Why True Conversations Are So Rare These Days

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Why True Conversations Are So Rare These Days

Let’s face it: meaningful, balanced conversations, are hard to come by. How often have we watched a conversation on some disputed social issue dissolve into an emotional firestorm? If this isn’t obvious enough, just wait until the political campaigns start up again. Of course,  serious issues deserve serious emotional commitment. But our problem isn’t a lack of emotional fortitude, it’s a lack of intellectual engagement; a lack of focus, really. Part of the danger for public discourse is our inability to focus on anything other than the emotional—we can’t pay attention for long enough to get past it. 

Writing under a pseudonym, “Edward Schlosser” mourns the loss of public discourse in his article that swept the internet recently: I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.  In short, his students terrify him because they're way too emotionally sensitive. This quote stood out: “...focusing on …[identity concerns] too exclusively draws our attention so far inward that none of our analyses can lead to action.” Though he’s taken some well-deserved heat for his views, I think Schlosser is onto something.

When we turn our attention so far inwards, our ability to focus on things beyond our own emotions dies—and so does any chance for dialogue or reform. Those of you familiar with my content know that our minds are lousy at focusing on more than one thing at a time. Naturally, our minds are prone to take the path of least resistance.

In short, it’s easier to focus on rousing emotions than to analyze or think critically.

Which is why we feel manipulated when someone tries to communicate with us only using emotion, like commercials with sad-faced dogs or dramatic music.

So, the next time you want a good conversation, get outside yourself. Take your feelings into account, but remember that they're just that: feelings. Ask some questions.  And try to pay attention--real attention--to the answers. 

 

Photo credit:

Marie Thérése Hébert & John Robert Thibault

 

 

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Don't Hate Your Stress. Just Give it a New Name.

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Don't Hate Your Stress. Just Give it a New Name.

Jack says he’s overwhelmed by the exam, Jill says she’s excited. Jack and Jill have the same IQ, same GPA, even studied together using all the same resources.  

Guess who does better on the exam?

Here’s the thing: positive excitement and negative anxiety are, in most ways, the same biochemical reaction. Turns out, the story we tell ourselves about that biochemical reaction has a pretty big impact on our performance.

You can’t control that biochemical reaction. You can control the story you tell yourself.

And like magic, anxiety becomes energy.

(Kelly McGonigal has a lot to say about this, too.)

Photo credit:

Steve Jurvetson

 

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Music at Work: Pandora’s Box of Distractions or Boost to Your Focus?

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Music at Work: Pandora’s Box of Distractions or Boost to Your Focus?

Maybe you listen to music every minute of the workday. Maybe you resort to music if your environment gets too active and loud. Or perhaps you reach for your headphones because the room is so calm and quiet that you cant stay awake. Most of us who grew up in the digital age associate the perfect playlist with perfectly focused work. But does it actually help us focus or not?

Research shows that in certain instances music can increase both our creativity and productivity.  The right music in the right situation can drown out unwanted noises, increase your attentiveness to the present moment, reign in your wandering thoughts, and even improve your mood by increasing your dopamine levels.

But if you select the wrong kind of music, all these benefits are turned on their heads and your work noticeably suffers. Listening to lyrically driven music at work tends to hinder your ability to absorb new information. Its also unwise to listen anything thats brand new to you, as your interest will be piqued and your creativity undermined. So, approach with caution.

My advice: learn yourself. Make a conscious effort to learn when and where music is beneficial to your work. This might mean that you save the Top-40 list for the car ride, rather than the office. And while youre working, maybe a little less Beyoncé, and a little more Beethoven.

 For more on music and productivity see these articles:

The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle

At Work, Do Headphones Really Help?

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Quick Tips for Energy Preservation

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Quick Tips for Energy Preservation

You’re very good about checking the battery life on your phone and charging it if necessary. You’re careful to do the same for your laptop. But do you show the same concern for checking, charging, and preserving our own mental energy?

