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While you were busy checking Facebook wondering what your friends were up to, posting to Instagram, checking Twitter and YouTube, others were creating. Writing. Drawing. Designing. Thinking. Shipping.

We often regret the time we waste on things that seemed productive in the moment, lamenting where the time went. If we’d achieved our goals and dreams we’d look back with satisfaction. Yet how many of us do that? You can’t go back. Time once expended is gone.

On the flip side, parsing your time into massive productivity slices isn’t the answer either. Being busy organizing, cleaning, responding is just that: keeping you busy with the false illusion you’re doing something productive. True productivity is doing the right things. And only you know what those are. Those nagging goals and dreams currently unfulfilled.

I’m not advocating a slovenly lifestyle. Clean. And stay that way as that frees your mind from the clutter of distraction. And dust bunnies everywhere are just gross. Whether in your head or your home or your office.

There’s also the argument that idle time is also time well spent. Time where you sit quietly with your thoughts. Where the digital is not present. Ideas happen here. Do this.

Don’t go another year and look back with regret on where the time went without anything to show for it. Look back next year and smile at the experiences you enjoyed. The work you did. And the difference you made. And if you achieved your dreams this year, where are you going next?

Because they said so

They said this was the best thing.
They said we should go here.
They told us this was the best place to live.
They said fevers are bad.

How often have you wondered who ‘they’ is?

I learned yesterday that since 1955 Tylenol invented the concept that fevers are bad and you need to treat them fast. And Tylenol will do the trick. In reality, fevers are your body kicking into action to heal itself. And fevers of 103 or 104 degrees – considered extremely high and certainly not fun – are not bad for you. Tylenol told you they were and it became the truth. And so you went to the doctor to get help. And doctors had to jump on the bandwagon. Parents everywhere panic when their little ones get a fever.

There are many ‘theys’ telling you what to do. The reality is only you know what is right for you. What ‘they’ tell you is one data point often worth considering. Often not. The best is relative. Your mileage will vary.

We frequently look for someone else to tell us what’s right because it’s easier. We don’t want to get it wrong. Yet oftentimes getting it wrong is how we grow assuming it’s not a life threatening decision. Which most are not.

Ask more questions

How often do you ask questions before blindly doing something you’re asked? Do you seek to understand the ‘why’ behind the mission or just follow it?

I ask a lot of questions in business and personal. I am curious to learn more, to understand why we’re doing something. What makes someone get up in the morning. It’s a way of sussing out a bigger story and perhaps finding more innovative solutions. Or connecting the dots in a counter intuitive way that resonates.

When I interview prospective job candidates, it’s all about asking thought-provoking questions and I enjoy the process of learning about people. I find that those that don’t ask me questions are not so curious. They tend not to think critically and are thus less equipped to navigate ambiguity and change. They are less likely to be able to create a map when there is none.

Be a curious explorer. Questions may beget more questions and take you down a path you hadn’t initially envisioned. A path that leads to stronger outcomes.

What questions are you not asking today But should?

What’s next?

That’s the question we are always asking. In business and personal. If you’re not growing you’re dying.

How we answer the question and then act upon it is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Reactive? Or proactive? Do you let change happen to you or do you navigate through it knowing it’s inevitable and that you can’t control all the forces that conspire to thwart your best efforts?

Effectively answering the question starts with a good foundation. Your vision. Your goals. A roadmap. It’s asking the question, what’s next with a strong sense of self and mission. It allows you to make the most of change.

Granted none of us have a crystal ball. But we can start with what is in our purview. Adjusting course along the way as we take in new information. It seems we ask this question more frequently towards the end of the year. What’s next for you?

Three new words for 2017

In the spirt of focus and building on last year, here are three words I’m using to guide me in the year ahead. Last year’s were so simple, but still hard. I often forgot about them. Yet I smiled when I went back to them late summer and noted the first one, again – Do. Earlier in the summer I attended the Do Lectures. Maybe it’s serendipity or maybe it’s a stretch to connect the two, but I hadn’t thought of this word when I signed up in the Spring. I would like to think putting the word out there contributed to being there in some small way. What words will you use to guide you this year?

Reinvent

2016 was a year of intense self exploration and awakening leading to some significant changes in 2017. When the ball dropped on 2015 to usher in the next year, I had no idea what lie in store. It was during this year that I went through the key stages of change – Endings where you’re in denial and feeling sad, then the neutral zone where you have much anxiety and confusion and chaos, and finally New Beginnings with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s not been all linear. Sometimes I went back through these stages. But we’re now at the end of 2016 and I’m poised for reinvention. Maybe it’s an awakening, but I think it’s something more. It’s the start of a second act perhaps. Bold? Pompous to say? Perhaps. I’ve been sitting with this for awhile and am committed to reinventing myself to be the best self I can possibly be. Much better than the old. And a self that can offer so much more to those around me because I do feel I have much to give. So here we go.

