reached to start a project. That is, xx% up front, xx% midway, and xx% on completion. Scope of work and payment can be a challenging area to navigate, and it is always advisable to clearly explain the what is provided and what is expected.

No matter what kind of project you’ve got, there is a web designer for you. From the one page “Get to Know Me” site, to the next amazon.com, there’s a firm out there who can do the work. And if you take a couple of wrong turns while you’re looking for them, so what? Education is never a waste. When you speak with potential designers, ask them what kind of work they do best, and beware of folks that only seem to be paying lip service. You’ll have a more productive relationship with a designer who will be honest about what your expectations should be, gently but firmly push you out of your comfort zone, and who will be forthcoming about areas in which they are not an expert. You should always look for a vendor who asks lots of questions about your business and — even if they are not an expert in your field — understands your overall mission and goals. Trust me, the designer wants you to be happy with their work. They want to add your site to their portfolio, and they want you to tell all your friends! They have lots of incentive to do great work for you.  You’re the expert on your business, and they’re the experts on web design. As long as everyone keeps that in mind, your project will be  golden.

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thoughts

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thoughts

Why I Started and Stayed with Aaptiv

Some time just before Thanksgiving I read an article about Aaptiv, an audio-based training app. Aaptiv has pre-recorded training sessions for different activities: some in the gym, some outside, some strength, lots of cardio, and tons of coaches. There is also a real music (not muzak) soundtrack behind every session. Truthfully I think I had subconsciously been trying to create this app on my own for years. I would make workout ‘mix tapes’ and then write down training routines I had seen in magazines. Then I’d plug in and try to do them without dropping my cheatsheet in the grass or just losing my place and giving up.

I signed up for a month-long trial membership with Aaptiv, and was pretty much hooked after two weeks. To my surprise I committed to a six week program called ‘Walk to Run One Mile’. I am not a runner. I probably hadn’t run a mile since junior high school. But I did it. The feeling of elation when I completed the program was overwhelming. I had run almost two miles without stopping, no asterisks! And the reason I did it was because of the coach’s minute-by-minute instructions and encouragement. Even on the days when working out was the last thing I wanted to do, I would remember the rewarding feeling of the coach saying, “You are a-MAY-zing!”

I have never met an Aaptiv trainer I didn’t like, but so far my favorites are Ben, Ackeem and Jade. Ben is like the energizer bunny and was particularly good at getting this self-doubting athlete to “just try.” Ackeem is like a spiritual drill sargeant. You definitely don’t want to let him down. Jade is no-nonsense mellow, and always helps me to reboot my mind. In every workout, whether it’s walking or yoga or meditation, I am grateful for the the positive messages I can take into the rest of my day. They are almost more important to me than the workout itself.

I am not shilling for the app, although I am obviously a fan. TBH, the strength workouts are harder for me to follow. I don’t always know what the moves are, and the verbal descriptions can be confusing. (A half turkish get-up, wha?) but I flail around anyway and google it later.

So what are the results so far? I’m still working out with Aaptiv three or more times a week. I’ve lost some weight and toned up a bit, but the biggest change is in my confidence. I definitely look forward to the “me time” of working out. Deciding what session to download is almost like shopping for shoes!