You should. It’s time to stop wasting mental energy and precious time. Here are a few ways to do this:

  •  Eliminate the expectation of immediate response times. The quicker you respond, typically the less useful your response.
  • Quit with the cc’ing everyone on everything phenomenon. Just stop it. Bosses- stop asking for it. Please.
  • Change the cultural expectations by actually talking about what you expect. It’s time to meet together and discuss when people should be expected to respond. I actually get work done at 8pm while my family watches TV. I don’t need you to respond at 8:35PM. You don’t know that unless I tell you.
  • Ask yourself, ‘what’s the goal of this communication, and how can I eliminate steps to reach that goal?’ (ie. first email: lunch at 11:45 at Mi Cocina on Commerce?”).

Sometimes it’s the irrational expectations we force upon ourselves that sap our energy. Now, let’s put these tips into practice.

 

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The Golden Rule of Attention

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The Golden Rule of Attention

If there is one rule of attention management that everyone can agree on (and that every organization desperately needs) it is The Golden Rule of Attention.

What’s The Golden Rule of Attention? Interrupt others as you’d like to be interrupted—which is never while you’re hard at work.

Though we all like to pop into co-worker’s offices for quick chats and exchange texts with loved ones while at work, doing so requires those we interrupt to take off their work hats to put on relationship hats. When we contact each other on a whim just because the impulse occurred it costs us time and confuses the mental “cues” we associate with our workspaces.

So let your comrades and loved ones be fully present at work, then ask them to be fully present at lunch, or at home.


Embrace The Golden Rule.

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Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

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Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

Which came first? My waning productivity or this incredibly compelling video of a kitten splashing around in his bowl of milk on youtube? Did the kitten take me away from a tedious task or did I go looking for the kitten because of the tedious task?  

Here’s some good news: it’s totally normal to get distracted at work. 

And for the increasing numbers of us who work from home or telecommute? Distractions multiplied! Your kids. House of Cards. That chocolate cake from last night that will only go bad if someone doesn’t eat it. 

My advice? Give in.

Well, ok, only a little. And only if it's scheduled. Because here’s some more good news: we can be mindful about when we choose to distract ourselves.

Try this: schedule 15% of your day for distractions. If you can manage 85% productivity throughout the day, you’ll be doing great. 
Embrace the distractions. Plan them in advance. You'll get more done that way.

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Earn Your Own Attention

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Earn Your Own Attention

Ask my parents, and they’ll tell you I couldn’t even sit through a ten-page picture book as a kid. My brother-in-law, on the other hand, was reading 1,000 page novels by the first grade.

But just because I didn't inherit the innate attention my brother-in-law has doesn’t mean I’m incapable of staying focused.

If you haven’t already, go read Alison Gopnik’s article on WSJ. The bottom line: the idea of innate talent is a farce, and you’ve probably bought the lie.

This is dangerous, and Gopnik explains why:

Gopnik.jpg

I am not naturally disposed to pay attention for more than a few minutes— but my fate is not sealed, and neither is yours. Our ability to stay focused might not be “innate,” but we can earn our attention. Through discipline and hard work you can grow in your ability to stay focused. This might mean taking time to pray or meditate, or maybe taking off the headphones while you work. It might mean taking time to sit in silence, or turning off that incessant smartphone. 

Your attention, your focus, your success is at stake. Do the hard things, whatever they may be, to earn your attention. 

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MLB Has An Attention Problem

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MLB Has An Attention Problem

Let's hope if a baseball bat was flying at your face,  you'd  have been paying attention long enough to put your hands up.  

This poor guy getting clocked in the face tells us what most of us already know: Major League Baseball is boring its fans. The fact is, MLB is unable to satisfy the modern audience's appetites.

Why?

Today’s consumers are Short-Form Conditioned. That is, we prefer things that:

  • only take a short amount of time
  • only require a short number of steps
  • are only a short distance away from something else we can move on to

That’s why we tune in to SportsCenter to see a highlight reel,  instead of sitting down and watching the actual games. It's also why baseball tickets are so cheap these days. 

MLB is catching on. They're instituting new rules that will save time and hopefully speed up the game, keep the action moving. 