Explore

This isn’t necessarily something new for me as I’m always exploring the cities I travel to for work. But I like this word for what it promises. It feeds my keen curiosity for life and people and how things work. And may provide some focus to how I explore the world around me. It’s not just places either, but feelings – getting out of my head, where you’ll often find me spending much time. And letting go of perfectionism to try cooking new things, pursuing new sports (for me) like cycling – I have an eye on Cycle Oregon 2017. But then running may overtake that with a goal to run one 1/2 Marathon per month. In any case, to explore means to be open. To pay attention to the moments and experiences – especially the little ones that can add so much depth and texture to your day. No matter where you are, explore what is around you. You may be surprised at how much you discover in the process. And what you’ve missed before.

Exceptional

There’s so much mediocrity around us. It’s easy to be average. Whether it’s customer service or the communications we send, we do so much on auto pilot. Focus on checking things off the list more than ensuring they have the impact we want to make. And so I want to elevate the concept of being exceptional. Choosing something to master and create wow and delight. To be better than average because that’s where you can make a difference. And after 2016, who couldn’t use a dose of exceptional? In a job market filled with oodles of college graduates all producing resumes filled with much the same gobbledygook – I read many of them – it’s more important than ever to rise above. So here’s to being exceptional in 2017. In how we communicate. How we write. How we show up. Be exceptional.

On Change

It’s no secret we’re facing momentous change given the election results. Like many, I never thought this would come to pass and have had to pick myself up out of depression for what this means for our country. Whereas Obama gave us hope – and delivered on that promise for all intents and purposes – we now face divisiveness and ugliness. My initial desire was to pretend it was a bad dream. That it didn’t really happen. But it did and it’s out of our control. Running away isn’t an option. But focusing on what we can control is. It may not always be easy. Few things worth doing are. As a consummate thinker I process possibility. I visualize the good, the bad and everything in between.

Outside of the election, 2016 has been a year of change for me and will continue to be well into 2017 – that I am certain about. Spending more than a few hours above 30,000 feet during the year affords much time to envision the future. To reconcile what’s working; what’s not working. To think about all of the mistakes I’ve made. And no doubt I’ll continue to make more as long as I navigate this circuitous path called life with more intention and authenticity than perhaps I’ve done in the past. None of us can go back. But we can move forward. You can either let change blow you around willy nilly. Or you can stare it in the face. Grab ahold of it. Throwing a pity party isn’t going to feed your soul. I’ve awoken this year in ways that are tough to articulate. It’s as if I finally got the memo. But then I am a guy and sometimes we’re a little slow on the uptake.

The election aside –I still have to compartmentalize that disaster – I feel more at peace. More alive. And more hopeful than I have. Part of it is through acceptance; letting go. And part of it is a desire to live the best life I can going forward. Why not? The Do was instrumental in this. As is much of the reading I’m drawn to. In fact, it seems books show up at the most serendipitous times. I’m currently working through ‘Designing your Life’ by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans – just out this fall! I recommend you work through it too. It’s about surfacing options rather than accepting the one solution staring at you. It’s about applying design thinking to your life. You don’t need to be a designer to do this and it can help spark positive change.

I often share this article on why most change initiatives fail: it’s because change causes physical pain in the brain and only through focus and repetition can you transfer this new change from one part of the brain to another. Remember how hard you had to think when learning to drive? It’s like that.

Even as I write this and ponder possibility – I am a dreamer at heart, and innately curious – I know there will be bumps on the journey. And it is always a journey. I’d like to call this texture. But I believe it’s how we face such bumps that makes us stronger. Here’s to navigating such with grace and style.

3 Guiding Words for 2016

In 2014, inspired by others who do the same, I started thinking about the three words that would guide my work and life in the coming year. Here are the three simple – but potentially hard – words to live by this year.

Do

I spend much time thinking about things and visualizing outcomes, good and bad. I try to consider all possible scenarios in the hopes that I can avoid pitfalls, overcome obstacles and ensure positive results. Planning is good. Avoiding irrational, hasty decisions is also good. But the reality is that you can’t predict the future. No amount of visualization and thinking will account for every possible outcome. Only by doing will you achieve your goals. Thinking begets more thinking. So after I think, this year I must do.

Ship

Seth Godin wrote in Linchpin about the importance of shipping. We can always make excuses for why we can’t finish something. There’s always one more thing we can and should do before we let something go. But that’s just our brains making excuses for why we can’t finish. And I’m as guilty of this as others. There are many unfinished personal projects I put off until tomorrow because they’re not ‘finished’. Or I make up reasons for why I can’t finish them today. It’s time to ship or delete the project.