But it won’t be enough.

With a long season and long games, baseball is simply asking too much of the new short-form conditioned sports fan.  MLB will need to overhaul the sport if they want to grip the modern audience. 

Nobody wants to be the guy getting hit in the face. But ask yourself: does your business have an MLB problem? Are you moving so slow that your audience isn't even watching

photo by slgckgc

 

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Are You Brave Enough To Be Bored?

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Are You Brave Enough To Be Bored?

The group known as New Tech City has a project going called “Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out.”  Their goal is simple: they want to help you get off your smart phone for just enough time to actually foster some reflection. The research they’re doing is so valuable that it’s worth you staying on your smart phone a little longer so you can look it up.

You should listen to this quote of theirs from Johnny Smallwood, professor of cognitive science at the University of York, in London.

curtquote.jpg

You heard the doctor: the escape your devices give you from the annoying discomforts of boredom isn’t free—it’s bought with your creative potential, your intellectual insight, and your vision for the future.

That’s a hefty cost for momentary satisfaction. 

photo credit:
Wesley Fryer

 

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Learning From T.V. Shows Pt. 2

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Learning From T.V. Shows Pt. 2

Last week I challenged you as a communicator to learn from NBC’s hit drama, The Blacklist. I encouraged you to win the attention of your audience the way it does—by demanding it on the sensory level with regular surprises and changes of pace. Now I want to look at a much better show—Breaking Bad. 

Like The BlacklistBreaking Bad always competes for our attention effectively on a superficial level. The show deals with edgy subject matter. It is often violent, and thrives on shocking plot twists. 

And yet, it always returns to something deeply human—and that's where it truly wins our ongoing attention. It doesn't shy away from complexity and meaning. It spotlights deep fears.

In Breaking Bad, one way or another, we see ourselves.

The point: to be an effective communicator in the age of distraction, you have to master both levels of attention. Superficial and stimulus-driven; as well as that driven by meaning and emotion.

How can you add a level of emotional and thoughtful depth when you communicate?

How can you use stories, quotes, and questions to engage to the hearts and imaginations of your listeners? 

 

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Learning from T.V. Shows, pt 1.

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Learning from T.V. Shows, pt 1.

OR WHY YOU KEEP WATCHING THE BLACKLIST EVEN THOUGH IT KIND OF SUCKS

If you watched the recent Super Bowl you probably remember NBC’s commercial for The Blacklist—it was hard to miss. For 50 unrelenting seconds, you were held captive by a kind of visual and auditory shock and awe

The show is like this, too. Rarely does an episode allow for more than a few lines of dialogue to go by without a helicopter sweeping in to save you from your boredom. And it works-- The Blacklist consistently wins viewership because it always keeps in mind our desire for new and novel stimulus. It’s as committed to constant change and surprise as shows with lesser ratings are to solid storytelling and scripts.

The point: if you are going to win people’s attention in the digital age, you have to learn from The Blacklist, and demand it on the sensory level. You must embrace the approach of shock and awe.

How have you become predictable as a communicator? 

How can you integrate new and novel surprises into your routines?

How can you make your message memorable by taking advantage of our wish to be entertained?


Part 2 Coming Soon


 

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The Age of Distraction

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The Age of Distraction

We have entered an age of distraction. On average, people only work 3 minutes before interruption. It takes 23 minutes to get back to the original task. 

At home, 60% of people spend more time staring at a screen than talking with their partner. 88% use a second screen while watching TV. Think about that. We can't even focus on the device that used to be considered the cause of ADD. 

The way we manage our attention has incredible consequences on our relationships, the quality and efficiency of our work, our capacity for self-control, and, at its root,  who we are becoming individually, organizationally, and culturally.

So how do we better control the allocation of our attention? First, we must understand how attention works. There are two systems of attention in your brain. 

System #1: Bottom up attention. This system of your brain is wired to seek new and novel stimulus with a particular focus on finding pleasure (ie. propagation) and avoiding pain. If you are in a jungle shared with a lion, the earlier you see that beast running at you, the better your odds of your buddy being food and not you.  Your immediate needs are driven by this system.