Savor

In all the thinking and visualizing about the future I tend to do, I forget to enjoy the moment. In the past, I’ve called this being more present. This one was inspired by “Miracle in the Andes” by Nando Parrado, which I read last week. It’s the story of the 72 days survivors of a 1972 plane crash endured on glacier. In the book, Nando wrote about how every day he could take another breath was another day he was alive. Before this, he took much for granted. In the midst of doing and shipping, I commit to enjoying the process.

I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful the past two years with my three words. They’re a framework for living and something I think about from time to time. The more we do things, the more they become a habit and thus I continue with these three new words for 2016.

The slippery slope of betrayal, Volkswagen style

I’ve been a fan of Volkswagen for many years. I embrace their quirks because the cars are fun to drive. Solid, well-built, safe. The Germans know how to engineer and build cars that inspire the driver. Even my lowly VW Golf which I had for 12 years with hardly a problem in that time was inspiring. I never even had to replace the brakes. The VW Bug smiles at you on the road. How can it not make you happy just looking at it?

But there are many detractors. Many remember the days when Audis were hopelessly unreliable. Many experience electrical problems in Volkswagens of the 90s and 00s. But the passionate fans endure the glitches because the cars are so fun. They’re not ordinary, vanilla cars. They have personality.
Imagine my disappointment when I learned that a brand I loved admitted they cheated. Not a little cheat. But a blatant, deliberate effort over years all in the name of making a buck. The cars look so innocent. I almost went for one of the TDIs. They’re really good cars. Except for now they’re not so much because they cheat. They’re liars these cars. Marketed as ‘Clean Diesels’ – great performance while being environmentally conscious – is a farce. That they asked for a green seal in the U.S. in 2011 shows their arrogance.
It takes years to build trust but a moment to shatter it. A few smart people at Volkswagen torched the brand. Yet many great people work for the company. In Wolfsburg, generations of families have built their careers and bet their futures on being a part of VW. And that is all threatened because some smart engineers who thought they knew better than anyone everyone else found a way to cover their tracks. To avoid forgoing years of investment in new engines by engineering a way to cheat on the emissions tests. Perhaps it was pressure from their bosses or fear of failure that motivated them. Betting they wouldn’t get caught. But they did.
They could have adopted – and almost did – Daimler’s Bluetec technology which likely could have avoided the ‘need’ to cheat. And now we have the nasty aftermath that could cost many innocent VW employees their jobs, upending families and damage a company town.

The dominos are falling. It’s a slippery slope.

So what now? They need dramatic change and fast to restore faith in the company. They need transparency. And they need to buy back every single car or offer to replace it with an equivalent model. Unless they can engineer a fix that retains the promised performance and fuel economy. It’s looking they’re opting for a fix which looks like it will take 10 hours per car and won’t begin until some time next year. But now 480,000 people will have to make time to drop their cars off to do so.

Was it worth it Volkswagen? I think not. And right now I think you don’t think it was either. But how many other companies are or will take such actions to sell their wares? Others make think they’re different. The slope is slippery.

We like the underdogs

Apple was the cool, quirky company who could. The one many derided as toys and for those wanting something special. And then they got big.

Starbucks was the cool third place you’d go to connect with friends and associates. Where you’d hang out and write witty prose or dream up your next adventure. And then they got big.

Apple, especially with the notion of marketing a $10,000 watch that’ll be obsolete in a year is reaching the tipping point. They clearly strike me as a greedy company that cares little for the little guy as the largest, most profitable company around. But we still love their products. There isn’t anything better. Yet.

Same with Starbucks. I now brew my own coffee at work using an Aero press. Starbucks has lost that specialness. It’s now just a commoditized transaction. In and out. Sure, they’re nice places to meet someone for a conversation. Especially for business. But it’s not somewhere I care to go in my spare time or when I want a good experience. The coffee is just not that good anymore. I can do better myself.

I’ll confess that it took me a few tries to get the process down so that it was easy, but now that I have it dialed, I love the quality of coffee via Aero Press. Bon Appetit was right when they cited it as one of the best for the road. I want Starbucks to become cool again; they’ve made huge, generally positive impact on the world. I actually think that they have a lot of people who care, but it gets really hard at scale.

When you’re everywhere – and big – and ridiculously profitable, you lose the underachiever status that makes us want to root for you. No longer do we care much about your success. We like the struggle. We like the ones who’ve not be discovered by the masses.

Once big, you’re not so cool any more.

At what point do you reach that? In business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. You always have to reinvent yourself. Release new products and new things. Because – especially with technology – change happens and people get bored. We always want the new shiny object even when they absolutely don’t need it. We really don’t.

And if you’re not growing in size and profits, someone else will overtake you.. You’ll be replaced. It’s a conundrum. How much processing power do we really need? How many different types of Lattes, Frappucinos and Refreshers can we consume? It becomes noise.

I don’t have an answer here. Just observations. Stay fresh Keep delighting those you serve. Pay attention to the little things even when you’re big. Few companies do and that makes it unexpected. But remember that we generally root for the underdog.