#2: Our top down system, or executive control, allows us to make active decisions about where we will focus. You can file your taxes, or at least fill out the extension. Your kids CAN clean their room.  Your spouse has the capacity to (finally) put that scrapbook together of the Disney vacation the family took 6 months ago.  Your future self loves it when your top down system wins.

The key is to set up our lives in ways that put our 'top down' system in control. Here are the four factors (the four E's):


ENERGY: 

The top down system requires far more mental energy.  It’s a valuable and depleting resource. The more energy we have, the easier it is to focus. Here's one practical way to use your energy more effectively: Complete your most mentally exhausting tasks early in the day. Don't spend your morning responding to emails. Spend your morning pumping out that hefty proposal, while leaving the inconsequential emails for the afternoon. 

EXPERIENCE:

Your brain constantly changes based on your prior experiences. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. Let's use a 16 year old for example. They know everything in the world. Just ask them. Yet, they can't merge into oncoming traffic without causing everyone else to scream in sheer terror. 16 year olds simply don't have the experiences to effectively interpret the thousands of pieces of data coming at them. It’s all new and novel. On the other hand, the more active focus you give to a particular sphere, the broader you will be able to focus within that sphere.  Distracted work, unfortunately, leads to a need for more distraction required by your brain to keep you from feeling bored. Your experiences shape your focus.
 
ENVIRONMENT:

We are wired for distraction due to our sensory system always wanting to be stimulated. The best way to limit those distractions is to ensure our environment doesn't contain them.  In today's world, the most important ‘environment’ to control is your virtual environment.  Email is a cesspool of distraction, always offering a new potential reward from the next inbox notification. To rid yourself of this land mine, simply make the calendar your home screen and then schedule email checks into your day along with the tasks you actually need to get done. 
 
EMOTION:

Why do you find yourself checking Facebook when you should be finishing the project? Because your family is on Facebook. Your friends are on Facebook. The classmate from senior level English (who you didn't even talk to then) is on Facebook- and they are skiing in Europe! It makes total sense that we want to check in on the people who mean the most to us. Unfortunately, this distracted work-style actually disconnects us from the purpose of our jobs (no wonder 70% of US workers are disengaged). And our emotions guide our focus. If you want to focus, you must take the time to remind yourself why the work you are doing matters. And, in case you don't remember, your work DOES matter. 
 
Your attention is your most precious resource. How you allocate it will govern the depth, or shallowness, of your relationships. It will make you better, or worse, at your job. It will give you meaning, or make you lose it. It's time to use the factors of attention to take control, or not. The choice is yours. Look! A funny cat video! 

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Stop Watching TED Talks

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Stop Watching TED Talks

TED Talks tell the stories of many of our greatest accomplishments. They spotlight injustices, reveal ways we can improve performance, offer hidden clues into the psychology of happiness, and teach us about human potential.  TED Talks are living examples of the power of presentation.  Great stories, told well, have the unique power to create real cultural transformation. I should love TED Talks.  I do love TED Talks. 
 

At the same time, TED Talks add to the noise. Not just any noise, a very specific, costly noise.  We are saturated by the most heroic examples of life at every turn.  And while reminders of our potential as humans can inspire, too much of it will leave us setting the proverbial bar too high.  We're over-successed and under-accomplished as a society.  It's no surprise that we get depressed and feel like we're not contributing anything significant when we're constantly comparing ourselves to the outliers and the elites of the elite.

In the book I'm writing, one of the chapters is titled 'Less Superman, More Clark Kent.'  The mundane of life is where life takes place.  There's something beautiful about having a job, a family, friends, a community. But that has never felt less satisfying for so many of us.  

TED is not the only problem. Facebook is filled with happy babies, picturesque vacations, and delicious meals.  And in a survey of over 500 people, 61% admitted that their mood was noticeably altered to the negative based on a simple check in on Facebook.  But TED is Facebook on steroids in this particular category. 

My church choral director growing up, Tracy DePue, often reminded us that comparison is the thief of joy.  TED Talks subtly remind many of us of what we have not done with our lives.  And that makes us depressed (particularly Gen Y).   So, let’s turn off the new inspiring TED video, and get to work without the weight of ‘how does my job compare to the guy who just walked across Africa.'

And if you don’t believe me, watch this TED Talk by Barry Schwartz. 

*Special Thanks to Andy Luten for the concept. Visit his awesome blog on travel here

Photo Credit: Urban_Data

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Putting in the Time is Overrated

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Putting in the Time is Overrated

The 10,000 hour concept was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell.  Want to be an expert? Put 10,000 hours of time into your craft. 
The problem? It's not true (or at least not complete). Time is not the best indicator of the quality of your skill set. 
The bestselling book Influencer by my friends at Vital Smarts outlines a much better way of thinking about performance. Here are the two keys to success:

Step #1: Focus. Great performers often spend less time 'working' on their skillset than the mediocre. Excellent performance is the result of focused effort. Time is a byproduct of attention. If you are distracted, you aren't getting better.  In other words, that quick check of Facebook is costing you more than 'just a second.'   Focused effort is extremely exhausting. One hour of focused effort is worth six distracted hours of practice. 

Step #2: Process not outcome. Focus is critical, but it must be on the right things.  Mediocre performers focus on outcome. 'I want to be a scratch golfer.' Great performers focus on process.  'My wrists break improperly as  I move into my backswing.'

I hear this difference often in the speaking world. Some people have crazy ideas when it comes to what makes people effective. 'Just speak from your heart.' 'Do what feels natural.' 'You've either got it or you don't.' 
The best communicators in the world know the end game (an audience inspired), but aim for it by focusing on specific tactics that will help them get there. They aim to pause after their joke to let the audience digest it. They dissect shifts in volume, pitch, and pace to determine when they can make adjustments to increase their impact .  They ask whether a particular analogy is the most helpful one possible. 
If you want to be excellent at your craft, you must focus on process and allow the outcome to be the result. 

Photo Credit:

Woodleywonderworks

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Macklemore is not Talented

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Macklemore is not Talented

Macklemore is not talented. Don't get me wrong. He writes creative lyrics and catchy rhythms.   
Listening to the song 'Can't Hold Us' this morning, Macklemore tells us what he really is. 
'Looking for a better way to get up out of bed
Instead of getting on the Internet and checking a new hit
....
stay on my craft and stick around for those pounds

...
Chasing dreams since I was fourteen with the four track bussing
Halfway cross that city with the backpack...'

Macklemore isn't talented, and it's not because he's not good at his craft.  He is. The concept of talent is one of the greatest misnomers in our culture.  Macklemore applied focus and effort correctly to yield what we today call talent. 
Carol Dweck, a world leading education researcher, teaches that the single greatest indicator of future success is which of two mindsets you adopt. 
A fixed mindset believes you simply are what you are.  You are either good or bad at math. You are smart or not. Great at sports or not.  Talent determines your future. 
A growth mindset believes that focused effort trumps genetics. You did well on the math test because you worked. You came up with a creative marketing campaign because you gave your focused attention to the task. 
The first leads not only to less growth, but it actually reduces your appetite for trying new things. If you try something but don't initially succeed, it's evidence of a lack of talent. And that is not worth the risk.  People with a growth mindset believe that any task that initially seems insurmountable can be conquered with enough hard work and mental focus. Why? Because it was hard work that made them successful in the past. 
Macklemore is not one of the most popular artists in the world because of talent, it's because of his mindset and approach to performance.  If you think about your life, what mindset do you find that guides you? Be honest.  If it's a fixed mindset, it's time to actively reallocate your attention to ideas that push you to better performance.  

Photo credit:

NRK P3

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Bad Customer Service and a Day Ruined

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Bad Customer Service and a Day Ruined

Last week, I had a horrible experience with OneGuard Home Warranty.  Don't let a bad customer experience ruin your productivity like I did.  More about how to do this from my recent article on AGBeat.com. 

Here are the two key tips on managing bad emotions: 

Step 1: Label it. Literally, acknowledge the emotion you are experiencing. By simply becoming aware of it you are actually reducing its power. In this case, I should have said ‘I’m currently experiencing the emotion of anger.’

Step 2: Re-appraise. Put the emotion in its proper context. Emotions bring focus. And typically whatever you are focusing on at the moment is less important than you feel it is. By simply re-contextualizing the experience, the arousing emotion no longer controls you. ie. ‘I’m angry right now because of a situation that is costing me 400 dollars. These people don’t really know me. It’s not personal. It’s a bad business practice. And it’s not worth my time.’

THE FULL ARTICLE:

http://agbeat.com/business-news/avoid-letting-bad-customer-service-wreck-day/

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The passing of Jean Rainwater and God glasses

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The passing of Jean Rainwater and God glasses

Last week, I attended the memorial service of Jean Rainwater, the mother of my dear friend Alicia.  Jean left a legacy that gave many many people reason to mourn, and reason to celebrate.  While she lost her battle with pancreatic cancer, she gave us a plan for winning in life. 

Jean was (and is) a special person. It wouldn't take much time around her to realize this. She was kind. She was happy.  She was honest.  She was present. In today's world where conversations are stifled with email alerts and  texts and sports updates and photos and facebook messages - when you meet someone who is fully present with you, it stands out.   It reminds us just how we deeply value attention. We trust those rare people who truly give us theirs. We feel safe with those people. We feel a bit uncomfortable with those people.  

Jean was a master of her attention, and she encouraged others to re-think their attention choices.  She asked that we join her in putting on 'God glasses.'  With these powerful glasses, you could imagine a world in which God loved you, God was for you, and God was in control. Then, we were to live in that world. 
Jean was doing is something that attention research reaffirms. Intentional choices on where you place your attention will profoundly shape who you are and who you are becoming.  You can see people and things as enemies, the world against you, your experiences as negative. Or, you can put on your God glasses. You have that choice.  Research (Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman among others) will tell you that those who make choices like Jean will have a larger network, more success, quicker rebounds from adversity, and more overall happiness. If Jean could do it as she battled pancreatic cancer, what's our excuse? 
So, in honor of Jean, I will be wearing my God glasses today, and encourage you too as well. 

Photo Credit:

Katie Brady

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An open letter to the bird at the window

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An open letter to the bird at the window

Birds are the worst. More specifically, birds that sit outside my window at 6AM every day and chirp relentlessly- those birds are the worst. I have no problem with the rest of the bird population. They are cool with me.  My dog's problem with them is his own. Unfortunately, my dog and I seem to have opposite issues. He ignores the one bird I hate, and relentlessly attacks the rest of them. 

The bird messed with my sleep.  Why is that such a problem? Because it's made writing the blog + article + speech that I had blocked out on the morning calendar nearly impossible.  
Sleep gives us energy. A lack of sleep takes it. And energy is one of the central factors in our capacity to focus on the right things at the right time.  (thinking about that damn bird is not the right thing right now). 

If you want to be great at your job, i look at your sleep habits (and the birds). Nothing will rob you of your capacity for quality work quicker than poor sleep.  And nothing will shorten a blog faster than a bird at my window at 6am.

Photo Credit:

Yannig Van de Wouwer

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I know stuff. Will you pay me? It depends...

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I know stuff. Will you pay me? It depends...

My newest AGBeat article is out.  Here's a sample from it:

I spend the vast majority of my time on the road speaking to companies and organizations. You want to know the dirty little secret? I say nothing that they can’t find elsewhere. It’s not just me. No one is speaking about anything that can’t be found somewhere online…for free. And yet, my job has never been more safe. That’s because I’m not being paid for information. Don’t get me wrong, people think that they are paying for information, but they are wrong. And people who think their information is what will get them paid will end up back in their parents’ house like the rest of my generation.

And the whole article about how we live in an attention scarce economy, so you need to filter and present well to get paid.

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